When, on his long-running TV variety show, Jackie Gleason used to order up some "traveling music" from music director Ray Bloch, he got a live orchestra's worth. But when Gleason, a composer and conductor in his own right (he wrote his show's unforgettable theme song, "Melancholy Serenade"), actually traveled, his listening options were severely limited compared to ours. By the time the comedian died in 1987, Sony had introduced the Walkman cassette player, but Apple's iPod was still more than a decade in the future.
In August, I reviewed McIntosh's MC501 monoblock power amplifier. In terms of what I'd thought was possible from Mac, this was a revelation. Once memories and lurking preconceptions had been set aside and the amps installed in my system, the MC501 easily established itself as among the finest overall performers I have ever reviewed.
The Placette Audio Remote Volume Control is simplicity itself: a paperback-sized black box with one set of unbalanced inputs and outputs, a toggle switch (and a remote) to change the level, and a row of LEDs that light up to indicate the relative volume level. The signal path, too, is simple, with only a stepped attenuator between input and output. But this is not just any attenuator—it's a 125-step model built entirely with super-premium Vishay S-102 foil resistors.
My last visit to Planet Halcro transformed my audio life. All but the newest readers will recall that the Australian dm58 power amplifier was Stereophile's Amplification Component of the Year and overall Component of the Year for 2002. To this day, I have yet to hear any amplifier that equals the dm58's combination of complete neutrality, harmonic generosity, lightning reflexes, and a sense of boundless power that is difficult to describe. Though some others have come close, the dm58 shines as a singular beacon of excellence among power amplifiers.
It doesn't take much to read between the lines of Sony's discontinuation of the TA-P9000ES analog preamplifier and their introduction of the SCD-XA9000ES SACD player with IEEE1394 digital output at Home Entertainment 2003. (A similar feature from the DVD-Audio camp has been promised.) Surely, we will at long last be able to have external digital processing and DACs in our preamp or control units. In addition to the freedom to mix and match components, this opens the door to having a single digital component manage bass and channel balance for all sources, and room/speaker correction without redundant redigitization.
There's nothing groundbreaking about the technology included in Naim's new $22,400, two-box, remote-controllable, top-of-the-line NAC 552 preamplifier. Still, the inclusion of two sets of RCA input jacks is a departure from Naim's tradition of DIN jacks, and the NAC 552's programmability is unusual for a high-end two-channel audio product. And you can order RCA output jacks at no extra cost, which is how my review sample was configured.
I've spent six-odd years in a sort of hi-fi counterculture, playing with things like mono cartridges, one-box CD players, and cheap, homemade cables—and, of course, owning and listening to single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers and horn loudspeakers. But before all that, I owned components that, while more mainstream, did the job just as well in certain ways. That category included solid-state electronics (Naim, BEL, Spectral), dynamic loudspeakers of middling efficiency (ProAc, Epos, Magneplanar), electrostatic loudspeakers of very low efficiency (Stax), and even "high-end" accessories like Tiptoes and Shun Mook Mpingo discs (which I still have, although my five-year-old daughter has more or less permanently co-opted the latter for playtime use).
Modern hi-fi is little more than a way of getting electricity to pretend that it's music. Of course, good source components remain all-important, and even if loudspeakers are imperfect, most of us can find one or two that suit our tastes, if not our rooms and the rest of our gear.
Recording artists can reinvent themselves by crossing over into another style of music. Gloria Estefan, who started with Latin music, crossed over into mainstream pop with great success. Doug Sax, who reinvented the direct-to-vinyl disc and produced outstanding LPs for Sheffield Lab, eventually transferred all of his music to compact discs. Ivor Tiefenbrun, designer of the Linn Sondek turntable, now makes CD players.
It's not every Consumer Electronics Show that someone introduces a $29,000 solid-state phono preamplifier—and I miss it. The 2002 CES was one. My show report in the April issue made it seem as if I'd found out about it there, but the fact is, someone clued me in after I'd returned home. I needed to come clean on that.
With whom are you most intimate? Your wife? Husband? Your modern-times Significant Other? Your pet? Or, like a lot of audiophiles, is it your audio system? Do you nitpick and tweak it as if it were your pet?
The Boulder 1012's is a line-level preamplifier and DAC in one box. Its design and build qualities are icons to elegant engineering know-how. No screws show on the rectangular box of large but not massive proportions, for example, which is all done up in matte aluminum and set off with a few highly polished stainless-steel buttons. The chassis construction uses tongue-and-groove techniques. The sides of the 1012 benefit from styling cues found on Boulder's newer amplifiers. As you can see from the photograph, the look is both elegant and hi-tech in a way very few other manufacturers manage.
Sony describes the $700 TA-P9000ES as "a pure audio multichannel preamplifier equipped with two inputs for 5.1 analog multichannel audio sources, enabling selection, volume control, and amplification." A relay with twin gold-plated crossbars switches the two six-channel sources. Then follows a class-A solid-state push-pull amplifier in discrete configuration. Separate transistors, resistors, and capacitors populate the printed circuit boards. An oxygen-free copper shield surrounds each channel to prevent crosstalk between the channels. In addition, there is a relay-controlled gain stage offering 0, +6, and +12dB amplification.
I anticipated the installation of the TacT Audio RCS 2.0 room-correction processor with mixed emotions—I already liked my system and room, and such a device threatened to make all my studied efforts trivial. What if one might use any decent amps and speakers, cables that were merely conductive, and no room treatment at all? And what if, on top of that, you could just put them wherever your significant other thought they looked right? What if all the magic you needed was contained in this box? Scary.
Few topics will get audiophiles into an argument more readily than a discussion of the relative merits of tubed and solid-state equipment. A poll on the Stereophile website showed 53% of respondents choosing solid-state as their preferred amplifier design, while 38% indicated a preference for tubes—the remainder choosing "other," which presumably means digital amplifiers. (There has been no corresponding survey regarding preamplifier designs.) Opinions tend toward the dogmatic, with one respondent declaring "solid-state is more accurate," another stating unequivocally that "tubes sound closer to the real thing."