As a young music lover, I never knew there were such things as separate preamplifiers, amplifiers, and FM tuners. All I knew was that if I wanted to play music from my CD player, hook up my VCR to my stereo, or listen to the radio, I needed that magical device: a receiver. It was all I ever wanted.
Ever since I became a Stereophile contributing editor, people have asked me, "How do you determine what equipment you're going to review? Do you get to pick your own, or does John Atkinson tell you what to do?"
I've chosen roughly 85% of the components I've reviewed for Stereophile, those choices made on the bases of what I find interesting, and what I think readers would like to know about. It's as simple as that.
Like many audiophiles, I cohabit with someone who understands my audio obsession but has no desire to share it. That someone is my wife. Since I began writing for Stereophile, Ashley has helped me carry amplifiers, tape up boxes for shipping, and found room in our house for all the extra components and their boxeswhich sometimes make the place look like a scene from an episode of Hoarders. She's a peach. Every time new gear comes to the house or to my studio, my wife has calmly helped me move stuff around while I dance around like a six-year-old on Christmas morning.
If it's rare to go to an audio show and hear most of a company's products set up properly in multiple rooms, it's rarer still to hear those products also sounding terrific in each and every room. Such was my introduction to Marten's loudspeakers at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. In each of the systems in which the Swedish company's speakers were set up, and no matter what gear was upstream of them, I heard distinctly neutral, open, musical sound. After having the very same experience with Marten's speakers at the 2011 CES, I concluded that they must know what they're doing, and that their speakers are the real deal. I wanted to review some.
It's always good to have a reference. No matter the endeavor, references help guide us and set standards for all we do. For many hours of every day, I'm lucky to enjoy the reference of live, unamplified music. Right now, I average over 20 hours a week of rehearsals and performances of various ensembles, and four to five hours of listening to recorded music on my hi-fi. Clearly, for me, my musical reference is not the sound of my audio system, but the sound of live music created in various venues and acoustics.
One drizzly, gray morning I found myself with an unexpected hole in my schedule and an unusual hankering for doughnuts. Since my move to Portland, Oregon, last August, people from around the country have told me that I just had to try the over-the-top creations over at Voodoo Doughnuts. So I donned my raincoat and walked through downtown Portland for one of Voodoo's fried, raised, and glazed treats. Once inside Voodoo's tiny storefront, I chose two confections: a maple-bacon bar (yep, they put a whole strip of bacon on top of a doughnut), and an Old Dirty Bastard doughnut with chocolate frosting, Oreos, and a peanut-butter topping. They were delicious, and way more doughnut than one man should eat.
Erick Lichte mentioned Totem Acoustic's Beak, which costs $125/pair, in his follow-up review of the Totem Forest loudspeaker in January 2010. The Beak is a bullet-shaped device, about 2" high by 1.5" in diameter, that's intended to be placed atop a speaker to control "parasitic resonances." I was given a pair of these more than 10 years ago, and have tried them with various speakers. While Erick didn't find the Beaks to make any difference to the sound of the Forests or any of the other speakers he had to hand, my experience was different.
For a few weeks each year in the high summer of Minnesota, the corn sold from rickety roadside stands is so sweet and tender it is best eaten unadorned. For the wise and lucky nibbler willing to forgo condiments, the rewards of eating these naked kernels are the pure taste of Midwestern soil and sun transformed into a juicy, golden confection. I've begun to wonder if the yearly encounter with this magnificent and ephemeral sweet corn reminds Midwesterners of the joys of simplicity and plainness. Though my hypothesis is a stretch, it sure would explain a great deal about the Midwestern mentality. Perhaps Midwesterners subtly learn from this corn that if we get too fancy or try too hard, we can often screw up what nature has already made perfect. Conversely, we learn that no amount of fancy accoutrements will make a bad ear of bland, mealy corn come alive in the mouth.
One of the better digital front-ends I've ever heard was demonstrated for me a number of years ago at the house of an audiophile friend: a Weiss Engineering combo of Jason CD transport and Medea digital-to-analog converter. That front-end remains in my mind as one of the only digital systems I've heard that could compete with the very best that vinyl has to offer while still doing what digital does best. In other words, there were warmth and musicality, staggering dynamics, and real silent backgrounds. When, recently, I saw that the Swiss company had come out with a DAC featuring onboard volume control, a headphone amp, and a FireWire input, I knew I had to give it a listen.
Sure, Stereophile gets letters to the editor. We also get some colorful responses for our "Manufacturers' Comments" section. (Vince Bruzzese and Roy Hall are literary standouts among their component-making peers.) And, as one of the magazine's Contributing Editors (Audio), I get lots of personal mail from readers seeking my advice. I thought I might share some of these letters with you, and my responses.