The case for MP3
June 30, 2003
How about an editorial on the case for MP3? I listen with Musicmatch and a plug-in called DFX. If you turn off the ambience and 3D effects, these make MP3 sound much better than a portable player if you play it through a high-end system.
Paradigm Active/40 and Mapleshade stands
June 25, 2003
To Doug Schneider,
I bought the phenomenal Paradigm Active/40 speakers you liked so much a while back and now have an Active home theater (three Active/40s, two Active/20s, two Active/ADPs).
I recently bought three Mapleshade Bedrock speaker stands that place the front three speakers about six inches from the ground. This has totally upgraded these already awesome speakers. There is such a wide margin of difference it is hard to believe. Please check them out for a potential future review. They are on the Mapleshade website.
June 20, 2003
To Doug Schneider,
I'm in the market for very-high-quality real-wood-veneer bookshelf speakers in the $1000 price range, and I discovered the Von Schweikert VR-1 speakers though the Internet. Their look and finish caught my eye.
After reading your great review, I'm wondering if all the techno buzzwords are more hype than signs of actual quality. I'm wondering if it's similar to the hype and "quality" of the Bose Wave Radio -- all marketing. I was also very disappointed to learn that these speakers are built in China! I always wondered if a speaker's marketing team convinces the reviewer to "talk up" their products for future favors and such.
What are you honest thoughts on the sound and build quality of these speakers?
I have had no experience with a Bose Wave Radio, so I can't really compare anything here, but I can tell you this: As I pointed out in my review, Von Schweikert Audio uses quite a lot of "superlatives" in their marketing literature, but if you look into loudspeaker technology closely and read what VSA has to say about its products, most of what the company is doing is rooted in pretty common loudspeaker-design practices. In fact, Albert told me personally that most of the design methodology he employs is based on Floyd Toole's research at Canada's National Research Council in the '80s. Check out the VR-1's measurements and you'll see how. In the end, though, what it all comes down to is how the speaker performs. I have no idea where the VR-1 is built, but I was impressed with the quality and attention to detail. As for the sound, I found it to be excellent, as the review states. Did the VSA "marketing team" ever contact me? Nope....Doug Schneider
June 18, 2003
I have been a regular visitor of your site and its sister sites and have found it to be the best resource for audio information on the Web. Given recent editorials on the evolution of digital audio, including your current article on "The Case for CD," I thought I'd ask you a question that is regularly curb-sided.
I have come to my own conclusions as to which format is superior if the equipment quality is generally equivalent. Equivalence, however, can be tough to manage. While I favor SACD generally, most players that play SACD do at least triple duty, also playing DVD and CD. Universal players spin even more tops. I have found that to do each of these well, the player has to cost some serious money. To my ears, no multi-format player in the same price range as a dedicated CD player can touch the CD player's Redbook performance. Most reviews I read on SACD/DVD-A players give much attention to the performance with CD, something I'm not really interested in given my above conclusions.
What I would like to know is whether a budget or mid-priced universal player playing a new high-resolution format can better what I hear from Redbook CD on my system (Cary CD-308, PS Audio PCA-2, Bryston 3B SST, Soliloquy 5.3s). Furthermore, I hear substantial differences in sound quality among CD players at different price levels. Do you hear equivalent differences among SACD/DVD-A players when playing their respective media as price increases?
Thank you for your time and keep up the great work on a remarkable website.
Right now, multi-format players are in their infancy, so making comparisons is difficult because there are so many more CD-only players available and the format is mature. However, the Esoteric DV-50 player that I recently reviewed does offer CD playback that's the equal of the very good Bel Canto DAC2, which we named a Reviewers' Choice. Can this player equal the best CD playback available? Not quite to my ears, but the differences are very close and in some cases will be more a matter of taste than absolute betterment.
As for differences among SACD/DVD-A players, I think we're all just now getting used to the two formats, which offer improvement over CD, so we're focusing on how much better the sound is over what we are used to rather than on how the players differ from each other. I suspect you'll see more discussion of differences as more players appear and SACD as well as DVD-A become mainstream. I know I'll be making comparisons to the Esoteric DV-50 in any future reviews of universal players....Marc Mickelson
Thanks for SLAPPA
June 17, 2003
This month I read Greg Kong's column on the SLAPPA CD and DVD cases. "Hey, performance and convenience -- for sale!"
To be honest with you, when I first saw that you guys published an article on this product, I thought you were either lost at sea or in cahoots with the manufacturer. However, as I read the piece, I did recognize a few of the things that Greg pointed out as being similar to (if not exactly the same as) what I was experiencing. My disc collection continues to grow, and the experience I have had with Case Logic and CD Projects products was enough to turn me away from using cases.
So being that Greg hit a nerve or two and the fact that he liked the products so much, I took a shot and ordered a few of these cases. I can tell you that Greg was right on the money with these SLAPPA cases. I really am impressed with the product quality, the product features, and the company's customer service.
It's funny how such an important topic as properly storing CDs is lost at the bottom of the pile when it comes to audiophilia. And I must confess, to me it was not something I had as priority #1. Over the past two years, I always poked around trying to find "very good" disc-storage cases, but I was turned off because the mass-market cases were either cheaply made or their makers obviously had not considered the needs of the audiophile.
I would like to thank SoundStage! and Greg Kong for pointing out this new product and new company. It's nice to see that you guys do consider all the ins and outs around our hobby and pay attention to the equipment, the music, and the accessories -- all of which complete the audiophile circle.
I like to support companies that build good products, and if you guys had not pointed out the SLAPPA products, I would never had known about them.
Thanks across the board!
Blind headphone review?
June 16, 2003
John Potis' January 2003 review of the Sennheiser HD 600 headphones provided an interesting window into the priorities of high-end audio reviewers. Potis went to heroic lengths to describe perceived differences between these headphones and the HD 580s, and to describe the expensive high-end components, musical sources, RF interference, headphone cables, interconnects, and even marginally different headphone factory tolerances that he thought might have influenced his perception of these subtle differences. But then he mentioned offhandedly that he used an extremely roughly used, first-generation pair of HD 580s. Specifically, his '580s were several years old and had experienced "countless encounters with my floor." Let me make sure I understood this correctly. One of the components in a two-way comparison was brand new, while the other was a first-generation model that had been dropped to the floor many times? The only fair conclusion is that sorely misused older headphones sound subtly different from brand new headphones. Is that a conclusion worthy of many thousands of dollars of equipment and several pages of text?
At least when new, these Sennheiser models are exceedingly similar, and in fact may be acoustically indistinguishable. They share identical drivers (to the best of my knowledge) and exceedingly similar frequency response curves. It's possible that the very subtle advantages some listeners hear in the '600s are entirely a matter of expectation. That's an empirical question, and you could have resolved it for your readers. Properly blinded loudspeaker tests are tough to design, but because the HD 580s and HD 600s feel identical on one's head, and because there can be no difference in how they interact with the acoustic environment, I think that a blindfolded comparison would have been extremely easy.
A. K. Solomon
While what you say is valid, we received the HD 600s from HeadRoom along with the Maxxed Out Home headphone amplifier that John mentioned, and therefore we didn't have a new pair of HD 580s on hand for comparison -- or an easy way to procure a pair. So we did the next best thing -- an HD 580 owner reviewed the HD 600s. I've heard both pairs of 'phones, and I was happy with John's assessment -- "...the HD 600s are not quite a slam-dunk over the HD 580s" -- and rigor in his review....Marc Mickelson
Esoteric DV-50 availability
June 13, 2003
I found a dealer who will stock the Esoteric DV-50. It is Galen Carol Audio in San Antonio, TX (210-805-9927, www.gcaudio.com). I have dealt with Galen before, and I can recommend him without reservation. He is an excellent high-end dealer -- very responsive and honest, and he cares about his customers.
"Subjectivity and hyperbole in audio reviews"
June 11, 2003
The subjectivity and hyperbole in audio reviews are frustrating. It's amazing how often I've read a review on a particular item of audio equipment and come across some sort of statement about how similar this item is in quality compared to other items costing much more. This type of comparison is done often enough that it seems like there shouldn't be any audio equipment left to compare to in that same price bracket. Just once I'd like to come across a $1000 item that is only as good as a $500 item. It makes me wonder if the reviewer is trying to find the truth about the audio product's quality, or simply producing advertising for the company of the product being reviewed.
There are a lot of items in the audio world that don't even make sense to me. For instance, so much concern is made over cables (some costing thousands of dollars for a small length) when all the wiring and welds within a particular audio product are seemingly ignored. How could one cable with two connectors make any noticeable difference when connected between products that consist of dozens and dozens of wires and welds along that same signal path? It just doesn't make sense.
I was once in a listening room of Paradigm speakers consisting of about ten pairs ranging from the lowest Cinema speaker to the upper-mid-level Monitor 9. They were all connected to the same CD player via a switch that allowed me to instantly listen to any pair of speakers. I listened to several different types of classical music, including vocals, and was prepared (and expecting) to hear significant differences. I was shocked at how little the differences were. In fact, if I had to value the differences between speaker pairs, each better pair might receive a higher score of about 1 point on a total scale of about 50. What was most shocking was that when I switched between the Cinema and Monitor 9, I didn't hear the 10-point jump that logic would tell me, but rather more like about 3. This comparison opened my eyes (and ears) to the subtleties of the audio world.
What annoys me is that the reviews often use words like "shocking" and "drastic" to describe the differences between lesser and better products, giving the impression that color is being seen for the first time in a world of black and white. However, a Fisher-Price toy is not being compared to a high-end audio product. Why can't audio equipment be compared in a way that is much more scientific and objective? Why aren't actual measurements of the sound made? If our ears can hear a difference, then certainly a device can detect that difference and plot it out to prove it. Frequency-response graphs are made for speakers, so wouldn't this data also show the difference among audio products?
I wish that a reviewer was given a 10- or 20-second piece of music to use, not knowing what he was reviewing (players, cable, speaker). He would listen to the piece over and over again for about 20 sessions in order to evaluate it. Then he would listen to the same 10- or 20-second piece over again for another 20 sessions, not knowing what, if anything, had been changed. He would go through this procedure about ten times to test three or four products. Then another reviewer would be subjected to the same analysis. Ultimately, we would discover if there would be consistency in the reviews, especially when the reviewers don't know what audio equipment combination they are listening to. For example, you could review three CD players in random order for ten times so that some players might be played in repeated succession. Then the review would be valid because it would eliminate subjectivity and bias. You would then have a review that would produce the truth of the audio equipment's quality, and not what the company wants you to tell your audience. People buying audio equipment that was favorable by this review method would be able to have confidence that their money has made a good purchase, because most audio equipment cannot be properly auditioned.
You hit upon a number of issues, many of which I agree with. Measurements DO tell a story about audio equipment, but with speakers especially, in-room use is also revealing. In terms of price, there certainly are diminishing returns -- as you spend more, the differences become more and more slight. You can probably get 70% of ultimate performance for 25% of ultimate cost.
Your ideas on how to review equipment are interesting, but I for one would hate the tedium enough to quit reviewing. After all, this stuff IS about music, which is art, not about scientific method. I understand your reasons for proposing such a system, however. There are a good many poor audio reviewers, so there's little to no group context for audio reviews these days, and their results don't travel....Marc Mickelson
Great cable tweak
June 9, 2003
I use a Musical Fidelity TriVista CD player as source, a VTL 7.5 as preamp, and a pair of VTL MB-450 monoblocks for my pure audio setup. I use a Krell HTS 7.1 preamp, a Krell HTS amp, a Sony DVP-NS999ES DVD player, and a Sony VCR for home theater with the Krell preamp in bypass mode for video (i.e., the L/R channels powered by the VTL monoblocks). All important cabling is by Synergistic Research, with power by a Richard Gray 400S.
As you can imagine, the back of my equipment racks is home to dust and a maze of inedible spaghetti. I thank you for your insight into the Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s; your ears have my deepest respect -- my own firsthand experience these past three weeks has consolidated that view.
But this letter is not about how great my WATT/Puppy 7s sound with the VTL MB-450 monoblocks and the VTL 7.5 (both are still breaking in) with the TriVista as a source. This letter is about the neatest cable organizer I have found in the past ten years -- it has liberated me from the cable mess most people live with.
My audio dealer in New York introduced me to Flexo Sleeving made by a company called Techflex (www.techflex.com). Simplicity is indeed genius. These are simple expandable nylon sleeves that come in multiple colors upon which you can write where the two ends of the wires go. This is the neatest tweak -- of course, I will not profess that throwing cables into these sleeves expands the soundstage or brings forth better bass definition in any way, but they sure get rid of spaghetti at the back of my 12 discrete components. I urge you to check out Flexo Sleeving.
More sub-$500 integrateds
June 6, 2003
My current system consists of Athena S2/P2 speakers, a JoLida JD 301A hybrid integrated amplifier, and a Sony DVP-NS900V SACD/DVD player. I am very surprised that the resolution of the Jolida/Athena combo is comparable to my trustworthy AKG K501 headphones driven by the headphone jack of the Sony. The K501s offer slightly better detail, which is not surprising because K501s are often said to be comparable to Sennheiser HD 580s or HD 600s in the audio spectrum above 60Hz. However, the JoLida/Athena combo provides a slightly warmer tonal balance that is more pleasant to my ears, mostly likely due to 12AX7 tubes in the preamp stage.
Since it is not too meaningful to compare the low bass of headphones against that of loudspeakers, I will leave out P2 subwoofers for my discussion. The strongest aspects of headphone reproduction are probably detail and tonal balance. Conventional wisdom tells us that we have to spend much more money on amp/speakers to match a good headphone setup in these areas. A combo like JoLida/Athena S2 ($350 and $375) has no right to match the resolution of AKG K501 ($250), because the price difference is merely threefold. This simply reflects the remarkable value of both the JoLida and the Athena products.
Of course, the SoundStage! gurus will not be surprised by the high quality:price ratio of the Athena S2/P2, which received your Exceptional Value award in Y2K. However, the JoLida JD 301A is a little gem that has yet to be reviewed by any audio press. I have noticed that in the past five years, the entire SoundStage! Network has only reviewed one integrated amplifier below $500 (Cambridge Audio D500). While Doug Schneider has fervently educated us all about over-achieving budget speakers, and SACD/DVD players are being sold for around $200, the biggest hurdle in the audiophile world appears to be inexpensive integrated amplifiers. I wish SoundStage! could delve into the niche of integrated amps below $500 a bit more in order to help bring more people into the joys of hearing good music through good equipment.
From my personal experience I suggest you give the JoLida JD 301A a chance. I never had the chance to perform A/B comparisons between the JoLida and other integrated amps, but my memory suggests to me it was slightly smoother than the Rotel RA-1060 ($699) driving Athena S2/P2s at my dealer. I would not be surprised if the JoLida JD 301A could compete with solid-state gear three times its price, because the quality of tubes for preamplification is a well-known fact. On the other hand, power amplification seems to affect sound quality less, if at all (I enjoyed the controversial article by Ian Masters). Nevertheless, the MOSFET power IC (LM1875) used in JoLida JD301 is not a poor choice by any means. It is also found in the 47 Labs Gaincard, a very high-end product.
The street price for JoLida JD 301A is around $300, and decent 12AX7 tube upgrades cost about $20. Furthermore, the sound can be further tailored to personal preferences by tube rolling. I would not be surprised if many budget-conscious burgeoning audiophiles find that this integrated amplifier is exactly what they are looking for.
I'll see what I can do about reviewing the JoLida JD 301A. We have reviewed more than just the Cambridge integrated amp in the sub-$500 range, however. I still get e-mail regarding reviews I wrote on the Arcam Alpha 1 and Onix A-60, and Greg Smith wrote about the AMC 3020. And our archives are a gold mine of reviews on integrated amps over $500....Marc Mickelson
Simaudio i-3 review?
June 5, 2003
To Doug Schneider,
Hi. Just finished reading your review on the interesting Mirage OMNI 60s. Of course, I'd seen advertisements for this speaker's bigger siblings, but I had yet to see any reviews. Your review was very informative and helped me get an idea how these speakers sound (and work).
I couldn't help but notice that the review amplifier was the Simaudio i-3. Any plans to review this piece? Just curious (I purchased one recently). Thanks for your time.
Indeed, the Simaudio i-3 is on the review schedule, hopefully for July....Doug Schneider
Great-sounding SACDs and DVD-As
June 4, 2003
I read your review of the Esoteric DV-50 with a great deal of interest as I have been waiting for this player to become available outside of Japan for more than six months. I bought a Marantz DV-8300 at the beginning of the year as I was unable to wait for the appearance of other players with the ability to play SACD and DVD-A software. My experience with it has been one of revelation as to the ability of the high-sampling-rate formats when done correctly.
I am listing some of those discs that I have found to be exemplary. Please note that none of them are from CBS/Sony, supposedly the masterminds of SACD, and in my opinion are releasing the worst-sounding SACDs.
Please note that all recommendations pertain to stereo auditioning only, and 24-bit/96kHz for DVD-As. I hope that you will find them useful in evaluating other equipment with regard to the 24-bit/96kHz formats, as not all of them are created equal.
*denotes European version of recording.
Getz/Gilberto [Verve SACD 589 595-2]*
The best SACD transfer I have heard, bar none. The closest thing to analog playback, and this comparison was done against the Mobile Fidelity Anadisq 200 vinyl reissue. Simply stunning!
Beethoven Piano Concerto #5 / Symphony #5 [Telarc SACD-60566]
One of the great Telarcs, with Rudolph Serkin, Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in an excellent grouping, playing in fine form on a recording of exceptional merit.
Modern Cool - Patricia Barber [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2003]
Patricia Barber's avante-garde jazz masterpiece in SACD from Mobile Fidelity creams every other 5" disc format of this album to date.
When I Look In Your Eyes - Diana Krall [Verve SACD 065 374-2]*
Certainly Diana Krall's most accomplished work, but the version without any trace of digital artifact, and a great degree of warmth in this format.
Foreigner 4 - Foreigner [Rhino) R9 74366]
An outstanding transfer to DVD-A; betters even any analog version that I have heard of this album.
Fragile - Yes [Rhino R9 78249]
Considering this comes from the early '70s, the sonics are somewhat of an accomplishment and certainly a welcome for fans of the "original" Yes.
Two Against Nature - Steely Dan [Giant 9 24719-9]
Steely Dan's first studio album in 20 years was celebrated as one of the first batch of DVD-As to be released with the sonics to match; reveals the state and capability of things to come with the high-sampling-rate formats.
Say You Will - Fleetwood Mac [Reprise 9362 48394-9]*
If you're a Fleetwood Mac fan, then this is the one for you. Considerably better-sounding than the limited-edition CD release. What a wonderful way to come back!
These are some of the representations of how good the high-sampling-rate formats are currently. I am certain that as time goes on, there will be some consistency as to the sonic quality accorded. As of now, there are enough "lemons" to keep us all biting our nails. Have fun.
June 2, 2003
Do I believe what I'm reading? Now I'm as big a Jayhawks fan as anybody, but your review of Rainy Day Music seems to imply that this recording actually has some sonic merit. I can't say that I agree with Ken Micallef on this one. To rate this disc as four out of five in terms of recording quality automatically renders your rating system as suspect.
At one point, prior to mixing and mastering, this recording may have had some acceptable qualities, but it sounds to these ears as another case of "overcooking." The whole thing sounds like a flat, compressed mess, and there is actually audible overload (distortion) on several tracks! I have played this CD on several systems, and have experienced the same results. I'm certain that if this recording were waveform analyzed, one would see limited dynamics and clipped waveforms. Unless my version is entirely different that yours, then I would urge you to rethink and re-rate this recording.
There is nothing more frustrating nowadays than a good band with good songs and bad sound. It doesn't have to be this way. I'm not sure where the fault lies -- with the music execs, the band, the producers, or the engineers -- but bad sound is becoming more and more prevalent in modern recordings. If one wishes to hear what the Jayhawks should sound like, then I would recommend listening to Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass, two fine albums with reasonable dynamic range and clarity.
I don't agree with notion of applying waveform analyses to the records I review, but upon revisiting Rainy Day Music, I admit that while the album is as clear as a bell and offers a big, breathy soundstage, sonically, it mixes ample amounts of hash with prime rib. Sibilance is evident from the first note, the electric guitars sound thin, and drums and bass, while extremely punchy and present, are not particularly warm (as I like them to be). In my review, I noted how the individual sound sources were well placed within the stereo spread, something producer Rick Rubin excels at. Another Rubin trait is close miking of voices and instruments, which, when coupled with his bare-bones recording approach, gives the music an immediacy that I find thrilling. That up-front quality is pure 1970s, far from the digital-mastering-board hi-jinx found in many contemporary recordings. Due to my exuberance over the album's music and direct presentation, I gave the album a four when a three would have been more appropriate, if considered from a purely sonic viewpoint. But just listen to "One Man's Problem." Sure it's peaking the meters, but when an artist sounds like he is singing live in my living room, I can live with some hash....Ken Micallef
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