One of the first affordable loudspeakers I reviewed for Stereophile was the original Paradigm Reference Studio/20 bookshelf model, in the February 1998 issue (Vol.21 No.2). At the time, I felt that the $650/pair speaker was a breakthrough—although not completely devoid of colorations, its ratio of price to performance set a benchmark a decade ago. I kept the Studio/20s around for several years to compare with other bookshelf speakers I reviewed, and they remained listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" for several years after that. The Studio/20 is now in its fourth (v.4) iteration, so I thought I'd grab a pair to hear how they compared with current affordable bookshelf designs.
US composer Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the 20th century. John Atkinson has recorded the male vocal group Cantus's performances of Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium (on Comfort and Joy: Volume One, Cantus CTS-1204) and Ave Maria Dulcissima (on Cantus, Cantus CTS-1207). (And great recordings they are—one engineer chum thinks JA's Cantus recording of OMM is the single best-engineered choral recording he's ever heard.)
The audio industry may have lost a legend and a prolific innovator in Henry Kloss a few years back, but it still has another affable, creative eccentric in Peter Ledermann. In the mid-1970s, Ledermann was director of engineering at Bozak, where, with Rudy Bozak, he helped develop a miniature bookshelf speaker and a miniature powered subwoofer. Before that, Ledermann was a design engineer at RAM Audio Systems, working with Richard Majestic on the designs of everything from high-power, minimal-feedback power amplifiers and preamplifiers to phono cartridge systems. He was also an award-winning senior research engineer at IBM, and the primary inventor of 11 IBM patents.
The first reference I saw to the Count of Saint Germain was in Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco's dense novel about a man whose paranoid delusions become so overpoweringly real that, by the end of the book, the reader is left wondering whether the protagonist's enemies actually exist. That their number should include Saint Germain was a nice touch: Part cabalist, part confidence man, the real-life Count was thought by some to be immortal (in Pendulum he's pushing 300), and while Casanova wrote vividly of meeting Saint Germain at a dinner party in 1757, so did the English writer and pederast C.W. Leadbetter—in 1926. Like Aleister Crowley, the Count of Saint Germain can be seen peering over the shoulders of countless parlor (but not parleur, or even haut-parleur) occultists: He keeps popping up all over the place.
I always look forward to Stereophile's Home Entertainment Shows, where I scout out interesting new models of affordable loudspeakers. At HE2007 in New York City, I was struck by the Silverline Audio room—not only by the sound I heard there, but by the way Showgoers reacted to that sound.
One question posed by John Atkinson at the July 1991 StereophileWriters Conference had to do with the ease of reviewing: Is it harder to write a bad review of an expensive product than a good review? I find it hardest to write a good review of an inexpensive product. If I admire a less expensive loudspeaker, for example, it may become a recommended component, and can displace a more expensive speaker (that received mixed comments) from our twice-yearly rankings. This can be a big responsibility; even a conditional rave of a low-cost product means that JA may assign another Stereophile reviewer to do an immediate follow-up report. The Snell Type E/III loudspeaker may be a good case in point.
Late in 2006, I was watching John Atkinson set up a pair of DPA cardioid microphones in front of the stage of New York City's Otto's Shrunken Head to record a performance of my jazz quartet, Attention Screen (footnote 1). Before the first set, Wes Phillips approached me. "Bob, I found a piece of equipment you must review—the Cayin A-50T integrated amp. It's only 1300 bucks and you'll love it!"
My first one-piece stereo—I think I paid $60 for it, including a pair of speakers with pegboard backs—gave me a lot of pleasure when I was young, and I loved it. Everything that came after has been better in every way but one: None has inspired that kind of love. And most have left me wondering if there might be something just a little bit better.
During the late 1970s and early '80s, I worked my way through college by selling hi-fi, or more precisely, mid-fi. During those years, I heard and sold several hundred different loudspeakers costing under $1000/pair. Despite the fact that I experienced them under less than ideal conditions, I was nevertheless able to get a feel for their relative performance. When switching between speakers, the differences between them were drastically juxtaposed. No two loudspeakers sounded even remotely similar tonally, indicating that they all had severe colorations.
According to the conventional wisdom, companies selling consumer products fall into two categories: those whose sales are "marketing-led" and those whose sales are "product-led." Marketing-led companies tend to sell mature products into a mature market where there are no real differences between competing products—soap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for example—whereas product-led companies tend to sell new technologies, such as personal computers and high-end hi-fi components. In the audio separates market, conventional wisdom would have a hard time categorizing any individual company: no matter which you choose, it would be simplistic to say that it is either product- or marketing-led. No matter how good the product, without good marketing the manufacturer stands little chance of success; a poor product superbly marketed may make a company successful overnight, but that success will have hit the end stops by the following night.
I first heard a CD player in my own system in 1984 or 1985, several years before I began writing for Stereophile. I was curious about the Compact Disc medium—I'd read about it, had listened to CDs in stores, and was eager to hear what they sounded like in my own system. I'd even bought a CD: the original-cast recording of 42nd Street, which I already had on LP. One evening, a friend who worked for Sony and knew that I was an audiophile brought over his latest acquisition: a CDP-501ES, the second from the top of Sony's line of CD players. He also brought along a bunch of CDs, including some solo-piano discs, and Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony's then-famous recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Telarc CD-80041).
In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."