Among American audio brands, it would be difficult to beat McIntosh Laboratory for sheer name -- and image -- recognition: The blue-and-green glowing McIntosh faceplate, with its meters and chunky knobs, is perhaps the most familiar icon of American hi-fi. Though mostly associated with tubed power amplifiers and preamplifiers, in recent years McIntosh has branched out, introducing everything from headphones and media streamers to wireless loudspeakers. Though it continues to manufacture the older product categories it’s best known for, the McIntosh of today is not your dad’s McIntosh.
One news item to come out of the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show that got little play in the otherwise exhaustive show coverage on SoundStage! Global was the announcement that Tidal would begin streaming Hi-Res Audio (HRA), effectively immediately. The announcement was made at a Hi-Res Audio Pavilion arranged by the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) and located not at the Venetian, but at the Las Vegas Convention Center, amid booths filled with camera accessories, VR headsets, and drones. Statements made by other companies at the event indicated that we can soon expect HRA streaming from additional services, including Pandora, Napster (formerly Rhapsody), and HRA download site HDtracks.
As a listener, I’m new to Hegel the audio equipment maker. As a reader, I’m familiar with Hegel the German philosopher, mostly due to his influence on the thinking of Karl Marx. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is associated with the Hegelian Dialectic, in which things and ideas evolve in a continual process of change that finds synthesis in an ideal reality. Marx, among other things, is known for turning Hegel on his head by shifting the Hegelian Dialectic from the ideal world back to the material one.
The 2017 Consumer Electronics Show was arguably a bust for perfectionist audio, but there were still loads of interesting products to be found if you looked past the typical model of separates plus passive speakers. In retrospect, integrated products with wireless/streaming capability were the norm rather than the exception, indicating that such functionality has become a standard feature in the product lines of many companies. It was also the first audio show at which I saw high-end manufacturers tap Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo Dot to help conduct demos (“Alexa, play us some Norah Jones . . .”). Technology marches on.
When Naim Audio released its first wireless music system, the Mu-so ($1500 USD), in late 2014, the slab-like speaker grabbed attention with its sleek, decor-friendly looks. But the Mu-so was more than just a pretty face: packing dual three-way speakers, each driver separately powered by a 75W amp, the Mu-so was designed not only to deliver background tunes, but for serious listening. A year later, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2016, Naim was already demoing a new variation on the theme: the Mu-so Qb.
We live in the era of the wireless speaker. I say that not only because of the proliferation of Sonos and its clones. Nor am I talking about Bluetooth speakers, which have become the default music-playback option for most folks. What makes me think that the wireless category has finally, truly arrived are new options from companies such as Dynaudio and Devialet -- wireless, powered speakers that provide high-performance alternatives to traditional wired hi-fi systems.
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