It’s the start of a new year -- and, depending on your math, the beginning of the 2020s or the end of the 2010s. Do the 2020s officially begin on January 1, 2020, or on January 1, 2021? Whichever, it’s time to look at the top audio trends of the past year and the past decade.
These days, it’s becoming increasingly common for audio manufacturers to offer integrated amplifiers with built-in, high-resolution DACs. For audiophiles who want a low-footprint system to use in real-world living spaces, that’s a very good thing. Add a pair of speakers and a digital source component like a notebook PC or network streamer, and you have most of the world’s music at your fingertips.
Judging by the crowds at Audio Video Show 2019, held Friday-Sunday, November 8-10, in Eastern Europe hi-fi is a family affair. The 23rd edition of the show was held in three venues in central Warsaw, in Poland: the Radisson Blu Sobieski and Golden Tulip hotels, and the PGE Narodowy, or National Stadium.
To my knowledge, in the 24 years of the SoundStage! Network only one product has ever been retroactively granted a Reviewers’ Choice award. That product was the Hegel Music Systems Röst integrated amplifier-DAC, reviewed for Simplifi by Al Griffin in February 2017 -- in fact, the Röst was the first integrated amplifier to be reviewed on this site.
In his coverage of CEDIA Expo 2019 for SoundStage! Global, Brent Butterworth called DALI’s Katch One soundbar ($999, all prices USD) the “product at the CEDIA Expo that I’d most like to have right at this very minute.” I found this surprising -- not because I had any doubts that the Katch One is a fine product, but because there were so many other lustworthy products at this year’s Expo, including several Brent outlined in his four show reports. A few highlights were Revel’s PerformaBe speakers, NAD’s T 778 nine-channel A/V receiver, and MartinLogan’s 40XW in-wall speaker, each of which has 40 driver-units. There were also lustworthy video products, including 4K laser projectors from Epson, JVC, and LG, and Sony’s modular Crystal LED wall display system.
It’s been just over five years since Canada’s Lenbrook Industries Limited launched the Bluesound brand of streaming multiroom products, and many of the decisions Lenbrook made during Bluesound’s formative stages now seem prescient. These include developing the underlying BluOS technology in-house, rather than sourcing it from a third party, and supporting high-resolution playback right from the start.
What would you rather do on a glorious Canadian autumn weekend: Go for a hike in the woods? Do some urban exploring? Listen to great audio equipment in a suburban hotel?
Over the weekend of October 18-20, 3500 people chose the third option, spending hours or days at the second edition of the Toronto Audiofest, held at the Westin Toronto Airport Hotel in Mississauga, Ontario.
Based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, on Canada’s left coast, Kanto Audio has made a name for itself with budget-priced powered stereo speaker systems. These include the YU2 ($219.99/pair, all prices USD), a two-way desktop speaker with USB DAC and 3.5mm stereo analog input; and two bookshelf models, the YU4 ($329.99/pair) and YU6 ($399.99/pair), both featuring Bluetooth connectivity, a built-in phono preamp, a TosLink digital input, and a line-level analog input. The YU4 has a 4” Kevlar woofer and a 1” soft-dome tweeter, driven by a 35Wpc RMS class-D amp; the larger YU6 has a 5.25” woofer and a 50Wpc RMS class-D amp. Kanto’s most ambitious design yet is the Tuk powered minimonitor ($799.99/pair). Inside each rear-ported enclosure is a 5.25” aluminum woofer and a 28 x 45mm Air Motion Transformer (AMT) tweeter.
On the various websites of the SoundStage! Network you’ll find reviews of all kinds of source components -- CD players, streamers, DACs, turntables, cartridges, and phono stages. But to my knowledge, in its 24-year history SoundStage! has reviewed only one smartphone: the LG G7 ThinQ.
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.
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