The arrival of the Mark Levinson No.30 digital processor more than 2½ years ago marked a turning point in digital-audio reproduction. Although the No.30's $13,950 price tag put it out of reach of all but a few audiophiles, its stunning performance suggested that much more musical information was encoded on our CDs, waiting to be recovered by better digital processors. Further, it was inevitable that this level of performance would become less expensive over time. I was more excited by the No.30 than I've been over any other audio product. In fact, its musical performance was so spectacular that it alone occupied the Class A category in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
While headphone listening remains secondary to that of loudspeakers for most serious listeners, it's still an important alternative for many. And while good conventional headphones exist, electrostatics are usually considered first when the highest playback quality is required. As always, there are exceptions (Grado's headphones come immediately to mind), but most high-end headphones are electrostaticsuch designs offer the benefits of electrostatic loudspeakers without their dynamic limitations. Last year I reviewed the Koss ESP/950 electrostatics (Vol.15 No.12), a remarkable set of headphones from the company that practically invented headphones for serious home listening. Here I listen to examples from two other companies, each known for its headphones since Pluto was a pup.
Snickering was heard from the major consumer electronics purveyors when California Audio Labs came out with the original Tempest, their first CD player using tube output stages. But not from the audiophile community. It was, all things considered, an inevitable product; I'm certainly not the only one who wonderedbefore the emergence of California Audio Labswho would be the first to build such a unit. The obvious candidates were Audio Research or Conrad-Johnson. But those companies apparently read the audio tea-leaves and, perhaps perceiving the early high-end hostility toward the new format, apparently decided to bide their time. (With regards to tube players, they're still biding it, though C-J has had a prototype player up and running for some time.)
Considering that the crates they're shipped in are each as large as a Manhattan studio apartment, once they'd been set up in my listening room, Focal's Maestro Utopia III speakers weren't as visually overpowering as I'd anticipated. The elegant dark-gloss front baffles, the gloss-gray side panels, and the fact that the speaker's three subenclosures are vertically arrayed so that the top, midrange section is angled down, significantly reduced their apparent size.
Before last year, I had no more than a professional interest in the products of Wilson Audio Specialties. But before last year I hadn't experienced Wilson's Sophia Series 2 loudspeaker ($16,700/pair)which, like the wines I tend to order when my wife and I go out to dinner, is the second-cheapest item on their menu. Within weeks of the Sophias' arrival, respect had turned to rapture, like to love, and an entirely new appreciation for Wilson Audio was mine (footnote 1).
Over the years that I've been reviewing hi-fi, I've had my share of loudspeakers that drew comments from everyone who visited during the audition period. Some of those comments were about the speakers' appearancemost often about their sizeand some were about how good they sounded. Vivid's G1Giya loudspeaker ($65,000/pair), its narrow-baffled, swirling cochlear shape molded from fiber-reinforced composite, elicited more comments of both types than has any other speaker I've reviewed.
Although the idea of a $1000 moving-coil cartridge no longer shocks audiophiles, it is still not exactly what I'd call "Mainstream Hi-Fi." Audio magazine's 1984 Equipment Directorythe most complete such compendium published in the USlists only 10 models in this price range, not counting the Kiseki Lapis Lazuli at a whopping three-and-a-half grand! I have not tested most of these, nor have I tried any of the current models from the Japanese Koetsu firm, which was first with the gall to put a $1000 price tag on a cartridge. But I have tested a couple of one-granders during the past few years, and was sufficiently unimpressed to be hesitant about testing any more samples of what were beginning to look like nothing more than monumental ripoffs. So when Ortofon sent us the MC-2000, I was naturally less than enthusiastic about trying it.
Spiral Groove's new Centroid tonearm ($6000) arrived just a few days before press time, so it would be risky to say anything definitive about it. But I will take that risk: using the system described in my review of the SG2 turntable, this may be the best tonearm I've heard. Its sound is different in ways that will open people's ears, and I predict that it will affect the design of every tonearm from now on. The Centroid's design deserves and will await full coverage in its own review, but here are the basics: It's a fluid-damped unipivot design unlike any other that gives the user fine adjustment of all relevant parameters.
High-end audio exists at the intersection of art and science. Either discipline can produce a good product, but it takes both to create the very best. The Sonic Frontiers gear I auditioned many years ago, for example, was technically sound, nicely built, and sounded goodjust never as sublime as products from, say, Audio Research or VTL. On the other hand, an experienced, insightful designer such as Quicksilver's Michael Sanders can create wonderful products from humble circuits and parts, but be ultimately limited by the underlying technology. But when brilliant design, uncompromised execution, long experience, and artistry all come together, the results can be staggering.
Over the past two and a half years, I've auditioned and reviewed a number of digital audio products. It has been a fascinating experience both to watch digital playback technology evolve and to listen to the results of various design philosophies. The road to more musical digital audio has been a slow and steady climb, with occasional jumps forward made possible by new techniques and technologies. Making this odyssey even more interesting (and confounding), digital processors seem to offer varying interpretations of the music rather than striving toward a common ideal of presenting what's on the disc without editorial interjection.
Musical Fidelity's Tri-Vista kWP, introduced in 2003, was an impressive, high-tech, "statement" audiophile preamplifier. Its outboard power supply weighed almost 56 lbsmore than most power amplifiersand its hybrid circuitry included miniature military-grade vacuum tubes. As I said in my review of it in the January 2004 Stereophile, the kWP's chassis and innards were overbuilt, the measured performance impressive, and any sonic signature imposed on the signal was subtle and, essentially, inconsequential.
JBL was founded 60 years ago, by Jim Lansing. Its history has been amply detailed in the book The JBL Story: 60 Years of Audio Innovation, by the late John Eargle's (JBL Professional, 2006). Although it is primarily known for its pro-audio loudspeakers, the Californian company has offered a steady stream of high-performance domestic loudspeakers to the home market, including the 1971 Paragon, the L100 bookshelf speaker, and the JBL 250Ti floorstander, all of which remained in JBL's catalog for 20 years. In 1990, JBL produced the Project K2 S9500 flagship speaker for the Japanese high-end market. The K2 Project culminated in the $60,000/pair DD55000 Everest system, with its cross-firing asymmetric horns, and the subject of this review, the Synthesis 1400 Array BG, was a spin-off from the K2 project. It features horn-loaded midrange and tweeters to attain a flat response out to a claimed 48kHz.
Ain't technology grand! That's what I was thinking while driving to work this morning. Sure, the rain was coming down in buckets, but there I was sitting comfortably in a warm car, listening to music while making tracks at 50mph. A long way from horse-and-buggy days.
It's difficult to believe that the former top model of Vandersteen Audio's line of loudspeakers, the Model 5, has been in production in one form or another since 1997. Time passes quickly when you're having fun. Like all Vandersteen speakers, the 5 was and remains a good value and performance proposition. For all the 5's high technology and excellent performance both measured and audible, its price now starts at under $20,000/pair (up from about $10,000/pair when the 5 was introduced in 1997), including a built-in, proprietary powered subwoofer in each cabinet, and a sophisticated equalization system for room compensation.