I started my first day at CES at the Immedia room, where Allen Perkins had a typically (for Immedia) great-sounding system, chock full of new gearsome so new that it doesn't even exist yet, as a product anyway. Starting from the top, there was the second-generation Spiral Groove SG-1.1 turntable fitted with a "production" version of his new tonearm. In this case, "production" means either "honestly, truly the very last prototype before production" or "the genuine first production version...that only differs from what we'll be shipping in a couple of non-functional details" take your pick. Either way, Immedia will begin shipping the arm immediately after the show.
High-end audio exists at the intersection of art and science. Either discipline can produce a good product, but it takes both to create the very best. The Sonic Frontiers gear I auditioned many years ago, for example, was technically sound, nicely built, and sounded goodjust never as sublime as products from, say, Audio Research or VTL. On the other hand, an experienced, insightful designer such as Quicksilver's Michael Sanders can create wonderful products from humble circuits and parts, but be ultimately limited by the underlying technology. But when brilliant design, uncompromised execution, long experience, and artistry all come together, the results can be staggering.
Stereophile editor John Atkinson said one evening in 1995, "What I find fascinating is that, in an industry as mature as audio cables, a new company can appear out of the blue and upset everything." He was gently poking fun at my admission that I found cable design fascinating, in particular the practice of combining different conductor materials.
I've had the pleasure of using The Direct Line Stage Line Stage (originally called the Director) from Ron Sutherland for the past few months. This active line-stage preamp (it has no phono section) is available from Acoustic Sounds for $3000.
It seemed a simple and obvious question, but I couldn't get an answer out of Ron Sutherland. Why did his new 20/20 phono preamp use an AC power supply instead of batteries? I asked directly, I asked repeatedly, I tried framing the question in different ways, all to no avail. Did the AC supply make it sound better? Was it less expensive to build? Were potential customers turned off by having to replace batteries once every year or two?
Saying that Sutherland Engineering builds a nice line of phono stages is like saying that the Porsche 911 Carrera is a nice line of sports car. The Sutherlands all share common design philosophies, features, and sonic attributesbut just as ramping up from Porsche's classic Carrera Coupe ($78,000) to the GT3 ($115,000) or the Turbo S Cabriolet ($172,000) increases the level of performance and distills the Porsche experience down to its essence, ascending the Sutherland line from the PH3D ($1000) to the 20/20 ($2200) to the Hubble ($3800) buys more of what Ron Sutherland is all about.
Ron Sutherland has devised the Timeline, a device for testing the 33.33 and 45rpm speeds of turntables. It's housed in a disc of aluminum and Delrin that fits over the platter spindle. Turn it on, and an LED shoots a red dash of light at the wall (if there is one) behind your turntable. If the dash doesn't move, the speed is correct. If it drifts to left or right, you'll need to adjust the 'table's speed. Unless your wall has hash marks, there's a bit of subjectivity involved, and at $399 the Timeline isn't cheap, but Sutherland says he's not making much money at that price, and that it will take a lot of sales to recoup the R&D he's put into designing something as precise as he claims the Timeline is.Michael Fremer
The $3000 moving-coil (MC) PhD, available from Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds operation, is a monumental achievement that, for me, sets new standards for the cleanness and transparency possible in a phono preamp—and I've had a lot of experience with phono preamps.
On the occasion of a recent major birthday, my significant other, Bonnie, gave herself a "mid-life crisis" present—a beautifully restored, bright yellow Porsche 911. She'd spent the previous several weeks wading through reference books to figure out exactly which year and model she wanted, and each night we'd discuss the pros and cons of various models, options, and points in the 911's +30-year evolution. Bonnie explained to me that, throughout its production run, the 911 maintained the same basic design and a consistent set of engineering goals, but was continually updated and refined. In her mind, the 1973 Targa was the one to have, the last and fastest of the lightweight 2.4-liter models.
When I describe the Thiel CS7.2 to friends, the word that gets the biggest reaction is "simple." Veteran audiophiles protest, noting the big Thiel's multiple drivers, complex cabinet, and elaborate, zillion-element crossover. Nonaudiophiles just glance at the 5'-tall speaker, smile sympathetically at Bonnie, and roll their eyes.