January/February 2009

Following the Heard: The Best New Audio Products Of 2008

The audio business works on a different model than other electronics industries. That’s because unlike, say, the cell phone industry or printer trade, it’s not just a business, it’s a passion. The big North American audio shows—Festival Son & Image in Montreal and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver—drew great crowds in 2008 despite a brutal economic climate. Audiophiles travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to hear a new speaker or amplifier. Can you imagine someone taking such a voyage to see a new LCD TV?

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Sumiko Audio Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable
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Cayin A-50T Amplifier
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Sooloos
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Etymotic hf5 Earphones
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Meridian Alfred Dunhill AD88 Entertainment System

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The solid support of diehard enthusiasts inspires audio entrepreneurs to create technical innovations as well as new takes on old classics. Even items you may have thought couldn’t be improved—turntables, amplifiers, tower speakers—still get better every year.

Just in case you didn’t attend one of the big hi-fi shows, we’ll recap some of 2008’s most interesting trends and products. You’re sure to find something in this collection that will improve the sound of your system—or perhaps inspire you to build a new audio setup from scratch.

Asian Invasion

The explosive growth of low-cost, high-quality Chinese manufacturing has given new life to an old technology: vacuum tubes. Audiophiles never abandoned the humble tube; many consider it sonically superior to the ubiquitous transistor. But the entry of Chinese manufacturers into the market has brought an abundance of new tube-based audio products to U.S. shores, at shockingly affordable prices.

Perhaps the best example of this trend is the new JoLida Glass FX series, a line targeted at younger, less affluent audio enthusiasts. First in the line is the JD10, a tiny, tube-powered integrated amp that costs just $399. The glass-enclosed amp puts out a mere 10 watts, but careful choice of speakers allows it to deliver room-filling sound. JoLida plans a line of matching components, including a CD player and a phono preamp. We doubt the JD10 will win over Gene Simmons fans, but Gene Ammons fans will probably dig it.

Shanling introduced a new, tubed take on the age-old concept of an all-in-one system. Its MC-3000 Music Center combines a tube preamp, a 60-watt-per-channel solid-state power amp, an iPod dock, a CD player and an FM tuner. The MC-3000 isn’t cheap at $2,500, but if you throw in a good pair of speakers you can have a full, very cool audio system for less than $3,500 total.

One of the leaders among Chinese tube audio manufacturers is Cayin, whose $1,295 A-50T integrated amp generated perhaps the most buzz of any high-end audio product this year. The A-50T is but the bottom of the company’s line, though—it also offers more powerful integrated amps, as well as headphone amps, CD players and standalone amps and preamps.

Computerized Records

Record players with USB outputs emerged a few years ago to help those with large record collections transfer their beloved platters onto their computers—and from there onto iPods and cell phones. But most USB turntables are designed to sell at mass merchants for bargain prices. They’re built for a customer who keeps records around only because they never came out on CD, or simply because they just never got around to throwing them away. Audiophiles, though, keep records around because they prefer them to CDs. Clearly, audio enthusiasts weren’t going to transfer their treasured old Dexter Gordon sides to digital using some cheap plastic record player.

Fortunately, a few boutique audio manufacturers noticed the success—and the low quality—of these USB ’tables and realized they could do better. One is Pro-Ject, a company known for making the least expensive turntables that audiophiles still consider acceptable. The $499 Pro-Ject Debut III USB is a new digital-output version of a great, affordable turntable that dates back more than a decade. Run a cable from its USB output to your computer, fire up the audio recording software of your choice, and you’re ready to turn vinyl into 1s and 0s.

If you already have a turntable you’re in love with, you’d probably prefer to use it for your digital transfers. NAD makes it easy with the new $179 PP-3 Digital Phono Preamplifier. Just plug your turntable directly into the PP-3, run a USB cable from the PP-3 to your computer, and load the included VinylStudio Lite PC record-transferring software. The software eliminates scratches and pops, and also locates artist, album and track info automatically over the Internet, thus saving you the hassle of entering all that data manually.

At Your Service

The iPod hipped everyone to the concept that you could store all your music on one device and browse it through a menu. A lot of companies have tried to capture this convenience in a living-room product, and some are starting to get it right. Their graphical interfaces display the cover art from all your CDs on large touchscreens, making it easy to pick, choose and organize. The elite members of this niche industry include Kaleidescape, Qsonix and ReQuest, but the one that stole all the attention in 2008 is Sooloos.

Sooloos has been kicking around in various versions for two years, but the company really got serious this year. The system centers around a beautifully built touchscreen with a gorgeous color display. It shows your CDs in alphabetical order by artist, or you can group them by genre, or you can assemble groups of your favorites. You can even access reviews from All Music Guide.

To store a CD on Sooloos’ internal drives, just insert it in the slot below the screen. Even the smallest storage unit Sooloos offers stores about 7,200 albums, in both a lossless format that copies your CDs bit-for-bit, and in an MP3 format you can transfer to you iPod.

The company recently interfaced its products with the Rhapsody music service, through which you can download music directly to Sooloos. If you choose, the service can automatically fill the holes in your collection. For example, if you have every John Scofield album except Hand Jive and That’s What I Say, Sooloos can fix that in a matter of minutes. The latest version handles photos and movies, too. Prices for Sooloos vary depending on options; the base price runs about $10,000.

Docks Deluxe

The iPod docks you get at Best Buy work just fine. But since when is “just fine” adequate for an audio enthusiast? Inexpensive docks feed the signal straight from the iPod’s feeble little amplifier circuit into your stereo—and that little amplifier circuit was designed to feed headphones, not stereo systems. In 2008, several companies came out with iPod docks designed for use with high-quality sound systems. In most of these docks, internal amplifiers fortify the signal coming from the iPod so it can properly drive the inputs on home audio gear.

One of the simplest and most affordable of these comes from Pro-Ject, the same people who make the USB turntable we discussed earlier in this column. The $199 Pro-Ject Dock Box has an internal buffer circuit to amplify the audio of a docked iPod. It also comes with a remote control that lets you start and stop the iPod, skip tracks and access the menus without touching the iPod’s click wheel.

From there, prices climb rapidly. Last fall, Wadia launched the $379 170iTransport, which actually extracts digital audio from an iPod, thus bypassing the iPod’s audio circuitry entirely. Krell shipped the $1,500 KID, or Krell Interface Dock, which it says is the only product that accesses the iPod’s studio-style balanced output capability. The KID slides into the $2,000 Papa Dock 150-watt-per-channel amplifier. David Wiener Ventures introduced the Art.Suono, an outrageously overbuilt $1,499 dock with a half-pound aluminum volume knob and wireless connection to a stereo system.

In Your Ear

One of the most popular business strategies for audio companies is to wait until Bose popularizes a product, then come out with their own version that’s better or cheaper. After Bose did so well with its $99 in-ear headphones, many other companies piled on. Many launched new in-ear headphones in 2008, and several of these entries warrant mention. But the real standout is probably the $149 Etymotic hf5.

Etymotic made its name with custom-molded earphones for audiophiles and professional musicians. The hf5 is more accessible, but no less impressive. It comes with three sets of earpieces; just choose the one that feels most comfortable to you. One of the earpiece options uses compressible foam, like the earplugs gardeners use when they’re running the leaf blower. The earpieces completely fill the ear canal and effectively shut out almost all outside sound. And the ’phones themselves sound incredible, delivering detail and clarity that puts most studio monitors to shame. The one downside is that the hf5 produces precise, accurate bass, not the powerful, heavy bass that many earphones exhibit. So while 50 Cent might not approve, Ron Carter surely would.

Small, Sweet Sounds

As with the company’s in-ear headphones, high-end audio companies finally noticed that Bose has sold millions of table radios, so they’ve come out with their own pricier but far more refined products.

Seeing a desktop audio system emerge from venerable McIntosh Labs is like watching a 1,500cc hatchback roll off the Rolls-Royce line. At the 2008 CEDIA Expo (a trade show for the custom electronics installation industry) McIntosh showed the prototype of its 60th Anniversary Mac Executive System, a compact audio system that incorporates a stereo vacuum-tube amplifier, a CD player, an AM/FM tuner and speakers. The Executive System exudes all the old-world charm of other McIntosh gear; it would have looked right at home on Alfred Lion’s desk in the early days of Blue Note. Pricing had not been set at press time, but expect something close to $10,000.

The digital audio masters at Meridian had a hit in late 2007 with the Meridian-Ferrari F80, a $3,000 tabletop audio system that set a new standard in sound quality for the category. In 2008, Meridian followed up with the $3,995 Alfred Dunhill AD88 Entertainment System, designed in conjunction with Dunhill, the British men’s accessories retailer. Meridian’s state-of-the-art digital audio processing technology lets the AD88’s internal stereo speakers and subwoofer deliver astonishingly loud, clear sound. A DVD/CD player, an AM/FM tuner and an optional iPod dock provide plenty of entertainment options.

Surround-Sound Simplified

Of course, jazz is primarily an aural medium, but you can’t deny that visuals from a DVD or TV show can add interest to the presentation. However, to enjoy the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack of Jamie Cullum’s Live at Blenheim Palace DVD, you need a home theater system. And upgrading from a stereo system to a home theater system is like going from an upright piano to a Korg OASYS Synthesis Station—both can be devilish, daunting, discouraging transitions.

Epson saw this problem and decided to create a home theater system that can be affordably installed by professionals in a matter of hours. All you do is make the call and lay down the credit card.

The Ensemble HD system includes an Epson high-definition projector; a motorized screen with front left, center, and right speakers built in; a surround-sound processor/DVD player, a subwoofer/amplifier, and a projector mount that incorporates the surround speakers. The screen and front speakers attach to a wall, while the projector and surround speakers hang from the ceiling. The only thing that sits on the floor is a small rack holding the other components. A single remote controls the whole system.

Touch the power button and the screen descends, the audio system fires up, and the projector throws out a crisp high-definition image. The respected audio firm Atlantic Technology designed the internal speakers, and they sound astoundingly good considering that they’re mounted up near your ceiling and concealed inside a screen housing.

The best part is the price: $6,999 for a system with a 1080p projector or $4,999 with a 720p projector, plus another $500 to $1,000 for professional installation. The Ensemble HD is probably the world’s least painful way to get into home theater. And when you consider that at least one of 2008’s new desktop audio systems costs considerably more, it has to rank as the home electronics bargain of the year.

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