In the early 1980s, when CDs began trickling out of the few existing pressing plants, they were such rare and exotic objects that Aaron's Records, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, kept them secured under lock and key in a tall glass cabinet. A customer forsaking vinyl would enter the store and, with great fanfare, announce the decision by dropping a load of LPs on the front counter with a disgusted thud. Then, in a ceremony resembling a rabbi removing the sacred scrolls of the Torah from the ark, the customer would approach the glass cabinet. An employee would unlock and swing open the doors, and, under that watchful gaze, the customer would choose from among a scattering of titles, carefully avoiding any disc that did not include the Strictly Kosher mark of "DDD."
As readers of the Stereophile eNewsletter will be aware, the twin subjects of distributing music around my home and integrating my iTunes library of recordings into my high-end system have occupied much of my attention the past year. I bought an inexpensive Mac mini to use as a music server, using an Airport Express as a WiFi hub, which worked quite well, but my big step forward was getting a Squeezebox. I described this slim device in the mid-March and mid-April eNewsletters; I urge readers to read those reports to get the full background on this impressive device. In addition, the forums and Wiki pages on the Slim Devices website offer a wealth of information on getting the most from a Squeezebox.
I feel privileged to have followed the remarkable evolution of digital processors over the past four-and-a-half years. Since my first digital review—a survey of three modified CD players back in August 1989—I've been fascinated by the developments that have inexorably improved the quality of digitally reproduced music.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when I first spied the prototypes for Sonic Frontiers' luscious new digital combo, the Transport 3 CD transport and Processor 3 D/A processor, at HI-FI '97 in San Francisco. After all, this is the company whose meteoric rise from an electronic parts-supply outfit run out of president Chris Johnson's basement, to a large factory pumping out an impressive array of entry-level to crème de la crème tube electronic components, has elevated Sonic Frontiers to front-line status among high-end manufacturers.
Don't get the wrong idea. I don't watch trash TV. I am not interested in the doings of people who are famous merely for being famous. I was probably the last to realize that Paris Hilton was not the name of a French hotel. But the kitchen TV just happened be tuned to Channel 4 when I switched it on while I was preparing dinner. No, I do not watch NBC's Extra, but as I was reaching for the remote I was stopped in my tracks by what I saw. The show was doing a segment on the new L.A. home of Jessica Aguilera, or Christina Simpson, or . . . well, it doesn't matter. What does matter was the host's mention of all the cool stuff the bimbette had had installed in her new pied-à-terre: "...and a Sonos audio system, of course."
Computers and vacuum tubes go together like Trent Lott and flyaway hair, right? The last time filaments glowed in computers was during the 1960s, when a computer was a building. I remember laughing at the ponytailed computer-science dweebs back then, who spent their college days playing nursemaid to a football field's worth of electronics capable of little more than adding two plus two. Chained to a computer half the day, as most of us now are, guess who had the last laugh?
"Two years ago I discovered my latest guilty pleasure: Internet radio. As long as it's 192k or higher. My whole buying/download cycle had been reduced. The pleasure and savings have increased. If they succeed in killing Net radio, I'm done with the hobby."Reader Peter DeBoer, in response to a recent Stereophile online poll.
I think any newish company launching yet another expensive (ie, anything over $2000) digital-to-analog converter on the roiling waters of the audiophile marketplace needs at least two things: a truly great product, and a good story to tell. I think Bricasti Design Ltd., of Medford, Massachusetts, has both.
I've been reading a fascinating book, Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York: Viking, 1998). Shlain's thesis is that the invention of the alphabet was the cause of immense changes in primitive society, upsetting previously widespread norms of gender equality and horizontal (rather than hierarchical) social relations in general.
As an equipment reviewer, I find it helpful to talk to audiophiles and music lovers about their systems and upgrade plans. Fortunately, Stereophile's computer supplier and troubleshooter, Michael Mandel, also happens to be an avid audiophile. I say "fortunately" because I rarely get a chance to talk to people who put down their hard-earned money for hi-fi components. Instead, I usually converse with equipment designers, technicians, and marketing types, hardly people who reflect the buying public. It is thus a valuable education to get feedback from real-world consumers to find out what kind of products they want, their priorities, and how much they're willing to spend for certain levels of performance. They have a view distinctly different from that of the often jaded reviewer who is used to enjoying the best (albeit temporarily) without agonizing over its cost.
We audiophiles are ever hopeful that, however satisfying our present equipment and setup, we can achieve even greater enjoyment with a tweak or an upgrade. And we never stop: It was only 16 years (and three turntables) ago that I bought what I declared would be my last turntable, and there's no doubt that this "dead" format has improved substantially since then. Now, even as we make another (but less paradigm-shifting) format transition, from CD to SACD and DVD-Audio, new two-channel DACs continue to appear that show us how far we still are from wresting all the music from the original "Red Book" 16-bit CD format. I reviewed the wonderful Weiss Medea DAC in February 2003, and there are still on my auditioning rack are two more Swiss DACs that might redefine the category: the Orpheus 1 and the Nagra DAP.
I find it more than a little ironic that in 1990 the only two digital-to-analog converters to employ a new state-of-the-art DAC also use vacuum tubes. Many in the audio community consider tubes an anachronism, and find it surprising and humorous that they are still used in newly designed audio products. The fact remains, however, that these two tubed digital processors achieve the best digital playback currently availableand by a wide margin. Moreover, their respective designers' technical savvy and passion for building leading-edge products is reflected in their choice of these superlative and very expensive new DACs. Is it mere coincidence that both designers also chose vacuum tubes to realize their vision of no-compromise digital playback?
For the audiophile modernist, a DAC with volume control is the straightest path between the music server or network stream and your amp and speakers. If you've fully embraced networked audio, there's no need for fussy preamps with their analog inputs, analog volume controls, and [gasp!] phono stages. Find a digital source, a DAC with volume, and go.