I've reviewed a bunch of midpriced receivers over the past few months, and came away impressed by the quality of all of them. Pioneer's VSX-1020 was an immediate front-runner, and I love the Marantz NR1601's rich sound. Yamaha's RX-V667 was no slouch, but Sony's STR-DN1010 didn't thrill me as much as the others. The receivers all carry MSRPs between $500 and $600; street prices are $100 or so less.
I'm an audiophile and know a lot of 'philes, so I know from where I speak. We share a common passion for music and the gear we play music on. Non-audiophiles don't have a problem playing music over good-enough gear; audiophiles obsess about how the music sounds, almost as much as the musicians who recorded it. Are you an audiophile?
You might be an audiophile if you sometimes listen to music without doing anything else.
You might be an audiophile if you paid more for your hi-fi than your car.
You might be an audiophile if your speaker … Read more
In a perfect world, all 100-watt-per-channel amplifiers would be equally powerful. If we were talking about cars instead of amplifiers, you might suppose all cars with 300 horsepower are equally fast. But the weight of the car, gearing, and suspension tuning all play their parts, so performance expectations have to be based on more than just a single specification or number.
Before we go any further, I'd like to point out that the power spec's prime relevance lies in determining how loud a given set of speakers can play. Assuming the speakers can handle power, feeding them more power will produce louder sound levels. Sound quality is another matter, and isn't always associated with power, so the more powerful amp isn't necessarily the better-sounding amp. A few months ago I wrote a rave review of a 3.5-watt amplifier that sounded wonderful with my Zu Essence tower speakers. So just a couple of watts can sound amazing, and play louder than you'd think. Amplifier-speaker matching is more than a numbers game; knowledge of what works with what is a valuable commodity, so if you're lucky enough to have access to a top-notch hi-fi dealer or an experienced audiophile buddy, don't be afraid to ask for advice. … Read more
The U.S., England, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and China all make bona fide high-end audio gear. Korea? I've heard some South Korean gear over the years, but I can't say any of it made a strong impression.
I recently stumbled upon Metal Sound Design's Web site, and while I can't guess what their speakers sound like, they all have a great sense of style and appear to be well-built. The South Korean company has won numerous awards and prizes over the years.
True to their name, the company's speakers are made out of metal, … Read more
High-end audio, just like high-end everything else--cars, clothes, watches, boats--is in large part about style. Sure, high-performance is part of the appeal, but exquisite build quality and eye-catching designs are essential for market success.
With that in mind I put together a nice assortment of some of the more dazzling high-end components currently on the scene.
Magico's speakers are built with solid, massively inert structures designed to ensure the only sound you hear comes from the speaker's tweeter, midrange, and woofer drivers. No other speaker I've heard approaches Magico's resolution and precision. The company's latest designs upped the ante and now feature even more extensive frames designed to quell structure borne resonance to produce the highest-resolution sound possible.
Founded in 1991 by legendary audio designer Nelson Pass, Pass Laboratories, sells its unique amplifiers, preamplifiers and speakers throughout the world. The company has been based in Foresthill, California, since its beginning, and is widely regarded as one of the most innovative audio brands in the world. Many Pass Labs amplifiers, like my XA100.5 are pure Class A designs, and deliver breathtakingly beautiful sound.
The Ayre MX-R mono amplifier (you need two for stereo) is a looker, but pardon me for a second while I get tweaky and gush over the MX-R's zero-feedback and fully-balanced circuitry. Ayre's founder and chief engineer Charles Hansen invests vast amounts of time fussing over the tiniest circuit details, listening obsessively to eke out a sound that gets his designs ever closer to perfection. Some of the MX-R's resistors and capacitors are built to his specifications.
The Krell Modulari Duo Reference is a blatantly original, thoroughly masculine design, but at 44 inches tall, 11 inches wide, and 29 inches deep, it can still fit in average size rooms. Each speaker weighs 345 pounds, it's fair to assume the bulk of the weight can be attributed to its thick-walled aluminum construction. If the goal was to make an absolutely dead cabinet, I'd say Krell has done it. The speaker's design shows a clear aesthetic kinship with Krell electronics.… Read more
Technology can lower the price of a lot of things, but when it comes to speakers, the very best ones are really expensive, so if you want a world-class speaker be prepared to spend well over $10,000.
That said, you can buy a pair of very respectable speakers for less than $1,000. The following list is in no particular order, but since $1,000 is still out of reach for a lot of folks this top 10 will feature speakers ranging in price from $29 up (all speaker prices listed are per pair). And since the prime weakness of affordable speakers is they lack true authority in the bass, I've included one overachieving subwoofer, the Epik Empire to round out this list. I've covered bargains before, but this is the first top-10 list for speakers that sell for $1,000 or less.
Zu Audio Omen ($999). Zu is one of my all time favorite American speaker manufacturers, but they've never made a speaker as affordable as the Omen, which will be released November 1 for $1,500. The speaker is finished in real maple veneer and manufactured in Ogden, Utah. Zu speakers are extremely dynamic, lively performers, and they produce razor-sharp imaging. Right, $1,500 is priced over my self-imposed limit for this top-10 list, but for just this week (ending September 17) the company is taking preintroduction orders for the Omen for just $999.99, saving you $500! Zu is selling the Omen with a 90-day money-back guarantee.
Magnepan MMG ($599) This 4-foot-tall, 1.25-inch-thick flat-panel, made-in-the-U.S., bona fide high-end speaker will knock you for a loop. Magnepan's larger speakers, like my reference MG3.6, are only sold through dealers, the MMG is sold direct, and it's a great way to get a taste of what makes high-end audio so special. If you've only heard box speakers, the MMG will be a major treat for your ears.
Dayton B652 ($29) That's not a typo, the Dayton B652 sells for $29 a pair. It was $25 when I first wrote about the speaker a few months ago, but since then a lot of audiophiles on a budget have raved about this little speaker with a 6.5-inch woofer. Seriously, I know a few guys with very high-end speakers who love the B652 and swear its price/performance ratio is off-the-charts good. … Read more
I've referred to the AIX Records "Audio Calibration Disc & HD Music Sampler" Blu-ray in a bunch of my CNET equipment reviews, because it's loaded with terrific-sounding Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio music tracks. AIX refrains from using dynamic range compression, equalization, or signal processing, so the sound is as close to the original session as can be.
Now, with the release of "Goldberg Variations Acoustica" AIX has ventured into producing original 3D video programming. The new Blu-ray was shot with four prototype Panasonic 3D A1 cameras, and the sound was recorded in 96 kHz/24-bit high-resolution audio.
"Goldberg" maintains AIX's high standards for sound quality, but I'm an audio guy, so I called upon two of my video-reviewing CNET colleagues, David Katzmaier and Matthew Moskovciak, to comment on the disc's 3D picture quality. They watched the Blu-ray on a Panasonic TC-P65VT25 display and were generally impressed. They liked the picture's depth, but expressed concerns about visible crosstalk, which can appear as doubled outlines around onscreen objects, such as on the stand-up bass' strings. Katzmaier and Moskovciak also thought the image wasn't as sharp as it could have been. The crosstalk artifacts varied from shot to shot, but Moskovciak still thought the "Goldberg" Blu-ray might be the best live-action 3D picture he's seen "in a home theater setting" (the 3D image quality of "Avatar" in a movie theater was better).
Regarding the crosstalk, Katzmaier said it wasn't the disc's fault, and the crosstalk might not show up on future generations of 3D TVs. "Goldberg" is fully compatible with standard 2D Blu-ray players and displays, so you can enjoy the disc even if you don't own a 3D set. … Read more
We all know subwoofers make bass. Big subwoofers, like the $799 Epik Empire, can sport massive 15-inch woofers and a Class D 600-watt power amplifier, all packaged in a 22x18x24-cabinet. The Empire's 120-pound weight might be a not-so-subtle indication that it's solidly built.
But Eminent Technology's TRW-17 Rotary Woofer ($12,900) doesn't have a cone-type woofer or a box or cabinet. No, the TRW-17 looks like a high-tech fan. And when you turn it on, the fan's blade spins just like a fan, but it's a bona-fide subwoofer. It produces deeper and more powerful … Read more
I worked in the high-end audio business for 16 years before I started writing about home theater and high-end audio. I've heard literally thousands of products, and while I've forgotten most of them, there were lots of standouts. I remember the first time I heard a high-end turntable, a Linn LP-12, and was shocked not only by its sound quality, but how it somehow hushed record surface noise, pops, and clicks. Yes, they were still there, but the noises didn't intrude as much as they do with lesser turntables.
When I was selling hi-fis, some of my customers would ask me to recommend a speaker or some other product for them. They'd say, "What do you like?" or "What's your favorite $500 speaker." Fair questions, but my answers wouldn't be all that useful. Personal taste, music preferences, room size, aesthetics, and other factors all play their roles, so my favorites wouldn't likely match my customer's needs. My role as a salesman was to help them find just the right speaker, amplifier, or turntable to fit their exact needs, not mine. It's like asking someone to pick a color for a couch or an ice cream flavor.
John Atkinson's very positive review of the Harbeth P3ESR speaker in the August 2010 issue of Stereophile magazine put me on this line of thought. The very first line of the review, "Everyone wants something different from a loudspeaker." sums up the situation nicely. Atkinson went on to point out that some listeners crave accuracy, some dynamic punch or deep, room-shaking bass, while others prize precisely focused stereo imaging. And unless you're very rich, you can't have it all, you have to prioritize the things that get your juices flowing, and downplay other aspects of sound.
Audiophiliac readers and friends query me about this all the time. "What's the best .....?" or they want a recommendation and the plain fact is, there are no simple answers to those questions. You have to listen for yourself, but brick-and-mortar stores, where you can actually compare A vs. B vs. C speakers are fading fast. People shop online to get the best deal, and rely to some degree on reviews to point them in the right direction.… Read more
It's one thing to buy a CD or a toaster oven online, but what about audio components? Wouldn't it be great to compare one speaker with another? With receivers it's impossible to gauge the touch and feel of the controls online. Sure, professionally written reviews can steer you in the right direction, but in the final analysis buying a hi-fi or home theater is mostly about personal taste. Buying "the best" at the cheapest price isn't always the ideal option; I think it should be more about getting the product that's right for you.
Sadly, expert advice isn't so easy to find, now that more and more independent brick-and-mortar audio shops have closed. That's no concern for buyers who happily forgo the advantages offered by the shops in favor of the lowest possible price. The online retailer can easily afford to give greater discounts; they don't have to pay high rent for a showroom, have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in demonstration units, provide on-site service technicians, and pay sales commissions. They can pass some of their savings onto their customers. Everybody wins, or do they?
I don't think so; it's the buyer who is losing out. Yes, the online discounters and factory-direct companies can always undercut the independent brick-and-mortar guys, but how do their customers know they're buying the speaker, amplifier, or turntable that best suits their needs? Have they listened for themselves and heard three or four competing speakers with their own ears? And if they wind up with a malfunctioning piece of brand new gear, they'll have to deal with it on their own. They won't get a "loaner" to use while they wait for the repair or replacement unit. Hookup questions will be answered by an anonymous person on an 800 line, not by the sales person at the local shop who knows you by name. … Read more