Oh boy, another new DAC review. Some folks think DACs, once you get past the features, all sound pretty much the same. I mean, it's just digital. Well, they're right. Pretty much. Just as two new cars of a particular make, model, color, and options package both look the same, sitting there on the lot.
But if you discover a ding in the door of one of them, where most folks still see only a new car, you now see the ding. It might have been there all along, undetected the first few times you walked around the carmaybe your buddy even had to point it out to you. It's insignificant in the scheme of all that a new car is, but once you've seen it, you always see it. Now you can easily tell the two cars apart, and we both know which one you'll drive home.
As with so many other things, from cell phones to soy milk, the idea of a portable MP3 player was something I at first disdained, only to later embrace with the fervor of any reformed sinner. But not so the idea of a high-fidelity iPod dock: Given that I now carry around several hundred high-resolution AIFF files on my own Apple iPod Touch, the usefulness of a compatible transport seemed obvious from the start. Look at it this way: In 1970, whenever I bought a music recording, I could enjoy it on any player, in any room in the house. In 2010, why shouldn't I enjoy at least that degree of convenience and flexibilitywithout resorting to a pair of tinny, uncomfortable earbuds?
In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.
Phiaton is the brand name used by the South Korean Cresyn Company. Wes Phillips reviewed Phiaton's conventional closed-back Moderna MS 400 headphones in January 2009 and was as impressed by the sound quality as he was by their appearance. The PS 200 ($249), the only in-ear headphone sold by Phiaton, also has a striking appearance: the black rear face, which is all someone sitting next to you in the subway will see, resembles the turbine blades of a fan-jet engine. There are two balanced-armature drive-units, with a passive crossover network.
The buzz was all over the audiophile 'net. "Pioneer has a new bookshelf speaker that's killer for the money!"
Hmm, I thought. Pioneer. Speakers?
To be fair, I've had the Pioneer brand on my mind for well over 30 years. The company was my brand of choice for car-stereo electronics in the 1970s, for Dolby S cassette decks in the '80s, for DVD players in the '90s, and for plasma TVs in the '00s and '10s. I felt a bit guilty that I hadn't focused on the fact that Andrew Jones, the very same design guru who came up with Pioneer's TAD Reference One loudspeaker ($70,000/pair), had had a hand in designing a few two-channel speaker models starting at $99.99/pair. The audio gossip was all about the second model from the bottom of Pioneer's speaker line, the SP-BS41-LR ($149.99/pair). I thought I'd better get a pair and review them.
The loudspeaker coming under the microscope this month emanates from north of the border. The Canadian loudspeaker industry has benefited enormously in the last few years from having the measurement, testing, and listening facilities of Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa made available to it on a commercial basis. Unlike the US or even the UK, where a new speaker designer has pretty much to rely on his own resources, having to invent his own test procedure as well as design the product, the Canadian equivalent can have his loudspeaker tested under standard conditions, quickly indicating whether he is on the right track or not. (He still, of course, has to rely on his own talent to get on the right track in the first place or to get back on it if it appears that something is amiss.)
The British speaker manufacturer PMC Ltd. has built a professional client list seemingly as extensive as its almost mind-numbingly broad line of speakers. The i series alone includes 12 models, one of which is the DB1i ($1929/pair).
In my review of Polk Audio's RT25i loudspeaker (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), I was mightily impressed with Matthew Polk's execution of this $320/pair design. Although it has since been replaced by the RT27i, with slightly modified cosmetics and a different tweeter, the RT25i remains my favorite loudspeaker costing less than $500/pair.
Back at home, I'd recently set up Polk Audio's RTi A3 loudspeakers ($399.95/pair), which, at 14.75" H by 8.58" W x 14" D, are by far the largest bookshelf models I've had in my listening room. Right out of the box, the RTi A3 impressed me with its fit and finish. In Polk's Damped Asymmetrical Hex Laminate Isolation (DAHLI) cabinet design, five layers of MDF are glued together to form a damping system, then topped by a real-wood veneer of black ash or, in the case of my review samples, an impeccable cherry. The gracefully curved cabinet narrows in width from 8.58" at the front to about 5" at the rear, and is said to create a stronger, more rigid, more acoustically inert enclosure. (Knocking on the speaker's side panels resulted in a hollow resonance.)
I always enjoy reviewing affordable loudspeakers from Polk Audio, who trumpet high value for the dollar with their philosophy of "Incredible Sound/Affordable Price." They also update their broad and deep product lines more frequently than do most manufacturers. I've always been intrigued by how much Polk has been able to deliver at the bottom of the price range. In fact, the first Polk speaker I reviewed, the RT25i (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), is the only affordable speaker I've reviewed for Stereophile that I ended up buying (for my computer-based musical-composition system). So, when approached by Polk to review a speaker from their affordable RTi A series, I was interested in the least expensive of that line's five models: the RTi A1 ($349.95/pair).
In the September 2001 Stereophile (Vol.24 No.9), I wrote very favorably about Polk's RT25i loudspeaker ($319.90/pair). That bookshelf model impressed me with its open, neutral midrange; its pristine, extended high-frequency response; and its low-level dynamics. On the minus side, the RT25i was fairly limited in low-bass extension and high-level dynamic slam. At the time, I was seeking a new speaker for my home computer music-composition system, and I bought the review samples—the only time I've done that since I began to write for Stereophile some 20 speaker reviews ago.
In the January 2010 issue of Stereophile I gushed effusively about the $450 Marantz PM5003 integrated amplifier. Not only was I impressed with the sound, build quality, and features of this very affordable component, but, intrigued by how it might be combined with other gear to build a complete entry-level system for about a thousand bucks, I began to ponder other entry-level components that might nicely complement it. My goal here, of course, is to inspire a new generation of young audiophiles. I felt a turntable would be a good place to start.
Although advertising copywriters would have us believe otherwise, there is not a lot of true innovation in audio. Most audio products are based on well-established principles, perhaps refined in detail and execution. Of course, some products do take novel approaches, but they tend to be too off-the-wall to be taken seriously, or simply don't do the job as well as more conventional products. What's really exciting is to encounter a product that is audaciously original in concept, yet makes so much sense that you wonder why no one even thought of it before (footnote 1).
PS Audio's Power Plant Premier is a high-end product that takes the regeneration approach in providing audio/video gear with the cleanest AC possible. But not everyone can afford to spend $2195 on such a product, and although the new amplifier design that forms the basis of the Premier is relatively efficient, it does use power, and concern about conservation of the planet's energy resources might lead one to prefer a passive approach to power-line treatment. PS Audio's line of Power Centers provides such an alternative. The model I had for review was the Quintet Power Center, which differs from the Duet Power Center only in having five pairs of receptacles to the Duet's two.