October 10, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
Compared to What? by Wes Phillips
Acoustic Energy WiFi Internet Radio, by Wes Phillips
Soundmatters FULLstage Hd, by Wes Phillips
Audica MPS-1 Personal Audio System, by Wes Phillips
This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

Compared to What? by Wes Phillips

While attending the 2006 CEDIA Expo, held in Denver last month, John Atkinson and I entered the press room and sat down at a table with ultimateAV's Fred Manteghian and another chap. I booted up my iBook G4, JA switched on his Titanium Powerbook, and we began to blog the day's events. Suddenly, I heard one our tablemate say, "I see we have two real computers and two toy computers at the table."


I looked up and noticed that Fred was working on a Dell laptop and the other guy had one of Sony's feather-light VIAOs. At first, I wasn't sure if we were being subjected to a bit of lighthearted ribbing based on those ridiculous "I'm a PC/I'm a Mac" ads, but the next comment removed all doubt.

"I'm always glad when my friends tell me they're switching to a Mac, because then, when they call me for free advice, I can say, 'I don't know anything about that crap—I use a real computer.'"

I didn't feel so much put down as mildly embarrassed. I was just minding my own business, getting my work done, and all of a sudden someone is claiming his OS is bigger than mine? Transport me back to junior high!

Maybe it's indicative of how much time we audiophiles spend by ourselves, but it seems to me that some of us indulge in far too much of this sort of antisocial weenie waggling. You can't be a real audiophile because you use/don't use (insert choice here) ____________ a) tubes, b) transistors, c) digital, d) analog, e) computers, f) headphones. The list could be much longer, but you get the idea: Your choice of music-delivery system says a lot about who you are. Put so baldly, the proposition is patently ridiculous, isn't it?

Maybe I'm the wrong guy to ask. About 10 years ago, I heard some car audio that struck me as pure high-end, and I said so in print. I'm not saying I was right and everybody who wrote to Stereophile claiming I'd lost it was wrong, but isn't it possible that in car audio, just as in everything else, Sturgeon's Law applies? (Science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said, in response to a complaint that 90% of science fiction is crap, that 90% of everything is crap.)

Closer to the present, I reviewed the Apple iPod in 2003. I was particularly impressed by the fact that with the introduction of iTunes 4.5, the iPod, unlike many other portable players, did not force you to employ lossy, compressed formats, but let you determine which was more important: fidelity or capacity.

Boy, did we get letters—most of them decrying lossily compressed formats as antithetical to the High End. Were the letter writers wrong? Of course not. The iPod struck me as significant precisely because it was a playback component that freed quality-conscious audiophiles from MP3—and paved the way for the high-quality media servers we've reviewed since, such as the Olive Symphony, Slim Devices Squeezebox, and Sonos ZP80 and ZP100. I think all of these are intriguing high-end audio products, but we get letters claiming otherwise each time we venture an opinion that they might be of interest.

Do I sound gun-shy? Well, maybe a little. Fortunately, I write for John Atkinson, who has a unique take on negative mail. When I began working for Stereophile, I wrote something, I can't remember what, that prompted a reader's letter that basically opined that I was wrong, brain-dead, deaf as a post, and generally stunk up the rag. Devastated, I suggested that I might as well give up.

"Why?" John asked. "You have just proven that you have the one thing every magazine needs."

"What's that?"


Well, one, at any rate.

Three, count 'em, three!

That's the long way around the barn. Recently, I've been listening to not one but three products that aren't really high-end enough to satisfy audio purists—but, sheesh, what is? High-end or not, I've enjoyed them for what they are. You might, too—assuming they fill a niche in your listening world.

Acoustic Energy WiFi Internet Radio ($299.95): For an audio purist, Acoustic Energy's WiFi Radio might be the bitterest pill to swallow. An Internet radio station that actually delivers 128kbps is considered ultra-high fidelity—many deliver 64kbps, and not a few stream at 20kbps. Ouch!

Why would anybody listen, then? For one thing, it's free. However, the big draw is the immense variety available. AE says there are over 10,000 Internet radio feeds out there, and the WiFi lets you access "over 99%" of them.

Of course, you can access Internet radio over the, um, Internet, but that means you need a computer—and your computer needs to be connected to a hi-fi. Think of the AE WiFi as a table radio for the Net. You can tote it from room to room and listen to, say, the BBC World Service while putting in your morning aerobic workout or doing chores—which is how my wife uses it.

How's it work? It requires no software or computer connection. When you first unpack it, you turn it on and it searches for a WiFi network. It gives you a list of the available options and you choose yours (play nice, now). If your network is encrypted, you'll need to enter your encryption code—this is the only part that gets complicated, and it's tricky only because AE has intentionally kept the keypad simple. However, if you can program your cell phone's address book, you can get the AE WiFi to shake hands with your WiFi network.

Once you've introduced the AE WiFi to your network, that's about it. You don't need to have your computer powered up; the WiFi connects to the Internet radio Gateway, which automatically loads channel listings every time the WiFi radio is powered up. You can scroll through stations by country and genre, or you can use the keypad to search by station name.

If you have RealMedia or WMA files on your computer, you can play those through your AE WiFi, too. I wouldn't know, because most of my music files are encoded in Apple Lossless and AE doesn't speak Apple.

Does it sound complicated? Once you get the hang of it, it really isn't any harder than using an analog FM tuner.

What I like about Internet radio is the variety, which is something you don't get from terrestrial radio any more. There's almost no classical radio left in the US—and when stations do offer it, they confine it to the nighttime hours (as does, for instance, my local NPR station, WNYC, grrrr). The great thing about Internet radio is that it's always nighttime somewhere. That means you get classical all day, but it also means you get late-night radio, even during morning drive time.

Like folk music? Dozens of countries have Internet stations that stream local musicians. Like talk radio? Internet radio will talk your arm off—and in the language of your choice.

You could connect the AE WiFi to your big rig via its headphone output, I suppose, but I can't see why you'd want to. The streams aren't high-fidelity, and the WiFi's 3" speaker is just about right for delivering them.

If you have a wireless music server, such as the Slim Devices Squeezebox, you already have Internet radio access, plus all the other functionality inherent in the component—and the Squeezebox costs about the same as the AE WiFi. Thing is, I love my Squeezebox, but I don't walk from room to room with it. I do that with the AE because that's what a portable radio is for.

Soundmatters FULLstage HD ($599): Reading the product literature, it's obvious that the Soundmatters FULLstage HD is aimed at folks who want better audio for their TVs but don't want to commit to a room-encroaching multichannel system. The FULLstage HD is a two-piece system that doesn't separate the right and left channels but gives you a "set-top" box, the MAINstage, that contains two 2¾" drivers and a 4" "woofer" in one enclosure, and a 6" woofer in the separate SUBstage.

The set-top unit (it measures 16¾" W by 215/16" H by 97/16" D) has two channels rated at 20W, as well as a third, 40W channel driving that 4" cone. The MAINstage takes four inputs: one 1/8" stereo minijack, one pair of RCAs, one TosLink digital, and one coaxial S/PDIF. The MAINstage features Virtual Surround Processing, which is said to give you fuller, more dynamic sound for, well, a virtual surround effect. It clearly does something, and you might like what it does, but I guess I still have a touch of the audiophile prude in me: I kept thinking, This can't be right, and disengaged it.

The MAINstage has a subwoofer line out, which connects it to the SUBstage (or to as many SUBstages as you want). The SUBstage drives its 6" woofer with a 100W amp and loads it with a pair of flat-diaphragm passive drivers mounted on the backside (or the bottom—you can mount the SUBstage on a wall, place it on the floor, or stuff it inside a console). The SUBstage has a polarity switch and a low-pass filter continuously variable from 50 to 200Hz.

The package includes all the cables you'll need and a remote control. Optional wall and ceiling mounts are available.

I think the FULLstage would nicely fit the bill for a TV audio system, but I added it to a sunroom that I uncharacteristically didn't want to stuff with hi-fi equipment. The MAINstage went on a shelf and the SUBstage got shoved into a space between the desk and the wall. I connected an Ayre C-5xe universal player to the MAINstage's analog RCA inputs and my Polk XRT-12 XM tuner into its TosLink digital input.

C'mon, we're talking a couple of 2¾" drivers fortified by 4" and 6" "woofers" here. That's why, when I powered on the FULLstage, I was gobsmacked by how full and rich the sound was. Full, rich, and, yes, powerful.

What I didn't get was soundstaging or imaging. I didn't miss 'em—I just wanted to listen to music while reading in my comfy chair next to the MAINstage, or have background tunes while I checked out my e-mail on the laptop at the other end of the room. What I didn't anticipate was how much music listening I'd actually do with the system.

How come? Whoever tuned the MAINstage got it right. The top end rolls off smoothly and doesn't sound shrill or shouty. The sound is focused in the vocal region, and the SUBstage adds just enough solidity (if you tune its crossover intelligently) to support that. It sounds warm and easy to take. I think Sam Tellig might say it sounded "tubelike," and perhaps even reminisce about the fabulous Capehart consoles of yore. If he did, I wouldn't argue.

Is it hi-fi? Maybe not, but it's set-it-and-forget-it audio—and even hard-core audiophiles need to kick back every now and then and not worry about see-through transparency. Living as it does on a low shelf, my FULLstage is darn close to see-no-evil hi-fi—and it definitely is hear-no-evil. I suspect that if it sounded any better, it'd sound worse.

Audica MPS-1 Personal Audio System ($400): You might easily dismiss the Audica MPS-1 Personal Audio System as just another desktop rig aimed at style-conscious executives. After all, with its streamlined metal-clad speakers and reverse-curved central unit, it's beautifully designed—far too good-looking to be serious hi-fi. However, unlike almost every other "computer" system I've ever seen, the Audica MPS-1 has a solidity and a heft that tell you it is serious. Don't hate it because it's beautiful.

Those speakers aren't metalized plastic, they're extruded aluminum, and each ported enclosure houses a pair of 2" "full-range" drivers with substantial butyl-rubber surrounds. The control unit/amplifier puts out 25Wpc RMS and accepts three line-level inputs—one of them high sensitivity, for use with, say, an iPod. The control unit also sports FireWire and USB charging outputs—you can charge your player with them, but they don't accept input signals. The MPS-1 has a wand remote.

I work at home, so I can put any darn thing I want on my desk—one of my favorite desktop rigs was a pair of Dynaudio Special Twenty-Fives driven by my Musical Fidelity combo of Nu-Vista Preamp and Nuvista 300 power amp—but most folks have to stay sort of sane when they assemble a desktop rig. You could do a lot worse than the MPS-1.

I said the Special Twenty-Five/Nu-Vista rig was one of my favorites, but it sure wasn't practical. It took up a lot of real estate and was too powerful to let me, say, answer the phone or hear the UPS guy at the door. The MPS-1 was like stealth audio in comparison. The sleek speakers nestled next to my monitor unobtrusively. When I positioned them perfectly, I didn't hear left and right so much as a deep, monitor-sized proscenium that made my office wall completely disappear. And the remote allowed me to put the control center wherever I wanted it— waaay out of the way, as it happened. (If that's where you want it, too, Audica offers a pair of 5m speaker cables as an option; the standard cables are 1.5m.)

Obviously, four 2" speakers won't produce room-filling sound, even when powered by a 25Wpc amplifier. The MPS-1 is designed for nearfield listening, and in the nearfield the sound was rich and detailed. Powerful, even—just don't expect to DJ for those raucous casual-Friday parties at your cubicle farm. That's probably why Audica calls it a personal audio system.

That said, I did catch myself turning up the system periodically and rocking out. Well, I rocked out when it was Led Zeppelin; I'm not sure what you call it when it's Bruckner you're blasting and air-conducting.

There are a lot of approaches to desktop sound systems, and for $400 you can buy a receiver and a pair of bookshelf loudspeakers that will fill the room. Heck, if you've been an audiophile as long as I have, you might have at least those components moldering in your closet—maybe even enough for two or three desktop systems. If that describes you, you probably don't need an Audica MPS-1. But if you're working in an environment where even your desktop has to say "professional" and perhaps even "stylish," the MPS-1 just might be what you need. It doesn't hurt a bit that it happens to sound good, too.

Simaudio Ltd.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
From Wes Phillips

The score for a hole in the ground: www.scoreforaholeintheground.org.

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at http://blog.stereophile.com/wesphillips

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