In the early 1950s, a quiet, undistinguished Senator named Joseph Raymond McCarthy began a crusade against what he imagined were subversive, dangerous elements in American government. His tactics included irresponsible accusation, militant attacks on his opponents, and self-aggrandizing witch-hunting. So virulent were his methods the term "McCarthyism" entered the language. McCarthyism came to mean any unjustified persecution and the false conformity this strategy engendered (footnote 1).
"If the midrange isn't right, nothing else matters." StereophilefounderJ. Gordon Holt's decades-old observation of the musical importance of the midrange has become a truism cast in stone. Gordon's other famous observation, "The better the sound, the worse the measurements," was made only partially in jest.
The past 12 months have seen some remarkable developments in digital playback. Standards of digital musicality are far higher than they were a year ago, both on an absolute performance basis and in terms of what you get at various price levels. No other component category has seen such tremendous gains in value for money or number of new products introduced. It seems hard to believe that since Vol.13 No.6 (12 issues ago), we've reviewed such noteworthy digital processors as the Meridian 203, Proceed PDP 2, Stax DAC-X1t, Theta DSPro Basic, Wadia X-32, Esoteric D-2, PS Audio SuperLink, and VTL D/A. Each of these converters brought a new level of performance to its price pointor, in the case of the Stax and VTL, established a new benchmark of ultimate digital performance.
Just as these units provided stiff competition for previous products, so too will they come under the assault of improving technology. The art of digital processor design is so young that we can continue to expect further improvements coupled with lower prices as designers move up the learning curve.
Dr. Richard Cabot is one of today's foremost authorities on audio measurement and testing. Formerly an instrumentation designer at Tektronix, Dr. Cabot is now Vice President and Principle Engineer at Audio Precision. The company's System One, a computerized audio test set (used by Stereophile), has revolutionized the way the world measures audio equipment.
To many audiophiles, the name Boston Acoustics is synonymous with mass-market budget loudspeakers. Although many of its products have offered good value for the money, Boston Acoustics has never been known for driving the envelope of high-priced loudspeaker design (footnote 1). The company has been content to churn out well-designed, affordable boxes and let others attempt state-of-the-art loudspeakers. Until now.
I find it astonishing that two products built on completely opposing engineering principles can both have musical merit. Design goals exalted by one company are considered anathema by another, yet both components produce superb sonic results.
As strongly as I believe that the listening experience is the most reliable method of judging the quality of audio equipment, I've been biased against single-ended tube amplifiers because of their quirky measured performances. Without having heard single-ended under good conditions—much less living with an SE amplifier—I had concluded that many listeners must like them because they're euphonically colored by large amounts of low-order distortion and impedance interactions with the loudspeakers. SE amplifiers seem to be a departure from the goal of making the electronics transparent. Moreover, the range of loudspeakers suitable for SE amplifiers is so restrictive that I wondered why anyone would bother with these underpowered distortion-generators. I had fallen into a trap that I've repeatedly railed against: drawing conclusions without firsthand listening experience (footnote 1).
The promise of "perfect sound forever," successfully foisted on an unwitting public by the Compact Disc's promoters, at first seemed to put an end to the audiophile's inexorable need to tweak a playback system's front end at the point of information retrieval. Several factors contributed to the demise of tweaking during the period when CD players began replacing turntables as the primary front-end signal source. First, the binary nature (ones and zeros) of digital audio would apparently preclude variations in playback sound quality due to imperfections in the recording medium. Second, if CD's sound was indeed "perfect," how could digital tweaking improve on perfection? Finally, CD players and discs presented an enigma to audiophiles accustomed to the more easily understood concept of a stylus wiggling in a phonograph groove. These conditions created a climate in which it was assumed that nothing in the optical and mechanical systems of a CD player could affect digital playback's musicality.
With the price of high-end audio increasingly reaching for the stratosphere, audiophiles appear to becoming much more value-conscious. This trend is reflected in the recent popularity of CD players over separate transports and processors, and particularly in the sudden resurgence in integrated amplifiers. An integrated amplifier makes a lot of sense: the buyer saves the cost of two chassis, two power cords, two owner's manuals, and an extra pair of interconnects. You also get a simpler system.
As founder of California-based Vacuum Tube Logic of America, David Manley is at the forefront of the current renaissance in vacuum-tube audio equipment. In addition to manufacturing some highly regarded audiophile components, VTL has introduced a line of tubed professional equipment that is finding its way into recording studios. David has a lifetime of experience in tube electronics, recording studio design, disc cutting, music recording, and most recently, analog/digital and digital/analog converter design.