Recently, I thought about all the audio shows I've attended over the last 27 years, looking for any pattern that all of them might have shared. I came up with a handful of audio manufacturers that have earned at shows a reputation for getting, year after year, consistently good soundrooms in which I could reliably depend on being able to chill out and enjoy music in good, involving sound. Those companies include Audio Research, Music Hall (distributor of Creek and Epos), Vandersteen Audioand Definitive Technology. Since their founding, in 1990, Maryland-based DefTech has been a major presence at shows, displaying an increasingly wide range of high-value speakers for two-channel and surround-sound systems. But I'd never reviewed one of their models. I thought it was about time.
On May 21, 2008, five months after purchasing my very first turntable (a Rega Research P3-24), I decided that my obsession with LPs had grown to the extent that I could no longer function without a good record-cleaning machine. I'd done some research and found that the device best suited to my life and wallet was VPI's time-honored HW-16.5. I was certain, anxious, determined. But that morning, when I gave VPI a call, the line was busy. When I called again in the afternoon, the line was busy. When I called again in the evening, the line was busy.
The last few decades have seen dramatic improvements in the art (and science) of loudspeaker design. Tannoy's budget-priced Mercury series is now in its fifth iteration. The two-way, front-ported Mercury V1 ($320/pair) measures 11.8" high by 6.7" wide by 10" deep and weighs 9.9 lbs. My samples came in a very handsome Dark Walnut finish (Sugar Maple is available) with simple black cloth grilles. I left the grilles off to reveal the speakers' attractive front baffles and accentuate their equally attractive high frequencies (more on the latter later).
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.
Thus spoke AudioQuest's Steve Silberman, VP of development, of their brand-new USB D/A converter, the DragonFly. "There are a lot of very good DACs out there," he continued. "There are even a lot of very good affordable DACs. But the problem is, people outside of audio don't want them: They don't want old-style components like that.
It was another flawlessly beautiful spring morning, and I was in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to help John Atkinson pack up the Lansche Audio 5.1 loudspeakers ($41,000/pair). John had only just completed his listening and bench tests (see his review in the July issue), and was not ready to let go of the lovely Lanschesbut the speakers would be picked up by a trucking company that afternoon and sent to our cover photographer, Eric Swanson, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Each Lansche measures 40.9" tall by 10.1" W by 19.3" D and weighs 167.5 lbspacking them and securing them to a shipping pallet is definitely a two-man job. In our case, that job required a lot of wheezing, a little bleeding, and just the right amount of cursing. And because it was only 11am when we met, we were obliged to accomplish the task without the aid of beera crying shame, if you ask mebut we handled it in our usual, manly fashion.
The first loudspeaker I heard from the Canadian company PSB was the Stratus, an affordably priced ($1400/pair), two-way tower with a soft-dome tweeter and an 8" woofer. The Stratus had benefited from designer Paul Barton's being able to use the anechoic chamber at the Canadian government's National Research Center, in Ottawa. The Stratus was reviewed for Stereophile by J. Gordon Holt in our May 1988 issue; he described the speaker as "eminently listenable," though Gordon also felt that it was "a little lacking in guts and liveliness." I had sat in on some of his listening sessions and had been impressed by what I heard.
We've all read about how bookstores, appliance stores, and other bricks-and-mortar retailers are suffering with the increasing domination of Internet sales. That got me thinking about audio dealers. I've always believed that one can't really make an informed purchase of audiophile equipment without hearing it in a system properly set up by and at at a serious audio retailer. Here in New York City, we're blessed with six first-rate audio dealers in Manhattan alone, with more in the suburbs. I estimate that 90% of the products reviewed in Stereophile can be auditioned at a dealer or two within a two-hour drive of anywhere in the New York metropolitan area.
When it comes to getting audio from a PC via its USB port, the buzzword du jour is asynchronous. This cryptic term refers to which device has control over the timing of the audio data being streamed from the computer: the computer itself, or the device receiving the data. It might seem logical to have the computer control the timing, but this is not so. When digital audio data are converted to analog by a D/A converter, control over exactly when each dataword is converted is critical for the best quality of sound. Any uncertainty in that timing manifests itself as analog distortion, aka jitter.
The Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 45 measures a very room- and back-friendly 11 11/16" (297mm) high by 6¾" (172mm) wide by 11 11/16" (297mm) deep, but these dimensions are attractive for reasons other than simple, efficient transport and placement. I noticed right away that something about the speaker just looked right. Paul DiComo, DefTech's senior vice president of marketing and product development, explained that while the number and size of drivers used in any DefTech design will largely dictate that speaker's height and width, the company nevertheless aims for Fibonacci, or golden-ratio, dimensions. According to DiComo, these efforts help minimize standing-wave and "organ-pipe" resonances inside the speaker's cabinet.
Back at home, I'd recently set up Polk Audio's RTi A3 loudspeakers ($399.95/pair), which, at 14.75" H by 8.58" W x 14" D, are by far the largest bookshelf models I've had in my listening room. Right out of the box, the RTi A3 impressed me with its fit and finish. In Polk's Damped Asymmetrical Hex Laminate Isolation (DAHLI) cabinet design, five layers of MDF are glued together to form a damping system, then topped by a real-wood veneer of black ash or, in the case of my review samples, an impeccable cherry. The gracefully curved cabinet narrows in width from 8.58" at the front to about 5" at the rear, and is said to create a stronger, more rigid, more acoustically inert enclosure. (Knocking on the speaker's side panels resulted in a hollow resonance.)
I thought I'd review the procedure I typically use to seek out affordable speakers for review as, in the case of the Denmark-designed DALI Zensor, made in the company's facility in China, there was a twist at the end.
In preparing to review affordable loudspeakers, I typically put together a list of potential candidates I've discovered at audio shows, or that have been recommended to me by other Stereophile writers. I add to that list products I've learned about from press promotions, usually from companies whose products have impressed me in the past. I boil this down to a short list, then run it by Stephen Mejias to make sure I'm not tripping over The Kid's own quest for budget sonic nirvana.
It was unusually warm for early spring, without a cloud in the big, blue sky to tame the sun's dazzling lightfar too beautiful a day to be indoors, but Uncle Omar and I had already planned a little listening session, and I was determined to show him that high-end cables would make a difference in his system. I wasn't necessarily feeling bullish about the task, though. It had taken me a couple of years to convince Omar that he should replace his old boom-box speakers with something better, and it was only dumb luck that finally made it happen: I was with him when he found a gently used pair of B&W DM602 speakers at a junk shop in Jersey City. When they were new, the DM602s sold for around $600/pair, but on this happy day they were tagged at $50. "Do it," I begged him. "Doooooo it!"
It's common knowledge that manufacturers tune the sound of each DAC model. There are the facts of product design and marketing: inputs, outputs, case materials, price points. After that, what's left are the trade-offs of different circuit designs and filter options, which are chosen with careeach has a subtle yet telling effect on a DAC's sound. Most designers try to go from bits to analog with minimal deviation from perfect. But when you look at the measurements and listen closely, you realize that perfect is elusive. One has to make choices.