Sure, you can probably score a better price buying audio gear online, and it's certainly easier, but is it a smart way to go? I don't think so.
First, buying hi-fi without listening to it is a bad idea. Smart buyers compare one product to another, it's simply the best way to learn what your choices are. Granted, it's not the same as hearing speakers in your own room, but at least you're hearing them in comparison to each other under the same conditions.
Online reviews, including the ones I write for CNET and print magazines offer my opinions about sound. But reviews by me or anyone else can't predict about how, say a speaker, works with a receiver that's similar to yours. I have no idea about your specific needs, your room size, acoustics, taste in music, etc.
Use my reviews as a starting point and then try and listen for yourself.
User reviews? Hey, I make my living writing audio reviews and my opinions are drawn from my experiences with literally thousands of audio products. I can point you in the right direction, but at the end of the day, its your ears and your money. Buy what you like; just make sure you've heard it.
A good salesperson can offer sound advice based on your specific needs. That's a huge advantage online sales outlets can't duplicate. Yes, finding the right store or salesperson can take time, but that's true for doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and contractors, but once you've found a good one, their advice and council can be a huge asset. If you're spending $500 or more for speakers or a receiver try to make the effort to hear the thing. A successful salesperson has lots of happy customers, there's no other way to be successful. I sold audio for 16 years, I know from where I speak. … Read more
I attended a fascinating panel discussion, "Behind The Glass: Audio Production in the 21st Century" at the Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City on Sunday.
The panelists were all prominent record producers and engineers: Tony Brown (Elvis Presley, Emmy Lou Harris); Jimmy Douglass (Jay-Z, the Rolling Stones); Dave Hewitt (Simon and Garfunkel, U2); Ryan Hewitt (Avett Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers); George Massenburg (Linda Ronstadt, Lyle Lovett); Ann Mincieli (Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston); and Russ Titelman (Stevie Winwood, Eric Clapton). These people know from where they speak!
Moderator Howard Massey led the panel through a discussion of the problems facing the record industry, with a primary focus on sound quality. Massey co-authored (with Geoff Emerick) my favorite Beatles book of all time, "Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles." He also has a new book coming out, "Behind the Glass, Volume II: Top Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits" a collection of interviews with top record producers and audio engineers.
It seems like the main problem comes from record company pressure to make perfect recordings. Vocalists' off-pitch and out-of-time singing is tweaked with Auto-Tune; music-making is largely technology-based. That is, technology has replaced musical talent, and singers like Britney Spears were cited many times as to where it's all headed. Not so musically talented, her music has to be patched together in the studio. There's not a lot of there there.
Jimmy Douglass talked about the overuse of dynamic range compression, admitting that since most music is listened to over crappy computer speakers or cheap earbuds, compression is required to make it sound acceptable. Sad, but true. … Read more
Harry Pearson, who coined the term "high end," spoke at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009, held last week in Denver. "High end" has long since spread to cars, cameras, jewelry, real estate, boats, and a gazillion other categories, but audio is where it all started.
Starting in 1973, Pearson's flamboyant writing style and deep love of gear and music helped prod the state of the art forward through the 1980s. The Absolute Sound's tiny circulation and sporadic publishing schedule didn't hurt its prestige and importance in the industry. A rave review, especially by Pearson, could put a start-up company on the map.
Pearson made people curious about, well, the absolute sound. That is, the sound of musicians and vocalists, recorded in an appropriate acoustic space. We all wanted a hi-fi system good enough to put us in that space. That's impossible, but the goal, reproducing the absolute sound, still drives at least some audiophiles.… Read more
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009, held last week in Denver, showcased the best and brightest in new high-end headphones and iPod sound enhancing gear.
I blogged about Wadia's super iPod dock, the 170i Transport last year, and Wadia now has a matching digital-to-analog converter/power amplifier, the 151. It has one USB, one Toslink, and two coax inputs. The 170i was the first "dock" to extract a digital output from an unmodified iPod, so for those who really care about sound quality, the Wadia 151 will be the way to go. The 151 PowerDAC will soon be available in black and silver.
Jack Wu of Woo Audio brought a nice selection of his tube headphone amplifiers to the show. I'm a huge fan of Woo Audio, its amps have made my Grado and Sennheiser headphones sound better than ever. Woo was also showing prototypes of its upcoming digital-to-analog converters, the sound showed great promise. … Read more
Germany has the high-end headphone market covered, as Beyer Dynamic, Sennheiser, and Ultrasone are all headquartered there.
Ultrasone is the newcomer of the group, but it's hardly new. It was founded in 1991 in Tutzing, close to the Alps in southern Germany. The headphones are manufactured in the U.S., Germany, Austria, and Taiwan.
Ultrasone has just announced a new flagship model, the HFI-2400 ($329). It features Ultrasone's S-Logic technology that promises to create "natural surround sound" by reducing pressure on the eardrum up to 40 percent. The new headphone also features ULE-technology that reduces electro-magnetic … Read more
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009, held last week in Denver, showcased the best and brightest in high-end audio gear.
Hundreds of high-end manufacturers, from tiny one-person operations all the way up to industry giants like JBL were on hand. RMAF has a very different vibe than the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every January--RMAF is a more grassroots affair.
I never heard of RAAL, a company based in Serbia, but its small (I'm guessing 7-inch-tall) speakers, produced a huge, room-filling sound. The speakers totally disappeared as sound sources.
The speaker uses twin aluminum cylinders, with 4-inch drivers firing up and down and a special "ribbon tweeter" sandwiched between the two cylinders, firing front and rear. Each speaker has its own, separate woofer, housed in another tube with 6-inch woofers at each end.
It's a fully powered system; just hook up a source such as a CD player and you're good to go. Price and availability weren't announced, but the company is hoping the complete system will cost around $4,000.
TAD (a division of Pioneer Electronics) had the best sound I heard at RMAF. Their newly revised Reference One speaker ($60,000 per pair) was far from the most expensive speaker in Denver, but the 330-pound towers produced the most vivid, clear, and transparent sound. Bass drums were tight, pitch-perfect; stereo imaging was, again, remarkably precise and three-dimensional. Vocalists virtually materialized between the two Reference Ones.
Some of that amazing sound quality has to be attributed to the Bel Canto electronics that TAD was using. The compact e.One Series components use just a tiny fraction of the AC power consumed by their hotter running, bigger and heftier competition. Bel Canto does things differently.… Read more
For over 10 years ElectronLuv has been producing custom amplifiers and high-end components.
I think they're awesome-looking things, and I love that they're built to order. In a way ElectronLuv's design ethos reminds me of the "American Chopper" TV series where they custom build high-end motorcycles to order. But in this case it's stereo pre- and power amplifiers, guitar amplifiers, turntables, and horn speakers designed to meet ElectronLuv's customers' desires.
Some might call it steampunk or retro chic, but I think ElectronLuv products are unique and represent the best of American high-end audio.
ElectronLuv's Josh Stippich needs three to six months to design and build each of his one-of-a-kind products. In the early design stages Stippich sends his customers drawings to get feedback so he can give them exactly what they want. … Read more
High-end audio can be expensive, but there are deals to be had.
Take a gander at EMP Tek's nifty Limited Edition System that goes for $595. It's a three-piece affair with a stereo tube integrated amplifier and a pair of sweet-looking bookshelf speakers.
Call me jaded, but I've heard a bunch of iPod speaker systems in that price range that sounded like glorified boom boxes. And since most of them are single-box systems they don't do much in the way of stereo separation. Yes, they make bass, but it's always bloated, thick, and boomy bass. Impressive to some at first, but its not what you'd call hi-fi sound. These iPod systems' power amp wattage is rarely specified or it's wildly exaggerated. For $600 you should be able to get a decent sounding system, and there's no such thing as a decent sounding iPod speaker for that kind of money.
The EMP Tek Limited Edition System is something else again. Its 40-watt-per-channel rating seems about right. Small enough to fit on a desktop, it's just 6.6 inches wide, 4.5 high, and 10.25 deep, and the amp has three inputs. Two are minijacks, so you can plug your iPod/MP3 player in, and there's a stereo RCA input you might use to pump the sound of your DVD or Blu-ray player through the system. The amp's two tubes are backlit with blue LEDs, which look extra cool. The amp weighs 8 pounds.… Read more
Headphone lovers of the world unite! We now have our own wiki, Wikiphonia.
Headphones are hugely popular now, but they were around long before "i" and "Pod" ever got together. The history is long and deep, and Wikiphonia is a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to know more about headphone technology and related information.
Headphone geeks are a breed apart from audiophiles as I know them, but they're an even more intense bunch. One of the great things about headphonia is you can get in pretty deep without a big investment. Hard-core types like to build their own headphone amplifiers.
Wikiphonia has an entry that covers 1970s era USSR copies of Western headphone technologies and designs, "The copying was done out in the open, probably and correctly, they figured no one would start a conflict with a superpower over a few headphone patents."
For me, it all started with Sennheiser's HD 414. Its bright yellow earpads were super cool, and the sound was awesome. Back in the early 1970s it was a really big deal, a giant leap better than anything I'd ever heard. You can read all about it on Wikiphonia.… Read more