Feature Articles & Reviews
I was chatting with Group Commander Jeff Fritz, going over what I was currently excited about covering -- and there’s a lot going on that fills me with hope for our treasured hobby. We’re in the midst of an all-out assault on sound perfection, and not only where you’d expect to find it. Sure, all those lucky folks who write for SoundStage! Ultra get to spend their days contemplating what’s possible with unlimited funds. But what excites me is that members of the middle class who seriously love music can now assemble an audio system that, in some important ways, will sound better than monster systems costing more than most cars. That quality is made possible by listening in the nearfield.
There are three principal reasons that less-expensive equipment has shown such a remarkable surge in quality. On the electronics side, the cost of parts, whether for amplification or analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion, have dropped as their quality has increased. Look at such components as Oppo’s BDP-105D universal Blu-ray player or Benchmark’s DAC-1 digital-to-analog converter. Each lists for about $1000, and outperforms almost anything that, just a few years ago, cost twice or even thrice their price. I’d take the Benchmark over a Mark Levinson No.30.6 DAC, which cost $16,950 at the turn of the millennium. Of course, as John Atkinson wrote in his Stereophile review of the No.30.6, “Madrigal includes the [No.30.6] in its ‘Reference’ series, by which they mean that the unit will not become obsolete.” Hmm.
It seems to me that most owners of Anthem’s prior lineup of audio/video receivers -- the MRX 300, 500, and 700 models -- were a confident and optimistic lot, secure in their knowledge that they had one of the finest AVRs ever made, supported by a company that cares about delivering value and service to its customers. They knew that their receiver would have a long service life for one simple reason: Anthem bases its upgrades on real improvements, not the calendar, and their new line of Performance MRX models -- the 310, 510, and 710 -- constitute a substantial advance.
You’d be amazed at how many companies decide to update a model based on an impending CEDIA Expo or Consumer Electronics Show. Imagine the marketing director in his or her lavish office, calling in the poor R&D minions from their meager laboratory: “Sales of our ZJ382 receiver have slowed. We need something new. Have it ready for the CEDIA Expo. Dismissed.” Back in the lab, the engineers try to decide what this year’s big new feature should be. “Well, we could offer Internet Radio,” one says. “We should save that for next year,” says another. “How about we hire some Apple guy to make an app for us?” “OK, but don’t make it too good. We’re going to have to have another innovation next year.”
If you don’t let your loved ones know exactly what you want for Christmas, there’s a good chance you’ll be spending December 26 trying to find out whether Urban Outfitters will give you a $215 cash refund for that nice Penfield Eska shirt jacket. Or if Barnes & Noble will give you a $54 refund for the boxed set of The Hunger Games that your girlfriend thought was so cool.
Stop such problems before they start by casually leaving a printout of this story on the breakfast table. Or accidentally on purpose send this URL to your whole family. “Oh, did I send that to you? Sorry, it was supposed to go to a buddy. Yeah, he asked me for a list of all the things I really wish I had.”
You get the picture. In any case, everything on this list is guaranteed to bring you joy throughout 2014 and beyond.
The loser . . .
This story begins with a nightmare that all too many audiophiles have experienced. I found a pair of flawless speakers that were right in every way for bringing glorious sound to my office system: Digidesign’s RM2.
The RM2 should have been a bulletproof choice. Anyone who’s ever considered making his or her own music knows Digidesign’s main product, Pro Tools, and the RM2 was designed for them by the Professional Monitor Company (PMC), one of a handful of gold-standard makers of recording-studio monitors. A high percentage of the top audio recordings are taped and mixed using PMC monitors and Pro Tools. Even the mad scientists in the mastering world use the bigger PMC monitors. With that type of pedigree, how could I go wrong? If I can listen through the same speakers the engineers use, I’ll be that much closer to the master tape!
It was not to be. I’ve put together the following account from conversations with people placed high in the companies involved; they all spoke freely to me, but none wanted to speak on the record.
Avid Technology, makers of video editing equipment, bought Digidesign. Avid had little interest in making expensive monitor speakers, so they stopped making the RM2. But instead of trying to maintain some goodwill with the people who’d already shelled out $3500 for a pair of RM2s, Avid decided to kill it outright: no parts support. The designers, PMC, were told to abandon the RM2 and to hand over all spare parts, which they did.
Marantz has been a presence on the American market for over 60 years. From the high-end masterpieces of Saul Marantz’s (1911-1997) day to today’s value-conscious winners, the company has stuck by its customers. There was a short time when the name lost some cachet, beginning in 1964 when Saul sold the company, until the 1980s, when Ken Ishiwata began to exercise some influence. Since then it’s been ever upward, as the new owners -- D+M Group (formerly D&M Holdings), who also own Boston Acoustics, Calrec, Denon, and Premium Sound Solutions -- aim to take a place at the top of each price range. To see how they’re doing, we chose the SR7008, a 9.2-channel, 125Wpc A/V receiver with a list price of $1999 USD.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a Mitsubishi DLP projector in house. We reviewed the HC3000 in 2006 (720p DLP, $2495 USD), and the HC5000 in 2007 (1080p LCD, $4495), but since then we’ve had to satisfy ourselves with the occasional sighting at a Consumer Electronics Show. The HC3000 and HC5000 fared well in our critiques, so we’ve been anxious to try something new. The Mitsubishi HC7900DW ($2499) seemed like a great choice.
The art of projector design gets swoopier every year, and the HC7900DW is a gorgeous piece of industrial sculpture. Its clean white body, orderly lines, and uncluttered rear end all make for a nice presentation. Granted, it’s missing the Hummer-like seriousness of the Runco D-113d, or the voluptuous curves of a Sim2 Lumis 3D-Solo in Ferrari Red. Still, in person, the HC7900DW is quite attractive.
Inside is a single-chip 1080p DLP device with a light output of 1500 lumens and a contrast ratio of 150,000:1, assisted by an automatic iris. The HC7900DW is a 3D machine, though it doesn’t come with any equipment to watch a 3D movie. I applaud this approach, because lots of folks don’t give a twit about 3D. If you want to use its 3D capabilities, you’ll have to pony up an additional $99 for Mitsubishi’s 3D Emitter. You can buy various brands of glasses, which run $50 to $125/pair. You’ll probably also want to set a few bucks aside for a good universal remote control.
This is a continuation of last month’s column, in which I recommended Dirac, a program that’s a superb way to get better sound from a computer-based audio system. I concluded that article by swearing, hand on heart, that until something better comes along, I will use Dirac. That settled, all we now need is some way to convert digital signals to analog, and some powered speakers.
I use Digidesign’s RM2 active speakers, a transmission-line design; each RM2 has two amps, a fine DAC, and drivers designed and built by PMC. Digidesign has been swallowed by another company and no longer makes the RM2, but if you want something similar, check out PMC’s AML-2. But this month, I focus on DACs.
Jeff Fritz, editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network, writes the monthly “Opinion” at UltraAudio.com. One of the things I like about Jeff’s column is that he regularly sticks his neck out by listing what he would actually buy. Last month, without having planned to, both of us focused on the digital devices we use with our computers. In his column, “What I’d Buy: Digital Source Components,” Jeff offers a cogent list of exceptional products and makes a strong case for each.
Here, I recommend something completely different: Go pro.
Surely all of our knowledgeable readers will know that the name Dirac is intimately connected with Nobel-winning physicist Paul Dirac and the experiment whose acronym spells his name: the DImeson Relativistic Atom Complex. As explained at http://dirac.web.cern.ch, the DIRAC experiment uses “a precise magnetic double arm spectrometer, installed in the high intensity proton beam of the CERN Proton Synchrotron,” to simultaneously “measure the lifetime of [π−π+] atoms . . . to observe [π−K+] & [π+K−] atoms . . . and then to measure the [πK] atom lifetime.”
Still with me?
I don’t understand any of that either, but apparently folks who are into quantum mechanics and quantum field theory fully understand Dirac’s incredible gifts as a theoretical physicist and the vast usefulness of his vita opus: the singular delta function. I dropped Physics 101 to avoid a failing grade, so none of this makes sense to me. My field was psychology, and what all this scientific talk means to me is that the guys who named their product after Professor Dirac have giant cojones. That’s a clinical term for folks who dream big.
Oppo Digital has mastered the fine art of juxtaposition, steering a perfect course between value and luxury. Oppo products are bulletproof, yet, at any hint of a problem, customers gain immediate entrée to one of the best tech-support departments in all of consumer electronics. Perhaps best of all, despite the fact that their products come to market designed with exceptional intelligence and fully formed, the engineering staff never stops soliciting feedback from their dedicated clientele. They then use that feedback to make something remarkable even better. Their payoff is a reputation that’s at the pinnacle of the home-theater business.
So when a new box shows up from Oppo, I feel something similar to what my wife feels when she receives a nice blue box from Tiffany’s. The BDP-103 itself is jewel-like, and its packaging is better than that of many electronic devices costing five times its price of $499 USD. Everything is safely secured in place. Instead of the normal plastic bag stuffed with shoddy penny-ante stuff aimed at getting you by until you can go to Best Buy, Oppo includes a good-quality, three-pronged detachable power cord, a 2m HDMI 1.4 cable, a 4.5’ USB extension cable, a USB Wireless-N adapter, a well-thought-out remote control, and a 92-page manual evidently written by someone whose first language was English. Before you’ve even installed the BDP-103, you know you’re in the presence of something special.
I’m in the market for a new car. While I’d prefer to buy American, I’m open to anything. My father, other than a dalliance with catfish-styled Citroëns, was a devoted and stalwart Chrysler man. That meant no drama when new-car time came around: Just head to the old Chrysler dealer and order up a big car in his favorite color.
I have no brand dedication. Whatever appeals, I buy. Over the years, I’ve owned cars and trucks from Fiat, Volvo, Porsche, VW, Nissan, Ford, Chrysler, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Cadillac, and several more I can’t remember. Some have been money-sucking turkeys (the Mercedes and VW Rabbit, both diesels), and others have been unexpected delights (two VW Karmann Ghias, both of which I sold for more than I’d paid).
But every time I buy a car, I look for a few specific characteristics. (My criteria probably differ from yours, but that’s why they make so many models.) It has to have comfortable seats and a reputation for reliability, and it has to be built for what I need. Sometimes we need a Dodge Ram pickup for duties on our little ranch, sometimes all I need is something to get me from one place to another. A few years ago, I wanted something with a little zoom, but the Porsches cured me of that. Or at least so I thought. Lately, I find the Chrysler Hemi to be kind of interesting. Finally, the car must have room for a subwoofer.
I bring all this up because, when it comes to video projectors, I’m close to becoming just like my father. In my case, the default brand is JVC. It’s not that I wouldn’t default to diversity in a heartbeat if something better came along -- it’s that nothing better ever does.