What's it take to compete on the bleeding edge of digital? Foresight, commitment of resources, and lots of money. Of course, it's all fundamentally about money, so we shouldn't be surprised that the audiophile's emotional needs aren't paid much respect by the large international manufacturing and marketing concerns stalking the earth today. Megaglom vs Cockroachacus. [Sigh] Where are those pesky miniature princess twins when you need 'em?
Perhaps SACD has yet to reach critical mass in terms of consumer and industry acceptance, but halfway through 2002, it appears to be getting closer to that goal. Along with Sony and Philips (Universal Music), EMI is on board, as are many smaller, sound-conscious independent labels such as Chesky, Analogue Productions, Telarc, DMP, Rounder, Opus 3, Songlines, and the resurrected Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. For now, DVD-Audio, with its screen-driven menus, doesn't appear to be an attractive option for audiophiles not interested in merging audio with video. Perhaps the future will bring universal two- and multichannel playback devices equipped with LCD screens that actually live up to both formats' sonic potential, but I don't believe that day won't dawn any time soon.
When a well-respected analog disc-mastering veteran like Stan Ricker says that the Alesis MasterLink ML-9600, a hard-disk-based digital recorder/CD burner, is "the best tool in my mastering bag...done right it can sound better than all but the absolute top drawer analog," you take the endorsement seriously. Progress is possible. Mastering tool, CD burner, 24-bit/96kHz recorder, audio reviewer's best friend—the versatile MasterLink is one of the coolest products I've ever had my hands on.
The old Saab slogan, "Find Your Own Road," was so good that the old General Motors, which once owned Saab, had to kill itjust as the newly revived GM tried, in a "Call It Chevrolet" memo, to kill "Chevy." GM did a U-turn on that one the very next day, but "Find Your Own Road" never returned, and is available for Ayre Acoustics to use. I can't think of a better slogan for a company that I admire almost as much as I do Saab.
Consider this: While Ayre calls its new DX-5 ($10,000) a "universal A/V engine," the disc player doesn't have a coaxial or a TosLink S/PDIF input. That appears crazy to me, but to Ayre, no. They've found their own road.
You'd think I'd be used to Charlie Hansen by now. After all, I've been speaking to Ayre Acoustics' renaissance man for a decade, having first encountered him when I was trying to arrange the review of Ayre's 100Wpc V-3 power amplifier that was published in the August 1996 Stereophile (Vol.19 No.8). I thought the V-3 was impressive.
I recently had a house guest who is a music lover and amateur pianist but who had never heard of the SACD or DVD-Audio formats. I explained what they were and demonstrated examples of both, to his amazement. He then blew them off, saying that my system always sounds great and that the average person couldn't or wouldn't afford the kind of equipment I have. But when I told him that there were universal players available for less than $200 at retail and that, in fact, the player I was using was based on a transport drawn from a similar mass-market product, his interest was piqued. Of course, I didn't emphasize that one's expectations may not be the same, or that the boys designing the high-end stuff do make it sound different and, usually, much better. Heck, I'll do whatever I can to hook a music lover on these new formats, even if their future is uncertain. Once he's hooked, audiophilia will have him forever.
As we approach the end of the 21st century's "oughts" decade, many feel that playing music from a discrete physical medium is positively 20th century. Much of my own music enjoyment now comes from computer files, often high-resolution, streamed to my high-end rig via a Logitech Transporter or Bel Canto USB Link 24/96. It is perhaps a paradox, therefore, that high-end audio companies are still devoting so much effort to developing expensive, state-of-the-art disc players. In April I very favorably reviewed Meridian's superb 808i.2 CD playerpreamplifier, which costs $16,995 as reviewed, and Michael Fremer is about to review the ultimate Scarlatti SACD playback system from another English company, dCS. The $80,000 price tag of the Scarlatti makes the subject of my review this month, the Boulder 1021, seem relatively affordable at $24,000.
Recently, we've seen the digital "horsepower" race accelerate with the arrival of digital sources and devices with 24-bit and 96kHz sampling capability. Much of this has been spurred by the 24/96 labels emblazoned on the newer DVD players—and, within the purer confines of the audio community, by high-end DACs with this same ability. Indeed, it's possible that the dCS Elgar DAC, near and dear to John Atkinson's heart and a perennial Class A selection in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," performs so well with standard 16-bit/44.1kHz sources because its wider digital bandwidth permits greater linearity within the more restricted range of regular CDs.
Some reviews take longer to gestate than others. But in the case of Cary's CD 306 SACD Professional Version SACD/CD player, it has taken me literally years to get this review into print. I had visited Cary's impressive facility in North Carolina just before Christmas 2005, when I'd been playing the high-resolution master files of some of my recordings at an event being promoted by Raleigh high-end dealer Audio Advice. Cary's head honcho, Dennis Had, had been playing me music on a system featuring his Silver Oak loudspeakers, with the front-end one of the first samples of the original CD 306, playing discs through the two-chassis Cary SLP 05 preamplifier that Art Dudley ended up reviewing in the September 2006 issue. "Now that's a product I'd like to review!" I enthused, looking inside the CD 306, and I drove back to Brooklyn with a review sample.
Despite predictions to the contrary, the Compact Disc isn't dying anytime soon. Too many are in circulation, and until a smooth, friendly skin covers the computer interface, the music-server revolution will remain nascent. We're still in a long, shaky period of transition.
When, at the beginning of this century, the market profile of the high-end Mark Levinson brand took a dip due to the parent company's reorganization, one of the companies that took advantage of the opportunity was Classé Audio. Founded in 1980 by engineer Dave Reich (now with Theta Digital) and run by engineer-entrepreneur Mike Viglas since the mid-1980s, the Canadian electronics manufacturer's Omega line of high-end amplifiers and preamps had universally impressed Stereophile's scribes, and its Omega SACD player (reviewed by Jonathan Scull in November 2001) was the first such product to come from a North American company.
Classé's Mike Viglas watched the audiophile skies, scratched his chin, and thought about his business. As he gazed, it occurred to him that if everyone in audio was moving downmarket to invade his territory, why not take his company and head upmarket? Thus was born Classé's much-lauded Omega series.
There are components that stick in a reviewer's memory long after they have been crated up and entrusted to the tender mercies of UPS. When I reviewed the Verona Master Clock from English company dCS in March 2005, the sound it allowed the combination of a dCS Verdi transport, Purcell upsampler, and Elgar Plus D/A processor to achieve from SACD was the best I had heard from my system—better, even, than I remember getting from the EMM Labs SACD transport and processor I had borrowed for a weekend a few months earlier. But at what price? The stack of four dCS components adds up to a cool $45k—"Yes, the complete dCS system is hip," I wrote in the conclusion to my review. "But $45k's worth of hip? That's a question I can't answer, I'm afraid, what with school fees and mortgages and taxes." The megabux dCS stack thus had to go back to the distributor at the end of the review period.
It's now 10 years since the launch of the two high-resolution audio disc formats, SACD and DVD-Audio. Yet, perhaps partly because both were hobbled in various ways to please the record industry, perhaps partly because too many supposed hi-rez releases sounded no better than CD, and perhaps partly because record retailers weren't sure how to display the formats to their best advantage, neither took off in any substantive way. DVD-A disappeared, and SACD survived only as a niche format for high-quality classical releases in both two- and multichannel forms. As we got deeper into the same decade, digital technology, despite various sparks and flashes, went into the doldrums. Mainstream digital technology was increasingly concerned with squashing the music into fewer and more portable bits, not with increased sound quality. Even the concept of "CD sound quality" began to seem an unattainable goal, as MP3 files became the dominant music carrier.
Is anyone in this economy shopping for a four-box, rack-swallowing, two-channel SACD/CD player contending for the state of the art and costing $79,996? dCS is betting that its Scarlatti will attract a small crowd of those wealthy music enthusiasts who, in any economy, reliably pony up for the best. For the rest of us, the Scarlatti will be a spectator sport.