While in Munich attending High End 2015, I made a point of taking one afternoon off show reporting to do something we SoundStage! folks struggle to do at any show: listen. We specialize in running around show venues covering new products, but it would be a shame to have so many great speakers introduced in one place and not get to hear them, back to back to back. So on Saturday I set out to listen. By the end of that day, it was these seven speakers that I found most appealing.
It amuses me when, on audio forums, I read the words of rich, cantankerous old audiophiles defending, for all they’re worth, their five-figure audio systems against other forum members who’ve heard something much cheaper that sounds, to them, better. The latter is audio heresy. I mean, if someone has spent 50 grand on a DAC, or 100+ grand on some amps, isn’t it downright rude to suggest that something much less expensive might sound better? The nerve.
But what if it does?
One of SoundStage! Ultra’s readers, Brad Potthoff, had the best line on Devialet. He said, in a letter from August 2014, that the Devialet integrated-DACs are “utterly disruptive.” To the high-end marketplace, that is. He was responding to what I’d written about the Devialet 120 in “Devialet, SAM, and the Changing of the High-End Guard.” In that article I said: “My advice: Don’t go near one of these things without being prepared to buy it. It’ll ruin you for anything else.” Later I reviewed the Devialet 400, and further solidified my assessment: “If you’re like me, once you hear the Devialet 400, there will be no going back. I’m as surprised as you that I’m saying this, but the Devialet 400s produced the best sound I’ve ever heard.” As Brad said, utterly disruptive.
A high-end audio system with those seemingly magical properties that can transport you out of your listening room and into a musical performance can be elusive. Audiophiles are notorious for spending, in some cases, obscene amounts of money in the building of such systems. What is a mystery to me is why, for many, building a system is done so haphazardly. Often, money is burned as components are bought and sold and bought again -- good for Audiogon -- all in an attempt to find the synergy that yields complete contentment. Is there a clearer path? To me, yes. For what it’s worth, here is my advice for attaining the sound of your dreams.
I really enjoyed the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. I saw a number of innovative products and heard some very fine stereo systems. As always, there was good and bad, and gradations within each. So, in no particular order, here are my favorite products and experiences from my most recent trip to Vegas. And just because it needs to be said, I’ll include one thing that, uh, failed to impress.
Unlike in years past, the worst meal I ate in Vegas was at Mr. Lucky’s, at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. First, the basic breakfast -- eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns -- was $16. In my book, that’s too much. The hash browns were so undercooked that Doug Schneider asked, “What is that?,” a look of disgust on his face. I won’t go back. On the other hand, I had two excellent breakfasts at Hash House a go go, the home of twisted farm food. The same basic meal cost $9.50, but the potatoes were cooked just right, and the rest of the eats were also a step up in quality. Also on the menu are fresh-squeezed orange juice and tangerine juice. Nothing like a hearty breakfast before traipsing through the Venetian.
But my breakfast selections are probably of little interest to you; here’s hoping my observations of hi-fi are more pertinent. I’ll start with Dan D’Agostino.
Everyone is releasing their Products of the Year lists right about now, and we’re no different. Doug Schneider’s “Opinion” article, over on SoundStage! Hi-Fi, gave you the bare-bones facts about which product won which category. Here at SoundStage! Ultra, though, I’d like to get down to some unfiltered remarks about these components. So consider this article the insider’s edition of our Product of the Year awards list: what my thoughts were as we picked them.
Pioneering Design Achievement
Devialet 400 mono integrated amplifier-DACs ($17,495), SoundStage! Ultra
I don’t think we’ve seen a company like this before -- Devialet has shaken up high-end audio more than any other company in memory. The 400 system I reviewed combines the coolest lifestyle audio components with a price far below what you might expect to pay for the 400’s state-of-the-art sound, which made this award an easy choice. In fact, for Pioneering Design Achievement, Devialet was the only choice.
As I sit here on November 23, 2014, writing this editorial, I can say with certainty that this past year has seen a sea change in my relationship to high-end audio -- and I know, from hearing from many of you, that I’m not alone. I’ve been professionally involved in the industries collectively known as high-end audio for almost two decades, and without question, 2014 has been the most enlightening -- and frustrating -- of those years. But, ultimately, I’m less frustrated than hopeful and encouraged, because the advancements I’ve witnessed in high-end audio in 2014 have been unprecedented.
As I write this, I’m listening to Tidal, a CD-quality streaming service that launched in the US just a few weeks ago. (Tidal began in Scandinavia, as WiMP.) What I find so amazing about Tidal is that not only am I streaming an album I don’t technically own, I’m listening to it as if I did own it, and with the same resolution as if I’d bought the CD. Tidal has some glitches to work out -- from the field, I’m still hearing reports of dropouts, and Tidal’s catalog of some 25 million tracks (so far) is far from complete -- but the upside far eclipses the inevitable growing pains. Can I imagine a time when I don’t need my CD collection at all? Yes, I can, and I’m anxious for it. After all, it’s about the enjoyment of the music, not the physical stuff I own. I don’t need the mountain of CDs I’ve collected, and would very much like to rid myself of them and their clutter once and for all. I’ve discovered some terrific music since subscribing to Tidal at the beginning of November -- right now I’m listening to The Band Perry’s eponymous debut album, which I never bought on CD. Tidal has added more to my enjoyment of music than any other product in 2014.
In last month’s “The Luxury/High-End Conundrum,” I discussed reader Craig’s beef with the present landscape of high-end audio: “I am often frustrated by an increasing priority for and dedication to luxury. I have no problem with luxury or those who seek it, but it’s not what I am looking for. What to do?”
Craig’s frustration is understandable: A growing number of manufacturers are concentrating their efforts on the cost-instead-of-sense segment of the marketplace, which in recent years has seen $500,000 speakers and hundred-grand DACs. These products, far from being affordable for the average audiophile, not only dissuade some potential buyers from entering our hobby at all, but can supplant efforts by some companies to deliver great sound at real-world prices.
The most recent example I’ve heard about is from Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems. Despite the fact that D’Agostino’s products have produced some less-than-stellar measured results on Stereophile’s test bench, the brand continues to be well thought of, particularly by buyers who admired his upper-end work at Krell over the years. Now we hear that D’Agostino will offer the Helius, a mono amplifier, for $250,000 USD per pair. I’m sure it will be huge and gleaming and sound revelatory, but with a price that will buy a house, it will never be owned by more than a few audiophiles. Clearly, the Helius is intended for the hyper-discerning, golden-eared audiophile who can’t get musical satisfaction from D’Agostino’s Momentum mono amp, which costs a mere $55,000/pair.
I recently received a letter from a reader, Craig, that I was going to answer in SoundStage! Ultra’s “Letters” section. But the more I thought about my response, the more I realized that this letter and its main subject deserved a more detailed response than I usually provide in “Letters.” So I decided to devote an “Opinion” to it. Here’s the letter:
To Jeff Fritz,
With respect to your recent column on closing the curtain on TWBAS: Bravo, Jeff. Bravo! I’ve said this before, but you are about the only member of the audio press who I care to read anymore. And this column is the perfect reason why. Like you describe, I was once a wide-eyed “audiophile” who was enamored with a lot of this ultra-expensive gear. And like you, I found my priorities change over time. I very much appreciate your willingness to buck the trends and tell the whole story, warts and all.
I began my column “The World’s Best Audio System” (TWBAS) on February 1, 2004. In that first installment, which introduced the first TWBAS event, I profiled the original Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria X-2 loudspeakers, the Halcro dm68 mono power amplifiers and dm8 preamplifier, the EMM Labs DAC6e digital-to-analog converter, and a Meitner-modified Philips SACD1000 SACD/CD transport, along with a bevy of power products and cables from Shunyata Research. The total cost of that system was about $205,000. At the time, such a price would have been considered cost-no-object by most sane audiophiles.
Over the course of the next decade I spent considerable time and effort to make TWBAS enjoyable -- columns, videos, photo galleries, and hundreds of letters and postings on various Internet audio forums. In that time, by my count, we published some 65 “TWBAS” columns; most of them covered a single product that had been designed to challenge the state of the art in its category.
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