I’ve written this monthly column for more than five years now, and the further along I get, the less I care about high-priced gear. The tipping point for me was the realization that not much changes. Jeff Fritz, SoundStage!’s editor-in-chief, recently found this out when he replaced his Swiss-made Soulution 711 stereo amplifier ($65,000 USD) with a 20-year-old Model 11 amplifier from Coda Technologies that he grabbed off Audiogon for $1500, and rhetorically asked, “In 20 years, how far has the high end really come?” Evidently not very far, at least in terms of amplification. Benchmark Media Systems, Devialet, and NAD are making some of the most cutting-edge amps around -- the Benchmark AHB2 amplifier ($2995) remains the amplifier with the lowest levels of noise and distortion we’ve ever measured -- yet none of them is breaking sales records, despite their state-of-the-art performance on the test bench. There’s still plenty of room in audiophile hearts for class-A, class-AB, and tubed gear, despite the fact that there’s been little measurable improvement in performance for these architectures over the years.
“Home theater is making a comeback.”
That was the perspective of Hegel Music Systems’ Anders Ertzeid, who offered a peek at Hegel’s five-channel amplifier prototype, codenamed Galaxy, at the company’s booth at CEDIA 2017, in San Diego in early September. Such a statement might seem odd at an event that’s long been a showcase for home theater and the video, audio, and control systems that drive it, not to mention such things as projection screens, window shades, lighting systems, furniture, etc. But Ertzeid seemed to mean that the success of video streaming has reignited interest in watching movies -- and not necessarily among early adopters who were quick to upgrade their A/V receivers to process Dolby Atmos sound, and their Blu-ray players to play Ultra HD discs with high-dynamic-range video. Instead, it’s the general public who are becoming more interested in higher-quality audio for video, mainly due to the wide availability of movies and TV shows with multichannel soundtracks from services such as Netflix and Amazon Video.
Thanks to globalization and the powers of sophisticated overseas manufacturing, we’ve gotten to the point where we can cheaply and reliably manufacture complex physical devices. Not long ago, it was normal for new LCD monitors to have a pixel or two DOA, and other physical defects were common. Consumers were more tolerant, and retailers were generally willing to exchange a product that wasn’t perfect for one that was. Today, though, everything is pretty much perfect. Even knockoffs of name-brand products are often nearly indistinguishable from the originals. Sure, there’s still improvement to be had, and greater value to be found, but by and large, quality hardware and electronics are available to people at nearly all levels of income.
It’s interesting how the songs we hear in adolescence are so formative. It’s no wonder that much of the music now played at audio shows and in dealer showrooms was composed decades, if not centuries ago. I get that J.S. Bach, Duke Ellington, and Bob Dylan may goose some listeners’ bumps, and that high-resolution reissues of albums that old can be exciting. The musical education of this barely millennial, however, took place in the 1990s. Alternative rock and gangsta rap may not be common fare for audiophiles, but the latter, with its roots in Compton, California, in the late 1980s, has had an outsize impact on me and on the music industry over the past 25 years.
I’ve found that a major downside of admitting that I’m an Apple fan is that I’m so often instantly pigeonholed as an effete ideologue. Like countless other examples, what’s true about a small proportion of Apple buyers has begun to dominate their detractors’ thinking, all but ensuring that any ensuing conversation is tainted by preconceptions.
I’ve had the good fortune to travel to a number of popular European cities in the past few years. Each has its own distinct personality, but I’ve found none of them -- including Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, and Madrid -- to be as pleasant as Munich. Everything is just so clean and well put together. It’s jarring for someone who lives in Philadelphia to see and experience such cleanliness. Philly is a city where character is really just a euphemism for “there’s an awful lot of trash blowing down the street” and “I just got yelled at in a semi-indecipherable dialect of English for something that wasn’t my fault.” I love my hometown for many different reasons. But between Munich’s cleanliness, the kindness of its inhabitants, and the seemingly carefree lifestyle -- at least around my hotel -- I know it’s a bit out of my league.
I know that many lament the slow decline of traditional high-end hi-fi, perhaps best exemplified by the funeral that was the Venetian Las Vegas at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show. But for people who, like me, just want good sound for not a lot of money, it’s a great time to be an audiophile. When I travel to Munich, Germany, later this month for the 2017 edition of the High End show, I expect to see a wide variety of hardware that fits neatly within my budget and my current listening habits.
I love class-AB amplifiers. You get most of the midrange magic of the space heaters that are pure class-A amps, while also getting meaningful amounts of power. They’re not too big, not too expensive, and -- crossover distortion aside -- have no major limitations in sound quality. And a well-engineered class-AB amp should last for years, even decades.
In January, we opened the door to the possibility of buying a vinyl-playback system to those of you who’ve never had one. I discussed numerous considerations, and some of the nuts’n’bolts of turntable ownership. Today, we continue . . .
If you followed our live coverage of the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show on SoundStage! Global, it should come as no surprise to hear that CES 2017 was a disappointment for the high-end audio industry. While other media outlets waffled concerning the merits of CES -- or dodged the issue altogether -- SoundStage! Editor-in-Chief Jeff Fritz wasted no time in labeling it a “graveyard.” The next day, Jeff doubled down, condemning the city of Las Vegas as a “cesspool.”