We were driving to a friend's house to celebrate her dad's 92nd birthday. Halfway there, a bright yellow, ground-hugging insect pulled in front of my car from across street. "Wow, that's a Lamborghini Countach!" I exclaimed. You don't often see one of those in my neighborhood—or in any neighborhood.
As you read this, are you listening to your stereo? Whatever the music, what you're actually hearing is your public utility's AC as modulated by your power amplifier. No matter how good the gear, the final result can be only as pure as the power feeding your components. Unfortunately, plenty of sonic schmutz usually comes along for the ride.
A four-day break between the Top Audio Show in Milan (September 14–17) and the Hi-Fi News Show in London (September 22–24) presented the perfect opportunity to accept a longstanding invitation from speaker manufacturer Focal-JMlab to visit its manufacturing facilities in France.
Best known for its omnidirectional loudspeakers, the German manufacturer mbl also produces three complete lines of high-performance electronics that, despite being large and built to jewel-like perfection, are sometimes lost in the shadow cast by the dramatic-looking—and -sounding—Radialstrahler 101E, which I reviewed in October 2004.
Still burning in my bank of childhood memories are misty images of the glowing green lettering on the McIntosh tube preamps and tuners that populated the windows of the audio stores that once lined lower Manhattan's Cortlandt Street. Leonard's and most of those other retailers are long gone—as are most of the audio brands that shared their windows with McIntosh, and that once symbolized the might of American innovation and manufacturing. Even the World Trade Center, the controversial complex that replaced Cortlandt Street's "Radio Row," where the hi-fi industry was born, is tragically gone.
The Graham Engineering 1.5 tonearm, originally introduced in 1990, was a thoughtfully executed design that logically addressed all of the basics of good tonearm performance—geometry, resonance control, rigidity, dynamic stability—with effective, sometimes ingenious ideas, while providing exceptional ease and flexibility of setup. Over time, designer Bob Graham came up with ways to significantly improve the 1.5's performance, including the replacement of its brass side weights with heavier ones of tungsten, an improved bearing with a more massive cap, various changes in internal wiring, a far more rigid and better-grounded mounting platform, and a new, sophisticated ceramic armwand. (The original wand had hardly been an afterthought: its heat-bonded, constrained-layer-damped design consisted of an inner tube of stainless steel and an outer tube of aluminum.) The arm's name changed from the 1.5 to the 1.5t (tungsten), then the 1.5t/c (ceramic), and on to the 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2.
"Hello, I'd like to apply for a Federal Grant? For what? Oh, to design and build a new, high-tech, very expensive turntable. What's that? It plays records. Yes, that kind of turntable. Of course they still make records. Why? How much time do you have? Oh, I forgot—you're a federal employee, you have all day! Well, I didn't mean to insult you. It was a joke....No, I'm serious about the turntable. You do? What kind of music? When are they from? RCA Record Club? Classical Music? 1950s and '60s? Yes. I'll give you $5 each. I know it's generous, but... How much money do I want for the grant? Coupla hundred thousand dollars. No, our turntables will never be used to play Marilyn Manson records—Marilyn doesn't do vinyl. It's in the mail? Thank you. I'll come get the LPs tonight."
As it did for so many other designers and manufacturers of specialty audio gear, the current occupation of Basis owner/designer A.J. Conti began as a hobby and personal quest. A longtime audiophile and home-based dealer of brands like Krell and Quicksilver, Conti decided to build his own "killer" turntable using a fluid-damped suspension.
Record playback could have been designed to go from the inside out instead of the other way around. With most pieces of music ending louder than they started, doesn't it make more sense to end the side at the widest circumference, longest wavelength, least congested part of the groove spiral? Compact discs read from the center hole out, and they don't even have to.
There is a sweet spot in any manufacturer's lineup where minimum price and maximum performance meet. More expensive products in the line may offer higher fidelity, but the cost may not be commensurate with the improvement. For instance, VPI's HRX and Super Scoutmaster turntables cost more than their standard Scoutmaster model, and they perform better—but for my money, the sweet spot of VPI's line is the standard Scoutmaster, with or without such options as the outer clamp and Signature tonearm.