We were sitting near the pool, in a cozy, private cabana on the outdoor terrace of the Trump Plaza Residences in downtown Jersey City, surrounded by all kinds of beauty: To the north, the old Powerhouse Building stood proud, strong, and silent; to the south, Exchange Place's Colgate Clock was just beginning to glow, extending its tireless arms toward Lower Manhattan; to the east, the Empire State Building soared into the humid evening sky, its white-lit spire making thin veils of the summer clouds; and to the west, the redbrick row houses of Harsimus Cove hummed with the sounds of quiet domestic life. Before us stretched a long table covered with delicious treats: cheeses, meats, and crackers; olives, grapes, and hummus; bottles of beer, vodka, and wine. We were at Shana's place, with Natalie, Nicole, and DanielaKristin was there, too. And all I could think about were loudspeakers.
Oh boy, another new DAC review. Some folks think DACs, once you get past the features, all sound pretty much the same. I mean, it's just digital. Well, they're right. Pretty much. Just as two new cars of a particular make, model, color, and options package both look the same, sitting there on the lot.
But if you discover a ding in the door of one of them, where most folks still see only a new car, you now see the ding. It might have been there all along, undetected the first few times you walked around the carmaybe your buddy even had to point it out to you. It's insignificant in the scheme of all that a new car is, but once you've seen it, you always see it. Now you can easily tell the two cars apart, and we both know which one you'll drive home.
I don't remember where I was when the Berlin Wall came down, and I already don't remember what I was doing when Liz Taylor died. (I suppose I was busy not thinking about Liz Taylor.) But I do remember when USB-based computer audio became a serious medium: That was when Gordon Rankin, of Wavelength Audio, introduced asynchronous data streaming, with his proprietary Streamlength software. After that, things picked up speed.
The buzz was all over the audiophile 'net. "Pioneer has a new bookshelf speaker that's killer for the money!"
Hmm, I thought. Pioneer. Speakers?
To be fair, I've had the Pioneer brand on my mind for well over 30 years. The company was my brand of choice for car-stereo electronics in the 1970s, for Dolby S cassette decks in the '80s, for DVD players in the '90s, and for plasma TVs in the '00s and '10s. I felt a bit guilty that I hadn't focused on the fact that Andrew Jones, the very same design guru who came up with Pioneer's TAD Reference One loudspeaker ($70,000/pair), had had a hand in designing a few two-channel speaker models starting at $99.99/pair. The audio gossip was all about the second model from the bottom of Pioneer's speaker line, the SP-BS41-LR ($149.99/pair). I thought I'd better get a pair and review them.
Around midnight, Natalie decided to move the party from her and Nicole's apartment (see last month's column) to our favorite local dive, Lucky 7, just a few blocks away on the corner of Second and Coles, in Jersey City. We threw wide the old red door and stepped into the stench of stale beer, the sound of cheap speaker cones tearing at the seams. I love Lucky's as much as anyone, but the music there on a Saturday night is always too goddamned loud.
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.