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Robert Learner and the New Review

by Josh Ray on September 25 '06

I am pleased to welcome Robert Learner to the SonicFlare posse. A few months back we began swapping emails and chatting about everything right and wrong with the hi-fi biz. The biggest problem is, of course, the barriers that keep anyone but the hard core audiophiles from taking part in this industry. Secondly, many traditional reviews leave much to be desired for audiophiles looking to build a system.

As regular readers know, I'm a big believer in the holistic system approach. Review systems and synergy, not just individual components. For people trying to get into the industry, a complete system is a much easier purchase than spending 5 years digging through the muck to find a system that works.

For audiophiles, there is no absolute sound, but a variety of different tastes. Dynamic drivers, Lowthers, eletrostats, horns, SETs, SS, etc. Audiophiles know roughly what they like and the most helpful reviews are those that speak directly to their taste, not just "the best of the best of the best."

Robert and I began working on a plan for a new kind of review that would hopefully be very helpful to both audiophiles and normies alike. Robert would look at a number of different monitors in a quest to put together a killer budget system. No dedicated listening room, this is all about the real world with real prices and real wives and girlfriends who won't put up with black refrigerators in the den.

Out of this little experiment, Robert would be able to give the sonic qualities of one speaker versus another. This isn't about finding the greatest speaker ever, but discovering different tastes. Qualities can, I believe, be written about meaningfully. Which qualities are most important is all up to you and your musical tastes.

For those new to hi-fi, Robert's final system will be a no-brainer purchase. Just like the Neat/Exposure system, you can finally buy a complete rig knowing it'll rock your world.

So please welcome Robert to the 'Flare and check out his bio for more about his personal tastes and visit the Monitor Quest page for all the details on this little adventure.

First up: the Zu Tones!

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Comments () Announcements , Writer: Robert Learner

The Monitor Quest: Zu Tone

by Josh Ray on September 25 '06

Tone Pic
First up in the Monitor Quest: the Zu Tones.

Read more about Robert Learner's Monitor Quest for all the dirt on this little adventure. Also, check out Robert's bio for more on his personal sonic taste and various love affairs with audio equipment through the years.

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Comments (2) Speakers $1k-2k , Writer: Robert Learner

Robert Learner's Monitor Quest

by Josh Ray on September 25 '06

From A to Zu, Robert Learner puts his ears on some of the hottest monitors in a quest to build a killer budget system. No absolute sound here, this is all about taste. Keep reading for the system and the players.

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Comments (26) Speakers $2k-5k , Writer: Robert Learner



Robert Learner Bio

by Josh Ray on September 25 '06

I got into sound quality as I got into the the Chicago blues club scene. I wanted that live sound at home, and twenty-five or so pairs of speakers, and thousands of watts and dollars later, I’m still pursuing it. Live is my reference and the first-date dealmaker or breaker when I hear a system. Organic flow, transparency, dynamic ease -- does the music get my blood pumping? I trust my involvement or lack thereof. At its best, home replay gives a taste and feel being there, or of being directly wired into the mixing board.

I’m a film director and cinematographer by trade, and in the course of my work I’ve spent a lot of time in mixing studios. I’m partial to the sound often heard there -- forward, direct, transparent, focused. Although there are exceptions (Vandersteens, for ex.), most speakers described as ‘laid back’ simply sound slow to me. Contrary to laid back, such speakers make me tense, like I’m waiting on them. My main system is nothing if not fast-sounding. Once my foot is tapping, I can begin to focus on qualities like soundstaging.
The above is meant to serve as a brief on my tastes and biases -- these should be known when reading my reviews. For those willing to continue on from this quick drink to something more substantial, please read on...

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Comments (7) Writer: Robert Learner

Zu Druids, NAT and the quest for synergy

by Danny Kaey on September 20 '06

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Danny Kaey tackles the Zu Druids, NAT amplification and the biggest questions in audio.

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Comments (10) Amplifiers $10k to 20k , Pre-Amps $2k to 8k , Speakers $2k-5k , Writer: Danny Kaey

JVC Pulsating Speaker

by Josh Ray on September 18 '06

 Av Docs 20060914 Vic12

Wacky JVC, what will they come up with next? This time around, JVC is showing a pulsating dodecahedral speaker (that's 12 sides to you), touted as the ultimate in sonic reproduction. Why, you ask? Omni directional dispersion. As the translation describes it, "the eye is closed the speaker goes out." I sure hope so.

The speaker is only 4" across and, naturally, has some limitations like, oh, the highs and lows. 10k is the upper limit and the bottom end dies at 250Hz, requiring a plain vanilla driver to take over (the bass driver sits in the top of the base above).

While this is, as far as I know, the first 12 sided, inverted-nipple-diaphram speaker, it's not the first truly omni directional speaker. MBL of Germany has been perfecting their vibrating footballs for years now (read about my tryst with MBL). Most everyone loves MBL and hates the Robb Report price. Whatever you think of MBL's sound, they are some of the only functional hyper exotic speakers out there.

It's hard to tell if JVC will ever put these speakers into production. If you're at the A&V Festa in Pacifico Yokohoma come Sept 22-24, let us know how they sound.

Check out the oh-so fun Japanese translation.
A good English article.
The English JVC PDF.
(Thanks for the tip, Fred!)

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Comments (7) Speakers $1k-2k

Digital, Exodus and Chilean Sea Bass

by Josh Ray on September 13 '06

 Main Images Product Large 614
God-bless digital. When ICEpower came on the scene a few years ago, the entire audio world was, in a way, flipped upside down. For the first time ever, you saw companies like Jeff Rowland, PS Audio, Bel Canto, Rotel, Canton, Samsung, B&W and others dumping their own amp technologies for the likes of the cool running digital plug-and-play modules from Europe. Not only that, but new companies like Red Dragon Audio and many others were suddenly players because of ICEpower's drop-in simplicity.

But the big question was always this: why is one amp far more expensive than another when they both use identical ICEpower modules? Is there major frankensteining going on or is it simply expensive chassis, cabling and so-forth?

Whatever the case may be, the great hope was we'd see bare bones modules priced far lower than their fancy audiophile counterparts with something like 98% of the performance. As far as I know, ICEpower remains absent of a low-cost sleeper.

But Hypex is another story. Another digital amp company out of northern Europe, Hypex rocks modules for the DIY scene ala ICEpower with small kits, hyper efficiency and mondo wattages up to 700 (4ohms). The difference is that ICEpower uses switching power supplies while Hypex uses donut transformers (for mow).

And then there's the sound. Channel Island Audio is using Hypex modules (with modifications) for their $1599 D100 and $2299 D200 amps that have gotten everyone across the review scene all hot and bothered, saying (as they do) the Hypex juice is just as good, if not better, than the ICEpower, NuForce and other digital/switching offerings out there. Designer Bruno Putzeys is Hypex's heavy hitter, recently doing a custom job for mega-buck speaker company Kharma. Positive Feedback's Marshall Nack went gaga over the Kharma Matrix 150s, calling them absolute bargains. Priced at $6600 a pair, they're some of the most expensive digital amps around.

On the flip, we have DIYcable.com's new Exodus UCD-400 MCH line of amplifiers. Available with 2-5 channels in a single chassis, the amps all rock the UCD-400 module (the foundation of the CIA D200) for 200 watts into 8 ohms and 400 into 4 ohms. Price for the 2 channel kit unassembled is $795. Add $300 for Exodus to solder the sucker together for you.

So we're looking at $1095 for 200 watts of Hypex power. If power were Chilean Sea Bass, Exodus's market price is roughly $5.48 a watt. CIA starts at $11.50, NuForce at $15.63 and the cheapest ICEpower amp I can find (the PS Audio Trio A-100) at $6.63, most expensive (Jeff Rowland 201) at $19.60. The Kharma beasts are $66.00 a watt. Does this actually mean anything? Not really, considering the subjective differences in sound, different technologies and the voodoo territory of module tweaking.

What's interesting, however, is Exodus's new roadsters may be an indicator the digital revolution in hi-fi is finally moving the cost of entry into territory where mortals can participate. Hopefully this is the first of many companies making products with the latest digital technology at entry-level prices instead of replacing old school tech in much more expensive amps.

So check out the rest of the Exodus goods and if you're down with burning some lead, DIYCable stocks the raw parts for building your own Hypex amp. Hell, stick your home brew Hypex amp in a platinum and calf skin chassis and sell it for $100 a watt. As they say, what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

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Comments (19) Amplifiers $1k to 3k , Amplifiers $3k to 6k , Amplifiers $6k to 10k , Amplifiers Under $1k

JBL Everest DD66000

by Danny Kaey on September 10 '06

J-4Color Big

JBL of Japan is celebrating their 60th anniversary with a new statement speaker, the $30k Everest DD66000. The Everest moniker has always signified JBL’s best of their audiophile speaker line. Sadly, the JBL Everest series hasn’t had much impact of late in the US, though Europe seems to be willing to embrace JBL's high end. Utilizing dual 15” JBL bass drivers, a horn-loaded Beryllium mid range and tweeter, these new flagships will certainly turn many heads. My only question: why stop at DD66000? I mean they could very well have called them the GG134000?! I am sure that someone somewhere made a lot of money coming up with the product name (it wasn’t me).

The Everest series is, no doubt, an homage to the famous JBL Paragon model of the 1950’s which I had the pleasure of hearing at a distributor's finely tuned audio salon. The sound of the JBL Paragon was to die for, with liquid highs, excellent midrange and bass that was very well integrated given the monstrosity of what was the Paragon loudspeaker. No doubt the Paragon was the loudspeaker to own in the 50’s and 60’s as nothing would even come close to it – rumor has it that Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin both had 3 (!) sets of Paragons, left, center and right, configured to run their 3 track master tapes for unrivaled sonic accuracy and evaluation. That, my friends, must have been an experience onto itself perhaps only equaled by the equally stunning Mark Levinson QED system of the late 70’s.

As production for the Paragon ceased in 1983, the Everest line was launched shortly thereafter in the hopes of firmly establishing themselves as a premier high-end loudspeaker manufacturer, which they no doubt succeeded with in Japan. JBL always seemed to suffer from a sort of mid-fi association, perhaps because most of their speaker line was heavily discounted in the US and elsewhere – no doubt similarities could be drawn between JBL and Pioneer’s new line of loudspeakers they are trying to launch. Hopefully they will make a showing at CES next January for a closer follow-up.

Frequency range is 30Hz-50kHz. More pics next page and check out the Japanese news coverage.

Josh adds: Unbeknownst to most, JBL and Pioneer/TAD have always been top suppliers of stock drivers to the pro audio arena. Both JBL and Pioneer/TAD champion Beryllium compression drivers in horn-loaded configurations. But where Pioneer/TAD came out in the last few years with their "traditional" super speakers with beryllium concentric drivers and lower efficiencies, JBL seems to be sticking to their pro roots with compression horns and high efficiencies. Of course, whenever anyone mentions JBL or Pioneer here in the states, visions of iPod speakers come to mind. But in Japan where a $100,000 Honda is cool, there's surely a lot of "best of the best of the best" talk swirling around JBL's new giant.

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Comments (19) Speakers $20k and up

Apple Media Server to Rule Them All

by Danny Kaey on September 06 '06

Front Row
Danny says: Ok, what would you rather own for your music / media system?
A new 24” Apple iMac loaded with all the latest goodies, Intel’s new Core2Duo, Blueooth 2.0+, Airport Extreme, remote w/ Front Row, Superdrive for $1999 or Esoteric’s X-03 CD/SACD player for a whopping 7k?

Hrmmm… let me see here… full blown computer or a disc player to play my 7 SACD’s… I think I’ll go for the Mac, thank you very much! Add a USB dac and you are set baby! Of course the existing 17 and 20” iMacs dropped in price too, while also being upgraded to Core2Duo and the same gizmo’s as big daddy. The killer? The new 17” iMac with most of the goodies for $999!

Imagine having that sit on top of your rack as a transport running Front Row with a gorgeous 17” display?! Note to Esoteric (all others): I don’t think you’ll fit that 17” display in there... All euphoria aside, Esoteric will no doubt continue to sell their super players, but let’s face it: the times and days of standalone disc players are certainly numbered.

Josh adds: Remember, computers don't face the jitter issues that plague CD players. iTunes Lossless ripping and ExactCopy (the best available) perform slow reads to pick up every last nug of information. So the bulk of the sound quality of a hard disc server -- like the $5k McIntosh, cheap Olives and wildly expensive ReQuest -- is found in the DAC. Here's our roundup of the current USB DACs for plug-and-play simplicity with your computer.

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Comments (18) Hard Drive Servers , USB Audio

Notes from ATC World: “Dogs and Cats Living Together”

by JB on September 05 '06

  Domestic Scm50Ann
For all you discerning audio aficionados, SonicFlare essayist JB sidesteps individual component reviews on his path towards complete system synergy. Read his adventures with two legendary brands the US scene has all but forgotten: ATC and YBA.

Also, check out JB's previous coverage of the HE2006 show.

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Comments (17) Pre-Amps $2k to 8k , Speakers $10k-20k , Speakers $20k and up , Speakers $5k-10k

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