As the 00's come to end, I was thinking what a wonderful decade it was for high-end audio. Many things happened - including a few big surprises. In this piece (the first in a two-part series) I cover the "big four" surprises. The next post will cover the Other Things this decade.
Power cords / Power filtration devices.
Who would have thought that power cords would one day make or break a system...or transform its sound ? I sure didn't. The latest designs in this category are turning heads (and ears) as they have become a new high-end necessity. Yes, after-market power cords were out in the 1990's - but their improvement was iffy at best. Filtration devices, before the 00's seen as better-in-some-ways, worse-in-others - have now reached a level of total acceptance. Both cords and power devices have greatly helped digital playback as it is much more sensitive to noise and other low-level irritants (vs. vinyl).
A big one. Long left for dead, 16/44 came roaring back in the 00's - to the shock of many audiophiles. Actually, it roared in the 1990's with the Madrigal Reference, Linn CD12, Burmester Reference, etc. But many thought those were the final advances of CD - esp. with the new audio formats looming on the horizon. As it turns out, just the opposite happened - those players in the 90's are now seen as mere steps in a giant series of progress that CD has entered. With the latest CD-only systems, reviewers are comparing CD to top-flight LP and preferring CD...or comparing CD to the so-called "hi-rez" formats and calling it a draw. The creators of CD should have said "perfect sound will improve" - but it may be a perfect format nonetheless.
Solid-state electronics (mainly preamps).
As recently as the 1990's, tube-based preamplifiers ruled the high-end roost, with very few exceptions. And with good reason: transistor-based circuits sounded like...transistor-based circuits. But this too, has passed - gone is the harshness, glare and flat-sounding designs of the 80s and 90's. The latest designs here are proving just how deep audio science can get - esp. when examined with high-resolution recordings and speakers. Tube-based preamps have made progress as well. But the big story this decade was the stunning improvement in its arch-nemesis. And many high-end reviewers are now preferring solid-state to tubes. Like CD, this makes sense: solid-state always measured lower in distortion - so why shouldn't sound better in the end ?
Another head-banger. How could these be competitive with high-end dynamic and planar loudspeakers ? Don't they have a throat ? Weren't they designed primarily as sound-reinforcement (PA) speakers ? Yes...and yes. But horns always had natural advantages - of lower cone excursion, higher SPL's, controlled radiation and electrical efficiency. Horn lovers always reminded me of ice hockey fans: the smallest, but most loyal of sports nuts. The laugh, formerly on the horn lover, is now on the rest of us. Compression-horns somehow overcame their throat-induced coloration and it's only a matter of time before the high-end world finds out. As recently as this year, the editor of TAS stated that "its a rare horn-based system that doesn't have colorations". Just to show how new (and shocking) this development is. Horns may be the high-end future....
Next time - the Other Things of the 00's !!