Unwrapping the Harmony Touch, Logitech’s new beauty of a universal remote control ($249.99 USD), got me thinking about the history of remote control, and of how far things have advanced in my lifetime. When my folks bought our first TV set, the closest thing they had to a remote control was me. When my dad wanted the channel changed or the volume lowered, he’d ask me to do it. I would dutifully get up, walk to the set, and fulfill his wishes. Ten years later, our audio and video gear finally began to come with remote controls. At first these were connected to the components by wires and controlled only very basic functions. But very rapidly, or so it seems now, remotes added more and more buttons and were able to control all of the functions available on the front panel of the components they commanded. Later, when remotes began to control functions omitted from those front panels, it became a case of “lose the remote and lose control.”
By this time, remotes were included with virtually every audio and/or video component. We’d gone from no remotes to way too many -- at one time, six were lined up on my coffee table. In 1985 came the first universal remote, from Magnavox, and in 1999 the formation of Intrigue Technologies, which marketed Harmony remotes. Intrigue was bought by Logitech in 2004; since then, “Harmony” and “universal remote” have become synonymous.
Although the Harmony Touch differs in many ways from earlier Harmony models, the basics are unchanged: With it, you can control all of your audio and video equipment, put your five or more manufacturers’ remotes in that catchall drawer, and forget about them. But do save them, in case you need to teach the Harmony a new command.
It’s fair to suggest that the Bowers & Wilkins brand borders on the legendary. B&W loudspeakers have been around since 1966, and the company has pioneered both innovative construction materials (Kevlar cone drivers) and novel -- indeed, groundbreaking -- designs (the Nautilus). Now B&W has put its considerable technical muscle behind a mini home-theater speaker system that throws as muscular a sound as any I’ve heard lately. And here’s the catch -- it’s all done with one speaker design and a subwoofer.
The MT-60D comprises five M-1 speakers ($250 USD each) and one PV1D subwoofer ($1699), for a total system price of $2949. The M-1 houses a 1” Nautilus-inspired, tube-loaded tweeter, and a 4” woven-glass-fiber midrange driver in an enclosure that measures 9.8”H x 4.6”W x 6.4”D and weighs all of five pounds. The aluminum housing is generously curved, as is the grille -- it looks like a big taco shell stood on end. The lack of straight lines and corners of course minimizes internal and external reflections, while the rear port enables the modest drivers to reach depths one would not expect from so small a speaker. B&W offers a dedicated stand, the FS-M-1 ($150 pair), which lifts the speaker 35” above the floor. The stands are so designed that the only wire you see is the one entering the floor plate. B&W also supplies wall-mounting hardware.
A few years ago, a friend’s 16-year-old son would sit on the couch with his laptop and play songs from his iTunes library through the machine’s minuscule speakers, even though his mother’s better-than-respectable stereo was only three feet away. Occasionally he would play something snatched out of the air through his iPhone’s speaker. We all hailed the return of the transistor radio, and laughed.
I wonder: If he’d been able to insert a simple USB transmitter into his laptop, which would have sent the sound to a set of graceful speakers, would he have done so? Or, if he could have kept his seat and jacked his iPhone into the same-style USB transmitter, in order to hear sound infinitely superior to what’s possible from a 2cm speaker, would he have done that?
PSB Speakers, based in Pickering, Ontario, and headed by the legendary Paul Barton, is a highly respected manufacturer of loudspeakers and headphones. Although Lenbrook Industries has owned PSB for a number of years now, Barton still oversees the design and testing of PSB speakers at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa, Ontario, a world-class facility for measuring and testing speakers in which he and many others refine their designs. In fact, the SoundStage! Network’s own founder and publisher, Doug Schneider, often runs into Barton at the NRC, where Doug gets exclusive measurements of the performance of many of the speakers we review.
The subject of this review is PSB’s Imagine Mini home-theater speaker system, which includes the new Imagine Mini C center-channel speaker. When our editor, Jeff Fritz, asked if I was interested in reviewing this system, I answered with an emphatic Yes! -- I’d read Roger Kanno’s rave review of the Imagine Mini two-channel system. Additionally, at $759 USD per pair, the Imagine Mini is the least expensive speaker in our list of Recommended Reference Components. I also wanted to hear how the Imagine Mini C center-channel would measure up to the Imagine Mini, and, given these speakers’ small size, whether the system could handle the dynamic range required of a good home-theater system.
Bridging the divide between appliance-like consumer electronics and more-flexible computers has been a challenge. As soon as I had a computer and a stereo, I ran the analog line output from my soundcard so I could listen to MP3s and Internet Radio stations in all their low-bit-rate awfulness. Even as the quality of computer audio sources has improved, there are several things about computers that make them largely inappropriate for the listening room: noise, startup/resume time, the need for ongoing maintenance, power consumption, the quality of the analog audio circuitry, and user interface, to name a few. At the same time, consumer electronics may be missing support for the newest codecs and services. This can be mitigated to some degree by firmware updates, but the customer is depending on companies that want to sell new hardware to devote resources to keeping their old hardware up to date. As high-resolution audio switches inexorably to file-based delivery, mating the flexibility of the computer with the usability of the appliance becomes critical.
What was once called a CD player can hardly be found anymore. Not the least of the reasons why is that many disc players today don’t play only CDs, but also DVDs, BDs, and sometimes SACDs -- hence the product category of universal player. Then there’s the DAC-transport, as Simaudio started calling their players several years ago, which puts the emphasis on connectivity rather than disc-reading capability, even if their transports still read only CDs. Cambridge Audio, of the UK, has kept CD player as part of the name of the Azur 851C ($1999 USD), but they’ve tacked on to that DAC and digital preamplifier -- which do more accurately describe the potential uses for their new, upscale digital source component.
Commuter headphones just keep coming -- sometimes it seems that everyone wants in on this market. Polk Audio is a relative newcomer, yet not totally unproven in the field -- they currently offer nine models. I reviewed their UltraFit 2000 sports headphones last February and found them excellent.
Now Polk has come up with its first active noise-canceling headphone, the UltraFocus 8000 ($349.95 USD). It was no surprise to me that these headphones sounded better than any of the others I’ve reviewed in the past few months -- or perhaps they sounded good because they sound more like floorstanding loudspeakers than typical headphones.
In the box
The UltraFocus 8000s’ box is similar to the packaging of other headphones I’ve seen lately. Two sides open out to reveal a sturdy carrying case. Inside that are the UltraFocus 8000s, their earcups folded 90 degrees and laid flat. Under them is a red cover that proclaims Polk Audio Accessories. Lift up on the ribbon to find: a flat, tangle-free cable; adapters (all gold-plated) for 1/8"-to-1/4” plugs, Nokia and Skype connections, and airline audio systems; and an external attenuator, a shirt clip, two AAA batteries, a Quick Fit Guide, an owner’s manual, and card instructing you how to register the product online. Attached to the case is a loop that can be used to attach it to luggage. A zippered net for carrying extra batteries or connectors is attached to the inside of the case with Velcro.
With companies like Denon, Onkyo, and Yamaha bringing new A/V processors to market as frequently as once a year, it can be difficult for higher-end, smaller-volume companies like Anthem, Bryston, and Krell to keep up. Whereas bigger companies often enjoy the luxuries of big engineering and design teams, and seemingly bottomless R&D and licensing budgets, smaller firms must usually make do with far less.
Wi-Fi is in the air, so to speak, and for years wireless loudspeakers have been a holy grail of home audio. Most of us seem to have accepted the truth that our TVs must be plugged in in order to work, as well as the idea that our TVs need to be fed signals by a physical cable. But there’s something about speaker cables that sets interior decorators on edge. In the past, cableless speaker systems have been of notoriously low quality. Small, lacking in good sound, usually poorly made, and subject to interference and/or inadequate transfer of signals, wireless speaker systems have come and gone, never quite measuring up to the performance standard set by an amplifier and some lamp cord.
But now that we’re all walking around with the Internet streaming to our smartphones, the concept of wirelessness has never been so pervasive, so natural, so . . . expected.
There’s a specific type of pleasure that comes with buying an expensive product. Whether it’s a loudspeaker, an amplifier, a watch, a piece of fine furniture, a car . . . the giddy anticipation is metered by the awareness of how much you paid for it. The feeling grows all the more acute as the price and quality rise. I vividly remember my conflicted joy at receiving my very first dealer-ordered, high-end product: a pair of Dynaudio Contour 1.8 Mk.II speakers. Having worked hard and saved for several years, I hemorrhaged a good deal of my shallow savings account on the handmade Danish boxes, which I partnered with a budget 5.1-channel surround-sound receiver and a five-disc CD changer. My tender affection for the rosewood Dynaudios was almost completely offset by my guilt at having invested so much money in them.