June 13, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• Road Trippin', by Wes Phillips
• Captain Trips: The Emmeline Hornet headphone amplifier, by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

Road Trippin', by Wes Phillips

Late-afternoon sun cast long shadows across the rolling northern California hills as Adam Sohmer, NHT's PR guy, and I motored toward the Napa Valley. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? The skies were clear, the humidity a perfect 35%, and we were cruising through some of the most beautiful landscape on the planet. But it was also work.

Do anything long enough and it becomes a job. I'm not putting my work down by calling it a job—in my book, the difference between being a professional and being an amateur is that a pro does his best even when he doesn't feel like it. Fact is, a lot of people might even ask what I have to kvetch about getting flown to exotic locales and treated to a few days of being Mr. Big Shot. It's nice, all right, but it ain't real—I'm not a big shot. I'm just useful.

Factory tours, visits from audio designers, even long dinners at fancy restaurants—all the stuff some folks think is evidence of the too-cozy relationship between manufacturers and audio reviewers—are chess matches. A lot of information gets spread around, and my job is to separate the real news from the press release. And that is work.

Bad Trip: Here's an example: Years ago, a certain manufacturer of high-end digital gear felt that Stereophile's measurements were intrinsically biased against its CD players because our subjective assessments of their components were always overwhelmingly positive, while our measurements of those same components were just as consistently mildly critical. You'd think that wouldn't be such a big deal—the firm's products consistently wound up in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components"—but apparently our technical criticism stuck in this company's craw. How do I know this? Mostly because the manufacturer spent more time in "Manufacturers' Comments" debating the measurements than feeling the love—and because Stereophile's then-publisher, Larry Archibald organized a dinner at the Consumer Electronics Show to "clear the air."

Oh yeah, add CES to the list of work-not-fun things we reviewers get to do. After a day of frantically running around identical hotel rooms disguised as "listening rooms," we got to "relax" with a bunch of guys who were convinced we had it in for them. It was a disaster.

Them: You don't understand digital measurement.
Us: Explain what it is we don't get.
Them: You're not capable of comprehending it, so why should we try to tell you?
[Repeat for four hours.]

The lesson we took away from that dinner wasn't that they were smarter than we, but that they thought they were too smart to fail—and that when the test results didn't match their expectations, they'd throw 'em out in favor of a batch that did. I might not have been as smart as they, but even I knew that was dumb.

Good Trip: I'd visited NHT about 10 years ago, so I knew the trip wasn't going to be an ordeal, but I wasn't sure what I would learn, either. I knew NHT had a new owner, Vinci Labs, which in this case meant that it now had manufacturing facilities in China and digital-engineering and driver-production facilities in Denmark. I wondered how much of NHT was left in Benicia, California.

The short answer: its heart and soul. And that turned out to be the real story.

Longtime audiophiles probably know NHT best from its flagship 3.3 loudspeaker or its ultra-affordable SuperZero, and the company still manufactures real-world, affordable, high-performance loudspeakers. However, as much as NHT honors the marketplace niche it at first carved for itself, its future incorporates expansions into the worlds of digital signal correction—such as its Xd loudspeaker system—and electronic components, such as its soon-to-be-released Controller preamp-and-surround-sound processor ($2700) and five-channel 200Wpc Power5 power amplifier ($2000).

But that's the future. I was talking about now. When we rolled into NHT's industrial park, I felt as if I'd been there before. I had—sort of. When I was last there, the company had occupied a different building in the same complex, but the difference between one sheet-metal structure and another is so slight that I kept experiencing déjà vu.

That changed the minute I walked down the hall. Passing international sales manger Michael Kirschmann's office, I did a double take. Kirschmann had at least five guitars racked in there—not to mention a bass, nine effects pedals, several combo amps, heads, and cabinets, and a Kiss clock on the wall. Next door, pro-audio manager Don Bassey's office contained three electric basses and a ton of amplification. Brand-marketing VP John Johnson had drums everywhere. Visual design manager Bob Hopkins had keyboards, guitars, and a desktop editing rig in his office—and managing director Chris Byrne had a beautiful custom Fender Strat by his desk.

NHT is seriously into music: making it and listening to it. They're not unique in that, but music making is never far from the minds of the NHT guys. In fact, even though many of the staff—I almost called them bandmembers—actively play in bands, they get together about once a month for a company jam. I was there for one late-afternoon session, and those guys play well together.

Actually, that was the other thing I got from my visit: NHT has a teamwork ethic that I suspect is not unrelated to its collective decades of learning to play together. It's not something you can fake: The guys named—and everyone else there—really love what they do.

Heavy Trip: I don't think that was the message NHT meant for me to take away from the trip, but that's what makes these things a chess match. The message I think I was supposed to glean from the trip was that Vinci's muscle put the company in a position to rocket to prominence in mainstream audio by applying high-end muscle to the problems involved in putting speakers in rooms. By that, I mean that there is a very small percentage of the population who would look at a ginormous loudspeaker and think, I gotta get me one of those. With Vinci Labs' experience in digital processing, and products such as the Xd loudspeaker system, NHT very well may manage to overcome the you're-not-putting-that-in-my-living-room problem.

I'd heard a preproduction sample of the Xd in a New York hotel room and suspected it wasn't for me. It sounded okay, but . . . I wasn't excited. After reading Kal Rubinson's review in the November 2005 Stereophile, and John Atkinson's Follow-Up in the January 2006 issue, I was intrigued. I suspect a lot of my indifference was "innovation fatigue." After all, the Xd put most of a whole hi-fi system into a single purchase: You got speakers, stands, subwoofer, cables, amplifiers, and a complex and adaptable digital crossover, all in one swoop. Add a source and a volume control and you're done.

But for a reviewer, that's an almost unsupportable number of variables to change in one go. My mind reeled—and my hat was off to Kal for even attempting the review.

I began to reconsider all that when Chris Byrne offhandedly mentioned that the Xd's digital crossover allowed NHT to attempt crossover slopes that were practically impossible in what he called "the physical realm." That's when it hit me just how revolutionary a concept the Xd system was. Maybe this professional should have done a better job when he didn't want to.

As it happened, NHT had an Xd system set up—not for the visiting big shot, but in their "dealer education" listening room, where the company trains its dealers to set up and optimize the Xd.

In a room of real-world size, the Xd, which looked a tad "different" in a hotel room, actually fit right in—it didn't scream hi-fi. I could see it in my living room. The speakers and stands were sculptural rather than boxy, and the subwoofer was unobtrusively off to one side. Obviously not optimally set up, I harrumphed to myself. Then the music began.

Whoa! Keith Greenberg began playing guitar and Dayan Kai chimed in on dobro, and they were right there, big as life and all but visible. Then Greenberg started singing, and I was so there, wherever there was. (Turns out there was Cookie Marenco's Extended Sound Environment; you can get the record at bluecoastrecords.com.) I'd been resisting this? What am I, crazy?

Okay, I consoled myself. You know that small monitors do acoustic music and vocals well. Let's see how they integrate with that sub.

It wasn't the Xd's ability to produce big, brawny rock'n'roll that floored me (although the system could really crank); it was when I felt the floorboards flex when Billy Drummond nailed the kick drum on Jerome Harris's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013)—that wasn't just sonic, it was physical.

That was when NHT's and Vinci's Andy Regan walked in and said, "You know, for a room this size, we really ought to be running two subs."

Who on earth would need two? Besides me, I quickly answered myself. I was starting to understand why Kal had concluded that "The NHT Xd is the best thing to come down the pike in a long time." I gotta get me one of those.

Checkmate! But I don't feel as though NHT played me—I'm pretty sure they just let me see who they really are. And I really liked what I saw—and heard.

Captain Trips
I've been a little remiss in writing about one of the best tools for travel I've experienced recently: Ray Samuels Audio's Emmeline The Hornet ($350), a tiny (3" L by 2" W by 1" H) rechargeable portable headphone amplifier . I tend to travel with my iPod packed with hi-rez music files and a pair of low-impedance headphones. That's not a marriage made in heaven, so I also need a headphone amp. Over the years, portable headphone amps have gotten better and better while getting smaller and smaller. The Hornet is the smallest I've discovered so far and is my current favorite.

It's got audio cred, having been constructed with tantalum and film capacitors, 0.1% Vishay resistors, and a milspec OFC printed-circuit board (the PCB is smaller than 1" by 2" and boasts 4 oz copper traces!). The Hornet has a 15,000µF filter capacitor, and it buffers the output of its op-amp chip with a circuit about which Samuels won't really speak—except to say that it's more powerful than anything else available. The volume control is a custom-made Alps model that Samuels designed to ramp less linearly than conventional models—meaning that you have more control over the first 50% of its range. Combine that pot with the Hornet's rear-mounted, three-position gain switch and you have an extraordinary amount of control over level. The icing on the cake are a rechargeable 9V battery and a universal recharger/power supply—no more disposable batteries!

Did I mention that RSA offers its extruded aluminum case in six tasty shades of anodization? Yup: black, silver, red, gold, blue, and green. (Omigod, I so want a green Hornet!) The Hornet looks so great that every time I pull it out on an airplane and plug into it, someone stops at my seat and asks about it—in fact, on my flight to the 2006 CES, on an airplane full of people in the electronics biz, I actually drew a crowd large enough to have the flight attendants looking nervous.

Not only is the Hornet built like a brick house, it is mighty, mighty in action. I traveled with the Hornet and pairs of Etymotic ER-4P and Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro headphones, and I stayed at home with the Hornet and Sennheiser HD-650 and AKG K 701 phones, and I'm here to tell you that the Hornet will not be the weak link in most systems. When it comes to high-end performance, it seems you can take it with you.

With the Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros ($950), the Hornet produced synth bass tones from Massive Attack's Mezzanine (CD, Virgin 456032, uncompressed AIFF iTunes file) that had the physical presence of a kick to the head. That doesn't sound pleasant, but the tones were so deep in my body and so seemingly massive that I kept prying the UE-10s' custom molded earpiece out of my ear and glancing around guiltily to see if I was the only person hearing that stuff. Seemed so.

As satisfying as that type of trickery is, the hardest job a component has is making music sound, well, like music, not special effects. Voices sounded great through the Hornet, as was made readily apparent by Cantus' Comfort and Joy: Volume II (CD, Cantus CTS-1205, uncompressed AIFF iTunes file). Not only did the voices sound like voices, but they sounded like the voices I know. That wasn't just a bass, that was my buddy Tim Takach! That wa'n't no garden-variety tenor, that was Brian Arreola! And that wasn't just any room, it was Sauder Hall, the gloriously live auditorium at Indiana's Goshen College.

Or take the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet's Spin (CD, Telarc CD-80647, uncompressed AIFF iTunes file): The intricate interplay of the four guitars was easy to follow as four distinct voices and lines, not one very large four-necked instrument. When I took the Hornet out of the circuit the sound collapsed, losing that definition and separation—it could be one big mushy instrument. That tenor might be Brian—in fact, it almost certainly is—but it might just sound mostly like him.

Obviously, the Hornet can't make an iPod (or any other source) sound better than it is, but it certainly let me hear so much more of what it does sound like. I won't travel without mine now.

If you hear it, you'll want one, too.

Simaudio Ltd.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
From Wes Phillips

I've previously linked to one article about acoustic radar (), so I was delighted to learn even more about this bizarre application under the name Japanese War Tubas:


Tell me that wouldn't be a great name for a band!

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at http://blog.stereophile.com/wesphillips

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