"The bottom line is that good stuff really is better, and unfortunately, it usually costs more," proclaimed my friend Charlie over lunch one day. Our conversation had drifted to our newest toys, and although Charlie isn't an audiophile, he's passionate about his hobbies and appreciates performance and quality. He'll talk animatedly about exotic mountain bikes or Leica cameras, for example, and he has a garage full of Snap-On hand tools. Last winter he conducted an exhaustive search before selecting a particular pair of Zeiss binoculars—and the price of one of his James Purdey or 1930s-vintage Charles Daly shotguns would stagger even a veteran audiophile.
To compartmentalize or not to compartmentalize, that is the question. Does one review an expensive CD player at the dawn of the 24-bit/96kHz digital age by pulling a "Clinton," standing defiantly before a jury of audio peers to deliver a speech on the state of the CD art, boxing in, roping off, and all but ignoring the new, supposedly unimpeachable medium?
History teaches us that the full flowering of any social phenomenon takes place after the seeds of its destruction have been sown. That tourist magnet, London's Buckingham Palace, for example, was built decades after the English Revolution and the Restoration had redefined the role of the British monarchy as being merely titular, and made the elected Parliament the real seat of power.
Many pundits in our industry say that CD is under threat from Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio, and dual-layer CD/DVD technologies. Conflicting stories abound, and even though I'm supposed to be well-informed, I've found some of them hard to sort out! For example, Michael Fremer, concluding a fine review of the $7500 Bow Technologies ZZ-Eight integrated CD player in August, compared its notable 16-bit/44.1kHz achievement with a DVD-based disc originally mastered at 24/96kHz and replayed on an inexpensive DVD player. He found the Bow wanting in some respects. What is the world coming to?
Recently, we've seen the digital "horsepower" race accelerate with the arrival of digital sources and devices with 24-bit and 96kHz sampling capability. Much of this has been spurred by the 24/96 labels emblazoned on the newer DVD players—and, within the purer confines of the audio community, by high-end DACs with this same ability. Indeed, it's possible that the dCS Elgar DAC, near and dear to John Atkinson's heart and a perennial Class A selection in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," performs so well with standard 16-bit/44.1kHz sources because its wider digital bandwidth permits greater linearity within the more restricted range of regular CDs.
It was inevitable that I'd encounter the California Audio Labs CL-15 in my search for a CD player priced less than stratospherically. CAL was one of the first companies to hit the market with a high-end CD player, and they've been building great-sounding digital gear ever since. What's more, the CL-15's predecessor was the Icon PowerBoss Mk.II HDCD, a longtime personal favorite. I was particularly curious to see how the CAL would stack up against today's competition. I've been impressed with CAL products over the years—the original Sigma, the Delta, the DX-1 and 2, and, of course, the Icon. On the other hand, the competition—players like the Rega Planet, Arcam's Alpha 8 and Alpha 9, and Ultech's UCD 100—has improved dramatically since I last heard the Icon.
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.
Back when the CD was a pup, I used to hear people say, "I refuse to buy a CD player until they can record." Ha ha, I thought, smart-ass audiophile that I was, they're gonna wait for a long timethat's never gonna happen. I was half rightit has been a long time coming. But I was also, as my football coach used to insist, half-fast. "Never" has arrived.
"Them which is of other naturs thinks different," said Martin Chuzzlewit's Mrs. Gamp. If that is true, then Naim's Julian Vereker must be of a very different nature indeed. Vereker—and, by extension, Naim—has never done things the conventional way. Take, for example, power regulation and stiffening power supplies. Long before the rest of the world was taking them seriously, Naim offered upgrades to their components not by changing the audio circuitry, but by adding stiffer and stiffer outboard power regulation.
Man, has Balanced Audio Technology come a long way in a short time. I think partners Steve Bednarski and Victor Khomenko have comprehensively put the kibosh on the notion that newcomers can't succeed in high-end audio.
My wife's cousin Steve used to sell antiques. Whenever he would display in his shop's window an impeccable (and expensive) item such as a Colonial pie safe, someone would inevitably walk into the shop and demand to know its price. He'd quote a staggering figure, and the browser would get excited. "Why, I have a piece at home exactly the same as that one! Do you think I could get that sort of money for it?" Steve, having learned his lesson the hard way, would be noncommittal.
Back in my bass-player days in the 1970s, I used to do a regular cabaret gig, providing musical support for sundry British stand-up comic acts. I flashed back on those days when I recently watched Fierce Creatures, the John Cleese/Jamie Lee Curtis/Kevin Kline/Michael Palin vehicle, on satellite. There, playing the part of a zookeeper, was pint-size comedian Ronnie Corbett, whom I backed a few times. (He always bought the band a bottle of Scotch—you remember stuff like that!) Ronnie used to open his act with the old "They said Thomas Edison was crazy...they said Henry Ford was crazy...they said Albert Einstein was crazy..." gag, which ends with "They said my Uncle Charlie was crazy...actually, my Uncle Charlie was crazy!"
A few nights ago, John Atkinson and I played host to a speaker designer and a turntable manufacturer. We were all chewing over the 1998 Consumer Electronics Show, talking about different systems we'd heard there and speculating as to which designs would be around for the long haul. The speaker designer said he'd heard no truly bad sound at the Show. Nods all around the table—none of us had. The turntable manufacturer asked if any of us could recall hearing any spectacularly bad products recently. We all shook our heads.