Looking Back at the 1980s

A freelance reviewer's workload is erratic. On the odd occasion one might have a few moments' respite, while at other times the coincidence of multiple deadlines for copy results in several weeks of panic. As I write this missive I have just completed one such overload period covering so much equipment that I thought that it would be worthwhile to look back and take stock at the audio in the past decade (footnote 1).

First I will look at CD and the results which are now coming in for the new generation of low-bit, high-oversampling players and comparisons with their established multi-bit colleagues and/or predecessors. Having reviewed some 60 CD players in recent months in every price category, about a third of these have been of the low-bit variety. With a few honorable exceptions, most of these new-tech designs were inferior to the older models.

It is a terrible indictment of the audio industry that low-bit systems should have been given such a hard sell to the consumer before an adequate assessment of their sound quality had been made. The following examples are of CD players of the Bitstream or low-bit variety which were found wanting in comparisons with earlier designs. This is not a general condemnation of the players or the technology; just an illustration of how they have got it wrong.

Yamaha released the 1030, an upmarket low-bit design inferior to its shifted-bit predecessors. It doesn't sound as good as Yamaha's old-tech but worthy 530. Rotel offers two players, the RCD-855 and '865; the former is the budget-priced multi-bit, the latter the more expensive Bitstream model. The 865 is nice enough, but taken overall, I think that the 855 is superior. In fact, it is one hell of a player at the price. Sony provides another example in the case of their new base-price CDP790, the successor to the good-value multi-bit 770. Again, the new PLM low-bit technology does not deliver the promised result. The Marantz CD11 one-box flagship—sold in the US as the Philips LHH-500—is proving a great success on the Japanese market for which it was principally designed. A key model in Marantz's present range is the CD80, a good-value, high-quality multi-bit design costing around $1400 in the UK and again sold as a Philips model in the US. The CD11, though costing four times as much, nonetheless falls significantly below the '80 in bass slam and rhythm while providing no significant advantage in sweetness or clarity.

It is demonstrably true that the Philips one-bit digital/analog conversion method can deliver high performance. In the hands of Meridian, the technology is setting an example to the industry. While Meridian has shown that it can be done, however, this doesn't mean that other designers and/or systems will do as well. On the present evidence, it seems that many operators have jumped the gun. I hope that commercial pressures will not force us to give up multi-bit prematurely—we may be giving up more than we think.

It is also becoming apparent that bitstream decoders are more susceptible to variations in source or transport quality. In a recent review of the very worthy Arcam Black Box 3 bitstream decoder, I noted that the best performance was only obtained with a top-class transport, specifically a Meridian 208—a self-defeating combination. Well, not quite, since the new Meridian 200 transport could be substituted for the 208. When used with ordinary CD digital outputs, the BB3 sound fell almost to the level of the BB2. Similar results were established for other bitstream units such as the Micromega Duo and the Meridian 203 and 603 designs.

The 203 processor is a remarkable performer, surpassing the 208 in my opinion. Thus it was an absolute necessity for Meridian's 603, which uses the new SAA7350 chip, to surpass the 203; fortunately it managed the trick and moves into the leading position in the sound quality ranking table. The 203 and 603 are something of a revelation compared with the average standard of CD replay, I feel, reaching deep into audiophile territory. A recent encounter with a CAL Aria 3 proved disappointing, however. While it sounded pleasantly sweet (with a measurable treble rolloff), like bitstream, it also sounded soft and distinctly lacking in pace and dynamics. For this player CAL has proudly announced the abandonment of the Philips technology used in their successful Tempest series for new Japanese components. I wonder if it was such a good idea?

I finally got to the MartinLogan Sequel 2 loudspeaker and found it hard to handle. The mid-treble is definitely superb, often providing breathtaking realism and transparency, but I could never get the bass to perform to anything like the same degree; the low-frequency timing couldn't keep up either. A flawed gem, this one. I had more fun with the Apogee Stage, which I regard as a real honey. While not perfect—nothing ever is—the Stage was wonderfully friendly, sounding good from day one and improving further with time and experience. An eminently musical transducer, you can believe all the good things you've heard about this model. Just as I was about to suggest that a stand might be an advantage, I hear that Apogee makes one! A pad of Dacron wadding may also be used, applied to the back panel to tame the 42Hz bass resonance according to taste.

Memorable preamplifiers have included the Classé DR6a, the C-J Premier 7A and PF-1, and the Audio Research LS1. The latter is an exceptional line controller and has emerged as one of their best-sounding units regardless of price. Classé's good reputation was confirmed by the DR6a, which showed an ability to mix in Audio Research SP14 company without embarrassment. The Premier unequivocally set industry standards for stage width, depth, and transparency, while its state-of-the-art neutrality was a joy to experience. The C-J PF1, which I review elsewhere in this issue, surprised me with its exceptional dynamic integrity; also something of a revelation in the field.

If you thought that the Krell KSA-200 was one of the last words on the subject of power amplifiers, I can confirm that its replacement, the KSA-250, is even better, almost taking on a pair of my favorite KMA-160s. Another new marvel is Audio Research's Classic 120 monoblock. I was knocked out by its excellent bass, fine clarity, and stereo precision, not forgetting the very good depth. At $2995 It is very competitively priced for the US market. My first run-in with the Koetsu Urushi MC cartridge was a disaster. It sounded worse than the Rosewood 2, with a disconnected effect, slow bass, and a searing treble. Temperatures in the UK reached unusually high levels, in the high 80s, upsetting the damping on this early sample. A second unit tried at more realistic temperatures sounded more promising.

My final observation concerns the new SME Model 30 turntable. Seen as a statement for the manufacturer and as one of the last words on the subject of analog replay, this innovative design finds very successful new answers for stabilizing the cartridge interface. However, while the performance is crisp and comparatively neutral, for my taste it lacks emotion and does not sound as rhythmic, dynamic, and involving as I would like. Superbly finished, this engineer's approach to turntable design is likely to sell well across the Pacific.—Martin Colloms

Footnote 1: With this article, we honor that tiny minority who rightfully insist that the end of the decade falls on December 31, 1990.—John Atkinson