It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturersif it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.
For the past few years, PSB Speakers International has been replacing its older lines with new models designed in Canada, and assembled in China from Chinese-made components. Judging from the reception here of PSB's Synchrony One and Imagine T, it's clear that the new models combine advanced performance with true economy. Now, with the new Image line, we see the result of trickling all this down to less expensive products.
I miss the High End Shows. Not the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegasno thanks. I can do without the overpriced hotels, the 45-minute taxi lines, the frantic racing from venue to venue. No, it's the Stereophile shows I miss, with the centralized location, the rubbing shoulders with readers ("Hey, you're the cheap-speaker guy! Check out room 206!"), the listening to live music, and maybe even playing a little of it.
I was looking out the window. I was waiting for the plane to take off. I was wearing Monster Cable's Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones ($349.95). I was listening to Pens' burning, fuzzed-out, 27-minute onslaught, Hey Friend, What You Doing? (320kbps MP3; LP, De Stijl IND071). I was shouting with sudden shock and pain.
In the January 2010 issue of Stereophile I gushed effusively about the $450 Marantz PM5003 integrated amplifier. Not only was I impressed with the sound, build quality, and features of this very affordable component, but, intrigued by how it might be combined with other gear to build a complete entry-level system for about a thousand bucks, I began to ponder other entry-level components that might nicely complement it. My goal here, of course, is to inspire a new generation of young audiophiles. I felt a turntable would be a good place to start.
In the beginning, I had a room adjacent to my officea room filled with bicycles, hi-fi gear, and assorted crap I'd never gotten around unpacking since our last move. Feeling ambitious, I thought I might turn it into a guest room, and emptied it.
We crotchety middle-aged (and older) audiophiles frequently sit around and whine about the apparently rising median age of enthusiasts of two-channel audio. "We need to do something to attract the youts to our cause!" one of us will say. (Youts? See Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny.)
With all the current fuss about getting audio data from a computer to a standalone D/A processor via S/PDIF, USB, FireWire, WiFi, or Ethernet (footnote 1), it has been overlooked that the oldest way to get audio from a PC is to use a high-performance soundcard plugged into the host machine's motherboard. I remember how excited I was when I installed a Sound Blaster Pro 16 board in the 486-based Dell running Windows 3.1 that I was using in the early Clinton era, plugged its analog output into my high-end rig, and played back 16-bit/44.1kHz files.
Ah me, another year gone by. The rest of my holiday-gift suggestions are at the end of this column, but I wanted to kick off with a hearty recommendation of Aja, a book by Don Breithaupt. You may recall Breithaupt as a co-author (with his brother, Jeff) of the survey Precious and Few: Pop Music in the Early '70s, which cracked me up in my October column.
The British speaker manufacturer PMC Ltd. has built a professional client list seemingly as extensive as its almost mind-numbingly broad line of speakers. The i series alone includes 12 models, one of which is the DB1i ($1929/pair).
The venerable British company ATC Loudspeaker Technology was founded in 1974 by Billy Woodman, and is famous within the professional community for developing the first soft-dome midrange driver, and for their well-regarded line of active (powered) studio monitors, the user list of which is a veritable Who's Who of mastering engineers. ATC loudspeakers are all still made in the UK, and were a favorite of the late J. Gordon Holt.
The companion loudspeaker to Denon's RCD-CX1 SACD/CD receiver is the SC-CX303 ($1200/pair). The SC-CX303 is a ported two-way with a 1" soft-dome tweeter and a 5" carbon-fibercone woofer. Denon claims a sensitivity of 86dB and an impedance of 6 ohms. Instead of a formal frequency response, Denon instead gives an unreferenced figure for frequency extension that, at 35Hz60kHz, is neither helpful nor credible.
My favorite moment in the Zack Snyder film Watchmenapart from the Dylan-fueled title sequence, which itself contains some of the most memorable scenes in recent cinemacomes when retired crimefighter Daniel "Nite Owl II" Dreiberg arrives home to find the doctrinaire and mildly crazy Walter "Rorschach" Kovacs in his kitchen, eating beans straight from the can. The startled Dreiberg asks his visitor, "Would you like me to heat those up for you?"
Every now and then an affordable product comes along that's so good, even wealthy shoppers want it. Past examples in domestic audio include the Rega RB300 tonearm, the original Quicksilver Mono amplifier, the Grace F9E phono cartridgeeven Sony's unwitting CD player, the original PlayStation. Based on word of mouth alone, one might add the HRT Music Streamer+ to that lauded list.
In my reviewing career, except for fleeting listening sessions at the occasional audio show, I've had little contact with products from the Italian loudspeaker maker Chario. When asked if I'd be interested in reviewing an affordable bookshelf speaker from them, I did some research and discovered that Chario is distributed in the US by Koetsu USA. Well, with that kind of pedigreeI'm a loyal owner of two Koetsu Urushi cartridgesI thought I'd better give the Premium 1000 ($1015/pair) a careful listen. A few months later, I was tucking in to a pair of review samples.