Even Mikey Fremer is surprised at vinyl's current popularity. Some pundits postulate that eventually CDs will die out, and we'll be faced with the choice of LPs or downloads. (I hope not. I'm just getting used to CDs.) With abundant sources of new pop releases and a wide range of reissues on vinyl, and a variety of used LPs, every audiophile should own a turntable. And with the availability of affordable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III, which I reviewed in the February 2010 Stereophile, the cost of entry to VinylLand is not very dear. The problem is that so few entry-level integrated amplifiers and receivers available today include phono stages. (The Marantz PM5003, which I reviewed in the January 2010 issue, is a notable exception.)
I've always enjoyed the time I've spent with NHT loudspeakers. The two bookshelf models I've reviewedthe SB-3 (Stereophile, November 2002) and its successor, the Classic Three (November 2006)shared NHT's "house sound": liquid, balanced, and dynamic, with little coloration, and a slightly forward and lively midrange. The newer Classic Three, still in production, sounded more refined, natural, and detailed than the SB-3. I like to see speaker designers whose work improves over time.
So when NHT approached me about reviewing a new floorstanding model with a small footprint, the Classic Absolute Towertheir first new speaker design of the next decade, they sayI jumped at the chance. Not only had I not reviewed an NHT in a while, but I'm increasingly intrigued withand applaudthe trend of manufacturers to add small-footprint tower speakers to their lines of affordable speakers. As most speakers costing under $1000/pair tend to be bookshelf models, shoppers need to worry about buying good-quality stands of the appropriate height, and about optimizing the speaker positions with respect to the front and side walls.
When reviewing affordable speakers, it's critical to have benchmarks and comparisons for various price points. Inexpensive speaker designs are exercises in tradeoffs and compromises, especially for the least costly products. In all of my reviews, I try to compare the speaker in question with other designs close to the review sample's price, chosen from my list of previously reviewed speakers. From time to time, if a speaker particularly impresses me, I ask the manufacturer if I can keep the speakers around a while longer, so that it can serve as a comparison reference for a certain price point. That's not to say that any speaker I don't keep around is less desirable—there's just not enough room in my house to keep a sample of every speaker I like. An audio reviewer's wife puts up with enough as it is.
I first met NHT co-founder Ken Kantor in 1975 when we were both undergraduates at MIT. Kantor was sponsoring an extracurricular class entitled "Musical Ideas." The concept was to stick a dozen or so musicians in a classroom for free improvisation and hope to create music à la Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. The result was a mess; although talented guitarist Kantor meant well, there was no common vision or consistency of musical talent. Nevertheless, I had a blast trying to simulate a tamboura drone with a Hohner Clavinet, phase shifter, and volume pedal.
What makes someone a good hi-fi reviewer? A fine critical sensibility? A good technical background? Ears? Eyes? Nose? Throat? So many different people are reviewing audio gear these days that it's downright impossible to characterize a good reviewer. But I do know that Beavis and Butt-head would make killer hi-fi reviewers!
In a world of me-too products, NuForce distinguishes itself from all those other components whose names begin with i by actually using a capital I. Actually, that statement is unkind, even unfairunlike the myriads of products designed to capitalize on the Apple iPod's current sexiness, the NuForce Icon isn't designed to be portable (although NuForce does offer an Icon Mobile). What the Icon unquestionably is is a fine little piece of audio engineering, which most of those other i components are not.
How to integrate a computer into a high-end audio system is a hot topic these days. I'm getting more and more e-mails from readers asking for advice, Wes Phillips wrote about transferring his LPs to audio files in his October and November newsletters, and a lively thread on this topic ran on the forum at www.stereophile.com.
"Onkyo Returns to its Stereo Roots to Debut New Digital Amplifier Technology." This heading of the press release for Onkyo's A-9555 digital integrated amplifier was surely intended to warm the cockles of the two-channel audiophile's heart. Some of us remember the Onkyo Grand Integra amplifiers of the 1980s, which were considered competitive with the big Krells and Mark Levinsons of the day. To refresh my memory, I looked through my Stereophile archives and found the December 1985 issue (Vol.8 No.8), which included Larry Greenhill's review of the Grand Integra M-510, a 300Wpc power amplifier covered in lacquered persimmon wood, weighing 139 lbs, and costing $4200 (about $8000 in 2007 dollars). Larry was most impressed with the M-510, describing it as "a very powerful amplifier with outstanding sonics across the board—power with delicacy."
I first heard a CD player in my own system in 1984 or 1985, several years before I began writing for Stereophile. I was curious about the Compact Disc medium—I'd read about it, had listened to CDs in stores, and was eager to hear what they sounded like in my own system. I'd even bought a CD: the original-cast recording of 42nd Street, which I already had on LP. One evening, a friend who worked for Sony and knew that I was an audiophile brought over his latest acquisition: a CDP-501ES, the second from the top of Sony's line of CD players. He also brought along a bunch of CDs, including some solo-piano discs, and Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony's then-famous recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Telarc CD-80041).
There's an old Spanish proverb: "If six people call you an ass, start braying." A contemporary corollary might be that if enough audiophiles insist a product is the best ever, it behooves the "experts" to check it out. At least, that was John Atkinson's thinking when he suggested I audition the Oppo Digital DV-970HD universal disc player ($149).
Wilson Audio Specialties' David Wilson likes to say that you should build a stereo system from the speakers down. Of course he does—he sells speakers. But that doesn't mean he's wrong. So recently, when offered an inexpensive new product for review, I decided it would be a good test of Wilson's theory. I tried driving Wilson's $45,000/pair MAXX2 speakers with Outlaw Audio's RR2150, a $599 stereo receiver.
When folks visit from out of town, they frequently remark that my Brooklyn neighborhood reminds them of "a real neighborhood" from their neck of the woods. "Except that we know all our neighbors and talk to them when we're cutting the grass, watering the lawn, and walking the dog. You probably don't even know the names of any of yours."
I had mixed feelings about reviewing the $189/pair Paradigm Atom loudspeaker. Although in the past I've been favorably impressed with Paradigm's speakers—the $600/pair Reference Studio/20 remains one of my favorite affordables—Budget Bob tends to get a bit nervous when a speaker's price drops below $250/pair. In my experience, even when the most talented speaker designers attempt to make a speaker to sell at such a low price, the result is often a very small cabinet with limited bass extension and inferior high-level dynamics.