The Entry Level #38

Last month, I wrote about Light Harmonic's use of Kickstarter to fund the final production and packaging of their Geek Out portable USB DAC–headphone amplifier. The campaign raised $303,061 from 2146 backers. That success led Light Harmonic to create a new division dedicated to mass-market products: LH Labs. The Geek Out would be its first product. (Pre-orders are still being accepted.) LHL's second product would be the Geek Pulse, a "pure class-A" desktop integrated amplifier–DAC capable of handling 32-bit/384kHz PCM files, as well as decoding native DSD64 and DSD128 files. That project, too, would be made with the help of a crowdfunding website—this time, Indiegogo.com. The campaign was launched October 28, with a goal of $38,000. As of November 24, with 27 days remaining in their campaign, LH Labs had raised $309,785 from 1181 backers, or approximately $262.31 per backer. Another success. (The total raised by the end of the campaign in January 2014 was just over $1.1 million.)

I have mixed feelings about this. First, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would spend money on a product that doesn't yet exist—it strikes me as being a lot like gambling, and I'd always rather spend my money on a sure thing. I also have a hard time understanding how a well-established brand like Light Harmonic has the nerve (I've spent some time wondering if nerve is the right word, and yes, I think it is) to ask people to spend money on what amounts to little more than a promise. Light Harmonic doesn't need our money to fund the production of the Geek Out and Geek Pulse—the company's Gavin Fish confirmed this in my discussion with him last month—but nevertheless insists that crowdfunding has helped to create products that will better serve their customers. If that's the case, why doesn't Light Harmonic simply ask for our opinions instead of for our money? I suppose opinions have more value when they're backed by dollars.

Along those same lines, though, hi-fi products have more value when they're backed by dealers. This is where Light Harmonic's crowdfunding model really upsets me. The company has used Kickstarter and Indiegogo not just as crowdfunding platforms, but as powerful pre-sale destinations—each with a built-in community of prospective buyers and enormous marketing potential. Essentially, they've sidestepped the burden of having to establish a trustworthy dealer network. In the Geek Pulse campaign, there's even an option for a Reseller Pack. The blurb reads: "If you're a reseller, you can pre-order master cartons of 12 units at a much lower price than what wholesale will be once the product launches." This costs $2268—quite a deal. So far, LH Labs has sold six of the 30 available Reseller Packs. But who are these resellers? How much will they charge for their units? Where will those units be sold? And, once they're sold, who will provide repair, replacement, and tech-support services?

"Act fast," the blurb continues. "International buyers: We will provide a shipping quote upon request."

I just don't feel comfortable with that.

Still, one can't deny Light Harmonic's success. In a little over two months, the company has raised well over $600,000 to support its design and manufacture of what will be relatively affordable hi-fi components. When it is produced and in stores, the Geek Out will have a retail price of $299, the Geek Pulse $499. If nothing else, Light Harmonic has shown that there's a very strong market for affordable hi-fi. But you and I knew that. If traditional hi-fi dealers begin to realize it, then we'll have something to get excited about.

Audio Art Cable
In October 2010, I received an e-mail from Audio Art Cable's founder, Rob Fritz, who was interested in having his products reviewed in Stereophile. "I manufacture and direct sell a lineup of high-end cabling products targeted at the 'audiophile on a budget' segment of the market," Fritz wrote. This captured my attention.

The Audio Art products seemed interesting and, even better, were relatively affordable—but because "The Entry Level" was then only an idea, I put Fritz in touch with Sam Tellig, who consequently wired his system with Audio Art's Classic Series IC-3 interconnects ($130/1m pair) and SC-5 speaker cable ($240/10' pair). Throughout much of 2011 and 2012, mentions of the Audio Art cables popped up in "Sam's Space." Sam seemed to like the cables, so I thought I'd give them a second look and listen, and learn a bit more about Fritz.

Like many audiophiles, Rob Fritz fell in love with music at an early age—his parents owned a high-quality console and kept their home filled with music—and he developed an appreciation for high-fidelity sound and equipment when he went away to college. Then, when Fritz was 18, an audiophile friend introduced him to a nearby audio/video retailer: Stereo Unlimited, in San Diego. "I've been hooked ever since," he told me via e-mail.

In 2003, after many years working in the electronics and custom-install industries, Fritz decided he wanted to start his own business. He explored a few options, made little progress, and finally turned to his old passion: hi-fi. But why cables? "Wires had been a curiosity for me from the start, so it seemed like a natural progression to build a business around this product. I made a few contacts, the roadblocks proved inconsequential, and things just took off from there."

One of Fritz's contacts was Darren Hovsepian, of DH Labs, who eventually worked with Fritz as a consultant, helping to design prototypes and select an overseas supplier. Fritz founded Audio Art Cable in 2005. Of his supplier, Fritz says, "They've been in the business of producing quality audio-cabling products for various companies for a number of years. High quality has been a hallmark of this supplier since long before Audio Art Cable was a twinkle in my eye. Nine years and miles of bulk cable have seen no defects."

The IC-3 interconnect uses conductors of silver-coated, oxygen-free copper (OFC), a foam polyethylene dielectric, aluminum-Mylar shielding, and a PVC jacket. The SC-5 speaker cable also uses silver-coated OFC conductors (14AWG), a foam polyethylene dielectric, and a PVC jacket, but forgoes the IC-3's aluminum-Mylar shielding and adds an internal packet of "vibration-absorbing filters."

I asked Rob Fritz how these ingredients influence the cables' performance.

"With conductive materials, speaking in general terms, silver has an open, airy, clear, fast, and precise sound. Copper, on the other hand, sounds warm, full-bodied, textured, and mellow. A silver-plated copper conductor, by design, would seem to be the best of both worlds. The foam polyethylene dielectric adds a silky sweetness to the mix, helping maintain the resolving properties of the silver without adding any trace of brightness or forwardness."

I agree with Fritz's assessments of the general characteristics of copper and silver conductors, but I wonder if other factors play equally important roles in determining a cable's sound. The purity of the metals used, the quality of the overall design, and the precision of manufacturing may be just as important as the choice of metals.

"A shield protects the conductive materials that are carrying a noise-vulnerable, low-level audio signal from interference," Fritz continued. "This creates a more noise-free environment, resulting in blacker backgrounds, a clearer, cleaner overall sound, and more accurate tonal qualities and harmonic structures."

The outer PVC jacket—shiny silver for the IC-3, sparkly blue for the SC-5—is intended to not only protect the cables' more delicate internal components but also make it look good. In terms of build quality and overall look and feel, the Audio Art cables most reminded me of models from Cardas Audio. I found them attractive and very pleasant to handle.

The IC-3 interconnect is available with either Audio Art's own gold-plated brass RCA plugs or, for $10 more, DH Labs' Ultimate XLR plugs, which use gold-plated copper pins and contacts. Fritz: "The brass in the RCA does add a bit more light, life, and sparkle to the overall character, while the DH Labs XLR sounds a touch smoother and more burnished." A 1m pair of IC-3 interconnect, terminated with RCA plugs, made strong connections with my NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier and NAD's matching C 516BEE CD player.

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I was less impressed with the SC-5's banana plugs—gold-plated brass types, sourced from DH Labs. (They appear to be DH Labs' B-1C model.) They worked fine, but looked and felt rather common—not necessarily bad, but reminiscent of RadioShack's crimp-on connectors, with rubber casings that conceal the termination joints. For $10 less, the SC-5 can be terminated with DH Labs' gold-plated copper spade lugs. The speaker cables are available in single- and biwire configurations ($295/6' pair with spades, $310/6' pair with bananas). I ran 10' lengths of single-wired SC-5 speaker cables from my amplifier to the pretty binding posts of KEF's LS50 loudspeakers.

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jgossman's picture
Having used them several times...

I'm looking at the pic there.. and they look like Radio Shack connectors, because they probably ARE Radio Shack connectors.  And that's not a bad thing, Radio Shack's gold plated banana plugs are in fact GOOD.  

Get over it!

junker's picture
LHL's second product would be

"LHL's second product would be the Geek Pulse, a "pure class-A" desktop integrated amplifier–DAC capable of handling 32-bit/384kHz PCM files, as well as decoding native DSD64 and DSD128 files."

The Pulse is not actually an integrated amplifier other than that it has a digital volume control and the user can select from 4 digital inputs much like any other DAC. I'd consider it more of a digital pre-amp if anything since while it can drive headphones it cannot directly drive speakers.

"In a little over two months, the company has raised well over $600,000 to support its design and manufacture of what will be relatively affordable hi-fi components."

Across both campaigns they have actually raised about $1.6m.

ms142's picture
business model

Stephen, I'm quite curious about your comment about dealers in the LH Lab story. I had thought that the LH way of directly reaching the customer is the way things should be, and it's really not clear to me what functions a more traditional dealer network could provide. Could you elaborate somewhat?

I haven't heard of dealers providing repairs to DACs, and in this case it should be quite feasible for direct or indirect buyers to send their defective units back to factory. Technical support can be provided by reseller as well as the manufacturer's forum, so the main function of a reseller is to demo the product (and do bulk shipping etc). As for price, if the reseller pays the lowest of the campaign prices, after the campaign when all the prices go up there should be room for the reseller to make a normal profit. (By the way, the lower price is why people pay their cash on a promise - they get discounts in exchange for accepting more risk. It's like buying corporate bonds...) At least this is my understanding.

jbucko's picture
Lepai

Another great column Stephen, that's awesome that the Lepai sounded good with the KEFs, it's too bad the Bluetooth wasn't worth it. I just ordered the Lepai TA2020+ amp (a whopping $21 on Amazon) to pair up with my Dayton B652s and make a dirt cheap second system; I'm really curious to find out if it sounds any good. One of my housemates expressed an interest in getting a turntable, but unfortunately, putting together what we would consider an "entry level" system is still a significant investment for most of my 20-something peers.  If the Dayton/Lepai combo sounds half-way decent it could be a great way to get my buddy started with minimal initial investement!

john-erik erikson smith's picture
what?

With all due respect Stephen, I'd direct my focus away from speaker wire if I was writing an "entry level" blog. Speaker wire as a bottleneck is a bit absurd in the context of a $5,000 system, let alone an entry level system.

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