Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, defines the phrase state of the art as “the level of development (as of a device, procedure, process, technique, or science) reached at any particular time usually as a result of modern methods” -- in short, the very best that’s currently available. The problem is that, at any given time, state-of-the-art (SOTA) consumer devices are almost always prohibitively expensive. The companies that make such devices must spend large amounts of money on R&D, materials, and design talent to produce something that’s better than anything else out there, and they pass those development costs on to the few customers who can actually afford such products.
Within reach of many more people is gear that gets extremely close to the state of the art but costs a lot less. These may be products that were SOTA just a few years before, or that use technology trickled down from current SOTA stuff. There are plenty of these products, particularly in audio, and they’re some of the most exciting because they’re so good and actually affordable.
In this article I talk about four such products, two of which I’m reviewing (the reviews will be published this month or next); the other two I’ve been using for a while now as part of my reference system.
Meitner Audio MA-1 digital-to-analog converter
I’ve heard from people I trust that the EMM Labs DAC2X ($15,500 USD) is the best DAC currently available -- I’m glad to hear it, because today one was delivered to my door. I can’t yet substantiate or refute that claim -- I haven’t heard the DAC2X, and likely won’t for a few more weeks, until I’ve finished reviewing some other gear. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the DAC2X turns out to be, indeed, the best, for two reasons. First, Ed Meitner, who heads up EMM Labs as well as sister brand Meitner Audio (which sells lower-priced models), is one of digital audio’s innovators and legends. The DAC2X is supposedly his best effort to date. Second, I’ve had Meitner Audio’s MA-1 DAC ($7000) here for months, and know its sound well. Although I can’t say the MA-1 is the best DAC I’ve ever heard, I can say with certainty that it’s one of the best; if the DAC2X is in any way better, it might really be something.
Ed Meitner says that the circuit topologies of the DAC2X and MA-1 are cut from the same cloth. The differences are in the way they’re made -- the DAC2X is more handmade, with higher-quality parts and higher tolerances; the MA-1 is more a mass-produced model. But the sound of the MA-1 isn’t typical of mass production -- it has a neutral tonal balance, the detail it reveals is spellbinding, and its soundstaging is stupendous. In terms of the latter, when the recording allows, the soundstages it creates have real width, awesome depth, and, most important, near-tangibility of the aural images on those stages -- it all adds up to great presence and realism. Uday Reddy reviewed the MA-1 for us last year and loved it so much he bought one. Having used one for a while now, I understand why -- the MA-1 is a topflight DAC that comes within striking distance of the best for a reasonable price.
Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P preamplifier
Simaudio’s top line, the Moon Evolution models, include two preamplifiers: the two-box 850P, which retails for a whopping $28,000; and the 740P (I’ve got one in for review), said to be based on the 850P but built into a single case, scaled back in terms of the circuit’s implementation, and costing $9500. That’s still not cheap, but it’s not out of line when you combine the build, features, warranty (ten years!), and, mostly, sound. Or lack of sound -- the 740P is wickedly transparent, letting me see right into recordings as if I were there. Then there’s the volume control, which is perhaps the best in the world -- its 530 steps let me dial in precisely the level I want, as I fine-tune in increments of 0.1dB.
That’s all I’ll say about the 740P for the moment -- to learn more, read my review when it’s published. I will say this: If the 850P can top the 740P’s transparency and resolution, as Simaudio claims it does, I’ll be shocked.
Anthem Statement M1 monoblock amplifiers
Class-D amplifier circuits can produce extremely high power outputs with high efficiency and at low cost -- in general, they cost less than amps of equal power but with more traditional circuit designs. Most high-end class-D amps are variations of off-the-shelf designs, being based on B&O ICEpower or Hypex modules. However, the folks at Anthem Statement took more than five years to design their own class-D circuit. The result is the M1 mono amplifier, which costs $3500 ($7000/pair) and can generate more than 1000W into 8 ohms or 2000W into 4 ohms. It has to be one of the highest-powered audiophile amps at anywhere near its price. What’s more, the M1 is said to be stable into loads of under 2 ohms, with a frequency response that remains neutral regardless of load -- things that can’t be said of every class-D amp.
Obviously, the M1’s high power output is impressive, but I’m more taken with how it sounds at low volume levels: extremely quiet, highly resolving, and with a sultry midrange smoothness that I’ve heard from no other class-D design. Fellow-reviewer Jason Thorpe called the M1’s sound “sophisticated” when he used a pair of them to review the Monitor Audio Platinum PL200 speakers for SoundStage! Ultra; while editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz, in his SoundStage! Ultra review of the M1 in January, described it as “darn near the ideal of a straight wire with gain” -- in short, extremely neutral. I agree with Jason and Jeff, which is why a pair of M1s has been part of my review system since I received them several months ago. The M1’s combination of high power, sonic refinement, and modest price makes it an extremely good value -- try a pair and you’ll hear.
Aurelia XO Cerica loudspeakers
Most of you probably haven’t heard of the Finnish speaker maker Aurelia, but you should know about them -- they’re doing great work. At the head is Antti Louhivaara, the lead designer at Amphion until 2006, which explains Aurelia’s use of waveguides in all its models. However, Louhivaara is doing some things at Aurelia that I haven’t ever seen done before -- mostly, using three tweeters inside a single waveguide, as in his topmost, XO line of speakers, the Cerica and Graphica. I suspect that most people will think this a crazy thing to do -- I certainly did the first time I saw it. But not so fast . . .
After talking with Louhivaara in May, at the Munich High End show, about what he’s trying to accomplish with such a crazy-looking driver array, I agreed to take a pair of XO Cericas for review. The speaker sells in Europe for €4300/pair including stands. As I write this, I’m waiting for the North American prices to be set; the brand has only recently arrived on this side of the Atlantic.
I wasn’t surprised to find that the XO Cerica sounded very neutral, exceedingly clean, highly transparent, and with a sound whose fullness belied the speaker’s size -- I’d heard similar things from Amphion speakers. What I didn’t expect was the Cericas’ soundstaging and imaging -- a stage as wide and deep as that of the best speakers I’ve heard, but with more specificity, tangibility, and dimensionality of images than I’ve experienced with any speakers at any price. Almost every time I listened to them, particularly the way they laid out soundstages, two words sprang to mind: Holy shit. In that regard, their performance is uncanny. So while the Cerica’s asking price isn’t insignificant for a stand-mounted speaker, it’s easily justified by the performance it offers. However, as with Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 740P, that’s all I’ll say for now about the Aurelia XO Cerica -- the rest will be in my review. But get to know this company -- I predict you’ll be hearing a lot more about them in the years to come. And if you’re keen on cutting-edge sound, you’ll probably be hearing their speakers, too.
Next month I’ll be writing about more gear -- the fall show season is about to get underway. By October 1, when this article is published, the CEDIA Expo will have taken place (September 26-28), and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) will be just days away (October 11-13). Our on-the-spot coverage of both events will be featured at SoundStage! Global, our show-reporting site, where you’ll be able to see everything happening at both shows. Later, I’ll write about my picks for the best products from the CEDIA Expo (November 1) and the best from RMAF (December 1). I look forward to finding out which they’ll be . . .
. . . Doug Schneider