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The Absolute Sound
February 2008

When "Good Enough" Isn't

  If "necessity is the mother of invention," dissatisfaction is surely the father of progress. In fact, dissatisfaction with the status quo is the fundamental force driving the high-end audio industry toward better products. Designers look at the current technology identify areas that could be improved, and then innovate to Overcome current technology's limitations. The result of this cycle is an upward spiral of musical performance.

In just the past two months I've encountered four striking examples of products that vividly illustrate this principle. I can't recall another 60-day period in my 19 years as an audio writer when the art and science of music reproduction took such big steps forward. All four products were born out of a dissatisfaction with existing technology, and  realized through a passionate zeal to create something better.

The first of these products is the Revel Salon2 loudspeaker reviewed last issue. It is so much better than its predecessor that it makes the older product unrecognizable as its antecedent. The Revel design team, headed by Kevin Voecks, spent three years painstakingly removing distortion mechanisms from drive units, correlating measured performance with specific sonic attributes, and creating an entirely new and elaborate cabinet shape to minimize the  enclosure's deleterious effect on the sound. The result is startling; the Salon2 dramatically reduces certain loudspeaker colorations and provides a more transparent view into the music.

It's well-known that timing accuracy is crucial to good-sounding digital playback, but who thought that it would require the precision of an atomic clock to fully realize digital's potential? Mr. Motoaki Ohmachi, the man behind Esoteric, is who. Mr. Ohmachi wasn't content with accepting the timing accuracy of state-of-the-art conventional circuits, so he pursued a radical solution a rubidium-based atomic clock. I recently installed the Esoteric G-ORb rubidium clock in my digital front end, expecting perhaps a small-to-moderate step up from the already outstanding Esoteric P-03 transport and D-03 digital-to-analog converter. What I heard not only made my jaw drop at the stunning improvement, but showed that a significant limitation in digital sound quality is timing imprecision (full report in the next issue). Without Mt. Ohmachi's pursuit of what might have initially appeared as an insanely over-the-top solution, we wouldn't have known digital audio's potential.

About this same time, I visited the Wilson Audio factory and Dave Wilson's magnificent custom-built home listening room to hear the new X-2 Alexandria Series 2 loudspeaker. As I reported in the previous issue, Dave Wilson recently spent considerable time in Europe listening in the great concert halls. He heard a quality in the sound that wasn't reproduced by even his flagship speaker, and had an epiphany about how to achieve more lifelike reproduction. After returning home, he went to the lab and listening  room and developed new drivers and crossovers based on this insight. I heard the resulting X-2 Alexandria Series 2 side-by-side with the original X-2, and was stunned by the magnitude of the improvement. To take a reference-level loudspeaker and elevate its performance to such a degree is quite a feat. Why did Wilson expend the time and energy? Because he thought he could make the X-2 sound even more like what he'd heard in the concert hail.

Finally, the fourth component that exemplifies the passion for pursuing musical realism is the Magico V3 loudspeaker reviewed this issue. Everything about the V3 is unconventional, from the enclosure made from slices of stacked birch ply, to the custom drivers whose cones are made of the same material as helicopter blades, to the aluminum baffle that spends eight hours in a CNC machine, to the $90 apiece capacitors in the crossover. When I asked designer Alon Wolf about his unusual approach, he said "There are already 400 companies putting off-the-shelf drivers in MDF boxes. Why would I want to do that?" In other words, if you're not trying to advance the art, why bother? As you'll see in my review this issue, Wolf's uncompromising approach has produced a loudspeaker that is, in many ways, the best I've heard at any price.

These four designers exemplify the true spirit of high-end audio. They reject "good enough" and pursue, with fanatic zeal, new technologies, materials, and innovations that push the state-of-the-art in music reproduction. My hat's off to them, and to all designers with the vision, passion, technical skills, and musical sensitivity to bring us products that take us one step closer to the music.


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