Ever since the introduction of high-resolution digital formats, audiophiles have been waiting for the smoke from the format wars to settle. What would the winning software be? DVD-Audio? DVD-Video? SACD? 24 bits at 96kHz or 192kHz? As new formats struggled to establish themselves, upconverting technology became commonplace for the playback of the familiar 16-bit/44.1kHz "Red Book" CD format. What to do? Invest large amounts of cash in a system that played "Red Book" (maybe with upconverting, but if so, by how much?) and one other format, and hope that you've bet right? And what about movies on them new-fangled DVDs, Tex?
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.
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.
How did Michael Jordan, talented as he was at the peak of his powers, always manage to impose his will on his teammates to push them to victory when it counted most? What made Sandy Koufax able to elevate his pitching to a superhuman level when the stakes were highest? A knowledgeable, hardcore sports fan can watch the performance of two players with nearly identical statistics and, after not too long, tell you which one is merely very good and which one is great. What makes a star are intangibles—those qualities you can't quantify or analyze, but can't help but recognize when you're in their presence.
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.
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...
It's no longer news that uncontrolled spurious vibration is one of the greatest threats to high-quality sound and video reproduction. Source components are, by themselves, a nightmare to isolate from the omnipresent vibrations in the environment. The intrusion of uncontrolled spuriae into the playback of LPs, CDs, SACDs, and DVDs has a deleterious and occasionally disastrous effect on the ability of the stylus or laser to precisely do its almost-molecular-scale job. Electronics are nearly as susceptible to such vibration-induced headaches as microphonics.
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.
Revolutionary is a word that's tossed around all too lightly in the world of audio. The understandable impulse to tout every new development as a quantum leap forward in sound reproduction has made it difficult to sort out the evolutionary from the truly groundbreaking. And there's not that much left to do in amplifier design that is worthy of being described as "revolutionary," or so it seems. Vacuum-tube circuitry has been thoroughly understood since the late 1940s, and 40 years of development of solid-state has rendered it, in its finest implementations, a worthy competitor and alternative to the venerable tube.
There's something special about big tube amplifiers. No other audio component has such a primal appeal or can so quickly reduce grown (?) audiophiles to Homer Simpsons sighing, "Mmmmm...toooobs." EveAnna Manley, president of Manley Laboratories, understands the effect of high-powered tubes on the audiophile brain and shares the obsession. A Harley rider, mountain climber, and devoted music lover, she is one of the industry's most individualistic characters. You just have to appreciate a gal who ends each CES by blaring Rage Against the Machine at top volume.