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.
Once in a while, I come across a product that has me scratching my head: What’s this thing really for, and who needs it? Then a light goes on, and I get it: Hey, this product is really cool, and really useful. Why did it take so long for someone to come up with this idea?
This fall marked the 10th anniversary of file-based, high-resolution audio playback. The New York City-based website HDtracks opened its virtual doors in March 2008; in October of that year, it added to its catalog 24-bit/88.2kHz and 24/96 FLAC files.
Wireless speakers have become like A/V receivers: it’s almost impossible to build one that’s still up to date a few months after launch. Cambridge Audio’s Yoyo (L) all-in-one home audio system doesn’t have voice command, the latest hot feature boasted by an increasing number of wireless speakers, but it offers almost everything else you might want in a wireless speaker, as well as at least one thing that’s likely to surprise you. It also packs a lot more audio engineering than do most wireless speakers.
Sometime soon, hopefully before the end of 2018, North American audiophiles will have their choice of two high-resolution music-streaming services. One of them is a familiar name -- now available in 57 countries, Tidal has been operating in North America since 2015. The other is a relative unknown, at least on the west side of the Atlantic.
For serious, sit-down stereo, active loudspeakers have traditionally been a tough sell. I’ve never understood why -- their domestic advantages are obvious. Active speakers can make possible audiophile-quality sound in spaces where traditional components are unwelcome -- as outlined in my recent feature on "How I Simplifi’d My Hi-Fi."
Toronto has a new audio show. The first-ever Toronto Audiofest was held at the Westin Toronto Airport Hotel October 19-21. In one year, it has effectively supplanted the Toronto Audio-Video Entertainment Show (TAVES), which began in 2011 but gradually lost its way.
So much is made these days of powered speakers with Bluetooth connectivity that, presented with one of these wonder puppies, I was prompted to plug it in, invoke Bluetooth, link it to my iPhone, et voilà -- music!
Smartphones are the quintessential jacks-of-all-trades. Beyond their basic function (telephony), you can use them to surf the Web, shoot pictures and videos, play games, feed the parking meter, check your bank balance, navigate strange cities, and a million or so other applications.
Does the trades corollary follow? Are they masters of none? You can tap out an e-mail on your phone’s screen, but you wouldn’t want to write a novel on it. Smartphone cameras are fine for snapshots, but if you’re a serious photographer, you’ll want a serious camera.
A year ago this month, my missus and I made a life-changing decision. We would sell the Toronto home where she had lived for 26 years, and move to a smaller house in the same neighborhood. Our kids had long since left the nest (lucky us!), and that big five-bedroom house was way more real estate than we needed. Downsizing would free up money for our retirements (we are now both, officially, geezers) and simplify our lives.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems’ Juke Box E shows how stereo systems ain’t what they used to be. That statement is not a lament for an imagined better past, but an observation of what kinds of systems today’s listeners want and need. The Juke Box E ($499 USD) caters not to the traditional audiophile, but to a new generation with different listening habits. It combines a turntable, phono stage, integrated amplifier, and Bluetooth receiver, all in a package no larger than a typical budget turntable. All you add is speakers.
Music lovers have been trying to solve a problem ever since they began collecting recordings: How to have convenient access to large music libraries?
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