–Nordost Valhalla 2 and ARCAM miniBlink–
Now that Summer is drawing to a close and we’re (hopefully!) starting to sell stuff again, thought I’d take a break from chronicling the challenges that face our industry. Instead, let’s discuss what the High End has always done well; namely, building fantastic, highly desirable products that have a positive influence upon our quality of life. There have been some incredible components introduced in the first half of 2014–the Leon OTO Powered Soundbar and PrimaLuna “HP” Amplifiers come to mind—but for me, the two most life-changing products of 2014 have been Nordost Valhalla 2 cables and the ARCAM miniBlink Bluetooth Streamer. Although these two items occupy opposite extremes of the price spectrum, both have contributed equally to my enjoyment of music.
Nordost V2: First of all, this is NOT a “Product Plug.” As many of you know, SSV no longer serves as Nordost’s Representative. The company has gone “Factory Direct” and so my comments here are as far from self-serving as could be. Fact is, however, these cables are so mind-blowingly good and have wrought such massive improvements to our Sim/Wisdom System that I’m compelled to share my findings with you. I’m still amazed at how often audio geeks—even hard-core ones—dismiss high performance cables as nothing more than “Tone Controls”. These simplistic statements might be true in the case of poorly engineered product, and there’s no doubt that many consumers use cables to “Band-Aid” the tonal balance of a problematic system, but I’ve always found that properly designed and engineered cables enhance a good system in many different ways. What if it were possible to prove that a given cable’s performance benefits had nothing to do with frequency and tonal balance?
Fortunately, an integral component of Wisdom Audio’s higher-level systems is a “Controller” which includes parametric equalization and Audyssey Pro digital room correction; as a result, it is possible to obtain in-room response curves, as we’ve regularly done with our Wisdom system. (Okay, Dylan has regularly done it…but I watched!!!) Last Tuesday, Dylan, Scott Campbell and I rewired the entire system—every analog and digital interconnect, every Power Cord and Speaker Cable—with Valhalla 2. When I tell you that EVERY aspect of audio performance improved, I’m not exaggerating: bass was simultaneously quicker and richer, trebles were silky yet ethereal, high- and low-level dynamics were more impactful, the noise floor pretty much vanished and sounds emerged from the deepest black background I’ve heard from this system, which also means that fine detail became much, much better resolved. Most impressively, however, the entire frequency spectrum—which, in this system, ranges from about 16Hz to 40kHz—was smoother, more cohesive and more apparently “Cut from the same sonic cloth.” No mean feat for a tri-amplified system! Incredibly, all of these improvements occurred without any change in frequency response whatsoever. Once and for all, we can disprove the assertion that cables are merely tone controls. Our system—always impressive in so many respects—has become so much more listenable and inviting that it has rekindled my 40-year love affair with HiFi.
Two days later, a renowned NY dealer visited for a demo and, after hearing the system, wound up acquiring one of our product lines. In the days since, I’ve found myself spending less time parked in front of the television and more time spinning CDs and Vinyl. No higher praise. Sure, at $7,599.99 MSRP per meter pair, V2 ain’t cheap. In the context of a “Major Statement” system, however, it might just be essential!
ARCAM miniBlink or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Computer Audio. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m pretty much clueless when it comes to computers. Which is part of the reason why ARCAM’s miniBlink is more than just a product: it is virtually a “Disruptive Technology,” a new and better means of connecting listeners to their music.
CSR, the company which developed the aptX audio codec for Bluetooth, is headquartered near ARCAM in the Cambridge suburbs, and the two companies’ engineers had discussed the possibility of a cooperating on a special product using CSR codecs and ARCAM’s knack for making things sound great. The result, many months later, was the rBlink, a compact aluminum ingot that streamed Bluetooth at a higher level of fidelity than was previously possible. ARCAM’s adaptation of Bluetooth technology boasts, in the miniBlink, 106dB Signal-to-Noise Ratio, 40dB Greater Signal-to-Noise Ratio than other companies achieve, hence the higher-end sound quality.
At $249 MSRP, the rBlink is a one of High End’s great modern products. At $149, the miniBlink is even better. True, you lose the antenna, and therefore a bit of reception range, and the absence of a digital output means you’re stuck with the excellent Burr-Brown 24-bit DAC that’s standard with ARCAM’s rSeries products; on the other hand, not only do you save 40% but the miniBlink is easier to use and has a form factor worthy of the MOMA’s Permanent Design Collection.
A black plastic egg measuring less than 2” at its largest dimension, the miniBlink slips easily into a pocket, a soft-touch button its only control. Pressing this button provides instant pairing with any Bluetooth-enabled device. miniBlink also happens to be one of the most durable High End components ever made, as we discovered when PAC’s Ralph Tarnofsky tossed it to an unsuspecting Dylan: the miniBlink skipped across Ralph’s conference table like a stone across a pond, then landed on the floor. It worked perfectly. (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the miniBlink is that, in the two months since I installed one in my office, I haven’t played a single CD in that system and I don’t miss them.
Historically, periods of economic hardship inspire better products at lower prices: a sort of “Economic Darwinism.” As we finally start to come out of The Great Recession, we’re left with a host of superb new products—including the two discussed here—that prove the thesis.
Happy Labor Day from Specialty Sound & Vision!!!