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Feature Articles & Reviews
My wife and I recently moved from a very large single-family home to a loft in a downtown condo. This is called “downsizing,” but the term is relative -- the folks who bought our place in Texas were downsizing as well. They also wanted to buy our house’s entire contents, and we agreed -- so I lost my well-loved audio/video system. That meant that, in our new place, I’ve had to assemble two entirely new systems: one for the entire house, another for my office. In doing so, I’ve tried to accomplish a few goals.
My wife and I recently moved from a Texas ranch to a downtown loft condominium in the Northwest. The condo has its benefits, most having to do with proximity to almost anything I could ever want. The primary downside is that the largest screen our new loft can accommodate is 75”. Back at the ranch, I had enough room for a massive home theater built around a 144”-diagonal screen fashioned from Stewart Filmscreen’s premium screen glass. Fed by a powerful, quasi-4K JVC projector, the picture was way better than in most cinemas.
Three years ago, I wrote “What About Us? Post-Holiday Gift Ideas to Give Ourselves.” The thought behind it still resonates for me. We’ve just been very generous with family and friends, most of whom were kind enough to reciprocate in . . . kind. But unless you were very lucky, it’s unlikely that you got everything your soul desires. So I recommend that you reserve January as a great time for a little auto-largess (or a lot).
Start with some little stuff . . .
A few years ago, some very nice people gave me an Apple iPad Mini. I love the shape, the speed, the weight, but the model they gave me has one downside -- a storage capacity of only 16GB. But even that is way more than enough for my selected use: it makes a hell of a universal remote control. Virtually every electronics company now releases iPad and/or iPhone apps for their products. Given the numbers of components working their way through the Marshall household, having the easy and intuitive Mini available seems a blessing. They cost about $250 these days, a bit more than a universal remote, but less than a lot of the Tiffany trade items that seem to come standard with multi-million-buck McMansions.
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.
This really is a review of a loudspeaker. Bear with me . . .
I was lounging around, comfy in my leather reading chair, feet resting on the mohair ottoman, cup of cappuccino at my side. I was settling in for our Sunday-morning ritual: My wife and I read the New York Times together, each offering a running commentary on any story that interests us. I stopped short when I found an article regarding a fellow sufferer of the demeaning disease that robs our family’s coffers, steals our precious time, and reduces us to solipsistic know-it-alls regarding pursuits that can best be called arcane. I’m talking about Hoarding Disorder, which The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, aka DSM-5, defines as “A persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.” That description perfectly fit the subject of the NY Times article.
The article was about Zero Freitas, 62, a Brazilian entrepreneur who has scads of money and a serious vinyl jones. His, mine, and maybe your downfall is music. Lots of it. Of course, many of us refuse to see this as a problem. There is a fine line, after all, between the noble pursuit of a collector attempting to create a personal library centered on his or her taste and interests, and the obsessive hoarder. Turns out that Zero wants to buy every single LP on earth. Not just a copy of every vinyl release, but literally every LP ever made. That includes my collection. And yours.
I’d never had a BenQ projector in my system -- surprising, because they’ve made top-notch projectors for almost as long as the 13 years I’ve written for the SoundStage! family. In any case, their W7500 projector really got my attention for its combo of bright light, high contrast, and reasonable price ($2799 USD). Plus, I’ve been married to JVC’s D-ILA process for so long, I wanted to see the latest improvements in DLP, and find out what the scientists at Texas Instruments have been up to lately. As it turns out, quite a lot.
In 2001, BenQ was spun off from Acer Inc., which no longer owns any share of the company. “BenQ” is what’s called a “euphonious acronym” for Bringing Enjoyment ’N’ Quality to Life. Lars Yoder, president of BenQ America, used to be VP and GM of Texas Instruments’ DLP front projection business. BenQ is now the world’s largest producer of DLP projectors.
I was chatting with Group Commander Jeff Fritz, going over what I was currently excited about covering -- and there’s a lot going on that fills me with hope for our treasured hobby. We’re in the midst of an all-out assault on sound perfection, and not only where you’d expect to find it. Sure, all those lucky folks who write for SoundStage! Ultra get to spend their days contemplating what’s possible with unlimited funds. But what excites me is that members of the middle class who seriously love music can now assemble an audio system that, in some important ways, will sound better than monster systems costing more than most cars. That quality is made possible by listening in the nearfield.
There are three principal reasons that less-expensive equipment has shown such a remarkable surge in quality. On the electronics side, the cost of parts, whether for amplification or analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion, have dropped as their quality has increased. Look at such components as Oppo’s BDP-105D universal Blu-ray player or Benchmark’s DAC-1 digital-to-analog converter. Each lists for about $1000, and outperforms almost anything that, just a few years ago, cost twice or even thrice their price. I’d take the Benchmark over a Mark Levinson No.30.6 DAC, which cost $16,950 at the turn of the millennium. Of course, as John Atkinson wrote in his Stereophile review of the No.30.6, “Madrigal includes the [No.30.6] in its ‘Reference’ series, by which they mean that the unit will not become obsolete.” Hmm.
It seems to me that most owners of Anthem’s prior lineup of audio/video receivers -- the MRX 300, 500, and 700 models -- were a confident and optimistic lot, secure in their knowledge that they had one of the finest AVRs ever made, supported by a company that cares about delivering value and service to its customers. They knew that their receiver would have a long service life for one simple reason: Anthem bases its upgrades on real improvements, not the calendar, and their new line of Performance MRX models -- the 310, 510, and 710 -- constitute a substantial advance.
You’d be amazed at how many companies decide to update a model based on an impending CEDIA Expo or Consumer Electronics Show. Imagine the marketing director in his or her lavish office, calling in the poor R&D minions from their meager laboratory: “Sales of our ZJ382 receiver have slowed. We need something new. Have it ready for the CEDIA Expo. Dismissed.” Back in the lab, the engineers try to decide what this year’s big new feature should be. “Well, we could offer Internet Radio,” one says. “We should save that for next year,” says another. “How about we hire some Apple guy to make an app for us?” “OK, but don’t make it too good. We’re going to have to have another innovation next year.”
If you don’t let your loved ones know exactly what you want for Christmas, there’s a good chance you’ll be spending December 26 trying to find out whether Urban Outfitters will give you a $215 cash refund for that nice Penfield Eska shirt jacket. Or if Barnes & Noble will give you a $54 refund for the boxed set of The Hunger Games that your girlfriend thought was so cool.
Stop such problems before they start by casually leaving a printout of this story on the breakfast table. Or accidentally on purpose send this URL to your whole family. “Oh, did I send that to you? Sorry, it was supposed to go to a buddy. Yeah, he asked me for a list of all the things I really wish I had.”
You get the picture. In any case, everything on this list is guaranteed to bring you joy throughout 2014 and beyond.
The loser . . .
This story begins with a nightmare that all too many audiophiles have experienced. I found a pair of flawless speakers that were right in every way for bringing glorious sound to my office system: Digidesign’s RM2.
The RM2 should have been a bulletproof choice. Anyone who’s ever considered making his or her own music knows Digidesign’s main product, Pro Tools, and the RM2 was designed for them by the Professional Monitor Company (PMC), one of a handful of gold-standard makers of recording-studio monitors. A high percentage of the top audio recordings are taped and mixed using PMC monitors and Pro Tools. Even the mad scientists in the mastering world use the bigger PMC monitors. With that type of pedigree, how could I go wrong? If I can listen through the same speakers the engineers use, I’ll be that much closer to the master tape!
It was not to be. I’ve put together the following account from conversations with people placed high in the companies involved; they all spoke freely to me, but none wanted to speak on the record.
Avid Technology, makers of video editing equipment, bought Digidesign. Avid had little interest in making expensive monitor speakers, so they stopped making the RM2. But instead of trying to maintain some goodwill with the people who’d already shelled out $3500 for a pair of RM2s, Avid decided to kill it outright: no parts support. The designers, PMC, were told to abandon the RM2 and to hand over all spare parts, which they did.