When he visited my home last summer, SoundStage! founder and publisher Doug Schneider asked what I thought was a strange question. Which am I into more, music or sound? Am I first and foremost an audiophile or a music lover?
In no other area do audiophile aspirations collide more forcefully with the laws of physics than in the reproduction of deep bass. That’s especially true with audio systems installed in multipurpose living areas, as opposed to dedicated media rooms. There are two main reasons for this, one quantitative, the other qualitative.
A trick question: What are the most valuable components of your music system? I don’t know about yours, but the most valuable parts of mine are space and time. If that sounds like new-age hokum, stay with me—that insight has a lot to do with how I’ve configured my hi-fi system, how I use it, and the writing I do in this corner of the SoundStage! Network.
Last spring, I added a new component to my audio wish list: a subwoofer. It happened after I’d conducted an experiment in which I compared my Elac Navis ARF-51 active floorstanding speakers ($4599.98/pair, all prices USD) with a pair of Elac Navis ARB-51 active stand-mounted speakers ($2299.98/pair), the latter augmented by an SVS PB-2000 Pro subwoofer ($899.99). I wanted to find out which would give me better sound: a pair of full-range floorstanders, or a pair of minimonitors plus a sub. The Navises employ the same drivers, crossovers, and amplifiers—in short, that minimum of variables made these two models an ideal test bed for my experiment.
I didn’t expect to be writing this review -- at least, not now. As I mentioned a month ago, in my feature article “A Perfect Pair,” when I read PSB’s announcement of their new Alpha AM3 and Alpha AM5 powered speakers, I immediately requested for review a pair of AM5s. I was told that samples would be shipped to me that very week -- only to hear, a few days later, that review samples weren’t available, due to robust initial orders and pandemic-related product shortages. When PSB offered to supply the smaller AM3s, I gladly accepted.
At the start of 2020 — it seems an age ago — I’d made some ambitious travel plans for the year: In March, I’d take the train to Montreal for the Audiofest; in April, I’d fly to Chicago for AXPONA. In May, I’d jet off to Munich for the High End show. In October I’d stay in my home city to attend the Toronto Audiofest, and in November it would be off to Warsaw for the Audio Video Show.
Most audiophiles know SV Sound (SVS) as a manufacturer of high-performance, high-value speakers and subwoofers. The Ohio-based company’s catalog also includes one electronic component: the Prime Wireless SoundBase ($499.99, all prices USD), which combines a powerful integrated amplifier and network streamer in one compact case.
One of the best-kept secrets of home audio is the possibility of building a hi-fi system around a pair of professional studio monitors. As I discussed in my July 1 feature, “Turning Pro,” studio monitors offer more bang for the buck than most conventional systems comprising separate electronics and passive speakers.
It sounds like a nice problem for a speaker maker to have: Some hot new models are launched, and the first batch immediately sells out. That’s what happened when PSB announced powered versions of its acclaimed Alpha P3 and Alpha P5 minimonitors.
With apologies to William Shakespeare, there’s something rockin’ in the state of Denmark, audiowise. When it comes to active speakers that include digital signal processing (DSP) -- in my opinion, now the most exciting segment of audio -- the Danes are on the leading edge. During my two-years-plus at SoundStage! Simplifi, I’ve written about active speakers from several Danish brands, including DALI, Dynaudio, and System Audio, and I’ve loved them all.
Is there a speaker brand that does retro as well as Klipsch? I doubt it. Klipsch’s big horn speakers hark back to the middle of the 20th century, and so do their lifestyle products.
In the last decade, recorded music has undergone a sea change -- it has become disembodied. From the late 19th to the early 21st century, music was distributed on physical media. In the early 21st century, digital downloads held sway, then quickly gave way to on-demand streaming.
A year ago this week, Amazon shook up the audio world with its announcement of Amazon Music HD, a streaming service that today offers 60 million tracks in lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz CD resolution, plus “millions” of hi-rez tracks in resolutions up to 24/192. While lossless and hi-rez files were already available from Qobuz and Tidal, the leading streaming services all used lossy codecs, so Amazon’s embrace of hi-rez audio was big news.
For the past couple of decades, the audio industry has been angsting about how to get young listeners interested in hi-fi. It’s not that teens and twentysomethings don’t love music; it’s that their musical lives revolve around smartphones, headphones, maybe a Bluetooth speaker. How can they be introduced to the joys of listening to real stereo from real hi-fi speakers?
Volumio may not be a household name among audiophiles, but it has a huge following among DIY hobbyists. Based in Florence, Italy, Volumio is the developer of an eponymous, open-source Linux distribution designed for music playback that can run on an inexpensive single-board computer (SBC) such as the Raspberry Pi. The company claims to have over 300,000 users, mainly hobbyists who run Volumio on home-built digital music streamers and servers.
Integrating a hi-fi system into a multipurpose living space can be complicated by all the wiring needed to connect the various components. This is particularly true of speaker cables, especially if they have to cross an open area of the room. Even if they aren’t tripping hazards, they’re unsightly.
On a Friday morning, two years ago this month, an unexpected e-mail from SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider appeared in my inbox. I say “unexpected” because, at the time, I barely knew Doug. We’d met a few times at such audio events as CEDIA and the Consumer Electronics Show, and I knew Doug by reputation, having been a regular reader of SoundStage! publications since the Network’s launch, in 1995. We arranged to chat by phone.
If you want to establish a new audio brand, where do you start? That was the question faced by Andover Audio, a Boston-area company founded in 2012 by ex-employees of Cambridge SoundWorks, when they decided to offer products under their own brand.
The American brand Audio Alchemy was founded in the 1980s and folded a decade later. It re-emerged in the early 2000s, and was purchased by Elac in 2016, where it has undergone a renaissance. Audio Alchemy founder Peter Madnick now acts as a consulting engineer for Elac, and is responsible for developing Elac’s Alchemy series of electronic components, now in their second generation.
In the two years I’ve been writing for SoundStage! Simplifi I’ve reviewed 15 stereo loudspeakers, all of them active or powered models. There’s a practical reason for this. I don’t have a dedicated music room, and our living room isn’t big enough to accommodate a conventional audio system of separate components: sources, amplifiers, and passive speakers. So the music systems in our current home have been built around active speakers -- first, Dynaudio’s Focus 200 XD, which, following a firmware update, is sonically and functionally identical to the newer Focus 20 XD ($5999/pair, all prices USD); and, later, Elac’s Navis ARF-51 ($4599.98/pair).
In the past few years, the French speaker maker Focal has had an amazing run on SoundStage!. Reviewed by Diego Estan on SoundStage! Access, the Chora 806 ($990/pair, all prices USD) received a Reviewers’ Choice award, and was later designated a Recommended Reference Component. The same honors were bestowed on Focal’s Stellia headphones ($2990), reviewed by Brent Butterworth on SoundStage! Solo; and on the Spectral 40th floorstanding speakers ($9990/pair) and Sopra No1 minimonitors ($9990/pair), both reviewed by Diego for SoundStage! Hi-Fi. The Spectral 40th was also named a SoundStage! Network 2019 Product of the Year in the Hall of Fame category. That’s a mighty impressive record.
When I reviewed Elac’s Navis ARF-51 active floorstanding speakers ($4599.96/pair, all prices USD) in September 2019, I rediscovered something I’d been missing for the previous six years: kick-ass bass.
When computer audio took off, a decade ago, many hobbyists opted to use active studio monitors, rather than the usual amplifier and passive speakers. It’s not hard to see why. Especially for desktop audio, where space is at a premium, speakers with built-in amps are convenient.
Do you need a powerhouse computer just to play music? Not everyone does -- I use a nine-year-old, mid-tier Apple Mac Mini, and it does just fine. I’ve modified it for music playback, swapping out its spinning hard-disk drive for a solid-state drive (SSD), and bumping up its RAM from 4 to 16GB, so that music plays from memory rather than storage.
Can an audio component be more than the sum of its parts? Bryston’s new BDA-3.14 streaming DAC-preamp ($4195, all prices USD) invites that question. Essentially, it combines two products on one chassis: the acclaimed BDA-3 DAC ($3795) and a network streamer based on the BDP-Pi ($1495). The BDP-Pi derives its name from the Raspberry Pi single-board computer at its core. Hence the model number of the new integrated product -- 3.14 is an approximation of the mathematical constant pi (π), denoting the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
Many of the products I’ve recently reviewed for Simplifi have been DACs with built-in streamers -- most recently, Bryston’s BDA-3.14 ($4195, all prices USD) and iFi Audio’s Pro iDSD ($2749); and, before that, NAD’s Classic C 658 ($1649), Lumin’s T2 ($4500), and Naim Audio’s ND5 XS 2 ($3495).
In my last three columns, I wrote about how streaming is changing the ways people discover and experience music. In my January feature, “The State of Streaming,” I looked at streaming services that deliver lossless CD-resolution and high-resolution music. In “The Name Game,” published February 1, I wrote about how streaming has given rise to whole new classes of audio components, and set out to establish some definitions. And in my March feature, “Rules of the Game,” I discussed the software protocols that enable these new components to talk to one another, and compared their benefits and drawbacks.
A half-century ago, when I got into audio, most amplifiers had front panels that looked like jet cockpits. And the higher a model was in its manufacturer’s product line, the more knobs and switches it had.
Is there a hobby that’s less domesticated than home theater? Ever since people began connecting their TVs to their stereos in the late 1970s, audio manufacturers have been encouraging them to add more and more speakers -- and it’s gotten a bit crazy.
Last November in Warsaw, Poland, at the Audio Video Show 2019, I saw several products that fit Simplifi’s mandate to cover “convenient, lifestyle-oriented hi-fi,” many of which I knew I wanted to get in for review. At the top of the list were two new active loudspeakers from Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries (DALI): the Rubicon 2 C stand-mount ($5799/pair, all prices USD) and the Rubicon 6 C floorstander ($7999/pair). DALI’s passive Rubicon models are just one tier below their flagship Epicon series, so the prospect of reviewing these new active versions was mighty appealing.
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