As metaphors go, the silver bullet is somewhat ambiguous, given that it's used to represent both the reliably destructive and the reliably beneficial. (Who would have guessed that an idea from a Lon Cheney Jr. film would prove too subtle and complex for people in the 21st century?) Nevertheless, at Montreal's Salon Son et Image on April 2, those of us who comprised Stereophile's reliably responsive "Ask the Editors" panelJohn Atkinson, Robert Deutsch, and Ivolleyed it with the sort of sprightly, vernal abandon that is the sole province of men with gray hair. To wit: We agreed that no materials, technologies, or design decisions can either guarantee or prevent good sound. Not vinyl. Not star grounding. Not class-A circuits. Neither tubes nor transistors. Neither belt nor idler nor electrostats nor multiway nor single-driver nor copper nor silver nor silk nor beryllium. Not even harmonic distortion. Each of those ideas may mean something to someone, in the short term, in the narrow view, but that's all. There are no silver bullets.
Except in the very literal world of digital audio, which is crawling with silver bullets. First, consider that word-clock jitter is always musically destructive: There is no such thing as an acceptably musical digital source with high levels of jitter. Second is the fact that it's always easier to listen to a cached, solid-state digital file than one that's undergoing the messy process of being pulled from a CD like a rat from its hole. Third is . . . well, I'll get to the third one in a minute.
If I owned such a number of CDs that my servants and I couldn't rip them all ourselves, I'd consider buying another CD player to replace my 12-year-old Sony SCD-777ES, which itself replaced a perfectly nice Naim CD3a move of questionable wisdom, now that I think about it. But today, thanks to breakage, loss, and generosity, my CD collection is contracting, even as my vinyl and shellac collections expand. (The universe is expanding too, but not fast enough.)
Computer audio is not only the right choice for me: It's a happy choice. The genre is still funespecially if you avoid upturning the rocks beneath which the Internet's computer-audio "experts," who belch condemnation at every approach that isn't their own, lie in wait. And it's still affordable: The audio perfectionist who already has a free copy of Apple's iTunes on his or her computer is able to get up and running for just a few hundred dollars, with USB-to-S/PDIF converters and USB digital-to-analog converters from HRT, Musical Fidelity, Stello, and a growing list of others. Computer audio is the road to freedom from obsolescence, extortionate prices, and those glorified kitchen-table manufacturers who thanked their best customersthe people who bought the first multi-thousand-dollar CD players of the late 1980s and early 1990sby neglecting to stock enough spare parts to keep their overpriced goods running for more than five years. Throw in freedom from ugly, splintered, useless CD jewel cases and the matter is settled.
By the same token, there exist more expensive options that promise more than just CD-quality (footnote 1) sound. Consider the successful QB-9 USB D-to-A converter, which Ayre Acoustics introduced two years ago for the moderate sum of $2500. Ayre kindly loaned me a sampleand then, toward the end of last year, called it back for what I assumed would be improvements. Charles Hansen, Ayre's CEO, was quick to set me straight: "The new version doesn't sound any better. It just has an extra feature: It can go to 192kHz instead of just 96kHz." Fair enough. But because it might sound better when it does that, I asked to reborrow the same QB-9. (Hansen saw no reason to alter the model name: "We knew when we started it would have to change eventually.")
Ayre endeavors to make all their product upgrades retrofittable, and so it goes with the 192kHz version of the QB-9: The retail price was bumped to $2750, and people who invested in the early QB-9 can have theirs upgraded at the factory for the price difference alone: $250. Charles Hansen says he would've done it for less if he could have. "The part that would go to 192 was only a little more expensive, but then we had to add another board and change the power supply, too." The new chipan XMOS XS-1 from Bristol, UKis simply a microprocessor, and thus requires a separate receiver chip.
There remains a lack of controls on the Ayre's front panel, but the DIP switches on the back have taken on a new shine: One of them controls whether the QB-9 is connected at Class-1 USB or Class-2 USB data-transfer speed, the latter required for sampling frequencies higher than 96kHz. The choice is also determined by the owner's computer operating system: Although Class-2 USB capabilities have existed on Macs for a number of years, it wasn't until OS 10.6.4 that sample rates beyond 96kHz were supported. Windows users may require an extra driver, but Charles Hansen says that the prep work isn't daunting: "For Class-2 you do need to have your computer pretty current, but we spell it all out on our website."
Footnote 1: I sneer Sam Tellig's ironic sneer.