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Roon’s Big Makeover

Putting sound quality issues aside for a moment, when you ask an audiophile who has yet to embrace digital and streaming sources why he hasn’t made the leap, the answer usually includes the difficulty in easily and accurately connecting with and finding all the different music in his library. As someone who embraced digital music and streaming early on, I have to admit that finding all my digital music files has never been as simple as going to my record shelves and pulling out an album, but it should be that easy.

Roon’s latest version, 1.8, finally makes finding music, both in your home library and Roon’s supported streaming services, Qobuz and Tidal, almost as easy and intuitive as grabbing an album off the shelves, but with less crouching. To accomplish this required a major overhaul of Roon, which is why Roon 1.8 is such a big deal. And while longtime users won’t find radical changes in the basic layout, ergonomics, and playback methodology, they will, if they begin to explore, discover that Roon now uses its vast troves of metadata in a far more feature-rich manner that it happily shares with its users.

What Is Roon?

For readers who are unfamiliar with Roon, it is an application that claims to be “the ultimate music player for music fanatics.” Roon accomplishes this in several ways. First, it unites home libraries and streaming services libraries from Tidal, Qobuz, and Dropbox into one comprehensive, cohesive, and completely searchable library. And Roon’s search functions are extensive (we’ll get into how powerful and flexible later). Next, it makes it easy to send music to any room in your home via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Finally, it provides a stable, hardware-agnostic platform that allows for individual optimization of every DAC you may possess.

Roon Artists

The Roon application has three different, yet complementary, parts. The main part is the Roon Core. This is the section of Roon that does all the processing and interfacing. When using Roon, the Core section must be active at all times and should be on a computer with multiple processing cores, as well as a solid-state storage drive for the app itself. I’ve had my Roon Core (actually the desktop version, which is a combination of the Roon Core and Controller) on an Apple MacPro desktop, titanium trashcan model, for several years now.

Roon’s Core can also be installed on its own dedicated computer, and Roon even sells a “Nucleus” stand-alone computer that is specifically configured to run Roon. Roon offers two versions, the Nucleus ($1459) and the Nucleus Plus ($2559). You can also install the Roon Core application on one of 17 different Intel NUC computers that Roon has approved for Roon Core installation. Prices for these range from around $300 to just under $1000 for a NUC10i7FNx with case and solid-state drive. How hard is it to build you own NUC to run Roon? Here’s a quote from someone after a build: “It took literally 49 seconds to install and after that simply run Roon, select the core (which popped up immediately), and copy my music files to the internal 1TB SSD I installed.”

The other two parts of the Roon playback application are the Controller and the endpoints. The Controller app is the interface part that lets users make Roon sing and dance. It can be installed on any Android or iOS phone, Windows or Mac desktop or tablet, and offers all the control functions for Roon. An endpoint is any playback device that Roon supports. In my Roon system I currently have 16 endpoints, which includes four Raspberry Pi’s, three DACs connected via USB to my MacPro desktop, two DAC/streamers, several portable players, and a host of iOS and Android devices. Because I can, I have all my Roon endpoints connected via CAT 5 Ethernet, but Roon supports Wi-Fi (and AirPlay) as well as Ethernet endpoints.

Roon can be purchased one of several ways. You can get monthly, yearly, or lifetime subscriptions. Recently Roon raised its lifetime subscription rates, but did not discontinue them, although lifetime subscriptions would not be capable of supporting Roon long-term. Current rates in the U.S. are $12.99 for monthly, $119.88 for yearly ($9.99/per month), or $699 for lifetime subscriptions.

Abbey Road Studios and Bowers & Wilkins Extend Partnership to Transform In-car Audio Entertainment

The following is a press release issued by Abbey Road Studios and Bowers & Wilkins.

May 13, 2021 – Over the last five years Abbey Road Studios has been exploring future music technologies, including machine learning and spatial audio, via its music-tech innovation arm Abbey Road Red. Meanwhile, Bowers & Wilkins has been perfecting the art of bringing leading-edge loudspeaker technology to the car environment with BMW, McLaren and Volvo.

Now, the two brands are combining their expertise to bring the Studios’ unique acoustic personality to the in-car listening experience for the first time, offering unparalleled sound quality while remaining respectful to the original recording. The partnership between Abbey Road Studios and Bowers & Wilkins will elevate the sound quality and expand the acoustic environment of automotive audio systems, seeking to deliver the most believable listening experience possible.

Dan Shepherd, Director of Automotive Partnerships from Bowers & Wilkins says: “We are thrilled to work with Abbey Road Studios on our shared mission to elevate the in-car experience and bring drivers and passengers across the globe a new and exciting way to enjoy their music.”

Jeremy Huffelmann, General Manager, Abbey Road Studios says: “We are delighted to be extending the remit of our partnership with Bowers & Wilkins to co-develop our offering in the automotive sector. Through our shared passion for creative excellence and the highest quality audio, we will be exploring technologies to further the goal of creating the most accurate listening experiences possible for consumers.”

Q&A with Max Townshend of Townshend Audio.

What ignited your interest in high-end audio? 

At the age of ten, I was serendipitously introduced to Guglielmo Marconi’s assistant, Ernest Wishshaw. His inability to read resistor color codes meant I became a fixture in his workshop, which manufactured ultra-high-quality tube amplifiers. That’s where I first heard high-quality reproduced sound, and that pursuit has been my goal ever since. My grandmother played the piano in the cinema for silent movies. When vinyl arrived, she commissioned me to make an LP player. Music was part of our lives—jazz, pop, and classical. When American rock and roll discs landed in Australia, I converted Garrard record decks to play 33s. I’ve been building record players ever since.

 

What differentiates high-end audio from other forms of audio? 

I’m fascinated by the sound that emanates from any instrument, whether a bass drum or a violin. I was driven to find a way to replicate those subtle and complex sounds exactly. It’s not easy and has taken a lifetime, as there is so much audio housekeeping to get it just right. Audiophiles are perfectionists and are never satisfied until the music is truly convincing. Mechanically isolating all equipment is so important to getting the attack and decay correct for each and every note. To create a truly convincing sound I’ve had to revisit every component in the chain. 

 

What was your first high-end system? What year was this?

In the early seventies, I made a version of the HQD speaker system, which comprised two KEF B139 bass drivers, a pair of stacked Quad ESL-57s, and a pair of Decca Ribbon tweeters. 

 

How did Townshend Audio come about?

In 1975 I set up Townshend Audio in Sydney to market long-contact parabolic diamond styli for record players. The market was wide open, so I moved to the UK in 1978. A chance encounter with Professor Jack Dinsdale, inventor of the transformerless transistor power amplifier, led me to head up the production of his invention of the front-end damping trough, which was incorporated in the Rock Turntable and Excalibur tonearm. We made very successful amplifiers, preamplifiers, the plaster-lined Glastonbury II speakers, interconnects, and impedance-matched speaker cables. We made the first Seismic Sink isolation platform in 1989. But it was our Allegri autotransformer preamplifier that spearheaded our greatest musical playback advance. The volume control is the weakest link in the audio system, and it has taken a further ten years of development to arrive at our latest, the Allegri Reference preamplifier.

Manufacturing the entire system has been my life’s work, and I have nearly finished! There is a DAC, a universal disc player, a hybrid power amplifier, and an 18-driver focused-line-array speaker imminent. The synergy of these audio components together is a dream to hear.

 

How would you contrast the Townshend philosophy of isolation versus traditional mass-loading?

I spent the first half of my life with spikes and mass loading everywhere except the turntable. Then we tried the Seismic Sink under a CD player, and it won an award in 1991. My Italian importer tried it under his speakers and was shocked. We have now been manufacturing high-quality, very low frequency cutoff isolation. Once you have heard it you can never go back.

 

What interesting fact or aspect about Townshend might surprise audiophiles?

We were early adopters of cryogenically treated cables, which evolved into our fractal treatment of copper. We also made the first practical ribbon super- tweeters and the most effective turntable tonearm design with both isolation and active tonearm damping, plus the first 0.5dB-step, remote-controlled, fully isolated, passive autotransformer preamp (no power cord, no tubes, no transistors, and no noise). 

 

Are you surprised at the strength of analog two-channel playback?

Two-channel will always be king, offering the best playback if the mastering is well executed. It’s the audiophile’s preference for listening to classical and acoustic music. Surround sound can be great fun for movies and TV, and the mastering process is less likely to matter in the overall delivery of the performance.

 

What are the greatest challenges facing the high-end industry? 

Pushing the boundaries of audio playback requires more understanding of our art form objectively—not just hearing, but understanding through measurements. My research exposes the correlation between cable geometry and hence characteristic impedance. 

 

What do you do for fun?

Family time is precious and luckily my wonderful family shares my love and passion for music. Oh, and I love to sail.

 

What (still) inspires you about your work?

Musical truthfulness inspires me. I judge a system by the time it takes me to enter that metaphysical moment when the left and right hemispheres work together slipping you into alpha waves. It’s the nirvana we all seek. I like to share these moments with my friends. I’m happy that I have spent my life doing this.

Naim Launches Uniti Atom Headphone Edition: The Ultimate Music Source for Headphones

The following is a press release issued by Naim.

Salisbury, England | May 11, 2021 – British hi-fi specialist, Naim Audio has launched Uniti Atom Headphone Edition – a headphone-optimized version of its multiple-award-winning Uniti Atom music streaming system, designed to be the ultimate solo listening source. Unlike traditional headphone amplifiers and DACs, which require a separate computer or streaming device, Uniti Atom Headphone Edition is a fully formed music-streaming system: just add headphones.

Uniti Atom Headphone Edition is fully re-engineered to offer the optimal personal listening performance. Using trickle-down technology from its flagship Statement amplifier, Naim has engineered a new discrete headphone amplifier, capable of powering even the most premium headphones – such as Focal Utopia – with ease.

Naim’s unique music-streaming platform serves up incredible sound quality, allowing you to escape into your own digital music collection, services such as Qobuz, TIDAL and Spotify, and a world of Internet radio – including a curated collection of HD stations – and podcasts. AirPlay 2 support, Chromecast built-in and Roon Ready status add even more streaming options, while analogue and digital inputs mean you can connect many other sources, too – including turntables – and a USB input supports playback from sticks/drives. Enjoy a huge range of music file formats, in resolutions up to 32bit/384kHz.

In addition, Uniti Atom Headphone Edition features a completely new transformer design, dedicated to providing – in true Naim tradition – the very best power supply to the headphone amplification circuitry. The new discrete transistor circuit design enables Uniti Atom Headphone Edition to gain balanced headphone outputs, on both 4 pin XLR and Pentaconn, maximizing the performance of high-end headphones with those connections. There is also a standard 6.3mm output.

“We have designed this special edition of the mighty Uniti Atom to be the premium music streaming system for solo listening – just add headphones to escape into your own world of high-quality sound,” said Paul Neville, Naim Research & Development Director.

Uniti Atom Headphone Edition can also double-up as a streaming pre-amplifier, feeding active loudspeakers for an instant system, or a power amplifier driving passive speakers.

Uniti Atom Headphone Edition is priced at $3,290, matching the price of the standard Uniti Atom.

It joins the following members of the Naim Uniti range:

  • Uniti Atom – the compact music streaming player: $3290
  • Uniti Star -– the CD-playing & music streaming player: $4990
  • Uniti Nova – the powerful music streaming player: $5990
  • Uniti Core – powerful music hub with bit-perfect CD ripping: $2790

For more information, visit: https://www.naimaudio.com/product/uniti-atom-headphone.

Selling Steve Hackett by the Pound

Steve Hackett is not a man who could ever be accused of possessing idle hands. Ever since he stepped away from his role as the lead guitarist in Genesis in 1977, the veteran British musician has released over two-dozen solo and collaborative albums, along with numerous live recordings. Hackett has also made a point of establishing himself as an international touring force, supported by a top-shelf backing band that has the collective chops required to expertly tackle the more progressive-leaning entries his always challenging setlists cull from the prime 1971–77 Genesis era that bore his compositional stamp—not to mention handling his own highly experimental solo material.

In fact, over just the last half-year alone, Hackett has seen fit to release a three-disc (2CD/1BD) live collection, Selling England by the Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live at Hammersmith (InsideOut Music)—one that bookends multiple onstage performances from a beloved benchmark Genesis album with choice selections from one of his own best solo efforts—as well as publish a long-awaited autobiography, Genesis in My Bed (Wymer Publishing), plus serve up an all-new acoustic-driven, isolation-inspired travelogue, Under the Mediterranean Sea (InsideOut Music). 

In his autobiography, Hackett observes that “music doesn’t exist in splendid isolation,” which makes the scope of Mediterranean Sea that much more poignant. “I think what I was hinting at there was the idea that people design music in order for it to be received by others,” he clarifies. “If you were just doing it for yourself, it may well be that you would come up with a very different kind of product.”

Hackett’s pastoral sound leanings often hearken back to another era entirely, something he equates to his admiration for the legendary Spanish classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia. “His music is very poetic and very symbolic. There’s something about the way he bends the rhythm and takes time over a phrase, holding it because of the barre chord,” Hackett explains. “It’s a bit like an embrace. You get the feeling someone’s making love to the instrument, rather than just reading off the dots. It’s much more engaging. I’m told it’s a romantic, 19th century approach—and I’m just a 19th century guy, really. I like the way people played at that time, with lots of hammering on and hammering off to get different tones, and not articulating every note to the benefit of getting those varied tone colors.”

Classical elements permeate much of Hackett’s work—but it goes even further than that. “There are a lot of classical influences,” he allows, “but it’s a bit like classical meets blues. Blues was really the genre where guitar came alive, sonically. And then, of course, it was transmitted to all these other styles. I guess progressive music really attempts to bridge the gap between all these various genres. It’s also a generation gap that’s being bridged as well. The best progressive music certainly takes you places.”

The blues burble underneath the surface of everything Hackett does. “I think it’s what I’ve been all about. Certainly in my professional life, I wanted to be a blues guitarist and harmonica player. I wanted to be Blind Willie Hackett, actually,” he says with a laugh. “But I ended up doing something else, which was joining Genesis. And I found all the other guys were into very different things from each other—but everybody was pointed in the same direction.”

GoldenEar BRX

The BRX sits at the top rung of the ladder in GoldenEar’s Bookshelf Series—a lineup that includes the well-regarded Aon Models 2 and 3. This two-way compact employs a driver complement similar to that of the Aons, but the similarities stop there. The BRX goes a step further by tapping into the high-end technologies of the Triton Series Reference tower speakers. Barely topping a foot in height and finished in a deep, hand-rubbed black lacquer, the BRX cabinets look elegant. Edges are softly rounded, side panels flare outward slightly from front-to-back, where discrete grilles cover the passive planar radiators beneath. 

Taking a look under the hood, there’s a lot going on inside the BRX’s well-braced enclosure. There are four drivers in total—two active ones, including a ribbon tweeter, otherwise known as Golden- Ear’s Reference High-Gauss High-Velocity Folded Ribbon (this is the same Air-Motion Transformer [AMT] type used in both the Triton Reference and Triton One.R.), and a 6″ polypropylene-cone mid/bass transducer, cradled in a cast-basket with GoldenEar’s focused-field magnet structure. The mid/bass cone has a proprietary curve for superior internal damping and speed. It’s also the same basic driver used in GoldenEar’s Triton Reference tower.  

Positioned at either side of the cabinet are a pair of inertially balanced, 6.5″ passive planar radiators. They acoustically load the active mid/bass driver, as well as couple bass energy to the room. While passive radiators are less commonly used than ports, they tend to achieve the same goals, while avoiding the turbulence and resonances often found in some (not all) ported bass-reflex configuration. GE’s “balanced crossover” uses a floating configuration and sports high-quality film capacitors. Even the internal speaker wire has been sourced from the Triton Reference. The BRX’s sensitivity is rated at 90dB, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, which makes for an easy drive. But don’t scrimp on amp quality since the mid/bass driver likes power, and you’ll want to get the most sugar you can out of the sweet ribbon tweeter.

In sonic performance, the BRX is a natural, in the sense that it just seems born to play chamber and jazz classics. It reproduces the timbral and harmonic complexities and spatial qualities of real acoustic settings as if they are etched into its DNA. Tonally, the BRX has a neutral-to-warmish signature. Midrange octaves are rich and textured, with a more romantic timbral character that reproduces music in a mellower light, as if it has a softer rose complexion. There are no discernable audio suckouts in response. In this regard, the BRX has an especially deft touch with winds and layered strings, which it transmits with a buoyancy that lifts them within the orchestra. The BRX even stands up to the challenge of reproducing the blat of a trombone or the thick reedy airflow of a tenor sax, recreating both with recognizable heft and impact and only minor compression.

The BRX floats a compellingly dimensional soundstage in the listening room—a feature consistent with a speaker that seems to avoid the more confrontational, forward-leaning (okay, aggressive) signature of many small monitors. Imaging is very good and well-focused, but always rooted within the musical whole of the performance rather than standing outside it. In painterly terms, the BRX is more of a landscape artist than a portraitist. Rather than zeroing in on a closeup to the exclusion of the overall atmosphere of the performance, the BRX creates a canvas that takes in the larger picture. I’d describe its perspective as slightly relaxed, as if you were seated just a row or two farther back from the stage. BRX successfully walks the fine line between parts and wholes like few compacts I’ve heard in my listening room.

Its treble range is well-nigh effortless—agile, airily transparent, and non-fatiguing in the way ribbon tweeters tend to be. The critical sibilance range is smooth and natural. An excellent voice speaker, the BRX expertly registers a singer’s subtle shifts of emotion by means of dynamic and timbral modulations. 

A New Legend is Born: Siltech Classic Legend Series

The following is a press release issued by Siltech.

May 10, 2021 – We proudly introduce this new milestone in Siltech’s product range – the result of years of engineering to push the boundaries of improving sound quality and technology. The Classic Legend range is now featured in rich details on our official website https://www.siltechcables.com/classic-legend-series/.

The time has come for a Classic to become a Legend.

Siltech’s new Classic Legend series represents the culmination of over three decades worth of research.

Classic Legend offers three different models within the series: 380, 680, and 880. The line includes interconnects, speakers, and power cables.

The new G9 silver-gold conductors, the revolutionary 3-layer high-tech insulation together with the improved super silent shielding increase the already superior quality that audiophiles have come to expect from our cables.

Our engineers achieved a massive improvement in technology, sound quality and accurate timing, using improved metallurgy G9 alloy in up to 2 times bigger conductors, 1.5 times more insulation and new super silent shielding.

All of these innovations result in a superbly resolved sound with a smooth, balanced tonality and exceptional stereo imaging properties.

Legends are timeless and these cables are no exception. Investing in the Classic Legend cables will bring you legendary performance for years to come.

For more information please visit www.siltechcables.com

Frank Sinatra: Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra

Released in 1950 as a 10-inch EP, Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra marked another turning point in a career that began with dance orchestras before turning to crooning ballads, only to—with this augmented 12-inch LP release—blossom into the swinging, finger-snapping, soon-to-be rat-packing Sinatra etched in memory. Side One gathers the original eight tunes—“Lover,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “My Blue Heaven,” “You Do Something To Me,” “When You’re Smiling,” etc.—while the flip side features bonus and alternate takes as well as some fun studio interplay. Before booze, smoke, and age roughed up his voice, here is Sinatra at his youthful finest. And my do he and his band deliver the goods. The sound lacks both frequency and dynamic extremes—as one would expect given the vintage here—but it hardly matters when the heart of the action, Sinatra’s voice, is presented with such immediacy and refreshing purity. Being recorded in mono, which as we know does not present stereo-like imaging, Sinatra stands front and center, with the orchestra clearly arrayed behind him with a suggestion of depth. Impex’s stellar reissue (the cover alone is worth the admission price) is a must-have for Sinatra lovers.

Rega P6 Turntable, RB330 Tonearm, Neo PSU, and Ania Moving-Coil Cartridge

For a company that produced just five turntable models over its first 20-something years—1973’s original Planet (with a steel and aluminum platter), the original aluminum platter Planar (only 200 units made), followed by the long-in-production Planar 3 and 2 (the first commercial models sporting glass platters)—Rega has been on a roll this past decade, with a flurry of new designs I find it hard to keep pace with.

That said, Rega doesn’t release new models for the sake of it, just when significant improvements to previous ideas merit it. Having reviewed five Rega ’tables for this publication between 2012 and 2014, it’s been a while since I’ve taken a spin with a new Rega—a gap now bridged with Rega’s latest mid-priced design, the P(lanar)6. 

Priced at $1595 with no cartridge—or $1995 (Exact mm), $2195 (Ania mc, which is how I’m reviewing it), or $2495 (Ania Pro mc) when fitted with one of three Rega cartridges—the P6 falls smack in the middle of Rega’s current lineup; with the Planar models 1, 2, and 3 below it, and the 8 and 10 above. Given the excellence of the P6’s performance, Rega’s deserved reputation as a high-value option remains solidly assured.

rega_p6_close

Should any reader need a refresher, Rega’s longstanding design philosophy is pretty straightforward, and rather contrary to the rest of the industry’s thinking. Rega’s iconoclastic founder and owner Roy Gandy firmly believes that lightweight, rigid plinths retain less airborne and playback-generated resonance than massive designs do, and therefore allow the entire package to more accurately track the miniscule canyons pressed into vinyl LPs. 

This isn’t the place to weigh in on the myriad pros and cons of various turntable design philosophies. Like most opinions, everybody’s got at least one. And as I’ve written before, my lengthy experience with analog rigs—from the earliest Regas, Linn LP12s, and Goldmund Studios I once sold at retail, to the countless designs reviewed over the years, to my current reference Basis 2200 Signature/Vector 4 ’arm—I’ve found great musical satisfaction in wildly different approaches to turntable design. Be they lightweight on fixed plinths, like the Regas are, or massive designs with fixed plinths, or lighter suspended designs or heavier…the list goes on ad infinitum, as does the range of materials employed.

Besides, I really couldn’t add much to what my TAS colleague Paul Seydor so thoughtfully explained in Issue 311 in his review of the Helius Alexia turntable and Omega tonearm, and its accompanying sidebar “Vinyl Problems and Solutions, Theoretical and Real,” which I highly recommend reading. 

PS Audio Releases Sunlight Firmware Upgrade PerfectWave DirectStream DAC and DirectStream Jr.

The following is a press release issued by PS Audio.

Boulder, Colorado, May 4, 2021 PS Audio has released its Sunlight firmware upgrade for its PerfectWave DirectStream DAC and DirectStream Jr. The new OS enables the DirectStream DAC to deliver an extraordinary new level of musical realism and improved performance including quad-rate DSD capability, and significantly enhances the audio quality of the DirectStream Jr.

“The sonic improvements provided by the Sunlight are not subtle – it’s like getting an entirely new DAC,” said Paul McGowan, PS Audio CEO. “Sunlight is the result of testing more than 20 iterations of code and months of programming, listening and fine-tuning by our digital engineering guru Ted Smith, senior hardware engineer Darren Myers and others on the development team. It’s the ultimate expression of PS Audio’s ‘mountaintop’ series of upgrades.”

The Sunlight upgrade is made possible because the PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC is one of the few DACs on the market that is fully programmable, by means of its FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) core processing engine. This flexible architecture allows every parameter that controls the DirectStream DAC to be configured and tweaked.

With the Sunlight OS, the DirectStream DAC will now accept quad-rate DSD via its I2S input. By precisely controlling the clock timing of the signals in the various stages of the circuit, noise and jitter are significantly reduced. The sonic results of the Sunlight upgrade are a greater sense of resolution and space, a more natural tonal balance with improved top-end extension, better micro and macro dynamics, and a much more involving and engaging musical presentation overall.

Sunlight OS for the PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC can be downloaded free of charge by clicking on this link. Sunlight OS for the DirectStream Jr. can be downloaded at this link. In addition, Sunlight can be purchased pre-loaded onto an SD card (for the DirectStream DAC or USB stick (for the DirectStream Jr.) for $29 by clicking here.

McIntosh C53 Preamplifier and MCT500 SACD/CD Transport

McIntosh’s C53 preamplifier is the successor to the outstanding C52, which I reviewed two years ago in TAS 283 (I purchased the review sample). Like many preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers these days, the C52 is an analog/digital hybrid housing an on-board DAC. McIntosh called the C52 “the most advanced, single-chassis solid-state preamplifier we’ve ever made,” and despite a seven-grand retail, sales were extremely brisk. Little wonder: its matchless connectivity such that it handles virtually every audio format of two-channel analog and digital sources available for home consumption at performance levels that reach state of the art. Yet, here we have a replacement for which the manufacturer makes the same claim and which is so literally identical as regards circuitry, features, connectivity, performance, sound quality, size, and appearance—side by side the only differentiating clues the new model number under the McIntosh logo on the fascia and an HDMI port on the rear—that I’ll skip the usual descriptive tour around and through the unit, and also a detailed consideration of its sound, referring you instead to my review of the original (TAS 283 and at theabsolutesound.com). Mentally replace “C52” with C53” and you have the review. 

So why a new model and why a review? Two things: fears of obsolescence and television sound. Despite the C52’s strong sales, a number of potential buyers demurred, fearing that in an area as fast-moving as digital audio their purchase might soon become obsolete. So the engineers went back to the drawing board and designed a new digital audio module, designated the DA2. The DA2 is both removable and upgradable as new digital formats or components come along, all without having to replace the entire preamplifier. Already the DA2 benefits from a later generation of the popular ESS components that constitute the heart of the onboard DAC. It has the same connectivity (2 coaxial, 2 optical, 1 USB, and 1 proprietary MCT for use with the MCT series of SACD/CD transports), plus an additional feature that for me is something of a game-changer: a new audio-only HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) that, according to McIntosh’s literature, “allows it to be connected to TVs with a compatible HDMI (ARC) output to bring your TV sound to a new level of audio performance by listening to it through your home stereo system. Popular multichannel audio formats from Dolby and DTS are supported and will be expertly converted to 2-channel audio for proper playback through the C53. When CEC communication is enabled in both the C53 and your TV, your TV remote can control the power and volume of the C53.” 

But since McIntosh is primarily an audio company and TAS an audio magazine, who cares about TV sound, and isn’t it already available anyhow? Easier to answer the latter first. No, or at least not easily. Increasingly, all these fancy new “smart” TVs have dispensed with RCA jacks that provide a mixed-down audio signal for connection to two-channel sound systems, while some new smart TVs no longer have even a headphone jack that could be counted on (more or less) for the same thing. Without those, the only way to get two channels out of your television is the TosLink connection, but that requires an accommodating DAC, whether built-in or outboard. Even then, the sound you’ll get, while usually an improvement over the RCA and headphone-jack alternatives, is not nearly as good as what you would get from a properly mixed down two-channel signal because, as McIntosh’s literature suggests, such popular multichannel formats as Dolby and DTS are not consistently supported by or correctly converted via the TosLink output. In other words, it’s still something of a dumbed-down way of getting quality two-channel audio out of a television.

McIntosh MCT500

There is a third alternative. A number of third-party vendors sell devices that claim to split off a stereo signal from an HDMI output. These devices are quite inexpensive ($15–$50 or so) and readily available on Amazon or other sites. I’ve tried some with at worst no success at all (no sound comes out) or middling results that are no better than the headphone and RCA jacks on earlier TVs and usually not as good. The reality is that some pretty sophisticated conversion protocols and circuitry are required to do a correct two-channel down-conversion. I’m not sure if you can find that on processors, receivers, preamplifiers, and integrated amplifiers that are home-theater products, but so far as I am aware, McIntosh’s DA2 module is unique in being able to do this the right way on a preamplifier otherwise designed strictly for the reproduction of high-end two-channel. While I cannot provide details on how the company accomplishes this, the circuit being proprietary, I can report that the results are genuinely revelatory. 

But first, let’s return to the question of who cares about two-channel TV sound. Well, I do, for one, and so do many people I know whose listening rooms must do double-duty as TV rooms, yet who don’t want to invest in multichannel setups or augment (purists might say “corrupt”) their two-channel systems with home-theater components. According to McIntosh, quite a number of their customers feel the same way—another reason, in addition to upgradability, for the DA2. As many of my readers know, I am a film editor (features mostly, some non-commercial TV), and I oversee the sound mixing and dubbing of all the films I edit. Yet I don’t have a home-theater setup, nor do many of my colleagues who work in movies. (Indeed, I personally know far fewer movie professionals with surround-sound home-theater than I do without.) Speaking for myself, I don’t much enjoy “hardware” movies such as all those big tentpole productions. My idea of a really long night at the movies, whether at home or in theaters, consists in superhero movies, action “epics,” space-opera, and other kinds of mass-market sci-fi, with soundtracks proliferated with bullets, explosions, high-speed chases, rockets, laser ordnance, and other sorts of futuristic weaponry, not to mention grunts, groans, growls, roars, screams, screeches, and other effusions of monsters from the Mesozoic Era to galaxies far off and away—all this without mentioning near non-stop music loud enough to cause hearing damage.  

Nor do I much care for sound effects coming from all around me whether at home or in theaters. My reasons for this require a much longer discussion than there is space for in an audio review, so I’ll reduce it to a single sentence: I find it both weird and distracting to have sounds coming from behind, above, or beside me when the image remains stubbornly in front of me. I’ll let you in on a little secret. A remarkably large number of filmmakers feel the same way, including quite a few directors. Most of us got into this business because we wanted to tell stories that mean something to us and that we hope will mean something to others as well. When it comes to all those CGI visual and sound effects, most of us feel that less definitely equates to more. And while I’ve heard some impressive music-only surround-sound demonstrations (notably courtesy of Peter McGrath and his own outstanding recordings), I have neither space nor inclination to set up something similar at home. These admissions may suggest that as regards both my vocation and my avocation I’m in the wrong line of work, but there appears to be enough of us to constitute a market worth accommodating. (According to McIntosh, this includes a considerable number of their customers.)

Audience Introduces its Studio ONE and Studio TWO Cables and Power Cords

San Marcos, CA, May 4, 2021 – Audience today announced the introduction of its Studio ONE and Studio TWO Series interconnects and speaker cables, designed to offer exceptional high-end sound quality. The Studio ONE and Studio Two are available as RCA and XLR (balanced) interconnects, and speaker cable. In addition, the Studio ONE lineup includes phono and headphone cables and a new power cord.

The Studio ONE Series replaces the previous Au24SE cable line and offers upgraded performance at no increase in price, through the use of high-purity OFC (oxygen-free copper) wire and an improved XLPE (cross-linked polyethylene) dielectric material. In addition, Studio ONE cables receive Audience’s proprietary EHVP Extreme High-Voltage Process, which applies high voltages in specific combinations in order to align the crystalline structure of the various metals used in the cables and facilitate more efficient signal transfer – and better sound.

StudioTWO_RCA

Audience’s Studio TWO cables are the successor to the previously-available Conductor SE lineup. They utilize the same core wire as the Studio ONE without the EHVP treatment, and feature different connectors. Like the Studio ONE, these cables deliver significantly better performance than the models they replace, with improved dynamics, coherence and realism and without an increase in price.

John McDonald, president of Audience noted, “Thanks to advances in our manufacturing processes and ability to obtain better materials, our new Studio ONE and Studio TWO products offer even better value to discerning audiophiles. They deliver the exceptional quality of sound that Audience has become acclaimed for, offering a rich, detailed and natural presentation with wide dynamics, spaciousness and an accurate tonal balance. They deliver superb transient response and a wealth of musical information without ever sounding ‘hard’ or ‘etched,’ and are ideal for a wide range of high-end audio components and systems.”

Like all Audience products, Studio ONE and Studio TWO interconnects, speaker cables and power cords are made in the USA from premium materials, to the highest standards of manufacturing quality. Audience Studio ONE cables are available now at suggested retail prices starting at $1,199 for a meter pair of RCA interconnects. Studio TWO cables are also available now with suggested retail prices starting at $699 for a meter pair of RCA interconnects. Please consult an authorized Audience dealer for pricing on additional lengths and configurations.