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March 2005
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
The Nearfield
Article By Steven Stone
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Nearfield Audio Desk  Last month I promised that this month we would dive into gear reviews. But I've had a change of heart. First we need to explore why we should care about high-end components in the first place.


What Is High-End?
This morning I spent about 45 minutes talking with a speaker distributor who's been in the audio business even longer than I have. Our acquaintance goes back at least 25 years. I don't talk to him very often because although he is a sharp and very astute guy, he is also a major bum-out. He can, in a sentence or two, let the enthusiastic air out of almost any idea. When I explained the concept behind "The Nearfield" he said "Great idea, but nobody spends more than $200 for a pair of mini-monitor speakers." If that's true, then two-channel high-end audio is as dead as a dodo.

My friend is completely convinced that the days when recreational audiophiles cared about, and were willing to pay the price for good sound are gone forever. He sells his beautifully made speakers primarily to pro users for their home desktop recording studios. According to my friend "Only studio guys still care enough about how things sound to pay for high-end monitor speakers." This comment begs the question, what would you pay for a great pair of small speakers?

I'll admit that after nearly 30 years of involvement in high-end audio I may have a very unrealistic idea of what real people will shell out for a fine set of speakers, or superior electronics for that matter. My current reference desktop speakers list for $1695 a pair. My current amplifier of choice costs $2999, the passive preamp clocks in at just under $1000, the D/A combo goes for $1700, and the cables run around $500. Adding up my whole desktop rig, it tips the monetary scales at around $8500. Is that exorbitant? I don't think so, but perhaps I'm living in cloud cuckoo land. Is this really too much money for someone who's serious about achieving a truly transforming musical experience while sitting at a computer desktop?

While I've been involved with high-end audio I've seen what we used to refer to as mid-fi creep up to co-opt and envelope the high-end marketplace. Every year the large consumer electronic companies introduce a continuous stream of products that claim to offer impeccable sound coupled with ever-slicker ergonomics. When you actually sit down and listen to most of this stuff, it delivers good sound, but usually not great sound. These upper mid-fi products measure well and sound decent, but somehow still fail to elicit any true passion from a listener. A true high-end system can even seduce someone who is not a musical fanatic. My wife, who didn't even own a boom-box when I first married her, has become quite sensitive to the quality of sound. She doesn't know why a particular speaker of amplifier sounds better or worse, but she can tell within five seconds of walking into the room that something is different. We humans are that sensitive to sound, and to deny this sensitivity is to deny part of our basic humanity.

The left-brained, it-all-sounds-the-same nebbishes who have taken over the USENET audio newsgroups very often embrace mid-fi components. They champion this passionless gear over anything more arcane on the grounds that audio is all about engineering, not art. The only passion these folks exhibit is for denying that any magic can come from high-end audio products. They are the gray people, for whom musical ecstasy is as alien as a fish speaking Latin. In short, they are a hi-fi Borg that tries to assimilate anyone who dreams that equipment can perform at an artistic and esoteric level. In my humble opinion, they will take their A/B/X boxes to their cold lifeless graves. I seriously doubt any part of their bodies has ever, or will ever, achieve tumescence while listening to music.

High-end audio isn't just about shiny pieces of expensive gear; it is, more importantly, about the experience that this gear can create. This is the unquantifiable "value added" that mid-fi can't begin to deliver. A real high-end system functions not merely as a purveyor of sound and music, but as a time-travel device that puts you directly into the original musical event. Once you've had the chance to truly immerse yourself in this sort of an experience, it's impossible to accept the mediocre world of mid-fi A/B/X-dom. Compared to real high-end audio the mid-fi world is just an empty sonic sham, as unsatisfying as a piece of plastic fruit.

The reason audiophiles should expect to pay more than $200 for a high-end mini monitor is because of the magic it can produce. Anyone who refuses to accept that a high end product will often cost more than X amount of dollars is destined to live in a nondescript sonic world where everything sounds good and nothing sounds great. All those anti-high-end pundits who relentlessly rant about sonic snake oil have my deepest sympathies. They will never know the supreme joy of musical ecstasy, those poor cheap bastards.


Why MP-3 Still Sucks
Whenever I mention computer desktop audio most people assume that the principal source for audio will be i-Tunes or some other MP-3 delivery device. After low these many years, I'm sorry, but MP-3, regardless of the bit rate or Codec, still isn't suitable as a high-end source. MP-3 remains the digital equivalent of a Phillips cassette tape -- sometimes acceptable, but never as satisfying as the best sources currently available.

How dare I make such a statement? Because, gentle reader, I just finished doing an exhaustive series of listening tests comparing the best quality i-Tune-created MP-3's with their original CD sources. Even a hardcore A/B/X'er would be able to hear the differences through their pitiful black boxes. 

For my test I used a Perpetual Technologies P-3A D/A. My CD source was a Pioneer PDR-555RW CD recorder's coaxial output while my I-Tune MP-3 source was the coaxial digital output from an M-Audio 192 card in my Mac G-4 computer. Both sources used the same D/A converter, cables, downstream electronics and speakers. Levels were matched to within 0.1 dB.

Given my mentor J. Gordon Holt's oft-repeated mantra "Depth is always the first thing to go." I was taken aback that harmonic complexity rather than soundstage characteristics were the missing ingredient in even the best MP-3 copies. On every CD, be it pop, folk, or classical, the original CD had greater harmonic density and character. The MP-3's inevitably seemed threadbare and harmonically thin in comparison. Surprisingly most of the MP-3's had as much depth and soundstage dimensionality as the originals.

So this all circles back to the fact that when I talk about high-end desktop listening, MP-3s are not my primary music source. CDs, CDRs, DVDs, and, yes, even ancient LPs are far superior sources for determining the true sonic quality of a desktop component.


My Current Reference Desktop System
All right, I know that some, hopefully most, readers are already believers in the healing and metaphysically elevating powers of high-end audio. Still the question often comes down to which gear, arranged in what way. So in the spirit of true unabashed audio whoredom here's a list of exactly what's currently ensconced in my desktop system.

Next month I plan to evaluate what I'm using with concise mini-reviews of each component's strengths and foibles. But until then, if any propeller head tries to tell you gear doesn't matter or high end equipment is overpriced, point to a piece of plastic fruit and tell them to eat it. For anyone who loves music a quality desktop system is an affordable luxury that makes sitting down in front of your computer a joy rather than a chore.


Source Components

Pioneer PDR-555RW CDR recorder
Pioneer MJ-D707 Minidisk recorder player
Sony PCM-601 digital audio processor (PCM tapes)
Sony SL-2710 Beta player (for PCM digital tapes)
Macintosh G-4 1.2GHz dual processor with M-Audio 192 card
VPI TNT Mark IV turntable
Graham 1.5 tonearm and Clearaudio Victory H cartridge
Brightstar VPI base
Brightstar Air base
VPI turntable stand
Vendetta Research SC 2B phono preamp

D/A Converters

Perpetual Technologies P1-A 
Perpetual Technologies P3-A


Monolithic Sound PA-1 passive/active preamp
Monolithic HC-1b dual mono power supply


Bel Canto EVO-2


Reference 3a Dulcet
MK K-10 subwoofer

Cable And Accessories

AudioQuest Diamond 1 meter RCA interconnects
Synergistic Research powered Alpha Quad X-series speaker cables






























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