Late in May, Dolby Laboratories held a two-day press event, Fidelity Forum 2.0, to announce a new feature added to the production tools included in their flagship codec, TrueHD. While I could not attend, Jason Victor Serinus reported all the details for Stereophile.
It was three or four years ago, at a CEDIA Expo, that I first happened upon Advanced Dynamic Audio Monitors, aka ADAM Audio. What grabbed me was the array of imposingly high-tech speakers comprising their elite Tensor line. Sitting out in the middle of the floor of the Atlanta Convention Center, they not only looked more advanced than anything else around, they had the audacity to sound superb in a totally inappropriate acoustic situation. Despite the surrounding busyness of the Expo, I was able to sit down and actually enjoy the Beatles' Love on DVD-Audio. Clearly, these guys knew what they were doing. I vowed to follow up on it.
In my review of Bryston Ltd.'s SP-3 preamplifier-processor ($9500) in my May 2012 column, I found that it sounded outstandingly open and dynamic when used as an analog stereo or multichannel preamp. This was evident regardless of the rest of the system, which began with a McIntosh Labs MC303 three-channel power amplifier driving B&W 800 Diamond speakers, but eventually included Bel Canto REF1000M and Anthem Statement M-1 amps, as well as Adam Audio's Classic Column Mk.3 speakers. Didn't matter. The Bryston's transparency allowed each component to perform as well as I'd ever heard it. After that, I disconnected the SP-3 from my Manhattan system, tossed it (figuratively!) in the car, and took it out for a weekend in the country.
Bryston describes its SP-3 ($9500) as comprising a true analog preamp plus a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor, and claims that none of those functions compromises any of the others. That statement is a slight modification of the sentence that began my September 2006 review of the SP-3's predecessor, the SP2. It is indicative of the enduring philosophy of the manufacturer that, in the more than five years since, Bryston has worked to create a new pre-pro that fully reflects new developments in audio and video but without compromising analogquality. Audio is extracted from an input HDMI signal for processing while the video signal is routed, unprocessed, to the two HDMI outputs. Digital audio of all formats, including high-definition audio codecs, are supported, and stereo and multichannel analog inputs are handled by discrete class-A circuitry. Completely separate power supplies support the analog and digital functions, and the internal construction is highly modular, to ease future updating of the SP-3 to keep pace with evolving technology.
When I attended the 2011 CEDIA Expo last September, one thing I was looking for was a rumored top-of-the-line preamplifier-processor from Rotel with all the bells and whistles and a large TFT display. It was nowhere to be seen or even rumored, but the Rotel folks did introduce me to a less exalted pre-pro, their RSP-1572 ($2199). I've always liked Rotel's styling; I guess you could say that the pretty RSP-1572 caught me on the rebound (footnote 1).
It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since Michael Kelly formed Aerial Acoustics, introduced the Model 10T loudspeaker, and I wandered into his demo room at a New York audio show and was smitten. That speaker did everything right and seemed to do nothing wrong. Disc after disc was played as I imposed my impression on the listening chair (I recall there being only one). At the time, the 10T was only a bit out of my price range, so for many years it was what I aspired to have. Kelly and I repeated this little play over the years as his speaker line grew, and he always was patient as he explained what he intended for each model and how he had gone about meeting his goals.
The very first amplifier I bought was a Harman Kardon PC-200, aka The Prelude. It was a 10Wpc integrated, but I chose it over the competition for some of the same reasons that the HK 990 has appealed to me. Almost all amps back in the1960s had a plain cake-pan chassis with tubes, capacitors, and transformers studding the top. Integrated amps had the standard four knobs on the front for input selection, volume, bass, and treble. The HK PC-200 had an enclosed black chassis cage that formed a graceful cowl over the brushed-copper front panel and the six matte-black knobs: for Input selection (with three phono turnover settings), Volume, Bass, Treble, Loudness contour, and Treble rolloff. In addition, it had a Rumble Filter switch. The PC-200 was not only more beautiful than the rest of the push-pull competition powered by EL84 tubes, it also had more useful features. (Take that, you fans of the Grommes Little Jewel!). Over the decades, H/K products have always been stylish and innovative, but in today's fractured marketing world, most such creative energies are applied to audio/video receivers and lifestyle products.
As I write this, in early August, the global economy is in flux and the stock market gyrates, seeming in stark contrast with the gleaming, luxurious audio components that surround me. Perhaps there is some prescience in my rising interest in reasonably priced, high-performance products, as exemplified by the Oppo Digital BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player, which I reviewed in this column in September. Surely there must be other products that provide truly excellent sound at prices strikingly lower than expected.
I began my July column by talking about how quickly things are changing these days in multichannel audio. What I didn't pay enough attention to is that some things can change quickly enough to create inefficiency. Given that most multichannel digital products are based on digital signal processing (DSP), and many are network-enabled, they can be updated with relative ease. Almost every preamplifier-processor or A/V receiver I've reviewed has needed a firmware update during the reviewing process, and such updates are de rigueur for Blu-ray players, as more and more features (!) are added to new releases. And in addition to providing new performance features, firmware updates often also include corrections for operational glitches that have slipped by the designers and their alpha and beta testers, no matter how assiduously they've done their work.
KEF and I go way back. As a very young man in the 1960s, I was obsessed with building speakers, and that was just about the time that KEF founder Raymond Cooke was revolutionizing driver design by using new synthetic materials for cones and surrounds, and experimenting with such innovations as transmission-lineloaded midrange drivers. I found it all very heady and, by direct import from the UK, obtained versions of the oval, flat-diaphragm B139 woofer, the Bextrene-coned B110 and B200 woofers, and the T-15 and T-22 dome tweeters. Fifty years ago, this was all cutting-edge speaker technology.