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 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.
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.
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.
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