A particular audio interest of mine has long been cost-effective systems that work really well together. I think most of the audio sob stories I've heard can be traced to one or both of two things: mismatched equipment, and inadequate attention paid to room acoustics. I've previously written about systems that range in price from $7500 to under $1500. Here's as minimal and classy a high-performance system as you can ask for: one box for the electronics (including USB connectivity), and two stand-mounted, two-way loudspeakers. The total cost is just under $10,000, but I think the price is justified not only by swank looks, but by the sound.
I've had Vivid Audio's Oval K1 loudspeaker here for several months. Over many years, the only other speaker brands I've written about as much as I have Vivid have been Wilson Benesch and Shahinian Acoustics, whose speakers I still revere and can recommend without reservationto the right listener. But Vivid's high-tech sorcery has raised the bar. The Vivids I've had here are among the best loudspeakers I've ever heard, and that's a consensus that seems headed in the direction of critical mass.
Don't waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Fantasy Symphony Season competition, announced in this column in February, has been a smashing successas far as I'm concerned, it's the most worthwhile write-in competition yet. The 13 winning entries and one hors-concours laureate are posted in the follow-up to February's column on Stereophile's website. The update lists the compositions in each winning Fantasy Symphony Season entry. I created a spreadsheet to determine the most popular composers and works in the winning entries.
Fred Delius and the Duettes. Sounds like a 1950s vocal group, doesn't it? Let's start with some great new music. SACD fans: Prepare to vote with your wallets again. Frederick Delius (18621934) is one of my favorite second-rank composers who wrote first-rate music. Although not that easy to define, Delius's music is usually instantly identifiable as his.
In 2009, I wrote about Luxman's entry-level solid-state integrated amplifier, the L-505u ($3700), and their near-universal (no Blu-ray) disc player, the DU-50 ($4990, now discontinued). I was very impressed by their performance and their quality at those prices. Indeed, I think I commented on these models in no fewer than five columns back then.
Here we go again! Come up with a list of classical pieces, and if your list is one of the skillfully crafted winners, you'll win your choice of a single CD from Stereophile's online store, and your list and all the other winning entries will be posted online for the admiration of all and sundry. This year's write-in contest will be somewhat more challenging than the last three, but I'm sure many of you will be up to it.
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.
In large part because I was fascinated by the potential of Direct Acoustics' Silent Speaker II loudspeaker ($748/pair) in affordable systems (see my columns in the June 2011 and August 2011 issues), I rounded up three CD receivers that are network- and Internet Radioready and cost under $1000: one each from TEAC, Marantz, and Denon. These models are functionally and cosmetically more similar than different, and, it turned out, sounded more alike than not.
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.
Getting on two years ago, in an effort to identify the best bargains for music lovers on a budget, I wrote a series of columns exploring the field of affordable loudspeakers and CD receivers. I hadn't planned to revisiting that topic so soon, but two developments have convinced me to: first, my encounter with one of the most idiosyncratic budget loudspeakers ever to grace my listening space, and in some ways is a new benchmark for performance vs price, especially for classical-music fans; and second, the advent of a new product category: Affordable Internet-Radio-Capable CD Receivers with Built-in WiFi and USB Connectivity.
But now that I have your attention, I'll first tell you about some great recordings you should check out. Then come the loudspeakers and, in my next column, the new CD receivers.
This month I am writing about the Loudness Wars! But first a DVD, They Came to Play. The quest, or the hero's journey, has been a major theme of literature for as long as there has been literature. From the epic of Gilgamesh to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Moby-Dick to The Lord of the Rings, the quest's plot trajectory has remained pretty much consistent: be confronted by a challenge; leave home; bond with a new friend; survive climactic showdown; discover true self.
That last one is the payoff. Great literature allows us to benefit vicariously from the hero's hard-won self-knowledge. But without question, the thrills and chills and the cliff-hanging moments are what have put the fannies in the theater seats, from ancient Athens to your local megaplex.
I was of two minds about requesting the loan of the B-1s. First, at $15,000/pair, they're above my usual price range. More important, I was concerned that, given the greater complexity of a three-way crossover, the larger speaker, with tweeter, midrange, and woofers front and rear would not sound as beguilingly coherent as the two-way V-1.5, with its simpler crossover. I am delighted to report that I was quite wrong, and in more than one respect.
Of course, the Latinists among my readers (all three of them) already know that the ancient Romans would have carved this column's title "PUERNATUSEST." (Not that the Romans gave a fig about that particular puer until much later . . . ) All in capital letters, because lower-case (ie, minuscule) letters were not invented until scribes in the Middle Ages wanted to write faster by not having to lift their pens so often between strokes. Spaces between words also came after Roman times.
Vivid speakers change the game. But first a great piano recording: Tributaries: Reflections on Tommy Flanagan (CD, IPO IPOC1004), from the late Sir Roland Hanna (his title was an honorary knighthood granted by Liberia). I missed this wonderfully crafted solo-piano recording when it first came out in 2003, and still would not have known about it today except that a publicist sent me an e-mail saying that he was cleaning out his shelves of leftover promotional copies. I quickly sent back a request, in large part because one of my Desert Island recordings is Jim Hall's Concierto, originally released in 1975 on the CTI label, and on which Hanna had played. Concierto has since been reissued in digital form many times, most successfully, as far as I can tell, by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab on an SACD (UDSACD 2012) that includes new tracks, as well as alternate takes of tunes on the original release.
The phrase "the mystic chords of memory" comes from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. Of course, larger issues than those addressed in this column occupied most peoples' minds just then. But it is nonetheless worthwhile for us to spend a moment or two thinking about how differently people experienced music in 1861, compared to how things are today.