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The Audio Critic: Introducing the Web 'Zine

As of February 15, 2005, The Audio Critic is no longer a print publication but a Web ’zine. We have migrated to the Internet.

This is a radical change, with both advantages and disadvantages. It required a radical decision that was not made lightly. The new Web ’zine format allows us to add equipment tests and other articles just about every week, bit by bit, continuously, like a blog, instead of the long months of silence between print issues. On the other hand, the permanence, tangibility, and esthetic value of a printed publication with graphic design, a “book” that you can hold in your hand, is now gone.

Our reasons for the change were many and compelling. Printing costs have skyrocketed. Mailing costs are out of sight. Even the cost of distributing retail copies of the magazine to the various bookstores and newsstands has increased beyond reason. At the same time, our subscriber base (as distinct from our retail base) has been slowly shrinking, consisting mainly of elderly people, alas. Advertisers are hard to find with that kind of readership, not to mention our laggard publishing schedule. On top of it, your Editor/Publisher got old and no longer has the patience for boring business chores that have nothing to do with equipment testing or writing.

Table of Contents

Audio Legacy
Peter Aczel | 30 April, 2015
What I have learned after six decades in audio
(call it my journalistic legacy)
Linkwitz Lab LX521
Peter Aczel | 08 April, 2014
Powered 4-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System
Benchmark DAC2 HGC
Peter Aczel | 20 Aug, 2013
PCM and DSD D/A Converter with Line-Level Preamp and More
Latest DIY Orion Mod
Peter Aczel | 08 Jan, 2013

Audible improvements of the Linkwitz Lab “Orion” loudspeaker
revision now reviewed is 3.3.1SN

Computer Speakers
Peter Aczel | 23 Nov, 2011
The Olasonic TW-S7 is something different a genuine hi-fi speaker on a drastically reduced scale.
New Orion Versions
Peter Aczel | 12 July, 2011
Yes, another Orion revision, the Orion 3.3 and the Orion 4!
Linkwitz Lab “Orion 3.2.1”
Peter Aczel | 04 December, 2010
Yes, another Orion revision. The Orion 3.2.1 is physically no different from the Orion+; all the changes are in the electronics, but they are significant.
Lenny Revisited
Peter Aczel | 18 November, 2009
Reissues of classic performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein, new recordings of music composed by him—they keep coming.
Impressive Video
Peter Aczel | 31 October, 2009
Blu-ray Disc Player & DLP High-Definition TV
OPPO BDP-83 & Mitsubishi WD-73835
Micro Speaker
Peter Aczel | 22 July, 2009
Powered Micro Loudspeaker
Soundmatters “foxL”
Benchmark Preamp/DAC
Peter Aczel | 07 July, 2009
Stereo Front End with Preamp, DAC, Remote Control & More
Benchmark DAC1 HDR
Unique and Unexpected
Peter Aczel | 27 April, 2009
I am an unregenerate and unrepentant Wagnerian, so I try to keep abreast of all new Wagner releases on CD.
Recent CDs/DVDs
Peter Aczel | 15 April, 2009
Most classical recordings released over the past twenty years are of decent quality in both performance and sound. The standards have been raised to a fairly high and uniform level.
Peter Aczel | 12 November, 2008
Powered 2-Way Floor-Standing Loudspeaker System
Linkwitz Lab “Pluto-2”
CDs/SACDs Again
Peter Aczel | 30 July, 2008
The following is merely a random sampling of what I’ve been listening to since the last group of reviews in November 2007.
Sony HD Tuner
Peter Aczel | 15 May, 2008
HD Radio FM/AM Digital Tuner
Peter Aczel | 30 March, 2008
Powered 4-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System
Linkwitz Lab “Orion++”
Peter Aczel | 09 November, 2007
Here’s what I’ve found noteworthy, from my admittedly un-musicological and often audio-biased point of view, among the recent and not so recent releases that have come my way.
Redbook vs. Hi-Rez
Peter Aczel | 17 October, 2007
Incontrovertible double-blind listening tests prove that the original 16-bit/44.1-kHz CD standard yields exactly the same two-channel sound quality as the SACD and DVD-A technologies.
AT6012 Amp
Peter Aczel | 15 October, 2007
12-Channel 6-Zone Power Amplifier
Amplifier Technologies AT6012
Letter to Ed.
Peter Aczel | 08 July, 2007

Obsession with Amplifiers: Letters to the Editor is not a feature of this website because in nearly all cases they are trivial and replying to them is a waste of time. The following exchange is an exception.

Spherex Surround
Peter Aczel | 03 June, 2007
Integrated 5.1 Surround Sound System
Spherex Xbox 5.1

Electronic Personality?
Peter Aczel | 26 April, 2007

I keep forgetting that my newer readers outnumber the old-timers and that some of the basic truths about audio that are old hat to me and to the regulars are new and fresh to the recent arrivals.

New A/B Technique
Peter Aczel | 27 February, 2007

Bill Waslo of Liberty Instruments has come up with a new methodology that has the potential of being more widely used because it is simpler, takes less time and less fussing, and is basically automated.

CD/SACD Reviews
Peter Aczel | 01 January, 2007

As always, I am reviewing only those CDs, new or fairly recent, that I found interesting. (Sometimes even a bad performance can be interesting.)

Peter Aczel | 25 December, 2006

I have written about this many times before but I keep forgetting that more of my readers are first-timers than longtime habitués. So, even if you know little or nothing else about audio, be aware of this:

Transparent Fraud
Peter Aczel | 21 October, 2006

A Fraud that Anyone with Common Sense Can See Through

Class T-Amp
Peter Aczel | 09 October, 2006

8-Channel Digital Power Amplifier
AudioDigit Class T-Amp MC8x100

NXT Loudspeakers
Peter Aczel | 09 August, 2006

This was an attempt to investigate the high-fidelity possibilities of a radically new and different transducer technology.

CDs & SACDs Again
Peter Aczel | 18 July, 2006

As our regular readers know, I am neither a professional musician nor a tweako audio cultist. You won’t find either one of those perspectives here. I just listen to CDs and pick a few interesting ones to review.

Canton Loudspeaker
Peter Aczel | 07 May, 2006

Floorstanding 3-Way Loudspeaker System
Canton Vento 809 DC

Interviewing the Ed.
Anonymous | 13 April, 2006

The following interview was conceived, produced, and edited by a longtime subscriber to The Audio Critic who wishes to remain anonymous. The questions were entirely the interviewer’s choice; your Editor merely answered them as best he could.

Parasound Amp
Peter Aczel | 05 April, 2006

2-Channel Power Amplifier
Parasound Halo A 21

CD/DVD Reviews
Peter Aczel | 19 February, 2006

Once Again, CD and DVD Reviews. Maybe I should elaborate on, and clarify, my previous comments on the subject of serious (“classical”) music vs. popular music.

Peter Aczel | 13 February, 2006

The Realities of Audio: an Old Man's Musings. I’ve been writing on the subject of audio for 50 years, 30 of them for The Audio Critic, and at this point I am something of a burnout.

8-Channel Bryston
Peter Aczel | 10 December, 2005
Topology and Afterthoughts
David Rich | 15 December, 2005

8-Channel Power Amplifier
Bryston 875HT
The Bryston 875HT: Topology and Afterthoughts By David A. Rich, Ph.D

Behringer Amp
Peter Aczel | 02 December, 2005

2-Channel Power Amplifier
Behringer A500 “Reference Amplifier”

Nousaine Editorial
Tom Nousaine | 28 August, 2005

Déjà Vu All Over Again
By Tom Nousaine Contributing Editor

More on "Orion"
Peter Aczel | 30 July, 2005

Postscript to the Linkwitz Lab "Orion" Review

More CDs
Peter Aczel | 31 May, 2005

Once Again, CD's. Please refer to the February 7, 2005 posting of CD/DVD reviews for some remarks on my approach to music reviewing and my perception of the current music scene.

Parasound Miniamp
Peter Aczel | 08 May, 2005

2-Channel Power Amplifier (Z Series)
Parasound Zamp v.3

The Doctor Zaius Syndrome
Peter Aczel | 05 April, 2005

When the truth is so terrible that admitting it would surely make the whole system crumble, ape logic demands denial and coverup.

Center-Channel Speakers
Tom Nousaine | 04 April, 2005

What’s wrong with two-channel stereo? The main problem: it’s a sweet-spot deal. Good spatial rendition requires that listeners sit on the centerline.

Soaring Audio Amplifier
Peter Aczel | 14 March, 2005

2-Channel Power Amplifier with Processor
Soaring Audio SLC-A300

Benchmark DAC1
Peter Aczel | 02 March, 2005

2-Channel 192/24 D-to-A Converter
Benchmark DAC1

Mapleshade CDs
Peter Aczel | 14 February, 2005

For a number of years now, I have been shaking my head in disbelief over the sound of Mapleshade CDs. They had no right to sound that good

CDs and DVDs
Peter Aczel | 07 February, 2005

Why am I writing these capsule reviews of CDs and music DVDs instead of having a professional music critic write them? Because I just can’t find a suitable successor.

Linkwitz Lab “Orion”
Peter Aczel | 06 February, 2005

Powered 3-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System
Linkwitz Lab “Orion”

BeoLab 5
Peter Aczel | 04 February, 2005

Powered 4-Way Digital Loudspeaker System
Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5

Audio Legacy

What I have learned after six decades in audio (call it my journalistic legacy):


  1. Audio is a mature technology. Its origins go back to Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison in the 1870s. By the early 1930s, at the legendary Bell Laboratories, they had thought of just about everything, including multichannel stereo. The implementation keeps improving to this day, but conceptually there is very little, perhaps nothing, really new. I have been through all phases of implementation—shellac records via crystal pickups, LPs via magnetic and moving-coil pickups, CDs, SACDs, Blu-rays, downloads, full-range and two/three/four-way mono/stereo/multichannel speakers, dynamics, electrostatics, ribbons (shall I go on?)—and heard incremental improvements most of the time, but at no point did the heavens open up and the seraphim blow their trumpets. That I could experience only in the concert hall and not very often at that. Wide-eyed reviewers who are over and over again thunderstruck by the sound of the latest magic cable or circuit tweak are delusional.


  1. The principal determinants of sound quality in a recording produced in the last 60 years or so are the recording venue and the microphones, not the downstream technology. The size and acoustics of the hall, the number and placement of the microphones, the quality and level setting of the microphones will have a much greater influence on the perceived quality of the recording than how the signal was captured—whether on analog tape, digital tape, hard drive, or even direct-to-disk cutter; whether through vacuum-tube or solid-state electronics; whether with 44.1-kHz/16-bit or much higher resolution. The proof of this can be found in some of the classic recordings from the 1950s and 1960s that sound better, more real, more musical, than today’s average super-HD jobs. Lewis Layton, Richard Mohr, Wilma Cozart, Bob Fine, John Culshaw, where are you now that we need you?


  1. The principal determinants of sound quality in your listening room, given the limitations of a particular recording, are the loudspeakers—not the electronics, not the cables, not anything else. This is so fundamental that I still can’t understand why it hasn’t filtered down to the lowest levels of the audio community. The melancholy truth is that a new amplifier will not change your audio life. It may, or may not, effect a very small improvement (usually not unless your old amplifier was badly designed), but the basic sound of your system will remain the same. Only a better loudspeaker can change that. My best guess as to why the loudspeaker-comes-first principle has not prevailed in the audiophile world is that a new pair of loudspeakers tends to present a problem in interior decoration. Swapping amplifiers is so much simpler, not to mention spouse-friendlier, and the initial level of anticipation is just as high, before the eventual letdown (or denial thereof).


  1. Cables—that’s one subject I can’t discuss calmly. Even after all these years, I still fly into a rage when I read “$900 per foot” or “$5200 the pair.” That’s an obscenity, a despicable extortion exploiting the inability of moneyed audiophiles to deal with the laws of physics. The transmission of electrical signals through a wire is governed by resistance, inductance, and capacitance (R, L, and C). That’s all, folks! (At least that’s all at audio frequencies. At radio frequencies the geometry of the cable begins to have certain effects.) An audio signal has no idea whether it is passing through expensive or inexpensive RLC. It retains its purity or impurity regardless. There may be some expensive cables that sound “different” because they have crazy RLC characteristics that cause significant changes in frequency response. That’s what you hear, not the $900 per foot. And what about the wiring inside your loudspeakers, inside your amplifiers, inside your other components? What you don’t see doesn’t count, doesn’t have to be upgraded for megabucks? What about the miles of AC wiring from the power station to your house and inside your walls? Only the six-foot length of the thousand-dollar power cord counts? The lack of common sense in the high-end audio market drives me to despair.


  1. Loudspeakers are a different story. No two of them sound exactly alike, nor will they ever. All, or at least nearly all, of the conflicting claims have some validity. The trouble is that most designers have an obsessive agenda about one particular design requirement, which they then inflate above all others, marginalizing the latter. Very few designers focus on the forest rather than the trees. The best designer is inevitably the one who has no agenda, meaning that he does not care which engineering approach works best as long as it really does. And the design process does not stop with the anechoic optimization of the speaker. Imagine a theoretically perfect loudspeaker that has an anechoic response like a point source, producing exactly the same spherical wave front at equal levels at all frequencies. If a pair of such speakers were brought into a normally reverberant room with four walls, a floor, and a ceiling, they wouldn’t sound good! They would only be a good start, requiring further engineering. It’s complicated. Loudspeakers are the only sector of audio where significant improvements are still possible and can be expected. I suspect that (1) further refinements of radiation pattern will result in the largest sonic benefits and (2) powered loudspeakers with electronic crossovers will end up being preferred to passive-crossover designs. In any case, one thing I am fairly sure of: No breakthrough in sound quality will be heard from “monkey coffins” (1970s trade lingo), i.e. rectangular boxes with forward-firing drivers. I’ll go even further: Even if the box is not rectangular but some incredibly fancy shape, even if it’s huge, even if it costs more than a luxury car, if it’s sealed or vented and the drivers are all in front, it’s a monkey coffin and will sound like a monkey coffin—boxy and, to varying degrees, not quite open and transparent.


  1. Amplifiers have been quite excellent for more than a few decades, offering few opportunities for engineering breakthroughs. There are significant differences in topology, measured specifications, physical design, and cosmetics, not to mention price, but the sound of all properly designed units is basically the same. The biggest diversity is in power supplies, ranging from barely adequate to ridiculously overdesigned. That may or may not affect the sound quality, depending on the impedance characteristics and efficiency of the loudspeaker. The point is that, unless the amplifier has serious design errors or is totally mismatched to a particular speaker, the sound you will hear is the sound of the speaker, not the amplifier. As for the future, I think it belongs to highly refined class D amplifiers, such as Bang & Olufsen’s ICEpower modules and Bruno Putzeys’s modular Hypex designs, compact and efficient enough to be incorporated in powered loudspeakers. The free-standing power amplifier will slowly become history, except perhaps as an audiophile affectation. What about vacuum-tube designs? If you like second-harmonic distortion, output transformers, and low damping factors, be my guest. (Can you imagine a four-way powered loudspeaker driven by vacuum-tube modules?)


  1. We should all be grateful to the founding fathers of CD at Sony and Philips for their fight some 35 years ago on behalf of 16-bit, instead of 14-bit, word depth on CDs and 44.1 kHz sampling rate. Losing that fight would have retarded digital media by several decades. As it turned out, the 16-bit/44.1-kHz standard has stood the test of time; after all these years it still sounds subjectively equal to today’s HD techniques—if executed with the utmost precision. I am not saying that 24-bit/192-kHz technology is not a good thing, since it provides considerably more options, flexibility, and ease; I am saying that a SNR of 98.08 dB and a frequency response up to 22.05 kHz, if both are actually achieved, will be audibly equal to 146.24 dB and 96 kHz, which in the real world are never achieved, in any case. The same goes for 1-bit/2.8224 MHz DSD. If your ear is so sensitive, so fine, that you can hear the difference, go ahead and prove it with an ABX test, don’t just say it.


  1. The gullibility of audiophiles is what astonishes me the most, even after all these years. How is it possible, how did it ever happen, that they trust fairy-tale purveyors and mystic gurus more than reliable sources of scientific information? It wasn’t always so. Between the birth of “high fidelity,” circa 1947, and the early 1970s, what the engineers said was accepted by that generation of hi-fi enthusiasts as the truth. Then, as the ’70s decade grew older, the self-appointed experts without any scientific credentials started to crawl out of the woodwork. For a while they did not overpower the educated technologists but by the early ’80s they did, with the subjective “golden-ear” audio magazines as their chief line of communication. I remember pleading with some of the most brilliant academic and industrial brains in audio to fight against all the nonsense, to speak up loudly and brutally before the untutored drivel gets out of control, but they just laughed, dismissing the “flat-earthers” and “cultists” with a wave of the hand. Now look at them! Talk to the know-it-all young salesman in the high-end audio salon, read the catalogs of Audio Advisor, Music Direct, or any other high-end merchant, read any of the golden-ear audio magazines, check out the subjective audio websites—and weep. The witch doctors have taken over. Even so, all is not lost. You can still read Floyd Toole and Siegfried Linkwitz on loudspeakers, Douglas Self and Bob Cordell on amplifiers, David Rich ( on miscellaneous audio subjects, and a few others in that very sparsely populated club. (I am not including The Audio Critic, now that it has become almost silent.) Once you have breathed that atmosphere, you will have a pretty good idea what advice to ignore.


  1. When I go to Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center in Philadephia and sit in my favorite seat to listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra, I realize that 137 years after the original Edison phonograph audio technology still hasn’t quite caught up with unamplified live music in a good acoustic venue. To be sure, my state-of-the-art stereo system renders a startlingly faithful imitation of a grand piano, a string quartet, or a jazz trio, but a symphony orchestra or a large chorus? Close but no cigar.


  1. My greatest disappointment after six decades as an audio journalist is about today’s teenagers and twentysomethings. Most of them have never had a musical experience! I mean of any kind, not just good music. Whether they are listening to trash or Bach, they have no idea what the music sounds like in real life. The iPods, iPads, iPhones, and earbuds they use are of such low audio quality that what they hear bears no relationship to live music. And if they think that going to an arena “concert” to hop around in one square foot of space with their arms raised is a live-music experience, they are sadly deluded. It’s the most egregiously canned music of all. (To think that I used to question the fidelity of those small dormitory-room stereos of the 1960s!) Please, kids, listen to unamplified live music just once!

—Peter Aczel

Table of Contents

Powered 4-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System

Linkwitz Lab LX521

Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: Web:www.linkwitzlab.comKits: Madisound, 8608 University Green, Suite 10, Middleton, WI 53562. Phone: (608) 831-3433. E-mail: Web: Also, Ear Food Speakers,Dr. Frank Brenner, Veilchenweg 5, D-70771 Leinfelden, Germany. E-mail: Prices vary greatly according to the kits’ content and state of assembly—please check the websites. Reviewed samples owned by The Audio Critic.   

For photos (lots of them), please go to the websites indicated above.


There are basically two approaches to advancing the state of the loudspeaker art. One is to accept an established paradigm and then refine its various elements to a new level of excellence. A prime example of this approach is Wilson Audio’s. Dave Wilson accepts the classic concept of the forward-firing driver in a closed box and then does fabulous over-the-top things with the boxes, the drivers, the passive crossover networks, etc. (not to mention the prices). What he offers is essentially a world-class version of the old “monkey coffin” (1970s audio-store slang denoting a rectangular box with conventional forward-firing drivers). 

The other approach is to examine all the established paradigms, identify their strengths and weaknesses, pick the most promising one, and then refine the latter to the point where it becomes, in effect, a new paradigm, and the tweaking of its constituent elements becomes a secondary project. That is Siegfried Linkwitz’s design philosophy. For about ten years, his flagship was the Orion, incorporating all of his insights regarding open-baffle, powered, and equalized dipoles with a spectrally neutral radiation pattern (which is his number one priority). The Orion, in its progressively improved versions, represented a refinement of a number of previous Linkwitz speaker systems, which already incorporated the basics of the boxless dipole paradigm, and for a long time it seemed just about unbeatable for domestic stereo playback. Except to Siegfried Linkwitz. In his late seventies, he made an elder statesman’s climactic effort to go beyond his previous best. The result was the LX521, which he says is his last loudspeaker.

Now, when SL says he is done with loudspeakers, he doesn’t mean he has run out of steam (although I could very well understand that). No, he means he has evaluated all the alternatives, such as horns, electrostatics, ribbons, line sources, distributed mode diaphragms, not to mention monkey coffins of all kinds, and determined that their disadvantages outweighed their advantages in comparison with his solution. I suggest you go to, undoubtedly the greatest loudspeaker website of them all, and dig deeper into his arguments. He now feels that the LX521 has taken his design theory to its practical limits and that there is no need for an encore.    

The Design

Early reports suggested that the LX521 was an improved Orion, but that’s not accurate. It is, in some respects, a simplification of the Orion, or purification is perhaps the better word. It produces purer results because, for one thing, its new architecture puts less of a burden on its drivers. The Orion’s expensive SEAS Excel “Millennium” tweeter pair was assigned all frequencies above 1.4 kHz, thus splitting the midrange in the middle and necessitating very careful massaging of the midrange equalization in the electronic crossover/processor because a tiny change in an R or a C could significantly affect midrange neutrality. The LX521 solves that problem by cutting the Gordian knot and putting a 4-inch upper-midrange driver between the 8-inch lower-midrange unit and the 1-inch tweeter, thereby making the speaker 4-way. Linkwitz resisted the 4-way solution for years before coming to the conclusion that it actually simplified the design, produced better results, and was more cost-effective.

The 8-inch and 4-inch units, both recent “Curv cone” designs by SEAS, together form a very broadband “single” source of frequencies from 120 Hz to 7 kHz, separated at 1 kHz by a first-order passive crossover that blends them imperceptibly. The 120 Hz and 7 kHz fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossovers are electronic, effected by an ASP (analog signal processor) very similar to the Orion’s, reusing the latest Orion PC boards. The 1-inch textile-dome front and rear tweeters by SEAS are much simpler and less costly than the Orion’s, since they only handle the 1½ octaves above 7 kHz, a piece of cake by comparison. On the other hand, the two 10-inch SEAS woofers in push-pull are the same expensive long-throw model with aluminum cone as used in the latest Orion versions, except that the mounting is very different. The baffle board is a V with 45-degree slopes turned on its side, the woofer in the bottom leg facing forward in the open frame, the one in the top leg facing backward. This mounting is both simple and strong, minimizing vibration. That’s not the master stroke of the physical design, however; the upper baffle is. Experimentally arrived at by Linkwitz, it is surprisingly small, very tightly wrapped around the four upper drivers, and of a very unusual shape. Its purpose is to make the polar response of the speaker as frequency-independent (i.e., neutral) as possible, well beyond the capabilities of the Orion. This is Linkwitz’s number one priority and the secret of precise phantom images between the speakers (i.e., lifelike soundstaging) in a correct stereo setup, where the speakers are at least 1 meter away from all walls.

I must digress at this point to emphasize that the LX521 is intended strictly for two-channel stereo (as are its predecessors). Linkwitz has little use for surround sound, at least at its current stage of development. I tend to agree with him, although I must admit that initially I was rather enthusiastic about 5.1 surround. It certainly gives you a feeling of immersion, which is part of, but far from all of, the concert hall experience. The structural specificity of music, the specific location/direction of instruments and voices, disappears in 5.1 surround, most probably because the latter is not a mirror-image playback of what the microphones picked up but rather an “authored” mix, where an editor has decided what goes into each of the channels. Two-channel stereo, on the other hand, when the original live music was a frontal presentation, can give you a very precise idea of the soundstage details, especially through a pair of loudspeakers like the LX521. (A movie soundtrack is, of course, another matter. If you want to follow that Black Hawk helicopter passing over your head, you need 5.1.)

The other new feature of the physical designs is the so-called bridge, which is nothing more than an open box (no front, no back, no bottom) placed over the woofer frame with just a half-inch gap. Its purpose is to isolate the relatively light upper module from the unavoidable residual vibrations of the woofer module.

Driving the LX521 requires three or four power amplifier channels per side, depending on whether you connect the woofers in parallel or drive them individually. Parallel connection results in an impedance of 2 ohms, a difficult load for many amplifiers. I still use the 12-channel AT6012 (Amplifier Technologies) and find it totally adequate in my 22-by-20-by-9-foot listening room. Megawatt enthusiasts may disagree.

Please note that all of the above is about a design, not a product. There is no company producing the LX521, even in small quantities. It is basically a DIY project, with Siegfried Linkwitz selling the construction plans plus the blank printed-circuit boards for the ASP, and outfits like Madisound in the USA and Dr. Frank Brenner in Germany selling full kits in various stages of completion. (Dr. Brenner will, on special order, sell you a turnkey LX521 system, but it’s not a production item.) There is also a digital alternative to the ASP, with which I have no experience whatsoever. Go to for details. (In fact, should be your main source of information for all the theoretical and practical details missing from this review. As I said, it is the loudspeaker website.)

The Measurements

The LX521 cannot really be properly characterized by the conventional two or three frequency response measurements. They would be meaningless. The main difference between the LX521 and lesser speakers is the total power response into a half-sphere space, and to measure that is beyond the capabilities of my home laboratory and MLS software.

Even on there is only one LX521 response figure, illustrating the first-order passive crossover (see, “From F3 to LX521”). There is no figure for the total response. If I showed here a single frequency-response curve on the 0° axis, it would not be flat because the response is deliberately shelved at both ends to compensate for various effects that are ignored by the flat-from-dc-to-light school (e.g., the head-related transfer function in stereo listening). Barring the availability of Harman International’s anechoic chamber (70-odd frequency response measurements into a 4π space!), or very extensive outdoor measurements that are far too difficult for me, I cannot prove here with graphs that the LX521 is what it is.

For what it’s worth, you could check out the response curves of the individual drivers on the SEAS website. They are honest measurements; no doctoring. Woofers: Lower midrange: Upper midrange: Tweeters:  

The Sound

I am journalistically challenged here. I have praised the sound of the Orion to the skies, more and more with each successive version, and now I am out of superlatives. How shall I characterize the sound of something better than what I have called the best? Well, I can give it a try.

Let me go back a decade, for the moment. When the original Orion made its debut, the sound of the open-baffle, powered, and equalized dipole was so different from any monkey coffin’s, even the most advanced and costliest ones, that it was truly night and day. It was a startlingly open, untrammeled sound, without the immediately recognizable boxy signature of enclosed speakers. What’s more, it got further refined with each new modified version. You could close your eyes, listen to that sound, and with a little bit of mental effort pretend that the speakers have disappeared, leaving only the living soundstage in front of you.

The main difference between the Orion and the LX521 is that the latter requires no such mental effort. The speakers naturally disappear as soon as you start the music; you don’t even have to close your eyes. I would go even further—you have to make a slight mental effort to be aware that the speakers are actually there! It’s uncanny. What it proves (at least to me) is that radiation pattern is the chief determinant of loudspeaker quality and that the unique shape of the LX521’s upper baffle is a significant breakthrough.

The precise phantom images produced by the LX521 create the most solidly three-dimensional soundstage of any stereo system in my listening experience. In the end, that is more important in producing a you-are-there effect than the superior definition of instruments and voices, the “texture” of the sound, where the LX521 may perhaps be equaled by other loudspeakers using advanced drivers.

As for the midrange neutrality that has been Don Barringer’s obsession with his Orion mods, the LX521 makes an end run around the problem with the addition of the 4-inch upper-midrange driver. It is no longer an issue. The midrange is totally relaxed and natural without any heroic effort. The tweeter is happy just tweeting instead of having to handle the upper midrange. (Don used to wonder why a kitchen radio can have a neutral midrange while the Orion’s needed endless massaging.)

I need to add that the bass quality of the LX521 is audibly superior to that of the Orion with the original Peerless drivers. (My Orions retained the Peerless woofers while going through all the successive mods, including Barringer’s.) The latest Orion versions were equipped with the same SEAS woofers as the LX521, but I had no opportunity for a comparison. In any case, don’t even think about subwoofers. The LX521 doesn’t need them. Even the lowest organ pipes are reproduced with authority.

Summing Up

I have not tested or even briefly listened to every high-end loudspeaker out there, but of all the speakers known to me none equals the Linkwitz Lab LX521 in my opinion. I have been to a few audio shows fairly recently and auditioned the most highly touted speakers there, and after each listening session I just shook my head, wondering how they could charge so much money for such obviously canned, unlifelike sound. It’s as if the designers had never heard live acoustic music in a concert hall. Siegfried Linkwitz has not only established a new paradigm but has also proved that throwing money at each component of a speaker design, and then charging the consumer with a huge multiple of the cost, is not the way to go. Instead, the simple and cost-effective principle of the “spectrally neutral radiation pattern” rules!

Table of Contents

Benchmark DAC2 HGC

20 August, 2013

PCM and DSD D/A Converter with Line-Level Preamp and More
Benchmark DAC2 HGC

Benchmark Media Systems, Inc., 203 East Hampton Place, Suite 2, Syracuse, NY 13206-1633. Voice: (800) 262-4675 and (315) 437-6300. Fax: (315) 437-8119. E-mail: DAC2 HGC stereo preamplifier with PCM and DSD D/A converter, headphone amp, and asynchronous USB, $1995.00. Tested sample on loan from manufacturer.

[For better pictures than I can reproduce here, please go to the website indicated above.]

The super D-to-A converter with line-level preamp capabilities is a relatively recent format, although scattered examples of it have been around for a number of years, such as the Benchmark DAC1 HDR (reviewed here in July 2009). Lately a number of high-end boutique companies have seen an opening and announced some insanely overdesigned models at astronomical prices. I haven’t had my hands on any of these (and never will), but it baffles me what they can do that the new Benchmark DAC2 HGC, at a fraction of their price, can’t. The latter has such a complete set of features and capabilities, and such amazing specifications, that I can’t see how any outrageously costly unit could trump it.

The Design

What is required to design a super DAC/preamp in the second decade of the 21st century is no mystery. You start with the best DAC chip that money can buy, the world champion ESS Sabre³² Reference 32-bit 8-channel audio DAC, and use all 8 channels for stereo, 4 per side. In that deployment, the digital noise reduction spec is 133 dB and the total harmonic distortion (THD) is –120 dB (0.0001%). You can’t do any better; that’s what Benchmark has in the DAC2 HGC, and that’s what the megabuck high-enders have in their models, also. As for the analog section, you go with the Texas Instruments (formerly National Semiconductors) LME49860 operational amplifier, which has a specified voltage noise density of 2.7nV/√Hz and a THD of 0.00003% (–130.5 dB). Low enough for you?

Once you build your device around electronic components with numbers like that and keep the construction quality high, as Benchmark does, there isn’t much headroom for improvement, nor much reason for a higher price than $1,995.00. And that’s just for starters; the DAC2 HGC goes well beyond the DAC1 HDR (which is still an “A-team” contender) with a large number of new features, such as native DSD conversion and a hybrid gain control (HGC). The latter is capable of active analog, 32-bit digital, and passive analog attenuation, thus ending all debates about tradeoffs. I am not willing to list and explain all these new technicalities because you can go to and read all about them in full detail. (Have you noticed that about 50% of the usual equipment review consists of a restatement of the manufacturer’s information? In the age of the Web?) You can even download the 68-page instruction manual from and pretend you already own the DAC2 HGC. Since I have no doubt about the state-of-the-art status of the unit’s electronic signal paths, I’ll only discuss matters that Benchmark does not.

For example: Despite 16 LED status indicators on the unit’s front panel, you can’t tell whether the DAC2 HGC is in standby mode or totally shut off. Yes, when you first put it in standby mode, the red Dim/Mute LED keeps flashing for a while, as does the blue LED of the muted input, but they stop after a short while, and the panel then looks the same as in power-off mode—no lights at all. This is a bit annoying when you want to listen to something and don’t remember whether the unit should be unmuted or powered up. It’s best to leave it in standby mode at all times when not in use, especially since powering it off sends a 0.15-volt dc pulse through the audio chain, which can result in a serious pop from the loudspeakers if the power amplifier is still on.

These minor annoyances don’t in any way constitute a deal breaker for the prospective purchaser but merely illustrate the learning curve necessitated by the unit’s control functions. The latter are not intuitive; the remote control’s buttons are not quite the same as those on the front panel, and there are quite a few press-twice and press-two-together protocols to activate certain functions. I am sure there are geeks who will relish these secret handshakes, but I would have preferred a brilliantly engineered state-of-the-art device to have beautifully simple controls. In case that’s not doable, my total endorsement remains unchanged (actually, I am a little geeky myself).

The Measurements

If your interest has been stimulated to the point where you actually downloaded the instruction manual from the link indicated above, you will have found, in the back of the manual, sixteen Audio Precision graphs illustrating the incredible perfection of the DAC2 HGC’s electrical response. I have no reason to question, or try to verify, the accuracy of these graphs, especially since I no longer have on extended loan the same instrument they were produced with, the Audio Precision SYS-2722. If I still had it, I would have obtained the same results. Yes, some manufacturers “cook the books,” but Benchmark does not. The measurements are basically what you would expect in view of the specifications of the ESS Sabre³² Reference and the TI LME49860—state of the art. (There are no mysteries in electronics, only in the minds of certain tweako audio reviewers.)

There is, however, an issue that needs to be cleared up. The measurements of the DAC1 HDR are almost equally perfect, lagging only by a dB here and a couple of dB there—not enough to make a difference in real-world performance. I am not talking about the DAC2 HGC’s many additional features but actual differences in the basic audio signal path and the perceived sound. As I have repeatedly proclaimed in The Audio Critic, there is no such thing as an effect without a cause, and I see nothing in the two designs to cause them to sound different. The human ear is not as sensitive as the Audio Precision SYS-2722, which shows only tiny differences between the two, and my 87-year-old ears are certainly not as sensitive. Of course, some subjective reviewers have already heard huge differences, but anyone can assert that without objective proof, such as an ABX double-blind test. Fortunately, there is now a fairly new objective test, which is not only less laborious and time-consuming (not to mention controversial) than the ABX but also even more sensitive and more specifically targeted. I’m talking about the Audio DiffMaker by Liberty Instruments.

The Sound

The Audio DiffMaker is definitely a sound comparison test, but not in the conventional sense. Instead of listening to sounds A and B, and trying to determine if there is a difference, you listen only to B minus A, which is the objective and unquestionable difference between the two. If B–A is silence, there is obviously no difference between A and B, since silence can be objectively ascertained. This is of course an oversimplified explanation of a very sophisticated test, the brainchild of a clever technologist named Bill Waslo, but you can see why it is necessarily more sensitive than ABX; even if there is a small audible difference signal, you may not be able to hear it listening to full-blown A and B, but if the difference is silence, that’s ironclad proof that A and B are sonically identical. For more details, see

Unfortunately, the DiffMaker program has a rather steep learning curve. There are many, many settings and adjustments to achieve optimum results, and the interface with various soundcards is quite problematic. As a novice user, I was able to extract a difference signal between the DAC1 HDR and the DAC2 HGC, but I don’t think that difference signal was at the lowest level obtainable with more sophisticated manipulation of the software. The level I was able to get was –47 dB (0.45%) with respect to the reference level, and that’s faintly audible when the difference signal is listened to by itself. Interestingly enough, the faintly audible signal was music, not noise or distortion products, indicating that I was unable to null the two DAC signals accurately because of tiny amplitude or phase differences. Even so, assuming that –47 dB is actually an accurate reading, that’s low enough to be completely masked by normally loud music levels in an ABX comparison. I don’t think I would have heard a difference even with my 20-year old ears (retrieved by time machine). As I said, the DiffMaker is the most sensitive and objective A/B test known to me—although I suspect it was primarily intended to debunk “differences” that don’t exist, such as coloring the edge of a CD with a green felt pen, in which case the difference signal would be silence.


The Benchmark DAC2 HGC represents a new reference standard in the category of “DAC with line-level preamp” (excluding mysterious megabuck products designed to meet voodoo criteria). I refer you again to the links above if you wish to explore the unit’s awesome feature set, with any and all digital or analog signal sources, be they audio components or computer. Its sound is what any non-voodoo reviewer would expect on the basis of the Audio Precision measurements: the exact sound of the signal source, nothing more and nothing less. Yes, the user interface is not as intuitive as it perhaps could be, but even that I can’t say with certainty given the complexity of the design. And yes, in my own main system, I am switching from the DAC1 HDR (even though it sounds the same) to the DAC2 HGC! 

Table of Contents

Latest DIY Orion Mod

08 January, 2013

Powered 3-Way Dipole Loudspeaker                                                                                                                                              

The Final Mod: Orion 3.3.1SN

(All information regarding the standard Orion versions is obtainable at 

My Love Affair with the Orion

It takes a special jolt these days to interrupt my geriatric hibernation and prompt
me to post something new on this website. Audible improvements of the Linkwitz
Lab “Orion” loudspeaker are among the rare stimuli that can still do it.

My obsession with the Orion over the years is due not so much to its specific
characteristics but rather to the generic concept it represents. I can best explain that
with a thought experiment. Pretend that you are brought blindfolded into a room
where you are going to listen to an unknown pair of loudspeakers fed by first-rate
electronics. You sit down and focus on the sound. It is obvious that the speakers
are very large because the soundstage is very wide and very tall. It is an
unprecedentedly open and transparent sound, leading you to believe that new and
unusually sophisticated technologies are being used (floor-to-ceiling ribbons made
of stainless kryptonite?). The localization of instruments is extremely precise—is
there a center-channel speaker they sneaked in there? At last the blindfold comes
off and all you see is a pair of Orions, not at all large and with utterly conventional
drivers. Please explain the magic.

And that’s my point—it’s the concept. No box, just a frame. A dipole, almost
totally symmetrical, front and back. Acoustically small (because, if the size of a
driver approaches a large fraction of the wavelength it must reproduce, all bets are
off). Electronic crossover/processor, with radical equalization of each driver for
optimum linearity. I could go on—add up all the details and it turns out that the
design indeed represents a new generic class and is highly sophisticated, regardless
of its innocent appearance. That’s what gets me.

Now Siegfried Linkwitz has come up with the somewhat similar but still rather
different LX521, of which he owns the so far only extant prototype and which he
claims sounds better than the Orion. Well, I’m perfectly willing to believe it
sounds better than his Orion, but what about my Orion? That’s a different story and
the reason for this review.

The Don Barringer Connection

Don Barringer has been Siegfried Linkwitz’s associate and “second pair of ears”
since the late ’70s. He is a former trumpet player, a cutting-edge recording
engineer, and a no-compromise audio fanatic. When SL finalizes one of his
amazing designs and declares victory (which he doesn’t do lightly), Don says wait
a minute, we aren’t done yet, it still needs such and such. SL believes that there
inevitably comes a time “to shoot the designer,” at which point Don cries “don’t
shoot!” Not long ago, their formal collaboration finally came to an end, although
their relationship remains cordial and communicative.

Don was never entirely happy with the circuit values in the incredibly complex
analog filters SL came up with to linearize the Orion’s drivers and overall
response. He did not think the Orion sounded sufficiently neutral, even in its latest
version (3.3.1) and quite aside from its other startlingly superior qualities. When SL revisited
the equalization of the Orion a couple of years ago, he started out with new
measurements of the response of each driver and attempted to flatten out each by
adjusting the circuit values of their respective filters on the printed circuit board of
the crossover/processor. He did not succeed in effecting a significant improvement.
He then instructed his computer to ignore the separate filters and just come up with
an overall circuit that would yield the correct response across the entire audio
range, also including the required HF and LF shelving. That attempt was
successful, at least to the extent possible with standard resistor and capacitor values
of  ±2% tolerance. That’s where Don wasn’t quite happy yet.

Don believed that further fine-tuning of those values could result in even greater
neutrality, which was his only remaining concern regarding the Orion. The
problem was that SL’s incredibly convoluted catchall equalization characteristic
proved to be extremely ticklish to fine-tune. You pushed it in just a tiny bit here,
and it bulged a tiny bit over there. It overreacted all over the place to local
stimulation. It took Don over a year and a half to figure it out, during which he
substituted resistors and capacitors with the minutest changes in value and listened,
over and over again. The evaluation had to be strictly subjective because the
changes he made were much too small to be measurable with a microphone but
still marginally audible. (You can hear a change of, say, 0.2 dB in the electronic
signal path but you can’t reliably chart it on an acoustical response curve.) It was a
desperately laborious process, not unlike picking the fly shit out of the pepper
(1940s GI metaphor). After 20 months (during which, he says, he considered
committing himself), he finally declared victory. He recently posted the results and
DIY instructions on the Orion-Pluto Users Group (where you need to register
before being able to access restricted information).

The remarkable thing is that, with one exception, all the nonstandard and ±0%
tolerance circuit values he came up with were within SL’s ±2% specifications. It is
even imaginable, theoretically, that a random statistical freak would have Don’s
final values in an unmodified Orion 3.3.1! Of course, the bottom-line question is:
does a Don-modified Orion 3.3.1 (he calls it 3.3.1SN, for “subjective neutrality”)
sound different from a plain-vanilla SL-approved 3.3.1? There is only a very small
circle of Don’s followers who had the new resistor and capacitor values installed; I
am one of them; and our answer is a resounding yes!

The Sound of the 3.3.1SN

I have always maintained that the big sonic breakthrough was the original Orion of
a decade ago, because it “blew away,” to use the audiophiles’ favorite expression,
all traditional loudspeakers in sealed or ported enclosures (monkey coffins, in
1970s trade parlance). Subsequent versions manifested incremental improvements,
large and small, but no overall change in gestalt. The same is true of the 3.3.1SN; it
sounds definitely better than the unmodified 3.3.1, but exactly how much better
depends on the importance of sonic nuances to the listener. The best way to
describe the change is to say that the realism is finally complete; the rare reminders
that one is listening to a mere loudspeaker are gone; no more momentary
aggression here or thickness there, just soaring music. I am sufficiently impressed
to have started reassessing all of my favorite recordings. If you’ll allow me a
somewhat farfetched classical analogy, Don Barringer has become the Plato to all
of us faithful disciples of Siegfried Linkwitz’s Socrates.


It must be added that all of the above takes on less importance if SL’s new LX521
(also strictly a DIY project) turns out to be as good as he says. As a rule, he is not
in the habit of just whistling Dixie.

Computer Speaker

23 November, 2011

USB Powered Computer Loudspeaker System
Olasonic TW-S7

Olasonic Co., Ltd., 1100 Hatcher Avenue, Suite B, City of Industry, CA  91748 (USA customer service). Phone: 1-800-928-4840. E-mail: Web: TW-S7 computer loudspeaker system, USB powered, $129.99 (choice of white or black). Tested samples on loan from manufacturer.


(This is only the first installment of the complete review because my loudspeaker measurement system is in a transitory stage of changeover. The measurements will be separately written up in a second installment.)

As I have said before, I am no longer interested in conventional, me-too loudspeaker designs. The Olasonic TW-S7 is something different. Computer speakers, whether built-in or outboard, are generally a sorry-ass bunch, not even on speaking terms with the concept of high fidelity. The Olasonic is a genuine hi-fi speaker on a drastically reduced scale. It is shaped like a somewhat pointy egg measuring only 5.6 inches on its long axis. It incorporates a 2.4-inch full-range driver, a 2.4-inch passive radiator, and some highly unorthodox electronics. For what it is, it sounds totally satisfactory to audiophile ears; in fact, it is the only computer speaker I have found acceptable since David Clark’s Monsoon MM-1000, which is no longer made and had a tendency to go on the fritz.

Rather than connecting the Olasonic to the output of the soundcard in your computer, you plug it into a USB port. That is its most distinguishing feature. Nothing to plug into the wall, no power cord, no clutter of wires on or behind your computer desk. That alone puts it one up against the Monsoon. The USB port provides only a maximum of 2½ + 2½ watts output, but the Olasonic increases that to 10 + 10 watts on peaks with a proprietary circuit called the Super Charged Drive System (SCDS). The SCDS stores USB power as an electrical charge in a high-capacity condenser during low-level outputs and releases the power on dynamic peaks. This enables the digitally amplified speaker to produce surprising volume out of that diminutive package.

The egg shape is another signature feature. I am reminded of John Ötvös, now no longer on the audio scene, who years ago dreamed of making his next speaker, after his reference-quality Waveform Mach 17, a giant egg. That’s the ideal shape for a speaker enclosure to minimize diffraction and reduce standing waves. The engineering is certainly easier in Olasonic size but no less desirable.

The expanded-urethane passive radiator in the rear is also unexpected in a speaker of this size and does the job. I’m not going to say that you can feel the Telarc bass drum in your chest, but there is certainly more bass than you can get out of the typical thin-sounding computer speaker. In fact, the entire sonic output of the Olasonic, from top to bottom, is an amazingly good imitation of a grown-up high-quality loudspeaker’s sound, just a bit miniaturized. Occasionally I am able to forget that I am listening to a computer speaker. (Please don’t expect from me quasi-pornographic descriptions of front-to-back depth, airiness of the highs, etc., etc. I leave that to reviewers of $65,000 loudspeakers.)  I also like the silicone insulator on which the Olasonic’s round bottom must be placed because there is no limit to the ways you can angle the speaker for best listening position. It’s an impressive little package.  

Olasonic is a Japanese company with representation in California. I understand that the TW-S7 has already started to build a reputation and following in Asia; in this country it is new but not obscure for long, in this reviewer’s opinion.

(Part 2 with measurements to follow, as noted above.)

New Orion Versions

12 July, 2011

Powered 3-Way Dipole Loudspeaker Systems

Linkwitz Lab "Orion 3.3" and "Orion 4"

Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: Web: Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: Web: Orion 3.3 loudspeaker system, latest small revision, at this point available only as a DIY project. Orion 4 loudspeaker system, available soon, $14,750 custom-built, with electronic crossover/equalizer (necessary cables and power amplification extra). Tested samples of Orion 3.3 owned by The Audio Critic.

Orion 3.3

Advancements on the cutting edge of loudspeaker design are very small and very subtle at this stage of the game. The resolution of free-field acoustical measurements, whether outdoors or in anechoic chamber, is almost certainly no better than 0.2 dB. The changes in the last few iterations of the Orion crossover/equalizer are smaller than that (remember, electronic signal paths are measurable with nearly infinite resolution). I know from years of experience that we can hear differences not much larger than 0.1 dB in the electronic signal path. We seem to have reached the point where the audible benefits of tiny changes in equalization upstream from the loudspeaker can only be ascertained by listening. (Before the voodoo audio subjectivists rejoice, let me remind them that this does not apply to larger, but still very small, changes that are measurable with a microphone.)

Siegfried Linkwitz, a man of science if there ever was one, is understandably not very happy about the not-quite-perfect alignment of theoretical, measurable, and audible information. Still, unlike some other engineers, he refuses to let abstract desiderata trump the reality in front of his nose. That reality, once again, is that small crossover and equalization changes to version 3.2.1 (see my December 4, 2010 posting for a review of that version) result in small but audible improvements in the sound of version 3.3. The entire presentation is a bit smoother, more solid, more relaxed, more real. Imprecise words, but without the availability of the older version after the changes were made, that’s the best I can do. Needless to say, I can’t guarantee that this is it, no more changes. The history of the Orion 3 revisions seems to indicate the contrary. In any case, the conversion of the crossover/equalizer from 3.2.1 to 3.3 is strictly a DIY project; the Linkwitz/Wood Artistry connection is not available for it. Go to and for the details.

It should be pointed out that this kind of endless massaging of the crossover/equalizer would not be necessary with powered loudspeakers that are less sophisticated than the Orion. Siegfried Linkwitz has repeatedly said that he would not have believed before he designed the Orion that tiny adjustments in the electronics could make such a significant sonic difference. It flies in the face of all previous experience. The original Orion, no suffix, was a bit more tolerant in this respect; the rearward-firing tweeter in the Orion+ and subsequent versions, resulting in completely symmetrical dipole radiation, made it more critical.  

Orion 4

The crossover and equalization changes that resulted in the Orion 3.3 were actually inspired by the new but not yet available Orion 4, at this writing still in advanced prototype form. The Orion 4 is basically an Orion 3 with a different woofer configuration. The tweeters are the same, the midrange driver is the same, but the old Peerless woofers have been replaced by a new long-throw SEAS model, which is not yet in full production. The new woofers are mounted in an upward- and downward-firing position, instead of forward- and backward-firing. This allows the woofers to operate in force-canceling opposition, eliminating the slight rocking or vibrating tendency of the older model’s frame, which could resonate wooden floors (not the floor of my listening room, which is concrete covered by industrial carpeting). Since the Orion 4 is still a full-range dipole, open in front and back, the different woofer mounting requires a new and more complicated frame, called a “W frame.” (The older Orions have an “H frame.”) The crossover frequencies and equalization of the Orion 4 are also slightly different, and extensive listening to the prototype led Siegfried Linkwitz and Don Barringer to the realization that the electronics of the Orion 3.2.1 should also be changed accordingly. I have to repeat that these changes are very small and subtle.

For pictures showing the redesigned woofer configuration of the Orion 4, go to

I had a chance to audition the Orion 4 at the AXPONA show in New York, in the slick preproduction format that Don Naples of Wood Artistry will manufacture and market for $14, 750 (with crossover/equalizer but no amplifier and no cables!). To me it sounded very much like the Orion 3.3 (because it is very much like the Orion 3.3), and the theoretical superiority of the SEAS bass (excursion, power handling, distortion) was partly masked by the low-frequency characteristics of the smallish hotel room. That it is one of the world’s greatest loudspeakers was quite evident. That’s all I can say about it at this time.

Siegfried Linkwitz says that his next project is the Orion 3.4, which will adapt the new SEAS woofers to the H frame. That will undoubtedly necessitate further small changes to the crossover/equalizer, after which the bass performance should be equal to that of the Orion 4, minus the vibration benefits. Early deliveries of the SEAS woofers will obviously go into the first production run of the Orion 4, so I am not holding my breath. Eventually, I expect to go for the 3.4 revision myself, the Orion 4 being too rich for my blood.

Ah, to think how happy I was with the original Orion, no suffix, back in 2005...                             

Latest Orion Revision

04 December, 2010

Powered 3-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System
Linkwitz Lab “Orion 3.2.1”

Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: Web: Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: Web: Orion 3.2.1 loudspeaker system (latest revision), $9200 and up for two complete channels (custom-built, with electronic crossover/equalizer, all necessary cables, and ATI AT6012 twelve-channel power amplifier). Kit versions available in various stages of completion at lower prices. Tested samples owned by The Audio Critic.

Yes, another Orion revision, even though no one dislikes revisions more than Siegfried Linkwitz. (“There comes a time to shoot the designer” is one of his witticisms, originating from his Hewlett-Packard days.) The trouble is, the man is too honest. Equalized electrodynamic dipoles are still relatively virgin territory, and there are always new insights, generally small, which he could shrug off, but his conscience won’t let him. He remains the only loudspeaker designer known to me with (1) the highest technological qualifications and (2) an ear that really knows the sound of live, unamplified music. That being the case, we must live with his urge to fine-tune his products and his penchant to think out loud on his website before the fine-tuning is complete, creating major waves of anxiety among owners of his designs. Between the Orion+ of three years ago and the present Orion 3.2.1, there were three agonizing temporary versions. I know because I went through the agony. Such is the price of perfectionism. (For the moment, version 3.2.1 appears to be final, thank goodness.)

I must quickly add that, even though the Orion+ was a definite advancement and now the Orion 3.2.1 is a further important improvement, nothing compares to the breakthrough represented by the original suffixless Orion. Switching to that speaker from even the best conventional box speaker (“monkey coffin”) was night and day. The Orion+ merely provided more daylight and the Orion 3.2.1 still more.

The Changes

I have written a great deal about the Orion, so here I’ll discuss only what is new. The Orion 3.2.1 is physically no different from the Orion+; all the changes are in the electronics, but they are significant. The EQ in the crossover/equalizer has undergone serious readjustments in both the midrange and the treble. Linkwitz has long suspected that the acoustic output of the midrange driver wasn’t quite as flat as it could be, but his computer modeling of the complex interactions of the various EQ curves and notch filters didn’t quite jell until very recently. The result was (temporary) version 3.0, an undeniable improvement in the midrange.

Then came another eureka moment, after Linkwitz had read Acoustics and Hearing, a new book by Dr. Peter Damaske, a German scientist summarizing a whole lifetime of studies. Among other things, Damaske shows how “surround sound” can be obtained out of two channels (but Orion owners already know that!); what Linkwitz was looking for, and found, was scientific evidence of something else that he already knew by subjective experience—that a pair of anechoically flat loudspeakers must have their treble response attenuated when brought into a normal, reverberant listening room. (He is never satisfied knowing something intuitively without a scientific theory to back it up.) How much attenuation is needed, and starting at what frequency, required a bit of experimentation, hence those in-between versions that we could have been spared.

Mind you, all these changes are fairly subtle and very difficult to measure quasi-anechoically with my somewhat crude MLS technique. I’d just as soon not publish any curves and refer you to instead. Of course, if the changes weren’t subtle, the unchanged previous versions wouldn’t have sounded as great as they did. But they definitely didn’t sound as good as version 3.2.1.

There are also some minor changes in the 3.2.1 that are unrelated to the audio upgrade. The switchable subsonic filter is now 30-Hz highpass instead of 50-Hz highpass to let more bass content through when switched in, while still remaining effective as a rumble filter. The trim pots are much larger and easier to turn with a screwdriver. The tweeter trim pot has a narrower plus/minus range than before because of the critical contour of the new high-frequency shelving. And, by the way, you can without too much difficulty make all the 3.2.1 circuit changes on the motherboard yourself, provided you aren’t quite as ham-fisted with a soldering iron as I am.

The Sound

So, what exactly is the sound of the 3.2.1? Even the original, suffixless Orion produced a uniquely three-dimensional soundstage, and the Orion+ with its additional rearward-firing tweeter added still more realism. Version 3.2.1 has now brought everything into perfect balance. The 3-D effect is considerably more precise, with left, right, middle, front, back, height, etc., more palpable than before. The trumpet is right there, the timpani are over here, the space between them is about this much, the clarinet is just left of center, the hall is not very big, and so on. Earlier versions of the Orion did not focus quite as sharply. Also (and this is important), the highs are more relaxed and natural, as well as richer and rounder. Just greater realism all around. It is quite a bit easier with version 3.2.1 to close your eyes and imagine a living audio scene in front of you.

All of this is, of course, quite subjective. The changes in the crossover/equalizer are easy to measure, the resulting acoustical changes not so easy, but the audible quality changes are entirely a matter of opinion. All opinions known to me so far, however, are in favor of the changes. The Orion 3.2.1 lives in the overlapping regions between scientific audio engineering and psychoacoustics. Among the domestic loudspeaker systems I am familiar with, it is the most highly refined and the easiest virtual transportation to the original live audio event.

*     *     *

One more thing. As far as the need for subwoofers is concerned, what I have written about the Orion+ remains unchanged. The Linkwitz “Thor” woofers can be added, or not, to the Orion 3.2.1 as before. As I indicated, in the majority of cases that will not be necessary.                               

Lenny Revisited

18 November, 2009

Reissues of classic performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein, new recordings of music composed by him—they keep coming. I have never been a Lenny worshipper; his personality always rubbed me the wrong way, at least a little bit; but all this discographic pressure is getting to me. Is it possible that I overlooked something? Maybe I was wrong? Maybe he was as great as they say?

Joseph Haydn: The 6 Paris Symphonies; the 12 London Symphonies; the 4 Masses; Die Schöpfung (The Creation). New York Philharmonic (except one disc w/London Symphony Orchestra), Leonard Bernstein, conductor. Sony Classical 88697/480452 (12 CDs, recorded 1958–1979, released as a boxed set 2009).

Gustav Mahler: Symphonies No. 1 through No. 9; Symphony No. 10, Adagio; Das Lied von der Erde. New York Philharmonic (except No. 8 w/London Symphony Orchestra and Das Lied w/Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), Leonard Bernstein, conductor, various vocal soloists. Sony Classical 88697/453692 (12 CDs, recorded 1960–1975, remixed/remastered and released as a boxed set 2009).

Leonard Bernstein: Mass. Randall Scarlata (baritone), Company of Music, Tölzer Knabenchor, Chorus Sine Nomine, Absolute Ensemble, Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Kristjan Järvi, conductor. Chandos CHSA 5070(2) (2 SACDs, recorded 2006, released 2009).

Leonard Bernstein: Mass. Jubilant Sykes (baritone), Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. Naxos 8.559622-23 (2 CDs, recorded 2008, released 2009).

Leonard Bernstein: Dybbuk – Ballet (1974); Fancy Free – Ballet (1944). Mel Ulrich, baritone; Mark Risinger, bass; Nashville Symphony, Andrew Mogrelia, conductor. Naxos 8.559280 (1 CD, recorded 2005/2006, released 2006).

The key to understanding Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is to realize that his spring was wound tighter at birth than yours or mine. He was on the verge of spontaneous combustion at all times, like a Jack Russell terrier pup. That’s why he couldn’t settle down to one thing; his compulsive energies drove him to be all things—conductor, pianist, classical composer, Broadway composer, poet, teacher, broadcaster, political activist, and more. Some think he would have been a greater conductor, or a greater composer, if he had chosen to do that one thing only; this is questionable and unprovable. He was what he was, not what anyone else would have wanted him to be.

His explosive activism, his unceasing interventionism defined both his musical and social personality. To me he was something of a turnoff for many years; I could not relate to his orgiastic dancing on the conductor’s podium nor to his lovefest with the Black Panthers at that notorious 1960s party. There was a documentary film of Lenny in his family circle in the late ’60s or early ’70s, and I remember being struck by his speech mannerisms and body language, which were those of a cheesy Las Vegas celebrity. Today I realize that all that was irrelevant—or maybe relevant only to the extent that it was consistent with his music-making, which is all that remains and all that matters. His interpretations of other composers as well as his own compositions were exuberant, untrammeled, extroverted, high-energy, sometimes verging on vulgarity—just like the man.


His conducting of Mahler is a prime example. I recently saw a film clip of Bernstein in rehearsal, desperately pleading with the Vienna Philharmonic (in horrible German) that they must go to extremes in Mahler, otherwise it isn’t Mahler. After listening to the reissues in the Sony boxed set, I have to agree. This is music of extreme contrasts; its corners, spikes, and ridges shouldn’t be smoothed out but emphasized; and that’s what Bernstein does, while still maintaining the shapeliness of the music, its structure and continuity. He is the supreme music teacher (old-timers will recall those fabulous TV programs); he seems to say, “see, kids, this is the way this phrase goes, can’t you hear it?”—and the calisthenics and contortions on the podium visually illustrate his emphatic scanning of the phrase. It all makes sense to me now. I must confess that after Bernstein other conductors’ Mahler sounds a little bland to me. That’s a reversal of previous judgments.

One must also remember that these 1960s recordings launched the new era in which Mahler became mainstream; previous recordings by Mengelberg, Walter, Mitropoulos, etc., had been regarded as specialties. Bernstein emerged as the new baseline then, not something extreme as later became the conventional view. To me he is again the baseline, from which other performances deviate desirably or undesirably. That perspective is greatly facilitated by the 2009 remixing/remastering, which is quite remarkable. The audio quality of these rejuvenated early stereo recordings is almost on the level of the best current practice. The treble is perhaps less fine-grained and a tiny bit more aggressive; there is a little less air around he instruments; but the dynamic range is wide, the instrumental colors vivid, the bass powerful and well-delineated, the overall realism splendid. Fidelity is no longer the issue in comparison with more recent recordings. What a collection!


The same observations, in somewhat simpler terms, can be applied to the Haydn set. Haydn’s music is also about contrasts and surprises, which are more convincing when vigorously emphasized, as they are by Bernstein. You wouldn’t expect the great Mahler interpreter to be also a Haydn specialist, but he is—and for the same reasons. His didactic scanning of Haydn’s contrasting phrases reveals the metrical structure of the music more clearly than any Karajanesque smoothing possibly could. The symphonies emerge fresher, more original, more powerful (when apropos) under his baton than in other interpretations. I’m not saying that his way with Haydn takes precedence over all others in my judgment; a case can be made for a more rococo approach; but while I’m listening his way is utterly persuasive. Haydn meets Mahler under the eurhythmic teaching umbrella of Lenny. This is the way the phrase goes, kids…crouch…leap…slash… What an instructor!

It must be added that there is not a trace of “period practice” in these performances. No reduced forces, no early instruments, no squeaky nasal strings. The audio quality is not quite on the level of the Mahler set; these recordings have been simply reissued rather than remixed and remastered. The string sound is occasionally a little pinched; there is less air around the instruments; the dynamic range is sometimes a bit strained; but overall the sound is still quite acceptable and enjoyable even in comparison with present-day recordings. Let’s face it, would you rather listen to an ultrahigh-fidelity recording of some vibrato-less “authentic” 18th-century-style bore-fest?


When it comes to his own compositions, Bernstein’s “multiple personality” really asserts itself. They’re all over the place—classical, pop, concert hall, Broadway, dead serious, completely frivolous, strictly formal, loosey-goosey, long, short, restrained, over-the-top, you name it. A few of his show tunes, such as “New York, New York” and “Tonight” are on their way to immortality; whether his serious music will remain in the permanent repertory remains to be seen.

The earliest work in the collection listed above is the 1944 ballet Fancy Free, composed by the 25-year old Lenny and rather derivative in style—Petrouchka meets the blues, with faint echoes of early Copland (whose Billy the Kid and Rodeo were composed just a few years earlier). Overall, it’s a bracing, upbeat piece of music, easy listening and lots of fun. Dybbuk on the other hand, composed 30 years later, is much more serious, darker, more heavy-handed, and rather a bore, at least to my ears. The Nashville recording, which I should have reviewed when it came out, is very well played and idiomatic in style, although the orchestra is not quite world-class. The audio quality is excellent, wide in dynamic range, with considerable immediacy and three-dimensionality.

The Mass is again something totally different, an indescribable hodgepodge of styles ranging from high classical to lowbrow pop, from solemn to comical, from tasteful to vulgar, all of it high-energy and highly committed—like Lenny. It’s a mass in name only; it’s more of a sociopolitical diatribe. Only an enormously talented composer could have created it, and only someone with Lenny’s flaws could have made it so flawed. Some critics consider it a masterpiece, others merely embarrassing. Of the two recordings, the Naxos with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore band is unquestionably superior. The strengths of the Chandos recording are Randall Scarlata as the Celebrant and the boys’ choir of Bad Tölz, but the Celebrant in the Naxos version, Jubilant Sykes, is even better, and Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop has a more idiomatic grasp of the score, especially of the American pop parts, than Kristjan Järvi (Paavo’s brother). All in all, I can’t imagine a more resplendent performance than the Alsop/Baltimore, and the audio is also state-of-the art, with tremendous dynamic range, majestic bass, great transparency, and wonderful three-dimensionality. By comparison, the Chandos sound, SACD and all, is unimpressive and not always appropriate to the music.

To sum up…

So—how great was Lenny, everything considered? I think that as a didactic conductor, as a musical explainer, he had no equal. Admittedly, that’s only one kind of conducting, so the special niches of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Reiner, Karajan, etc., remain unaffected. As a composer, you can call Bernstein interesting, brilliant, lovable, pick your own adjective—but not great. Greatness is very hard to define but easy to experience. I haven’t experienced it when listening to Bernstein’s music. But that’s just one music lover’s opinion. 

Table of Contents

Impressive Video

31 October, 2009

Blu-ray Disc Player & DLP High-Definition TV
OPPO BDP-83 & Mitsubishi WD-73835


OPPO  Digital, Inc., 2629 Terminal Boulevard, Suite B, Mountain View, CA 94043. Voice: (650) 961-1118. Fax: (650) 961-1119. E-mail: Web: BDP-83 Blu-ray Disc Player, $499.00 (direct from manufacturer). Review sample originally on loan from manufacturer, later acquired by The Audio Critic.


Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America, Inc., 9351 Jeronimo Road, Irvine, CA 92618-1904. Voice: (800) 332-2119. E-mail: Web: Diamond WD-73835 DLP high-definition 73-inch TV, $4699.00 (original list price—large retail discounts available). Review sample originally on loan from manufacturer, later acquired by The Audio Critic.

High-definition video has become an inevitable sequel and companion to high-quality audio. It is impossible to be heavily involved with the latter without being at least somewhat involved with the former. To me, as a reviewer, that presents a problem. I am equipped to review audio components objectively, with measurements, but when it comes to TV I am basically in the same boat with all the subjective reviewers I want to distance myself from. I have no laboratory instruments for measuring video, just a few test discs for the visual evaluation of test patterns, color bars, etc. These can’t separate the performance of the disc player and of the TV monitor; the two must be connected and viewed as a single unit. I simply can’t compete with the likes of Joe Kane (he’s Mr. Video himself, the techno guru of Joe Kane Productions), but I would still like to report my experiences with an unusually high-quality and cost-effective video setup I recently acquired. Call me a closet subjectivist if you think I have betrayed my objectivist principles. It’s only TV, after all.

The Blu-ray Player

The BDP-83 is obtainable directly from the OPPO Digital company, without the in-between step of a retail outlet. If that were not the case, the price would probably be around $1000 instead of $499, and even that would be a bargain. I really don’t know what one of those multithousand-dollar players can do that the BDP-83 can’t. In circuitry and construction, the BDP-83 is a high-end product, regardless of its price. You don’t ask what features it has; it’s much simpler to ask what it doesn’t: no HD DVD playback (they’re history, in any case)—and that’s it. This is about as “universal” as a disc player can get. For a detailed list of its stupefying range of features and capabilities, go to; I see no reason to repeat what is available with a click of the mouse. It takes a 74-page user manual to cover all the bells and whistles, so don’t expect an exegesis here.

I did not measure the audio output of the BDP-83, even though I have the instrumentation to do it. The DACs and op-amps in the current generation of digital audio products are good enough to make it a meaningless exercise, except perhaps at the junk level. Minuscule differences in measured performance are strictly academic as far as sound quality is concerned. I was really interested only in video performance, where fairly large differences still exist.

The 73-Inch DLP Television

I cut through the maze of claims for the various competing HD video technologies—DLP, LCD, plasma, LED, etc.—by applying the following criterion: which of them would allow me to have a huge screen at a less than exorbitant price? The answer: only DLP. I want to watch baseball and football on the largest screen available, because it’s more like being there; a 73-incher is about the minimum that satisfies me. I actually switched to the 73-inch DLP from a 100-inch projection screen and an LCD projector; the small loss in screen area was more than made up for by the vastly brighter picture.

DLP is a projection technology (in this case rear projection) that uses an optical semiconductor chip containing an array of millions of microscopic mirrors. You’ve seen the TV commercial; a young girl with a nasal New York accent (maybe she’s the client’s niece) exclaims: “It’s amazing! It’s the mirrors!” I’m not saying DLP is either superior or inferior to all the competing technologies. It’s just that the Diamond Series WD-73835 happened to be Mitsubishi’s top-of-the-line DLP rear-projection set when I acquired it, and it was more affordable than the largest plasma or LCD sets. You can buy it these days for around $2000 from many of the standard Internet sources. It’s not nearly as flat as the plasma and LCD sets; the projection mechanism bulges out in the rear; but I had no intention to mount it on the wall in any case.

Again I refer you to for the technical details; no need to be redundant. The owner’s guide is 88 pages long; it’s also downloadable from if you really want to get involved (I didn’t think so…). The point is that there are more features, settings, adjustments, bells and whistles than can be even briefly summarized here.

The Video Experience

This is really the only reason I am posting this review—to tell audio people who don’t pay too much attention to video that there is extreme high-fidelity TV available at a price well below the insanity level.

The picture I am getting with this equipment is incredibly lifelike. The resolution is 1080i on HD channels via Verizon FiOS (not available everywhere but the best provider where it is) and 1080p with Blu-ray DVDs played on the OPPO BDP-83 through its HDMI output into the TV’s HDMI input. I cannot say that 1080p is vastly superior to 1080i because even the latter is breathtakingly real when the transmission is faultless. You can count each hair in the stubble on the pitcher’s chin; you can see the threads in the buttons on somebody’s suit. The colors are extremely vivid but still quite natural in the default mode, and best of all the picture remains very bright in a well-lit room. With Blu-ray at 1080p turn the same observations up a notch; the small details aren’t really crisper, just more fine-grained, more natural; indeed, the whole presentation is more natural, more film-like, more convincing in the gradations of color. It’s a truly beautiful picture. Visitors who haven’t been exposed to really good high-definition TV totally flip out when they see it. One has to remember that the same total number of pixels fill the 73-inch screen as would fill a smaller screen, but the coarsening magnification isn’t great enough to affect the perceived resolution from a normal viewing distance.

Just for the hell of it, I inserted a test DVD in the BDP-83. It was the “Spears & Munsil High-Definition Benchmark, Blu-ray Edition.” I had no intention to do any serious tweaking because I was deliriously happy with the default settings. The color adjustments were so numerous to begin with as to be overwhelming—forget about it—but the geometrical test patterns were meaningful. Sheer perfection—I’ve never seen such circular circles, such square squares, such absolutely straight lines, such 90° right angles. If something had been askew, I wouldn’t have known whether to blame the disc player or the TV, but everything was right on. It was my only deviation from a 100% subjective review, just to save face.

So there you are, audiophiles. Superspecial HD video for around $2500, total. I need to add that the built-in audio of the Mitsubishi is quite mediocre. An external audio system is recommended. As for the OPPO, its 5.1 and 7.1 audio capabilities are as good as the power amplification and loudspeakers you end up using with it. The line-level audio processing is not the issue, as I’ve already said.

Table of Contents

Micro Speaker

22 July, 2009

Powered Micro Loudspeaker
Soundmatters “foxL”

Soundmatters International, Inc., Reno, NV, USA. Voice: (775) 981-1460. Fax: (775) 981-1465. E-mail: Web: “foxL” powered stereo loudspeaker, $199.00. Tested sample on loan from manufacturer.   



It’s the size of a Baby Ruth candy bar, maybe just a little bit thicker. It’s stereo. It’s self-powered—there are amplifiers in it. It’s a full-range high-fidelity loudspeaker system, for crying out loud!

Who would want a loudspeaker that small, designed to be listened to at a distance of 20 inches or so? Let’s go to the source, designer Dr. Godehard Guenther, physicist and former NASA engineer:

“Music is a big part of my life, yet so is travel. There weren’t any really small hi-fi-quality portable loudspeakers—so, utilizing a number of our patented and proprietary technologies, I developed one myself. A true labor of love, I named it after Fox, my first grandson.” So it’s for travelers, frequent fliers, joggers, hikers, bicyclists, anyone on the move who doesn’t like those earbuds in his ears (and I can’t blame them). Yes, it will play louder when plugged into the wall than in its portable mode, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Design

The “foxL” is a small slab of metal, 5.6 by 2 by 1.2 inches in size (that’s 142 by 51 by 31 millimeters). It houses the following components: (a) for the left and right channels, two 25-millimeter dual-voice-coil full-range drivers, called “Twofers” because they tweet and woof; (b) for both channels, a so-called BassBattery that is both a rechargeable lithium battery and an acoustic bass radiator (clever!); (c) four digital amplifiers with a total specified power-output capability of 8 watts at <0.1% THD; (d) on/off switch, volume control, various input jacks, etc. One of those jacks is actually for an optional powered subwoofer (Soundmatters offers one named SUBstage) to extend the range of the foxL below the BassBattery’s specified low-frequency limit of 80 Hz—but then of course the system is no longer very portable.

The portability factor has to be further qualified by the power supply options. The wall wart that comes with the foxL and is used to recharge the lithium battery delivers 5 volts to the digital amplifiers. When it’s plugged in, the maximum SPL of the speaker is considerably higher than in its portable mode on battery. The battery’s output is only 3.6 volts. Setting a sufficiently loud listening level is a little bit tricky with the foxL because of the interaction of the power supply, the listening distance, the setting of the volume control, and the input level. With everything trimmed in, the unit can produce a sound level totally disproportionate to its size. Dr. Guenther apparently knows something that others don’t.

Soundmatters also offers the foxL with Bluetooth option for wireless streaming, at $249.00. I haven’t tried that one.

The Measurements

The most interesting measurement in this case seems to be the maximum obtainable SPL. The published specifications claim 95 dB at a distance of 50 centimeters (19.7 inches) with the AC adapter plugged in and delivering 5 volts. I found the limit to be just short of 90 dB with the most favorable frequencies, the SPL being highly frequency-dependent. At shorter distances it’s possible to hit 95 dB. On battery, with 3.6 volts, the SPL limit is proportionately less. I don’t want to make too much of an issue about the discrepancy between the specs and my results because Soundmatters doesn’t specify the exact physical and electronic conditions of the SPL test. Maybe I didn’t do it their way.

Frequency response is the other major question when it comes to a micro loudspeaker, and it’s reasonable to measure it in the nearfield because that’s where the listening takes place. Quasi-anechoic (MLS) measurements at 1 meter or 2 meters are not really relevant here. Fig. 1 shows the small-signal nearfield response of the right-hand Twoofer (which is a somewhat smoother version of a very similar response obtained when trying to sum the nearfield output of both Twoofers). Between 200 Hz and 5 kHz the response is reasonably flat, ±2.5 dB; then it rolls off slightly, and quite smoothly, to 15 kHz; the small 18 kHz resonance is normal. Fig. 1 is not valid below 200 Hz; you have to go to Fig. 2, which shows the small-signal nearfield response of the BassBattery. The curve indicates strong response down to 80 Hz and useful response down to 60 Hz, a profile similar to that of a typical minimonitor (just scaled down). The published full-range spec of 80 Hz to 20 kHz is not very meaningful because no ±dB range is given, only an obscure (possibly incorrect) DIN number. Overall, I would call the frequency response of the foxL remarkably good, considering the extreme miniaturization and special purpose of the design.


Fig. 1: Small-signal nearfield response of right-hand 25-mm driver.


Fig. 2: Small-signal nearfield response of the BassBattery.

I thought I heard some low-frequency distortion in my SPL tests, so I ran a not particularly challenging harmonic distortion test of a 150 Hz tone, with the microphone measuring the BassBattery at a 50-centimeter SPL of 80 dB. (I couldn’t make it any louder without buzzing.) Fig. 3 shows the result. The FFT indicates 2nd harmonic distortion of –23 dB (7.1%), 3rd harmonic distortion of –28.5 dB (3.8%), 4th harmonic distortion of –41 dB (0.9%)—shall I go on? Those are pretty awful numbers for a far from stringent test, even allowing the possibility of somewhat better results if the test had been structured differently. At the end of the day, it appears that the foxL is a very clever little gadget rather than a full-fledged high-fidelity device. There are no miracles.


Fig. 3: Nearfield spectrum of a 150 Hz tone reproduced by the BassBattery, at a 0.5-meter SPL of 80 dB.

The Sound

This is obviously one of those quirky electroacoustic components that stand or fall on the perceived quality of their sound, regardless of measurements. I approached the listening evaluation with skepticism and I was rather pleasantly surprised. The foxL has sufficient range and dynamics to produce a surprisingly lifelike sound. If your face is close enough to it, it sounds like a grownup loudspeaker, not like an amplified candy bar. To be sure, the sound is a little bit thin and pinched as the music gets louder, and there is audible bass distortion from time to time (depending on the program material), but the overall impression is one of realism rather than sonic miniaturization. The stereo effect is minimal; there is no “air” around the sound; but what do you expect, with the left- and right-channel drivers 4 inches apart? Also, strangely enough, I sometimes heard more distortion with the AC adapter connected than on battery power, but the effect wasn’t consistent. I could start speculating about the cause of this anomaly but I won’t. When all is said and done, the foxL is somewhere near the edge of the category famously characterized by the great Samuel Johnson: “[It] is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

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Benchmark Preamp/DAC

07 July, 2009

Stereo Front End with Preamp, DAC, Remote Control & More
Benchmark DAC1 HDR

Benchmark Media Systems, Inc., 203 East Hampton Place, Suite 2, Syracuse, NY 13206-1633. Voice: (315) 437-6300. Fax: (315) 437-8119. E-mail: Web: DAC1 HDR stereo preamplifier with remote control, digital-to-analog converter, headphone amplifier, and computer audio interface, $1895.00.  Tested sample on loan from manufacturer.

In March 2005, I posted a review of the Benchmark DAC1, the granddaddy of this new model. (You can find the review under Archives.) I found the DAC1 to be essentially perfect—almost as perfect as the Audio Precision measuring instrument itself. The DAC1 was strictly a 24-bit 192-kHz digital-to-analog converter, nothing more. The DAC1 HDR incorporates the DAC1 unchanged and adds to it what is basically a complete front end for a stereo system: line-level preamp, remote control of volume and inputs, headphone amplifier, and USB computer audio interface.


As I pointed out in the original review, more expensive DACs than the Benchmark give you absolutely nothing more in performance—you can’t outperform perfection. Benchmark audio equipment is made by professionals for professionals. Their aim is to achieve the ultimate in measurements. That leaves the “pride of ownership” of five-figure audio jewelry to the orthopedic surgeons, hedge-fund managers, and drug dealers to whom the dollar sign is an index of listening quality. I can just repeat the same statements when it comes to the DAC1 HDR. It isn’t cheap—almost twice the price of the DAC1—but it doesn’t use inflated price as a marketing tool and is exactly as good as it needs to be: a totally transparent conduit for audio signals.

The Design

The HDR is no bigger than the original DAC1; it is built on the same 8-inch square chassis in the style of the increasingly popular half-size audio components. The additional complexity and parts density of the design result in a slightly higher operating temperature; the difference isn’t significant, since neither model runs very cool. The DAC circuitry is the same as before; the additional analog circuitry is implemented with National Semiconductor LM4562 op-amps. The LM4562 is a very advanced, low-distortion dual unit; its THD specification is 0.00003%, which translates to –130.5 dB! Not that anyone can measure –130 dB directly with any standard test instrument; that spec must be based on some sort of indirect calculation. (The only comparable op-amp known to me is the Analog Devices AD797, which is a single-channel unit; a pair of them constitute the heart of the Morrison E.L.A.D. line-level preamp, which I have been using since 1998 because there is nothing better at any price. I’ve had recent discussions with Don Morrison, who still prefers the AD797 to the LM4562 but admits that the latter is the competition.)

The volume control of the DAC1 HDR is based on a motorized Alps potentiometer custom-made for this model and remotely controllable. Its gain circuit is designed to maintain the full dynamic range of the unit’s audio signal path, unlike digital volume controls that limit the dynamic range at various settings. This is the feature that sells me most decisively on this preamp/DAC. It consolidates and refines an ultrasophisticated nerve center for a stereo system on a single tiny chassis. Everything you need is there. Another design feature I particularly like is the choice of two headphone amplifier output jacks, one of which mutes the main analog outputs and the other one doesn’t. That makes a lot of sense—sometimes you just want to listen to your headphones and sometimes you want to compare the headphone sound with the loudspeaker sound. USB audio is yet another important feature, which I haven’t tried yet; using a laptop for my main program source will be the next step in my technological evolution. The USB input is plug-and-play, compatible with all current operating systems, and it supports sampling rates up to 96 kHz and word lengths up to 24 bits. The instruction manual devotes 23 pages to the description and features of the DAC1 HDR; I have merely scratched the surface here. The unit is a high-tech feast. Go to the Benchmark website for more details.

The Measurements

To my great surprise, the 14 pages of Audio Precision performance graphs in the DAC1 HDR instruction manual are all about the original DAC1 and are all dated 2002. The assumption is that, since the original DAC1 is incorporated unchanged in the HDR, the digital-in-analog-out performance measurements remain the same. Very well then, let us accept the validity of that assumption—but where are the new analog-in-analog-out data? The original DAC1 did not have an analog input, nor a motorized potentiometer through which the analog signals passed. I found this omission to be astonishing and necessarily started my measurements with analog in and out.

Fig. 1 shows the graph that basically gives you the total picture, THD+N versus frequency. You don’t really need anything else. As it turns out, Benchmark could afford to omit this measurement because it resembles that of a straight wire. Both channels hug the line at –105 dB (0.00056%) distortion at just under 2 volts output, where the distortion appears to bottom out. That equals the performance of the Morrison preamp mentioned above, which has been the THD champion for the past 11 years (at least in my experience). Those LM4562’s are certainly doing the job. What’s more, the true measurements for the Benchmark are probably even better by a couple of dB because I measured it with the Audio Precision ATS-2, which has a THD+N floor a few dB higher than the state-of-the-art SYS-2722 I used to have but no longer do.


Fig. 1: Distortion across the audio spectrum, analog input, just under 2 volts output, both channels.

To check the effect of the Alps potentiometer on the channel separation, I measured the crosstalk with analog input at 1 volt out. Fig. 2 shows a classic declining response starting at –65/–72 dB at the highest frequencies and dropping to –125/–133 dB at the lowest. You can’t ask for better. (If you go to Archives, March 2005, and check out the crosstalk of the original DAC1 with digital input, you’ll see even better figures, but that is partly because of the much higher output with 0 dBFS input.)


Fig. 2: Channel separation, analog input, 1 volt output, both channels.

As I said, I’m willing to believe that the D-to-A part of the HDR is identical to the original DAC1, so I just spot-checked a few performance results. Again, I refer you back to Archives, March 2005, for the comparison. THD+N versus frequency with –3 dBFS input (Fig. 3) is worse by an average of 2.5 dB, but that is easily explained by the difference between the Audio Precision ATS-2 and SYS-2722. Gain linearity and deviation from linearity (Fig. 4) are exactly the same, and intermodulation distortion at full scale (Fig. 5) is only microscopically different, if at all. I would say that Benchmark is, in the final analysis, justified in using DAC1 data for the digital specs of the DAC1 HDR.


Fig. 3: Distortion across the audio spectrum, digital input at –3 dBFS, both channels.


Fig. 4: Gain linearity (blue) and deviation from linearity (red) in one channel.


Fig. 5: Intermodulation distortion, digital input at 0 dBFS, 19 kHz + 20 kHz, in one channel.

I could have made many more measurements but I am (1) getting lazy in my old age and (2) reluctant, as always, to belabor the obvious. The Benchmark DAC1 HDR is state-of-the-art.        

The Sound

I am adding this paragraph strictly for the sake of my newer readers. The old regulars know exactly my position regarding the stupidity of ascribing a “character” to the sound of an utterly neutral signal path. Oohing and aahing over the vast improvement in soundstaging, front-to-back depth, bass delineation, or treble sweetness obtainable with this or that electronic component may sell high-end magazines but is totally unscientific and delusional. What the Benchmark DAC1 HDR adds to or subtracts from its input signal is borderline unmeasurable, so the sonic character of its output is obviously the sonic character of its input. It’s as simple as that. It has no sound of its own. Furthermore, its measurements could be 20 or 30 dB worse and it would still sound the same. I have convinced myself of that over and over again in double-blind listening comparisons of all sorts of electronic components at matched levels. The 100% purity of the DAC1 HDR is of benefit mainly in professional systems, where the integrity of the equipment chain needs to be verified and guaranteed. To audiophiles it’s a somewhat abstract luxury—but not an excessively costly one.


All in all, the Benchmark DAC1 HDR is damn close to a perfect piece of equipment. Neither its digital performance nor its analog performance could be meaningfully improved. That’s really all that needs to be said. If I could change anything at all about it, it would be to add a couple more analog inputs. I realize that there is no room for that, so I use a small input switch box that sits on top of it. Most users won’t need it. There exist DACs and preamps at ten times the price of the Benchmark, but they aren’t any better. Let the high-end police come and take me away in handcuffs. 

Table of Contents

A Unique and Unexpected Audio Experience

27 April, 2009

I am an unregenerate and unrepentant Wagnerian, so I try to keep abreast of all new Wagner releases on CD. When I requested the 2-CD Profil (Günter Hänssler) DCD PH07048 set from Naxos, the distributor, I expected nothing more than some scratchy old archival tracks from Germany, with perhaps some decent singing by forgotten old-timers. I was in for a big surprise.

The set is subtitled Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, Vol. 23, obviously part of a series. The tracks that amazed me were recorded on September 21, 1944, in the acoustically marvelous State Opera House  (Semperoper) of Dresden, which was pulverized, along with the rest of the city, in the much-debated air raid the following February.

To give you more of an idea of the timeline in Nazi Germany as of September 1944, that was one month after Adolf Eichmann reported from Hungary to Heinrich Himmler that approximately 4 million Jews had died in death camps and that an estimated 2 million had been killed by mobile units. At the very moment of the recording, Eichmann was still transporting thousands more Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz; the Allied forces were rapidly advancing in Western Europe; the Russians were on the border of Hungary in the east; the war was clearly lost by the Nazis; further fighting was national suicide; but to a crazed Führer the Final Solution was obviously even more important than winning the war.

In this roiling cauldron of evil and self-destruction, the Semperoper was an incongruous bubble of high culture, where a world-class performance of Die Walküre was being recorded by artists who were apparently nonpolitical enough (i.e., not very Nazi) to have successful international careers after the war. The most prominent of them was Max Lorenz, 43, one of the 20th century’s outstanding Heldentenors, who sang Siegmund. Sieglinde was the soprano Margarete Teschemacher, 41; Hunding was the great bass Kurt Böhme, 36; Wotan was the baritone Josef Herrmann, 41; the conductor of the superb Staatskapelle Dresden was Karl Elmendorff, 52, a Bayreuth and La Scala veteran. I indicate their ages at the time of the recording to show that they must have been at or near the zenith of their powers, not just leftover has-beens for wartime use.

The performance is by and large up to the highest international standards, as I’ve already stated; Kurt Böhme is possibly the scariest Hunding I’ve ever heard; Josef Herrmann sings Wotan’s farewell beautifully; and Karl Elmendorff’s conducting is dynamic, unmannered, thoroughly idiomatic—but those are not the reasons I was excited. What is extraordinary is the 1944 recording—on magnetic tape, at 77.2 centimeters (30.4 inches) per second! 

Sophisticated tape recording technology was unknown at the time to anyone in the Allied countries; the Germans had developed it and kept it secret until the equipment was discovered by the occupation forces after the end of the war. Even the latest and greatest recording projects of RCA Victor, Columbia, NBC radio, and other major American companies were on 16-inch 331/3-rpm acetate masters in 1944. The difference was night and day. The German magnetic tape recordings with high-frequency bias, moving past the heads at the high speed of 30 ips, were basically equal, or at least comparable, to some of today’s best recordings in frequency range, distortion, dynamic range, and noise floor. I could have been listening to a 2007 recording of Die Walküre, except that it was in mono. (Stereo became the standard in the late 1950s.) I couldn’t quite figure out the microphone setup; it could have been just a single mike; but the voices are always picked up fairly close, so that every syllable of the German text is crystal clear, much clearer than in modern stereo recordings. Perhaps it was the superior acoustics of the opera house. The orchestral sound also has great presence and timbral accuracy.

What I simply can’t understand is how this remarkable audio experience could have passed without commentary by the critics when the same tracks were first released on the Tahra label as part of a no longer available four-CD set titled The Staatskapelle of Dresden [1548–1959]: a Sound Portrait. Nobody seemed to have noticed the hi-fi gem among all the scratchy old mono recordings. It seems to confirm my suspicion that a lot of music critics listen to recordings through their kitchen radio. At any rate, we should be grateful to Profil for reissuing this exceptional rarity. 

Table of Contents

Recent CDs/DVDs

peteraczel | 15 April, 2009 15:42

Most classical recordings released over the past twenty years are of decent quality in both performance and sound. The standards have been raised to a fairly high and uniform level. For that very reason the critic tends to get bored, even a lightweight critic like me. It takes an unusually fine performance and/or truly superb sound to generate any kind of excitement. Unfortunately, most music critics, including some of the best, have rather crude sound systems that cannot distinguish between good, better, and best sound. They can barely tell good from bad. Here I have a slight advantage. Even more unfortunately, most music critics (and that includes me) do not have the high-level musical education and natural gift to distinguish between a good professional performance and a truly brilliant one, especially in complex and quirky music like a Mahler symphony. That’s why the same performance is lauded by one critic and panned by another. How many critics are able to verify whether or not all the meticulous and highly specific tempo, dynamic, and expression marking written into the score by Mahler have been faithfully rendered by the orchestra and conductor? Not many, only a small minority, and I am definitely not one of them. All I can do is to give you my sincere impression of just a few performances as a longtime music lover, plus a reasonably authoritative opinion of their audio quality, since I own a reference-quality sound system. You have to decide what that’s worth to you.

When it comes to audio quality, the issue of CDs versus SACDs keeps coming up (the DVD-A appears to be dead). I no longer have any doubt that the CD layer and 2-channel SACD layer of the same disc do not sound discernibly different if the original mix was the same. (See the October 17, 2007 web ’zine posting “Redbook vs. Hi-Rez” for details.) The multichannel layer sounds different by definition, but I have found that 2-channel playback through my Linkwitz Lab “Orion++” system actually gives me better spatial information than 5.1-channel systems. I have concluded that critics who hear a world of difference between CD and SACD (that is, between PCM and DSD) are delusional.     


Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Gerard Schwarz, conductor. AR-0043-2 (recorded 2005, released 2008).

Here is a prime example of what I wrote in the introduction above. The 7th is the least recorded and perhaps the least understood of the Mahler symphonies, so any new recording of it is worth paying attention to. In the November/December 2008 issue of Fanfare, two well-established critics, Christopher Abbot and Lynn René Bayley, reviewed Schwarz’s performance. Abbot dismissed it as undistinguished and Bayley raved about it. Whom should you believe? Abbot was particularly critical of the “poor” sound, and Bayley made a special point of the “fantastic” sound quality. Now I ask you… My own take on the recording is that it is in the best Gerard Schwarz tradition: straightforward, unmannered, never flagging, highly musical. To decide exactly how faithful it is to Mahler’s intentions, I would need a professor from Juilliard or Curtis with a score. The Liverpudlians play beautifully, that much I can tell. As for the sound, I’m with Bayley; maybe it isn’t fantastic but it’s very, very good, wide in dynamic range, transparent, never harsh, with good soundstaging. I think Abbot must have had his CD player plugged into his kitchen radio.

CD from ATMA Classique

J. S. Bach: “Bach Métamorphoses” (Bach orchestrations by Leopold Stokowski, William Walton, Gustav Holst, Edward Elgar, Yoav Talmi, Anton Webern, and Ottorino Respighi). Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Yoav Talmi, conductor; Alexander Weimann, harpsichord. ACD2 2570 (2008).

This is an all-Canadian production, subsidized by the Canadian government. Orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s organ music and of his other keyboard pieces are not as controversial as they used to be; it is widely assumed today that Bach would have loved to compose for a big modern orchestra if it had existed in his time. Of course, a modern orchestration still needs to be in the spirit of the original, as for example Stokowski’s transcription of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is not. It is overblown and sensationalistic to the point of vulgarity. On the other hand, my favorite track on this CD, Respighi’s brilliant orchestration of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, is arguably even more magnificent than the original organ version. (Toscanini commissioned Respighi in 1929 to do it.) The Québec orchestra is just a little bit on the crude side in comparison with the great ones, but they play with tremendous enthusiasm under the Israeli conductor Talmi. In any case, I don’t know of another disc that brings together seven different composers’ approach to orchestrating Bach. The audio quality is in-your-face, close-miked, 1960s-style, but very good and clean of its kind.


Joseph Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 20 (No. 1 in E-flat Major, No. 2 in C Major, No. 3 in G Minor, No. 4 in D Major, No. 5 in F Minor, No. 6 in A Major). Pellegrini Quartet (Antonio Pellegrini, violin; Thomas Hofer, violin; Fabio Marano, viola; Helmut Menzler, cello). 777 173-2 (2 SACDs, recorded 2005 and 2006, released 2008).

Haydn’s Opus 20 quartets are a milestone. They are the first, the original, the prototypical “great” string quartets in the history of classical music. Quartet writing was never the same again. Haydn’s later masterpieces, as well as Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, are unlikely to have happened without these prototypes. Just listen, for example, to the melancholy complexities of the first movement of Op. 20 No. 5 in F Minor, lasting a full 11 minutes. Earlier works seem lightweight by comparison. The Pellegrini Quartet does not quite have the hair-trigger precision and tonal refinement of the Emerson or the symphonic weight of the old Guarneri (to bring up just two examples), but they play on the highest professional level, with considerable verve and musicality. The have a lightness of touch in passages where a heavier hand is too often the case. Repeats are all played. All in all, excellent performances of very great music. The recording is rather close-miked without much hall sound, but if you set the volume exactly right the total effect is absolute realism. If you start blasting it, the violins turn wiry; there is no margin. I could hear no difference between the CD and 2-channel SACD layers; the surround-sound layer I didn’t bother to try.

CDs from EMI

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major. Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. 50999 5 01228 2 0 (2 CDs, recorded 2007, released 2008).
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements; Symphony of Psalms; Symphony in C. Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. 50999 2 07630 0 8 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

When there are so many splendid recordings of a Mahler symphony to choose from, the very least a new release from a major label should provide is excellent sound. That is not the case here. Assembled from several evenings of live concert performances, the Mahler Ninth recording is totally flat in sonic perspective, with no hall sound, almost as if the soundstage had collapsed from front to back, and screaming strings at ff to fff. It’s a pity because the famous Berlin strings play very beautifully, as expected. The quality of the interpretation is a matter of opinion, the usual Rattle mixture of magnificence and idiosyncrasy, but the inadequate sound disqualifies the disc in my book. The Stravinsky recordings, made under exactly the same conditions by the same engineering team a month earlier, appear to be better in audio quality only because Stravinsky’s orchestration doesn’t require nearly the 3-D space that Mahler’s does. The whole thing still sounds pretty cramped. It goes without saying that the music is well played by the mighty Berliners and, in the superb Symphony of Psalms, well sung by the excellent radio choir, but ideally Stravinsky should be played with more snap, more rhythmic insistence, more punch than Rattle seems willing to provide. In fact, some of Robert Craft’s performances from the early ’90s with a freelance orchestra are more idiomatic in this respect (although not as fluent and slick), and better recorded, too. The “amateur” Robert Craft better than the great Sir Simon? What’s the world coming to…      

CD from Hyperion

Leopold Godowsky: Excerpts from Walzermasken and Triakontameron; Symphonic Metamorphoses on Künstlerleben, Die Fledermaus, and Wein, Weib und Gesang by Johann Strauss II; The Last Waltz by Oscar Straus. Marc-André Hamelin, piano. CDA67626 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

Leopold Godowsky was the circus pianist of the late 19th and early 20th century; Marc-André Hamelin is the circus pianist of our era. That label in no way diminishes their artistry, which in both cases was/is of the highest order; it’s just a way to categorize their near-impossible feats of pianism. This is piano music of the same sort as Horowitz’s “Carmen” variations or his “Stars and Stripes,” but more elegant, translucent, and pearlescent. Godowsky’s reinterpretations of these Viennese waltz classics are in excellent taste, as are his own nostalgic compositions in ¾ time, but they take a transcendental pianist to play them as they should be played. Hamelin, as I’ve stated a number of times before, is that kind of pianist. He appears to have twenty fingers; his articulation of the densest passages is as clean and clear as if he were playing “Chopsticks;” the fastest passages almost seem slow because of the relaxed clarity of his playing. And have you ever heard a Canadian get that Viennese lilt exactly right? He does. What’s really amazing is that, where other pianists create tension by conquering the difficulties of fast and complex music, Hamelin’s playing is perfect ease at all times. He creates tension with carefully graded dynamics. Supreme skill is always a thrill. The recorded sound of the piano (an English job) is for once right on the money—perfectly balanced from the lowest bass to the highest treble, with exactly the right reverb (not too much) and excellent presence. No complaint or reservation this time: A+ audio!       

CDs from Naxos

Elliott Carter: String Quartet No. 1 (1951), No. 2 (1959) No. 3 (1971), No. 4 (1986), and No. 5 (1995). Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, violin I; Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin II; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). 8.559362 (Quartet No. 1 and No. 5, recorded 2007, released 2008) and 8.559363 (Quartet No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4, recorded 2008, released 2009).

Elliott Carter is alive and well and 100 years old; I’ve been vaguely aware of his music and running away from it since he was about 50. Now I realize I was wrong; he is a very impressive composer. His music is staggeringly complicated, in rhythm, counterpoint, dynamics, sonority. Its appeal is to the intellect, not the emotions. The atonal cogitations are interrupted from time to time by a few seconds of radiant beauty, only to lapse back into cerebral abstraction almost immediately. I am amazed and fascinated for a while, and then I can’t take it anymore. What’s truly astonishing about these recordings is the virtuosity of the Pacifica Quartet. They play this fiendishly difficult music with utter precision and at the same time with relaxed ease and a warm tone, as if it were Mozart. You have to hear it to believe it. They are clearly one of the great string quartets of the world. The recorded sound is also on the highest level, approaching my favorite Ray Kimber IsoMike recordings in you-are-there-ness and warmth. Judy Sherman was the producer; it’s some of her best work.

Leopold Stokowski: Bach Transcriptions • 2. J. S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring; Sleepers, Awake! & others; also selections by Giovanni Palestrina, William Byrd, Luigi Boccherini, & others. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, José Serebrier, conductor. 8.572050 (recorded 2008, released 2009).

This is the second installment of Serebrier pretending to be Stokowski, conducting the latter’s orchestrations of Bach’s organ music and of other 16th to 18th century pieces. The impersonation is successful; it’s the Stoki sound all right, maybe not quite as sumptuous as that of the old Philadelphia Orchestra but close. This UK orchestra is a lot better than the Canadians reviewed under ATMA Classique above; the only piece they both play is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which is just as over the top here, whereas the other Stokowski transcriptions are relatively chaste. I can’t help loving this kind of gorgeously cosmeticized Bach, as long as I also have access to the original versions. The audio, of course, is a very important part of the glamorizing process and is quite excellent in this case, with the proper dimensionality in what appears to be a medium-sized hall and, sine qua non, the lush Stokowskian string sound.

CD and SACD from Ondine

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”). Simona Šaturová, soprano; Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano; The Philadelphia Singers Chorale; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. ODE 1134-2D (2 CDs, recorded 2007, released 2009).
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 (1937). The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, Op. 127 (1967). Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano; Juliette Kang, violin; Hai-Ye Ni, cello; Christoph Eschenbach, piano. ODE 1109-5 (recorded 2006 and 2007, released 2008).

Once again, for the nth time, Mahler—but as I have often said, he is the composer for the hi-fi era, and this is an audio web ’zine. To validate that perspective, the sound of this CD is truly sensational, the best of the Philadelphia series on Ondine so far. The bass is awesome (the Telarc bass drum has been bested!); the dynamic range is the widest possible; the brasses are unbelievably brilliant; the climaxes are without a trace of harshness (very rare!); the Verizon Hall organ is majestic; the soundstage has excellent width and depth. And get this: no SACD; this is an optimized-for-CD-only, two-channel production—maybe the word has reached Ondine and Polyhymnia. (The somewhat earlier Shostakovich recording is still on hybrid CD/SACD.) The orchestra plays magnificently; the soloists and chorus are wonderful; and Eschenbach’s conducting is on a level that makes his terminated Philadelphia tenure appear like a great loss. His risk-taking and micromanaging style, for which he has been criticized, works to the music’s advantage in this work. Overall, I can’t imagine a more desirable performance and recording of the Mahler Second, which is one of my favorites because, despite its gigantic concept, it has a dewy freshness, almost an innocent quality, which is absent from the more sophisticated and (let’s face it) neurotic symphonies after the Fourth. The Shostakovich recording is not nearly as remarkable; Eschenbach’s interpretation is a little blah, as if he couldn’t summon up sufficient enthusiasm for the symphony and were only interested in playing all the notes and dynamic markings correctly. The orchestral sound is excellent, as usual, but doesn’t have the extraordinary quality of the Mahler CD. The Blok songs are well sung by Yvonne Naef and beautifully accompanied by the first-chair Philadelphia players; the dramatic numbers are perhaps more interesting than the lyrical ones but they strain Naef’s voice to the limit.            

DVDs from Opus Arte

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Robert Gambill, Tristan; Nina Stemme, Isolde; Katarina Karnéus, Brangäne; Bo Skovhus, Kurwenal; René Pape, King Marke; The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek, conductor; Nikolaus Lehnhoff, stage director. OA 0988 D (3 DVDs, recorded 2007, released 2008).

This could quite plausibly be the one Tristan to have if you’re having only one (apologies to Schaefer Beer for twisting their words). The main reason for that is Nina Stemme, unquestionably the reigning Isolde of today and, to my ears, one of the best ever. That wasn’t quite my opinion when I reviewed the Domingo/Stemme Tristan CDs a couple of years ago, but here her voice has the heft below that I missed in the earlier recording. She has developed into an amazing singer, with ringing high notes, rich low notes, unlimited volume, and nary a moment of strain. When she crescendoes to a climactic passage I am left gasping. I thought only an orchestra can do that. If her voice were as beautiful as it is powerful and secure, she would be absolutely unique. Plus, she is a pretty good actress, too. By comparison, Robert Gambill is a lightweight, or at best a middleweight; Stemme overwhelms him when they are singing together, but in his solo passages he often rises to the occasion and sings quite beautifully. He is not a genuine Heldentenor, but who is these days? In the impossibly strenuous third act his vocal limitations tend to stymie him from time to time, but he is quite theatrical and carries the dramatic flow at all times. Katarina Karnéus is perfect as Brangäne; her big offstage number in the second act is sung as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it. Bo Skovhus seems a bit uncomfortable as Kurwenal; he is better in Mozart, but the role is not a game changer one way or the other. As for René Pape, he is still the best in any role he chooses to sing and has no equal as King Marke. The London Philharmonic plays sensationally, and Belohlávek conducts the work with tremendous élan. All in all, the musical production left no doubt in my mind that I was listening to one of the pinnacles of Western art. As for the theatrical production, it is absolutely minimal, abstract/geometrical in scenery and stylized/medieval in costumes. It works for me; it’s the human interaction that’s important in Tristan, not the physical background. A great DVD set.

SACDs from PentaTone Classics

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10; Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54. Russian National Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. PTC 5186 068 (recorded 2004, released 2006).
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Hamlet, Op. 67a (Overture & Incidental Music); Romeo and Juliet “Fantasy Overture” (original 1869 version). Russian National Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. PTC 5186 330 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

My interest in these recordings arises from the fact that Jurowski seems to be the leading candidate for the position of permanent music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (“my” orchestra). Of course, it’s still a couple of years off in the future, and he hasn’t said yes, but all the preliminary signs are there. He is known to have a penchant for the little-known works of famous composers, as witnessed by the Tchaikovsky performances. What we have here is not the familiar Hamlet “Fantasy Overture,” Op. 67, but the complete orchestra-pit music composed for the play, and not the famous Romeo and Juliet “Fantasy Overture” of 1880 but the quite different Ur-version of 1869. The overture introducing the theater pieces is a short version of Op. 67, and the rest is just snippets lasting half a minute to 7½ minutes, all of it good but not great music. The early R & J overture sounds unfamiliar until the overly familiar love theme and battle theme emerge, and then the whole piece sounds less organic and effective than the final 1880 version. The Shostakovich symphonies are pretty much repertory items by now, the First an astonishingly brilliant, upbeat, flashy work by a very grown-up teenager, the Sixth a strangely lopsided affair with no sonata-form first movement, an excruciatingly long and grim slow movement, and then two very short, lightweight fast movements that are more fun. (I really don’t know how to relate to the Sixth.) All the performances are very thoughtful, expressive, transparent, tightly controlled, with high-level playing by the excellent Russian National Orchestra. The studio recordings by Polyhymnia are typical of their multi-miked kind, with good depth, definition, and dynamic range, basically high-quality but occasionally a bit on the bright side. I think the potential problem with Jurowski, should he end up permanently in Philadelphia, is that he tends to straightjacket the orchestra instead of giving it its head and letting it play, which would be the preferable way to conduct the Philadelphians. I suspect he is something of a control freak, and he is very, very serious. He is only in his mid-30s.              

CDs from RCA Red Seal

Frédéric Chopin: “Rubinstein Plays Chopin—The Original Jacket Collection.” The Nocturnes, the Mazurkas, the Ballades, the Scherzos, the Polonaises, the Sonatas, the Waltzes, the Preludes, et al. Artur Rubinstein, piano. 88697-31619-2 (10 CDs, recorded 1946 to 1966, re-released 2008).

Artur Rubinstein (1887–1982) was arguably the greatest Chopin interpreter of the 20th century. You could bring up a small number of rival names, but I am inclined to agree with Max Wilcox, who produced most of these recordings and who told me many years ago, “Don’t look for better performances—you’re not going to find any.” Rubinstein combined a subtle, elegant rubato with a glowing piano tone and a fluid, soaring continuity of the melodic line that gave his Chopin playing a signature quality. His Chopin is Chopin (to paraphrase Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh). That he made nearly all of these recordings as an old man does not diminish their quality; he got better and better as he grew older, perhaps not in technique but in musical insight. I am almost inclined to say that you don’t need any other Chopin recordings than this set. (I said almost.) As for the audio quality, five of the ten discs appear to be close to, or identical to, Max Wilcox’s mid-1980s downmix of three channels to two, which sounded beautiful. The five other discs were “transferred by Maria Triana” (says the booklet), who obviously wasn’t there and doesn’t know what Rubinstein sounded like. She changed the balance so that the treble no longer has the singing, pellucid quality of the old mix and the bass is heavier. Everybody wants to make a difference, for better or worse. Maria notwithstanding, this is still an essential collection for those who don’t own the older CDs.      

CD from Sony Classical

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas—No. 12 in A-flat Major, Op. 26; No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14 No. 1; No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14 No. 2; No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 (“Pastorale”). Murray Perahia, piano. 88697326462 (recorded and released 2008).

There is no better Beethoven pianist alive today than Murray Perahia (when his temperamental thumb isn’t bothering him, that is). Here he plays four of Beethoven’s “lesser” piano sonatas, all in major keys. They are lesser only in comparison with some of the later sonatas, which are stupendous, the greatest ever. If any other composer had produced these four sonatas, he would still be considered a great master. Perahia plays them as perfectly—in tempo, articulation, transparency of detail, musicality—as is conceivable. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11. The audio is excellent, a thoroughly up-to-date piano sound, maybe a bit too mellow for my taste—I would have liked a slightly more clangorous quality even better. Purely personal.       

SACDs from Telarc

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème. Norah Amsellem, Mimi; Marcus Haddock, Rodolfo; Georgia Jarman, Musetta; Fabio Capitanucci, Marcello; Denis Sedov, Colline; Christopher Schaldenbrand, Schaunard; Kevin Glavin, Benoit/Alcindoro; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano, conductor. 2SACD-60697 (2 SACDs, recorded 2007, 2008).

La Bohème is, according to most statistics, the most popular opera in the world; its recorded versions on 78, LP, CD, and DVD are beyond counting. That this recent live concert-hall recording from Atlanta isn’t the best-sung and best-played of all time is a certainty—but it might actually be the most subtly detailed theatrically and the best recorded. Not that it isn’t well sung and well played, also. All the singers are young or youngish ones on their way up, some of them perhaps to stardom; they sing most idiomatically and persuasively; and the Atlanta orchestra under Spano, a very fine conductor, plays beautifully and accurately. There’s not a thing wrong with this performance; it’s just that the competition is too fierce. The recorded sound is superb, perhaps the most realistic opera recording I’ve ever heard, with better front-to-back depth, localization, and transparency than seems to be possible in conventional opera-stage-and-orchestra-pit recordings. Again I could hear no significant difference between the PCM and DSD layers in sequential listening, instant A/B being impossible. The EQ may have been very slightly different. (As a footnote, I should add that my all-time favorite La Bohème is the 1946 mono recording conducted by Toscanini. It’s never even mentioned in present-day surveys, but it’s unique because of the incandescent orchestral performance and Jan Peerce’s singing as Rodolfo. Peerce didn’t quite have the voice of a Gigli, Björling, or Corelli, but under Toscanini he was inspired to sing way over his head and outperform them all. By chance, I overheard him discussing this particular recording in a Copenhagen fish restaurant in the 1960s. His comment on later recordings was “stereo, schmereo, not as good.”)

“Cameron Carpenter: Revolutionary.” Organ compositions and transcriptions of Bach, Carpenter, Chopin, Demessieux, Dupré, Horowitz, and Liszt. Cameron Carpenter, organ. SACD-60711 (recorded and released 2008).

Who is Cameron Carpenter? He is a campy exhibitionist in his late twenties who happens to be the technically most astonishing organist the world has ever seen. There’s a DVD that comes in the box with the audio disc (DVD-70711), so you can see him perform at the Marshall & Ogletree “virtual pipe organ,” which has a very impressive, more or less traditional console but no pipes—it’s all digital (audiophiles: the low bass comes out of two Bruce Thigpen rotary woofers!). Carpenter wears a heavily sequined white T-shirt, reminiscent of Siegfried & Roy, and white organist’s shoes of his own design. My goodness! In his transcription of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12, which is also Track 1 of the CD, the fiendishly difficult left-hand piano part is all done with the pedals, on which he does a dazzling tap dance that one-ups Gene Kelly in physicality. I’m telling you, Helmut Walcha, Jean Guillou, Michael Murray, and company are left in the dust. Track 2 of the CD, as well as of the DVD, is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which has acquired the “Evolutionary” label, so that Carpenter can add echoes of orchestral transcriptions by Stokowski, Caillet, et al. to Bach’s original organ music. Velocity, startling sonorities, and all sorts of ten-fingered/two-toed wonders take precedence over musical values, although I can’t say that his playing is unmusical, just eccentric. (In Bach’s Nun komm, der heiden Heiland his phrasing is actually quite chaste.) The digital organ has extremely fast response but no starting chuff on the notes when the keys are depressed. It all sounds like a gigantic and extremely complex electric buzzer. The recording, on the other hand, is quite awesome, as can be expected from Telarc. The dynamic range goes from pppp to ffff; the low bass goes down to dc (or so it seems). I could hear no difference between the CD and two-channel SACD layers. The whole thing is something of a circus, but I’m really glad I was exposed to it. It’s a blast.

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12 November, 2008

Powered 2-Way Floor-Standing Loudspeaker System
Linkwitz Lab “Pluto-2”

Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: Web: Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: Web: “Pluto-2” loudspeaker system, $2995 (complete with built-in power amplifiers).  Kit versions available in various stages of completion at considerably lower prices. Tested samples on loan from constructor.



I have to be very careful positioning this product correctly because my assessment could easily be understated or overstated. The Linkwitz Lab website positions the Pluto-2 as a sort of “Orion Lite,” but that raises some questions. It is true that the Pluto-2 sounds remarkably similar to the Orion + at moderate listening levels on most program material, but it is not a “boxless” design—and isn’t the elimination of the box the very essence of the Linkwitz doctrine of loudspeaker design? On the other hand, the Pluto-2’s drivers aren’t really enclosed in a box; each is mounted at the end of a PVC pipe sealed at the other end and stuffed with sound-absorbent material. You could argue that “it’s not a box”—in effect it amounts to a kind of infinite transmission line. Be that as it may, regardless of design philosophy, the Pluto-2 is highly original and ingenious in concept, probably even more so than the Orion, and is capable of reference-quality sound as long as you watch your SPLs, especially at high and low frequencies. In smaller rooms permitting some flexibility of placement, it’s a state-of-the-art loudspeaker at a fraction of the expected cost. In terms of value it’s nothing short of amazing, even at Wood Artistry’s rather high labor charges for the fully assembled version—and if you are a do-it-yourselfer, the performance-to-cost ratio rises to the highest possible category.

The Design

Siegfried Linkwitz readily admits that without the Aura NSW2-326-8A 2-inch tweeter the Pluto design would not have been possible. This unique tweeter with its concave titanium diaphragm and high displacement capability can be crossed over at 1 kHz because its range actually extends two octaves below that frequency. The unusually low crossover is essential to the superior omnidirectional response of the speaker. The midrange/woofer is a SEAS L16RN-SL (H1480-08) 5-inch aluminum-cone unit, an upgrade for the Pluto-2 from the original Pluto woofer and now capable of 40 Hz response with surprisingly large displacement.

The mounting of these two drivers is extremely clever and at the same time extremely simple. The SEAS unit faces upward in a 31-inch long 4-inch diameter PVC pipe, and the Aura tweeter faces forward at the short end of a 35-inch tall upside-down L pipe of 2-inch diameter. The Γ-shaped pipe is positioned in such a way that the tweeter is lined up with the periphery, rather than the center, of the midrange/woofer to avoid diffraction, and the input to the tweeter is electronically delayed to make it acoustically centered on the upward-facing driver. This is tantamount to a coaxial configuration while retaining all the advantages of separately baffled drivers. (Contrast this solution with the most probable design using a 2-inch tweeter and a 5-inch woofer the average engineer would have come up with: a nearfield monitor in a tiny box!)

The self-contained electronics consist of three National Semiconductor LM3886 integrated-circuit power amplifiers plus various circuits for equalization, crossover, etc. The IC power amps are rated at 50 watts (peak) each; two of them are bridged to drive the midrange/woofer; the third drives the tweeter. The Linkwitz Lab website explains that these ICs are thermally more stable than discrete-component amplifiers (see —discrete-circuit diehards, read it and weep). Both drivers are equalized for maximum flatness (their raw response is somewhat uneven); the numerous op-amps on the circuit board are all Burr-Brown/Texas Instrument OPA2134’s; the crossover slopes are 24 dB per octave (Linkwitz-Riley, needless to say). The gain of the tweeter channel is adjustable within ±2.5 dB, but access to the trim pot is rather cumbersome, I must say.

Overall, the choice of drivers, the physical implementation of baffling them, the design of the integrated electronics, the whole Gestalt of the Pluto-2 are unique and unprecedented. Siegfried Linkwitz is a seminal thinker on the subject of loudspeaker design. That’s why I tend to pay a lot more attention to him than to designers of expensive monkey coffins. The Pluto-2 is the anti-monkey-coffin supreme. (See “Editorial” at and also  for a definition of “monkey coffin.”)

I must add, at the risk of sounding repetitious, that the Pluto-2 information on the Linkwitz Lab website is much more detailed (and, I’m willing to admit, more interesting) than the above; I strongly urge the reader to go to for the most complete and most insightful loudspeaker discussions known to me. My review here is basically nothing more than an independent verification of Linkwitz’s claims.  

The Measurements

I am very suspicious of loudspeaker measurements that originate from the designer. They are nearly always promotional rather than scientific. Siegfried Linkwitz’s measurements as posted on his website are the exception. They are outdoor response curves, which are inherently more accurate than my usual MLS (quasi-anechoic) indoor curves, and I have every reason to believe that they are honest and unfudged because Siegfried is his own severest critic. Therefore I refer the reader to and to for the outdoor measurements. I did, however, run a few indoor tests for my own satisfaction. (I’m much too lazy for the outdoor stuff—I won’t move my measuring equipment in and out, in and out, just to be as authoritative as Siegfried.)

One thing I was curious about was the midrange/woofer distortion at fairly high SPLs, which is obviously the Achilles’ heel of the speaker and about which I found no specific information on the Linkwitz website. I set a 100 Hz tone at a 1-meter SPL of 85 dB, which is quite loud but far from seismic, and at that level I took a nearfield measurement of THD from 500 Hz downward. The result is shown in Fig. 1. At 40 Hz, the bottom limit of the speaker’s response, the distortion is 10%, indicating that the Pluto-2 is unquestionably a small-signal transducer. When I raised the level further, the distortion rose to unacceptable levels at the lower frequencies and the speaker started to buzz.


Fig. 1: Nearfield THD of the midrange/woofer at a 1-meter SPL of 85 dB (level measured at 100 Hz).

To find out whether the high THD consisted mostly of 2nd harmonic, which would probably be relatively harmless, I kept the same level and took a nearfield FFT of a 50 Hz tone. Fig. 2 shows that the 3rd harmonic is only 8 dB below the 2nd harmonic, which is neither very good nor very bad. I’m not suggesting that any of this is a big deal, but it does show that cranking the Pluto-2 to very high levels isn’t a good idea.


Fig. 2: Nearfield spectrum of a 50 Hz tone at same SPL as Fig. 1.

Sweeping the Aura tweeter I also detected a rather substantial peak a little above 16 kHz, way higher than my hearing limit (I should have consulted one of my dogs). The equalized curves on the Linkwitz website show a considerably smaller peak than I saw. In any case, it’s almost certainly inaudible or at least insignificant.

Lastly, because it’s hard to believe that this is a 40 Hz system with that dinky little 5-inch driver, I measured the frequency response from 200 Hz down, just to see if I could duplicate Linkwitz’s curve. I could. As Fig. 3 shows, the f3 (–3 dB frequency) is 40 Hz on the nose, and the f6 is 32 Hz. Quite remarkable.


Fig. 3: Nearfield response of the midrange/woofer.

The Sound

First of all, sit a little nearer to a pair of Pluto-2’s than you normally would, so that the listening angle is larger than the usual 60°. Secondly, keep them away from the back wall and the side walls as much as possible. (They’re very easy to move, weighing only 15 pounds each, so their location doesn’t have to be permanent.) Thirdly, crank them to a comfortable, natural volume level; don’t blast them. Now listen. They sound utterly neutral and very precisely detailed. The soundstage is huge and palpable. You can look into the performance venue and visualize the performers. In that respect the Pluto-2 duplicates the audible characteristics of the Orion+ quite closely, even though the polar radiation pattern is omnidirectional instead of figure eight. (Check the Linkwitz website for a full explanation of this phenomenon.) What both speakers have in common is a totally open quality that separates them from conventional boxes (including the costliest!) and makes listening to them an entirely new experience—as I have said a number of times before (but it bears repeating).

Where the Pluto-2 parts company with the Orion+ is at high volume levels. On organ music, for example, the 5-inch driver can’t keep up with loud pedal notes, and the tweeter begins to sound quite stressed on fortissimo brass and pounding piano chords. When the SPL rises to the point where you think the speaker is somewhat uncomfortable, cut back the volume just a tiny bit and the sound will remain gorgeous—and loud enough. It goes without saying that when a relatively low-priced priced speaker is comparable to the Orion+ under most conditions, it is unique and without competition.


If you want the ultimate in domestic loudspeaker sound, buy or build an Orion++ system (that’s the Orion+ with the Thor subwoofers). If your listening space and budget are limited, buy or build a pair of Pluto-2’s. The sound will not be a compromise in comparison with the Orion; you’ll just have to limit yourself to normally loud listening levels. I think the Pluto-2 is a brilliant exercise in tradeoffs in order to achieve the best possible compromise between audio performance, cost (especially DIY cost), size and weight, ease of DIY construction, and looks. I need to emphasize that the speaker is basically a do-it-yourself design; the finished Wood Artistry version is merely a convenient and somewhat costly alternative for inept lazybones like me. (The irony is that the latter contains no wood parts; the fit and finish rendered by the woodworkers are nevertheless of a high order.) Make sure you check out the Linkwitz website for the huge savings possible when you opt for the DIY solution.

As a final thought, let us not forget what made the Pluto-2 possible. Siegfried Linkwitz is a quadruple threat. He is (1) a world-class electronics designer, (2) a uniquely original thinker on the subject of loudspeaker systems, (3) a very serious music lover, and (4) more interested in advancing the art than in making a lot of money. Take away any one of those four qualifications, and there wouldn’t have been a Pluto. Nor an Orion, for that matter.

PS: Pluto-2+

The bass limitations of the Pluto-2 at high signal levels caused Siegfried Linkwitz to experiment with subwoofers for the system. The outcome of the experiments turned out to be of limited interest, mainly because the additional costs are incompatible with the value-oriented concept of the basic design. You might as well get an Orion++ (well, almost).

The Pluto-2+ system consists of a pair of Pluto-2’s, a crossover/equalizer  similar to the one designed for the Thor (the subwoofer of the Orion++ system), a two-channel power amplifier of sufficient power, and a pair of 10-inch Peerless 830668 drivers in sealed enclosures of the properly calculated volume. These drivers are nowhere near the quality of the Peerless XLS 12-inchers used in the Thor; on organ music at high SPLs they tend to overload; when swept through the crossover/equalizer they start buzzing from 22 Hz down even at small signal levels (at least my loaner sample does, maybe not all of them). Yes, they extend the measured bass response another octave, from 40 Hz to 20 Hz, and they protect the 5-inch driver from overloading because they are crossed over at 100 Hz. I think the benefit-to-cost ratio is too small (Wood Artistry charges $5490 for a ready-built Pluto-2+ system), and I suspect that Siegfried Linkwitz shares that opinion. Stick with the basic Pluto-2 and you’ll be a happy camper.

PPS: DIY vs. Readymade

Don Naples, the owner of Wood Artistry, emailed the following information after having read the above review:

I can see from your comments that I should have provided some information about how the version we make differs from the DIY version. There are wood parts in the speaker, including the woofer mounting ring and the electronics cabinet...We also machine custom parts for better mounting of the woofers and tweeters, make a more contiguous tweeter tube, make custom stainless steel rings rather than using a radiator clamp, add an electronics drawer with power switch, have a rounded foot with wrap-around screening rather than four wood posts, and more. We machine the edges of the round subwoofer tubes and cap them with wood of the customer’s choice rather than make square boxes. All this does little to affect the sound quality, but it does offer a more finished look. I agree that the best value is the DIY version, but for those who want a professionally built version, they do get more than what is in the construction plans.

(Note: The photos shown here of the Pluto-2 are of the Wood Artistry version.) 

Table of Contents

CDs/SACDs Again

30 July, 2008

Catching Up with CDs and SACDs

The following is merely a random sampling of what I’ve been listening to since the last group of reviews in November 2007. Software problems have been the main reason for the long hiatus from reviewing, but stagnation due my advancing years seems to have been a contributing cause.

CDs from Harmonia Mundi

Frédéric Chopin: 24 Préludes, Op. 28; Trois Nouvelles Études; Prélude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45; Petit Prélude in A-flat Major. Frederic Mompou: Música callada No. 15; Prélude No. 9; El lago (Le Lac). Alexandre Tharaud, piano. HMC 901982 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but not nearly as many ways as there are to play the Chopin preludes. Alexandre Tharaud’s way is not Rubinstein’s or Pollini’s but equally great—very dramatic, verging almost on violence in some of the pieces, but still totally controlled and authoritative. His technique is above criticism. I wasn’t quite as enchanted by these performances as by his older CD of Chopin waltzes, just thoroughly impressed. As for his parallels between Chopin and Mompou, that’s his thing, not mine. Maybe he’s got something there… The audio quality of the recording is just a bit more resonant and swimmy than my ideal but still quite excellent. This is a far from negligible addition to the Chopin discography.

“Fantasy”—repertoire for two violins. Bohuslav Martinu: Sonatina for two violins and piano. Dmitri Shostakovich: Three violin duets, with piano accompaniment. Darius Milhaud: Sonata for two violins and piano, Op. 15. Isang Yun: Sonatina for two violins; Pezzo Fantasioso. Angela Chun & Jennifer Chun, violins; Nelson Padgett, piano. HMU 907444 (recorded 1998, released 2008).

It’s difficult to have a bigtime career as a solo violinist, no matter how good you are—and the Chun sisters are very good. So they did something clever: they went for the relatively limited repertoire for two violins, where they are able to shine. In this recording they shine brightly, no doubt about it. The Martinu sonatina is a sassy, edgy, mildly dissonant, rather lightweight piece, which the Chun sisters toss off with easy virtuosity. The Shostakovich duets are even lighter stuff (arrangements of excerpts from his theater and film music) but lovely-sounding and beautifully played here. The centerpiece and most serious music of the recorded program is the Milhaud sonata, reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel, which the Chun sisters play with a combination of impressionistic refinement and controlled vigor. The Yun compositions leave me cold; they meander all over the place and consist mostly of sound effects (successfully showing off, it must be admitted, the beautiful sound of Angela’s Montagnana and Jennifer’s Amati). All in all—great musicianship, somewhat constrained repertory. The 10-year old recording is excellent in audio quality; the violins have great presence without any edginess; what’s not clear to me is why this performance was shelved for 10 years, while the Chun sisters remained musically active to this day. So far I haven’t received an answer to that question.       

SACD from LSO Live

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor. London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor. SACD LSO0661 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

Here we go again—Mahler 6th. This time it’s on a single disc because Gergiev gets it done in 77 minutes and 11 seconds. Is that good? Yes and no. Gergiev has been advertised as an explosive, blood-and-guts dynamo who made his bones in the orchestra pit of a busy opera house, and that’s the way he conducts here. It’s very exciting and certainly different, without the expected Mahlerian longueurs, rather Wagnerian, and necessarily superficial where nuance is needed. I thoroughly enjoyed it and at the same time found it questionable. The LSO is a natural Mahler orchestra in its sonority; they play magnificently. I chose to listen to the 2-channel SACD layer of the disc over my Orion++ loudspeaker system and found James Mallinson’s live recording at the Barbican absolutely stunning. The soundstage is wide and deep; the orchestral texture is very clean and detailed; the dynamic range is wide. I spot-checked the Redbook CD layer, and it sounded about the same. Maybe an interruptible recording without an audience could have brought out an occasional inner detail more clearly, maybe not. This should definitely not be your first and only CD of the Mahler 6th, but as an occasional indulgence it has a lot of merit.      

CDs from Naxos

Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (Opera in One Act, Libretto by Béla Balázs). Sung in Hungarian. Bluebeard: Gustáv Belácek, bass; Judith: Andrea Meláth, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. 8.660928 (recorded and released 2007).
Béla Bartók: The Wooden Prince (Complete Ballet). Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. 8.570534 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

In May 2007 Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth orchestra had a big early-Bartók recording session in Poole, England, committing to CD their version of the 1911 opera and the 1914–16 ballet. Whether it was a worthwhile effort is debatable, since both works have benefited from a number of much better modern recordings. (If I weren’t Hungarian and something of a Bartók watcher, I wouldn’t even bother to write about these CDs.) Alsop is too bland for Bartók; the music demands greater incisiveness, more of an edge, you could almost say more violence. Merely beautiful orchestral balances don’t cut it. And that’s not the only problem. For example, the spoken prologue is missing from “Bluebeard,” which is a falsification because the music is supposed to start under the narrator’s voice. As for the Slovak bass Belácek, he sings well enough, but his heavily accented Hungarian reminds me of the itinerant Slovak tinkers who used to peddle their wares in the courtyard of our Budapest apartment house when I was a child. They would call out “Wiring! Patching! Pot mending!” in bad Hungarian; we called them wire-Slovaks. This isn’t just pedantic quibbling; the Magyar cadences are an intrinsic part of Bartók’s vocal metrics. Ten seconds of listening to Mihály Székely, the greatest Bluebeard of all time (Mercury Living Presence, D101216, recorded 1962) will prove my point. (Never mind that there aren’t too many Hungarian-speaking music critics in the U.S.) The mezzo Meláth at least sings in normal Hungarian. The ballet music of the Prince doesn’t quite have the searing and unrelenting intensity of the opera, but there are many gorgeous passages, magnificently orchestrated. Alsop plays it kind of blah half the time; she goes on automatic pilot much too often. Compare, for example, the superb 1991 performance by Pierre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on DGG. The audio quality of both Naxos discs is good, with a credible soundstage and wide dynamic range, but that alone won’t save the day.     

Ernö von Dohnányi: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 27; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 43. Michael Ludwig, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, conductor. 8.570833 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

When I was a child in Hungary, Dohnányi (1877–1960) was the big-deal pianist; nobody even talked about him as a composer. By that time (late 1930s), Bartók was the big-deal composer, even though earlier (pre-World War I) Bartók was also considered a superb pianist. From today’s perspective, of course, Bartók is a giant and Dohnányi an interesting minor composer—and who cares about their piano playing? These two violin concertos, composed in 1915 and 1949 respectively, are very easy listening; even the 1949 one isn’t particularly “modern” and the 1915 one a lot less so; both are big, lush, gorgeously orchestrated, Romantic works with amazing virtuoso moments for the violin. That they aren’t regular repertory pieces is inexplicable. Michael Ludwig is a superb violinist with a big, singing, invariably sweet tone; I knew him well as the Associate Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a post he left not long ago. The Scottish orchestra and JoAnn Falletta are also very impressive, and the recording, made in the splendid acoustics of Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, is about as good in audio quality as I ever heard in a violin concerto—truly 3-D out of just two channels, with outstanding dynamics. This is a surprisingly excellent CD.    

SACD from Ondine

Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”); Dumka, Op. 59. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Christoph Eschenbach, piano (in the Dumka). ODE 1131-5 (recorded 2006, released 2008).

The Philadelphians have been known as a “Tchaikovsky orchestra” since the days of Leopold Stokowski, and here they certainly live up to that reputation. The schmaltzy second theme of the first movement never sounded better than as played by their magnificent strings, and the brasses are also stunning. Eschenbach’s performance is predictably much slower and more sentimental than the definitive Mravinsky/Leningrad recording of 1960 on DGG, but with the Philadelphia sound and the highly expressive, dramatic playing this is still memorable music-making. The recorded sound is far from the best effort of Polyhymnia in Verizon Hall; other recordings have had a more natural reverberation and sounded less congested, although the basic texture and structure are still good in both the Redbook and the SACD layers of the disc. As for the upbeat Dumka, Eschenbach plays it beautifully; he is actually less controversial as a piano virtuoso than as a conductor.   

SACD from PentaTone

Franz Liszt: 12 Études d’exécution transcendante. Claudio Arrau, piano. PTC 5186 171 (recorded 1974, remastered and released 2008).

Claudio Arrau was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, an aristocratic musician of impeccable taste and irreproachable keyboard technique. He recorded these supremely difficult pieces at the age of 71, when his prowess was still undiminished and his musicianship at its ripest. In his interpretations, Liszt’s flashy showpieces emerge as beautiful music, not just spectacular explosions of gorgeous sound. He goes one step beyond supervirtuosos like Lazar Berman. Are his fingers quite as amazing? Amazing enough and, besides, it’s irrelevant—his way is the better way to hear this music. As for audio quality, here’s one instance where the reprocessed SACD layer sounds considerably better than the CD layer—cleaner, crisper, better defined. Since the original recording was on analog tape, it’s not quite clear to me how the two versions could diverge so much.       

CD from RCA Red Seal

Jascha Heifetz: The Original Jacket Collection. Works by Bach, Beethoven, Bizet, Bloch, Brahms, Bruch, Debussy, de Falla, Franck, Glazunov, Korngold, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Rózsa, Sibelius, R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Vieuxtemps, et al. Jascha Heifetz, violin; various orchestras, conductors, & accompanists. 88697-21742-2 (10 CDs, recorded 1946–1972, reissued 2008).

The arguments about Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987), if any, were always about subtle details of interpretation, never about violin playing. In the latter department he stood alone, almost unquestionably the most perfect violinist of the twentieth century. Even the greatest string players have occasional intonation problems—not Heifetz. He invariably hit each note square in the middle, regardless of duration or velocity. His vibrato was unique; smaller, faster, less wobbly than anyone else’s. His double-stops were flawless, without exception. He was simply unaware of any difficulties of execution. And he played in a lofty, aristocratic, infinitely self-assured, one might say Olympian style, with slight mannerisms of phrasing now and then. It was basically unfair to other violinists. This collection reproduces the original LP jacket art and copy of each recording in reduced CD envelope size—that’s its marketing gimmick. All the great violin concertos are here—the Beethoven, the Brahms, the Mendelssohn, the Sibelius, the Tchaikovsky, in performances unequaled to this day, with some great orchestras (Chicago, Boston, etc.) and great conductors (such as Reiner and Munch). There are also a few solo performances with and without piano accompaniment. The recorded sound in most instances is very acceptable even by today’s standards; in the pieces where the great Lew Layton was the recording engineer the audio quality is actually quite amazing. For those who don’t own some of these unique recordings in older editions, this latest version looks like a good buy.           

Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (“The Trout”). W. A. Mozart: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493. Yefim Bronfman, piano; Pinchas Zukerman, violin; Jethro Marks, viola; Amanda Forsyth, cello; Joel Quarrington, double bass (in D. 667). 88697160442 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

What’s better than a great chamber ensemble? A chamber ensemble of world-class soloists, provided the latter are totally attuned to chamber music. That’s the case here, in spades. Yefim Bronfman is one of the flashiest of soloists but here he is the team player par excellence. His phrasing is absolutely gorgeous where the piano is on top, and then he fades back into the sonic fabric of the music like a lifelong chamber artist. The same can be said of Pinchas Zukerman; his violin tone is warm and silky at all times and his phrasing elegant, whether he is carrying the melody or playing figurations. The other members of the group are not as famous but certainly no slouches. The juxtaposition of these two lovely compositions, written 33 years apart, is somewhat arbitrary; they are both for piano and strings, but the Mozart is a darker, emotionally more complex work by far. It is quite wonderful to hear both pieces performed on this level of technical excellence. The recorded sound, too, is excellent; strings and piano have all the presence you could ask for and are in perfect balance. The recording was done at McGill University in Montreal—I always liked Canadian audio!   

CDs from Sony Classical

J. S. Bach: Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826; Partita No. 3 in A Minor, BWV 827; Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828. Murray Perahia, piano. 88697-22697-2 (recorded 2007, released 2008).

Murray Perahia is arguably the world’s greatest living pianist, at least in the standard classical repertoire. This release certainly puts forth that argument. That his chronic thumb trauma still keeps acting up from time to time, forcing temporary withdrawals from the concert stage, does not seem to affect his superb technique when he is well and making a recording, as in this case. As for his musicianship, it remains peerless. These cerebral Bach pieces acquire an utterly natural, singing, human quality under his fingers, while retaining the utmost transparency in polyphony and the greatest possible clarification of rhythmic complexity. Astonishing pianism! The German-engineered piano recording has all the presence you can ask for, with just a tad more resonance than I like—but that’s a matter of taste. Perahia’s warm piano tone is certainly rendered accurately.

Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here; Live at The Shrine. Zenph Studios Re-Performance (stereo surround version and binaural stereo version). 88697-22218-2 (original recordings 1933 and 1949, Zenph re-performance 2007, released 2008).

If you asked me who were the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century, my answer would have to be Art Tatum first, then a big gap, then all the others. And I am in good professional company with that opinion. The man was not only a superb jazz artist but also a piano virtuoso with the keyboard technique of a Marc-André Hamelin. He appeared to possess four hands instead of just two, and his phrasing, rhythm, voice leading, etc., were always dead-on at any velocity. As for Zenph re-performances, I described the process under Sony Classical/Glenn Gould in the November 2007 group of reviews. The piano sound is completely modern, since the Yamaha player piano is newly recorded, but the dynamic range is limited to that of the original recording. Here we have Art Tatum at 23½ years old in the “Piano Starts Here,” which includes his signature “Tiger Rag,” and 16 years later, at 39½ years old, in “Live at The Shrine.” I find the earlier performance to be more virtuosic, with amazing sonorities and incredibly fast runs of startling clarity, but it’s pretty conventional jazz of such smoothness and fluency that much of it sounds like a superior form of cocktail piano. The later recording is of much more modern-sounding jazz, more interesting but most of it less flashy, less wow-style. Regardless of the differences, it’s all truly spectacular. The binaural stereo tracks are particularly clear over headphones, simulating what Art Tatum himself would have heard while playing, but I find headphone listening to be quite irritating after a few minutes, so I stopped. The best news is that there are many more Zenph re-performances coming. I wonder what recording they’ll resurrect next.          

SACDs from Telarc

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100; Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, conductor. SACD-60683 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27; Scherzo; Dances from
Aleko. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, conductor. SACD-60670 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

Here’s 2¼ hours of excellent Russian music, played by the excellent Cincinnati orchestra, conducted by the excellent Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi, produced by the excellent record producer Robert Woods, and engineered by the excellent recording engineer Michael Bishop. So why isn’t the overall effect excellent? Mainly because of the Cincinnati Music Hall, a bitch of a recording venue. The orchestra plays beautifully; Järvi’s musicianship and concept of the music are of the highest order; and the sound is just blah. The strings are unable to produce the free-breathing expansiveness and bloom they’re capable of because of the acoustics of the hall. Woods and Bishop have come up with stunning recordings over and over again, so it’s clearly not their fault. The Lieutenant Kijé music comes off relatively best because of the light string writing; the Rachmaninoff symphony, for example, with its gorgeous string passages doesn’t sound as gorgeous as it should. This has nothing to do with the interpretations, which are right up there with the best. I could discern no differences in basic sound quality between the various layers of either disc. Call these efforts a near miss.       

CDs from Testament

Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung). Recorded live at the Festspielhaus Bayreuth, July 24–28, 1955, by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Joseph Keilberth, conductor. Cast included Hans Hotter as Wotan, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, and others of that caliber. SBT14 1412 (14 CDs, released 2006).

This is the full set of the same Ring performance of which I already reviewed the Götterdämmerung conclusion. In this particular edition, as distinct from the four separately available operas, the librettos have been left out (but can be downloaded from, and the entire music is on 14 CDs. As I said, this 1955 production is arguably equal, or even superior, to the 1958–1966 Solti/Vienna Ring recordings, which to this day are considered the gold standard and became the political reason why Decca suppressed this earlier effort for half a century. Certainly Hans Hotter, great as he is in the Solti recordings, was in even better voice a few years earlier; Astrid Varnay is a not a whit inferior to Birgit Nilsson (in my opinion actually more beautiful-sounding, but let’s not fight); Windgassen and Neidlinger overlap both productions but are younger and fresher in the earlier one; and so on. As for the conductor, Keilberth is not as flashy and high-voltage as Solti but an equally good musician, rock solid in Wagner, so that leaves the audio as the sticking point—a very interesting comparison. The 1955 taping is very early stereo, before they knew how to gimmick it up, and therefore utterly natural-sounding, with occasional imbalances due to the tricky acoustics of the Festspielhaus and some tape overloads. The later Solti recordings exhibit much more sophisticated audio engineering, with many more microphones and dazzling effects that often sound a bit artificial. I really don’t know which sound I prefer. That a live performance over one five-day period in Bayreuth can be on such a consistently high level is truly amazing, much more remarkable than the heavily rehearsed and edited studio recordings of Solti over an eight-year interval. We are lucky to have both and should be grateful to Testament for resurrecting the Bayreuth recording.

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Sony HD Tuner

15 May, 2008

HD Radio FM/AM Digital Tuner

This is a $100 (that’s no typo) tuner that blows away the classic “super tuners” of McIntosh, Marantz, Sequerra, Accuphase, etc., according to FM experts who know more than I do. 


Sony Corporation (made in China). Voice: 1 (800) 222-SONY. Web: XDR-F1HD FM/AM Digital Tuner, $99.95 (available from a large number of Internet retailers). Tested sample owned by The Audio Critic.

Analog FM radio can be of fairly high quality if the signal is fat enough, the antenna good enough, and there’s no multipath. Big ifs. Digital HD radio (not to be confused with satellite radio) is much more consistent and reliable. The digital signal is bundled with the analog signal and transmitted over the same broadcast frequency. Usually there are three programs broadcast by one station over a given frequency: the analog FM program, the HD1 program duplicating the analog program, and the HD2 program, which is generally without commercials. The available bandwidth permits a data rate of 48 Kbps for HD1 and 48 Kbps for HD2, or 96 Kbps if there is only one HD channel. Such rates are labeled CD-quality, or near-CD-quality, by iBiquity Digital, the developer and licenser of HD radio, a somewhat wishful appellation in my opinion. (More about that below.)

HD radio broadcasts appear to be proliferating at a higher rate than HD radios and tuners, at least from where I’m sitting. This $100 Sony is a fantastic bargain and appears to be just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately I don’t have the RF test equipment for generating and measuring FM frequencies, but Brian Beezley does (go to He and his associate Bob Smith, both of whom know what they’re talking about, report that the XDR-F1HD outperforms on the test bench every known tuner under the sun, regardless of price. The secret is a new NXP (formerly Philips) chipset that implements the front end for digital IF reception as well as the digital-IF DSP back end. This proves once again that innovative engineering at reduced cost is able to supersede obsolete high-end solutions (how I love to reiterate that!).

In my location (Bucks County, Pennsylvania, about halfway between Philadelphia and Allentown) I am now able to receive many more programs than ever before without noise, breakup or interference. As for audio quality, here’s what I have observed so far: HD radio at 48 Kbps is wider in both frequency range and dynamic range than analog FM. The noise floor is also incomparably better—basically total silence. What is missing at the reduced data rate is the spatial detail. The subtle spatial clues that render a clear 3-D soundstage and provide air around the instruments are better on the best analog FM broadcasts if cleanly received and reproduced through a really good pair of loudspeakers. I haven’t been able to determine if this is true when the HD radio transmission is at 96 Kbps because all high-quality stations in my area carry both HD1 and HD2 programs. Another problem is that if the HD1 channel locks in, then the analog FM channel is not available, and if it doesn’t lock in, the analog FM signal is most likely equally flawed. Unfortunately, the commercial realities of FM broadcasting are such that further technical improvements are unlikely. 

I must add that all of the above observations are based on reception with the excellent Terk FM Pro FM-50 indoor/outdoor antenna with “Power Injector.” (See the old print Issue No. 25 of The Audio Critic, downloadable from this website.) The antenna is permanently fixed in position, aimed at Philadelphia.

The XDR-F1HD also receives AM, both analog and HD, but with the rudimentary AM antenna that comes with the tuner I haven’t received any music broadcasts worth discussing. Talk programs are fine at the reduced data rates.

In appearance, the Sony is small, cute, and cuddly, sporting a 2½-inch display window where you can see the station and channel ID, and sometimes even the title and performer of the selection being played. All the controls are on top of the unit and are duplicated on the “remote commander” (their nomenclature, not mine). Bottom line: highly recommended.

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peteraczel | 30 March, 2008 09:47

Powered 4-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System
Linkwitz Lab “Orion++”

Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: Web: Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: Web: “Orion++” loudspeaker system, $10,350 and up for two complete channels (custom-built, complete with two electronic crossovers, all necessary cables, two “Thor” subwoofers, and ATI AT6012 twelve-channel power amplifier). Kit versions available in various stages of completion at lower prices. Tested samples owned by The Audio Critic.

This is a sequel to the February 2005 review of the original Linkwitz Lab “Orion.” It is recommended that readers go back to that review (via Archives below) before getting too involved in this one.

Siegfried Linkwitz is unique in that he understands transducer physics, room acoustics, and auditory psychology equally and has no preconceived engineering biases. That’s why he has been able to develop a superior concept of loudspeaker design. A superior concept always ends up with better results than a less good concept, no matter how perfectly the latter is executed. A “monkey coffin” (i.e., a closed rectangular box housing forward-firing drivers) will not sound as good as Linkwitz’s simple boxless “Orion” concept, no matter how big, beautiful, expensive, elaborately designed, and prestigiously labeled the monkey coffin is. The Stereophile cultists will find that hard to accept but it’s an audible fact of life.

The “Orion+” and the “Orion++”

The “Orion++” is an improvement over the original Orion but not nearly as great an improvement as the original Orion was over ordinary loudspeakers. I am not going to repeat my comments on the original Orion (see the link above); this review is strictly about the changes and improvements. In any event, it would be a waste of bandwidth to go into an extensive discussion of the Orion and Orion++ design principles, since Siegfried Linkwitz himself has done the job far better than I could possibly do it on his brilliant website, Siegfried knows more than I do and dislikes audiophile hype and voodoo at least as much as I do, so I have really nothing to add to what he says. What I am providing here is merely an independent validating opinion.

The main change here is the addition of a rearward-firing tweeter, another Excel T25CF002 “Millennium” by SEAS, placed back-to-back against the forward-firing tweeter and wired in parallel with it, but with reversed phase, so that both domes move simultaneously toward and away from the listener. This one change makes the speaker an Orion+, in Linkwitz’s nomenclature. The Orion+ is therefore basically identical in radiation from the front and back of the dipole, although there are minor differences due to the physical structure of the speaker. There is nothing new about a rearward-firing tweeter (the Snell Acoustics Type A, for example, goes back to the ’70s), but the way it is integrated into the Orion to form a completely symmetrical and uniformly phased dipole is unusual. Linkwitz devotes considerable space on his website to the enlistment of a reflective rear wall for better sound, contrary to the traditional let’s-dampen-everything approach. I am not going to repeat here what he says; go to the website and read it. It’s great stuff.

The Orion+ sounds different from the Orion. (I’ll come to the Orion++ in a moment.) The rear tweeter works in mysterious ways (again, go to the Linkwitz website), opening up the sound and taking the listener further into the venue of the recorded music and away from the acoustics of the listening room. When everything is trimmed in properly—speaker location, toe-in, tweeter level, overall volume, etc.—you are transported to there and no longer aware of here. It’s quite critical, however; the Orion+ is not as forgiving as the Orion. It took me long hours of extremely focused listening to adjust the tweeter trim pots on the crossover circuit board so that the treble sounded absolutely natural. Just a hair up or down made a surprising difference. Siegfried is not at all happy about that, but that’s the way it is. Now that it’s done I wouldn’t have it any other way—both structurally and texturally the best sound I ever had in my main listening room.

The “Thor” Subwoofer

When you add a pair of “Thor” subwoofers and a second crossover/equalizer to the Orion+, it becomes the Orion++. This is a luxury, and an expensive one at that, because the Orion+ and the Orion++ sound the same on most recordings. The superiority of the Orion++ becomes apparent only on recordings with a lot of bass energy (organ, double bass, synthesizer, and such), in which case you can play the music much louder with less bass distortion. The low-frequency rolloff of the Thor is about the same as of the Orion woofers, so there is no bass extension as such—the bass was extended all the way to begin with, without subwoofers. That’s why the Thor is not really a subwoofer in the conventional sense but rather a kind of superwoofer.

The Thor’s driver is a 12-inch Peerless Xtra Long Stroke (XLS) Model 830500 from Denmark; the enclosure is completely sealed, with an internal volume of approximately 50 liters (1¾ cubic feet); the crossover frequency is 50 Hz. The response profile is a combination of the sealed-box rolloff and electronic equalization. The latter is provided by the dedicated electronic crossover/equalizer, which also has pushbuttons to switch the two Thors in and out. In most cases, but not all, you hear nothing when you do that. I listen to more music with the Thors out than in. When you need it, however, there’s a complement of six woofers, four 10-inchers and two 12-inchers, to pump out the bass. That’s the equivalent, and then some, of a pair of 18-inch woofers—and more effectively deployed, more accurately crossed over, and lower in distortion than 18-inchers in conventional big systems. The Linkwitz crossover is of a highly sophisticated design to assure a totally seamless transition from the open dipole woofers of the basic Orions to the sealed boxes of the Thors. That would not be possible with a crossover frequency higher than 50 Hz. (Once again, read the website.)

The Measurements

My usual MLS (quasi-anechoic) loudspeaker measurements are limited in accuracy, as Siegfried Linkwitz himself has repeatedly pointed out. I would still perform them and publish them here if it weren’t for Siegfried’s much more sophisticated and authoritative measurement data on his website, which I trust implicitly; they are the very antithesis of the promotional graphs hyped by the typical loudspeaker manufacturer. In any event, the rear tweeter of the Orion+ has exactly the same response as the front tweeter, which is shown in the graph accompanying my February 2005 review of the original Orion. The nearfield response of the equalized Thor is basically the same as the nearfield response of the equalized Orion woofers. The f3 appears to be around 20 Hz. (Yes, see the Linkwitz website.) Of course, the in-room response of this extremely complex system has little to do with the anechoic or quasi-anechoic response, accurate or not.

The Sound

Regarding the extraordinary sonic characteristics of the Orion+ and Orion++, I wish to be a little more specific than above. The basic neutrality, i.e., lack of coloration, of the sound is due mainly to the SEAS and Peerless drivers and, to some extent, the extremely sophisticated electronic crossover. The unprecedented openness and vividness of the sound are probably due to the well-integrated 100% dipole design and correct placement at a distance from all three walls. (The latter requirement undoubtedly eliminates many conventionally furnished rooms from the Orion’s deployment possibilities.) The almost magical sonic disappearance of the listening room and immersion in the acoustics of the recording venue are the result of the mysterious interaction of the rear tweeter and the rear wall, discussed in detail on the Linkwitz website. The impact of the bass drum, of organ pedals, etc., is effected by the perfect synchronization of the Orion woofers and the Thors by the second crossover/equalizer. It’s a complete package, with nothing missing and no part overemphasized at the expense of another. It’s still two-channel stereo, but so far I haven’t heard a 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound system that gave me as much audio information and brought me as close to the performance as the Orion++.

You could save a lot of money (at least $2150) if you don’t order a ready-made pair of Thors with the bass crossover/equalizer, in which case you’ll still have the same sound if you don’t listen at high levels to bass-rich material. Or you could save a lot more money if you choose one of the many kit options to construct part of, or most of, the system yourself. (See and I can tell you one thing: if you buy a $50,000 pair of monkey coffins with one of the iconic high-end labels, the sound in your listening room still won’t be as lifelike and musical as if you had bought the Orions. The only problem is that a side-by-side listening comparison isn’t available anywhere, to the best of my knowledge. You’ll just have to trust me. Or never know the ultimate audio delights…

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09 November, 2007

New CD and SACD Reviews 

Here’s what I’ve found noteworthy, from my admittedly un-musicological and often audio-biased point of view, among the recent and not so recent releases that have come my way. Please note that I no longer comment separately on stereo and surround-sound versions. Two-channel playback through my Linkwitz Lab Orion++ loudspeaker system (review coming) now gives me more accurate spatial information than 5.1 playback.

CD from CSO Resound
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus; Chicago Children’s Choir; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, conductor. CSOR 901 701 (2 CDs, recorded 2006, released 2007).

CSO Resound is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new private label; this is their first release and also the first recording of the veteran Bernard Haitink as the orchestra’s new principal conductor. The competition in Mahler Thirds is huge, but this live performance can take on most of the leaders, especially in the stupendous first movement, magnificently interpreted by Haitink. Not all of the remaining five movements are quite on the same exalted level. The great orchestra plays superbly, as expected; the famous Chicago brasses are majestic; and the stereo recording, produced by James Mallinson, is exceptionally panoramic, dynamic, and transparent down to the lowest bass, reminiscent of the old Orchestra Hall recordings of Lew Layton (which is the highest praise possible).

CD from EMI 
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major (“Romantic”). Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. 3 84723 2 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

Question: What do Anton Bruckner and Sir Simon Rattle have in common? Answer: At their best both are absolutely magnificent and at their worst both are simply bad. This is a case of the former—wonderful music, wonderful performance. Rattle revels in the beauty of the symphony but keeps it within disciplined limits, and the Berlin orchestra plays at its virtuosic maximum. The Fourth is arguably Bruckner’s most immediately appealing work, and Rattle phrases its soaring themes con amore and manipulates its breathtaking dynamics masterfully. It is also the most confusingly reworked and altered of the Bruckner symphonies as a result of the composer’s revision mania; there exist no fewer than five different versions today. Rattle plays the 1886 version, edited by Nowak; I am insufficiently musicological to judge its appropriateness—all I know is that it grips me. The audio is characterized by great beauty of sound and a very wide dynamic range; the transparency is occasionally smeared by the tricky Philharmonie acoustics, but who cares? It’s a great recording.

CDs and SACDs from Harmonia Mundi
J. S. Bach:
Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Buch 1, BWV 846–869. Richard Egarr, harpsichord. HMU 907431.32 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

An excellent antidote to the idiosyncratic Glenn Gould legacy, this is a performance of classical proportions and repose in the utterly transparent harpsichord idiom. Maybe we should have listened to this one first, if that had been chronologically possible, and then to Glenn Gould! The harpsichord, recorded in the Netherlands, sounds as good as it gets, which is no more than one expects from veteran producer Robina G. Young.

Hector Berlioz: Nuits d’été, Op. 7. Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade; Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques. Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano, conductor. HMC 901932 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

Nuits d’été is some of the greatest music for the voice ever composed by anyone, at least in my amateurish opinion. The performance by the Argentinian Bernarda Fink is a paragon of vocal control, French diction, Gallic style, and Romantic emotion tempered by classical restraint. This is simply exquisite singing, rising almost to the level of Eleanor Steber’s magisterial 1954 mono recording for Columbia with Mitropoulos (a much more operatic interpretation, totally forgotten by today’s critics). The Ravel pieces are irresistibly Frenchy, stylish, and the ultimate in craftsmanship—but, let’s face it, not as beautiful. Kent Nagano’s orchestral accompaniments are perfect, and the stereo recording is gorgeous.

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni. Johannes Weisser, Don Giovanni; Lorenzo Regazzo, Leporello; Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Donna Elvira; Olga Pasichnyk, Donna Anna; Kenneth Tarver, Don Ottavio; Sunhae Im, Zerlina; Nikolay Borchev, Masetto; Alessandro Guerzoni, Il Commendatore. RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs, conductor. HMC 901964.66 (3 CDs, recorded 2006, released 2007).

A flippant way to summarize this production would be “Don Giovanni Lite,” but it wouldn’t be entirely fair. René Jacobs has a valid point of view, with which a reasonable music lover can agree or disagree. Jacobs wants to scrub the opera clean of the accretions of romanticism and performance quirks of the last 200-plus years and present it in pure 1788 sound and style. (The Prague version premiered in 1787, the slightly modified Vienna version in 1788.) But what if those 200-plus years uncovered new and not immediately obvious beauties in the incredibly rich score? I was raised on the “traditional” Don Giovanni, sung by some of the greatest voices of the mid-20th century. To me, ravishingly beautiful singing is an absolute requirement of a great performance, and I’m not getting it here. Jacobs’s singers are excellent professional musicians who sing correctly, sometimes even with verve, but none of them has a beautiful voice. It’s the virtuoso period-practice orchestra that has the starring role; of its kind, their gut-stringed vibratoless playing with its whiplike attacks has no equal. What’s more, the audiophile appeal of the recorded sound is of the highest order; the clarity, detail, instrumental separation, overall soundstaging, and dynamic range are sensational. Jacobs sticks to the 1788 Vienna version and tacks on the missing 1787 Prague music as an appendix, which is all right in a recording but not in the opera house, where I would want to hear the “impure” conflated version, since I don’t want to miss eitherDalla sua pace or Il mio tesoro intanto. (Purism for the sake of “dramaturgy” is somewhat questionable here, as if Da Ponte’s haphazard and often silly libretto had the theatrical coherence of Racine or Tennessee Williams. It’s the music, dude, not the play…) Bottom line: as my only recording of Don Giovanni I wouldn’t want this, but as an alternative it’s more than worthwhile.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (“Pathétique”), Op. 74; Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniele Gatti, conductor. HMU 807394 (SACD, recorded 2005, released 2006).

The competition in Tchaikovsky Sixths is staggering, going all the way back to Toscanini and Furtwängler, but this performance is still a standout. It is very intense and at the same time very precise, a difficult combination to bring off. Gatti’s timings for the first and third movements are almost identical to those of Mravinsky’s definitive 1960 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic; in the second movement Gatti is a little faster, in the fourth a little slower. That the two performances are at all comparable speaks very highly for Gatti. The Royal Philharmonic plays magnificently, and the recording, another Robina Young production, is huge in every respect—soundstage, dynamic range, instrumental definition, with particularly rich brasses. And let’s not forget the Serenade, the music for Balanchine’s unforgettable ballet, beautifully played here by the string section of the orchestra, reminding us that not all Tchaikovsky is over the top.

CD from Hyperion
Charles-Valentin Alkan:
Concerto for solo piano, Op. 39, Nos. 8–10; Troisième recueil de chants, Op. 65. Marc-André Hamelin, piano. CDA67569 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

Alkan, a contemporary of Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann, sounds like a pastiche of all three on steroids, very intense, wayward, and crotchety. It’s great stuff, but you don’t have to take it too seriously if you don’t want to, and it’s almost impossible to play. Of course, to Marc-André Hamelin everything is possible; he sails through the fiendish passages with incredible ease and panache. The man is not only a world-class artist but possibly the greatest-ever acrobat of the keyboard. The speed, articulation, and clarity of his finger work are simply beyond belief, and at the same time the music keeps singing regardless of the complications. His playing is much more controlled and transparent than that of, say, Horowitz or anyone else. The piano recording, a UK job, is somewhat on the dry side and wonderfully clear.

SACD from IsoMike
Ingolf Dahl:
Concerto a Tre (for violin, clarinet, and cello). Bohuslav Martinů: Serenade for Two Clarinets, Violin, Viola and Violoncello, H. 334. Karel Husa: Evocations de Slovaquie (for clarinet, viola, and cello). Sonolumina Ensemble (Russell Harlow, clarinet; Lee Livengood, clarinet; Dara Morales, violin; Leslie Harlow, viola; Jesús Morales, cello).

Again, the news here is Ray Kimber’s sensational IsoMike recording technique, with his weird baffled microphones (, although these three mid-20th-century compositions are undoubtedly good music. The audio is the star, however; the realism, the textural quality, the you-are-there factor of these 4-channel recordings are simply without equal. I could almost say, don’t go to the concert, play this disc through first-rate loudspeakers instead, it’s just as good. The only drawback of the IsoMike technique that I can see is that those huge baffles need heavy equipment for transportation and deployment; the microphone complement of other recording engineers will fit into the trunk of a sedan. Of the three pieces, I like the Martinů best; it sounds like important music on first hearing; the others are merely pleasant listening. The instrumentalists are high-level professionals.

CDs from Naxos
J. S. Bach:
Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1–6, BWV 1046–51; Musical Offering: Trio Sonata in C Minor, BWV 1079; Concerto in G Minor for flute and strings, after BWV 1056 (transcribed by Stéphane Réty). Swiss Baroque Soloists, Andrés Gabetta, director. 8.557755-56 (2 CDs, recorded 2005, released 2006).

They may be clichés at this point, but the fact remains that the Brandenburgs tower over other Baroque composers’ music in originality of format and content. These performances on period instruments are as good as I have ever heard, upbeat, energetic, authoritatively and accurately played, never boring. The Swiss Baroque Soloists consist of some of the most distinguished period instrumentalists of Europe. Their playing has that joyful quality of utterly secure musicians having fun. The Trio Sonata has a flute part intended to be played by Frederick the Great, who probably never got around to playing it. The audio, recorded in a church by French engineers, is absolutely transparent and natural, as good as it gets.

Sergey Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2; Preludes, Op. 23; Preludes, Op. 32. Eldar Nebolsin, piano. 8.570327 (2007).

These are the complete preludes of Rachmaninov, glorious Romantic piano music, composed three-quarters of a century later than the heyday of Romantic piano music. Today, 64 years after the composer’s death, who cares about the anachronism? It’s simply great music, dates notwithstanding. Nebolsin is another wonderful Russian pianist in his early thirties—they keep coming. He combines superb technique with thoughtful musicianship; these performances rank right up there with the best. The piano recording, made in England, is my favorite kind: close-miked and fairly dry, i.e. not too resonant, with a completely untrammeled dynamic range. The you-are-there factor is high.

SACDs from Ondine
Peter Tchaikovsky:
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36; The Seasons, Op. 37b (July–December). The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Christoph Eschenbach, piano (in The Seasons). ODE 1104-5 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

Samuel Barber: Toccata Festiva, Op. 36, for organ and orchestra. Francis Poulenc: Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani. Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 (“Organ”). Olivier Latry, organ; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. ODE 1094-5 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

I have been a Philadelphia Orchestra subscriber for many years, and in my admittedly biased opinion it is the greatest orchestra in the world. These two SACDs of live concerts (which I have attended) give strong support to that opinion—breathtakingly beautiful playing in every piece. In the current Eschenbach controversy I tend to be pro-Eschenbach; I think his strengths far exceed his weaknesses. Yes, he micromanages certain aspects of the performance and has some fussy mannerisms, but he shapes every bar of the music with the most intense devotion and squeezes the last drop of emotional content out of every phrase. He never goes on automatic pilot. Witness the Tchaikovsky Fourth performance—such momentum, such splendor, those brasses…wow! His piano playing in the second half of The Seasons (the first half was tacked on to the Tchaikovsky Fifth recording) is also topnotch. As for the new Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall—this is its debut recording—it is an absolutely magnificent instrument, the acoustics of the hall rendering better definition of its majestic tones than the echoey nave of a church possibly could. Olivier Latry is the organist of Notre-Dame in Paris and considered one of the world’s finest. What he does with the pedal cadenza of the Barber toccata—a brilliant piece in its entirety—is pretty amazing. The best music on the disc is probably the Poulenc concerto, with its catchy tunes, marvelous instrumentation, and blending of old and modern styles. The Saint-Saëns work is something of a bore until the rousing finale, where the organ gets a real workout. The audio quality of the two discs shows a further improvement in Polyhymnia International’s recording technique in Verizon Hall. In the Tchaikovsky symphony, especially, the huge soundstage, utter transparency, stunning dynamics, and exactly right liveness are close to setting a new standard and ending my nostalgia for the days of Lew Layton, John Eargle, and Max Wilcox. The bottom notes of the organ in the Poulenc piece are also worth mentioning—got a good subwoofer? Bravo Ondine!

SACDs from RCA Red Seal
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (“Eroica”), Op. 55; Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op.93. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Paavo Järvi, conductor. 88697 00655 2 (recorded 2004 and 2005, released 2006).

I would never have imagined that I could get excited over any new Beethoven symphony recording at this point (unless conducted by the resurrected ghost of Arturo Toscanini and recorded by the resurrected ghost of Lew Layton). I was wrong. This is a unique disc. The Bremen chamber orchestra, consisting of 36 to 40 players, is a supervirtuoso group, more in the sense of an amazing string quartet than that of a large symphony orchestra. Their playing is totally transparent, meticulously inflected, very crisply accented, precise to the nth degree, and blazing with primary colors. It’s like the gutsiest period practice without period instruments. You have the impression that you are hearing the music the way Beethoven originally imagined it, since it would have been anachronistic for him to imagine it played by a 105-piece modern orchestra and unrealistic to expect a contemporary live performance this good. Paavo Järvi brings out tiny details in the score that I was unaware of before. It’s a welcome change from the tief Germanic interpretations of Furtwängler or Klemperer. Check it out; you’ll love it. The recorded sound is as vivid as the playing, a perfect match.

Richard Strauss: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character; Don Juan, Op. 20. Antonio Janigro, cello (in Don Quixote), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor. 88697-04604-2 (recorded 1959 and 1954, respectively; remastered and released 2006).

These are quite simply the greatest performances, ever, of the two Richard Strauss masterpieces, with the possible (but far from certain) exception of Toscanini’s, which were not nearly as well recorded. Lewis Layton’s recordings in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall of the 1950s were unequaled in transparency, spaciousness, and instrumental definition for their time, and the RCA Living Stereo reissues on CD in the mid-1990s recreated the original technology pretty accurately. This particular 2006 remastering for SACD is no improvement, despite the restoration of the center channel of the original three-track tapes—the top end appears to have been made hotter, when it was a little too hot to begin with. Even so, if you love Richard Strauss you’ve got to have one version or another of these Reiner performances. They are unique.

Giuseppe Verdi: “La traviata.” Violetta Valery, Anna Moffo, soprano; Alfredo Germont, Richard Tucker, tenor; Giorgio Germont, Robert Merrill, braritone; Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Fernando Previtali, conductor. 82876-82623-2 (recorded 1960, remastered and released 2006).

For all I know, there exists a better recording of Traviata than this one, but I haven’t heard it. I am totally blown away by the stupendous singing of Anna Moffo, and the legendary voices of Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill are, if anything, even more impressive. As for the 1960 recording by the unsurpassable Lewis Layton, if you told me it was done last year on state-of-the-art equipment, I’d believe it. The whole production is a stunning achievement, one of the all-time RCA Living Stereo classics. The excellent DSD remastering restores the center channel, which I don’t find all that important; there are no rear channels or .1 bass. (Why can’t they make opera recordings like this today? That utterly secure, bulletproof quality is lacking in today’s best voices, good as they are.)

SACDs from Sony Classical
J. S. Bach:
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Zenph “re-performance” of the original 1955 performance by Glenn Gould (piano), in stereo surround and binaural stereo versions. 88697-03350-2 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

When Columbia released in 1955 an LP of the Goldberg Variations by an unknown 23-year old pianist named Glenn Gould, the music world reeled. Such clarity of the counterpoint and such vitality of phrasing in a Bach keyboard work had not been heard before. The LP became a bestseller, and when Gould made a new digital recording of the work a quarter of a century later in 1981, the comparisons were flying and persist to this day. Many prefer the sprightlier 1955 version, the one “re-performed” here by the Zenph process. This is a process that analyzes a piano recording and separates its musical components—volume, pitch and duration of notes, velocity of key strikes, key releases, pedal actions, and so on—from the surrounding noise, then encodes the denoised musical components digitally into a high-definition MIDI file. A computer-controlled nine-foot Yamaha Disklavier Pro grand piano then replays that file, thus recreating an exact replica of the original performance in live sound, minus the noise. The recreated audio brings out subtle details in the performance that were not clearly audible in the 1955 recording; the only problem is that the Yamaha has a much richer timbre than the drier-sounding piano played by Gould, so you still don’t get a totally exact reincarnation of the original performance. Even so, it’s a definitely worthwhile tradeoff. Ain’t science wonderful?

Franz Liszt: Vallée d’Obermann; Il Penseroso; St. François d’Assise—La prédication aux oiseaux; Bagatelle ohne Tonart/Bagatelle sans tonalité; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13; Sposalizio; “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen;” Funérailles; La lugubre gondola No. 2; En rêve—Nocturne. Arcadi Volodos, piano. 88697065002 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

Volodos is the “other” young Russian supervirtuoso of the piano, perhaps not quite as well-known as Kissin but equally brilliant. His technique is transcendental, and his musical personality is in the grand tradition. Here he plays ten of Liszt’s most beautiful shorter works, and his performance is a knockout. The impact of a piece like Funérailles, for example, is breathtaking. The only negative is his occasional departure from Liszt’s written score, editorializing on the composition (shades of Horowitz). Considering the liberties Liszt himself took with other composers’ works, it’s a forgivable sin. The recording has tremendous presence and a huge dynamic range but would be even better, in my opinion, if it were a little bit less resonant.

SACDs from Telarc
Benjamin Britten:
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34; Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a. Sir Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (“Enigma”). Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, conductor. SACD-60660 (2006).

Every audio reviewer should have a Young Person’s Guide recommendation, and this is mine. It is gorgeously played by an orchestra that has risen to world class over the last few years, and the sound has great impact and presence if you really crank the volume control (otherwise the orchestra sounds a little distant). The Sea Interludes are basically high-class movie music, expertly orchestrated and flawlessly played here. (No, La Mer they are not.) The Enigma variations are every conductor’s cup of tea, brewed to taste, and Järvi’s taste is very good. He opts for a cool, objective approach, with very elegant phrasing. It works. Watch Paavo Järvi; I think he has already passed his dad and is on his way to superstar status.

Luigi Cherubini: Requiem in C Minor; Marche Funèbre. Beethoven: Elegischer Gesang, Op. 118. Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, director. SACD-60658 (recorded 2006, released 2007).

Cherubini was ten years older than Beethoven and became popular for his operas before he turned to religious music. The Requiemdates from 1816, the same year as Beethoven’s A-major piano sonata, Op. 101 (just for a timeline reference). Guess who praised the Requiem to the skies? Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner, that’s who—after which I don’t believe you will be interested in my praise. It is a complex, dramatic, richly scored (trombones and tam-tam!) work that every serious music lover should know. This performance is beautifully sung, played, and recorded (maybe with a wee bit too live acoustic); I haven’t compared it with other recordings but I’m basically satisfied. The purely instrumental Cherubini funeral march is very powerful; the 5½-minute Beethoven potboiler is rather a bore.

CD Set from Testament
Richard Wagner:
Götterdämmerung. Astrid Varnay, Brünnhilde; Wolfgang Windgassen, Siegfried; Josef Greindl, Hagen; Hermann Uhde, Gunther; Gustav Neidlinger, Alberich; Gré Brouwenstijn, Gutrune. Chorus & Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, Joseph Keilberth, conductor. SBT4 1393 (4 CDs, recorded 1955, released 2006).

Decca made live stereo recordings of all four evenings of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival and then never released them. It was politics; a couple of years later their sensational, groundbreaking Solti studio recording of the Ring was under way, and the Bayreuth tapes were shelved—until their resurrection by Testament a half century later. I have heard only the fourth and probably greatest work of the series, Götterdämmerung, in the Bayreuth version, and I am not at all sure that the Solti version is better. As a total performance, I cannot imagine a better rendition of Wagner’s stupendous music than the Keilberth recording. Astrid Varnay is the greatest Brünnhilde I have ever heard—I am throwing caution to the winds with that flat declaration—and I’ve heard them all, either live or recorded: Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Birgit Nilsson, you name them. Varnay, who was at her absolute peak at 37 years old at the time of the recording, could produce a crescendo ascending to her highest notes and actually sound fuller and stronger than below instead of thinning out slightly like even the greatest dramatic sopranos. Astonishing singing. Windgassen was the best, certainly the most musical, Heldentenor since Lauritz Melchior, and so on down the line, the best possible cast. Keilberth isn’t as glamorous as Solti but he was a musician’s musician and a Wagnerian to the core; he phrases the music most convincingly. (He reminds me a little bit of George Szell at the old Met in 1942, when I first fell in love with Wagner—the highest possible praise.) As for the early (1955) stereo recording, it’s very respectable but not as good as some critics made it sound. For example, the contemporaneous RCA Living Stereo recordings in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall are considerably better. That amazing sunken orchestra makes the Bayreuth acoustics quite tricky; there are serious imbalances in the recorded sound, with hot spots and cold spots and thin, shrieking brasses in the climaxes. Only the strings sound consistently natural. Even so, the recording is good enough to preserve the full impact of a magnificent performance. Testament has rendered great service.

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Redbook vs. Hi-Rez

17 October, 2007

Proven: Good Old Redbook CD Sounds the Same as the Hi-Rez Formats 

Incontrovertible double-blind listening tests prove that the original 16-bit/44.1-kHz CD standard yields exactly the same two-channel sound quality as the SACD and DVD-A technologies.

In the September 2007 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society (Volume 55, Number 9), two veteran audio journalists who aren’t professional engineers, E. Brad Meyer and David R. Moran, present a breakthrough paper that contradicts all previous inputs by the engineering community. They prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, with literally hundreds of double-blind listening tests at matched levels, conducted over a period of more than a year, that the two-channel analog output of a high-end SACD/DVD-A player undergoes no audible change when passed through a 16-bit/44.1-kHz A/D/A processor. That means there’s no audible difference between the original CD standard (“Red Book”) and 24-bit/192-kHz PCM or 1-bit/2.8442-MHz DSD.

Please note that this is not just a disagreement with the cloud-cuckoo-land tweako audiophiles but also with the highest engineering authorities, such as the formidable J. Robert Stuart of England’s Meridian Audio and others with similar credentials. That the Meyer-Moran tests leave no room for continued disagreements is an occasion for the most delicious Schadenfreude on the part of electronic soundalike advocates like yours truly. I stated my suspicions that SACD was no improvement over CD seven years ago, in my review of the first Sony SACD player, the SCD-1, in Issue No. 26 of The Audio Critic (downloadable from this website). I could hear no difference between the CD and SACD layers of the same disc when stopping the player and switching over, instant toggling between the two layers being impossible.

Now, Meyer and Moran are careful to point out that the new hi-rez formats generally sound better than standard CDs, but not because the processing technology is superior. The hi-rez discs are aimed at a more sophisticated market, and therefore the recording sessions and production techniques tend to be more sophisticated, more puristic, in terms of microphoning, compression, editing, etc. The use of a standard 16-bit/44.1-kHz processor as a “bottleneck” in the Meyer-Moran tests eliminated this concern. Comparing the CD and SACD layers of the same disc also eliminates it.

It should also be pointed out that more bits and a higher sampling rate in recording are still a good thing because they permit a little bit of unavoidable sloppiness, so that you can still comfortably end up with 16-bit dynamics and 20 kHz bandwidth. Meyer and Moran do not say that 14 or 15 bits in a truncated CD are just as good as 20. What they say is that spot-on 16-bit/44.1-kHz processing is as good as it gets, audibly. Finally, let’s not confuse the Meyer-Moran tests with stereo vs. surround sound comparisons. All of the above has to do with the two channels, left and right, of stereo recordings, nothing else. The musical value of additional surround channels is something I have been wondering about lately, but that’s an altogether different subject.

—Peter Aczel

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AT6012 Amp

15 October, 2007

12-Channel 6-Zone Power Amplifier
Amplifier Technologies AT6012

Amplifier Technologies, Inc., 19528 Ventura Boulevard, #318, Tarzana, CA 91356. Voice: (818) 343-4777. Fax: (818) 343-7444. E-mail: Web: AT6012 twelve-channel six-zone power amplifier, $1995.00 (discounts sometimes available). Tested sample owned by The Audio Critic.

As I have explained a number of times before, I am no longer interested in reviewing conventional (viz. me-too) audio electronics. Now, it could be argued that a 12-channel power amplifier capable of nearly 1000 watts total output is not exactly conventional, but my immediate reason for getting involved with the AT6012 was to power my newly upgraded Orion++ speaker system with a single amplifier. The Orion++, as distinct from the basic, plain-vanilla Orion, is ideally driven from 12 clean power-amplifier channels, and the AT6012, which clips at 80 watts per channel into 8Ω, appears to be the most powerful 12-channel beast available. I could have used several amplifiers, of course, but matching the gains of all 12 channels is a great inconvenience that way. (The Orion++, which adds rearward-firing tweeters and two subwoofers to the original Orion, will be reviewed here presently.)

The Design

ATI’s basic amplifier design is not new. I reviewed the six-channel AT1506 in Issue No. 27 (downloadable from this website) more than six years ago, and I see no significant differences in topology between the two models, except of course for the intended power output per channel, which is approximately halved in the 12-channel model. Morris Kessler’s classic circuitry appears to be timeless; I refer the reader to the older review for details.

The AT6012 is divided into six two-channel modules, each of which can be assigned to a different “zone” and independently gain-controlled via a special three-wire connection, six in all. I was not interested in this feature, since I was powering 12 drivers simultaneously through 12 channels at full gain. Each module is fully protected by a special circuit against overloads and shorts, automatically resetting itself when the excessive input or the short is removed. As for the 12 output terminals, they are spaced for dual banana plugs, thank goodness, unlike those crazy European speaker terminals. That alone is worth the price of admission to users of elaborate wire harnesses.

The Measurements

I must hasten to confess that I did not measure all 12 channels. Two random channels, simultaneously driven, were all I had the patience for. Presumably, the remaining ten channels are similar. I began with our specialty, the PowerCube test, which is best performed with two simultaneously driven channels, although the readout shows only one channel. As I’ve explained many times before, the PowerCube test measures the ability of an amplifier to drive widely fluctuating load impedances. As far as I know, The Audio Critic is the only American audio journal to publish PowerCube measurements. The instrument for the test is made in Sweden; it produces repeated 1 kHz tone bursts of 20 ms duration into 20 different complex load impedances across the amplifier (magnitudes of 8Ω/4Ω/2Ω/1Ω and phase angles of –60°/–30°/0°/+30°/+60°). The graphic output of the instrument shows the 20 data points, at 1% THD, connected to form a more or less cubelike polyhedron. The test shows up the differences between otherwise similar amplifiers when it comes to real-world loudspeaker loads rather than just resistances.

Fig. 1 shows the PowerCube of one channel of the AT6012. It is a typical result for an amplifier that is perfectly stable and adequately power-supplied into 8Ω and 4Ω loads but not quite so perfect, although still pretty good, into 2Ω and 1Ω loads. The output at 1% distortion into 8Ω/0° is 26.1 volts (85 watts); into 4Ω/0° it is 23.4 volts (137 watts); into lower impedances it drops off sharply. The very slightly rising output into all reactive loads of 8Ω and 4Ω is as it should be; into reactive loads of 2Ω and 1Ω there is some unevenness but nothing major. The drop-off in output voltage into the lower impedances is of course inevitable in an amplifier without a gigantic power supply. All in all, a decent but not a brilliant PowerCube.

Fig. 1: PowerCube of one channel with two channels driven. The three axes are output in volts, impedance in ohms, and phase angle in degrees.

Fig. 2 shows the standard distortion vs. power output measurement, without which no amplifier can be properly characterized. The six curves represent THD+N in two channels with test tones of 20 Hz (bottom), 1 kHz (middle), and 6 kHz (top), into a resistive load of 8Ω. The 6 kHz test tone was the highest that could yield a meaningful result with the 20 kHz measurement filter used (harmonics of 12 kHz and 18 kHz). The curves are largely, but not entirely, noise-dominated; maximum distortion at any power level above ½ watt with any input frequency in any channel is –60 dB (0.1%), which is not particularly low but certainly inaudible. The average distortion at typical levels is at least 12 dB lower (0.025% or thereabouts), and at 20 Hz in one channel the distortion dips to a spectacular low of –94 dB (0.002%) in the 7- to 11-watt region. Clipping at all frequencies occurs at 80 watts into 8Ω, which as I said appears to be a record for 12-channel power amplifiers. I did not measure the distortion into 4Ω because the PowerCube clearly shows that the results would scale to the 8Ω measurements.

Fig. 2: THD+N vs. power into 8Ω in two channels with inputs of 20 Hz (blue & green), 1 kHz (magenta & cyan), and 6 kHz (cyan & black).

I could have made more window-dressing measurements à la Stereophile, but I believe that the above sufficiently characterizes the amplifier, especially since it is basically the same design as the abovementioned AT1506.

The Sound

I am absolutely convinced that one channel of the AT6012 connected to a passively crossed-over loudspeaker would sound exactly the same as one channel of any other well-designed power amplifier. My reasons for that conviction have been explained over and over again on this website, so I won’t repeat myself here. In my case, however, the AT6012 was used to drive the multiplicity of electrodynamic transducers in the Linkwitz Lab Orion++ system and was fed from two electronic crossover/processors. I can say that magic happened, but it wasn’t due to the amplifier. The latter was merely doing its job of being a transparent conduit for the signals. The magic will be discussed in a forthcoming Orion++ review.


I would have liked to use a more “interesting” amplifier to drive the Orion++, maybe one of those newfangled Class T designs (which would have saved some money, too), but I searched the Internet in vain for a 12-channel model with adequate power. The conservatively designed and clearly reliable AT6012 proved to be the best choice for the job, a clean class AB amplifier with lots of power at a decent price. I couldn’t be happier.

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Letter to Ed.

08 July, 2007

Obsession with Amplifiers 

Letters to the Editor are not a feature of this website because in nearly all cases they are trivial and replying to them is a waste of time. The following exchange of messages is an exception.

Hi. I’ve been enjoying reading your publication online. I came across it some time ago and was highly interested, but the (as I believe was the case) steep subscription price was a barrier I could not overcome. With the new blog format and downloadable PDFs I’m glad that I can now enjoy the no-nonsense information that hopefully will help me save tons of money on audio purchases in the future.

I have a comment/suggestion for a blog regarding amplifier topologies. I don’t doubt Mr. Aczel’s points of view on the idea that all modern, well-designed amplifiers sound the same. I have myself attempted comparisons and found so little difference between reasonably matched power capabilities that it becomes largely irrelevant in the face of source material and loudspeaker design.

My curiosity about the old and tired debate over “all amps sounding the same” was piqued reading the April 2006 review of the Parasound Halo A 21 amplifier, a device that I myself have had the pleasure of owning. While impressive in capability, it certainly does seem like excessive overkill considering the equally meaty power claims of much less expensive “pro” amplifiers from the likes of Crown and QSC. The marketing difference that led me to purchase an A 21 (and subsequently some of those aforementioned “pro amps”) was in the topology: the A 21 boasts a class A output for the first few watts of output, which is the raison d’être for the amplifier’s stylistic heat sink and side fin design. The copious amounts of heat put out by the amp while in use only confirm this.

But let me get to the point. With so many new amplifiers coming out these days based on switching power supplies and ever more exotic topologies such as H, D, T, and all the letters of the alphabet yet to be used, can the idea of all amplifiers sounding the same still be applied without question? Can I put a class A Krell amp against a class T model such as the (in)famous Sonic Impact mini amp, and expect indistinguishable output given identical input and level matching?

I would love to see a commentary on this question, since it seems to be the new thing in amplifier technology, what with everyone going gaga over ICE modules and digital amps and hybrid AB/H designs for power efficiency reasons, with debate over power input having moved from $5,000 pure-gold power cords to $5,000 stabilized DC battery banks and other such exotic power generation ideas for the new digitals. Needless to say, the little ‘amp on a chip’ devices yet again seem to herald an unmatched level of sonic bliss beyond anything else on the market; perhaps understandable given manufacturers’ need to continue to sell new product. But is there really any difference this time around?

[From] Shadow

First of all, let me disabuse you of the notion that The Audio Critic is there to “help [you] save tons of money on audio purchases.” We’d have to review hundreds of products at each price point to do that successfully. No, The Audio Critic is there to point out what’s important and what’s unimportant in audio. Big difference.

As for amplifier topologies, the sensible answer is, “Who cares?” Any amplifier, regardless of topology, can be treated as a “black box” for the purpose of listening comparisons. If amplifiers A and B both have flat frequency response, low noise floor, reasonably low distortion, high input impedance, low output impedance, and are not clipped, they will be indistinguishable in sound at matched levels no matter what’s inside them. Of course, some of the new “alphabet soup” topologies do not necessarily satisfy those conditions.

I really believe that all this soul-searching, wondering, questioning, agonizing about amplifiers is basically unproductive and would be much more rewarding if applied to loudspeakers instead. For various reasons that I have discussed in the past, people are more willing to change amplifiers than loudspeakers. That’s most unfortunate because a new and better loudspeaker will change your audio life but a new amplifier will not.

—Peter Aczel, Editor & Publisher

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Spherex Surround

03 June, 2007

Integrated 5.1 Surround Sound System
Spherex Xbox 5.1

Spherex Inc., 3641 McNicoll Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M1X 1G5, Canada. Voice: (416) 321-6211. Fax: (416) 321-1500. Web: Xbox 5.1 Surround Sound System, $180 to $210 (lowest Internet prices). Tested sample owned by The Audio Critic.

Bad news for the high end. Very bad news.

Actually it’s not news because the Xbox 5.1 Surround Sound System is more than two years old. And it’s bad for the high end only because I say so; other reviewers did not have the guts, or the self-confidence, to say that it produces unmistakably high-end sound for only $180! That’s bad for business only if potential high-end customers know about it, but they don’t. Maybe they will now. (The price may have gone up a bit since I paid $180 to for my set; the lowest price I see these days on the Web is around $210.) That unbelievable price buys you a complete system: five satellite speakers, subwoofer, amplifiers, surround-sound processor, D/A conversion, remote control, the works. Now, there’s a reason why the Xbox 5.1 isn’t widely known as a music system. It was engineered specifically as a multimedia audio platform for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console. All promotions and all reviews have been about surround sound for video games. The fact is, however, that the technical solutions for the best possible gaming audio are the same as for the best possible music audio. The circuits and transducers don’t know whether they are transmitting video-game sounds or Beethoven. I happen to know absolutely nothing about video games; during my three decades of involvement with computers I haven’t played a single video game; but I do know something about the sound of Beethoven and other music in the concert hall, and I can confidently say that the Xbox 5.1 renders a pretty damn convincing version of it. I’ll go even further. Going from the Xbox 5.1 to the very best systems known to me (represented by the Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5 and the Linkwitz Lab “Orion”), there are very few in-between steps of improvement. Maybe only two or at most three. It’s that close. Let the high-end police come and take me away in handcuffs.

The Design

Unlike most other inexpensive systems, the Xbox 5.1 isn’t an ad hoc assembly of preexisting generic components. Its parts were designed from the ground up to work with one another; it’s engineered as a unique integrated system, and that’s why it performs so beautifully at minimum cost. Anyone can design and put together a cost-no-object system; it takes real engineering to maximize performance at the lowest possible cost. The company responsible for the design is Audio Products International (API) of Canada; Spherex Inc. is a subsidiary of API. (Other API brands are Energy, Mirage, Athena Technologies, Energy Pro, and Sound Dynamics.) Ian Paisley, a name recognized by audiophiles everywhere, is the chief engineer of API. A number of innovative technologies have gone into the design of the Xbox 5.1. Instead of describing each of them in detail here, I’ll ask you to go to, where the subject is covered about as thoroughly as can be, item by item, although a bit uncritically. (The website is that of Jeff Mathurin, a Canadian techie, computernik, and audio enthusiast, who among other things was responsible for compressing those 14 back issues of The Audio Critic into downloadable PDFs and who first pointed out to me the superiority of the Xbox 5.1.) I happen to have some unresolved reservations about the theory of a 30/70 percent direct/reflected sound ratio with 360° dispersion in loudspeaker design, but in practice the approach appears to work just fine, at least in this case. (What I don’t quite understand is the reason for “30/70-ing” a signal which has already been “30/70-ed” by the acoustics of the recording venue. Twice 30/70 is better than once? Maybe there’s an explanation.) About the only feature of the Xbox 5.1 that I find less than satisfactory is the Waves “MaxxBass” low-frequency implementation system (again, see the above Web link). Instead of actually reproducing the lowest frequencies down to 25 Hz or so, MaxxBass fakes them by generating characteristic harmonics that mimic the particular low frequency. The mimicry is fairly plausible, but the room doesn’t actually get energized and your innards don’t get shaken by the organ pedal tones or the T. Rex steps. In reality the 8-inch woofer goes down only to about 50 Hz at best. It’s a compromise that blunts the high-end effect. The five satellite speakers, on the other hand, need no apology.

The Measurements

The Xbox 5.1 is a closed-loop system, from digital (or analog line-level) input to acoustic (speaker) output. You cannot break into the loop and make valid measurements of the various components because the latter cannot be isolated in their simplest “flat” mode. Nor can you make quasi-anechoic (MLS) measurements of the satellite speakers because their very principle of operation is “echoic,” based on reflected sound. Those constraints limited the measurements I was able to make. I used the optical digital input for my signal feed and made some close-miked nearfield measurements of one speaker. That’s about all. Unfortunately, such measurements do not reveal the true quality of the total system when it comes to actual listening. I am sure that API’s more comprehensive and sophisticated measurement techniques track the audible performance more closely. My methods are better suited to separate components. Fig. 1 shows the nearfield frequency response of the front left speaker channel on the vertical axis and the side-firing axis. From about 500 Hz upward, if you split the difference between the two curves you get a reasonably flat characteristic. This, of course, has little to do with the 30/70 percent direct/reflected response of the speaker.

Fig. 1: Nearfield frequency response of the front left speaker channel on the speaker’s vertical axis (cyan) and its side-firing axis (red).

The woofer is easier to measure. With the classic Don Keele nearfield technique, I obtained the curve shown in Fig. 2 at a medium-loud signal level. The humpbacked response characteristic is due to the steep crossover slope (which cannot be bypassed) and the relatively narrow flat response band of the woofer, about an octave wide. Below 40 Hz something obviously not quite kosher is taking place—that’s the MaxxBass.

Fig. 2: Nearfield frequency response of the woofer.

Fig. 3 offers some explanation regarding the operation of the MaxxBass. The nearfield spectrum of a 20 Hz tone at a 1-meter SPL of 80 dB shows a third harmonic (60 Hz) 21 dB louder than the fundamental! The fourth harmonic (80 Hz) is at about the same level as the fundamental and the fifth harmonic (100 Hz) is 6 dB louder. The harmonics, intended to synthesize a fake 20 Hz tone for the ear, obviously dominated the SPL reading.

Fig. 3: Nearfield spectrum of a 20 Hz tone reproduced by the woofer, at a 1-meter SPL of 80 dB.

The woofer response curves clearly show what I heard: very little genuine deep bass, lots of tricky synthetic bass. Here the measurements and the listening experience correspond.

The Sound

Listening to 5.1-channel SACDs, I was amazed by the utterly natural, spacious, dynamic surround sound produced by the Xbox 5.1, lacking only in “pressure bass,” as I already explained. The openness of the reproduced sound was remarkable, providing a strong argument for the geometry of the satellite speaker design. There appeared to be no obvious limitations to loudness; the orchestral climaxes were full strength in my rather large listening space. Closing my eyes, it was easy to pretend that I was listening to a costly high-end system. I find it incredible that other reviewers did not pick up on this. Bad for business?


If you are an audiophile who is not totally under the spell of the tweako/wacko high-end magazines, here’s my advice to you: Be the last of the big-time spenders! Go online and order the Spherex Xbox 5.1 as your second system. If I am all wet and Xbox 5.1 is no damn good, you’ll be out two bills. Big deal. If I am right, your second system will be good enough to be your first system, or close to it. It’s a fair gamble.

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