Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, always had a thing for horn loudspeakers, feeling that these archaic beasts offered a "jump factor" that could never be rivaled by conventional, direct-radiating designs. A horn drastically increases the efficiency with which electrical power is converted into acoustic power, which means that for a given sound-pressure level, a smaller amplifier can be used compared with a direct-radiator, and that all distortions, both electrical and mechanical, can theoretically be much lower. Yet outside of a small circle of enthusiasts, horns never got much of a following in high-end audio, and as high amplifier power became plentiful and relatively cheap, horns largely disappeared from domestic audio use (except in Japan).
It was an audacious demonstration. For the launch of Aerial's 20T loudspeaker at the end of 2002, Aerial's head honcho and designer, Michael Kelly, had arranged to compare the speakers reproducing the recorded sound of virtuoso violinist Arturo Delmoni with the real thing. The setting was the ornate dining room of one of Newport, Rhode Island's many mansions, and, given the inevitable differencesdue to the facts that a violin has a very different radiation pattern from a loudspeaker and thus excites the room differently, and that the recording inevitably gives the listener a double dose of the room's acousticthe demo was successful. There was much subsequent argy-bargying between Stereophile's reviewers about who would review the Aerial 20T, but it was Michael Fremer who eventually wrote about it in April 2004.
Though the original Artemis Systems Eos has been around for a few years, it doesn't seem to have made a big impression on audiophiles. Judging by a brief but exciting audition of the new Eos Signature and its accompanying Base Module at HI-FI '96, I found it hard to understand how it could remain such a well-kept secret. A few weeks later, to my surprise, Wes Phillips asked me if I wanted to review a pair and, throwing caution to the winds, I jumped at the opportunity. Rash move.
The movers delivered three large boxes and two absolutely huge crates. Inside the boxes were the two Eos Signatures and their external crossovers. Each crate contained a Base Module, and their appearance struck fear into my heart. I had gone too fareach one weighed 300 lbs, and together they were more commodious than some apartments in my Manhattan neighborhood. I signed for the delivery, then panicked when I realized there was no way to get these unpacked before my wife came home. Indeed, I didn't know how I was going to do it at all.
I well remember my first "real" headphones: a pair of Koss Pro4AAs that I bought back in 1970. The Kosses were relatively expensive, but, like headphones today, they allowed an audiophile with limited cash to get a taste of high-end sound that was not possible with a speaker-based system. I bought the Pro4AAs because I had become fascinated with how the images of the instruments and singers were strung along a line between my ears inside my head. It seemed so much more intimatea more direct connection with the musicthan playback through loudspeakers.
For a manufacturer to squeeze money from the stone that is my CD-player budget, his products would have to be both exceptional and affordable. And as long as I'm reporting from Fantasyland, I'll ask that they also be obsolescence-proof.
I've heard a lot of great audio components over the years, but even in that steady stream of excellence, a few have stood out as something special. These are the products that, in their day, set a new standard for performance, and many of them are ones I wish I'd hung on to. Among these products are three preamps from Audio Research: the SP3A, the SP6B, and the SP10 (footnote 1). I know I'm not alone in viewing these models as classics.
It says something for the state of technology that, after a quarter of a century, there still is no authoritative explanation for why so many high-end audiophiles prefer tubes. Tubes not only refuse to die, they seem to be Coming back. The number of US and British firms making high-end tube equipment is growing steadily, and an increasing number of comparatively low-priced units are becoming available. There is a large market in renovated or used tube equipmentI must confess to owning a converted McIntosh MR-71 tunerand there are even some indications that tube manufacturers are improving their reliability, although getting good tubes remains a problem.
The VTM200 is the first Audio Research power amplifier I've reviewed. It took me 13 years, and ultimately I'm glad I'd put that much mileage on my reviewing odometer before tackling what turned out to be a most difficult assignment.
We audio writers have our niches. Mikey loves analog, Artie likes to play with horn speakers and assorted oddball British kit, and I really enjoy reviewing affordable speakers. There's something exciting about hearing the fruits of the labors of a creative designer who's applied his talents to meet a stringent price point and created a speaker that can entice into our hobby the financially challenged music lover.
A compact horn loudspeaker. Isn't that an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, or military intelligence? From such venerable speakers as the half century-old Altec Voice of the Theater and the Klipschorn, as well as more modern examples like the Avantgarde Acoustic Trio, horns have always been big. The original Avantgarde Uno was the smallest speaker in Avantgarde's line, but it was still visually imposing, with a big horn midrange on top, a horn tweeter below that, and a powered sealed-box subwoofer at the bottom. (I reviewed the Uno 2.0 in Stereophile in August 2000, Vol.23 No.8, and the Uno 3.0 in August 2002, Vol.25 No.8.) The Uno and its siblings, the Duo and Trio, are perhaps the antithesis of the in-wall loudspeakers beloved by interior designers. These speakers do not fade into the backgroundnot visually or sonically.
The old Saab slogan, "Find Your Own Road," was so good that the old General Motors, which once owned Saab, had to kill itjust as the newly revived GM tried, in a "Call It Chevrolet" memo, to kill "Chevy." GM did a U-turn on that one the very next day, but "Find Your Own Road" never returned, and is available for Ayre Acoustics to use. I can't think of a better slogan for a company that I admire almost as much as I do Saab.
Consider this: While Ayre calls its new DX-5 ($10,000) a "universal A/V engine," the disc player doesn't have a coaxial or a TosLink S/PDIF input. That appears crazy to me, but to Ayre, no. They've found their own road.
I can't think of a product that was as eagerly anticipated as was Ayre's KX-R preamplifier ($18,500). Following in the footsteps of Ayre's MX-R monoblock amplifier, a Stereophile2007 Product of the Year, and milled, like the MX-R, from a 75-lb billet of aluminum, the KX-R also shares with its monoblock stablemate the Ayre ethos of zero feedback and fully balanced operation. But what really caused the buzz was the declaration by Ayre founder and chief designer Charles Hansen that the KX-R, with its use of a technology he calls Variable Gain Transconductance (VGT) to control the volume, would set new standards for signal/noise ratio.
As we approach the end of the 21st century's "oughts" decade, many feel that playing music from a discrete physical medium is positively 20th century. Much of my own music enjoyment now comes from computer files, often high-resolution, streamed to my high-end rig via a Logitech Transporter or Bel Canto USB Link 24/96. It is perhaps a paradox, therefore, that high-end audio companies are still devoting so much effort to developing expensive, state-of-the-art disc players. In April I very favorably reviewed Meridian's superb 808i.2 CD playerpreamplifier, which costs $16,995 as reviewed, and Michael Fremer is about to review the ultimate Scarlatti SACD playback system from another English company, dCS. The $80,000 price tag of the Scarlatti makes the subject of my review this month, the Boulder 1021, seem relatively affordable at $24,000.