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Editorial: Freibier Volume 1, March 2008

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by Danny Kaey on March 07 '08

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DK’s Freibier

Volume 1, March 2008

So what’s this Freibier thing?  Simple: the term Freibier, literally means just that: free beer.  Freibier was something brewery workers received in addition to their weekly pay and was later used as a daily motivational tool by many breweries, though not exclusively.  Think of DK’s Freibier as a monthly column by yours truly that is part free advice, free thought and other such trivial wisdom from this crazy Serb, born in Pakistan raised in Austria. 

Fitting or not, Volume 1 therefore starts with a topic very dear to me and by association, all audiophiles and music lovers everywhere.  The topic is really nothing new or revolutionary, at least in our part of the universe.

Dammit, what is it already? ...

… Can we all agree that high(er) performance audio is valid?

In anticipation of Dan Wright’s latest and greatest work of electric art, the “Truth” modified Transporter by Slimdevices, I spent some due diligence cruising around the various mainstream forums and sites.  My plan was simple as it was cunning: snooping around the forums, I attempted to discern any anticipation such a crossover product was able to muster with the iPod generation at large. 

As I have said countless times over the past five or more years, the time has finally come when audiophiles are beginning to embrace the thought of physical free media playback.  Yep, after 25+ years, CD’s are finally passé.  Oh sure, they are still selling them at Walmart, Costco, Fingerprints and Amoeba, but the word is out: the compact disc’s days are de facto numbered. 

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Enter Slimdevices.  When I first reported on these guys oh, four or so years ago, I new they had a winner on their hands.  Squeezebox 3 changed the game almost single handedly as it offered perfectly reasonable sound for $299.  Think of the Squeezebox being your iPod’s front end; bring your own hard disk or NAS drive and voila, you are being served.  The SB3 took off like a bat out of hell.  Literally!  Most of us believers postulated that SB3 might also act as the hook for non-audiophiles to further embrace high performance audio.  This is where the fun part and raison d’être for this healthy dose of Freibier begins.  

The guys at Slimdevices were very smart: enlisting the help of the open-source community, forums and people generally enthused about the prospects of SB3, they created a worldwide network of free publicity, free tech support and hordes of faithful adopters.  Naturally, Slimdevices new that more could be squeezed out of the Squeezebox system and thus began work on the ultimate network music player: Transporter.  Transporter was billed from the ground up as the “audiophile” version of the SB3, which already had enjoyed more than an inkling of interest by respected modders, Vinnie Rossie, Boulder Cables, etc.  While you could take the SB3 to level ultimate, you were, at the end of the day, limited by the unit’s inexpensive design fundamentals.  After all, SB3 was manufactured to a price point: 300 bills!

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Transporter on the other hand was an altogether different, state of the art beast.  AKM’s latest and greatest DAC’s, a Walt Jung designed power supply and regulation, premium overall parts quality all make up the beast that is Transporter.  Sean Adams, Slimdevices designer, is no doubt proud of his accomplishment, as well as he should be.  Look at it this way, the Transporter is perhaps the first true premium crossover music player designed by a mass-market consumer company specifically for the audiophile market!  Sure, we had top of the line Denon, Sony and Onkyo players before, but this is different: Squeezebox is a phenomenon much like the iPod on an even larger scale. 

Indeed, browsing the company’s online forums you almost immediately notice how audiophiles quickly established their own sub-forum and presence.  Of particular interest was the highly anticipated crossover effect: would people hooked on SB3 drop the gauntlet and become big spenders, err audiophiles?  Slimdevices found itself in a unique position of catering to both mass-market consumers and audiophiles at the same time.  Then again, Transporter is no $300 music player; it commands a more premium price for its high-end pedigree: $2000.

The results I fetched after countless hours of forum sprawling and reading were predictable if ultimately uninspiring.  Non-audiophiles mingled with audiophiles, sort of like a cheetah stalks its prey: in essence and for the most part, the mantra is that SB3 is good, but Transporter is ultimately state of the art.  So far so good; if you left it at that premise, the world of high-end would indeed be that much better off.  After all, when was the last time that someone in the mainstream agreed with the notion that better parts quality, more careful and optimized design leads to an overall superior audio experience? 

Alas, disappointment quickly reared its ugly head with full swing.  You see, some fool decided to proclaim that his recently acquired Modwright “Truth” modified Transporter ripped the stock model a new one.  Wait a minute, did you say a tube modified TP improved upon the solidstate cousin?  Gee, what a freak!  Nonsense! You crazy audiophile! You poor schmuck, you’ve bought into audiophilia nervosa hook, line and sinker!  Back to the Circus!  You get the picture.  Op-amps in the stock model are already reference quality, tube output stage be damned.  And why does a guy charge $2000 for a “simple” tube output stage design in first place – rippoff!?

But wait a minute: I thought Transporter sounded better than SB3 precisely because of its audiophile pedigree?  If that is indeed the consensus (oh boy, do I love that word!), than surely a Transporter further modified by clever men would almost by definition have to qualify as being even better.  No?  Nein?  Ne? 

This is exactly why we face such an uphill battle when it comes to converting the masses.  For some reason belief in a product’s superiority quickly turns to disbelief when said product is further optimized, with a tube output stage no less – or is it because of the tube output stage?  How come?  Why?  I mean I really, truly don’t get it.  It’s as though there’s a missing link somewhere that is simply not being communicated to the masses, which by the way do agree with the central message in first place!  The masses have no problems accepting $30k watches, 100$k rocket motorcycles, or $20k Hermês saddles.  I sincerely doubt anyone in the equestrian alumni sits there and says, “Oh may, these Hermês guys really did a superb job with the double-stitching here”.  

Why is it that high performance audio is so grimly looked upon with this same group of spenders?  Why is it that people in the mainstream can proclaim low-res mp3’s, XM Radio or (gasp) (shock) (aw) HD Radio as definitive and get away with it?  I do remember a time of say thirty odd years ago when people were truly excited about new technological advances, etc. for the betterment of the experience.  Today, all we seem to care about is ultra-low quality garbage be it in movie delivery or music. 

Which brings us right back to the point of this volume’s Freibier:  I firmly believe that we have to establish the very premise that better designed components yield better fidelity, in the most simple of terms.  Second, we have to change the perception of high performance audio from being looked upon as sound geeks to people genuinely interested in premium quality products that happen to be audio components.  Really, no different from Gucci, Hermes, BMW, Ferrari, Audemars-Piguet, etc.  The foundation appears to have been laid down at least partially – clearly, if most people on the Slimdevices forum agree that Transporter offers superior sound quality to SB3, than it shouldn’t be that much of a leap for them to accept that a modified Transporter (tubes and all, op-amps be damned) should yield further improvement still.  Now if only folks in the mainstream press would agree… hence, we are back at square one. 

SonicFlare clearly has a lot of work to do.  Tune in next month for another edition of Freibier right here at the ‘Flare.

PS: Look for a full in-depth scoop on Dan's Truth Transporter right here @ the 'Flare... goodie, goodie!

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