I saw it coming back in 1996. That was when Rega introduced their full-bore assault on the state of the art of record replay, the Planar 9 turntable. The P9 was and is a superb product, but because it sells for $3900—more than five times the price of the company's bread-and-butter model, the venerable Rega Planar 3—its introduction created an enormous price gap. And that's not to mention all the numbers between 3 and 9 that have languished for so long: How could you not expect Rega to fill in the blanks with Planars 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8?
I tried to name a high-end audio product that's been recommended more often than the Rega Planar 3 turntable. I failed.
The closest I could come was Rega's own RB300 tonearm, surely the best-selling perfectionist tonearm of all time. After that came the Rega Planar 2 turntable, a sample of which I owned and loved in the early 1980s. Next on my list was the original Rega Elys, a moving-magnet cartridge that sounded as chunky and direct as it was cheap and magenta.
I am a Revel junkie. Their Ultima Studios have been my reference loudspeakers for years, and I've spent many happy hours with their Performa F-30s and Ultima Gems. They're all great speakers. When the original Gem was launched, it was made clear that all the corporate and economic weight of Revel's parent company, Harman International, was behind the development of this new line. When I visited Revel some years back, I saw cutting-edge design and development, in-house manufacturing of the most critical parts under the tightest scrutiny, and quality control of nearly compulsive meticulousness. All of this was reflected in the speakers' prices, which were reasonable for their quality and performance.
The Richard Gray's Power Company 400S arrived on the audiophile scene last year with a bang. Weighing in at a hefty 20 lbs and at $700 a pop, this four-outlet power conditioner, according to the paperwork, "effectively 'positions' audio, video, and home theater equipment 'electronically closer' to your utility company transformer, without introducing any type of series electronic 'traps' or capacitors into the circuit, which we feel degrade the performance of certain equipment, and severely limit the amount of current they can handle."
When I read John Atkinson's reviews of the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe (Vol.23 No.9) and RME Digi96/8 Pro (Vol.23 No.11 and Vol.24 No.1), I realized that soundcard technology had matured far faster than I had been aware. For about the price of a mainstream CD player, anyone with a reasonably powerful computer could add multitrack digital recording technology to his bag of tricks.
In the early days of digital audio, I remember talking with Dr. Tom Stockham, the developer of the groundbreaking Soundstream system used then by Telarc. As well as using a 50kHz sample rate, the excellent-sounding Soundstream stored its 16-bit data on large drum-shaped Winchester drives connected to a minicomputer. Twenty years later, the advent of ultra-high-density magnetic storage media and fast microprocessor chips has put high-resolution digital audio manipulation and storage within reach of anyone with a modern PC or Mac. And facilitating the transformation of the PC into a high-quality DAW has been a new generation of soundcards, such as the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe I reviewed in September 2000 and the subject of this review, the German RME Digi96/8 Pro.
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC needed a physically unobtrusive, nearfield monitor loudspeaker for use in outside-broadcast trucks. Accordingly, they instructed their design department, which at that time featured such luminaries as Dudley Harwood (the "father" of the polypropylene cone, who went on to found Harbeth) and the late Spencer Hughes (the "father" of the Bextrene cone, who went on to found Spendor), to produce such a model. Thus, not only was what was then probably the finest collection of British speaker-design talent involved in its development, there were no commercial constraints placed on the design. The only limitations were intended to be those arising from the necessarily small enclosure and the absence of the need for a wide dynamic range under close monitoring conditions.
When I unpacked the Rogue Audio Atlas, I didn't know how much it cost. After examining its chassis of high-grade steel, its silver-anodized aluminum faceplate, its sleek and slightly rounded edges, and, above all, its two chunk-o'brick transformers—for such a little thing (a foot-and-a-half square by half-a-foot high), it's heavy—I guessed around five grand. Then I called Rogue Audio and learned that it retails for $1395.
Besides my 20th wedding anniversary and the 15th anniversary of Listener magazine's first issue, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Roksan Audio Ltd., easily one of the most innovative design and manufacturing firms in British audio. Before Roksan came upon the scene in 1985, none of us had ever seen a loudspeaker whose tweeter was isolated from its surroundings by a sprung suspension. Or a commercial phono preamplifier designed to fit inside a turntable, just a centimeter away from the tonearm base. And who among us could have guessed that the Linn LP12's hegemonyamong flat-earthers, I meanwould be broken by a turntable from outside of Scotland? Yet the Roksan Darius loudspeaker, Artaxerxes phono stage, and, above all, Xerxes turntable accomplished those things and more, to the genuine surprise of nearly everyoneand to the benefit of our industry at large, as other firms took those ideas and ran with them.
My interest in wireless network music players began during David Hyman's keynote speech at Home Entertainment 2003. Then CEO of Gracenote, Inc. (footnote 1), Hyman stunned me with his opinion that CDs and DVDs were already obsolete. Rather than pursue discs with greater storage capacity, Hyman urged industry designers to design music-server units with large hard drives to allow instantaneous access to any digital music track. With all of your music stored on a central hard drive, you could, within seconds, locate a specific track among thousands just by knowing the name of the artist, song, group, composer, year of recording, or even recording venue. Music mixes could be instantly grouped into playlists by the owner.
Okay, here you are: You're a Real World music lover trying to sling together a Real World hi-fi rig. You gotcha budget-king NAD/Rotel/JVC/Pioneer CD player, your SOTA Comet/Sumiko Blue Point analog rig, and your cool-man NHT/PSB/Definitive Technology entry-level speakers. Hell, you've even gone out and bought a few pairs of Kimber PBJ interconnects to hook it all up. This ain't no dog and pony showyou want that High-End High, not just some cheap'n'cheerful, low-rez rig to stick in the rumpus room so the kids can listen to that weak-ass, faux-grunge, watered-down Hendrix-howl that modern-day wimp-boys like Pearl Jam dish out to anyone under 30 who doesn't know any better.
As a reviewer who has focused on seeking out high-quality audiophile gear for cost-constrained readers, I'm embarrassed to say that the flagship RB-991 stereo amplifier is the first Rotel product I've had in my house. (To be fair to myself, this 38-year-old family-owned company did not develop a large US market presence until this last decade.)
Late last year came an epic audiophile moment: I slapped a final length of tape on the box of the awesome-sounding MSB Diamond DAC (Stereophile, October 2012), in final preparation for its trek to John Atkinson's testing lab, in Brooklyn. Next up was the Bifrost DAC from Schiit Audio. I popped it into my system, where, moments before, the MSB had held court.
From $43,325 to $449. Yowseh!!the MSB costs almost 100 times as much as the Schiit! Was this even fair?
I was cruising at 36,000 feet, totally relaxed, listening to Richard Thompson. Looking down at my lap, I caught sight of a little box with a glowing green light. Switching off this light was like turning on the noise—the 767 was roaring like a locomotive and the ambient sound hit me like a fist. Thompson's crisp Celtic chordings turned mushy, undetailed, and dull. I felt weary. Whoa, I wouldn't do that again if I were you, laddie! I fumbled for the switch and reactivated the NoiseGuard circuitry on my Sennheiser HDC 451 noise-canceling headsets. Thompson's guitar rang out clearly, the airplane quieted to sound like an S-class Benz, and I relaxed into a calm reverie with only one worry clouding my contentment. But I patted my pocket: yup, still two cognacs left. Everything would be all right.