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.
Munich’s annual High End audio show is now the best in the world. After covering the 2015 and 2017 editions, though, I took this year off. Between needing to take a honeymoon at some point, and having taken a new job that offers a bit less paid time off, I just couldn’t swing it. But from my laptop here in Philadelphia I watched our five-member team’s coverage like a hawk for Access-friendly products. I expected to see a few more new-product introductions, especially of electronics, and more companies venturing into powered speakers -- but there’s always next May, when I hope to return to the Munich Order Center. Meanwhile, I found plenty to like at High End 2018.
When some hi-fi publications cover industry trade shows such as High End, held each May in the beautiful Bavarian metropolis of Munich, they write up listening impressions and deliver subjective assessments of how a component or a complete system sounds. I’ve done it myself, often. I’ll listen to a new system in an unfamiliar room, playing music I’ve never heard before. How futile an exercise is that? Sure, it paints a picture for readers who want to sample fancy new gear from a distance -- when I miss a show, you can bet I pore over the SoundStage! team’s coverage and pictures like a hawk -- but I could care less about the old jazz recordings that reverberate through the Munich Order Center, where High End is held. It’s all about the music, isn’t it? The music is the frame of reference -- or it’s the lens through which we evaluate whether or not we love the sound pouring from a stereo system. Diana Krall may be a talented pianist and singer, but she’s more likely to drive me into a coma than have me on the edge of my seat.
“Why did they do it? For the money . . . ”
This rhetorical question and its inevitable answer regularly sailed through the halls of my childhood home. My father had, and continues to have, a critical mind. Dubious of anyone or anything claiming to have all of life’s answers, he ingrained into the minds of his four children the motto “Question everything.” As a student of Western history, he was all too aware that self-interest drives the majority of people, and in the modern-day West, money is the literal currency that keeps the gears of capitalism and globalization turning. Altruism may yield serenity of the soul and a peaceful night’s sleep, but it won’t necessarily pay the rent or buy groceries.
A few months ago, I wrote about my plan to review several pairs of speakers that retailed at or below $2500 USD per pair, and as of February 1, 2018, I’d finished my roundup. Over the last six months, I’ve spent time with Bowers & Wilkins’s 704 S2 ($2500), Elac’s Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 ($1499.99), KEF’s Q750 ($1499.98), and Monitor Audio’s Silver 300 ($2000) (all prices per pair). My goal was to get a solid feel for what buyers can expect in this price range, in terms of sound quality, appearance, and fit’n’finish. If you want to go deeper into what informs my thoughts as expressed below, I suggest checking out each of those reviews.
Hi, I’m Hans. I’m a youngish, married dude with no kids. In my spare time I read the news, pore over online car forums, trawl the Internet for politically incorrect memes, play and watch an unhealthy amount of soccer, and overanalyze all manner of past choices I’ve made. When I meet new people, I may talk about any of these activities, or my hometown Eagles going to the Super Bowl, or just about anything that will keep the exchange going. Hell, just to throw my fellow conversationalist for a loop, I may dig deep into my past and talk about how I used to work in a call center, an Abercrombie & Fitch, a funeral home. What I almost certainly won’t do is mention my second job: reviewing hi-fi gear for the SoundStage! Network.