There’s no doubt in my mind that the goal of high-end audio is to reproduce the sound of live music in the home. That’s the endgame, the ultimate: Make it sound real. As if we’re really there with the musicians.
But live music isn’t an audio reviewer’s real reference. A reviewer’s reference comprises a selection of hopefully well-recorded and well-rounded audio tracks played through his or her audio system. That system -- the reference system -- is what the reviewer uses to evaluate and compare audio components. A reviewer doesn’t switch back and forth in quick succession between a live venue and a listening room, attempting to hear differences. No. A reviewer plays the same recordings over and over, comparing how they sound with the reference system intact vs. how they sound through that same reference system, one of its component replaced by the product being reviewed.
Given that, what should a reviewer's reference system be? It should be as accurate -- that is, as neutral -- as possible. I can go into the nuts and bolts of the meanings of accurate and neutral another time, but essentially, these terms mean that what comes out of an audio system should be the same as what goes into it. A reviewer should try to assemble a reference system that is as close to this ideal as possible. Among other things, this means using electronics within their safe operating ranges (e.g., amps that don’t clip with most speakers). With electronics, that’s pretty easy to accomplish these days. Pick a Bryston, a Coda, a Gryphon, or a Simaudio amp, for example, and source components that include modern D/A converters, and you’re almost there. What’s usually hardest to get right is the speakers -- typically, the most flawed link in the chain of audio components.
At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, I wrote a series of articles about what I think are the best loudspeakers in the world, specifically interviewing some of the industry’s most talented designers. The "Jeff Fritz on Super Speakers" section of our CES coverage on SoundStageGlobal.com was quite popular, so I thought it fitting I revisit some of the brands I discussed then. Here are some details of what’s coming soon to your audio dealer -- and perhaps to my review queue.
The newest version of the Tidal Piano Cera ($23,990 USD/pair) should be installed in my listening room by the time this editorial appears. This is a two-and-half-way design (1.2" tweeter atop a 7" mid-woofer and a 7" woofer) from the mind of Jörn Janczak, owner and lead designer of Germany’s Tidal Audio GmbH. Using brand-new, all-black-anodized drivers built by Accuton specifically for Tidal, and a new, graphite-coated version of Accuton’s ceramic tweeter, the Piano Cera looks very promising. What seems to be special about its design is not the drivers, however, but the crossover filters. Yes, Tidal uses expensive Mundorf and Dueland components -- impressive, but other companies use these brands, too. What’s intriguing are the measured results, which I’ll delve into in detail in my review. The Piano Ceras that I heard at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest were coherent and transparent in the extreme; I look forward to putting this newest version of the speaker through its paces with my music in my room.
Most of us can remember the first time it happened, the moment that sealed the deal for us: It sounded like magic, like real music being played in the room, and we were hooked -- audiophiles for life. The components of the system that made that moment possible will always hold a special place in our memories.
The first super-high-end amplifier I owned was a Threshold 400A. I bought it from a former Threshold employee for $500 and used it to drive a pair of Klipsch bookshelf speakers in my apartment. They really made music. After the Threshold came a Krell KSA-250, also bought used. That amp served me well for several years, and I remember thinking that I’d never need another. We all know how that story ends.
My nostalgia for these long-disassembled but much-beloved systems -- the ones that got me started in high-end audio -- inspired me to revisit the Krell and Threshold brands and some of their most storied products. As much as anything else, I wanted to relive those days of Audio First Love -- but I also wanted to hear how some of yesterday’s best would sound in my current system. And heck, if nothing else, it would make for an interesting article. So off to Audiogon I went . . .
I settled on two models of power amplifier (old speakers are too risky, old sources just not so good): the Threshold SA/12e monoblocks and the Krell FPB 600 stereo. For those who don’t remember these models, here’s a brief synopsis:
The $5000 Full-Ranger (all prices in $USD) accomplishes many things that a music lover would want. It’s neutral across the audioband, especially smooth and clear in the midrange, and has enough bass whomp to let you party like a rock star. Well, party like an American Idol finalist, anyway. The $30,000 Resolution Monster was assembled to appeal to someone who wants to hear much deeper into their music than the Full-Ranger will allow, but it will also play loud and clean during a party. Expensive? Yes, but this setup has very few real-world limitations.
If you’ve followed my “Benchmark Systems” series of articles this far, you know that the price of the first system I’m profiling has an upper limit of $5000. I’m listening to it as I type this paragraph, and I can tell you that it’s superb -- not in an oh, isn’t that sweet kind of way, but just plain superb -- without qualification. Sitting in front of it listening to your music, I’d bet you’d never guess its cost (all in USD unless otherwise noted).
The $5000 Full-Ranger:
|Aperion Audio Verus Grand Tower loudspeakers:||$1798/pair|
|Bel Canto C5i integrated amplifier and DAC:||$1895|
|DH Labs Silver Sonic T-14 speaker cables:||$303/8’ biwire pair with bananas|
|AudioQuest Carbon USB cable:||$149/1.5m|
|Apple MacBook laptop (used/refurbished):||$400 (est.)|
|Decibel music player:||$0 (est. under $100; soon)|
Last month, in "Establishing Benchmarks, Part One: Systems," I introduced my current project which is: to aquaint you with several high-end audio systems, each of which, in my opinion, sets a benchmark for performance at its price. I’ll roll out the first system in the next couple of months, but before then I need to tackle a few issues. And if you’re going to find value in my advice, I'll make some assumptions that you’d probably like to share.
The price points are first. The easy way out was to assemble systems at low, middle, and high prices, the cost of each step up perhaps twice that of the one below. I liked that idea, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to proceed. If I choose a $3000 system as the entry-level setup, for instance, would $6000 and $12,000 be the best prices for the mid- and high-priced systems? No, because there’s not enough room between those prices to accurately represent the vast array of components audiophiles have to choose from.
After giving this some serious thought, here’s what I’ve come up with, and why:
Over the next few of months I’ll be conducting an audio experiment far removed from The World’s Best Audio System 2009. That event, widely publicized and read about, was audiophile fantasy taken to the extreme -- and for an audio nut like me, there is nothing more fun. But it wasn’t all that relevant to the real world. No one I know could afford the system I wrote about. I couldn’t afford it. Dang it.
Pondering this recently, I got to thinking about what I could do that would keep audio reviewing exciting for me while also being useful and interesting to the majority of our readership. I concluded that no single review or series of reviews could paint the big picture that audiophiles sometimes ask reviewers to come up with.
Then it hit me. What a reviewer needs in order to have a comprehensive command of the audio landscape is a solid set of system benchmarks. The word benchmark is defined by Dictionary.com as “a standard of excellence, achievement, etc., against which similar things must be measured or judged.” Wouldn’t it be helpful to spell out just what, specifically, audiophiles should expect to get for their money at different price points? Wouldn’t that be a useful guide in buying and auditioning components? “Well, reviewers do have references, right?” I hear you ask. Yes, but those references are typically limited to the narrow confines of a certain price point. What I have in mind is something more comprehensive and more widely applicable.
"You have to listen to it."
No truer words were ever spoken by or to an audiophile. The listening experience is the heart of our pastime -- music is the soul.
But we don’t all start our searches for great audio products with a listening experience. It would be great if we could, but for obvious reasons, most audiophiles don’t have easy access to all the products they’d like to audition on their quest for the perfect listening experience. Entities like the SoundStage! Network of publications exist to help you on that quest. But manufacturers, too, have websites, and, like most of you, I enjoy perusing the information they present -- in my case, looking for my next review subject.
I was engaged in just such an exercise when I found what I think is an eye-opening comparison, on paper: two loudspeakers -- the B&W 803 Diamond and the Tidal Contriva Diacera SE -- each of which looks extremely promising, judging from the specifications and descriptions provided by their manufacturers.
The similarities between these speakers are striking. Both are ported, three-way, floorstanding designs with dynamic drive-units (the Tidal has four drivers, the B&W five). Both come standard in a glossy piano-black finish, with optional real-wood veneers. Both cabinets are built primarily of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), though Tidal says theirs is a high-pressure variant of this ubiquitous wood-based material. The B&W weighs 90 pounds and is internally braced with the company’s trademarked Matrix system. The Tidal weighs more than twice as much -- about 200 pounds -- a difference no doubt due in large part to its more substantial cabinet with thicker side walls and front baffle and its slightly greater size: 51"H x 11"W x 19"D vs. the B&W’s 45.8"H x 12"W x 18"D.
How many times have you heard a reviewer state something to this effect: "It should sound better, given the price"? I know I’ve said it, and I know that, at one time or another, I’ve seen something like it from most of our reviewers. And I’ve read it in other magazines, not just those covering audio equipment.
In a perfect world, the more expensive component always would sound better. But here in the real world, we know that too many variables are in play for us to be able to assume that higher price automatically means better sound.
The first of these variables are economies of scale: Large manufacturers have more buying and manufacturing power than smaller companies, a fact that was made abundantly clear to me when I walked through the Paradigm factory. The company makes a gazillion pairs of Atom loudspeakers a month, which means that an Atom’s constituent parts can be produced by Paradigm in huge numbers. This is not a situation in which one skilled worker is being paid a premium to build one box at a time. It’s one huge machine producing box after box for hours, days, weeks on end. Such efficiencies translate into a lower unit price. If a smaller company had to build an Atom of equal quality, it might cost them twice as much to do it, and they’d have to pass on that cost to the customer -- which challenges the assumption that a higher price buys a better component.
Some variables are less obvious.
Measurements don’t tell us everything. My ears are more accurate. They don’t measure the right things. They don’t equate with how I hear music. I just don’t care.
Some audiophiles don’t like measurements. I think that many are afraid of them. I’m going to tell you why.
One reason is that most audiophiles, and many reviewers, don’t understand measurements. They haven’t bothered to learn how to interpret them, or what makes them important, or which ones most reliably indicate perceived sound quality. It takes a commitment of time to seek out explanations, ask questions, and learn how to correlate the measurements with what you hear when listening to your favorite music in your room. Gaining that basic understanding can sometimes mean hard work. For the math-averse, it can even be painful.
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