High-End Audio

Great music and sound gifts for under $100

You don't have to be an audiophile to appreciate good sound and music, so I've put together a healthy selection of great gift ideas, all priced under $100. I'll soon post another blog with under-$300 gift ideas.

The AIX Records "Audio Calibration Disc & HD Music Sampler" Blu-ray ($25) is loaded with exceptional-sounding Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio music tracks. AIX refrains from using dynamic range compression, equalization, or signal processing, so the sound is as close to the original session as can be. And with the release of "Goldberg Variations Acoustica" AIX has ventured into producing original 3D video programming. The Blu-ray was shot with four prototype Panasonic 3D A1 cameras, and the sound was recorded in 96 kHz/24-bit high-resolution audio.

My pick for the best full-size headphone for less than $100 is the Grado Prestige Series SR-60i ($79). It's an improved and updated version of the original SR-60, which was a budget audiophile favorite for more than 10 years. The SR-60i sounds great at home or plugged into an iPod. The sound is nice and full, and since the SR-60i is an open-back design, you can hear the world around you. Highly recommended.

If you'd prefer an in-ear headphone, you should get the NOX Audio Scout ($79). The design features "balanced armature technology," which is rarely seen in headphones in the Scout's price class (I actually don't know of any others). It's very comfortable, the flat ribbon cable is as tangle-free as they come, and the sound quality is extraordinarily good.

Paul McCartney & Wings' "Band On The Run" Special Edition is a two-CD, one-DVD set ($30). Recently remastered by the team responsible for the Beatles 2009 remasters, "Band on the run" has never sounded better. The second CD has nine bonus tracks of rare demos and alternative takes. The original remastered album and bonus audio content are also available on a two LP, 180 gram audiophile vinyl edition that comes with an MP3 download of all 18 tracks. … Read more

The analog vs. digital audio debate, no clear winner?

Last week I wrote two blogs with opposing headlines, Why does analog sound better than digital? and Why does digital sound better than analog? The Comments sections of those two blogs ran hot and heavy with opinions as to why analog or digital are hopelessly wretched-sounding things. I was surprised to see that the pro/anti comments were interchangeable between the two blogs; each side dug in their heels and wouldn't budge.

I own 2,500 CDs, 300 SACD/DVD-Audio discs, and 4,000 LPs. I play records on a VPI turntable and spin discs on an Ayre C-5xe/… Read more

Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor headphone: Ultimate perfection?

Ultimate Ears' new Reference Monitor in-ear headphone is a very different take on the state of the art. UE collaborated with EMI Music's Capitol Studios to design this headphone for recording, mixing, and mastering engineers. The UE engineers submitted a number of prototypes to Capitol and other beta testers for feedback before arriving at the finished Reference Monitor. I'm no engineer, but I think the Reference Monitor is the best, most accurate-sounding in-ear headphone I've heard to date.

Right, I know some of you must be thinking, aren't all headphones designed to be accurate? Once you … Read more

GoldenEar SuperCinema 3: How big can a little 5.1 speaker system sound?

Sandy Gross was one of the founders of two major speaker companies, Polk Audio and Definitive Technology, and now with GoldenEar Technology he's going for one more. I recently spoke with him about his new venture, and he didn't seem the least bit concerned about entering a rather tough retail market. He is in fact off to a good start and already has 100 brick-and-mortar U.S. dealers, and he will have overseas distributors coming aboard in the near future.

As soon as I heard Gross' SuperCinema 3 I understood why he's so confident. It's a lifestyle-friendly satellite/subwoofer system that sounds remarkable.

It comes with four SuperSat 3 satellites ($249 each), one SuperSat 3C center channel speaker ($249), and a ForceField 3 subwoofer ($499). The gloss black speaker cabinets feel extremely well-built, which is because they're fabricated from injection-molded marble powder infused polymer, a big step up from the more typical plastic, medium-density fiberboard or metal cabinets. That said, the wedge-shape, textured black finished sub is made from MDF, but it also appears to be well-built. GoldenEar Technology speakers are only available in black.

At 12 inches by 4.75 inches, the SuperSat 3 isn't tiny, but it's a mere 2.7 inches deep. The gently curved cabinets are decked out with two 4.5-inch mid/bass drivers, and one high-velocity folded ribbon tweeter (similar in operating principle to a Heil tweeter). Ribbon tweeters are the hot ticket for lots of high-end speakers, including my two personal references, the Magnepan 3.6 and the Zu Essence, but ribbon tweeters are rarely seen on speakers in the SuperSat 3's price range. The tweeter really does play a big part in the speaker's extraordinary sound quality. The SuperSat 3C center speaker sports the same driver complement, but the 3C's drivers are oriented for horizontal speaker placement.

Both speaker models can be wall-mounted via keyhole slots on their backsides, or used with the included table stands. GoldenEar Technology will offer floor stands for the speakers sometime in 2011.

The ForceField 3 subwoofer features a proprietary 1,000-watt digital amp with digital frequency shaping electronics; a front-firing 8-inch active driver; and a special 9.6-by-11.4-inch quadratic planar infrasonic (passive) radiator on the bottom panel. Connectivity options include a direct RCA input as well as speaker-level inputs and outputs. GoldenEar Technology will have an optional wireless kit for the sub for $130 early next year. The sub measures a tidy 11.5 by 15.75 by 11 inches.… Read more

Why does digital sound better than analog?

Digital audio won the popularity contest years ago, and nowadays almost every sound you hear coming out of a speaker is digitally encoded. Sound is always digital, whether it's on your phone, computer, radio, TV, home theater, or in a concert hall. I'd go so far as to say most people never hear analog recordings anymore. Unless you're a musician, or live with one, virtually all the music you hear live or recorded is digital.

Digital audio eliminated all of analog audio's distortions and noise-related problems. In that sense digital is "perfect." When analog … Read more

Why does analog sound better than digital?

Music was forever changed in 1983. Up to that year we had lived in a digital-audio-free world, where musicians and the music industry flourished in a state of pure analog bliss. Vast numbers of people actually listened to music--without doing anything else--on a regular basis.

An analog recording corresponds the variations in air pressure of the original sound. A digital recording is a series of numbers that correspond to the sound's continuous variations, but the numbers have to be reconverted to analog signals before they can be listened to. No wonder analog and digital sound so different from each … Read more

The Beats Pro headphone, a better beat?

No one can deny that the original Beats by Dr. Dre was a revolutionary headphone design. It brought style and pizazz to the headphone market, and turned on a new generation of music lovers to the joys of great sound. The Beats Studio ($350) is still selling like gangbusters, but the Beats line has expanded to include something better, the Beats Pro ($450).

The Studio Beats have a lot of bass, but the Pros have more and distinctly tighter, more visceral bass. The two headphones sound very different; the Pros have a brighter, more forward balance, and the Studio Beats … Read more

When it comes to speakers, thin is in

British speaker manufacturer KEF is now offering a range of superthin (less than 1.5 inches deep) flat-panel speakers designed to look great mounted next to flat-screen TVs. The T Series speakers all feature a radically new ultralow profile bass/midrange driver and a new tweeter. Designing audiophile-grade skinny speakers isn't easy, but KEF might be able to pull it off.

The T Series models all feature KEF's Selecta-Mount system, which automatically adjusts the speaker's frequency response to compensate for how and where the loudspeaker is mounted. The idea is to produce a consistent tonal balance, for on-wall and in-room speaker placement. The T-Series speakers' thin driver technology was developed using finite element analysis (FEA) computer modeling. … Read more

Can recorded music ever sound like the real thing?

I've heard most of the world's very best speakers and amplifiers, and while they can sound pretty amazing at times, they never sound like live music. The reasons for the shortfall are many, but heading the list are recordings, there's way too much signal processing and manipulation imposed on the sound of instruments and vocals, so even if you had a perfect hi-fi, the recordings wouldn't sound realistic. Analog or digital? Sorry, neither has a real advantage here; state-of-the-art recording technology still loses too much information to achieve total fidelity.

I covered this subject in a … Read more

Headphone mania hits White Plains, NY

I attended the Head-Fi "meet" last Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, in White Plains, NY. Head-Fi is a grass roots online community that reviews and discusses headphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs), headphone amplifiers, and music. Head-Fi's core is its discussion forums, where on average 3,000+ posts covering all aspects of headphones are made nearly every day. Head-Fi started in the U.S., but now has meets in Canada, England, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, and all over the world! You can join Head-Fi for free or just enjoy the site. I've attended a number of NY meetsRead more