by John Sciacca
Quick: Name a luxury automobile. Maybe you thought of Bentley, or Rolls Royce, or something sportier like Aston Martin or Ferrari. Now, name a high-end watch. You probably thought of Rolex or maybe Breitling or Patek Philippe or Cartier. How about a luxury kitchen appliance? There’s Viking, Sub-Zero, Thermador or Wolf… Maybe even a high-end wine or liquor. You’ve got Dom P, the Santana DVX, Cristal, Johnny Blue…
Now, clear your mind, relax your conscience and just say the first thing that comes into your mind… Ready…? OK.
Name me some high-end audio/video gear.
Unless you are in this industry, chances are HIGH that you thought of Sony and Bose. Because – despite what your mom told you – you are not special and different and unique, but are rather very much like the vast majority of the population and you have been mind freaked by their big dollar ad spending. And while I have absolutely nothing against either of these companies, no one “in the know” would consider either of them to be high-end. (OK. That might not be so true about Sony on the video front. Their new 4K projector is the shizzit and the Crystal TV they showed got my coveted “Best of Show – Video” award at CES.)
For all its bluster and billions spent, the consumer electronics industry has really done a poor job of promoting itself, especially on the high-end. And while people will routinely purchase luxury items like $100 bottles of wine and First Class airline upgrades, they have a harder time understanding the benefits of the AV luxury lifestyle.
In fact, most companies that are really considered to be performance leaders are totally unknown to the vast majority of people, even those that are looking to buy and actually capable of purchasing them. When introduced to a brand that has the equivalent pedigree of a Bentley, Rolex or Viking, most people shrug their shoulders and say, “Huh? Never heard of ‘em. Do they sound as good as the Bose over there?” (And, for the record, no, they don’t sound anything at all like the Bose over there. The Bose is like listening to someone making music by grinding a bunch of rough chunks of concrete against a steel pot compared to what these systems sound like.)
So, I thought I would introduce you to some high-end manufacturers, and explain who they are…and who they are not.
In the electronics world, Wilson is not the volleyball from Castaway, rather the manufacturer of some truly stellar loudspeakers. Some of them kind of look like futuristic, angular, metallic samurai warriors (is it just me?) but it has to do with phasing and driver alignment and super stiff cabinet materials and driver exotica and whatnot.
Now people *know* who Onkyo is and what they do. What they don’t have a frickin’ clue of is how to pronounce the name of what is likely the most mis-pronounced name in the history of the audio/video universe. Seriously, ask 10 people how to say “Onkyo” and you’ll get at least 11 different answers. For the record, it is on-key-yo.
There is a Meridian in Santa Barbara, CA that makes affordable – yet drinkable – wines. However, the AV Meridian is from the UK and is an industry leader in digital audio processing some would consider bordering on magic. Black magic. Cause, you know, their boxes are mostly black. They also make some amazing loudspeakers (here’s a sexy unboxing post) and are featured in a ton of movies. (Ever wonder how they got in the movies? Here’s a terrific interview I did with the guy in charge of product placement!)
Macintosh is, err, or *was*, an Apple computer. McIntosh has been making highly desirable audio gear that engenders fanatical-like loyalty since 1949. They have some very cool, old-school faceplates with moving VU meters and nice big analog dials.
BO is generally considered offensive and undesirable, except in tight-quartered European and Asian train cars where it is considered a sign of, uh, heightened manliness or, umm, perhaps some kind of close-quarters defense mechanism ladies use to avoid undue attention or something. B&O (Bang & Olufsen) is a Danish company known for world-class industrial design. They are also one of the leaders in milling aluminum (al-you-min-ee-yum if you prefer) and might let you borrow an Aston Martin DBS equipped with their speakers if you’re really, extra-special nice.
A kaleidoscope is a child’s toy producing a complex pattern of constantly changing colors and shapes; a Kaleidescape is a super cool media server system capable of storing literally thousands of movies on mass-Terabytes of disk storage and then streaming them to multiple movie players around your home using an industry leading interface to browse and manage your collection. A Kaleidescape Child’s Remote is really the best of both worlds, combining a kid’s toy (a colorful remote that is coated in plastic and designed to be highly drop resistant) along with an incredibly easy-to-use-interface to let kids watch that Pixar movie for the millionth time without you wanting to have a vodka-valium smoothie.
Ronco is the late-night huckster trying to sell you things like the Chop-o-Matic, Ginsu knives that can “cut through a nail, tin can, radiator hose, and still cut a tomato paper thin” and the ever necessary, pocket fisherman. Runco makes some of the world’s finest video projectors. They also make THE best 3D home projector I’ve ever seen. And, pretty much, ALL Ronco products should be kept away from Runco ones.
Crestron and Lutron are not characters in the recent Disney Tron 2.0 reboot. (Though Cres and Lu would have been epic. I picture them as once useful programs that have now been outmoded. They found each other and became lovers, forced to live underground and battling against the Master Control while trying to regain their status. Cres is master of the disc, while Lu, young and beautiful, rides a wicked fast light cycle.) They are actually leaders in home automation and lighting control, respectively.
Control4 is not a part of the Fantastic Four. Though you *may* feel like a superhero when you use your Control4 system to control your lights, HVAC, security, door locks and audio/video system. Special costume totally optional. (But, let’s be honest, encouraged.)
B&W is not BMW. B&W is Bowers and Wilkins, the British speaker manufacturer, whose speakers are used in places like Skywalker Ranch and Abbey Road. BMW is Bavarian Motor Works, the car company. They have NO relationship to one another. In fact, B&W doesn’t even supply speakers for BMW.
Theta is the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet and the name of that Fraternity/Sorority you rushed in college. It is also the manufacturer of some terrific audio processors and amplifiers. Keg stands, paddling and beer bongs welcome at either.
SIM2 is not a sequel to the popular “The Sims” video game, but an Italian projector manufacturer, with slick case design. The Sims 3, however, IS a video game sequel.
Oppo, Sonos, Sooloos and ADA are not merely examples of corporate palindromes. (My favorite being “Elite Tile” a company near Walnut Creek, CA.) Oppo makes a highly regarded Blu-ray player, Sonos a terrific wireless audio distribution system, Sooloos one of the finest music servers you are likely to encounter and ADA (Audio Design Associates) has been pioneering high-end audio and distribution systems for over 30 years.
Classé might sound like a term from the Urban Dictionary or the way that Shenaynay would describe something extra-special-nice, but it is actually Canada’s leading maker of high-performance music and theater components.
Pass Labs might sound like a grade you took in your college science class (far better than “Fail labs") but they are actually a super-high-end audio manufacturer that makes some truly herculean power amplifiers. We’re talking 300 pound stacks for a *single* channel. (ie: You’ll need two stacks to get stereo.) Here’s a pic of a stereo pair.
Krull is a B-rate movie that came out in 1983 that *should* have been way more awesome because of one, single ingredient: The Glave. The Glave was a throwing-star looking thing that kind of flew like a guided missile through the air, cleaving its victims in twain. The movie should have been like 89 minutes of Glave-ing and like 5 minutes of dialog and travel where they (quickly) set up the next Glave battle. Sadly, Krull poorly underused the awesome potential which was The Glave. Krell, on the other hand, was founded in 1980, and have lived up to its potential as a manufacturer of some of the gnarliest amplifiers and speakers and components, along with one of the most audiophile of iPod docks out there.
Let’s travel back to 1972, shall we? It was a kinder, gentler, social-er, less Internet-ey time. A time when you took someone's name for face value and didn't try to twist into something funny. A man could be named Dick and hold his head high. And you could found a company called, say, New Acoustic Dimension and then decide to shorten the name. To something simple. Something catchy. Like, say, NAD. Sure, if you founded a company in 2012, you *might* not name it after one of the most commonly used euphemisms for a dude’s balls, but in ’72, NAD just seemed like a safe bet. And, for the record, it is considered more PC to ask for this company by it’s initials, as in, “Excuse me, audio selling gentleman. Do you carry N, A, D?” as opposed to, “Hey, man, show me your NAD!”
Schitt is pronounced, umm, pretty much exactly like you’d expect. This company also seems to have a really great sense of humor and really know their Schitt. They make headphone amplifiers and Schitt. Basically a Schitt-load of stuff that is Schitt-hot and that doesn’t sound Schitty. So, if you’re looking for a cool tube amp for your headphone listening or some other audio Schitt, and want to buy from a company that gives a Schitt, then give these Schitts a call.
Did I miss anyone? Any high-end names that should be explained? Feel free to add your $.02 in the comments section below.