I’ve been doing a lot of headphone listening over the past few months, and I’m not talking about portable listening. I’m talking about sitting in a quiet room, connecting the 'phones to the best equipment I have, and letting the music wash over me. Relatively little space in the high-end press is dedicated to headphones, even though they can offer an astonishing level of fidelity and musical enjoyment for a fraction of the cost of an equivalent loudspeaker-based system -- but we at the SoundStage! Network have decided to devote to them a few more words than we have in the past. After being impressed with the Edition 8 from Germany’s Ultrasone, I was curious how much of that performance was offered by Ultrasone’s Pro 900 -- the top sealed design in their Pro series. While at $599 USD the Pro 900 isn’t cheap, it’s within reach of many more audiophiles than is the $1499 Edition 8.
Ultrasone has been designing and manufacturing headphones since the early 1990s, which makes them a relative newcomer -- most headphone makers have been in business since the early years of electronic recording. Unlike those other companies, Ultrasone focuses exclusively on headphones, and 20 years is more than enough time to have built up a solid reputation; Ultrasone has won numerous accolades and a devoted following of audio professionals.
Cambridge Audio, based in the UK, has a long history of building affordable two-channel gear that puts far more costly components to shame. But if affordable is Cambridge’s middle name, it could just as easily be innovative. Take, for one example, the Azur 840A two-channel integrated amplifier -- its power-amp stage is unique in being class-XD, a hybrid of class-A and class-B that promises low levels of distortion. Another is their DAC Magic D/A converter, with its switchable proprietary filter algorithms.
Although the subject of this review, the Azur 650R A/V receiver, lacks the class-XD amplifier stage and the sophistication of the DAC Magic DAC, Cambridge Audio claims to have paid much attention to its sound quality, and to have successfully combined an audiophile-grade integrated amplifier with most of the modern conveniences a home-theater enthusiast would desire -- all for $1799.99 USD.
Axiom Audio, based in Ontario, Canada, has thrived despite the cooling of the global economy. There are several reasons for this, including their products’ affordability, and a lean business model of selling only via the Internet -- no middleman. Perhaps the biggest reason for Axiom’s success is that they make fine-sounding equipment, something I’ve experienced firsthand with a number of their models.
The Epic 80-800 speaker system ($4786.10 USD) reviewed here seemed pretty familiar to me -- a while back I reviewed a similar system, the Epic 80. But the Epic 80-800 includes some new additions to the flagship Epic line -- the VP180 center-channel and the EP800 v3 subwoofer -- and the main and surround models have been designated “v3” to reflect the updates Axiom has made to their crossovers and drivers. With all these changes, it was about time I gave the best that Axiom has to offer another spin.
The M80 v3 ($1380/pair) is a large floorstanding speaker nearly 40” tall. When you slide off the M80’s magnetically attached grille, you can see that it means business, and that that business is to play loud. How many speakers do you know that have two tweeters, one above the other? Not any, I bet. In fact, the M80 has two of everything: two 5.25” aluminum midranges and two 6.5” aluminum woofers as well. The purpose of this is to give this speaker the wherewithal to play loudly and cleanly without distortion. The M80 is also highly efficient (95dB/W/m in-room), with a lowish nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Your amp or receiver won’t need a lot of power to drive it up to loud, but it should be rated for loads of 4 ohms or less.
Drivers take up nearly all of the M80’s front surface, but Axiom still found room for a port under the lower woofer, and for two more on the rear panel. These ports aren’t simple round holes; each aperture has a jagged rim in a pattern Axiom calls Vortex Porting. This is claimed to effectively increase the size of the port for the given diameter and result in lower noise. Single binding posts are standard; dual binding posts for biwiring or biamping can be had for another $40/pair.
In the face of smart phones, iPods, and iPads, few companies these days are making portable TVs. Vizio has tried to make their offering seem like a more contemporary product by using a backlit LED display and adding at least a couple of bells and whistles, but the facts remain: The VMB070 doesn’t connect to the Internet, it has limited adjustments, and its design seems to have been focused more on style than on use. It does, however, receive over-the-air digital high-definition signals at resolutions of 780p and 1080i.
What’s in the box
Included with the VMB070 ($159.99 USD) are an instruction manual, a remote control, an AC charging cord, a composite-video cable, an RF adapter to permit connection to a cable box or an external antenna, and a soft carrying case.
The VMB070 itself measures 7 1/2”W by 4 7/8”H x 3/4”D and weighs just over a pound. Its fold-out easel stand clicks firmly into place and, when extended, extends the overall depth to about 3.” Its 7”-diagonal screen is 6”W x 3.5”H. The VMB070 is smooth and sleek, much like a tablet. The only controls visible at first glance are a power switch on the top, and power and headphone jacks discreetly tucked away on the side. Lift the antenna -- it swings out to the side -- to find the RF adapter, USB, and A/V input jacks and the master On/Off switch.
The remote control is surprisingly large and old-fashioned at 5 1/4”L x 1 3/4”W x 1/4”D. One wonders why a remote is included at all -- the VMB070 has a limited touchscreen (see below), and is so small that it’s unlikely to be viewed from any distance that would require remote control.
For years now, we've trekked to North Carolina's Outer Banks for an annual week's worth of sun, surf, and relaxation. The one truism common to all the vacation houses we've rented -- at least in our price range -- is that the "Stereo-CD player" feature in the specs invariably overstates the junk that an owner would dare leave out for a renter's use. We quickly learned that if we wanted music, we needed to bring our own gear. So, for years, along with the boogie boards, beach chairs, and kites, we've also packed RadioShack's compact Optimus STA-300 receiver, Celestion 3 speakers, and whatever portable CD player we had on hand. Recently, the STA-300's right channel gave up the ghost. The Optimus had cost only about $100, and having its bad capacitor replaced would have cost more than that, so lately we've made do with a Sirius boom box -- it got whatever baseball we wanted, but we were slaves to the sound quality of whatever station we tuned to. If we craved, say, the Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall, we were out of luck. And, well, it's a boom box -- hi-fi it ain't. We lusted after a small amplifier or receiver that could do the vacation-audio lifting.
Meanwhile, I guess it was always only a matter of when, not if, the crafty folks at Audioengine would gussy up the nifty little amplifier built into their A2 and A5 powered speakers and put it in its own box. Enter the Audioengine N22 integrated amplifier ($199 USD).
I recently found myself looking back to a time before digital media, before multichannel home theater, and yes, before even VHS tape. Things were simple -- movies were projected from film, and music was pressed into discs made of vinyl. In 1970, RCA Records changed everything by introducing a new way of listening to music called Quadraphonic, which, as its name implies, used four discrete channels instead of two. Quadraphonic was the beginning of the surround-sound formats that we have today.
In 1976, Dolby Laboratories put its own spin on things by introducing Dolby Stereo, designed for the analog sound systems of movie theaters. Though also a four-channel format, Dolby Stereo differed from Quadraphonic in consisting of front right, front left, and center channels, and a mono matrixed surround channel. Dolby Stereo was adapted in 1982 so that it could be experienced in the home using a Hi-Fi-capable VCR, albeit through only two channels. It wasn’t until 1987 that the original Dolby Stereo, renamed Dolby Pro Logic, was made available to the public for surround-sound use in the home. To fully exploit the potential of this early codec, you had to purchase either a five-channel Pro Logic receiver or a Pro Logic processor and pair it with a five-channel power amplifier -- at that time, a rare item.
About ten years ago, I reviewed the One For All Cinema 6 learning remote control. This very basic learning remote cost only $25, but with it I was able to control all of the components of my home-theater system. As that system grew more complex over the years and new components were added and old components removed, I grew weary of constantly having to reprogram the Cinema 6, and reverted to using the original remotes supplied with my components.
For the past few years, Harmony remote controls have been making a name for themselves as some of the most versatile and easy-to-use on the market -- in 2006, we awarded the Harmony 880 a SoundStage! Network Product of the Year award. The 880 has since been replaced by the Harmony One, which is widely regarded as one of the best remotes now available. However, all of this functionality comes at a price; the 880 cost $249 when available, and so does the One. However, Harmony has an extensive line of remotes at a wide range of prices, including one of their latest, the subject of this review: the Harmony 300 ($50 USD).
Apple’s iPods and iPhones must be charged to work properly, a fact that has spawned a whole family of products generally known as iPod docks. You see them everywhere these days, and most have three things in common: they look cheap, they sound awful, but they do charge up an iPod or iPhone.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I removed from its box the Logitech S715i rechargeable loudspeaker and iPod/iPhone dock ($149.99 USD). It didn’t look cheap. It was a solid piece of work without a rattle or squeak. It was like picking up a 2.5-pound brick.
The S715i is 15.25”W x 5.25”H x 2.36”D and shaped rather like a reclining peanut. It struck me as being similar to styles used for automobile systems, with a transparent, fine-mesh grille that gives an easy view of its drivers while fully protecting them. At the center is a smooth plastic lid that, flipped all the way back, reveals the dock while providing a sturdy easel that holds the speaker upright, tilted slightly back. Four rubber feet offer protection from scratches and scuffs to any surface on which the S715i is placed.
The S715i is described by Logitech as a “trayless dock, works with any iPhone or iPod with a Universal Dock Connector.” A 3.5mm jack on the back of the S715i lets you connect an iTouch via the latter’s headphone jack. You can also use this jack to plug in a portable CD or DVD player, or almost any other portable player.
Since its inception, KEF has earned a reputation for being one of the most innovative and technologically advanced speaker companies. In fact, it wasn’t long after Raymond Cooke founded the company, in 1961, that KEF transformed the loudspeaker industry by being one of the first to design and build their own drive-units and associated surrounds entirely of synthetic materials. This innovation opened the door to countless new applications, ranging from ultrasmall portable radios to drive-units flexible enough to be installed in homemade cabinets and even in walls. In the late 1960s, Cooke reestablished his affiliation with the BBC, and signed an agreement allowing KEF to manufacture the BBC-designed LS5/1A minimonitor. Production of the LS5/1A and several of its successors continued into the mid-1970s; it eventually evolved into the LS3/5 and then into the LS3/5A -- a completely re-engineered minimonitor designed specifically around the drivers used in KEF’s then-popular Coda model.
KEF kept the ball rolling in the early 1970s by becoming the first speaker maker in the world to use computer-assisted design techniques, which they called “total system design.” In 1973, the Model 104 not only exploited KEF’s total system design, but became the company’s first Reference Series model. The next four years saw many improvements in this design, and then, in 1977, the world-renowned Model 105 was launched. Two years later, the Model 105 was joined by an entire family of Reference speakers: the 105/2, 105/4, 103/2, and 101.
The 1980s marked the introduction of KEF to this side of the pond, in the form of KEF Electronics of America. It proved to be a dynamic time for the company; they not only continued their success with their Reference line, but broke into car audio with their Universal Bass Equalizer (KUBE), and released their first in-wall speakers, derived from drivers designed and built in the ’60s. Most notably, however, in 1988, KEF introduced the revolutionary Uni-Q system. The Uni-Q technology continued to evolve throughout the 1990s -- as did KEF, releasing several new speaker lines, home-theater products, and numerous new driver technologies. Today, almost every speaker made by KEF, including the model reviewed here, employs Uni-Q technology.
It seems that just about every computer manufacturer these days is making an inexpensive, high-definition media player, many of them selling for $100 or even less. I recently reviewed the popular Western Digital WD TV Live ($149 USD) and found it a very good media player, if lacking in a few areas, especially the playing of audio files: it can’t output 24-bit/96kHz digital audio.
In my quest to find a media player that satisfies my audiophile sensibilities and my inner video geek, I decided to try Asus’s O!Play HDP-R1 -- I’d heard some good things about it, and it’s a popular choice among audio/video enthusiasts. It has a list price of only $99, but, like most peripherals from computer manufacturers, can often be had at a discount.