Back in the 1990s, I lusted mightily for the large ESP speakers with their tall, slim shapes and their angled driver panels. A large-room demo of the Concert Grands with Sonic Frontiers electronics still reverberates in my memory. Unfortunately, just as I evolved to the point where I could consider buying a pair of Concert Grands, the company folded its tents. Recently, I heard a rumor that ESP might be returning, and an email exchange with founder and designer Sean McCaughan has confirmed the good news.
It doesn't take much to read between the lines of Sony's discontinuation of the TA-P9000ES analog preamplifier and their introduction of the SCD-XA9000ES SACD player with IEEE1394 digital output at Home Entertainment 2003. (A similar feature from the DVD-Audio camp has been promised.) Surely, we will at long last be able to have external digital processing and DACs in our preamp or control units. In addition to the freedom to mix and match components, this opens the door to having a single digital component manage bass and channel balance for all sources, and room/speaker correction without redundant redigitization.
Last January, the Stereophile website conducted a poll asking readers what they thought was their audio system's weakest link . The results indicated that 24% thought that their room was the most problematic component. What this says is that, though often accused of being obsessed with hardware, we audiophiles are aware of what a potent effect the speaker-room setup has.
When I first got into hi-fi, stereo was just over the horizon and imported products were still rare. The inexpensive ones came from Japan, and you could find them, often with names that changed from week to week, in the open-air displays in and around Cortlandt Street in lower Manhattan. The more expensive brands were European, primarily British, and beyond my financial grasp.
Multichannel music is the future. The two-channel reproduction that we have enjoyed for the past four decades is but the first step from monophonic (single-source) sound to true stereophonic reproduction. I intend to preach that to Stereophile readers who believe it and to convert the obstinate objectors.
I have a warm spot in my heart for MSB's approach to product development. They come from a tweaker heritage and still practice the art: MSB will happily install a 24-bit/192kHz upsampler in your CD player, a 5.1-channel input in your DPL amp or receiver, and true 24/96 outputs in your DVD player. Their standalone products, starting with the original Link DAC, are designed from the start to include space for later additions and enhancements.
Some people believe that high-end audio is mostly fluff whose cost, compared to standard professional studio electronics, is not justifiable. Moreover, they argue, if the music has been piped through any number of studio devices before it gets to your home, you can't expect to get more out of it than the studio devices will pass. Just as the argument is made about the final 6' of power cord, how can one Over-The-Top device make up for the foibles of those that precede it?
Unpacking and installing a new component is always cause for excitement, even if one does it with almost mechanical regularity, and the anticipation is greater when the component is from a manufacturer of almost mythic reputation. So when John Atkinson asked if I'd like to audition Nagra's new PL-L preamplifier, I feigned calm as I accepted the assignment, even while remembering those years in college radio when I had to schlepp big Ampexes and Maggies. The sexy, portable Nagras were the stuff of dreams. Finally, I thought, I'd get my hands and ears on one.