Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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The speed of change in consumer electronics is breathtaking. Smartphones are rapidly supplanting computers as our default devices for most consumer activities, and my own practices are no exception. I deposit checks and verify transactions through my mobile banking app. I use my phone to communicate with family and friends, and for work using text and e-mail. I check my stock portfolio, fret over retirement funds, read the news, keep up to date on stupid memes, and ask Google all sorts of questions. A couple weeks back I bought a pair of aftermarket underseat subwoofers for my car through eBay’s app, and the same day, via an online car forum, found a buyer for my car’s stock underseat subs, to help defray the cost of that impulse buy.

Hans Wetzel

My generation, the Millennials, live a large portion of their lives on their phones. When I go out for food and drinks with my wife on a Friday or Saturday night here in Philadelphia, the young couples seated around us often seem more preoccupied with texting someone else, or Instagramming filtered and curated photos of themselves, than with actually talking to one another. The irony of needing to show other people how #blessed your life is, rather than just living it, seems lost on many of my peers. But whatever the social and emotional ramifications of developing a greater bond with your phone than with anything or anyone else, the cell phone is now an indispensable fixture in how my generation live their lives -- and, no doubt, the way the next generation will live theirs.

High-end audio hasn’t followed this trend with alacrity. In checking out SoundStage!’s coverage of last May’s High End 2018, in Munich, I felt a gnawing unease at the lack of forward-thinking products on display. Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems’ outrageous Relentless monoblock power amplifiers -- they retail for a cool $250,000 USD per pair -- received more attention from the audiophile press than almost any other new product introduced at HE2018. This is laughable -- ten, at most 20 people in the world will wind up buying a pair of Relentlesses, and then probably mostly for the bragging rights. It certainly makes for good business, but it’s not advancing the state of the art. It’s not progress. If anything, it’s a regressive money grab, which I don’t begrudge -- a man’s gotta eat, to say nothing of retiring at some point. But wouldn’t it be nice if someone of Dan D’Agostino’s stature in the industry created something more innovative? Many other manufacturers also share in the safety of perpetuating iteration, and it’s not hard to see why. Brands rely on dealers, and only established audiophiles can be counted on to wander into their local dealer to swap old models for new ones, questing for long-term serenity and instead discovering ephemera. And so the cycle continues, as many established manufacturers hope to lure my peers into showrooms rather than meet them on their own turf -- social media -- with the promise of better sound that’s both convenient and affordable.

This line of thinking crossed my mind recently, as I perused John Darko’s excellent website, www.darkoaudio.com. He’d written articles about two überaffordable ladder DACs retailing for $350 each: one from Audio-gd, the other from Airist Audio. The Audio-gd was offered direct from the manufacturer, à la Schiit Audio, while the Airist was available from Massdrop, the popular community-driven e-commerce website. In a sea of budget delta-sigma designs that sound good but not great, such offerings are like a cool breeze on a muggy summer day: probably short-lived, but welcome nonetheless. Schiit’s is a success story that other manufacturers want to emulate: solid, no-nonsense engineering allied with affordable prices made possible by the elimination of the usual network of dealers. So, what’s next?

The future is wireless. Apple was roundly criticized for eliminating the headphone jack from the iPhone -- and boy, do I hate having to use a dongle whenever I want to use my NAD headphones or PSB earphones with my iPhone -- but I understand their thinking. Wireless earphones and headphones were forced to mature, and fewer wires is usually a good thing, primarily for convenience. It’s why I’ve struggled with replacing my old laptop as the primary source component of my audio system. Why have a computer with Roon on it when I can stream Tidal HiFi to my Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amp-DAC, and eliminate the computer altogether? Partly because Apple’s AirPlay sucks, which should come as a surprise to no one. But wireless protocols can evolve. Wires are wires.

I feel that we’re not far away from simplified streaming hi-fi products that actually are plug’n’play, the only plug being for power. Dynaudio’s updated Xeo line of speakers is headed in that direction, as is KEF’s LS50W wireless speaker, and Devialet’s Phantom, now at a lower price. Make DSP-inspired wireless stereo systems more affordable and more user-friendly -- by which I mean auto-on/off based on detection of an audio signal, no lag, and no buffering -- and all of a sudden there’s a compelling alternative to the ubiquitous soundbar. It also makes for a compelling alternative to smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo models, which, while incredibly cool, remain a source of concern for me due to potential privacy issues. As Internet bandwidth increases and, along with it, the speeds of uploading and downloading, and as home networks become more robust and services like Spotify become more entrenched, I think we’ll see the audio industry’s leading lights becoming more aggressive in their development of wireless stereo electronics and speakers.

I’d like to see an integrated amplifier from Schiit Audio with a built-in multibit DAC, network streaming, Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, native Spotify and Tidal support, and a high-quality remote control, all for $1000-$1200. I bet they’d sell tons of them. Or, from Monitor Audio or Elac, a DSP-powered bookshelf speaker with wired and wireless digital inputs, and no need for running an umbilical cable between the left and right speakers, for $1000/pair. Effective wireless implementation would be key, but I’m betting the end result would be killer. These types of products wouldn’t necessarily appeal to old-school audiophiles whose living spaces can accommodate a hi-fi shrine. Younger folks want it the other way around. Make something dead reliable and idiotproof, and the high end will discover a whole new generation of customers.

For the foreseeable future, the smartphone will remain the interface between ourselves and the rest of our increasingly digital lives. The sooner manufacturers embrace that, the better prepared they’ll be to serve the needs of tomorrow’s audiophiles.

. . . Hans Wetzel
hansw@soundstagenetwork.com