Review: B&W Z2 AirPlay streamer
“Hey, what do you recommend I get for speakers around $400?” A query I hear all too often from my fellaz. “Ok, let’s see here… do you expect magic?” Is, quite frankly, the answer I give back most of the time. I mean seriously, what do you expect to get sound wise for $400? Then again, technology has marched on considerably over the past decades, in particular as it relates to boom boxes, aka. that thang you use to listen to music… background music that is. After all, even as far as technology has progressed, it’s still – nearly – impossibly to recreate a true stereophonic image via a shoebox, no matter how many fancy drivers and DSP you put in there. Punch warp drive to read the rest...
Preview: Schiit Audio Mjolnir headphone amp
Hot off the trails of its companion, nay, brother… son… partner (?), Schiit audio will soon be afforded with yet another review right here on these phine pages: Mjolnir, is supposed to be among the finest of dedicated headphone amps - retailing for a mere $749. Well, heck, I can't believe it - what's taken them so long? Having heard Mjolnir and Gungnir at various shows over the last year or so, call me impressed - for starters. Let's see how these puppies will do long term. Stay tuned!
Preview: Schiit Audio Gungnir DAC
Folks, this will be hot: Schiit audio's latest and greatest Gungnir DAC… paired with their Mjolnir state of the - current - art, headphone amp, this should be a block-rockin' party. For $749, made in America, how could it not be. Stay tuned...
CES: Wolf Cinema SDC-15Wolf Cinema's SDC-15, aka, "Grey Wolf" was - for me - the CES show stopper. For $8k, it bladed the accompanying Stewart 11 foot screen with such incredibly vivid, lifelike and hyper dynamic colors and blacks that my heart literally skipped one, nay, four beats. Stunning clarity on 1080p, Grey Wolf afforded you with an incredible home cinema experience that has to be seen. Stunning and compared to a decade ago, actually almost affordable. A+++
Bang & Olufsen Aston MartinWhen I drove Aston Martin's DBS last, I was absolutely enamored with the car, the brand, the image and of course, B&O's class leading sound system. While the DBS may have been retired, it also made room for the new flagship, the Vanquish, thereby resurrecting the old name of years past. If the DBS was any indication, the Vanquish will clearly improve upon any and all performance metrics. Bang & Olufsen standard. Scandalously luscious.
Bang & Olufsen AudiAudi's 2006 A8 flagship sedan was Bang & Olufsen's first foray into OEM car Hi-Fi systems integration. Back then, the system cost was a cool $9200 upgrade charge, which given a $90k vehicle price was not inconsiderable. Still, Audi's B&O upgrades went through the roof and something like 70% of all A8s where in fact ordered with that system upgrade straight from the factory. Fast forward 6 years and now every Audi model is available with the B&O system upgrade and better sonics to boot. Stay tuned for some great coverage. Wow.
Bang & Olufsen BMWThe Bang & Olufsen BMW system is sight and sound gone nuts. Available in all BMW series models, the system gives clarity, calamity, dynamic response and sonorous bass like no other after market system could ever hope to achieve in one integrated, engineered system. Incredible!
Coming Soon: B&W Zeppelin Air
When Zeppelin first launched some years back, I thought it was the best personal, quasi on the go, HiFi you could get. Clearly many others thought so as well and now B&W launches their follow-up, Zeppelin Air. Stay tuned for more info and a full-on SF review.
Review: Audi and Bang & Olufsen premium sound systems
I must have uttered “Sportscars for your living room,” our SonicFlare tagline, hundreds of times over the past half year or so.
It all began rather unassumingly when I visited the North American headquarters for Bang & Olufsen, the famous Danish premium lifestyle home audio manufacturer, headquartered in Chicago last fall. That same day I was able to sample B&O's and Audi's top of the line masterpiece.
Vegas 2008: Sonicweld
What can I say about Sonicweld I haven't already said before? Actually, quite a lot. In Vegas, the Sonicweld complete super system had a larger room than at the RMAF and for great results -- there's nothing quite like judicious volume knob cranking for concert-level decibels. And yet, while the space was larger, I feel the Sonicweld system was just itching to peel the paint off the walls with 120dB blasts.
As for technology I didn't cover in my RMAF analysis, one of the interesting elements of the Sonicweld Puserod speakers are the six titanium midrange drivers. The magic happens in the mid, as we know, and these 2" drivers with all of 1 gram of moving mass and neodymium magnets make the mids pop like almost nothing else out there. Simply, the Sonicweld system is, if nothing else, a speed demon that, with such tiny decay between the notes, lets you "hear into the music" with 1080p-like detail.
This super accuracy means the Sonicweld system has a prototypical Precise-type sound. Tube junkies will think it needs more warmth and may get scared off by the hyper real dynamics. Then again, I heard comments from tube heads who couldn't get enough of the Sonicweld sound. When you're at this level, tonal characteristics are simply a matter of personal taste.
One element everyone can (or should) agree on is the Sonicweld bass. I'm a firm believer that only a powered, EQed sub can truly handle the monster lows and Yello's "Planet Dada" track over the Sonicweld system was just worlds of sternum-pounding fun. While other systems were able to bang out the deep notes, the Sonicweld double 15" subs are truly in a class of their own if, for no other reason, than they integrate seamlessly with the rest of the system via the central DEQX processor. This digital EQ combined with two of the most serious 15" aluminum cone drivers ever devised created a bass experience that allowed you to feel the subsonic notes without bloat in the other frequencies. Absolutely wild.
Hear these speakers if you get a chance and ogle more Sonicweld pics here.
Vegas 08: Acoustic Plan Super System
Award time. The Acoustic Plan system, featuring Acoustic Plan's Veena speakers ($28k), Sarod preamp ($13000), Santor power amp ($11000) and Vadi CD player ($TBA) was one of the most impressive and talked about demos at the show. Shooting the breeze with one big name reviewer, I was told I had to check out that "open baffle thing with lowther drivers." I'm glad I followed his advice. Alas, great sound comes with a steep price tag.
The sound style falls into the Emotional category, leaning towards the Smooth group. The sound from the Lowther drivers and hybrid amps was warm and friendly with the signature non-fatiguing dynamics the Emotional and Smooth fans love.
The entire presentation was seamless from top to bottom and not at all what one would expect from a Lowther-based system of this kind. While there were plenty of the traits that single driver fans desire, serious work has gone into taming the white cone's issues and handling music in all genres. The sound was fast and detailed and offered that signature musical midrange. The tube hybrid amplification and mechanical qualities of the drivers did a fine job of compensating for the nastiness in some of my torture tracks without sacrificing clarity and detail.
Naturally, the entire system -- from Acoustic Plan Veena speakers to CD players and amps -- works together harmoniously. Component synergy exists and the Acoustic Plan system will have people rethinking a life component-swapping madness.
The slim Veena speakers are open baffles featuring 6" Lowther drivers, the hallmark of emotional systems, combined with four 10" powered woofers (a passive version is also available). The active system runs at 96dB while the passive version drops to 88dB, both with an 8 ohm impedance. The bass can be adjusted, though it's not as customizable as a full-blown sub (and nowhere near a DSP system). No frequency specs are listed, but the dipole-radiating subs reach low enough to be highly satisfying. The bass was also of a smooth, fast quality unique to dipole systems. A smaller speaker called the "Avarta" is also available and features double 10" woofers and the same 6" Lowther.
The Santor amp is a hybrid system with 50 MOS-FET watts and tubes in the signal path. The preamp and CD player are both tube-based and feature some of the classiest chassis construction around.
Big pics next page...
RMAF 07: Sonicweld $99k Super System
Paging Kanye West: Your new speakers are here. At $99k, the Sonicweld system has enough polished aluminum to out-bling Bugatti. And with active x-over, room correction and amazing sound, the Sonicweld system was the best Precise-type room at the show.
Being the nosey guy I am, I asked everyone I ran into what their favorite room was. Sonicweld came up a number of times usually accompanied with arm waving and copious gushing. Taste is subjective, of course, but the Sonicweld's Precise-type sound was simply seductive. The speed of the 2" midrange array was incredibly fast with class-leading definition between notes. The sound wasn't too cool or sharp or etched, just perfectly flat and amazingly revealing. Those who like their sound colored, look elsewhere. But for those with a love of absolute accuracy (and have a recording contract at Aftermath), put Sonicweld at the top of your list.
Sonicweld is located in Utah (along with 50% of the other high-end speaker manufacturers) and sells direct with in-home installation and optimization. $99k is steep, but the man behind Sonicweld Josh Heiner revealed there's a new system in the works. Once he's finished milling his current backorder of super systems, he's going to get down to a sub $10k system for the rest of us.
The speakers are 4-ways with a silk dome tweeter, six 2" titanium midrange drivers and six 4" aluminum woofers. Double outboard 12" subs are in separate enclosures. Unusual for Precise-type speakers, the titanium drivers run wide-range while the six woofers are bipoles firing forward and backward. All drivers feature individual ICEpower amplification controlled by a DEQX digital crossover and room correction unit. And that's just the beginning, check out their website for all the tech that goes into these amazing speakers.
RMAF 07: Vivid/Luxman Super System
If you've ever heard or read about Vivid speakers, know that the sound at RMAF was completely different. At past shows, Vivid has demoed with a variety of gear (Pathos is the one I can recall), but this time, Vivid was matched up with Luxman equipment, both companies now under the wing of On a Higher Note by Philip O'Hanlon (whose past projects saw the launch of Halcro into the big time).
Talk about synergy. The Vivid K1 speakers ($20k/pair) with the Luxman L-590A II integrated ($9000) were simply out of this world good. Flushed out with a Weiss Jason CD player, the total system cost comes out to roughly $40k.
Philip is one man who loves the system-centric approach. He picked up these two brands simply because of the amazing synergy. Philip is packaging the smaller Vivid speakers and a Luxman integrated for a package price of $15k and marketing it to doctors, lawyers and rockstars everywhere.
MusicGiants, of lossless downloading fame, was a joint exhibitor in this room. After I played my demo track, Philip smiled and said, "You have to hear this." The sample tracks he put on simply blew my mind. What was the deal? Hi-rez tracks downloaded from MusicGiants and burned onto a DVD-A. Philip wanted to have a direct computer connection to play these hi-rez tracks, but the rig didn't arrive. While SACD and DVD-A may be dying a quick death, computer-based hi-rez playback could very well be the glorious future we've all hoped for.
As for the system sound, everyone I talked to said this system was unlike anything they've heard from Vivid before and, while past Vivid rooms weren't anything to talk about, most everyone I talked to raved about the new Vivid/Luxman super system. Interestingly, Vivid/Luxman is placed in the Vivid group on the Sonic Circle. I didn't name the categories with Vivid in mind and the speakers could very well be in another group. But the Vivid/Luxman system together provided one of the absolutely best Vivid-type demos at the show.
Vivid, if you know anything about this South African company, has its roots in famed Brit company Bowers & Wilkins. While some of the Vivid tech is derived from the B&W Matrix/Nautilus stable, to me, the Vivid speakers, both at this show and shows past, sound nothing like the B&W 800 series. B&W has a very distinct sound, and Vivid exhibits none of these characteristics.
Luxman is a classic Japanese company, recently revamped with new lines of solid state and tube components. I've heard the new Luxman MQ-88 amp (KT88 tubes) outside of the show and the sound is, upon first blush, a really great and unique Vivid-style sound. It's unlike any other tube gear I've heard before and, to play Nostradamus for a second, will really appeal to a lot of the new school American hi-fi fans who are gravitating towards this kind of rich and powerful sound.
Vivid has some very interesting tech behind it. First, the driver compliment. The Vivid K1 is a 3.5-way speaker with all custom aluminum drivers. What you can't see is the two additional woofers on the back side, putting out frequencies below 100Hz. The front woofers mirror the back woofers, but run all the way up to 900Hz to mate with the midrange dome (which, in turn, runs up to 4kHz).
As for construction, the "cabinets" are "carbon fiber loaded polyester compound." While I'm a little rusty on my polyester compounds, this method creates a cabinet with walls that vary in thicknesses to kill cabinet resonances. Additionally, like a sports car shaped in a wind tunnel, the Vivids are shaped to virtually disappear from driver reflections that would otherwise be bouncing off of the hard edges of a traditional box cabinet.
Interestingly, the Vivid K1 speakers are rated at 89dB sensitivity (6 ohms) while the Luxman pure class-A L-590A II integrated amp puts out all of 30 watts into 8 ohms. The system had no right to sound as powerful and full as it did. I hung out in the Vivid/Luxman room on two occasions and people would come in and say, "Wow! So how many watts is that amp?" And Philip O'Hanlon would tell them, and then smile as their faces contorted in confusion. There's something funky going on inside the Luxman amp. Check out the website for all the tech talk you can handle and expect to see the L-590A II winning all kinds of awards from around the interwebs.
RMAF 07: Sjofn Guru AV Speaker System
If you haven't heard of the Sjofn (pronounced: "shoe-fen") Guru system yet, be prepared for reviews coming your way from every magazine. In fact, SonicFlare's own Robert Learner has the Guru system in home. So what's the big deal? Big bass, little box. Believe me, you've never heard deeper bass from a smaller cabinet (or driver) before. The best part is the Guru is designed as a system. Combine huge bass, small size and great sound for $3000 and you have yourself a Show Superstar.
First of all, Sjofn Hi-Fi is the Swedish parent company putting together the pieces: the Guru QM10 speakers ($1995), Xindak integrated and CD player ($400 each), and Supra cables for a package price of $3000. At RMAF, they also showed their $9,995 QM40 speakers with Xindak equipment for their $14k system. Speakers shown were either matte or gloss black, though other colors will be available in the future. Additionally, I was told by Sjofn's finance man that a number of retail stores are in the works with the first in the Denver and the next in Vegas. Single-brand hi-fi stores are a rarity, but if anyone can do it, it'll be the Sjofn.
When I came into the room, the Guru guys were probably thinking I, like everyone else, had an audiophile demo disc to play. But when my bass heavy tracks came on, their eyes lit up. They were pretty confident about putting out big bass, so I said, "We'll see about that -- crank the suckers up!" After a moment, however, the volume was so high, one of the Guru crew told me I was getting close to "blowing up the speakers." He then said something in Swedish to his coworker who turned the volume down to normal human levels. But before they got a chance to tame the system, I snuck up to the little 5" driver and found it bouncing back and forth more than any 5" driver I've seen before.
In terms of sound, the system falls into the Intense camp (with a slight lean towards the Refined group). The system was cool instead of warm, but not so cool as to turn people off. There's obvious system synergy going on between the Guru speakers and Xindak gear. The differences between the $3k and $14k systems were, clearly, bass output, but also definition in notes and overall clarity. As for how each of the components sound, we'll just have to wait and see.
So how does Guru work its magic? As you can see from the pictures, the speakers are pushed back against the front wall. Play with any speaker for a few minutes and you know the closer to the front wall, the bigger the bass. Also, the closer you sit to the back wall, the bigger the bass.
Now, positively utilizing room gain is nothing new -- Linn did it back in the day, as well as a few other manufacturers at RMAF. But the Guru speakers are the smallest, most powerful I've ever heard. Looking at the speaker the first thought that came to mind was "transmission line." No, I was told, speakers are, in fact, bass reflex with a special design rather than the hole-in-box approach.
Of course, if everyone could get monster bass from pushing their speakers against the wall, they would. So what are the trade offs? The reason the majority of manufacturers design their speakers for mid-room placement is to tame room reflections and increase sound stage. Guru deals with the room reflection issues in a couple of ways. As you can see from the picture below, the front wall is covered with sound-sucking foam. Guru designer Ingvar Ohman explained that high frequency reflections are the major issue with close-wall placement and taking the reflections out of the game is the only way to go.
As for sound stage, while it's hard to tell from the picture, the speakers are slightly farther apart than typical speaker setups and, most importantly, toed in so the tweeter axis converge a few feet in front of the listener. Again, this is nothing new (Audio Kinesis does this) but the effect is really obvious: awesome sound stage with depth, width and, interestingly, stable imaging for any position in the room. Ingvar explained that when you sit, say, to the left of center, the right speaker, now pointing directly at you, sends out a higher, faster frequency that compensates for the delay from the other speaker. While I've never heard it explained like that before, the results speak for themselves.
There is only one trade off that may be a sticking point. The $2000 Guru QM10 doesn't have the clarity and definition as other speakers in this class. My guess is that since the woofers are forced to work extra hard to get the bass, the midrange frequencies lose definition relative to other speakers with less excursion. Ideally, a speaker would have all frequencies coming from the same plane. But when you have a driver with, say, an inch of excursion, the mid frequencies from one moment to the next may be offset by as much as an inch. It's not as if you're experiencing Doppler effect, it's just that the Gurus aren't as defined as other speakers in the same class.
Overall, the Gurus are brilliantly engineered and sound fantastic. While the black cabinets don't scream luxury hi-fi, the Gurus are the ticket for people wanting killer sound without big boxes and huge bass without subwoofers.
RMAF 07: Audio Kinesis & AtmaSphere System
My love for Audio Kinesis began at a Los Angeles expo a few years back where Audio Kinesis showed prototype bookshelf speakers with, if I remember correctly, a half dozen drivers per side. Later, Audio Kinesis released the more conventional looking 2-way Jazz Modules ($4000) and Storm Bringers ($2800). At RMAF, Audio Kinesis's main man Duke LeJune revealed the new Dream Makers ($9000), which take his signature sound and technology to the limit. One Audio Kinesis owner told Duke he should name his new speakers "The Crocs" in deference to my glowing show coverage where I defined the Audio Kinesis sound as having "snap like a croc." Duke, you can still change the name, you know...
The new speakers have all his signature snap and more. The system, paired with top AtmaSphere equipment, lands directly in the Vivid camp. The bass was powerful and tight while the overall presentation was wall to wall and incredibly precise. The AtmaSphere amps and overall speaker tuning was warm with really lively voices. The Jazz Modules claim up to 112dB of output with only 1dB of compression. The Crocs, er, Dream Makers, should put out even more.
The driver compliment is similar to the Jazz Modules I raved about, but feature a very unique second driver compliment on the back of the speaker that radiates in bipole fashion. The bipole feature puts out larger bass and a bigger sense of scale and sound stage. The downside -- if there is one -- is that room placement becomes a little more tricky.
Sourced from famed TAD, the alnico woofer is one of the most expensive drivers in the world. Check out the Audio Kinesis site for a lot more talk about the tech behind these speakers.