Music in the Round

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Kalman Rubinson  |  Sep 06, 2018  |  12 comments
As I took my valedictory lap around High End, the immense audio show held each May in Munich, Germany, it was clear that this year's event was an exuberant flowering of mature technology. I witnessed the dominance of hardware for LP playback, as well as analog amplifiers, many of them based on tubes, and passive loudspeakers with traditional cone-and-dome drive-units. And there was no shortage of excellent and impressive musical demonstrations. Still, I experienced no revelations, and heard no announcements of any new technology that might trigger a hopeful anticipation of the near future. It was as if HE2018 were reflecting on the past with reverence and commitment, rather than striving toward the future with innovation and adventure.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jun 26, 2018  |  62 comments
Lovers of high-resolution multichannel sound still don't have it easy. While the two-channel market is replete with snazzy, efficient music servers in stylish boxes, the only multichannel equivalents are Merging Technologies' Merging+Player Multichannel-8, and a handful of stereo devices that are rumored to do multichannel, though no such claims are made in print. To be candid, the latter will play multichannel tracks via USB, Ethernet, or HDMI outputs to suitable DACs (but that's another story), but because they're aimed at the two-channel market, they tend to skimp on the CPU horsepower and RAM needed to handle higher-resolution multichannel files. Even the Merging+Player Multichannel-8 ($13,500), with its Intel i3 CPU running Roon, couldn't entirely keep up with everything in my library.
Kalman Rubinson  |  May 01, 2018  |  4 comments
For some years now, I've tried to free myself from playing physical media and get all my music organized on a server. It's not that I don't enjoy handling and playing discs, but it's almost impossible to keep track of them. When my collection was only a thousand or two LPs, I felt I could remember each one individually. But now I have several times that many silver discs, and I know I can't.
Kal Rubinson  |  Mar 01, 2018  |  5 comments
Merging Technologies' original NADAC Multichannel-8 ($11,500) is an impressive device. (NADAC is an acronym for network-attached digital-to-analog converter.) It has eight channels of high-resolution D/A conversion, and two more for its front-panel headphone jack; a cutting-edge Ravenna Ethernet input (based on the AES67 Audio over Internet Protocol, or AoIP); and, to my delight, a real volume-control knob on the front.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jan 02, 2018  |  7 comments
I have not been attending audio shows as often as I used to, and this January, for the first time in more than 20 years, I'm skipping the annual Consumer Electronics Show. My personal return on investment has become hard to justify, especially when attendance at each annual CES requires a round trip from New York City to Las Vegas, Nevada. More important, audio shows now seem focused mostly on either two-channel music playback or multichannel home theater, whereas what interests me is listening to music in surround sound.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Oct 31, 2017  |  25 comments
For some months now, I've lived mostly without music. To survive the dust and grit of the renovation of our Manhattan apartment, all electronics had to be covered with heavy plastic, the speakers encapsulated in large green lawn bags, and the listening room partitioned off with a temporary wall. We could listen to music with our little 3.1-channel TV system in the den (eh) or through headphones (not!), or we could decamp to our house in Connecticut, which we did as much as possible. I felt deprived. Now that it's all over, I'm grateful to have it back—and grateful for the improvements in the main system, some of them direct byproducts of the renovation.
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  |  7 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 . . .

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