November 25th: Why Samsung bought Harman
Harman is an electronics holding company with a rich portfolio of brands. There's its original brand, Harman/Kardon (they still spell it that way), but also Mark Levinson, JBL, Lexicon and Infinity. Readers of UHF thinkl of Harman as a high-end audio company.
Samsung is known for its TV sets, but also for its telephones, its appliances, and a good deal else. Samsung actually accounts for 17% of South Korea's economy. The company has been in the news the past month because of both its Galaxy Note 7 and its top-loading washing machine, both of which have a tendency to explode. The phone alone will probably end up costing Samsung some 17 billion US dollars when all is accounted for. So why is the company spending eight billion for a hi-fi company?
Ah, but Harman has a lot more going on than hi-fi, and indeed most of the world press pretty much ignored the hi-fi angle. Harman also makes "infotainment" systems for cars, and may be working on control systems for self-driving cars. Some observers believe that Samsung's competitor, Apple, is working on a car, and it wants the technology to let it compete. In fact Apple may not be working on a car, but it's in the habit of playing its cards face down.
You might well wonder what will happen to the hi-fi brands. Will they be spun off? Will they be used exclusively to make audio systems for cars? Who knows?
By the way, last month there was a rumor that Samsung was buying the French speaker maker Focal, which owns Naim. Hasn't happened yet.
November 21st: Audio (mis)information
Some time back, a reader wrote us to wonder whether, in the age of the Internet, it was still relevant to publish a magazine with advice on high fidelity. We answered that it was (but then we would, wouldn't we?), and that not all advice available on the Web was of real value. And then you probably know the adage that someone who can distinguish between good advice and bad advice doesn't need advice.
Here's a case in point. Aperion Audio (no link, because it would only encourage them) not only makes speakers, but has a section on its Web site called Aperion University, offering advice, and inviting visitors to “ask us any home audio question.” If you take them up on it, we suggest you do it only for comic relief. Here are some gems from an article claiming to debunk common audio myths.
For speaker cable, one of the most important factors is gauge. In fact wire gauge is pretty far down the list. Home Hardware can sell you really large-gauge wire for next to nothing. Guess how it will sound! Actually, we don't have to guess, because we've tried it.
...Due to the increasing price of copper, there is an alternative CCA (copper clad aluminum) wire becoming more common. What? Copper prices have been dropping for years, not rising, and even the cheapest speaker wire doesn't contain aluminum. The section then says that some expensive speaker wires are made of silver, or even gold. Silver yes, gold no, not ever. Predictably, Aperion claims that the advantages of cables costing “hundreds of dollars” are imaginary. We wonder whether their speakers are wired with aluminum.
A major issue with receivers that have multiple channels is crosstalk. Crosstalk occurs when audio from one channel bleeds into another channel. This would include hearing dialogue from the center channel at low levels in other speakers. This is fantasy. There are valid arguments against all-in-one receivers, but this isn't one of them.
Sound is literally the physical movement of air. No it's not, it' the vibration of air. To be fair, this is a common misconception, but you would expect a speaker manufacturer to know that.
You get what you pay for. There's a grain of truth in that, and it's true of audio advice too.
November 15th: Leonard Cohen, the Audiophile
It's been a heck of a week. A heck of a year, in fact. It wasn't made any better by the death of songwriter, singer, poet Leonard Cohen. We at UHF met him once. It was at a hi-fi show, as he was signing a Totem Model One loudspeaker.
If anyone else had signed it, you'd want to look up solvents that can remove Sharpies ink. But with that signature, that became the most valuable Totem speaker ever.
Cohen was of course a Montrealer, though he lived in many other places, including Greece and California. He began his carer as a poet and a novelist, but he then began setting his own poems to music, and recording them in his deep, resonant voice. Other artists were drawn to the power of his poetry as well. Hallelujah was covered by several singers, notably kd lang. And in 1987 he made a genuine audiophile album, Famous Blue Raincoat along with Jennifer Warnes. He was 82 and in poor health (“I hurt where I used to play,” he said), but he had just released his final, perhaps greatest album, You Want It Darker. With accompaniment composed by his son Adam, Cohen adresses God directly: I Didn't Know I had the right to kill and to maim. You want it darker? We kill the flame.
That album stands up to repeated listening, unlike a lot of contemporary albums. It is, by the way, available on vinyl.
Some anglophone Quebec artists are unfamiliar to most of their francophone compatriots. That's the case of the late Mordecai Richler, one of the great novelists of his era. It's not the case of Leonard Cohen, who was revered even by those who would have struggled with the fine nuances of his poetry. He was considered un des nôtres.
Though we learned of his death on Thursday the 10th, he actually died the previous Monday...one day before he could learn the outcome of the US election. In fact, in a 1988 song, he had anticipated the way the world was going:
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Was Leonard Cohen actually an audiophile? Many musicians are not, because they know music so well that they need only an imprecise reminder of what they should be hearing. Leonard Cohen was enough of an audiophile to tour the Montreal Salon in 2007.
November 10th: Like vinyl, only better
LPs never really went away, but since their return to the mainstream, record manufacturers have been searching for ways to make them sound better than ever. And they've had considerable success, But what if there could be a high-definition LP? An LP with 30% more capacity? Sounding 30% louder? And, best of all, sounding twice as good?
All right, that last claim is ludicrous because a quantity reference can't be applied to quality, but we probably have your attention.
The HD Vinyl record isn't yet on the market, because this is another of those crowd-sourced things. You have to pony up cash before the product appears. HD Vinyl has been patented by an Australian company named Rebeat. The new LPs can be played on any turntable, and will sound better, but they will sound best on an HD turntable. Of course.
There are few details on how this new miracle will work, and that's just one of the reasons much skepticism is being expressed about this system. Rebeat's web page is down for servicing. No joy there.
So how do you feel about your expensive turntable being suddenly obsolete?
November 4th: The New York show
We're not there, but here we are at the New York audio show's opening day, and it hasn't been called off. Why would it have been? Well, it's organized by the Chester Group, the same people who mismanaged two Montreal salons, and then cancelled a third just 10 days before the date.
You'll recall that the original owners of the Montreal show stepped in and saved it. The Montreal show is now in the hands of a non-profit corporation, and will run at the usual venue, the Hotel Bonaventure, on March 24-26, 2017.
Previous New York shows under the Chester banner, had been way out of town. This time it's at the Park Lane Hotel, just near Central Park.
To be clear, there is no way we would cover any show put on by these people, but we hope it succeeds, if only for the sake of the exhibitors.
November 1st: Back from TAVES
It was a big show, but it wasn't all audio by any means. There were technology workshops, mainly about robotics, there was more awful art than we've ever seen united in one place, and there were the electric cars shown here. You could even drive one. We passed on the opportunity, not being that enthusiastic about toys.
Last year we expressed doubts about holding the “Toronto” show so far from Toronto that you couldn't even see the CN Tower. Show organizers had told us, however, that it had been the most successful TAVES yet.
We haven't yet heard any data about this past weekend. We did observe, however, that on the normally crowded Saturday, there was little problem getting in to hear the rooms that interested us. Too bad, because, despite the extraneous exhibitors, there was lots to hear. We were glad to be there.
Among the exhibitors not present was Angie, whose store is not very far away from the show. Not exhibiting is fair enough. She said on her Facebook page that she wasn't coming because “the show had changed.” But then she took a step further. She held a competing event at her store at the same time as TAVES. That's unethical, Angie. You have betrayed an industry that has been very good to you. Not cool.
You can check out our show blog on line. It's not quite complete, but we'll post some more pictures (and text, of course) in the next few hours. It's now complete. There will, of course, be even more in our next issue.
October 27th: Off to TAVES
TAVES is the Toronto Show, actually held way north in Richmond Hill. It opens tomorrow (Friday) at 11 am. During our absence, we'll have the usual skeleton crew taking care of our office. We're back Tuesday morning.
Of course we'll be blogging through the show, and indeed the blog is already on line. See you soon.
October 26th: Audio-Technica's upscale cartridge
Audio-Technica is hardly new to making phono cartridges. It has long offered well-engineered cartridges that sounded better than their prices would suggest. Some well-known high-end turntable makers offer rebranded AT cartridges as their entry models.
But there's nothing entry-level about the new ART-1000. It may look deceptively conventional, with its boron cantilever, but the generating elements (composed of two coils and a powerful magnet) are right above the stylus, not at the rear of the cantilever. Audio-Technica says that this “direct power system” allows the cartridge to render even the subtlest musical details.
We find the approach interesting, because our own reference cartridge, the London Reference, also has its generating elements just above the stylus, and the results are spectacular. But the similarities end there. The ART1000 is a moving-coil cartridge, using two very fine coils made from single-crystal copper. Output is 0.2 mV, and requires an MC phono preamp or a stepup transformer. Of course, the cartridge has a line-contact stylus, as you would expect from anything but an economy cartridge. The ART1000 is hand-made in Japan.
Quantities are limited, because highly-skilled assemblers are required, and they don't come cheap either. The projected list price is $4,999 USD.
October 18th: New street address
Over the years, UHF has had several address changes. We had just had our stationery printed, and the city of Longueuil renumbered all the street addresses. We got a box number (box 316, remember that one?), but the post office where the box was located closed down. Our next postal box was shut down too. We reverted to our street address, but...well, you can see what's happened. They've renamed the whole street.
There was a reason for the name of the street. The large house where UHF is located was once the home of the chief engineer of the Victoria Bridge over the Saint Lawrence river. It was built around 1850
One of our neighbors, however, was Jean Béliveau, a famous and beloved hockey player with the legendary Montreal Canadiens. After his death in December 2014, the city renamed the street.
But we haven't moved...even if our address keeps moving around.
October 13th: Bad turntable design
There are more turntables on the market now than there have ever been before, For those who love vinyl, that's great, but it turns out there are more turntable models than there are competent turntable designers.
One of the principles that every designer should know is that the record, platter, tone arm, cartridge and arm should form as rigid a block as possible. It can't be perfect, because the turntable and arm bearings are in the loop. Then there are designs like the one you see here.
The Mag Lev Audio turntable is not yet on the market. It's another of those Kickstarter projects, seeking funds from the eventual buyers. It's eye-catching, no question about that. The player floats magnetically over the plinth. Trouble is, the tone arm doesn't. This is another sad example of a turntable that has been designed to look good, not sound good.
The Mag-Lev is expected to ship in August 2017, but if we were you we would look elsewhere.
October 12th: Evolving HDMI cables
The HDMI link now used universally for digital television (the only kind there is today), got off to a rocky start, lo those many years ago. The system was so unreliable that many professional installers refused to recommend it, preferring the vastly inferior component connection (the one with the four colored wires), which is analog. The reason: they didn't want calls at 11 pm from customers whose TV sets weren't working.
HDMI stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface, and its existence has as much to do with intellectual property protection as quality. Because HDMI can carry such high-resolution signals, such as a 4K film image, the “content providers,” such as film studios, want to insure you can't use it to download the raw data. Two HDMI devices, such as a Blu-ray player and a television set, must “handshake,” to certify that each complies with HDCP, the content protection system.
Making an HDMI cable is expensive, because the licensing fee is so high as to be out of reach for small specialty manufacturers. What's more, the standard has evolved, making some older cables obsolete. Not so long ago, HDMI 1.3a was the ultimate version. We're now up to HDMI 2.1. Behind the scenes, HDCP has also evolved, and some older cables may no longer work. The cable now needs enough to bandwidth to pass 3D movies, 4K and deep color. To make things even more complicated, newer cables have an extra twisted pair of wires to carry bidirectional Ethernet.
There are still older HDMI cables out there. Our advice: don't throw out the bill before you are certain that the cable does what you need.
October 7th: Next for TV: quantum dots
We may still use a plasma screen in our home cinema reference system, but most of the industry has moved on. The vast majority of TV sets in stores now use liquid crystal screens, usually called LCD. Only they're not called LCD, but LED (light-emitting diode). And it's a misnomer.
Nearly all of those screens are still of the LCD type. But instead of being backlit by the unnatural rays of a fluorescent lamp, they're backlit by an array of edge light-emitting diodes, which illuminate a white background. It's a major advantage, yielding better color and much longer life, but the LCD disadvantage remains. An LCD that is turned “off” is never completely opaque, and so blacks are rendered as greys.
The quantum dot screens being launched by Samsung still suffer from imperfect blacks, but the lighting will be far more even. Instead of a series of LEDs deployed along the edges of the screen, the quantum dots will actually emit light, being essentially a fine array of very tiny LEDs.
That shouldn't be confused with either OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes), which actually emit light themselves, or lasers, which are used in some high-end projectors.
Lots more details on these screen technologies in UHF No. 98, coming soon.
October 1st: Don't go to a show without this
Among us (there are six of us in the UHF team, we have toured hundreds of shows. And you know it works. You sit in a room listening to a piece of music you especially like, and you ask to see the sleeve. Or the CD booklet. In a lot of cases, the music resides on a computer, and the exhibitor isn't sure what the music is, because the person who knows is out for coffee.
Let us introduce you to Shazam.
Shazam is an app (as in, there's an app for that), residing on your iPhone or Android device. You open the app, push the Shazam button, and within seconds it identifies the music, the artist, and the album. You can see the cover art, and in some cases Shazam will even show you the lyrics. If compressed music is your thing, you can tap another button, and download the music from iTunes or Google Play. Naturally, you need an Internet connection, either from the hotel's wifi or from your own data plan.
How does it work? Shazam uses the same Gracenote on-line data base that your computer looks up when you rip a CD to your hard drive. It seldom happens that the music is so obscure that Gracenote won't find it. Astonishingly enough, you can rip an LP to a digital file, and Gracenote (and therefore Shazam) will still find it. As the great science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, any technology that is suffciently advanced will be indistinguishable from magic.
Shazam is free for both iOS and Android platforms, but it includes ads, most of them for music. The paid version, called Shazam Encore, is ad-free. It also has a memory cache, so that it will store what it hears even if you don't have access to the Internet, and then look it up once you're back on the net.
BY THE WAY: It's the weekend, and that means our Flash Sale is open over at The Audiophile Store. It runs through Monday morrning, and the specials include high-end connectors, as well as our favorite interconnect cable.
September 30th: Audio in the Rockies
Before we get to the Toronto and New York shows, there's the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, better known as RMAF. It's in Denver starting October 7th, and it has long been considered, along with the Montreal Salon, North America's most enjoyable high-end shows.
What makes an audio show enjoyable? Good organization, for one thing. An appropriate venue, easy to get to, with room acoustics that are not downright horrible. And a good variety of exhibitors who appear to be having a good time. If a number of the designers of your favorite gear are present...well, it can't hurt.
And music. Lots and lots of music.
This year's RMAF may be a little less pleasant, because the Marriott Tech Center, the venue for the Fest, is undergoing renovations. If you're a visitor and you booked a room, you may have been moved to another hotel. The last Montreal Salon, among its other troubles (we're looking at you, Chester Group), was in a hotel that was also being refurbished. Still, the spirit of a show is more important than the hallways.
Check the RMAF Web site for exhibitors and events.
Hundreds of recommended products at The Audiophile Store
Bargains on used, discontinued and specially-purchased products atThe Audiophile Boutique
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