10 of ’10: Ten Stellar Audio Products That Defined 2010
JT's sound guru recommends the year's best products
The new product of 2010 that will most influence audio technology in coming years wasn’t even an audio product per se. It was Apple’s iPad, the super-successful roving information and entertainment device. With predicted total sales of 7 million in 2010 and more than 40 million by the end of 2012, the iPad shows how dramatically entertainment has gone mobile. Want more proof? The CEDIA Expo, the premier tradeshow for advanced home entertainment technology, recently announced that it is shrinking from four days to three.
These trends don’t mean that home entertainment is as dead as the 8-track tape, only that it’s a smaller part of the mix for audio manufacturers. While the last year saw bold moves by many manufacturers trying their best to adapt to changing times, it also saw the introduction of numerous traditional home audio products—many at astoundingly affordable prices. We’ve chosen five from each group—cutting edge and trad—as our best audio products of 2010.
THE NEW THINGS
B&W P5 headphones
Bowers & Wilkins is known for the kind of old-school, $5,000-per-pair, walnut-veneered tower speakers that make you want to fire up a pipe and put on some Brubeck sides. That’s why the P5 headphone came as such a shock. Costing a mere $299, the model incorporates a microphone and in-line controls so it can be used with an iPhone as well as with any digital music player (or an iPad, of course). But B&W hasn’t entirely abandoned its past with the P5: You still get the refined sound for which the company is revered, in addition to the charming retro feel of the P5’s metal-and-leather driver cans.
Peachtree Audio musicBox mB3 desktop audio system
Even enthusiastic converts to mobile music still want to share their tunes sometimes. Peachtree Audio just came out with the perfect way for serious listeners to get room-filling sound from an iPod or iPhone: the musicBox. This little integrated amplifier incorporates a tube preamp for the warm sound audiophiles love, as well as an iPod/iPhone dock with a digital connection that completely bypasses Apple’s low-cost internal electronics. You can also connect it to a computer or any analog audio source. The musicBox costs $699 on its own, or $799 with matching (and surprisingly good-sounding) mB3 minispeakers.
Logitech Squeezebox Touch music streamer
Computer- and Internet-based music delivery has won over even the most conservative audiophiles. Still, getting that digital music to play through your audio system can be clumsy and daunting. Logitech’s $299 Squeezebox Touch solves the problem as easily as Cannonball could rip through a blues. This 4.3-inch touchscreen connects to practically any audio system. Using the touchscreen, you can access music stored on networked computers and hard drives, or on USB sticks and SD cards. Through WiFi or an Ethernet connection, the Squeezebox streams music from online services such as Pandora and Last.fm, and from numerous Internet radio stations. It’s a whole lot handier—and more elegant—than connecting your laptop to your system.
Vizio VHT510 sound bar/5.1 system
Excitement for big surround-sound systems has waned since the arrival of the sound bar, which combines several speakers into a single, slender chassis that fits under your TV. The downside? Sound bars can’t give you the convincing ambience of a real 5.1 system. Vizio’s VHT510 solves the problem by adding two wireless surround speakers that connect to a wireless subwoofer that goes in the back of the room. For just $389 you get real 5.1 surround in a super-simple setup—perfect for that Blu-ray edition of Return to Forever Returns you got for Christmas.
JH Audio JH16 Pro in-ear monitors
It’s like a ritual: Upon opening the box of their new iPhone or iPod, serious listeners toss the included white earbuds in the trash faster than Buddy Rich would fire an underperforming sideman. One of the alternatives audiophiles have embraced is the custom-molded earphones from JH Audio, which fit precisely into your ear to block external sound. The new $1,149 JH16 Pro is the company’s greatest creation yet, with no fewer than eight drivers—four woofers, two midranges, two tweeters—crammed into the tiny earpiece. This may be the closest humanity has come to a direct musical connection to the brain.
IN THE TRADITION
Pioneer SC-37 A/V receiver
The death of the audio/video receiver—the traditional heart of a home theater system—has been predicted many times throughout the last decade. But there’s still no more versatile, practical way to get high-quality sound in the home. Like Branford Marsalis, the $2,200 SC-37 is grounded in tradition but thoroughly conversant in modern styles. The SC-37 works great with iPhones, iPods and iPads; with networked devices like computers and hard drives; and with Internet radio. It’s also one of the few high-end receivers that use Class D amplifiers, which means it can deliver all the power of Jimmy Garrison’s bass at high volumes without getting warm or wasting lots of electricity.
Tidal Audio Piano Diacera speaker
Like other luxury industries, high-end audio has seen its fortunes fall of late, but there remains a core of ultra-dedicated enthusiasts who spend exorbitant sums on the world’s finest audio gear. One of the up-and-comers in this small but exciting industry is Tidal Audio, a German company that delivers defiantly traditional but deftly executed speakers. The $29,000-per-pair Piano Diacera incorporates two ceramic-diaphragm woofers and a diamond-diaphragm tweeter, mounted in a 46-inch-high cabinet that weighs 143 pounds. All of these parts work together to deliver some of the most detailed sound the world has heard to date.
Pro-Ject RM-1.3 turntable
Although a turntable is about as old-school as hi-fi gets, the RM-1.3 certainly doesn’t look old-school. This step-up $499 model from Austrian budget turntable specialist Pro-Ject delivers improvements in both sound and style. A massive platter made of MDF keeps your records spinning smoothly, and an isolated motor and three nylon cone-shaped feet help prevent external vibrations from reaching the needle. The RM-1.3 comes with a Sumiko Pearl cartridge installed. The ’table is available in black, of course, but also in white or red, giving it the ideal combination of flash and function.
MartinLogan Motion 12 tower speaker
With the Motion series, MartinLogan has veered away from the large electrostatic panel speakers that earned it fame among audiophiles and entered the world of affordably priced box speakers. Like a good upright bass, the $1,499-per-pair Motion 12 doesn’t look particularly distinctive, but the music it makes can be nothing short of heavenly. The Motion 12’s midrange driver is mounted in a baffle with no back box, so it’s free to disperse sound backward and forward. The midrange works with the new Folded Motion ribbon tweeter to deliver some of the most enveloping, spacious and realistic sound I’ve heard from a speaker in the model’s price range.
NHT Absolute tower speaker
We couldn’t detail the audio developments of 2010 without mentioning this sweet little speaker, an evolution of NHT’s long-acclaimed Super Zero minispeaker of the 1990s. The Absolute Tower is like a Super Zero with two extra woofers, so it has enough bass for serious listening without a subwoofer. The Absolute Tower couldn’t be easier to set up: Just plop a pair down a couple of feet from the wall, connect them to a decent receiver, and you’ll be rewarded with captivating sound. I’ve heard Kenny Garrett’s Songbook on hundreds of speakers, but few match the Absolute Tower’s accurate rendition of Garrett’s gorgeous-yet-intense alto playing. This $999-per-pair speaker gets my vote for “best audio bargain” of 2010.