Today, the system sounds better than usualin fact, amazing: warm, detailed, powerfully present, remarkably true. But how can this be? Isn't it more likely that my system, a well-considered but nevertheless inanimate, unfeeling collection of boxes and wiresNAD C 316BEE CD player, Arcam FMJ A19 integrated amplifier, KEF LS50 loudspeakers, AudioQuest Big Sur interconnects and Rocket 33 speaker cablessounds today exactly as it did yesterday?
In his article on the future of audio engineering in this issue, John La Grou tells ussuccinctly and correctly, I thinkthat we are rapidly moving from a culture of handheld devices to one of headworn devices. He postulates that by perhaps as early as 2025, rather than being actively sought out, most audio/video media will be delivered, like milk or the newspaperbut delivered not to our front doors, but more or less straight to our brains. Fascinating? Sure. Frightening? Kinda, yeah.
Last month, I wrote about Light Harmonic's use of Kickstarter to fund the final production and packaging of their Geek Out portable USB DACheadphone amplifier. The campaign raised $303,061 from 2146 backers. That success led Light Harmonic to create a new division dedicated to mass-market products: LH Labs. The Geek Out would be its first product. (Pre-orders are still being accepted.) LHL's second product would be the Geek Pulse, a "pure class-A" desktop integrated amplifierDAC capable of handling 32-bit/384kHz PCM files, as well as decoding native DSD64 and DSD128 files.
As I discuss in this issue's "As We See It," a handful of audio companies have recently turned to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to launch and promote new products. The most notable of these is Light Harmonic. The Sacramento, Californiabased electronics maker first caused a stir at the 2011 Axpona show with the release of its impressive Da Vinci DAC ($20,000), one of the few home audio converters capable of handling the 384kHz sampling rate.
In an August 21 post to his popular Lefsetz Letter blog, music-industry analyst Bob Lefsetz shared with his readers the great and often surprising joy of listening to music through a good set of headphones, specifically the open-back, planar-magnetic Audeze LCD-2. Lefsetz clearly does not mess around: He went straight to the top of the headphone hierarchy. If you're at all familiar with the exciting world of headphone listening, you've heard of Audeze (pronounced odyssey). Since their impressive debut at the 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the young audio company has drawn from hi-fi critics and enthusiasts the sort of rave reviews typically reserved for the most respected brands.
In the mornings, just before I leave for work, I power up the system, turn the volume down low, and set the CD player to Repeat. I like to think that if I play calm, soothing music while Ms. Little and I are away, the cats will feel less alone and more relaxed. It's also nice, on returning home from work, to walk into a room filled with music. One evening a few weeks ago, I stepped into the apartment, dropped my bags to the floor, settled down into the couch with my iPhone, and began scrolling through text messages. I'd been seated for only a moment before I had to turn my attention entirely to the sound of the system, which, even at a very low volume, sounded warm, detailed, and unusually goodunbelievably, almost unbearably engaging.
Last month, I'd intended to compare the overachieving Pioneer SP-BS22-LR stand-mounted loudspeaker ($129.99/pair) with the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($349/pair). In fact, I was deep into the processsurrounded by pages and pages of scribbled notes, thumbs swollen and sticky with Blu-Tackwhen it occurred to me that something was wrong with the Wharfedales.
Two of the five loudspeakers reviewed in our July issue were designed by Andrew Jones: the $29,800/pair TAD Evolution One and the $129.99/pair Pioneer SP-BS22-LR (footnote 1). I did the math. You can buy 229 pairs of the Pioneer for the price of a single pair of the TAD. Which is the better deal? Which would result in more happiness? Imagine keeping one pair of the Pioneers, and delivering the other 228 pairs to friends and family. Or donating them to schools. The possibilities are great. How much fun can you have with just a single pair of speakers, anyway?
Even before I'd really listened to PSB's Alpha PS1 powered desktop speakers (see last month's column), I suspected that I'd like them: They're affordable, attractive, small enough to actually fit on my desktop, and designed and manufactured by a true high-end audio company. Besides all that, the PS1s had been highly recommended by a friend, AudioStream.com's Michael Lavorgna. I only needed the speakers to sound good in my home. And they didclean, clear, detailed, and dynamic, with a surprisingly big and bold overall sound.
When I lived entirely alone, with neither girlfriend nor pets, and had the luxury of a dedicated listening room, I felt no obligation to store away unused hi-fi equipment. Why should I? Life is so much simpler when everything one needs, or might potentially need, remains in plain sight, within arm's reach. Pairs of loudspeakers, then, took residence beside bookshelves, speaker cables found homes atop throw pillows, assorted electronics posed as coffee tables. And, if on a whim I decided it was time to swap my NAD C316 BEE integrated amplifier with my Exposure 2010S, I'd simply pull the latter from beneath my feet and do it.
A small subset of audiophiles (always menthe especially old and joyless ones, I suspect) are sick of reading about my adventures in domesticity: They've been there, done that, and managed to do it far better than I. Good for them. Really, I'm glad they're so wise, mature, and experienced that they would spend their free time pounding out frenzied letters to the editor, caps firmly locked, disparaging my taste in music, my relationships with women, my choice of loudspeaker.
It wasn't very long ago that I boasted, in my casual, self-effacing way, that I didn't really like headphonesthat I didn't need headphones. Because most people in the New York metropolitan area would rather die than communicate with each other, they use headphones as a sort of fortress of solitude, shielding themselves not only from their physical environment but from all other living creatures. I, however, claimed to enjoy listening to the sounds of the world around meeven screeching tires, blaring sirens, and the drone of air ducts could be musical. La-di-da.
In March 2008, when I bought my PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers, I decided that I should also buy PSB's matching SubSeries 1 subwoofer (footnote 1). It seems odd to me now that I would have considered the $449 subwoofer a necessary complement to speakers that sold for $279/pair. What was I thinking? Was I rolling in money? Certainly not. Was I merely young and fancy free? Yes and no. Was I sex-starved? Quite possibly.
If there's an audio company that has it all, it's Jade Design, parent of Emotiva, Emotiva Pro, and Sherbourn. Before my visit to the company headquarters, in Franklin, Tennessee, I had invariably seen in the company's founder, Dan Laufman, a special kind of contentment, an ease, a happiness. Or was he merely arrogant? I couldn't be sure.
I couldn't have known it at the time, but Swans' "Lunacy" (see last month's column) would be the very last song I'd ever enjoy in my cozy listening room. Last timeswhether with things, people, places, or, I suppose, especially with ideascan be difficult to accept, tending to overshadow all other times, their lingering memories leading to remorse and games of "what if."