In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.
When a loudspeaker designer produces a world-class product, it is usually the result of years, perhaps decades, of experience gained from designing less ambitious products. To review a particular designer's product history is to witness the learning curve in action as both his skill and technology advance. Successfully battling the laws of physics to produce a truly exceptional loudspeaker is thus thought of as the domain of the seasoned veteran whose vast knowledge and experience culminate in the pinnacle of his career—a world-class loudspeaker. Moreover, it is just these designers, working their way up to their masterpiece, who are the most successful at getting an ambitious design right. The high-end loudspeaker business is littered with the remains of companies that attempted to build a first product far too lofty for their skills.
I find it astonishing that two products built on completely opposing engineering principles can both have musical merit. Design goals exalted by one company are considered anathema by another, yet both components produce superb sonic results.
Attacking the compact disc has lately become almost a blood sport among audiophiles and audio writers. Not a month goes by that I don't read—often in Stereophile—some vehement statement about how CDs are a musical abomination.
With the price of high-end audio increasingly reaching for the stratosphere, audiophiles appear to becoming much more value-conscious. This trend is reflected in the recent popularity of CD players over separate transports and processors, and particularly in the sudden resurgence in integrated amplifiers. An integrated amplifier makes a lot of sense: the buyer saves the cost of two chassis, two power cords, two owner's manuals, and an extra pair of interconnects. You also get a simpler system.
I feel privileged to have followed the remarkable evolution of digital processors over the past four-and-a-half years. Since my first digital review—a survey of three modified CD players back in August 1989—I've been fascinated by the developments that have inexorably improved the quality of digitally reproduced music.
All the action in digital playback for the past seven years has taken place in separate transports and digital processors. Nearly all high-end manufacturers have focused their skills on perfecting the individual elements of the digital playback chain—transports and processors—rather than on designing integrated CD players.
I've watched from the sidelines with great interest the recent debate in this column over Home Theater (footnote 1) At one extreme is the suggestion that Stereophile begin reviewing video and Home Theater products. The other end of the spectrum was best expressed by John Atkinson at Stereophile's 1993 High-End Hi-Fi Show in San Francisco. Hearing the booming bass overflow of a Home Theater demonstration blasting down a hallway, he said, "They've brought televisions to our hi-fi show!"