I like reviewing loudspeakers. The more you become familiar with the art, the greater the sense of anticipation as you open up a pair of cartons. A visual inspection of the speaker always reveals a challenging mixture of the familiar and the new. The size of the cabinet is always the first cluehas sensitivity been a design priority or was low-frequency extension uppermost in the designer's thoughts? You espy a known drive-unithas this tweeter's propensity for upper-presence sizzle been tamed? You find a reflex port on the rear panelhas the temptation to go for a "commercial," under-damped bass alignment been successfully resisted? You spot factors which intuitively seem wrong for precise stereoa wide baffle lacking any kind of absorbent covering for diffraction control; a grille frame which puts acoustic obstacles in the way of the wavefront emerging from the tweeter.
Ah, how the times change. When I reviewed Etymotic Research's ER-4S in-ear headphones in the July 1995 Stereophile, they seemed expensive to me at $330, but well worth that seemingly high price: at the time, they were the best headphones I'd heard. Nowadays, with reference headphones costing well north of a kilobuck, the price of the ER-4S seems relatively reasonable.
For the past few years, PSB Speakers International has been replacing its older lines with new models designed in Canada, and assembled in China from Chinese-made components. Judging from the reception here of PSB's Synchrony One and Imagine T, it's clear that the new models combine advanced performance with true economy. Now, with the new Image line, we see the result of trickling all this down to less expensive products.
YBA Design's new WD202 D/A processor and headphone amplifier showed up while I was turning the pages of Don and Jeff Breithaupt's Precious and Few: Pop Music of the Early '70s, recommended by John Marks in his October 2009 "Fifth Element" column. Each page drips with great examples of why the 1970s often wind up on the wrong end of the culture stick (the Osmonds, anyone? Terry Jacks?).
Readers frequently ask me how Stereophile's writers select equipment for review. More often than not, a writer comes up with a review candidate because he's heard it or heard about it, and then suggests it to editor John Atkinson for possible review. JA encourages this behaviora writer excited about reviewing a component is more likely to produce an article that's interesting and informative. That said, occasionally a review candidate surfaces at Stereophile HQ; in such cases, JA assigns it to one of us.
I have built up a large collection of CDs since the medium's launch more than a quarter century ago, along with a modest number of SACDs and a small number of DVD-As. But I find these days that, unless I'm getting down to some serious listening and can give the music my uninterrupted attention, I use iTunes to feed computer files to my high-end rig (footnote 1). I've mostly been using the superb-sounding combination of dCS Puccini U-Clock and Puccini player/DAC that I reviewed last December to take a USB feed from a Mac mini, but I've also been using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96 and Stello U2 USB-S/PDIF converters, particularly for headphone listening, when I use one of those two format converters with a Benchmark DAC1 D/A headphone amplifier.
As someone who wrestled endlessly with the nine-pin serial ports and the RS-232 protocol with which early PCs came fitted (footnote 1), I welcomed the Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface when I first encountered it a decade ago, on the original Apple iMac. Plug it in. Don't worry. Be happy. The computer peripherals work as they should, which was often not the case with RS-232. It was a given, therefore, that the then-new USB port would be seen as a natural means of exporting audio data from a PC (footnote 2), but the first generation of USB-connected audio devices offered disappointing performance.
Besides my 20th wedding anniversary and the 15th anniversary of Listener magazine's first issue, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Roksan Audio Ltd., easily one of the most innovative design and manufacturing firms in British audio. Before Roksan came upon the scene in 1985, none of us had ever seen a loudspeaker whose tweeter was isolated from its surroundings by a sprung suspension. Or a commercial phono preamplifier designed to fit inside a turntable, just a centimeter away from the tonearm base. And who among us could have guessed that the Linn LP12's hegemonyamong flat-earthers, I meanwould be broken by a turntable from outside of Scotland? Yet the Roksan Darius loudspeaker, Artaxerxes phono stage, and, above all, Xerxes turntable accomplished those things and more, to the genuine surprise of nearly everyoneand to the benefit of our industry at large, as other firms took those ideas and ran with them.
Here's a question for a Stereophile.com poll: What's the best hi-fi value of the last 15 years? I'd bet that, 16 years after its introduction, Grado Laboratories' SR60 headphones would get more than a few votes.
It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturersif it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.
I miss the High End Shows. Not the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegasno thanks. I can do without the overpriced hotels, the 45-minute taxi lines, the frantic racing from venue to venue. No, it's the Stereophile shows I miss, with the centralized location, the rubbing shoulders with readers ("Hey, you're the cheap-speaker guy! Check out room 206!"), the listening to live music, and maybe even playing a little of it.
I was looking out the window. I was waiting for the plane to take off. I was wearing Monster Cable's Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones ($349.95). I was listening to Pens' burning, fuzzed-out, 27-minute onslaught, Hey Friend, What You Doing? (320kbps MP3; LP, De Stijl IND071). I was shouting with sudden shock and pain.
Some time ago in these pages, Anthony H. Cordesman observed rather ungraciously that the whole line of Hafler electronics "could do with reworking." This was interpreted by many readersincluding the good people at the David Hafler Companyas meaning that AHC felt the entire Hafler line to be mediocre. In fact, he does not. (He had given a Hafler product a positive review a few issues previously.) Tony's comment, however, did express a sentiment that most of us at Stereophile have shared for some time: a feeling that Hafler products had slipped from the position of sonic preeminence which they enjoyed during the 1960s and '70s to one of mere excellence in a field where only preeminence is acclaimed.
In the beginning, I had a room adjacent to my officea room filled with bicycles, hi-fi gear, and assorted crap I'd never gotten around unpacking since our last move. Feeling ambitious, I thought I might turn it into a guest room, and emptied it.
In the January 2010 issue of Stereophile I gushed effusively about the $450 Marantz PM5003 integrated amplifier. Not only was I impressed with the sound, build quality, and features of this very affordable component, but, intrigued by how it might be combined with other gear to build a complete entry-level system for about a thousand bucks, I began to ponder other entry-level components that might nicely complement it. My goal here, of course, is to inspire a new generation of young audiophiles. I felt a turntable would be a good place to start.