I love my Apple iTouch! Of all the electronic toys I’ve acquired in the past two years, it’s the best, and I imagine that other owners of it (or the iPhone or iPad) are just as enthusiastically in love with theirs. Apple gets some details wrong, but overall, they create communication devices that are cool enough to match one’s wildest imagination. One of the coolest things about them is discovering, through applications (or apps), the diverse and wonderful tasks they can accomplish. Thanks to apps, I have such different things on my iTouch as the complete plays of Shakespeare, access to all of my e-mail, three different weather forecasts complete with Doppler radar, workout moves, bird calls to help identify feathered friends in the backyard, and now, thanks to the young and innovative company ThinkFlood, a powerful universal remote control.
iPeng pointed the way to this several years ago by producing an app that would allow an iTouch (assume from here on that when I say iTouch, I also mean iPhone and iPad) to act as a remote control for the Logitech Squeezebox family of products. When I installed that app, my mind raced forward to a time when the iTouch might control everything in my audio/video system. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before several apps appeared that could do that. RedEye isn’t the only one, but it’s the only one that uses a base-station transmitter.
The basic idea is simple: RedEye allows my iTouch to send signals through my WiFi network to the RedEye base station, which converts them into infrared signals that can control my preamplifier, power amp, television, cable box, three Blu-ray players, one HD DVD player, an SACD/DVD-Audio player, a Squeezebox Touch, and an HDMI switcher. Pretty cool.
In my previous article, I detailed my visits to several retail stores, where I pretended that I had $2000 to spend on assembling a stereo system. The goal of this mystery shopping, as it were, was not only to see what products the salesmen would recommend, but also to get a sense of how an average consumer might feel when venturing out to buy audio equipment in a store. It was an interesting experience, and one that defied a lot of my decidedly grim expectations. As a follow-up, I was assigned the task of taking my (lack of) audio-gear knowledge and working with an Internet-direct company to put together a stereo setup tailored to my living room and my listening habits. For the purposes of this article, Jeff Fritz, my editor, set me up with Aperion Audio, a Web-based company out of Portland, Oregon, that prides itself on not only building superior speakers but also offering its products at affordable prices. In fact, Aperion got its start after company owner Win Jeanfreau’s boom box died in 1998 and he endured a frustrating search for a full stereo system with a "snug budget of $1500." Dealing with inexperienced and unknowledgeable salesmen was a big factor in his decision to start his own company, but more than that, Jeanfreau was flabbergasted by the outrageous markups that the brick-and-mortar stores put on their products.
As an Internet-direct company, Aperion cuts out the middle man and can thus offer its speakers at prices well below what you might see at Best Buy. Unlike the research for my first article, where I could listen to the systems only in the stores, where it’s nearly impossible to figure out what they’ll sound like in your home, this time I got to have the system shipped to my apartment. Also, for this piece I went a bit over my hypothetical $2000 spending limit, but we can just pretend that I begged and pleaded Scarlett -- my hypothetical girlfriend in my first article -- to give me a small loan.
My apartment building was constructed in the early 1900s, and it has 12' ceilings, hardwood floors, and thick walls that make it almost impossible to hear the other tenants. In fact, when the couple in the apartment above me moved out, I set up my drum set in my living room with no complaints. This was something of a surprise given that all of the open space, uncarpeted floors, and plaster walls did nothing to dampen the thumping of the kick drum or the clang of the cymbals. Armed with my first-hand knowledge of how my room handles sound, I called the guys at Aperion to find out what kind of stereo system would work best for me. I reached Oliver when I called, and after a few niceties we got down to the serious business of putting together a system that could really pump out the jams.
Around 15 years ago I visited an audio store with associate editor Roger Kanno to listen to Definitive Technology’s latest bipolar speaker. The salesman, Serge, asked us why, insisting that bipolar was dead. We both laughed at him, since at the time the bipolar speaker was well represented in a number of loudspeaker lines beyond Definitive, including Mirage and Paradigm. In fact, Mirage devoted their entire line to bipolar loudspeakers.
Over the years, I’ve reviewed a variety of bipolar speakers, especially in the rear-surround position, and I’ve even owned an entirely bipolar home-theater system -- a Mirage OM-9-based setup. Although bipolar surround speakers are in use everywhere, sadly, bipolar mains are dwindling. Paradigm no longer makes them, and Mirage doesn’t exist anymore.
Surprisingly, Definitive Technology announced in 2010 their newly revamped line of bipolar speakers, consisting of four new tower speakers, three center-channel speakers, and two surround speakers. With virtually no other mainstream speaker companies producing bipolar main speakers, I’m pretty excited by this announcement, but it also reopens the question of whether, as Serge pointed out 15 years ago, bipolar is dead.
A polar primer
The usual configuration of bipolar loudspeakers involves identical drivers on the front and rear faces of the speaker. These drivers operate in-phase (all drivers pushing "out" at the same time), unlike dipole speakers, where the drivers run out of phase (while one set pushes out, the other pulls "in"). The net result of either speaker is that a lot of sound bounces off the wall behind the speaker. This is in contrast to direct-radiating, or monopole, speakers, which make up around 95% of all speakers and which have very little or no sound directly pointed to the back wall.
The designers speak
Should we care about the sound off the back wall, or side walls for that matter? Isn’t the direct sound the only thing that matters? For most people without a heavily acoustically treated room, the answer to the first question is yes, and to the second no. For the vast majority of speakers and rooms, the sound you hear from a loudspeaker is the sum of its direct and reflected sound. In fact, most of the sound from a loudspeaker is reflected off the walls. So it is important for speaker designers to pay attention to the reflected sound.
Years ago I spoke to a couple of speaker engineers from two different speaker companies, and they both said that their design goals included not only flat on-axis frequency response but also flat-but-downward sloping (from low frequencies to high frequencies) sound power response. The sound power response is defined as the sum of frequency response around the speaker, representing both on-axis and off-axis frequency response. Flat and horizontal power response is undesirable because it would sound too bright in a room.
In his book Sound Reproduction: Loudspeakers and Rooms, world-renowned speaker expert Dr. Floyd Toole looks at research showing that most people value a neutral speaker without excessive brightness and coloration. But for the vast majority of people, the single most important characteristic of a speaker is spaciousness, or reproducing a feeling of space. In order to reproduce a sense of space, a speaker must have wide dispersion, where sound is spread broadly so that it reflects off the walls of the room. Another necessary characteristic is similar frequency response curves for the direct sound as well as the reflected sound, called a constant directivity index. In other words, the sound bouncing off the walls should be very similar to the sound directly from the speaker. And what type of speakers can easily display these desirable traits? You guessed it -- bipolar speakers!
Bipolar speaker advantages
Dr. Toole and the other speaker designers I spoke to agreed that the desirable traits of speakers favor bipolar radiating speakers, yet none of them worked for manufacturers that produced bipolar main speakers. I questioned why there are so few manufacturers producing them.
One of the reasons is that bipolar speakers didn’t sell because the public thought they don’t image well. This belief was based on the mistaken assumption that what you hear is mostly on-axis, and that extra drivers that don’t even point towards you would ruin imaging. Having lived with bipolar speakers for years, I can say that the lack of good imaging is false. They can and do image well, and they tend to sound more natural, in the sense that most sound you hear around you, in your home or a concert hall, is reflected off some surfaces. The hyper-realistic imaging you here with most well-designed direct-radiating speakers can be unnatural sounding. Bipolar speakers, on the other hand, can produce more rounded and three-dimensional imaging, which is less precise but more accurately mimics real sound in a real space.
As Paul DiComo from Definitive Technology pointed out, during blind listening tests most listeners prefer the sound of speakers pointed backwards (towards the wall) for music but prefer direct sound for speech. In research explained in Dr. Toole’s book, the ideal radiation pattern would have the combined reflected sound 5dB higher than the direct sound for music. This would indicate that reflected sound is more important than direct sound. This was indeed the design philosophy of Mirage Loudspeakers, whose Omnipolar array produced a 360-degree radiation pattern with 30% direct sound and 70% reflected sound. Definitive Technology tones this down a bit, and they call their new design Forward Focused Bipolar Array, with the rear drivers attenuated to give both very precise imaging with an added sense of spaciousness.
Another reason that people might be biased against bipolar speakers is the perception that they’re harder to place in a room. With additional drivers, it would be conceivably harder to place them, but my only caution would be to pull them away from the wall behind them a bit. In general, around 1' to 2' is all you would need, and that recommendation applies to most direct-radiating speakers, too. You might also want to make sure that the wall behind them is relatively clutter-free so that the rear drivers have a chance to produce a decent sound wave. But aside from those considerations, they aren’t that fussy to set up, certainly less so than time-aligned first-order-crossover speakers for which inches must be measured out to ensure the sound arrives precisely at your ear from all the drivers at the same time.
Yet another reason that companies might have abandoned the bipolar format is the expense; with additional drivers, more complicated crossovers, and a more complicated cabinet, it’s easy to see that a bipolar speaker is more expensive to design and build.
As rare as bipolar main speakers are, the opposite is the case for surround-sound speakers. The vast majority of home-theater-oriented loudspeaker companies have a least one surround speaker with a bipolar radiation pattern. My Monitor Audio Silver RX FX surround speaker has a switch for dipole and bipole operation. I always leave it on the bipole mode. Some of my best experiences with home-theater speaker systems were with bipolar main speakers, too, especially with the Mirage OM-9 system I owned and the Mirage OMD-15 speaker I auditioned for a long period of time. What I found with these two systems is that bipolar speakers tended to create a sense of space better than direct-radiating speakers, and having bipolar mains blended better with bipolar surround speakers. The speakers tended to disappear, and sound images weren’t restricted to the speaker plane but formed all around the speakers.
As you can see, I’m a huge fan of bipolar speakers, and my interest was piqued when Definitive Technology announced their newly revamped line. Although Serge the audio salesman was wrong and bipolar is alive and well in surround speakers, he was somewhat right in that the bipolar main speaker, although not dead, is a rare breed 15 years later. I’m hoping that my enthusiasm for this type of speaker rubs off and you’re compelled to check them out. Perhaps other manufacturers will see the value in this design and this type of speaker will flourish once again.
. . . Vince Hanada
The convergence of computers, the Internet, high-end audio, and home theater is the hottest thing in home entertainment right now, with new media players and servers seemingly announced every week. In fact, any old computer can be considered a media server, with the ability to store media files and stream them to a monitor or TV. The computer I’m writing this on -- an Acer laptop with Gigabit Ethernet, wireless-N, HDMI output, and Intel High Definition Audio -- is a capable media server. It also has the Windows 7 Media Center interface. I’m not sold on this computer’s audio capability, but an external DAC can be added to its USB port for excellent sound. And with its 11.6" screen, weight of under four pounds, and nine-hour battery life, it’s excellent as a portable device as well.
But this is the computer I regularly use for writing, and constantly plugging it into and out of my home theater and audio system is a hassle. If you’re in a similar situation, there are many solutions in every price range to meet your media-playing needs.
Media players and streamers
Media players play content from your network or the Internet through your audio system and TV. Over the past year I’ve used two such devices from the budget end of the market: the Asus O!Play R-1 ($99 USD) and the Western Digital TV Live ($149.99), to serve my living-room audio system and my basement home theater. They’re essentially the same, with one big difference for audio enthusiasts: the Asus O!Play will play 24-bit/96kHz audio files that you can download from such websites as HDtracks.com. The best thing about these players is that they’ll play almost any media you throw at them: video files and photos, and music files from MP3 to lossless FLAC. Western Digital’s TV Live has a nicer interface, so navigating files is a better experience. The only drawback is that with neither of these can I compile playlists of my favorite songs; finding and playing tunes is tedious.
Another inexpensive streamer is the recently announced and revamped Apple TV ($99), with which you can rent films and TV episodes via your iTunes account or from Netflix. Another cool feature of the Apple TV is also available with the Western Digital TV Live: the ability to watch YouTube videos. I can punch in "double rainbow" and, instead of crowding around my computer, share some laughs with my family in the comfort of my living room. One limitation of the Apple TV is its maximum video resolution of 720p; the Asus and WD players can play video in full-resolution 1080p.
Moving considerably upmarket, the Linn Klimax DS lists for a cool $20,000. This music-only media player plays MP3s, and FLAC, WAV, and AIFF files of up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution. Linn considers the Klimax DS to be their best music player and has spared no expense in making it their highest-resolution audio player of any kind. In fact, they think it’s so good that they’ve stopped making CD players. Still, I’d have a hard time justifying spending $20k on a Klimax DS, especially as Linn’s Majik DS costs only about a tenth the price.
An essential feature common to most of these media players is an Ethernet connection, which makes it possible for me to share files among all the computers and both media players in my networked systems. Invoking file sharing on my computers allows my media files to be visible to the media players. But a better solution is to have a network attached storage (NAS) device. If you have a networked audio system, I strongly urge you to store your files on an NAS, so that you can back up your files. I have the excellent D-Link DNS-323; the beauty of this two-bay storage device is that it supports RAID 1, a scheme in which all of your files are backed up twice, to two different hard drives. If one drive fails, I can rip it out, and the RAID controller can rebuild the hard-drive array with a new drive without losing my media files. My D-Link’s two 1.5TB drives have plenty of room for all my files.
Other useful built-in features of the D-Link DNS-323 are its iTunes server and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) A/V server. The iTunes server permits detection of the NAS device within the iTunes player so that all of my computers can share music. The UPnP A/V server permits detection of my NAS by any compatible A/V player, so that I can stream media files over my network.
How do these players look and sound? Surprisingly good, and far better than their $100 street price would suggest. CD-quality tracks have the punch and resolution of a good CD player, and high-resolution audio tracks sound excellent -- the dynamic range and lack of noise are astonishing for such cheap players. And the video looks nearly as good as from a standalone Blu-ray player.
Higher in price are media servers that include hard drives for storing media files. One of the more affordable and most intriguing is the Olive O3HD ($999), which has a 500GB hard drive for storing FLAC, WAV, MP3, and AAC files. It also has a free app that makes it possible to control the Olive from an Apple iTouch or iPhone, including browsing files and creating playlists. Under the hood is a 24/192 Cirrus Logic DAC, so hi-rez audio files can be played. And with the built-in CD-RW drive, you can create CDs from the stored music files as well as rip CDs to the Olive’s hard drive.
At the other end of the price spectrum is Kaleidescape, which has been at the forefront of media-server technology for some time. Their 1U server starts at $10,000, and can be expanded with additional 1Us. Each 1U contains a 2TB hard drive in a proprietary RAID-K hard-drive array. I don’t know exactly what a "K" array is, but it provides backup and rebuild capability, so your media files are safe in the event of hard-drive failure. Because these are only storage devices, you need to buy one of Kaleidescape’s media players, the M300 or M500 ($2495 or $3995). The M500’s Blu-ray ripper lets you copy BDs to its hard drive, although, to satisfy copyright laws, the original BD must be present in the disc tray before the M500 will play the movie. An entry-level price of $12,495 for a player and server is a lot of money, but the system has incredible versatility, a wonderful user interface, and file-backup capability.
Another two-piece server-player is the Vidabox RackServer V2 (starting at $3299), which can stream media content to a maximum of ten extenders, such as their ThinClientHD, which looks to be a Windows-based Media Center PC. One feature of this system that’s sure to appeal to audiophiles is DualRip, with which you can rip an audio track to two formats at the same time: MP3 and a lossless format such as WAV or FLAC. You can store the MP3 on your iPod, and still have a lossless version for listening to on your high-end system. The entire Vidabox system is upgradeable and expandable, with RAID-arrayed hard drives as an option.
Although this is just a small sample of the vast number of media players and servers out there, you can already see that there’s something for everyone in every price range, and that a network-based storage system can also be affordable and convenient. I can attest to how well the cheaper products work and sound; while you give up some slickness in the graphic user interface, not much money can still buy you a very satisfying and secure system for viewing and storing your media files.
. . . Vince Hanada
The summer after my freshman year of college, while some of my friends took résumé-building internships and others embarked on life-changing trips to places around the world, I moved back home and took a minimum-wage job at a water park. At the time, it seemed the most miserable thing I’d ever had to do. As far as I was concerned, the job’s only perks were the free sodas in the break room and the frequent interactions with girls in bikinis. By the beginning of that August, though, I’d saved $1500, and decided to spend part of it on a car.
I didn’t take my search for a vehicle lightly. I read up on which cars were the best to buy used, and things to look for to avoid buying a lemon -- an easy mistake to make when you have less than $2000 to spend. The search was a frustrating and time-consuming one that, with only a week to go before classes started, finally ended in an old guy’s driveway with my purchase of a mint-condition, fully optioned 1993 Chrysler LeBaron for $1000 -- the most money I’d ever spent at one time in my life. Karen, as I named the blue LeBaron, made it until last year, when her transmission gave out and I had to begin the search again.
Spending thousands of dollars on anything never fails to make me nervous, so I always do what I can to ensure that I’m not making a bad purchase. My assignment for this article was, as an audio equipment novice, to go to several stores with the intention of spending no more than $2000 on a stereo system, and to document my experiences. Outside such well-known names as Sony and Pioneer, I’m unfamiliar with makers of audio equipment. There are probably third-graders who can tell you more about, say, multizone receivers than I ever could. For this article, I did no research about what I was getting myself into. With my wallet wide open and my mind unencumbered with what a reasonable price might be for a set of bookshelf speakers, or whether 12- or 16-gauge speaker wire is best, I ventured to Best Buy, anticipating the worst.
Big-box store: Best Buy
I began my research at Best Buy because, I figured, it might offer a less intimidating experience than what I expected to face at the boutique audio stores I’d also be visiting. Of course, I expected that any salesperson at Best Buy would try to “upsell” me on things, and I figured, too, that he or she would try to overwhelm me with jargon. I don’t think my mouth was agape, but my body language may have revealed that I was confused and vulnerable -- it wasn’t long before a Best Buy employees approached me as I stood in the aisle where sat shelves full of shiny black A/V receivers, each of them dotted with smooth-turning knobs and mysterious buttons that made satisfying little clicks when pushed.
“You need some help?” asked the blue-shirted guy.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m looking to put together a stereo system.”
“We’ve got a lot of good surround systems.”
“I just want two speakers, a 5.1-channel receiver, and a subwoofer.”
I was then informed that the so-called home-theater-in-a-box is one of Best Buy’s biggest sellers. Even though I’d just said that this was not what I was interested in, he still led me over to this section to show them to me. When I again told him that this was not what I was looking for, he led me back to the receiver aisle and showed me what he considered the best options: Yamaha’s RX-V367 (MSRP $249.95 USD) and Pioneer’s VSX-520-K ($229), both 5.1-channel receivers that provide in the neighborhood of 100Wpc. I also learned that these receivers were designed with an eye toward the forthcoming 3D technology. Because the main uses I had for an AVR would be listening to my iPod, playing CDs, and running a Blu-ray player through it, the salesman didn’t encourage me to spend more money -- which I found somewhat surprising.
Next, we moved over to the speaker aisle, where I asked the salesman if floorstanding or bookshelf speakers were the way to go. One of the caveats of the system I was supposedly intending to assemble was that it had to fit into a relatively small room (17’L x 15’W) without being too obtrusive -- something I had to be mindful of to keep my hypothetical girlfriend, Scarlett Johansson, happy. Given these requirements, he recommended bookshelf speakers. Specifically, he thought that a solid choice would be a pair of Polk TSi100s ($229.95/pair), which can handle from 20 to 100W. I like the look of floorstanding speakers, though, so I asked which of those he could recommend to meet my needs. The Klipsch Icon VF-35s ($374.99/pair) can handle up to 400W of power and are sleek enough for my room-size restraints.
Best Buy’s selection of subwoofers is somewhat limited -- this store carried three models -- so the salesman could offer only one recommendation: Polk’s PSW110 ($249.99). This is, apparently, a nice entry-level sub that can deliver enough bass for my room. The last thing we discussed, before the salesguy rushed off to help an actual customer, was speaker wire. He recommended Rocketfish 16-gauge ($19.99/30’), a Best Buy store brand that, he contended, is comparable to Monster Cable.
Boutique shop 1: Soundtronics, Inc.
I entered Soundtronics, Inc., here in Wilmington, North Carolina, on a Thursday afternoon. The store was empty of patrons but filled with audio/video goodies. To the left was a room lined with TVs, to the right rooms for demonstrating equipment, and between them rows of shelves filled with receivers, cables, and anything else you might need for your home theater. I was just beginning to take it all in when a long-haired, bearded fellow walked up to me.
“How can I help you today?”
“I need a 5.1-channel receiver, two speakers, and a sub.”
“Gotcha. Let’s start with the receiver.”
I was interested to see that he recommended the same AVR that the Best Buy guy had: Yamaha’s RX-V367. The Soundtronics salesman, though, also endorsed the RX-V567 ($479.95), a 7.1-channel receiver that’s something of a step up from the V367. However, once I’d told him about my budget, the exact specifications of my hypothetical room, and the demands of my neat-freak girlfriend -- whose celebrity status I didn’t feel the need to mention -- he told me that the V367 would be just the thing.
As a specialty store, Soundtronics offers higher quality and a larger selection of speakers than Best Buy. The brand the Soundtronics salesman was most high on was Mirage, which I discovered is a subsidiary of Klipsch -- the manufacturer of the floorstanding speaker recommended to me at Best Buy. Again, the salesman steered me toward a bookshelf speaker, in this case the Nanosat Prestige ($349/pair). The Nanosat is very small (5.8”H x 4.2”W x 4.3”D), and its slanted, dome-shaped top gives it a slick, futuristic appearance. The dome is a necessary part of this speaker’s design, as it accommodates the interesting, stacked arrangement of the woofer and tweeter that allows the speaker to radiate sound through a full 360 degrees. I got the chance to hear the Nanosats cranked up pretty high, and was impressed with how good they sounded. Though my ears aren’t as well trained as a true audiophile’s, I could detect little deterioration of the sound at high volumes. The bass, too, sounded powerful, even without the support of a sub. But given that I (supposedly) had $2000 to spend, the Soundtronics salesman informed me that I might want to consider the Mirage OS3-FS ($889/pair), as this would provide me with a richer sound, and a nice foundation for building a full surround-sound array.
As for subwoofers, this salesguy thought that the Proficient PS8 ($360) might serve my needs. It’s smaller than the sub I was shown at Best Buy, but from what I was told, Proficient is a bit of a step up from Polk. Soundtronics also carries some Mirage subs, and the model that was pointed out to me was the Mirage Prestige S10 ($599.99). Though a bit more expensive than an introductory-level sub, this, again, would be a good start for a full surround system. Finally, the Soundtronics salesman told me that, for my budget, speaker wire is not much of an issue. Basically, any brand of 16-gauge will work as well as any other.
Boutique shop 2: Sound Decisions
Sound Decisions, my final stop, has a listening room set up with a large plasma screen and full surround sound. As I had at the other two stores, I told the guy at Sound Decisions exactly what I was looking for, and gave him a full rundown of the specifics of my room and the requirements of my especially significant other. I basically had two choices for speakers, he said: Paradigm’s Mini Monitor ($499/pair) or Studio 10 ($799/pair), both bookshelf models that can be paired with stands ($150 and $400/pair, respectively) and that pack a powerful punch. The bass that either of these speakers can put out is quite impressive. In fact, the Sound Decisions salesman suggested that I might want to bypass the subwoofer for now and invest in a better receiver.
Again, as with speakers, I was strongly encouraged to purchase only one brand of receiver: Onkyo. At $499, the Onkyo HT-RC260 is a good bit more expensive than the Yamaha RX-V367, but it’s a 7.2-channel AVR. However, I haven’t been able to establish to my own satisfaction if Onkyo’s products are more highly regarded than Yamaha’s. When I asked for suggestions of a good subwoofer, the salesman at Sound Decisions said that the Paradigm PDR-10 ($349) is the way to go. I heard this sub paired with both the Mini Monitors and the Studio 10s, and found the power of the bass to be amazing. I finished my conversation with the salesman at Sound Decisions as I had my conversations at Best Buy and Soundtronics: by asking about speaker wire. He suggested that any brand would do, but that 12-gauge was what I would need.
I was surprised that none of the salesmen I spoke with made an effort to hard-sell me on anything, and I appreciated that none went out of his way to talk over my head or make me feel dumb. Not knowing much about what I was looking to buy made it a bit difficult to decide whether the advice all these guys were giving me was reliable, but it was interesting that two of the three recommended the Yamaha RX-V367. This indicated to me that this probably is a good component that’s worth its price.
At each of these stores, the choice of speaker made a big difference in what it would cost to assemble a stereo system. Though more expensive than other bookshelf models, the Paradigm speakers sounded the best to me, so my $2000 would ultimately go to Sound Decisions.
But at any of these three stores, a novice could, with some friendly guidance, put together a system that would make him and his famous girlfriend happy for years to come.
Now, on to my next assignment: assess an Internet-direct shopping experience . . .
. . . Andrew Jones
My sister and brother-in-law’s house is undergoing a major renovation, and their basement is finally nearly finished. Part of it will be a small home theater, and they asked me, the family audio/video know-it-all, for my opinions about what gear to get. They’d never had a home theater, and have found the transition from two to many speakers somewhat daunting. They wanted their new theater to be as unobtrusive as possible, but my brother-in-law insisted on "going 7.1," which he figured was the latest and greatest. (Little did he know that we’re already up to 11.4 channels.) I began by recommending on-wall speakers, some of which I’ve recently reviewed and have had a lot of success with. But with the home-improvement bills stacking up, my brother-in-law broke out in a nervous sweat at the prices of some of the gear I was recommending.
That got me thinking about how I’m using my own home theater these days, and the expense of putting together a 7.1 system. I thought of the days of stereo, when all you needed were two high-quality speakers. Now the same money needs to buy seven speakers and a subwoofer. To have the latest and greatest, you need 9 to 11 speakers and at least one subwoofer. But do you really need a 7.1 or 9.2 or 11.4 system? Why not cut back to 5.1 and save some money? Or spend the same amount but buy better-quality gear?
One of the main arguments against having more than 5.1 speakers is the dearth of Blu-ray titles recorded in 7.1. As of this writing, according to www.blu-raystats.com, only 168 such films have been released, and even that short list contains some oddities you wouldn’t think would benefit from two more channels -- such as W. and Be Kind Rewind. Having picked up The Golden Compass and 3:10 to Yuma on Blu-ray a few years ago and wanting to stock up on more 7.1 titles, I was recently hard-pressed to find much that I wanted, but came up with two. Although Shoot ’Em Up has an awesome soundtrack with tons of surround effects that take advantage of all 7.1 channels, I instead chose Semi-Pro, which I find more entertaining. And to hear Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell) sing "Love Me Sexy" in 7.1 -- priceless!
If you’re a fan of multichannel music recordings, as I am, how many 7.1 SACDs or DVD-Audios exist? Exactly none -- but since a total of more than 5.1 channels wasn’t part of the original specification for either format, that’s not surprising. Surround Records has released on Blu-ray a dozen 7.1-channel DTS-HD MA classical recordings that supposedly sound amazing, and there are perhaps a handful of others, but that’s about it. "Hold on!" you might be saying to yourself; "You can just use your surround modes, like THX Ultra2, to simulate 7.1 from 5.1." That’s true; usually I leave my A/V receiver in THX Ultra2 mode, but at times the extra processing can make discrete effects sound odd (for example, voices shifting back and forth between the left and rear surround speakers).
A room’s size and configuration will do much to determine whether or not rear surround speakers will be effective enough to be worth the added cost. The listening room in my old house was 20’L x 14’W, with my 92" screen on the short wall. My seat was 12’ from the front wall and 8’ from the rear wall. With such a setup, placing the L/R rear surround speakers on the rear wall made surround effects more seamless. Any atmospheric effects, such as in cave and outdoor scenes, were more convincing with the rear surrounds.
The basement theater in my new house measures 23’L x 16’W, but this time my 92" screen is on the long wall. Here I sit only about 3’ from the rear wall. Although only seven speakers are hooked up, when I wired this system I made provisions for nine channels (the extra two are for "future" height speakers) and three subs. Nearly all of the systems I review are 5.1, which means that, to concentrate solely on the review speakers, I disable my rear surrounds -- and I haven’t missed them: I still get a relatively seamless surround soundfield behind me and to the sides. I did miss the rear surrounds more in my old theater; there, the L/R surrounds were to the sides, pointed at my ears, leaving behind me a big, speakerless gap.
The type of speakers you use as left and right surrounds will play a part in whether or not you really need rear surrounds. I usually use dipole or bipole speakers as L/R surrounds because they send more sound out to the walls, and the listener hears more reflected than direct sound. Dipole speakers, which operate with some/all of their drivers out of phase, are especially effective if you sit close to the rear surrounds, as they’ll be difficult to sonically locate, which is desirable for surround ambience. Bipole surrounds, which operate with their drivers in phase, are designed to broaden the soundstage; when properly positioned, they do an effective job of filling in the rear surround channels. When I sit close to the rear wall, I find that placing the L/R surrounds in the room’s back two corners and aiming the side drivers down along the rear wall provides a decent substitute for rear surround speakers.
Direct-radiating L/R surround speakers, which fire directly at the listener, sound amazing with recordings in which individual instruments and/or voices have been mixed to the surround channels. Listening to the multichannel edition of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Long Walk to Freedom (SACD, Heads Up International HUSA 9109) with direct-radiating surrounds is gratifying -- the voices are firmly positioned in the surround channels, which make it seem as if you’re in the middle of the group as they’re singing on stage. If you’re more of a purist music lover who insists on direct-radiating surround speakers, then you can make a strong case for adding rear surrounds, and I wouldn’t argue with you.
Extra surrounds or extra subwoofer?
Most people, given the choice of spending a fixed sum on two better or four worse surround speakers, would take the two good surrounds. Another way to look at whether or not to add a pair of rear surrounds is to consider spending the money on a second subwoofer instead. In many cases, the costs will be comparable, especially for a low-budget system. I’d choose the sub. I’ve been using two subwoofers for the last few months, and it’s awesome -- a better quality of bass, and more of it. In short, a second sub makes a far greater impact on performance than do two more surrounds. At best, adding rear surrounds will provide subtle improvements in the surround ambience. Another subwoofer, however, will smooth the bass response throughout your room, making placements easier, and will allow your system to play louder without strain. Who doesn’t want that?
If you have a lot of money to put into your home theater and don’t want to compromise, then the incremental cost of increasing your number of speakers from five to seven isn’t a big deal, and I say go for it. But the reality for most of us is that having more speakers than in the standard 5.1-channel home-theater system is costly and results in compromised quality, because you’re spreading your budget over more speakers. My advice to you is, don’t look back -- 5.1-channel sound is still, by far, the type of soundtrack most commonly found on Blu-ray releases, and the extra pair of surrounds will only marginally improve your movie-watching experience. However, if you can free up some extra cash, then adding a second subwoofer will give you the most bang for your buck, literally and figuratively.
My sister and brother-in-law thanked me for my advice -- then bought four mediocre surround speakers. Oh, well.
. . . Vince Hanada
2010 could be thought of as the Year of 3D TV. It was everywhere at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in January, with a huge number of manufacturers either showcasing their new 3D technology or ensuring that their upcoming models would be "3D-ready." The hype made me regret buying my new plasma TV -- 3D TV was due out any time, and would revolutionize the home viewing experience. But reading all the enthusiastic Web coverage of the 3D technology on display at CES, I was surprised at the tepid response from the SoundStage! Network team. Basically, their attitude seemed to be "Been there, done that." Why?
Been there, done that
3D movies are nothing new. The first film shown to the public in 3D was The Power of Love, in 1922. There was a big push in the 1950s, with such forgettable titles as Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Gorilla at Large (1954). I remember that, in the 1970s, I bugged my Dad to buy the cardboard-framed red-and-blue glasses to watch the 3D movie event of the week on TV -- usually the same trashy 3D movies that had been shown in theaters in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1980s saw another explosion of 3D, with Friday the 13th Part III (1982) and Jaws 3D (1983) among the more memorable.
In the last few years there’s been another flurry of 3D movies, mostly computer-animated. This past year I’ve taken my four-year-old twins to see Up (2009) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010). They think every movie is in 3D -- that’s all they’ve seen in theaters. At the end of 2009, recent 3D offerings culminated in the release of what many have called a game-changer for the technology: Avatar. These three movies differed from past 3D films in mostly avoiding the cheesier scenes -- things popping out of boxes at the audience, and so forth. And the screen is brighter than for past 3D releases, so it doesn’t look as dim. In short, 3D in movie theaters can now look from the good to the spectacular.
In the last few months a steady stream of new 3D TVs has come to market, most at the higher end of the price scale. If I were shopping for a premium TV, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy right now -- the 3D sets don’t cost much more than last year’s top 2D sets, so you aren’t paying much extra for that third dimension. However, one thing that adds to the cost is extra pairs of 3D glasses. Most sets come with a pair or two, but to outfit an entire family, you’re looking at an extra $200 per person. To top this off, the active shutter glasses made by Samsung and Panasonic are incompatible -- unless you wear them upside down. You could invite a friend to watch 3D at your place, but he’d look ridiculous if his 3D TV is made by a different company.
Most of the people I talk to about 3D TV who don’t wear glasses of any kind are turned off by 3D glasses. They prefer to wait for the day when 3D TVs are autostereoscopic (i.e., glasses-free). But this will probably be a few years down the road, at the earliest. I wear glasses part of the time, and find wearing 3D glasses over my regular specs uncomfortable. If I were to get a 3D TV in the near future, I’d have to put in contact lenses just to watch in 3D.
3D Blu-ray players and receivers
To display a 3D movie on your new 3D set, you may or may not need a new 3D-capable Blu-ray player. These new players can send 1080p content to each eye separately and require a new digital interface, HDMI 1.4. There are reports that existing BD players will send 3D content through their HDMI 1.3a interface, such as the claim that the Sony PlayStation 3 can be upgraded to do this. But the HDMI 1.3a interface is bandwidth-limited to 1080i to each eye, not full 1080p. That’s not a big problem for some, but most people will want the full 1080p experience.
How you get the signal from a 3D-capable BD player to your 3D TV will affect what else you need to upgrade. Those who don’t have a separate sound system connected won’t have to worry -- they can connect a 3D BD player to a 3D TV and get 3D in full 1080p. But most of us use a receiver or A/V processor to extract high-resolution audio from the BD before sending it on to a display device. Most high-end receivers also provide some sort of video processing to clean up and optimize poorly transferred movies. 3D BD players threaten to make this component obsolete, too; an unbroken HDMI 1.4 pathway is needed to send 1080p 3D content to a 3D TV.
Fortunately, one company, Panasonic, has already released two 3D BD players with dual HDMI 1.4 outputs. This will allow you to send 3D content to your 3D TV and the hi-rez audio signal to your receiver. The only problem now is that the 3D video content can’t be run through the video processor in your receiver, so you need two HDMI inputs on your new set: one for 3D content, one for 2D. Maybe the new HDMI 1.4-capable receiver upgrade doesn’t look so bad after all!
As I mentioned above, for full 3D, you’ll need an HDMI 1.4 cable. (The standard was revised in March 2010 to HDMI 1.4a, to include a host of enhancements, mostly for 3D broadcast content.) Or will you? Some manufacturers say that their implementation of HDMI 1.3a is robust enough for full transmission of 1080p 3D. This could be a big problem for those of us who’ve run the cables for our projectors or TVs through the walls. My TV is mounted above my fireplace with in-wall cables provided as part of the purchase price of the house. It’s only HDMI 1.3 at best; if my cables can’t transmit the full 3D signal, my options would be to rip out my walls and run new cables, or live with an unsightly cable dangling down in front of the fireplace. However, my home-theater room has conduits in the walls and ceiling through which I can easily run a new HDMI 1.4 cable, or whatever the latest standard will be.
Looking at the recent movie releases in 3D, most of the content is animation. I think 3D enhances animation, and I gladly paid the premium ticket price to watch Up and How to Train Your Dragon in theaters. When I watched the 3D demo of Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) in stores, it looked fantastic, adding realistic depth to the picture.
What about live-action films? As the critic Roger Ebert recently pointed out, not everything is better in 3D, and in fact some things can be worse. For years, cinematographers have used selective focus and blurred backgrounds to convey depth and focus viewers’ attention on certain parts of the image, but with most 3D content, everything is in focus. For 3D to stick, it will require directors and cinematographers to approach it as a new art form to be mastered.
After researching this article and looking at all aspects of bringing 3D to home theaters, I can see why our CES 2010 team had such a ho-hum attitude toward 3D. They’ve seen such hype before, with SACD and HD DVD and DVD-Audio. Obviously, the consumer-electronics companies would love for us to replace all the flat-panel TVs they’ve just sold us (and told us will last 20 years). After being sucked in and burned by numerous new formats, I think I’ll wait this one out a bit. Until there’s enough compelling 3D content available in a home format, I see no reason to replace my gear just to enter that virtual third dimension.
. . . Vince Hanada
As a broke graduate student in a down economy, I really like free things. I take great joy in finding events on campus where free pizza is offered as an inducement to get students to show up -- it works on me. There are few things finer than the one free refill and the wide-open WiFi at the coffee shop. I even look forward to Wednesdays, when the free weekly newspaper (with crossword puzzle) hits the stands. If it’s free, I’m there.
That’s why I was so excited when I purchased my Apple MacBook laptop and got an iPod Touch thrown in at no cost. It was quite a deal.
The Touch is quite similar to its older sibling, the iPhone; basically, it’s a computer you can slip into your pocket. However, the Touch does require WiFi access to perform its online functions. Using its touchscreen, you can surf the Internet, browse through photos, watch movies, and send e-mail. But on top of all of that, an ever-growing number of applications similar to the programs you run on your computer are being developed by Apple and other software companies for use with the Touch. In fact, Apple has dedicated an entire App Store to these applications; it’s part of Apple’s always-growing iTunes Store. Some of the apps available for download are fun -- there are tons of games, some of them totally ridiculous (in Hold On!, you simply hold your finger on the screen for as long as you can) -- but others are quite useful.
I’ve already established, at least to my own satisfaction, that free is good. What’s cool is that many of these Touch apps are available at absolutely no cost. Sometimes they’re only trial versions, but in some cases, free really does mean free. One of my favorites is Paper Toss, from Backflip Studios, in which you try to flick little virtual balls of paper into a wastebasket while compensating for the virtual breeze whipped up by a virtual electric fan. Paper Toss is fun to play while I’m waiting for my ramen to cool, but what I focus on here are free apps that are functional and handy.
Pandora vs. Slacker
My parameters for what constitutes “functional and handy” are a bit broad. Generally, I simply mean apps that aren’t games. For example, my iPod doesn’t have a tuner; when I began looking for free and useful apps, one of my first orders of business was to find a way to listen to the radio with my Touch. There are a number of options for listening to streaming music on the Touch, but the two most popular free apps are Slacker and Pandora.
A problem I’ve always had with using Pandora on my computer is in fine-tuning the stations to play only music that I’ll likely be interested in hearing. Often, this is a time-consuming process -- you have to diligently give the thumbs down to music you don’t like over a number of listening hours before Pandora figures out what you’re looking for. Slacker, on the other hand, lets you provide a good deal more information about what you want to hear before you even begin listening. The result is less time spent skipping songs you don’t like. Unfortunately, on the Touch, the interface for the Slacker app isn’t as good as the one for Pandora, which is less cluttered and simpler to navigate.
Ultimately, both of these apps are very useful, and go a long way toward making up for the fact that the Touch lacks a tuner. Were it possible to combine the Pandora interface with Slacker’s more advanced settings, you’d have the perfect streaming-audio player for the Touch. Since this isn’t possible, I’ve decided to just deal with the clunkiness of the Slacker interface in exchange for this service’s greater adaptability.
The Touch as e-reader?
The Amazon Kindle, now all the rage, is leading the way for a whole slew of brand-new e-book readers. Trading typical paper pages for a small screen on which to view text, e-readers let you carry a shelf’s worth of books in a handheld device roughly the size of a paperback. I’ve been wanting to try one of these newfangled gadgets for some time, but have yet to lay hands on one. I did, however, discover a number of apps that basically turn the Touch into an e-reader.
As someone with a couple of overflowing bookcases, I wouldn’t mind never having to move all those pounds of paper again, but I’ve always had my doubts about reading on a screen. However, reading a book using the Stanza app, from Lexcycle, is surprisingly easy on the eyes, even in the dark, and the selection of books available for download is impressive. In addition to the app itself being free, there are unabridged classic books that can be downloaded at no charge. Additionally, any number of current best sellers are available for purchase through the app. I haven’t yet read an entire book on my Touch using Stanza, but the next time I’m on a long trip, I’ll give it a shot.
The ever-useful Wikipedia
I am a Wikipedia junkie. Although I know this user-edited encyclopedia is not always the best source for reliable information, I find it useful for getting me started in the right direction to figure out what I want to know. And, of course, it’s fun to just follow the links from entry to entry and see where you end up.
The Wikimedia Foundation, the creators of Wikipedia, have created a free app that lets you easily search the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit” on your iPod, and it has quickly become one of my favorite apps. If I’m waiting for someone, I can surf Wikipedia. It’s also really handy when I’m out with friends and can’t remember some bit of trivia.
Weather on the Touch
There are few things of more basic, practical use than checking the weather before heading outside, but some days, in my haste to get out the door, I don’t always manage this simple task. Now there’s an app for it. Accuweather.com provides a free and nice-looking app that has up-to-the-minute weather information. You can even watch videos of forecasts for your area.
On the level
I’m not much of a painter, but every now and again I like to frame and hang something I’ve done. Invariably, I have trouble getting the picture to hang straight on the wall, yet for some reason I’ve never invested in a spirit level. Luckily for me, iHandySoft has come up with the free iHandy Level app for the iPod Touch. This virtual spirit level is quite accurate, and the look of the interface is attractive. It may seem strange to use an MP3 player as a carpentry tool, but it’s surprising how handy this app can actually be.
Each day, Apple and an ever-expanding list of software developers make available new and useful apps for the iPod Touch -- and a great number of them are free. If, like me, you have a Touch but lack the spare change to buy pricier apps, don’t be bummed out: The App Store proves that, sometimes, you can indeed get something for nothing.
. . . Andrew Jones
I've been on the lookout for cool devices to take with me on vacation. I need something to keep me occupied in the airport or on planes -- a device that plays music and movies and has a long battery life for endless flights. Something that lets me surf the Web would be a bonus, as I could leave my laptop at home.
One such device that I've been using for a few years is the Sony PlayStation Portable (around $200 for the base PSP with Core Pack). It has a nice widescreen display, plays MP3s and WAV files, and has good video quality. But it's getting long in tooth, with only Wireless B and a crappy Web interface that makes surfing tortuous, so I still have to make room for my laptop. I also have to convert all video to a format that's compatible with the PSP, and that's becoming more of a problem as I get lazier and older. Even worse, the battery lasts less than a few hours.
A new gadget that caught my eye is the Apple iPad ($499 to $829 USD). Launched on January 27, 2010, the iPad resembles a jumbo version of Apple's iPod Touch (starting at $199), complete with touch screen and long battery life. As much as I think the iPod Touch is, as the Brits would say, "a brilliant piece of kit," my initial reaction to the iPad was tepid. I thought it was just an iPod Touch that you couldn't put in your pocket, but my excitement grew when I started exploring what it can do.
My initial beef with the iPad was the size of its unprotected screen. With a screen this beautiful, I'd be too worried about scratching it to take it anywhere. But I found a case on Apple's Website that looks like a large organizer. And since I regularly carry an organizer with me, I could easily picture myself walking around with it in hand -- without sheepishly slinging a dreaded man purse over my shoulder.
The iPad's battery life is rated at ten hours, which is awesome. I could use it for a whole day or two and recharge it at night. And with a thickness of only 0.5 inches and a weight of only 1.5 pounds, it's a very portable device indeed.
As the Apple ads demonstrate, you can use the iPad as an e-book reader, and with a screen that big and sharp, it would seem to function well. Although in a bright environment, the e-paper screen on the Sony Reader (starting at $199) might be easier on the eyes. One promotional photo shows the New York Times on the iPad screen, and I'm stoked about using it as a newspaper reader. Call me old school, but I still subscribe to my local fish wrapper because I like the look and feel of a real newspaper. But having the newspaper in an iPad-formatted screen would go a long way to clearing up my newspaper recycle bin, if not my computer recycle bin.
With Apple's clout, I have no doubt that the iPad will bring e-books to the masses. Even though Apple has said that it won't be offering books through iTunes, with the iPad’s mass appeal, everyone else will support it.
As an audio lover with a decent collection of high-resolution discs, I'm not overly impressed with what the iPad offers in the audio department. It has a built-in speaker and headphone jack. Wow. But it allows remote access to your iTunes library, a feature that's cool but by no means revolutionary. The iPod Touch offers it, and my several-years-old Sony PSP offers Wi-Fi access to my PS3 music library. What this feature means is that anywhere you have access to a Wi-Fi connection, be it your home or your local coffee house, you can listen to your tunes. The playable formats, which include MP3, Apple Lossless, and WAV, are the same as any other Apple audio player. As expected, the iPad doesn't accommodate audio formats like 24-bit/96kHz PCM.
One of the issues I have is the iPad's lack of expandable storage for all the music I want to take with me. The 16GB offered in the base model ($499) doesn't seem like enough for an all-in-one device. 64GB is much better, but you pay through your nose ($699) for the extra storage.
So far, I like what the iPad offers, even though none of the features are groundbreaking. But where it really lets me down is in its video performance. Although the native screen resolution is limited to 1024x768, I can live with that, as no one can really discern higher resolutions at normal viewing distances. What bugs me, however, is that the iPad is touted as HD, compatible with H.264 at 720p, even though it can't output greater than 576p through the component connector on the iPad dock. And no HDMI connection? Geez Louise!
Alternative No. 1
While the iPad ticks most of the boxes on my list of things to look for in a cool gadget, there are other devices that tick all of them, such as the ubiquitous netbook. Even better is the ultraportable notebook, since a true netbook lacks most of the video amenities I seek. These new near-netbooks come in all sorts of configurations, with 11.6" to 13.3" high-def screens (1366x768), smooth playback of 720p or 1080p video, HDMI output, and long battery life. Some have tablet-type screens, while others even have built-in DVD burners. Sure, these are Windows 7 machines, which is a deal breaker for Apple fans, but these notebook computers offer multitasking and 250GB hard drives, making them a compelling alternative to the iPad. For my needs, the ultraportable notebook comes closest to being a one-device vacation gadget.
Alternative No. 2
The HP Slate (estimated to start at $549) was introduced at CES 2010 as an "iPad killer," though it has no announced shipping date as of this writing. It appears to have the same form as the Apple iPad, with the added benefits of 1080p video output, an HDMI connector from its dock, and an SD card reader -- three features that the iPad lacks. As a Windows 7 machine, the Slate will also allow multitasking. On paper, it's a great alternative to the iPad, until you get to the battery life, which is rated for only five hours. This would be a deal breaker for me, but it would be interesting if HP could bump it up before they ship the device.
So which one?
After comparing the devices, I feel compelled to go with the ultraportable laptop to meet all of my media-player needs on my next vacation. It offers enough power to replace my usual laptop, and it has long-enough battery life and small-enough size for use on a plane. But I'd still give the Apple iPad and HP Slate a try (if the HP Slate isn’t delayed too long) before making a decision. You can never underestimate the power of touch and feel when buying a new gadget -- especially when Apple is involved.
. . . Vince Hanada
When assembling a two-channel audio system, I've always gravitated toward an integrated amplifier. I like the idea of a one-box solution -- it takes up less space and sacrifices only a little performance compared to a separate preamp and power amp. With only one power supply, all other things being equal, an integrated amp tends to be more power efficient. Integrated amps are way less fussy, too -- there's no worrying about preamp A matching power amp B or wondering which cable to use between them. I'll let the manufacturers put it all together so I can just think about what music to play.
Adding a DAC
The latest exciting trend is the proliferation of integrated amps with additional components, such as digital-to-analog converters. We're not talking mass-market $500 pieces here -- high-end manufacturers are getting in on the act. One of the first was Bryston with its B100-DA SST ($4545 including DAC), reviewed on SoundStage! in August of 2006. I experienced this component a couple of years back in one of the most effective demos I've heard in an audio store. Before this demo, I wasn't convinced that a DAC separate from what you get in a CD player would improve sound quality much. But when switching from the analog outputs of a high-quality CD player to the DAC in the Bryston integrated amp, I was startled -- I heard a larger, more detailed soundstage and airier highs. From that day forward, I got it.
Further refining the concept of a built-in DAC is the Esoteric AI-10 ($4400). This 110Wpc integrated adds an internally generated sync clock that connects to Esoteric's CD players. Syncing word clocks between player and DAC reduces timing errors, called jitter, resulting in better sound quality. Because it's a digital amp, it converts all analog signals to digital at up to 192kHz. While some may wonder if this impacts the sound, according to reviewer Philip Beaudette in his May 2010 SoundStage! review, this wasn’t the case at all.
Adding to a DAC
With the proliferation of Apple's iPod, the need to connect it or its files to an audio system is a necessity -- life or death for an equipment manufacturer that hopes to sell its wares to a new generation of music lovers. Apple didn't need to issue bumper stickers that read "Support the iPod or Die" -- consumers simply demanded it. Like it or not, the iPod has changed the way most of us listen to and store music. It has led not only to MP3 downloads, which can sound surprisingly good, but also to high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz downloads, which sound extremely good. Many journalists have predicted the end of disc-based audio and video storage. So what's new in the world of DACs? The addition of a USB port is certainly new, and it's now almost commonplace. Most of these USB ports don't support the iPod directly, but they will support any computer-based audio storage, like your iTunes Library.
The latest integrated amps with built-in DACs have added USB ports, too. Check out the Simaudio Moon i3.3 integrated amp ($3699 with DAC) reviewed in GoodSound! in June of 2009. In addition to the USB port, the i3.3 sports two coaxial and one optical digital connections on the back. This 100Wpc unit (which is rated to double its power to 200Wpc into 4 ohms) also has a 1/8" stereo jack in front to connect any MP3 player. Surprisingly, the Bel Canto e.One S300iU 24/96 ($1995), reviewed on SoundStage! in January, eschews S/PDIF inputs altogether and has a single USB input for connecting to your computer. Unlike the Simaudio Moon i3.3, the Bel Canto is a digital-switching amp in a remarkably tiny chassis, yet it's rated for 150Wpc into 8 ohms and a staggering 300Wpc into 4 ohms.
Being a devoted home-theater enthusiast, my world revolves around a receiver, projector, Blu-ray player, seven speakers, and a subwoofer. Putting all that together can require deep pockets, and for economical reasons, I’ve based my home theater on a receiver rather than separates. It’s a good one, but with a receiver everything is compacted to fit into one box. The amps aren't typically as good as standalone ones, the video section can add noise, and the preamp section won’t be as good as a competent separate preamplifier. With all the satisfaction I get from watching movies in 7.1 glorious channels, I still miss the sound quality and simplicity of two-channel audio.
When looking to add an integrated amplifier to my system, I always look for a home-theater bypass. By hooking up your main left and right speakers to the integrated amp, the home-theater bypass lets you disable the preamp section and use the power amp when watching movies. You can then reengage the preamp section when listening to two-channel music, so you get the best of both worlds. How simple is that? Some might say that all you need is to hook up the left/right audio outputs from your receiver to any integrated amplifier's Preamp In jacks, which almost all integrated amps have. I've gone that route, and it sucks -- you effectively have two volume knobs active, and you'd have to mark or remember where the volume of the integrated should be when switching back to your receiver. Bottom line: I wouldn't add an integrated amp to my system without the home-theater bypass!
Fortunately, there's no shortage of integrated amps with home-theater bypass switches that also incorporate built-in DACs. The previously discussed Bryston and Bel Canto have included this feature. As well, have a look at two SoundStage! Network Reviewers' Choice winners: the April Music Stello Ai500 ($3495) reviewed on SoundStage! in January of this year, and the Peachtree Audio Nova ($1195) just reviewed on SoundStage! in February.
The April Music Stello Ai500 features an amp section rated at 150Wpc into 8 ohms amp, doubling its power to 300Wpc into 4 ohms. A unique feature of this integrated amp is an iPod USB control port along with analog left and right inputs. Although the audio output will be analog, the Stello Ai500 remote control will navigate your iPod.
Perhaps the most exciting piece for me in this roundup is the Signal Path International Peachtree Audio Nova. This integrated amp is rated for 80Wpc into 6 ohms. It features a hybrid tube / solid-state preamp, so it can smooth-out the sound of harsh-sounding sources, speakers, or recordings. Is the sound too syrupy smooth? Signal Path has provided a button labeled Tube on the remote control -- press it and the Nova will bypass the tube section. Cool! Another aspect of this unit is the tube headphone section for high-quality private listening. If that isn't enough, the DAC section incorporates an ESS Sabre DAC. This DAC features a selectable switch for adjusting the filter slope from sharp to soft, allowing you to adjust the sound to your liking. This is the Burger King of integrated amps, as it lets you tailor the sound to Have it Your Way.
The kitchen sink
The final integrated amp that I'd like to bring to your attention is the NaimUniti ($3750), reviewed this month right here on SoundStage! Xperience. I don't know if integrated captures it all, because this piece is crammed with everything. Technically, it's a receiver because it has a built-in FM tuner. The power amp section is rated for 50Wpc into 8 ohms and 90Wpc into 4 ohms. The DAC section has five digital inputs and a front-mounted USB input. It will offer iPod control with an optional Naim n-Link iPod dock ($150). The NaimUniti's unique feature is the network connectivity, using either a hardwired Ethernet connection or a wireless-G connection. This opens up a host of cool features such as wirelessly streaming computer-based audio files and Internet radio, the latter allowing access to music content from around the world. If that isn't enough, Naim threw in a CD player, too. Note that all of these components haven't been slapped into a box haphazardly, but are based on Naim's highly acclaimed separates, so quality sound should be assured.
As you can see, the integrated amplifier has evolved into a sophisticated piece of equipment, adding such components as built-in DACs and wireless streaming and offered at a variety of prices. With high-end companies getting involved, the sound quality will be first-rate, too. These new integrated amps offer unmatched versatility, and I think you'll find the prospect of adding one to your system as exciting as I have.
… Vince Hanada