|It's popular to belabor how much of the commercial audio production/recording chain hasn't had the benefit of their own audiophile publications like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. The implied consequences being that this field continues to operate somewhat antithetical to audiophile expectations for superior software - the recording hardware is suspected of being less than state-of-the-art at least by audiophile standards. Or, in the words of Australian raconteur Kostas Metaxas, "... I'm treating the recording chain in the same way as the playback chain, i.e. trying to wring the last ounces of detail, soundstage, emotion out of it. The comparison with other recordings done at the same concerts is a real eye-opener. I've also been researching comparisons with well-known "audiophile" labels and I've got to tell you that after working on this side of the fence for the past 2 years, the recording industry is light-years behind the playback industry that we know as Hi-End. We moved on in the '70s with Stereophile, TAS etc. but there was no equivalent in the recording side of things."
If you've listened to any of Kostas' recordings, you'll have to agree that he knows what he's talking about. In fact, both Vincenzo Fratello of Italy's S.A.P and Ken Kessler of Hi-Fi News [March 2004 issue] feel that he has single-handedly resurrected the sound of the Mercury Living Presence recordings. That said, in certain regards, the recording industry is far ahead of the High-End playback industry. Self-amplified, actively driven speakers are one obvious genre. Each time someone in the HighEnd authors a fully active speaker, our kind fails to embrace them even though the sonic and measurable evidence for apples-to-apples superiority over the passive approach is astounding. While perhaps not perfected to audiophile extremes, on a level playing field the active solutions offer far superior performance than their passive 'stereophile' brethren.
One other breakthrough has occurred rather quietly on the sidelines - the DEQX approach to phase-correct DSP-based crossovers with up to 300dB/octave slopes. These digital networks sport embedded room-correction and preamp functionality and are available as pre-corrected OEM modules for speaker manufacturers. Jeff Rowland used DEQX at CES 2005 as did Magico. Ditto for NHT and Overkill Audio. Audio visionary Mark Schifter of Perpetual Technologies had long since foreseen that pre-corrected DSP modules could revolutionize the loudspeaker market. Alas, the advanced code-writing skills necessary to pull it off have thus far eluded Perpetual. Enter the programmers from Down Under at DEQX. I've now heard from numerous highly placed sources in the audio engineering world that their DSP board must be considered the current state-of-the-art bar none.
The question is, how long will it take the industry at large to investigate this Australian solution? Loudspeaker design so far has revolved around passive crossover engineering. It's the continental divide that separates the good from the bad. Similarly to digital where everyone relies on the same 4 or 5 firms from whence to source their transports and digital chips, loudspeaker design -- unless you're one of the truly large houses like API, Cabasse, JMlab and Triangle -- relies on a handful of mostly Scandinavian firms for its drivers. With the passive network the key variable when drivers and rectangular boxes make up most of the overlap between competing loudspeaker manufacturers, perhaps less attention has been lavished on driver integration and cabinet artistry than might be possible now that the frequency, time and phase domains can be addressed far more accurately and elegantly in the DSP-controlled digital dimension.
One fundamental handicap of the active/digital approach was the continued existence of analogue sources like cassette tape, tuners and turntables. The advent of digital radio and the disappearance of analogue cassettes as mass-market software carriers merely leaves vinyl as the one format that would have to be digitized before a digital crossover can accept it. But even there is hope. Certain vinylphiles like Jerry Ramsey of Audio Magic have gone on record saying that converting analog recordings into the digital domain for playback could in fact exceed the performance over analog-domain playback, i.e. copying vinyl records to CD or DVD before consumption might be preferable over spinning the actual slab of vinyl.
Looking at the bigger picture beyond the resurgence of vinyl in our small enclave called HighEnd, the time seems ripe for loudspeaker design at large to transition to digital. Meridian has been the pioneer of taking this concept all the way. Their DSP speakers accept a digital input because they're self-powered. This still might be too radical a notion to be embraced by the general audiophile who prefers his own choices of external amplification. Hence, the approach favored by Overkill Audio could be the intermediate blueprint. A digital signal from a transport enters the DEQX where it undergoes user-adjustable room correction and factory-set digital crossover programming and pre-correction. After exiting the DEQX, the user still has open choice over the following multi-channel DAC and amplifiers. He or she can thus still apply a good measure of personal creativity in how to voice the final results by selecting electronics from various makers to pay homage to the audiophile mix'n'match commandment.
The great opportunity which currently presents itself to the loudspeaker market is "infinite slope" digital crossovers and phase, time and frequency correction. Digital access to these variables offsets the grave nonlinearities that result from having to use mechanical devices (loudspeaker transducers) that interact with the real world of living rooms filled with furniture, asymmetries and a vast array of acoustical influences that are counter-productive to good results. DEQX, TacT and Meridian are some of the companies working in this field. Based on my recent experience with Derek Wilson's Overkill Audio system, I dare say that the advantages inherent in the DEQX solution mandate a close investigation by any loudspeaker engineer who is truly serious about perfecting the art.
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