Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when I first spied the prototypes for Sonic Frontiers' luscious new digital combo, the Transport 3 CD transport and Processor 3 D/A processor, at HI-FI '97 in San Francisco. After all, this is the company whose meteoric rise from an electronic parts-supply outfit run out of president Chris Johnson's basement, to a large factory pumping out an impressive array of entry-level to crème de la crème tube electronic components, has elevated Sonic Frontiers to front-line status among high-end manufacturers.
Our long-awaited laser-audio disc player (usually called the CD, for "Compact Disc") finally arrived, along with a real bonanza of software: two discs—a Polygram classical sampler of material from Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Philips, and a Japanese CBS recording of Bruckner's 4th Symphony, with Kubelik.
It's conventional wisdom among audiophiles: Small, high-end audio companies build high-quality products in small numbers. Products which are often expensive. But not always. Big mass-market companies build cookie-cutter products in big numbers. They're usually cheap. But not always.
"Two years ago I discovered my latest guilty pleasure: Internet radio. As long as it's 192k or higher. My whole buying/download cycle had been reduced. The pleasure and savings have increased. If they succeed in killing Net radio, I'm done with the hobby."Reader Peter DeBoer, in response to a recent Stereophile online poll.
My thirst for vinyl can be blind and wild. I know this when I find myself dashing through the midday sun, from the Stereophile office and up Madison Avenue, into Grand Central Station, onto the 6 train to Astor Place, and into my favorite record shop, Other Music, like a man in lust or love or, worse yet, possessed wholly by need. But unlike some of my more dogmatic friends and colleagues, I have no real problem with the Compact Disc. It's just that CDs often lack a certain intangible charm, the ability to make my heart race.
Playing a Compact Disc is nothing like playing a live show.
Wild, right? This is just the latest of the profundities to explode into my mighty brain as I slouch on the orange couch, staring at stacks of CDs, contemplating life and stuff. It came to me on a lovely Sunday morning. The sun was shining, the birds were cheeping, and I was still high from my band's performance two nights earlier.
The Tannoy Mercury V1 loudspeakers ($320/pair; see last month's column) were already carefully packed in their box, pushed into a corner of my messy kitchen, ready to go to John Atkinson for a Follow-Upbut I couldn't stop thinking about them. Their delicate, graceful highs and tight, properly balanced bass had entranced me, and, now, as I listened over and over to a recent reissue of Bill Dixon's amazing Intents and Purposes (CD, International Phonograph LSP-3844), I felt a strange urge to unpack the Tannoys and return them to my listening room. I had to know how Intents and Purposes would sound through the Tannoys.
US composer Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the 20th century. John Atkinson has recorded the male vocal group Cantus's performances of Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium (on Comfort and Joy: Volume One, Cantus CTS-1204) and Ave Maria Dulcissima (on Cantus, Cantus CTS-1207). (And great recordings they are—one engineer chum thinks JA's Cantus recording of OMM is the single best-engineered choral recording he's ever heard.)
Since its founding just over ten years ago, Mission Electronics has grown to become one of the largest "real" hi-fi companies in the UK. Although their product line originally consisted of three relatively conventional loudspeakers, it rapidly grew to encompass high-end pre- and power amplifiers, cartridges, tonearms, and turntables, and, in the mid 1980s, a system concept based on CD replay and relatively inexpensive electronics: the Cyrus amplifiers and tuner.
It seems to me that it should be possible to make a perfectly jitter-free CD transport without resorting to elaborate, expensive mechanical structures. This idealized transport would ignore all mechanical considerations of disc playbackvibration damping and isolation, for exampleand simply put a jitter-free electrical driver at the transport output. If such a circuit could be made, it wouldn't care about how bad the signal recovered from the disc was (provided the recovered data were error-free). The circuit would just output a perfect, jitter-free S/PDIF signal. The result would be the sound quality of the $8500 Mark Levinson No.31 Reference CD transport in $200 machines. Such a scheme would provide an electrical solution to what has been considered largely a mechanical problem.
But back in the real world there's no doubt that attention to mechanical aspects of transport design affects sound quality. Examples abound: listening to Nakamichi's 1000 CD transport with its Acoustic Isolation door open and closed; playing the Mark Levinson No.31 with the top open; and putting any transport on isolation platforms or feet are only a few of the dozens of experiences I have had that suggest that mechanical design is of utmost importance.
Many pundits in our industry say that CD is under threat from Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio, and dual-layer CD/DVD technologies. Conflicting stories abound, and even though I'm supposed to be well-informed, I've found some of them hard to sort out! For example, Michael Fremer, concluding a fine review of the $7500 Bow Technologies ZZ-Eight integrated CD player in August, compared its notable 16-bit/44.1kHz achievement with a DVD-based disc originally mastered at 24/96kHz and replayed on an inexpensive DVD player. He found the Bow wanting in some respects. What is the world coming to?
Should an audio component accurately reproduce the signal it's fed, or should it evoke the sound and feel of live music? Accuracy or musicality? This question has been at the heart of high-end audio since its inception. Back then, the question often took the form of the tubes-vs-transistors debate. Proponents of solid-state pointed to the far superior measured performance of transistor designs, and claim that they thus more accurately reproduced the input signal. Tube lovers steadfastly maintained that their gear sounded better, more naturalmore like music. Since then, both camps have eliminated the obvious colorations of their respective technologies, and the levels of performance of today's best tubed and solid-state gear have converged. At the same time, the circuits themselves have blurred into hybrids of various sorts, different mixes of devices and circuits.
History teaches us that the full flowering of any social phenomenon takes place after the seeds of its destruction have been sown. That tourist magnet, London's Buckingham Palace, for example, was built decades after the English Revolution and the Restoration had redefined the role of the British monarchy as being merely titular, and made the elected Parliament the real seat of power.
Back in my bass-player days in the 1970s, I used to do a regular cabaret gig, providing musical support for sundry British stand-up comic acts. I flashed back on those days when I recently watched Fierce Creatures, the John Cleese/Jamie Lee Curtis/Kevin Kline/Michael Palin vehicle, on satellite. There, playing the part of a zookeeper, was pint-size comedian Ronnie Corbett, whom I backed a few times. (He always bought the band a bottle of Scotch—you remember stuff like that!) Ronnie used to open his act with the old "They said Thomas Edison was crazy...they said Henry Ford was crazy...they said Albert Einstein was crazy..." gag, which ends with "They said my Uncle Charlie was crazy...actually, my Uncle Charlie was crazy!"