Consider, if you will, the top of the world, Everest, where the air is thin, the view Godly, and getting there and back the stuff of deadly legend. At the top of Velodyne’s subwoofer world is the Digital Drive 1812 Signature Edition, a monstrous edifice with two long-throw drivers measuring 18” and 12”, twin 1250W amplifiers, and enough cojones to be heard, well, at the top of the world. Just below the DD-1812 is Velodyne’s Digital Driveplus series -- think K2, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, and so on -- each of which scales dizzying heights, but doesn’t quite summit at the top of the world. The driver sizes and model names of the DD+ series are four: 18", 15", 12”, and 10”. We’re going to have some fun with the 10-incher, which, unless I miss my guess, is, despite its size, one special sub.
Last November I waxed rhapsodic about the Velodyne Optimum-10, by any measure a subwoofer of outstanding attributes and a great value. Its remarkable performance was enhanced by its built-in equalizer, which adjusted the output profile by taking the sub’s placement and your room into account. Of course, this is a variation on the theme originally developed in Velodyne’s SPL series and, later, the first Digital Drive series, with customizable equalization that could be visually managed by connecting the sub to a TV monitor -- an extreme multivariate experience not for the unadventurous or weak of character. The only drawback to the Digital Drive equalization methodology was deploying the subwoofer in an audio system that didn’t have a TV handy. In that case, the user had to schlep a TV monitor over to the audio system to use the sub’s customization features. The Digital Driveplus series solves that problem by offering a Windows-based PC interface that doesn’t require use of a TV.
I do most of my headphone listening at home using a dedicated headphone amplifier and full-sized cans, but when I’m listening on the go or at work I prefer in-ear monitors (IEMs) -- a type of earphone that is inserted into the ear canal. Not only do their small sizes make IEMs more convenient than regular headphones, but I appreciate the level of isolation that most of them provide. I also like the fact that IEMs can be adequately driven directly from the output of an iPod or other portable device.
When, 20 years ago, Etymotic Research released their first high-fidelity in-ear transducer for music reproduction, they virtually created a new product category, and that design, the ER-4, is still their top model. The subject of this review, the hf5 ($149 USD), is an attempt to provide most of the performance of the more expensive ER-4 at a price that appeals to a larger number of consumers. The savings are realized by manufacturing the earphones as a complete unit in China rather than hand-matching each driver at Etymotic’s headquarters, in Illinois.
Although they cost less than the ER-4s, the hf5s come with a full complement of accessories, including a carrying pouch, replacement filters, a filter-changing tool, and a selection of eartips. Choosing the appropriate tips to use is a matter of both comfort and sound quality. The three-flange silicone tips provide the best isolation and bass response, but must be inserted deep into the ear canal. Once I had them properly inserted, I found them extremely comfortable, but some people just don’t like sticking things that deeply into their ears. The foam tips, particularly the rounded ones, were also very comfortable, sounded nearly as good, and didn’t have to be inserted as far. Either way, I could use the hf5s for hours with no discomfort, and almost forget I was wearing them at all.
Ever seen a Citroën DS19/21/23? It looked like something out of a science-fiction flick when it was introduced in 1955, was still in that category when it finally went out of production in 1975, and offered high-technology features well ahead of its time. Or the Renault Twingo, possibly the greatest little sub-mini now made in Europe?
I like the French. They have an individualistic sense of style that no one else comes close to duplicating. They make the world’s greatest wines, most of which I can’t afford to drink. They make cars that don’t look like any other nation’s. And, of course, they’re the masters of haute couture.
The French also bring their individualistic sense of style to the loudspeakers they make. Consider the Focal Chorus 826V ($2495 USD per pair), two of which have happily resided in my listening room the last several months. First of all, this model eschews the American concept of a snappy name: "Focal Chorus 826V" is a mouthful. Nor is this speaker a tall rectangular box, as are most speakers.
While it’s true that the Chorus 826V’s enclosure is a rectangular box 40.0"H x 11.1"W x 14.8"D, there’s nothing boxy about how it looks -- or sounds, for that matter. First, although it’s fairly tall and narrow, the Chorus 826V is firmly planted on the ground -- it sits on a cast-aluminum base plate that comes to a point in front, to match the prow of the grille cover. While many listeners immediately remove the grille of any speaker to which they listen, I found the Chorus 826Vs’ grilles sonically benign, and left them on for all of my listening. The speaker can be leveled using an included Allen wrench, and Focal supplies nifty plastic covers for the spikes if you want to set the Choruses on a hardwood floor -- a thoughtful inclusion. Each speaker weighs 57 pounds.
Sony reinvented portable music reproduction with its Walkman cassette player in the early 1980s, and in no time at all Walkmen appeared on waistbands around the world. But while the Walkman was a smash hit, it didn't spur an entire new line of accessories, as has the Apple iPod. Apple didn't invent portable music, but it sure gave a lot of companies a reason to do some innovating of their own.
One of the earliest iPod accessories was the speaker dock, which freed the listener from having to use headphones while offering a convenient place to recharge the player's battery. While the iPod has gone through many iterations, I can't recall too many iPod speaker docks. Maybe that's because they were forgettable, but I also think it's because there haven't been as many designs as might have been expected, given the huge number of iPods sold to date.
With its SR-100i, TEAC offers not just an iPod charger with speakers, but an entire sound system compressed into a shape that looks like a slightly angular football, and a lot like B&W's Zeppelin, but with a fatter midsection. A major difference between the Zeppelin and the SR-100i are their respective prices of $600 and $299.99 USD. Bowers & Wilkins would no doubt argue that there are also qualitative differences, with the Zeppelin's amplification being designed and built by Classé and its speakers developed by B&W's own engineers. But TEAC is the parent company of Esoteric, itself no slouch in high-end audio. TEAC is also well known as a maker of kick-butt mini audio systems that have won over SoundStage! Network reviewers in full-on evaluations and even at audio shows.
For the serious headphone listener, a dedicated amplifier is a must. The headphone jacks built into most audio components, when there’s one built in at all, are usually afterthoughts. They may be connected to a multipurpose operational amplifier (op-amp) with inadequate resolution and able to drive only the easiest headphone loads. Or they may use the power-amp section of an integrated amplifier, which can provide adequate drive but tends to be noisy. Twenty years ago, dedicated headphone amplifiers were do-it-yourself projects or a garage industry. Then along came companies like HeadRoom, who decided to make it a core business, and have continually pushed the level of performance available from headphone amps. It was almost a decade ago that HeadRoom released the first balanced headphone amplifier, and balanced drive quickly became the rage amongst headphone aficionados.
Balanced circuit topology is nothing new -- many high-end audio companies have long promoted it. While there is some debate as to whether it sounds better than single-ended, there’s no doubt that, properly implemented, it reduces some types of distortion. Balanced drive also doubles the slew rate and voltage swing available from a circuit. In the context of headphones, it also breaks the ground connection between the left and right channels, eliminating crosstalk. For more information about balanced headphone drive, see the articles in the Learning Center on HeadRoom’s website.
I’ve been doing a lot of headphone listening over the past few months, and I’m not talking about portable listening. I’m talking about sitting in a quiet room, connecting the 'phones to the best equipment I have, and letting the music wash over me. Relatively little space in the high-end press is dedicated to headphones, even though they can offer an astonishing level of fidelity and musical enjoyment for a fraction of the cost of an equivalent loudspeaker-based system -- but we at the SoundStage! Network have decided to devote to them a few more words than we have in the past. After being impressed with the Edition 8 from Germany’s Ultrasone, I was curious how much of that performance was offered by Ultrasone’s Pro 900 -- the top sealed design in their Pro series. While at $599 USD the Pro 900 isn’t cheap, it’s within reach of many more audiophiles than is the $1499 Edition 8.
Ultrasone has been designing and manufacturing headphones since the early 1990s, which makes them a relative newcomer -- most headphone makers have been in business since the early years of electronic recording. Unlike those other companies, Ultrasone focuses exclusively on headphones, and 20 years is more than enough time to have built up a solid reputation; Ultrasone has won numerous accolades and a devoted following of audio professionals.
Cambridge Audio, based in the UK, has a long history of building affordable two-channel gear that puts far more costly components to shame. But if affordable is Cambridge’s middle name, it could just as easily be innovative. Take, for one example, the Azur 840A two-channel integrated amplifier -- its power-amp stage is unique in being class-XD, a hybrid of class-A and class-B that promises low levels of distortion. Another is their DAC Magic D/A converter, with its switchable proprietary filter algorithms.
Although the subject of this review, the Azur 650R A/V receiver, lacks the class-XD amplifier stage and the sophistication of the DAC Magic DAC, Cambridge Audio claims to have paid much attention to its sound quality, and to have successfully combined an audiophile-grade integrated amplifier with most of the modern conveniences a home-theater enthusiast would desire -- all for $1799.99 USD.
Axiom Audio, based in Ontario, Canada, has thrived despite the cooling of the global economy. There are several reasons for this, including their products’ affordability, and a lean business model of selling only via the Internet -- no middleman. Perhaps the biggest reason for Axiom’s success is that they make fine-sounding equipment, something I’ve experienced firsthand with a number of their models.
The Epic 80-800 speaker system ($4786.10 USD) reviewed here seemed pretty familiar to me -- a while back I reviewed a similar system, the Epic 80. But the Epic 80-800 includes some new additions to the flagship Epic line -- the VP180 center-channel and the EP800 v3 subwoofer -- and the main and surround models have been designated “v3” to reflect the updates Axiom has made to their crossovers and drivers. With all these changes, it was about time I gave the best that Axiom has to offer another spin.
The M80 v3 ($1380/pair) is a large floorstanding speaker nearly 40” tall. When you slide off the M80’s magnetically attached grille, you can see that it means business, and that that business is to play loud. How many speakers do you know that have two tweeters, one above the other? Not any, I bet. In fact, the M80 has two of everything: two 5.25” aluminum midranges and two 6.5” aluminum woofers as well. The purpose of this is to give this speaker the wherewithal to play loudly and cleanly without distortion. The M80 is also highly efficient (95dB/W/m in-room), with a lowish nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Your amp or receiver won’t need a lot of power to drive it up to loud, but it should be rated for loads of 4 ohms or less.
Drivers take up nearly all of the M80’s front surface, but Axiom still found room for a port under the lower woofer, and for two more on the rear panel. These ports aren’t simple round holes; each aperture has a jagged rim in a pattern Axiom calls Vortex Porting. This is claimed to effectively increase the size of the port for the given diameter and result in lower noise. Single binding posts are standard; dual binding posts for biwiring or biamping can be had for another $40/pair.
In the face of smart phones, iPods, and iPads, few companies these days are making portable TVs. Vizio has tried to make their offering seem like a more contemporary product by using a backlit LED display and adding at least a couple of bells and whistles, but the facts remain: The VMB070 doesn’t connect to the Internet, it has limited adjustments, and its design seems to have been focused more on style than on use. It does, however, receive over-the-air digital high-definition signals at resolutions of 780p and 1080i.
What’s in the box
Included with the VMB070 ($159.99 USD) are an instruction manual, a remote control, an AC charging cord, a composite-video cable, an RF adapter to permit connection to a cable box or an external antenna, and a soft carrying case.
The VMB070 itself measures 7 1/2”W by 4 7/8”H x 3/4”D and weighs just over a pound. Its fold-out easel stand clicks firmly into place and, when extended, extends the overall depth to about 3.” Its 7”-diagonal screen is 6”W x 3.5”H. The VMB070 is smooth and sleek, much like a tablet. The only controls visible at first glance are a power switch on the top, and power and headphone jacks discreetly tucked away on the side. Lift the antenna -- it swings out to the side -- to find the RF adapter, USB, and A/V input jacks and the master On/Off switch.
The remote control is surprisingly large and old-fashioned at 5 1/4”L x 1 3/4”W x 1/4”D. One wonders why a remote is included at all -- the VMB070 has a limited touchscreen (see below), and is so small that it’s unlikely to be viewed from any distance that would require remote control.
For years now, we've trekked to North Carolina's Outer Banks for an annual week's worth of sun, surf, and relaxation. The one truism common to all the vacation houses we've rented -- at least in our price range -- is that the "Stereo-CD player" feature in the specs invariably overstates the junk that an owner would dare leave out for a renter's use. We quickly learned that if we wanted music, we needed to bring our own gear. So, for years, along with the boogie boards, beach chairs, and kites, we've also packed RadioShack's compact Optimus STA-300 receiver, Celestion 3 speakers, and whatever portable CD player we had on hand. Recently, the STA-300's right channel gave up the ghost. The Optimus had cost only about $100, and having its bad capacitor replaced would have cost more than that, so lately we've made do with a Sirius boom box -- it got whatever baseball we wanted, but we were slaves to the sound quality of whatever station we tuned to. If we craved, say, the Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall, we were out of luck. And, well, it's a boom box -- hi-fi it ain't. We lusted after a small amplifier or receiver that could do the vacation-audio lifting.
Meanwhile, I guess it was always only a matter of when, not if, the crafty folks at Audioengine would gussy up the nifty little amplifier built into their A2 and A5 powered speakers and put it in its own box. Enter the Audioengine N22 integrated amplifier ($199 USD).