Those of our readers who are still anti-CD are going to be offended by what I am about to say. Partly because they do not want it to be true, but mainly because it is. I shall utter the heresy anyway: the Compact Disc is, right now, doing more for the cause of high-end audio than anything that has ever come along before!
Even as the gulf narrows between the sounds of the best solid-state and the best tubed amplifiers, most listeners remain staunch members of one or the other camp. Similarly, when it comes to video displays, the plasma and liquid-crystal technologies each has its partisans, though that conflict's intensity is relatively mild, perhaps because video performance, unlike audio, is based on a mastering standard that establishes color temperature, gray-scale tracking, color points, and the like (I'm deeply in the plasma camp). But in audio, the "standard" is whatever monitoring loudspeaker and sonic balance the mastering engineer prefers, which makes somewhat questionable the pursuit of "sonic accuracy." Still, in a power amplifier, a relative lack of coloration is preferable to amps that Stereophile editor John Atkinson has characterized as "tone controls"usually, if not exclusively, of the tubed variety.
In an ideal world, I'd have every phono section I've reviewed in the past 16 years on hand to compare with these three and with all that arrive in the future. But because I have a life, I don't, and I wouldn't even if I could, though some readers (and one retailer) have insisted that that's the only way that I could possibly be of any use to them. Ha! And for those who are concerned that I've neglected the Manley Steelhead, not so! It's still my reference.
There is always a conflict between the needs of reviewers and the realities of the marketplace. Once a reviewer has invested his time and energy in a review, he would like that product to remain in production for all time, which would allow it to be used as a reliable recommendation forever. But whatever the product and whatever the category, sales of a product almost always follow the same triangular curve: a sharp rise at the product's introduction, a maximum reached sometime thereafter, and then a steady decline to a sustained but low plateau. Marketing-minded manufacturers therefore introduce a new model every three or four years, in hopes of turning that single triangle into a continuous sawtooth wave.
The challenge is biblical in character, if not in scope: A half year after railing, in these pages, against our industry's overabundance of products that cost more than $20,000, fate has given me such a thing to review.
The phenomenon of the "singing flame" has been known since the 19th century. Place electrodes either side of a flame and, if you apply a high enough audio-modulated voltage to those electrodes, the ionized particles in the flame will cause it to emit sound. (Search YouTube for "singing flame" and you'll find many examples.) This principle was developed into a practical loudspeaker in 1946 by a French inventor, Siegfried Klein, who confined an RF-modulated arc to a small quartz tube, coupled it to a horn, and called the resulting speaker the Ionophone. An intense radio-frequency electrical field ionizes the air between inner and outer electrodes to produce a distinctive, violet-tinged yellow flame in the quartz combustion chamber. When the RF field is modulated by the audio signal, this causes the almost massless ionized flame to expand and contract in what should be a perfectly pistonic manner.
Volti Audio's Vittora, a borrowed pair of which now sit at the far end of my listening room, is a great loudspeaker and, at $17,500/pair, a seriously great value. After a few weeks with the Vittora, I find myself convinced by the naturalness, momentum, and force that it found in every record I played: This is surely one of the finest horn-loaded speakers made in the US.
A new integrated amplifier called the Lars Type 1, which made its debut at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, has given my notion of a dichotomy between mainstream audio and alternative audio a severe beating. In that sense, the Lars Type 1 has been a life-changing product, although the change took longer than expected for me to digest.
If you've followed their story here and elsewhere, you probably know that Tokyo's Shindo Laboratory (footnote 1) has a reputation for defying the two most monolithic of all high-end audio commandments.
Rarely has the debut of a new loudspeaker company and its inaugural model created as big a buzz as did Lumen White and their Whitelight speaker at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. Driven by Vaic tube amplifiers in one of the larger corner rooms at the Alexis Park Hotel, the big Whitelights had a look and a sound that attracted continuous crowds. Of the questions among audio cognoscenti that I overheard at the end of each day, two of the most common were "Hey, did you hear those Lumen Whites?" and "What? Can you speak louder?"
When Philip O'Hanlon of On a Higher Note, Luxman's US distributor, delivered the B-1000F monoblocks, it took three of us to wrestle their shipping crates into my house and then into the listening room. Once they were unpacked, it still took two of us to maneuver each of them into positionat 141 lbs and 16.9" wide by 11.6" high by 23.3" deep, the B-1000F is far from easy to shift. Fortunately, O'Hanlon had also brought along a pair of Stillpoint stands specifically made for the Luxmans; the B-1000Fs certainly wouldn't have fit into my equipment racks. (The Stillpoints are lovely things. I recommend 'em if you go for the B-1000Fs.)
When O'Hanlon told me the price of the stands$2500/pairI asked what the amps cost.
"Fifty-five," he said.
"You mean the stands are 45% of the price of the amps?"
At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, I spoke with Lyra's Jonathan Carr about the Atlas. He told me that, rather than having started as a blank sheet of paper, the Atlas is an outgrowth of the Kleos ($2995), which I reviewed in January 2011, when I thought it Carr's best balanced design yet, even if it didn't have quite the resolution of the Titan i. Like the lower-priced Delos ($1650, reviewed in August 2010), the Kleos included Carr's New Angle technology, which mechanically aligns the coils to be perfectly positioned relative to the front and rear magnets when the stylus is in the groove.
Is the high-performance audio industry stagnating? Are designers simply repackaging the past? Cynics claim so, but to me it seems that making that case gets harder by the day, as a parade of veterans continue to produce their best work.
"So what kind of music do you listen to?" I heard myself asking Leif Mårten Olofsson, designer of the Coltrane, Coltrane Alto, Duke, Miles II, Mingus III, and Monk loudspeakers, before I could take it back. The small company, headquartered in Göteborg, Sweden, where Volvos are made, has been building and marketing loudspeakers for the past six years, though Olofsson confesses he's been building them for 30 years, ever since he was 12.
Show a time traveler from the 1920s an iPad and most likely he'd neither know what he was looking at nor what it might do. Show him a loudspeaker, even one as advanced as Magico's new Q5 ($59,950/pair), and he'd probably know exactly what it was and what it did, even if what it's made of might seem to have come from another planet.