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The New Audio Renaissance

The Introduction of the Super Audio CD and the Aucio DVD will breathe new life into a Dying Obsession

Simply put, high-end audio is the budget-less quest for the recreation of concert-like sound at home. And there is a whole faction of music lovers whose quest for lifelike sound in their living rooms is tantamount to the Holy Grail. These A/V enthusiasts think nothing of spending six figures on a stereo system.

Two of the past icons of high-end audio are the reel-to-reel tape deck and the turntable. Both components were able to deliver extremely high-quality analog sound. Analog, of course, is the method by which we used to record and play back music. It uses magnetic particles (i.e., tape), and vinyl grooves (i.e., LPs) to emulate the sound waves. Magnetic tape held a magnetic “picture” of the sound waves. And the microscopic grooves cut into a vinyl record also represented the sound waves of music.

Now the reel-to-reel is obsolete while the turntable has become an even more high end product for those listeners who still prefer the warmth found in analog and don’t mind the extra care and feeding. Reel-to-reel tape had to be loaded and threaded from one reel to the next. And record albums were and remain high maintenance. That’s because they have to be relentlessly cleaned or all of the wonderful music will be obscured by surface noise.

Digital, the ubiquitous new recording and playback technology, creates a stream of 0’s and 1’s to represent the sound waves. And we all agree that CDs are a heck of a lot easier to deal with. You don’t really need to clean them much. And you can program them to play any song any time.

When the compact disc was first introduced in 1982, it was a combined effort between Sony Corp. of Japan and Philips Corp. of the Netherlands. The resulting CD standard is called the Red Book standard. This is the digital format that every CD since has complied with. The Red Book standard uses a 44.1 kHz sampling rate and 16-bit linear quantization. Simply put, the CD system “samples” or records a sound wave at sixteen places along the wave at 44,100 times per second.

At 2 to the 16th, this system yields over 65,000 pieces of information for each bit of sound. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Many audiophile critics have argued for the past decade that CDs sound harsh and unmusical as compared to their analog predecessors. That’s because there simply isn’t enough information-especially at low dynamic levels-to have excellent sonic resolution.

Super Audio CD (SACD) vs. Digital Video Disc (DVD)

Recently, two karetsus (partnerships of large companies) have announced forays into producing true audiophile digital media.


The first announcement is from a joint venture between Sony and Philips and it’s called the Super Audio Compact Disc or SACD. Sony and Philips were the folks who brought us the original, less-than-super-audio CD back in ’82. This new format holds many times the information of the original CD. It uses a Direct Stream Digital format as opposed to a standard CD’s 16-bit/44.1 kHz format. It is backward compatible with current CDs, so you can play your old CD collection in your new player. SACD will be introduced initially as a two-channel format, although multi-channel surround sound may be played for the future. There will be two first-generation SACD players-one from Sony and one from Philips’ subsidiary Marantz. Both players will cost about $5,000 and should be available around October.

Sony Music says that it will release 40 SACDs in tandem with the hardware launch. And other audiophile-type labels such as Telarc, DMP, Mobile Fidelity, and AudioQuest Music will also release titles.


But in this capitalist global economy, there is a competitor in the field of audiophile digital media, and it is none other than long-time Sony rival Matsushita, better known in the States as Panasonic. These guys are using DVD technology instead of CD technology to produce audio-only DVDs. Behind Panasonic are a bevy of major record labels including PolyGram, which includes Philips, Mercury, Decca/London, and Deutsche Gramophone.

DVD uses 6-channel Dolby Digital surround sound, and DVD Audio will contain both 2-channel mixes for audio purists, as well as 6-channel ones for surround sound buffs. No word yet on when and how much these players will be, but one would imagine that they will be priced similarly to SACD at first.

Although current DVD players do not play DVD Audio, rumor has it that the next generation will. And with the breakneck pace of DVD acceptance for movies and computers, it will be an interesting contest to determine which one will win ultimate consumer acceptance.

Getting the Most Out of Your High Resolution Digital Source

Just because the source has improved doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will. A lot has to happen between the time the precarious digital signal leaves the disc and the time the sound waves hit your ears. And high-end audio equipment manufacturers are banking on the fact that such high-resolution sources will spur the sales of other high-end components such as pre-amplifiers, power amps, speakers and subwoofers.

During the ’80s when the CD was making its way into people’s homes, music lovers used the CD player’s improved sound as an excuse to upgrade their entire stereo system. And mid-fidelity stereo shops were able to sell lots of receivers and speakers to new CD enthusiasts. But the vast majority of these systems were priced between $1,000 and $2,000 and therefore qualified as “mid-fi.”

Over the past 18 years, the true audiophile set never really abandoned their turntables. They felt that current CD technology would never replace high-end analog. Now audiophiles’ ears have perked up and their $10,000 turntables may become obsolete after all. Let’s examine a true audiophile system that will do justice to whichever new digital source you settle upon.

Classé Audio Omega Preamplifier

The first component into which you connect to your new SACD or DVD-A player will be your preamplifier or preamp. A stereo receiver is actually a preamp and an amp in one box, along with a tuner, and nowadays surround sound processor. But true audiophiles can’t deal with the noise that leaks from one part of the receiver to the other so they put everything into separate boxes. Plus, a receiver couldn’t handle the heat generated by the output transistors or vacuum tubes of an audiophile power amp.

Classé Audio is a highly regarded Canadian high-end audio component manufacturer, and this is considered to be one of their very best components. In order to have the most minimal noise, the Classé Audio’s Omega power supply is housed in a separate chassis from the control unit. The control unit boasts dual-mono construction, which means that there are actually two preamps that mirror each other-one for the left channel and one for the right channel. This design yields much better channel separation. The Omega’s input transistors are handpicked JFETs and the output stage utilizes high-power MOSFET transistors.

The LED display shows the current volume status, and the very heavy remote control handles pretty much all of the functions. Designed to work in conjunction with the Omega power amp, this preamp can also work with any other audiophile power amp you choose. Its price? $10,000.

Cary Audio Design 300SE LX20 Monoblock Power Amplifiers

In the spirit of keeping the left and right channels separate, many audiophiles prefer one power amp for the right speaker and another for the left. That’s what is meant by the term monoblock. These particular monoblocks use vacuum tubes instead of transistors. Many folks feel as though tubes deliver a warmer sound than transistors and that tube amplifiers are easier to listen to for long periods of time whereas transistor amps can cause listener fatigue.

This critically acclaimed pair utilizes the Czechoslovakian 300B XLS tube, which delivers an extremely clean but high-powered output. One of the problems with traditional tube amps is that they can’t deliver enough juice to run relatively inefficient speakers; this is not the case with the 300SE LX20s, which can run many speakers including ones that have sensitivity ratings down to 92 dB 1w/1m or lower. Like all tube amps, the user must spend time adjusting the bias alignment so that tubes are performing up to specification. Also, tubes must be replaced periodically; these however have a two-year warranty. These top-notch amps from Cary Audio Design sell for around $12,000 per pair.

Snell XA90ps Loudspeakers

Massachusetts-based Snell Acoustics has garnered the reputation as one of the very best high-end speaker companies. Owned by larger mid-fi Boston Acoustics, Snell has the talent and the financial resources to deliver excellent speakers. This new effort is packed with technology that delivers what critics consider to be first-rate concert-like sound.

The XA90ps’s are powered packed: each has a four-way design, which is to say that the sound is divided up into four separate parts-and a specialized driver handles each. Two 1-inch tweeters reproduce the highest frequencies. One tweeter is front firing and one is rear firing. Snell has employed this technique for years and it helps to balance out the high frequency sound, and also creates a more three dimensional result. The upper midrange frequencies are handled by two 2.5-inch drivers and two 6.5-inch drivers handle the lower midrange. Two 10-inch active subwoofers powered by a built in 300 watt per channel power amp reproduce the low bass. The subwoofer has its own built-in parametric equalizer for the perfect bass output. And the tweeter and subwoofer levels can be adjusted by wireless remote control-the theory being that you have to be far away from the speaker to hear the correct sound.

These speakers are slim and handsome-they are 4.5 feet tall, 11 inches wide, and 19.5 inches deep. Standard finishes are black oak or cherry and the metal grills have a sleek look and are quite utilitarian when household pets are a factor. They sell for a mere $7,000 per pair, which keeps this top-of-the-line system at under $30,000, not including the SACD player or DVD Audio player.

Superior Sound At Home and on the Road

A. The Cary Audio Design 300SE LX20 Monoblock Power Amplifiers use vacuum tube design to deliver warm rich sound. Two amps are needed for stereo sound.

B. The Snell XA90ps Loudspeakers each feature eight drivers-a pair of tweeters, a pair of upper-midrange drivers, a pair of lower-midrange drivers, and a pair of powered subwoofers. Their built-in 300-watt powered subwoofer and parametric EQ makes for well-balanced sound.

C. The Classé Audio Omega Preamplifier is a true audiophile component that features separate chassis for the control unit and power supply, as well as dual mono construction for the purest possible sound.

D. The Sony Super Audio CD Player is slated to be introduced in October and will deliver sound that many believe will be eons better than existing CDs. Shown here is a prototype.

Originally Published