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"I'm so bored!"
That's how one publisher of an internet audio magazine recently prefaced his RMAF 2010 show report. While one could question the relevance of a show report being overshadowed by this sentiment, there was something relevant to it. Anyone in this hobby for any period of time will likely agree. We're suffering a lack of fresh blood. Our industry at large is doing little to remain relevant to outsiders. Modern streaming sources for example allow sophisticated DSP corrections for room acoustics, driver matching and other nonlinearities right on the digital files. This renders analog preamps unnecessary. Newer class D amplification chips with digital inputs allow further compaction and minimization of the number and size of boxes that used to be required for a hifi. They also promote the inclusion of active digital crossovers. Spinning shiny silver discs or black licorice equivalents, fretting over output tube bias and adoring big heavy hifi trophies and python cables must indeed seem alien and antiquated to the current younger wifi generations. If the audio press continues to cover that type of product but fails to include competing modern equivalents, reviewers too sign their names on the death warrant for high-end audio. This threat isn't something that's mysteriously in the air like some invading extraterrestrial plague. It's something all of us actively perpetuate by our communal actions each day.

This reared its head again when I recently received a review solicitation for their new $22.000 Passeri player from new Singaporean company Loit. This is a 6 x 6H30 triode CD-Pro2 motorized top-loading deck with two tubes as balanced trans-impedance converter without negative feedback, one valve plus Mosfet as high-voltage regulator for the I/V stage and the remainder for the output stage. The 16kg unit is coupled to three ceramic ball bearings for resonance control and the hybrid chassis is built up of Carbon fiber.

So-called Alpha Gel silicon bushings isolate the transport section and specs include a 2/4Vrms output over RCA/XLR, 105dB channel separation, a >100dB A-weighted S/N ratio and 170 watts of power consumption. Digital outputs are via S/PDIF and AES/EBU. The industrial design is by the Russian Art Lebedev studio.

As it turns out, this shiny über deck lacks any kind of digital input though. Very strangely there is no bridge between digital legacy software and streaming audio. I explained to company owner Kam Lup Yoong my sentiment that agreeing to cover his product as is, I'd actively promote the growing irrelevance of our sector to consumers at large. In good conscience I couldn't.

"I fully agree that the trend is towards the media player, USB DACs etc. I saw lots of USB-enabled products over the past few years but only a few with asynchronous USB to know that results weren't optimized. I think the market now sells features instead of returning to our roots of superior sound. As an audiophile manufacturer, we wanted to design something really unique, excellent and not just good whose value would last for many years after the customer's initial investment. That's the main reason we didn’t include a USB input when we developed the product. We focused more on getting the sound right. It took us five years of full-time effort to develop our Passeri and its patented active I/V technology breakthrough which shortens the audio signal path to one single stage unlike others which use either passive or opamp IV and mostly need 2 to 3 stages (I/V stage, filter and buffer). But streaming technology is maturing and easier to adapt. We will study the possibility of developing a media player or USB DAC."

Given the cited 5-year development cycle, I could easily appreciate how very fast-moving PC audio developments had simply overtaken this project. Alas, my point of contention wasn't lack of USB or Firewire. It was the lack of any digital input. Why no basic 75-ohm BNC for example? I find it incomprehensible how in the eve of 2010 one could conceptualize and introduce a $22.000 luxury-level Redbook player and not future-proof such a most serious investment. Accepting to review it would, in my mind at least, condone this decision. Or given my views, it would quite inevitably sidetrack a review into an editorial exposé on the above. It's simply not appropriate to accept an assignment with prior intentions to mount a fundamental attack against it (the same goes for price - don't accept a pricey loaner then bitch about its sticker). I had very recently turned down Human Audio from Hungary with their very tasty battery-powered €6.990 Libretto deck [below] for the very same reason - lack of any digital input. For €4.500, Ivo Linnenberg's cdp3E had BNC i/o ports. That I gladly accepted.

As any hot-blooded enthusiast would, I said no to the Human Audio and Loit machines with only the greatest regret. I'm as curious as the next audiophile about potentially promising new products. As a publisher, I'm additionally in the news business and don't mind admitting that being occasionally first can be quite satisfying. The Passeri included not only a unique active solution for I/V conversion, it also incorporated a composite chassis as another barely developed aspect of performance hifi where the same circuit in enclosures other than the ubiquitous folded or bolted metal box can sound significantly better. There was much chewy substance here that any publisher or reviewer would love to sink his or her teeth in. And yet. How can the chorus line of aging audio commentators around the globe decry the widespread lack of interest in performance hifi when we support products which do nothing to build the necessary bridges with new audiences?

Arguments that features don't matter are shallow. If certain features are potentially sound-degrading, shouldn't we expect that superior high-end engineers improve them? What else are we paying them the extra money for? The simple fact is, real engineering often happens more in the corporate than boutique firms. That's why the Passeri's implementation of a patented new circuit invention from a small new firm was so interesting and newsworthy. How could they overlook something as basic as making their snazzy converter stage accessible to outside signals?

I don't have this or many other answers. I do however believe that on my side of the fence—publishing and reviewing—the mere selection process of what to review and thereby grant visibility and exposure to requires vigilance and focus. It's not about grabbing each shiny new toy for a world-exclusive first review. As much as that could be personally gratifying, it doesn't necessarily serve the bigger picture. And lack of serving the latter seems at the heart of the generally sorry state of affairs in our sector...