Dynaudio began building speakers in Denmark in 1977, at first building their own crossovers and buying drivers from other companies. By 1980, though, they’d come to the conclusion that they could build better speakers by designing and manufacturing their own drivers; ever since, Dynaudio has built its legacy primarily on the high-quality drivers they make in-house.
Many audio enthusiasts are familiar with Dynaudio’s many lines of consumer-oriented speakers, from the entry-level Excite to the cost-no-object Evidence series, but Dynaudio also has a large presence in professional audio. There’s a good chance that, at some point in the creation process, many of your favorite albums were mixed or mastered using Dynaudio monitor speakers.
Dynaudio’s studio monitors are mostly active designs, so it’s somewhat odd that the company’s consumer lines contained no active models. That has changed with the subject of this review, the Focus 110 A ($2450 USD per pair).
Headphones are by far the fastest-growing segment of the audio marketplace, and it’s no surprise that many leading loudspeaker manufacturers want a piece of the action. Over the past year we’ve seen new headphone models from Bowers & Wilkins, Klipsch, Paradigm, and Polk, to name but a few. In many cases, it’s not clear how much of the design was done by the company whose brand name appears on the product, and how much was outsourced to others with more expertise -- or, at least, experience -- in headphone design. Into the fray come the M4U 2 headphones from Canadian speaker maker PSB ($399 USD). I spoke with PSB’s chief engineer, Paul Barton, about their development.
PSB is well aware of the tremendous role that headphones play in the musical lives of both audiophile and non-audiophile consumers. A savvy company needs to respond to such a market shift, but a company with a very strong reputation for performance, build quality, and value has much to lose by a misstep. Barton never even considered the idea of slapping a PSB badge on someone else’s headphone design. If PSB was going to make headphones, they needed to be truly PSB headphones -- it is, literally, his name on the line.
NuForce Inc., based in Milpitas, California, is probably best known in the audiophile world for their innovative switching amplifiers, which have been favorably reviewed throughout the SoundStage! Network. In addition to their higher-end, higher-priced side, NuForce has two other product lines: desktop audio (computer desktop speakers, small amps, etc.) and portable audio (earphones, portable DACs, headphone amps). The subject of this review is the uDAC-2, a combination headphone amp and digital-to-analog converter, which retails for only $129 USD.
I asked to review the uDAC-2 because of a need. After finishing my review of the Arcam Solo rDac, I’d sent the sample back to Arcam without a second thought. Then, when I wanted to play some 24-bit/96kHz tracks from my computer, I realized I no longer had a good means to do so. A quick search of the Internet landed me on the NuForce website, where I found the uDAC-2.
I’ve long felt that the folks at Audioengine understand better than most the needs of today’s audio consumers. They made their mark years ago with compact, powered desktop speakers at low prices -- perfect for the growing number of audio enthusiasts who wanted good sound in small spaces. Seeing the need for increased convenience, they came out with the W1 wireless adapter, a product I’ve used for years to send decent-quality sound from my computer to anywhere in the house where I have an audio system. It works perfectly. The subject of this review, the D2 24-bit/96kHz wireless USB DAC ($599 USD), is perhaps Audioengine’s most significant product for the true audiophile who wants the freedom made possible by wireless transmission.
As I write this review, I’m smoking a 1926 Dunhill shell briar pipe packed with Dunhill’s London Mixture -- a lovely, mellow blend -- and I’m struck by a disconnect in cultural referents. While a new, unbroken-in pipe -- a Dunhill, say, or a Tsuge or Eltang -- is a challenging pleasure, the old, eminently smokable “estate” pipe represents a functioning connection to our cultural history. Despite its age, my 86-year-old artifact still functions as it was intended to: you can smoke a bowl of good tobacco and indulge in pleasures similar to those of any number of smokers who may have possessed this very pipe throughout its life. Indeed, when I’m worm food, someone else will revel in this little slice of history, just as I do now. Pretty cool, when you think about it.
Audio represents a very different proposition. Audio benefits from constant technical innovation -- which has advanced in massive increments, especially over the last four decades. One may appreciate an 86-year-old loudspeaker for what it was in its day, but one would certainly not expect it to render the full range of sound that today’s speakers can. Indeed, when a musician goes into a modern recording studio, he records on a sophisticated, multitrack digital console. I don’t think that musician would care for the sound quality rendered by a wax cylinder cut with a steel stylus. We can honor the innovations of the past without fooling ourselves that they can compete with the technologies of today.
Another recent technological innovation is widespread e-tailing: the marketing and selling of goods online. A number of savvy audio manufacturers are running with the best of both innovative worlds, marketing excellent products directly to the consumer via a website. As we’ve noted in earlier reviews, Aperion Audio and Yambeka Audio offer superior products at astonishing prices, and thus redefine the notion of affordable, high-quality audio.
Enter Fluance, offering their SXHTB+: a five-speaker home-theater system for $374.99 USD including shipping.
Remember the Handy Housewife Helper, that all-in-one kitchen gadget from "Better Living through TV," a 1955 episode of The Honeymooners? As part of their latest get-rich-quick scheme, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton make a commercial hawking the device as "the chef of the future," claiming that it will open cans, uncork bottles, core apples, scale fish, drive screws, cut glass, sharpen scissors, even remove corns from feet. How did it work in practice? Well, not so great, at least for a very nervous, camera-shy Ralph.
Many audiophiles forget that high-end home audio did not begin with such all-in-one components. When hi-fi first came of age, in the 1940s and early ’50s, all components were "separates": each box performed a single function. Only later did manufacturers begin producing multifunction components such as the integrated amplifier and the receiver. As time went on, many audiophiles shunned such integrated components. Like the Handy Housewife Helper, integrated products of all types are claimed to do many things, but often don’t do any one thing particularly well. However, separates take up a lot more room, require more cables and power cords, and don’t always perform better -- though the high end generally disfavors integrateds, they’ve never completely disappeared. Indeed, in recent years there has been a resurgence of integrated audiophile products.
When Polk Audio announced its UltraFit line of sports headphones, a glance at the spec sheet told me right away that I’d have to try them out. It seemed that Polk, which has earned great respect for its high-quality loudspeakers, had really thought out and corrected many of the problems that plague headsets designed to be worn during sports activities. I chose the UltraFit 2000 on-ear model ($69.95 USD) because it suited my needs for my athletic endeavors; the UltraFit line is filled out by the 500 ($49.95) and 1000 ($59.95) in-ear models, and the 3000 in-ear-canal model ($99.95). All are moderately priced and offer features not usually found in the everyday sports headphones I’ve seen.
The Paradigm loudspeaker company and I are of long acquaintance. My experience of the brand, especially its Monitor Series, goes all the way back to the first series, some 20 years ago, when I bought my first hi-fi speaker, the Monitor 7. The Monitor 7 served in my two-channel music system as well as my burgeoning home theater, and gave me years of enjoyment. My lasting impression of the speaker was one of balance throughout the entire audioband. Ever since, whether owned or being reviewed by me, one model or another from this iconic line has been in my system.
It seemed as if I’d just finished reviewing the last-generation Monitor system when Editor-in-Chief Jeff Fritz sent me a press release about the Series 7 Monitor system ($3994 USD). My response: "Gotta have it!"
In 1956, during my formative years, a comic genius named Stan Freberg created an advertising campaign for tomato paste that asked the musical question "Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?" The answer, of course, was Contadina.
In 2012, the question is "How does High Resolution Technologies get such great sound from that little bitty box?" I speak of the subject of this review, HRT’s Music Streamer II+ digital-to-analog converter ($350 USD).
There’s another song out there that describes me: "A Low-tech Guy in a High-tech World." I didn’t get into CDs until 1986 -- three years after they were introduced outside Japan -- and then only because a radio-station client offered me a CD player in exchange for some consulting work. I obtained a cell phone only in 2007, mostly because pay phones had disappeared and my wife could get a great deal through her work. I still don’t have an HDTV, and a lot of my stereo equipment is 10 to 15 years old. I don’t Tweet, and have no use for Facebook. And until recently, high-resolution audio has not been a lure; CDs suited me just fine. But now, thanks to friendly encouragement from the bosses . . . brothers and sisters, I have seen the light!
I’ve been an occasional headphone listener since before I was an audiophile, but only in the past couple years have I migrated to doing most of my listening through headphones. I don’t mean that I’m out and about with an iPod -- though that happens occasionally -- or that I’m forced to listen to headphones while at my desk at work. I listen to my usual high-quality sources through a headphone amplifier with a variety of very excellent headphones.
As I did more of my listening through headphones, my curiosity about electrostatic headphones grew. For many years, electrostatics have had an excellent reputation for sound quality among the most dedicated headphone listeners. As I looked through the liner notes of my favorite recordings, Stax headphones kept showing up as having been used for monitoring. To satisfy my curiosity, and because I’ve taken on the task of reviewing headphones for SoundStage! Xperience, I thought it high time I auditioned an electrostatic system for myself.