These days, everyone does the Product of the Year thing, and in that regard, we at SoundStage! are no different. What makes us different is our breadth of coverage. Not only do we review traditional home stereo gear, we also have writers who address home theater, Bluetooth speakers, desktop audio, and portable devices, including the increasingly important headphone and earphone markets. I’m proud of the fact that we at SoundStage! cover so many different product genres, and our awards reflect that breadth. Below are my views on this year’s most spectacular products, with links to our reviews of them.
I’ve never been into tweaks. The thought of spending hour after hour replacing the supports of components or speakers with this footer and that, then straining to hear a difference, sounds worse to me than sitting in a bare room watching paint dry. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Heck, it’s been years since I reviewed even a cable. I prefer the meat and potatoes of audio reviewing: amps, speakers, and a source component here and there. The only tweaking I do -- and I don’t really consider it tweaking in the tweakiest audiophile sense -- is to fine-tune the positions of speakers, and micro-optimize the acoustic properties of my listening space, the Music Vault. I’ve found that both can lead to clear improvements in sound.
Musical Performance: ****1/2
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****1/2
In November 2015, the Rolling Stones were at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios, in London, to record an album of new material. Things were not off to a good start. Keith Richards told Rolling Stone that he thought, “The room is fighting me. It’s fighting the band. The sound is not coming.” Richards suggested that they play “Blue and Lonesome,” a song by blues harpist Little Walter from 1959. Everything clicked and, as Richards described it, “a sound is happening and it was good.”
In February 2014, when I reviewed the David Berning Company’s ZH-230 power amplifier for SoundStage! Ultra, I instantly fell in love with it. Its sound consigned to the scrap heap -- or at least to the closet -- every other amplifier I’d tried in my system. This tubed design eschewed the output transformers used in virtually every other tube amplifier in the world, and which are responsible for lots of sonic problems. Everyone who heard it agreed that the sound was just splendid, and its 30Wpc easily drove my sensitive horn speakers.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show is right around the corner, in January, and Munich’s High End won’t be long in following. As always at those events, we’ll see new products, and see and hear announcements of products soon to be launched. I’m most interested in components that are unique and/or extreme in some way -- products that fit the Ultra in SoundStage! Ultra. What follows is my wish list, with a caveat: I have zero insider info about whether or not any of this high-end gear is actually in anyone’s pipeline.
In 2003, I asked a representative from Synergistic Research why, unlike many other cable manufacturers, the company didn’t make a power conditioner. The rep stated that, despite Synergistic’s many models of interconnect, speaker cable, and power cord, head designer Ted Denney had yet to discover a power-conditioning technology he thought worth developing. According to the rep, only when Denney had found something that he thought would move the field forward would he put the Synergistic name on it.
Musical Performance: ***1/2
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
It’s hard to think of a guitarist who plays so many varieties of jazz with as much ease and versatility as John Scofield. He’s played bebop, fusion, and soul jazz with equal conviction and skill, and some of his records, such as Bump (2000) and Überjam (2002), pull in enough styles to make them beyond category. He paid tribute to Ray Charles with That’s What I Say (2005), and played New Orleans-style gospel on Piety Street (2009).
Just before he left for college, my son turned me on to a TV show that’s become my new binge-watching passion. Netflix’s Chef’s Table is a visual and gustatory feast, and the first episode introduced me to the culinary talents of Massimo Bottura, chef of the three-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. On the short list of objects in my house that are getting or have gotten better with age are a 1989 bottle of Krug Champagne, my cast-iron frying pan, my wife’s red hair, and a bottle of Manodori -- Bottura’s meticulously crafted, perfectly aged balsamic vinegar. Drizzled over risotto, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, arugula, or fresh-picked berries, Manodori’s complex, multilayered taste is a perfect example of how well certain things in life can age.
I’d love to see the stats: How many audiophiles in 2016 bought parts of their system -- or their entire system -- online or over the phone, without ever having heard the component(s)? I know from the letters I receive that many of you do, if only out of necessity. The number of dealers stocking high-end audio gear has shrunk over the years, and sometimes it’s just not feasible to hear the component you’re considering buying before you actually buy it. And comparing two different brands side by side -- the two specific brands you’re most interested in -- is often next to impossible. Many dealers carry only a few brands, and typically complementary rather than competing brands.
Audiophiles can instantly tell the difference between a traditional high-end component and a “lifestyle” product. It’s either one or the other, and until recently, their paths did not intersect. In fact, the death knell for a new product’s credibility in the audiophile community was rung as soon as the word lifestyle appeared anywhere in its vicinity.
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