"Uhh! What is it?" I was being prodded on the arm. Admittedly it was gentle, almost polite prodding, but prodding it still was, a rude disturbance of the cocoon I had woven around myself in seat 31J of the American Airlines MD-11 winging its way across the North Atlantic. I pushed Pause on the Discman, insensitively not waiting for an opportune cadence in the Brahms Piano Quintet that had been my erstwhile virtual reality.
When, on his long-running TV variety show, Jackie Gleason used to order up some "traveling music" from music director Ray Bloch, he got a live orchestra's worth. But when Gleason, a composer and conductor in his own right (he wrote his show's unforgettable theme song, "Melancholy Serenade"), actually traveled, his listening options were severely limited compared to ours. By the time the comedian died in 1987, Sony had introduced the Walkman cassette player, but Apple's iPod was still more than a decade in the future.
Like most people, I'm not interested in long, windy essays about audio reviewing, having barely enough time and interest for audio itself. But I do perk up when the debate turns to the audio reviewer's purpose in life: Should I write about everything that crosses my path, or should I limit my attention to those products that interest me, and that stand a chance of being good?
No history of the computer-audio marketplace could be complete without some mention of High Resolution Technologies, the California company whose Music Streamer was, in 2009, the first perfectionist-quality USB digital-to-analog converter to sell for as little as $99. One could argue that HRT's entire business model has contributed to shaping our attitudes toward the hobby: Because digital-audio technology continues to evolve at such a rapid pace, HRT has introduced a succession of newer and ever more effective Music Streamers, occasionally to the obsolescence of their predecessors; yet because those products have all been so affordableremarkably and laudably so, given their thoroughly American provenancewe tend not to mind.
Art Dudley and others have covered the first products released by HRT, and now the company has added to its product line a Pro version of its Music Streamer, which sports balanced circuit design from tip to tail.
Housed in the same simple, functional, six-sided case of extruded aluminum as HRT's other products, the Pro is painted a bright blue to distinguish it from the Music Streamer II (red) and Music Streamer II+ (gray). At 5.6" it is also a tad longer than the others, and includes a single B-type USB 1.1 jack centered on one end, and two small, fully balanced TiniQ output jacks on the other. More about these special mini sockets later.
My favorite moment in the Zack Snyder film Watchmenapart from the Dylan-fueled title sequence, which itself contains some of the most memorable scenes in recent cinemacomes when retired crimefighter Daniel "Nite Owl II" Dreiberg arrives home to find the doctrinaire and mildly crazy Walter "Rorschach" Kovacs in his kitchen, eating beans straight from the can. The startled Dreiberg asks his visitor, "Would you like me to heat those up for you?"
Every now and then an affordable product comes along that's so good, even wealthy shoppers want it. Past examples in domestic audio include the Rega RB300 tonearm, the original Quicksilver Mono amplifier, the Grace F9E phono cartridgeeven Sony's unwitting CD player, the original PlayStation. Based on word of mouth alone, one might add the HRT Music Streamer+ to that lauded list.
I like reviewing loudspeakers. The more you become familiar with the art, the greater the sense of anticipation as you open up a pair of cartons. A visual inspection of the speaker always reveals a challenging mixture of the familiar and the new. The size of the cabinet is always the first cluehas sensitivity been a design priority or was low-frequency extension uppermost in the designer's thoughts? You espy a known drive-unithas this tweeter's propensity for upper-presence sizzle been tamed? You find a reflex port on the rear panelhas the temptation to go for a "commercial," under-damped bass alignment been successfully resisted? You spot factors which intuitively seem wrong for precise stereoa wide baffle lacking any kind of absorbent covering for diffraction control; a grille frame which puts acoustic obstacles in the way of the wavefront emerging from the tweeter.
It was 20 years ago that I began audio reviewing as a second career. It was also 20 years ago that I made my first very expensive audio purchase: a pair of Infinity RS-1b speakers. The RS-1b was a landmark speaker in its day, and very costly for the time at $5500/pair. (I think my dentist has just spent more than that on a TV.) In retrospect, the RS-1b was an extraordinary value. With four large towers, more than 30 drivers, and a servo network and a passive crossover, the Infinity RS-1b resolved a significant amount of detail, was capable of large dynamic swings, had pinpoint image specificity on a wide, deep soundstage, and was capable of reproducing a convincing bottom octave in the right room when paired with the right associated equipment. Its main weaknesses were a relative lack of coherence due to its use of three different types of drivers to cover the various frequency ranges, and both the midrange/tweeter towers and woofer columns were picky about amplifier matching.
When I reviewed Infinity's Primus 150 loudspeaker in the April 2004 Stereophile, I was very impressed with its overall performance. To this day, I continue to be amazed at the level of realism this $198/pair loudspeaker can reproduce, and I've kept the review pair to serve as a benchmark for an entry-level audiophile speaker. When I'd completed that review, my first thought was: Now—what can Infinity do within the affordable Primus series for more money? So I requested a review sample of the Primus series' flagship, the three-way Primus 360 floorstanding speaker. After all, how could I resist listening to a speaker that claims 38Hz bass extension for only $658/pair?
Home Entertainment 2007 was a blast for me, as it is every year. Not only did I get to perform with two jazz bands, Attention Screen and the John Atkinson Trio, but I enjoyed good to extraordinary sound in every room I visited. I've been attending hi-fi shows more than 20 years, so I'm rarely surprised, but HE2007 had two big surprises in store. First, the percentage of rooms sporting analog front-ends—vinyl and open-reel tape—was the highest I've seen at a show in over a decade. Second, there was a surprising number of very expensive loudspeakers. In fact, I counted more speakers costing over $50,000/pair than I did costing under $500/pair.
When I reviewed JBL's S38 loudspeaker for the June 2001 issue of Stereophile (Vol.24 No.6), I was impressed with the performance of this large, inexpensive ($599/pair) bookshelf speaker. When I received a press announcement at the end of 2005 announcing JBL's new affordable speakers, the Studio L series, which incorporates innovations developed for JBL's recording-studio monitors, I began a discussion with JBL's public-relations firm. They promised many significant design innovations and sonic improvements over the S series.
The most exciting development in audio today isn't multichannel surround, single-ended triodes, or $10,000 phono cartridges. It's "trickle down." I get buzzed when an audio designer known for cutting-edge multikilobuck designs claims to have a product that can produce 80% of the sonic realism of his flagship design at 50% of the cost. I get even more excited when he does it again—that is, produces a product that produces 64% of his flagship's performance at 25% of the cost. Designers who have successfully trickled-down their flagship technologies abound in all quarters of audiophilia, from electronics (eg, Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson) to speakers (Alón, ProAc) to cables (MIT).