Long experience has convinced me that many audiophiles' stereo systems substantially underperform compared to what they could sound like. This is not because people haven't spent enough money on their electronics or speakers. Instead, people aren't getting all the performance they've paid for because they haven't devoted enough attention to all aspects of the initial setup, and/or to maintenance and updating.
First, two noteworthy CDs. San Francisco's Cypress String Quartet, whose set of Beethoven's late quartets and high-resolution downloads I praised in the April issue, is back with a new CD (Avie AV2275) that explores their musical roots.
Talk about a fascinating personal history. Rising-star jazz pianist Aaron Diehl's father ran a funeral home in Columbus, Ohio, with a largely African-American clientele. Diehl started at the piano with Bach, and not long after was playing in both the funeral home and a nearby Catholic church. I think the significance of those early experiences is not so much that a young teenager was already playing for audiences, but rather that he was playing in the context of rituals and, in the case of the funeral home, emotionally fraught major life transitions. I suspect that Diehl's unusual backstory is a large contributing factor in his musical maturity and poised artistic approach.
Reading the November 2012 Stereophile, my eye was caught by John Atkinson's very enthusiastic review (he bought the review sample) of Ayre Acoustics' new QA-9 analog-to-digital converter. Over and above the intrinsic interest of the QA-9's claimed flat response down to about 1Hz, and that it is a cutting-edge ADC from a maker of consumer rather than professional audio gear, I had just been engaged by early-music scholar and organist Beverly Jerold to produce and engineer a recording of historically informed performances of Baroque organ music by Buxtehude (b. 1637), Clérambault (b. 1676), J.S. Bach (b. 1685), and Domenico Scarlatti (b. 1685). The recording venue was the Auditorium of the Third Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, Rhode Island.
A particular audio interest of mine has long been cost-effective systems that work really well together. I think most of the audio sob stories I've heard can be traced to one or both of two things: mismatched equipment, and inadequate attention paid to room acoustics. I've previously written about systems that range in price from $7500 to under $1500. Here's as minimal and classy a high-performance system as you can ask for: one box for the electronics (including USB connectivity), and two stand-mounted, two-way loudspeakers. The total cost is just under $10,000, but I think the price is justified not only by swank looks, but by the sound.
It's once again time for holiday-gift recommendations. These 12 go roughly in order of ascending price, from the very affordable to the rather unaffordable. To be included, a gift had to strike me as being exceptional in quality while also representing excellent value for money. But by "excellent value for money" I don't necessarily mean low-cost; I mean a high return on investment.
I've had Vivid Audio's Oval K1 loudspeaker here for several months. Over many years, the only other speaker brands I've written about as much as I have Vivid have been Wilson Benesch and Shahinian Acoustics, whose speakers I still revere and can recommend without reservationto the right listener. But Vivid's high-tech sorcery has raised the bar. The Vivids I've had here are among the best loudspeakers I've ever heard, and that's a consensus that seems headed in the direction of critical mass.
Don't waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Fantasy Symphony Season competition, announced in this column in February, has been a smashing successas far as I'm concerned, it's the most worthwhile write-in competition yet. The 13 winning entries and one hors-concours laureate are posted in the follow-up to February's column on Stereophile's website. The update lists the compositions in each winning Fantasy Symphony Season entry. I created a spreadsheet to determine the most popular composers and works in the winning entries.
Fred Delius and the Duettes. Sounds like a 1950s vocal group, doesn't it? Let's start with some great new music. SACD fans: Prepare to vote with your wallets again. Frederick Delius (18621934) is one of my favorite second-rank composers who wrote first-rate music. Although not that easy to define, Delius's music is usually instantly identifiable as his.
In 2009, I wrote about Luxman's entry-level solid-state integrated amplifier, the L-505u ($3700), and their near-universal (no Blu-ray) disc player, the DU-50 ($4990, now discontinued). I was very impressed by their performance and their quality at those prices. Indeed, I think I commented on these models in no fewer than five columns back then.
Here we go again! Come up with a list of classical pieces, and if your list is one of the skillfully crafted winners, you'll win your choice of a single CD from Stereophile's online store, and your list and all the other winning entries will be posted online for the admiration of all and sundry. This year's write-in contest will be somewhat more challenging than the last three, but I'm sure many of you will be up to it.
I've been reading a fascinating book, Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York: Viking, 1998). Shlain's thesis is that the invention of the alphabet was the cause of immense changes in primitive society, upsetting previously widespread norms of gender equality and horizontal (rather than hierarchical) social relations in general.
In large part because I was fascinated by the potential of Direct Acoustics' Silent Speaker II loudspeaker ($748/pair) in affordable systems (see my columns in the June 2011 and August 2011 issues), I rounded up three CD receivers that are network- and Internet Radioready and cost under $1000: one each from TEAC, Marantz, and Denon. These models are functionally and cosmetically more similar than different, and, it turned out, sounded more alike than not.
I think any newish company launching yet another expensive (ie, anything over $2000) digital-to-analog converter on the roiling waters of the audiophile marketplace needs at least two things: a truly great product, and a good story to tell. I think Bricasti Design Ltd., of Medford, Massachusetts, has both.
Getting on two years ago, in an effort to identify the best bargains for music lovers on a budget, I wrote a series of columns exploring the field of affordable loudspeakers and CD receivers. I hadn't planned to revisiting that topic so soon, but two developments have convinced me to: first, my encounter with one of the most idiosyncratic budget loudspeakers ever to grace my listening space, and in some ways is a new benchmark for performance vs price, especially for classical-music fans; and second, the advent of a new product category: Affordable Internet-Radio-Capable CD Receivers with Built-in WiFi and USB Connectivity.
But now that I have your attention, I'll first tell you about some great recordings you should check out. Then come the loudspeakers and, in my next column, the new CD receivers.