Usually, when signing up to evaluate audio products, reviewers know what to expect in terms of how to integrate a new component into an audio system. A pair of speakers? You set them up and listen. A power amp? Pretty straightforward stuff.
Then along comes a product like Arcam’s rBlink ($250 USD). I’d read all the information about it that Arcam had sent me before I received the review sample, so I had a general idea of what it was. What I didn’t know was how I would interact with it from day to day, and how it would change some of my listening habits.
What it is
The rBlink is actually two components. First, it’s a wireless device that connects to compatible partners via Bluetooth. For technology-deprived souls, Bluetooth is a wireless protocol developed in 1994 by Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications giant, that permits the exchange of data between equipped devices, fixed and mobile, over short distances. The rBlink allows products such as smartphones and computers to connect to it using BlueCore, the latest Bluetooth-embedded technology from CSR. The result, without getting too technical, is that the rBlink uses the very latest hi-fi-friendly tech for better connection between audio devices, the improvement due, in part, to lower noise.
A few years ago, loudspeaker manufacturer Axiom Audio began making electronics. Their first model was the A1400 class-D power amplifier, in two versions: the eight-channel A1400-8 ($3850 USD) and the two-channel A1400-2 ($2620). Although those amps, both since discontinued, offered a lot of performance for the money, they were a little on the expensive side for A/V enthusiasts on a budget. They also didn’t seem to be budgetary matches for Axiom’s speakers -- their most expensive speaker at the time, the M80, sold for about $1300/pair.
Axiom’s new line of amplifiers, the ADA models, have been designed from the ground up by the company’s new chief designer, Andrew Welker. While there were only two A1400 amps, there are 21 ADA models. The new line is actually based on three “power supply platforms” -- the ADA-1500, ADA-1250, and ADA-1000 -- which deliver different levels of power and can be configured with from two to eight channels. While the ADA-1500 amps are priced similarly to the A1400s, the ADA-1000s start at only $980 for the two-channel version, and $1340 for the five-channel version provided for this review.
MartinLogan is a loudspeaker manufacturer based in Lawrence, Kansas. Founded by Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland, the company is best known for their extensive line of electrostatic speakers. In 2005, ShoreView Industries, a private-equity firm that also owns a stake in Paradigm, bought MartinLogan. Although the design staff is still based in Lawrence, much of the manufacturing has been moved to Paradigm’s facility in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
Electrostatic (ESL) speakers are renowned for the lightning-fast transients that audiophiles crave. To the non-audiophile, electrostatic speakers simply look cool. However, they’re expensive to make -- it’ll cost you about $2000 USD to take home a pair of the cheapest ESLs made by MartinLogan. MartinLogan recently introduced its Motion line of entry-level models, with traditional cabinets and conventional cone midrange-woofers. What sets the Motions apart from most entry-level speakers is their tweeter, MartinLogan’s Folded Motion Tweeter (FMT), said to sound similar to electrostatic drivers. For this review, MartinLogan sent me a 5.1-channel system based on the Motion SLM, a thin-profile on-wall speaker.
And so it begins . . . again. For decades, system- and component-tuning products have been offered to enhance our listening experience without directly touching the audio signal being reproduced. With computers replacing more and more conventional source components in high-end audio systems, it was inevitable that we’d see products directly aimed at the unique needs of computers. Atomic Audio Labs (AAL) enters the coliseum to do battle with other gladiators trying to survive in a society where the dollars of patrons are as hard to come by as fresh Twinkies or Suzy-Qs.
AAL’s George Chronis got started as a manufacturer of FireWire 800 cables. The concept of the Mac Platform was born, as are so many good ideas, from a coincidence. Chronis placed his Apple Mac Mini computer on his turntable platter and noticed an immediate improvement in the sound. That sent him on a quest for the best combination of materials he could find to boost the sound quality enough to justify his product’s anticipated retail price. The result is the Mac Platform ($349 USD), machined from handpicked 4’ x 8’ sheets of cast clear acrylic.
Unwrapping the Harmony Touch, Logitech’s new beauty of a universal remote control ($249.99 USD), got me thinking about the history of remote control, and of how far things have advanced in my lifetime. When my folks bought our first TV set, the closest thing they had to a remote control was me. When my dad wanted the channel changed or the volume lowered, he’d ask me to do it. I would dutifully get up, walk to the set, and fulfill his wishes. Ten years later, our audio and video gear finally began to come with remote controls. At first these were connected to the components by wires and controlled only very basic functions. But very rapidly, or so it seems now, remotes added more and more buttons and were able to control all of the functions available on the front panel of the components they commanded. Later, when remotes began to control functions omitted from those front panels, it became a case of “lose the remote and lose control.”
By this time, remotes were included with virtually every audio and/or video component. We’d gone from no remotes to way too many -- at one time, six were lined up on my coffee table. In 1985 came the first universal remote, from Magnavox, and in 1999 the formation of Intrigue Technologies, which marketed Harmony remotes. Intrigue was bought by Logitech in 2004; since then, “Harmony” and “universal remote” have become synonymous.
Although the Harmony Touch differs in many ways from earlier Harmony models, the basics are unchanged: With it, you can control all of your audio and video equipment, put your five or more manufacturers’ remotes in that catchall drawer, and forget about them. But do save them, in case you need to teach the Harmony a new command.