As metaphors go, the silver bullet is somewhat ambiguous, given that it's used to represent both the reliably destructive and the reliably beneficial. (Who would have guessed that an idea from a Lon Cheney Jr. film would prove too subtle and complex for people in the 21st century?) Nevertheless, at Montreal's Salon Son et Image on April 2, those of us who comprised Stereophile's reliably responsive "Ask the Editors" panelJohn Atkinson, Robert Deutsch, and Ivolleyed it with the sort of sprightly, vernal abandon that is the sole province of men with gray hair. To wit: We agreed that no materials, technologies, or design decisions can either guarantee or prevent good sound. Not vinyl. Not star grounding. Not class-A circuits. Neither tubes nor transistors. Neither belt nor idler nor electrostats nor multiway nor single-driver nor copper nor silver nor silk nor beryllium. Not even harmonic distortion. Each of those ideas may mean something to someone, in the short term, in the narrow view, but that's all. There are no silver bullets.
I'm beginning to understand why some people enjoy writing about crazy tweaks like electron counseling and magic listening trousers: When an idea is that new, it brings with it the chance for some gifted but heretofore unappreciated journalist to rise through the ranks and describe it to an anxious world. By contrast, when a defeated and baggy old establishment writer sets out to describe a CD player or amplifier, the product is surely the millionth such thing to come down the pike, and before long the readers complain: We used to like you, but you don't try very hard to excite us anymore.
When it comes to ripping CDs and downloading music, I've been sitting on the sidelines feeling more than a bit of envy. Stereophile's reviews of various media servers have whetted my appetite, but not so much as to overcome my timidity about getting into a new realm of technology in which I would be a beginner all over again. Still, I've sneaked a few peeks.
Those of us who groan at the appearance of every new five-figure digital source component in a massively oversized chassisand who groan in greater torment when the offending manufacturer says his customer base insists on products that are styled and built and priced that waycan take heart: The appearance of such sanely sized and affordable products as the Halide Design DAC HD ($495) and the AudioQuest DragonFly ($249) would suggest that the market has a mind of its own.
As Wes Phillips recently reported on this website, CD sales are down and legal downloads of audio files are up. Stereophile has been criticized more than once for not paying enough attention to the subjects of MP3 and other compressed file formats, such as AAC, and for offering no guidance at all to readers about how to get the best sound quality from compressed downloads.
Roy Hall has been Creek Audio's US importer for more than 20 years. Did you know that all Creek gear is now made in China? Just like Cambridge Audio, Quad, and many B&W models. Just like some US speaker brands, for which virtually all parts are made in China but are assembled, it's claimed, in the US. Three cheers for brands like LFD, Rega, Sugden, and Harbethall still made in the UK. For French marques made in France. For Italian products produced in Italy. Etc.
"Physical discs seem so 20th century!" That's how I ended my eNewsletter review of the Logitech (then Slim Devices) Squeezebox WiFi music server in April 2006, and it seems that increasing numbers of Stereophile readers agree with me. In our website poll of January 5, 2008, we asked, "Are you ready for an audiophile music server?" The response to that question was the highest we have experienced: 32% of respondents already listen to music via their computer networks, many using home-brewed solutions, and 44% intend to. We've published a lot of material on this subject in the last five years, and it seemed a good idea to sum it up in this article.
The M1 DAC is by Musical Fidelity. At $699, it's a stunning bargain. Comparing it to $995 for the Digilog in 1989. Meanwhile, the M1 is far more versatile, way better built, and, if memory serves me right, sounds vastly better.
It appears that the way to sell a DAC in 2011 is to almost give it away, in real-dollar terms. Some people pay far more than this for a set of speaker cables, a pair of interconnects, even a power cord. The M1 DAC is a piece of kit that can transform your system. I kid you not.
There's so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads. Which hi-rez formats will win out? How do you store the downloads you've bought? (Easy. Don't buy them.) How do you access them? Will digital rights management (DRM) cramp your style, or data-storage fees for cloud computing crumple your wallet?
A computer is not optimized for the uninterrupted streaming of audio data. It has rapidly become established wisdom, therefore, that the optimal means of extracting audio data from a computer's USB port is to operate that port in what is called "asynchronous isochronous" mode. This lets the receiving device, such as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), control the flow of data from the PC. In theory, asynchronous USB operation (not to be confused with the asynchronous sample-rate conversion used in some DACs) reduces jitter to unmeasurable levels, depending on the accuracy of the receiver's fixed-frequency oscillator, which is used to clock the data to the DAC. By contrast, in the alternative and almost ubiquitous USB operating mode, called "adaptive isochronous," while the sample rate of the output data, averaged over a longish period, will indeed be the specified 44.1 or 48kHz, there will be short-term fluctuations, or jitter, due to the oscillator having to change its frequency every millisecond to match the uncertain rate of data flow from the PC.
How do I get myself into these things? Knowing that I use a Musical Fidelity X-DACV3 D/A processor in my office system and had just auditioned the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 that he'd reviewed in November, John Atkinson asked me to give Musical Fidelity's X-DACV8 a try. I say "asked," but the man does authorize my paychecks, so I acceded, knowing I was painting a giant bull's-eye on my back.
Even Mikey Fremer is surprised at vinyl's current popularity. Some pundits postulate that eventually CDs will die out, and we'll be faced with the choice of LPs or downloads. (I hope not. I'm just getting used to CDs.) With abundant sources of new pop releases and a wide range of reissues on vinyl, and a variety of used LPs, every audiophile should own a turntable. And with the availability of affordable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III, which I reviewed in the February 2010 Stereophile, the cost of entry to VinylLand is not very dear. The problem is that so few entry-level integrated amplifiers and receivers available today include phono stages. (The Marantz PM5003, which I reviewed in the January 2010 issue, is a notable exception.)
Oh boy, another new DAC review. Some folks think DACs, once you get past the features, all sound pretty much the same. I mean, it's just digital. Well, they're right. Pretty much. Just as two new cars of a particular make, model, color, and options package both look the same, sitting there on the lot.
But if you discover a ding in the door of one of them, where most folks still see only a new car, you now see the ding. It might have been there all along, undetected the first few times you walked around the carmaybe your buddy even had to point it out to you. It's insignificant in the scheme of all that a new car is, but once you've seen it, you always see it. Now you can easily tell the two cars apart, and we both know which one you'll drive home.
As with so many other things, from cell phones to soy milk, the idea of a portable MP3 player was something I at first disdained, only to later embrace with the fervor of any reformed sinner. But not so the idea of a high-fidelity iPod dock: Given that I now carry around several hundred high-resolution AIFF files on my own Apple iPod Touch, the usefulness of a compatible transport seemed obvious from the start. Look at it this way: In 1970, whenever I bought a music recording, I could enjoy it on any player, in any room in the house. In 2010, why shouldn't I enjoy at least that degree of convenience and flexibilitywithout resorting to a pair of tinny, uncomfortable earbuds?