In a perfect world, all a serious record lover would need to enjoy music at home would be a single source component, one or two loudspeakers, and one good integrated amplifier. Speaker wire would be given by the dealer, free of charge, to any shopper who spent x number of dollars on new gear. Cable risers would come in cereal boxes.
The audiophile does not pursue music reproduction because it is useful; he pursues it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If music were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and if music were not worth knowing life would not be worth living.
My apologies for corrupting the well-known statement by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (18541912), in which he described his relationship with science and nature. But substituting audiophile for scientist and music for nature, I feel the sentiment expresses what drives many audiophiles to the extremes for which mere mortals often chide us.
The Tannoy Mercury V1 loudspeakers ($320/pair; see last month's column) were already carefully packed in their box, pushed into a corner of my messy kitchen, ready to go to John Atkinson for a Follow-Upbut I couldn't stop thinking about them. Their delicate, graceful highs and tight, properly balanced bass had entranced me, and, now, as I listened over and over to a recent reissue of Bill Dixon's amazing Intents and Purposes (CD, International Phonograph LSP-3844), I felt a strange urge to unpack the Tannoys and return them to my listening room. I had to know how Intents and Purposes would sound through the Tannoys.
For a manufacturer to squeeze money from the stone that is my CD-player budget, his products would have to be both exceptional and affordable. And as long as I'm reporting from Fantasyland, I'll ask that they also be obsolescence-proof.
Around the turn of the century, a review of the latest hair-raisingly expensive turntable would often begin with a soothing chant that, yes, the RotorGazmoTron XT-35000 is a tad pricey, but it will be the last piece of analog gear you ever buyso go ahead, take the plunge. A dozen years later, pressing plants are stamping out LPs 'round the clock, and new high-end turntables are rolling off production lines at a respectable clip. So who knows whether today's Cassandras might be equally premature in bewailing the death of the Compact Disc? Which is to say that I can't in good conscience urge you to pay $12,000 for a CD player on the grounds that the medium's about to die, so splurge now while there's still something to splurge on. But if you have the scratch, and the itch for such a product, step right up and let me tell you about the Krell Cipher.
Playing a Compact Disc is nothing like playing a live show.
Wild, right? This is just the latest of the profundities to explode into my mighty brain as I slouch on the orange couch, staring at stacks of CDs, contemplating life and stuff. It came to me on a lovely Sunday morning. The sun was shining, the birds were cheeping, and I was still high from my band's performance two nights earlier.
My thirst for vinyl can be blind and wild. I know this when I find myself dashing through the midday sun, from the Stereophile office and up Madison Avenue, into Grand Central Station, onto the 6 train to Astor Place, and into my favorite record shop, Other Music, like a man in lust or love or, worse yet, possessed wholly by need. But unlike some of my more dogmatic friends and colleagues, I have no real problem with the Compact Disc. It's just that CDs often lack a certain intangible charm, the ability to make my heart race.
Because I am an audiophile, I want to hear that music through the best possible source component. Lately, I've been enjoying CDs through the Emotiva ERC-2 CD player ($449).
The Emotiva ERC-2 measures 17" (435mm) wide by 4.25" (110mm) high by 14" (360mm) deep and, at 17.5 lbs (8kg), is the heaviest component to enter my listening room since the 25-lb Simaudio Moon i3.3 integrated amplifier ($3300, discontinued). The player's distinct appearance was developed by Emotiva's president and CEO, Dan Laufman, and VP of engineering, Lonnie Vaughn. In building the ERC-2, their goal was to "keep it simple, easy to use, and elegant . . . in a machine-oriented way."
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."
The dual subwoofers were bumping and our pant legs were flapping. Only moments before, we'd been treated to a polite viola da gamba. Not now. Resolution Audio's designer, Jeff Kalt, had brought only two discs with him to ensure that his company's Cantata Music Center was functioning properly in my system: Jordi Savall and Hespérion XXI's Altre Follie, 15001750 (CD, Alia Vox 9844), and Tool's 10,000 Days (CD, Tool Dissectional/Volcano 81991). After changing a few things around with the chamber music, we'd advanced to the hard rock of Tool.
Should an audio component accurately reproduce the signal it's fed, or should it evoke the sound and feel of live music? Accuracy or musicality? This question has been at the heart of high-end audio since its inception. Back then, the question often took the form of the tubes-vs-transistors debate. Proponents of solid-state pointed to the far superior measured performance of transistor designs, and claim that they thus more accurately reproduced the input signal. Tube lovers steadfastly maintained that their gear sounded better, more naturalmore like music. Since then, both camps have eliminated the obvious colorations of their respective technologies, and the levels of performance of today's best tubed and solid-state gear have converged. At the same time, the circuits themselves have blurred into hybrids of various sorts, different mixes of devices and circuits.
After writing my very favorable review of Marantz's PM5003 integrated amplifier ($449.99) for the January 2010 issue, I began to fantasize about how it might be packaged with other components to create a dynamite entry-level system for about $1000 (excluding cables). A good place to start, I felt, was the companion model to the PM5003, Marantz's own CD5003 CD player. Since then, both have been replaced with new models, respectively the PM5004 and CD5004, so I sought out review samples of both. (To read how the PM5004 compares with the PM5003, see my "Follow-Up" on the Marantz PM5004 integrated amplifier.)
The old Saab slogan, "Find Your Own Road," was so good that the old General Motors, which once owned Saab, had to kill itjust as the newly revived GM tried, in a "Call It Chevrolet" memo, to kill "Chevy." GM did a U-turn on that one the very next day, but "Find Your Own Road" never returned, and is available for Ayre Acoustics to use. I can't think of a better slogan for a company that I admire almost as much as I do Saab.
Consider this: While Ayre calls its new DX-5 ($10,000) a "universal A/V engine," the disc player doesn't have a coaxial or a TosLink S/PDIF input. That appears crazy to me, but to Ayre, no. They've found their own road.
"So, what are you reviewing these days?" my friend Mark e-mailed me recently.
"A CD player," I said.
"They're still making those?"
Yesand better than ever, for the most part. But I understood Mark's confusion. When a "Vote!" question on the Stereophile website asked readers what digital source components they used, a surprising number responded that they did not, or hadn't bought a dedicated player in years. Topping the list were computers and universal players.
In an industry whose newest products are often as discouragingly unaffordable as they are short of the sonic mark, the Naim Audio Uniti ($3795) stands out. In a single reasonably sized box, the Uniti combines the guts of Naim's Nait 5i integrated amplifier and CD5i CD player with various additional sources: an FM/DAB tuner, and interfaces for an iPod, a USB memory stick, an iRadio, and a UPnP-compatible connected computer or serverall for the price of a very good television set.