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Feature Articles & Reviews
For 20 years, I lived in hi-fi heaven. We had a small ranch outside Austin, Texas. I had a huge room -- big enough that I could have a rear-projection setup using Stewart Filmscreen’s top glass screen and a parade of the world’s best projectors and surround-sound processors. With rear projection, the viewer looks directly into the light gun, which offers the brightest possible picture. Add to that the structural stability of glass over fabric, and we had maximum clarity. Open a closet door and there was the back of my equipment rack, readily accessible and easy to change out. This was important -- I was changing components every month.
When we built our home, streaming media was just a dream. Our Internet connection was ultraslow dial-up. Downloading a film would take at least a day. Today, huge amounts of data come in at lightning-fast speeds, but back then we had to have our software on hardware. We built in an enormous amount of shelf space, for LPs, CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays.
Best of all, I’d discovered the single speaker that did everything I wanted: ATC’s SCM50A. This midfield monitor has an incredibly transparent midrange, and the most realistic transient response I’ve heard. A few fairly well-known artists use SCM50As -- Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Kate Bush, Diana Krall, Jack White, Mark Knopfler -- as well as such producers and engineers as Bob Ludwig, Doug Sax, and T Bone Burnett. The fact that these speakers have existed so long with only minor modifications is a testament to the quality of the original design. I can’t begin to tell you how helpful it is to have a consistent benchmark in my system when I insert a new component for review.
As if that weren’t enough, I had a 700-square-foot office with soundproofed walls, loaded with guitars, microphones, and synthesizers to toy around with. It was also ideally set up for nearfield listening. After going through a lot of minimonitors, I discovered my perfect fit: Focal’s Solo6 Be. These speakers are so well matched and so incredibly clear that I could toe them out 150 degrees and still have a rock-solid soundstage.
Careful readers will note that I’ve been using the past tense. We’ve grown weary of the work it takes to keep our little slice of heaven in tip-top shape. Lately, Home Depot has been getting a bigger share of our capital than home theater. Like many other people, we had a hankering to move back to the city, where we could put more miles on our shoes than on our cars. We wanted to get back to an area rich in the arts, where we could walk to clubs, stop in at good restaurants, and enjoy a drink without worrying about the legal level of our blood-alcohol content. So we put the ranch up for sale. Based on how property sales around us were going, we assumed it would take eight to ten months to sell -- plenty of time to make an orderly transition.
The first people who saw our spread bought it. They loved it -- too much, as it turned out. These nice folks insisted that we sell them the place “as is” -- they wanted all the furniture and fixtures, including my carefully assembled audio/video system. Here’s the kicker -- it’s unlikely they’ll ever understand how to make it all work. I had so personalized the setup and routing that I doubt anyone would be able to duplicate it or make any meaningful changes to it. So I gave them the number of a good technician in town, and left them a list of the artists that use these speakers. The one saving grace was that they paid us nicely for all our furniture and electronics. But now, I have to start over. Completely. With about one-third the space. Yikes.
Ultimately, we kept a half-dozen oriental rugs, some art, several chairs, and my CD and LP collections. Mercifully, we could keep the furniture and fixtures from the office. Of course, we’d enjoy buying new furniture -- and I love shopping for new audio gear. But another problem raised its head: Our new place had much less storage. Where would we put our books, LPs, and CDs? We ran into . . .
Shock No.1: Virtually every item in my carefully cultivated collection of CDs and LPs is in brand-new condition, and many are rarities and imports. How much is it worth? Damn little. To quote the buyer at Austin’s largest used-vinyl-and-CD place, “Most CDs are worth a few pennies to us. Perfect LPs from an interesting act can fetch a few dollars.”
Shock No.2: At our new place, we’re surrounded by concrete walls. Positive corollary: We can play film scores or any other music at a quite loud volume. Negative corollary: We can’t hide wires in the floor, ceilings, or walls. Nor can we wall-mount speakers. The smaller spaces of our new place have already precluded any sort of projector, rear or front, so no more 120” screens for me. Another set of ATC SCM50As is also out of the question. In fact, the only place for the TV and audio accoutrements is in a rectangular space measuring 8’W x 5’H. If you allow for speakers 12” wide, that means the maximum screen size possible is 110” diagonal. But while no one will say it for the record, I couldn’t find a soul willing to recommend any video display over 80”. Well, that’s not completely true. Vizio has a 120” product on the near horizon that they say will be their flagship. Otherwise, the tops right now is a 4K set. Most major brands have one. Mostly just to have a placeholder, we bought a Sony XBR 55” TV. Later, it will go into the bedroom.
Shock No.3: When I said we had a hankering to move back to the city, I didn’t mean Austin. We’re moving to Portland, Oregon: similar weird vibe to Austin, but much larger urban area, great public transportation, proximity to one of the world’s great growing areas for pinot noir grapes, almost as good a music scene, and a full-time jazz station (hooray!). Even better, as I’m going to have to replace my entire audio/video system: Oregon has no state sales tax.
Beginning to see the light
In the middle of all the selling and buying properties and packing to move, I received a new component from Prism Sound: their Lyra 2 USB audio interface ($3225 USD). I’ve had a long and happy coexistence with the audio interface. This is a pro-audio device that comes in a small box that includes multiple microphone preamps, a digital mixer, multiple line-level inputs, headphone outputs, balanced outputs, various forms of digital inputs and outputs, and USB, Lightning, or FireWire inputs. Audio interfaces work ideally with computer-based audio systems. Here’s the most important point: Despite the fact that a good audio interface like the Lyra 2 has more capability than any of us will ever use, it still costs less than a consumer DAC of equivalent quality.
And if you’re even peripherally involved in pro audio, you know the Prism Sound name stands for rock-solid drivers, great DACs, and a sound that encompasses both delicate shading and sledgehammer transients. Prism Sound was founded in 1987 by two engineers, Graham Boswell and Ian Dennis. They’d been working at Rupert Neve Designs -- another name that’s solid gold in pro audio. Everyone anticipated great things from Boswell and Dennis’s new company, and those expectations were fulfilled by standout products: the SADIE mastering system, multiple standard-bearing ADC/DACs, and their digital clocks’ ability to strip out any spurious sample-rate noise. In fact, Prism Sound is so widely respected that you’ll find competing companies listed as their clients, including Apogee, Arcam, Linn, Lynx, M-Audio, Marantz, Meridian, NAD, Neutrik, PMC, Quad, Sennheiser, Sharp, Shure, Sony, Studer ReVox, and the U.S. Secret Service (!).
In any case, despite my excitement about getting the Lyra 2 into my system, I had to put it off until after we’d moved. But I wrote “last on, first off” all over the box, so the movers would make sure it was in my hands ASAP at the other end. Not only did we have a smooth move, but I was especially glad they did as I asked -- I was able to lay my hands on the Lyra 2 for some immediate music. I still haven’t found the Focusrite Forte that the Prism replaces.
Prism Sound has high hopes for winning a dominant space for themselves in the consumer/home studio market. The Lyra 2 is designed to capture the mojo of the Orpheus ($4495), their highly regarded professional audio interface. The Lyra 2 has several important parts taken from the Orpheus, including its analog front and back ends, microphone preamps, fully-balanced architecture, AD/DA converters, and clock. The Lyra also uses the Orpheus’s isolation barriers to protect delicate analog signals from the ravages of digital and computer-generated noise. You save $1270 by going with a Lyra 2 instead of an Orpheus, so these engineers have truly made some meaningful discoveries.
At $3225, the Lyra 2 is actually priced at a level that some studio engineers consider too high. But let’s imagine that a person has a very nice nearfield-listening sound system hooked up to their computer, complete with multiple sources other than the computer. Now consider the Lyra 2. It is a two-in/four-out interface, so it’s ideally set up for stereo. It operates at resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. Its two channels of input can be addressed either through the XLR microphone inputs on the back, its neighboring balanced tip-ring-sleeve (TRS) inputs, or the line-level inputs up front. Prism even offers some extremely well-thought-out RIAA de-emphasis for the turntable set. The fact that it uses USB 2.0 means that it should be viable for years to come.
Add some sources and a couple of powered speakers, and the Lyra 2 offers incredibly transparent sound, along with top-rated build quality and an amazingly responsive tech-support program. Not that anyone’s counting, but all this means that the Lyra 2 is an exceptional preamp, a near state-of-the-art DAC, a phono preamp with virtually unlimited headroom, a rock-solid digital clock that’s fully equivalent to some of the best outboard clocks available, and a completely transparent signal switcher -- all wrapped up in one gorgeous box that’s sitting there, waiting for you to get excited about playing with Garage Band or doing some field recordings with Audacity. In the wacky world of audio, friends, that means a single box doing the work of as many as six separate components: preamp, DAC, upsampler, signal switcher, headphone amp, and master clock. It also means that the Lyra 2 can access your computer for stored sounds and streaming, a turntable for all the incredible vinyl being released, a CD player if you still own one of those, really high-quality mikes, plus any kind of guitar or keyboard. And given the potential cacophony from rampant timing errors, you have a world-class clock to decimate any jitter.
Shock No.4: Suddenly, I’m thinking that $3225 just might be a bargain. Once I had the Lyra 2 hooked up and running, I was convinced: It’s a bargain!
I couldn’t wait for my full system. I had to hear the Lyra 2 right away, using the highly recommended (by me) PSB M4U 2 headphones. The duo of guitarist Ross Traut and bassist Steve Rodby produced only two albums, but what gorgeous music. The Great Lawn (Columbia CK 44472) is the better one. Rodby provides a solid rhythmic and harmonic foundation, giving Traut the opportunity to meander through the song’s key changes and to improvise around the melody. Check out “Up on the Roof.” Here, Traut’s heavy use of reverb and Rodby’s very dry sound seem to come from distinctly different sound spaces, but the two players are so in sync that you know they’re eyeball to eyeball in some studio. Their take on “La-La (Means I Love You)” has all the sentimentality of the Delfonics’ original, and Traut’s little ornamentations add a bittersweet feeling. On their next album, The Duo Life (Columbia CK 46137), the two highlights are both Broadway songs. “Some Other Time” is a Leonard Bernstein song that Bill Evans made into a jazz standard. Then there’s a medley from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess -- 11 minutes of sheer emotion and human empathy. Through the PSBs and the Lyra 2, the sound was so effortless that it sounded like an analog master tape -- especially when Rodby bows his bass as Traut picks blue notes like tears falling from the sky. Where did these guys go wrong? How about another album? My point is, no matter what I fed it, and whether I listened through headphones or the Focal Solo6 Be’s, the Lyra 2 had the effortless transient response and clarity of the real thing.
The most revealing recordings are usually of a small number of humans sitting in a room together, with all sorts of bleed from the microphones. Tenor saxophonist Houston Person has lately been recording with High Note. If you were ever a fan of Muse Records, these are many of the same folks. When they have the chance, they go to Rudy van Gelder’s house to record, and the results are some of the most beautiful jazz recordings anywhere. “People,” from Person’s Thinking of You (CD, High Note HCD 7177), starts off as a slow cry, with just Person and pianist John Di Martino until about 2:10 in, when it shifts to a happy bossa nova. Very powerful, especially the way the Lyra 2 kept all the instruments so nicely fixed on the soundstage.
The Symphony No.3 of William Shuman (1910-1992) deserves more widespread support. Naxos picked up many of Delos Records’ greatest recordings, and their boxed set of Schuman’s symphonies 3-10 (he withdrew 1 and 2), with Gerard Schwarz leading the Seattle Symphony, is a must-have for anyone interested in 20th-century American music (five CDs, Naxos 8505228). No.3 is in two movements, and has a rousing ending. It was nice to hear those recordings again, with their coherent soundstages and transparent sound. The Prism acquitted itself perfectly.
Sweden’s Bis label can always be trusted to provide state-of-the-art sound, but I admit to having had low expectations when I saw that their set of Alexander Tcherepnin’s symphonies and piano concertos was performed by Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Noriko Ogawa (4 CDs, Bis 1717-18). But allowing uninformed prejudice to inform a decision is always a bad idea. These players produce a sound that ranges from the immaculately clean to the vibrantly exciting. The second movement of the Symphony No.1 is a 1927 version of a drum solo, beginning and ending with a mighty thwack to the bass drum. Again, the Lyra 2 seemed to have unlimited headroom -- even the mightiest fff sounded clear and clean.
Clarity is an odd thing to try to describe. Take a little speaker like the KEF LS50. When you listen to it, you know it’s right. Not that it’s mellifluous, or some synonym for beautiful. It’s just right. When you hear the sounds, you know they’re real. That’s how the Lyra 2 sounded. I just knew it was right.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, the Lyra 2 is a little gem. It’s heavy as pro gear goes, and its controls are simple and fall easily to hand. The drivers worked the first time and never gave me a moment of grief, no matter what format I threw at them. The Windows drivers use ASIO and WDM; those of you with PCs should check out this page on Prism Sound’s website -- a complete checklist about how to optimize Windows for audio. For the iDevice crowd, it’s discovered immediately by the system and goes straight to Core Audio. I’ve had so many problems with other audio interfaces that go all nutty on you when you give them a weird file configuration or a playlist with multiple formats -- the Lyra 2 just played everything I threw at it. This level of simplicity is very welcome. The fact that it solves so many problems while providing such clean, effortless sound makes it a no-brainer recommendation.
So how’s this transition gonna work?
In the meantime, I still have to deal with getting an all-new system. Join me for the journey. How big? How much? Will it play loud? Where to put the speakers? 2.1 or 5.1 or 7.1 or 9.2 or . . . ?
. . . Wes Marshall