Usually I look forward to receiving a new audio component, unboxing it, and then admiring it in all its audiophile glory as I contemplate how best to integrate it into my system. However, with the Rotel Michi X5 integrated amplifier-DAC ($6999 USD) that I recently received for review, I was dreading this, as it’s a beast of an amp weighing a back-breaking 96.56 pounds. After picking up the X5 at local dealer Ayreborn Audio/Video, where the Canadian distributor, Kevro International, had shipped it, I drove home and struggled to get the large flight case out of my car’s hatch. I’ve wrangled amps this heavy before, such as the Musical Fidelity M8xi and SensaSound TPO-7300, but they arrived at my doorstep, which made things much easier.
When the Paradigm Founder Series 100F loudspeakers first arrived at my house in two boxes, a couple of things immediately popped to mind. The first was that the boxes were much bigger than I thought they’d be, since this isn’t even the largest model in the line—the 120H is. The other had to do with the finish they came in, which I first read on one box: Black Walnut. I dislike almost all black-colored speakers, so I thought, Why did they have to send me them in that finish?
Though I majored in history in college, I’m not the kind of guy who lives in the past. Growing up, I found it confusing when old people would play music from when they were young and then talk about decades past as if they were the golden years and the world had been going to shit ever since. Why? What was I missing? That crossed my mind when I unboxed Graham Audio’s LS5/9 loudspeakers recently ($6795 USD per pair).
When I reviewed Lyngdorf Audio’s TDAI-3400 integrated amplifier-DAC last June, I marveled at its implementation of the company’s proprietary Equibit, class-D amplifier technology and RoomPerfect room-correction system. It is also a very handsome, well-built, and luxurious component with a price to match, $7199 (all prices in USD) as reviewed. So when I heard about the company’s new compact, streaming integrated amplifier-DAC priced at only $2199, I was more than a little intrigued. I wondered how much of the TDAI-3400’s functionality and performance they could provide in this much less expensive component. And it wasn’t long after requesting a review sample from the company’s US office that a box containing a TDAI-1120 arrived at my doorstep via UPS from Lyngdorf in Denmark.
Would you consider Marantz’s $3999.99 (all prices USD) PM-KI Ruby integrated amplifier an affordable audio component? If so (or if not), how exactly do you define “reasonably priced”? It’s a question that has dogged me since the start of my career, and it’s one that every publication for which I’ve written has answered differently. At Wirecutter, a $1500 A/V receiver is pushing the upper bounds of acceptability in terms of pricing. Back in my Robb Report days, that same AVR probably would have been too cheap even to consider covering within our pages.
Recently, John McGurk of AudioShield, distributor of EMM Labs and its lower-priced co-brand, Meitner Audio, told me that Meitner had released the new MA3 integrated digital-to-analog converter (DAC) with internal music streamer ($9500, all prices USD). The MA3’s introduction interested me—not because there’s a shortage of combo DAC-streamers out there, but because EMM Labs or Meitner Audio introducing an integrated (i.e., multifunction) component is a rare event.
I’m forever counting my blessings as an audio reviewer. Despite having been with SoundStage! for over 23 years now, I’m always mindful that I get to do something most audiophiles only dream about: listen to, enjoy, and assess a wildly varying array of stereo equipment from talented designers and forward-thinking companies from all over the world. I got my first stereo system from my parents on Christmas Day—Santa bought it from Sears—when I was 12 years old. Back then, I could never have dreamed of listening to the system that is set up before me today.
It’s not often that I second guess my choices of review gear. For the most part, I’m left to my own devices for arranging products, although a fair number of items come my way by recommendations from Doug Schneider or Jeff Fritz, who manage SoundStage! But they know my system and my preferences. And for damn sure, they know the size of my room when they’re choosing speakers.
When the Estelon X Diamond Mk II loudspeakers ($78,000 USD per pair in standard finishes) arrived at my home, they were in two flight cases stacked atop each other and sitting on a plastic skid. Although the plastic skid had minor damage (most wooden ones do after a transatlantic flight from Estonia in northern Europe and truck delivery after landing in the US), the speakers’ flight cases and the plastic wrap surrounding them were perfect. Once I removed the wrap, I noticed a couple of interesting details.
When I reviewed the original NAD Masters M17 surround-sound processor six years ago, I admired its exceptional sound and high quality of construction, but I found that the Audyssey MultEQ XT room correction was good with movies but just okay for music. It also didn’t support the recently announced Dolby Atmos object-based surround-sound format, so I thought it offered good but not outstanding value at the time. However, a couple of years ago, NAD introduced the M17 V2. I didn’t take much notice at the time, but I should have. Not only did the V2 version include Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based surround decoding, but it also featured Dirac Live room correction and support for the BluOS streaming system. And best of all, for those who had previously purchased the original M17, it was upgradable to V2 status simply by replacing two of its MDC modules, a refreshing change from the usual obsolescence of most surround-sound components after just a few years.
Over the past decade of reviewing audio equipment, whether speakers, amplifiers, preamplifiers, or what have you, I’ve grown skeptical of products bearing an “SE” designation. While I will agree that “SE” often equates to the likes of a V2 or MkII of a product and doesn’t literally have to mean special edition, I do expect that these initials carry with them some meaning—and offer customers something noticeably special, unique, or superior beyond a higher price tag. Audio Research is a prime example of such a company. When it releases an SE version of a product, it’s typically aesthetically identical to the standard version yet dramatically different in terms of parts and performance.
For me, the key to most good unboxing experiences is the juxtaposition between expectations and initial impressions. Unfortunately, that put me at something of a disadvantage when I was tearing into the packaging for DALI’s new Oberon home-theater speaker system, comprising the Oberon 1 bookshelf speakers ($599/pair, all prices in USD), Vokal center ($549), and E-9 F subwoofer ($799). Given that this was my first hands-on experience with the manufacturer’s offerings, my expectations were nebulous, to say the least.
The launch of the Apple AirPods Max on December 8 caused the biggest stir about a set of headphones that I’ve ever seen—partly because they’re the over-ear version of the hyper-popular Apple AirPods Pro earphones, partly because they look so different from anything else on the market, and partly because they’re from Apple. I don’t normally review big-hype, mass-market products like the AirPods Max headphones, but considering that they’re a radical design packed with advanced signal processing, I knew I couldn’t call myself an informed reviewer if I hadn’t spent some time with them.
Reasonable or not, we all have our biases. One of mine is that I am generally reluctant to buy an audio cable or power cord from a component manufacturer. Frankly, when someone mentions that they’ve done just that, I cringe a bit inside. But I always hold my tongue, especially if they have already completed the purchase.
Rotel originally released its Michi series of products in the Japanese market back in the early 1990s. The word michi, in Japanese, literally translates to the road, or path. In the 1990s, Michi products were primarily targeted toward the Japanese market, but the products quickly found global success, as they delivered a step up in audio performance over the company’s other lines. Michi also finished them with classic Japanese rosewood side panels and priced them competitively. The brand’s new products, while still competitively priced, pack a wallop of performance and look anything but traditional. They also don’t appear to be aimed at any specific market, so I asked Daren Orth, Rotel’s chief technical officer, what precipitated the development of the new line. Orth’s response was eloquent and informative:
I’m closing in on almost 100 reviews for the SoundStage! Network, and for the very first time, I find myself in possession of a product before it has been officially announced. That, in and of itself, feels pretty good. But when a 224-pound pallet lands on your doorstep from Sonus Faber — shipped directly from the company’s factory in Arcugnano, in Italy’s Vicenza province — the satisfaction and expectation are all that much greater. Enter the third offering in SF’s Heritage Collection, the Maxima Amator ($15,000 per pair, all prices in USD).
Since he was a small boy, Oliver Göbel, founder of Göbel High End, has loved music. His company is located in Alling, Germany. But unlike most in his family, who fell in love with music through playing an instrument, Göbel was more interested in designing the instrument that played the music. With a background in electronics and communications, Göbel got his first taste for designing loudspeakers while working for Siemens. Specializing in designing specific acoustic solutions for large OEM manufacturers and often focusing on loudspeaker designs, Göbel discovered bending wave technology while he was there. Fascinated by the science and driven by his passion for designing loudspeakers, he soon patented his own acoustic application for bending wave transducers.
Loudspeakers come in all shapes and sizes these days, with some of the most familiar ones being bookshelf and floorstanding models. One of the most overlooked types of speakers, by both the audiophile community and manufacturers alike, is the on-wall. This type of speaker hangs on your wall, usually through a bracket, as opposed to an in-wall speaker, which requires you to cut a hole in your drywall.
Chances are good that most musicians who perform gigs with their own PA system have at least a passing familiarity with the pro sound line of Bose products and with its L1 range of portable line-array speaker systems, in particular, a series the company invented 17 years ago. While a plethora of similarly designed systems from competing manufacturers now exist in the marketplace, Bose cites on its website the L1’s emphasis on high vocal projection and clarity, strong output levels over distance, and consistent coverage and tonal balance throughout venues of various sizes as the line’s key differentiators.
In May of 2016, Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), parent company of Classé Audio at the time, was sold to EVA Automation. This acquisition proved detrimental to Classé Audio, as it was forced to lay off most of its staff and close the doors to its Montreal, Canada-based headquarters for the first time since opening them in 1980.
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