AXPONA 2014 Opens on Friday

I’m heading out to AXPONA this Thursday. Robert Harley, the Editor of The Absolute Sound has asked me to forge his signature for his book signing while he makes his directorial debut for a new Masterpiece Mystery episode being filmed at the hotel. I had suggested that I might be more interesting in front of the camera, but he was firm — my handwriting is far more legible than his. Ah, penmanship. It’s a dying art.

Special, breaking news — your truly will be moderating a headphone panel on Sunday morning. Chris Martens from TAS and HiFi+, JH Audio‘s “Touring Monitor Engineer” Kevin Glendinning, and Sennheiser Product Specialist Scott Houston will be joining me for an hour dedicated to headphones, “What is the Right Headphone for You? – A Discussion in Personal Audio.” Note to all prospective attendees: I will be giving away approximately $10,000 worth of headphones throughout the discussion, so make sure to come and stuff the room for what will most assuredly be a very entertaining time. 

As for the show itself, I feel compelled to note that last year was a blast! The show team is also keeping tabs on all the new stuff, too. There will be new product intros from VPI, Esoteric, Snake River, Benchmark, Channel D Software and more.

So, if you haven’t already registered, well, might want to get a leg on.

Posted in AXPONA | 2 Comments

My Audio To-Do List: Digital and More

Been awhile since I’ve checked in, so thought I’d take a sec, maybe have a deep breath and open the kimono a bit …

… Perv.

The System As It Stands

I guess you could say that last year was about the Last Six Feet. That is, the loudspeakers, the amp, and the pre — and everything that goes in to that. I’ve spent a ton of money and even more time sorting, shuffling, and generally exploring … and I think I’m pretty happy with the end result.

My current system, at least the one I default to before and after a new review component comes and goes, is the following:

  • Loudspeakers: DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96. I’m thrilled with the look and sound of the big Apes and fully see myself settling in for a long-term love affair. Gorgeous, functional, furniture to be sure.
  • Amplifier: BorderPatrol S10 stereo SET with dual external EXS power supplies. I’ve been looking at BorderPatrol gear for a good while now, too, and I can unabashedly submit that they’re not just “special” — this amp may well be the best of its kind being made today. And yes, I’m including those Far Eastern brands in that claim. Now with the 80lbs of power supply per channel, the S10 can delivery leather-wrapped iron-fisted knuckle-punches directly to the feels on demand. Holy. Sweet. Mother.
  • Preamplifier: BorderPatrol Control Unit EXT with external power supply. Honestly, I almost didn’t get this preamp and only reconsidered after a long “interview period” punctuated by almost obsessive A/B switching. I’ve not been a huge believer in the benefits of an active preamp, and the transparency of many available passive units — or eliminating them entirely with a DAC-based volume control — has been my default since dumping all my Joule-Electra gear along with my old Merlin VSM-MXR loudspeakers. But if any preamp has transparency, tone, and bandwidth, it’s this one. Sound fields are deeper, wider and taller. Crazy. Didn’t think a preamp could do that.

And that’s what came together last year. Continue reading

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Crowd Project Updates: Pono, Cornet3 and Geek Wave

Time for an update on three crowd-funding projects I happen to be invested in. Yep, that’s me. A sucker for novelty and slick marketing. Oh well.

Pono Music

Looks like Pono is officially a “go”. Ahem. Yeah. At six-and-a-quarter million, I think it’s safe to say that the Pono team has successfully “reached out” to the market. Now, all that remains is … well, the everything else. They have to deliver, both the device and the service.

That latter still seems something of a mystery. Where’s the content coming from? Will it be better, worse, or the same as what’s currently on offer from other services? And why are those high-res albums so expensive? And will Apple eat this entire market for lunch? All TBD at this point. As for the player, there are all those odd oversights — no DSD support and an oddly-high output impedance which will make pairing with modern headphones actually capable of taking advantage of the high-res files and high-quality playback rather problematic.

Questions, questions. But now, the Pono team can actually start with the business of getting to business. That’s probably a good thing. I’ll have more after talking with CEO John Hamm at AXPONA. Continue reading

Posted in Analog, Components, Digital | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

On Experts, Reviews, and Drive By Shootings: Part 3

Recently, Roger Skoff offered up a caricature of an argument around the so-called “expert” and skewered some of the challenges that appertain thereto. Heh heh.

In short, Skoff argues that experts, generally speaking, aren’t — and that’s okay because we’re all still going to live.

Good to know, right? Right. And your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

Ha ha!


In the first part of this” exploration”, I wandered through a philosophical thicket of what a review is. Call that Part 1.

We then took an extended detour around some of the problems of what one has. That was Part 2.1 and Part 2.2.

So, let’s take a moment and talk about where things go off the rails. There’s this notion of “value” and corruption and … stuff. For lack of a better frame, let’s hang the shingle “Ethics” on it. That should let us shine a light on some unsavory places, if just for grins.

Got your hip boots on?

Continue reading

Posted in Audiophile Stories | 8 Comments

Apple in the rumor mill again with hi-res downloads from iTunes

Have you heard the news? It’s huge! Awesome! Amazing! Life changing!

Apple is ready to (finally) move on high-resolution downloads.

Okay, fine. It’s not news. Apple has apparently been toying with this change to iTunes for years. I wrote something back then about why I’m not entirely convinced that this would be a “good thing”. My worry was that Apple would commoditize “high-resolution” like it commoditized the rest of the industry and what we’re left with is a shell of an idea served up in an iPhone-shaped taco. High-resolution audio files, played back through low-fi devices (like an iPhone) and out $10 earbuds is not going to make anyone a believer or convert anyone over to high-end audio. Given Apple’s self-serving track record (hello, “Mastered for iTunes” in the context of the Loudness Wars), my confidence was not high.

That was a few years ago. It’s hardly surprising that things have changed.

What’s changed? Pono.  Continue reading

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HeadAmp’s Stellar GSX Mk2 Balanced Headphone Amplifier

_GSX MK2-18

Photo by Lee Shelly

by Frank Iacone

But is the wait worth it?

HeadAmp‘s Justin Wilson has been designing and building amplifiers professionally since 2002. He has developed a cult following in the portable and headphone communities for building some of the very best amplifiers available today for portable and home listening.

The GSX Mk2 is one of the latest Headamp creations for reference caliber listening. The original GSX that was based on a Kevin Gilmore design has now been updated with the circuit fine-tuned to make the sound more transparent.

Tricked out with the upgraded DACT stepped attenuator, the GSX Mk2 retails for a tad shy of $3000. The amplifier is a two-piece unit with a separate power supply and is a fully balanced design end-to-end, however, it can be used with both single-ended sources and headphones. The Mk2 is a modular design and allows for the amplifier to be upgraded in the future by just purchasing a replaceable board. The Mk2 uses the highest quality parts available and Justin personally selects every part. He also personally matches the transistors. The Toshiba JFETs are the transistors of choice in this design. The Mk2 has a first-class pre-amp for people choosing to use it with their home systems.

According to Justin Wilson the profit margins on the GSX MK 2 are tight and everything used in manufacturing the Mk2 is some of the highest quality parts that can be obtained. Justin said there was no compromise in designing and building the MK 2. His goal was to build the very best amplification he could build that would just make the amplifier disappear and allow the music to shine. Continue reading

Posted in Headphones | Tagged | 5 Comments

Latest Crowd Funding Project From LH Labs: Geek Wave


Got your trunks and your longboard? It looks like we’re in for another crowd funding ride. LH Labs, the guys that brought us the kick-ass Geek Out “Headphone Awesomifier” and the forthcoming Geek Pulse (the desktop version) have a brand new toy — a mobile device kickassifier they’re calling the Geek Wave. It’ll charge your phone, provide extra music storage, and with the same digital-to-analog technology in the other products, it can play anything you throw at it. For those keeping track, this last bit pretty much targets Neil Young’s much ballyhooed Pono spot on.

Prices start at $399.

Continue reading

Posted in Digital, Headphones | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Da Vinci DAC from Light Harmonic, Issue 243 (May) of TAS


Available now is Issue 243 of The Absolute Sound. Deep within, you’ll find my review of the most excellent Da Vinci DAC from Larry Ho and his crew at Light Harmonic, as well as my brief interview with Larry.

This review was a long time coming. Many thanks to Larry and Gavin Fish for their patience and assistance with the finer points. Special thanks to Bill Leebens for the encouragement, the opportunity, and all the (sometimes gentle, sometimes not) prodding. Couldn’t have done it without you, Uncle Bill!

I’ll let you grab your own copy at your venue of preference, but please do check it out. Tons of great gear in this issue, including gear from MBL, Zesto Audio and more, plus a review of the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold and the Abyss AB-1266 headphones, which are currently sitting on my desk!TAS_243

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On Experts, Reviews, and Drive By Shootings: Part 2.2

Part 2.2: Epistemology and some Problems with Knowing

Recently, Roger Skoff offered up a caricature of an argument around the so-called “expert” and skewered some of the challenges that appertain thereto. I then took it upon myself to elaborate. Um. Yeah.

Let me offer up again that apology I made in advance. Okay? Okay.

So, this whole “knower and knowing” section took a lot more words than I thought at first blush, so I chopped it in half. Just trying to help!

To review: in the last section, we poked a stick at reviewers. In this section, we’re going to turn that pointy bit around and talk some trash about the Knowing, calling on some challenges we all seem to face with getting there. Wherever “there” is. Continue reading

Posted in Audiophile Stories | 15 Comments

Headphone Bliss: B.M.C. Audio amazes with PureDAC


by John Grandberg

What does it take to separate a piece of audio equipment from its similarly priced peers? Is it based purely on sound? Features? Looks? Or, ideally, a combination of all three? Us writers are always talking about this or that category being extremely competitive … but the reality is that nearly every category, at every price range, is jam-packed full of great options. Budget DACs? I can name half a dozen under $1k that I highly recommend. Headphone amps? There’s a really good one at every price level you can imagine. Monitor speakers? That category has been contentious for decades. What’s a company gotta do to really stand out? Is it even possible given the sheer volume of competition these days? Keep in mind, all these standouts exist in a sea of decent, mediocre, “also-ran” gear, to say nothing of the lesser products out there.

German firm B.M.C. Audio believes they can separate themselves from the pack. True to their name — Balanced Music Concept – the company aims to tick all three boxes in spectacular fashion. The name involves a bit of wordplay because B.M.C. has a strong preference for balanced circuit designs. See what they did there? Balanced? As in well-rounded? Versatile? I think you get the picture.

All puns aside, B.M.C. brings considerable resources to bear on their “budget” model. Selling for $1,790, the PureDAC is a far cry from being “cheap”, though in relation to its B.M.C. siblings it’s rather affordable. Their next most affordable model is the MCCI phono preamp at nearly $4K, and it goes up from there, reaching $16K for a pair of M2 monoblocks, or up to $40K for the Arcadia speakers. Check out Scot’s coverage of the B.M.C. room at CES 2013 for some good pics and video, and see the rest of the line at Aaudio Imports, the North American distributor who was kind enough to loan me a unit for several months.

Continue reading

Posted in Digital, Headphones | Tagged , , | 5 Comments