The Minimal-Maximal Hi-Rez Audio System

I like instrument-grade electronics and small form factors, and I've been chipping away at creating the smallest possible sound systems that have superlative sound quality. This has only recently become possible.

Before about 3 or 4 years ago, there were lots of good headphone and speaker amps, but there were none that I'm aware of that pushed the limits of measurability — with -120db being the floor for noise and distortion. With the advent of THX standards and engineering, and now Hypex-based class-D amps, we are reaching that limit for analog. With the advent of Benchmark, RME, Okto, Matrix Audio, and Topping DACs, digital is probing theoretical limits of -130db. With the advent of Audeze and other planar-magnetic headphones, plus possibly the Neumann headphones, we now have headphones that are about as free from harmonic distortion as it is possible for a moving diaphragm to be. Speakers — well, speakers probably cannot get away from audible distortion below 100hz because the mass of the diaphragms and their pistonic motion impose physical limitations on what may be possible.

Nevertheless, if the signal chain is high-resolution digital all the way through to the thing that finally creates a pressure wave in the air, then we can be confident we are hearing most of what the artist intended to be heard on a recording. This is more possible right now than it ever was in the past, and in fact, it's possible with equipment of diminutive size and small footprint. All-digital front ends can go straight into active, DSP-processing speaker systems through balanced connections that eliminate interference noise. The question then becomes whether the speakers can behave in a room well enough to present a 3-D soundstage.

On this last point, I'm not sure the market has quite caught up. The Dutch & Dutch 8C and Kii speakers are the most compelling steps toward the ultimate goal. However, the market is still in monkey coffins, and Siegfried Linkwitz's revolutionary dipole designs are cries in the dark. I suspect that his last efforts, the LXMini and LX521.4, get close to the ultimate if the MiniDSP digital crossover is used. Nevertheless, those systems have complexity that prevent them from being mass-market, especially given that they require quality outboard amps. Ideally, something the size of the Benchmark AHB amp could be used, but then the money equation gets hard to swallow. The best form factor for amps would be the Parasound zamp, but those amps, while fine, are not high-rez.

It will be interesting to see if the market responds with ever-better, ever-more-complete systems with superlative resolution and compact forms. I wouldn't bet against the Far East companies working in this area!

Dutch & Dutch 8C Review

After getting to know and understand this unusual product, and having had some time to test out different room locations in a 13x19 room, I can offer initial impressions. I'm running these right now with the balanced analog output from an RME DAC because I don't have a digital switcher for my two sources, Toslink and USB. The RME, located in a closet with my server, and connected with an IR repeater, gives me remote-control capability for both sources from my couch. God forbid I should get up to fiddle with something.

First and most conspicuously, this is far and away the most tonally balanced speaker I have ever run in my room. Note, I have to EQ down a strong room mode at 79hz, and I won't speak to tonal balance around and below that. But in the rest of the spectrum above about 100hz, neutral. As in, like a feather on the ear, with no way to discern crossovers. Since I've never had a speaker like that, it is an interesting experience.

Drivers: stellar. Detail retrieval out the wazoo. Plenty of headroom, though I don't play anything too loud. Bass is deep and full-range right out of the box, though I used the room boundary setting to dial in my 15" distance from the rear wall.

Imaging: very good front-back, side-to-side limited to the speaker locations. Contrast this with the dipole Orions I just sold, which create a broad, deep soundstage. But the Linkwitz have to be well out in a room and away from boundaries to achieve that. The Dutch need space on the sides but very little behind. My goal was to simplify and reduce the footprint of my system without sacrificing sound quality.

Ease of use: running L and R balanced analog out XLR cables from an RME DAC/pre, super easy. But I already have power outlets conveniently located behind each speaker, minimizing the power headache. I also have PVC pre-laid under my concrete slab and running from my equipment closet to each speaker location. A few minutes with fish tape and boom! they're all connected and ready to rock.

Lastly, something which I'm not sure is good or bad: they sound like studio mastering equipment. The Linkwitz dipoles definitely do not -- they create a shimmery soundfield in which things come and go. With the Dutch, you can hear the difference in the soundfield between stage-miked things and booth-miked things that have been mixed in, often with inconsistent reverb effects. It's painfully apparent that with either classical or pop, the spot-mics are hot. However, with something like an Innocence Mission recording, which seems to be essentially live in a studio, the sound is like you are 8 feet away listening to the recording in process. I wouldn't say you get lost in a multitrack studio recording; you get put at the control board analyzing it. I had this problem with good headphones at first until I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb -- er, music.

My reference is Linkwitz Orions, hands-down the best speakers I have ever heard at any price.

I have not yet run big orchestral with huge peaks. With some difficult pop and electronic, the bass response below 50hz is very impressive and all there, but it does not seem to me to be of the same very-low-distortion quality as a well-engineered, devoted 15" subwoofer, which I also have. My big sub is impossible to locate and yet very present. I would say the Dutch has a good subwoofer, not unlike what I used to get from a Sunfire True: you are conscious that you are listening to a speaker pushing air. Does that make sense? I will shortly do a test and cross over below 50hz to my big sub. I also plan to listen to my orchestral test tracks. But I'm selling the sub anyhow -- the point of getting into Dutch was to simplify and reduce the footprint of the media room system owing to . . . life. If I can't be happy with a $12k speaker/amp with superb tonal balance, and one which these days mostly gets used for video because my kids hog my media room, then I need to reexamine priorities.

The bass from 50hz upwards also does not have the natural timbre of the Linkwitz Orions. No surprise there: I have never heard a monkey coffin (box speaker) which has a natural mid-bass sound like the Orions, and the Dutch is no exception. I had been wanting to build Siegried's last design for a smaller room, the LXMini, so I probably will do so so that I have both options. I can stick the LXMini in my equipment closet when not being used! Remember, I'm the Texas dealer for the Dutch, so I am keeping them at-the-ready for demonstration at client homes/studios.

Dutch & Dutch 8C

Today, I was offered and am very excited to take on the Dutch & Dutch active, DSP loudspeaker, the 8C. It is garnering terrific press as an all-in-one speaker requiring only a front-end streaming source. I reached out to Dutch & Dutch after reading the crazy press on this unusual product because I think there will be lots of interest in it. I get my demonstrator unit in August and will update this blog on my impressions.

Audeze Closed Back

I've just ordered by dealer demonstrator pair of Audeze LCD-2 closed-backs. I need some cans that don't bother other people around me, and I get requests about affordable closed-backs all the time. The LCD-XC are very expensive, so I'm hoping the LCD-2 closed-backs are a good, lower-priced compromise. I'm also trying to get the new Neumann closed-back, the NDH-20, for my customers who need studio cans that don't leak. I will report back on developments.

Audeze Headphones - In Another League

I think it's fair to say that the high-end headphone market has matured. We now have many flagship-type offerings of the planar variety (Audeze, Mr. Speakers, HiFiMan, Abyss), dynamic variety (Sennheiser, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Fostex, Focal), and then electrostatics and IEM's. In all that time, I have never encountered headphones that I love, out of the box, as much as the Audeze. The freedom from distortion (unmatched by any dynamic-driver headphone except the new Neumann closed-back), effortless low-end, and pure voluptuousness are unmatched. Once you step up the LCD-3 or LCD-4, imaging gets very close to the Sennheiser HD800. I switch back and forth between the Audezes and Sennheiser HD800 in my own listening. However, I have to EQ the HD800 to tame that unbearable 6khz peak and ramp up the bass, and of course that increases bass distortion considerably, resulting in a somewhat flabby bass. For the price of the marvelous soundstage of the HD800, it is often worth it. But for most popular music, the Audezes remain unrivaled. Yes, there are lots of good choices, but I have yet to hear any other headphone which balances all my personal preferences as well as the Audeze. Now, if only they were lighter on the head!