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Feature Articles & Reviews
The Single Best Investment You Can Make to Upgrade Your Sound Today and the Journey It Took to Learn the Lesson the Hard Way
It was a Saturday morning. I woke up late. The left side of my head was buried in the pillow, but I could see the sun was up. I concentrated, hoping, searching. Please, Lord, let something come through.
Nothing. I couldn’t hear.
I raised my head from the pillow and found I could still hear a little bit out of my left ear -- kind of like the sound you get when you wear earmuffs. If I really focused on it and turned my left ear toward my wife, her voice came through. But turn on the TV and I couldn’t understand a word. Music was unintelligible. It was as if someone had plugged up my head with gooey silicon -- nothing got in or out. All I could imagine was those tiny, delicate hair cells that line my inner ears disintegrating, and with them one of the primary joys of my life: listening to music. It was the weekend -- I couldn’t get to my trusted PA. I decided to get aggressive.
Be careful what you say in public. A couple of months ago, I flatly stated: "I’m also a believer in never using a piece of gear whose quality is way above the ability of anything else in the chain to pass it along. While I occasionally violate that rule, it just seems to me that when I’m driving the [head]phones with an iPod, no matter if the file is a 320kbps MP3 or a FLAC -- er, uh, excuse me, Apple Lossless -- the limiting device is the iPod. And though I’m sure I could get much better sound through the Wadia DAC/dock or something like it, I can’t fit the Wadia in my shirt pocket and walk around."
The first comment I heard in return was from a friend who’d found my fashion sense to be wanting. "You wear shirts with pockets?" he sniffed. "I don’t think I own a shirt with a pocket." Well, yes, I do stuff my iPod or iPhone in my pocket, put on my ’phones, and walk around. There’s something pleasing about strolling through an airport, oblivious to all the ugly sounds, with a bit of Ozzy blaring in my ears -- no more tears, indeed. Or walking some of the dirt trails around Austin letting Keith Jarrett establish my rhythm. To me, that’s these little Apple devices’ highest calling.
My old running buddy John B., raised in the Jesuit schools of Chicago, used to tell the best stories about the shenanigans that went on there. Oh, he never experienced a tinge of the sexual abuse we hear about these days, but he did feel there was plenty of intellectual abuse going on. As he described it, the Jesuits had a distinct way of separating the gifted from the schlubs, with the obvious goal of grooming the former to go out into the world and carry on the Jesuits’ concept of life. A list of the powerful politicos raised in Jesuit schools might amaze you: Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, to name a few. I’m not going to go all Dan Brown on you here, but it’s no secret that the Jesuits have always done their best to groom their stars to carry the Church’s beliefs out into the real world.
All of which is to help me imagine a short, pudgy boy named Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (1899-1980), sitting at his desk at St. Ignatius College, in northeast London, from 1914 to 1917. If we knew nothing else about him, we’d already know that strong forces were at work on his psyche. First was a force we would see in all of Hitchcock’s work: sexual hormones. Most teenage boys are 98.7% lust, but another force was at least striving for equal dominance, and that was the Church’s struggle to keep its young charges chaste. Those two opposed forces have been known to create a whirlwind -- what the dominant psychological thinker of the time, Sigmund Freud, would call a conflict between the superego and the id: that is, between the part of your mind that wants to keep you locked down tight, and the part that wants to run wild, sexually and generally. This conflict is played out when boys struggle to keep their fantasies and desires hidden, despite the fact that what they really want to do is act them out.
Another holiday season rolled around and we joyfully gave gifts to everyone in sight, all the while hoping for that one little audiophile or videophile sparkler. Did your family choose another tie or pair of socks instead of that nifty new Krell Evolution preamp and amp ($90,000) that you really wanted? I thought I’d propose a few things that should make even the most omnivorous audio/videophile deliriously happy. Now, while I’d love to go ahead and recommend the Krell Evolutions, and maybe even add some Magico Q5 speakers, etc., unfortunately the economy still sucks, so I’ll keep these purchases under $500 -- and for most of them, way under.
Over the last four decades, it’s become de rigueur for audio critics to place hand over heart and swear fealty to live music. But this year, I’ve derived more joy from solitary musical pursuits than ever before. Don’t get me wrong -- I heard some great concerts in 2011. The transcendent tone of Anne Akiko Meyers performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 on her 1697 "Molitor" Stradivarius made me float off into a reverie. And hearing Harry Allen’s oh-so-smooth tenor sax swinging along with the great Freddie Cole in the acoustic ambience of Feinstein’s in New York City was as good as contemporary jazz gets.
Hulu, Vudu, Roku -- they all sound alike. That damn u at the end is not helpful but obfuscational. How are we supposed to remember which does what? For those who need to know, here are the differences.
Hulu is a repository of thousands of old and new TV shows. They also offer films, though many were either made for TV or are silly soft-core porn (what comedian Bill Hicks used to call “hairy bobbin’ man-ass flicks”). Their service is available through a number of outlets, including Roku. Vudu is an on-demand site for watching films, usually through a Sony PlayStation 3, a computer, an iPad, or certain Blu-ray players. Roku is a box that uses the Internet to bring in various “channels,” some free, some for a onetime or a monthly fee.
Roku’s new second-generation miniature players are called “streaming players” and include the LT ($49.99 USD), HD ($59.99), XD ($79.99), and XS ($99.99). The LT and HD can do only 720p. The XD moves to 1080p. And the XS adds a remote control that can be used for gaming, a full copy of the video game Angry Birds, and USB and Ethernet ports (the other three models are wireless). Each Roku 2 model measures about 3”W x 1”H x 3”D and weighs a mere 3 ounces. I connected the Roku 2 XD using a Silver Serpent HDMI cable, which was stiff enough to suspend the Roku in mid-air. I anchored it to the shelf by placing atop it an artsy piece of stone.
In the past six years I’ve been an unqualified champion of Integra’s top-of-the-line preamplifier-processors: Very few other makes could beat their prices, and even fewer could beat the Integras’ performance. But Marantz’s new AV7005 is a thought-provoking component that had me trying to specifically identify what was most important to me in a pre-pro.
Each of us has different criteria for judging home-theater equipment. Too often, reviewers leave their biases -- we all have them -- to be discovered only by reading between the lines. Moving away from Integra is such a sea-change for me that I wanted to be crystal clear about why I would do it. So here are my biases.
In a preamplifier-processor or audio/video receiver, I want:
1. Up-to-date connectivity
2. All current audio codecs
3. Enough switching capability to handle all of my components
4. Multiple zones to which I can send any signal
5. Attractive casework
6. A setup program that’s easy enough for someone who hates dealing with complex electronics, yet offers enough depth that a professional can wrest the best possible performance within each audio or video parameter
7. Capacity to work with various networking schemes for playing my stored music and video files, and to integrate with various purveyors of online media
8. An intuitive operating system
9. Clear and accurate sound at realistic levels
10. Truthful-sounding room-correction software
11. The ability to accurately reproduce video images
12. A fair price
14. Quick and helpful technical support
15. Easily upgraded without costing a fortune
The first speakers with high-end pretensions that I ever owned were the Magneplanar Tympani 1Ds, bought at a hippie place in Dallas called Hungry Ear (you can imagine their logo). The Maggies measured 6’H x 4’W x 1”D and made great bass down to about 40Hz, after which they disappeared from action. The manager of Hungry Ear loved the 1Ds, but he was also a bass fan. Taking an idea from Bud Fried’s IMF Professional Monitor, he loaded two KEF oval woofers into a stout transmission line and suddenly had the quickest, deepest bass imaginable. Granted, building the folded transmission line into a subwoofer box was a feat bordering on engineering genius, but his speakers magically brought that 20-40Hz octave seamlessly into play. At 40Hz, the manager’s sub needed only about 1W to make 100dB at 1m, but he drove it a lot harder than that by using an Audio Research D-150 power amplifier. It made absolute thunder -- something like 120dB at 25Hz. There was one small problem: They were huge. He should have called them the EarQuakes.
But people didn’t buy subwoofers in those days. Finally, he focused on designing and building a stereo pair of speakers, each of which had a woofer system almost as good as his subwoofer, and which he matched to a half dozen or so planar magnetic panels. Then, like most speaker designers, he kept changing them and changing them. If he’d just stuck with his EarQuake sub, he could still be selling them.
Anyway, I couldn’t afford the EarQuake. For that last octave of low bass, I would have had to pay about $7000, which today would be equivalent to about $25,000. Yeowchhh! So I followed the received wisdom of the time: If I could position my main speakers at the precisely correct angles in the perfect locations, I would magically unlock the bottom octave. It’s hard to disprove such a statement -- thus my hundreds of hours spent on knees and elbows, shoving my speakers into different places, tilting them to just the perfect cant. Do you see why I’m such a fan of Audyssey’s room-equalization software?
I tell you all this ancient history because the subject of today’s communiqué, Wisdom Audio’s Sage Series SCS powered subwoofer ($4000 USD), is the first sub that I’ve used that reminds me of the EarQuake.
How to run a company: a modest proposal
Oppo Digital is a fascinating company that should serve as a model for how to run a business in these ever-changing times. In my other job, of writing about wine and food, I see so many companies doing things exactly the wrong way that having the opportunity to watch Oppo gives me a little bit of professional joy.
To help you understand why Oppo’s philosophy is so successful in the audio/video business, here are two examples of how to fail in the wine business. A glance at these numbers will quickly reveal the genius of Oppo’s strategy.
The posh price strategy: attack the high end
Wine company A is owned by a successful physician who is tired of medicine and loves drinking wine. He (this type of financial brinksmanship is almost exclusively a male pursuit) invests $1 million in establishing a small, 20-acre vineyard, another million to build a tiny but functional winery, and a third million to build a flash tasting room that his other doctor friends will ooh and ah over. Five years or so later, if he’s lucky, he’ll start to get about 2500 pounds of grapes per acre. That will give him 3000 cases, or 36,000 bottles. The basic costs for bottles, corks, and labels for 36,000 bottles run just under $75,000. The annual debt retirement on $3 million is about $300,000, with another $150,000 in annual operating costs. That means that just the basic costs of filling each of those 36,000 bottles with wine is $14.58. Add 30% for marketing, and the per-bottle price jumps to $19. Add the profits to the distributor and the retail store, and you end up with a minimum shelf cost of $54 per bottle. If the winemaker wants to make $10 profit on each bottle, the shelf cost jumps to $80.
But who will pay the luxury price of $80 for a bottle of unknown wine? The doctor and his overpaid PR firm will pursue reviewers with a vengeance trying to get someone to write that his wine is a bargain at $80. But I, one of those reviewers, got calls from ten other wineries that day (as I do every day) with “bargain” $80 wines. Which is how we end up with a doctor who, after five years of effort, has poured $5.25 million down the drain. He’s probably now divorced, with a winery he’s trying to sell to another silly doctor, and still stuck working in a job he’s sick of for the rest of his life.
Lest you think this an uncommon tale, I assure you: Based on my 15 years of writing about wine, it happens at least five times more often than do the establishments of successful wineries. We call our doctor and his friends “gentlemen farmers.” It’s the winemakers’ version of a very old joke: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune.
To fans of the Big Bang: So you’ve assembled this incredible home theater and now you’re looking for movies to watch. You’ve done the big explosions and the death-defying race scenes. You’ve seen the 3D stuff come flying off your screen. You’ve shown your buddies the close-up collisions from NFL Films. The whole "big bang," "oh my God!" school of filmmaking holds no more surprises and is now, frankly, boring.
To rabid fans of Turner Classic Movies: You’ve seen the complete works of the great directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Your primary love is for Alfred Hitchcock, not only for his sense of mystery, but for his films’ kinky, psychosexual undercurrents. And you’re certain that no one is making good movies anymore.
I’d like to unite these two disparate strands of today’s film market by introducing you to Darren Aronofsky.
Almost everyone has heard of at least one of Aronofsky’s films, though ticket sales for most of them have been criminally low. The director’s five feature-length films are Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), and Black Swan (2010). Each of Aronofsky’s movies features the intensity sought by Big Bang fans, but accomplishes its powerful effect by building the tension and raising the stakes. Imagine James Bond’s poor body making its way through torture, car wrecks, gunshots, stabbings, beatings, explosions, falls, and unending sex -- but none of it really matters, because we know that our hero will live to star in the next Bond flick. Aronofsky provides far more crushing stimuli -- he pushes his heroes and heroines into places where they must make wrenching decisions that could result in the loss of their minds or their lives.
Aronofsky’s first feature-length film, Pi (the title is actually π), is a philosophical, mystical, science-fiction thriller beautifully filmed in black and white for less than $100,000. Despite that paltry budget, it’s hardly a cheap film. It’s about Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), a man who’s quite smart -- in many ways, like some of Aronofsky’s Harvard classmates. He’s locked himself away in a computer lab, where he slaves away at his theory that he can convert all of nature -- as in God -- into a mathematical formula. Soon, representatives of both Wall Street and organized religion come calling, trying to beg, borrow, buy, or steal his work. The depth of Cohen’s thought is also the depth of his potential for losing his mind, and that’s where the film’s tension is rooted. Which would you choose: enlightened insanity or intolerant sanity? The grainy black-and-white photography adds to the sense of impending doom, and it all adds up to something a lot scarier than a car chase.
The world of high-end home-theater processors and receivers has been moving along at sweeping speed, often whipped from behind by HDMI, the fight for supremacy between Dolby and DTS, and, oh yes, the little issue of profits. Companies like Onkyo, Marantz, Pioneer, Denon, and Yamaha have been launching new products annually, telling us with each new iteration that we can’t live without the new model’s features, and that the model we bought last year is now destined for the local landfill.
This dizzying race to the Shangri-La of home-theater perfection has been such a challenging competition that only the big-bank-account Japanese companies have been able to stay in the fight. Time after time, we’ve seen the companies that produce the truly high-end products just give up on the marketplace. Some just stopped making them, or froze their production on outdated technology (anyone still prefer component video to HDMI?). Great makers I depended on for years for my own system -- I’m thinking mainly of the Jeff Rowland Design Group, and any company run by Nelson Pass -- just avoided the concept altogether.
The folks at Anthem have been almost singular in holding the torch for upscale, high-end home-theater products. They’ve played the annual upgrade game almost as exhaustively as have the big Japanese companies. By planning ahead and successfully predicting the direction the industry would take, they’ve been able to create whole series of receivers, ranging in price from $999 to $1999, that have an impressive percentage of the sound quality and convenience of their category champ, the Anthem Statement D2v A/V processor ($8500 USD). How do they do it? Like those bright people who designed the Sony PlayStation 3 with enough horsepower to make it through several years of updates, the Anthem engineers made their processors with enough computer power to implement their own version of automatic room correction from the very start.
When Anthem developed their new juggernaut receiver program, they were able to include the same proprietary Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system already included in all iterations of their processors. In my opinion, properly implemented room-correction software has a greater influence on the final sound of a home-theater receiver than any amplification, be it preamp or power amp -- assuming, of course, we start with sufficiently powered, well-designed amplification.