Everyone loves a bargain. Everyone loves finding an undiscovered gem. But for audiophiles on a budget, finding good, reasonably priced cables isn't a luxury but a necessity. In a $1000 or $2500 system, there simply isn't money for $500 interconnects or $1000 speaker cables. Even a $5000 systemwhich most of my well-educated, music-loving, affluent friends view as pretty extravagant, by the waycan't accommodate premium cables like the Nirvana, Synergistic Research, or Nordost models that we reviewers rave about as "critical to getting the most out of your system."
I can't remember a time when I wasn't concerned about power quality. I grew up around finicky, home-brew ham-radio gear and labs full of instruments, and with both, power-conditioning gear was standard fare. When I moved into high-end audio, it seemed obvious that power quality was important. As a result, I've experimented with a wide range of power-conditioning equipment, from simple ferrite loops to huge isolation transformers, and even exotic laboratory power supplies that could vary the voltage, frequency spectrum, and shape of the AC signal.
My penultimate stop at THE Show, held for the first time this year at the Flamingo, was the Audience room, where they were playing a system full of new gear. Their line stage combines a relay-controlled autotransformer volume control and zero-gain active buffer. The unit has four inputs, all single-ended, and very clever switching to keep noise to an absolute minimum. Ohit also includes a headphone amp and all of Audience's power and signal-transfer technology, in a sleek, compact package.
We've all got our pet peeves, and one of mine is stiff, unwieldy audio cables that simply refuse to bend to my will—or to bend at all. Instructions like "carefully bend to final configuration, ensuring that no bend is sharper than a 36" radius" make my blood boil. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Audience's willowy Au24 cable and wonderfully flexible powerChord positively warmed my heart when I encountered them at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
A reader once noted that I tend to stick with the same reference gear longer than most reviewers. In addition to Audience's Au24e interconnect, I've been using Nordost's Valhalla, Nirvana's S-X, and Stereovox's SEI-600II for many years. They're ancient in audiophile terms, and, other than the Audience cables, have long since been discontinued or replaced. However, they are still excellent, and conveniently define a continuum of qualities that I use to assess cables. At one end, the Nordost Valhalla is sharply focused and excels at reproducing transients. At the other end, the Nirvana S-X strips away electronic grunge, and beautifully conveys the continuity of the space and musical flow. The Au24e and Stereovox are near the middle and share manybut not allof the others' strengths.
Call me shallow, but what first attracted me to Audience's Au24 cables when I reviewed them in August 2002 was their looks. In contrast to superstiff cables as thick as garden hoses, the Au24s were slender and elegant. They were wonderfully flexible, too, and even their custom-made RCA plugs were slim and easy to handle. Instead of having to fiddle with a system of locking collet and barrel, merely slipping them on resulted in a tight, solid connection. Compared to the Au24s, a sizable number of audiophile cables seemed excessive, even a little foolish.
It seems the obvious way to build a loudspeaker: one driver, no crossover, full range.
Instead, most speakers work this way: Complicated electronics split the audio signal into pieces, adding various colorations and phase shifts along the way. The pieces are distributed to different drivers, each of which adds another unique set of characteristics. We then expect these fragments of electronic signal to be brought together again in a continuous, coherent reproduction of music. We agonize over different cable routings or which contact cleaner to use, and yet we calmly accept this grotesque sausage-making way of building speakers. It's ludicrous.
I was riding BART home from Home Entertainment 2003, thinking about the day—the new products, the old friends, the rooms with really great sound. It's a long ride from downtown San Francisco to Livermore, so I next got to thinking about all of the hi-fi shows I've attended over the years and which companies, year after year, always seem to have good sound. At the top of the list were Audio Physic and its US importer, Allen Perkins' Immedia.
I've heard a lot of great audio components over the years, but even in that steady stream of excellence, a few have stood out as something special. These are the products that, in their day, set a new standard for performance, and many of them are ones I wish I'd hung on to. Among these products are three preamps from Audio Research: the SP3A, the SP6B, and the SP10 (footnote 1). I know I'm not alone in viewing these models as classics.