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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
July 2005

A Bright Future

Last month I used this space to discuss the iPod -- in specific, the reasons why I don't hold ranks with some audiophiles and members of the audio press and believe that the iPod signals a shift in how people will listen to music in the future. The centerpiece of my argument involves the experience of high-end audio, which is precisely what iPod listening misses.

But there is more than this to my belief that high-end audio, not the iPod, is the wave of the future for serious listening. A number of new products, along with a very old one, show that the audio industry continues its tradition of innovation and improving the musical life of audiophiles, and this ensures high-end audio's relevance today and tomorrow.

The first bright spot is CD playback. Often the subject of ridicule in the past, CD sound has reached the point where I am not sure it has any more sonic quantum leaps left in it. Zanden Audio's Model 5000 Signature DAC and Model 2000 Premium transport represent the high point of my experience with digital playback, and both have reached their exalted level through refinement of well-known principles, not some radical new technology. The Model 5000 Signature has a tubed output stage, does no upsampling, and uses a proprietary analog filter, while the Model 5000 Signature addresses jitter head on by producing a highly accurate word clock and using the I2S connection format to preserve it. Regarding the Zanden duo's performance, I will say that I've never heard CDs sound better. I urge you to read my recent reviews of both products.

Along with the Zanden combo, Audio Research's CD3 Mk II proves that the best CD playback today far surpasses that from a decade ago, and in the case of the CD3 Mk II, it is cheaper, too. At $5495, the CD3 Mk II is a tremendous value because of its superb sound, and like the Zanden DAC, it uses no upsampling. "This is the only CD player anyone needs to buy," David Wilson, a great fan of the CD3 Mk II, said to me recently. "We own three of them." I'm two behind.

Interconnects and speaker cables have also improved in marked ways, in one case due to advanced conductor designs and cable geometry (Siltech's G6 silver-gold conductors and Dual Balanced Micro Technology), and in another due to creative thinking in terms of dielectric charging (AudioQuest's Dielectric-Bias System). The cables that use these innovations cannot be considered cheap, but products on the bleeding edge never are. Both Siltech and AudioQuest manufacture less-expensive interconnects and speaker cables that make use of these features, and I'm sure there will be even more such products from both companies in the future.

What was once old is new again: Analog playback is going through yet another renaissance. As the prices of used LPs listed on eBay climb, reissue labels like Classic Records churn out many of the same sought-after titles on virgin vinyl, to the delight of audiophiles. However, there is evidence that non-audiophiles are discovering analog, many in the 18-24 age group, who grew up solely in the digital era. For these buyers, the warmth and fullness that analog delivers are new things -- and thus more novel than the crippled sound quality of MP3. Take that iPod.

Finally, I have taken delivery of a loudspeaker that has literally redefined the listening experience for me: the Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2. This speaker pushes the boundaries of musical reproduction in so many ways that you'll be reading about it in multiple parts beginning next month. In many respects, the X-2 is completely impractical -- it's huge, heavy and very expensive -- but this hasn't stopped audiophiles from buying pairs of X-2s at a pace with which Wilson Audio struggles to keep up. In a perfect world, every audio writer would be able to hear a pair of X-2s in familiar circumstances, just to understand where the boundary between live and reproduced music currently stands. Stay tuned for much more.

What all of the products I've mentioned prove is that the forward momentum of the high-end-audio industry never ceases. Innovation in the service of the listening experience is at the heart of the industry, for now and the future.

...Marc Mickelson

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