Music in the Round #43

The debate over which audio component is most important in determining the quality of a system's sound is one that has been with us for decades. Recently, it came up in a conversation I had during a visit to a Manhattan high-end shop, when I was told about a discussion on the topic by Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn) and David Wilson (of Wilson Audio Specialties). You don't have to be a seasoned audiophile to predict their respective positions, but when I was pressed to take a stand, I paused.

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Few will argue that the preamplifier and/or amplifier is the most critical component. I take that as tacit acceptance that any competent electronics design, whether tube or solid-state, discrete or chip-based, can provide a quality of amplification sufficient to discern not only tunes and words, but harmonic detail and spatial imaging. Amplification using any of these technologies is capable of anything from decent to spectacular performance, depending on the requisite price, necessary weight, and available power. Compare a good $500–$1000 integrated amplifier with a preamp and power amp at ten times the price, both played at output levels that don't tax the integrated, and I'll bet that the audible differences, though real, will nonetheless be small in terms of letting us follow the music without obtrusive distortion, noise, or loss. I'm not talking about toys, or the cheap'n'cheerful devices sold in the general market, but about genuine high-fidelity components of the sort that Stereophile has reviewed throughout its history.

Tiefenbrun and Wilson advocated, respectively, the source and the speakers as being of primary importance. Back when the source was presumed to be a turntable, that simplified the debate to a choice between mechanical transducers. But these days, the turntable has effectively been replaced by almost purely electronic sources: digital disc players, Apple iPods and their competitors, and streamed music. Today's most ubiquitous source, the iPod, suffers from the (usually) limited bandwidth of the recordings played on it, but its small size gives it the portability underlying its immense success. As with streamed music, the performance limits of the source component tend to be defined by the limitations of the recordings themselves, not of the technology or the hardware.

Digital discs—CD, DVD-Audio, SACD, etc.—contain not only the digitized program content but also the clock and flag information needed to properly decode and accurately translate the data into analog signals. In effect, the performance is less dependent on the mechanical design of the player and more a function of the electronics. For most players, these electronics consist of devices selected from the offerings of a small number of chipmakers, and many players include similar technology or share major components, including transports and circuit boards; at the egregious extreme, some are simply clones of other models. I will posit that, as in the amp comparison described above, performance differences among these players will be real but small.

Contrast both of these thought experiments with the comparison of a decent $500–$1000/pair loudspeaker with one costing 10 times as much, both set up and listened to in an acoustically hospitable environment. Here the differences, in terms of bass extension and midrange clarity—and possibly other parameters, if power/level distinctions are permitted—would be all too obvious.

So I think the debate is over, especially in the context of contemporary multichannel systems. This doesn't mean that you can just buy a player and receiver from Walmart and spend the rest of your budget on speakers. It does mean that you need to invest in speakers, and pay attention to speaker placements and room acoustics, in order to appreciate the differences among amplifiers and source components. It also means that you need to have amplification appropriate to your speakers and listening preferences.

Finally, it means that an assessment of the performance of electronics can no longer rely on price as a crutch or bias. There are high-value products whose performance makes them compatible with otherwise "high-end" systems. On the other hand, incorporating generic components into a more expensive product may now be unavoidable, but we should require that designers add meaningful value by engineering the nongeneric portions to standards beyond the minimal. There is still great opportunity for this.

Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD universal Blu-ray player
Cambridge Audio's new Azur 650BD is a prime example of a high-performing player with a remarkable array of features in a smart package at a price ($699) that would have seemed stunningly low only a little while ago (see Sidebar "Cambridge & MediaTek). I examine those features below, but the 650BD looks impressive as well. Its front panel is uncluttered: the Standby/On button is to the left of the centrally stacked disk tray and display, and the five transport buttons are to the right. The black-anodized finish of my review sample made the dark cover of the front USB port nearly invisible, as was the IR sensor. The top of the chassis bears a 3D representation of the Cambridge logo. The 650BD is compact, with gentle radiuses of the chassis cover and front panel edges, and sits on four nicely squishy feet that give it both stability and isolation from vibrations. The remote control is a thin but adequately hefty wand with which Cambridge amps and AVRs can also be operated. It was a pleasure to fondle but lacks backlighting.

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COMMENTS
stereomag's picture

Purchased a Cambridge Audio DVD player new (DVD89), right out of the box after 6 weeks of use unit was returned for repairs. 9 months later player slowly began to fail, first by not playing DVDs, then by not playing CDs, finally not playing any discs at all.

Will never buy a Cambridge Audio product again.

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