The system in the Gallo room featured the Strada 2 satellites (left in photo) with a TR3 subwoofer operating below 110Hz ($3400/system including stands); driven by a Cambridge 840A integrated amplifier with an Olive media server as source, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” sounded full-range and naturally balanced. But my attention was drawn to the tiny A’Diva SE ($329 each) and even smaller Micro ($239 each) which each use a single flat-diaphragm drive-unit, which were new at T.H.E. Show.
Guitarist Anthony Wilson, whose new album with his 9-piece band, "The Power of Nine" was featured in the May Stereophile, turned in a blistering set of hard-blowing jazz Friday afternoon at Home Entertainment 2006, courtesy of AudioQuest, Audio Research, and Vandersteen.
When Michael Fremer reviewed the 710 amplifier from Swiss manufacturer Soulution last August, his praise for the sound was surpassed by mine for the measured performance. "The Soulution 710 is definitely one of the best-measuring amplifiers I have encountered, " I wrote, "Color me impressed."
Denver retailer Apex Audio, which is continuing in the tradition of the late John Barnes' Audio Unlimited store, was using the Soulution 700 monoblocks ($130,000/pair), which each offer 430W into ohms, 860W into 4 ohms, were being use to drive Focal's Stella Utopia EM speakers ($90,000/pair), with their electromagnet-powered woofers via Tara Labs cables.
"I am not in love; but I'm open to persuasion," sings Joan Armatrading in her song "Love and Affection," the track I was playing when I finally realized that my attempts to get a sound from the Apogee Caliper ribbon speakers approaching what I had heard at the 1986 Chicago CES were bearing fruit. And that sentence pretty much describes the creed of the professional audio critic. Each new product that arrives at your door could be the one to pass the J. Gordon Holt "goose-bump" test, to leave the hairs on your arms permanently erect. Did the Caliper full-range ribbons excite my previously quiescent nerve-endings? Did Bobby Ewing return from the dead? Did Sam propose to Diane? Will Alan Alda ever outgrow Hawkeye? What on Earth made Georgette marry Ted Baxter? Why can't Tubbs roll up his jacket sleeves like Crockett? How could a fine actor like Jack Klugman accept such a dreadful role? Some of these questions will be answered overleaf, but in the meantime, what is a ribbon speaker?
Usually, a Stereophile "Follow-Up" follows up (duh!) a full review of the component in question. This review, however, is intended to flesh out a cryptic comment made by Wes Phillips in April's "As We See It": "When Apple introduced its AirPort Express wireless multimedia link," Wes wrote, "it even included a digital port so that an audiophile—such as Stereophile's editor—could network his system, using the AE to feed his Mark Levinson No.30.6 outboard D/A converter. 'Sounds okay,' deadpans JA."
This modest system in the April Music room actually sounded like music. Solus 2-way speakers (sorry, didn't note the price) were being driven by the new Stello S100 50Wpc power amplifier ($1200) and Stello HP100 D/A preamplifier/headphone amplifier, all wired with Verastarr cables. The Stello components are nicely finished and use enclosures manufactured in California, though final assembly is in Korea. Only disappointment was that the HP100 uses the Burr-Brown PCM2705 USB audio chip, which is limited to 16-bit data with a sample rate up to 48kHz and operates in the less-than-optimal adaptive mode.
My attention was caught by the USB flash drive sticking out of the side of the Aura Premier CD player/receiver/headphone amplifier ($2595) in one of the April Music/May Audio rooms. And so it should have caught my attention, because it was styled by noted English industrial designer Kenneth Grange, responsible for some of ther classic B&W designs on the 1970s and '80s. The Premier will play MP3, WMA, and Ogg Vorbbis files from its USB-B input and it also has a USB-A port that will accept data sampled at up to 48kHz with 16-bit resolution.
As explained by Ken Kessler elsewhere in this issue, the English A&R Cambridge company made their name by producing one of the UK's most successful integrated amplifiers, the 40Wpc A60. This neatly styled model was in production for a decade or so and was the basis for a large number of good-sounding but inexpensive audio systems. These days, the company, whose products in the US sell under the Arcam banner, is a major British hi-fi manufacturer, with a product line that includes integrated amplifiers, tuners, loudspeakers, cartridges, and even a CD player. A&R was, I believe, the first UK manufacturer to obtain a player-manufacturing license from Philips, and with the product under review here, has broken new territory for a supposedly "audiophile" company in having a custom LSI chip manufactured to their own requirements.
"Commoditization leads to the death of a specialty industry!" Hearing this at what I'd anticipated would be a sleep-inducing seminar on marketing, I pricked up my ears. The speaker was management guru Tom Peters, author of the best-selling In Search of Excellence and The Pursuit of WOW!. "Once your product is commoditized, all that is left to compete on is price," Peters continued, as I frantically scrawled down his comments, "and a small company will always lose to the big guns on price!"
As I wrote in my review of the Bricasti M1 D/A processor in February 2012, it seemed a good idea in the late 1980s: upgrade the performance of your CD player by feeding its digital output to an outboard digital/analog processor. British manufacturer Arcam, one of the first companies to see the opportunities in this strategy, introduced their Black Box in 1988. When I reviewed the Black Box in February 1989, I found that its low-level linearity was among the best I had measured at that time for a product featuring the 16-bit Philips TDA1541 DAC chip set. However, that linearity still wasn't very good in absolute terms. Back then, it required heroic and expensive engineering to obtain D/A performance that did justice to the 16-bit CD. These days, however, the semiconductor foundries produce a plethora of relatively inexpensive D/A processor chips that both handle 16-bit data with ease and wrest full resolution from 24-bit data.