My first one-piece stereo—I think I paid $60 for it, including a pair of speakers with pegboard backs—gave me a lot of pleasure when I was young, and I loved it. Everything that came after has been better in every way but one: None has inspired that kind of love. And most have left me wondering if there might be something just a little bit better.
I first heard a CD player in my own system in 1984 or 1985, several years before I began writing for Stereophile. I was curious about the Compact Disc medium—I'd read about it, had listened to CDs in stores, and was eager to hear what they sounded like in my own system. I'd even bought a CD: the original-cast recording of 42nd Street, which I already had on LP. One evening, a friend who worked for Sony and knew that I was an audiophile brought over his latest acquisition: a CDP-501ES, the second from the top of Sony's line of CD players. He also brought along a bunch of CDs, including some solo-piano discs, and Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony's then-famous recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Telarc CD-80041).
In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."
In 1962, when tennis rackets were made of wood, newspeople were known for challenging the government, and the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks was in its second year (the show closed in 2002), Nippon Columbia's Denki Onkyo (or Den-On) division introduced to the professional audio world a brand-new moving-coil phono cartridge. Developed in cooperation with the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, the DL-103 was one of the first attempts at making a truly wide-bandwidth stereo cartridge that nonetheless could withstand the rigors of back-cueing. The DL-103 was a nearly instant success with broadcasters, and its popularity spilled over into the world of domestic audio.
In nearly 25 years, it's been rare that I've reviewed an exciting breakthrough product. The Audioengine 2 is such a product—not because it performs at an extraordinary level (though it does), and not because it's such an incredible value for money (though it is), but because it creates a new market, a new application for high-end audio, and a chance for audiophiles to enjoy music in ways they may have never considered before.
Readers often ask how I choose components for review. My method is simple: Ninety percent of what I review is gear that has impressed me at one of our Home Entertainment Shows, or new designs from manufacturers whose products I've liked in the past. The remainder are assigned by John Atkinson.
Most people are familiar, at least in outline, with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea." In the story, the Queen decides that it's time for her son to marry, and the Prince—apparently a very fussy young man—decides that he can marry only a true princess, as measured by her sensitivity to small discomforts. It's like being an audiophile, but with peas.
Home Entertainment 2007 was a blast for me, as it is every year. Not only did I get to perform with two jazz bands, Attention Screen and the John Atkinson Trio, but I enjoyed good to extraordinary sound in every room I visited. I've been attending hi-fi shows more than 20 years, so I'm rarely surprised, but HE2007 had two big surprises in store. First, the percentage of rooms sporting analog front-ends—vinyl and open-reel tape—was the highest I've seen at a show in over a decade. Second, there was a surprising number of very expensive loudspeakers. In fact, I counted more speakers costing over $50,000/pair than I did costing under $500/pair.
The ceiling remains, but the floor has changed: Benz-Micro continues to offer a selection of rather expensive phono cartridges, including their well-established LP Ebony ($4700) and Ruby 3 ($3000) models. But in recent years, my attention has been drawn by the succession of budget Benzes: first, the Gliders ($795), then the ACEs ($550), and now the MC20E2-L ($199).
When folks visit from out of town, they frequently remark that my Brooklyn neighborhood reminds them of "a real neighborhood" from their neck of the woods. "Except that we know all our neighbors and talk to them when we're cutting the grass, watering the lawn, and walking the dog. You probably don't even know the names of any of yours."
"Onkyo Returns to its Stereo Roots to Debut New Digital Amplifier Technology." This heading of the press release for Onkyo's A-9555 digital integrated amplifier was surely intended to warm the cockles of the two-channel audiophile's heart. Some of us remember the Onkyo Grand Integra amplifiers of the 1980s, which were considered competitive with the big Krells and Mark Levinsons of the day. To refresh my memory, I looked through my Stereophile archives and found the December 1985 issue (Vol.8 No.8), which included Larry Greenhill's review of the Grand Integra M-510, a 300Wpc power amplifier covered in lacquered persimmon wood, weighing 139 lbs, and costing $4200 (about $8000 in 2007 dollars). Larry was most impressed with the M-510, describing it as "a very powerful amplifier with outstanding sonics across the board—power with delicacy."
For a word that first appeared in print only 35 years ago, prequel has a lot of impact—if only in a commercial sense. The television series Smallville has become a staple of American broadcasting. Film producers gambled millions on the chance that audiences would want to know what happened when Batman began. And while moviegoers have turned their backs on the apparently awful Hannibal Rising, the book of the same name is doing brisk business indeed.
There's an old Spanish proverb: "If six people call you an ass, start braying." A contemporary corollary might be that if enough audiophiles insist a product is the best ever, it behooves the "experts" to check it out. At least, that was John Atkinson's thinking when he suggested I audition the Oppo Digital DV-970HD universal disc player ($149).
When audiophiles speak of the "Golden Age" of audio components, they almost always are talking about amplifiers and preamplifiers, not loudspeakers. While a very few speaker models have stood the test of time—among them the BBC LS3/5a, the Vandersteen 2, the original Quad electrostatic and the Quad ESL-63, some of the Magnepans, and the Klipschorn—almost no one would disagree that, taken en masse, the speakers of today outperform not just those of the 1960s and 1970s but even those of the 1980s and 1990s. The advent of low-cost, computerized test equipment, high-quality, inexpensive measuring microphones, and persuasive research into what measured parameters matter most to listeners who are listening for a neutral-sounding, uncolored loudspeaker (footnote 1), has led to an almost across-the-board improvement in speaker sound quality (footnote 2).