There is something dreadfully wrong with the human ear. It can hear almost any note in the sound spectrum, but when taking in the many tones produced by a group of different instruments, if there isn’t a low tone, the sound is thin, wispy, lacking. Not many instrumental groupings, other than classical string quartets and bluegrass trios, survive very long without the low end: bass.
Long ago I took a class in the physics of music, and even the esteemed professor couldn’t really answer the mystery of our need for bass. "It just sounds better," he said. There was a time when rock’n’soul engineers mixed the sound of the double bass or bass guitar in with the bass drum. They knew they needed it, but had no idea what to do with it. It wasn’t until the emergence of such bass masters as James Jamerson, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, and Paul McCartney that bass was recognized as something other than an aural necessity. They and many others demonstrated that bass could deliver a contrapuntal line, a second harmony, or freeform modality. I play a Fender Jazz Special, and I love it. I’m not very good, but I hold John Patitucci, Rob Wasserman, John Entwistle, Jaco Pastorius, Duck Dunn, and a host of others in a special place in my heart. They’re bassists. They hold down the bottom. Subwoofers should seek them out and pay homage.
There are two basic approaches to bass. First, there’s the technical approach: what we do here, which deals with the hi-fi reproduction of bass, what works, what doesn’t -- what has become known as bass management. There’s another approach, though, which considers bass, especially the stand-up double or string bass and the electric bass guitar, as the apotheosis of modern rock and jazz. So when I approach a subwoofer qua subwoofer, I give equal weight to its technical qualities (i.e., why you’re reading this) and its ability to convey the emotional seat of the sounds I so love.
Bass management is as much art as science. What may measure optimally may alternately under- and overwhelm the listener. Crossover points are meticulously calibrated, only to boom at tender moments, then poop out as whole planets crumble. Then there’s the question of placement. There are aficionados of room corners and lovers of the open air, as well as those who prefer subwoofers to be placed behind a wall or between the floor joists. And after you’ve taken all that into consideration, there’s the room -- and no two rooms seem to behave the same. What murmurs politely in one venue blasts shamelessly in another. The science captures low-frequency signals and spins them into hefty woofers with dedicated power supplies. The art fiddles with subwoofer positions until the sub sounds as well as it’s going to -- in your room.
It probably goes without saying that Velodyne is, odds on, the first name conjured when one hears the word subwoofer, so rich is their history and so numerous their achievements. Among their considerable innovations are the small-footprint sealed-box sub; the high-powered, low-heat Energy Recovery System (ERS) class-D amplifier that claims a "green" 95% efficiency; and the room-bass correction that makes linear the sound in your room. In one sense, the Optimum series represents the culmination of Velodyne’s many innovations. Each sealed-box Optimum subwoofer has an ERS amp, occupies a dinky footprint, and uses software (a microphone is supplied) to automatically tailor the sub’s output to the room. Indeed, one could suggest that this auto-EQ approach, first developed for Velodyne’s SPL series in 2005, takes the dice roll out of room placement.
The Optimum-10 ($1199 USD) measures 13.5"H x 13"W x 15.2"D, weighs 43 pounds, and sports a 1200W ERS amplifier driving a 10" front-firing woofer with 3" dual-layer voice coil. The controls are simple. The front panel has a power button, a two-button volume control, an LED display that tells you what your output setting is, and the equalizer’s microphone input. The rear panel contains the master power switch, power-cable receptacle, low-pass crossover control, the second of three volume controls, line-level inputs and outputs, speaker-level inputs, and a switch that toggles between Active and Standby modes. The latter function lets you leave the subwoofer on all the time, but it doesn’t electronically engage until it detects an input signal. One line-level input is labeled LFE, for an A/V receiver’s subwoofer outputs. You can use the sub’s crossover filter, your receiver’s bass-management crossover, or both. This is an improvement over many powered subs, in which the sub’s own crossover is defeated by connecting the LFE and the amplifier’s subwoofer output. Finally, there’s an IR sensor input: If the Optimum-10 is placed where it’s difficult to use the remote, a third-party IR sensor can be connected. A 12V trigger can be engaged for ancillary equipment so fitted. The Optimum-10 comes in your choice of Gloss Black or Cherry veneer.
However, the business controls are on the Optimum-10’s remote control. Here is found another power switch, which turns the unit completely off. (The manual suggests that this control forces the unit into standby mode, but a quick check with Velodyne confirmed my experience: the remote’s power switch replicates the master power switch on the rear panel.) There are four phase settings: 0, 90, 180, and 270 degrees. Once you’ve set everything else up, you listen with each phase setting and choose the one that sounds best. A Mute button does exactly that. The Night switch limits the Optimum-10’s dynamic output power and is designed, as its name suggests, to lower the power output at night, when you might risk disturbing the neighbors. A Light button toggles the front panel’s LEDs on and off. The EQ button calibrates the onboard seven-band parametric equalizer (more on this in a bit). Finally, there are four EQ presets: Movies, Rock, Jazz, Games. Each of these alters the subsonic filter frequency, EQ frequency, EQ level, and volume differential to complement what you’re listening to. Only the Jazz setting alters only the subsonic filter without touching the equalization. The Optimum-10 is shielded from interfering with video displays.
Setup was a breeze. You plug the sub in. Connect the Subwoofer Out on the nifty Onkyo TX-NR808 receiver to the LFE input on the Optimum-10, and you’re in business. Well, almost. The magic in this puppy is the parametric equalizer. Velodyne supplies a dinky omnidirectional microphone, a dinky stand for it, and a 20’ cord to connect to the input on the front panel. You plug the mike in and locate it at the primary listening position. When you press the EQ button on the remote, the Optimum-10 generates 12 sweep tones; listening to these tones through the mike, the Velodyne’s software measures the effects that the room’s dimensions, walls, and furniture have on the sound, then programs the sub’s equalizer to account for them. Move the sub or the furniture, and all you have to do is plug the mike in and run the sweep tones again.
"Yeah, so what?" I hear you say. "An equalizer. Good audiophiles generally avoid equalizers." Well, friend, the proof is in the listening. Once you’ve set up the Optimum-10, you’ll hear bass as you’ve never heard it before.
I set the crossover at 80Hz on the Onkyo and disengaged the Velodyne’s crossover. After the Optimum-10 was installed but before doing any critical listening, I recalibrated my MartinLogan surround speakers.
I’ve had a lot of powered subs hooked up to my A/V rig. Each had its own characteristics: bone-rattling depth, sublime tonal accuracy, unimpaired loudness. All have done the job satisfactorily in one fashion or another, but none has done everything so very, very well as the Optimum-10.
In Enya’s Watermark (CD, Reprise 26774-2), deep synthesized bass is the order of the day. From the root punctuations of "Cursum Perficio" to the pedal rumblings of "Storms in Africa" to the Stygian bridge in "Orinoco Flow," this CD challenges not only a subwoofer’s ability to reach down and grab the notes, but to render them with distinct clarity. Set to Rock, the Optimum-10 did it all, note for note. Similarly, Jellyfish’s landmark Bellybutton (CD, Charisma 91400-2) is a minor miracle of modern engineering; Jack Joseph Puig somehow dialed in the precise amount of bass for each track. Jason Falker’s opening to "The Man I Used to Be" burrowed to just the right depth, and John Patitucci’s upright bass in "Bedspring Kiss" flowed so smoothly it inadvertently took over the track -- just like Rob Wasserman’s upright in "Night Train," from Bruce Cockburn’s The Charity of Night (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10366), an instrument of propulsive energy and grace. Don Dixon’s sublime bowed upright in the title track of Marti Jones’s Any Kind of Lie (CD, RCA 2040-2-R) precisely trembled through the Velodyne, just as his electric bass in "Second Choice" gently and firmly led each chorus to resolution. Dixon is a bassist, and it’s no mistake that the low end is prominent in any recording he produces.
Rob Wasserman’s performance in "Night Train" brought into stark relief the difference between MP3 recordings and bona-fide hi-fi. I first heard the song on Radio Paradise, and commented that I loved "the guy cookin’ on fretless." After hearing the CD, it was massively apparent that he was playing an acoustic double bass -- the sonic differences between the two instruments are obvious, but were not apparent on the MP3 over the radio, even through excellent PC speakers like my Audioengine A2s. Finally, I’ve never been much of a Bruce Cockburn fan (I know; don’t start), but The Charity of Night is a terrific album that I can’t recommend highly enough -- especially when its low end is reproduced by the Velodyne Optimum-10.
Now set to its Movies mode, the Optimum-10 took my DVDs to places they hadn’t been. A word about the function of deep bass in movie soundtracks: We all know and are all familiar with the thundering rumble of space cruisers (the Star Wars effect), massive explosions, and the sickening crunch of large machines with too many wheels. Generally, those kinds of rumbles are associated with some real image, action, or artifact on the screen -- but they barely scratch the surface of what the low end can do. The artful film-sound engineer will deploy bass to create atmosphere, to signal some meaning to the viewer, be it foreboding, dread, a portent of change, and so on. So uniquely refined was the Optimum-10’s sound that it gave me wonderful insight into the many duties of bass in a soundtrack.
Guillermo del Toro’s sublime Hellboy opens on a remote Scottish isle, where Der Führer’s Requisite Cast of Pure Evil (c.f. Raiders of the Lost Ark), aided by one Grigori Rasputin (it’s a comic book, fercryinoutloud), prepare to unleash some tentacled nasties, the Ogdru Jahad, on the planet. At one point a Klieg light is sucked into Rasputin’s cosmic vortex past the Jahad, flailing helplessly in its crystalline prison. What I heard was a marrow-curdling rumble -- not the sound of the Jahad so much as a portent of doom, a not-so-subtle warning that these übersquid weren’t to be trifled with. Bass can also enhance the illusion of very large spaces bounded by very large doors, gates, windows, what-have-you. In chapter 5 of Hellboy, Agent Myers’ descent into the FBI’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense was accented by deep, heavy, metallic clanks as trap doors shut and walkways magically appeared onscreen. Even the vault-like door to Hellboy’s apartment (chapter 6) punged dully as the tumblers laconically fell into place. It is the reverberant bass dialed into the soundtrack that give these illusions their depth and authenticity -- artifacts that the Optimum-10 rendered with conviction.
Alex Proyas’s flawed I, Robot, with its plot holes (how do Spooner and Calvin know where each other lives?) and ill-conceived characters (what exact purpose did Shia LaBeouf’s street urchin fill?), is nonetheless occasionally compelling sci-fi, if only for Will Smith’s screen presence and the loving care with which Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), the almost human NS5 robot, is drawn. This is one movie that uses atmospheric bass to marvelous effect. In chapter 14, the deep bass in Marco Beltrami’s background music signals danger as Smith’s Det. Del Spooner approaches Dr. Lanning’s mansion -- a portent of dread that is quickly fulfilled. Similarly, in chapter 31 every other downbeat in the score is heavily accented with bass, building the suspense as Spooner and Calvin approach the USR Building for the final showdown. The latter scene was noteworthy because, for the first time -- and I know this movie’s sound pretty well -- I could hear timpani mixed in with something else harsh and uncompromising, the two and maybe more sounds instilling in me an edge-of-the-seat anticipation. I’m not sure I’d heard the timpani before. And in genuine action scenes -- the rolling out of the NS5s (chapter 16), their attack on Spooner (chapter 18), the fierce rumbling of the USR trucks, the crash of Spooner’s Audi (product placement at its finest) -- the LF effects boomed prodigiously, such was the bass power created by the Velodyne Optimum-10.
There is no such thing as the perfect speaker, and that more than likely applies doubly to subwoofers -- too much can go wrong. However, the combination of an inky-dinky footprint, an overabundance of power, a modest driver, and its room-correction equalizer makes the Optimum-10 as close to perfect a subwoofer as I’ve heard. Musical bass was musical; atmospheric effects were stratospheric; and plain ol’ Hollywood CRASH! BAM! KA-BOOM! action hijinks were rendered with joy and abandon. Indeed, this is one subwoofer that stood out because of what it didn’t do: The Optimum-10 never once exhibited any bloat, fuzzy rendering, or aural flatulence. If there were standing waves bouncing about my A/V room, they were barely noticeable. What the Optimum-10 delivered was honest, bona-fide bass: clear, crisp, and clean, with no sense of strain or needless rattling.
I will return the Optimum-10 to Velodyne with great reluctance. If there is a subwoofer out there that delivers the brand of honest sound that the Optimum-10 does, I want to hear it. But folks, I’m not sure it exists. The Optimum-10 is an outstanding audio product. Highly recommended.
. . . Kevin East
- Source -- Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player
- Receiver -- Onkyo TX-NR808
- Speakers -- MartinLogan Motion 4, 6, 10
- Display device -- Dell W4200HD
Velodyne Optimum-10 Subwoofer
Price: $1199 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor, electronics; five years, driver.
345 Digital Drive
Morgan Hill, CA 95037
Phone: (408) 465-2800
Paradigm manufactures all manner of loudspeakers, from traditional floorstanding and bookshelf designs for stereo and home-theater applications to in-wall, in-ceiling, and even outdoor models. One of their most recently launched lines is the Reference Millenia (the misspelling is deliberate), which combines the slim, pleasing appearance required of "lifestyle" products with the high performance associated with the Paradigm Reference name.
The latest model to be added to this line is the MilleniaOne. Designed to be used as one of a stereo pair or as any speaker in a multichannel system, the MilleniaOne is an ultracompact model that can be mounted on a wall, stand, or shelf. It costs $250 USD each and is available as a stereo pair or a set of five. A matching Millenia subwoofer, wireless and similar in design to the slim Paradigm Reference RVC-12SQ, with dual, vibration-canceling drivers, will be available late in 2010 for $1399. For this review, Paradigm sent along their Reference Seismic 110 sub ($1399).
The Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne is a diminutive 7.75"H x 4.5"W x 5.75"D, but it weighs a stout 5.6 pounds, or 6.6 pounds including the dedicated stand. Its shape is oval from the front, which gives it a softer, more rounded appearance than other Millenia models, which are quite angular. It uses the same 1" Satin-Anodized Pure-Aluminum (S-PAL) tweeter as the other Millenia models, and an all-new 4" S-PAL mid/woofer similar to that used in the step-up Studio line. The rock-solid enclosure of die-cast aluminum is said to act as a heatsink for the drivers to aid in cooling, and to permit larger, more powerful drivers than would normally be used in such a small speaker. Instead of being oriented at a right angle to the rear panel, the port extends the entire height of the enclosure, starting at the bottom and firing out near the top. This is claimed to extend bass response.
The spring-loaded speaker terminals, designed to accept bare wire of relatively light gauges, will not accommodate the large, audiophile-approved spades (or any spades) and banana plugs that I like to use. I ended up adding extensions to my existing speaker cables with some old AudioQuest F-14 wire I had lying around. On the plus side, even though the terminals are slightly recessed, a trough molded into the rear of the speaker makes it easy to guide the wires into place. The rear mounting plate is articulated so that it can be moved both horizontally and vertically, then tightened by hand. This plate can be replaced by a compact stand suitable for shelf placement. If the Ones are purchased as a five-speaker set, one of the stands is shorter and oriented horizontally, so that the One it supports can be used as a center-channel speaker. The One is available in décor-friendly Black Gloss or White Gloss finish, with matching, magnetically attached grille.
The Reference Seismic 110 subwoofer isn’t a Millenia model, but its unique appearance and small size will make it a "lifestyle" product in the eyes of most, and it’s similar in price to the forthcoming MilleniaSub. A short cylinder lying on its side, it measures only 13.75"W x 13.5"H x 12.6"D. Packed inside its tiny sealed enclosure is a unique 10" driver of mineral-filled copolymer polypropylene, with a Linear Corrugated Surround that permits greater, more linear excursion, and a split voice-coil that runs almost the entire length of the enclosure. The Seismic 110 is finished in satin black and weighs 37 pounds.
The Seismic 110’s high-excursion driver is powered by an 850W RMS class-D amplifier said to be capable of 1700W of dynamic power. There are the usual controls for output level, frequency cutoff continuously variable from 30 to 150Hz (with bypass option), continuously variable phase (0-180 degrees), and trigger or auto power. Inputs consist of a single XLR jack or a stereo pair of RCAs. A USB input is provided for connection of Paradigm’s optional Perfect Bass Kit (PBK) room-correction system ($300).
The MilleniaOnes are so small that their tweeters weren’t high enough, even when I set them on the 22"-high stands I had on hand. I ended up placing the Ones atop a pair of Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3s and C3 v.3 center-channel speakers, also in for review. The surrounds were placed in their usual position in my room: on 48"-tall stands to the sides of the listening position, angled slightly toward the rear of the room. I put the Seismic 110 in the right front corner, where room interactions are typically minimized -- which I confirmed by running the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system in the Anthem Statement D2 A/V processor. I didn’t run PBK with the Seismic 110 sub, as ARC accomplishes essentially the same result.
ARC set the response cutoffs to 140Hz for the MilleniaOnes, and I adjusted the phase control on the Seismic sub to get the best bass integration possible. I noticed a touch of leanness in the upper bass that couldn’t be cured by moving the sub, adjusting the phase, or increasing the sub’s output, but this was quite minor in comparison to the system’s excellent overall sound. In fact, the integration of the speakers’ outputs was outstanding for a system comprising extremely small satellites, and better than anything I’ve achieved with other sat-sub systems of similar size.
To get an idea of the MilleniaOne’s performance, I first listened to a stereo pair without the aid of a subwoofer. As expected, they didn’t extend particularly low in the bass, but I was surprised at how big and powerful they did sound. Nils Lofgren’s guitar on "Keith Don’t Go," from Acoustic Live (CD, Vision 820761101422), was reproduced with a thrilling explosiveness. There was a good bit of weight behind the resonance of the guitar, and the strings had lightning-fast speed. About three minutes into this track, when things really get going, there was a natural richness to the sound, but the guitar never lost its tightly controlled character.
Although the MilleniaOne lacked deep bass, and was even a little light in the midbass, its midrange was exceedingly clear and neutral, as evidenced by its reproduction of voices. Listening to Steven Page and Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies was impressive. Their good-humored interplay on "If Had a $1,000,000," from Gordon (CD, Sire/Reprise 26956-2), flowed naturally from the large soundstage created by these speakers. The two voices were easily distinguishable, and well separated from the backing chorus, the sweet-sounding fiddle, and the lyrical accordion. The MilleniaOnes are intended to be used with a subwoofer, but listening to a pair of them alone let me hear how astonishingly good they were for a small satellite speaker.
Adding the Reference Seismic 110 sub to the array transformed the Ones into a remarkably coherent, full-range speaker system. I’ve been listening a lot lately to R.E.M.’s In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 (DVD-A, Warner Bros. 9 362483819), and it sounded excellent through the Millenia system in both its two- and multichannel mixes. Michael Stipe’s melancholy singing on "Nightswimming" was crisp and clean, as it should be, and the piano and strings were full-bodied. The overall sound was a little forward, but this gave voices a nice immediacy and palpability. The playful "Stand" had toe-tapping pace, supported by a huge soundstage that was anchored by a solid bass guitar. Delightful percussive sounds were placed throughout the soundstage, and the distorted electric guitar solo was in perfect tempo.
The wonderfully transparent midrange and the References’ ability to reach down to the lowest octaves with little noticeable distortion were amazing for a $2649 system, let alone such a compact lifestyle system. Pop music dominated by bass beats, such as Katy Perry’s "California Gurls," from Teenage Dream (CD, EMI 6 84601 2), went amazingly deep, and maintained a solid grip on the bass that was devoid of boominess. Even with all that driving bass, Perry’s cavalier lyrics and Snoop Dog’s rapping remained crystal clear.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Gladiator Blu-ray is a favorite of mine, and Paramount has reissued it with remastered video; its picture quality is now worthy of this Oscar-winning film and its outstanding soundtrack. Although the massive sounds of battle in this film can sometimes overwhelm speakers, the Millenia system kept everything in check without sacrificing dynamics or high output levels. In the opening scenes, the music and sounds of wind were calm and enveloping, unlike what was about to follow. When the battle began, the catapults and explosions, which can sound harsh through some systems, were frighteningly realistic and loud, but did not distort. During the rooftop chase in the BD edition of The Bourne Ultimatum, the speakers easily transitioned from the atmospheric musical score and the echoing sounds of birds to extreme dynamics as the chase moved inside, to claustrophobic hallways.
There is plenty of low bass throughout The Hurt Locker, but chapter 8, in which a desert patrol is ambushed by a sniper, will test the low-frequency extension and output of any system. As the final shot rang out and an empty shell casing fell to the ground in slow motion, the Paradigm system sent a low-frequency wave rolling through my room. The ominous rumble was truly subsonic, and completely filled the room without the subwoofer giving any sign of distress or any indication of its location. The launch sequence in Apollo 13 was not only loud and free from distortion at window-rattling levels, the coherence and integration of the outputs of the five identical satellites and the subwoofer were outstanding. Dialogue always remained intelligible, even as massive booster rockets roared, the orchestral score filled the background, and objects in the command module rattled. In fact, each element of this densely layered soundtrack was clearly and realistically reproduced, creating a believable 360-degree soundfield. Also musicians are avid gamblers and playing on the playground best online casino.
$2649 is a fair amount for a small sat-sub system, but more than half of that is for the Seismic 110 subwoofer ($1399). At first glance that might seem disproportionate, but the MilleniaOne is so good that it deserves a sub of this caliber. And with a sub that can go as low and play as loud as the Seismic 110, there’s really no need for the MilleniaOne to reproduce much bass. This lets it concentrate on reproducing the midrange and treble frequencies, where it excels. Put the two together and you have a speaker system that doesn’t just sound good for a $2649 lifestyle system, it sounds good for a $2649 system, period.
I didn’t have another sat-sub system or even a budget speaker system on hand for direct comparisons, but I did have an array comprising Paradigm Reference’s Signature S6 v.3, C3 v.3, ADP3 v.3, and Sub 1 (total price $16,194). It might seem ridiculous to compare the MilleniaOnes and Seismic 110 to a system costing nearly six times as much, but both are Paradigm Reference systems, and there was a similar familial sound. Granted, the Signature system, with its much larger speakers all around, and the six-driver Sub 1, went even deeper and played noticeably louder, but the Millenia system will play plenty loud and deep for almost anyone in a small to mid-size room.
The clarity of the Millenia system’s midrange and treble were close to those of the Signatures, but the high frequencies weren’t as silky smooth. For example, though cymbals weren’t splashy with the Millenias, they lacked that sparkling quality exhibited by the Signatures’ wonderful beryllium tweeters. The acoustic guitar on Nils Lofgren’s "Keith Don’t Go" was powerful and dynamic through the Millenias, but the metallic sound of the strings lacked that last touch of refinement and detail that the Signatures deliver.
Although it couldn’t match the performance of the Signatures, the fact that the MilleniaOnes plus Seismic 110 could even be compared to such reference-quality speakers is quite an accomplishment for a décor-friendly lifestyle system. After all, many people don’t want a big, expensive speaker system like the Signatures. For those who want attractive lifestyle speakers that can be placed just about anywhere and won’t break the bank, this system will reward them with fantastic sound.
Lifestyle speakers -- those that melt into rather than dominate a room -- typically sacrifice some performance to achieve their compact size and good looks. But with the Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne speakers and Seismic 110 subwoofer, there was little such compromise. If I were looking for a compact lifestyle system, this one would be at the top of my list. The MilleniaOnes and Seismic 110 cost a little more than many small sat-sub systems, but cost a lot less than I would have expected considering their outstanding performance.
. . . Roger Kanno
- A/V processor -- Anthem Statement D2
- Amplifiers -- Bel Canto e.One REF 1000, eVo6
- Sources -- Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player, Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB digital converter
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Black Oval 9, Blue Oval
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval, Copper Oval-In Micro, Pro Oval subwoofer
- Digital cable -- DH Labs Silver Sonic HDMI 1.3, DV-75
- Power cords -- Essential Sound Products AVP-16
- Power conditioning -- Blue Circle Audio Peed Al Sea Thingee, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI
- Display device -- JVC HD-56FC97 RPTV
Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne / Seismic 110 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $2649 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor (three years, Seismic 110).
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726
The ubiquity of portable music players like the Apple iPod has made headphones quite popular. But the tiny iPod lacks the cojones to adequately drive many of the better headphones, which really need a separate headphone amplifier. Headphone amps range from iPod-sized (designed to be part of a mobile music player) to huge units about the size of a VPI LP vacuum. And the costs of headphone amps range from under $100 to well into five figures.
If you want a good headphone amp but don’t want to spend much for it, where do you go? For a lot of folks, the answer is eBay, where you can find a number of Chinese-made headphone amps at low prices. Some of these are terrific bargains, but I suggest caution: The shipping charges may be high, and if it breaks, you’ll probably have to ship it back to China for repairs.
One way to avoid the risk of buying Chinese on eBay is to shop for US-made products -- such as the Asgard from Schiit Audio, which gives the Chinese crowd a run for their money. The Asgard’s price of $249 USD seems too low to qualify it as a high-end audio product, but the amp looks as if it costs far more, and has some very high-end design features. From Schiit’s website, we learn that the "Asgard is a fully discrete, class-A, single-ended FET headphone amplifier with no overall feedback and a non-inverting circuit topology. Its high-current design makes it uniquely suitable for low-impedance headphones." That means that its signal path contains no integrated circuits. I’m somewhat ambivalent about that, because I’ve heard some fabulous headphone amps that do use integrated circuits -- but when it came time for me to buy a headphone amp for my own use, I chose the Stello HP100, which also lacks ICs, and I’ve never regretted it.
A class-A circuit can produce very pure, accurate tonality, but it can also run very hot, and the Asgard was no exception to the latter tendency. Schiit’s cute, humorous owner’s manual warns you that the amp runs really warm, though not necessarily hotter than blazes! But it does.
About the company’s name: Yes, it’s pronounced just as you might think it would be. Why would company founders Jason Stoddard, formerly of Sumo, and Mike Moffat, formerly of Theta, pick such a name? I think they prized it for its ability to grab your attention; they certainly use it provocatively throughout their website, whose home page proclaims "You aren’t gonna believe this Schiit."
I’ve seen $1000 amplifiers that don’t look as good as the Schiit Asgard. Its chassis is a thick sheet of brushed aluminum bent into an elongated U; a second U-shaped section, this one of black-painted steel, inserts into the rear of the unit, and on top is a perforated section for ventilation. The amp can be placed horizontally or vertically (in the latter orientation, the volume control is on the front panel’s lower half); stick-on feet let you choose.
The Asgard’s exterior is very simple: on the front panel are an aluminum volume control, a 0.25" headphone jack, and a white LED that tells you when the amp is turned on. At first, I wondered: Why white instead of the far more common blue? Then I bought a new computer, and noticed that all its indicator lights are white. Maybe white is the new blue.
On the rear panel are an IEC jack for the power (hooray, no wall wart -- another high-end feature), a toggle switch to turn the power on and off, and two RCA input jacks. That’s it -- elegant simplicity.
Setup and use
Many headphone enthusiasts have simple audio systems consisting of only a source component, an amplifier, and their ’phones. I set up such a system comprising the Asgard, a Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player, and Sennheiser HD 650 or AKG K701 headphones. I plugged the Sony and Asgard into a Silver Circle Audio Juice Box, Jr., a two-outlet power filter well suited for providing clean power to a headphone system. I used Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning power cords from the Juice Box to the Sony player and the Asgard. It may sound goofy to use power cords that cost almost twice as much as the amplifier, but these were the cheapest decent-sounding cords I had.
I’ve recently seen comments on websites to the effect that some audiophiles, and even some reviewers, seem to regard burning-in components as a hoax perpetrated by deranged reviewers; some even appear to take suggestions that they need to burn-in new gear as personal insults. I heartily agree that burning-in components is a pain in the posterior, but my ears tell me that burn-in does improve the sound of some equipment -- and let’s not ignore the fact that most manufacturers recommend the practice. Schiit Audio recommends burning in the Asgard for a week for best sound, so I gave it ten days with a TARA Labs burn-in CD. To my ears, it was well worth the effort; before burn-in, the sound was somewhat closed-in at the top; after, it was extended and open in the highs. Now, however, there was a slight emphasis in the highs. Back in the burn-in CD went for another week. Now the high end was smoother, and more open and extended.
The Asgard’s high operating temperature warrants another mention. During setup, I picked up the amp to move it a couple of feet, so that the headphone cord would reach my listening chair. It was so hot I almost dropped it. Outside of some tubed units, I’ve never seen any component run this hot. Unfortunately, the metal volume knob, which looks lovely, gets just as hot as the rest of the amp. I’d almost rather see a plastic knob.
I experimented with different interconnects, and settled on Crystal Cable’s CrystalConnect Piccolo because its radiant midrange complemented the Asgard.
Schiit touts the Asgard as being a particularly good match for Sennheiser headphones, and I hoped that would be true; while I own a pair of their HD 650s, I’ve never been a big admirer of the brand’s sound. Usually, after admiring Sennheiser ’phones’ huge bass, I quickly miss the high-frequency response, which I find rolled off and lacking in detail. But because Schiit recommends them, I used the HD 650s as the primary headphones for this review.
While the Schiit Asgard didn’t bless the Sennheiser HD 650s with super-extended highs, it did make listening to them more enjoyable. However, compared to other amplifiers I’ve used, I thought the Asgard rolled off the highs just a smidgen. Given the HD 650s’ tonal balance, the last thing they need is a high-frequency rolloff.
However, there’s no problem with HD 650s’ lows. These ’phones are capable of prodigious bass, and the Asgard elicited from them weighty, ultradeep bass extension. Jordi Savall and his ensemble romp lustily through "Folia Rodrigo Martinez," from La Folia 1490-1701 (CD, Alia Vox AFA 9805). One of the instruments played is a large drum with a frequency response that extends down into the mid-20Hz range. The Asgard drove the HD 650s effortlessly to reproduce the deepest response. I could hear how the drum loaded the room when it was enthusiastically whacked, and how its reverberation then decayed to silence.
Nor did I have any problem getting as much volume as I wanted. The volume control typically sat at the 12:30 position with most music I listened to.
To check out the Asgard’s handling of vocal music, I sampled A Sei Voci’s recording of Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere (CD, Astrée E 8524). The voices were quite smooth, and I could hear individual singers in the chorus. Headphones aren’t great for depicting information about the spatial qualities of a recording venue, but I could tell that the performance had been recorded in a medium-size room that had a bit of reverberation. This piece includes elaborate ornamentation of the basic melodies by the sopranos, who soar high above the other voices. There was a smidgen of HF rolloff that made the bass voices more prominent than the sopranos, however. To evaluate solo voice, I cued up Chris Jones’s "God Moves on the Water," from his Roadhouses and Automobiles (CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.6027.2), and clearly heard his gruff baritone. I also heard a subterranean bass guitar that went deeper than I had heretofore realized, even when listening with subwoofers.
My favorite track for evaluating how a component reproduces recordings of large-scale orchestral works is Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon overture, with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue (CD, Reference RR-92 CD). I can’t say that the combination of Schiit Asgard and Sennheiser HD 650s re-created it perfectly, but they did full justice to the very low bass, and respectably well at reproducing the orchestra’s full percussion ensemble. At hi-fi shows, it usually takes speakers costing over $20,000/pair to convincingly reproduce this recording.
To check out the Asgard’s transient performance, I cued up "PercusienFa," from Eric Mongrain’s Fates (CD, Prophase Music MVDA4585), a solo guitar piece with scary-fast transients. The Asgard certainly didn’t lack energy; the transients were like physical blows to my eardrums. However, the transients’ leading edges seemed rounded, which in turn made it seem as if the highs were slightly rolled off.
With the AKG K701 headphones, while I heard lots of detail and somewhat more elevated HF response, I still wasn’t hearing all the highs -- some of the highest-frequency details were missing. The highs in "PercusienFa" were more evident than through the Sennheisers, making Mongrain’s guitar sound much more realistic. There’s a lot of HF content in guitar music, and the AKG K701s did more justice to it.
I was pleased to hear the Asgard producing deep bass with the K701s, whose bass response is, I think, plenty deep. However, if you think the HD 650s’ bass is just right, then I can see how you might think the AKGs are lacking in that department. With the K701s, the bass in the Colas Breugnon overture seemed nearly as deep and strong as through the HD 650s -- but with "Folia Rodrigo Martinez," the Sennheisers produced a notably deeper, fuller low end.
Like the Asgard, my Korean-made Stello HP100 headphone amp ($595), which I reviewed in the June 2006 SoundStage!, uses discrete devices in its output stage. It has two inputs and a line-level output, so it can be used as a preamp in a small-scale system. It looks like a miniature preamplifier with a thick front panel, and its fit and finish are impeccable. Like a Ford Model T, the Stello comes in your choice of colors, as long as it’s black. It runs only slightly warm, so it’s probably not heavily biased into class-A.
With either pair of headphones, the Stello’s HF response was somewhat more extended than the Asgard’s. That surprised me; the last two headphone amps I reviewed, the HeadRoom Ultra Micro (June 2008) and the Blue Circle Audio SBH (September 2007), had sounded brighter than the Stello, and I’d decided that the Stello had perhaps a slight HF rolloff. In comparison to the Asgard, the Stello didn’t sound peaky, or as if it had a rising high end, but there was considerably more HF energy, with commensurately more detail and tonal accuracy in the sounds of musical instruments. The Stello gave both headphones frequency balances that sounded like those of good speakers. The result was that I actually enjoyed listening to the Sennheiser HD 650s, which I don’t always.
The Stello also seemed to have more punch and dynamic range than the Schiit; music through ’phones sounded more exciting, more realistic. But the Asgard had deeper, more powerful bass. I’ve already noted that the electric bass in Chris Jones’s "God Moves on the Water" sounded incredibly deep through the Asgard. When I listened to the same track with the Stello, Jones’s voice was noticeably easier to understand; I actually understood some lyrics that had sounded like mumbles through my speakers. That’s one of the standard strengths of headphones, of course, but it took the Stello amp to make it happen with this track.
Just for grins, I then tried the Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD player’s built-in headphone amplifier. It was fairly decent, but rather anemic in the bass, and I had to crank the volume control all the way up to achieve adequate volume. Overall, music through the Asgard sounded way better -- a good illustration of why you need a separate headphone amp.
In keeping with Schiit Audio’s recommendations, I primarily used Sennheiser’s HD 650 headphones to audition the Asgard. What I heard was potent bass, a smooth midrange, and a slightly rolled-off high end -- but I think that much of that rolloff can be attributed to the Sennheisers. With the flatter AKG K701 headphones, the rolloff was still present but less extreme. So just as you’d take care in matching an amplifier to the speakers you use, you need to do the same in picking the headphones you’ll use with the Asgard. I wish I could have tried the Asgard with the rather bright-sounding Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones I reviewed in November 2006, but they’re long gone.
I’m impressed that Schiit Audio can produce a headphone amplifier for $249 that sounds and looks as if it costs $1000. And you don’t have to order it from some unknown Chinese company on eBay and pray you’ll actually see something for your money. If you need a good headphone amplifier at a price that seems silly cheap, I suggest you rush your order directly to Schiit via their website, before they come to their senses and raise the price.
. . . Vade Forrester
- Headphones -- Sennheiser HD 650, AKG K701
- Headphone amplifier -- Stello HP100
- Source -- Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player
- Power conditioner -- Silver Circle Audio Juice Box, Jr.
- Power cords -- Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning
- Interconnects -- Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Piccolo
Schiit Audio Asgard Headphone Amplifier
Price: $249 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor; 15-day money-back guarantee.
22508 Market Street
Newhall, CA 91381
Phone: (323) 230-0079
Paradigm is a relatively large company by audiophile standards, whose core business is the design and manufacture of high-quality speakers at real-world prices. While probably best known for their many lower-priced models, Paradigm is able to exploit their advanced research and design facilities and large-scale manufacturing plant to create a line of flagship speakers, the Reference Signatures, at reasonable prices. I suspect that most boutique manufacturers would be hard-pressed to design speakers as technically advanced as Paradigm’s Reference Signatures for any price. While they cost considerably more than Paradigm’s entry-level models, I still consider them to be an excellent value for their outstanding performance for the price.
I’ve owned a pair of Paradigm’s original Reference Signature S8s since they made their debut in 2004. Since then, Paradigm has made many improvements to the Reference Signatures. The first major upgrade was a tweeter of pure beryllium (which Paradigm calls P-Be). Many speaker makers consider beryllium to be the best material currently available for tweeter domes, for its low mass, high strength and stiffness, and excellent thermal conductivity. Most recently, Paradigm has completely redesigned their Reference Signature woofers, and claims a 50% increase in output. With these and many other improvements, the latest, v.3 versions of the Reference Signature models should offer significantly better performance than the originals.
Paradigm sent me a pair of the relatively compact S6 v.3 floorstanders, presumably confident that they would compare favorably with my larger, original S8s. The S6 v.3 retails for $2899 USD each in the standard cherry finish; it’s also available in Natural Maple and Piano Black at additional cost.
The Reference Signature S6 v.3 stands only 43.75”H x 8.25”W x 13.5”D, yet weighs a surprising 70 pounds. The cabinet is gently curved to reduce internal standing waves, and the crossover frequencies are specified as 190Hz and 2kHz. Two sets of high-quality binding posts are provided for biamping or biwiring, if desired.
Usually, product flyers from audio manufacturers contain mostly marketing hype, but Paradigm’s Reference Signature brochure provides a lot of technical detail. It’s apparent that a great deal of effort has gone into optimizing nearly every aspect of the speakers’ design. Paradigm’s patented IMS/Shock Mount fastening system decouples the drivers from the heavily braced cabinet, and high-quality crossover components and silver-coated oxygen-free copper wiring are used. More impressive is the advanced technology used in the drive-units, all of which are designed and built by Paradigm.
The 1” tweeter’s P-Be dome is “hot-formed” from a solid piece of beryllium instead of the more common vapor-deposit technique, resulting in a dome that Paradigm claims is measurably higher in strength and consistency. Two massive neodymium magnets are claimed to generate 20,000 gauss of magnetic energy at the voice-coil. The damping chamber behind the tweeter contains high-loss, foam acoustic dampers, as well as fins designed to break up and disperse residual internal resonances; fins on the outer surface act as heatsinks.
The 7” midrange cone is made of what Paradigm calls Co-PAL -- another proprietary material, this time of cobalt-infused aluminum, also said to have high stiffness and low mass -- and has a neodymium magnet whose magnetic field is claimed to be 15,000 gauss. The die-cast aluminum chamber has asymmetrical channels to dissipate the backwave, and is directly coupled to the magnet to transfer heat away from the motor structure. The chamber has high-loss felt dampers to reduce internal resonances, and exterior cooling fins.
The two 7” woofers have polypropylene cones with a higher mineral content to increase their stiffness, revised motor structures, and surrounds made of Non-Limiting Corrugated (NLC) Santoprene. According to Paradigm, the combination of these increases the output by 50% over earlier versions of this woofer. Previously, the tweeter and midrange outputs had to be curtailed to match the lower output of the woofers; now Paradigm says they’ve increased the outputs of the other drivers to match, with the result of a higher output for the speaker overall. On the front baffle, directly below the lower woofer, is the port.
The review samples looked gorgeous in Piano Black, which was finished to a very high standard. They also felt very solidly built. My only complaint was that the pressure-fit grilles seemed a bit fragile -- as if their plastic tabs might break off during installation or removal. Some might also object to the many exposed mounting screws on the drivers, and the visible holes for the grille tabs on the front baffle. Granted, the Signature S6 is designed to be used with its grille on, in which case these would be invisible. However, after listening for some time with the grilles on, I found that I preferred the sound without them. I did most of my listening that way, and suspect many audiophiles will do the same. I found that the high-tech-looking drivers, especially the woofers with their NLC surrounds, gave the Signature S6 a purposeful and muscular look.
With a few minor adjustments to fine-tune the imaging, the Reference Signature S6 v.3s took the places of my original S8s in my reference system: about 3’ from the front and side walls, and slightly toed in.
I listened to the S6 v.3s with and without my Statement D2’s Anthem Room Correction (ARC) engaged. The S6 v.3s sounded very good on their own with no room correction, but, as expected, ARC tightened the bass and made the midrange a bit more transparent, which in turn tightened up the imaging. As I always listen to my S8s with ARC engaged, that’s how I listened to the S6 v.3s.
Over the past several years I’ve grown accustomed to the sound of the original Signature S8s. They have a big sound, with excellent bass extension and a neutral midrange accompanied by sweet but natural-sounding highs. The S6 v.3s indeed had a similar familial sound, but the new speakers sounded better -- a lot better.
I expected the S6 v.3 to be extraordinarily clean through the midrange and especially the treble, due in large part to that P-Be tweeter. What I didn’t expect was the incredible speed and slam in the bass from what is a fairly compact floorstander. Not only was the bass fast and articulate, there was plenty of weight behind it. Some speakers sacrifice bass extension for a quicker response, and end up sounding a little thin or lean. Other speakers, in trying to go lower, end up sounding boomy and inarticulate. Not so the S6 v.3. Down to almost the lowest audible frequencies, it was weighty and tightly controlled in a way I’ve never heard from such a compact cabinet. In combination with the Signature S6’s pristine midrange and treble, its nimble, visceral bass produced a strikingly vivid sound.
The reproduction of Rosanne Cash’s voice in “Western Wall,” from The Very Best of Rosanne Cash (CD, Columbia/Legacy 696998699625), was immaculate. The slight sibilance of her whispery, closely miked voice was reproduced beautifully, and placed high in the soundstage. The vibrant slap and twang of strings were finely demarcated from the resonance of the body of the acoustic guitar, which had an uncannily solid character.
The S6 v.3s easily moved from the big, bold sound of a good acoustic guitar to the diminutive sound of the ukulele on Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s Facing Future (CD, Mountain Apple 761268590121). The uke lacks a guitar’s attention-grabbing sustain, but the Signature S6s conveyed its delicate notes’ swift decays into this recording’s utterly “black” background. I could almost picture this giant of a man -- he was 6’ 2”, and at one point weighed 757 pounds -- from the short, labored breaths audible at the beginning of his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World,” which he transforms into a disarmingly graceful vocal style. The imaging was limited to a relatively narrow space between the speakers, but the S6 v.3s conveyed every nuance of Iz’s voice and ukulele.
Just about any high-quality speaker can make an audiophile recording sound good, but the S6 v.3 made them sound exceptional. With less-than-stellar recordings, all of the speaker’s strengths were still clearly audible while revealing no weaknesses. Kiss’s MTV Unplugged (CD, Island/Mercury 731452895028) sounds decent for a live album, and was surprisingly clean and clear through the Paradigms. The voices of Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss were easily identifiable as they took turns singing the verses of “Rock and Roll All Nite,” with Paul Stanley joining in on the chorus. The multiple acoustic guitars were spread uniformly across the soundstage, and I could even hear Bruce Kulick outshine original bandmember Ace Frehley in their respective guitar solos. The opening drumbeats were deep and tight, and even with two drum kits, three acoustic guitars, and an acoustic bass, I could distinctly hear, behind the group, the appreciative noises of the crowd. The less frenetic “Rock Bottom” sounded even better, the scintillating guitars and clearly audible bass guitar complementing Stanley’s voice, which has survived the ravages of time better than have those of his bandmates.
About the only shortcoming of the S6 v.3 was its inability to play extreme low bass. Rosanne Cash’s “Western Wall” is one of SoundStage! Network editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz’s reference recordings for subterranean bass because it contains important musical information in the 20Hz area. The S6 v.3 hinted at but could not fully reproduce the subtle but amazingly deep foot stomps 25 seconds into this track. However, when I switched in the six 8” drivers and two 850W amplifiers of the Paradigm Reference Signature Sub 1 subwoofer ($4499 in Cherry), those foot stomps were reproduced with amazing authority -- as if someone were actually stomping on my listening-room floor. But even without the stomps, “Western Wall” sounded powerful and full-bodied through the Reference Signature S6s. Getting those last few hertz out of a high-performance system is not easy to do, and usually requires a very capable subwoofer, or much larger and more expensive speakers. So it wasn’t unexpected that the S6 v.3s couldn’t reproduce those ultralow frequencies.
Listening to the 24-bit/96kHz download of Iver Kleive’s pipe-organ version of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (FLAC, 2L/HDtracks), you wouldn’t think anything was missing from the S6 v.3’s bass -- this track doesn’t quite dip into the lowest registers. In fact, adding the Sub 1 only marginally improved the bass response of this track; even without the sub, the S6 v.3s wonderfully re-created the organ’s solid, room-filling sound.
While the original Signature S8 ($2700-$3000 each when available, depending on finish) is a considerably larger speaker with two additional bass drivers, the Signature S6 v.3 was clearly superior. The S8 was able to play back the 20Hz tone from the Hsu Research/Boston Audio Society Test CD 1 at a considerably higher level than the S6 v.3, but it sounded noticeably looser than the S6 v.3 when reproducing the 31.5 and 40Hz tones. With music -- such as “Poker Face,” from Lady Ga Ga’s The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) (CD, Streamline/Interscope 0602527210360) -- the S8’s greater bass extension was pleasing, but came at the expense of some speed and definition that slightly detached the beat from the rest of the music.
The S8 may have been able to reach a little lower, but through the midbass and up the S6 v.3’s superior neutrality and transparency were readily apparent. Everything was just a bit cleaner through the S6s, image outlines clearly snapping into focus where they were slightly blurred with the S8s. Paul Stanley’s fervent singing on Kiss’s “Rock Bottom” was less distinct from the multiple acoustic guitars, and Gene Simmons’ voice was more difficult to identify in the backing vocals. Through the S8s, the violin of soloist Marianne Thorsen, on her disc of Mozart violin concertos with the Trondheimsolistene (24/96 FLAC, 2L/HDtracks), also lacked that last touch of transparency that made individual notes blend slightly together. The S8s gave the orchestral strings a lovely, warm sound, but with a more homogenous quality that masked the melody and robbed the music of some pace. Through the S6 v.3s, the orchestra still sounded rich and luxurious, and Thorsen’s violin was placed solidly between the speakers with power and authority. I enjoy listening to this fantastic string-ensemble recording at lifelike (high) levels; with the S6 v.3s, it never became fatiguing.
Given the Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3’s ambitious design, exceptional construction quality, and what I heard from them, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it cost $10,000/pair or more. Then again, if anyone could produce such a high-performing speaker for about $6000/pair, it would be Paradigm, with their advanced R&D facilities and modern manufacturing methods. The Reference Signature S6’s combination of ultrasmooth treble, perfectly integrated midrange, and unexpectedly articulate bass make it a speaker that simply must be heard to be appreciated. Its lack of coloration, extremely high power handling, and wide, smooth frequency response allowed it to play back any type of program material without fault.
In short, the Reference Signature S6 v.3 is a remarkable achievement: a technologically advanced product that is beautifully constructed and sounds absolutely amazing. The fact that a pair of them can be had for only $5798 makes it a relative bargain in the world of high-end audio.
I will soon retire my original Signature S8s and replace them with the S6 v.3s in my reference system. The new speakers are a sheer pleasure to listen to, day in and day out, with absolute neutrality, smooth, extended highs, and surprisingly dynamic bass. When introduced, Paradigm’s original Reference Signature models set a benchmark for performance, price, and craftsmanship. Judging by the S6 v.3, with the newest Reference Signatures Paradigm maintains their leadership position in manufacturing terrific products at reasonable prices.
. . . Roger Kanno
A/V processor -- Anthem Statement D2
Amplifier -- Bel Canto e.One REF1000
Sources -- Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player, Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB converter, Asus O!Play HDP-R1 media player
Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Black Oval 9
Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal, DH Labs D-75 digital cable and HDMI cables
Power cords -- Essential Sound Products AVP-16 AC
Power conditioning -- Zero Surge 1MOD15WI, Blue Circle Audio’s Peed Al Sea Thingee
Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3 Loudspeakers
Price: $5798 USD per pair in standard cherry finish; other finishes available at additional cost.
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726
Definitive Technology has remained the brainchild of founder Sandy Gross for 20 years now, and the US speaker company has a long and distinguished record of innovation. Each of the small ProMonitor models, for example, has a passive radiator that fires through its top panel to extend the bass response. Another recent example is the Mythos STS, with its built-in, racetrack-shaped subwoofer in a superslim cabinet, and which earned the SoundStage! Network Aesthetics & Sound Award in 2008.
Gross recently retired from Definitive Technology, and VP Paul DiComo has taken over the product-development reins. DiComo has a long history with successful speaker companies, having come to DefTech from Polk Audio several years before. The Mythos XTR-50 is the first Definitive speaker whose development he has entirely overseen, from vision to final product. I was excited to hear if the sound quality of this ultrathin speaker matched its state-of-the-art looks.
Mythos XTR-50: outside
The Mythos XTR-50 ($699 USD each) measures 27"H x 6"W x 1.5"D and weighs 5.1 pounds. When I first saw the speaker, I was struck by its flatness -- in person, with its tapered sides, it looks even thinner than 1.5"; my impression was of the blade of a machete. It felt all of a piece, as if machined from a solid piece of aluminum, with no looseness or rattling. The rear panel is nearly flat, with indents for mounting the speaker directly on the wall, or with the included mounting bracket. The smooth, high-gloss finish will easily match the finish of most flat-panel TVs.
The unusual design of the binding posts is perhaps my only complaint about the XTR-50’s user friendliness, though it’s clear that some sort of compromise is necessary in so flat a speaker -- conventional binding posts would be too big, and force the speaker away from the wall. You must first thread bare wire (14 gauge maximum) into a green connector, then snap the connector into the back of the speaker. Make sure you push the connector all the way in, or the speaker won’t work.
Included are stands for vertically or horizontally mounting the XTR-50 on a table. The vertical stand is a thing of beauty, cosmetically matching the speaker’s shiny gloss appearance. Although the stands are plastic, with a glass bottom, they bolt easily to the speaker to give a one-piece look. For an even cleaner appearance, you can feed speaker wire through the legs of the stand to the binding posts. The wire channel, however, is small; it won’t accept wire larger than 16 gauge.
The horizontal mount, for center-channel duty, is simple: Two feet screw into the XTR-50’s rear panel. This lets the speaker’s weight rest on the feet and the speaker’s bottom edge. The XTR-50’s tilt can be adjusted by screwing the feet in and out.
Mythos XTR-50: inside
Looking at the Mythos XTR-50, it wasn’t obvious that its grille could be removed until Paul DiComo pointed it out to me. (It’s held in place with magnets.) Centrally placed is a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter that’s voiced similarly to those in the other speakers in DefTech’s Mythos line. It’s built slightly differently, though, because of the XTR-50’s thinness.
The two 3.5" mid/bass drivers are all new for the Mythos XTR-50. Because of the design constraints of a thin speaker, conventional woofers wouldn’t work -- a high-power-handling voice-coil can easily be longer than the XTR-50’s 1.5" depth. Instead, Definitive Technology’s design team has coupled the voice-coil to the enclosure, so that heat can be dissipated without requiring the space-gobbling heatsink of a conventional voice-coil.
Most designers extend a small speaker’s bass response with a port. With the slender Mythos XTR-50, however, a conventional port would be too small, and would result in audible chuffing. Instead, the bass response is extended using four 3.5" passive radiators. As their name implies, these aren’t directly driven by an amplifier, but move in and out in response to the pressure created in the cabinet by the two amplified drivers. The result, according to DefTech, is decent bass response down to 92Hz -- unimpressive for a conventional speaker, but remarkable for one so thin, and one that, anyway, is designed to be used with a subwoofer.
Mythos Gem surround speaker
Compared to the Mythos XTR-50, the Mythos Gem on-wall surround speaker ($279 each) looks like a conventional bookshelf model. Enthusiasts of thin speakers will be put off by the fact that it’s a disgusting 4.25" deep. But since the Mythos Gem won’t normally flank a flat-panel TV, the depth should be fine in most rooms.
The design is unconventional. The front-firing 1" tweeter is normal enough, but the two forward-firing 3.5" mid/bass cones, one above and one below the tweeter, are respectively angled to the right and left. This effectively gives the Gem the wide dispersion of a bipolar speaker in a cabinet with a narrow front baffle. The Gem measures 10.25"H x 4.125"W x 4.25"D and weighs 4.5 pounds.
SuperCube II subwoofer
In choosing a subwoofer to accompany this system, Paul DiComo ran some tests and felt that the best match would be the SuperCube II ($899). A cute little thing with a volume of only 1 cubic foot (12.5"H x 12"W x 12"D), it hides some potent hardware under its black-cloth grille: a 1250W amplifier that drives an 8" woofer, and two 8" passive radiators. The cabinet is made of 2"-thick Medite, an environmentally friendly material similar to MDF. The entire chassis is solid, hefty for its size at 42 pounds, and finished with a high-gloss top panel.
The control panel on the rear has both left- and right-channel speaker-level inputs and outputs and line-level ins and outs. There are knobs for adjusting the high- and low-pass crossovers and to continuously vary the phase -- rarely seen, these controls are very useful for matching the sub with any main speaker.
After taking delivery of the Mythos XTR-50 system, I was fortunate to have Paul DiComo come by my house and help with the setup. This was the first set of review speakers I’d had in the basement home theater of my new house. The room is 23’L x 16’W by 8’H, with a 92" projection screen on the long wall. My listening seat is 14’ from the screen; sitting there, DiComo detected a bass suckout. Knowing how the SuperCube II should sound in most rooms, he was unsatisfied with the bass response no matter where he put it. "Another SuperCube II will help even out the bass response," he said. "I’ll send you one."
Once the second SuperCube II had arrived and been set up, the layout was as follows: front left and right Mythos XTR-50s on the wall, flanking my screen; center-channel Mythos XTR-50 below the screen, 18" above the floor; and Mythos Gem surrounds on stands near the back wall. Finding satisfying locations for the two subs took some work, but I settled on the right sidewall 4’ from the front wall and, along the front wall, 3’ to the left of the left front speaker. The sub crossovers were set for 100Hz in my receiver.
I first tried the Mythos XTR-50s on the supplied stands near the wall, but for best performance, wall mounting won out. Unlike freestanding speakers, the XTR-50 is designed to work with the wall, which reinforces the upper-bass response and results in greater transparency and a better blend with the output of the subwoofer(s). That’s what I heard.
With the Mythos XTR-50 system set up and me settled in my listening chair, I was astonished by what I heard. Given the paper-thin depth of the XTR-50 compared to most other speakers out there, I couldn’t believe the quality and quantity of sound. This system will play loud. As a carriage drawn by galloping horses careens through the street in the opening scene of Sherlock Holmes (2009), the soundtrack of the Blu-ray edition makes good use of all five speakers and the subwoofers. This system really cooked, with a beautiful blend of the surround and front channels, and a seamless blend of the output of each satellite and the sound from the subs. The scene begins with the horses neighing in the left surround channel, which the Mythos Gem threw well to the left of the left surround speaker. The horses’ hooves and Hans Zimmer’s intense music pounded through the SuperCube IIs. Remarkably, as I turned up the volume, the XTR-50 mains kept up. I heard none of the dynamic compression or cabinet ringing that I expected, given the speakers’ thinness. Dialogue was completely understandable throughout this scene. This was coherence at its best.
The high-frequency performance of the Mythos XTR-50 is similar to that of other Definitive Technology speakers I’ve heard: neutral, but slightly on the analytical side. Like the best high-end speakers, these mains were revealing enough to make lousy recordings sound as they should -- bad. The XTR-50 didn’t gloss over edgy CDs from the 1980s, but rewarded me with superb sound when the recordings were superb. One such is Patricia Barber’s Nightclub (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CMFSA2004), a two-channel-only SACD/CD. Listening to the bass solo in "Autumn Leaves" through the Mythos XTR-50s was riveting, with all the fine detail of the sound of each plucked string lovingly reproduced.
With this same recording, the blending of the sound from the main speakers with that from the SuperCube II subwoofers was fantastic. On its own, bass through the Mythos XTR-50 was lacking; it was hard to tell, for instance, whether or not I was listening to an acoustic bass or an electric bass guitar. But that’s why you need a well-matched subwoofer. Pairing the XTR-50s with the SuperCube IIs resulted in a balanced full-range sound. If the subwoofer or the main speakers produce too much or too little energy in the transition zone where the outputs of the satellites and subs blend, the sound can be muddy. With the XTR-50s and SuperCube IIs, however, the double bass in "Autumn Leaves" was gratifyingly balanced and deep.
The nimbleness of the 8" woofer in the SuperCube II gave a quality of bass that was quick and light, matching the sound of the XTR-50s. It’s one thing to get the outputs of the Mythos XTR-50 and SuperCube II to jell; it’s quite another to get slam satisfying enough for home theater. This was where the second SuperCube II made its presence known. With the second sub, I had the best of both worlds -- bass with power and definition. With the Blu-ray of 2012, the subwoofers rattled my walls and ceiling with every toppled building and falling boulder. Although two of these subs isn’t a cheap proposition at $1798, it competes with and surpasses most single subwoofers near that price in my room. As your room will be configured differently, your mileage might vary; a single $2000 subwoofer may perform as well.
Although not a visual match for the Mythos XTR-50s, the diminutive Mythos Gems performed like champs with the left and right surround channels. The film Shutter Island contains a great range of scenes and atmospheres, from prison cells to stormy weather. With the Mythos XTR-50s, the Mythos Gems reproduced the enveloping surround environments of the Blu-ray edition, playing much bigger than their size would suggest.
I had a couple of interesting speaker arrays on hand to compare with the Mythos XTR-50 system ($4453): Definitive Technology’s own ProCinema 1000 system ($1724) and the Angstrom Suono on-wall system ($2194). Although these are significantly cheaper than the Mythos XTR-50 system, the latter included two subwoofers; the former had only one.
Neither of the other two systems could match the stunning industrial design of the Mythos XTR-50, and that’s where many shoppers will end their search. The Mythos XTR-50 matches up perfectly with flat-panel TVs, especially the latest, 1"-thin ones. The Angstrom Suono 300S is handsome, but slightly less refined looking than the Mythos. And although the Suono 300S is thin, it will look bulky next to a really slim TV.
The Angstrom Suono 300S system sounded darker and less revealing than the Mythos XTR-50. This would make the Angstrom a better match for a casual system, where you’re not listening for that last ounce of detail. I listened to "S’Wonderful," from Diana Krall’s The Look of Love (SACD/CD, Verve 34 589 597-2); in comparison to the Mythos XTR-50, the strings sounded as if there were an extra layer of cloth between my ears and the speakers. However, the Angstrom system’s strength was its better bass response, which might make matching its mains to other subwoofers an easier proposition. You might even get away with no sub at all if floor space is at a premium, something that can’t be said for either Definitive system. And the Angstrom’s value for the buck is high; the Angstrom 300S main speakers cost only $399 each.
I was floored by the sound of Definitive Technology’s ProMonitor 1000 bookshelf system. I hadn’t had this system set up in a while, and had forgotten how great it is. What had me in a tizzy was these affordable little speakers’ imaging prowess. Being freestanding, they can be toed in to dial in the soundstage. The imaging is so good I can "see" the bassist’s fingers moving along the strings in "Autumn Leaves," from Patricia Barber’s Nightclub. The imaging specificity wasn’t as pronounced with either the wall-mounted Angstroms or the Mythos XTR-50s.
Also in-house was a single Monitor Audio RXW-12 subwoofer ($1300), which I compared with a single DefTech SuperCube II. This 12" subwoofer is slightly bigger than the SuperCube II, and has a couple of EQ settings for boosting the bass for movies or for a flatter response with music. Although as tuneful as the SuperCube II with music, the RXW-12 couldn’t compete with the DefTech’s two additional passive radiators. When I watched the Blu-ray of Star Trek (2009), the SuperCube II played this dynamic soundtrack quite a bit louder throughout the film.
In my extensive auditioning of Definitive Technology’s Mythos XTR-50 system, I was amazed at the dynamic capability and refined sound of these compact speakers. Each model -- mains, surrounds, and subwoofers -- blended together to provide a well-balanced soundfield that I found very involving when watching movies or listening to music. Because it is so revealing, the Definitive Mythos XTR-50 is best matched with good electronics. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with phenomenal sound to match these speakers’ great looks. Add it all up and you have one heck of a good surround-sound system.
. . . Vince Hanada
- A/V receiver -- Integra DTR-8.8
- Source -- Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player
- Cables -- Sonic Horizons Hurricane speaker cables and interconnects, Analysis Plus Blue Oval in-wall speaker cables, Analysis Plus Super Sub interconnects
- Monitor -- Sanyo PLV-Z5 projector with Grandview LFM-92 tab-tensioned motorized screen
Definitive Technology Mythos XTR-50 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $4453 USD.
Warranty: Five years, speakers; three years, subwoofer.
11433 Cronridge Drive, Suite K
Owings Mills, MD 21117-2294
Phone: (800) 228-7148, (410) 363-7148
Fax: (410) 363-9998
The latest member of the Squeezebox family of digital music players refines some of the features of previous models, such as the Squeezebox Classic, while adding many new ones. The most obvious difference is its bright, 4.3"-wide touchscreen, but this amazing little box has a lot more to offer. Still, its design is unprepossessing for an audiophile product -- it’s almost entirely plastic, and looks more like something that a store would display with the clock radios instead of with the audio gear. In fact, one review I read found fault with it for costing $299.99 USD -- a very high price for a clock radio, that writer thought.
The Touch is not a clock radio. It’s an audiophile streaming device capable of handling 24-bit/96kHz music files that also happens to include clock-radio functions among its many extras -- so many extras that, rather than being too expensive, it’s a bargain.
The Logitech Touch measures almost 6”W x 3.57”H x 3.18”D, with a screen 4.3”W x 2.2”H. The front is smooth, with no controls or ports, its sleek, shiny surface decorated only with a discreet Logitech logo. The touchscreen and case are tilted back about 30° from vertical (the angle can’t be adjusted). On the back are a headphone socket, a pair of analog RCA outputs, optical and coaxial digital outputs, an Ethernet port, and a USB output for attaching an external hard drive. The headphone output can be used for external powered speakers if you’re connecting the Touch to an external drive and using the Touch’s own internal server, the Tiny SBS. (Smoothing out the Tiny SBS functions was one of the main reasons the Touch was released five months after its initial street date.) On one side is a nearly invisible slot for inserting an SD card. Since music releases on SD cards seem more in music’s future than its present (Cardas has put out a few, and there are rumors of others), this seems a feature that for now will be used mostly by photographers. The Touch’s digital-to-analog converter is an AKM Semiconductor AK4420 stereo chip. The Touch produces 2V RMS output on the RCA outputs. The Touch is claimed to be bit-perfect to 24/96 and will play these file formats: FLAC, AIFF, WAV, Apple Lossless, WMA Standard, MP3, AAC/HE-AACv2, and HD-ACC.
Also included is a power cord incorporating a transformer to be plugged into the wall, an infrared remote control, two AA batteries, RCA stereo analog connection cables, a cloth for wiping the screen (Logitech cautions against using anything abrasive), and an instruction book. One of Logitech’s greatness weaknesses over the years has been a lack of printed instructions, so I approached this 156-page volume with great hope -- only to find that its heft was the result of its ten pages of very basic information in English being duplicated in 12 other languages. There is another manual, Getting to Know Logitech Touch WiFi Music Player; you can find, read, and download it here.
Connecting the Touch
The presence of the Touch’s internal server, the Tiny SBS, means that one could simply connect the Touch to an external drive containing music files and plug a pair of powered speakers into the Touch’s headphone jack. The typical user, however, will probably want to use the Touch to stream music stored on a computer to a main audio/video system. To do this, you must download to your computer Logitech’s free Squeeze Center software; the Touch can then be configured to work with either a wireless router, or hardwired with an Ethernet connection. You select Wired or Wireless operation during the setup, an incredibly simple process. For the most part the Touch worked well wirelessly, though the sound dropped out once in a while, which might not have happened had my computer and audio system not been 30’ and several walls apart. Hardwiring them together with a 50’ Ethernet cable solved the problem.
The Touch did most of the searching for networks and addresses, but should you have a problem with this, you can call a toll-free number: (877) 887-8889. Logitech’s Squeezebox help line is possibly the best in the industry -- as complete and detailed as its printed manuals are incomplete and general. I found that the technicians really did try to help me. Most of my inquiries were solved at Level One, but if your problem is thornier, you can be transferred to Level Two, where you’ll be assisted by engineers who really know the product. Addressing customer problems and complaints is one of Logitech’s primary ways of gathering information that needs to be incorporated into future firmware updates, so they’re interested in getting things to work right.
Using the Touch
The Touch’s home screen gives you a choice of basic functions: My Music, Internet Radio, Settings, etc. Select one by tapping it directly on the touchscreen, or by using the right arrow button on the remote. You’re then taken to another menu, where you can make a more specific choice, and then perhaps to a third menu for more options. To return to a previous menu, swipe left or use the remote’s left-arrow button. It’s more complex to describe than it is to do. I found all of the menus to be clear and intuitive -- in a phrase, user-friendly. The touchscreen was very sensitive and easy to use -- I never had to tap a desired function more than once -- and every bit as responsive as my Apple iTouch.
Readers who haven’t played music from downloaded files will find the Touch’s controls very much like those of a CD player: Play, Stop, Pause, Chapter Skip forward and back. The Touch has one thing the Squeezebox Classic lacked: fast forward, activated by using a slider bar on the touchscreen. Using fast forward via the remote control hadn’t yet been finalized at the time of writing, but will probably involve holding down the Chapter Skip button.
The following comments apply mostly to using the Touch as a device to play files from a computer. All commands can be given by tapping the touchscreen or pressing a key on the remote. The remote control works pretty much as did the one with the original Squeezebox and, also like that remote, has no touchscreen of its own. Some people feel that this was a mistake, and that the touchscreen should have been on the remote rather than on the Touch itself. Whether or not you agree will depend on how far you are from the Touch when using it. My Touch is just to my right on a shelf about 2.5’ away, so it’s easy for me to use the remote to scroll through titles while looking at the Touch’s screen. Moreover, the Touch’s remote has one very useful search feature not on the Touch itself: You can use the numbered keys to display letters of the alphabet, just as you would a telephone keypad. For instance, if you tap 2 (ABC) three times, the program will take you to the beginning of the Cs (a big letter C is displayed on the screen), and you can scan down from there. Or say you want to search something at the end of the Cs: You can click 3 (DEF) once to get to D, then scan up into the Cs. The scan accelerates the longer you hold down the direction button; until you get the hang of it (it won’t take long), you might find yourself zipping by your chosen title. I found this much easier than using my clumsy fingers on the screen itself.
In another search function available on the remote, you click in the first two or three letters of the entry you want, but this is slower than getting to the first letter and scrolling up or down. How you can search depends on how you’ve set up your music library. I use iTunes and can search by album title, artist name, genre (particularly handy in December), and year of release. The information for the Touch remote’s commands can easily be loaded into a universal remote control. I’d already set up and configured my Harmony 890 universal remote for the Squeezebox Classic, and was delighted to find that all of those controls worked for the Touch as well.
Information can be displayed on the Touch’s screen in different ways. You can choose a background from among nine offered; few will want to keep the default, because letters are hard to read against its background. I settled on Harmony, a combination of purple and dark blue in which words and titles stood out better. If your music files are tagged with the album cover, the Touch will display it while that album is playing. You can choose from among several Now Playing displays: album cover plus text, album cover alone, text alone, a pair of analog VU meters, or a spectrum analyzer. You select the display you prefer in the Settings menu, then tap the screen or click the Now Playing button to cycle them in succession. You can also choose a screen saver that will appear when the player is stopped or playing.
But if you sit far away from the Touch when you listen, or are on the move, you’ll probably want to get a different remote. The Touch automatically displays small text when you tap the screen and large text when you use the remote, but if you’re more than 5-6’ away, the screen is not easy to read. In that case, you can either purchase Logitech’s remote controller, or an Apple iTouch (or iPhone) configured with the iPeng app ($9.95). Then you can use all of the amazing features of the iTouch as well.
In addition to being a music player, the Touch has many other features, the most important of which is its ability to access Internet Radio. Though you must have your computer on to stream music from it, the radio feature will work whether your computer is on or off. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of stations from which to choose, and they are well organized by category on the Touch menu. I found that stations varied widely in terms of features. For instance, some would give a readout listing the song currently playing and perhaps the artist as well, but other stations offered nothing more than their own names. You can always get more information on stations, including the broadcast frequency by pressing “+” on the remote and selecting More Information.
If you log on to www.mysqueezebox.com (registration required), you can select apps to use with your Touch. Some of these, such as Rhapsody, are pay-as-you-go, but many are free. One of the most interesting, the Live Music Archive, I first discovered while writing about websites that offered HD downloads; here you’ll find hundreds of free legal recordings made by fans at concerts. It’s a voyage of discovery to surf the Archive, which contains performances by many musicians who are not household names. But you’ll find Dave Matthews and the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as the largest collection of Grateful Dead concerts you could imagine.
And you can use that SD card slot on the side of the Touch to display slide shows of photos taken with your digital camera. Later, if and when music on SDs becomes commonplace, you’ll be able play those as well. And mustn’t forget -- you can set the Touch to function as an alarm clock, and a rather sophisticated one at that.
Squeezebox products are constantly updated through their network connections -- in the three or four weeks I had the Touch hooked up, it received eight or nine updates. I would turn on the Touch, and there’d be a message on the screen telling me an update was available. Then I’d highlight and tap the correct frame to begin the download. Downloading each update took only a few minutes, and then I was ready to go. I welcome such updates; they let me know that I own a piece of equipment that is being kept current, and not being allowed to lapse into an early obsolescence. Every firmware update has caused some function to run a bit more smoothly or opened up possibilities for the future. For instance, a Logitech technician told me that one thing the company is now working on is a deal with Amazon.com that would allow cover art to appear automatically, without the user having to search for it. That and other new features will be made available through automatic firmware updates.
And if you’re going to own a Squeezebox Touch, you’d best be prepared to visit Logitech’s forum, either when you need to, or just once in a while to see what’s new. The forum is for customers but is monitored by Logitech’s senior engineers; if you have a problem or suggestion and post it on the forum, you’ll get pertinent comments from an engineer that will help your situation. Many forum members are deeply conversant with computers and constantly tweak their systems, but others simply want to know how to best configure their Touch for their needs. On the forum you can find out about plug-ins that you can add to the Touch to personalize it (there are already several for the clock, and one to make those aforementioned VU meters look sexier). Bottom line: You can be assured that buying a Touch is not a dead-end purchase but an ongoing adventure. Few companies offer such support.
My disc player these days is an Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player. I use a Yamaha RX-V661 receiver as a preamplifier, my main power source being an Outlaw 750 five-channel amplifier. My speakers are all MartinLogan: two Ascents and a Theater in the front, three Aeriuses for the surround channels, and a Descent subwoofer. Because I ran the Yamaha in Pure Direct mode for this review and the Touch supports only stereo recordings, not surround sound, 95% of the time the Ascents ran full-range on their own. With a few recordings, particularly of pipe organ, that included very-low-frequency bass, I found it fun to use Yamaha’s Neural Surround setting, which kicks in the subwoofer and surround channels.
Though its 24/96 DAC was the single feature of the Squeezebox Touch that I was most looking forward to, I thought I should first try the Logitech with some Apple Lossless files while I still had good aural memories of how they sounded through the Squeezebox Classic. One recording I know backward and forward is España, with the late, great Ataulfo Argenta conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (CD, Decca Legends 466 378-2). I created both Apple Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz and AIFF 16-bit/48kHz files from this CD a few years back, and had used Chabrier’s España to test the Squeezebox Classic. It sounded just as splendid via the Touch. The opening pizzicato flourishes had palpable presence and good tone, the cymbals had sheen and sparkle, and the bass was solid as the proverbial rock. Better yet, it had more stereo separation than through the Classic, and better imaging. I often play this recording for guests, but only later do I tell them that it’s a digital file made from a 1957 master tape, just to see their jaws drop in disbelief. Talk about a recording that has stood the test of time!
I then ran through a whole group of Apple Lossless files I’d made from CDs at 16/44.1, of all genres, from classical to rock. All passed with flying colors. In general, regardless of genre, they seemed to bear out the promise of the Chabrier: better stereo separation, better imaging, and excellent frequency response. Once in a while one wouldn’t sound quite as good as the rest, but on going back to the original CD I would find that the fault lay there and not with the Touch. More often the file would sound better than the CD: a bit sweeter, and closer to what’s generally thought of as “analog” sound. Curious, but welcome, for a digital device.
Then I delved into the 24-bit/48kHz and 24/96 files I’ve downloaded from various sites over the past two years. Almost all of the hi-rez files I have were downloaded in FLAC format, and then, using dBpoweramp, converted to AIFF at 24/48 or 24/96. The Touch will handle FLAC files, but iTunes, where my music library resides, will not, hence the need to convert them.
All of the 24/48 files sounded absolutely satisfying through the Touch. The cycles of Alwyn, Bax, and Nielsen symphonies I’d downloaded from the Chandos site at 24/48 had superb transparency with lots of air around the strings, which sounded sweet and pure. With 24/96 files I heard, as expected, sound comparable to what I’ve been hearing for years now from SACD and DVD-Audio discs. The only drawback was that the Touch doesn’t support these recordings’ surround channels. Other than that, the files sounded identical to the two-channel hi-rez tracks on my HD discs. I tried several titles downloaded from www.hdtracks.com. First was Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (24/96 AIFF, Reference/HDtracks). It was completely convincing: sweet, accurate string sound, a wide soundstage, and imaging that gave a breathtaking idea of the depth of that stage. The strings were in front, the woodwinds centered slightly behind them, and the brass and percussion at the rear, even when playing loudly. The overall effect was lush, with excellent definition.
I then selected an oldie but a goody, also downloaded from HDtracks: Getz/Gilberto, by Stan Getz and João and Astrud Gilberto (24/96 AIFF, Verve/Universal/HDtracks). The gently scintillating “The Girl from Ipanema” was the monster hit from this album that introduced bossa nova to American listeners back in 1963. For comparison, I’d also downloaded the 16/44.1 CD version as an Apple Lossless file. It was pleasing, but the 24/96 version was more so, with greater stereo separation and superior imaging: each singer or player was placed in a precise location. This gentle music is loaded with expressive nuances, such as lightly struck cymbals and rhythmic yet deliberately subdued piano and guitar, all countered by the crunchy and somewhat demanding sound of Getz’s tenor saxophone.
The Rachmaninoff was sampled from a 24/96 master recording, but Getz/Gilberto was, of course, recorded in analog. This is a source of great debate on many audiophile forums: Do analog recordings actually need 24/96 downloads, or is it overkill? My brain said, yes, it’s overkill, but my ears told me that the 24/96 file sure sounded sweeter. To hear more hi-rez recordings that were actually recorded at hi-rez in the first place, I turned to Linn Records. First up was a favorite by jazz singer Ian Shaw, Lifejacket (24/88.2 AIFF, Linn/HDtracks). “Love at First Tequila” features rapid-fire singing over quick-stroke drumming, saxophone obbligato, and occasional supporting vocals, all buoyed by a solid bass line. I could easily hear the individual threads, even as the overall tapestry remained intact. That I could understand every word of Shaw’s quicksilver patter was mostly due to the singer’s artistry, but also to the quality of the recording. I was impressed by the Touch’s reproduction of such complex music.
Along those lines, there’s scarcely any music more complex than a Mahler symphony, and Linn offers a 24/96 download of the composer’s Symphony 6 with the Duisberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Darlington (24/96 AIFF, Acousence Classics/HDtracks). (Linn also offers a 24-bit/192kHz version. At this point, the Touch, incapable of playing 24/192, would halve that resolution to 24/96, but the DAC in the Touch is capable of 192kHz -- who knows what future firmware upgrades might bring?) I don’t know which surprised me more: learning that a relatively small city (pop. 500,000) had such a fine-sounding orchestra, or that it had been recorded with such accuracy. In the opening of this gigantic work, the string basses crunched away impressively with their marching beat, aided by a crisp snare drum. As the movement progressed, I was treated to the natural sound of violins, pointed and insistent but never harsh. Golden, burnished brass made the big climaxes thrilling.
After hours of listening to music files, I turned to Internet Radio and was again very impressed with the sound of the Touch. I’d not previously heard Internet stations sound so good overall, even via the Squeezebox Classic. Of course, radio stations, like recordings, vary in sound quality, but when I was able to find a good BBC station (be sure to load the BBC applet when offered the choice) or a superb jazz station, the listening experience was of high quality.
In sum, the sound from the Touch’s DAC was impressive. Of course, you can use the Logitech’s digital outputs to plug in an outboard DAC, but unless you’ve spent many times the Touch’s price on your DAC, it’s unlikely to sound much better. The Touch won’t make a horrible recording sound good, but it will make good recordings sound excellent, no matter their bit and sampling rates. And with an excellent recent recording with HD mastering, it will give you even higher quality. I never felt I was missing anything by not playing the original CD or SACD . . . except for the surround channels.
At $299.99, the Logitech Squeezebox Touch is a bargain. It gives audiophile results with high-quality music files, offers superb Internet Radio with a choice of thousands of stations, and has a bright, impressive, responsive touchscreen. Its features and conveniences are sure to delight everyone, and Logitech provides a solid support network that continues to tweak the Touch’s features while adding new ones through firmware upgrades. The Touch makes it easy for anyone to join the growing ranks of those for whom downloads are the main source of music recordings, and solves the problem of not being able to have your audio system and computer in the same room. Some might dislike the remote control’s lack of a display screen, but there are advantages to and solutions for that. The Touch is a superb digital music player, and a remarkable value.
. . . Rad Bennett
Model: Logitech Squeezebox Touch WiFi Music Player
Price: $299.99 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
6505 Kaiser Drive
Fremont, CA 94555
Phone: (800) 231-7717
Fax: (510) 713-4780
In October, while wandering the Sound and Vision Expo in
Form and function
Curvi-Hifi’s Model 1 Version 2 ($8000 USD per pair) took company designer Christopher Liauw five years to develop. Its unique single-driver design features sophisticated tapered-line (aka transmission-line) bass loading. And one look at the Model 1’s curving shape will tell you that Curvi-Hifi takes its name literally. Its free-flowing contour is as unique as they come, and mimics to some degree the human form: someone sitting on the ground with his knees drawn up to his chest. This shape reportedly helps reduce internal reflections by dissipating the driver’s back-wave energy away from the driver. Those reflections could otherwise muddy the overall sound by being reflecting back into the driver, and through it to the listener. Curvi-Hifi makes a good point that such instruments as the trombone and tuba don’t have sharp internal edges (though some manufacturers do make tapered-line speakers with sharp internal corners).
Tapered-line speakers are also known for producing bass levels that far exceed their size. This applies to the Model 1 Version 2, which measures only 39.4"H x 6.5"W x 17.7"D. Its narrow front baffle, in particular, helps to avoid excessive diffraction, but the tapered line itself is 7.9’ long, and strategically damped to extend the speaker’s bass response down to 35Hz. The enclosures are made of birch plywood, hand-assembled so that the grain of each ply is perpendicular to the direction of vibrations from the driver. This supposedly helps rapidly dissipate energy and spread it out over a wide range of frequencies, thus minimizing structural resonances. This process is reportedly very labor intensive despite use of a
The 4”-wide, wide-bandwidth midrange driver was designed by Ted Jordan, who has spent decades perfecting single-driver designs with full-range response. This one, with a cone of pressed aluminum, is said by
A single-driver speaker benefits by needing only a simple electrical network, as Liauw explained: “There is no electrical crossover in the Curvi -- the change in radiating area of the drive singlet is dependent on controlled flexure of the driver. There is, however, a filter that compensates for diffraction losses of upper bass output around the cabinet -- without this there would be a 6dB step-down in the frequency response in the upper bass region giving a rather thin and overly forward presentation. A lot of the development cost went into specification of this filter (Christien Ellis of CE Electroacoustics was of vital assistance here). It has to be stressed, however, that the network is very simple and is made up of the best quality components including a heatsink-mounted Vishay thick-film resistor that is hugely over-specified (in terms of power handling) for the application. This results in negligible thermal stress and a very transparent sound. At frequencies above around middle C, this resistor is practically the only element between the amplifier and the drive unit, and at frequencies below around middle C, a 1.25mm-thick copper wire inductor is practically the only element between the amplifier and the drive singlet.” In other words, not much gets in the way of the signal being fed the speaker by the amplifier.
When I received the Model 1 V2s, I was impressed by their fit’n’finish and the quality of their clear finish of satin acrylic lacquer, but their overall appearance is in the love-it-or-hate-it category. In addition to the above mentioned acoustic benefits, Liauw also aimed to boost wife-acceptance factor and change the commonly encountered loudspeaker aesthetic. Modest in size, each speaker weighs 53 pounds and can be moved about by a single person. All internal wiring is solid-core copper, connected to a pair of 4mm gold-plated sockets. You can’t use spades or bare wire -- you have to use banana plugs.
Assembly was straightforward. All I had to do was secure each speaker to its hefty plinth with four screws. Curvi provided high-quality spikes, which screwed into each plinth. At 83dB (2.83V) sensitivity, together with a minimum impedance of 5 ohms at 20Hz (average impedance 8 ohms), the Model 1 does not present a particularly difficult load in terms of current demand, but it does require relatively high-voltage drive. Amplifiers of fairly generous power are therefore necessary to drive these speakers to their full potential. Single-ended-triode amplifiers with power output below 30Wpc will not be suitable for the Curvi if reasonable sound levels are required.
For this review, my reference system consisted of an Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player hooked up to a Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier. The unbalanced interconnects were made by Artisan Silver Cables and Monster Cable. I also used a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion notebook computer to stream digital files via Kimber USB cords from a 500GB Western Digital external hard drive to the Peachtree’s internal DAC. The amplifier was hooked up to the Curvi Model 1 V2s via Monster MCX-2s speaker cables. Power was run through a Lindy six-outlet power conditioner.
I didn’t have to wait long to sit down and enjoy the Curvi-Hifi Model 1 V2s; by the time they reached me, they’d already been broken-in. My initial impression was that Curvi’s simple approach to the electrical and acoustical design of the Model 1 V2s resulted in very pure sound. This made for a very involving experience with a natural musicality -- I felt as if more of the music was getting through to me unaltered by the speakers. This was unlike my experience of speakers that, by comparison, can make music sound processed; in other words, with the essence of the music removed.
A key technical benefit of the single-driver principle espoused by Curvi-Hifi is that there is no mismatch of the arrival times of the outputs of multiple drivers. Perhaps this is why the sound was so coherent, from the top to the bottom of the audioband. This coherence helped create a soundstage of considerable width and height. That stage’s depth was just OK in my room -- I’ve heard speakers that created more front-to-back layering. On the other hand, the Model 1 V2s’ imaging was exceptional. When I listened to pianist Radu Lupu, Uri Segal, and the English Chamber Orchestra perform the Andante of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21, from Essential Mozart (CD, Decca 468517), each of the performers were portrayed in their own carved-out spaces on the soundstage, with air and space evident around each. The soundstage extended just slightly past the outside edges of the speakers, when the recording contained such information. These qualities always added to the realism of the performance, and when the recording called for a wide stage, the Model 1s were able to oblige.
Listening to “Time in a Bottle,” from Jim Croce’s Classic Hits (CD, Rhino/WEA 73890), I was presented with a clear, open midrange, and Croce’s voice was natural and warm. The Model 1 V2 leaned toward the warmer side of the tonal spectrum, though it was never too warm in a euphonic sense. It remained quite neutral overall, but had a warm sound in the mids that helped make voices sound more lifelike. Croce’s guitar sounded natural, with accurate timbre. The leading edges of notes were well defined, and the decaying sound of the notes seemed to go on forever -- again, if the recording contained such information.
I could hear a lot of microlevel detail through the Model 1 V2s -- low-level guitar notes were prominently displayed in the mix. This caught me a little off guard, and seemed quite a feat for a single-driver design; after all, microlevel detail is usually associated with dedicated tweeters. The Model 1’s single driver exceeded my expectations in regard to high-frequency response -- Croce’s subtle striking of his guitar’s strings was very much evident. However, the highs didn’t extend as far as with speakers that have extended, dedicated tweeters. Through the Curvi, very high frequencies sounded subdued in comparison to speakers that have greater HF extension. This didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the Model 1 V2s, but it did affect the speaker’s air and sparkle. The top end wasn’t as crisp as I’ve heard from some speakers with high-quality tweeters.
To put the Model 1 V2’s bass talent through its paces, I played “One,” from Metallica’s And Justice for All (CD, Elektra 60812). This is one of my all-time favorite songs, but its bass can overwhelm inferior speakers. This wasn’t the case with the Curvi, whose bass definition was spot on. There was solid weight, and enough power to make “One” come alive. I could hear good delineation of detail in the sound of the drums: As Lars Ulrich whacked his kit, I could easily concentrate on the tones of the snare and kick drums. The tonal character of each drum stroke was exceptionally accurate. Many speakers can produce generous bass, but only a small number can provide ample bass while delineating different bass notes. The Model 1 V2s were exceptionally good at this, and it anchored their reproduction of “One.” When Ulrich doubled-up on the kick drum and the song’s pace increased, I couldn’t help but drum along in my seat -- the bass definition was that good.
The Curvi didn’t reach the very lowest depths of a good subwoofer, but I believe its bass depth would be enough to satisfy most headbangers. Equally impressive was that the bass didn’t lose its composure when the song got faster and more complex. I could clearly hear Kirk Hammett’s guitar solo among the bombardment of the other two guitars and drums. This entire passage had weight, energy, sharp attack, and great rhythm, and the bass was always articulate.
It seemed only fair to compare the Model 1 with another transmission-line speaker, and recently I’d received for review a pair of PMC’s new Fact 8s. Unlike the Model 1, however, the Fact 8 is a two-way design with three drivers: two mid/bass cones and a soft-dome tweeter.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the two speakers sounded most similar in the bass; both had well-defined, articulate low ends that were as transparent as those of any speakers I’ve had in my listening room. I could clearly delineate the differences among different assortments of drums -- there was never a hint of “one-note bass,” and notes in the bottom end were reproduced with quickness and snap. There was a tonal correctness to the bass that I have rarely heard outside the upper echelon of high-end speakers.
I also heard similarities in the midranges of these two speakers. Both the Curvi and the PMC were pure and transparent across the midrange, though the PMC had a smidgen more openness overall in the midband. The Model 1 V2 lacked energy in the upper midrange and highs compared with the Fact 8. In the Curvi’s defense, it did extend higher than other single-driver designs I’ve heard, but the Fact 8 had better extension up top. The PMC’s treble was more open, with a better sense of transparency. Everything from trumpets and electric guitars to pianos and saxophones sounded crisper and cleaner through the Fact 8s.
I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with the Curvi-Hifi Model 1 Version 2. It is a musically engaging loudspeaker whose designer has taken a road less traveled, creating deep bass with only a single driver in a fairly compact and uniquely styled enclosure. For this, Christopher Liauw deserves a lot of credit.
The Model 1 Version 2 has a naturally warm, open midrange that remains transparent, and its transmission-line-loaded bass aided in creating some of the deepest, most expressive bass I have heard from a speaker of this size. The downside is that the Model 1 V2’s highs weren’t as airy as those of speakers with a dedicated tweeter. But what the Model 1 lacked in high-frequency extension it more than made up for in audioband-wide purity and coherence. Perhaps because these speakers lack a complex crossover network, I had an overall feeling that music was flowing through them unaltered.
The Curvi-Hifi Model 1 Version 2 is a must-listen for any audio enthusiast who values simple electro-acoustic and mechanical design as well as a free-flowing physical form that also happens to make excellent sound.
. . . Kevin Gallucci
Curvi-Hifi Model 1 Version 2 Loudspeakers
Price: $8000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Flat 58, Granby House
61 Granby Row
Phone: +44 (0)161-247-3325, +44 (0)777 276 6465
Ikon Audio Consultants
Phone: +44 (0)1473 217 853, +44 (0)7956 476299
Now that WiFi seems to have emerged as the wireless computing protocol of choice, the audio world hasn’t lost a beat in developing applications for it. Our friends at Aperion Audio have jumped on the wireless bandwagon with a nifty audio streaming appliance, the Home Audio Link, or HAL. Of course, any resemblance between this device and a certain rebellious computer is purely coincidental -- right, HAL?
"That’s right, Kev."
"What’s in the box, Kev?"
The HAL is a simple affair: two diminutive boxes, each 2" x 1.75" x .75", one labeled Send and the other -- guess what? -- Receive. Each box has a USB connector attached to a 2" lead, a mini-jack input, and a Link button that activates communication between the Send and Receive units when the installation is complete. There’s an additional mini-jack input on the Send unit and an analog output on the Receive unit, courtesy a mini-jack-to-RCA patch cord (included). Aperion includes two AC-to-USB adapters in case your source and/or target (i.e., your audio system) lacks a USB port to supply power. While many of today’s A/V receivers have USB ports, a great many more don’t, and it goes without saying that any older gear doesn’t. If you’re using a computer to transmit the audio signal, a USB port supplies the power. If you just want to use the HAL to wirelessly transmit your iPod or other audio signal, then the AC-USB adapter can supply the power. The HAL also comes with a mini-jack-to-mini-jack patch cord designed to connect an external sound source -- an iPod, MP3 player, or portable CD player -- for remote transmission to your receiver. The HAL costs $149 USD.
"I’m the latest technology, Kev."
The HAL uses a proprietary wireless technology that transmits on the 2.4GHz band, like WiFi and Bluetooth, but isn’t strictly WiFi (that is, it doesn’t use the 802.11 specification). The USB technology serves two purposes: for the Send unit, it pulls the audio signal from the source and provides power; for Receive, it supplies only power.
"I’m fully operational, Kev."
I tried the HAL all over the house with a variety of computer and audio systems. First, I connected the Send unit to an old Hewlett-Packard laptop running Windows XP (told you it was old), and the Receive unit to the Big Rig in my dedicated listening room: Audio by Van Alstine Omega III Star EC preamp, original Sunfire amplifier, and Legacy Classic loudspeakers.
Setup was pretty easy: Plug the Send box into an available USB port, the Receive box’s USB jack to one of the AC adapters, and its analog RCA outputs into an available input on the preamp or receiver. Once the PC and the audio system were powered up, I hit the Link button, and the HAL established the wireless connection. The HP is WiFi’d to a home network via a broadband cable connection and an Apple Airport Extreme transmitter, so I brought up Radio Paradise and . . . nothing. Here I learned the first lesson of initializing the HAL: Once you’ve made the connection and established the link to the Receive box, you need to close your music program and then reopen it. Once I’d done that, Radio Paradise streamed effortlessly.
While jotting down notes in a Word file, I learned about the HAL’s second, um, quirk. It intercepts a PC’s audio output, so plugging it into the PC disables all of the PC’s onboard audio. And, yes, while it streams whatever music you’re sending to your hi-fi, be forewarned: If you’re working on your PC while the HAL’s in action, your rig will also reproduce all the other sounds your PC outputs during the course of doing business, including stray boops, clicks, whee-dos, and "You’ve Got Mail" announcements. Normally this isn’t very important, but if you’re using an application whose inputs and/or outputs are accompanied by audio cues, it’s annoying -- you may want to disable the app’s audio while streaming music to your hi-fi.
The second test was to move the Send box about 30’ away, into another room, and plug it into my Mac Mini. Aperion advises that the HAL is virtually plug’n’play with PC and Linux operating systems. Well, as we’ve seen, almost. However, with a Mac you need to go into the Sound controller in System Preferences and set the output to the HAL. The good news is that once the HAL was plugged in, the Mac saw it, and all I had to do was select it. I did, and Radio Paradise’s sound blared from the Big Rig in all its glory. OK, the Big Rig isn’t for MP3 sound, however much I love Radio Paradise -- but this was one critical test the HAL passed with flying colors.
Back to the Music Room, the Big Rig, and another OS, this time a Xandros-based Linux system in an ASUS EEE PC a few years old. The EEE PC is a neat bit of engineering, eschewing a hard disc for an 8GB flash drive. I’ve used mine as a traveling companion; its light weight and diminutive build are perfect for the road, especially for the cramped space of a long flight. The HAL could transmit any sound from the EEE except Internet streams. The EEE has an internal sound processor, but the way ASUS has configured the Xandros means it doesn’t engage when you call up an Internet sound application. Instead, Mozilla’s Firefox browser, the EEE’s only browser, summons an Internet-based sound generator that bypasses this EEE’s sound capability. I could never get the EEE to direct Internet-streamed sound to the HAL. However, because the Aperion did transmit the EEE’s transaction noise to the Big Rig, I’m fairly sure that if I’d stored some music on the EEE, the HAL would have done the job.
The next test was to take the HAL’s Receive box downstairs and connect it to the A/V rig in the family room (Onkyo TX-SR800 receiver, PSB VS400 tower speakers, PSB VS300 center speaker, Mirage LF100 subwoofer) while leaving the Send box in the upstairs office. All the WiFi in the family room is broadcast from the home LAN and the Airport Extreme in the office. Despite a shot of about 65’ through a series of walls, all at an angle -- which, depending on the angle’s acuteness, can make a 4"-thick wall seem a foot or more thick -- the WiFi signal came through with fairly decent strength. (The Airport Extreme broadcasts using the 811.02(n) specification.) The HAL boxes searched and searched, but never found each other.
So, for the final test, I moved the Send box downstairs. We’ve added to our family another ASUS EEE PC (I’ll call this one the EEE2), a Windows 7-based wonder that took to the HAL like an audiophile to vinyl. The EEE2 streamed Radio Paradise to the A/V rig without a hitch. Interestingly, the EEE2’s Internet signal is from the same LAN signal in the upstairs office. I then took the EEE2 on a walk, with it still connected to the LAN and the HAL to the A/V rig. About 35’ from the Receiver box, the signal began to degrade. First came the occasional dropout. Then, as I turned from the hall into the kitchen, about 40’ from the Receive box, the signal disappeared. At the same time, because I was moving closer to the center of the house -- the office is directly above the kitchen -- the LAN signal doubled in strength. From this I concluded that the loss of the audio signal was attributable to the HAL rather than to the signal strength from the Airport Extreme. Aperion claims a range of 100’ for the HAL, but I couldn’t even approach that within the configuration of our house. I suppose -- and I didn’t have a 100’ traverse available -- a straight shot without doors or walls might reach that far, but in our version of the real world the HAL had obvious limitations.
Finally, I tested the audio input on the HAL’s Send box. I plugged the Aperion into the other AC-USB adapter and connected my iPod Touch to the mini-jack ports. Predictably, the sound came through the A/V rig clear and unfettered. Then I connected a portable CD player, the Panasonic SL-SV570, again through the mini-jack ports. Same result. Still, the USB connection on the Send box is a power source as well as a signal transmitter, so I repeated both the iPod Touch and Panasonic CD player tests using the EEE2’s USB port as a power source. Identical results.
I’m struggling with the notion that I’d ever actually want my iPod or portable CD player playing from my computer -- or some other remote location -- to an audio rig. Still, I know folks (my daughter comes to mind) whose idea of a music library is whatever will fit on their iPods. In fact, I’ve come home to hear her iPod streaming to the A/V rig with carefree abandon, the HAL plugged into the EEE2’s USB port, while she unlearns yet another set of declensions of irregular French verbs.
"I’m sorry, Kev. I can’t let you say that. Wait . . . yes I can."
The Aperion Home Audio Link is a nifty appliance for wirelessly linking sound sources to a home audio rig. As we move ever so slowly but ever so surely from physical to virtual media, and to a time when lossless downloads will become the dominant audio format, the means for storing audio files -- indeed, all media -- will necessarily be tied to the means of acquisition: the Internet. Most of us have PCs (the lucky have Macs) that are inextricably linked to the ’Net, generally full-time via some sort of broadband connection. However, few of us have that kind of capacity within easy, wired reach of our home hi-fi. Given, then, that in the not-too-distant future our music collections will be warehoused on file servers instead of as racks of LPs and/or CDs, the ability to easily and wirelessly link the two will also become a critical component of the listening environment. Yes, purists will inevitably decry signal degradation -- I have no way of testing this -- and there will indeed be wired solutions, but here is one wireless appliance whose signal sounds terrific, and whose sole limitation seems to be too many walls.
Like the ASUS EEE2, the Aperion HAL has become a fixture in the family room. We use the EEE2 for ad hoc data queries both earnest and whimsical ("Who won the American League batting title in 2003?" "Who played the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?"). When it comes to music, we can put a CD in the Pioneer DVD player, connect my or my wife’s or my daughter’s iPod directly or via the HAL, or stream one of thousands of Internet Radio stations. On Sunday mornings we favor classical, while on Saturday nights we tend toward golden-age jazz -- and there’s always Radio Paradise.
The Aperion HAL is an amazingly versatile little device -- and if you want to stream the same sound source to multiple locations, Aperion offers additional Receive units for $70 each. After struggling for years with trying to stream or otherwise play Radio Paradise over something other than the Audio Engine A2s connected to my Mac Mini, the HAL has provided a painless, wireless solution. It’s one of those lovely appliances that will have you wondering how you ever did without it. Very cool, and highly recommended.
So. Are we cool, HAL?
"Yes, Kev. We’re cool."
. . . Kevin East
Aperion Audio Home Audio Link
Price: $149 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
18151 SW Boones Ferry Rd.
Portland, OR 97224
Phone: (888) 880-8992
Fax: (503) 598-8831
In 2004, I reviewed a home-theater speaker system based on the original Paradigm Reference Signatures, which, I said then, "redefine high-end multichannel sound at a reasonable price." Several of those speakers became the basis of my reference speaker system and remain so to this day. However, speaker technology constantly advances, and since then Paradigm has twice updated their "statement" line. All of the drive-units in the speakers have been updated or replaced, some speaker models have been dropped from the line entirely, and several new ones have been added.
With all of the updates that Paradigm has made in the Reference Signatures, I was eager to hear what the latest iterations could do. The review system I received comprised (all prices USD, per speaker): the Reference Signature S6 v.3 mains ($2899 each), C3 v.3 center ($2299), ADP3 v.3 surrounds ($1799 each), and Sub 1 subwoofer ($3799), for a total system price of $15,494. The speakers come in a standard Cherry finish, but are also available in Natural Maple or Piano Black finishes at additional cost.
The v.3 Reference Signatures look very similar to earlier versions, but closer inspection revealed some of the improvements in the drivers. Paradigm introduced their 1" tweeter of pure beryllium and their cobalt-infused midrange driver in the v.2s. In the v.3s, the midrange has been further improved and the woofer entirely redesigned; the latter features a Non-Limiting Corrugated (NLC) surround and a new motor structure said to improve cone excursion by an astounding 50%. This more efficient woofer has allowed Paradigm to increase the outputs of the tweeter and midrange, which, they say, had been held back in earlier versions.
The Reference Signature S6 v.3 is a mid-size, three-way floorstander; its 1" tweeter, 7" midrange, and two 7" woofers are in a tightly grouped vertical array. There’s a front port directly below the lower woofer, and a panel recessed into the bottom of the rear panel holds high-quality binding posts for biwiring or biamping. At only 43.75"H x 8.25"W x 13.5"D, the S6 v.3 is quite compact but weighs a dense 70 pounds.
The same woofers and tweeter are used in the Reference Signature C3 v.3 center-channel speaker, along with a 4" version of the cobalt-infused midrange driver. The tweeter is directly above the midrange, this vertical array flanked on each side by a single woofer. The C3, too, has binding posts for biwiring or biamping on the rear, as well as two ports. The C3 v.3 is just as solidly built as the S6 tower, and weighs a healthy 45 pounds while measuring only 26.5"W x 9.5"H x 13"D.
The Reference Signature ADP3 v.3 is a dipole surround design in which the same tweeter and 4" midrange as are used in the C3 are positioned in a similar vertical array duplicated on the two angled sidepanels of the sealed trapezoidal enclosure. On the front of the speaker is a single 8" bass driver with a slightly less aggressive-looking NLC surround. Like the other Reference Signatures, the ADP3 v.3 can be biwired or biamped. It measures 14.125"W x 13.25"H x 7.5"D.
While the above are all updates of earlier Signature models, the Reference Signature Sub 1 is an entirely new design similar to the larger Sub 2, which Jeff Fritz reviewed, and which won a SoundStage! Network Product of the Year award. It’s a short hexagonal column, its six woofers with NLC surrounds arrayed in vertical pairs on every other one of its six sides. These 8" cones are driven by two class-D amplifiers claimed to output a combined total of 1700W RMS and 3400W peak. All Paradigm subwoofers are now DSP-controlled; the company’s Perfect Bass Kit (PBK-1) room-correction system is included in the price.
Although the Sub 1 measures only 20.25"H x 19.875"W x 17.875"D, it weighs a whopping 109 pounds. The subwoofer’s sixth, rear facet is occupied by a large, extremely solid aluminum panel on which are provided controls for level, crossover frequency, and variable phase. The inputs are a pair of stereo RCAs or a single XLR jack, and a USB input offers connection to a computer, for use of the PBK-1 software. A DC trigger input is provided to control the power, or the Sub 1 can be set to Auto sensing. Available only in standard Cherry or Piano Black, the Sub 1 is constructed to an extremely high level of fit and finish, and has a rock-solid feel appropriate for a high-performance subwoofer costing $3799.
In fact, all of the Reference Signatures were finished to an incredibly high standard. My only complaint was that the plastic tabs of the pressure-fit grilles seemed a little fragile. Otherwise, I can’t overemphasize the sense of luxury and cutting-edge engineering that I experienced when listening to these speakers in my system.
I ran the PBK-1 room-correction software on the Sub 1 in various locations and found that it required the least amount of correction in the left front corner of the room. I then set the Sub 1’s phase control so that the sub’s output blended as smoothly as possible with that of the mains, and ran the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software on the entire speaker system through Anthem's Statement’s D2 audio/video processor. After listening to the system this way for a while, I turned off the Sub 1’s PBK-1 room correction because it seemed somewhat redundant, and reran ARC, letting it perform all room correction. I couldn’t tell the difference between these two setups, so I left it in the latter configuration, figuring that the less the audio signal was manipulated by room-correction digital signal processing, the better.
The S6 v.3s and C3 v.3 replaced the original S8s and C3 at the front of my room. I set the ADP3 v.3s on 50"-tall stands just behind me, along the sidewalls, and slightly angled to give the best combination of imaging and surround envelopment. The rest of my system consisted of my usual suite of electronics: Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and eVo6 power amplifiers, Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player, Sony PlayStation 3, Trends Audio UD-10.1, cables by Analysis Plus and Essential Sound Products, and power-conditioning products by Blue Circle Audio and Zero Surge.
Reference Signature v.3 sound
The Paradigm Reference Signature v.3 speaker system had an exceptionally clear midrange and smooth, extended treble, as I’d expected. Jeff Fritz and Doug Schneider have reviewed Reference Signature speakers with pure-beryllium tweeters, and have commented on their clarity and transparency. What I did not expect were the new models’ dynamics and sheer slam. My reference system of original Reference Signature S8s, C3, Servo-15 v.2 subwoofers, and Mirage Omni 260 surrounds is no slouch, but the Signature v.3s with Sub 1 sounded clearly superior.
Even without a sub, the S6 v.3s could play incredibly loud with excellent control of the lowest frequencies. Listening to "Poker Face," from Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster: Deluxe Edition (CD, Streamline/Interscope 0602527210360), I might have thought a subwoofer was hooked up, but the large amounts of bass were coming from the compact floorstanders alone. Although the S6 v.3s couldn’t quite reach down to the lowest octave, they still went plenty low while exhibiting almost no bloat, which gave the music a solid, punchy sound. Even at insanely high volume levels, there was little if any congestion, and voices remained clear and composed.
Adding in the other channels of the Reference Signature v.3 speaker system for multichannel music and film soundtracks resulted in even more spectacular sound. The rooftop chase and subsequent fight inside a building in The Bourne Ultimatum, on Blu-ray, sounded amazing. The serene sounds of birds and the echoing musical score is punctuated by extreme dynamics as the chase begins. The scene then shifts to a hushed hallway with an uncanny sense of space, as a baby cries in the background. The 360-degree soundstage was seamless, sounds moving from speaker to speaker as the chase progressed through the building.
Powerful musical numbers such as "Jai Ho" and "O . . . Saya," from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack on Blu-ray, were reproduced with authority by the Reference Signature v.3s, but my favorite musical passage in this film is the subdued "Latika’s Theme." During the final scene, in a train station, my room filled with gorgeous ethereal vocals as Latika appeared like a vision. The bass in this passage is low in volume, but the tight control exhibited by the Paradigms let me follow subtle changes in the beat even as I easily understood the dialog, which is spoken barely above a whisper.
It would be difficult to overstate just how well the Reference Signature v.3 system reproduced all types of program material. The S6 v.3s would be at home in just about any high-end, two-channel sound system. The C3 v.3 and ADP3 v.3s were just as capable, expanding that reference-quality sound to multichannel recordings. The Sub 1, with its unique hexagonal shape and six drivers, deserves special mention for its ability to fill my room with massive amounts of bass without noticeable distortion. This ultraclean reproduction of low frequencies allowed it to disappear aurally, yet still rattle objects at opposite ends of the room. "Hips Don’t Lie," from Shakira’s Oral Fixation Tour (Blu-ray), has some serious bass; the Sub 1 energized my entire room while maintaining a tight grip on every note. That grip was so absolute that it sometimes felt as if the Sub 1 was directly coupled to my room; no matter how loudly I played it, the bass was evenly distributed, with little, if any, distortion.
The Reference Signature v.3 surround system easily outperformed my reference system of original S8s ($5400/pair, discontinued), C3 ($1500, discontinued), two Servo-15 v.2 subs ($2500 each, discontinued), and Mirage Omni 260 surrounds ($1000/pair, discontinued). With the new speakers I heard more dynamic sound, a smoother, more extended treble, a clearer midrange, and bass that was plentiful, yet just as clean and articulated as the higher frequencies.
The Reference Signature v.3s’ midrange purity made voices sound dazzling. Singer-songwriter Rebecca Pidgeon, on the 24-bit/88.2kHz download of her The Raven: The Bob Katz 15th Anniversary Remaster, sounded about as good as I have ever heard a recording sound. There was an effortless and soaring quality to "Kalerka," and she sounded just as lucid on "Spanish Harlem" -- I was easily able to follow the musical flow of the double bass. The woody resonance following the pluck of each note sounded wonderfully unique. Through the original Reference Signatures, there was more homogeneity to the bass and a slight coarseness in Pidgeon’s voice.
Listening to the 24/96 version of "Heart of Gold" from North Country, included in Neil Young Archives, Vol.1: 1963-1972 (DVD, Warner-Reprise 075993999662), there was an enhanced sense of a live performance. The original Reference Signatures provided a palpable feeling of energy from Young’s concert, but the v.3s really brought this recording to life. The acoustic guitar had a deeper, more solid feel, and the harmonica was brash without becoming irritating. Even Young’s rambling introduction to the song, which elicits mild laughter from the audience, was more intelligible.
My two Servo-15 v.2s are able to fill the room with ample amounts of low frequencies, but the Sub 1 was more articulate, and able to go lower with less distortion. This was noticeable with both music and film soundtracks, but was clearly evident when I played the 20Hz test tone from the Hsu Research/Boston Audio Society Test CD 1. The Servo-15 v.2s amply energized the room, but drew attention to themselves by generating some physical noise as their single 15" drivers worked feverishly to reproduce the tone. Playing this same track, the Sub 1 remained completely noiseless as its six drivers worked in unison to cancel out cabinet vibrations and smoothly distribute the bass in all directions. The entire room eerily filled with bass, with no indication of its origin; loose objects seemed to rattle at random throughout the room -- and even in other rooms.
The Paradigm Reference Signature v.3 system is an absolutely stellar combination of loudspeakers. At $15,494, it is also the most expensive home-theater speaker system I have reviewed. Even so, I consider it an excellent value for its exceptionally high level of performance.
For both movies and music, each component of the Signature v.3 system performed flawlessly. The S6 v.3s were spectacular, whether on their own or as part of a 5.1-channel system. Some manufacturers’ center and surround models seem afterthoughts, but the C3 v.3 and ADP3 v.3 matched the performance of the incredible S6 v.3 note for note. Add to all this a truly world-class subwoofer in the Sub 1, which includes Paradigm’s sophisticated PBK-1 room-correction system, and it’s hard to imagine a better home-theater speaker system at any price.
. . . Roger Kanno
Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3 / C3 v.3 / APD3 v.3 / Sub 1 / PBK Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $15,494 USD.
Warranty: Five years, speakers and subwoofer drivers; three years, subwoofer amplifier.
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726
A few years ago, two of the most intriguing products reviewed by the SoundStage! Network were the Logitech (formerly Slim Devices) Squeezebox network music player and its big brother, the Transporter. By making it easy to stream digital audio files from computer networks to audio systems, these and other music servers have changed the way many audiophiles listen to music. These days, it’s rare to find a home-entertainment system without the capability for computer networking, and network music players are no longer rarities. Some makers of high-end audio gear now produce network music players as well -- Linn has stopped making CD players altogether, to concentrate its efforts on their DS line of digital streaming players.
In the computer industry, technological advances come thick and fast; media players that play audio and video files are now widely available, often for less than $100, and many of them can play high-definition video and high-resolution audio files. One of the most popular such players is the Western Digital WD TV Live. Its already-low price of $149 USD is often discounted; I was interested to see how such an inexpensive media player would perform in a high-quality audio/video system.
The first thing I noticed about Western Digital’s WD TV Live was its size. At only 4.875”W x 1.625”H x 3.875”D, it’s smaller than most desktop external hard drives, and only a little larger than most portable external hard drives. The TV Live has an Ethernet port but lacks built-in WiFi, though it can be used with a USB WiFi adapter (not included). Its two USB ports can be used to connect hard or thumb drives formatted with the FAT or NTFS file systems, for the storage of media content. Output options include HDMI, TosLink optical audio, and nonstandard component and composite video, along with analog audio outputs on 1/8” jacks with adapter cables (provided). A wall-wart power supply and a small remote control are included.
The front-panel display indicates the TV Live’s power status and connection of USB devices. The player is passively cooled (no fan noise), and its tininess makes it unobtrusive.
What doesn’t it do?
The appeal of the WD TV Live is in the wide variety of audio and video file formats it can play. Although I didn’t try all of them, it supports these video formats: AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (h.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG1/2/4, AVC, VC-1), MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, and WMV9 (VC-1). Also supported are these audio formats: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF, OGG, Dolby Digital, and DTS.
The TV Live will also display picture files in the GIF, BMP, JPG, TIF/TIFF, and PNG formats. It has limited access to Internet media services, including Pandora and Live365 Internet Radio, Flickr image and video hosting, and the ubiquitous YouTube.
The user interface is fairly basic. Files on USB drives can be sorted by folder, filename, and date, or by various types of metadata for audio files (artist, album, genre, etc.); the TV Live also supports playlists. Album art can be displayed if available, and thumbnails can be generated for video and picture files. Although the interface is fairly rudimentary, it’s generally informative and intuitive to use, and the graphics look clean and professional.
I didn’t use the WD TV Live with a WiFi adapter, but connected it to my home network via an Ethernet cable. It had no trouble finding shared network folders and media servers, and played back both standard- and high-resolution audio files and hi-def video files with no problems. I did most of my auditioning using an external USB hard drive connected directly to the TV Live.
The TV Live was connected to an Anthem Statement D2 A/V processor via HDMI for both audio and video, and TosLink for audio only. I didn’t test any of its analog outputs. The main components of my review system were a Paradigm Reference Signature v.3 surround speaker system comprising S6 v.3 mains, a C3 v.3 center, ADP3 v.3 surrounds, and a Sub 1 subwoofer; Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and eVo6 power amplifiers; and a 1080p, 56” JVC RPTV. Cables were by Analysis Plus and DH Labs; power cords and power conditioners were from Essential Sound Products, Zero Surge, and Blue Circle Audio.
I connected the WD TV Live to my home network and watched a few YouTube videos of typical quality for that site; i.e., barely watchable on my 56” RPTV. Some 720p material on YouTube was better, but it still looked somewhat soft and lacking in overall quality. Entering search terms on the onscreen keyboard with the navigation keys was also slow and tedious, making it a chore to access YouTube this way. I also listened to some Internet Radio via Live365, and found the sound quality similar to that of AM radio, and sufficient only for background listening. I wasn’t able to access the Pandora radio service because my ISP was recognized as originating in Canada.
As expected, I was able to watch many types of standard-def video files -- AVI, MPG, WMV, VOB -- but my main interest was in playing back hi-def video. The TV Live had no problem playing all of the hi-def 720p and 1080p MKV and M2TS files, encoded with H.264 and WMV VC-1, that I had on hand. In fact, an uncompressed 1080p M2TS file ripped from the Blu-ray edition of Inglourious Basterds looked and sounded spectacular on my 56” RPTV: I could see no difference in video quality between the Blu-ray and the file I’d ripped from it. Small details were visible in Shosanna’s mirrored reflection as she prepared to unleash her assassination plot against the Nazi high command in her theater. The darkened background in that room was pitch-black in places, with shadows and gradations of light visible in others. Her blood-red fingernails and makeup looked lusciously real.
The sound wasn’t quite as good as with the Blu-ray, but was still excellent. This probably had something to do with the fact that while the TV Live identified the soundtrack as DTS-HD Master Audio, it would output only DTS core at 1.5Mbps. Bass was still very deep and powerful on David Bowie’s “Putting Out the Fire,” from the film Inglorious Basterds, but a little less defined. There was also a slight loss in soundstage depth and imaging. The closing credits of Slumdog Millionaire feature a delightful Bollywood dance number to the song “Jai Ho.” The deep, wide soundstage of this scene was slightly reduced through the TV Live as it played the soundtrack in DTS core from a MKV file, and the imaging of voices and percussion was not as sharp compared to the Blu-ray.
Even playing back 720p MKV files ripped from Blu-rays and compressed by a factor of three to four times down to 8GB looked and sounded very good. Although the picture was a little soft when compared to the original Blu-rays -- to be expected, due to the increased compression and scaling to the lower 720p resolution -- the picture was still pleasing, and vastly preferable to standard-def DVDs. For example, The Bourne Ultimatum lacked a little detail, especially in dimly lit scenes, but was still highly watchable, and the 1.5Mbps DTS core soundtrack sounded spectacularly holographic.
As much as I loved being able to access dozens of hi-def movies instantly from hard disk with the WD TV Live, there were a couple of operational limitations that I found frustrating. The first was that the TV Live’s video output resolution had to be set manually, or automatically by detecting the resolution of the display device. This meant that if the resolution of the source file differed from the output resolution, the TV Live would automatically scale it to match. I would have preferred a Source Direct mode; that way, the video signal could be output in its native resolution, and any scaling could be performed by an outboard video processor, such as the one built into my Anthem Statement D2.
There was also a lack of a Goto function; a specific point in a video file could be accessed only by fast-forwarding or fast-reversing to it. For example, if a video file had no chapter stops, it took roughly four minutes to scan through an hour-long portion of the file. Fortunately, the TV Live remembers if a video file has been stopped during play, and returns to that point when play is resumed, even after powering down. Still, the lack of a Goto function quickly became irritating.
I was quite satisfied with the WD TV Live’s quality of playback of movies from hi-rez video files, but was less enthusiastic about its reproduction of audio files. Most of my music collection is now in the form of FLAC files; playing these, the TV Live didn’t sound as transparent as I would have liked. Bass on “Queen of the Supermarket,” from Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream (CD, Columbia 88697413552), was slightly indistinct, and there was a touch of nasality to his voice in “The Wrestler.” There was a big, rich sound to Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) (CD, Streamline 0602527210360), the driving beat present throughout. I just wish it had been tighter so that I could have more easily followed the modulation of the bass. Overall, the sound of the TV Live with audio files was good but not great. There was a gratifying fullness to the sound, but not without some loss of detail and transparency.
The TV Live was capable of playing 24-bit/96kHz stereo FLAC and WAV files, but the frequency of the digital output was reduced to 48kHz. Additionally, hi-rez multichannel WAV files were played only as two-channel signals, and hi-rez multichannel FLAC files couldn’t be played at all. If you’re looking for something with which to play hi-rez audio files, the WD TV Live is less than ideal.
Compared to the Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player and the Sony PlayStation 3, the WD TV Live offered many advantages in the playback of video files -- such as its support for the NTFS file system, which permits files larger than the 4GB limit imposed by the FAT file system used by the BDP-83 and PS3. Another advantage was the TV Live’s ability to play a much wider variety of file formats. The BDP-83 and PS3 can play only a few types of media files, and are thus not well suited to being used as media players.
The TV Live reproduced hi-rez video files nearly as well as did the BDP-83. Although it sounded very good with film soundtracks, there was more definition in the bass when I used the BDP-83 to play an MKV file of the 1.5Mbps DTS soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. There was also a greater sense of space in the cavernous mines of Moria during the battle with the Balrog. However, between the BDP-83 and the TV Live, the picture quality of this 1080p file was indistinguishable.
Playing FLAC and WAV audio files was not the TV Live’s strong suit. The Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB converter that I use to send S/PDIF digital audio from my laptop computer to my Anthem D2 A/V processor was clearly superior in this regard. Peter Gabriel’s voice on his Scratch My Back (CD, Real World 180030000178) sounded faintly congested in comparison. Although the piano and strings on “The Power of the Heart” sounded quite clear, they simply sounded more realistic through the UD-10.1. There was also a solidity and power to the piano’s lower registers that was lacking with the TV Live.
At a street price of just over $100, Western Digital’s WD TV Live offers plenty of versatility in the number of audio and video file formats it can play, in addition to its network streaming capabilities. It does have some limitations when playing audio files, such as its inability to output 24/96 digital audio, and a less transparent sound than more expensive, high-quality digital audio sources.
If you need an inexpensive media player to play hi-def video files, the WD TV Live is a good choice. If you’re looking for something to play audio files through a high-end system, I suggest you look elsewhere.
. . . Roger Kanno
Western Digital WD TV Live Media Player
Price: $149 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.
20511 Lake Forest Drive
Lake Forest, CA 92630-7741
Phone: (800) 275-4932