Two-Channel Stereo (Part 7: Where to Buy)

The holidays are coming up fast, so I thought I’d take a break from our step-by-step progression toward higher-end audio with a look at places to spend some money for yourself, or for loved ones. Bearing in mind that a quality two-channel stereo is likely to remain popular long after other digital devices have lost their luster, allow me to encourage you to explore the possibility of a new stereo system direct from Santa. Or, if you prefer, from the following web sources:

soundstage-directSoundstage Direct – A wonderful vinyl record store with lots of terrific equipment, including a steady flow of demo and clearance items. Unique because they offer a turntable trade-in plan (as you listen, you may develop a taste for upgrading equipment, now or in the future), and also an equipment upgrade plan. They are serious about good equipment–Soundstage Direct is an authorized and certified VPI Turntable dealer (among the best in the industry–more about VPI in a future article). At Soundstage Direct, the focus is records–high quality, new records. I love the story told by founder Seth Frank: “I went to my wife; we had a 3-month-old baby. I told her I wanted to quit my job and start selling records. I knew she was the woman of my dreams when she said, “Okay, let’s do it.”…We started selling records out of a spare bedroom in our small house. Eventually, we moved it to the garage. Eleven years later, with 18 employees, I get to wake up doing the thing I love. I sell vinyl and audio equipment. That’s all I do… Vinyl has been resurrected and is here to stay. For many of us, it’s a way of life, something we cherish and keep alive together.” Based outside Philadelphia, PA. Since 2004.

audio-advisorAudio Advisor – For decades, I’ve been recommending the knowledgeable people and fair prices at Audio Advisor. The emphasis here is quality audio equipment at just about every price point. Headphones seem to be among their most popular category, and their “Customer Favorite,” nicely reviewed, is the $399 OPPO PM 3 Closed Back Magnetic Planar Headphone— a current fave on many of the audio sites I visit. If that seems like too much to spend, try Grado’s $99 headphone, also very popular–the SR80e. Or any of the 51 other headphones on the site. BTW: The HiFiMan HE1000 Headphones are currently on sale, marked down from $2,999 to “just” $2,399. Call them, ask them why anyone would ever spend that kind of money for a headphone. The person on the other end of the line would probably answer your question clearly, with solid technical knowledge, and a sense of the type of customer who pursues this level of audio quality. Indeed, that’s the best part about Audio Advisor–their website only begins to expose the extraordinary cache of knowledge and experience to be found here. “Over the past 34 years, Wayne Schuurman and his hard-working staff earned the confidence of more than one million satisfied customers in over 200 countries. Our phone lines are staffed by the most knowledgeable and experienced audio sales representatives in the world. They are happy to answer your questions, and they’re experts at recommending low-cost gifts, matching components, or improvements for any hi-fi or home theater system.” Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A two-page spread from Music Direct's print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

A two-page spread from Music Direct’s print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

Music Direct – Providing a roughly equal balance between music and equipment, my favorite part about Music Direct is their old-style catalog. It’s so “not overwhelming”–the pages are well-designed and the the information is clearly presented. And it’s a PDF that you can download here (and you can order a paper version–and I just remembered, Audio Advisor has a print catalog, too!). Music Direct is  serious about high-end audio: this year’s best seller was a $3,999 VPI Prime Turntable. Holiday specials include a $79.99 Audio Additives Digital Stylus Force Gauge for $49.99, plus a variety of turntables (I recommend the Rega Planar One for just $299 down from $445). Lots and lots of top brands, including a personal favorite that’s not always easy to find: Balanced Audio Technology, which Music Direct now owns (the company also owns Mobile Fidelity, an early leader in high-quality vinyl pressings). Their News and Blog website feature is an especially good source for new vinyl releases. Based in Chicago, Illinois.

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Needle Doctor – The name comes from a time when finding a stylus for a cartridge was not an easy thing to do. Since 1979, this mail order company has been a leader in phono accessories: their current site features the new Hana MC Phono Cartridges, a buzz item in the industry, along with the Pro-Ject Carbon DC Turntable ($399) with an Ortofon 2M Red Cartridge, a nice combination at a fair price. They do sell other types of equipment–their loudspeaker selection includes Dali and Peachtree among other respected brands (each retailer stocks only a limited range of brands, so you’ll find yourself exploring all of these sites at one time or another). Good closeout section, and some helpful FAQ articles, like this one about buying a turntable.

ed_logo2014Elusive Disc – Based in Anderson, Indiana, this mail order house started in 1989 as a source for hard-to-find vinyl records (hence the company name). Nowadays, they stock a wide range of new vinyl, plus a nice assortment of audio equipment. When I last looked, they were running at 10 percent off sale on Soundsmith phono cartridges, and 30-40% off some Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) discs. I find this site very useful because they maintain TAS Editor’s Choice (The Absolute Sound, a leading trade publication) going back as far as 2005, and similar lists for Stereophile’s Recommended Components. They carry a nice assort of phono-related gear, far less equipment in the categories of amps, pre-amps, and digital gear.

acousticsoundslogo_rawbig2017_250wAcoustic Sounds – At first, Acoustic Sounds appears to be a similar site, focused mostly on records. Look deeper and you’ll find an extraordinary collection of very serious high-end gear. For example, on the integrated amplifier page, we begin with a $12,500 PASS Labs INT-250 Class AB Integrated Amplifier, topped by a $40,000 PASS Labs XA 200.8 200-watt mono XA.8 Put Class A Amplifier (priced for the pair). You don’t have to spend that much, but if you’re in the market for a very high quality pair of bookshelf-style loudspeakers (always placed on specially-made stands, not in bookcases), this is the place to find Harbeth HL-Compact 7 ES-3 speakers in Tiger Ebony cabinets for $3,900/pair, or a wide range of Klipsch loudspeakers (currently quite popular). Also, lots and lots of records. And some of the best available expertise on turntables, cartridges and phono stage equipment in the entire U.S. audio industry. Make good use of their knowledge and experience–and then, become a customer.

Others worth exploring (with an emphasis on two-channel stereo and analog):

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business iN Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business in Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

YOUR LOCAL DEALER – You know: an actual, physical retail store that carries real inventory that you can buy and put into your car on the very same day. In this era of internet everything, it’s easy to forget these guys. Some stores are extraordinary, with bona-fide expert owners who have spent a lifetime selecting equipment, serving the widely divergent needs of individual customers, installing equipment in every conceivable home and other type of setting, and more. Most dealers stock far less than the internet retailers, so you must either find a specific retailer for a specific brand, or (often better), simply trust their experience and good will. Recently, I found two terrific local dealers in Rochester, New York–the result of diligent internet research. If you’re in or near the area, be sure to patronize Audio Renaissance and Forefront Audio. Both Craig Sypnier and Lance Shevchuk, respectively, are the kinds of people who care deeply about their small businesses, about the technology, and most of all, about their customers. Neither operates in a traditional retail location: they’re both in office locations (not five minutes from one another). One useful source for local dealer information is the manufacturer’s websites; that’s how I found out about Soundscape in Baltimore, Sound and Vision outside Columbus, Ohio (and two outside Cleveland), and Goldprint Audio, south of Winston-Salem. Do some web research and you’ll find a dealer not too far away.

Two-Channel Stereo Articles – Published and Coming Soon

This series is quickly becoming popular, and there are more articles in the works. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed that I’m moving from reasonably inexpensive approaches to two channel stereo on our way up to high-end audio. Prices are higher, but I believe the experience of listening to music is worth the investment.

Articles published so far in the “Reintroduction of Two-Channel Stereo” series:
1 – General Introduction, emphasis on turntables
2 – Basic Loudspeakers
3 – Integrated Amplifiers
4 – Pre-Amplifiers
5 – Amplifiers
6 – Listening Room
7 – Where to Buy

As I wait for review equipment from several manufacturers, here’s a list of articles to come in the near future:

– Improved Phono Stage / Phono Pre-Amps
– Better Phono Cartridges
– Better Turntables
– Tube Pre-Amplifiers and Amplifiers
– Better Loudspeakers
– Cables – Interconnects and Loudspeaker
– The Importance of Excellent Power
– Racks and Other Vital Accessories
– Clever Inventions That Solve Specific Problems

The process of writing these articles involves a lot of listening. To music. And to experts who have devoted their careers to home audio. Imagine that–people whose primary interest is to make certain that I have a good time when I listen to records. It’s an interesting mix of extreme obsession with technology and a complete surrender to the subjective factors that control every listening experience. My ears and your ears do not hear the same sounds in the same ways, and, of course, every recording is unique. Add that to the sometimes reasonable, sometimes inexplicable result of combining this turntable on that turntable stand with this tone arm, that phono cartridge, this amplifier, that carpeting, these wall treatments–AND YET… And yet there is a kind of listener’s consensus that leads people who listen carefully to certain loudspeakers, certain turntables with certain cartridges, and so on. Should I pay more attention to the music I hear through my own ears, or should I attend to the collective wisdom of those who design, build, market, and loving compare equipment over decades? Of course, I should, we should listen to the music first–but I sure do welcome the guidance that working professionals and serious amateurs in this industry provide.

To everyone involved in this series–thanks for all of the help!

HB

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 5: Amplifier)

Time to get serious by placing the amplifier, or power amplifier, in its proper context. As the final electronic component in the chain from original recording to loudspeakers, the amplifier’s job is to increase the power of the signal, or simply, to make everything louder. For better or for worse. Better: high quality original recording, high-quality turntable / cartridge / phono stage or CD player, pre-amplifier, and high quality interconnection cables running between these devices. Worse: the inadequacies of the weakest link are amplified, too.

In the previous article, we discussed a $999 Rotel pre-amplifier, the RC-1570. Happily, this component was designed to pair with the same company’s RB-1552 Mk II, also $999. (Each can be used with a component from another company, but they look and sound good together—and they’re available in a choice of silver or black.). The RC-1570 is a 130 watt amplifier—a 200 watt version is available for $600 more as the model RB-1582 Mk II—useful if your loudspeakers require more power.

Here's a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

Here’s a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

How much power do you need? The answer depends upon several factors. The first is the size of the room—think cubic feet, not square feet. A small room—let’s say 10 feet by 15 feet with an 8 foot ceiling—that’s 1,200 cubic feet would require about 50 watts per channel, more if you’re driving a pair of speakers with a special power-consumptive design (the Magnepan series of flat panel speakers are an example). A good-sized living room (20 x 20 x 10 feet = 4,000 square feet) requires about 100 watts per channel—more if you play your music loud. Bigger room, more power required. However: if your room’s acoustics are “dead”—tapestries on the walls, lots of soft absorbent furniture, thick carpeting, few exposed reflective surface—you may need more power. And if your room is very “live,” you may need less power.

If this seems complicated, trust your ears. Ask your dealer to arrange an in-house test so that you can listen to the prospective amplifier and loudspeakers in your listening room. You will learn a lot about the relationship between the amp and the speakers. (More about listening rooms in the next article.) Be sure to listen to your own records, your own CDs—music whose sound you know from past experience.

Start with the low register: the bass, the drums, the bass section of the orchestra, the lowest vocal sounds. If the amp is suitable to the room and the speakers, the bass will be clearly defined—and thrilling. If you sense some straining, or graininess, then the amp is insufficient for the speakers’ needs (this is why your in-home demo ought to include a test of an amplifier beyond what you believe you need). Now, listen for the soundstage—the placement of the instruments, the sense that you are listening to a full group, ensemble or orchestra. When the music becomes complicated, does the amplifier keep up, or does the soundstage begin to decompose? Start at a lower volume, then gradually increase. If the music sounds very good at a low level, you’ve got a good match between speakers and amplifier. If the music doesn’t sound as good when the volume increases—is the higher register smooth or does it become edgy (and, perhaps, headache-inducing)? Don’t be afraid to go louder than you might listen to under normal circumstances—you want to push the system near its limits (preferably under dealer supervision so you don’t blow out the speakers). Listen to a variety of recordings in order to expose both strengths and weaknesses. And by all means, step up to a better amp in order to understand what you are and are not buying.

For most listeners, most of the time, the Rotel RB-1552 Mk II will be an ideal choice, but it’s considered an entry level amplifier for high-end audio, as is the competitive Parasound A-23 Halo (also $999) for comparison. If you were to increase your investment to about $2,300, and your room, listening preferences and/or loudspeakers require the additional power, you should certainly consider Parasound’s 250-watt A-21 Halo. And, take note, there is a sister pre-amp ($1,095), the well-reviewed Parasound 2-channel P5.

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To learn more about any audio component, download the owner’s manual before you buy. (Click on picture.)

Here, we begin to understand the passions of an audiophile: the resonances of the cello, the timber of the piano, the breath behind the vocals, the feeling of warmth and presence, all of these indescribable factors come together to more than justify the additional investment. It’s tempting to read the engineering background, and to refer to the design of the transformer, or the capacitors, or the overall approach to technology, but for me, none of that matters much. Most equipment in this price class is well-made, and most benefits from sophisticated engineering design, but it’s very difficult for me to understand these technology discussions. And besides, what I hear—and I do spend a lot of time listening, as you should if you’re making this kind of investment—and I’ve learned to trust my ears, my brain’s ability to process the information, and the holistic feeling that each recording seems to offer. I think the Rotel sounds very good, and the Parasound A-23 sounds even better—for all of the reasons described above. They also sound different from one another, but I cannot fairly detail the differences because I listened to these models in different rooms, with different loudspeakers.

img_0903Too theoretical? Maybe. We can shift back to the practical side of technology. These amplifiers—typical of their class—offer both RCA and XLR (“balanced”) inputs. It’s best if your pre-amp and your amplifier are both equipped with balanced connection. In the high-end community, there is no clear consensus in favor of balanced connections, so try both to determine which approach you prefer.

The other big decision: tube vs. solid state design. Certainly, tubes can sound sweeter, but solid state may seem less, well, scary. This is a longer discussion for a future article. My short-form recommendation: a tube pre-amp paired with a solid stage amplifier—but there’s lots more to discuss.

img_0902If you’d like to dig deeper into the world of amplifiers, that’s a good reason to buy The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by long-time Stereophile writer Robert Harley (now in its fifth edition. Some of the information in the book is fairly technical, but most of it is written for the same reason I’m writing these articles—to help select the best listening equipment.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 2: Basic Loudspeakers)

So we’ve begun. A brief explanation of older and modern two-channel stereo systems with a quick stop by two web sites, one to buy a pair of low-cost powered loudspeakers and the other to buy a turntable with a built-in phono amplifier to boost the strength of the signal coming out of the tiny phono cartridge. The system is adequate for a small room, and for very casual background music. The music sounds, well, just okay: clear enough, but not very lifelike. Certainly better than the sound you’ll hear from most of what’s available on streaming services, or from your iPhone, but quite low on the scale of what is achievable.

Throughout this series, we’ll seek out incremental steps as we improve various parts of the stereo system, sometimes taking big steps, sometimes modifying just one piece of equipment, sometimes several at a time. We’ll consider the various technologies and options now available–some offer substantial leaps in quality, and others offer more refinement and incremental joy.

For this step, let’s keep the turntable as-is: a $250 investment including the cartridge and some amplification of modest quality. But let’s separate the loudspeakers from their built-in amplification. This opens a wide gamut of opportunities to employ both new and used loudspeakers, each with its own particular personality, or acoustic characteristics. For example, some loudspeakers will offer improved bass but less clarity in the higher treble ranges, or greater detailing, or a more realistic sense of instrument placement in the panoramic sound field made possible by combining the sounds from the stereo system’s left and right channels (a bit of stereophonic magic that can be even more profound in surround sound systems involving five or more loudspeakers–an exploration for another day).

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

So, what we want is a pair of good-sounding, reasonably inexpensive loudspeakers offering just enough of each of those key ingredients. If you’re buying new loudspeakers, NHT offers a pair of their very popular Super Zero 2.1 loudspeakers for about $350. The company has been making reasonably priced, good-sounding loudspeakers since the 1990s. What I like about them: they’re clean, free from any obvious or annoying flaws, well-balanced in their bass, mid-section and high ranges and accurate. They are not $3,500 speakers, so don’t expect deep and clear bass, or silky strings, or extraordinary nuance in the vocals, but for most listening purposes, they are very satisfactory, and very enjoyable.

As a rule, loudspeaker manufacturers attempt to organize their product lines by price points. Many offer a “bookshelf” speaker for several hundred dollars to meet basic needs. PSB’s Alpha B1 costs $300 for the pair, and you’ll find a similar pair from Peachtree Audio, their SX60, for $350 to $400, and these compete with Monitor Audio’s Bronze 2, currently marked down from $500 to $378–all of these speakers are/were available from Audio Advisor, a leading web direct marketer, alongside speakers and other audio gear at prices from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars.

Here's an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

Here’s an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

I put “bookshelf” in quotation marks because you should NOT place these small speakers in a bookshelf because they will not very good. Instead–and here’s the first of many lessons learned from audiophiles–allow several feet of open space around the loudspeakers so that nearby surfaces do not reflect the sound. Initially, this may sound like complete nonsense, and admittedly, you may not hear any substantial degradation in a low-priced stereo system, but once you do notice, you’ll be redesigning your listening area until you eliminate the uncomfortable sound. Since loudspeakers cannot be suspended from mid-air, you will want to invest at least $100 in loudspeaker stands for your bookshelf loudspeakers. Or, you will want to invest in tower speakers–larger rectangles that are several feet high and often represent a step-up in sound quality (and price). More on that upgrade in an upcoming article.

One further note: the placement of loudspeakers matters. A lot. An expensive pair of speakers can sound just awful if they are not carefully placed. And an inexpensive pair of speakers can sound surprisingly good if they are in the optimum position within the listening area. To begin, nothing should be closer than a foot from any wall or large piece of furniture, and ideally, two or three feet. Then, imagine an equilateral triangle with you at one point, the left speaker at another, and the right speaker at another. Generally, the front panel of those speakers should face you very directly. (Avoid the temptation to angle the speakers.) Why bother? The stereo effect will be far stronger: instruments and vocalists will suddenly become clear and distinct images–the bassist over there, the piano over there, the singer center stage, etc. It’s an amazing thing–the way even modest loudspeakers can “image” when they are properly placed. And yes, you may need to do some rearranging of furniture for the optimum effect. If your loudspeakers sounded better in the store, placement is probably the secret sauce. Experimentation is part of the process because every room is different and because furniture, carpeting and other stuff affect the traveling sound waves as they move from the loudspeakers to your ears. Despite what others in the household may say, this process is always worth the time and trouble–and is often a good reason to find a room where you can be left alone to listen to your music.

Do you need new speakers? Your money may go further if you purchase a high quality pair of used speakers–but you must choose very carefully.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeaker on eBay for $490. You'll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers--we'll cover that in a future article--but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment--also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeakers on eBay for $490. You’ll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers–we’ll cover that in a future article–but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment–also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

If $350 is within your budget, you might also consider a pair of used loudspeakers purchased from a very reliable local dealer. It is not unreasonable to search for a pair of twenty year old loudspeakers that may have cost up to $1,000–offering a great deal more quality–but the search may require several months of patient web searches and store visits, and some driving (figure a 100-300 mile radius, even if you live near several large cities). You’ll need to study to find the manufacturers whose products were reliable, high quality, and available in the used marketplace–and, unfortunately, information on the web is neither consistent nor abundant on these topics. If you have a friend who cared about loudspeakers in the 1990s or 2000s, a joint exploration is recommended. And I cannot emphasize the importance of a very reliable, trustworthy dealer quite enough. If you’re willing to take the time, you could certainly explore these and other quality brands: Thiel (for some ears), Magnepan (flat panel speakers employing a unique technology), Dynaudio (extremely accurate), KEF (good all-around), B&W (now marketing as Bowers & Wilkins), Celestial (good all around), and the list goes on (please add your favorites in the comments area below).

If you want to dig deeper, spend some time exploring this historical survey of superior audio equipment. It’s part of a massive website published by the longtime high-end (expensive, fine-sounding) stereo enthusiast magazine, Stereophile.

To some extent, the loudspeakers you find in the U.S. may be similar to those found in the U.K., France, Germany or Japan. Each region of the world has its own loudspeaker makers, and remember: the larger the speaker, the more costly the shipping. In the U.S., you will find a lot of European speakers and a lot of American-made speakers, but the selection is likely to be more local in other countries.

Now that we’ve got the loudspeakers, we’ll need to purchase an amplifier, perhaps an integrated amplifier to start. That’s coming up next.

 

 

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 1)

Somehow, stereophonic sound has survived. The excitement began in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s when consumers could buy their own stereo record albums and their own stereo turntables. By the 1970s, many college students and music lovers owned their own stereo systems: a receiver, a turnable, and a pair of matching loudspeakers. We were quick to point out that a “turntable” was not a “record player”– a turntable contains a spinning platter, a tone arm, a phono cartridge, and within the cartridge, a tiny stylus (replacing what had previously been called a “needle”). A receiver, by the way, serves multiple purposes: it is an AM/FM radio tuner, a phono stage (to amplify the modest signal emanating from the phono cartridge), a pre-amplifier (to amplify the signal coming from the tuner, and later, from the add-on cassette or CD player), and an amplifier (a more powerful set of circuits to energize the loudspeakers). Early audiophiles incorporated a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, which allowed recording of radio broadcasts and LPs, and live performances–the first time these capabilities were available to non-professionals. Some audiophiles purchased  headphones so they could listen without disturbing others, an old-school courtesy enabled by a technology that was considered somewhat exotic at the time. Nowadays, the tuner is hardly a necessity, the cassette or tape recorder has been bypassed by the digital revolution which eats its young (CDs and DVDs are enjoying their final productive years), but the turntable is in the midst of a resurgence, and headphones have never been more popular.

Here's a wonderful example of a 1970s stereo system (but few people owned two turntables). This image comes from a collector of 1970s stereo equipment (click on the link for more pictures and some stories). You are looking at: a Marantz 2330b receiver, a Thorens TD-165 turntable, a Thorens TD-126 turntable, JBL L96 speakers, and an Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck.

Here’s a wonderful example of a 1970s stereo system (but few people owned two turntables). This image comes from a collector of 1970s stereo equipment (click on the link for more pictures and some stories). You are looking at: a Marantz 2330b receiver, a Thorens TD-165 turntable, a Thorens TD-126 turntable, JBL L96 speakers, and an Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck.

By the 1980s, this system might have included an audiocassette deck in place of the reel-to-reel recorder, and a Graphic Equalizer–an elaborate set of tone controls that allowed listeners to emphasize or de-emphasize treble (high tones), mid-range, and bass. Generally, systems like the one above were intended for people who listened to rock music–electric guitars, deep bass, powerful drums. If the room was shaking but nothing was tumbling from the shelves, then the bass was not sufficiently powerful.

Today, two-channel stereo is simpler, more elegant, and sounds a whole lot better than it did in the 1970s. If you’re unearthing a system from somebody’s basement or attic, you might consider an upgrade, but most people will be happier with the sound that a new system can provide.

Basically, you need a pair of loudspeakers, an amplifier, and a turntable with a good new cartridge. And some cables (the quality of the cables affects the quality of the sound; more about that later). Some loudspeakers contain built-in amplifiers, allowing for a very simple setup. Most people do not buy a CD player–unless you’re sitting on a nice collection of discs. And most people don’t need an AM/FM tuner–but some people enjoy listening to a particular FM station. And so, most people do not require a stereo receiver–unless the system is intended to double as the center of a home theater (a role that can be performed, quite adequately, by a two-channel stereo). No need for a remote control either.

So let’s start simple. As this series of articles progresses, there will be ample opportunity to spend a thousand dollars, five thousand, ten thousand, and more. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with a nice, new, modest system for $500. Visits to just two web sites take care of business:

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The first is Audio-Technica, a long-time maker of turntables, phono cartridges, headphones, microphones and other gear. Take a look at the AT-LP120-USB Direct Drive turntable. Buy it directly from the manufacturer for $249 (if you shop around, you won’t find it for much less). This particular turntable is unusual because it contains a small phono pre-amp (see above) so you won’t need an intermediate piece of equipment to plug it into a pair of powered loudspeakers. Which ones? Try the A2 Powered Desktop Speakers from AudioEngine— they also cost $249 direct from the manufacturer. If you want something that sounds better (more detail, more presence, clearer treble and bass, more punchy bass), move up to the A5+, found on the same website. The lower priced model is available in the nifty red color and black or white; the higher priced model is available with a wood veneer, or black or white.

So we’ve begun. And you can start listening to LPs with your new stereo system before the holiday. As we proceed, we’ll listen to a lot of music, spend a lot of money, and concentrate on the many reasons why investments in quality sound reproduction make so many people happy.

As a further inducement–you can buy LPs for just a few dollars. Sure, the ones in Barnes & Noble cost over $20, but that’s high-end, heavy duty vinyl, the latest in a long series of record industry schemes to collect more money from consumers. I ignore most of them. Instead, I seek out the best of dozens of old school record stores because many of them sell LPs, in very good condition, for five dollars or less. Classical albums are especially difficult for the stores to sell, so many of them cost even less. (Collectible rock and jazz albums cost more.) There is much to be said for used LPs from a reliable retailer–and much to be said for giving your used records a bath (being careful not to wet the paper label or to scrub too hard when drying them). As this series progresses, I promise to tell you where to find these stores, and the best online sources, too.

Much more to come. I hope this series turns out to be helpful to you.

Stick It in Your Ear

This is guest review by Stephen Blumenthal.

After breaking my third pair of wired earbuds in the one year, I began to look into alternatives. I have a bit of a reputation for pushing the durability of my gear over time. My dad puts it as “you really use your stuff, don’t you?” I can’t say he’s wrong. Any technology that I invest in, I use often and thoroughly. After some light research, it became clear that it was time to bring myself into the 21st century: wireless Bluetooth headphones. Here’s what I wanted from a new pair of wireless headphones…

1. Stable fit in my ear.
2. Good audio quality. I am a composer and audio engineer, I usually manage my expectations of earbuds because they are consumer products, not professional gear. These aren’t headphones that I’m using for input monitoring in the studio; they are earbuds that I wear while talking on the phone or listening to music while running.
3. A reliable microphone for lengthy phone conversations with my family and friends. Same managed expectations as my previous point; this isn’t for a professional quality recording, this is so people can hear me clearly.
4. Since we’re dealing with Bluetooth here, expenditure of energy of both my phone and the wireless earbuds is something to consider. Also, a reliable connection to whatever device it is interacting with.
5. Bonus points for a streamlined, modest looking design.
JabraEnter the Jabra Pulse.
It came in the mail this weekend. I was so excited! I was watching for the mailman from my apartment window. It finally arrived in some beautiful, well-designed packaging. A box with a smooth texture, and a panel that folds out and is held in its place by a well-concealed magnet. I get the box opened up and lay all of the gear out on my coffee table. In addition to the earbuds themselves, there’s a short micro-USB cable for charging, a brief instruction manual, a couple pairs of soft rubber “wings,” which come in different sizes and interesting shapes, for fitting into the ridges of your ear and small soft rubber cups (I believe the call them ‘EarGels’) of varying sizes to ensure a secure fit in your ear. Getting the right fit was a little confusing at first, but once I wrapped my head around how they worked, I had no problems.They all come in a nifty little carrying case, it’s obvious that a lot of thought and care went into customer experience and product design.
For a $199 pair of earbuds, my expectations have been met – definitely worth the price.
Not wanting to wait even a second more to bother with charging them, I immediately fired  up the Bluetooth on my iPhone and paired the devices. I skimmed the Jabra instruction manual. Hold down the center button on the control piece on the earbuds with your phone’s Bluetooth turned on, you’re greeted by a pleasant, modern sound to confirm the ‘buds are awake, and then a nice, female voice confirms your connectivity. It feels like something out of the future, something like Cortana from Microsoft’s Halo video game series.
First things first, let’s play some tunes. I start Spotify, and my expectations of audio quality are exceeded. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I’m smiling ear to ear with how great this sounds. I start with playing some Daft Punk, a favorite, and something that I expect to sound good on a product like this. These earbuds seem to be marketed towards people with an active lifestyle, so I expect music that falls into genres like EDM, Rock, R&B etc. to sound great on these. Something to run to, something to lift to, etc.
But what about something quiet and orchestral?
I pop on Nuages from Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes. The beginning of this piece is quiet, very quiet. Granted, I’m in my room in my apartment, a very quiet space. My first observation is that I do not have to crank the volume to hear the soft beginning. The quality is impressive, I can hear the instruments and subtle orchestration clearly. Expectations are exceeded here. For a small set of in-ear speakers, I’m hearing a lot more detail than I expected. I’ve studied this work thoroughly, so I have a pretty clear idea of how it’s supposed to sound. There weren’t a lot of missing frequencies here, and that impressed me. While I’m happy to know that the quality is high here, orchestral music is still better on a big pair of loudspeakers, or better, in a live venue.
The range of connectivity isn’t half bad, either. I left my phone in my bedroom and walked to the other side of my two bedroom apartment to the kitchen. The signal didn’t start to break up until I got to my front door, the furthest point from my room.
Phone call test was next, I called my brother. He’s at noisy restaurant waiting in line to order a bagel. He picks up, I can hear him clearly, he can hear me clearly. Very different from my past experiences. I’ve had long conversations using these little ‘buds already, and I’ve had little to no issue with them.
This morning, I took them out for a run. This time, I used Jabra’s complimentary fitness tracking app. It has some pre-loaded workouts, you can make your own workout routine within their app, or you can have it just track your speed, heart rate and distance. I’ve only used this app once so far, but the whole experience is pretty seamless.
I’m very happy with my Jabra Pulse, my expectations were exceeded. Definitely worth the investment.

Chilling with the Fridge

I keep hoping my refrigerator would smarten up, but there it sits just keeping things well-organized and cold. For $600 or so, that’s what the biggest box in my house does all day long.

Ah, but what might $6,000 buy? (Ten refrigerators?) Okay, just one, but it’s pretty amazing.

Click on Flex Zone and you can turn the bottom drawer into either a fridge bin or a freezer bin, and adjust the temperature so it’s ideal for beer, veggies, fish or snowballs.

Adjust the humidity so that the cooling system doesn’t zap the life out of cheese, lettuce, radish greens and the like.

Watch TV. Yup, anything that you’re watching on a smart TV system in your house, you can now watch on the front door of your fridge. Not a big priority for me, but maybe for some people who spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen.

Check the weather. Again, doesn’t come up too often, but sometimes, when I’m scooping ice cream or cutting some bread, I think to myself, gee, I wonder what the weather is like, but my phone and my three computers are too far away, so thank goodness the info is on my fridge!

Listen to the radio, or to any music stream. Yes, this is a nice thing. I can do it with a $200 tablet, but if I’m spending $6,000 on a fridge, sure, why not? Pandora is a standard feature. So are built-in speakers, and if you’d like to spend a bit more money, you can opt for both a sub-woofer and surround sound (wireless surround speakers are best placed above the sink).

Control your automobile until self-driving cars come along. Just tell the fridge where you want to go, and it takes over your car’s computer system to assure a safe journey. Since the fridge is doing the driving, you can sit back and enjoy a cold drink which the fridge places in the accessory cooling chamber in any recent-model automobile.

There are refrigerator apps, too. One is called View Inside, and it allows you to peek inside the fridge using three video cameras. Another allows you or anyone in your family to post digital messages on the refrigerator door, or to add to a family calendar. You can turn the fridge’s panel into a family whiteboard, too. There’s a group shopping list, and a few other apps, too.

And, you can turn the whole thing into a picture frame for family memories.

Your new fridge comes in choice of color (stainless steel silver, or stainless steel black), and in two sizes, one for about 22 cubic feet and the other for about 27 cubic feet (the smaller one fits nicely into an upscale kitchen with counters).

Can all of this be true? Absolutely! I’m writing about Samsung’s just-announced Family Hub [TM].

Also true: I made up the part about the car. And the subwoofers and surround sound, but you probably knew that.

And I do wonder: this box seems pretty cool for 2016, but what the heck are you going to say in 2020 when everyone has something even cooler in their kitchen and you have to explain why you spent $6,000 for a device with features that are now widely available on a $1,200 fridge? Heck, that’s easy! You just buy a new model and ask the robot inside to take good care of the kids while you vacation for a few weeks on Mars.

See more!

fridge-mobile.png

 

Hoping for the Ultimate Lightweight Apple Notebook

Yesterday was Apple’s spring event. I was pretty sure we would not see the rumored 12-inch lightweight portable. I was surprised to see Apple’s new a 2-pound, 12-inch MacBook today. I was ever more surprised about my not-so-impressed  reaction. So: I’m trying to wrap my head around what I was hoping to see. Here goes:

  • Two pounds is good, but that’s twice as much as the iPad I carry every day. The 11-inch MacBook air weighs 2.4 pounds. I want the new–let’s call it the Mac Book Air 3—to weigh about 1.5 pounds.
    • Today’s model: still too heavy for me!
  • 4G and Wi-Fi–if Apple can offer 4G on the iPad, why not on the thin portable, too?
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • A 12-inch retina display is the right thing to do. Lots of visual information in a small space. Good call, Apple.
    • Today’s model: yep!
  • One cable that fits into one connection jack that does it all.
    • Today’s model: yep!…but…
  • I don’t want to deal with a multi-adapter. If we’re going down the adapter path, let’s instead include one connector for power and another to connect a device—but I want some sort of a snap-on dock that’s not going to get lost. An SD card slot would be welcome, too.
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • A keyboard that flips away so I can use the device as an iPad. With a sweeter design than Lenovo’s Yoga or Microsoft’s Surface.
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • $999 price point for the basic model, $1199 for the better one.
    • Today’s model: starts at $1,299—and the better one costs $300 more

Air ThinWhat’s a guy to do? Keep using the new iPad Air 2 until Apple catches up with me? Shift to Windows or Android?  (Nope, not for me.) Make my own? (I wish.) Buy the existing 11-inch Mac Book Air for $899 and get most but not everything I want, or the new 12-inch MacBook thin edition for $1,299 and still not get everything I want? Or wait ’til next year?

Meet the Ozobots

I first met the Ozobots last year, right around this time, at Toy Fair. I thought they were the coolest thing at the show.

What’s an Ozobot? It’s a tiny robot, about the size of a ping-pong ball. You can dress an Ozobot in one of several rubber helmets, and that allows you to tell them apart. (Once you own an Ozobot or two, you will almost certainly want more.)

An Ozobot gets its power through a mini-USB that plugs into its back. Where its left ear might be, there’s a power-on/off button. On the base are two tiny wheels and the most important Ozobot feature: the color sensors.

Ozobot sensors read four colors: black, blue, red and green. Ozobot rides along a color path, sensing the colors below by scanning them. You can draw the path yourself, and Ozobot will respond to your commands.

Ozobot Path

If you click on the above, you’ll see Ozobot first moving forward, then encountering the blue-red-blue pattern, which is a coded command that instructs Ozobot to flash color blue, then flash color red, then turn 180 degrees.

Ozobot knows lots of commands. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge).

Ozobot-OzoCodes-Reference

With these commands, you can do all sorts of fun things with Ozobot. Most people probably start, as I did, by drawing lines on papers with the four broad-tipped colored markers, and simply enjoying the ways in which Ozobots follow them. The experience is not unlike watching electric trains in motion (it’s definitely more fun with at least two Ozobots, and even more fun with a whole bunch of the little guys). Of course, electric trains can’t spin around or pretend to be a tornado—so when you add the color signals, as above, Ozobotting becomes a lot more fun than model railroading.

There are plenty of pre-designed Ozobot paths and games now available on the Ozobot website, but that’s just the beginning. For curious kids, Ozobot is a hands-on introduction to computer programming. By employing a limited toolset (four colors in lines and patterns), children quickly come to understand that they can cause Ozobots to obey their commands—and that programming can be a lot of fun.

And then, we move to the tablet. There are several iPad apps — remember that Ozobot reads colors, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be able to read them from an iPad screen instead of paper. This makes the Ozobot so much cooler! There are several starter paths that allow you to see how Ozobot responds—and these come with color tools and pre-defined spot combinations that you can place anywhere so that Ozobot moves very slowly, very quickly, and makes other moves. A second app, called Ozogroove, includes digital dance floors, allowing Ozobot to really show off. (What fun!)

Back to the website, there are paths ready for download (to a flat horizontal screen) or paper (which always lies flat). For example, here’s a game called Mazerunner.

mazerunner

 

Intrigued? Here’s a closer look at an Ozobot:

ozobot-work1

 

An Ozobot costs about $50, but I would suggest that you buy a duo set because it’s way more fun to play with two Ozobots than just one. You can buy them directly from the website or from various toy stores listed on the site. I kinda wish they were selling them in sets of three or four, and I hope the prices will go down. Watching a dozen or more of these guys racing around a hand-drawn track, spinning around, speeding up, slowing down, blinking their little colored lights was so much fun at Toy Fair last year, the onesy-twosy experience pales a bit by comparison. But that the for the future. For now, get started with one or two, have fun, and let me know what you think.

 

 

Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

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