Do you have to be a propeller-head to enjoy Simplifi’d hi-fi? The question might seem nonsensical, but when you think about this site’s mandate -- to cover “convenient, lifestyle-oriented audio” -- it makes a perverse kind of sense, and the product reviewed here illustrates my point.
Like many music-lovers, I’ve changed my listening habits drastically in the last ten years. A decade ago, all of the music I listened to at home was stored on shiny discs. A decade later, those discs are long gone. My music library is now stored on a LaCie 2Big Thunderbolt RAID system connected to an Apple Mac Mini computer in my second-floor office. The Mac Mini runs Roon Core, and streams music via Wi-Fi to the music system in my main-floor living room.
In her song “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell famously observed “That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone.” There’s a lot of truth in that. The converse is equally true -- you don’t know what you’ve been missing till you experience it. Both thoughts occurred to me as I reviewed Elac’s Navis ARF-51 active floorstanding speakers.
Is classical music in danger of dying “a digital death”? That prospect worries Thomas Steffens, CEO of Amsterdam-based Primephonic, a streaming service that specializes in classical music. “The world is moving toward streaming, where there are no CD stores anymore, and download stores are disappearing,” Steffens told me in an interview. “At the same time, classical music is massively underrepresented on streaming services. Classical music accounts for 5% of all global music consumption, but only 1% of streaming music, and 0.5% of streaming royalties.”
Cute, adorable, funky -- you rarely read those adjectives in reviews of serious audio products, but they do describe the appearance of Devialet’s Phantom Reactor active loudspeakers. Perched on their matching tripod stands, the Reactors evoke memories of R2D2 from Star Wars (though each Reactor is much smaller), or characters from the game Angry Birds (the Reactors look way friendlier).
Is a music-management application that costs $499 USD expensive? That’s what you’ll pay for a lifetime subscription to Roon, and I’ve occasionally called it “an expensive option.” If you don’t want to plunk down half a thou, you can pay $119 for a one-year subscription.
As regular visitors to this site surely know by now, I’m a big proponent of active loudspeakers. My reference system is built around a pair of Dynaudio Focus 200 XDs, which have dedicated 150W class-D amps for their 1” tweeters and 6.5” woofers. This choice was driven by domestic considerations -- it would be almost impossible to fit a system of audio separates into the living room of the century-old row house I share with my much better half.
It was a deal that left many audiophiles scratching their heads. In May 2016, the venerable British loudspeaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins was sold to California-based EVA Automation Inc. If few people had ever heard of EVA Automation, that’s not surprising -- the Silicon Valley startup had been founded only two years before, and had never released a product.
If anyone made a list of the 21st century’s most successful hi-fi speakers, that list would surely include the KEF LS50, introduced in 2012 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the BBC LS3/5a minimonitor. Since then the LS50 has received countless honors, including Reviewers’ Choice and Product of the Year awards from SoundStage!.
Five years ago, if someone had asked me if there was a market for a tabletop all-in-one music system that cost $1499 (all prices USD), I’d have replied, “You’re kidding, right?” For that kind of dough, you could get a nice integrated amp and speakers, or a really good set of powered speakers. I had nothing against all-in-one music systems -- not then, not now. But for serious listening, I want the immersive experience you get from a stereo pair of speakers spaced several feet apart.
When most people think of audio components from McIntosh Laboratory, they think of serious high-end separates: preamps and big, powerful amplifiers. But there’s another side to this iconic brand, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary. McIntosh now offers several lifestyle audio products, including integrated music systems, streamers, headphone amplifiers, and the subject of this review: what they call an integrated turntable.
There’s no doubt about it: Munich’s High End is the greatest audio show on earth. But don’t let the name scare you. High End isn’t only about big, expensive gear -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many affordable components made their debuts at this year’s show.
For people who want to enjoy their music in real-world living spaces, two of the most welcome developments of recent years have been the integration of streaming capability into integrated amplifiers, and the downsizing of these components. With a streaming amplifier and good pair of speakers, you have everything you need to enjoy a vast range of music, in sound quality far beyond that of most all-in-one tabletop speakers. And you can do this without breaking the bank, or cluttering up your living area with audio gear.
In the Toronto home I share with my infinitely better half, the hi-fi lives in the living room. Of course, I want it to sound great -- and it does -- but it also has to look as if it belongs. We’ve put a lot of effort into the design and décor of our home: If the hi-fi is to occupy a public space, it must be suitable for civilized company.
Most active speakers are all-in-one components, with built-in amplifiers and often built-in DACs as well, but no law says that active loudspeaker technology must be neat and compact. It’s possible to create an active speaker system with external amplifiers and crossover, like those offered by Bryston. Bryston’s active systems combine crossoverless versions of its Model T, Middle T, and Mini T speakers with the BAX-1 external crossover, plus amplifiers dedicated to each frequency range.
One thing that differentiates enthusiast audio from other areas of consumer electronics is the amazing proliferation of brands. Most CE categories are dominated by a few big names -- think TVs (LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL, Vizio), or smartphones (Apple, Huawei, Samsung again). But audiophiles shopping for speakers, amplifiers, source components, or cables can choose from among literally hundreds of brands.
Like many audiophiles with limited space and limited funds, I often wonder why, at audio shows, so many companies insist on displaying ultra-expensive systems. Why not real-world systems that most people can afford? Systems they can use in day-to-day living spaces, not just man caves?
Is the Compact Disc on its deathbed? Not yet, but there’s cause for concern. According to the 2019 Global Music Report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), worldwide sales of physical media declined 10.1% in 2018. Vinyl sales grew 6%, and now account for 3.6% of worldwide music-industry revenues. So based on a little back-of-the-envelope math, it looks like global CD sales declined by around 12% last year.
The German hi-fi brand Elac dates back to the 1920s, but has lately undergone a renaissance. Following a business reorganization in 2014, Elac established an American subsidiary charged with developing affordable, high-performance loudspeakers. That task was assigned to Andrew Jones, who in 2015 joined Elac as vice-president of engineering, following gigs at KEF, Infinity, TAD, and Pioneer.
Two years ago next month, in a feature for sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi, Doug Schneider posed a question: “Is it time for active speakers?” As Doug noted, audiophiles have traditionally been cool toward active designs, despite their many advantages. This is partly because active speakers take some of the fun out of hobbyist audio. Audiophiles want to choose their own amps and cables, rather than have someone else make those choices for them.
Last October, Lenbrook International announced a comprehensive upgrade of its Bluesound lineup of whole-house audio products. Bluesound’s 2i series offers such new features as Apple AirPlay 2 support, improved Bluetooth capability, Amazon Alexa voice control, and updated Wi-Fi connectivity.
Over the past several years, Ohio-based SVS has earned a reputation for making affordable, high-performance loudspeakers and subwoofers. Its subs, of course, are active, but until recently, all of its full-range speakers were passive designs. Last year, SVS introduced the fully active, two-way Prime Wireless speakers ($599.99/pair; all prices USD).
I’ve never thought of myself as having sharp elbows. But here I am, the new guy in the SoundStage! neighborhood, and I keep muscling in on my colleagues’ territories. For my first review on Simplifi, I tackled LG’s G7 ThinQ MQA-compatible smartphone, a product that would fit nicely on SoundStage! Solo. More recently, I opined that the Kii Audio Three DSP-controlled active speakers would be right at home on SoundStage! Hi-Fi or Ultra.
One of my pet peeves is technology that thinks it knows more than I do. Sometimes, software developers will release a new version that removes a useful feature, supposedly to enhance ease of use, but usually to advance a corporate agenda. Sometimes, they’ll streamline a key function to make it simpler for inexperienced users, at the cost of restricting flexibility for experienced users.
KEF’s little LSX active speakers ($1099 USD per pair) would seem to contain everything you need for high-resolution stereo sound. Each enclosure houses a KEF Uni-Q driver array comprising a 0.75” aluminum-dome tweeter mounted at the acoustic center of a 4.5” magnesium-aluminum midrange-woofer, each powered by its own amplifier. The LSXes are small enough to virtually disappear into your room, but if you look their way they’ll grab your eye. They’re available in five colors: white, green, red, blue, and black. Speakers in all colors but white are covered on four sides with a matching industrial textile. The white version, which I reviewed, has a high-gloss finish on all surfaces, and the driver is in complementary silver-gray. It’s gorgeous. The red and blue models have drivers of the same color as the cabinet; the others have drivers of a complementary color.
Despite what the illuminati say about our brave new world “moving at Internet speed,” sometimes we just have to hurry up and wait. This review is a case in point.
Most audiophiles know Pro-Ject Audio Systems as a maker of turntables. Indeed, more than any manufacturer, Vienna-based Pro-Ject is responsible for the vinyl revival.
Keen-eyed readers may have noticed that I recently added a new category to the Associated Equipment section at the end of my reviews. In addition to listing the speakers, sources, and cables used for a review, I’ve started listing my network setup. For most of the products I review, every note I listen to is streamed over a network. That makes the network an important part of my home-entertainment system.
This corner of the SoundStage! Network is devoted to “convenient, lifestyle-oriented hi-fi,” to quote the blurb on the Network portal. To some diehards, the word lifestyle conveys a kind of superficiality, a lack of seriousness, but not to yours truly. As I wrote in my kick-off feature for SoundStage! Simplifi, there’s a lot to be said for integrating your hi-fi into your everyday life. Having your main music system in a living area, rather than hiding it away in an inner sanctum, means that everyone can enjoy it, not just the household high priest of audio.
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