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In high-end audio, price is always relevant -- except when it isn’t. I’ve waffled so often on this subject that sometimes I’m no longer sure where I stand. A case in point: the Soulution 560 digital-to-analog converter, which retails for $35,000 USD.
On one hand, no DAC should cost $35,000. Taking into account any reasonable ratio of manufacturing cost to retail price, I have a hard time understanding how any DAC maker can justify that sort of price. A super-high-end DAC is maybe 50 pounds’ worth of parts, including a nicely machined and finished case. For that kind of money, you can buy a couple of 200-plus-pound high-tech speakers -- 400 pounds of stuff should cost more than 50 pounds of stuff. After all, both represent high-end stuff. Besides, there are a number of terrific DACs available for less than five grand, and with much of the functionality of the Soulution 560. Wadia Digital’s di322 is a great DAC for $3500 -- precisely one-tenth the Soulution 560’s price.
Over the last 18 years, Synergistic Research has introduced five generations of its Active Shielded signal cables, interconnects, and power cords. The company claims that applying a 30V DC bias to the cables’ shield isolates the signal from the dielectric, thus reducing phase and time distortions and improving sound quality.
More recently, Synergistic has applied this active technology to other audio products, including its PowerCell power conditioners, Tranquility Base component platforms, and Atmosphere and Frequency Equalizer (FEQ) room wave generators. In fact, Synergistic is now best known for its ever-broadening implementation of its Active Shielding technology.
The NADAC ST-2 is Swiss-company Merging Technologies’ first foray into consumer electronics. However, Merging Technologies is hardly a newbie -- their reputation in professional audio is that of legend.
Merging Technologies was founded 25 years ago by Claude Cellier, who’d previously worked with electronics maker Nagra, another Swiss company with a rich history in pro audio -- namely in various types of recorders -- that then ventured into high-end home audio. Though probably best known for their Pyramix professional audio workstation, Merging has recently ventured far into networked audio interfaces with their Horus and Hapi products. It was the experience gained in designing the Horus and Hapi models that convinced Merging to launch the two-channel Networked Attached Digital-to-Analog Converter (NADAC) ST-2; an eight-channel version, the NADAC MC-8, is also available.
Last summer, I got a call from Eric Pheils, North American distributor for Zanden Audio Systems. He proposed driving up from San Francisco, where he was staying, to my place in Oregon. “Great!” I said. “What electronics are you going to bring?” He hedged. Turned out he didn’t have an amp or preamp with him this time, but was eager to show me some new sound treatments -- acoustic tubes and panels -- developed by Kazutoshi Yamada, president of Zanden.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These days, to sell their products, makers of high-end audio gear must have a hook: something that makes the consumer choose their widget over competing widgets. Maybe that hook is a famous designer, or a company history long established and revered by audiophiles, or performance and/or build quality that far exceed what might be expected for the price -- or just clever marketing. But whatever the hook, it won’t work if it’s a secret. Companies have to get the word out.
It’s got to be the best gig in the world, or the worst.
In my 15 years of reviewing I’ve dealt with companies large and small. The big guys -- Audio Research, MartinLogan, Monitor Audio -- can afford a significant level of detachment from their products. They have marketing guys, shipping guys, and manufacturing departments. Each step in the production of one of their products is insulated from the next, and by the time a component arrives in my listening room it’s been manhandled by a dozen people -- maybe more.
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