Way back when, before the age of computer audio, about the time of the ascendancy of the Compact Disc, my expanding collection of records became unmanageable. Milk crates no longer cut it. I ended up buying a five-by-five Expedit shelving unit from IKEA and proceeded to at last sort my records.
Musical Performance: *****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Charles Mingus recorded three albums for Impulse! Records, and one of them, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963), is among his masterpieces. It stands with two other Mingus albums, Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic, 1956) and Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959), as essential jazz recordings that belong in any collection of American music. Mingus went so far as to write, in the liner notes for Black Saint, “I feel no need to explain any further the music herewith other than to say throw all other records of mine away except maybe one other.” He doesn’t name the other record.
I’ve reviewed many loudspeakers over the years, and while many were quite good, only a few stand out in my memory. There seems to be a limit to how much pleasure I get from looking at rectilinear boxes made of MDF over the 12 weeks of the average listening period for a review. Some manufacturers, in an effort to stand out from the crowd, might throw in a curve here, a flourish there, maybe a super-high-gloss finish to add flair to yet another box whose primary -- and, for most listeners, sole -- purpose is to move air.
Last May in Munich, walking the halls of High End 2019, I happened on perhaps the most physically imposing digital-to-analog converter I’ve ever seen: the Wadax Atlantis Reference DAC. I quickly learned that its over-the-top visual design is matched by its price: €110,000. For a DAC. One DAC.
High-end audio gear can get expensive, but the meaning of expensive depends on the context. For the sake of SoundStage! Ultra, I put most equipment in one of two mental categories: house money and car money.
In the US, the median price of a home is $236,100 (all prices USD); the average transaction price of a light vehicle is $37,577. I used to review house-money gear, and these days many manufacturers make loudspeakers priced in that category. But most folks can’t afford a second home; it’s fair to say that you must be pretty wealthy to afford that much for a pair of speakers.
Musical Performance: *****
Sound Quality: ***
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
The Beatles’ Abbey Road turned 50 in September, and Apple Corps Limited, along with Universal Music and, in the US, Capitol Records, have marked the occasion with six commemorative packages, much as they did with the 50th-anniversary editions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles (aka “The White Album”).
Theoretica Applied Physics, based in Princeton, New Jersey, has the most revolutionary digital signal processing (DSP) technology you’ve never heard about. The company’s website states that this technology, the Band-Assisted Crosstalk Cancellation Hierarchy-Stereo Purifier (BACCH-SP), uses digital interaural crosstalk cancellation (IXTC) to create “unprecedented spatial realism . . . [thus] allowing the listener to hear . . . a truly 3D . . . sound field that is simply unapproachable by . . . existing high-end audio systems.”
Last month, in “The Ultra High End Better Start Offering More,” I explored what I would require of a new pair of flagship stereo loudspeakers circa 2019. The article has been bothering me ever since I wrote it, though probably not for the reason you might assume. I’ve been an audiophile for more than 30 years, and you might suppose that, in the interim, a bit of nostalgia had hit me, and I was feeling myself pulled back by hankerings for the days of old. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m bothered by last month’s article because I think it didn’t go nearly far enough.
Chances are that anyone reading this review is passionate about music and sound quality, and that most will agree that the audio component that plays the biggest role in determining the sound of recorded music reproduced at home is the loudspeaker. In recent years, many have argued that the second-biggest role is played by the room itself. Having reviewed speakers and electronic components for almost a decade now, I wholeheartedly agree with both assertions -- I’ve experienced their truth first-hand in my listening for reviews of speaker after speaker, and heard how each speaker has interacted with and performed differently in my well-damped listening room. Most of these speakers have been well engineered and built of high-quality materials, with cutting-edge drivers and electrical components installed in dense cabinets designed to optimize driver performance and minimize resonances.
As I write this, it’s back-to-school time at the Thorpe household. Little Toni is starting third grade, and Marcia the special-needs teacher is heading back to her class. The house gets a little crazy the day before school starts. Tensions run a touch high.
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