Perhaps SACD has yet to reach critical mass in terms of consumer and industry acceptance, but halfway through 2002, it appears to be getting closer to that goal. Along with Sony and Philips (Universal Music), EMI is on board, as are many smaller, sound-conscious independent labels such as Chesky, Analogue Productions, Telarc, DMP, Rounder, Opus 3, Songlines, and the resurrected Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. For now, DVD-Audio, with its screen-driven menus, doesn't appear to be an attractive option for audiophiles not interested in merging audio with video. Perhaps the future will bring universal two- and multichannel playback devices equipped with LCD screens that actually live up to both formats' sonic potential, but I don't believe that day won't dawn any time soon.
Loudspeaker design is an art and a science. Anyone who tells you it's only one or the other is probably building or listening to some awful-sounding speakers. Design a speaker in an anechoic chamber for the "theoretical" world, and there's no guarantee it will sound good in the real one. Even building a speaker that excels at "real-room" measurements doesn't guarantee that it will sound all that convincing when reproducing music. We can't measure everything, and what we can measure can't be reliably ranked in terms of what's important to most listeners.
Got a garage, a router, and a band saw? Poof! You're a speaker designer. How many audiophiles dream of buying some raw drivers, some MDF and veneer, building a baffle, soldering up a computer-designed crossover, and assembling the Shmendrick Audio 2001? Plenty.
A straight wire with gain? That's what a line stage is supposed to provide, but few in my experience actually accomplish it, and I'm not sure that most audiophiles would really want it that way. Some want a bit of tightening and brightening, while some prefer a bit of added warmth and richness. But whatever the preference, none of us wants too much of a good thing—the tighter, brighter line stages better not sound etchy and hard, and the warmer, richer ones better not sound thick and plodding.
When a well-respected analog disc-mastering veteran like Stan Ricker says that the Alesis MasterLink ML-9600, a hard-disk-based digital recorder/CD burner, is "the best tool in my mastering bag...done right it can sound better than all but the absolute top drawer analog," you take the endorsement seriously. Progress is possible. Mastering tool, CD burner, 24-bit/96kHz recorder, audio reviewer's best friend—the versatile MasterLink is one of the coolest products I've ever had my hands on.
These are great times for analog, and I'm happy to have played a small part in the revival, but recently the demand for some products has outstripped supply; getting review samples has been next to impossible. I've requested an Audio Research PH7 phono preamplifier for literally years now, but ARC can't build them fast enough, so they don't need a review. The more they sell, the greater the buzz, and the greater the buzz, the more e-mails I get from readers asking for a review. It's not nice to not be needed.
Gunther Frohnhöfer, Acoustic Signature turntable designer and company owner, informed me last week that the business relationship between his company and Ballmann, the manufacturer of the German Behold line of electronics, which includes a headshell-mounted 768kHz/24-bit A/D converter (see my "Analog Corner" column in the forthcoming April 2005 issue of Stereophile), has been severed. Frohnhöfer has relinquished his position as Ballmann's general manager. "Doing both my own product and the Behold electronics line was too much for one person to handle," he told me. Instead, Frohnhöfer will focus on his core turntable business, while Mr. Ballmann will continue developing, manufacturing, and marketing his electronics line.
The German company AQVOX Audio Devices has produced an innovative moving-coil/moving-magnet solid-state phono preamplifier, the Phono 2Ci, that's as intriguing for its technology and performance as it is for its relatively low price: $1400. The zero-feedback, op-ampfree circuit uses a compact switch-mode power supply that's built into the chassis and features conventional voltage gain for moving-magnet cartridges via its RCA jacks, and current gain for moving-coil cartridges through the balanced XLR inputs. Rear-panel switches select between RCA or XLR inputs and offer a convenient ground lift. Either the single-ended or the balanced outputs can be used with either input. Unfortunately, the tight spacing of the RCA input and output jacks, which are mounted on the circuit board, will somewhat limit your choice of cables: Pairs of thick-barreled plugs will have difficulty fitting.