For audiophiles who love multichannel music, the center-channel speaker is a problem second only, perhaps, to that of bass management. In many ways, the rerouting of bass to a subwoofer or to the front left and right main speakers is dictated by room acoustics or the bass limitations of the other speakers. On the other hand, most of us had no real need for a discrete center-channel to fill in the middles of our traditional stereo systems. In fact, one of the glories of really good stereo is the simulation of a convincing central image, such that there's a seamless soundstage from beyond one speaker, across the room, to beyond the other speaker.
For me, the iconic Adcom power amplifier was the GFA-555. As an aspiring audiophile, I was deeply impressed with Tony Cordesman's review in Stereophile in 1985 (Vol.8 No.4). That did it! After years of kit-building and doing it myself, the '555 was the first factory-built amp that I wanted and could afford. Over the years, I changed speakers several times, and even added a fully regulated power supply to the '555, but it never balked. At the end of its tenure at my house, it had been demoted to my third-string backup; today it's making someone else tap his toes.
Some months back, a poll at the Naxos of America website asked visitors about their preferences among high-resolution and multichannel formats. At that time, Naxos had been releasing DVD-As (and DVDs) in the US, but only released SACDs elsewhere.
We audiophiles are ever hopeful that, however satisfying our present equipment and setup, we can achieve even greater enjoyment with a tweak or an upgrade. And we never stop: It was only 16 years (and three turntables) ago that I bought what I declared would be my last turntable, and there's no doubt that this "dead" format has improved substantially since then. Now, even as we make another (but less paradigm-shifting) format transition, from CD to SACD and DVD-Audio, new two-channel DACs continue to appear that show us how far we still are from wresting all the music from the original "Red Book" 16-bit CD format. I reviewed the wonderful Weiss Medea DAC in February 2003, and there are still on my auditioning rack are two more Swiss DACs that might redefine the category: the Orpheus 1 and the Nagra DAP.
The manufacture and marketing of so-called "universal" digital disc players should have been a no-brainer right from the start. I recall the first demo of SACD I attended, when both SACD and DVD-Audio were little more than promises and contentions. That prototype Philips player consisted of several cubic feet of hardware controlled by a computer, even though mockups of more marketable SACD players were arrayed around the room. After the demo, I asked one of the Philips engineers if it were possible to make a player that could handle CD, SACD, and DVD-A. His reply: "Sure, if they let me do it."
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.