It was fall 2000. I'd just begun working at Stereophile, and I clearly remember sheepishly, innocently putting this question to former senior editor Jonathan Scull.
I think the question confused himnot because he didn't know the answer, but because the answer seemed so obvious, the question itself should have been unnecessary. How could anyone not know what an integrated amplifier is? I might as well have asked, "What's a song?"
Here we are, back to the Arcam I know and love: a company that not only invents good products, but good product categories as well. Like the Arcam Black Box of the 1980s, which gave so many people fits at the time—yet which, once you heard it, made good musical sense. It made good marketing sense, too: With that one stroke, teensy, weird, nestled-away-in-the-English-countryside Arcam did nothing less than create the domestic market for outboard digital-to-analog converters.
Apple's iPod came of age in the fall of 2003, when, with the release of iTunes 4.5, the player was no longer restricted to lossy compressed MP3 or AAC files. Instead, it could play uncompressed or losslessly compressed files with true "CD quality"; users no longer had to compromise sound quality to benefit from the iPod's convenience.
Enter Astell&Kern. At the beginning of 2013, this brand from iRiver, a Korean portable media company, introduced its AK100, a portable player costing a dollar short of $700 and capable of handling 24-bit files with sample rates of up to 192kHz.
Back in the summer of 2009, USB-connected D/A processors that could operate at sample rates greater than 48kHz were rare. Ayre Acoustics had just released its groundbreaking QB-9, one of the first DACs to use Gordon Rankin's Streamlength code for Texas Instruments' TAS1020 USB 1.1 receiver chip. Streamlength allowed the chip to operate in the sonically beneficial asynchronous mode, where the PC sourcing the audio data is slaved to the DAC. But high-performance, USB-connected DACs like the Ayre were also relatively expensive back then, so in the January 2010 issue of Stereophile I reviewed a pair of soundcards from major computer manufacturer ASUS , the Xonar Essence ST and STX, which, at $200, offered a much more cost-effective means of playing hi-rez files on a PC.
With all the current fuss about getting audio data from a computer to a standalone D/A processor via S/PDIF, USB, FireWire, WiFi, or Ethernet (footnote 1), it has been overlooked that the oldest way to get audio from a PC is to use a high-performance soundcard plugged into the host machine's motherboard. I remember how excited I was when I installed a Sound Blaster Pro 16 board in the 486-based Dell running Windows 3.1 that I was using in the early Clinton era, plugged its analog output into my high-end rig, and played back 16-bit/44.1kHz files.
A while back, out of the blue, I was contacted by audio distributor May Audio Marketing. They wanted to know if I was interested in reviewing any models from the Genius line of German manufacturer ASW Loudspeakers. I have a lot of time for distributors such as May Audio, whose primary role is to promote lesser-known European audio products on this side of the pond. All of May's principal clientsCastle, Enigma, and Gradient speakers; Sonneteer and Sphinx electronics; and Roksan turntable systemsare much better known in their home countries than in the US.
The venerable British company ATC Loudspeaker Technology was founded in 1974 by Billy Woodman, and is famous within the professional community for developing the first soft-dome midrange driver, and for their well-regarded line of active (powered) studio monitors, the user list of which is a veritable Who's Who of mastering engineers. ATC loudspeakers are all still made in the UK, and were a favorite of the late J. Gordon Holt.
I have always had an affection for speakers designed and manufactured by the Canadian conglomerate Audio Products International Corp. (API), which markets speaker designs under the names Mirage, Energy, Sound Dynamics, and Athena. In fact, it was 20 years ago that API created the first budget speaker that caught my attention, the Mirage 350. At the time, the 350 was the only speaker I'd heard that cost less than $300/pair. It sounded open, musical, and detailed without seeming bass-shy. (A larger successor, the 460, was for many years my reference home-theater speaker.) Although I've been impressed with many other API designs I've heard over the years at friends' houses, press events, and hi-fi shows, it had been more than a decade since I'd formally reviewed an API product.
Attending a Consumer Electronics Show is enjoyable, productive, nerve-racking, and exhausting. Too many components, so little time. One has to prioritize to ensure sufficient time to cover everything intended. One needs to avoid certain rooms, such as those with new, unremarkable designs from companies whose designers would love to talk—for half an hour or more—with each audio reviewer who makes the mistake of sauntering in. There are also many rooms in that middle region—rooms on neither the Must Hit nor the Must Avoid list.
As the years pass and I turn into a crotchety old man, I'm reminded of those old TV ads for the Honda Accord: "Simplify." Even though I now have more things going on than at any other point in my life, I try to eliminate complications everywhere I can. I now can't believe that, for over 15 years, I used the Infinity RS-1B as my reference loudspeaker. Sure, I loved itthe RS-1B was the first speaker I'd owned that produced a wide, deep soundstage, the full dynamic range of an orchestra, and bass extension down to 25Hz. But it was ridiculously complex: a five-way design with three different driver types and a servomechanism for the woofers. It also required biamplificationI got the best sound with a combination of high-powered tube amp and high-current, solid-state amp.
For headphone listeners, this is truly a golden age—we have multiple choices at many different price levels. During the course of this review, I had as many as five headphone amplifiers (and, in several cases, multiple power supplies) set up for comparison. Yet many people don't understand why we might want a headphone amp in the first place.
In nearly 25 years, it's been rare that I've reviewed an exciting breakthrough product. The Audioengine 2 is such a product—not because it performs at an extraordinary level (though it does), and not because it's such an incredible value for money (though it is), but because it creates a new market, a new application for high-end audio, and a chance for audiophiles to enjoy music in ways they may have never considered before.
Thus spoke AudioQuest's Steve Silberman, VP of development, of their brand-new USB D/A converter, the DragonFly. "There are a lot of very good DACs out there," he continued. "There are even a lot of very good affordable DACs. But the problem is, people outside of audio don't want them: They don't want old-style components like that.