EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 05, 2015 3 comments
One persistent criticism of audiophilia is that it can be expensive. Why this criticism is leveled at, say, Pono—but not at fine wine, high-end apparel, or fancy cars—is one of life's mysteries. I'd say the best signal sources, speakers, amps, headphones, and other products are worth the investment if you know what you're doing. But paying more for the good stuff isn't the only way to be an audiophile. You can get pretty good sound from, say, one of the $600 receivers on our Top Picks list. And, whatever you may have on your rack, there are other ways of improving your system for little or nothing. Longtime readers will find most of the following tips blindingly obvious. But they are intended for younger readers just getting their systems started.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 06, 2015 15 comments
First there was mono. Then there was stereo. And then things got complicated. Surround sound has been a restless medium ever since it first snuck into movie theaters and home theaters. Encoding methods and formats have proliferated but standards have been elusive. Where multiplexes are concerned, that doesn't affect the consumer much. Most moviegoers are content to leave the technical details to the theater owners (except our readers, of course). But at home, where consumers are investing their own money in the home theater experience, many would like to have a fixed idea of what surround sound is at heart, something as close as possible to a stable minimum standard. And until now that standard has been 5.1. But in the dawning age of Dolby Atmos, is 5.1 obsolete?

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jan 02, 2015 1 comments
Why do tech critics and readers alike persist in saying "X is dead?" Do we have a morbid fascination with death, mirroring society at large? Or is it just that we never feel more powerful than when we are the arbiters of life and death, giving technology that is already moving along a certain trajectory a further push into oblivion? X, in this context, is a mature audio format or technology. (I won't address video or computer technology here. Death somehow seems more final in those categories.) A whole lot of Xes have been prematurely declared dead over the years. Maybe what "X is dead" really means is "X does not fit into my agenda."

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Dec 05, 2014 12 comments
Would you like to feed your audio system with signals equivalent to what the artist, producer, and mixing engineer heard in the studio? For most people, this is a no-brainer. Why would you not want to hear what the pros heard? And on that basis, a new generation of music players, USB DACs, and other high-resolution audio products is now on the market, seeking open ears and open minds. You'd think this would be cause for celebration. But a small cadre of rigid ideologues are not celebrating. They're insisting that there is no audible difference between CD-quality audio and high-res audio. They bought Perfect Sound Forever, the ancient Compact Disc marketing slogan, hook, line and sinker. Infinitely condescending, the Perfect Sound Foreverists claim to have science on their side and dismiss any other point of view. But the latest science flatly contradicts their long-held dogma.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 07, 2014 0 comments
Dolby Atmos is hitting surround audiophiles like a succession of giant waves crashing on the beach. The first wave is Dolby Atmos in movie theaters. The second wave is Atmos in Atmos-enabled speakers and surround receivers. But what about that third wave, the one nobody's discussing? That's the quiet incorporation of another totally new technology into the Atmos technology bundle. I'm talking about Dolby Surround.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 03, 2014 4 comments
Should there be a Soundbar Bill of Rights? Consumer rights are trivial compared to the majesty of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights—for example, the right to freedom of speech (Fourth Article) or the right to a speedy and public trial (Ninth Article). Even so, the question is provocative enough for one little blog.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 05, 2014 27 comments
Every review I write has an "associated equipment" graf in which I dutifully list all the major components of my reference surround system: speakers, subwoofer, surround receiver, and universal disc player. When I use my turntable, I list that as well as the phono cartridge and whatever I'm using as a phono preamp. But I never go into similar detail about another significant component in my system, namely the cables that tie everything together. Readers may be wondering what I use and why I use it. This blog will tell all my dirty little cable secrets.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 01, 2014 0 comments
Although home theater is maturing, it's still capable of being transformed by new technology. This year we are doubly blessed with the advents of both Dolby Atmos surround sound and Ultra High-Definition TV, both of which are being supported in AV receivers. Incidentally, if you want an opinion, I'm cautiously optimistic about both, and believe they will have a positive impact on large dedicated home theater installations. But there are also smaller improvements that get less publicity. So here are shout-outs to half a dozen little innovations that are making AVRs more convenient or better sounding.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 03, 2014 6 comments
We now have an official definition of what is high-resolution audio. That's the good news. The bad news is that we don't have a clear enough definition of what is not high-resolution audio.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 06, 2014 11 comments
The AV receiver is such a feature-rich beast that it's hard to believe designers would ever dispense with a single feature. As the category has grown, features have just piled up, and generally manufacturers prefer adding them to subtracting them. But slowly, stealthily, a few features are vanishing from the spec sheet and the back panel. It had to happen eventually. Every feature costs money for parts or licensing. Either prices have to go up, sound quality has to suffer, or some old features must go gentle into that good night. That last alternative seems like the least of all possible evils.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 02, 2014 0 comments
Bis is a Swedish music label with a large catalogue of Super Audio CDs. Among them are two releases that have become my go-to choices for major works in the orchestral repertory: Beethoven's nine symphonies and Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos. Both are DSD recordings, less than a decade old, with surround and stereo soundtracks. They'll cost you more than most CD box sets of the same works. But the chance to hear these vibrant performances in high-res DSD via SACD is well worth the price. Think of surround as icing on the cake.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Apr 04, 2014 4 comments
The Universal Music Group is taking a new kind of plunge into the Blu-ray disc format. Already the videophile's go-to format for movies and concert videos, Blu-ray now bids to conquer audiophiles. At least, that's the plan. Whether it goes anywhere is a different question.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 07, 2014 4 comments
My moment of immortality in the Pazz & Jop Poll, the annual music critic's poll that runs in The Village Voice, came when I confessed my craving for classical music, not a popular genre at the Voice. I mentioned how much I loved gorging on $2 used LPs at the now-gone Tower Annex in Lower Manhattan, buying "as much dead white boy music as I can carry to the bus." My ballot comment ran in the paper, which was a great honor. That was sometime in the early 1990s, during the golden age of cheap vinyl, before the current vinyl resurgence. Folks were dumping LPs for CDs and even an impecunious collector could make out like a bandit. Today vinyl isn't as cheap as it once was; those 180-gram virgin-vinyl reissues cost a bundle, as do vintage pressings of Beatles and Pink Floyd albums. Yet even today I continue to collect loads of used classical vinyl. Most of it is still cheap and it's one of the few forms of high-res audio an inkstained wretch can afford to buy in large quantities.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 07, 2014 0 comments
High-resolution audio (HRA) can enter your life in more than one way, as I discovered when reviewing two HRA products practically end to end. Both devices are DAC-amps that play HRA audio files. The main difference between them is that Cambridge Audio's Minx Xi streams music in real time from PCs and other devices, whereas Sony's HAP-S1 server-amp plays music from its own internal hard drive. The Cambridge is more of a network player, while the Sony is more of a music server (as I define these terms). These two products offer profoundly different ways of enjoying HRA.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jan 03, 2014 4 comments
For some, tower speakers are an article of faith. Many audiophiles wouldn't consider going without them—either folded into a 5.1+ system or as a standalone two-channel system. For some of those listeners, owning a pair of towers is the right decision, and I wouldn't be foolhardy enough to try talking them out of it. But for others, floorstanding speakers are just one option among many, and not necessarily the best one. In some primary systems, smaller-scale monitors or satellites would be more appropriate; for some secondary systems, soundbars or standalone audio products make more sense. As I discussed in a previous blog, choice of speaker size depends on both needs and personalities.

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