Boston Acoustics MC100 Blue Bluetooth Speaker

January 2014

Boston Acoustics MC100Boston Acoustics is known for making good-sounding speakers, and the MC100 Blue Bluetooth speaker ($149 USD) follows in that tradition. For better Bluetooth sound, it supports NFC pairing and the aptX codec, though it’s not, as its box proclaims, a “wireless Bluetooth speaker” -- it must be plugged into AC to function. That’s about the only nit I have to pick with Boston Acoustics, who are not alone in confusing this issue. We need to adopt language in which Bluetooth means the wireless connectivity of that proprietary audio-signal format, and wireless means a battery-powered product that can be used without being tethered to a wall socket.

That said, the MC100 Blue produces a quality of sound you wouldn’t expect from such a small device, and it looks stunning.

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Miniwatt n4 USB DAC-Headphone Amplifier

December 2013

Miniwatt n4Hong Kong-based Miniwatt burst onto the hi-fi scene in 2009 with a tiny integrated tube amplifier that produced a mere 2.5Wpc -- hence the company’s name. The next year brought a slightly more powerful (3.5W) model, the n3, which still had a footprint about the size of a CD jewel case. While some might scoff at such low power ratings, a few watts are all that are needed to drive a desktop audio system with speakers of moderate sensitivity. Of course, an amplifier requires a source, and if you’re focusing on a desktop system, a USB DAC is the obvious choice.

The Miniwatt n4 ($348 USD) is a 32-bit/192kHz-capable, asynchronous USB DAC with both a 1/8” headphone jack and a stereo line-level output on RCAs. It also includes a coaxial digital output, which allows it to be used as a USB-to-S/PDIF converter. Buttons on the front panel affect both the line out and headphone volumes, and plugging in a pair of headphones mutes the line output -- as it should.

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Mass Fidelity Relay DAC-Bluetooth Digital Converter

December 2013

Mass Fidelity RelayI hate wires! I hate buying them, I hate hooking them up, and I hate the restrictions they place on my audio system. No matter how neatly I try to organize and route them, most of the time they can’t be hidden. On the other hand, I understand a wire’s importance. Heck, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on cables because I wanted to improve the sound of my system.

Ever since my review of the Sonos Digital Music System, in 2007, I’ve known that wireless technology would one day replace some of these troubling wires. The convenience of the Sonos system was incredible to me. It gave me great flexibility of access to my music collection. The only problem was, it was very expensive, and it didn’t give me the sound quality I expected for all the money I spent.

In the six years since, audio has continued to embrace wireless technology, and one of the companies doing that while raising the level of sound quality per dollar spent is Mass Fidelity, founded in 2009 in Ontario, Canada. A “community of audiophiles, designers, and engineers who are united by their passion for music,” Mass Fidelity focuses its efforts on “intelligently facilitating the aggregation of all your digital music collections and sources, allowing you to engage your music in a friendly way across all the devices you use on a daily basis.” The subject of this review is their two-channel Relay Bluetooth receiver with built-in DAC ($249 USD), designed to work with any Bluetooth device that stores or streams music.

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Alpha Design Labs H118 Headphones

H118 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

November 2013

ADL H118Furutech is best known as a manufacturer of high-quality audio accessories, from power outlets to line conditioners to interconnects to connectors. A few years ago, the Japanese company launched its Alpha Design Labs brand to offer many of their signal-transmission technologies at lower cost. ADL’s products are focused on the desktop-and-headphones environment, and include a few models each of DACs, headphone amplifiers, and connection cables. The H118 is their first headphone model ($269 USD).

The H118s are closed-back headphones with earcups just big enough to be considered circumaural. Part of what keeps the earcups small is that they’re in the shape of a rounded triangle rather than a circle or oval; they’re also fairly shallow. My average-size ears fit completely within the openings, but without much extra space. Each earcup is mounted on a plastic yoke that moves in and out of the headband with click-stops, and they fold up on hinges for more compact transport and storage in the included, semirigid, zippered case. The earcups pivot from top to bottom, but not from front to back. Soft leatherette padding on the earcups and headband, combined with the H118s’ modest, 245gm weight, make for a fairly comfortable wearing experience. I did, however, find the clamping pressure sufficient to require a break after a couple hours’ use. Though it feels acceptably robust, the H118s’ matte-black plastic construction looks rather utilitarian.

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Astell&Kern AK120 Portable Media Player

November 2013

Reviewers' ChoiceAstell&Kern AK120Portable audio has pretty much been anathema to me, with the exception of a long stretch in the 1990s when I flew around the country to give guest lectures and poetry readings, accompanied by a Sony Discman and a bulky wallet full of CDs. Even now, I don’t jog to the beat of Bruno Mars from an iPod, nor do I cruise through campus with cables dangling from my ears like strings of white tears. Mainly, I used to just listen at home to my reference system or not at all -- unless I had to fly somewhere. Then, I’d plug a pair of Monster Turbines into my iPhone and listen to uncompressed files for however long the flight took, as much to shut out the jet noise and conversations around me as from any wish to hear music. To me, listening this way was not real listening, but a way to pass the time and to keep the outside world from passing through me. Personal audio was a barrier, a kind of wall shored against my ruin.

The Astell&Kern AK120 media player ($1299 USD) has dramatically changed all of that. I take it with me when I jet around, but also find myself using it after arrival -- say, in a European café having an espresso and a cigar -- as well as after my return home, when reading in my study or working at my desk. This player, whose manufacturer claims produces Mastering Quality Sound in a portable package, has introduced me to a new world of pleasurable listening. Premiered at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach 2013 and released early in that summer, the AK120 is one of the sweetest audio gizmos I’ve ever come across.

Early this summer, I took the AK120 on a trip to Prague, where I was teaching, using it first on the long, mid-leg plane flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then for the next three weeks in the subways of the Prague metro, late at night in my Vinohrady apartment, and knocking about the quaint and historic streets of Mala Strana and Stare Mesto, in the Golden City on the banks of the Vltava. Then, in August, I took it along on a month-long retreat to an artist-residency program next door to Neil Young’s ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains of Northern California. The AK120 was a superb audio companion, easy to use, and so compact -- about the size of a pack of Gitanes cigarettes, it fit nicely in my pants or shirt pocket. I had my tunes wherever I wanted, in high-resolution and Apple Lossless, too.

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Focal Pack 5.1 Bird Loudspeakers and Sub Air Subwoofer

October 2013

Focal BirdOne of the equipment reviewer’s jobs is to take gear to extremes: punish it with challenges to see how it performs. So for home-theater speaker systems, we haul out the bad boys of modern film, the action epics with combustible special sound effects, dominant soundtracks, and enough explosions to make Krakatoa seem like a stroll in a sylvan glade. But once in a while you have to remember that most folks have only one system, which also has to play music -- arguably, a more demanding test of any speaker or system. For this review of one of Focal’s Pack 5.1 systems -- this one comprising five Bird satellites and one Sub Air subwoofer -- we’ve split the difference with a couple of movies about music. We’ll see if the Focal system can lift both weights with equal ease.

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Cardas Audio EM5813 Model 1 Ear Speakers

October 2013

Cardas EM5813 Model 1As soon as I laid eyes on Cardas Audio’s new EM5813 Model 1 Ear Speakers, at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach ’13 this past May, I knew I was in for something special. Cardas’s VP of marketing and sales, Andy Regan, pulled me out into the hall, where he’d set up a demo table outside the Audio Element room, handed me the weighty earbuds, and told me to plug them into my ears and iPhone. I did and, according to report, let out a joyous “Fucking cool!” I can’t remember what track I played, but the sound was gorgeous. I insisted on a review pair on the spot. I had to have them.

Aside from their sound, my immediate impression of the EM5813s ($425 USD) was of how they looked and felt -- the attractive reddish copper color of the metal shells and their seriously solid feel. Made from copper alloy in the attractive shape of a tiny Etruscan urn, the shells strike strong visual notes of density, richness, and craftsmanship. And when they knock together in the hand, I hear a damped, mellow click like billiard balls in quick, precise collision.

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Audioengine W3 Wireless DAC

September 2013

Audioengine W3Audioengine began as a manufacturer of professional and consumer electronic products for other companies. Eventually they decided to put out audio components under their own name, and in 2005 the company officially introduced their first consumer loudspeaker, the powered Audioengine 5, which was highly regarded and is still available as the 5+. The company’s website currently lists ten consumer-audio products, including desktop and bookshelf loudspeakers, a desktop amplifier, high-performance wired and wireless 24-bit DACs, a powered subwoofer, and the subject of this review, the 16-bit W3 wireless digital-to-analog converter ($149 USD).

The W3 consists of two modules, labeled Sender and Receiver, that look like USB memory sticks. The Sender is a 16-bit USB-powered component with wireless output. It transmits only a bit depth of 16 bits, at a sample rate of 44.1 or 48kHz, but most music-player apps will downconvert 24-bit files or 88kHz and higher sample rates to match the W3’s 16/48 maximum. The Sender is plugged into a computer’s USB port, from which it draws its power via a stubby USB cable maybe half an inch long. A white LED illuminates to indicate that the Sender is receiving power.

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Shure SE535 Earphones

September 2013

Shure SE535I suspect that my initial encounter with Shure’s products was hardly an uncommon one. I’d purchased a third-generation Apple iPod before I began my freshman year in college, and the little guy enjoyed near constant use for the next eight semesters. Also seeing use were Apple’s detestable first-generation earbuds -- three pairs of them, no less. After busting through my third set, I resolved to do better for myself. My junior year saw stratospheric highs and Marianas Trench lows, emotionally speaking, and Shure’s SE210s provided a terrific soundtrack for it all. But for all their sonic strengths, my old SE210s had a weakness -- after a year or two of daily use in all kinds of weather, the insulation around the cord would crack, exposing the bare wire underneath, and signaling that the Shures were nearing the end of their life.

Similarly, I’d enjoyed four years of use from Shure’s then-flagship earphones, the SE530s, when, in 2009, I made the galactically poor decision to quit my job and go to grad school. The SE530s proved wonderful companions as I wrote up endless assignments and, during finals, paced my apartment like a lunatic. In fact, they lasted until March or so of this year, when, like the SE210s before them, their cords’ insulation cracked where they go around my ears.

It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that Shure’s latest and greatest in-ear monitor, the SE535, found its way into my review queue.

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Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder Bluetooth Loudspeaker

August 2013

Reviewers' ChoiceSound CylinderTo the high-end audio industry it probably feels like forever, but this past April Apple’s iTunes turned ten years old, heralding the end of possibly the most important decade in the history of consumer electronics. No one needs to remind the folks in Cupertino that it was the lowly iPod that turned the struggling computer manufacturer into one of the most successful media companies in the world, and, in the process, completely changed the way human beings purchase and enjoy media.

Our little corner of the consumer-electronics world was a tad slow to respond to this paradigm shift, and those who failed to recognize that smartphones, iPods, and tablets were laying the foundation for personal audio and downloadable media to become the fastest-growing CE product categories of all time watched their business dry up fast. Headphones and portable audio weren’t some fad, but a sustainable business that plowed through four years of a global recession as the rest of the industry suffered.

But while the great unwashed lost little sleep as they abandoned vinyl and CDs for lossy MP3 downloads, for audiophiles, portable audio in the form of a sound dock or wireless system was the ultimate addition of insult to injury, and a poor excuse for a high-end two-channel stereo system. We stuck our noses in the air and pretended that all would be fine in the land of $10,000/pair loudspeakers and $5000 DACs. Do you know who it was fine for? The family ten blocks down, who own a little company called iHome. The garage of their summer oceanfront home could swallow our 3200-square-foot home with room to spare.

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