Is there an audio manufacturer whose products exemplify Simplifi’d hi-fi more than Denmark’s Bang & Olufsen? I doubt it. Formed in 1925, B&O started offering “convenient, lifestyle-oriented hi-fi” components not long after the word “lifestyle” had been coined.
Today is Simplifi’s birthday. Five years ago, on New Year’s Day 2017, the SoundStage! Network launched a site dedicated to “convenient, lifestyle-oriented hi-fi” with a short feature by Al Griffin, entitled “Why Simplifi.”
Here’s a bit of audio trivia for your holiday enjoyment: Who was J.A. Hofmann? If you’ve been into audio as long as I have, you’ll know him as the H in the loudspeaker brand KLH. Along with Henry Kloss and Malcolm S. Low, Hofmann was a founding partner of KLH Research and Development Corporation, which was formed in 1957, and has recently been revived as KLH Audio.
Most audiophiles know Canada’s Lenbrook Industries for its three audio brands: PSB Speakers, NAD Electronics, and Bluesound multi-room streaming products. Fewer people know Lenbrook as a software developer. But the fact is that Lenbrook’s BluOS software platform is a key component of many of its products—not just the Bluesound multi-room components for which BluOS was originally created, but also NAD integrated amplifiers, preamplifiers, AV receivers, and a multi-zone streamer targeted at the custom-integration (CI) market.
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
The fall of 2021 has been a busy time for NAD Electronics. In the past few months, the Pickering, Canada–based company has announced three new integrated amplifiers, all of them with intriguing feature sets.
In the past few years, UK-based iFi Audio has introduced an impressive series of compact, affordable components under its Zen sub-brand. These include the Zen Blue V2 Bluetooth DAC ($189, all prices in USD unless noted otherwise), Zen DAC V2 DAC-headphone amp ($189), Zen Phono MM/MC phono stage ($199), and Zen Can balanced headphone amp ($199).
On May 28, 2020, Tidal announced that it was rolling out Dolby Atmos Music for home-theater systems. Nearly a full year later, on May 17, 2021, Apple Music announced that, along with lossless audio, its catalog would support spatial audio, which also uses Dolby Atmos. For Tidal, Dolby Atmos Music is included in the higher-tier HiFi subscription at $19.99 (all prices in USD) per month for a single subscription ($29.99 for up to five additional family members). For Apple Music, spatial audio and lossless audio are included in the $9.99 plan ($14.99 per month for up to five additional family members). For most audiophiles, the biggest draw would be lossless audio—the company was joining niche providers such as Tidal and Qobuz, but Apple’s pervasive influence brings it to a much wider audience.
Sometimes, I envy reviewers on other sites of the SoundStage! Network. Most of the time, they’re reviewing single-purpose products like passive loudspeakers, amplifiers, DACs, turntables, and headphones, so they can focus mainly on how the component sounds.
You might think that a guy who earns his living by writing about technology would want to have the latest and greatest of everything. Not yours truly. When I make a purchase, I’ll spend what it takes to get a product that will meet my needs for a long time—but then I’ll make that thing last and last. I’ll replace a product only if it stops working properly and can’t be repaired economically; or if my circumstances change and the thing no longer suits my needs.
I don’t know how many stereo systems are sitting unused in people’s basements and attics; but I’d guess a gazillion or so, give or take a million. That’s a pity, because it wouldn’t take much to update them. Just connect a streaming DAC like the new Bluesound Node ($549, all prices in USD), and that old system is ready to stream music from the internet, play digital music from an external drive, play soundtracks from a connected HDTV, and perform other 21st-century audio tricks.
In his July 1 editorial, “Rich Guys and Reviewers Running Amok in Hi-Fi,” SoundStage! Network founder and publisher Doug Schneider discussed the amount of exorbitantly priced hi-fi products available today, and the fact that their performance often does not justify their crazy price tags. And he cited academic studies showing that consumers often mistakenly equate price with quality.
Almost all of the products reviewed here on Simplifi, and on other corners of the SoundStage! Network, are fairly new to market—in most cases, less than one year old. And quite often, our reviews are of products that are brand new to market.
At first glance, Q Acoustics’ Q Active 200 ($1999/pair, all prices in USD except where noted) doesn’t look much like a loudspeaker. It could be an appliance of some kind, or maybe a minitower desktop PC. After setting up the speakers on the matching Q FS75 stands ($499/pair) in my living room, I sent close-up pix to a few friends and family members, and asked them what kind of product the pictures showed. Those were some of their guesses.
We’re just past the halfway point of 2021, but I think I’ve already heard my favorite album of the year. On August 6, Impex Records will release Clique, an album of jazz standards by Patricia Barber, on MQA CD, SACD, and hi-rez download. Stereo and 5.1 surround-sound mixes will be included on the SACD, and available as hi-rez downloads. Clique will also be streamed by Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz. Coming later this year is a 33rpm LP; a 45rpm LP and a reel-to-reel tape release will follow in 2022.
One of the hottest product categories in hi-fi right now is the streaming integrated amplifier—an amp with a built-in network streamer and Wi-Fi connectivity. Just add a pair of loudspeakers, connect the amp to your home network, log on to your favorite streaming service, and you have everything you need to play just about all the music in the world. Of course, these products also have digital and analog inputs to accommodate components like disc players, game consoles, and TVs.
During my three years on Simplifi, I’ve reviewed 27 different powered and active loudspeakers—more than any other product category. There’s a reason for this. Because of their all-in-one designs, speakers with built-in amplifiers work wonderfully for Simplifi’d hi-fi.
In the 21st century, has there been a more successful, more important bookshelf loudspeaker than KEF’s LS50? I doubt it. Just look at how the LS50 and its progeny have fared on the SoundStage! Network.
First Amazon, then Spotify, and now Apple. With the company’s May 17 announcement that it was planning to make the 75 million songs in its Apple Music catalog available in lossless format, and that a substantial number of tracks would be available in high resolution (up to 24-bit/192kHz ALAC), all the major streaming services have now joined the lossless party.
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
If there was ever an occasion for an audio manufacturer to release a statement product, this was it. On September 28, 2020, Brian Russell, Bryston Ltd.’s tremendously capable, tremendously affable president, passed away in his sleep from an apparent heart attack. He was 69.
In the past two years I’ve reviewed active studio monitors from Heinz Electrodynamic Designs (HEDD), Focal, and PMC. As you’d expect, all of these speakers work wonderfully for desktop audio. But what about listening Simplifi’d style: sitting on a sofa or comfy chair, cueing up music with a tablet or smartphone, and playing it from a streaming DAC connected to the speakers?
The past five years have been mighty tumultuous for Bowers & Wilkins. In May 2016, the venerable British loudspeaker brand was acquired by EVA Automation Inc., a Silicon Valley startup. The two companies joined forces to develop a series of wireless audio products, which they unveiled in April 2019.
I’m old enough to remember a time, in the 1970s and ’80s, when component hi-fi was a mainstream thing. It seemed everyone either owned or planned to soon buy a stereo system.
Since mid-2019, I’ve been looking for ways to get better bass from the music system in the living room of the 1920s Toronto rowhouse I share with my infinitely better half. My quest began when I reviewed Elac’s Navis ARF-51 speakers ($4599.96/pair; all prices USD). Those active floorstanders delivered deeper bass and more slam than the active stand-mounted speakers I was using at the time, and I enjoyed them so much I bought the review samples.
In mid-February, SoundStage! editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz e-mailed to ask if I’d be willing to put together a “virtual system” as part of a series he was writing for SoundStage! Ultra: “If you had an unlimited budget and wanted the best performance money could buy on the desktop, what would you pick?”
Note: measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Three years ago, when Kevin and Jonathan Couch formed Heavenly Soundworks, the father-and-son team planned to make only conventional passive loudspeakers—active speakers weren’t on the agenda. “My dad has been into audio as long as I can remember—since before I was born,” Jonathan told me in a phone interview, “which is why I’m into it too.”
It’s hard for people who are passionate about something to imagine others not sharing their enthusiasm. How could anyone not appreciate small-batch bourbons? Or 35mm rangefinder cameras? Or vintage wristwatches?
For his February 1 “SoundStage! UK” column on SoundStage! Hi-Fi, Ken Kessler wrote an entertaining (but slightly unhinged) rant, “I Hate Streaming.” Characteristically, Ken spiced up his piece with colorful prose. “As for streaming, I can’t even be bothered to dignify it by hating it,” he proclaimed. “Rather, I prefer to disrespect it with the ultimate insult: I couldn’t care less about it. . . . Indeed, when suffering insomnia, I think of streaming. Then, when I invariably wake up at 3 a.m., being of pensioner age, streaming is exactly what I do. In the loo.”
Is the Compact Disc on its last legs? It sure looks that way. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), US sales of CDs fell 45.2% (units) and 47.6% (dollars) in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period a year earlier. In that same period, revenues from streaming grew 12%, to $4.8 billion—85% of recording-industry revenues in the US.
In the last three years, Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries (DALI) has introduced active versions of models from three of its speaker series:
Introduced in 1991, PSB’s affordable Alpha series of loudspeakers have since earned a reputation for performance and value, and received many awards. PSB’s Alpha P5 two-way minimonitor ($399/pair, all prices USD except as noted) received a Reviewers’ Choice Award when it was reviewed on SoundStage! Access by Hans Wetzel in March 2019, and was subsequently named a SoundStage! Network Product of the Year for Exceptional Value.
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