Spiral Groove's new Centroid tonearm ($6000) arrived just a few days before press time, so it would be risky to say anything definitive about it. But I will take that risk: using the system described in my review of the SG2 turntable, this may be the best tonearm I've heard. Its sound is different in ways that will open people's ears, and I predict that it will affect the design of every tonearm from now on. The Centroid's design deserves and will await full coverage in its own review, but here are the basics: It's a fluid-damped unipivot design unlike any other that gives the user fine adjustment of all relevant parameters.
High-end audio exists at the intersection of art and science. Either discipline can produce a good product, but it takes both to create the very best. The Sonic Frontiers gear I auditioned many years ago, for example, was technically sound, nicely built, and sounded goodjust never as sublime as products from, say, Audio Research or VTL. On the other hand, an experienced, insightful designer such as Quicksilver's Michael Sanders can create wonderful products from humble circuits and parts, but be ultimately limited by the underlying technology. But when brilliant design, uncompromised execution, long experience, and artistry all come together, the results can be staggering.
The sound of the Stenheim Alumine loudspeakerits openness, transparency, and freedom from temporal distortions, not to mention its good bass extension for such a small enclosurereminded me at once of my favorite small loudspeaker from the late 1980s, the Acoustic Energy AE1. On reflection, the comparison is extraordinary: The two products are as different as night and day, the AE1 being a wooden loudspeaker with a metal-cone woofer, the Alumine a metal loudspeaker with a pulp-cone woofer. I suppose one can skin a catfish by moving the knife or by moving the fish.
Saying that Sutherland Engineering builds a nice line of phono stages is like saying that the Porsche 911 Carrera is a nice line of sports car. The Sutherlands all share common design philosophies, features, and sonic attributesbut just as ramping up from Porsche's classic Carrera Coupe ($78,000) to the GT3 ($115,000) or the Turbo S Cabriolet ($172,000) increases the level of performance and distills the Porsche experience down to its essence, ascending the Sutherland line from the PH3D ($1000) to the 20/20 ($2200) to the Hubble ($3800) buys more of what Ron Sutherland is all about.
Things didn't start off auspiciously. I'd been after Symphonic Line's Klaus Bunge for more than a year to send me the Kraft 400 Reference monoblocks. Finally he called. He said he was going to be in town for a few days, and he had with him a pair of what he described as his "traveling" Kraft 400s, which he proposed to leave with me.
In the early 1970s, Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holta man I used to describe, with all due respect, as having been clothed by the haberdasher to the homelesssaid that Audio Research's SP-3 tubed preamplifier was "the closest thing available, in fact, to the ideal straight wire with gain" ie, it would amplify the signal without editorializng in any way. Back then, the SP-3 cost $595. Today it would cost around $3500. But TAD's C600 dual-mono, solid-state, balanced preamplifier costs more than 10 times that: $42,000.
High-end audio is in some ways a dynastic beast, though without as many "begats." One of the world's most successful loudspeaker manufacturers in the years following World War II was the Wharfedale company, from Yorkshire in the North of England. Wharfedale was founded by Gilbert Briggs in 1932, who in the 1950s handed over the reins of Technical Director to fellow Yorkshireman Raymond Cooke. Cooke left Wharfedale in 1961 to found KEF Electronics Ltd., where he subsequently appointed Goodmans designer Laurie Fincham as Chief Engineer in 1968. Fincham led a team of young engineers, including Mike Gough, who eventually joined B&W, and Yorkshire-born Andrew Jones, who became KEF's Chief Engineer in 1989, before Fincham was lured to Harman's Infinity division, in Northridge, California, in 1993. Jones followed Fincham across the Atlantic, where he worked on Infinity's Prelude, Overture, and Reference Series speakers, before joining Pioneer in 1997. The Japanese company had established a state-of-the-art speaker-design facility in Southern California, and Jones was invited to lead the design team.
I had been anticipating getting to audition a pair of TAD loudspeakers in my system since the introduction of the original TAD Model-1, in 2003. It was designed by Andrew Jones, who had recently assumed the mantle of chief designer at Technical Audio Devices Laboratories (TAD), at that time a subsidiary of Pioneer. Although TAD dates back to the mid-1970s, its research and development efforts had been focused on the professional sound market, something that continues. Jones came from a long line of speaker innovators at KEF and was assigned the goal of developing state-of-the-art speakers for the domestic market.
Really Big Hi-Fi came to live with me for a couple of months this past spring in the form of a pair of Tannoy Churchill loudspeakers. They were trucked directly to San Rafael, California from Kitchener, Ontario, in flight cases so bulky they could double as coffins for NFL offensive linemen. Once ensconced chez moi, the Tannoy dreadnoughts provoked bewilderment, alarm, curiosity, envy, admiration, awe, and amazement in all who heard and saw them.
John Ötvös, the father of Waveform Research Inc. and The Waveform Loudspeaker, hesitates not at inviting ultracritical examination: "The Waveform is the most accurate, the best, forward-firing loudspeaker in the world." Period. Reviewers, of course, welcome such statements, and I'll be examining that one, but I'll also try to answer the inherent reviewing question of whether the Waveform is a good place for you to park $9800 on your way to "the highest of high-end sound" (that was our slogan for the first Santa Monica High End Hi-Fi Show).
Headphone listening is hot these days, due not only to the ubiquity of the iPod as a music source but also because it is possible to get state-of-the-art headphone playback without having to have stupidly bottomless pockets. A plethora of affordable high-quality headphone amplifiers are available, and high-performance 'phones can be had for a few hundred dollars. Used with a computer or iPod to play uncompressed WAV or AIF files or losslessly compressed FLAC or Apple Lossless (ALAC) files, a headphone-based system can offer the audiophile on a budget seriously good sound.
It's difficult to believe that the former top model of Vandersteen Audio's line of loudspeakers, the Model 5, has been in production in one form or another since 1997. Time passes quickly when you're having fun. Like all Vandersteen speakers, the 5 was and remains a good value and performance proposition. For all the 5's high technology and excellent performance both measured and audible, its price now starts at under $20,000/pair (up from about $10,000/pair when the 5 was introduced in 1997), including a built-in, proprietary powered subwoofer in each cabinet, and a sophisticated equalization system for room compensation.
I've been listening with great pleasure to Verity Audio's Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers the past few years, so I was intrigued to hear the company's step-up model, the Sarastro II. At 150 lbs each and $39,995/pair, the Sarastro II weighs and costs nearly twice as much as the Ovation. Would it sound twice as good?
This massive, two-box beauty from Denmark costs $60,000, and I wish I could tell you it wasn't really better in most ways than the already outlandishly priced and sonically superb Boulder 2008. I can't.