Budget Component Reviews

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Rogier van Bakel  |  Jun 28, 2024  |  63 comments
A few summers ago, I briefly got it in my head that I could become a wine connoisseur. This was due to a very generous and unexpected gift. A local acquaintance had passed away, and his wife wanted to rid her basement of his small wine collection.

I don't know why I was chosen as the lucky recipient, but after stammering half a dozen thank-yous, I suddenly owned about 150 fine wines. A few carried four-figure price tags.

Reliably telling a Pinot Grigio from a Chardonnay isn't part of my skill set. Grape varieties, terroir, vintages? You might as well ask a toddler to become conversant in quantum mechanics. Still, I was intrigued by the bottles and amused by the ridiculousness of the situation. Me, an oenophile? I supposed I could pretend, and I did.

After opening and drinking, with my wife, a 1988 Château Léoville Barton, I wrote an over-the-top review and emailed it to a wine-loving friend for his amusement. "I beheld Hawthorn berries and beef stock along with a suggestion of blonde tobacco. Other than the obvious green walnut, there was a top note of wet Baja beach at dawn, mixing subtly with minke-whale flatulence and a hint of two-day-old scallop innards. Finally, with subsequent sips, I detected the aroma of the well-worn merkin of a Honduran sex worker. All in all, not a bad wine."

Eat your heart out, Robert Parker!

Tom Fine  |  Jun 21, 2024  |  10 comments
Life is not for Goldilocks. "Just right" is elusive. Every day, we face countless situations where our choices are either too many to navigate or too few to find satisfaction. Behavioral scientists call those dissatisfying alternatives "choice overload" and "choice deprivation," respectively.

I think choice overload may scare some audiophiles away from the glorious world of streaming, where the bulk and finite scope of a physical music-media collection can be traded for (or augmented by) many more listening choices. If you're willing to explore and choose, you can hear as deep and wide as most musical rabbit holes are likely to go, and then return to your favorite songs with a couple of finger-pecks on your phone.

For some people, all that choice is intimidating, paralyzing, overwhelming, highly stressful. That's no way to enjoy music! I sympathize. I'm not ready to leave physical media behind. But I am very happy in the streaming present. In fact, I urge the hesitant: Cast aside your fears and trepidations, sign up for a free month of Qobuz, Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, you decide—then take it slow. At first, avoid browsing—just search for the music you want to hear. Try something new each day. Over time, you'll adjust to the overwhelming abundance. By the end of the month, especially with a full-resolution service like Qobuz, Tidal, or Apple Music+HD, you may not want to give it up. The future-present beckons loudly.

Tom Fine  |  Apr 25, 2024  |  1 comments
For music listening circa 2024, streaming is both the present and the future. Physical formats are still around, and they are still the best choice in some cases, as with deluxe reissues of beloved albums, which may add value with extra live performances, full-resolution surround sound, and other perks. The niche vinyl market continues to thrive, and that business model obviously works for releases of a few thousand copies. (It also works, apparently, for releases of hundreds of thousands of T-Swift platters to be displayed on shelves and hung on walls.)

But facts is facts: Streaming is now the only mass medium for listening to recorded music—the primary carrier for music—and has been for a few years now. According to RIAA statistics, the crossover year was 2016. That's when, in revenue terms, streaming outpaced physical formats. By 2022, the latest full year tabulated, streaming accounted for 84% of US recorded-music revenue.

So what's a long-time audiophile, born into the analog world, with strong roots in physical media, supposed to do?

Herb Reichert  |  Apr 09, 2024  |  9 comments
I've been to a few bowling parties and passed a bottle around a few fire pits, but I've never watched an audiophile unboxing video. Lately though, I have been paying closer attention to my first impressions of each new audio product as it enters my realm.

I'm finding it interesting to notice how a device previously unseen and unheard declares itself one small step at a time as I open its box, feel its heft, observe its form, study its manual, and, finally, wire it into my system. Those start-up experiences, plus my gut feelings during my first moments of music listening, establish a tone of innocent discovery I wish would last the whole month. It never does.

I mention this because my first impressions for my first-ever review of an ARCAM product, the Radia A25 integrated amplifier, were in that "innocent and receptive" mode from the instant I saw the box sitting outside my door.

Tom Fine  |  Feb 02, 2024  |  2 comments
Do you remember your first really decent hi-fi system? It opened up your music, teased your brain with the possibilities of thrilling aural excitement, of dives to the bottom of the musical ocean. Perhaps it was all you needed, but more likely it was the beginning of a quest for your own ultimate sound-induced bliss.

That quest may be ongoing and never-ending, because our tastes and preferences evolve over time, money comes and goes, and we're simply never satisfied. And even if we are, eventually, we're audiophiles, and the industry always offers something interesting and new, or something old that's new again.

My time with a pair of Klipsch The Nines speaker-gadgets reminded me of the exciting, youthful bloom of my first serious sound system: a Technics SL-D2 turntable with Audio-Technica cartridge, a Philips 45Wpc receiver, and New Advent Loudspeakers.

John Atkinson  |  Dec 29, 2023  |  127 comments
When I reviewed the Concept 50 loudspeaker from the UK's Q Acoustics in August 2022, I concluded that the Concept 50 lowers the sweet price spot for affordable tower speakers to $3000/pair. Now I have another pair of Q Acoustics loudspeakers in the house for review. Like the earlier speaker, the 5040 is a slim, elegant-looking tower with a vertical D'Appolito drive-unit array comprising a 0.9" fabric-dome tweeter positioned between the two 5" plastic-cone woofers. But the price is half that of the Concept 50: $1499/pair. Will this be a new sweet spot? We shall see.
Robert Schryer  |  Dec 22, 2023  |  70 comments
Sometimes I think expensive components—I'll let you decide what constitutes expensive—should come with a big red sticker on the box that reads "WARNING! This product will probably not meet your expectations!" That's because when you spend a lot of money on something, you expect that something to have no flaws and to sound nigh perfect. Why else would you have paid so much? As you gaze at it, touch it, and listen to it, it constantly reassures you that you made the right decision by picking it over all the other, less pricey candidates. It has to be unambiguously better than any component of its nature that has passed through your system, or else, what was the point in all that upgrading?

Prior to this review, I had expectations about the product under review, the Leak Stereo 230 ($1695 with the walnut enclosure), based on, among other factors, price.

Rogier van Bakel  |  Mar 07, 2023  |  17 comments
You won't see many Apple products in these pages, and for good reason. As Stereophile Editor Jim Austin wrote to me recently in an email, "Apple may have the best acoustic-design facilities in the world, but its products are designed by engineers who don't seem to respect perfectionist sound—which is appropriate for a company that aims for the vast middle of the bell curve." Has that changed?
John Atkinson  |  Sep 07, 2022  |  First Published: Jan 01, 1989  |  1 comments
A new name to me, West German company MB Quart GmbH is, in fact, the reincarnation of the Peerless loudspeaker company that until 1983 used to be owned by New York–based Electro Audio Dynamics (EAD). The company has been in existence for over 20 years and under either name has an excellent reputation for its drive-unit technology, MB being one of the first manufacturers to offer an OEM metal-dome tweeter. Their 1" titanium-dome unit, for example, was featured in Dick Olsher's Dahlia-Debra DIY design (footnote 1), and I became quite enamored of the effortlessly clean nature of that speaker's treble.
John Atkinson  |  Jul 22, 2022  |  7 comments
Characteristically, the email from Kal Rubinson got straight to the point: "I have a WiiM Mini that I have played with, but I am not the right one to review this as I am not sufficiently interested in or knowledgeable about wireless streaming. It ... can handle uncompressed PCM via its DACs." "I'll review it," I replied, intrigued by a $99 D/A processor that can stream hi-rez audio via Wi-Fi and that also has an analog input so it can act as a preamplifier.
Ken Micallef  |  May 27, 2022  |  0 comments
Old-school audiophiles like me cling to our vinyl records and CDs. We spin them on turntables and slide them into transports, which send electric signals through wires to solid state or tubed amplifiers—a string of hardware devices. But, despite our object-attached ways, we're quite aware that we are living in a software-enabled, Bluetooth-connected, Wi-Fi–facilitated world. Even our Milky Way galaxy is wireless; as that pontificator of everything galactic, scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has proclaimed, "We're all connected."
Kalman Rubinson  |  Mar 25, 2022  |  12 comments
What am I doing with a vacuum tube preamplifier? I haven't owned a tubed preamp since I bought a Sonic Frontiers Line 3 preamplifier at the turn of the century. I set that aside within a few years as I moved into multichannel because multichannel tube-based electronics were, and still are, rare. My last home experience with a vacuum tube was with a PS Audio Stellar M1200 monoblock power amp, which is a hybrid with a 12AX7-based input stage.

John Atkinson  |  Feb 04, 2022  |  20 comments
There are words that, for reasons I can't fathom, I cannot stand. One such is "dongle." So when Bluebird Music's PR rep emailed me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing a new dongle from Chinese company Questyle Audio, I shuddered. But I must admit that "dongle" rolls off the tongue a lot more readily than "portable USB D/A headphone amplifier." I put aside my grammatical quibble and agreed to a review.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jan 28, 2022  |  62 comments
There has not been a conventional preamplifier in my main audio system for quite a while, because no multichannel preamp is available that's of high enough quality. Instead, I use the high-precision digital volume controls in my players and DACs and choose sources with a relay-based multichannel analog switch. Plus, I tell myself that no preamp can be more accurate and transparent than no preamp.
Julie Mullins  |  Dec 31, 2021  |  17 comments
It had been a while since I'd done any serious, critical listening through headphones. That changed when Editor Jim Austin asked if I wanted to review the iFi Audio ZEN Signature Set ($599). Figuring I could use more Zen in my life, I agreed.

UK-based iFi Audio, which operates under the auspices of the Abbington Global Group, has released several compact products in its ZEN series: DACs, headphone amps, a Bluetooth receiver, and a network streamer.