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.
Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-415
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ****½
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
For a while in the 1970s, it seemed that one American band might be a match for the Rolling Stones. The J. Geils Band had a firm foundation in blues, soul, and R&B, and few bands then touring were tighter or more dynamic onstage. I saw them four times in the ’70s, and only Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band could match them for stage presence and intensity.
GigaWatt is not widely known in North America, but Mark Sossa, of distributor Well Pleased Audio Vida, hopes that will soon change. Founded in Poland in 2007, GigaWatt’s history stretches back further, to 1998, and the founding of Power Audio Laboratories by Adam Schubert, a young electronics engineer with a passion for high-quality audio. P.A. Labs remained obscure until the Audio Video Show of 2002, where Schubert and his products gained wider recognition from attending audiophiles and the press. After that, P.A. Labs created GigaWatt as a separate brand, with Schubert at the helm.
Amazon’s recent announcement of their Amazon Music HD streaming service ($14.99/month, $12.99/month for Prime members; all prices USD) will drive the other major music-streaming services to offer better quality, or lower prices, or both. Those are three of the conclusions drawn by SoundStage! staffers, as discussed in Gordon Brockhouse’s recent article on SoundStage! Global. To compete, Apple and Spotify will need to offer a high-resolution option, and Tidal ($19.99/month) and Qobuz ($24.99/month) will likely have to lower the prices of their top tiers. This is, of course, business as usual: When a major player undercuts the market and/or offers a superior product, its competitors are forced to meet that challenge or go out of business.
In Eugene, Oregon, where I live, there used to be a mom-and-pop electronics store downtown, near the bus station and public library. It was the kind of place you went to pick up a pair of old Advent or Infinity speakers, a new stylus for your vintage record changer, a used CD or DVD player, or basic lamp cord to wire up your living-room stereo -- everything you needed for a cheap but good system was there. It was called Thompson Electronics, and I guess it had been there since the 1960s, occupying a storefront kitty-corner to the St. Vincent de Paul, where I’d sometimes scrounge for used LPs. Making only one downtown stop, I could get mounting screws for a phono cartridge and a new old record.
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
In 1963, bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus recorded three albums for Impulse! Records. The first of these, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, is one of his best, and fit the Impulse! aesthetic of recording cutting-edge jazz. The third, Mingus Plays Piano, is a unique and valuable look at Mingus on the instrument he used to write his brilliant music.
I’m not an audiophile who haphazardly throws money at components. Nor do I open my wallet because of some preconceived notion of what proportion of an audio-system budget “should” be allocated to a given product category. This thinking has led me to assemble and own, over the years, audio systems that some might say are unbalanced, at least in terms of cost. For instance, I’ve almost invariably chosen to spend large portions of my budget on loudspeakers, because I’ve found that a change in speakers usually provides me with the biggest improvement in sound quality. I typically spend less than a tenth as much on a digital source component, because in the last decade or so great digital sound has become so affordable.
In “Power Supplies: Commentary for Consumers,” an essay by famed engineer Nelson Pass posted on the website of the company he founded, Pass Laboratories, he states:
As a consumer, you want the best sound you can get. You can accomplish that through critical listening. As a secondary goal, we all like to get what seems to be good hardware value, and we want to know that the manufacturer has actually put some real money into the product which costs a small fortune. If you can read the specs or look under the hood, the power supply, being one of the most expensive parts of the amp, usually is a good indicator. It should be the biggest and heaviest part of the amplifier.
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