Preview: Bowers & Wilkins Z2 AirPlay / WiFi Hi-Fi
The folks over at Bowers & Wilkins are busy. Back in the day they launched the Zeppelin all-in-one iPhone/iPod premium portable Hi-Fi. Having received tons of accolades over the years - who could beat the sound quality? - B&W does it again and recently launched the Z2 box which, considering it adds AirPlay and WiFi streaming (though the Zeppelin does that too now), becomes an even hotter SonicFlare recommendation. Typically B&W impresses with trickle-down technology to capture your latest beat. Let's see what happens, arriving sometime next week at SF headquarters for a full review. Stay tuned.
Review: The Virtue Audio Sensation M451 Integrated Amplifier
Dussun T2i USB DAC/Integrated Amp Review
Vista Audio i34 Integrated Amp Review
Peach Tree Decco Review by Robert Learner
Peachtree Decco hybrid integrated amp/DAC
Manufacturer: Peachtree Audio
Country of origin: Designed in the USA, made in China
Review: Dussun DS99 Integrated Amp
The Chinese Tragedy
Ah, China. The American audio industry has been facing stiff competition from a seemingly never-ending supply of Chinese high-end import products. While American audiophiles and normal consumers are weary of Chinese brand names, a number of companies have taken to rebranding the best of China and offering them up to American consumers as "the next hot thing."
Witness the V.A.L. i5 Vacuum tube speaker system. A little 6V6 tube sits in the place of honor (the input stage) and sends a signal to a series of low-power digital amps that feed the little full range speakers and a subwoofer. So what's the deal? Click "read full article" to see all the variations using this exact design. The companies offering these new products are SonicGear with their iSteroid, Quest for Sound's iPod Partner and Gini's iTube. Notice the subtle differences? Different colors, different features, different prices (from $100 up to $350 or so).
The irony is that this thing sounds great. No, really. I had a chance to play around with one of these and it really does sound startling good, despite the price tag of a few hundred bucks. How so? My only guess can be the plastic single driver covering from 110Hz on up. If you're familiar with the famed Jordan full range mini drivers, these plastic cones from China work the same way -- spread them way apart, toe them way in, crank them way up and get hit with that single driver Jordan sound (otherwise, it sounds terrible). Paired with the little digital amp and the tube buffer stage, this little thing is good, scary good...
The other player in the clones wars is Dared. I have also had a chance to play around with the little Dared MP-5 and it's also a killer piece. Again, tubes in the input stage and tiny digital amps (like Tripath, supposedly) providing the juice. Really nice build quality and all the shiny chrome you can handle. Put this next to any Bose POS and the Dared will sell hands down, every time, for less money. The Dared amp should have taken off. But what happened?
Dared's own American importer botched the launch. Their website ranked among the worst in audio. So for people looking to jump from Bose to tubes, they were met with a marketing tragedy. And that's when the Dared parent company began selling MP-5s sans labels. Fatman, a brit company, slapped their own label on the Dared piece, calling it the iTube (sound familiar?). Sound By Singer out of New York City is calling his identical version the Sonic Integrity. And now there's Vuum. Again, nothing new, just a different label. Oh, and eyeTEK in Germany. Is a Kazakhstani version forthcoming? One can only hope.
So four companies all competing with the same products in the same market. Singer has the highest price at $1000 for the set (audiophile gouging?) with the others coming it at around $700. Then again, I wrote about an auction selling the Dared amps for just $179. Ouch.
The sad part is main stream sites like Gizmodo and iLounge are writing about these products and absolutely slaughtering them. Or, I should say, they post the raw news and the readers go "hey, I've seen that before! It's a knock off! Boo!" And that's when the pitchforks come out and the American market rejects the products outright.
Alas, both these products are damn good (with the usual price/setup caveats). The vacuum tube does, through its little distortion magic act, clean up some of the digital glare of MP3s, so it's not all marketing BS about tubes at this price level. It's a shame, really, that what could have been legitimate convergence products have instead become Chinese alphabet soup.
I do hold out hope, however, that this new generation of trickle-down high-end products draw more and more attention to hi-fi. Seems people are becoming interested, finally, even if it's still in the freaky products out there. Here's to hoping that someone releases a product with genuine high-end appeal with marketing to match.
Oh, and finally, there's the iClassic below. See those tubes? Can you guess what they are? KT88s? 300Bs (Western Electrics, maybe)? Nope, they're faux tubes but they glow like the real thing! Yup, the iClassic is basically a iPod dock/clock radio with fake tubes and real speakers. $180 to lose your audio soul.
Me, I'm hoping for stick-on tubes from China. You know, a little battery inside with adhesive on the bottom. Then everything can be tube powered! DVD player, plasma TV, four-slice toaster, toilet, dog, wife. It's a brave new world.
Trends Tripath Mini Amp
New Walmart-priced goodies coming out of China, this time under the name Trends Hifi. The latest company to jump on the micro watt Tripath amp wagon, Trends' TA-10 is probably the most impressive price/build quality amp to use the famous 8 watt class-T chip. Here's straight from the Trends press release:
"This is a revolution technology among these several eras of the audio techniques...It totally broken the tale story that “the larger, the heavier, the more power consumption, the hotter, the best sound amplifier”. We shoot down the audiophile amplifier in the high sky!"
Tru dat. Check out the SonicFlare roundup of other Tripath amps that totally broken the tale story. Trends is also rocking their new UD-10 USB DAC. USB goes in, everything imaginable comes out. No price on the UD-10 yet, but expect it to be cheap, cheap, cheap!
Fatman iTube Now Available
Look familiar? This is the very same Fatman iTube we covered a few months ago. Where it was previously only available in the GB, you can now get your hands on all the iPodrific goodness here in the states. Bluebird Music is importing the Fatman iTube, so you know it's going to do some business. Bluebird is also the importer of Neat speakers, Exposure amps, Chord amps, Living Voice speakers and other premier brands.
Know what I'm hoping? I'm hoping a million little 'Pod heads buy these things and get the hi-fi bug. It's these kind of "convergence" products that will save this biz, imo. Simple to use, plenty of audiophile mojo and lots of room to grow. Bluebird knows what's up. Get in with the iTube and upsell 'em on $75,000 Chord SPM14000 amps. Yeah, not so much but you get the idea...
The iTube is priced at $649 and uses discrete amps for 13 watts of juice with a tube input stage. Headphone jack and remote round out the package. Wondering who is behind the iTube?
"iTube is made by TL Audio, a world leader in the pro audio industry. For fifteen years this British company has designed and manufactured innovative tube-based electronics for studio engineers and professional musicians. Fatman customers include engineer/producer Mick Glossop, (Frank Zappa and Van Morrison credits), long time Pink Floyd engineer Andy Jackson, and many others."
If you think the iTube is a spitting image of the chinese Dared MP-5, you are correct. Seems TL Audio rocks a slightly different version than the American MP-5 (the MP-5 has USB where the iTube has an iPod dock). The American Dared company seems to have gotten stuck in the audio syrup, which is where TL and Bluebird come in.
The Dared MP-5 wrangled a number of glowing reviews from around the net, saying how the amp sounds great with plenty of tubish qualities. Perfect desk or computer system was the verdict. It's unclear how much the Fatmanization differs from the Dared MP-5, but I'm betting it's not much.
The Fatman iTube is available immediately so go tell your Bose buddies to pack up the plastic audio. Check it out >>
The Sub $1000 Spotlight
From the inbox:
Friend's son wants college system--$750-$1k. Just
input for iPod/amp and speakers. Mostly classical
Any ideas? I'm not that up on things with docks...
Thanks for your help!
No need to look at iPod speaker systems, Bill, your friend's son can join the hi-fi party with no compromises whatsoever! Here are three respected systems built with high-performance goals that will crush any Bose system or iPod dock/speaker hybrid.
First up, the classic Epos ELS3 speakers with the Cambridge Audio 340A or 540A integrated amplifiers. $329 a pair for these tiny British legends, they've won just about every award out there. As for Cambridge Audio, don't confuse these guys with Cambridge Soundworks, the american plastic speaker company. Cambridge Audio is Brit all the way and their 340A and 540A integrated amps have won almost as many awards as Epos. $299 and $399 for the products respectively, throw in some cables and you have yourself a classic little hi-fi system. Here in the states, Epos is distributed by Music Hall who also distributes Creek, another legendary Brit brand. Though more expensive, you'll see Epos and Creek packaged together all over the place. Even better, these guys have large distribution so finding these goods isn't that hard.
Next up is an underground sensation from Omega Audio and Red Wine. Packed as a combo for $788 (sans cables), you get Omega's signature single driver sound with Red Wine audio's Clari-T amp, an unusual Tripath-based battery-powered 6 watt monster. These guys blew up the audiophile underground scene for their wicked sound and cheap prices. Omega is also known as that hemp speaker company, using full range drivers made out of the royal herb. Omega also makes the Super 3 V2 and XRS speakers at $649 and $849, respectively. Like all Omegas, these speakers are sensitive enough to only need a few watts, making them perfect for the legendary $30 Sonic Impact t-amp. Same chip as the Red Wine Clari-T but in bare bones version, the SI had nearly everyone in audio running for their soldering irons and getting their frankenstein on.
Anthony Gallo is the guy who put good sound in lifestyle speakers. His top speaker the $2600 Reference 3 ruled the review scene for quite some time and his little speakers are even more famous in the too-cool-for-normal-speaker crowd. The Mirco Ti Speakers start at $400 a pair and the slightly larger A'Divas go for $550. Of course, since they're little orbs, the bass only gets down to around 75Hz on its best day. The speakers include little rubber rings so you can place these guys on your desk or bookshelf. One custom home theater consultant I know hangs A'Divas for side and rear surrounds and recently used A'Divas at a restaurant to create halos of sound around dining tables. Pair these guys with a good integrated like an NAD and you're set.
As for accessories, many companies include their own cables that can sound fine. When buying your own wire, you don't need to spend a fortune as long as you don't skimp and get a spool from Radio Shack. Ask your retailer/manufacturer what cables to buy. Also, Blue Tac from your office supply store is a necessity to keep your speakers stuck to your stands/shelves and to prevent them from rattling around. Speaking of stands, heavier is better. If your stands use hollow tubes, you can fill them with sand to make them even more inert and keep the metal from ringing in tune with your music.
For those of you new to hi-fi who are staring in horror at the low watt numbers listed on this site, you need to know that bigger isn't always better. The electronic giants play the watt game, pushing huge power to the detriment of quality. Power isn't everything and many of the best amps in the world don't have anywhere near the advertised juice of those plastic beasts at Best Buy with 1000+ watts. A few good watts into excellent speakers will be sonically superior to massive junk watts and plastic speakers.
Fatman Rebranded Dared Amp
Look familiar? This is the Fatman Tube amp that looks strangely similar to the Chinese Dared MP-5 making the rounds here in the states. Fatman is out of the UK and the only difference appears to be the grinning buddha slapped on the front and some minor input tweaks. Check out our original coverage of the Dared MP-5, the $559 tube hybrid amp with a USB input. Fatman is also pitching Dared's tubed iPod dock, again with too-cool-for-school graphics on the front.
This rebranding may be either a territorial identification or simple marketing since the Dared US website is just about one of the worst sites on the net and the MP-5 mini site is even worse. And check out eBay for a wonderful auction for a batch of ten MP-5 amps for $1790...which makes each amp only $179. Stuff like this isn't exactly confidence inspiring to normal consumers. The sad part is that the Dared MP-5 is actually a pretty cool little product, one that could potentially bring people back to high-performance audio if it were marketed correctly. Alas, another wonderful opportunity squandered.
Outlaw RR2150 Review
Another Monday, another update from Stereophile. Taking a look at certifiable budget gear, Stereophile gives the $599 Outlaw RR2150 receiver some love:
With its front-mounted minijack and rear USB port, it makes a great intro to hi-fi for a younger generation weaned on iPods and MP3s.
Appealing to the younger generation is always good. The RR2150 goes with retro fab styling and packs in as many goodies as possible including 100 watts, tuner, USB, phono and more. Purchase direct from Outlaw's site.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Chord SPM 14000 Ultimate monoblock amplifiers win a "best of the best of the best" verdict for great sound and insane amounts of eye candy. Price? $75,000. Yeah, not for the younger generation.
Dared MP-5 USB Integrated Amp Review
Someone in China had his thinking cap on! If you look closely, you'll spy a little USB input on the front of this $559 integrated amp from Dared. As you know, I'm a huge USB fan and I believe all integrated amps should sport USB ports if they want to speak to that coveted next generation iPod crowd. As it stands, the Dared MP-5 is one of the only companies running USB.
Enjoy the Music gives the MP-5 some love for doing a lot right, calling this a great product for a desktop computer system. Power is 13 watts and, yeah, it's a little bass shy but provides that classic warm midrange tube sound. It also has a headphone jack that bests the iPod's jack. Read the review for a lot more goodies. Strangely, at this moment, the Dared importer's site doesn't seem to list the MP-5. Dared's Chinese site lists the Mp-5 but doesn't provide more than a picture and the bare bone stats.
Dared MP-5 Review [Enjoy the Music]
GREATech muVAC Artillery Shell Tube Amp
If you know anything about tubes, you know they weren't originally made for outrageously priced audio gear. Despite a number of tube houses now pumping out audio-specific glass, there's a whole slew of products using bizarre tubes from all kinds of backgrounds, most of which are completely mundane.
The GREATech muVac's tubes, however, have to be from the most interesting background of all -- WWII artillery shells. Yeah, back in the day, shells were equipped with metal detectors instead of impact detectors. The idea was the shell would sit in the ground until a tank or whatever rolled across and then the little tubes would go into action and cause all kinds of fun.
Of course, we're not using these tubes today for our missiles so, naturally, these tubes are in limited supply. Since they were made for, you know, firing out of cannons, they're extremely rugged and can handle the time. Only 250 units will be made and once they're gone, they're gone. Price is 940 euros for 1 whole watt of SET power. Check out the 6Moons review, visit their site to purchase and also check out the ZVex iMP amp also with 1 watt of power using, I'm told, the newest tubes ever made.
Vegas - Gini Systems
A company after our own hearts, Gini Systems showcased two killer new iPod and computer hi-fi systems in Vegas. The system up top is the Audio Space Mini with a USB input direct into a tubed integrated with outboard power supply. Playing directly from a laptop, everyone who heard the system raved how great it sounded. A number of people told me, "you've got to check out the Gini room!" Tentative price is $1300 for the complete package.
That Big Brother iPod unit is a prototype rocking complete iPod integration. I'm told units will come in black and white with a price under $1000. Both the Audio Space and iPod-styled systems will go on sale in a couple months.