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Alms for the Audiophile

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Picture it: You’re spending a chilly December evening at home, savoring Nat “King” Cole’s The Christmas Song, a cup of eggnog, and the warmth of a wood fire and a favorite blanket. What denizen of the Western world wouldn’t enjoy that? Fortunately, most of it’s hard to mess up. Eggnog and easy-start fireplace logs you can find at any grocery story and a blanket’s pretty much a blanket.

Getting a recording of Nat “King” Cole to sound like the real Nat “King” Cole, though, is a tougher trick. It’ll be easier if there’s some new audio gear among your holiday gifts. But if your loved ones select your presents from the crowded shelves of a big-box electronics retailer, you’re not going to get the gear you really want. The good stuff resides mostly in stores and Web sites devoted to top-notch audio, places your loved ones will never find if left to their own devices. It’s up to you to steer them straight.

We’ve made that part easy for you. These eight products, in price ranges from budget to bacchanalian, will make your music as warm and inviting as a hot toddy at twilight. And the company Web sites we’ve listed will tell gift-givers where to get them.

The iPod, Elevated

The 1,000-plus different iPod docks on the market all suffer the same problem: They’re just amplifying the sound of the iPod. There’s no way to get truly high-end sound from a tiny, battery-powered, $300 device. Unless, that is, you have Wadia’s $379 170iTransport.

The 170iTransport is the only iPod dock to date that extracts digital audio from an iPod, so it can then be routed to a high-quality digital-to-analog converter, digital preamp or surround-sound processor without going through the iPod’s audio circuitry.

Even if you store your music using low-bitrate technologies such as MP3 or AAC, you’ll hear an improvement with the 170iTransport. But if you store your music in the Apple Lossless format-which takes up more space on your iPod but delivers a bit-for-bit perfect copy of your CDs-you’ll get fidelity that’s identical to what you’d get from the disc itself.

Wadia included analog audio outputs on the 170iTransport so it’ll connect to just about any sound system, but to get the full benefit from it you’ll need a system that accepts digital sources. Fortunately, even most of today’s inexpensive home-theater-in-a-box systems have digital inputs that will work with the Wadia.

Sound Science

Paul Barton, the founder and chief designer of PSB Speakers, helped pioneer the scientific approach to speaker engineering. Of late, he’s begun blending his science with the art of talented industrial designers. PSB’s latest line, the Imagine series, may be the most impressive in the company’s 36-year history. At $2,000 per pair, the top-of-the-line Imagine T tower speaker isn’t PSB’s most expensive speaker, but it may be the most practical way to enjoy Barton’s vision of sonic perfection in the average living room.

The 37-inch-high Imagine T is diminutive enough to sit almost unnoticed among your other furnishings. Thanks to its almost perfectly even balance of bass, midrange and treble, it doesn’t demand fussy setup-it sounds good in almost any kind of room.

You wouldn’t expect the Imagine T’s two 5.25-inch woofers to reproduce the deep, dark bass tones that David Piltch delivered on the Holly Cole Trio CDs from the 1990s, but they do. In fact, unless you want the Imagine T to do double-duty as the left and right front speakers in a home-theater system, there’s no need whatsoever for a subwoofer.

The Imagine’s even response treats every instrument with respect, including the human voice. Even the reedy tenor of Donald Fagen, which sometimes strains the ears when played through lesser speakers, sounds natural through the Imagine T. No matter which artists you enjoy listening to, the Imagine T will present them at their best.

Antique Audio

Technically, vacuum tubes became obsolete in audio in the 1960s. However, audiophiles still love tubes for their warm, natural sound.

Most tube amps are made by small companies that possess few economies of scale, so the amps are often expensive. Cayin, a Chinese company with a long history in audio, has brought the efficiencies of Far Eastern manufacturing to bear on its line of tube amplifiers. The company’s A-50T integrated amplifier costs only $1,295, yet it’s wired entirely by hand without the use of circuit boards, the same way tube amps were built in Charlie Parker’s day.

Four power tubes deliver 35 watts per channel when the amp is set to “ultralinear” mode, and 16 watts per channel in “triode” mode. (Audiophiles generally agree that triode wiring sounds better in the mids and highs, but it delivers less punch in the bass.) The A-50T’s startlingly realistic yet sweet sound lends itself to all but the most raucous recordings. It’s particularly appropriate for acoustic jazz, where it portrays the nuances of saxophones, trumpets and pianos with a spacious ambience and intricate sonic detail.

The A-50T’s front panel is about as simple as they get, with just an on/off knob, a volume knob and a source selector. You can connect as many as four source devices to the A-50T, and one of those can be a record player if you opt for the $250 internal phono preamp. Cayin even supplies a remote control, a rarity with tube amps.

Music for Marriotts

Traveling can be traumatic for the dedicated jazz fan. Most hotels offer nothing more for the music listener than a cheap clock radio. And most of those will tune nothing but the four or five most powerful stations in town. It’s a safe bet none of those are jazz stations.

With the $199 Foxl portable sound system, Soundmatters eases the angst of the traveling music lover. The Foxl measures only 5.6 inches long and weighs just 9.5 ounces, so it slips easily into almost any backpack, briefcase or purse. Yet it sounds as clear and true as many top $1,000-per-pair speakers. (That’s not just a subjective statement-its technical measurements are in fact better than those of many $1,000-per-pair speakers.)

The Foxl’s tiny metal chassis conceals digital amplifiers, two tweeter/midrange drivers, a flat-panel woofer and a rechargeable battery. An included cable connects the Foxl to any portable music player, any laptop and many cell phones. The $249 Bluetooth version lets you connect to your laptop or cell without wires, and even works as a speakerphone thanks to an internal mic.

The Foxl is simply the best thing to happen to business travel since Wi-Fi. Trust us, a few cuts from Pat Martino’s Live at Yoshi’s, played at room-filling volume through the Foxl, can put a smile on your face even on the fourth morning of a grueling tradeshow.

A Ban on Plastic

Some dedicated audiophiles love having their speakers on display, but most people would prefer them concealed. In-wall speakers make that easy to do, but most in-walls are stamped from flimsy plastic that vibrates like a 1950s Harley-Davidson.

In order to bring true high-end quality into in-wall speakers, the custom speaker company California Audio Technology (CAT) recently created a spin-off company called Newport Audio. CAT uses its extensive computer numeric control (CNC) machinery to carve the 5mm-thick aluminum faceplates of the Newport Gold Series in-wall speakers. The stiff, heavy faceplates provide a firm mounting surface for the woofers and tweeters, and also help damp any vibration coming from the wall itself. And most of the electronic parts used in the speaker are of the same quality found in CAT’s $100,000-per-pair superspeakers.

The result of this overbuilding is truly outstanding performance. The broad, deep soundstage simply dazzles. Play a spacious recording like Chesky Records’ The Coryells, and not only will you forget you’re listening to in-walls, you might forget you’re in your living room. Pricing for the Newport Audio speakers is surprisingly gentle; the G85REC, which incorporates a beefy 8.5-inch woofer, lists for only $1,080 per pair.

Instant Classic

Every audio product bearing the McIntosh logo feels like a classic, even when it is first introduced. That may be in large part because the company has stuck with the same visual aesthetic for decades. All McIntosh electronics have a black glass faceplate with a green logo shining through. And for decades, all have been acclaimed as world-class performers.

The company’s latest masterpiece is its MCD500 SACD/CD player, a $6,500 tour de force that combines advanced digital audio technology with the conveniences of yesteryear.

The advanced digital audio technology starts with SACD, the high-resolution format that’s better than CD and, according to many audiophiles, a match for vinyl records. In order to lower noise and extend treble response, the audio circuitry is fully balanced, a luxury found only in the costliest audio gear.

The conveniences include a headphone jack, once a common feature of CD players but now absent from most. A front volume control lets you adjust the headphone level, and also allows you to connect the MCD500 directly to an amplifier-no preamp is needed. It is hard to imagine a more fitting way to enjoy the latest SACD releases from Concord Jazz.

In the Tradition

Many high-end speaker companies have moved their production to the Far East, but Totem Acoustic still produces every speaker by hand in a Quebec workshop that houses not a single automated tool. No speaker is more meticulously designed or crafted. In its top models, Totem even forgoes solder, using instead time-consuming mechanical screw terminals to join the internal components.

The company’s latest, and perhaps greatest, creation is the new The One, a limited-edition of the Model One speaker that has been in Totem’s line for all of the company’s 21 years. While $3,595 per pair may seem a lot to pay for a speaker that stands only 12.5 inches high, company founder Vince Bruzzese says The One “uses the most expensive and effective jewelry [speaker connectors and internal wiring] and crossover parts that can be manufactured today.”

Only 2,000 pairs will be manufactured, and chances are they will not last long in stores. A brief listen to the speakers revealed an astoundingly ambient and enveloping sound field, lifelike detail and vocal reproduction that almost shocks with its intimacy. Like Totem’s other speakers, they exhibit much less of a “sweet spot” than most of their competitors do. Practically any audiophile who hears The One will want one (or actually, a pair).

Extreme Digital

Audiophiles love old-fashioned analog sound, but let’s face it, digital offers huge advantages. Especially if you take it to the extreme that Wisdom Audio has.

Wisdom’s Sage Series combines speakers, amplifiers and a system controller all designed to work together. The system controller processes as many as seven channels of full-range audio and three subwoofer channels, so it can work its magic on anything from an old mono recording of Coleman Hawkins to the 7.1-channel soundtrack from the Blu-ray Disc of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Wisdom has eliminated the power-sapping, sound-distorting crossover circuitry that resides in conventional speakers; the system controller handles those tasks, and woofers, tweeters and midranges are all amplified separately for maximum fidelity. In fact, each speaker is tested in a lab and its characteristics are fed into the processor, which compensates for flaws to make the speaker, in effect, acoustically perfect.

The controller also incorporates Audyssey’s MultEQ technology, which uses microphones and test tones to evaluate the acoustics of your room automatically. It then adjusts the sound so it’s ideal for your room. The end result is spectacular, possibly the closest a consumer can come to flawless sound.

Seven different speaker models are available, in on-wall, in-wall and freestanding versions. Prices vary tremendously with the complexity of the system and the cost of professional installation (which is a must); think tens of thousands of dollars. One could have a simple stereo Sage Series system installed, but going with anything less than a full seven-channel system with two or three subwoofers seems like a waste of incredible technology.

Originally Published