Usually, we at the SoundStage! Network try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible: If we put up a big enough tent, we figure, then more readers can enter and find something useful -- information that will support them in buying high-end audio gear.
The “What I’d Buy” series is not that. In its conception and execution, it’s actually quite selfish. Here, I don’t list and describe what I’d buy if I were you, but what I’d buy. Therefore, the products listed in the various categories I’ve written about -- Digital Source Components, Integrated Amplifiers, Power Amplifiers, Loudspeakers Under $15,000, Loudspeakers Over $15,000, and this final article -- will appeal to readers who think at least somewhat as I do -- or to those who are simply curious about my opinions. Many types of products -- tubes, turntables, planar speakers, component footers -- are not represented in these articles, simply because I wouldn’t personally buy such things. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy them, but they haven’t made it into this series because they’re not on my shopping list. It’s been refreshing to not have to consider what anyone else thinks of the content -- for once!
Something else I don’t buy is a marketing ploy that’s been going around for years -- basically, that you should spend 25% of a system’s total cost on cables and interconnects. I think that’s nonsense. I’m no cable skeptic -- I know that cables can make a real difference in the sound of an audio system. But I also know that higher cost doesn’t necessarily mean better sound, and that that rule applies more to cables than to any other type of audio component. My recommendations of cables are very basic. I believe in buying from solid companies whose cables I’ve heard, and that I know won’t present me with quality-control problems. Basically, there are four such companies that I hold in high regard: Nordost, Crystal Cable/Siltech, Dynamique Audio, and AudioQuest. Here’s why:
Although some will debate the accuracy of this statement, I can say with confidence that, of all the types of products needed to complete a stereo system, loudspeakers are the largest determinant of overall sound quality. They are easily the least perfect of components, and therefore account for the widest variances in sound output. This is why those assembling a new system often first choose their speakers, then build the electronics around that very personal choice. I endorse that way of building a sound system.
Translating an electrical signal into sound with no losses or nonlinearities from the original source signal -- in short, designing a loudspeaker -- is supremely complex, and arguably the greatest challenge in high-end audio engineering. But for the average designer, speakers are also the simplest components to get working. You can easily buy good, off-the-shelf drivers, and use commercially available software to guide your crossover design, enclosure volume, and port size. Couple this with contracting out for some good woodworking skills, and you can end up with a competent-sounding, good-looking speaker that you can market to audiophiles.
My recommendations for loudspeakers costing less than $15,000 (all prices listed below are per pair in USD) are of models that can be used in spaces that range from the small to the very large. Some of them distinguish themselves in subtle ways, performing very specific tasks at the highest levels, while others are great all-around speakers that almost anyone can be happy with. Most will easily beat, or at least compete with, speakers costing much more than $15,000.
A few criteria helped shape this list. Obviously, sound quality is first -- experienced mostly firsthand by me, but also by other SoundStage! Network reviewers. Sound quality is, after all, the ultimate arbiter of a speaker’s worth.
But I’m also aware that people and their ears are fallible -- I’ve heard some speakers that I know are absolutely worthless that are still recommended by owners and even other reviewers. When I see an example of this phenomenon, I usually chalk it up to people just getting it wrong. So as a checks-and-balances safeguard, here I recommend only speakers that I know have been thoroughly engineered and measure as such. You’d be surprised how many loudspeakers -- mostly the ones costing above $15,000 -- have sub-par engineering. The ones I list here will hold no surprises -- no bad ones, anyway. They’re all very good products, even though their intended applications and prices vary quite a bit.
Along with loudspeakers, power amplifiers have always represented the largest financial investments I’ve made in my audio system. It’s been my experience that I shouldn’t skimp on amplification, and that once I find a great power amp, it’s easy to stick with it over the long term. (Though whether any audiophile, including myself, actually does so is another subject altogether.) A great amp today will still be a great amp ten years from now.
I believe this is so because so much of an amplifier’s cost has to do with hardware. Huge power supplies and massive heatsinks have always been relatively expensive, and unlike digital source components, the technologies involved in the design and manufacture of tubed or solid-state amps don’t change rapidly, the advent of class-D designs notwithstanding.
This series of articles is titled “What I’d Buy” -- these lists I compile are, by definition, limited to the types of products I like enough to pay for with my own money. Therefore, entire swaths of the marketplace will be left undiscussed simply because I have no knowledge of or interest in them. This month, that means you’ll find no tube amps here. Through the years, I’ve admired many tube amps at shows and dealers and while visiting manufacturers, but I’ve always been more drawn to really good solid-state gear; that’s where I’ve spent my money, and that’s the area in which I’ve built my expertise. We have other writers who can advise you about tubes.
Many, if not most, recent reviews of integrated amplifiers in the audiophile press begin by telling you two things: 1) that the integrated was once looked down on by multibox-craving audiophiles, but is now accepted as a real high-end component; and 2) the integrated’s single-chassis design has some advantages over separates -- e.g., at least one fewer pair of interconnects, and shorter internal signal paths.
The latest fact in the evolution of the integrated amplifier is that many models also include a digital section, typically a USB digital-to-analog converter, which either comes standard or as an option. These built-in DACs make for a greatly simplified system: add a pair of speakers and a computer-based source such a laptop or Mac Mini, wire it all up, and off you go.
Not a week goes by that I don’t hear an audiophile complain about the “audio dealer situation” in his or her area. The story is always the same: There’s nowhere to hear a particular model, or the ones that compete against it. More and more, audiophiles face an hours-long road trip -- or, more likely, two or three such trips -- or even air travel, for what amounts to a three-day investment of time. Who has time and money for all that? This is a hobby.
What I see more and more of are e-mails asking what I would buy if I were in the e-mailer’s shoes. I happily give my advice, often with the disclaimer “Go hear it for yourself” -- even though I know full well that if they could go hear it for themselves, they probably wouldn’t be contacting me!
This year’s Consumer Electronics Show seemed a tad subdued. Most people blamed the new Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule, which replaced the traditional long weekend -- after all, many industry professionals have retail jobs. Nonetheless, there were a hardy number of new products at CES 2013, and we covered them in detail in our SoundStage! Global show report.
CES 2013 revealed some things that transcend any single product introduction. Here are the eight you must know about -- not only if you plan to shop for a component any time soon, but even if you just enjoy keeping up with industry doings.
January marks an exciting time for us at the SoundStage! Network. We like to look back at the year just past and highlight each component we’ve named a Product of the Year. I think you’ll agree that 2012 gave us a very strong crop indeed, and Doug Schneider has done a fine job of summarizing it over at SoundStage! Hi-Fi. We’re also just days away from the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, Nevada (January 8-11). That means a whole slew of new products will soon be finding their ways to dealers and customers, and hopefully some of them will be very good. Our coverage of CES will be available at www.SoundStageGlobal.com beginning January 7, so judge for yourself.
I made the transition from a living/listening room to a dedicated listening room in late 2005 and early 2006. The move was made primarily due to the increasing mobility of my daughter, who was then one year old, and my realization that no review sample would be safe from her ever-more-curious fingers. Of course, as any audiophile worth his salt would do, I took the opportunity to upgrade the sound of my audio system and, while I was at it, give it a vastly better acoustic environment -- one designed by Terry Montlick, of Terry Montlick Labs.
By the time the new room -- the Music Vault -- was completed in early 2006, I’d reported on the entire project in a series of articles on Ultra Audio, beginning the previous September: “Building the Music Vault -- Part One,” “Part Two,” and “Part Three.” The Vault then remained unchanged for six years -- until this past spring, when I put the finishing touches on The World’s Best Audio System 2012, my third cost-no-object dream-system project for the SoundStage! Network, extensively written about on SoundStage! Global. Each of the two changes I made was designed to improve the performance of the Vault. First, the polycylindrical diffusors that line the room’s walls were further damped by being stuffed and put under tension with fiberglass insulation, then capped with panels of 2"-thick polyethylene. The purpose of this was to damp their large surface areas and thereby reduce any resonances that might occur.
Far too many audiophiles get worked up posing and defending arguments about what is the absolute best high-fidelity equipment extant. I suspect that the loudest voices are not particularly objective, tied as they often are to the validation of their own purchases. Check out the blogs -- it can be crazy out there.
Calm down, people. High-performance audio can and should elicit passion, but that passion needs to be grounded in common sense, balance, and a systems-oriented approach. I’ll let you in on a little secret: There is no “best” out there, at least in any absolute or blanket sense.
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