Some would say it never went away, but here in our specialist hi fi shop in Fortitude Valley we've noticed an unmistakable trend in the last couple of years. 'Real' hi fi - by which we mean dedicated 2-channel systems (often with turntables as the centrepiece) is back with a vengeance.
And the reason why (well our theory anyway!) is that we've fallen in love with music all over again.
The iPod Changed Everything
When the little white music player appeared, it started something big. Within a few years, virtually everyone had access to virtually any music, anywhere. Now you can't walk down the street or catch a bus without seeing every second person with earphones or headphones. Music became part of our everyday lives in a way it never had before - even the original Walkman craze in the early '80s didn't come close.
But that's not 'real hi fi', is it?
What happened next...
...was that some of the people that really cared about sound quality (and there's an awful lot of us!) started looking for ways to play this newly accessible music in better quality. For the others it meant returning to old-school technology and embracing vinyl again or using valve amps or similar vintage tech to warm up the sound. Of course, there were also the audiophile 'die-hards' who refused to go digital at all, and re-doubled their commitment to analogue audio!
Our customers fall into all three categories - and as a result we're seeing huge increases in the sales of turntables, DACs and 2-channel audio in general.
So let's look at these areas in detail, and profile some of the best gear available today to maximise your enjoyment of your music through 'real hi-fi'!
Getting the most out of digital audio
The first complaint about MP3's and other digital formats from hi-fi purists has always been that they throw the baby out with the bathwater - the compression removes much of the subtle detail and often introduces distortions of its own.
Of course, higher quality formats like FLAC and AAC-Lossless are a huge improvement, but for the masses that want to download a wide range of audio from iTunes and the like, these are not always an option.
The second problem is that the devices we use - iPhones, music streaming devices etc - usually have low quality processing and output stages, and so are the weakest link in any quality system.
Enter The DAC
Digital-To-Analogue converters have become one of our biggest-selling products in recent times. It's staggering how much a good DAC can improve the sound of digital sources. Put simply, a DAC takes the digital stream from a source device (be it an iPod, music streamer or CD player) and does the hard work of converting it to analogue and outputting the signal to the amplifier using high-end processing in place of the cheap processing used in most devices. Some DACs also act as digital pre-amplifiers, allowing multiple digital devices to be connected and controlled.
Here are some of our favourite DACs - any one of these is capable of taking your digital music to a new level.
NAD M51 - $1,499
The NAD M51 is one of those products that just stands out as an absolute bargain for what it is and what it can do. The fact that it is cheaper here than in the USA is the icing on the cake!
It's a DAC and Digital Pre-amplifier (with 7 inputs) with some clever processing called Direct Digital that sets it apart. NAD’s Direct Digital approach is unique, operating at extremely high speed and with great precision. The M51 runs at 108MHz, converting the PCM signal to a PWM signal with a sampling rate of 844kHz. The 35-bit architecture ensures massive headroom and freedom from noise and distortion.
The M51 is most awarded of the current crop of DACs, picking up many prestigious awards including Best DAC from What Hi-Fi, CEDIA 2012 Winner, 5 stars from Hi-Fi World and many more.
Find out more about the NAD M51 here >>
Bryston BDA-1 - $3,299
The BDA-1 DAC from Canada's Bryston matches that company's excellence in analogue engineering in the digital realm. With separate transformers for the digital and analogue sections and individually regulated power stages for every distinct processing block it has left no stone unturned in the pursuit of pure audio. It also uses Bryston's own class-A output stages to send a pristine analogue signal to the amplifier of choice.
More info on the BDA-1 is available here>>
Rega DAC - $999
Rega's diminutive DAC is another great bargain - at just $999 it packs much of the digital derring-do of Rega's high end CD players into a compact box that can handle four separate digital devices.
Using Wolfson digital-to-analogue conversion, high-end analogue components and a toroidal transformer with separate power stages for each main circuit block has resulted in a highly musical performance that has won the Rega DAC many awards since its release in 2012. It's our favourite 'budget' DAC. Find out more here>>
Bring back the vinyl
While CD sales are falling globally, LP sales are on the rise again, along with sales of turntables. In fact, last year's sales were a 'digital era' record, with 4.6 million LPs sold according to Neilsen Soundscan:
We're now selling more turntables than we've done since the early '80s, and they are predominantly quality machines like Rega, Thorens and Pro-Ject. What's great to see is it's a mix of y0ung and old customers (and everything in between), which is not really surprising given that a lot of the growth in LP sales has been in indie artists getting behind the format.
What's also clear is that a lot of the new converts to LPs are those who also consume a huge amount of compressed digital music (often on portable devices) but want something seen as purer and 'more real' And what could be more real than a spinning vinyl disc?
Our pick of turntables
Of all the brands we sell and have played with over the years, there are two turntables that really stand out as top performers and excellent value for money. Both are from the venerable UK manufacturer Rega (who pride themselves on holding out against the CD format longer than any other manufacturer).
Rega RP1 - $599
We think Rega's RP1
is the best value-for-money turntable available today, offering excellent performance by ensuring the important features (like a low vibration motor, precision main bearing, phenolic resin platter and a hand-assembled tone-arm) are top quality and leaving out anything non essential (like automatic speed change). It won What Hi Fi mag's award for Best Turntable under 300 pounds on release, and continues to pick up gongs in its price range.
Rega RP6 - $1,799
The Rega RP6
is probably our biggest selling turntable, remarkable considering it retails for $1,799. But it's that good. It is designed around Rega's philosophy that "Mass absorbs energy - lost energy equals lost music". Using a light-weight but very rigid plinth (as pioneered in the legendary Planar turntable), the RP6 prevents unwanted resonances and vibrations from colouring the sound.
The RP6 has an external power supply (pictured below) to provide a pure 24V to the motor, which itself is hand-tuned to its circuit to reduce vibration. The hand-assembled RB-303 tonearm completes the package.
Choosing speakers is perhaps the hardest part of putting together a great hi fi system as the range of choices is enormous and getting an ideal match between components is another layer of complexity. That's where your friendly specialist hi fi store can help :-)
We have bookshelf / stand-mount speakers ranging from $499 through to $7,399 and floor standing speakers from $999 through to $40,000 / pair. With one of the best listening facilities in Brisbane, our showroom is the perfect place to let your ears choose your next pair of speakers.
We won't go into a huge speaker comparison here (we suggest you come in and let your ears do that!), but here are two current favourites in our showroom:
Dynaudio Focus 260 - $5,499
The Focus 260
is a highly capable floorstander with excellent imaging, neutral tonality and an engaging musicality - one of our top sellers.
Sonus Faber Auditor M - $5,999
Hailing from the home of Stradivarius, Cremona Italy, Sonus Faber put as much into their design and build quality as they do their technology. The Auditor Ms
are a sheer delight to the ear as well as the eye.
There's nearly as much choice when it comes to amplifiers as there is with speakers. Again, we suggest you spend some time listening in a dedicated environment, where you can pair this amp with those speakers and really get to know how they sound together. Below are two products that consistently amaze us - come in for a listen or to check out our large range of dedicated 2-channel amplifiers.
NAD M3 - $4,499 (we also have one demo unit at a better price: please call)
NAD's M3 dual-mono integrated amplifier
is part of their all-conquering Masters Series, a no-compromise range that has put NAD firmly on the high-end map. The M3 is a powerhouse with 180w x 2 of muscle yet capable of great precision and detail.
Electrocompaniet ECI-5 MkII - $5,999
This Norwegian brand is a relative newcomer to our store but wow have we been impressed! The ECI-5 MKII
is a stand-out performer, a fully-balanced integrated amplifer that sounds every bit as good as it looks.
The Wrap Up
This has been a very top-level look at some of the gear we're seeing walk out the door in what we see as a real revival in real hi-fi. Of course we have a lot more in our showroom - from entry level products that will get you going whatever your budget, to esoteric products for serious audio addicts with serious budgets. The products featured here are what we think give the best bang for the buck and hit that sweet spot of high-end performance and realistic price.
Got a question, need a solution or just want to chat further? Give us a call on 07 3552 7000 or pop in for a coffee. We'd love to talk real hi fi with you!
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