If you read SoundStage! Access regularly, you’ve seen the increase in our coverage of vinyl and equipment to play it on. LPs have been on the rebound for over a decade now, and many listeners prefer the sound of vinyl to that of digital sources. If you’re new to vinyl, you need to know that buying and setting up a turntable is not as simple as with a new digital source. It takes some skill, forethought, and knowledge. This and March’s articles will give you the information you need to make a good choice.
A false narrative surrounds visions of the idyllic days of yore. People today are no less self-interested than they were a half-century ago, even if we may be more self-involved. Nor is the world any more dangerous than it has ever been. In fact, an argument could be made that we live in the most peaceful era in the history of our species. The existence of strife, discontent, and clear opportunities to improve our collective lot in life does not somehow imply that we should revert to the known but wildly imperfect quantities of our past. The familiar aromas of history, allied with our tendency to airbrush our memories in soothing sepia tones, make it an easy and comfortable alternative to the uncertainty of the future. Of course, the tension between the past and present has always existed, and those clinging to the former will, at one point or another, be left behind to rue how the world has gone to hell.
I jumped on the computer-audio bandwagon early and eagerly. I pivoted from a bush-league, big-box-store-bought Sony carousel CD player to a Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB -- the first Benchmark DAC with a USB input. Besides, after four years of college in the mid-2000s, I was listening far more to iTunes than to CDs. Back then, Apple’s iTunes was a passable front end, if only due to the lack of competition. Now, though, there are innumerable alternatives, on both the hardware and software fronts.
The CEDIA Expo is a trade show held each September by the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA). For most attendees, it provides an opportunity to learn about the latest developments in home automation, to see the best and brightest new 4K-capable video projectors, and to hear spectacular, sometimes ear-splitting demos of object-based audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. On the fringes of all this high-tech overload is a surprising amount of two-channel audio -- everything from integrated amplifiers to statement tower speakers. Happening as it does roughly midway between the annual January installments of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the CEDIA Expo also gives audio manufacturers a chance to unveil new gear that may have been only hinted at in Las Vegas.
It’s laughable in retrospect. Parents and grandparents always seem to get starry-eyed when reminiscing about the past, while brows instantly furrow at the mention of some new trend or a popular young whippersnapper doing something unspeakably stupid. It’s funny when you’re a kid, because it’s just old people being old. I think at some point, though, we all become keenly aware, even if we’re unwilling to admit to anyone else, that we are growing old. It’s as if the world around us is slowly turning from a comfortably familiar womb to an alien landscape littered with all manner of the unfathomable. Apropos of this, enough real world experience should be instructive on two main points.
I don’t think I’ve ever been content with my audio gear. When I bought my first hi-fi product, an old pair of Dynaudio Contour 1.8 Mk.II speakers, I was already pining for the larger Contour 3.0s. I followed that up with the purchase of a used Krell KAV-300il -- a handsome, powerful integrated amplifier that was only a stepping stone to my ultimate target: a Mark Levinson No.383 integrated. Almost ten years later, five of them spent as a reviewer, I’m not much closer to feeling content.
Thirty-one is the age at which I’ve finally come to grips with that fact that I’m no longer young. I see the value in social media. Facebook can be great for connecting with friends and family. Twitter played an enormous role in the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2012. Instagram is a terrific way to capture and share beautiful moments, albeit in highly filtered fashion. Such usefulness, however, is so often overshadowed by the irresistible urges of narcissism within each of us. To me, these outlets, in the name of instant communication, actually feed the need to grandstand. And that’s fine. I just don’t care. But watching roving groups of teens on my hometown’s streets as they silently bask in the soft glow of their smartphones’ screens, saying little to but endlessly texting each other, makes me: a) pray for the future; and b) reminisce about how different things were when I was young. Those last eight words are irrefutable proof of my having firmly entered the boring realm of adulthood.
If there was any argument before, it’s well settled now: The annual High End show, held in May in Munich, Germany, is the biggest and best audio exhibition in the world. It draws record numbers of exhibitioners and attendees, even as the high-end audio portion of the Consumer Electronics Show, held each year in Las Vegas, continues to contract. While I couldn’t get to High End this year, I intend to be there for the 2017 edition. But the SoundStage! contingent of Doug Schneider, Jeff Fritz, and Brent Butterworth provided excellent and timely reporting of the proceedings at High End on SoundStage! Global. While that coverage included mentions of many newly introduced products worth mentioning here, I spotted a trend in the reports that seemed worthy of exploration.
I’ve never loved two-way loudspeakers: Their missing bass and limited output keeps my blood pressure all too comfortably low. Still, that hasn’t kept a dozen two-ways from trooping through my listening room in the past two years -- probably more than have visited most other reviewers in that time. Regardless of two-ways’ limitations, these pygmies of the audiophile world offer a multitude of benefits over larger speakers. A smaller cabinet usually results in fewer cabinet-induced tonal colorations and a more open soundstage, while a two-way’s simpler crossover network puts as few components as possible between a tweeter and a midrange-woofer. Then there’s the convenience factor: A two-way design can be made to work well in many more listening environments than, say, larger three-way models. Here I describe a few of my favorite two-way speakers.
In spring 2013 I was looking to buy a pair of loudspeakers in KEF’s R series, and was dead set on the top model: the R900 ($4999.98 USD per pair). “You should get the R700s,” SoundStage! Network founder Doug Schneider told me. I demurred. The R700 ($3599.98/pair) is smaller, but my studio apartment was roughly 30’L x 20’W x 12’H, and I was sure the R900s wouldn’t overpower the living-room area. I bought a pair of R900s finished in a mild shade of walnut.