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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Ah, Munich in the spring. Strolling the banks of the Isar. Pedaling a boat across the Kleinhesseloher See (a lake) in the English Garden. Then, to wind down the day, hoisting a stein in the biergarten of the Augustinerkeller.
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