The second decade of the 21st century is almost over. Time to look back at what has been the most influential audio equipment for us in the last ten years. Of course you can leave your opinion at the end of this article. We would also like to hear what you have remembered from the past ten years!
December, traditionally the time for lists and overviews. Especially when a decade comes to an end and a new one begins. For Alpha-Audio, the 2010’s are the decade that we’ve completed as an online platform. We officially started with a modest blog in 2006 and grew steadily and ever faster to become the platform it is today.
In 2019 we will have almost 2 million (!!!) unique visitors and we notice that we have a loyal group of music lovers around us. On the response pages, in the forum, on Facebook, YouTube, during the livestreams and since this year ‘in real life’ with our readers who participate in reviews at our studio. Awesome!
In this piece we will take you through some important audio developments and as many devices that – in our opinion – have meant a lot to the development of the world of music reproduction. You will not find any optical sound carriers. The CD has really had its best time, although fortunately good CD players are still being made for those who cherish their collection.
Digital-analogue converters – DACs – can actually be considered as transition devices. We could use them to improve the audio quality of the CD player by connecting its digital output to the DAC. Great. But in fact, a palliative.
Now we see the DACs more and more integrated in a preamplifier or combined with a streamer. Only in the high-end category we see loose DACs with – no doubt – superior properties. Think of products from Metrum Acoustics, dCS or Weiss. Of course, we have been using the Pavane for ages and are in love with the qualities of dCS and Weiss. No matter how old those last two are… it’s still good! But as mentioned earlier, we are seeing more and more combination products. Think headphone amplifiers with dac. Pre-lighters with dac – or fully digital versions – or of course streamers with built-in dac.
Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier
In 2016 we had this amplifier in the studio at a multitest of speakers. Benchmark has equipped this amplifier with so many global and local feedback loops that we didn’t notice that one driver of a floorstander didn’t function properly. Benchmark corrected the signal (on one side!) so that the differences between left and right were almost equal. As far as we are concerned, this Benchmark power amplifier is a gamechanger because of the advanced technology, the no nonsense design and the very favorable price/quality ratio.
Nelson Pass is and remains our king’s amplifier. We have played with the X2.5, XP-10 and now the XP-12. Each step is significant. We had expected that the step from the XP-10 to the XP-12 would not be too bad. No, it’s not. It’s just big. The step from the XP-12 to the XP-22 is again very easy to hear. No elves by moonlight at Pass Labs. Just super good stuff and steps that are easy to account for (provided you have the money). Top stuff.
Active speakers were reserved for the studio world until 2010. We’ve seen active speaker systems slowly gain ground this decade. In the high end segment a surprising number of Dutch companies: Kii, dutch&dutch and for us the non plus ultra: the Grimm LS1Be. It has become one of the more impressionistic reviews from the Alpha collection and that’s because the editor in question was simply overwhelmed by emotions when listening to this set. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? We can be proud that we have companies in the Netherlands that make these kinds of innovative products.
Then there’s a passive one. If we may choose, a number of brands emerge: KEF with the new R-series that scored particularly well, Bowers with the continuum unit – for the first time in the new 800 D3 series, DALI with the SMC material in the magnet. Q Acoustics also makes a statement with the Concept 300: for this amount of quality: that’s clever.
Whoever was the game changer in this segment… poo, hard. For us DALI because of the enormous step in speed and distortion that the Epicon series showed.
If there is a category on the rise in recent years and therefore in the coming years, it is personal audio; headphones, headphone amplifiers and portable music players. Were headphones of € 1,000 on one hand in 2010, now your hands are short. We also see new brands that are innovative and rapidly bring new products to market. It is no coincidence that many of these brands come from Asia, where personal audio has been a growth market for years. Hifiman, final, Shanling, Fiio, Edifier are brands that became big and established a name in this decade. Established brands such as Denon rushed to bring a worthy successor to the D7000 headphones on the market and succeeded excellently with the AH-D7200. We also see interesting brands coming from Central Europe where the Romanian Meze deserves a special mention.
Hifiman’s starter, the Sundara, is a planar (magnetostat) that is currently on display for € 350. In terms of sound reproduction, it could have cost twice as much. We think this is an important step because with this pricing there is an alternative to headphones that play much less music and instead are tuned to heavy bass and treble reproduction. With the Sundara, the customer has an option with a sound signature that is still special for this price.
Audio over the network
Now we can also quote the Illusonic IAP8 here. After all, we call it our Swiss army knife. This unit shows how audio algorithms determine how a device sounds, what its functions are. Our review of the 8-channel streamer / DAC / preamplifier / surround processor dates back to April 2016. after a number of software updates, the IAP not only sounded much better, there are now all kinds of features added. For us it is important that the IAP also allows us to perform acoustic measurements of speakers and headphones. Also a software update. We dare to say that we have a completely different and better IAP8 in 2019 than we did 3 years ago. And only because of new software. Christof Faller has made the hardware so future-proof that the IAP can easily keep up in the coming years.
But we also want to mention something new here. We tend to Linn, because he has made the high-end streaming market. Or Sonos, because it simply created the multiroom streaming market. That’s a game changer.
Still… we tend to something else. We’ve tested a lot of streamers. The model that got stuck is the Metrum Acoustics Ambre. But there are two reasons for that: the price – it’s just a very affordable thing – and the fact that he’s playing Roon. We hereby give the honour to Roon… Roon has opened up the possibility for us to control multiple brands from one app. Add to that a great overview of your library and you might understand that we are very happy with the arrival of this great software.
This is a peculiar one. Because it’s so new we can’t say much about it yet. Still, we think the Alpha fiber tweak is worth an appointment. This is because it’s made us realize there’s more to it than that. And that the differences in sound are not data related, but ‘noise’. By disconnecting you’ll lose that. In a way, cables do too. And the “audio switches” so also … how well they do it ultimately determines the sound.
However, we think it is still too early to say anything meaningful about it.
Recently we heard a nice equation; “see electricity as water. If we want to function properly, we need clean water.” Power is the basis of audio. Speakers are powered by amplifiers. Speaker cables are actually power lines. There is an entertaining movie where a Bentley is started by opening an amplifier.
Power is and remains the basis of your set. You can believe it or not… just give it a try. Grab a decent power cord. Use a filter (borrow one) and let your ears do the work. It is not for nothing that there are already countless users who use a Sbooster or an IFI power supply on their switch. It just works.
We use two of the three products mentioned above every day: the Sboosters and the Isotek Titan. The Thunder… we wish… ;-).
Vinyl’s back. No, actually, vinyl never left. We see that almost all brands are offering ‘phono’ again, especially in the entry-level segment. With the quality leap that audio systems have made, it is not easy to find the right match between turntable, element, phono preamplifier and possibly cabling. A specialist dealer can do a good job here, only there are fewer and fewer of them.
On the High End Munich we see the tape recorder coming back, only the prices are extremely high; € 10.000 for a tape deck that only can display we really find a lot of money. And then the compact cassette or the old tape. In 2019 we see a strong increase of bands that release their music on cassette. Tim Knol’s Lost and Found Tapes, for example. These not only appear on cassette but he also recorded the music on a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder.
Then the tweaks of the last ten years. Tricky! We’re not into tweaking. That’s why we don’t test a lot of tweaks. So let’s say a set should sound good without tweaks. And that you can adjust yourself with, for example, pucks. One tweak – if you can call it that – that we highly recommend are the Isoacoustics decouplers. Think of the Gaia. That works great with all the speakers we’ve tested. This, however, can again be explained in physics. So no voodoo… But yes, we are and remain Alpha. 🙂
What about you?
What are your products of the last ten years? What do you remember? We’d love to hear it!