One of the highlights of any Consumer Electronics Show, I have found, is Nordost Corporation's demonstration of their cables. Using a relatively modest system and non-audiophile source material, they run through a simple, straightforward sequence, climbing up through their product line, culminating with their new, just-introduced model. At each step, the system sounds distinctly better—clearer, cleaner, with more body and tonal purity—than with the previous model. There's no hype, artifice, or magic, just a clear demonstration of the progress that Nordost is making as they refine their designs.
After two decades of motorcycling, I recently achieved a long-held goal by buying a bike built by Bimota, a tiny Italian manufacturer. Although Bimota engages in a wide range of activities, from two-stroke engine design to racing, they're best known for their exotic, hand-built street bikes. They always include the very best components and feature cutting-edge engineering and performance, but what they're truly revered for is their style. Bimotas unfailingly combine shapes, textures, and finishes into motorcycles that are most often referred to as "works of art."
According to Parasound's founder and CEO, Richard Schram, the Halo JC 3 began as a phono-preamp retrofit for the JC 2 line stage, with separate small circuit boards for each channel. The smaller the board, the better, Schram says, so as to attract less noise than do larger boards, whose many copper traces can act as antennas.
Over the course of his 30-plus years in high-end audio, Nelson Pass's designs have never been far from the leading edge. In his first Threshold amplifiers he pioneered the use of dynamically adjusting bias and cascode circuitry; then, in the later Stasis models, he switched gears to the simpler approach of pure class-A. All were innovative designs, and among the very best-sounding amps of their time, but were just warmups for what was to come. In 1991, Pass Labs introduced the Aleph 0, a class-A amplifier that was a startling departure from conventional solid-state designs and combined design elements generally thought mutually exclusive: transistors, single-ended operation, and the ability to output 75Wpc into an 8-ohm load. Not surprisingly, the Aleph 0 sounded like nothing else, and became the basis for the widely acclaimed series of Pass Labs amplifiers that evolved over the next decade.
A friend once described my audio ethos as "records, tubes, big amplifiers, and really big speakers"—I always picked warmth and musicality over antiseptic neutrality, even if the former came with a few extra colors in the tonal palette. Had I listed my criteria for an audio component, transparency wouldn't have been near the top, and might not have been listed at all.
The Placette Audio Remote Volume Control is simplicity itself: a paperback-sized black box with one set of unbalanced inputs and outputs, a toggle switch (and a remote) to change the level, and a row of LEDs that light up to indicate the relative volume level. The signal path, too, is simple, with only a stepped attenuator between input and output. But this is not just any attenuator—it's a 125-step model built entirely with super-premium Vishay S-102 foil resistors.
At $2295, the CD31 is the most expensive integrated CD player from Swedish manufacturer Primare, and an evolution of their D30.2, which I reviewed in the June 2004 Stereophile. I knew that the CD31 wasn't a clean-sheet design, but my first look suggested that it wasn't even much of an evolution—a comparison of its and the D30.2's spec sheets matched almost line for line. When I asked Terry Medalen of Sumiko, Primare's US distributor, about the similarity, and if the CD31 was just a mild tweaking of the D30.2, he said, "Well, yes and no. You really need to listen to it."
High-end audio has always been a tricky business, and in recent years it's become more so. Home theater is pulling in one direction, and MP3, iPods, and the Internet are pulling in another. And customer expectations—not just of sound quality, but also of usability and integration into their space and lives—are spiraling upward. The companies that are thriving amid these pressures seem to have adopted one of two strategies: either they focus more narrowly and try to convince the world to accept their vision, or they evolve their products in an attempt to anticipate the market.
One of the challenges I faced in optimizing the performance of the Thiel CS7.2 loudspeakers that I reviewed in February 2000 was controlling and tuning their interaction with my listening room. Intuition, experience, trial and error—all came into play, as did several of the procedures and calculations covered by Jonathan Scull in his "Fine Tunes" column.
The possible approaches to any technical problem range from trial and error to first-principles physics. Then there's the "purist" approach—the simplest, most direct way to meet the challenge. Often, the purist approach doesn't pan out because of such phrases as "we need 60 tons of molten gold" or "can we cool the entire building to absolute zero?" But in the world of high-end cables, the purist approach is viable, and is exactly where you find Jeffrey Smith.