Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company is a very small company in Amagasaki City, Japan, that hand-builds an exquisite line of vacuum-tube audio electronics. I find it intriguing that Taku Hyodo, founder and main man of Leben, once worked for the comparatively huge Luxman firm. Years back, Luxman went through various corporate owners and spent some time wandering in the desert, before returning to its high-end audio heritage. Whether, as I suspect, Leben was founded during Luxman's years of ownership by car-stereo maker Alpine, or if Hyodo simply wanted to be the captain of his own destiny, I don't know.
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.
There's a fantastic new two-SACD/CD set of a demonstration-quality live recording of a rather obscure work you really should get to know, not only for its own merits, but also for what I believe is its underappreciated but major influence on music and on popular culture. The piece is by 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but trust meit's more than "listenable." It (or, at least, the music on the first disc) is beyond engaging; it is compellinga revelation, even. The work is Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre), Gurre being a castle in medieval Denmark that was the setting of a real-life doomed love triangle, the story of which has since loomed large in the moodily brooding artistic consciousness of Danes. The 19th-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen wrote a collection of poems based on medieval legends, including this one, and a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold provided Schoenberg's dramatic texts.
To celebrate his 30 years with the company, Marantz threw designer Ken Ishiwata a birthday party in the form of an assignment: Design a new, limited-edition integrated amplifier and SACD/CD player bearing his initials. (Only 500 of each will be made worldwide.)
Years ago, when I taught high school choirs, I had many types of kids in my ensembles. Though none exclusively fit the overly stereotypical lineup of kids on Fox TV's Glee, I always managed to have a nice assortment of jocks, preps, goths, motorheads, geeks, wastoids, and dweebs. One of the things that always fascinated me was how the big, tough jocks would turn out to be the most sensitive, emotional singers. It was always a touching moment when an otherwise stoic football star or wrestler would get all misty while singing the final song of the year-end concert. It showed me that the toughest exteriors often hide the creamiest creampuffs.
In an industry whose newest products are often as discouragingly unaffordable as they are short of the sonic mark, the Naim Audio Uniti ($3795) stands out. In a single reasonably sized box, the Uniti combines the guts of Naim's Nait 5i integrated amplifier and CD5i CD player with various additional sources: an FM/DAB tuner, and interfaces for an iPod, a USB memory stick, an iRadio, and a UPnP-compatible connected computer or serverall for the price of a very good television set.
A decade ago, many predicted that amplifiers with switching or class-D1 output stages would come to dominate high-end audio. In a postPeak Oil world in which the price of energy would always continue to rise, a class-D amplifier's very high efficiency in converting AC from the wall outlet into speaker-driving power would be a killer benefit. Although a conventional push-pull class-B amplifier has a theoretical efficiency of 78.5%, which would seem usefully high, this efficiency is obtained only at the onset of clipping; the need for the output devices to carry a standing bias current reduces that efficiency considerably, typically to around 50%. Class-A amplifiers are even less efficient, with a maximum of 25%; ie, three times as much power is dissipated by the amplifier as waste heat as is used to drive the loudspeaker (see "Sam's Space" in this issue).
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.)
There have been lots of great, and even some fabulous books of music criticism or reportage, and I've recommended several in these pages. So far, however, only one has made me chuckle, chortle, or laugh out loud, time and time again.
As the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show neared its end, I wandered into Blue Light Audio's room, which was dominated by the innards of darTZeel's new NHB-458 monoblocksthink of a 3D "exploded" diagram and you'll be on target. So impressive was that display of brute engineering that I almost didn't notice the amplifier that was actually making the music: the CTH-8550 integrated ($20,300).
When I was a kid, I saw the Marlon Brando remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. I'm sure you know the storylots of bad-guy/good-guy tension between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian. There's also an overlay of class conflict, but with a twist: The up-and-comer is the sadist, while it's the aristocrat who is nature's nobleman.
With the Music Player, T+A also sent along the Power Plant integrated amplifier ($2700). The Power Plant (PP) looks almost identical to the MP, and the two comprise a handsome, fully functional audio system in a single modest stack. To make this even easier, you connect the two at their rear panels with a supplied RJ-12 cable (T+A calls this the E Link), which coordinates their functions and allows the MP and PP to be operated with a single remote control.
A new integrated amplifier called the Lars Type 1, which made its debut at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, has given my notion of a dichotomy between mainstream audio and alternative audio a severe beating. In that sense, the Lars Type 1 has been a life-changing product, although the change took longer than expected for me to digest.
If you ever find yourself in an audiophile-type argument and need proof that, in the 21st century, manufacturing high-performance audio gear to sell for a reasonable retail price is becoming an impossibility, point to Vincent T.A.C.'s TubeLine SV-236MK integrated amplifier, designed in Germany and built in China.