Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Although I love my dad with all my heart and get along with him swimmingly, we are very different people, with different interests and significantly different life philosophies. Really, the main things we have in common are our mutual love of Corvettes and our equally unhealthy obsession with the weather. So we spend a lot of time talking about both.

You won’t often see me reviewing—and as such unboxing—standalone DACs here on Access, given that most of the gear I’m likely to review in the appropriate price range already benefits from high-quality built-in digital-to-analog conversion. In fact, I recently wrote an editorial about this very subject.

You could have probably guessed this from my chosen profession, but I’m a sucker for a good story. Put a cool product in front of me that’s competently designed and delivers good performance, and I’m smitten. Put that same product in front of me and talk to me about the creative impulse behind it, the reason for its existence, the hole in the market that it fills, and my tail wags that much harder.

A reader recently emailed me to berate me for dwelling too much on packaging materials, and the fact that I seem to be the only audio writer who gives a darn about the distinction between expanded polystyrene and dense polyethylene and the like. To that reader (you know who you are), I present the following photo as justification for why I care. Delivery people these days—at least in my neck of the temperate rainforest—view “fragile” stickers as more of a challenge than a warning.

If you’re just getting into high-fidelity audio and thinking about building a system—or if you’ve already started that process, but you’re not done just yet—you no doubt have a lot of choices ahead of you in terms of what gear to buy. You’ll need speakers, of course. That’s pretty much non-negotiable. You’ll need amplification, either in the form of an integrated amplifier that combines power, volume control, and source selection; a standalone power amp paired with a preamp; or active speakers with amps built in. And, of course, you’ll need at least one source, whether it be a turntable, a disc player, a media streamer, a PC, a smartphone, what have you.

I know I’ve broached this subject before, but one of the things I’m constantly grappling with is the simple question of how one determines value, especially in the world of consumer electronics. One of the more fun—but admittedly weirder—tools I rely on is a silly little one-man game of The Price Is Right, usually played while I’m first unboxing a product. (And yeah, the game is kinda spoiled if I already know the price ahead of time, so it’s not always helpful.) At any rate, I thought y’all might like to play along as I dig into the packaging for NAD’s new C 399 Hybrid Digital DAC-amplifier.

In a hobby so rife with magical thinking, it may seem folly to single out one myth as the most deleterious. But when you get right down to it, I don’t think most of the spooky beliefs held by crazier audiophiles actually harm anyone other than the True Believer. If you buy into the notion that four-figure ethernet cables or five-figure power cords truly transform the sound of your hi-fi setup, who are you hurting, really? In fact, you’re probably helping someone make this month’s yacht payment. If you insist upon burning in new speaker wires for 100 hours, whose time are you really wasting other than your own?

I’m not sure why, but there’s always something particularly exciting to me about unboxing a new pair of tower speakers. Maybe it’s because it’s the only unboxing process that feels like an undressing—I don’t know. Or perhaps it’s just the extra effort involved. If I had to bet, though, I’d guess it has something to do with that first fleeting instant of discovery—that moment when you figure out which side goes up and what accessories greet you upon first popping the tape and opening the cardboard flaps.

I envision a day in the not-too-distant future when the average audiophile loudspeaker will be active, not passive, and will have built-in amplifiers and DSP optimally matched to the drivers, ensuring the entire speaker safely performs to its fullest potential. But we’re not there yet. So if you’re new to the world of hi-fi and looking to build a component stereo system, one of the most critical purchasing decisions you have ahead of you is selecting the right amp and speakers for your needs.

Not to bore you too much with the sausage-making process, but what follows is not the article I originally intended to write this month. The goal here was to author an introductory article for budding audio enthusiasts who probably already have a lot of experience listening to headphones but perhaps don’t know what they get—and what they give up—when moving to a proper component stereo system.