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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 November 2017 I reviewed the Technical Audio Devices Micro Evolution One loudspeaker, aka the TAD ME-1. It now costs $14,995/pair USD, including TAD’s ST3 stands, and at the time we gave it a Reviewers’ Choice award. The ME-1 is pretty small at 16.2”H x 9.9”W x 15.8”D, but its size had little correlation with what I heard. Of the many things I noticed about the ME-1’s sound, what most surprised me was what I wrote about in the penultimate paragraph of my review: “It filled my Music Vault with full, rich, detailed sound that never fatigued me and never bored me.”
McIntosh Laboratory was founded in 1949, when vinyl was a growing source for music reproduction. But it wasn’t until nearly 60 years later that the venerable company, based in Binghamton, New York, introduced its first turntable model. The debut of the MT10 turntable ($11,500 USD) was polarizing: Those who first saw it loved it or hated it. I remember some of the comments: “A turntable with a meter? Why?!” or “I don’t care how it sounds, it just looks too odd.” But most of the people who panned it had yet to hear it.
In June 2016, when I reviewed Magico’s S1 Mk.II loudspeaker ($16,500/pair; all prices USD), I loved it. “The finest two-way speaker I’ve heard,” I declared. In late 2017, when Magico announced their new entry-level model, the A3, I was cautiously optimistic. The A3 struck me as a vitally important product for Magico, which had built its reputation on speakers whose performance ceilings were exceeded only by their sky-high prices. As with everything else in life, if you want the state of the art, you have to cough up the dough. The A3’s original price of $9800/pair put it in direct competition with models from many hi-fi heavyweights. And there was something else: Would the A3 look and feel like a Magico speaker? Most important, would it sound like a Magico?
Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC, was founded in 2010 by Merrill Wettasinghe, who not only earned a BS in electrical engineering and an MBA, and enjoyed a career in R&D and marketing with Hewlett-Packard, but has long had a passion for purity of sound. In 2011, Wettasinghe released the first Merrill Audio amplifier, the Veritas monoblock ($12,000 USD per pair, discontinued). The Veritas was considered a breakthrough product not only for its sound quality, but also for being one of the first amplifiers to be based on Hypex’s Ncore NC1200 class-D power module. At the time, it was also one of the few amps to use point-to-point litz wiring of ultrapure copper, rhodium-plated binding posts of solid copper, and top-quality XLR connectors -- all made by Cardas.
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