In reviewing audio gear -- or anything else, for that matter -- it’s a cliché to describe something with lots of features as a “Swiss Army knife.” But that was the image that sprang to mind as I reviewed Cocktail Audio’s X35, a “high-res-all-in-one music system” from Novatron, a Korean audio manufacturer with roots in IT. If there ever was an audio component that merited comparison to a compact, inexpensive device comprising many different tools for many different uses, the X35 is it.
Recently, I reviewed the JBL Link 500, a Wi-Fi speaker that incorporates the Google Assistant platform. To me, being able to question a speaker about the weather for the upcoming weekend, and to get a personalized response based on data Google had previously collected, seemed more a novelty than a great technological leap forward. Still, while the idea of having a speaker in my bedroom with a built-in microphone that relays data to Google’s servers didn’t make me paranoid, I was glad that the Link 500 also has a button for switching that microphone off.
Peachtree Audio is a company I usually think of as being “new.” But as I began work on a review of Peachtree’s most recent integrated amplifier, the decco125 Sky, I was reminded that they’ve been around for more than ten years. That made my head spin. Has it really been almost a decade since I reviewed the company’s iDecco, an integrated amplifier that embraced new ways people accessed music by incorporating a digital dock input for an iPhone/iPod and a USB port for a computer? This inclusiveness was reinforced by the iDecco’s low price: $999 USD.
Panasonic’s Technics brand may be best known for the SL-1200, a direct-drive turntable that has long been a favorite of the DJ set. But even before the SL-1200 became the tool of choice for creating rap and dance music, Technics had made its mark on hi-fi with power amplifiers, integrated amplifiers, and loudspeakers.
When Apple released its new HomePod smart speaker in early 2017, most early reviews echoed the same sentiments: the sound is impressive; the contribution of Siri, the company’s digital assistant, much less so. A review in the New York Times raved about how much better the HomePod’s audio quality was than those of similar offerings from Amazon and Google, but went on to bash the Apple for its inability to summon rides from Uber.
According to Amazon, the e-commerce site’s hottest product category during the 2017 holiday season was audio. This is not to say that most Amazon shoppers were spending money on amplifiers, bookshelf speakers, or even headphones. The audio product that everyone wanted to find under their tree was the Echo Dot, a voice-activated Wi-Fi speaker that sells for $50 USD.
Recently, on seeing the Apple Music app on my phone, a friend’s kid smirked. The problem? Apparently, I’d decided to spend my money on uncool Apple Music rather than on cool Spotify. Lame!
In an editorial posted late last year, I surveyed the limited field of hi-fi components that include room-correction processing. One product I mentioned was Trinnov Audio’s Amethyst ($10,000 USD), a stereo DAC-preamplifier featuring Trinnov’s proprietary Optimizer. Interviewing a Trinnov rep about the company’s innovative approach to dealing with the interactions of loudspeakers with domestic rooms, recording studios, and movie theaters made it clear that the Amethyst was something I wanted to check out in my own system.
Control4, a company well established in home automation, makes virtually everything required to run a Smart home, from the controllers that act as a system’s brain to the touchscreens and keypads that provide user interface with such a system. In 2017, Control4 acquired the loudspeaker and audio electronics manufacturer Triad, and since then has ramped up the audio aspect of its product offerings by adding multiroom amplifiers, speakers, and subwoofers. Another recent addition has been its EA series of controllers, a line that supports the streaming of high-resolution audio files.
German audio manufacturer Elac has attracted plenty of attention in the last few years, much of it due to new speaker lines designed by Andrew Jones, an audio engineer who’s developed models for companies ranging from KEF to Pioneer. But making speakers isn’t all that Elac is up to. The company recently introduced a range of electronics, including an integrated amplifier and a music server, and has even rolled out a high-end turntable. Now, with the Discovery Z3, Elac turns its attention to Wi-Fi speakers.
In last month’s editorial, I explained my decision to sit out this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Turns out my absence didn’t make a difference: When Laundroid, the artificial intelligence-powered laundry-folding machine, was introduced at the Las Vegas Convention Center, plenty of news outlets were onsite to pick up the slack. I can’t say I regret missing CES 2018, but I do wish I’d been around to see the LVCC’s lights go out for two hours on opening day. An electronics show with no electricity -- now that’s news.
Wi-Fi speakers are an easy option to recommend. You might be a millennial looking to upgrade from a Bluetooth speaker, or an audiophile seeking to downscale from a component-based system -- either way, a Wi-Fi speaker could very well be the ticket. But most Wi-Fi speakers aren’t much to look at: Sonos made the mold with its own nondescript designs, and most companies since have used Sonos as a template.
I made my first trip to the Consumer Electronics Show, held each January in Las Vegas, in 1994. Most high-end gear was then exhibited in the Sahara hotel, a now-defunct icon of the Rat Pack era, where they butted up against a different home-entertainment event: the Adult Entertainment Expo. While the combination of consumer electronics and porn was an uncomfortable one -- it came undone in 1998, when the porn-video industry broke away to establish its own, independent show -- the high-end audio scene at that moment seemed to have a bigger worry: home theater.
The PW 300, the latest addition to Paradigm’s family of wireless speakers, joins the PW Soundbar and the PW 800 and PW 600 all-in-one speakers. Vince Hanada recently reviewed the PW 600, in a system that included the PW Soundbar, for SoundStage! Xperience. “Configured as a stereo pair,” he wrote, “the PW 600s sounded outstanding, easily rivaling separate speakers and electronics costing many times their $1198/pair price.” That’s seriously high praise for a Wi-Fi speaker -- high enough to make me wonder if the PW 300 ($329 each) would be equally impressive.
What’s in a name? For old-school audiophiles, the name Thiel conjures up images of stately speakers in sumptuously finished cabinets of natural wood, of company founder Jim Thiel’s emphasis on the principles of time and phase coherence, and his use of coaxial drivers and first-order crossovers in his designs to achieve those ends.
When I recently reviewed Yamaha’s R-N803 network stereo receiver ($749.95 USD), one highlight turned out to be the company’s Yamaha Parametric Acoustic Optimizer (YPAO) room-equalization software, which I found benefited the sound. YPAO has long been a feature of Yamaha’s A/V receivers, but the R-N803 marked its debut in a stereo receiver. Which led me to wonder: Why had it taken so long? It also got me wondering: Why there aren’t more stereo-only products with room-correction software?
In February 2017, when I reviewed the Hegel Music Systems Röst integrated amplifier, the experience was revelatory in several ways. The main eye-opener was the Röst’s sound, which was notably dynamic for a 75Wpc integrated amp, and presented a strikingly clear window on whatever music I played. Another revelation was that a modestly powered amplifier could comfortably drive any speaker I paired it with.
Careful listening to recordings is by its nature a solitary experience. That’s why audiophiles have a rep for being loners -- you can’t fully soak in the nuances of great music unless you’re focused on listening, and that requires both concentration and a degree of isolation.
Stereo receivers are now a thing. Yamaha’s R-N803 ($749.95 USD) is the third model I’ve tested in the last two months, the other two being Onkyo’s TX-8270 ($499) and Outlaw Audio’s RR2160 ($799). While the Outlaw review was posted in October on SoundStage! Access, the Onkyo’s wired and wireless network streaming capability made it a better fit for Simplifi, also reviewed in October. How does Yamaha’s take on the network stereo receiver compare?
If there’s one thing I know about Onkyo, it’s that the company’s A/V receivers are the first to pack any new feature. Dolby or DTS have a new format or technology? Look for Onkyo to incorporate it as quickly as the silicon is minted. With stereo receivers enjoying a rebirth (look for a review of Outlaw Audio’s new RR2160 on our sister site SoundStage! Access), Onkyo’s models continue the company’s tradition of feature one-upmanship -- not that I’d have expected anything less.
The 2017 edition of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association’s annual exposition, formerly called the CEDIA Expo but now simply CEDIA, took place in early September at the San Diego Convention Center. Though CEDIA is ground zero for networked audio, most of the products displayed this year were in-wall and in-ceiling speakers connected to multizone amps operated by proprietary, keypad-controlled, home-automation systems. In other words, CEDIA was packed with gear designed to be heard, not seen -- products mainly of interest to custom-installation professionals. Since the dawn of Sonos, however, a stream of consumer-oriented products have popped up amid the aisles of nondescript hardware, and virtually all of it -- mostly streamers and speakers -- uses wireless technology. Much of it is affordable, simple to install, and can run on a home’s Wi-Fi network. Here are the most interesting products I spied while roaming the aisles of the SDCC with my Simplifi goggles on. All prices are in USD.
In the high end, powered or active speakers have been mostly designed for the desktop, where they provide a convenient solution for computer-based listening. But some companies, notably Denmark’s Dynaudio A/S, advocate the use of active models in regular listening rooms. The company’s Xeo 2 active speakers have been reviewed on SoundStage! Access. Their Focus 20 XD models have much of the technology found in the Xeo line, but with more powerful amps and sturdier, more attractive cabinets in a range of natural wood veneers. For review, Dynaudio shipped me a pair of Focus 20 XD stand-mount speakers ($5999-$6499 USD per pair, depending on finish).
Most all-in-one speakers are produced by generic audio companies looking to take a slice from the Sonos pie. That generalization doesn’t apply to Riva Audio. This California-based outfit has a personality behind it -- that of Rikki Farr, a British music promoter and manager who gained fame as the ranting MC of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, a notoriously off-the-hook event that nonetheless hosted an eclectic roster of artists ranging from Leonard Cohen and Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix and the Who.
When I entered Naim’s room at last January’s Consumer Electronics Show, my attention was immediately captured by the company’s Uniti offerings. On display were three new network-capable integrated amplifiers -- the Nova, Star, and Atom -- each capable of streaming via a wide range of protocols. All three had large, front-panel LCD displays showing album art in full color, and the Star had a disc drive plus built-in storage for ripping CDs. In a CES that seemed low on excitement, the Unitis were something to get stoked about.
Once a business with an all-you-can-eat model, media streaming has begun to carve out niches to serve more narrowly defined interests. Take Disney, which recently announced that it would pull its content from Netflix to create its own streaming platform aimed at parents of young children who eagerly consume Disney and Pixar movies. Then there’s FilmStruck, a service created by Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection to stream their catalogs directly to equally eager cineastes.
For many people, computers have become an indispensable tool for listening to music. Computers rip CDs, and play tracks using software such as Audirvana Plus, iTunes, and JRiver Media Center. They download high-resolution files from sites such as HDtracks, and stream music from services that include Spotify and Tidal. Linked via USB to a DAC, preamplifier, or integrated amp, a computer can function as a source component. Alternatively, in a networked setup, it can be tapped to direct the flow of data via Ethernet.
An understatement: all-in-one speakers come with built-in limitations. Destined to be placed on a shelf or kitchen counter, they’re usually quite small, with little drivers designed to fit the space available within. The downside of all-in-ones, of course, is their limited output of sound, along with soundstaging that barely extends past the edges of their small enclosures. Convenient? Yes. Replacement for a system of separate components? Hmm . . .
Hegel Music Systems’ Röst ($3000 USD) was the first integrated amplifier to be reviewed on SoundStage! Simplifi, and to this day it’s a benchmark that other integrated amps must measure up to. That situation might seem odd when you consider that some models we’ve reviewed in the past few months have clearly outpaced the Röst in such features as Roon readiness, DSD support, and MQA decoding, all of which the Hegel lacks. The Röst also has no control app -- another amenity that manufacturers typically make available for network-capable products. What is it about the Röst that makes it special?
In the past year I’ve reviewed an array of all-in-one products, ranging from wireless powered speakers to integrated models combining streamer, DAC, preamp, and amp functions in a single case. A related category that I’ve ignored completely is the network audio player, a group that includes Arcam’s new rPlay ($599 USD).
Finding a perfect integrated amplifier isn’t easy. While most now provide a USB input for hooking up a computer, many lack a wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection for streaming. Some integrated amps are compatible with AirPlay, and others are Roon Ready. Many provide a phono input for a turntable, but definitely not all.
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