When I read John Atkinson's reviews of the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe (Vol.23 No.9) and RME Digi96/8 Pro (Vol.23 No.11 and Vol.24 No.1), I realized that soundcard technology had matured far faster than I had been aware. For about the price of a mainstream CD player, anyone with a reasonably powerful computer could add multitrack digital recording technology to his bag of tricks.
I haven't been shy in these pages regarding my love for the Mission 731i loudspeaker (reviewed in November 1996, Vol.19 No.11). It quickly became my reference standard for an entry-level audiophile speaker. Subsequent to my review, Mission significantly improved the speaker by introducing a silk-dome tweeter (see Follow-Up in April 1998, Vol.12 No.4). I bought three pairs: one for my home recording studio, one for my faux outdoor summer-home system (guest bedroom windowsills, pointing outward), and one for portable use to drag to friends' parties when their sound systems are not up to snuff.
The most exciting development in audio today isn't multichannel surround, single-ended triodes, or $10,000 phono cartridges. It's "trickle down." I get buzzed when an audio designer known for cutting-edge multikilobuck designs claims to have a product that can produce 80% of the sonic realism of his flagship design at 50% of the cost. I get even more excited when he does it again—that is, produces a product that produces 64% of his flagship's performance at 25% of the cost. Designers who have successfully trickled-down their flagship technologies abound in all quarters of audiophilia, from electronics (eg, Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson) to speakers (Alón, ProAc) to cables (MIT).
NAD has been out there on the leading edge of entry-level high-end sound long enough that some audiophiles reckon they invented the category. Sure, we should give serious props to the likes of Creek, Rotel, Musical Fidelity, Arcam, Denon, and Parasound, all of which have made significant contributions to the musical aspirations of budget-conscious pilgrims. But I continue to harbor warm feelings about my last extended visit with an NAD component: the inexpensive yet supremely musical L40 CD Receiver, which I reviewed in the June 2000 Stereophile.
PS Audio's Power Plant AC-regeneration devices have taken the audio and home-theater worlds by storm. The P300 was voted 2000 Accessory of the Year in Stereophile (December 2000), and the P600 won the Editors' Choice Platinum Award in Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (January 2001). The Power Plant differs from conventional power-line conditioners (PLCs) in that it doesn't just "clean up" AC but actually synthesizes (or regenerates) it. Each Power Plant is essentially a special-purpose amplifier, producing AC to run the equipment plugged into it, the maximum output wattage indicated by the model number. (The most powerful Power Plant available is the P1200, which produces 1200W.)
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.
Everyone loves a bargain. Everyone loves finding an undiscovered gem. But for audiophiles on a budget, finding good, reasonably priced cables isn't a luxury but a necessity. In a $1000 or $2500 system, there simply isn't money for $500 interconnects or $1000 speaker cables. Even a $5000 systemwhich most of my well-educated, music-loving, affluent friends view as pretty extravagant, by the waycan't accommodate premium cables like the Nirvana, Synergistic Research, or Nordost models that we reviewers rave about as "critical to getting the most out of your system."
I have a passion for great speaker designs at affordable prices, and with modern driver, crossover, and cabinet technologies making innovative strides, many serious high-end speaker designers are turning their attentions to coming up with the next great budget speaker. All audiophiles need affordable speakers, whether to recommend to friends to lure them into our hobby or to set up multiple, less costly systems in our own houses. I currently run a main reference system, a vacation-house system, a recording-studio system, a computer system, a portable system I take to parties, a car system, and an office system. I insist on having music playing constantly, wherever I am, unless my wife or son tells me to turn it off—which happens increasingly often these days.
In the early days of digital audio, I remember talking with Dr. Tom Stockham, the developer of the groundbreaking Soundstream system used then by Telarc. As well as using a 50kHz sample rate, the excellent-sounding Soundstream stored its 16-bit data on large drum-shaped Winchester drives connected to a minicomputer. Twenty years later, the advent of ultra-high-density magnetic storage media and fast microprocessor chips has put high-resolution digital audio manipulation and storage within reach of anyone with a modern PC or Mac. And facilitating the transformation of the PC into a high-quality DAW has been a new generation of soundcards, such as the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe I reviewed in September 2000 and the subject of this review, the German RME Digi96/8 Pro.
Convergence. There, I've said it. I swore I wasn't going to use the "C" word, but when you're faced with writing about a product that smashes the boundaries between component categories as completely as the CardDeluxe does, you have little choice.
Prelude I fell in love with the original Link DAC, as was obvious from my review in the January 1999 Stereophile. I said that "the Link redefines entry into high-quality digital sound," as it provided excellent sound and 24-bit/96kHz conversion for the remarkably low price of $349. It is as firmly ensconced in Class C of "Recommended Components" as it is in my weekend system, where it tames the digital signals from my DMX receiver and my trusty old Pioneer PD-7100 CD player.