[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

January 2003

Resolutions and Curiosities

Well, here we are again -- January. We lived another year. We filled it with a collection of amusements, accomplishments, happenings, friends, toys, gains, and probably a few losses. It is my most sincere wish that all of you tipped the scales in favor of the positives and have found peace with any challenges you had to face. I also hope that the year that stretches before us is smooth and filled with plateaus.

All this being said, it was exactly a year ago that I was foolish enough to lay my resolutions on the table for all to see. My wiser comrades are able to keep their mouths shut so as to avoid the laughter and jokes made at their expense for good intentions gone awry. Well, I did open my mouth. How did I do?

My first resolution was to clean up the mess of cables behind my audio rack. I went on about this "cheap tweak" and all of the cost-free sonic benefits, such as minimizing EMI and RFI and in general quieting down the background. My success here has been mixed. As I sit here at this moment next to my audio rack, I can see a tangled mess staring back at me. It has not been like this all year. This has been a year of great change in my audio system. My wife will probably fall over laughing when she reads that last sentence. "And when was the last year without great change?" she will ask.

But really, the only component in my rack that I recognize from a year ago is the little Chang Lightspeed line conditioner at the bottom. Oh well, this is "hell," you understand. My point is that with all the changes, the cables have been a little neglected. Excuses, excuses. I’ll get right on that next week. I still believe the proper cable routing is one of the easiest significant gains you can make. It’s just not as much fun as buying a new toy.

My second resolution was to put in French doors, literally turning my living room into a semi-dedicated listening room. No sense beating around the bush here: It didn’t happen. Maybe this year, but until then I’m in the same time-share boat as most of you. As I write this I can faintly hear the sounds of A Christmas Story emanating from the TV room. I’ve gotta price those doors again.

Playing with power cords was my next goal. I have been doing this, and I have found the greatest gains to show up with my amp and preamp, in that order. Quieter backgrounds and higher-quality bass are the most obvious gains. Source components also show differences, but not as great in my system. Others have had different results, so the system-dependent card plays again. My favorite cords for the money are the Custom Power Cord Model 11 and the DiMarzio power cord.

Fourth on my list was to tweak my Rega turntable. You could say I went a little beyond my original goal here. As much as I loved my Planar 25, I decided it was time for a real upgrade. I listen to much more vinyl than digital, so I bit the bullet. I ended up with a Nottingham Spacedeck with a tweaked-out (complete Incognito re-wire, Heavyweight counterweight) Rega RB300 tonearm. Talk about a tweak! It’s like buying a new record collection. I hear so much more from my records and so much less surface noise. The guys from Nottingham are a little different. I would be surprised if they even had a marketing department in the company. These guys have been in the business for decades and purely for the love of music. It shows on the face of anyone who listens to one of their products.

My last resolution was to broaden my music collection. I am a huge fan of classical music, which takes up a large percentage of my shelf space. Although I own music in virtually every genre, I wanted to force myself to purchase more music in the non-classical genres. I think I was successful in this, but it wasn’t easy. Every time I walked into a record store or went to a record show, I had to detour away from the classical bins. What I was rewarded with was a new appreciation for folk, blues, jazz, and rock. Nanci Griffith, Bill Morrissey, and Emmylou Harris have all captured my ear. I am now on the lookout for any Van Morrison LPs I can get my hands on. I just procured a good copy of Live at the Roxy, a hard one to find. I enjoy more Sinatra and have picked up a few Tony Bennett LPs as well. I see no end in sight. Good music is good music.

I don’t think 3 1/2 out of 5 is too bad for New Year’s resolutions, but I’m going to go about it a little differently this year. Instead of a list of things to do this year, I’m going to make a list of curiosities to explore. Less drudgery, more fun. That’s my motto!

I think one of the things that is on every audiophile’s mind (and has been for a few years) is the subject of high-resolution formats. SACD and DVD-A have been opponents from the beginning, with Sony leading the battle cry for SACD and an assortment of companies carrying the DVD-A torch. All the while the average consumer continues to buy CDs for music and DVDs for video. I did a little survey of my own a few weeks ago and out of over a hundred non-audiophiles I spoke with, less than ten had even heard of SACD or DVD-A. Hmmm.

I think that the manufacturers are finding the same thing and are finally taking a different tact. Universal players are finally starting to be released by companies on both sides of the battle. I think that some of these giants are beginning to show a little concern over which (if any) format is going to win and perhaps a little CYA is going on. This only benefits the consumer, and perhaps those afraid to choose a direction will finally jump into the melee. This is definitely on the top of my list of curiosities to follow in the coming year.

I’m also curious as to what all of this is going to do to the development and sales of high-end CD players. DVD player sales were way ,way, way up this past year, and CD player sales were down, down, down. Average consumers know they can play their CDs, CD-Rs and MP3s in a DVD player along with movies. Price is no longer a concern as DVD players under $200 are commonplace. Sure, most DVD players suck as CD players to an audiophile, but we’re not the ones in the driver’s seats. Hmmm. Glad I have so much vinyl. I really pray that the new universal players help sort this out.

Digital amplifiers are another thing I’ll be watching. I used to be quite skeptical of these class-D switching beasts. Their sound seemed cold and clinical, in a word digital. I was of the school that praised the benefits of gargantuan power supplies with huge dual torroidal transformers and plugged into a solid 20-amp circuit. In the last year it seems that the digital amplifier is really kicking butt. The newest fare by Bel Canto is so quick and immediate-sounding that comparisons to single-ended triode tube designs have been made. It seems that digital may finally start to live up to all the hype that has preceded it for the last two decades.

On a more personal note, I am dying to hear the new JMlab Utopia line of speakers. I currently enjoy a pair of Micro Utopias in my living room. The Utopia series has been legendary in its success. Its special inverted titanium tweeter is one of the most refined in the industry. JMlab has finally decided that it’s time for an update. The new Utopia speakers are part of the Be series for the new Beryllium tweeter that replaces the titanium. The new tweeter is said to extend the top frequencies beyond 40kHz. I’m both afraid I won’t like it and terrified that I will. We’ll just have to see. I can’t wait to get a listen at CES.

And speaking of CES, make sure you check out the daily coverage at SoundStage! LIVE beginning January 8. We'll have a complete team covering the event and updating the site daily. I’m sure I’ll have some tidbits to share in next month’s column as well. It’s a "hell" of a job, but someone has to do it.

...Bill Brooks


[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright 2003 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved