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