Music in the Round

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Kalman Rubinson  |  Aug 31, 2017  |  7 comments
It's time to fulfill my promise to write about Playback Designs' Sonoma Syrah music server and Sonoma Merlot DAC. It all began when I asked Playback's founder and CEO, engineer Andreas Koch, when he plans to produce a multichannel digital-to-analog converter—a question I've put to so many other manufacturers. He said that he already had a multichannel system on the drawing board, and not just a DAC. Our e-mail exchange culminated in his announcement of the Playback Designs USB-XIII Digital Interface, to be used between a USB source component and as many as three DACs via PLink, Playback's proprietary fiber-optic connection.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jun 29, 2017  |  6 comments
It's been going on for a while now: Despite support for multichannel in audio/video receivers and A/V processors priced from as little as $200 to $30,000, there are still very few offerings that cater to the music listener. They may offer stereo-only streaming features through their USB or Ethernet inputs, but these inputs don't see your multichannel files. To handle such files, they would require you to add a music server with HDMI output. However, I know of no turnkey music servers that will output multichannel audio via HDMI.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Apr 27, 2017  |  14 comments
Several years ago, at a Consumer Electronics Show, Bob Stuart, then with Meridian Audio, took John Atkinson and me into a private room to demonstrate something new. He played individual tracks of mostly familiar recordings, twice each: first, straight from the commercial release, and then again, this time after processing with technology he was still developing. The differences were subtle, but usually we favored the second version. It was all very hush-hush, and despite our requests for technical information, Stuart spoke of his new process only in terms of results—as a way to recover the original sound at the microphone by knowing and compensating for the transfer functions of that mike and the analog-to-digital converter originally used, as well as of the digital-to-analog converter used in playback. The process had no name, and there was no timetable for its commercial launch.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Mar 02, 2017  |  11 comments
The power-amp saga continues. For months, I've been plowing through the market, searching for something to drive my three front speakers. (I use a two-channel amp for the surrounds.) It can be a three-channel amp or three monoblocks—it just has to sound great with my speakers, and be light enough that I can lift it by myself when I need to rearrange my system. I'd finally settled on Classé's Sigma Monos for their transparency, and because I can manage their weight, one at a time. At the CEDIA Expo in September 2016, I saw two more candidates worthy of consideration. Review samples of both arrived here almost simultaneously.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Dec 29, 2016  |  13 comments
Bang & Olufsen's revolutionary BeoLab 90 loudspeaker, which I examine in greater depth elsewhere in this issue, has had some profound effects on me, not least of which is that the review pair prevented me from listening in multichannel for nearly two months. Additionally, I and a few friends found that the two BeoLab 90s delivered an absolutely stunning and convincing soundstage. So when the time came to relinquish them, I was anxious. Would my reference 5.1-channel surround system now disappoint when I played two-channel recordings? Would I still find multichannel to be a substantial advance over stereo, or no improvement at all? Would I need to come out of retirement and find a new day job so that I could afford the BeoLabs' price of $84,990/pair?
Kalman Rubinson  |  Nov 01, 2016  |  5 comments
Last spring, when I was listening to Bowers & Wilkins's 802 D3 Diamond loudspeakers, Classé Audio offered a pair of their new Sigma Mono amps for the review. They claimed a synergy—B&W's D3 series had been developed using Classé amps. I declined, only because using unfamiliar amplifiers would add to my assessment an uncontrolled variable. Now that the B&Ws have settled in—three 802 D3 Diamonds across the front, two 804 D3s at the back—it seemed time to hear what they could do when driven by the Classés.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Sep 01, 2016  |  4 comments
In January, I reviewed JL Audio's Fathom f113v2 subwoofer (footnote 1), which features, among other improvements over the original Fathom f113, a better multiband equalizer. The significance of this relates to the great influence exerted by room dimensions and acoustics on a loudspeaker's performance.

The matter of room acoustics itself relates to the Schroeder frequency: a transition point, usually between 200 and 300Hz above which a room will exhibit a high density of reflections that are analyzed statistically, and below which that room will display a limited number of discrete modal reflections. (Thus, it should not to be confused with the number of times that Beethoven's music appears in Charles Schulz's comic strip "Peanuts.")

Kalman Rubinson  |  Jun 30, 2016  |  5 comments
The SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition with AudiophileOptimizer and Roon: Not only does that very long name require finger-twisting shifts between upper and lower case, it really doesn't tell you what the sMS-1000SQ WE is.

Korean manufacturer SOtM, Inc. describes it on their website as a "music server based on Windows Server OS besides the original Linux [Vortexbox] OS based sMS-1000SQ." I'd describe it as a Windows-based PC that's designed and optimized to manage a database of music files and stream the music to local or networked DACs, and that supports multiple options for file management, playback, and target devices. (Hmmm: that's not much better, is it?)

Kalman Rubinson  |  May 05, 2016  |  3 comments
The number of devices that can constitute a home-audio streaming system ranges from one—a laptop computer running a music program to play internally stored files—to x the unknown. These days we have storage devices, servers, streamers, renderers, bridges, controllers, players, and DACs, at least one of which is hoped to have a volume control. Any combination of these elements can be put in a single box and described by one of many new hyphenated product categories—or can be given a name along the lines of exaSound's PlayPoint Network Audio Player: a model designation that at least hints at this product's ability to play music. Let's see what else it can do . . .
Kalman Rubinson  |  Mar 07, 2016  |  7 comments
With the atomization of the playback of digital files into storage, servers, streamers, format converters, and DACs, I find that I've accumulated many miniature power supplies: small pods and wall warts. Most of these are generic switching devices made by companies other than the manufacturers of the components they power, and even those not designed for audio systems are, of necessity, at least adequate for the task. Because many of these supplies are indistinguishable from each other, I've taken to labeling them with sticky notes to remind me which goes with which component. Nonetheless, I'm concerned that they're no more than the commodity power modules available for a few bucks each on eBay. Whenever I think of the four or five of them clustered behind my equipment rack, I begin to suspect them of plotting revolt against the fancy gear they serve.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Dec 30, 2015  |  1 comments
In my last column, in the November 2015 issue, I talked about Marantz's AV8802A preamplifier-processor and two accessories: UpTone Audio's USB Regen, and a DIY battery supply for my DAC. This month's column is all about accessories, and for me that's unusual. Some items, like interconnects and speaker cables, are usually considered accessories because they're not fundamental components (eg, source, amplifier, speaker), even though they're essential to getting any sound at all.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Nov 05, 2015  |  2 comments
Outside of the listening I do for this column, I always audition, assess, and review components without using any equalization or room correction—primarily because I assume that most Stereophile readers listen in two-channel stereo, and that most aren't all that interested in EQ. Besides, two-channel is the tradition I come from, and my first instinct is to try to get at the essence of the individual component itself, without applying extraneous tools or accessories. John Atkinson's bench tests are based on the same philosophy.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Sep 10, 2015  |  108 comments
It has been a disrupted spring. Late last year, my wife and I committed ourselves to a long-needed renovation of our main living space: an apartment in Manhattan. Articles, books, and TV shows have illuminated the trials and triumphs of home renovation, but as far as I know, none has included a redo of the listening room of an obsessive audiophile, let alone one who is also an audio writer facing copy deadlines.
Kal Rubinson  |  Jul 02, 2015  |  6 comments
Most new preamplifier-processors now fall into one of two categories. First are the fully featured models, with ever-growing numbers of channels to support such immersive surround-sound formats as Dolby Atmos, Aureo3D, and DTS-X. An example is Marantz's 13.2-channel AV-8802, which replaces the 11.2-channel AV-8801—a sample of which I've owned for barely a year and use only in 5.2! The second category is that of such high-end models as Classé's Sigma and NAD's M17, which offer only 7.1 or 7.2 channels, and from which nonessential features have been trimmed in favor of audiophile-grade circuit components and construction. But if money is no object, there is a third class of pre-pro, exemplified by Trinnov's Altitude32 and Datasat's RS20i, in which no compromise is made in any of these parameters.
Kal Rubinson  |  Apr 30, 2015  |  10 comments
I spent most of my time at the January 2015 Consumer Electronics Show exploring amps and preamps for Stereophile's on-line coverage of the show, but there were a few items of interest to fans of multichannel. There were demonstrations of Dolby Atmos, Auro3D, and dts:X, but these mostly focused on movies—save for Auro3D's thrilling demo of 2L's Magnificat—an album of music by Arnesin, Gjeilo, and Kernis, with Anita Brevik conducting solo singers, chorus, and the Trondheim Soloists and recorded in a cathedral (Pure Audio Blu-ray, 2L-106-SABD). The ambience was more enveloping with Auro3D's added height dimension, compared to what I hear from 5.1 systems, but I'm not sure whether this will be enough to encourage music listeners to make the necessary investment.

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