When it comes to ripping CDs and downloading music, I've been sitting on the sidelines feeling more than a bit of envy. Stereophile's reviews of various media servers have whetted my appetite, but not so much as to overcome my timidity about getting into a new realm of technology in which I would be a beginner all over again. Still, I've sneaked a few peeks.
Looking back at the 2010 CEDIA Exposition, I was struck by a couple of new products which, I hope, presage a rethinking of modern electronics design. Today, the streaming of program content can be accomplished by TVs, by Blu-ray players, by dedicated servers and, for all I know, someone will put that capability into a speaker system. The result is that, unless one chooses very carefully, one will be buying the same technology redundantly. By contrast, high-end companies have striven to separate their dedicated analog/stereo products from their digital/multichannel products, forcing the very picky among us into a kludgy home-theater-bypass. Again, we end up buying more boxes and interconnections than should be necessary.
Back in Atlanta's World Congress Center for the second year it is hot (around 90°F) and humid outside but it is cool at the 2010 CEDIA Exposition. On the very first full day, I found a slew of interesting new loudspeakers and that's despite having seen less than a third of the Show floor. Undoubtedly more will be discovered but it is great to say that all of the most intriguing new ones are relatively inexpensive.
I start my second report from the 2010 CEDIA Exposition by returning to MartinLogan. As well as their $2000/pair ElectroMotion electrostatic hybrid that I described in my first report from CEDIA, the Kansas company showed the appealing new 2-way Theos. This hand-built floorstander combines a 9.2"-wide by 44"-tall XStat electrostatic transducer with a 8" aluminum-cone woofer in a bass reflex enclosure. Its large electrostatic radiator and passive woofer can be bi-wired or not with a unique tool-less binding-post design. At $5000/pair, the Theos will be the most affordable speaker in the Reserve Series of floorstanders.
When I started out on my multichannel mission in 2000, it was with an all-digital Meridian system that relied on lossy, compressed sources like the original Dolby Digital and DTS formats, or on synthesized surround based on Dolby Pro-Logic or Meridian's own TriField. With the appearance of first SACD and DVD-Audio and then Blu-ray, discrete lossless multichannel recordings became available, but there was no way to output those signals in digital form for interconnection to other components for playback or further manipulation. Most audiophiles, me included, already had analog preamps and power amps. It was only with the appearance of HDMI and the accompanying HDCP content protection that we could output those digital signals, and over a single cable to boot. Today, there are A/V receivers, some costing less than $500, and more than a handful of audiophile-oriented preamp-processors, that can accept such lossless high-resolution multichannel content as PCM, DSD, Dolby TruHD, and dtsHD Master Audio.
The debate over which audio component is most important in determining the quality of a system's sound is one that has been with us for decades. Recently, it came up in a conversation I had during a visit to a Manhattan high-end shop, when I was told about a discussion on the topic by Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn) and David Wilson (of Wilson Audio Specialties). You don't have to be a seasoned audiophile to predict their respective positions, but when I was pressed to take a stand, I paused.
I was greatly impressed by the performance of the Canton Reference 9.2 DC loudspeaker, which I reviewed in the March 2008 "Music in the Round" in the context of a 5.1-channel system. Those beautiful jewels not only sounded balanced and transparent, they had more sheer grunt in the low end than could be reasonably expected from their size. I wanted to hear more from Canton, but couldn't decide whether to go up in size or down in price. The problem I've always had with Canton is that they offer such a wide range of products that it's like choosing food from a multipage menu at a fine restaurant: everything looks good. It's especially difficult when your hunger is further piqued by your own past experience and the recommendations of others. (Check out the November 2006 issue to learn how much Wes Phillips enjoyed Canton's flagship speaker, the Reference 1 DC.)
It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturersif it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.
For the past few years, PSB Speakers International has been replacing its older lines with new models designed in Canada, and assembled in China from Chinese-made components. Judging from the reception here of PSB's Synchrony One and Imagine T, it's clear that the new models combine advanced performance with true economy. Now, with the new Image line, we see the result of trickling all this down to less expensive products.