Audeze LCD-3 Headphones

LCD-3 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

March 2014

Reviewers' ChoiceAudeze LCD-3In Chicago last spring, at the 2013 Audio Expo North America (AXPONA), I browsed the demo tables of head-fi and desktop gear. I was especially interested in reference-level headphones, as I was looking to upgrade from my tried-and-true Sennheiser HD 650 ’phones. The genial Sankar Thiagasamudram, president and co-founder of Audeze, invited me to try both the Audeze LCD-2 ($1145 USD) and LCD-3 ($1945) headphones. Both models impressed me, but especially the LCD-3’s seemingly full-range sound with symphonic music. I’ve found that symphonic music is extremely difficult for any system to reproduce, let alone headphones. Sending to my ears a high-resolution recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6, the LCD-3s got the strings right -- not only the top notes of the violins, but also the midrange lushness of the cellos and the gravitas of the double basses in their lowest register. Not long afterward, I asked to review them.

Description

In contrast to conventional headphones, which use cones similar to the dynamic drivers found in most loudspeakers, the Audeze LCD-3s have planar-magnetic drivers. In this technology, instead of a voice coil, a circuit is directly printed on a thin diaphragm, with an array of magnets on either side. These diaphragms are far lighter than the cones in conventional headphones (e.g., my Sennheiser HD 650s). When the circuit is energized with an audio signal, the diaphragm’s interaction with the magnets produces an electromagnetic field that pulls and pushes the diaphragm back and forth, which rarefies and compresses the air to produce soundwaves. In theory, a planar driver can produce faster, more coherent sound than a cone because the diaphragm moves “as one” rather than, like a cone, beginning from the center outward, which makes cones more susceptible to breakup at higher frequencies. In addition, since the Audeze driver is so large, the excursion it needs to move a given amount of air is far less than a conventional cone would need -- which also, in theory, should result in less distortion.

Read more ...

Sony XBA-H1 Earphones

XBA-H1 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

March 2014

Sony XBA-H1Reviewers' ChoiceHybrid earphones -- with one dynamic and one or more balanced-armature drivers -- seem like a great idea. You get the punch and power of a dynamic driver for the low frequencies, and the detail and delicacy of a balanced-armature driver (or two or three) for the midrange and treble. The best of both worlds! Great plan, huh?

Not so far, at least. Before I got Sony’s new XBA-H1 ($149 USD) into my ears, I’d tried three hybrids: the Audiofly AF78 ($209), the AKG K3003 ($1299), and the Scosche IEM856md ($249). Only the Audioflys struck me as a good buy, and I can’t say they were necessarily any better than the best conventional earphones in their price range.

Making a hybrid is tough. You’ve got to cram two differently shaped drivers and maybe a crossover circuit into a tiny enclosure that can slip into your ear canal, all without introducing acoustical obstacles that add ugly-sounding dips and peaks. But Sony’s one of the very few headphone manufacturers to make its own balanced-armature drivers (most others buy them from Knowles Acoustics), so it may know some things the competition doesn’t.

Read more ...

Logitech Harmony Ultimate Universal Remote Control with Ultimate Hub

February 2014

Logitech UltimateLast March, I gave the Logitech Harmony Touch universal remote control a positive review, but noted some things that might be improved. Now comes the Harmony Ultimate, in which almost everything left unfinished in the Touch is resolved.

Description

Included with the Harmony Ultimate ($349.99 USD) are a Harmony Hub, two IR Mini Blasters, a charging station, a USB cable, two AC adapter cords, a start-up manual, and warranty information.

The Harmony Ultimate itself looks almost identical to the Touch; it’s the same size (7.25”L x 2.25”W x not quite 1” thick), though at 4.8 ounces it weighs slightly less than the Touch’s 5.7 ounces. The Ultimate looks just as sleek and gleaming, has the same buttons, and the icons for each Activity and device can still be customized. The battery is still not serviceable by the consumer; when it dies, the device dies.

There is, however, one big difference from the Touch: a bulge on the Harmony’s bottom, about 2” from the front end, that guides the hand forward so that the thumbs can more easily reach the hard buttons -- play, pause, skip, and record -- above the screen. I still need two hands.

Read more ...

NuForce AVP-18 Surround-Sound Processor

February 2014

NuForce AVP-18NuForce, based in Fremont, California, is an interesting company for the audio enthusiast. They first staked their reputation on a patented class-D amplifier design with a switching power supply. Although pricey -- their cheapest monoblocks cost $2500 USD per pair -- they sounded as good as anything I’d heard. NuForce has since made inroads in almost all ranges of sound and price, as I found out when I reviewed their Icon uDAC-2 combo of headphone amp and DAC ($129). The company now has a bunch of models that are extremely affordable, including the DDA-100 Direct Digital amp ($549), which Roger Kanno favorably reviewed for SoundStage! Hi-Fi.

Somewhat in the middle of the road, pricewise, is the subject of this review -- the AVP-18 surround-sound processor ($1095). NuForce has stripped down the feature set of the typically bloated audio/video receiver to provide a minimalist home-theater pre-pro that an audiophile can love.

Read more ...

Sherwood R-807 Audio/Video Receiver

January 2014

Sherwood R-807In 2013, Sherwood, formerly Sherwood Electronic Laboratories Inc., celebrated its 60th anniversary -- a rare event in the home-audio industry. The company was founded in Chicago in 1953 to manufacture an amplifier designed by Ed Miller. Its first products were tuners, integrated amplifiers, and receivers with enamel front panels and knobs rather than the toggle switches typical of the era. And inside, of course, were vacuum tubes. By the early 1960s, Sherwood was supplying FM broadcasters with stereo multiplex equipment, and in the hi-fi era was responsible for a few “firsts” -- such as the first solid-state receiver (the 1005, in 1967), and the first FM tuner with a digital readout (the SEL-300). Like much of its competition, Sherwood had moved production to the Far East by the late 1970s. The company now makes stereo and audio/video receivers, iPod docks, wireless speakers, sound bars, tuners, turntables, and disc players. I was sent a sample of the newest of their 11 models of 7.1-channel A/V receivers, the R-807 ($450 USD).

Read more ...

Boston Acoustics MC100 Blue Bluetooth Speaker

January 2014

Boston Acoustics MC100Boston Acoustics is known for making good-sounding speakers, and the MC100 Blue Bluetooth speaker ($149 USD) follows in that tradition. For better Bluetooth sound, it supports NFC pairing and the aptX codec, though it’s not, as its box proclaims, a “wireless Bluetooth speaker” -- it must be plugged into AC to function. That’s about the only nit I have to pick with Boston Acoustics, who are not alone in confusing this issue. We need to adopt language in which Bluetooth means the wireless connectivity of that proprietary audio-signal format, and wireless means a battery-powered product that can be used without being tethered to a wall socket.

That said, the MC100 Blue produces a quality of sound you wouldn’t expect from such a small device, and it looks stunning.

Read more ...

Miniwatt n4 USB DAC-Headphone Amplifier

December 2013

Miniwatt n4Hong Kong-based Miniwatt burst onto the hi-fi scene in 2009 with a tiny integrated tube amplifier that produced a mere 2.5Wpc -- hence the company’s name. The next year brought a slightly more powerful (3.5W) model, the n3, which still had a footprint about the size of a CD jewel case. While some might scoff at such low power ratings, a few watts are all that are needed to drive a desktop audio system with speakers of moderate sensitivity. Of course, an amplifier requires a source, and if you’re focusing on a desktop system, a USB DAC is the obvious choice.

The Miniwatt n4 ($348 USD) is a 32-bit/192kHz-capable, asynchronous USB DAC with both a 1/8” headphone jack and a stereo line-level output on RCAs. It also includes a coaxial digital output, which allows it to be used as a USB-to-S/PDIF converter. Buttons on the front panel affect both the line out and headphone volumes, and plugging in a pair of headphones mutes the line output -- as it should.

Read more ...

Mass Fidelity Relay DAC-Bluetooth Digital Converter

December 2013

Mass Fidelity RelayI hate wires! I hate buying them, I hate hooking them up, and I hate the restrictions they place on my audio system. No matter how neatly I try to organize and route them, most of the time they can’t be hidden. On the other hand, I understand a wire’s importance. Heck, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on cables because I wanted to improve the sound of my system.

Ever since my review of the Sonos Digital Music System, in 2007, I’ve known that wireless technology would one day replace some of these troubling wires. The convenience of the Sonos system was incredible to me. It gave me great flexibility of access to my music collection. The only problem was, it was very expensive, and it didn’t give me the sound quality I expected for all the money I spent.

In the six years since, audio has continued to embrace wireless technology, and one of the companies doing that while raising the level of sound quality per dollar spent is Mass Fidelity, founded in 2009 in Ontario, Canada. A “community of audiophiles, designers, and engineers who are united by their passion for music,” Mass Fidelity focuses its efforts on “intelligently facilitating the aggregation of all your digital music collections and sources, allowing you to engage your music in a friendly way across all the devices you use on a daily basis.” The subject of this review is their two-channel Relay Bluetooth receiver with built-in DAC ($249 USD), designed to work with any Bluetooth device that stores or streams music.

Read more ...

Alpha Design Labs H118 Headphones

H118 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

November 2013

ADL H118Furutech is best known as a manufacturer of high-quality audio accessories, from power outlets to line conditioners to interconnects to connectors. A few years ago, the Japanese company launched its Alpha Design Labs brand to offer many of their signal-transmission technologies at lower cost. ADL’s products are focused on the desktop-and-headphones environment, and include a few models each of DACs, headphone amplifiers, and connection cables. The H118 is their first headphone model ($269 USD).

The H118s are closed-back headphones with earcups just big enough to be considered circumaural. Part of what keeps the earcups small is that they’re in the shape of a rounded triangle rather than a circle or oval; they’re also fairly shallow. My average-size ears fit completely within the openings, but without much extra space. Each earcup is mounted on a plastic yoke that moves in and out of the headband with click-stops, and they fold up on hinges for more compact transport and storage in the included, semirigid, zippered case. The earcups pivot from top to bottom, but not from front to back. Soft leatherette padding on the earcups and headband, combined with the H118s’ modest, 245gm weight, make for a fairly comfortable wearing experience. I did, however, find the clamping pressure sufficient to require a break after a couple hours’ use. Though it feels acceptably robust, the H118s’ matte-black plastic construction looks rather utilitarian.

Read more ...

Astell&Kern AK120 Portable Media Player

November 2013

Reviewers' ChoiceAstell&Kern AK120Portable audio has pretty much been anathema to me, with the exception of a long stretch in the 1990s when I flew around the country to give guest lectures and poetry readings, accompanied by a Sony Discman and a bulky wallet full of CDs. Even now, I don’t jog to the beat of Bruno Mars from an iPod, nor do I cruise through campus with cables dangling from my ears like strings of white tears. Mainly, I used to just listen at home to my reference system or not at all -- unless I had to fly somewhere. Then, I’d plug a pair of Monster Turbines into my iPhone and listen to uncompressed files for however long the flight took, as much to shut out the jet noise and conversations around me as from any wish to hear music. To me, listening this way was not real listening, but a way to pass the time and to keep the outside world from passing through me. Personal audio was a barrier, a kind of wall shored against my ruin.

The Astell&Kern AK120 media player ($1299 USD) has dramatically changed all of that. I take it with me when I jet around, but also find myself using it after arrival -- say, in a European café having an espresso and a cigar -- as well as after my return home, when reading in my study or working at my desk. This player, whose manufacturer claims produces Mastering Quality Sound in a portable package, has introduced me to a new world of pleasurable listening. Premiered at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach 2013 and released early in that summer, the AK120 is one of the sweetest audio gizmos I’ve ever come across.

Early this summer, I took the AK120 on a trip to Prague, where I was teaching, using it first on the long, mid-leg plane flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then for the next three weeks in the subways of the Prague metro, late at night in my Vinohrady apartment, and knocking about the quaint and historic streets of Mala Strana and Stare Mesto, in the Golden City on the banks of the Vltava. Then, in August, I took it along on a month-long retreat to an artist-residency program next door to Neil Young’s ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains of Northern California. The AK120 was a superb audio companion, easy to use, and so compact -- about the size of a pack of Gitanes cigarettes, it fit nicely in my pants or shirt pocket. I had my tunes wherever I wanted, in high-resolution and Apple Lossless, too.

Read more ...

More Articles ...