When I unpacked the Rogue Audio Atlas, I didn't know how much it cost. After examining its chassis of high-grade steel, its silver-anodized aluminum faceplate, its sleek and slightly rounded edges, and, above all, its two chunk-o'brick transformers—for such a little thing (a foot-and-a-half square by half-a-foot high), it's heavy—I guessed around five grand. Then I called Rogue Audio and learned that it retails for $1395.
It must be difficult for makers of audio equipment to decide how to best exhibit their products at events such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show. If you're doing a demo, you want it to impress audio journalists and potential dealers, and sometimes just playing music is not enough: you need something extra. A few years ago, Joseph Audio put on a demo, supposedly of their top-of-the-line floorstanding speaker, during which Jeff Joseph removed a cloth that had been draped over what was assumed to be hotel-room furniture. Under that cloth were the speakers that were actually playing: Joseph's new in-wall model, mounted on flat baffles. Wilson Audio Specialties demonstrated their speakers with purportedly ultra-high-end electronics and digital source, then revealed that they were actually using a modestly priced preamp and power amp, and that the source was an Apple iPod.
As a reviewer who has focused on seeking out high-quality audiophile gear for cost-constrained readers, I'm embarrassed to say that the flagship RB-991 stereo amplifier is the first Rotel product I've had in my house. (To be fair to myself, this 38-year-old family-owned company did not develop a large US market presence until this last decade.)
As far as I can tell, Santa Fe–based speaker engineer John Bau had designed but four commercial loudspeakers before the TC-60 was launched at the 1994 Winter CES: in order of appearance, they were the Spica SC50i (1980), the TC-50 (1983), the Angelus (1987), and the SC-30 (1989). None were expensive, and all garnered much praise, both in Stereophile's pages and elsewhere.
There are three requirements: You must invent a very good loudspeaker that sells for between $1000 and $2000/pair. You have to make enough of them, over a long enough time, to achieve a certain level of brand recognition and market penetration. And you must create a dealer network of reasonable size, with an emphasis on well-promoted specialty shops.
The first time I attended the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, in January 1986, I didn't get there until the second day of the Show. Still, by the beginning of the fourth and final day I'd managed to visit every high-end audio exhibit, and still had time to go back for seconds to the rooms that had sounded the best. Twenty years later, CES has grown so much that it's impossible for a single writer to visit even a quarter of the exhibits in which he might be interested. And even with the sort of team reportingStereophile now practices, covering the Show has become an exercise in applied logistics for the busy journalist: "Should I wait for the free shuttle bus? Should I get a taxi—though I might get caught in Las Vegas's increasing traffic jams, or even just get stuck at the city's interminable traffic lights? Or should I take the new monorail—though that goes nowhere near the hotel in which [insert name of hot company] is demming its products?"
In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.
The SC-I ($995/pair) is the smallest model in the "Signature Collection" to come from Dunlavy Audio Labs, the company founded by John Dunlavy after he left Duntech. The largest model in this series used to be the $4995/pair SC-IV that Robert Deutsch so enthusiastically reviewed last April, and that this month was voted Stereophile's 1994 "Product of the Year." There is now also a huge SC-VI available.
For many years I have used three sets of headphones, all from Grado Laboratories: the Reference RS-1 ($695), the SR-125 ($125), and the SR-60 ($60). I've always favored Grado headphones because the minimal-resonance design philosophy that I feel is responsible for the uncolored midrange of their moving-iron cartridges extends throughout their headphone range as well. Recently, however, I've achieved a new perspective regarding the SR-125 'phones that I felt would be of interest to Stereophile readers.
For headphone listeners, this is truly a golden age—we have multiple choices at many different price levels. During the course of this review, I had as many as five headphone amplifiers (and, in several cases, multiple power supplies) set up for comparison. Yet many people don't understand why we might want a headphone amp in the first place.
What, I hear you asking, is an integrated drive? The MID is part of McCormack's much lauded "Micro" series (see my review of their Micro Line Drive in Vol.18 No.6), which are designed to offer the same dedication to quality as McCormack's full-size components, but at a lower price (and in a smaller package). The MID was initially the Micro Headphone Drive, sporting two ½" stereo phone-jacks on the front panel, a two-position input switch, and a volume control. The rear boasted two inputs and an output (controlled by the volume pot). It was designed to be a high-quality headphone amp and a minimalist preamp. In this configuration, I ran into it at the 1995 WCES where—almost as a gag—Steve McCormack had made up a few ½" stereo phone-plug to 5-way binding post connectors. He could, he explained, run small speakers from the headphone outputs. There was a serious purpose behind the joke, of course. Showing that the MHD could drive speakers spoke volumes for its ability to drive headphones.
I was cruising at 36,000 feet, totally relaxed, listening to Richard Thompson. Looking down at my lap, I caught sight of a little box with a glowing green light. Switching off this light was like turning on the noise—the 767 was roaring like a locomotive and the ambient sound hit me like a fist. Thompson's crisp Celtic chordings turned mushy, undetailed, and dull. I felt weary. Whoa, I wouldn't do that again if I were you, laddie! I fumbled for the switch and reactivated the NoiseGuard circuitry on my Sennheiser HDC 451 noise-canceling headsets. Thompson's guitar rang out clearly, the airplane quieted to sound like an S-class Benz, and I relaxed into a calm reverie with only one worry clouding my contentment. But I patted my pocket: yup, still two cognacs left. Everything would be all right.
When reviewing affordable speakers, it's critical to have benchmarks and comparisons for various price points. Inexpensive speaker designs are exercises in tradeoffs and compromises, especially for the least costly products. In all of my reviews, I try to compare the speaker in question with other designs close to the review sample's price, chosen from my list of previously reviewed speakers. From time to time, if a speaker particularly impresses me, I ask the manufacturer if I can keep the speakers around a while longer, so that it can serve as a comparison reference for a certain price point. That's not to say that any speaker I don't keep around is less desirable—there's just not enough room in my house to keep a sample of every speaker I like. An audio reviewer's wife puts up with enough as it is.
I've been a little remiss in writing about one of the best tools for travel I've experienced recently: Ray Samuels Audio's Emmeline The Hornet ($350), a tiny (3" L by 2" W by 1" H) rechargeable portable headphone amplifier. I tend to travel with my iPod packed with hi-rez music files and a pair of low-impedance headphones. That's not a marriage made in heaven, so I also need a headphone amplifier. Over the years, portable headphone amps have gotten better and better while getting smaller and smaller. The Hornet is the smallest I've discovered so far and is my current favorite.