To 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.
The early years of home theater were, for me, ones of disappointment. For all the talk of “surround sound,” the first three generations of HT receivers were underwhelming -- so much so that I gave up on the concept for many years. Why spend all that money and run all those ugly cables for mediocre performance?
Things changed when I bought my first flat-panel TV. Surely, its magnificent 42 inches deserved better sound to go with its HD picture. Still, I looked (and listened) for a long while before deciding on the Anthem MRX 300. That receiver packs more than enough power and features for my HT needs, and sounds terrific. Still, along with an AVR came multiple speakers and their dreaded snarls of cable. My inner two-channel minimalist wondered if a simpler setup wouldn’t work just as well.
For several years now, my reference speaker has been Definitive Technology’s Mythos ST SuperTower ($1999 USD each) -- its performance is so good and so contemporary that I still feel no need to replace my pair of them. My experience with these magnificent speakers made me wonder what the sound wizards in Maryland could do for sound bars. So I requested a review sample of DefTech’s almost-all-in-one home-theater speaker system of SoloCinema XTR powered sound bar with wireless subwoofer ($1999).
If there is a premier icon in the annals of fantasy fiction, arguably it is Edgar Rice Burroughs, who in the course of a 38-year literary career wrote some 70 novels, not least of which were 25 Tarzan adventures and the inimitable John Carter of Mars series. Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first Carter story, The Princess of Mars, Disney Studios released John Carter, a megabudget flopperoo of curious non sequiturs and wooden dialogue. I love it. First of all, Carter of Mars is Burroughs at his very best, even if the movie’s story deviates wildly from the original. Second, not even a director who can’t make up his mind between reinventing pulp or crafting a blockbuster epic can mess up Burroughs. Finally, it’s a lovely test for a home-theater speaker system.
Audio Pro is a Swedish company founded in 1978. The speakers are designed in Sweden, but made in China. The Avanto 5.0 HTS home-theater speaker system ($1499 USD) consists of two FS-20 full-range front-channel towers, a C-20 center-channel, and two S-20 bookshelf surround speakers, each a bass-reflex design with a rear port. The FS-20 tower is a three-way with a 1” dome tweeter, two 5.25” midrange drivers, and a side-firing 8” woofer. It weighs 45 pounds and measures 40”H x 7.5”W x 14”D, its canted plinth sloping it down to 38” at the rear. The S-20 surround is a two-way with a 1” dome tweeter and a 4.5” midrange-woofer cone, weighing 7 pounds and measuring 10.5”H x 6”W x 7”D. The C-20 center-channel, also a two-way, has a 1” dome tweeter with a 4.5” midrange-woofer driver to either side, weighs 10.3 pounds, and measures 16”W x 5.75”H x 7”D.
Although I’m in awe of the vast array of ultra-expensive audio gear reviewed at the SoundStage! Network’s websites, I’m one of the more pragmatic reviewers. I obsess about gear as much as the other reviewers, but I don’t spend vast amounts of money on audio and home-theater equipment. I try to allocate my funds where it will make a significant difference, and to keep my components as long as I can. So when I see a DAC for $10,000, I shake my head: “That’s insane!”
But a company like Cambridge Audio, based in London, England, really impresses me. Cambridge’s line is chock-full of Vince-friendly gear -- from $600 DACs to a line of integrated amps that tops out at $2000, Cambridge is the definition of sensible in the audio lexicon. On their website, the consistent theme is one of sound quality and value. According to Cambridge’s business model, value comes from keeping their R&D in London and their manufacturing in China, where they can maintain high quality at a fraction of the price of manufacture in Europe or elsewhere.
Here I review the Azur 751R upsampling receiver -- “upsampling” giving a hint of the audio engineering that has gone into this model. Although not cheap at $2999 USD, the Azur 751R promises good value and emphasizes sound quality, something you don’t see in mass-market brands.
Just when you thought you had a state-of-the-art video system, along came 3D. Now we hear regular rumblings about 4K video. It’s hard to keep up, so many of us turn to black boxes to tweak our systems into something a little better than they were starting out. Of course, the best thing you can do is to have your set professionally calibrated -- or purchase one of the excellent calibration Blu-ray Discs and do it yourself.
Through having my various monitors professionally calibrated over the years, I’ve learned to back off on the sharpness control. In fact, my current Mitsubishi 65” DLP screen has the sharpness backed off completely. I’ve learned to be wary of video processors. But I’d heard such good things about DarbeeVision’s Darblet DVP 5000 ($349.99 USD) that I was finally temped to try it. After a month with it, I’ve decided that I very much appreciate what it does, yet I see how a purist videophile might find objectionable what its maker calls “an HDMI accessory that will add intense depth and clarity to any video -- enabling ultra-immersive visuals.”
In 2006, when the Blu-ray Disc was introduced, the player of choice for many A/V enthusiasts was Sony’s PlayStation 3, for its many features, frequent firmware updates, and reasonable price. That all changed when Oppo Digital released their first Blu-ray player, the BDP-83, which built on the reputation of their universal DVD players. For $499, the BDP-83 offered a speedy and stable user interface (something that couldn’t be said for many early BD players), support for SACD and DVD-Audio, and state-of-the-art video processing. Ever since then, Oppo players have been the standard for high-performance BD players at reasonable prices.
Oppo has continually advanced the performance standards of first their DVD players and now their BD players. Their latest product, the BDP-105, is the premium offering in their third generation of Blu-ray products. Priced at $1199 USD, it costs a little more than its predecessor, the BDP-95, but adds some useful and unique features, including upgraded video processing.
Usually, when signing up to evaluate audio products, reviewers know what to expect in terms of how to integrate a new component into an audio system. A pair of speakers? You set them up and listen. A power amp? Pretty straightforward stuff.
Then along comes a product like Arcam’s rBlink ($250 USD). I’d read all the information about it that Arcam had sent me before I received the review sample, so I had a general idea of what it was. What I didn’t know was how I would interact with it from day to day, and how it would change some of my listening habits.
What it is
The rBlink is actually two components. First, it’s a wireless device that connects to compatible partners via Bluetooth. For technology-deprived souls, Bluetooth is a wireless protocol developed in 1994 by Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications giant, that permits the exchange of data between equipped devices, fixed and mobile, over short distances. The rBlink allows products such as smartphones and computers to connect to it using BlueCore, the latest Bluetooth-embedded technology from CSR. The result, without getting too technical, is that the rBlink uses the very latest hi-fi-friendly tech for better connection between audio devices, the improvement due, in part, to lower noise.
A few years ago, loudspeaker manufacturer Axiom Audio began making electronics. Their first model was the A1400 class-D power amplifier, in two versions: the eight-channel A1400-8 ($3850 USD) and the two-channel A1400-2 ($2620). Although those amps, both since discontinued, offered a lot of performance for the money, they were a little on the expensive side for A/V enthusiasts on a budget. They also didn’t seem to be budgetary matches for Axiom’s speakers -- their most expensive speaker at the time, the M80, sold for about $1300/pair.
Axiom’s new line of amplifiers, the ADA models, have been designed from the ground up by the company’s new chief designer, Andrew Welker. While there were only two A1400 amps, there are 21 ADA models. The new line is actually based on three “power supply platforms” -- the ADA-1500, ADA-1250, and ADA-1000 -- which deliver different levels of power and can be configured with from two to eight channels. While the ADA-1500 amps are priced similarly to the A1400s, the ADA-1000s start at only $980 for the two-channel version, and $1340 for the five-channel version provided for this review.
And so it begins . . . again. For decades, system- and component-tuning products have been offered to enhance our listening experience without directly touching the audio signal being reproduced. With computers replacing more and more conventional source components in high-end audio systems, it was inevitable that we’d see products directly aimed at the unique needs of computers. Atomic Audio Labs (AAL) enters the coliseum to do battle with other gladiators trying to survive in a society where the dollars of patrons are as hard to come by as fresh Twinkies or Suzy-Qs.
AAL’s George Chronis got started as a manufacturer of FireWire 800 cables. The concept of the Mac Platform was born, as are so many good ideas, from a coincidence. Chronis placed his Apple Mac Mini computer on his turntable platter and noticed an immediate improvement in the sound. That sent him on a quest for the best combination of materials he could find to boost the sound quality enough to justify his product’s anticipated retail price. The result is the Mac Platform ($349 USD), machined from handpicked 4’ x 8’ sheets of cast clear acrylic.
MartinLogan is a loudspeaker manufacturer based in Lawrence, Kansas. Founded by Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland, the company is best known for their extensive line of electrostatic speakers. In 2005, ShoreView Industries, a private-equity firm that also owns a stake in Paradigm, bought MartinLogan. Although the design staff is still based in Lawrence, much of the manufacturing has been moved to Paradigm’s facility in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
Electrostatic (ESL) speakers are renowned for the lightning-fast transients that audiophiles crave. To the non-audiophile, electrostatic speakers simply look cool. However, they’re expensive to make -- it’ll cost you about $2000 USD to take home a pair of the cheapest ESLs made by MartinLogan. MartinLogan recently introduced its Motion line of entry-level models, with traditional cabinets and conventional cone midrange-woofers. What sets the Motions apart from most entry-level speakers is their tweeter, MartinLogan’s Folded Motion Tweeter (FMT), said to sound similar to electrostatic drivers. For this review, MartinLogan sent me a 5.1-channel system based on the Motion SLM, a thin-profile on-wall speaker.