My mission was to scour the halls of the Hotel Bonaventure Montréal, the venue for the 2019 Montréal Audio Fest, looking for affordable products to report on. That turned out to be fun but not all that easy -- most exhibitors were showing off their five- and even six-figure systems. But among all the audio bling, a few manufacturers and distributors displayed some gear that was indeed affordably priced. (All prices in Canadian dollars.)
Henry Kloss (1929-2002) was one of the pioneers of North American hi-fi. He studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before dropping out to embark on a career in which he founded several storied audio brands, including Acoustic Research, Advent Corporation, Cambridge Soundworks, and Tivoli Audio. Along with patent-holder Edgar Villchur, Kloss helped design the first commercially available sealed-box loudspeaker, the Acoustic Research AR-1. Kloss is probably best remembered for KLH Research and Development Corporation, which he cofounded, with Malcolm Low and J. Anton Hofmann, in 1957 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. KLH -- the name was formed from the initial letters of the founders’ last names -- produced several innovative electrostatic loudspeaker designs and electronic components, but by 1967 Kloss had moved on. KLH thereafter changed hands several times, and quickly fell off the hi-fi map.
To the surprise of no one, about 12 people -- including several derelicts, some tumblin’ tumbleweeds, and SoundStage!’s own Brent Butterworth -- attended the hi-fi segment of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. If you haven’t visited Las Vegas, imagine a city codesigned by Louis XIV and a strip-mall developer, and fueled by a near-lethal combination of vodka, Red Bull, and poor decision-making, all tinged by the aroma of burnt tobacco. The high-end segment of CES has been on a slow decline for years, domestically usurped by the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and internationally by Munich’s annual High End. Despite this, this year’s CES was chock full of new and affordable audio gear.
In the past 12 months the SoundStage! Network has undergone some major changes, including some shifts in editorial direction. The addition of Gordon Brockhouse to sister site SoundStage! Simplifi has proven a shrewd move -- Gordon is not only a great writer, his system is ideally suited for reviewing such progressive hi-fi endeavors as all-in-one-ish stereo loudspeakers like the DALI Callisto 2 C and Kii Audio Three, and KEF’s new LSX wireless loudspeaker (review in the works). In many ways, I envy Gordon’s position. For the last few years I’ve felt that if I were ever to depart from SoundStage!, I’d probably sell my traditional hi-fi rig of passive loudspeakers driven by a massive integrated amplifier-DAC, and grab a pair of Devialet Phantoms -- e.g., the Silver Phantoms I reviewed on Access a couple years ago.
A couple months ago, I chronicled my adventure in dumpster diving for a new music server. My $280 USD eBay purchase -- a 2015 Intel NUC5I5RYK computer -- arrived on my doorstep looking as if it had spent several years in an abusive relationship. It also turned out that the seller was guilty of false advertising: he’d claimed that the unit contained a “fleshly installed” copy of Windows 10. But installed in my little abuse victim was Windows 7, decidedly not freshly, or even fleshly, installed. Luckily, its 8GB of RAM and 250GB Samsung SSD were legit, and it worked just fine. At the time, I lamented that Roon wasn’t working smoothly, and that my vintage Apple wireless keyboard couldn’t connect to it. Should I have purchased a new NUC for several hundred dollars more, or even Roon’s own Nucleus, which costs a lot for what you get? No, and I’m glad I didn’t.
SoundStage!’s founder and publisher, Doug Schneider, calls me at least once a week. “I’ll just keep you a minute,” he says. Then, almost without fail, the ensuing 15- to 30-minute conversation is steered toward affordable, high-value gear. Over the past year or two Doug and I have become convinced that gear costing less than $2000 USD -- and now, less than $1000 gear -- is what SoundStage! Access should focus on. In 2018 and going forward, the phrases lo-fi or even mid-fi no longer apply to this site, because so much real engineering is now on offer at those prices from real hi-fi brands.
If you want to understand why the high end has had difficulty attracting new customers and younger blood, you need only attend a trade show like Munich’s High End. The vast majority of rooms display products that cost exorbitant amounts of money. You’d imagine that any such product would be launched with a blizzard of accompanying materials -- pamphlets, professionally shot photographs, maybe even a white paper. You’d then leave the manufacturer’s exhibit, take the metro back to your home or hotel, hop on your laptop, and direct your web browser to that manufacturer’s website to find more information.
I’ve written before about a quandary I’m in regarding my digital front end. In summer 2017, my 2009-era MacBook Pro computer running Roon Core was exiled from my living room by my better half. I was left streaming all my music from my iPhone and a 2013 MacBook Pro, via AirPlay, to my Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amplifier-DAC. While hardly the end of the world, this was not a setup suitable for an audio reviewer who wants to be taken seriously by his readers.
If you had told someone in 1918 that, 100 years hence, the world would be connected by a network that housed, broadly speaking, the sum total of all human knowledge, with access available to all but the poorest and most rural people, I’m betting you’d be met with disbelief. We now take the Internet for granted, but what is real power if not the possibility of omniscience? That the Internet is chock full of pornography, self-absorbed social-media and video content, and a multitude of other useless or depraved destinations shouldn’t detract from its potential, realized or otherwise. Concerns about net neutrality aside, the Internet remains one of humankind’s greatest achievements: an egalitarian tool of tremendous connective possibility.
The speed of change in consumer electronics is breathtaking. Smartphones are rapidly supplanting computers as our default devices for most consumer activities, and my own practices are no exception. I deposit checks and verify transactions through my mobile banking app. I use my phone to communicate with family and friends, and for work using text and e-mail. I check my stock portfolio, fret over retirement funds, read the news, keep up to date on stupid memes, and ask Google all sorts of questions. A couple weeks back I bought a pair of aftermarket underseat subwoofers for my car through eBay’s app, and the same day, via an online car forum, found a buyer for my car’s stock underseat subs, to help defray the cost of that impulse buy.