The Entry Level #31

When I lived entirely alone, with neither girlfriend nor pets, and had the luxury of a dedicated listening room, I felt no obligation to store away unused hi-fi equipment. Why should I? Life is so much simpler when everything one needs, or might potentially need, remains in plain sight, within arm's reach. Pairs of loudspeakers, then, took residence beside bookshelves, speaker cables found homes atop throw pillows, assorted electronics posed as coffee tables. And, if on a whim I decided it was time to swap my NAD C316 BEE integrated amplifier with my Exposure 2010S, I'd simply pull the latter from beneath my feet and do it.

Things change. When I moved into Ms. Little's apartment, I made some space in a closet for gear that wouldn't be regularly used. I placed the Exposure integrated amp and its matching CD player atop a shelf, below which were hung my shirts and jackets. Everything fit tidily, but the arrangement had another, unintended effect: Each morning, when I opened the closet doors to select one of my many similarly styled plaid button-downs, I was confronted with the amp and CD player—two dreams deferred—and thus reminded both of the hi-fi's wasted potential and of my own indolent neglect.

It'd been months since I'd last used my Exposure components and I wondered how they'd sound in the new apartment. So, while Ms. Little and the girls were enjoying midnight feasts in Argentina (see last month's column), I finally found the time to make a mess of our living room. Cats locked up, I got about the task of disassembling and reassembling the hi-fi. My NAD components—the very ones that in last month's "Manufacturers' Comments," Roy Hall disparaged as "mid-fi"—were replaced with my more prestigious, and nearly five times more expensive, Exposure components. Speakers were my PSB Alpha B1s; cables and interconnects were respectively Kimber 8VS and PBJ.

It should come as no surprise that the Exposure combo sounded great, producing levels of detail and texture that I'd forgotten existed in my music, while exhibiting senses of touch, scale, and flow that my far more modest NAD C316 BEE integrated amp and C515 BEE CD player simply can't match. But I was also quickly reminded that more expensive hi-fi equipment can sometimes be a bit finicky, temperamental, precious: The Exposure CD player inexplicably refused to play some CD-Rs that my NAD invariably accepted. Besides that, the Exposure's plastic disc drawer occasionally wobbled so much upon opening that it wouldn't properly close and therefore had to be manually coerced back into place. And while the Exposure integrated amplifier was generally a joy to use, its chunky knobs providing an almost irrational amount of tactile pleasure, something went wrong with its CD input: Most often, it produced sound from only one channel, sometimes not at all.

Some audiophiles would take as blessings the failures of a disc drawer and CD input, but, for better or worse, I still love my CDs. More precisely: I still love the music that my CDs contain. I determine when the time's right for that music, whether it be John Fahey, Erik Satie, Sonic Youth, or R. Kelly. The gear helps me along; it should never get in the way. Was I being punished for having neglected my Exposure gear? Was the Exposure gear malfunctioning due to lack of everyday use? Perhaps. But the mark of a true high-end audio component has less to do with its price or the name on its faceplate than its ability to send you deeper and deeper into your music collection and then out the door, racing to the record shop to buy more new music. If you're spending more money on your system than on your record collection, something is out of whack.

In any case, despite their beautiful sound, the Exposure 2010S integrated amplifier and CD player wound up back in the closet with my plaid shirts. My NAD gear may be affordable, but it nevertheless represents exceptional value, looks fine, and has proven entirely reliable. It may not live up to my wildest dreams, but it certainly meets all of my realistic expectations.

And any real hi-fi system has got to be better than an imaginary one, right?

Then again, it's fun to dream. If I sold my Exposure gear, I could probably afford that pair of KEF LS50 loudspeakers I've been wanting. Hmm . . .

Vinyl Flat Can Opener
In our April 2012 and May 2012 issues, I wrote about using Vinyl Flat's namesake record flattener ($99.95) to repair warped and dished LPs. At the time, it was the company's first and only offering, and I found it to be well-built, easy to use, and effective. In October 2012, Vinyl Flat introduced their second product—the Can Opener ($79.95), a "stereo headphone adapter."

Like the Vinyl Flat record flattener, the Can Opener is made in the US and designed by Vinyl Flat's John Martindale, who describes himself as a hardcore headphone addict. Via email, he explained that he wanted to provide his customers with a device that could partner with their existing amplifiers to extract the best performance from their favorite headphones. This device would have to be simple, affordably priced, understated in appearance, and have minimal impact on the listening position.

"After years of tinkering with headphones and headphone amplifiers," Martindale said, "I was surprised that no such product was readily available for serious headphone enthusiasts."

Measuring 5.1" D by 4.75" W by 1.75" H and weighing just 16 ounces, the Can Opener has an overall look that matches playfulness with purpose. Its laser-cut steel enclosure has a texturized black powder-coat finish, disturbed only by a stylized, gloss-black logo silkscreened on top. Two sets of five-way binding posts, nicer than those found on most affordable loudspeakers, occupy nearly the entire rear panel; the front panel holds just a single Neutrik ¼" locking headphone jack. Four small rubber feet are affixed to the Can Opener's bottom surface, but, after months of use, one of these feet slipped off.

The Can Opener contains no active components and, thus, requires no power. To use the Can Opener, one simply need run standard speaker cable from the outputs of the existing amplifier to the Can Opener's binding posts. Vinyl Flat recommends 3-foot lengths of Sewell Direct Silverback 12AWG jacketed cable ($9.95/pair), available from the Vinyl Flat website. Inside the Can Opener, a tidy printed-circuit board uses heavy-duty resistors to create a voltage-divider network, reducing the level of the signal delivered from the amp to your headphones.

I tried the Can Opener with B&W P3 ($199.99), Skullcandy Aviator ($149.95), Grado SR60i ($79), and Beats Solo HD ($199.95) 'phones. When plugged into the front-panel headphone jack of my NAD C316 BEE integrated amplifier, the B&W P3s delivered a detailed and spacious sound. In the title track from R. Kelly's excellent Double Up (CD, Jive 708537), Snoop Dogg's backing vocals were easy to distinguish from Kelly's smoother, warmer lead, while clean hi-hat attacks and powerful bass-drum blasts zipped and boomed in proper place and time. Through the Can Opener, however, I heard a more forward presentation, with greater bass impact and improved overall control. Hi-hat hits sounded brassier, percussive handclaps sounded fleshier, and, in general, everything sounded more purposeful and complete.

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