For the SoundStage! Network’s coverage of the most recent Consumer Electronics Show, I wrote an article titled “CES 2016: Right Track, Wrong Track.” In it, I was critical of Thiel Audio, prompted by a line I read in an interview with Thiel’s chief brand officer, Rebecca Abrahams. Quoting Abrahams, Stereophile’s Jason Victor Serinus said that there was a “plan to revitalize Thiel Audio loudspeakers as a ‘luxury brand’ for ‘device-driven, music on demand, luxury-brand consumers who are on the go, connected to content via phones and tablets across devices’.” As I walked the halls of Las Vegas’s Venetian hotel, where high-end brands exhibit at CES, and passed by Thiel’s room, I saw what looked like a nondescript speaker in the doorway -- a recent Thiel model. This medium-sized floorstander looked like a model from any number of companies, and a far cry from a classic coincident-array Thiel.
Between Rockport Technologies’ Avior ($37,500 USD/pair) and Altair II ($103,500/pair) loudspeakers was a gap precisely $66,000 wide. To faithfully serve his Maine-based company’s eager market -- a market that wanted more than the Avior could offer, but that couldn’t afford the Altair II -- president and resident speaker guru Andy Payor knew he had to come up with something different. His huge challenge: what?
Arguably, in the last few years the most competitive segment of the ultra-high-end speaker market has been models retailing for $50,000 to $70,000/pair. This price range includes such prominent models as Wilson Audio Specialties’ Alexia ($52,000/pair), Magico’s S7 ($58,000/pair), and Vivid Audio’s Giya G1 ($68,000/pair), to name just a few. In short, there are lots of tough competitors.
It’s been a big year for AudioQuest, which has usually been thought of as a maker of audio and video interconnects and cables. In 2015 it launched its new lines of headphones and power filters, and released the second phase of its digital source devices. Earlier this year, I spent a day at AudioQuest’s headquarters, in Irvine, California. In the company’s listening room, I was treated to a demonstration of a prototype version of what has since become AQ’s flagship power filter, the Niagara 7000 Low-Z Power Noise-Dissipation System. I also talked with Skylar Gray, Director of Ear-Speaker Products; Garth Powell, Director of Power Products; and Bill Low, Founder and CEO/Chief Designer. All three, along with AQ stalwart Joe Harley, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Product Development, share a palpable passion for music and the playback of recordings of music, and each has an independent vision of what is still to be achieved in high-performance audio systems that complements the visions of the other three.
Blue Note Records B002285602
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****
A few weeks ago, my son directed me to a web link for a concert and suggested we buy tickets. I did not know much about pianist Robert Glasper, aside from the fact that he was one of the artists signed to Blue Note Records in recent years. I assumed he injected some hip-hop into his jazz -- he does -- and that he was trendy and not, ahem, real jazz.
I’ve been reading a compelling self-improvement bestseller by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo makes a simple but powerful claim: a dramatic reorganization of your outer world can result in correspondingly profound changes in your inner world. Declutter your life and you’ll feel better, she promises. The path to reorganization, however, involves a ruthlessly deliberate shedding of some of our things. Kondo encourages us to keep only what brings us joy, and to get rid of everything that doesn’t.
We at SoundStage! announce our Products of the Year every January 1. Over on sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi you can read Doug Schneider’s “Opinion” article, which explains our selection process and gives a bit of insight into the products themselves. I guess you could say that Doug’s article is the “official” announcement. Here at SoundStage! Ultra, though, it seems more fitting to do something a bit more personal.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the analog preamplifier. For audiophiles like me, with all-digital systems, the allure of going preampless is strong. There are many digital-to-analog converters on the market, at all different price points, that offer remote switching of digital sources and have quite transparent volume controls. These DACs, in effect, have become the digital preamp -- perfect for those who don’t need analog switching. Bridging the gap between these full-featured DACs and the all-analog preamplifier are analog preamps with digital input sections -- essentially, a preamp with a built-in DAC. With such components, you have the choice of analog or digital inputs, which offers tremendous flexibility that can accommodate almost any system configuration. The downside is that upgrading your DAC also means replacing your analog preamp.
Format: CD (2)
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****
After making five albums for Geffen Records, Neil Young returned to Reprise Records in 1988, and the first product of that reunion was This Note’s for You. Young’s Geffen output -- such recordings as the strange electronica of Trans (1982), and the rockabilly-flavored Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983) -- had thrown label and fans for a loop. This Note’s for You was another unusual turn: a dozen blues and R&B tunes that put Young in front of a horn section. Critics didn’t fall over themselves with praise, but it got a warmer response than the records that had preceded it.
In audio, a clock determines the times at which digital audio samples are converted into analog. Messing up this timing condemns the music to digital hell, where jitter causes distortion and harshness in music. Thomas Hobbes said that “Hell is truth seen too late.” For audio purposes, I suggest that hell is truth seen too early or too late.
Think back to the days of hand-cranked film viewers. Because it was extremely difficult to achieve a constant playback speed, the films looked jerky, unnatural, jittery. A similar phenomenon occurs when the conversion of a digital to an analog signal is imperfectly timed.
In this month’s “Searching for the Extreme: Bill Low, Founder, CEO, and Chief Designer of AudioQuest -- Part One,” Low stated, to SoundStage! Ultra contributor Peter Roth, “I view the hi-fi equipment ‘upgrade path’ as being like bringing flowers home to your system. Possibly, the most significant ingredient in the upgrade path is not the presumably better performance, but the novelty and renewal of the audio relationship that the new equipment enables. The change in audio quality and the renewal of the relationship are intertwined and inseparable.” As I sit here today and peer around my listening room, the Music Vault, I feel exactly as Low describes: renewed.
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