It's conventional wisdom among audiophiles: Small, high-end audio companies build high-quality products in small numbers. Products which are often expensive. But not always. Big mass-market companies build cookie-cutter products in big numbers. They're usually cheap. But not always.
Love 'em or hate 'em, headphones serve a purpose. My first headphones were Kosses, and they were perfect for use in a college dorm. While I've always owned a pair or more over the years, somehow they never became my primary mode of listening, except in situations where using loudspeakers at satisfying levels risked eviction, bodily harm, or both.
In a way, you could say that Meridian started the now epidemic practice of modifying stock CD players (usually of the Philips-Magnavox species). The original Meridian player, the MCD, was a reworking of the first-generation Philips and was praised by J. Gordon Holt in these pages in his 1985 review (Vol.8 No.2). The Meridian Pro (Vol.8 No.6) won similar plaudits, and is still to be seen lurking in JA's system. And the original 207 was well-received by MC in Vol.10 No.3.
Snickering was heard from the major consumer electronics purveyors when California Audio Labs came out with the original Tempest, their first CD player using tube output stages. But not from the audiophile community. It was, all things considered, an inevitable product; I'm certainly not the only one who wonderedbefore the emergence of California Audio Labswho would be the first to build such a unit. The obvious candidates were Audio Research or Conrad-Johnson. But those companies apparently read the audio tea-leaves and, perhaps perceiving the early high-end hostility toward the new format, apparently decided to bide their time. (With regards to tube players, they're still biding it, though C-J has had a prototype player up and running for some time.)
The face was different, but the look was familiar. It should have been. The $2395 Aria Mk.III is a close cousin to the Aria II that I'd hung around with for about two years. Same sense of style, same heart of tubes. CAL Audio apparently made it what it is today, from the ground up. They even designed its transport and transport-drive circuitry in-house (footnote 1). In a high-end world which has gone increasingly to separate digital processors, CAL has been, up till now, a conspicuous holdout. They've only recently introduced their first outboard converter, and have in the past argued in favor of the all-in-one player. Something about reduced jitter from all the timing circuits being under one roof.
Like all companies that have been in business long enough to become fixtures in the marketplace, Infinity has seen its share of changes. It has long been that audio raritya company with one foot in the High End and one in the mass market. For the past few years, however, and despite continuing production of the now-classic IRS in its Series V incarnation, Infinity's mass-market foot has been the more firmly planted. Infinity, now a large company, is part of an even larger conglomerate, Harman International.
When JA suggested I review one of the "smaller" VMPS loudspeakers, I felt the hot breath of controversy in the air. The recent debate in these pages concerning the "proper" amount of bass required for true high-fidelity reproduction, and the inability of small loudspeakers (according to one camp) to provide it, hadn't yet cooled off, nor showed any sign of doing so. VMPS, a small West-Coast manufacturer most famous for its humongous Super Tower IIa/R (at 6-plus feet and 250 lbs per side, first reviewed for Stereophile by AHC in Vol.9 No.3 and the latest version of which is examined by JGH elsewhere in this issue), is hardly a fence-sitter in the debate; they are clearly pro-low-end response. I chose to request the Tower II/R, an upgraded version of the smallest of their floor-standing systems, for review; with a rated 3dB-down point of 22Hz (the same as their standard subwoofer), it's not exactly a member of the restrained bass brigade.
"Where do you want 'em?" Doug'n'David (of Stereophile's shipping and receiving, not your favorite morning drive-time talk radio co-hosts) had just wrestled over 500 lbs of cocooned Wilson WITT loudspeakers onto the floor of my garage. Like the Thiel CS7s I had parted with just a few weeks earlier, the WITTs came packed in solid, heavy wooden crates. The pained expressions on Doug'n'David's faces indicated that it was time for me to start reviewing minimonitors! The unpacking went more smoothly than I expected, but this is clearly a pair of loudspeakers that demand to be delivered, uncrated, and set up by a dealer.
Reality check number one. Tired of reading about the latest and greatest $65,000 loudspeakers? Or even the current hot ticket at $2500? Such loudspeakers promise to bring you the audio truth, or the golly-gee-whiz, honest-to-gosh, absolutely positively real sound. And some of them do seem to come awfully close, though truth be told, we're still a long way from replicating realityand will never do it with just two channels.