I was introduced to audiophilia by my friend Gary Gustavsen. Although I'd known Gary since I was 13, I didn't discover his passion for music until that day in high school physics lab when I blurted out an obscure line from the Doors' "The Soft Parade," and Gary bounced back immediately with the next line. It turns out I shared my friend's passions for the Doors and Frank Zappa, but not for Mahler. Before long, Gary was dragging me to every audio store in our area to listen to potential speakers for his first high-end audio system. At the beginning of each trip he'd say, "Right now I'm partial to the Rectilinear 3s." Although I heard him say that many times, I never actually got to hear a pair of Rectilinear 3s.
Two of the five loudspeakers reviewed in our July issue were designed by Andrew Jones: the $29,800/pair TAD Evolution One and the $129.99/pair Pioneer SP-BS22-LR (footnote 1). I did the math. You can buy 229 pairs of the Pioneer for the price of a single pair of the TAD. Which is the better deal? Which would result in more happiness? Imagine keeping one pair of the Pioneers, and delivering the other 228 pairs to friends and family. Or donating them to schools. The possibilities are great. How much fun can you have with just a single pair of speakers, anyway?
As the years pass and I turn into a crotchety old man, I'm reminded of those old TV ads for the Honda Accord: "Simplify." Even though I now have more things going on than at any other point in my life, I try to eliminate complications everywhere I can. I now can't believe that, for over 15 years, I used the Infinity RS-1B as my reference loudspeaker. Sure, I loved itthe RS-1B was the first speaker I'd owned that produced a wide, deep soundstage, the full dynamic range of an orchestra, and bass extension down to 25Hz. But it was ridiculously complex: a five-way design with three different driver types and a servomechanism for the woofers. It also required biamplificationI got the best sound with a combination of high-powered tube amp and high-current, solid-state amp.
Those of us who groan at the appearance of every new five-figure digital source component in a massively oversized chassisand who groan in greater torment when the offending manufacturer says his customer base insists on products that are styled and built and priced that waycan take heart: The appearance of such sanely sized and affordable products as the Halide Design DAC HD ($495) and the AudioQuest DragonFly ($249) would suggest that the market has a mind of its own.
In this, my first equipment review for Stereophile, I'll begin by explaining my philosophy regarding reviewing inexpensive components. In my quest for products by designers who strive to establish new benchmarks for reproducing sonic realism at lower prices, I'll be looking for "value" components (a more appropriate term than "budget") whose designers logically fall into two camp. . .
Late last year came an epic audiophile moment: I slapped a final length of tape on the box of the awesome-sounding MSB Diamond DAC (Stereophile, October 2012), in final preparation for its trek to John Atkinson's testing lab, in Brooklyn. Next up was the Bifrost DAC from Schiit Audio. I popped it into my system, where, moments before, the MSB had held court.
From $43,325 to $449. Yowseh!!the MSB costs almost 100 times as much as the Schiit! Was this even fair?
It seems I'm always reviewing an integrated amplifier from Creek Audio. It started in the late 1980s, when I fell in love with the capabilities of inexpensive, well-designed audio equipment, sparked by the spectacular sound of a pair of Celestion 5 bookshelf speakers at a Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. I was reading an issue of Hi Fi Heretic (now defunct), for which my friend Art Dudley wrote, and it included a survey of various inexpensive British integrated amplifiers, some of them made by Creek. I was already familiar with the company, but hadn't listened to affordable British electronics since I'd lived in London, in the early '80s. I got a Creek 4140s2 integrated and was amazed at its neutrality, its lack of etched sound, its natural reproduction of instrumental timbres. I ended up buying it, and used it to review bookshelf loudspeakers.
Apple's iPod came of age in the fall of 2003, when, with the release of iTunes 4.5, the player was no longer restricted to lossy compressed MP3 or AAC files. Instead, it could play uncompressed or losslessly compressed files with true "CD quality"; users no longer had to compromise sound quality to benefit from the iPod's convenience.
Enter Astell&Kern. At the beginning of 2013, this brand from iRiver, a Korean portable media company, introduced its AK100, a portable player costing a dollar short of $700 and capable of handling 24-bit files with sample rates of up to 192kHz.
I often receive letters from Stereophile readers. I've even gotten a few letters from female readers, one an attractive young lover of tube gear who sent me a picture of herself and [sigh] her boyfriend. But most are from people who are either thanking me for a specific review that resulted in a purchase and a satisfied buyer, or are suggesting products they'd like me to review. I frequently take the advice of writers of this second category; in fact, two of the inexpensive speakers I'll review in the next year were recommended by readers.
Late last year, when I first heard of the Music Hall Marimba, I was happily surprised: One of my favorite hi-fi manufacturers had finally introduced its first and (so far) only loudspeakerand it was seriously affordable at $349/pair. I wanted to review the Marimbas right away, but grumpy old Sam Tellig beat me to them.
No history of the computer-audio marketplace could be complete without some mention of High Resolution Technologies, the California company whose Music Streamer was, in 2009, the first perfectionist-quality USB digital-to-analog converter to sell for as little as $99. One could argue that HRT's entire business model has contributed to shaping our attitudes toward the hobby: Because digital-audio technology continues to evolve at such a rapid pace, HRT has introduced a succession of newer and ever more effective Music Streamers, occasionally to the obsolescence of their predecessors; yet because those products have all been so affordableremarkably and laudably so, given their thoroughly American provenancewe tend not to mind.
The Boston Acoustics A40 loudspeaker ($150/pair) has become "legendary" (ie, it's stayed around for a while), probably because a pair of them images as well as Rogers LS3/5As. Unfortunately, it is no match for the LS3/5A in terms of smooth midrange response. Of course, at $150/pair, it shouldn't be.
I was originally going to do a review comparing the Spectrum 108A ($200/pair) and the Boston Acoustics A40. On first listen, I was mightily impressed by the A40. But after Stereophile's Larry Archibald schlepped me out a pair of the 108As, I didn't much want to listen to the A40s.
One of the oldest names in US audio, Altec Lansing was building speakers for theaters and recording studios long before the introduction of the microgroove LP in 1948 (which date many see as marking the inception of high fidelity). Started in 1931 under the name All-Technical Services ~Corp., the firm later purchased another audio firm called Lansing Engineering, and merged the names. Altec's Model 604, one of the first true coaxial speakers, was adopted for home use by many early hi-fi buffs and, several permutations later, is still widely used for monitoring in disc-cutting rooms.
With Peachtree Audio's new nova125 integrated amplifier, most decisions are made for you.
Need a DAC with three S/PDIF inputs (two coax, one optical)? An asynchronous USB DAC? A line stage? A tubed output buffer? A power amp that should be able to drive even difficult speaker loads? Remote control? You've got them all for $1499. Just add speakers. (I assume you have a laptop computer and several disc spinners.) You may want a separate phono stage, because there is none onboard.
Whether one was surprised, in 2010, by the success of Peachtree Audio's iDecco may have more to do with age than anything else. My peers and I wondered, at first, who would want their high-end integrated amps to come bundled not only with digital-to-analog converters but with iPod docks, of all things; at the same time, younger hobbyists wondered who in the world still wanted their integrated amps to contain phono preamplifiers. (Respect for the elderly, myself especially, prevents me from adding "and mono switches.") Color me chastened.