According to the conventional wisdom, companies selling consumer products fall into two categories: those whose sales are "marketing-led" and those whose sales are "product-led." Marketing-led companies tend to sell mature products into a mature market where there are no real differences between competing products—soap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for example—whereas product-led companies tend to sell new technologies, such as personal computers and high-end hi-fi components. In the audio separates market, conventional wisdom would have a hard time categorizing any individual company: no matter which you choose, it would be simplistic to say that it is either product- or marketing-led. No matter how good the product, without good marketing the manufacturer stands little chance of success; a poor product superbly marketed may make a company successful overnight, but that success will have hit the end stops by the following night.
Late in 2006, I was watching John Atkinson set up a pair of DPA cardioid microphones in front of the stage of New York City's Otto's Shrunken Head to record a performance of my jazz quartet, Attention Screen (footnote 1). Before the first set, Wes Phillips approached me. "Bob, I found a piece of equipment you must review—the Cayin A-50T integrated amp. It's only 1300 bucks and you'll love it!"
Sure, Stereophile gets letters to the editor. We also get some colorful responses for our "Manufacturers' Comments" section. (Vince Bruzzese and Roy Hall are literary standouts among their component-making peers.) And, as one of the magazine's Contributing Editors (Audio), I get lots of personal mail from readers seeking my advice. I thought I might share some of these letters with you, and my responses.
I have built up a large collection of CDs since the medium's launch more than a quarter century ago, along with a modest number of SACDs and a small number of DVD-As. But I find these days that, unless I'm getting down to some serious listening and can give the music my uninterrupted attention, I use iTunes to feed computer files to my high-end rig (footnote 1). I've mostly been using the superb-sounding combination of dCS Puccini U-Clock and Puccini player/DAC that I reviewed last December to take a USB feed from a Mac mini, but I've also been using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96 and Stello U2 USB-S/PDIF converters, particularly for headphone listening, when I use one of those two format converters with a Benchmark DAC1 D/A headphone amplifier.
Most folks don't even know they exist, but the Channel Islands are a chain of eight moderately sized mountains poking through the Pacific Ocean along the coast of southern California, between Santa Barbara and San Diego. The most famous of these is Catalina Island and its city, Avalon, which sit opposite San Clemente. The other Channel Islands are relatively wild and have been preserved mostly uninhabited.
In my reviewing career, except for fleeting listening sessions at the occasional audio show, I've had little contact with products from the Italian loudspeaker maker Chario. When asked if I'd be interested in reviewing an affordable bookshelf speaker from them, I did some research and discovered that Chario is distributed in the US by Koetsu USA. Well, with that kind of pedigreeI'm a loyal owner of two Koetsu Urushi cartridgesI thought I'd better give the Premium 1000 ($1015/pair) a careful listen. A few months later, I was tucking in to a pair of review samples.
There's home cooking on one side of the hedge and fast food on the other, and the world moves farther from the former and nearer to the latter with each passing day. So it goes in domestic audio, where virtually every new milestone of the past quarter-century has pointed far more toward convenience than toward quality.
Depressed? Don't be. Those of us in the perfectionist community have a history of dealing with such things, howsoever slowly and inefficiently. (footnote 1). We're getting better at it, too, year by year. An example: Chord Electronics, of sunny southern England, has now brought to market their Chordette Gem D/A converter ($799) which they offer as an affordable means of getting perfectionist-quality sound from computer-music files.
In this, my first equipment review for Stereophile, I'll begin by explaining my philosophy regarding reviewing inexpensive components. In my quest for products by designers who strive to establish new benchmarks for reproducing sonic realism at lower prices, I'll be looking for "value" components (a more appropriate term than "budget") whose designers logically fall into two camp. . .
It seems I'm always reviewing an integrated amplifier from Creek Audio. It started in the late 1980s, when I fell in love with the capabilities of inexpensive, well-designed audio equipment, sparked by the spectacular sound of a pair of Celestion 5 bookshelf speakers at a Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. I was reading an issue of Hi Fi Heretic (now defunct), for which my friend Art Dudley wrote, and it included a survey of various inexpensive British integrated amplifiers, some of them made by Creek. I was already familiar with the company, but hadn't listened to affordable British electronics since I'd lived in London, in the early '80s. I got a Creek 4140s2 integrated and was amazed at its neutrality, its lack of etched sound, its natural reproduction of instrumental timbres. I ended up buying it, and used it to review bookshelf loudspeakers.
Living with a brand-new Cyrus amp was a pleasantly nostalgic thing to do, even from the start: It arrived in a clean and downright attractive carton that seemed designed specifically to contain a brand-new Cyrus amplifier. Think of it! And I haven't even mentioned the nice owner's manual or the balance control or the headphone jack. As I said: the good old days.
When I review an affordable loudspeaker, first impressions are important. Once I've unpacked the speaker, noted the quality of its construction and finish, and have complimented or grumbled about the ergonomics of its five-way binding posts, I fire 'er up and give 'er a first listen. Occasionally, the sound will put a smile on my face, either because I'm impressed with the amount of uncolored detail emanating from such an affordable product, or because the speaker sounds so sweet that I'm intoxicated.
I thought I'd review the procedure I typically use to seek out affordable speakers for review as, in the case of the Denmark-designed DALI Zensor, made in the company's facility in China, there was a twist at the end.
In preparing to review affordable loudspeakers, I typically put together a list of potential candidates I've discovered at audio shows, or that have been recommended to me by other Stereophile writers. I add to that list products I've learned about from press promotions, usually from companies whose products have impressed me in the past. I boil this down to a short list, then run it by Stephen Mejias to make sure I'm not tripping over The Kid's own quest for budget sonic nirvana.
I was ready to have some fun with Dayton Audio's B652 loudspeakersthe ones with the outrageously high price of $39.80/pair.
Available from Parts Express (catalog #300-652), the Dayton B652 is a simple two-way, sealed-cabinet design with a 6.5" polypropylene mid/woofer and a ferrofluid-cooled, 5/8" polycarbonate tweeter. The cabinet is clad in black vinyl and has a removable grille of black cloth. The B652s sounded pretty much the same regardless of whether the grilles were in place, but I preferred their looks with the grilles off, so that's how I listened. Better looks often equal better soundat least in my home.
This whole thing started up again when I tried to improve the phono-input section of my main systemnot to enhance its performance (although you might expect that to happen), but to provide a fairer, more flexible context for evaluating new cartridges.
The Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 45 measures a very room- and back-friendly 11 11/16" (297mm) high by 6¾" (172mm) wide by 11 11/16" (297mm) deep, but these dimensions are attractive for reasons other than simple, efficient transport and placement. I noticed right away that something about the speaker just looked right. Paul DiComo, DefTech's senior vice president of marketing and product development, explained that while the number and size of drivers used in any DefTech design will largely dictate that speaker's height and width, the company nevertheless aims for Fibonacci, or golden-ratio, dimensions. According to DiComo, these efforts help minimize standing-wave and "organ-pipe" resonances inside the speaker's cabinet.