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Last summer, I got a call from Eric Pheils, North American distributor for Zanden Audio Systems. He proposed driving up from San Francisco, where he was staying, to my place in Oregon. “Great!” I said. “What electronics are you going to bring?” He hedged. Turned out he didn’t have an amp or preamp with him this time, but was eager to show me some new sound treatments -- acoustic tubes and panels -- developed by Kazutoshi Yamada, president of Zanden.
Between Rockport Technologies’ Avior ($37,500 USD/pair) and Altair II ($103,500/pair) loudspeakers was a gap precisely $66,000 wide. To faithfully serve his Maine-based company’s eager market -- a market that wanted more than the Avior could offer, but that couldn’t afford the Altair II -- president and resident speaker guru Andy Payor knew he had to come up with something different. His huge challenge: what?
Arguably, in the last few years the most competitive segment of the ultra-high-end speaker market has been models retailing for $50,000 to $70,000/pair. This price range includes such prominent models as Wilson Audio Specialties’ Alexia ($52,000/pair), Magico’s S7 ($58,000/pair), and Vivid Audio’s Giya G1 ($68,000/pair), to name just a few. In short, there are lots of tough competitors.
I’ve been reading a compelling self-improvement bestseller by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo makes a simple but powerful claim: a dramatic reorganization of your outer world can result in correspondingly profound changes in your inner world. Declutter your life and you’ll feel better, she promises. The path to reorganization, however, involves a ruthlessly deliberate shedding of some of our things. Kondo encourages us to keep only what brings us joy, and to get rid of everything that doesn’t.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the analog preamplifier. For audiophiles like me, with all-digital systems, the allure of going preampless is strong. There are many digital-to-analog converters on the market, at all different price points, that offer remote switching of digital sources and have quite transparent volume controls. These DACs, in effect, have become the digital preamp -- perfect for those who don’t need analog switching. Bridging the gap between these full-featured DACs and the all-analog preamplifier are analog preamps with digital input sections -- essentially, a preamp with a built-in DAC. With such components, you have the choice of analog or digital inputs, which offers tremendous flexibility that can accommodate almost any system configuration. The downside is that upgrading your DAC also means replacing your analog preamp.
In audio, a clock determines the times at which digital audio samples are converted into analog. Messing up this timing condemns the music to digital hell, where jitter causes distortion and harshness in music. Thomas Hobbes said that “Hell is truth seen too late.” For audio purposes, I suggest that hell is truth seen too early or too late.
Think back to the days of hand-cranked film viewers. Because it was extremely difficult to achieve a constant playback speed, the films looked jerky, unnatural, jittery. A similar phenomenon occurs when the conversion of a digital to an analog signal is imperfectly timed.
These days, to sell their products, makers of high-end audio gear must have a hook: something that makes the consumer choose their widget over competing widgets. Maybe that hook is a famous designer, or a company history long established and revered by audiophiles, or performance and/or build quality that far exceed what might be expected for the price -- or just clever marketing. But whatever the hook, it won’t work if it’s a secret. Companies have to get the word out.
It’s got to be the best gig in the world, or the worst.
In my 15 years of reviewing I’ve dealt with companies large and small. The big guys -- Audio Research, MartinLogan, Monitor Audio -- can afford a significant level of detachment from their products. They have marketing guys, shipping guys, and manufacturing departments. Each step in the production of one of their products is insulated from the next, and by the time a component arrives in my listening room it’s been manhandled by a dozen people -- maybe more.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Ayre Acoustics’ stellar KX-5 preamplifier ($7950 USD, discontinued). It was the quietest preamplifier I’d ever reviewed, and set the stage for many good things to come, with one exception: having to give it back. Difficult as it was, I parted with the KX-5 -- only to be asked, a few months later, if I’d be interested in reviewing its successor, the KX-5 Twenty. My response was an immediate yes.
But seeing a new version of the KX-5 only 18 months after the release of the original took me a bit aback. Ayre is one of the few audio companies that avoids the economic temptation to make a few minor internal changes, add a new faceplate and a higher price tag, and call the result “all new!” Instead, they claim that they don’t release a new model or version until what they do release is a considerable improvement on its predecessor(s). This has usually involved revising circuits, upgrading parts, and sometimes redesigning all of the circuitry from the ground up. But Ayre had rarely, if ever, replaced a product -- especially one that had so well established itself -- as quickly as it did the KX-5. What gives?
Seems you can’t turn around these days without bumping into a cable company or tripping over a coil of their wire. There’s good reason cable manufacturers proliferate: the markup must be astronomical. Buy some wire, wrap it in a nice sheath, terminate with extreme prejudice, and off to market. What a gig!
A few cable companies don’t work that way. Wire isn’t always just wire, and in recent years there’s been some honest innovation in a field that, on the face of it, looks simple: no moving parts.
Beauty and brains
“I have a head for business and a bod for sin!”
Those words from Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) caught Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) hook, line, and sinker, and propelled the remainder of Working Girl, Mike Nichols’s romantic comedy-drama of 1988 -- the intoxicating sentiment stated, appropriately, in a bar. The allure of intellectual prowess coupled with emotional hedonism is great, not only because it is elusive but because it promises to satisfy so completely. It’s hard enough to find one of those qualities; to find both together is exponentially more difficult. Nonetheless, the combination has been heroically sought across many disciplines, including audio reproduction.
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