Cars – I’m just not that into ’em. I’ve never owned anything better than a basic runabout from Citroen or Hyundai but my dirty is secret is this: if $100K+ dropped into my lap tomorrow I wouldn’t buy a better hifi, I’d buy a luxury car. And no, not red and definitely not a convertible. (Suggestions on a postcard, please).
What mega money gets you in the world of high end audio more often than not seems to be a high box count. High-end audio demo events like Denver’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and Munich’s HighEnd Show exposes attendees to what’s possible from serious dollars but also serves as a reminder of the physical space required to accommodate the rack, the multitudinous silver boxes, the cable eels and the monolithic loudspeakers. Below is a Burmester system for those wealthy enough to afford a dedicated listening room – a small percentage of an already niche market.
For all but the uber-wealthy, it is within everyday living spaces, where the family convene and/or where the TV sits, that the majority of audiophiles must accommodate their hifi rigs. By their very nature, loudspeakers cannot (yet) be hidden. The amplifiers used to drive them are invariably black or silver boxes that range from the petite (e.g. Wyred4Sound, Bel Canto) to the size of car engines, often with pricing to match (e.g. Burmester, Pass Labs); casework like that doesn’t come cheap.
Perhaps it helps to think of hifi gear as furniture. It must align with the household’s broader aesthetic choices. After all, we have our couches turned toward it and must (literally) face it every day.
Compounding the aesthetic restriction is the other elephant in the living room: what your spending choices say about you. A luxury car can be paraded around the neighbourhood, a luxury watch at the office. But as owners of hifi systems, are we not seen as a little strange? The bigger, the stranger! Society at large doesn’t value audio hardware as much as it does watches and cars. When the mainstream chooses laptop speakers, TVs and soundbars, how else are they to view deviations from the norm other than as a warning sign?
You might claim that what other people think bothers you not. I’d invite you to really explore that before concluding definitively.
While you’re doing that, let’s call time on “It’s not what it looks like but how it sounds that matters”. In the marketplace, looks matter to at least some degree. Would the KEF LS50 have been so popular had it not been for GP Acoustics’ bold industrial design choice? Looks draw the consumer closer allowing sound quality to seal the deal (or not). Case in point: the Spatial M4 open baffle, due to arrive at the DAR door any day now.
Throughout 2015 I’ve found myself drawn to products that dare to think differently. And not just through appearance. Is it not astonishing that Peachtree Audio continue to lead the field below US$2K with amplifiers that seal a full complement of modern digital connectivity convenience in a rounded cornered rosewood or cherry veneer sleeve that has proper mainstream appeal. Audio gear for modern-day Mad Men.
This year’s top five favourite bits go to companies and/or products that move high end audio away from multi-box box domination, that offer an almost impossible to nail cool factor and bring the pursuit of better sound out of the weirdo ghetto that it (mostly) currently occupies.
It also sets the tone for DAR in 2016: active loudspeakers, colours, chrome, unibox solutions, no nonsense products, hifi for the working man. We’ll lasso those tropes with a ‘Future-Fi‘ catch-all.
5. Schiit Audio Mjolnir 2 (US$929)
Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard thumb their noses at the buzzword compliance. Moffat is a tall, faux-cantankerous fella who’s not afraid to show off his disdain for DSD. He’s told me on more than one occasion that Schiit only brought their Loki DSD DAC to market under duress. Loki’s discontinuation this year was apparently cause for celebration at Schiit. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t relate to that!
Similarly, Jason Stoddard doesn’t see the need for his company to implement “fucking Femto clocks”. In their latest round of DACs that circumvent delta-sigma chips which Moffat believes are inherently compromised and were only adopted by an industry looking to cut corners on budgets and circuit design work, Schiit have gone with multi-bit chips. Not that the chip choice is the ultimate arbiter of a DAC’s sound. It’s Schiit’s attitude that deserves loud applause.
And if none of that convinces you that these two Californians march to their own drum, just look at the company name. ‘Schiit’ affords it founders an endless seam of pun-tastic taglines from which to promote hardware whose fundamental aim is to give more for less. Schiit’s flagship DAC sells for a shade north of US$2K but the majority of their product line heads out the factory door for less than a grand. Their Fulla DAC/amp is yours for US$79.
A scheduling malfunction, combined with the tyranny of distance, meant I was unable to attend September’s Schiit Show in Marina Del Rey. There, Moffat and Stoddard launched multibit Gungnir and multibit Bifrost (review coming soon) but also a reworked Mjolnir.
Version 2 loosens its belt on the balanced-only connectivity of its predecessor. You’ll find single-ended RCA and balanced XLR inputs out back and both 6.4mm single-ended and XLR headphone outputs immediately adjacent to the front panel’s gain toggle. Mjolnir 2 dumps an eye-watering 8 wpc into 32 Ohms so, electromagnetics aside, there probably isn’t a headphone on the planet that it won’t drive. Low gain mode keeps IEMs in play. Balanced and single-ended outputs means this metal box can also be put to work as a pre-amplifier – hello active loudspeakers!
The sucker punch though is Mjolnir 2’s topology: it’s both tube hybrid AND solid state. 6BZ7 input tubes come fitted as standard (or you can roll in yr own) for a fuller, richer sound. Swap out headphones and need something a bit cleaner and more direct? Simply remove the tubes and drop in a pair of Schiit’s LISST (Linear, Integral Solid-State Tube) for a 100% solid state listening experience. No need to buy a second amplifier. Talk about innovation writ large. Combine that with an asking price of under a grand and Schiit’s commitment to understated industrial design and you have a headphone amplifier that might never need upgrading. Tweaking is built into the design for whenever the itch for a different flavour strikes.
Further information: Schiit
4. HiFiMAN HE-1000 (US$2999)
Summit-Fi for head-fi now stretches into multi-thousand dollar territory where not too long ago a US$1500 snagged the best there was. We now live in a world of Audeze LCD-4(US$3995), JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 (US$4499), HiFiMAN HE-1000 (US$2999), Ultrasone Edition 5 (US$4999) and Final Sonorous X (~US$5500).
These are some of the very best sounding headphones in the world but isolating a best falls to subjective priorities: I’m not so much into the sonic flavour of the Ultrasone or the Final. The Abyss sounds outstanding but – and it’s a big BUT – does the thick metal frame not connote medieval torture more than listening pleasure? The AB-1266’s aesthetics are anything but inviting. On the head they feel like an ill-fitting suit. That’s a “no” from me.
In dropping heavy coin, should you not demand that your headphone be anything but? Unfortunately, many of these high-end players demand varying degrees of neck strength endurance, especially for extending listening sessions.
Audeze don’t specify the LCD-4’s weight on their website but they’re at least as heavy as the LCD-X: ~550g. The Sonorous X, as attractive as you may (not) find their blinged-up styling, weigh in at 630g. Those Abyss tip the scales at a whopping 660g.
Only the Edition 5 (280g) and HE-1000 (480g) come in below half a kilo. However, the latter’s elongated earcups ensure that the magnet weight within is barely felt in one’s neck. In this respect, the HE-1000 stand alone as one of the world’s best sounding headphones but crucially one that refuses to surrender on comfort factor. It’s why I bought a pair midway through 2015. You can sigh/chuckle at my review treatment here or tuck into Sergii Dybov’s more extensive investigation here. I’m just glad designer and HiFiMAN founder Dr. Fang Bian is effectively calling out Summit-Fi ‘phones that weigh more than Joyce’s Ulysses.
Best of all, you don’t need a muscle amplifier to get these planarmagnetics out of bed. The HE-1000 say Ni Hao at 35 Ohms (give or take) and 90db and sound great even when fed by the more modest headphone output of the Eversound Essence (thanks to Srajan Ebaen to the heads-up on that). However, really come into their own with the Vinnie Rossi LIO and/or Schiit Mjolnir 2, especially when fed by the latter in its solid-state LISST mode. The sound is big, meaty and bold but also dime-turn fast. Picture the Sennheiser HD800 after six months beefing up with protein powder and daily weight-training sessions. Above all else, the HE-1000 provide a lush, otherworldly immersion like no other headphone I’ve heard.
I shudder to think how much money would net an equivalent result in loudspeaker land, not to mention the number of boxes and associated room treatments that’d be required to make it happen.
Further information: HiFiMAN
3. Vinnie Rossi LIO (US$7885 fully loaded)
Integrated amplifiers that roll a DAC and/or phono stage into the box are nothing new. The downside is their absence of upgradeability; users (rightly) refusing an third party, outboard solution are stuck with the internal DAC or phono board. Not so with Vinnie Rossi’s LIO. It starts with a Corian case and ultra-capacitor-fuelled base board whose off-grid, high-current power supply instantly sidesteps deluxe power cords and filters.
Into this base board the modules are plugged (similar to expansion cards in a PC) such that LIO can be configured by the end user as a phono stage, a pre-amplifier, a DAC, a 25wpc power amplifier (that proved just enough for the KEF LS50 and Magnepan MMG), a headphone amplifier or any combination thereof. Want to upgrade the pre-amplifier? No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Remove the (tubed-up) resistor ladder module and install the Dave Slagle auto-former version. Want remote cartridge loading for the phono stage? Pop the lid again and drop in the module. Gone fully active with your loudspeakers? Remove the module and sell it on Audiogon. With his LIO, Vinnie Rossi puts flexibility with a capital F back on the table. One device, many functions, forever upgradeable. Wow.
Further information: Vinnie Rossi
2. Devialet Phantom (US$1999+)
In marrying high-end sound quality with 21st century aesthetics, few do it better than France’s Devialet. Each Expert model comes wrapped in a chrome-finished pizza box that offers an impressive feature set: D/A conversion; remote-switchable SAM correction for over 500 loudspeaker models; a web-based ‘Configurateur’ that turns outputs into inputs and vice versa; a phono stage (in all but the 120). And to ice the cake, Devialet make the most ergonomically-satisfying remote control in the business.
Only the most die-hard traditionalist would hold back praise for such an attractive single-box solution. It’s both unobtrusive and stylish and even if/when a superior result is found via separate components there’s no denying the Experts’ elegance in appearance and sound. And no, it’s not a switching amplifier in the traditional sense. The music signal remains Class A throughout. A Class D module serves up additional current at the loudspeaker outputs.
The Phantom, Devialet’s egg-shaped active loudspeaker with internalised D/A conversion and Bluetooth receiver, comes in both standard (US$2000) and (4 x more powerful, US$2400) Silver variant. Each is available for purchase as a single unit – fine for cashed-up consumers looking for “the world’s best wireless speaker” – but a pair of Phantoms is (obviously) mandatory for stereophony proper. So too is the the Dialog (US$349) which handles channel splitting and syncing. Up to 24 Phantoms can be synced by the Dialog – good news for listeners wanting to go large on a multi-room install.
The Phantom’s CES 2015 debut with Moderat’s “A New Error” really blew my hair back, the multi-Phantomed Munich demo much less so. Trop bruit! At DAR HQ, a single unit is a neat curiosity but stereo pairing is where things really get interesting. Getting cute: two Silver Phantoms are more than twice superior to one. Their pendulous low end drive is considerable more abundant than a pair of KEF L50 driven by an Expert 200. A brief listen revealed a Silver Phantom duo to sound bolder, more robust and more clinical than the KEFs.
Apartment dwellers are advised to save their cash and stick to the base model. The Silver Phantom’s bass output is driving for larger rooms only. There’ll be more to come from this commentator on the Expert 200 (for 6moons) and the Phantom on these pages. In the meantime, know that I reckon Devialet are the epitome of Future-Fi.
Further information: Devialet
Roon (US$119/yr) – PRODUCT OF THE YEAR 2015
It took me a single demo from Tidal’s Pål Bråtelund – on a train from Berlin to Munich no less – to realise that Roon was like no other software player or library management system I’d seen before. Two weeks later at the Newport Beach Show, Roon’s Enno Vandermeer and Rob Darling walked me through some of the finer points of meta-data provision and the application’s three component parts (server, player, remote).
Roon’s interface is a touchscreen dream and Tidal integration is seamless. Search for an artist or album and Roon will return results from the local library and Tidal. Tying it all together is Roon’s meta-data web that runs deep into the Server-indexed library.
A further week of playing with Roon back in Sydney was enough for it to a) have me run out and buy a Microsoft Surface Pro (for remote control) and b) internally nominate it as the front-runner for DAR’s Product of 2015. At year’s end Roon remains my favourite bit of 2015. You can read more in-depth coverage here, here, here, here, here and here. (The number of links alone speaks to my enthusiasm for this software).
Have Roon run on a Mac/PC feeding a DAC directly or break it up and use the iPad Roon Remote to marshall tunes from a Roon Server to a Roon-enabled player. The latter is coming soon to products from Aurender, AURALiC and Antipodes Audio and once it does, the SQ delta between Roon and the superior-sounding Audirvana+ matters much less. Until that news drops, probably at CES next month, you can get busy with Airplay Endpoints and Devialet’s virtual ‘AIR’ soundcard (which works fine 90% of the time for this OS X user).
My favourite Roon feature is the ‘Discover’ panel that stops me from staring into space, wondering what to play and instead allows me to unearth long forgotten nuggets. At its most simplistic, it’s a tiled random album/artist/label page. Roon’s greatest trick though is enhancing hands-on interaction with a digital audio library, something that’s been in short supply for way too long.
Further information: Roon Labs