December 2009

’Tis the Season for Sound (and Sensibility)

FOR TIGHT TIMES, A ROUNDUP OF AFFORDABLE AUDIO GIFTS

Some fear that today’s weak economy will be the Grinch that steals the 2009 holiday season. Audiophiles, though, can rest assured of a happy December. While you might not emerge from your front door on Christmas day to discover a Maserati wrapped in a big red bow, you can certainly expect to find a couple of great audio gifts waiting under whatever type of holiday greenery your creed and culture prescribe.

Thanks to the recent recession, manufacturers of all kinds are holding their prices down. But electronics manufacturers have always been good at holding prices down, and this year they’ve outdone themselves. Whether you’re hoping for something as familiar as a new iPod dock or as rarefied as a vacuum-tube phono preamp, there are plenty of great options at prices that won’t test the devotion of your loved ones.

PETITE POWER

Super-efficient amplifiers—usually referred to as switching amps or digital amps—have been working their way into audiophile products. Of late, they’ve even spawned a new product category: the desktop amplifier. Most desktop amps are about the size of four stacked DVD boxes, yet as Don Cherry proved with the pocket trumpet, small things can often create a moving sound.

One of the most prominent makers of desktop amps is Virtue Audio. The company’s lineup for this season starts with the $299 Virtue One.2 integrated amp. The One.2 stands just 5 inches high and puts out 27 watts per channel into 8 ohms with the stock power supply, and nearly double that with the optional $139 upgraded power supply. There’s nothing cheap about this little amp—it’s made from aluminum and feels like a high-end product. And it comes in your choice of black, white, yellow, red or blue.

With just a volume knob, a power button and a single input, the One.2 is as simple as integrated amps get. But if you’re looking to put together a high-quality, affordable system for your computer or iPod, it’s a superb and stylish choice. (www.virtueaudio.com)

WHISPERS IN YOUR EARS

Thanks to the popularity of the iPod and iPhone, hundreds of models of earbud-style headphones have hit the market. But none has captured so much attention in 2009 as Monster’s line of Turbine In-Ear Speakers. Experts have compared them favorably with revered competitors costing two to three times the price. Maybe it’s the solid metal enclosures surrounding the Turbine’s tiny drivers. Maybe it’s the assortment of five different rubber tips, which ensure a snug fit in practically anyone’s ears. Regardless, the Turbines sound fantastic.

The standard Turbine lists for $149, and an upgraded $299 Turbine Pro model just began shipping. The Pro comes in two versions: a copper-colored one with a flat response intended for professional monitoring, and a gold-colored one with slightly emphasized bass.

The rather weighty metal earbud bodies make the Turbine Pros a little tough to jog with, but I was pleasantly surprised at their ability to block out environmental noise. Later I discovered that the Pro includes Monster’s SuperTips, which the company says are engineered from some whiz-bang material in order to maximize sonic isolation. I wouldn’t have believed the press release, but I do believe my ears: When walking down a noisy L.A. street listening to Miles Davis’ Decoy on my iPod, I could clearly hear his guttural whisper, “I definitely want to heat that!” at the end of “Freaky Deaky.” (www.monstercable.com)

THE BOOMBOX IS BACK

Pocket-size digital recorders have become standard equipment for musicians (and fans) who want to document their gigs. With the BB-800 and BB-1000CD, Tascam brings a new—and delightfully retro—form factor to the portable digital recorder. Many have likened these products to the infamous “boomboxes” of the 1980s, but technically they’re decades beyond those primitive cassette recorders.

The $399 BB-800 has four built-in mics—two front, two rear—which you can blend to your liking. It also has two XLR mic inputs with phantom power. You can record on an SD memory card in either MP3 or in CD-quality WAV files. A built-in speaker system lets you play back your recordings. You can even slow down the playback without changing the pitch, a feature music students will love as much as they cherish the BB-800’s built-in tuner and metronome. The unit comes with a remote control so you can start and stop recording from anywhere onstage.
The $599 BB-1000CD adds CD recording capability. Either model provides a handy and fun way to capture those magical moments when everything’s really clicking and the band never sounded better. (www.tascam.com)

LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT

When famed U.K. speaker company B&W introduced the Zeppelin iPod speaker system a couple of years ago, audiophiles raved about the sound—and everyone else raved about the look and the sound. The new $399 Zeppelin Mini is no less striking than its predecessor and in some ways more advanced, even though it costs $200 less.

Dock an iPod or iPhone on the top and you’ll be rewarded with amazingly clear music, courtesy of the Mini’s dual 3-inch fiberglass speakers and 18-watt-per-channel digital amplifier. A digital processor inside optimizes audio signals to get the best from the small speakers. Rear bass ports ensure you’ll hear every nuance of Ray Brown’s upright.

To the original Zeppelin’s feature set, the Mini adds a USB input that can be connected to a computer. You can use the USB input to play music from the computer through the Mini’s speakers, and also to sync a docked iPod or iPhone with the computer. (www.bowers-wilkins.com)

HIGH-END FOR LOW BUDGETS
Sticker shock is a common hazard for fans of high-end audio; I recently saw a $4,300 tube amplifier hailed as an entry-level product. Those who seek a safe haven from such elevated prices will be happy to hear that Emotiva, a brand known for overachieving budget home-theater gear, has recently made a big push into music systems.

After examining the internal construction of the company’s ERC-1 CD player, I assumed the unit must cost around $2,000. Yet the ERC-1 and its sister preamp, the USP-1, sell on Emotiva’s Web site for a mere $399 each. Inside both components you’ll find substantial power supplies, heavy, vibration-damping construction and top-quality parts. Outside you’ll note gorgeous industrial design, highlighted by backlit blue halos around buttons and knobs.

The USP-1 preamp includes a couple of extremely handy features most preamps leave off. First (and most uncommon for a stereo preamp) is a subwoofer output with an adjustable crossover that filters the bass out of the main speakers and the mids and highs out of the subwoofer. There’s also a phono input that works with both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges. While there are plenty of budget audiophile products out there, these rank among the few that don’t look or act like budget products. (www.emotiva.com)

ENDLESS ENTERTAINMENT

Many people can’t swing a separate system for music listening—they want one entertainment system that does it all. Pioneer designed its $499 VSX-1019AH-K audio/video receiver just for them. The VSX-1019AH-K is probably the most advanced receiver ever offered for less than $500. It comes with an iPod/iPhone cable, and it lists the music stored on those devices right on your TV screen. You can select tunes using the receiver’s remote control. It even shows cover art. Now you can flip through your entire collection of Monk recordings without leaving your couch.

With the VSX-1019AH-K, Pioneer took a high-tech approach to sound quality. The receiver’s MCACC Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration system measures the sound in your room and automatically corrects for flaws in your room acoustics and speakers. MCACC does make mistakes, but Pioneer’s extensive on-screen menu system lets you fix them and make further tweaks of your own.

All the usual stuff’s there, too: lossless audio technology from DTS and Dolby, HDMI video connections for use with HDTV set and Blu-ray player, and seven 120-watt amplifiers. For audio geeks, the VSX-1090AH-K ranks among the best deals in audio—and it’ll work great for non-geeks, too. (www.pioneerelectronics.com)

WARM UP THE VINYL

Most vinyl record enthusiasts can’t stop improving their systems; it seems like they’re always adjusting the tonearm or changing the cartridge. One place where budget-minded vinyl junkies may be lacking the right stuff, though, is in their phono preamp, the device that boosts and equalizes the faint signals coming from the cartridge’s coils. The $250 Bellari VP130 can fix that problem fast. The bright-red V130 combines a cool look and a classic sound.

A single 12AX7 tube provides the amplification, and also gives the VP130 a warm tonality and a silky-smooth midrange. The VP130 works with moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges, and includes a switchable rumble filter to minimize the noise from footfalls and other accidental vibrations. Its most unusual feature is a headphone output, which lets you enjoy the rich sound of vinyl using nothing more than the VP130, your turntable and a good set of ’phones. For an extra $150, the VP-530 adds a USB output for easy recording on a computer. (www.rolls.com/Bellari)

COMPUTER VOICES

Most of us still think of computer speakers as plasticky things that squawk and burp and rattle … and, on occasion, put out a few discernible notes of music. Sadly, most of the systems that are better are also too large for a desktop. With the $199 Model A2 powered speaker system, Audioengine strikes a perfect balance between sound quality and practicality.

The speakers measure just 6 inches high, yet they’re real speakers, each with a woofer and a tweeter in a rigid enclosure. Each channel gets 15 watts of power. There’s a volume control on the back of one of the speakers, along with stereo RCA and 3.5-mm minijack inputs for easy connection to a computer, an iPod or whatever audio source you’ve got.

Model A2 doesn’t deliver a ton of bass, but it produces more than you’d expect. The midrange and treble sound remarkably clean—far better than any computer speaker system you’ve probably heard, and they might even give your home system a run for its money. I can imagine few better ways to spend a holiday evening than listening to An Oscar Peterson Christmas through this tiny but sweet-sounding system.
(www.audioengineusa.com) JT

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