ONLINE - ISSUE 14
A TREND? IN THE HIGH END?
After attending the New York Home Entertainment Show in May, I thought I'd sensed something was up. The game was afoot, as Holmes liked to say to Watson. Some important game, like when one of those Rand Corporation policy wonks thinks he's spotted a pre-revolutionary situation in a third world country. While the Audio establishment was sleepwalking through its various duties, an insurgency had been building right before their very ears. Some people were on to it, and maybe even had written about it, but I wasn't plugged in to seeing an audio upheaval as a revolution. I hadn't taken a poll, but it seemed an industry-wide effort was beginning; an attempt to return to what was best about analog (glowing tubes, big warm sound coming from big warm speakers), was building. It was like an epiphany for me. It was as if the audio genie, who looked suspiciously like the Goetz Alpha-Core model, had whispered in my ear, "A growing number of manufacturers are trying to re-capture what we've come to call ‘The Golden Age of Hi-Fi.'"
How could I have missed a budding revolution? All the signs were there. Stereophile (Aug. 2004, p. 21) was featuring banners that read: "We were impressed by how good an ancient Leak 20 [tubed] amplifier could sound." The Absolute Sound (June-July 2004, p. 104) waxed rhapsodically about the latest Sonus Faber speaker, (another $40K speaker pair that features ring-radiator tweeters), using words like "voluptuous," "sumptuous," and "plum-colored," with "buttery smoothness" that "does not obscure the flaws of lesser recordings so much as make them more livable and listenable." All the signs were there, and they all pointed toward the past.
A recent owner's manual was explicit enough to say: "The ancient Chinese described the most cultured of homes as having ‘the scent of books.' What more can we say of our Golden Age of Hi-Fi in the Fifties and Sixties, when the finest technologies were brought together to make the finest recordings except that it had ‘the scent of music?' ... To keep these traditions alive, today's audio engineers are once again creating a Golden Age for discerning listeners. Today we can put together a satisfying home system capable of delivering all the diverse music we love—the delicacy and power of the Vienna Grosser Musikvereinsaal, the passionate blues of the old Apollo Theater; the intimacy and excitement of the Village Gate and other great Golden Age jazz cafés." This description was not from the folks at Marantz, (as you'll see elsewhere in this issue it might have been), but from the folks at Monster. As the notorious letterist, Wanda Tinasky, once wrote: "For some people you can't be too obvious."
In some recent recordings, and in some recent gear—from quality headphones to the most elite electronics and speakers—I have noticed recent changes in emphasis of sound quality. My reviewing duties have kept me abreast of the developments in recently released CDs; enough so that even though the mind of man tends to see patterns where often-times none exists, I am fairly certain that some CD manufacturers have had success with the more "natural" (as opposed to "analytical") SACD stereo/multi-channel sound (Telarc with Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet; Decca with Puccini's La Bohème); and, as imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, other CD producers have followed suit (DG with Hilary Hahn playing Bach's Violin Concertos; Capitol with Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon).
In the PCM world The software quantum leaped from 44/16 sampling to 96/24. (In case you've forgotten, that's 96 kHz sampling rate, at 24-bit data word length.) In one audio friend's basement I saw how the old (44/16) sampling scheme looked on an oscilloscope; the sine wave was broken up into little stair case steps resembling a table saw blade. He then put on some test CD featuring the new DVD-A sampling scheme (96/24) and showed me how that looked on the scope. Looking back, it must have been in PCM system, but at the same scale the stair case steps were much smaller, and the sine wave was a lot smoother. When I considered Sony's DSD system used a sampling rate of 2.8224 mHz, 1-bit Delta-Sigma modulation, I figured the sine wave should get even smoother. One can infer why the best of the new SACDs (and regular CDs) sound as good as they do when played through the newer SACD players, or the outboard up-sampling DACs.
I figure one major factor in audio's new wave is the new software. SACDs offer the best of analog without the incremental destruction of the data storage medium (LPs) with each play. Moreover, SACD Surround Sound, with 5.1 channels all using full-range uncompressed signal, corrects for room anomalies that bedevil straight-up stereo. In other words, the software is better (smoother, yet more detailed, more dynamic) than ever, and the multi-channel soundfield is better (defining the soundstage, rather than leaving it to highly variable room dimensions) than all but the best stereo systems in dedicated rooms. In this era of staying home and cocooning, or entertaining others at home, the new multi-channel systems match our life-style.
I'm sure there are audiophiles who believe that stereo is sacrosanct. One of my uncles felt that way about standard transmission cars. He drove a stick-shift Ford sedan into the sixties. When, in the middle sixties, his dealer told him automatic transmission was standard, and to have a stick-shift transmission would cost him significantly extra, he relented. LPs are fine sounding when new, but there is no denying they are eaten up by the tone-arm/cartridge with use over time, as when a paperback book, after being read a few times, starts to loosen up and shed its pages. And, also, there is listening through all the clicks and pops. CDs are ergonomically better. And the latest generation of SACDs sound better than red-book CDs. Way better, and, ironically, more like LPs.
I'm not sure if the loudspeaker manufacturers have followed the CD labels, or if they, in their wisdom, decided the introduction of some cheap, bad, Home Theater rigs led to the inevitable conclusion that five mini-monitor speakers blaring out enough treble energy to peel the wallpaper was not an end much to be desired. But it seems a measurable fact that speaker makers, too, have toned down their treble range, at more or less all the price points. Or, it all could be just a coincidence that there has been a pair of recent advances in tweeter manufacture (the Vifa ring radiator, and the Focal beryllium tweeters) that have forced the rest of the speaker makers to clean up their highs. Which? Coincidence or cabal?
In an industry where "Monkey hear, monkey do!" seems the rule, the electronics manufacturers, perhaps sensing this "trend," or perhaps mimicking the most expensive and widely acclaimed of the latest electronics, which (for one reason or the other) have toned down the "analytical sound" a click or two, many manufacturers are predictably following the leaders. I cite as examples only some of those known directly to me: the Shure E5c in-ear headphones; the Monster Sigma Retro interconnects and speaker cables; the Tetra 505LTD and Epiphany 12-12 loudspeakers; the Halcro dm 58 amplifier and dm 10 preamp; and the new Marantz MA-9 Amp, SC-7 Preamp, and SC-14 CD-player combination. Each leans toward the sound of the Golden Age. In my mind's ear I can hear the sound of yesteryear: the mighty horse, the masked rider of the plains, the cloud of dust, and the glorious cry, "Hiyo, Silver! Away!"
The Marantz gear is of particular interest to me because if they can produce high-end audiophile-quality sound using off-shore manufacturing facilities two things might happen: 1) the rest of the Marantz product line would benefit from the production techniques they are employing in these flagship pieces, hence many of the large mid-fi lines would improve by mimicking Marantz, which would give credence to a claim of industry leadership; and 2) Marantz would have raised the bar of performance/price ratio that would close the gap between mass-produced products and boutique-produced small-production-run products more typical of the high-end. Needless to say, I didn't have that in mind when I convinced Marantz's Kevin "Z-man" Zarow (winner of the coveted "Dude of the Year" award) that I was the man to review these products. I thought, "Cool! Marantz has some new gear coming out that looks like the old days." But having them around while I was hearing a whole show full of new gear opened my ears. Was I in for a pleasant surprise!
If you grew up in a household with a stereo system that featured Marantz tube electronics, I have a pleasant surprise for you, too. These new transistorized designs from Marantz have arrived at my little beach shack on the shore of the Chesapeake, and indeed they have recaptured—well, considerably—the suave old tube sound that we remember from the "Golden Age of Hi-Fi." At the May 2004 Home Entertainment Show in N.Y., my ears were sharpened when I was surprised by how often the priciest systems sounded like that suave old tube sound we remember so fondly–warmly emotional instead of coldly analytical–a sound that I value and towards which portions of the industry are turning. These pieces may sound more like tubes, but they employ many solid state engineering tricks likely to make them near maintenance-free and bullet proof. They sound special in a way you can understand if you grew up on such tube products, and even if you didn't.
In this most recent of periodic swings in audio taste, which like hemlines go up and down every so many years, everyone now seems to be aiming at more "natural" sound; less emphasis on splashy treble, more on liquid midrange, warmer and less electro-mechanical (disco) bass, and the consequent sound-stage improvements. It seems we are in another pendular (J-10's word) swing away from the super detailed to the more musical. It reminds me of the schism during the ‘50s and ‘60s between the smooth New England (Bozak) sound, and the ultra-detailed West Coast (J.B. Lansing) sound.
The electronics manufacturers at some point decided to eliminate old fashioned tone controls. They were awkward, and the control they offered was crude in comparison with parametric equalizers that, say, Rives now produces. So to guarantee a kind of "flat frequency response" industry-wide, which coincidentally was a way of cutting costs, they were eliminated. This left the after-market cable guys an opening, and they didn't hesitate. Cable manufacturers popped up like mushrooms. Some, like Monster, led the field and soon had large production and engineering capability that led them into other activities. Others, like Cardas and Kimber, offered a range of products that subtly equalized the sound. The most highly prized, and priced, cables made the early generation CDs, with their various peaks and other anomalous imperfections, sound passable.
Today, all sorts of measurable EQ possibilities manifest themselves in cables. I used to think all cables should strive to be as "flat" as possible. Now I see that the audio community has tacitly agreed to wink at that pretense, reasoning since every component (resistor, capacitor) colors the sound, why shouldn't the cables do the same? Why shouldn't they be welcome—especially if the consumer has a room that is overly bright, or overly damped? Why not use cables to correct for this? In Ankara, Turkey, a company named Silver-Fi is working on terrific sounding, custom-made, all-silver cables aimed to correct room problems. The final results aren't in yet. But you'll be hearing more about Silver-Fi soon.
With recent developments in capital "H" High, capital "T" Technology, the latest high sampling rate SACD-audio stereo/multi-channel software, recent developments in SACD playback hardware, recent improvements in tweeter technology, a growing number of developments in amps and preamps, and even supporting developments in cables, all seem to be nudging and pushing the industry toward a new Golden Age that might be characterized as having a more natural, sweeter sound. I, for one, welcome it. I'm lovin' it.
I recently received a review copy of the SACD Shostakovich Symphonies 5 & 9 (Philips, Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra). I rolled my Aeron listening chair into the sweet spot, cranked up the volume, and let ‘er rip. My surround sound system was up to the task. Soon I felt a tingle in the back of my neck, and shortly, shivers started down my spine. They didn't stop ‘til my calf muscles were tingling and twitching. I was reminded of the film, Field of Dreams, when the "Shoeless" Joe Jackson character asks Kevin Costner's character, "Where are we? Is this heaven?"
"No," I thought silently, "this is only Baltimore, Queen City of the Patapsco River Drainage System. It might be as close as any of us sinners will get."
I say, "Welcome! Welcome, New Golden Age."