Feature Articles & Reviews
Christmas has rolled around again, and it’s time to start putting together a wish list to leave in a conspicuous place to make sure your family and friends know what you really want. Over the past year I’ve been able to get my hands on an immoderate amount of great gear, beautiful music, and mesmerizing films. Now it’s time to put out a list of my picks for the top Christmas gifts. The list is also, by definition, a list of my favorite items of 2012. My wife used to force me to watch one episode per year of Oprah, and that was her "Favorite Things." The trick was, the audience got everything on her list. Would that I could do that for you, dear reader. Unfortunately, all I can do is direct you to a few items that may warrant your attention.
By placing a product in this list, I might as well be anointing it one of my Best of the Year products. Nothing goes on the Christmas list unless it’s the best of what I tested. However, given the economy, I decided on a price ceiling of $400. That puts a couple of receivers, the NAD T 787 and the Onkyo TX-NR5010, out of the race, but it gives me the space to include a set of headphones I’ve fallen in love with. And other than the very first item, this list is not in order of preference.
There was a time in the US when a really high-end audio receiver was looked down on. Audiophiles weren’t worth their salt if they didn’t have separates: tuner, preamp, power amp. A few Japanese companies were toying with high-end receivers, but in the US, only McIntosh and Marantz were making “audiophile” receivers. The folks who were buying Audio Research or Mark Levinson or Threshold gear wouldn’t have dreamed of lowering their sights to an all-in-one-box receiver. And the folks who were constrained by price generally weren’t looking for a high-cost receiver. So receivers were relegated to the low end of the mass market, as high-end separates became de rigueur for the aurally obsessed.
They call them what?
The DISH installation team arrived at my house for what should have been a quick setup. I already had 75-ohm cable throughout the house, left over from the days of antenna TV. I don’t ever have old wires pulled out -- you never know when you might need them again. I also had good-quality HDMI cables reaching from the current DISH 722 to all our TVs. The DISH dish was already installed, bolted down, and aimed. All they had to do was swap out a set-top box and be on their way, right?
Wrong. The Hopper-Joey is a completely new system -- a rethink in every way -- and mine was one of the first installed. It was also the first for this installation team, and they were scratching their heads trying to figure out how it worked. "So you get a Hopper and three Joeys," the very professional lead installer explained.
It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper -- oh, wait, that’s a different review.
Anyway, it was 40 years ago that NAD hit the market with a concept: Deliver great sound and modern design at rock-bottom prices. They would use really good circuit designers and Scandinavian commercial artists, then send the results off to China to be cheaply built. Their first great success was a sweet little integrated amplifier, the 3020. It sounded great on its own, but designer Bjørn Erik Edvardsen dropped the 1970s equivalent of an Easter egg into this little work of art: you could separate the preamp section from the amplifier section. This was a gift to destitute audiophiles everywhere; the 3020’s preamp, and especially its moving-magnet phono stage, were sonically up there with some of the very finest-sounding equipment made. As a matter of fact, my great-grandfather used to talk about his setup, a Linn Sondek LP12 (no one had ever heard of these turntables then) driving a 3020 connected to two Kenwood L07M monoblocks strapped to two Magneplanar Tympani 1D speakers. He says it rocked like a mofo, whether he was listening to the Boss or Donna Summer.
The Single Best Investment You Can Make to Upgrade Your Sound Today and the Journey It Took to Learn the Lesson the Hard Way
It was a Saturday morning. I woke up late. The left side of my head was buried in the pillow, but I could see the sun was up. I concentrated, hoping, searching. Please, Lord, let something come through.
Nothing. I couldn’t hear.
I raised my head from the pillow and found I could still hear a little bit out of my left ear -- kind of like the sound you get when you wear earmuffs. If I really focused on it and turned my left ear toward my wife, her voice came through. But turn on the TV and I couldn’t understand a word. Music was unintelligible. It was as if someone had plugged up my head with gooey silicon -- nothing got in or out. All I could imagine was those tiny, delicate hair cells that line my inner ears disintegrating, and with them one of the primary joys of my life: listening to music. It was the weekend -- I couldn’t get to my trusted PA. I decided to get aggressive.
Be careful what you say in public. A couple of months ago, I flatly stated: "I’m also a believer in never using a piece of gear whose quality is way above the ability of anything else in the chain to pass it along. While I occasionally violate that rule, it just seems to me that when I’m driving the [head]phones with an iPod, no matter if the file is a 320kbps MP3 or a FLAC -- er, uh, excuse me, Apple Lossless -- the limiting device is the iPod. And though I’m sure I could get much better sound through the Wadia DAC/dock or something like it, I can’t fit the Wadia in my shirt pocket and walk around."
The first comment I heard in return was from a friend who’d found my fashion sense to be wanting. "You wear shirts with pockets?" he sniffed. "I don’t think I own a shirt with a pocket." Well, yes, I do stuff my iPod or iPhone in my pocket, put on my ’phones, and walk around. There’s something pleasing about strolling through an airport, oblivious to all the ugly sounds, with a bit of Ozzy blaring in my ears -- no more tears, indeed. Or walking some of the dirt trails around Austin letting Keith Jarrett establish my rhythm. To me, that’s these little Apple devices’ highest calling.
My old running buddy John B., raised in the Jesuit schools of Chicago, used to tell the best stories about the shenanigans that went on there. Oh, he never experienced a tinge of the sexual abuse we hear about these days, but he did feel there was plenty of intellectual abuse going on. As he described it, the Jesuits had a distinct way of separating the gifted from the schlubs, with the obvious goal of grooming the former to go out into the world and carry on the Jesuits’ concept of life. A list of the powerful politicos raised in Jesuit schools might amaze you: Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, to name a few. I’m not going to go all Dan Brown on you here, but it’s no secret that the Jesuits have always done their best to groom their stars to carry the Church’s beliefs out into the real world.
All of which is to help me imagine a short, pudgy boy named Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (1899-1980), sitting at his desk at St. Ignatius College, in northeast London, from 1914 to 1917. If we knew nothing else about him, we’d already know that strong forces were at work on his psyche. First was a force we would see in all of Hitchcock’s work: sexual hormones. Most teenage boys are 98.7% lust, but another force was at least striving for equal dominance, and that was the Church’s struggle to keep its young charges chaste. Those two opposed forces have been known to create a whirlwind -- what the dominant psychological thinker of the time, Sigmund Freud, would call a conflict between the superego and the id: that is, between the part of your mind that wants to keep you locked down tight, and the part that wants to run wild, sexually and generally. This conflict is played out when boys struggle to keep their fantasies and desires hidden, despite the fact that what they really want to do is act them out.
Another holiday season rolled around and we joyfully gave gifts to everyone in sight, all the while hoping for that one little audiophile or videophile sparkler. Did your family choose another tie or pair of socks instead of that nifty new Krell Evolution preamp and amp ($90,000) that you really wanted? I thought I’d propose a few things that should make even the most omnivorous audio/videophile deliriously happy. Now, while I’d love to go ahead and recommend the Krell Evolutions, and maybe even add some Magico Q5 speakers, etc., unfortunately the economy still sucks, so I’ll keep these purchases under $500 -- and for most of them, way under.
Over the last four decades, it’s become de rigueur for audio critics to place hand over heart and swear fealty to live music. But this year, I’ve derived more joy from solitary musical pursuits than ever before. Don’t get me wrong -- I heard some great concerts in 2011. The transcendent tone of Anne Akiko Meyers performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 on her 1697 "Molitor" Stradivarius made me float off into a reverie. And hearing Harry Allen’s oh-so-smooth tenor sax swinging along with the great Freddie Cole in the acoustic ambience of Feinstein’s in New York City was as good as contemporary jazz gets.
Hulu, Vudu, Roku -- they all sound alike. That damn u at the end is not helpful but obfuscational. How are we supposed to remember which does what? For those who need to know, here are the differences.
Hulu is a repository of thousands of old and new TV shows. They also offer films, though many were either made for TV or are silly soft-core porn (what comedian Bill Hicks used to call “hairy bobbin’ man-ass flicks”). Their service is available through a number of outlets, including Roku. Vudu is an on-demand site for watching films, usually through a Sony PlayStation 3, a computer, an iPad, or certain Blu-ray players. Roku is a box that uses the Internet to bring in various “channels,” some free, some for a onetime or a monthly fee.
Roku’s new second-generation miniature players are called “streaming players” and include the LT ($49.99 USD), HD ($59.99), XD ($79.99), and XS ($99.99). The LT and HD can do only 720p. The XD moves to 1080p. And the XS adds a remote control that can be used for gaming, a full copy of the video game Angry Birds, and USB and Ethernet ports (the other three models are wireless). Each Roku 2 model measures about 3”W x 1”H x 3”D and weighs a mere 3 ounces. I connected the Roku 2 XD using a Silver Serpent HDMI cable, which was stiff enough to suspend the Roku in mid-air. I anchored it to the shelf by placing atop it an artsy piece of stone.
In the past six years I’ve been an unqualified champion of Integra’s top-of-the-line preamplifier-processors: Very few other makes could beat their prices, and even fewer could beat the Integras’ performance. But Marantz’s new AV7005 is a thought-provoking component that had me trying to specifically identify what was most important to me in a pre-pro.
Each of us has different criteria for judging home-theater equipment. Too often, reviewers leave their biases -- we all have them -- to be discovered only by reading between the lines. Moving away from Integra is such a sea-change for me that I wanted to be crystal clear about why I would do it. So here are my biases.
In a preamplifier-processor or audio/video receiver, I want:
1. Up-to-date connectivity
2. All current audio codecs
3. Enough switching capability to handle all of my components
4. Multiple zones to which I can send any signal
5. Attractive casework
6. A setup program that’s easy enough for someone who hates dealing with complex electronics, yet offers enough depth that a professional can wrest the best possible performance within each audio or video parameter
7. Capacity to work with various networking schemes for playing my stored music and video files, and to integrate with various purveyors of online media
8. An intuitive operating system
9. Clear and accurate sound at realistic levels
10. Truthful-sounding room-correction software
11. The ability to accurately reproduce video images
12. A fair price
14. Quick and helpful technical support
15. Easily upgraded without costing a fortune