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).
My interest in wireless network music players began during David Hyman's keynote speech at Home Entertainment 2003. Then CEO of Gracenote, Inc. (footnote 1), Hyman stunned me with his opinion that CDs and DVDs were already obsolete. Rather than pursue discs with greater storage capacity, Hyman urged industry designers to design music-server units with large hard drives to allow instantaneous access to any digital music track. With all of your music stored on a central hard drive, you could, within seconds, locate a specific track among thousands just by knowing the name of the artist, song, group, composer, year of recording, or even recording venue. Music mixes could be instantly grouped into playlists by the owner.
Home Entertainment 2006 in L.A. The weather is fine. The restaurants are cool. The company is très neat. I can't wait to schmooze with manufacturers, writers, dealers, and meet, for the first time, writers of letters to the editor of Stereophile. Play some jazz with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins—one smokin' drummer since he's been studying with Peter Erskine (Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, Diana Krall). Of course, my prime objective at the Show is to seek out the best-sounding affordable loudspeakers, to keep my review hopper full for the next year.
In New York and other major cities, I understand, bus accidents are a real problem. Buses turn right and failing to yield to pedestrians. Clueless pedestrians walk in front of buses. I haven't seen any statistics, but I'm guessing that in this era of cell phones and iPods, the problem has gotten worse: not only do such devices distract you, they make it harder to hear warning signs—such as the sound of a municipal bus bearing down on your ass.
It must be difficult for makers of audio equipment to decide how to best exhibit their products at events such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show. If you're doing a demo, you want it to impress audio journalists and potential dealers, and sometimes just playing music is not enough: you need something extra. A few years ago, Joseph Audio put on a demo, supposedly of their top-of-the-line floorstanding speaker, during which Jeff Joseph removed a cloth that had been draped over what was assumed to be hotel-room furniture. Under that cloth were the speakers that were actually playing: Joseph's new in-wall model, mounted on flat baffles. Wilson Audio Specialties demonstrated their speakers with purportedly ultra-high-end electronics and digital source, then revealed that they were actually using a modestly priced preamp and power amp, and that the source was an Apple iPod.
When I unpacked the Rogue Audio Atlas, I didn't know how much it cost. After examining its chassis of high-grade steel, its silver-anodized aluminum faceplate, its sleek and slightly rounded edges, and, above all, its two chunk-o'brick transformers—for such a little thing (a foot-and-a-half square by half-a-foot high), it's heavy—I guessed around five grand. Then I called Rogue Audio and learned that it retails for $1395.
The first time I attended the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, in January 1986, I didn't get there until the second day of the Show. Still, by the beginning of the fourth and final day I'd managed to visit every high-end audio exhibit, and still had time to go back for seconds to the rooms that had sounded the best. Twenty years later, CES has grown so much that it's impossible for a single writer to visit even a quarter of the exhibits in which he might be interested. And even with the sort of team reportingStereophile now practices, covering the Show has become an exercise in applied logistics for the busy journalist: "Should I wait for the free shuttle bus? Should I get a taxi—though I might get caught in Las Vegas's increasing traffic jams, or even just get stuck at the city's interminable traffic lights? Or should I take the new monorail—though that goes nowhere near the hotel in which [insert name of hot company] is demming its products?"