If the devil is in the details, then Beelzebub has taken up residence in the collections of cables we use to connect our components. Reviewing the stuff is tough enough, but things are even more difficult for the average audiophile: Inevitably, the wire that sounds fabulous in the store or in your friend's system doesn't work worth a hoot in your own system, and you're left where you began. Equally inevitably, the wire that does work best carries a price more often seen in Tiffany's or Harry Winston. It's enough to drive a hi-fi nut to drink. So relax, pour yourself a nice glass of wine, and sit right back to hear the tale of Robert Lee and his amazing wires...
Trickle-down technology is a grand thing. It's comparatively easy to build an exceptional audio component when there are no constraints on technology, cost, user-friendliness, or lack thereof, but top designers are now packing more and more of the excellence of damn-the-torpedoes components into more affordable and accessible packages. Which brings us to the Aesthetix Rhea, a tubed phono preamplifier of exceptionally distinguished lineage.
In any category of product or service, there is a gold standard—one company that epitomizes the best in its field of endeavor. Consider the Rolex watch, the Ferrari sports car, the Steinway piano, the Dunhill pipe. All of these artisanal manufacturers have spent decades, even centuries, earning their names' cachet with their histories of consistent excellence. While high-end audio boasts no names with a 60-year pedigree, such as Ferrari's—much less Steinway & Sons' +150 years—there is one firm whose storied past stretches back to the very emergence of the concept of high-end audio itself: Audio Research Corporation.
Looking at the current digital scene is enough to confuse and confound just about anyone this side of Stephen Hawking. One can choose from standard "Red Book" CDs (16-bit/44.1kHz), DVD-As, DADs (24/96 DVD-Vs), SACDs, combination audio-video players and changers, upsamplers, oversamplers, and every possible agglomeration of the above. As the audiophile-grade universal player remains vaporware, if you want to keep moving forward you have to choose among the various format combinations. Ayre Acoustics' Charles Hansen made his decision back in 1998—DVD-Video—and has spent the last four years refining the end result, now known as the D-1x.
Rudyard Kipling said that "never the twain shall meet." He was speaking of East and West, but in the world of audio, his adage has most often been applied to what has been the traditional chasm between the sounds of tubes and solid-state. Tube advocates thump the tub for the timbral and spatial glow, the absence of harsh, odd-order harmonic distortions, the harmonic completeness and holistic spatiality that only fire bottles can provide. Solid-state advocates point out the superiority of their preferred gear in terms of bass depth, power and control, low noise, and ultimate detail resolution. That chasm between the characteristic sounds of tube and transistor has narrowed appreciably in the latest generations of gear, as each type of circuit has become capable of embodying some of the other's trademark characteristics. But between the camps, friendly competition continues.
Of all the components to be seen and heard at an audio show or in a dealer's showroom, the most memorable and attention-grabbing are inevitably the super-speakers—bogglingly expensive, filled with cutting-edge engineering and exotic materials, of mammoth size and weight, with full-range reproduction that shakes building foundations and extends far enough up top to disrupt the navigation of bats. Survey the field, and the biggest Wilson, Aln, JMlab-Focal, Burmester, EgglestonWorks, and Nearfield Acoustics models, to name a few, fit that description.
Lord Acton said, famously, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If there ever were an amplifier to test that maxim's applicability to audiophiles, it is surely the Chord SPM 14000 Ultimate Monoblock. Priced no less than $75,000/pair, the SPM 14000 is rated to produce power as do very few other amplifiers on the planet: it is very conservatively rated at 1kW into an 8 ohm load, 2kW into 4 ohms, and "will easily exceed" 2800W (give or take a few watts) into 2 ohms.
Turntables are intrinsically cool. Maybe it's that I am of the pre-CD generation, for which the acquisition of one's first really good turntable marked an audiophile's coming of age. Just as turntable technology has progressed to such awe-inspiring pieces as the SME 30/2 and Rockport Technologies Sirius III, less stratospherically priced 'tables now offer levels of performance that, if not revelatory, show why so many audiophiles (including yours truly) continue to love their LPs with something just short of fanaticism.
Consider the plight of solid-state muscle amps. Often derided as brutes lacking sophistication or subtlety, particularly by the SET set (ie, fans of single-ended triodes), these powerhouses are taken for granted and often, like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect. And once upon a time, the stereotypes were true. Every veteran audiophile has at some time heard an immensely powerful transistor amp that had the soft sonic allure of a sheet of sandpaper, a lumbering oaf of a component with nothing whatsoever to recommend it save for a bulging set of mighty moose muscles.
It's always tough to follow an award-winning act. Wes Phillips raved about the original EgglestonWorks Andra back in October 1997, and it was subsequently dubbed Stereophile's Speaker of the Year for 1997. The Andra won many other plaudits, and found its way into a number of top-shelf recording studios as the monitor of choice. Such a reputation for excellence is the stuff most speaker designers dream of. It also imposes the burden of expectation—the "new and improved" version of such a knockout product had better be good, or else.