igh End Audio is a difficult genre to define. Some see Audiophiles as mysterious as Freemasons
and their hobby as inaccessible as Skull & Bones
. As an Audiophile I can attest to not owning a Masonic cap with vacuum tube tied to the tassel, nor do I skulk around the Yale campus whispering passwords such as; "sonist
." At least not recently. For the most part we Audiophiles are simply HiFi
aficionados who are adamant music reproduction should come as close as possible to sounding live. I chose a photo of the Atma-Sphere MA-1 MkIII
OTL (Output TransfomerLess
) tube amps because they epitomize a euphonious marriage of engineering and ergonomics which High End Audio manufacturers strive for. As esoteric as High End is, OTL amplifiers are a niche within a niche. In his review of the Transcendent Sound T8
OTL amp, Jonathan Scull of Stereophile described a moment of: "...high-end cognition, when the music enters the mind and polarizes the soul.
" High praise indeed from a Journalist who spends his days evaluating some of the finest HiFi gear on the market. Unfortunately few of us will have such moments of Audio perspicuity and even sadder still most people will not hear a truly "musical" system in their lifetime. (Below Transcendent Sound Beast
, T8 replacement)
There is hope. If you have happened across this article, you are probably an electronics buff on some level even if you’re not aware of it. Regardless of your awareness level, the odds are you are dissatisfied with the sound quality (absence thereof) of your PC. This is common, while every other PC-pertinent ancillary has been evolving along with the CPU, PC-audio has largely been ignored. With the exception of a few surround sound systems aimed primarily at Gamers and to a lesser extent PC-based home theatre, Stereophonic (2- or 2.1-channel) systems for PC have been an after thought. Fortunately the state of PC-sound is slowly improving due to the burgeoning music-file industry based largely on IPods, MP3 phones
and PDAs to name just a few. Changes began about five years ago and from all places, they originated within the realm of High End Audio. Audiophiles saw the benefits of music-file servers and when in 2006 Alan Levy, CEO of EMI records was quoted as saying "The CD as it is right now is dead..." he made this statement in reference to the world wide popularity of portable music-file servers which exactly what an IPod or Music Phone is. E
nter the external USB DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) the tube staged DAC seen above is manufactured in DIY kit form from the company HiFidiy.net
, there are of course countless versions thereof from other manufacturers. This device will dominate my upcoming Audio articles as it is directly responsible for the merger between High End and PC-Audio. The USB DAC is just that, a DAC stage with USB input. Historically the Digital to Analog Converter chip was just another piece of circuitry found in every single box CD-player. Converting the digital bit stream into an analog signal, it completely revolutionized the world of Audio. Besides its progenitor Phillips, when it came to the Audiophile equivalent of the CD player perhaps no other company has done more then Meridian
. Meridian built the first Audiophile CD-player in their MCD & Pro-MCD
back 1984. Meridian was the first to demonstrate the benefits of separating (isolating) the CD-Transport from the DAC stage in the Meridian 203 (reviewed here
). Meridian took this a step further refining their multi-box CD-Transport and DAC (with dedicated interconnect) adding a pre-amp stage to the latter resulting in the Meridian 208 (reviewed by Stereophile
). I was fortunate to have owned the Meridian 208 and I am not alone in my assessment this was one of the best sounding digital sources ever produced. These early digital players had one thing in common, Phillips TDA1540 and TDA1541A (seen below) series DACs, which are still highly coveted in DIY Audiophile communities.
Ten years have passed since Phillips manufactured the TDA1541A DACs, yet as recently as 2006 Zanden
released their $17k flagship 5000 Signature
D/A based on the Phillips TDA1541A DAC. Zanden also built a transport specifically for the model 5000, the $28k Model 2000 Transport
. Zanden could have chosen "modern" D/A chips such as Texas Instruments (aka Burr Brown) SCR4392 (PDF)
16 ~ 24bit DACs with 20Hz ~ 216kHz sampling rate, so why a 16-bit, 44kHz chip discontinued over 10-years ago? In the following Stereophile review
Zanden states their reason for choosing the Phillips TDA1541A is because: "...the best sounding chip ever made..." In the semi-conductor realm such a decision would loose people their jobs; in High End Audio it only reinforces the importance “listening” plays in the design process. There are many examples where past technology merges with the present. A prima facie
example would be vacuum tube amplifiers. Engineering choices such as eschewing PCB (Printed Circuit Board) for "hard wiring" and literally building amplifiers around vacuum tubes from the past found to be sonic “gems”. No other vacuum tube has attracted Audiophiles and High End manufacturers as much as the 300B (circa 1870). Originally manufactured for telephone amplification by Gray & Barton (who became Western Electric in 1872) the 300B is considered one of the most musical on the market. The company Sophia Electric
builds several amplifiers around vintage tubes such as their 300B MkII (reviewed by EnjoytheMusic
) as well as their 845 Amplifier
. Sophia 300B Mk.II seen below exemplifies the use of point to point
A large proportion of recent products incorporating USB DAC stages also incorporate vacuum tubes somewhere in the circuitry. Not only are many of these components affordable, most are quite musical and all are intended to integrate with your PC. The problem remains, that for most PC-Enthusiasts or "Overclockers" the closest we've come to thinking about sound was our stumbling upon an article on thermo acoustics
. Our PC's have been devoid of decent sound for so long, we simply have not considered it. My first Audiophile experience occurred in 1990 when I heard KRELL
(front end) electronics including their Krell KSA-250
power amplifier driving B&W 801
loudspeakers. As the CD was cued up my entire perspective on how recorded music could and should sound changed forever. The amount of information the Krell, B&W system conveyed opened up a wide, deep, multi-layered sound-stage with clearly defined 3-Dimensional images. It is this ability to render
, and present
maximum data from the recording which introduces the natural “air” which surrounds the performers. It is this natural, neutral sound which attracts Audiophiles to the B&W 801, and the reason they are found in more major recording studios then any other monitor.
The photo below shows B&W 801 in EMI's Abby Road studio London.
Although technically a studio-monitor, the B&W 801 are considered attractive speakers to many and are found in more living rooms then studios. Traditionally the entertainment role the HiFi “plays” (pardon the pun) in our living and listening rooms does place an ergonomic burden on designers. For years wood grained stereo consoles were the norm, containing speakers enclosed at either end, a turntable, radio, all driven by vacuum tube electronics. This was the pre-historic Boom Box for the home. Today advances in materials and their application has given us an amalgamation of exotic sculptures. The loudspeaker in particular has become a thing of beauty, if you can afford it. The Acapella Spharon
loudspeakers seen below are not only works of art, their massive sculpted horns have a definite purpose.
In my experience few industries take utilitarian art to such an extreme albeit a speaker, amplifier or a turntable such as the Kuzmi Stabli XL
turntable and AirLine Tonearm (Reviewed here
) pictured below. This turntable tonearm combo employs compressed to isolate the tonearm from ground vibration, an inverted Ruby tipped bearing for the shaft on which the platter sits, and a solid Brass Base weighing over 60lbs for stability.
Unfortunately, for many of us the cost of such exotic Audiophile gear are far beyond our reach, regardless the price may be justified much of the time. The quest for the Absolute Sound
has many obstacles, although none as formidable as cost. Historically this was not necessarily so and seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon which fostered a seemingly nonreversible inflation worldwide. It was this aspect of the hobby and the associated "status quo" which finally drove me from it. What piqued my interest in High End Audio also introduced me to the Overclocking world, the proverbial inquisitive inner-child whom drives most adult hobbyists. Unfortunately, the Audiophile toy-chest requires a very large, very adult budget and in that respect many inner children in the hobby are spoiled brats. Several years after I "graduated" into a full-blown Audiophile I discovered High End Audio stopped being fun. I had juxtaposed my priorities, instead of listening to countless CD's excited about how they sounded on my system, I reduced my CD collection to just two "Audiophile quality" recordings and began listening to the hardware itself. Ultimately I owned just two CD's, The Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions
and Joni Mitchell BLUE
. I replayed specific tracks from each trying to discern specific attributes in the hardware. Was it "open" here or "detailed" there, did Joni Mitchell seem to be sitting in the correct pace in the studio, etc. High End is the only hobby I know of which justifies a cornucopia of very expensive products such as a $79,000 Audio Note Ongaku
. Or the $229k Magico Ultimate Loudspeakers
There are many Audiophiles whom feel the exuberant cost for the highest of High End is justified. Perhaps the most expensive vacuum tube monoblocs built are the Wavac SH-833
amplifiers based on direct-heated thermonic 845 vacuum tube, with the bulk of the amp being it's massive power supply units. This quote from Stereophile review
on these $350,000 monsters does provide a compelling argument:
Yes, $350,000 is a great deal of money to pay for a pair of amplifiers. In fact, it's a great deal of money to pay for a luxury car: you could buy an Aston-Martin Vanquish and pocket around 100 grand. It's a fair price for a small summer home, but it won't buy you much, if anything, painted by Picasso, which anyway would just hang on the wall and do nothing. You could probably hang a copy of a Picasso on the wall and be able to derive an equal amount of pleasure from it, and few would know the difference. Yet people pay millions for a Picasso. From that perspective, these $350,000 amplifiers are a bargain....Car buffs and art collectors never complain about astronomical prices, but it seems audiophiles have a big problem with such a genuine luxury good as a $350,000/pair of amplifiers...
All the aforementioned are Audiophile extremes, their price tags far exceeding about what’s out there. Nonetheless, much of what's available in the High End market can become quite costly when you include cables, power line conditioners and other ancillaries. The ontological argument for Audiophiles; does spending copious amounts of cash get you any closer to "The Absolute Sound"
? Based on many changes in High End over the last 5-years I am sure the point at which you find yourself with a truly musical system has much less to do with cost and is much more dependent on matching the right components. In fact you could mate the Wavac SH-833's with the Magico Ultimate speakers above and still manage to have a poor sounding system if the cables, pre-amplifier or especially the source were sub-par. In upcoming reviews my goal will be to find components costing well under 1/1000th of the amps above, yet still sound musical and provide just as much enjoyment...
Next Audio's greatest debate?