Music in the Round

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Kalman Rubinson  |  May 02, 2019  |  13 comments
Sometime near the turn of this century, I wandered into a demo room at a Consumer Electronics Show and discovered, in the exhibit of a company I'd never heard of, an integrated amplifier that sounded clean and refreshing. It was the only product Hegel Music Systems displayed at that CES, and I don't recall its name or the associated equipment, but I've always remembered that model's striking appearance and impressive sound quality.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Feb 26, 2019  |  14 comments
One of the recurring themes of this column has been my search for servers that will support the playback of high-resolution multichannel files with DSP for speaker/room equalization (EQ), as well as the format conversion and downsampling that are often part of those processes. Because most EQ software is PCM-based, format comversion is needed to convert DSD files to PCM. In addition, because most EQ products work within a limited range of sampling rates, PCM files sampled at high rates may have to be downsampled before being subjected to EQ. Those of us who use home-theater preamplifier-processors and audio/video receivers (AVRs) should be familiar with such constraints.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jan 10, 2019  |  0 comments
Although I no longer attend the audio pageant that was once the annual Consumer Electronics Show, I now seem to be traveling more, in hopes of recapturing the excitement CES had once provided. Last May I attended High End, in Munich, and found that while it was entirely as advertised, there was, alas, not enough emphasis on the playback of high-resolution files, and hardly any attention paid to multichannel music.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Nov 01, 2018  |  2 comments
Sometimes, I feel I'm two people. One, a card-carrying audiophile, is always looking for ways to optimize his enjoyment of multichannel music recordings, a purist pursuit that begins with file playback and leads to DACs, amps, and speakers, while eschewing anything that can complicate or compromise the sound. Thus, while his main system may seem elaborate to outsiders, to him it seems streamlined: NAS>player>DAC>preamp>power amps>speakers. In fact, it's possible to combine the NAS and player in a single device, if that device's CPU and RAM are capable of doing all the tasks—but these product categories continue to evolve so quickly that he prefers to keep them discrete.
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.
Kalman 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  |  15 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  |  12 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?

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