As with so many other things, from cell phones to soy milk, the idea of a portable MP3 player was something I at first disdained, only to later embrace with the fervor of any reformed sinner. But not so the idea of a high-fidelity iPod dock: Given that I now carry around several hundred high-resolution AIFF files on my own Apple iPod Touch, the usefulness of a compatible transport seemed obvious from the start. Look at it this way: In 1970, whenever I bought a music recording, I could enjoy it on any player, in any room in the house. In 2010, why shouldn't I enjoy at least that degree of convenience and flexibilitywithout resorting to a pair of tinny, uncomfortable earbuds?
Even Mikey Fremer is surprised at vinyl's current popularity. Some pundits postulate that eventually CDs will die out, and we'll be faced with the choice of LPs or downloads. (I hope not. I'm just getting used to CDs.) With abundant sources of new pop releases and a wide range of reissues on vinyl, and a variety of used LPs, every audiophile should own a turntable. And with the availability of affordable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III, which I reviewed in the February 2010 Stereophile, the cost of entry to VinylLand is not very dear. The problem is that so few entry-level integrated amplifiers and receivers available today include phono stages. (The Marantz PM5003, which I reviewed in the January 2010 issue, is a notable exception.)
When it comes to ripping CDs and downloading music, I've been sitting on the sidelines feeling more than a bit of envy. Stereophile's reviews of various media servers have whetted my appetite, but not so much as to overcome my timidity about getting into a new realm of technology in which I would be a beginner all over again. Still, I've sneaked a few peeks.
Ah, how the times change. When I reviewed Etymotic Research's ER-4S in-ear headphones in the July 1995 Stereophile, they seemed expensive to me at $330, but well worth that seemingly high price: at the time, they were the best headphones I'd heard. Nowadays, with reference headphones costing well north of a kilobuck, the price of the ER-4S seems relatively reasonable.
Readers frequently ask me how Stereophile's writers select equipment for review. More often than not, a writer comes up with a review candidate because he's heard it or heard about it, and then suggests it to editor John Atkinson for possible review. JA encourages this behaviora writer excited about reviewing a component is more likely to produce an article that's interesting and informative. That said, occasionally a review candidate surfaces at Stereophile HQ; in such cases, JA assigns it to one of us.
YBA Design's new WD202 D/A processor and headphone amplifier showed up while I was turning the pages of Don and Jeff Breithaupt's Precious and Few: Pop Music of the Early '70s, recommended by John Marks in his October 2009 "Fifth Element" column. Each page drips with great examples of why the 1970s often wind up on the wrong end of the culture stick (the Osmonds, anyone? Terry Jacks?).
I have built up a large collection of CDs since the medium's launch more than a quarter century ago, along with a modest number of SACDs and a small number of DVD-As. But I find these days that, unless I'm getting down to some serious listening and can give the music my uninterrupted attention, I use iTunes to feed computer files to my high-end rig (footnote 1). I've mostly been using the superb-sounding combination of dCS Puccini U-Clock and Puccini player/DAC that I reviewed last December to take a USB feed from a Mac mini, but I've also been using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96 and Stello U2 USB-S/PDIF converters, particularly for headphone listening, when I use one of those two format converters with a Benchmark DAC1 D/A headphone amplifier.
As someone who wrestled endlessly with the nine-pin serial ports and the RS-232 protocol with which early PCs came fitted (footnote 1), I welcomed the Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface when I first encountered it a decade ago, on the original Apple iMac. Plug it in. Don't worry. Be happy. The computer peripherals work as they should, which was often not the case with RS-232. It was a given, therefore, that the then-new USB port would be seen as a natural means of exporting audio data from a PC (footnote 2), but the first generation of USB-connected audio devices offered disappointing performance.
Besides my 20th wedding anniversary and the 15th anniversary of Listener magazine's first issue, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Roksan Audio Ltd., easily one of the most innovative design and manufacturing firms in British audio. Before Roksan came upon the scene in 1985, none of us had ever seen a loudspeaker whose tweeter was isolated from its surroundings by a sprung suspension. Or a commercial phono preamplifier designed to fit inside a turntable, just a centimeter away from the tonearm base. And who among us could have guessed that the Linn LP12's hegemonyamong flat-earthers, I meanwould be broken by a turntable from outside of Scotland? Yet the Roksan Darius loudspeaker, Artaxerxes phono stage, and, above all, Xerxes turntable accomplished those things and more, to the genuine surprise of nearly everyoneand to the benefit of our industry at large, as other firms took those ideas and ran with them.
Here's a question for a Stereophile.com poll: What's the best hi-fi value of the last 15 years? I'd bet that, 16 years after its introduction, Grado Laboratories' SR60 headphones would get more than a few votes.
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.