I remember my first experience with headphones. In 1960, I bought a set of Trimm dual 'phones (less than $5) and rewired them for stereo. The experience was remarkable for several reasons. First, it brought the sounds into my headI was thrilled with the impact. Second, stereo effects, especially with Enoch Light's ping-pong LPs (eg, Provocative Percussion, Command RS800SD), were striking. Third, I could play them really loud without bothering others. Of course, they had no bass, brittle treble, distorted at high levels, and their wire headband and Bakelite earpieces were uncomfortable. My fascination with this gimmick quickly faded.
When I started out on my multichannel mission in 2000, it was with an all-digital Meridian system that relied on lossy, compressed sources like the original Dolby Digital and DTS formats, or on synthesized surround based on Dolby Pro-Logic or Meridian's own TriField. With the appearance of first SACD and DVD-Audio and then Blu-ray, discrete lossless multichannel recordings became available, but there was no way to output those signals in digital form for interconnection to other components for playback or further manipulation. Most audiophiles, me included, already had analog preamps and power amps. It was only with the appearance of HDMI and the accompanying HDCP content protection that we could output those digital signals, and over a single cable to boot. Today, there are A/V receivers, some costing less than $500, and more than a handful of audiophile-oriented preamp-processors, that can accept such lossless high-resolution multichannel content as PCM, DSD, Dolby TruHD, and dtsHD Master Audio.
The debate over which audio component is most important in determining the quality of a system's sound is one that has been with us for decades. Recently, it came up in a conversation I had during a visit to a Manhattan high-end shop, when I was told about a discussion on the topic by Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn) and David Wilson (of Wilson Audio Specialties). You don't have to be a seasoned audiophile to predict their respective positions, but when I was pressed to take a stand, I paused.
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.
It seems only yesterday, but it's been 10 years since I began using the original Paradigm Reference Servo-15 subwoofer in my system. It was good then, and it still is, although a lot around it has changed. At first, I hooked it up via Paradigm's X-35 crossover, then via a Technics SH-AC500D surround processor, and finally to the subwoofer/LFE outputs of the various preamplifier-processors and A/V receivers I've used. Y'see, the Servo-15 is just a powered sub. It has an amp and a level control, but no crossover, no channel mixing, and no phase control. Just plug in the signal and it plays it. Along came in-room response correction from Audyssey, Anthem, Velodyne, etc., and the Servo-15 became an even better sub. For music, it entirely satisfies my needs.
It began when my oldest brother, 13 years my senior, returned from military service and told me about "hi-fi." Until then, all I'd known was our ancient tabletop radio-phonograph with its insatiable appetite for osmium styli. Back then, in the early 1950s, audio componentry was scrappy, still evolving from World War II military electronics and public-address systems. I began reading the electronics magazines and learned that, to get started, I needed a record player connected to an amplifier and a speaker. I toured the shops and stalls on old Cortlandt Street, before the building of the World Trade Center, and made my selections based on appearance, reputation, and specifications rather than on sound. Still, compared to what we were used to, the results sounded hair-raisingly good.
We all recognize that the Super Audio Compact Disc, despite being an almost ideal format for high-resolution audio, has not replaced the "Red Book" CD. However, Sam Tellig's comments in the June and July issues of Stereophile, and Steve Guttenberg's "As We See It" in July, unleashed e-mails urging me to champion multichannel sound (don't I do this already?) and smite the unbelievers (not a chance).
HDMI is the invention of the Devil. I grant that the Devil is very smarthe has put on a single cable both hi-rez audio and video, and paid tribute to the gods of industry by incorporating obligatory content protection. However, he has confounded the rest of us by using a connector that, while it relies on friction to maintain physical contact, has so little friction that the cable connector can be easily displaced from or misaligned with the chassis connector. The traditional audiophile predilection for heavy cables is, in this case, actually counterproductiveexerting just a bit of torque on a stiff HDMI cable can be enough to break the connection.
The first time I ever heard stereo sound, it was in a shop on Manhattan's Radio Row. In addition to the Studer staggered-head tape deck, the system consisted of pairs of McIntosh C8 preamps, MC60 power amps, and monster Bozak B-310 speakers. I can still picture the room and almost hear the sound. I was then an impecunious high-schooler, and while I always strived to buy the best equipment I could afford, I unfortunately was never able to own any of these iconic products. However, when I saw McIntosh's new MC303 three-channel power amp glowing brightly on silent display at the 2008 CEDIA Expo, a light bulb went on over my head: I'd been assessing a series of three-channel and monoblock amps, and the MC303 would fit nicely into my New York City system.
I've been enthusiastically tracking the development of Bel Canto's class-D amplifiers, from their original TriPath-based models to their more recent designs based on Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower modules. With each step, Bel Canto has improved their amps' sound quality and reliability.
Sometimes, I think life would be easier if I were an audio customer. If I didn't have to wait on the priorities of the electronics companies, I might have gone out and bought a Blu-ray player months ago. Had I done so, I would have been shocked to find that almost all BD players are released with fewer than the advertised number of features, and sometimes require firmware updatessometimes even a return to the manufacturerto have them installed.
Welcome to the wonderful world of firmware and software updates. With almost every audio device now microprocessor-controlled, and the tasks to be performed increasingly complex, it's not surprising that "finished" products leave the factory only to be stymied by reasonable but unpredicted user practices. It's not that we're all becoming beta testers, but we are contributing to the intelligent evolution of product capabilities.
Last time in "Music in the Round," I wrote about the fading presence of SACD in the hardware and software markets. However, the enduring interest in LPs seems to tell us that where there is a demand for high quality by discerning audiophiles, there will be a supply.
Recently, I got an e-mail from a colleague at another audio magazine complaining about the paucity of new SACD hardware. We've been hearing about the slowing pace of new SACD releases, and about Sony's neglect of a format they themselves developed, but I now realize that, apart from the High End (footnote 1), machines that can play SACDs have been fast disappearing from the middle of the market. When the battle of SACD vs DVD-Audio was raging, universal players that could play both formats were available from almost every major manufacturer. Even John Atkinson jumped on the bandwagon, acquiring a Pioneer DV-578A universal player for $150 to use as a reference. The exceptions were the very companies that had developed the new formats: Sony offered only SACD players, and Panasonic, at least at first, only DVD-A players. No matteryou could buy a universal player at any national electronics chain store, even if that store didn't stock recordings in either format and their staff had never heard of DVD-As or SACDs. Some things never change.