A while back, I received an e-mail from The Kid (Stephen Mejias): "I've been listening to and enjoying the Wharfedale 10.1 loudspeakers ($350/pair) for a couple of months. I wrote about them for my March and April issue columns, but they are good enough for a complete review. Are you interested?"
Hmm . . . so The Kid is now assigning me equipment reviews? "Sure, why not?"
The day after the Wharfedales arrived, The Kid sent me another e-mail: "Have you unpacked them yet? They are so pretty!"
Direct Acoustics is a loudspeaker company in Weston, Massachusetts, that sells, by mail-order only, just one product: the two-way, floorstanding Silent Speaker II ($748/pair).
Its seemingly paradoxical name refers not to any inability of the Silent to create sound, but rather is intended by its maker to indicate two aspects of its performance. First is the ability of the loudspeaker boxes to "disappear" in the sense of not being readily apparent as sound sources. Well, okay, everyone wants that. The other intended sense of Silent is that the woofer and its loading arrangement were designed to minimize stray noises created by the woofer's excursion, or by the movements of air within, or in and out of, its vent or port.
I tried to name a high-end audio product that's been recommended more often than the Rega Planar 3 turntable. I failed.
The closest I could come was Rega's own RB300 tonearm, surely the best-selling perfectionist tonearm of all time. After that came the Rega Planar 2 turntable, a sample of which I owned and loved in the early 1980s. Next on my list was the original Rega Elys, a moving-magnet cartridge that sounded as chunky and direct as it was cheap and magenta.
The two-way, biwirable, rear-ported Dreamcatcher is designed and manufactured in Canada; its drive-units are designed by Totem, but made and assembled in Europe. The 1" titanium-dome tweeter, manufactured by German Acoustik, is mated to a 4" Scan-Speak woofer. Totem founder Vince Bruzzese feels very strongly about sourcing his drivers in the West. In the past, he got his small woofers from Peerless in Denmark, but switched to Scan-Speak when Peerless started manufacturing in China. Bruzzese also pointed out that the tweeter used in the Dreamcatcher costs him 16, more than 15 times as much as most similar Asian-made tweeters.
Head-Direct's HiFiMan HM-602 is the second in a growing line of perfectionist-quality portable music players designed by Fang Bian, a 31-year-old audiophile and student of nanotechnology at the City University of New York's Hunter College. Bian's first HiFiMan design was the larger, heavier, more versatile HM-801 ($790; see my review here). In building the HM-602, Fang sacrificed the '801's removable amplifier module, 15V rechargeable battery, and coaxial input, thus creating a smaller, more portable product. Much sleeker and less substantial than the '801, the HM-602 measures approximately 4" L by 2.5" W by 1" D and weighs just 7ozit can rest comfortably in the palm of a hand or a coat's inner pocket.
Overall, the HM-602 has a handsome, rather serious appearance: With its gold controls and its fine metallic finish, which at times seems a deep green and at others takes on a smoky charcoal, the HM-602, like its predecessor, exhibits an air of elegance and sophistication. And while the HM-801 proudly takes after Sony's famed WalkmanFang Bian once owned every available model of the now-discontinued portable cassette playerthe HM-602 much more closely resembles Apple's iPod Classic. On its front panel, below the 2" LCD screen, the HM-602 has a four-way control ring similar to the iPod's scroll wheel, and three sliding switches: Power, Hold (deactivates controls while music is playing), and DAP/USB.
"We like to make things," Roy Gandy, Rega's founder and owner, once told me. "It's what we do." Or maybe it was Rega's chairman and chief engineering honcho, Terry Bateman. Rega products are designed and manufactured in the south of England. So far as I know, no one at the Rega facility, on the Temple Farm Industrial Estate, has committed suicide; the same cannot be said of workers at the factory in China where iPods are made. Al Gore is on the board of Apple. Al, what do you think?
A computer is not optimized for the uninterrupted streaming of audio data. It has rapidly become established wisdom, therefore, that the optimal means of extracting audio data from a computer's USB port is to operate that port in what is called "asynchronous isochronous" mode. This lets the receiving device, such as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), control the flow of data from the PC. In theory, asynchronous USB operation (not to be confused with the asynchronous sample-rate conversion used in some DACs) reduces jitter to unmeasurable levels, depending on the accuracy of the receiver's fixed-frequency oscillator, which is used to clock the data to the DAC. By contrast, in the alternative and almost ubiquitous USB operating mode, called "adaptive isochronous," while the sample rate of the output data, averaged over a longish period, will indeed be the specified 44.1 or 48kHz, there will be short-term fluctuations, or jitter, due to the oscillator having to change its frequency every millisecond to match the uncertain rate of data flow from the PC.
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 M1 DAC is by Musical Fidelity. At $699, it's a stunning bargain. Comparing it to $995 for the Digilog in 1989. Meanwhile, the M1 is far more versatile, way better built, and, if memory serves me right, sounds vastly better.
It appears that the way to sell a DAC in 2011 is to almost give it away, in real-dollar terms. Some people pay far more than this for a set of speaker cables, a pair of interconnects, even a power cord. The M1 DAC is a piece of kit that can transform your system. I kid you not.
The M5i, basically a two-way bookshelf version of the 21½-way M16i, has the same tweeter, woofer, and footprint as the larger model, less its larger cabinet and second mid/woofer, and incorporates all of the i-series updates included in the M16i. The speakers look very similar; like the M16i, the M5i is available in gorgeous cherry veneer or basic black. The price ($899/pair) is $249/pair higher than the original M5. I placed the M5is on Epos's dedicated stands.
Art Dudley and others have covered the first products released by HRT, and now the company has added to its product line a Pro version of its Music Streamer, which sports balanced circuit design from tip to tail.
Housed in the same simple, functional, six-sided case of extruded aluminum as HRT's other products, the Pro is painted a bright blue to distinguish it from the Music Streamer II (red) and Music Streamer II+ (gray). At 5.6" it is also a tad longer than the others, and includes a single B-type USB 1.1 jack centered on one end, and two small, fully balanced TiniQ output jacks on the other. More about these special mini sockets later.
There's home cooking on one side of the hedge and fast food on the other, and the world moves farther from the former and nearer to the latter with each passing day. So it goes in domestic audio, where virtually every new milestone of the past quarter-century has pointed far more toward convenience than toward quality.
Depressed? Don't be. Those of us in the perfectionist community have a history of dealing with such things, howsoever slowly and inefficiently. (footnote 1). We're getting better at it, too, year by year. An example: Chord Electronics, of sunny southern England, has now brought to market their Chordette Gem D/A converter ($799) which they offer as an affordable means of getting perfectionist-quality sound from computer-music files.
Ron Sutherland has devised the Timeline, a device for testing the 33.33 and 45rpm speeds of turntables. It's housed in a disc of aluminum and Delrin that fits over the platter spindle. Turn it on, and an LED shoots a red dash of light at the wall (if there is one) behind your turntable. If the dash doesn't move, the speed is correct. If it drifts to left or right, you'll need to adjust the 'table's speed. Unless your wall has hash marks, there's a bit of subjectivity involved, and at $399 the Timeline isn't cheap, but Sutherland says he's not making much money at that price, and that it will take a lot of sales to recoup the R&D he's put into designing something as precise as he claims the Timeline is.Michael Fremer
The weekly Vote! Page is one of the most popular features of the Stereophile website, and the August 22 question, "Should Stereophile review more or fewer computer-audio products?", generated a record number of responses. No less than 88% of those responding asked for more coverage of products that allow a computer to be a legitimate source of music in a high-end context. Just 7% of readers wanted less coverage.
I've always enjoyed the time I've spent with NHT loudspeakers. The two bookshelf models I've reviewedthe SB-3 (Stereophile, November 2002) and its successor, the Classic Three (November 2006)shared NHT's "house sound": liquid, balanced, and dynamic, with little coloration, and a slightly forward and lively midrange. The newer Classic Three, still in production, sounded more refined, natural, and detailed than the SB-3. I like to see speaker designers whose work improves over time.
So when NHT approached me about reviewing a new floorstanding model with a small footprint, the Classic Absolute Towertheir first new speaker design of the next decade, they sayI jumped at the chance. Not only had I not reviewed an NHT in a while, but I'm increasingly intrigued withand applaudthe trend of manufacturers to add small-footprint tower speakers to their lines of affordable speakers. As most speakers costing under $1000/pair tend to be bookshelf models, shoppers need to worry about buying good-quality stands of the appropriate height, and about optimizing the speaker positions with respect to the front and side walls.