When I attend Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment show, I rarely sit and listen to music for very long. Instead, I try to hit every room, press the flesh, find out about new products, and play a little jazz.
After I read Brian Damkroger's rave review of the Audio Research Corporation's Reference 5 SE line stage in the November 2012 Stereophile, I was excited about getting the review sample into my system so that I could do a Follow-Up (February 2013). However, the sample had already been returned to the factory, so I called ARC to see if it could be rerouted eastward to me. Chief Listener Warren Gehl answered the phone.
"Sure, you can listen to the Ref 5 SE, but I'd assumed you were calling about the Reference 75 amplifier."
"Reference 75? What's that?"
"It's our newest amplifiera half-power version of the Reference 150."
I'm a basically a tube guy, but I've never warmed up to most lower-powered integrated tube amps. Although I quite enjoyed the time I spent with the Cayin A-50T, which I reviewed in the March 2008 issue of Stereophile, over the years I've typically found I'd rather spend time with mid-priced, solid-state integrateds from Creek, Musical Fidelity, or Simaudio than deal with the loss of definition at the frequency extremes that I've heard from many lower-powered tube models. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached the VSi60, a 50Wpc integrated amplifier from Audio Research Corporation.
We audio writers have our niches. Mikey loves analog, Artie likes to play with horn speakers and assorted oddball British kit, and I really enjoy reviewing affordable speakers. There's something exciting about hearing the fruits of the labors of a creative designer who's applied his talents to meet a stringent price point and created a speaker that can entice into our hobby the financially challenged music lover.
In nearly 25 years, it's been rare that I've reviewed an exciting breakthrough product. The Audioengine 2 is such a product—not because it performs at an extraordinary level (though it does), and not because it's such an incredible value for money (though it is), but because it creates a new market, a new application for high-end audio, and a chance for audiophiles to enjoy music in ways they may have never considered before.
In the March 2008 Stereophile (Vol.31 No.3), I wrote favorably about the A-50T integrated amplifier from the Chinese company Cayin Audio. I was very impressed with its sound, appearance, and construction quality for the price: $1295. This positive experience led me to look into what other products Cayin's importer, VAS Industries, distributes here. More often than not, when a keen ear imports an interesting product into the US, that ear has also heard the good sounds of other products, as attested by the diverse product lines of distributors such as Music Hall and Sumiko. It turns out that VAS distributes Chinese loudspeakers made by Aurum Cantus, including seven two-channel models. I chose the entry-level design, the two-way V2M bookshelf speaker ($1890/pair), which combines a ribbon tweeter with a dynamic mid-woofer cone.
Audiophile societies are frequently sources of interesting new equipment to review. Recently, trolling New York's Audiophile Society, I discovered a tremendous buzz about the Onix Reference 1 Mk.II, an affordable bookshelf speaker from AV123. Founded by Audio Alchemy cofounder Mark Schifter, AV123 is a Colorado-based manufacturer and retailer that specializes in affordable audio gear, mostly speakers and electronics, which it sells exclusively over the Internet with a 30-day money-back guarantee. AV123's factories in China and Colombia design, manufacture, and distribute speakers under the brand names Onix, X-Series, and Rocket, and, I am told, also make speakers for a number of other companies. If the name Onix rings a bell, this former UK brand has long been known for its dedication to making affordable audio gear. AV123 bought Onix from the Rogers speaker company more than 10 years ago.
It occurred to me recently that, after nearly a decade of specializing in reviewing affordable speakers, and with the exceptions of two entry-level Mission models, I'd never taken a look at recent designs from the large mainstream British speaker manufacturers. So with this review I embark on a Bob Reina "British Invasion" tour to seek out the most innovative and value-conscious designs from companies that have been household names in British stereo shoppes for decades.
Last summer, John Atkinson and I were playing a jazz gig poolside at my local club, and during a break we began discussing equipment. As JA adjusted his microphones and I became increasingly nervous about the running, jumping kids splashing chlorinated water on his Nagra digital recorder, he asked me if I'd like to review the Z1 loudspeaker from BG Corp. "It's an interesting little bookshelf speaker featuring a ribbon tweeter." Hmm—an affordable bookshelf speaker matching a ribbon tweeter to a dynamic woofer? Very interesting. "Sounds good," said I, and resumed my ivory duties.
With all the affordable loudspeakers I've written about in recent years, I couldn't remember the last time I reviewed one from the revered British firm Bowers & Wilkins. When I searched www.stereophile.com, I learned that the last time a B&W speaker had graced my listening room's carpet was more than seven years ago: the DM603 S3, reviewed in the August 2005 issue. I thought it was time to revisit the brand, and as the DM603 S3 was a floorstanding speaker, this time a bookshelf model seemed in order.