I don’t usually look back at anything and almost always look forward, for better or worse. It’s just how I’m wired. I’m driven by possibilities and I enjoy the journey to a destination. One would think I’m not a fan of history, but that’s untrue. Understanding history enables us to understand, and in some cases predict, the future. First, let’s go way back, then look at 2022, followed by a look forward into 2023.
- Doubting opinions started trickling into the press and there have been attempts to restore some sanity in the general industrial hysteria surrounding stereo, but the hysteria still persists in high fidelity quarters.
- In the 1930s Bell Labs abandoned stereo as “having too little musical and esthetical potential.”
- “Other, lesser, reservations are that certain types of music, instruments and even compositions do not seem to lend themselves to stereo reproduction.”
- “The crux of the matter is that it takes components of the highest quality to achieve superior stereo effects, and this places the whole medium beyond the reach of most music lovers.”
- “Real high fidelity has always been a very expensive proposition, and first rate stereo will be twice as expensive.”
- “Nobody has yet decided what constitutes a good stereo record.”
- “Controversy is raging about the desirability or non desirability of recording the solo voice or solo instrument in stereo.”
- “Manufacturers will continue to advertise deluxe table model stereo sets with ten speakers, all for $39.95. The segment of the public that was fooled before will be fooled again. In the meantime there will always be reputable manufacturers to supply the needs of the serious, HiFi minded people.”
- “Is it worth it? Does the extra channel provide a few hundred dollars’ worth of realism?
Starting my immersive audio journey early in 2022, I soon realized there were many similarities between the move from mono to stereo, and the move from disc based playback to computer / music server playback. Reading through the New York Times’ archives was both entertaining and informative. Some of the opinions expressed in 1959 are identical to those expressed today, as are the real engineering challenges. In the following quotes from Orin Keepnews, in a 1959 article titled, “What Should 2-Channel Jazz Be Like?” we could replace the word “stereo” with “immersive” and they ring equally as true today.
“The sometimes disconcerting attempts made so far to record jazz groups stereophonically have brought into the open a rather provocative point: The people who make the recordings … have not been at all certain what jazz in stereo should sound like.”
“False standards of sound reproduction for jazz recordings have been created by monophonic disks.”
“In a night club you wold never hear the bass in a jazz group the way the listener insists on hearing it on a record. True night club fidelity would sound poor on records because in a club your eyes help to fill in what our ear is missing.”
“To some extent this explains why jazz disks have varied so widely in their approach to stereo, for these men who produce the records are not yet certain how far it is desirable to go in taking advantage of the opportunities for separation offer by two sound channels.”
“[I’ve] gotten over [my] early feeling that stereo was simply a gimmick.”
2022 Immersive Audio
I started writing about my immersive audio journey with the first article on February 25, 2022 (link). In the article I said,
“When Atmos music first came to my attention I assumed it was just a fad that would fade away like the previous multichannel music formats. I also voiced my displeasure for many of the early Atmos mixes because they were either cartoonish or so different the the mixing engineer was now the artist.
Fortunately, things are looking very bright for the future of Atmos music. The word on the street from professionals working in the music industry is that Atmos is real, many mixes are being created by the best people in the business, with artist involvement, and its benefits are really starting to shine.
Apple Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, and Tidal all offer Dolby Atmos Music. In addition to the streaming services, it’s possible to go old school and rip the Atmos content from a Blu-ray Disc. I think the time is right to jump in with both feet.”
I think by anyone’s definition, I jumped in with both feet, installing a 12 channel 7.1.4 Wilson Audio system (link). As I write this article at the end of December 2022, I’m even more excited about the future of immersive audio. However, 2022 wasn’t all about immersive audio. In fact, for most people immersive audio didn’t even cross their minds. Like them, I still enjoy my two channel stereo immensely and can’t imagine living without it.
I must also mention, this year Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound released the much anticipated multichannel version of Hang Loose Convolver. Without it, my immersive audio system would sound very disjointed.
It was terrific to return to Munich this year for the High End show. In my show report I said, “I know I missed some great stuff because I just asked one manufacturer why he wasn’t at the show, and he responded by telling me he has been here the whole time. Such is life. There’s always next year. Everyone who missed out this year, I understand the hesitancy, but you must come to High End 2023. The people, the products, and the vibe are outstanding. I’m already looking forward to it.” I really can’t wait for the show in May 2023. I’m also looking forward to AXPONA next year, and hope to see the Audiophile Style contingent there, more than anything.
Lucky Number 7
This year seven products made the CASH List. Yes, I know, I need to revamp the actual list of all the award winners over the years, but let’s not get caught up in the details right now. Here’s to the best products reviewed on Audiophile Style this year. If I had to select one product as the best of the best, I couldn’t. They don’t all do the same thing. I can say the three that most impressed me this year, in no particular order, are the Linn Next Generation Klimax DSM, T+A DAC 200, and Wilson Audio Alexia V loudspeakers.
The Audiopraise VanityPRO (link)
The Audiopraise VanityPRO is one of those tools every audiophile should have connected to his system at all times. Hang a Chromecast off the VanityPRO and connect it to an open input on the DAC. This way, one’s system is always capable to accepting audio from more sources and it’s going to make those sources sound as good as they possibly can. Audiophiles like me, will want one for frequent listening, not just the odd chance it’s needed. The VanityPRO opens up (and cleans up) a world of more audio content that’s unavailable via our typical streaming services.
The VanityPRO proved better than a direct HDMI input in my listening tests, and in the Audiopraise objective measurements. The device may look fairly industrial on the outside, but inside its dielectric barrier and dual power zones are features found in very high end components. I’m unfamiliar with Audiopraise as a company, but given that the team at Sonore is selling the VanityPRO and stands behind it, I have no worries.
The Audiopraise VanityPRO HDMI audio extractor is the product you need, whether you realize it or not, and is a product I won’t be sending back. Add to cart, add to system, add to enjoyment.
Next-generation Linn Klimax DSM (link)
The next-generation Linn Klimax DSM flagship network music player is truly the best product the company has ever made. The unique DAC architecture, stunning exterior fit and finish, and absolutely fantastic sound quality put it on the podium, to use Olympic terms. The Klimax DSM is among a very small class of components that I consider the best of the best. I rank the Klimax DSM right up there with the best products from dCS, EMM Labs, and Berkeley Audio Design.
The Next-generation Klimax DSM moves Linn from a company with great products and a dedicated following, to a company one must look at if one wants the best of the best. Welcome to this exclusive club Linn.
Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated D/A Converter (link)
The Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated D/A Converter is the beneficiary of decades of R&D, skilled engineers designing flagship products, and mostly cosmetic cost reductions. This DAC really belongs in the EMM Labs lineup, if the considerations are sound quality, who designed it, and where it’s manufactured (Canada by the way). We’ve all heard of manufacturers slapping expensive badges on cheap components, to sell them for much more money. This is a case of the opposite phenomenon. EMM Labs designed its flagship DV2, which I went crazy for, then essentially put it in a less expensive chassis (and scaled back a couple costly items), and called it a Meitner Audio MA3. This is a huge win for high end audio consumers.
The MA3 is a great sounding DAC, capable of receiving content directly via its Ethernet interface, and driving amplifiers directly without a problem. It offers delicacy, delineated reproduction, and an organic sound that will make listeners smile for years. If you’re only satisfied with the best, the EMM Labs DV2 is for you. I highly recommend everyone else consider picking up the MA3, sitting back, turning up the volume, and thinking about what to do with all that cash saved. Speaking of cash, the Meitner Audio MA3 is unequivocally CASH Listed.
Wilson Audio Alexia V (link)
The Wilson Audio Alexia V is an improvement over the Series 2, and other speakers in its class, on so many levels. There are objective reasons for this improvement, but the bottom line is drawn between one’s ears. I owned the Series 2 for three years, and now I’ve listened through the Alexia V for two months. The V is unequivocally superior to the Series 2 in every way. The Alexia V manages to bring order to musical chaos, in a way that I’ve never heard in an Alexia speaker, or anything in its class. Hearing a solo female vocal is one thing, but hearing the same detail, delineation, and texture from a full orchestra is something completely different. This is the order from chaos that sets Alexia V apart.
The Alexia V has more than enough slam and attack to pressurize a room and pound the listener in the chest, should the music call for it. That’s a hallmark of Wilson speakers, that I know my friends in the music business appreciate and will enjoy even more through the V. What really grabbed me immediately when listening through the Alexia V, was the midrange. It’s just magical. The midrange is liquid in the way that mercury is liquid, rather than an undefined globule of water. Mercury has delineated edges yet a smoothness and an unmistakable appearance. The Alexia V’s midrange is also unmistakable and will present one’s favorite music, on a platter, again for the first time.
I couldn’t be happier with my new Wilson Audio Alexia V loudspeakers. The look of the Silver Ice Pearl premium finish is stunning and the sound quality is second to none. It feels good to own an instant classic.
ZMF Atrium Headphones (link)
Due to its neutral frequency response, excellent soundstage (width and depth), superb detail retrieval, and class-leading microdynamics, I’m convinced that the Atrium might be not just the top ZMF headphone for most audiophiles, but also the top headphone, period, for most audiophiles. The ability to alter the Atrium’s tuning to taste by swapping pads and mesh only strengthens the case for the Atrium. Add in ZMF’s build quality, accessories, and warranty, and the Atrium sets the bar for all other “summit-fi” headphones.
T+A DAC 200 (link)
Many years from now, when T+A ceases DAC 200 production, this DAC will have an immediate cult following, and values on the used market will shoot up. This is one of those DACs that’ll be sought after for decades. It does so much, so right. It’s a product for which the CASH List was created. The DAC 200 is among the leaders, at any price, on our list of recommended hardware, and easily the leader among its peers anywhere near its $7,125 MSRP.
This DAC was designed to use its internal filters or take advantage of the great horsepower of an external upsampling computer running HQPlayer. Either way, the T+A DAC 200 delivers the goods. It’s a 10 out of 10 on its own, and an 11 out of 10 with the world class DSP from Jussi Laako’s HQPlayer.
After listening through the DAC 200 for a few weeks, using it with different sources, reading the user manual a couple times, and exchanging emails with the T+A team, I realized that T+A gets it. I’m willing to bet that many readers will immediately understand what “it” is, because they’ve also been immersed in this world of digital audio for many years and tried many different solutions in an effort to perfect their audio systems. T+A enables many of us to have the best of both worlds because the company gets it on so many levels, embraces cutting edge technologies, and has set a new standard for digital to analog conversion at a competitive price.
Well done T+A, well done.
Lumin T3 DAC / streamer and Lumin AMP (link)
The Lumin T3 DAC / streamer and Lumin AMP are both great individually and in combination with each other. While the amplifier may be considered a Lumin reference design, the T3 rests in that sweet spot where the lessons learned from reference designs are implemented for a much more reasonable price. The fully balanced dual mono design, from front to back in both T3 and AMP, really makes a sonic difference that can be enjoyed thoroughly. The majority of people can take my word for it that they don’t need to spend a lot of money, to find out they didn’t need to spend a lot of money. The T3 is one of those products that will perform close to the highest levels, but without the significant cost.
The T3 also enables listeners to bypass an analog preamp and connect straight to an amplifier (or two). Not all DACs are capable of this, no matter what manufacturers say. The T3 excels handsomely when connected directly to an amp, and I have no issues suggesting most users bypass a preamp if possible, when using the T3. Lumin’s decision to feature LEEDH volume control and still provide the option to use traditional volume control on the DAC chip (or no volume control at all) is much appreciated. Listeners can decide for themselves if LEEDH is for them. While nothing is for everyone, I’m willing to bet 99% of listeners will be as pleased with LEEDH volume control as I was. It’s a great feature and I’m happy Lumin is leading the way by implementing it on many of its products, via software update.
The Lumin AMP really surprised me. I’d heard it before and was pleased with its performance. But, this time I spent many hours pushing it, to see if I could find a weakness. To my satisfaction, I couldn’t find a reason to dissuade anyone from trying it in their own system. What I heard was all great. Great music and great sound quality, from a fairly compact component. The AMP is built very well and looks like one of those products that could be sent around the globe to audio shows, and be no worse for the wear. In less formal settings, people may say it’s built like a brick “outhouse,” if you know what I mean. Lumin’s commercial broadcast heritage, evolving from Pixel Magic Systems Ltd, is no doubt one reason for the bulletproof build quality.
Lumin is a solid company that builds solid products, with a track record of frequent improvements, delivered to listeners free of charge. The sound quality I heard through the Lumin T3 and Lumin AMP, in addition to the great product support and knowhow of the Lumin team, made for a terrific experience all around. The Lumin T3 and Lumin AMP are both CASH Listed, without hesitation.
Wrap up and Looking Forward
Easily the most important item on any list related to Audiophile Style is this community of incredibly smart, kind, generous, and enthusiastic people. I owe everyone of you the biggest THANK YOU possible. This site wouldn’t exist without all of you. Your knowledge humbles me on a daily basis, as does your willingness to share it with those of us from all over the world. Your music tastes are terrific and terrible, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Album of the Evening thread (link), going now for over a decade, continues to brighten my days. The wide range of musical tastes is only topped by the geographic locations and cultures you guys represent. This year, unlike any other, it has been wonderful to see contributions from @AnotherSpin, posting albums and opinions every day from Odessa.
This month I received the dCS Rossini APEX. It’s terrific to have a Rossini back in my system. However, this isn’t the Rossini I’ve come to know over the years. The APEX upgrade could’ve easily been placed into a different product, somewhere between the Rossini and Vivaldi, leaning much closer to Vivaldi than Rossini. I only have a few hours on the Rossini APEX and look forward to spending plenty of time enjoying music through this gem. My full review will come out in early 2023.
Side note: The dCS Rossini is the single product about which I receive the most messages, questions, and emails.
Last but not least, I want to mention how I’ve been listening to music recently and plan to do so into 2023. As strange as it sounds, I’ve slowed things down and taken a more deliberate approach to listening. No, I’m not getting into vinyl, but I have taken a page from the vinyl lover’s playbook. Many of us know how important clocking is to digital audio. As I experimented with some clocking configurations recently, I had to manually set the sample rate on a couple devices before playing an album. Several weeks later, I’m still taking this manual and mindful approach to playback. The sonic results are amazing, but just as important, my enjoyment of the music has increased. This is similar to how my enjoyment of photography is increased when shooting film with my Hasselblad 503CW. There are only 12 shots on each roll of 120 film, versus the unlimited number on any one of my digital cameras.
Today, when it comes to music, we have everything all the time. Streaming lossless, high resolution, and even immersive audio has made music seem infinite. As humans we tend to devalue that which is infinite, in favor of the finite. After school on September 1, 1989 I biked to Down in the Valley record store, to spend the money I’d saved up, on Motley Crue’s Dr Feelgood compact disc. I listened to every song on that disc and read the liner notes until the paper was worn out. Every song meant something to me and I discovered deep tracks by listening to them myself. While certainly not the soundtrack of a generation or a poetic masterpiece, Dr. Feelgood was the only new music I had until I saved up enough money for something else. I cherished it for weeks, and to this day know every word to every song (sorry mom).
Slowing down by adjusting my audio system between albums if necessary, reminds me of the days when music was finite. Even though I still have everything at my fingertips, the process of listening is deliberate and seems to place more value on the album that’s currently playing through my system. While it’s nice to switch between native DSD1024, 24/176.4, 24/96, 7.1.4 immersive with the tap of a finger, without hearing a click when the sample rate changes, and without even knowing the format of the album, we should be cognizant of the our end goals and if this really increases our enjoyment of this wonderful hobby.
I wish health, happiness, and a wonderful new year to the entire Audiophile Style community.