In Pete Roth’s review of Vivid Audio’s Giya G3 loudspeakers in Ultra Audio, he described me as “always on the lookout for original thinking and outstanding sound.” That statement made me stop and ponder, but I had to quickly concede that it’s true -- I do tend to focus my attention on a product’s originality of design (if any) and the resultant quality of sound. This is most likely why I, like Pete, think so highly of Vivid’s speakers -- there’s nothing that looks or sounds like them.
With that in mind, this editorial continues the theme of one published last September: “Original Thinking: My Six Favorite Cutting-Edge Loudspeakers of 2012.” This time I focus on affordable hi-tech hi-fi -- products that push the technical envelope but don’t cost more than the common man or woman can afford. With one exception, to be reviewed on this site soon, all of these products have been recently reviewed in a SoundStage! Network publication.
NAD C 390DD Direct Digital integrated amplifier
The Direct Digital technology that is the heart of NAD’s C 390DD isn’t exactly new -- it debuted with NAD’s Masters Series M2 amplifier, which was released to largely rave reviews a few years ago. But the technology can still be considered on the cutting edge of high-end audio, if only because NAD’s competitors haven’t caught up with similar products. Furthermore, the fact that the C 3900DD costs $2599 USD, less than half the M2’s $5999 price, means another big step forward for NAD in terms of reaching a wider audience.
Without going too deep into the detail of how the C 390DD works (that’s what reviews are for), it’s easiest to describe the C 390DD as a power-DAC with some preamplifier functions added on. Essentially, any incoming digital signal remains in the digital domain until it’s converted to analog at the output stage, so that it can drive the speakers. Given the C 390DD’s digital heart, all incoming analog signals must be converted to digital, so there’s an onboard A/D converter for that. A system built around the C 390DD can be as simple as a computer, the NAD, and a pair of speakers.
According to Colin Smith, whose review appeared on this site on February 15, the sound of the C 390DD is out of this world, with detail and clarity that none of the typical analog amplifiers at his disposal could match. He also thought it sounded far more powerful and authoritative than its power rating of 150Wpc into 8 ohms might indicate. He concluded: “It’s likely the most sophisticated amplifier available at its price.” Need I say more?
Anthem Statement M1 mono amplifier
I can understand people having trouble making sense of the Anthem Statement M1 -- it’s a completely different type of power-amp animal. The M1 sells for $3500 (you need two for stereo) and outputs a whopping 1000W into 8 ohms -- or a continuous 2000W into 4 ohms if fed 240V AC -- which makes it the most powerful high-end amplifier I know of anywhere near its price. The M1’s case, which is only 2.25” high, is home to quite a few technical innovations, but probably the most important thing to highlight here is the circuitry’s class-D architecture. Not an off-the-shelf module by ICEpower or Hypex, as you most often find in competing class-D amps, it’s Anthem’s own design. Because it runs in cool class-D and has an innovative ventilation pipe, it generates little heat.
According to Anthem’s chief electronics designer, Marc Bonneville, the M1 was the result of five years of R&D. The effort appears to have paid off. Bascom King, of BHK Labs, measured a review sample for us, and it not only met its power specs, it exceeded them by a good margin. As for the sound, or lack thereof, Jeff Fritz had this to say in his February 1 Ultra Audio review: “The sound was clean and clear, but not scrubbed to the point that it ever sounded threadbare or lacking in tonal density. In that sense, the Anthem Statement M1 approached the theoretical ideal of the straight wire with gain. . . . [The pair of them] played it straight by simply amplifying the signal.”
More power than any audiophile will ever need, neutrality that rivals the best amps out there, a low profile, putting out so little heat that it can be discreetly placed anywhere, and a price that makes sense, all combine to make the radical M1 a true statement in modern amplifier design.
Classé Audio Delta CP-800 DAC-preamplifier-processor
While proofreading Aron Garrecht’s review of Classé Audio’s Delta CP-800 before it went live on this site, I stopped in the middle to phone Jeff Fritz and say, “If I had a subwoofer in my system, I’d buy one of these things right now.” The fact that the CP-800 operates as both a topflight preamplifier and a state-of-the-art DAC is probably worth the $5000 asking price on its own, but that’s not what makes the CP-800 cutting edge; instead, it’s the added processor functionality that allows for full bass management of up to two subwoofers, including crossover slopes and equalization -- pretty much imperative for an ideal blend with the main speakers. Does any high-end hi-fi preamp from any other super-reputable manufacturer offer all that?
That said, it must be noted that such bass management as the CP-800 offers isn’t anything new -- it’s been a staple of home theater for what seems like eons. What’s new is that it’s finally making significant inroads into high-performance two-channel audio, where it’s long been desperately needed. Consider the CP-800 a harbinger of preamps to come -- which means that Classé currently leads the pack with this new product type.
Dynaudio Xeo 3 wireless loudspeakers
To call any speaker “wireless” is a misnomer -- if a speaker lacks speaker cables, then it must be a powered speaker, which means that it contains at least one internal amplifier, which means that there must be a power cord from amp to wall socket. So when audiophiles talk about wireless speakers, they mean speakers without signal cables. With that cleared up, I can now say that wireless speakers are becoming all the rage, so much so that I’m sure we’ll soon see a flood of them on the high-end market, given the convenience the technology offers.
One company that jumped ahead of the others in this race is Denmark’s Dynaudio, with their stand-mounted Xeo 3 and floorstanding Xeo 5 models, released last year. Jeff Stockton reviewed the Xeo 3 ($2300/pair with transmitter) on SoundStage! Xperience last November and had this to say: “Dynaudio’s Xeo 3 is a system I could happily live with. The liveliness of its sound, its impressive bass, the cleanness of voices, and the Xeo 3’s ‘rightness,’ song after song, genre after musical genre, make them easily the best speakers I’ve had in my listening room.” Take note: Jeff said “best speakers,” not “best wireless speakers.” Dynaudio’s Xeo 3 proves that performance and convenience can coexist.
KEF LS50 loudspeakers
Calling a passive, two-way speaker hi-tech is, in most cases, an oxymoron. These things are as old-school as they come. But for KEF’s LS50, it’s appropriate -- this is one of the most advanced two-way speakers ever produced, providing sound quality that’s truly extraordinary, given the speaker’s small size and reasonable price ($1500/pair).
Technically, KEF has plenty to crow about. Most notable are: the LS50’s rose-gold-colored coincident driver, based on the version of KEF’s Uni-Q driver used in the company’s ground-breaking Blade ($30,000/pair); the cabinet, whose walls are built using constrained-layer damping and elaborately braced, all to suppress vibrations; the curved baffle, designed to eliminate diffraction effects so that the soundwaves launched from the driver are clean; and even the port, whose elliptical shape and spongy center tube further help to eliminate resonances. There’s more technology in the LS50 than in some loudspeakers on the market today that sell for ten or even a hundred times its price -- and I’m not joking.
The LS50’s sound is quite something, but that’s all I can say about it right now -- I’m currently finishing up my review of the speaker, to be published in April, so stay tuned. What I can say here is that even a passive, two-way speaker can be hi-tech if the right company has the wherewithal and the will. KEF is clearly one of those companies that can create something that pushes the envelope, as are the four others I’ve focused on in this article: Anthem Statement, Classé, Dynaudio, and NAD. Their newest products are pushing hi-fi to new heights, all for quite reasonable prices, which makes them all well worth seeking out.
Next month: I’ve invited Jason Thorpe to write a guest editorial about one of the best-sounding systems he’s ever assembled in his house. Check back next month to find out what that system comprised -- it’s likely to surprise you.
. . . Doug Schneider