January 1 is when the SoundStage! Network officially reveals its Products of the Year for the preceding 12 months. The best place to get a by-the-numbers rundown of that list is to read Doug Schneider’s annual “Opinion” article on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. He does his usual nice job of telling you why each component was chosen and what’s special about it. Here, in the you-never-know-what-you-might-read world of SoundStage! Ultra, I give you an alternate take -- mine -- on each product. Here goes:
Getting e-mail from readers is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an audio reviewer for the SoundStage! Network. I appreciate that people take the time to write me in order to get my opinions about buying decisions that cost thousands -- sometimes tens of thousands -- of dollars. Granted, audio gear is not a matter of life or death. Still, I treat each question as if I were the one about to spend that money. I want readers to get it exactly right -- I might be partially responsible for the choice they make, so it needs to be right.
Over my 15-plus years as a reviewer I’ve been constantly humbled by the fact that I get to work with people who are far more knowledgeable about the design and performance of audio equipment than I am. One of the most important lessons that audio reviewers need to learn early on, if they are to keep their credibility intact in this industry, is that they do not know as much about technical matters as the engineers who make the good equipment. Often, reviewers sit on their high horses, claiming a profound knowledge that has somehow eluded the designers of the gear they’re listening to, even though they would have no idea how to design such a product themselves. In every recent such case I can recall, this has been nonsense. I’ve just read an article (and no, I will not link to it here and promote it) in which a reviewer dropped a few thousand words on how loudspeaker designers are cheating their customers by not wiring their speakers with audiophile-grade wire. I wonder who might actually spend thousands of dollars based on this guy’s “expertise.”
There’s little doubt that, lately, the real action in high-end audio has been at the lower end of the price scale. When you look around to see where the buzz is, you find products like the KEF LS50 loudspeaker, anything made by Hegel Music Systems, and endless lists of sub-$2000 DACs capable of astonishing resolution. And don’t forget portable audio products, such as the PSB M4U 2 headphones and the Astell&Kern AK120 hi-rez media player. Such components are primarily the purview of the writers at our other magazines: SoundStage! Hi-Fi, SoundStage! Access, and SoundStage! Xperience. Here at SoundStage! Ultra, on the whole, things aren’t nearly as exciting.
One of the problems is the market for luxe high-end gear in Asia. Over the past few years, a number of manufacturers and dealers have told me that certain products have been specifically developed for a tiny class of Asian consumer, and that for a component to be considered by them, it must meet two criteria: It must be huge, and it must be very expensive. While I don’t blame these manufacturers for supplying products to meet an existing demand -- after all, they want to stay in business, and to do so they have to sell gear -- it has little relevance to the vast majority of readers, even readers of SoundStage! Ultra. I’m sure that Boulder’s 3000 series of amplifiers, and the forthcoming MTRX monoblocks from EMM Labs, are fabulous products, but at a couple hundred grand for the 3050s and an estimated six figures for Ed Meitner’s new amps, how many people will actually be able -- or want -- to buy them?
I wasn’t unhappy with the sound of the stock audio system in my SUV, a 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser, but then I never listened to it with anything like the reviewer’s ear I use in my Music Vault listening room. I don’t typically listen to music critically in the car; instead, I tune in to news, occasional music on the few radio stations in my area that play something worth listening to, and music piped through my iPod.
I was in the midst of reviewing JL Audio’s E-Sub e112 subwoofer for sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi when JLA’s Carl Kennedy pitched an idea to me: “Let’s put some gear in your Toyota and see what you think.” A week later, I had a mess of boxes in my garage and an appointment to get the system installed. I really didn’t know what to expect.
The local dealer for JL Audio’s car-audio products is Sound Decisions, of Wilmington, North Carolina. I’ve known these guys for years -- we have a close mutual friend, fellow SoundStage! Network reviewer Randall Smith -- and they have a great reputation in the area for honesty and professionalism. The owner, Keith Register, is an audiophile; his home and store systems include Paradigm loudspeakers, and he sells Revel and MartinLogan products in his shop. His right-hand man at the store, Eric Robertson, counts Revel’s new F208 as his reference loudspeaker. I felt we all had in common an appreciation for fine home audio -- these guys are not all boom and sizzle, like some of the car-audio shops I’ve seen.
JL Audio and Magico have several things in common. Both are US-based companies that design and manufacture various loudspeaker models. Both have highly technical research-and-development departments that have track records of creating unique and cutting-edge audio products, including their own from-the-ground-up driver designs. And in 2013, each is launching new subwoofers that are intended to dominate the market its maker has targeted.
Still, you could easily make the case that these companies are more different than alike. JL Audio’s core business is in mobile audio, while Magico exclusively makes very high-end loudspeakers for the home. Whereas JLA has produced subwoofers for the home for a number of years now, this is Magico’s first foray into the category. And last, these new subs vastly differ in price: JLA’s E110 and E112 subwoofers respectively retail for $1499 USD and $1999, while Magico’s QSub-15 and QSub-18 cost $22,000 and $36,000.
What’s special about these new subs? On paper, at least, almost everything.
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.
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