Giuseppe Verdi gave the world more than two dozen operas, some good sacred music, and one string quartet. He also provided the young Arturo Toscanini with one of his first big breaks—conducting the singing of "Va pensiero" at his burial procession—and gave the flagship consumer product from England's dCS Ltd. its name. That the latter two gestures were posthumous and unwitting does nothing to diminish their poetry.
Well into dCS managing director Mike Story's attempted explanation of upsampling, there came an epic moment when the ever-expanding universe of his thoughts—which we had been following to new heights of digital enlightenment—broke free of our collective grip, snapped back on itself, and caused a conceptual implosion of nearly cataclysmic proportions. The blank, spent expressions on the faces of the journalists gathered in the small attic-like meeting room at dCS's Great Chesterford (UK) facility all seemed to say, "What the hell was that? Was it just me, or did you feel that too?"
More than a decade ago, Data Conversion Systems, aka dCS, released the Elgar Plus DAC, Purcell upsampler, and Verdi SACD/CD transport, for a total price of $34,000. In 2009 came the Scarlattia stack of four components for $80,000, also available individually (see my August 2009 review). The latest variation on the English company's theme are the four Vivaldi components, launched at the end of 2012 for a total price of $108,496.
Ever since the introduction of high-resolution digital formats, audiophiles have been waiting for the smoke from the format wars to settle. What would the winning software be? DVD-Audio? DVD-Video? SACD? 24 bits at 96kHz or 192kHz? As new formats struggled to establish themselves, upconverting technology became commonplace for the playback of the familiar 16-bit/44.1kHz "Red Book" CD format. What to do? Invest large amounts of cash in a system that played "Red Book" (maybe with upconverting, but if so, by how much?) and one other format, and hope that you've bet right? And what about movies on them new-fangled DVDs, Tex?
In the ongoing debacle that has been the introduction and promotion of high-resolution digital audio and the record industry's struggles to engage the public's interest in it, two recent events stand out.
Around the turn of the century, a review of the latest hair-raisingly expensive turntable would often begin with a soothing chant that, yes, the RotorGazmoTron XT-35000 is a tad pricey, but it will be the last piece of analog gear you ever buyso go ahead, take the plunge. A dozen years later, pressing plants are stamping out LPs 'round the clock, and new high-end turntables are rolling off production lines at a respectable clip. So who knows whether today's Cassandras might be equally premature in bewailing the death of the Compact Disc? Which is to say that I can't in good conscience urge you to pay $12,000 for a CD player on the grounds that the medium's about to die, so splurge now while there's still something to splurge on. But if you have the scratch, and the itch for such a product, step right up and let me tell you about the Krell Cipher.
Spending $10,000 for a machine that spins CDs and SACDs may seem extravagant in an age when the latter format is pretty much dried up and the former seems headed there. But hold onthere are reasons for the Krell Evolution 505's five-figure price, and a payoff, too.
With the exception of dCS and Accuphase, you don't see anyone jumping on the bandwagon of $15,000-plus SACD players—and for good reason. Despite enthusiasm for the format within the relatively small audiophile community, high-resolution audio isn't exactly making waves on the front pages—or even the back pages—of the mainstream news media. And while ABKCO Records has sold millions of Rolling Stones hybrid SACD/CDs, and Sony is looking to repeat that phenomenon with the recent Dylan hybrids, what's being sold in both cases are CDs, not SACDs. The higher-resolution layer is simply going along for the ride.
The manufacture and marketing of so-called "universal" digital disc players should have been a no-brainer right from the start. I recall the first demo of SACD I attended, when both SACD and DVD-Audio were little more than promises and contentions. That prototype Philips player consisted of several cubic feet of hardware controlled by a computer, even though mockups of more marketable SACD players were arrayed around the room. After the demo, I asked one of the Philips engineers if it were possible to make a player that could handle CD, SACD, and DVD-A. His reply: "Sure, if they let me do it."
When US audiophiles think of the oldest firms still making high-performance audio equipment, they usually think of McIntosh Labs, founded in 1948. The UK's Quad traces its corporate origins back to 1936. Japan's Luxman, however, has them both beat: Luxman began making transformers and switches for radio sets in 1925. This is to the good; the company obviously has a sense of history. The iffy part is that Luxman's product line, which blends modern and heritage products, is a bit quirkily confusing. Luxman is by no means alone in having a product line that does not make intuitive sense to the uninitiated. A prime example is Harbeth's having two loudspeakers both costing $5000/pair, the Monitor 30 and the Super HL5.
I discussed Luxman's DU-50 near-universal player ($4990, it plays SACDs, DVD-As, DVD-Vs, and CDs, but not Blu-ray discs) in no fewer than five columns in 2009 (February, April, June, August, October).
In my review in the February 2009 issue of Marantz's SA-11S2 SACD/CD player ($3599.99), I said that "buying [an SACD] player in 2009 necessitates an act of faith similar to the one turntable buyers faced back in 1992." The negative reaction to this from the besieged SACD community was as intense as it was irrational. If they're angry with me, I can only imagine how they feel about Stanley Lipshitz and John Vanderkooy, who presented a white paper at a 2001 Audio Engineering Society convention that claimed to prove that SACD doesn't qualify as a high-fidelity format (footnote 1). How many figurative bags of flaming poop did they leave at their front doors?
Unless you've already acquired a large collection of SACDs, buying a player in 2009 necessitates an act of faith similar to the one turntable buyers faced back in 1992. As with the LP back then, the major labels today have all but abandoned the SACD to such niche players as Chesky, Proprius, Harmonia Mundi, Pentatone, Channel Classics, 2L, Telarc, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Groove Note, and Acoustic Sounds.
Most people are familiar, at least in outline, with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea." In the story, the Queen decides that it's time for her son to marry, and the Prince—apparently a very fussy young man—decides that he can marry only a true princess, as measured by her sensitivity to small discomforts. It's like being an audiophile, but with peas.