Like most people, I'm not interested in long, windy essays about audio reviewing, having barely enough time and interest for audio itself. But I do perk up when the debate turns to the audio reviewer's purpose in life: Should I write about everything that crosses my path, or should I limit my attention to those products that interest me, and that stand a chance of being good?
While audio writers find the siren song of cost-no-object components an ever-present temptation, I do ask Stereophile's reviewers to be on the lookout for affordable products that sound better than they have any right to. So when I listened to an inexpensive system based on Monitor Audio's Silver S2 loudspeaker and Musical Fidelity amplification at Home Entertainment 2002, held at the Manhattan Hilton in May 2002, I followed my own instruction and asked the US distributor of this English model to send me review samples.
We were having trouble with the power in our home—the wall current, I mean, not the dynamics of our marriage—so I called the local utility. While the technician was here, he let me watch what he was doing. I had a chance to look inside our meter box, which is the junction between the utility's power lines and the circuit-breaker box in the cellar.
In my review of Polk Audio's RT25i loudspeaker (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), I was mightily impressed with Matthew Polk's execution of this $320/pair design. Although it has since been replaced by the RT27i, with slightly modified cosmetics and a different tweeter, the RT25i remains my favorite loudspeaker costing less than $500/pair.
One of the nicest surprises at any audio show is encountering a new—to me, at least—manufacturer whose products seem to stand out from the competition. At the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show, one such standout was the Kirksaeter line of loudspeakers from Germany. I spent quite a few minutes listening to and enjoying the performance of these modestly sized and priced speakers, but since my writing assignment was electronics, I tucked the experience away in the back of my mind and moved on.
I first met NHT co-founder Ken Kantor in 1975 when we were both undergraduates at MIT. Kantor was sponsoring an extracurricular class entitled "Musical Ideas." The concept was to stick a dozen or so musicians in a classroom for free improvisation and hope to create music à la Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. The result was a mess; although talented guitarist Kantor meant well, there was no common vision or consistency of musical talent. Nevertheless, I had a blast trying to simulate a tamboura drone with a Hohner Clavinet, phase shifter, and volume pedal.
I had mixed feelings about reviewing the $189/pair Paradigm Atom loudspeaker. Although in the past I've been favorably impressed with Paradigm's speakers—the $600/pair Reference Studio/20 remains one of my favorite affordables—Budget Bob tends to get a bit nervous when a speaker's price drops below $250/pair. In my experience, even when the most talented speaker designers attempt to make a speaker to sell at such a low price, the result is often a very small cabinet with limited bass extension and inferior high-level dynamics.
I have always had an affection for speakers designed and manufactured by the Canadian conglomerate Audio Products International Corp. (API), which markets speaker designs under the names Mirage, Energy, Sound Dynamics, and Athena. In fact, it was 20 years ago that API created the first budget speaker that caught my attention, the Mirage 350. At the time, the 350 was the only speaker I'd heard that cost less than $300/pair. It sounded open, musical, and detailed without seeming bass-shy. (A larger successor, the 460, was for many years my reference home-theater speaker.) Although I've been impressed with many other API designs I've heard over the years at friends' houses, press events, and hi-fi shows, it had been more than a decade since I'd formally reviewed an API product.
Paul Barton is a legend in the speaker business. For 25 years this musician and engineer has dedicated his life to providing speaker purchasers with higher levels of sonic realism at lower prices. Barton is a frugal perfectionist, and his obsession with psychoacoustics is evident in all his designs. I was mightily impressed with his midpriced Image 4T (Stereophile, February 2001), which was, like all Barton designs, designed with the assistance of the facilities of Canada's National Research Council.
When I read John Atkinson's reviews of the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe (Vol.23 No.9) and RME Digi96/8 Pro (Vol.23 No.11 and Vol.24 No.1), I realized that soundcard technology had matured far faster than I had been aware. For about the price of a mainstream CD player, anyone with a reasonably powerful computer could add multitrack digital recording technology to his bag of tricks.
I haven't been shy in these pages regarding my love for the Mission 731i loudspeaker (reviewed in November 1996, Vol.19 No.11). It quickly became my reference standard for an entry-level audiophile speaker. Subsequent to my review, Mission significantly improved the speaker by introducing a silk-dome tweeter (see Follow-Up in April 1998, Vol.12 No.4). I bought three pairs: one for my home recording studio, one for my faux outdoor summer-home system (guest bedroom windowsills, pointing outward), and one for portable use to drag to friends' parties when their sound systems are not up to snuff.
The most exciting development in audio today isn't multichannel surround, single-ended triodes, or $10,000 phono cartridges. It's "trickle down." I get buzzed when an audio designer known for cutting-edge multikilobuck designs claims to have a product that can produce 80% of the sonic realism of his flagship design at 50% of the cost. I get even more excited when he does it again—that is, produces a product that produces 64% of his flagship's performance at 25% of the cost. Designers who have successfully trickled-down their flagship technologies abound in all quarters of audiophilia, from electronics (eg, Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson) to speakers (Alón, ProAc) to cables (MIT).
NAD has been out there on the leading edge of entry-level high-end sound long enough that some audiophiles reckon they invented the category. Sure, we should give serious props to the likes of Creek, Rotel, Musical Fidelity, Arcam, Denon, and Parasound, all of which have made significant contributions to the musical aspirations of budget-conscious pilgrims. But I continue to harbor warm feelings about my last extended visit with an NAD component: the inexpensive yet supremely musical L40 CD Receiver, which I reviewed in the June 2000 Stereophile.