February 2017

For the past 20 years, I’ve been preaching that buyers of audio gear in the mid- to upper price levels should spend some of their shopping time appraising the professional marketplace. In the beginning, I had to recommend jury-rigged systems with huge audio interfaces that had multiple microphone preamps, various digital inputs and outputs, and inputs/outputs that most audiophiles have never used. (Got any balanced TRS 1/4” cables in your storage box?)

In asking readers to look at pro gear, I also ended up recommending speakers that most audiophiles conceptually disregard from the get-go, but that most studios rely on almost exclusively for their monitors: powered loudspeakers. Gearheads gasped in horror at the mere thought of allowing someone else to pick their amplifier, let alone hide it where no one could see it. And when monitor makers began putting DSP architecture in their boxes, well, that was another nail in the coffin.

And though it may be hard to remember the dark days of 2008-2010, there was a big thing about keeping a signal pure. Analog signals can’t be digital, nor can they be touched by anything digital or digital-like at any time during their trip from your playback platform to your speakers, for fear of their virginal analog sound being digitally deflowered.

To summarize, consumers believe that professionals:

1) load up their electronics with unnecessary items that muddy the sound and overcomplicate the operation;
2) ruin their speakers by adding amplifiers, which means that you can’t swap out amps as new and better ones hit the market, you can’t buy the best new interconnects and power cords; in some cases they add DSP and even DACs, along with the associated interconnects and digital links; in short, the audiophile loses as many as two dozen expensive choices;
3) don’t care about keeping their virginal analog signals chaste, and that only consumer audiophiles do; and that professionals
4) don’t hear very well.

The professional market had a more direct working definition of an ideal signal. They want to know if it sounds good. I have no idea where the notion got started that professional musicians and sound people don’t hear very well, but it’s complete crapola. Some of the most acute listeners I’ve ever met are musicians.

Bridge School

For his solo concerts, Neil Young sells high-priced seats whose buyers are allowed to meet the man, get his autograph, and receive a small bag of Young-related goodies. The money goes to the Bridge School, a nonprofit institution in Hillsborough, California, for children with severe speech and physical impairments, founded by Young’s ex-wife, Pegi Young. After the show, you’re herded backstage, where Young’s übermanager, Elliot Roberts, instructs you to stay where you are and don’t rush toward Neil -- just let him approach you. OK, we understood him not wanting the Beatles treatment. He spent 30 seconds to a minute with each person, most of whom told him a story about how they’d seen him at some stadium 20 years before. My wife and I chatted with each other until he came up to us. I wanted to talk about high fidelity recording and playback, and it seems he did, too -- he had some very specific ideas, and spent an unusually long time with us. This was before PonoMusic and the PonoPlayer, but during the time he was working on his Archives series of releases. At the time, he was considering putting out the entire series on Blu-ray. Our chat left me in no doubt that Young cares deeply about the most subtle aspects of recorded sound.

Another example comes from the classical world. Conductor and pianist Andrew Litton has a wide repertoire, but is considered a master of large-scale music of the Romantic period. His performances of Rachmaninoff and Walton are considered near-definitive, while listeners who’ve attended his performances of Mahler symphonies, especially the Second and Third, have experienced some of the most muscular, heart-on-sleeve interpretations ever heard. But deep in his heart, what he loves more than anything is the music of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007). After Litton had recorded for such labels as London/Decca, Telarc, EMI, Virgin, RCA, CBS, Delos, Dorian, Hyperion, and Deutsche Grammophon, the Swedish label BIS finally greenlit a project that would allow Litton to record himself playing transcriptions of some of his favorite performances by Peterson. Litton searched for the perfect venue, and decided on Potton Hall, in Suffolk, England, in cold November. He had a Bösendorfer Imperial grand shipped over (“Oscar really liked Bösendorfers”), had good-quality microphone preamps and ADCs from RME installed, along with top-of-the-line mikes from Neumann. For monitoring, they used Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 802s -- the same speakers Litton uses everywhere. If you’ve never heard Litton as a performer, take a listen to his Rachmaninoff on Hyperion or Decca, and you’ll hear that sound is very important to Litton and his team.

A Tribute to Oscar Peterson

Here’s the real kicker. When I got my copy of Litton’s A Tribute to Oscar Peterson (SACD/CD, BIS-2034), I played the first cut, Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Lulu’s Back in Town,” into the SoundHound app on my iPhone, and it told me that it was Oscar Peterson himself playing the tune, from his 1968 album My Favorite Instrument (Exclusively for My Friends, Vol. IV) (CD, Verve 821843-2). Try fooling the computer -- err, iPhone -- like that some time. It’s nearly impossible. Litton worked his tail off for months, if not years, to perfect his dedication to Oscar Peterson. Litton’s conscientiousness bordered on obsessiveness. Just acquiring the transcriptions, whether borrowed or banged out on his own, demonstrates an amazing attention to the most subtle piano sounds. Litton describes Peterson’s style: “the amazing colors and voicing, the feathering of the sustain pedal (only Horowitz had such an astonishing pedal technique!), the achingly beautiful original harmonies and the total command of the instrument. This explains why Oscar has proved to be so popular with classical musicians. He did things daily at the piano while spontaneously improvising that the rest of us spend a lifetime trying to achieve.”

Those are just two examples of musicians who really do care about and understand sound, and there are many more. One of the reasons for that is because, when listening to reproduced music, most musicians focus on the instrument that they themselves play. Ask Eric Johnson if he can tell you whether the neck pickup on a Telecaster is a hum bucker or a single coil, and he can probably identify which is which 100% of the time. Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers has incredible ears, and can identify remarkable subtleties in the violin. Just take one of her Stradivari violins and let someone play a spicatto on a pernambuco bow or a carbon fiber bow, and she’ll know it right away. I could write a whole book full of examples of musicians with incredible ears who hear subtleties that fly past most of us. Every city in North America has hundreds of examples. Readers in cities with large music-performing traditions -- e.g., London, Tokyo, Vienna -- might have thousands.

If I asked you to search out to a friend or a friend’s friend who’s a performer, and ask that person to listen with you to all sorts of equipment reproducing that person’s instrument, then allow him or her to select which is most accurate, without any feedback from you or the salespeople, would your first reaction to that musician’s choice be that musicians know nothing about good sound?

Sadly, people in the pro-audio world seem to suffer from a Bizarro World version of the problem facing consumers. Professionals believe that “Consumers don’t like accurate sound. No matter how much we protest, they vote with their wallets for music that’s been compressed until it has next to zero dynamic range. And frequency response? Forget anything close to natural. If we try to put out a recording with flat response, no one will buy it. We have to jack up the midbass, scoop out the upper mids, and kick the uppers. And then, consumers listen to lossily compressed MP3s on their smartphones through crappy-sounding earbuds. Can they actually hear the difference between buds on iPhones? It makes artists and tracking, mixing, and mastering engineers wonder if it’s worth the effort to make a decent sounding piece of music. And that’s before even contemplating the fact that the music will then go up on YouTube or SoundCloud with a take-home payment to artist, producers, et al., of a net-zero dollars.”

Nonetheless, manufacturers of both consumer and pro gear are eager to develop new market share. Professional equipment makers are licking their chops at the ginormous consumer marketplace. Consumer manufacturers love the potential boot in perceived reputation over seeing their products in major recording studios; e.g., Bowers & Wilkins monitor speakers in EMI’s Abbey Road Studios.

Unfortunately, if these manufacturers think cynically of their customers, the whole thing becomes a chain reaction in which the hardware makers and consumers end up operating from each other’s worst impressions of the other. The pros think consumers can’t stand a flat frequency response, so they take a pro monitor, and suck out the midrange, or drop the highs, or bloat the midbass. Consumers see that a speaker is a professional monitor and automatically prejudge it as sounding too bright. Makers of pro electronics aim for either multiple items in one box -- ADC, DAC, clock, multiple preamps, high-quality independent headphone circuits, USB ports, analog connections, and many more -- or stacks of separate components. Consumer electronics should doggedly stick to the idea that balanced ins and outs are unnecessary; if you absolutely must, just put an XLR plug around back, never mind that it’s wired single-ended. And as for jitter, what’s that? You can’t hear it, can you? Why do those pro companies spend all that money on connections?

Prism takes the high road

I think it speaks well for the future of high-end audio that as of late most professional companies demonstrate a more optimistic outlook on the consumer. Also, there are several writers out there -- I proudly count myself as one -- who are trying to figure out how to use what’s good about the way music is being consumed by taking the best of what the professionals have and consumers want. This has helped push the movement toward getting pro gear into the hands of consumers.

While I can’t take any credit for it, in the last few years a good number of my fellow Internet writers have come around to the idea. Suddenly, there are abundant reviews of speakers made by such companies as ATC, PMC, and Genelec. Electronics manufacturers who made ADCs, DACs, clocks, preamps, and digital connectors are now creating similar devices for the home. Antelope, Focusrite, Lavry, Lynx, MOTU, RME, and Universal are some of the top hardware makers who are now getting involved in the consumer marketplace.

Prism Callia

One of the finest companies making the move into the consumer market is Prism. Their primary entry, the Callia, is a DAC-preamp-headphone amp ($2750). Prism has excelled in each of those component categories. They also make the Prism Sound ADA-8XR ADC, and the Sadie system used to remaster the Led Zeppelin and RCA Living Stereo catalogs. In fact, Prism gear is likely to be found in any major recording studio anywhere in the world. Prism intelligently forgoes items from Dream and Atlas, their world-class lines of recording-studio gear, and their snap sharp project-studio Lyra, that would just be in the way of the normal home listener. Instead, the Callia offers everything anyone would need to add to some good-quality balanced cables, a pair of powered speakers, a good (short) USB cable, and a laptop computer, to create a wonderful digital listening system.

Setup and sound

One legitimate beef that consumers have with pro gear is in setup. Professional sound engineers should be able to figure out how to install anything a manufacturer throws at them, but I can’t count the hours I’ve spent trying to figure out how to make a piece of recording gear work as a piece of listening gear. Thankfully, Prism has made this process dead simple. The only place you’ll need a bit of knowledge is in setting up the headphones, but that’s a good thing. Prism cares enough about great headphone sound that they make it possible for you to set the sensitivity and impedance via DIP switches on the Callia’s rear panel. The Callia works perfectly with headphones whose impedance falls below 32 ohms. Given the fact that my preferred headphone models, Oppo Digital’s PM-1 and Oppo PM-3, have respective impedances of 32 and 26 ohms, this setting worked ideally. The Callia’s headphone amplifier was the best sounding I’ve heard since Oppo’s own HA-1.

The ear-opener for me was using the PM-1s to listen to Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4 (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Inteam), a work I’ve listened to hundreds of times over the years, through so many different headphones I’ve lost count. But it wasn’t until this combination that I really understood how much of the music was Göttsching playing his Gibson SG electric guitar, not a synthesizer. The leading-edge transients were razor sharp and unfailingly musical. The other enlightening music was Seckou Keita’s 22 Strings (16/44.1 FLAC, Naxos) -- in this very transparent recording, I could clearly hear the flesh of his fingers and his nails striking the strings.

Prism Callia

I also tried the Callia with ATC’s SCM19 speakers ($4299/pair) driven by ATC’s P1 power amplifier ($4200) -- a combination of consumer offerings from two professional companies. It was an ideal coupling, though the ATCs, at a total cost of $8499, were probably a bit expensive for the $2595 Callia. ATC’s powered SCM20ASLs might make more sense at $4990/pair, or perhaps Dynaudio’s BM 6As ($2098/pair) -- or my own speakers, Focal’s Solo6 Be minimonitors ($2700/pair).

Note that if I’m using electronics that, like the Prism Callia, are truly balanced -- that is, not single-ended with an XLR socket, like way too many consumer devices that are trying to look pro -- I always use balanced cables, and recommend that you do, too. If you’ve invested big bucks in unbalanced cables and want to keep using them, keep them as short as possible, and make sure that their makers took as much care in choosing or making their terminations as they did in making the conductors and marketing the results. It’s always a difficult thing to admit that you may have been taken in by an advertising campaign, but any time you see a $1000 cable that appears to be assembled from $5 parts, what you probably really have is a $5 cable. The most common villain is the inflexible cable that feels like a stiff tube attached to an inexpensive connector, advertised by gorgeous women who are claimed to be Swedish maidens who hand-roll the braided shields on their virginal thighs. Skip all that and go for something made by a company with some history behind it, or buy a historically dependable cable like Mogami or Canare Star Quad (>$1/foot), and four Neutrik XX connectors (two male, two female), and roll your own. True, I’ve been called cheap. Perhaps the best way to describe my wiring strategy was the whiskey master in Edinburgh who said that while I most assuredly had deep pockets, I also most assuredly had very short arms.

Prism Callia

It takes a while to hear and understand the sound of a good digital clock, and some of us will never hear it. But the founders of Prism have been all over this issue since the beginning of their company. Here’s what they wrote in the early 1990s, when hardly anyone was paying attention to the ugly new concept of jitter:

The fact that so many professional listeners are hearing disc-dependent differences with jitter-rejecting external DACs is especially interesting. If this can be reliably confirmed, there is almost certainly a flaw in our understanding of the limits of perception. The only obvious cause would be that low frequency interface clock jitter related to the player’s servos (although no sign of this has been discovered in tests so far), somehow passes through to the external DAC and manifests itself as sampling jitter. Sampling jitter at frequencies which would survive the rejection of a good-quality external DAC should be comfortably inaudible according to current masking theory. Perhaps a new audibility mechanism awaits discovery.

Callia’s CleverClox hybrid digital phase-locked loop (DPLL) circuitry is a carryover from its professional line. The good news is that the areas of the sound in which you’d hope to hear positive results -- the precision of the high frequencies, the lack of distortion in upper transients, and open soundstaging -- are all present and accounted for. Some of the best recordings in the Tidal Masters collection have been a real joy to listen to through the Callia. In the Doors’ “Break On Through (To the Other Side),” the dead silence from which the drums and electric piano emerge took me back to the first time I dropped the needle on that record, in January 1967, with absolutely no idea of what was to come. Or check one of the myriad recordings with top-notch drummers who’ve been recorded with care, such as Mick Fleetwood in Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, or Harvey Mason in George Benson’s Breezin’.

Ditto for small-scale acoustic albums: Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Iron and Wine’s Ghost on Ghost, the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. The Callia’s clean, clear sound let me hear deeply into these soundstages in a way that was both critically enlightening and unfailingly pleasing. Larger-scale recordings, such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Beth Orton’s Kidsticks, and Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow also demonstrated the Callia’s silky, luxurious sound, married to its ability to expose the most minute details.

Prism Callia

So Prism is one of the good guys. Despite trying to balance the very different needs of sound professionals and home users, they haven’t dumbed down anything or played to anyone’s weaknesses. Most important, they haven’t underestimated the smarts or the needs of either group. The Callia brings everything from the pro side that could be useful and nothing that isn’t needed. The result is a wonderful-sounding component that gives consumers the chance to enjoy the best of Prism’s extensive professional R&D.

One last thing: If you’re interested in music and what makes it work, you might want to grab something like Prism’s Titan ($3995), with microphone preamps and ultraquiet ADCs. Add a pair of affordable, all-purpose mikes -- say, Shure SM57s or SM58s (both $89) or Audio-Technica AT2020s ($99) -- that can be pressed into service as a stereo pair with any kind of instrument. Add a computer and a free program like Audacity, and you can begin to learn how to make your own recordings. It will give you a fascinating glimpse into the art of the audio engineer.

. . . Wes Marshall