With apologies to William Shakespeare, there’s something rockin’ in the state of Denmark, audiowise. When it comes to active speakers that include digital signal processing (DSP) -- in my opinion, now the most exciting segment of audio -- the Danes are on the leading edge. During my two-years-plus at SoundStage! Simplifi, I’ve written about active speakers from several Danish brands, including DALI, Dynaudio, and System Audio, and I’ve loved them all.
Is there a speaker brand that does retro as well as Klipsch? I doubt it. Klipsch’s big horn speakers hark back to the middle of the 20th century, and so do their lifestyle products.
In the last decade, recorded music has undergone a sea change -- it has become disembodied. From the late 19th to the early 21st century, music was distributed on physical media. In the early 21st century, digital downloads held sway, then quickly gave way to on-demand streaming.
A year ago this week, Amazon shook up the audio world with its announcement of Amazon Music HD, a streaming service that today offers 60 million tracks in lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz CD resolution, plus “millions” of hi-rez tracks in resolutions up to 24/192. While lossless and hi-rez files were already available from Qobuz and Tidal, the leading streaming services all used lossy codecs, so Amazon’s embrace of hi-rez audio was big news.
For the past couple of decades, the audio industry has been angsting about how to get young listeners interested in hi-fi. It’s not that teens and twentysomethings don’t love music; it’s that their musical lives revolve around smartphones, headphones, maybe a Bluetooth speaker. How can they be introduced to the joys of listening to real stereo from real hi-fi speakers?
Volumio may not be a household name among audiophiles, but it has a huge following among DIY hobbyists. Based in Florence, Italy, Volumio is the developer of an eponymous, open-source Linux distribution designed for music playback that can run on an inexpensive single-board computer (SBC) such as the Raspberry Pi. The company claims to have over 300,000 users, mainly hobbyists who run Volumio on home-built digital music streamers and servers.
Integrating a hi-fi system into a multipurpose living space can be complicated by all the wiring needed to connect the various components. This is particularly true of speaker cables, especially if they have to cross an open area of the room. Even if they aren’t tripping hazards, they’re unsightly.
On a Friday morning, two years ago this month, an unexpected e-mail from SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider appeared in my inbox. I say “unexpected” because, at the time, I barely knew Doug. We’d met a few times at such audio events as CEDIA and the Consumer Electronics Show, and I knew Doug by reputation, having been a regular reader of SoundStage! publications since the Network’s launch, in 1995. We arranged to chat by phone.
If you want to establish a new audio brand, where do you start? That was the question faced by Andover Audio, a Boston-area company founded in 2012 by ex-employees of Cambridge SoundWorks, when they decided to offer products under their own brand.
The American brand Audio Alchemy was founded in the 1980s and folded a decade later. It re-emerged in the early 2000s, and was purchased by Elac in 2016, where it has undergone a renaissance. Audio Alchemy founder Peter Madnick now acts as a consulting engineer for Elac, and is responsible for developing Elac’s Alchemy series of electronic components, now in their second generation.
In the two years I’ve been writing for SoundStage! Simplifi I’ve reviewed 15 stereo loudspeakers, all of them active or powered models. There’s a practical reason for this. I don’t have a dedicated music room, and our living room isn’t big enough to accommodate a conventional audio system of separate components: sources, amplifiers, and passive speakers. So the music systems in our current home have been built around active speakers -- first, Dynaudio’s Focus 200 XD, which, following a firmware update, is sonically and functionally identical to the newer Focus 20 XD ($5999/pair, all prices USD); and, later, Elac’s Navis ARF-51 ($4599.98/pair).
In the past few years, the French speaker maker Focal has had an amazing run on SoundStage!. Reviewed by Diego Estan on SoundStage! Access, the Chora 806 ($990/pair, all prices USD) received a Reviewers’ Choice award, and was later designated a Recommended Reference Component. The same honors were bestowed on Focal’s Stellia headphones ($2990), reviewed by Brent Butterworth on SoundStage! Solo; and on the Spectral 40th floorstanding speakers ($9990/pair) and Sopra No1 minimonitors ($9990/pair), both reviewed by Diego for SoundStage! Hi-Fi. The Spectral 40th was also named a SoundStage! Network 2019 Product of the Year in the Hall of Fame category. That’s a mighty impressive record.
When I reviewed Elac’s Navis ARF-51 active floorstanding speakers ($4599.96/pair, all prices USD) in September 2019, I rediscovered something I’d been missing for the previous six years: kick-ass bass.
When computer audio took off, a decade ago, many hobbyists opted to use active studio monitors, rather than the usual amplifier and passive speakers. It’s not hard to see why. Especially for desktop audio, where space is at a premium, speakers with built-in amps are convenient.
Do you need a powerhouse computer just to play music? Not everyone does -- I use a nine-year-old, mid-tier Apple Mac Mini, and it does just fine. I’ve modified it for music playback, swapping out its spinning hard-disk drive for a solid-state drive (SSD), and bumping up its RAM from 4 to 16GB, so that music plays from memory rather than storage.
Can an audio component be more than the sum of its parts? Bryston’s new BDA-3.14 streaming DAC-preamp ($4195, all prices USD) invites that question. Essentially, it combines two products on one chassis: the acclaimed BDA-3 DAC ($3795) and a network streamer based on the BDP-Pi ($1495). The BDP-Pi derives its name from the Raspberry Pi single-board computer at its core. Hence the model number of the new integrated product -- 3.14 is an approximation of the mathematical constant pi (π), denoting the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
Many of the products I’ve recently reviewed for Simplifi have been DACs with built-in streamers -- most recently, Bryston’s BDA-3.14 ($4195, all prices USD) and iFi Audio’s Pro iDSD ($2749); and, before that, NAD’s Classic C 658 ($1649), Lumin’s T2 ($4500), and Naim Audio’s ND5 XS 2 ($3495).
In my last three columns, I wrote about how streaming is changing the ways people discover and experience music. In my January feature, “The State of Streaming,” I looked at streaming services that deliver lossless CD-resolution and high-resolution music. In “The Name Game,” published February 1, I wrote about how streaming has given rise to whole new classes of audio components, and set out to establish some definitions. And in my March feature, “Rules of the Game,” I discussed the software protocols that enable these new components to talk to one another, and compared their benefits and drawbacks.
A half-century ago, when I got into audio, most amplifiers had front panels that looked like jet cockpits. And the higher a model was in its manufacturer’s product line, the more knobs and switches it had.
Is there a hobby that’s less domesticated than home theater? Ever since people began connecting their TVs to their stereos in the late 1970s, audio manufacturers have been encouraging them to add more and more speakers -- and it’s gotten a bit crazy.
Last November in Warsaw, Poland, at the Audio Video Show 2019, I saw several products that fit Simplifi’s mandate to cover “convenient, lifestyle-oriented hi-fi,” many of which I knew I wanted to get in for review. At the top of the list were two new active loudspeakers from Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries (DALI): the Rubicon 2 C stand-mount ($5799/pair, all prices USD) and the Rubicon 6 C floorstander ($7999/pair). DALI’s passive Rubicon models are just one tier below their flagship Epicon series, so the prospect of reviewing these new active versions was mighty appealing.
In last month’s feature, I looked at the various kinds of components that can make up a Simplifi’d music system. As I noted then, networked music systems include three broad classes of components that traditional hi-fi systems don’t: servers, which send audio data (and metadata) over a home network; streamers, which receive and render that data; and controllers, with which users select music and control its playback.
The audio world knows of Pro-Ject Audio Systems as a major brand of turntables, but this Vienna-based company also makes an extensive line of electronics that lately have been winning all kinds of awards. For the past three years, Pro-Ject has received awards for its turntables and its electronic components from the Expert Imaging and Sound Association (EISA).
“You want to put those in our living room?” Over the years, words like these have scuttled countless plans for new home-entertainment systems. If the components themselves didn’t push the spouse acceptance factor into the red zone, the cables needed to connect them did.
I sometimes wonder if the name of this site, Simplifi, contradicts its stated mission to cover “convenient, lifestyle-oriented hi-fi,” per the blurb on the SoundStage! Network portal.
At a press event last May at High End 2019, in Munich, a chorus of oohs and aahs rippled through the audience when iFi Audio unveiled, for the first time, its Aurora tabletop music system ($1399, all prices USD). A glance at the photographs accompanying this review make it easy to understand this reaction.
When Naim Audio introduced a new version of its acclaimed Mu-so wireless music system in May 2019, at Munich’s High End, it seemed inevitable that an updated version of the Mu-so Qb would soon follow. And so it did. In early August Naim announced the Mu-so Qb 2nd Generation ($899, all prices USD), and in late October my review sample arrived.
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.
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