Mad Scientist Audio came to my attention when fellow SoundStage! Network reviewer Howard Kneller told me I had to request free samples of the company’s BlackDiscuses. Made from a formula described, tongue in cheek, as being part science and part voodoo, the BlackDiscus is a little thing in the shape of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup that, when placed on a connector, interconnect, or speaker cable, makes it sound better -- or so Mad Scientist claims. I’ve found that they so improve the sound of my system that I now don’t have a power cord, interconnect, or speaker cable that I haven’t equipped with one. What’s more, they not only work great but are silly inexpensive, their various sizes ranging in price from $10 USD per pair to $49.95 each. An audio tweak that doesn’t cost a lot and clearly and immediately benefits the sound is as rare as . . . well, an audio tweak that doesn’t cost a lot and clearly and immediately benefits the sound.
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in hi-fi should be familiar with Bowers & Wilkins, aka B&W. Founded in 1966, the British manufacturer has been making speakers for 50 years. Its flagship speaker models are staples of recording studios, where they are used as monitors. Its lifestyle products, including headphones and Zeppelin all-in-one wireless systems, are staples of electronics stores. Filling the gap between is a range of speaker lines, the venerable 600 Series representing the company’s entry-level offerings.
Recently, I reviewed Anthem’s new AVM 60 surround-sound processor, which replaced the AVM 50v 3D, the last version of the second generation of Anthem’s AVM surround-sound processors. And while Anthem had continually upgraded that generation during its long run of nearly 15 years, the accompanying MCA series of amplifiers, after a few iterations in its first few years of production, remained unchanged during that time -- until 2016, when Anthem unveiled, alongside the AVM 60, the new MCA ’25 amps.
For 15 or so years, until very recently, Anthem continued to produce upgraded versions of their second-generation AVM surround-sound processor. That’s a long time for any component, and especially for a surround-sound processor. Although the original AVM 20 had little more than Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES, and THX Surround EX processing, Anthem continually updated it throughout its long run; the last version, the AVM 50v 3D, had all of the latest audio codecs and processing, save for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, along with Sigma Designs’ VXP “broadcast quality” video processing and Anthem’s own Anthem Room Correction (ARC). The original AVM 20 cost $3199 USD at its debut; before being discontinued earlier in 2016, the AVM 50v 3D was priced at $6499.
Speaker maker Sonus Faber was established in 1983, in the Veneto region of Italy, and in 2007 was acquired by the McIntosh Group, owner of such brands as McIntosh Laboratory and Audio Research. SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider visited Sonus Faber in 2013, and saw their production line in Vicenza. SF’s many lines of speakers are mostly designed for listening to two-channel music recordings, but they also make speakers for multichannel systems and for supercar manufacturer Pagani, down the road in Modena. No surprise, given that Sonus Faber has repeatedly won SoundStage!’s Aesthetics and Sound award.
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. . . . Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.
Anthem is a relative newcomer to the market in audio/video receivers -- they launched their original MRX series of 300, 500, and 700 models as recently as 2010. But looking at their parade of products since, I’m astonished that the new ’20 models comprise what already is the third iteration of Anthem’s MRX models -- not an easy feat for an audiophile brand to pull off. It just shows you how quickly things change in home theater.
Rotel, originally founded by Tomoki Tachikawa under the name Roland, broke into the electronics industry in the 1950s as a Japanese distributer of US-made Sylvania television sets. Due to the higher voltage standards employed on the far side of the pond, distributing Sylvania’s products, at the time, meant that Roland was also responsible for both modifying and servicing said products to meet local requirements. As a result, engineering quickly became a mainstay of Roland’s business plan, and eventually led the company away from distribution and into manufacturing. In 1961, Roland became Rotel, and continued to focus on manufacturing quality electronics until the late 1960s, at which point they began designing and manufacturing products for other audiophile-oriented companies as well as under the Rotel brand name. In 1973, Rotel earned its first Consumer Reports “Best Buy” award for their hugely popular RX-402 receiver -- and the rest, as they say, is history.
It strikes me that preamplifiers have always so dramatically varied in form -- by era, by manufacturer, by purpose -- that rarely has there been a preamp that one could describe as “typical.” Early on, the functions offered were amazing. Some early preamps provided different phono-equalization curves for the many different ways record labels equalized recordings; thank goodness, now all we have to worry about is RIAA. The famed McIntosh Laboratory stereo models of the 1950s through the 1970s featured a seven-position Mode switch that gave the user the choices not only of stereo, reverse stereo, and mono (L+R to both channels), but left or right channel individually to both outputs, or L+R mono to either the left- or right-channel outputs. The ubiquitous Dynaco PAS-3X, of which more than 25,000 were made, offered three mono modes (L, R, L+R) and full stereo, plus two levels of “blended” stereo that traded a loss of channel separation for a quieter signal.
Usually, I think of Arcam as producing high-value integrated amplifiers. Sometimes I forget that they have a long history of producing high-quality digital audio gear -- their reasonably priced CD players and, later, their DVD-Audio, and universal DVD and SACD players, were some of the best available at the time, and Arcam continues to produce high-quality optical-disc players with their latest BD-and-SACD models. And while, as a maker of digital source components, they’re better known for their optical players, they were one of the first to produce a standalone DAC. A few years ago, Arcam returned to the DAC market, first with the compact, entry-level rDAC, followed by the more expensive, full-size FMJ D33. The latter was reviewed very positively by our own Hans Wetzel, who now uses the irDAC, a later version of the rDAC, as one of his reference DACs.