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.
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.
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.
Audiophile societies are frequently sources of interesting new equipment to review. Recently, trolling New York's Audiophile Society, I discovered a tremendous buzz about the Onix Reference 1 Mk.II, an affordable bookshelf speaker from AV123. Founded by Audio Alchemy cofounder Mark Schifter, AV123 is a Colorado-based manufacturer and retailer that specializes in affordable audio gear, mostly speakers and electronics, which it sells exclusively over the Internet with a 30-day money-back guarantee. AV123's factories in China and Colombia design, manufacture, and distribute speakers under the brand names Onix, X-Series, and Rocket, and, I am told, also make speakers for a number of other companies. If the name Onix rings a bell, this former UK brand has long been known for its dedication to making affordable audio gear. AV123 bought Onix from the Rogers speaker company more than 10 years ago.
After a year spent exploring the best that can be obtained from minimonitor loudspeakers, I embarked on what will be an equally long examination of what floorstanding towers have to offer. I began with the Sonus Faber Cremona Elipsa ($20,800/pair) in December 2007, followed in 2008 by: in February, the KEF Reference 207/2 ($20,000/pair); in April, the PSB Synchrony One ($4500/pair); and in May, the Magico V3 ($25,000/pair). For this review, I've been listening to a speaker aimed at those with shallower pockets than are required even for the PSB: the Avalon NP Evolution 2.0, which costs just $1995/pair.
While large, floorstanding speakers appear to offer the most material for the buck, I feel that small stand-mounted speakers both offer the best value in sound quality, as well as standing the best chance of sounding good in moderate-sized listening rooms. In recent months Stereophile has reviewed a varied group of such speakers. In order of descending price, these include the Acoustic Energy AE2 Signature ($5495/pair, November '95); Dzurko Acoustics Jaguar ($4500/pair, reviewed elsewhere in this issue); Totem Mani-2 ($3995/pair, February '96); Platinum Audio Solo ($2498/pair, November '95); Coincident Speaker Technology Troubador ($1495/pair, January and February '96); Joseph Audio RM7si ($1299-$1499/pair, February '96); Acarian Alón Petite ($995-$1195/pair, January '96); Phase Technology PC80 II ($699/pair, December '95); and Spectrum 108cd ($399/pair, December '95).
What kind of speaker can you get for $250/pair? The most tightly contested sector of the speaker market in the UK is right around that price. If you want to be competitive in Old Blighty, you have to offer something pretty special in that range—and because the stakes are so high, the competition is fierce.
It occurred to me recently that, after nearly a decade of specializing in reviewing affordable speakers, and with the exceptions of two entry-level Mission models, I'd never taken a look at recent designs from the large mainstream British speaker manufacturers. So with this review I embark on a Bob Reina "British Invasion" tour to seek out the most innovative and value-conscious designs from companies that have been household names in British stereo shoppes for decades.