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.
The least expensive model in Paradigm's Reference series, the Studio/20 loudspeaker is a rear-ported two-way dynamic bookshelf/satellite design, superficially identical to the powered Active/20 that JA reviewed last November. It features Paradigm's 25mm PAL pure-aluminum dome tweeter in a die-cast heatsink chassis, and a 170mm MLP mica-polymer cone in an AVS die-cast heatsink chassis with a 38mm voice coil. The crossover is third-order, quasi-Butterworth, said to be "phase-coherent." It features high-power ceramic resistors, film capacitors in all signal paths, and both air-core and steel-core inductors.
One of the first affordable loudspeakers I reviewed for Stereophile was the original Paradigm Reference Studio/20 bookshelf model, in the February 1998 issue (Vol.21 No.2). At the time, I felt that the $650/pair speaker was a breakthrough—although not completely devoid of colorations, its ratio of price to performance set a benchmark a decade ago. I kept the Studio/20s around for several years to compare with other bookshelf speakers I reviewed, and they remained listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" for several years after that. The Studio/20 is now in its fourth (v.4) iteration, so I thought I'd grab a pair to hear how they compared with current affordable bookshelf designs.
I am biased in favor of Paradigm loudspeakers. I've used them for 10 years; they offer good sound and good value, properties they share with a number of other Canadian makes who have taken advantage of Canada's National Research Council facilities in Ottawa. In fact, the first components I bought specifically for what is now my multichannel system were Paradigm Esprit/BP speakers, which had impressed me at a Stereophile show. When I took the step into multichannel and found that there wasn't a matching center-channel speaker for the Esprits, I replaced them with Paradigm's Reference Studio/60 v.2s. But while the smaller Reference Studio/20, and the larger Studio/100 have both been reviewed in Stereophile, the Studio/60 had not. The release of the v.2's successor, the Reference Studio/60 v.3 ($1699/pair), was an opportunity to fill that gap.
Whether one was surprised, in 2010, by the success of Peachtree Audio's iDecco may have more to do with age than anything else. My peers and I wondered, at first, who would want their high-end integrated amps to come bundled not only with digital-to-analog converters but with iPod docks, of all things; at the same time, younger hobbyists wondered who in the world still wanted their integrated amps to contain phono preamplifiers. (Respect for the elderly, myself especially, prevents me from adding "and mono switches.") Color me chastened.
With Peachtree Audio's new nova125 integrated amplifier, most decisions are made for you.
Need a DAC with three S/PDIF inputs (two coax, one optical)? An asynchronous USB DAC? A line stage? A tubed output buffer? A power amp that should be able to drive even difficult speaker loads? Remote control? You've got them all for $1499. Just add speakers. (I assume you have a laptop computer and several disc spinners.) You may want a separate phono stage, because there is none onboard.
It's common knowledge that manufacturers tune the sound of each DAC model. There are the facts of product design and marketing: inputs, outputs, case materials, price points. After that, what's left are the trade-offs of different circuit designs and filter options, which are chosen with careeach has a subtle yet telling effect on a DAC's sound. Most designers try to go from bits to analog with minimal deviation from perfect. But when you look at the measurements and listen closely, you realize that perfect is elusive. One has to make choices.
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.