More than a decade ago, Data Conversion Systems, aka dCS, released the Elgar Plus DAC, Purcell upsampler, and Verdi SACD/CD transport, for a total price of $34,000. In 2009 came the Scarlattia stack of four components for $80,000, also available individually (see my August 2009 review). The latest variation on the English company's theme are the four Vivaldi components, launched at the end of 2012 for a total price of $108,496.
Yes, more Oppos. First off, let's put aside the expected superiority of the D/A conversion and outputs of the BDP-105 ($1199) and state that the BDP-103 ($499) is itself no slouch in these departments. In two or many channels, the '103 was good enough to let me distinguish among various high-resolution media, and to provide me with satisfying enjoyment of music in even the best of systems.
Around the turn of the century, a review of the latest hair-raisingly expensive turntable would often begin with a soothing chant that, yes, the RotorGazmoTron XT-35000 is a tad pricey, but it will be the last piece of analog gear you ever buyso go ahead, take the plunge. A dozen years later, pressing plants are stamping out LPs 'round the clock, and new high-end turntables are rolling off production lines at a respectable clip. So who knows whether today's Cassandras might be equally premature in bewailing the death of the Compact Disc? Which is to say that I can't in good conscience urge you to pay $12,000 for a CD player on the grounds that the medium's about to die, so splurge now while there's still something to splurge on. But if you have the scratch, and the itch for such a product, step right up and let me tell you about the Krell Cipher.
When US audiophiles think of the oldest firms still making high-performance audio equipment, they usually think of McIntosh Labs, founded in 1948. The UK's Quad traces its corporate origins back to 1936. Japan's Luxman, however, has them both beat: Luxman began making transformers and switches for radio sets in 1925. This is to the good; the company obviously has a sense of history. The iffy part is that Luxman's product line, which blends modern and heritage products, is a bit quirkily confusing. Luxman is by no means alone in having a product line that does not make intuitive sense to the uninitiated. A prime example is Harbeth's having two loudspeakers both costing $5000/pair, the Monitor 30 and the Super HL5.
I discussed Luxman's DU-50 near-universal player ($4990, it plays SACDs, DVD-As, DVD-Vs, and CDs, but not Blu-ray discs) in no fewer than five columns in 2009 (February, April, June, August, October).
The old Saab slogan, "Find Your Own Road," was so good that the old General Motors, which once owned Saab, had to kill itjust as the newly revived GM tried, in a "Call It Chevrolet" memo, to kill "Chevy." GM did a U-turn on that one the very next day, but "Find Your Own Road" never returned, and is available for Ayre Acoustics to use. I can't think of a better slogan for a company that I admire almost as much as I do Saab.
Consider this: While Ayre calls its new DX-5 ($10,000) a "universal A/V engine," the disc player doesn't have a coaxial or a TosLink S/PDIF input. That appears crazy to me, but to Ayre, no. They've found their own road.
Despite predictions to the contrary, the Compact Disc isn't dying anytime soon. Too many are in circulation, and until a smooth, friendly skin covers the computer interface, the music-server revolution will remain nascent. We're still in a long, shaky period of transition.
The debate over which audio component is most important in determining the quality of a system's sound is one that has been with us for decades. Recently, it came up in a conversation I had during a visit to a Manhattan high-end shop, when I was told about a discussion on the topic by Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn) and David Wilson (of Wilson Audio Specialties). You don't have to be a seasoned audiophile to predict their respective positions, but when I was pressed to take a stand, I paused.
In my review in the February 2009 issue of Marantz's SA-11S2 SACD/CD player ($3599.99), I said that "buying [an SACD] player in 2009 necessitates an act of faith similar to the one turntable buyers faced back in 1992." The negative reaction to this from the besieged SACD community was as intense as it was irrational. If they're angry with me, I can only imagine how they feel about Stanley Lipshitz and John Vanderkooy, who presented a white paper at a 2001 Audio Engineering Society convention that claimed to prove that SACD doesn't qualify as a high-fidelity format (footnote 1). How many figurative bags of flaming poop did they leave at their front doors?
It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturersif it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.
February is traditionally the month for music features, so I start this column with some recordings you really should hear. This year I had a greater-than-usual number of worthy candidates for "Records To Die For." Which discs got named as R2D4s and which got column coverage was, to quote the Iron Duke, a near-run thing.
Playback Designs was founded less than three years ago. However, with the release in 2008 of its MPS-5 Music Playback Systema slim, full-featured SACD/CD player and DAC that costs $15,000 and is built in the USthe company has since established itself as a significant player in high-performance digital audio.
It's now 10 years since the launch of the two high-resolution audio disc formats, SACD and DVD-Audio. Yet, perhaps partly because both were hobbled in various ways to please the record industry, perhaps partly because too many supposed hi-rez releases sounded no better than CD, and perhaps partly because record retailers weren't sure how to display the formats to their best advantage, neither took off in any substantive way. DVD-A disappeared, and SACD survived only as a niche format for high-quality classical releases in both two- and multichannel forms. As we got deeper into the same decade, digital technology, despite various sparks and flashes, went into the doldrums. Mainstream digital technology was increasingly concerned with squashing the music into fewer and more portable bits, not with increased sound quality. Even the concept of "CD sound quality" began to seem an unattainable goal, as MP3 files became the dominant music carrier.
Is anyone in this economy shopping for a four-box, rack-swallowing, two-channel SACD/CD player contending for the state of the art and costing $79,996? dCS is betting that its Scarlatti will attract a small crowd of those wealthy music enthusiasts who, in any economy, reliably pony up for the best. For the rest of us, the Scarlatti will be a spectator sport.
HDMI is the invention of the Devil. I grant that the Devil is very smarthe has put on a single cable both hi-rez audio and video, and paid tribute to the gods of industry by incorporating obligatory content protection. However, he has confounded the rest of us by using a connector that, while it relies on friction to maintain physical contact, has so little friction that the cable connector can be easily displaced from or misaligned with the chassis connector. The traditional audiophile predilection for heavy cables is, in this case, actually counterproductiveexerting just a bit of torque on a stiff HDMI cable can be enough to break the connection.
As we approach the end of the 21st century's "oughts" decade, many feel that playing music from a discrete physical medium is positively 20th century. Much of my own music enjoyment now comes from computer files, often high-resolution, streamed to my high-end rig via a Logitech Transporter or Bel Canto USB Link 24/96. It is perhaps a paradox, therefore, that high-end audio companies are still devoting so much effort to developing expensive, state-of-the-art disc players. In April I very favorably reviewed Meridian's superb 808i.2 CD playerpreamplifier, which costs $16,995 as reviewed, and Michael Fremer is about to review the ultimate Scarlatti SACD playback system from another English company, dCS. The $80,000 price tag of the Scarlatti makes the subject of my review this month, the Boulder 1021, seem relatively affordable at $24,000.