The Entry Level #42
In response to my review of Music Hall's USB-1 turntable, that company's founder and president for life, Roy Hall, noted my detailed explanation of the product, diverse taste in music, and keen attention to minutiae. He then offered six words of final observation that will, if there is any justice in this world, go down in Stereophile lore: "The kid has gotta get laid."
Hall was right, of course. And, perhaps as he anticipated, now that I'm regularly getting laid (thanks, Ms. Little), I've developed a different relationship with hi-fi. I don't care about it as much as I used to. Which is not to say that I don't care about it intensely. I do. But, as I'm sure you've already figured out, there are things in life that matter more: sex, for instance, and love.
About a year later, in response to my review of the Aktimate Micro powered desktop loudspeaker, distributed in the US by Music Hall, Roy Hall was a bit more complimentary: "Well, I'm glad Junior took my advice. His reviews (and, I'm sure, his life) have much improved. His writing certainly has. It has more joy, inspiration, and expression. It's amazing what a good rogering can do. Keep it up, Stephen!"
Today, writing from Israel, where he's visiting with family, Hall sounds only slightly more serious: "I'm sorry you're leaving Stereophile," he says. "I now need to find someone new to make fun of."
Our hi-fi minds
On a recent Saturday morning, in a medium-size conference room of the American Museum of Natural History's Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, the neuroscientist Moshe Bar projected onto a large screen an exceptionally mottled, blurry, black-and-white image, and asked the audience what they saw. They more or less saw nothing. Slowly, Bar brought the image into focus to reveal a landscape of mountains, trees, a mortised split-rail fence, and, most notably, in the right foreground, a horse's head in profile. The audience was surprised: What had been, just moments earlier, completely indecipherable was now entirely clear. That the horse's head remained painfully obvious even after Bar returned the image to its shadowy original state was, for some, more impressive; others found it downright disturbing.
"Our subjective intuition about memory is that it is there to help us reminisce on things past," Bar explained. "However, recent theoretical and empirical developments indicate that memory has a more profound role in our lives: It prepares us for the future."
Memory, then, is a tool, an aid to the senses. Once presented with certain stimuli, we're better able to receive and respond to those same, or similar, stimulinow and in the future. Our minds don't easily forget.
This is as true for sounds as it is for images. Certain recordings contain subtle but nevertheless significant elements that I can now easily hear and appreciate every time, even when listening through the most compromised playback devicessuch as my company-issued Dell laptop and cheap, plastic computer speakers. This is not because I have "golden ears" or because I'm an especially good listenerthough I do work hard to be goodbut simply because I heard those subtle elements at least once previously, through my hi-fi system. And once you hear something in a piece of music, it's difficult to forget that it's there. You might never forget it. That subtle detail might, in fact, become the most obvious moment of that entire piece of musicstretching out from the mix like a horse's head over a split-rail fence. With low-resolution stimuli, while there are not enough data to trigger recognition of something you don't know is there, there are enough data to trigger recognition of something you do know is there because you've seen or heard it before.
Take, for instance, the single hi-hat hit 52.5 seconds into "Palace," the closing track of Wild Beasts' beautiful Present Tense (CD, Domino WIG279): I had never heard it until I played the song through the Sennheiser Momentum on-ear headphones and AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2 USB DACheadphone amplifier. Deep in the mix, overshadowed by snare and synths and guitars, it happens once and never againbut now I anxiously await its arrival, hear it as though it were equal to any of the song's more obvious elements, and because of this can use its sound as a key to discerning certain strengths and deficiencies of a system. If that hi-hat sounds too sharp or forward, something's wrong; if it sounds too distant or dull, something's wrong. Even through the worst or most compromised audio system, I hear it.
I almost can't help it. The mind, like hi-fi, works in mysterious ways.
Music Hall c-dac15.3 CD playerDAC and a15.3 integrated amplifier
Played through the Music Hall c-dac15.3 and matching a15.3, each of which costs $549, that single hi-hat hit sounds just right: appropriately clear and distinct, with just the perfect amount of sparkle and bite, and enough presence to drive the music steadily forward.
Music Hall's newest and most affordable electronics (footnote 1) are models of extreme utility. The c-dac15.3 combines a single-disc CD player and three-input (USB, TosLink, coaxial) digital-to-analog converter in a single box measuring 16.9" W by 3.1" H by 13.2" D and weighing 11 lbs. It has a Sanyo HD850 disc transport, decodes CDs with a Burr-Brown PCM1796 DAC chip, and uses a Wolfson WM8805 chip to handle incoming digital signals. It comes with a robust AC cord and a slim remote control whose metallic charcoal finish, gold-hued buttons, and textured backside make it unusually attractive and satisfying to use.
The c-dac15.3 plays CDs and CD-Rs but not SACDs, and, in addition to its three digital inputs, provides all the functions you'd expect in a modern disc player: Scan, Repeat, Fast Forward/Back, Previous, Next, and Random. A front-panel Input button (also provided on the remote) scrolls between the available inputs, each illuminated on the player's clean display: Read (disc), Optical, Coaxial, USB. The display has two levels of brightness and can be turned off completely. I preferred the pretty, vibrant blue of the brighter setting, but didn't attempt to hear differences between the three settings.
The c-dac15.3 performed flawlessly throughout the review period. In the event that a unit suffers a failure, Music Hall keeps spare parts.
I asked Roy Hall why he decided to equip his newest CD player with digital inputs. "Honestly," he replied, "we did it to make the soon-to-be-obsolete CD player multifunctional." Compact Discs, Hall believes, are on the way out, but there nevertheless remains a market for high-quality disc spinners. There are, of course, other CD players that provide digital inputs: In recent months, Stereophile has reviewed such products from Aesthetix, Audio Research, Krell, MSB, and others, but all of those cost in the five figures. Besides the unusually versatile Oppo BDP-103 ($499), which offers three USB ports and two HDMI inputs, I know of no other CD player in the Music Hall's price range that comes with as many high-quality digital inputs. (The Marantz CD6005, which, like the Oppo, costs $499, has only a single digital input: a front-panel USB port.)
The Music Hall a15.3 integrated amplifier is rated to deliver 50Wpc into 8 ohms (or 75Wpc into 4 ohms), has six line-level inputs (including a front-panel mini-jack), a moving-magnet phono input, and a front-panel headphone jack. Between it and the c-dac15.3, one can play CDs and LPs, stream digital files, and listen through headphones. What else does one need? Sex? Psychic powers? The system doesn't support Bluetooth, predict the future, or explicitly assist its user in getting laid, but it will connect to Sonos, Apple TV, or Airport Express for wireless streaming. I especially appreciate the inclusion of that phono inputan increasingly popular feature in today's affordable integratedsto which I promptly connected VPI's Traveler turntable using Kimber Kable's TAK-Cu phono cable. I could, of course, have used a Music Hall 'table. "We are one of the biggest, and certainly the most entertaining, turntable manufacturers in the States," Roy Hall reminded me. "It made perfect sense to add a phono board to the a15.3."
With all those inputs at my fingertips, I wondered how Hall himself prefers to listen. "Mostly at home," he told me, "in my living room, and almost exclusively to vinyl. I have quite a few turntables at home. I also listen in my office while working. That tends to be via computer or the now-out-of-production Music Hall rdr-1 table radio." Leland Leard, Music Hall's youthful VP of sales and marketing, listens to music constantly"at home, in the car, in the can, and probably in bed while he sleeps," Hall said.
Footnote 1: Music Hall, 108 Station Road. Great Neck, NY 11023. Tel: (516) 487-3663. Web: www.musichallaudio.com.