"Physical discs seem so 20th century!" That's how I ended my eNewsletter review of the Logitech (then Slim Devices) Squeezebox WiFi music server in April 2006, and it seems that increasing numbers of Stereophile readers agree with me. In our website poll of January 5, 2008, we asked, "Are you ready for an audiophile music server?" The response to that question was the highest we have experienced: 32% of respondents already listen to music via their computer networks, many using home-brewed solutions, and 44% intend to. We've published a lot of material on this subject in the last five years, and it seemed a good idea to sum it up in this article.
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
As Wes Phillips recently reported on this website, CD sales are down and legal downloads of audio files are up. Stereophile has been criticized more than once for not paying enough attention to the subjects of MP3 and other compressed file formats, such as AAC, and for offering no guidance at all to readers about how to get the best sound quality from compressed downloads.
How do I get myself into these things? Knowing that I use a Musical Fidelity X-DACV3 D/A processor in my office system and had just auditioned the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 that he'd reviewed in November, John Atkinson asked me to give Musical Fidelity's X-DACV8 a try. I say "asked," but the man does authorize my paychecks, so I acceded, knowing I was painting a giant bull's-eye on my back.
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."
Don't get the wrong idea. I don't watch trash TV. I am not interested in the doings of people who are famous merely for being famous. I was probably the last to realize that Paris Hilton was not the name of a French hotel. But the kitchen TV just happened be tuned to Channel 4 when I switched it on while I was preparing dinner. No, I do not watch NBC's Extra, but as I was reaching for the remote I was stopped in my tracks by what I saw. The show was doing a segment on the new L.A. home of Jessica Aguilera, or Christina Simpson, or . . . well, it doesn't matter. What does matter was the host's mention of all the cool stuff the bimbette had had installed in her new pied-à-terre: "...and a Sonos audio system, of course."
As readers of the Stereophile eNewsletter will be aware, the twin subjects of distributing music around my home and integrating my iTunes library of recordings into my high-end system have occupied much of my attention the past year. I bought an inexpensive Mac mini to use as a music server, using an Airport Express as a WiFi hub, which worked quite well, but my big step forward was getting a Squeezebox. I described this slim device in the mid-March and mid-April eNewsletters; I urge readers to read those reports to get the full background on this impressive device. In addition, the forums and Wiki pages on the Slim Devices website offer a wealth of information on getting the most from a Squeezebox.
I'm beginning to understand why some people enjoy writing about crazy tweaks like electron counseling and magic listening trousers: When an idea is that new, it brings with it the chance for some gifted but heretofore unappreciated journalist to rise through the ranks and describe it to an anxious world. By contrast, when a defeated and baggy old establishment writer sets out to describe a CD player or amplifier, the product is surely the millionth such thing to come down the pike, and before long the readers complain: We used to like you, but you don't try very hard to excite us anymore.
Usually, a Stereophile "Follow-Up" follows up (duh!) a full review of the component in question. This review, however, is intended to flesh out a cryptic comment made by Wes Phillips in April's "As We See It": "When Apple introduced its AirPort Express wireless multimedia link," Wes wrote, "it even included a digital port so that an audiophile—such as Stereophile's editor—could network his system, using the AE to feed his Mark Levinson No.30.6 outboard D/A converter. 'Sounds okay,' deadpans JA."
The integration of computers into high-end audio is contentious. A reader poll last spring on our website indicated that a significant proportion of audiophiles—a quarter—is dead set against the idea, yet both Microsoft, with Windows Media Player 9, and Apple, with iTunes, seem convinced that the future of domestic music reproduction involves computers. To support that idea, both Apple- and Windows-based computers (the latter with Intel's about-to-be-launched HD Audio technology) are promoting hi-rez audio playback.
Computers and vacuum tubes go together like Trent Lott and flyaway hair, right? The last time filaments glowed in computers was during the 1960s, when a computer was a building. I remember laughing at the ponytailed computer-science dweebs back then, who spent their college days playing nursemaid to a football field's worth of electronics capable of little more than adding two plus two. Chained to a computer half the day, as most of us now are, guess who had the last laugh?
When I read John Atkinson's reviews of the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe (Vol.23 No.9) and RME Digi96/8 Pro (Vol.23 No.11 and Vol.24 No.1), I realized that soundcard technology had matured far faster than I had been aware. For about the price of a mainstream CD player, anyone with a reasonably powerful computer could add multitrack digital recording technology to his bag of tricks.
In the early days of digital audio, I remember talking with Dr. Tom Stockham, the developer of the groundbreaking Soundstream system used then by Telarc. As well as using a 50kHz sample rate, the excellent-sounding Soundstream stored its 16-bit data on large drum-shaped Winchester drives connected to a minicomputer. Twenty years later, the advent of ultra-high-density magnetic storage media and fast microprocessor chips has put high-resolution digital audio manipulation and storage within reach of anyone with a modern PC or Mac. And facilitating the transformation of the PC into a high-quality DAW has been a new generation of soundcards, such as the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe I reviewed in September 2000 and the subject of this review, the German RME Digi96/8 Pro.