The arrival of the year 2001, to no one's surprise, failed to bring the whizzy technology of the film 200l: A Space Odyssey. We have no HAL the computer to do our bidding; our space station is like a subcompact rental car beside the orbiting limousine Stanley Kubrick depicted. But in the famous proverb of Arthur C. Clarke, the creator of 2001, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And with the new generation of audio equipment, we can enjoy the magic of superb sound from amazingly small, elegant packages, easy to use and gracefully designed. Words like stereo or radio don't adequately describe these devices.
When 2001 was released, top-notch sound systems were still stacks of separate amplifiers, receivers, and other components nearly as tall as the film's famed monolith. Hi-fi was as complex as computers, and people liked it that way. Until quite recently, the more buttons the merrier the musical ride, the theory ran. Now the philosophy has changed—cries for technological simplicity are everywhere. We are boggled by buttons, overloaded with interfaces. In many ways the new equipment uses high-tech to achieve the reassuringly pared-down look of the classic table radio.
Many erstwhile hi-fi buffs can't believe the musical quality of the latest mini sound systems. Microchips are part of the reason, of course, but so are advances in speakers that make them smaller and more powerful. By feeding the sound through digital signal processing chips that "stereo-image" it, for instance, the speakers give the illusion of being placed farther apart. Then, too, the speakers have their own dedicated amps, making the small units seem larger.
The new equipment has another advantage that is not technological: sleek good looks. With glass and brushed-metal surfaces that radiate a kind of serenity, they are discreet enough to not take over, abstract and neutral enough to blend with Louis Philippe or Phillipe Starck. With its curved front and angled sides, the Bose Wave Radio sits like a small community theater on your credenza. Bang & Olufsen's Beosound Ouverture and the Nakamichi SoundSpace 5 stand watch like attentive radar facilities. Like the new minimalist architecture of John Pawson or Peter Marino, they convey a calming restfulness.
Significantly, both Bose and Bang & Olufsen have begun to open retail outlets where their equipment is shown in a simulated living space, complete with rugs and furniture. "People want equipment for the way they live," says B&O's Raul Cruz. No longer concerned about defeating the gremlins of wow and flutter and harmonic distortion, we are free to focus attention on ease of control and elegance. The style of these devices represents a return to the simplicity of midcentury modern furniture and architecture and the famed virtues of luxe, calme et volupté of French modernist art. The new equipment brings an almost spiritual quality to tech: No wonder B&O claims a Japanese monk as one of its customers.
Which of these units is best for you? When making your selection, take along a favorite CD for comparison. May we suggest the soundtrack to 2001? There is no better demonstration of dynamic range than the soaring deep-space strains of "Thus Spake Zarathustra."
Bang & Olufsen
BeoSound Ouverture ($2,300)
BeoSound 1 ($1,500)
Bang & Olufsen has led the way in modern design for audio equipment since the early sixties; examples of the company's products are in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. Its stereos not only have thinness, clarity, and brightness, but they provide windows into the secret motions and operations of things. Full of glowing light, they offer the receptiveness of a high-tech servant to the merest gesture of your hand.
At Bang &Olufsen, a joke for many years held that the ideal product would be the "château box"—a stereo as convenient as a boom box but with a little more, well, class. Such a product is close to what B & O has produced in its BeoSound Ouverture and BeoSound 1 systems, with their CD and tape players, tuners and compact speakers. Their panels magically open and their CD players appear to ride on air or magnetism from one disc to another. The BeoSound 1 seems to subliminally fill the room with music. It comes with a remote and 60 pretuned radio settings. The BeoSound Ouverture adds a tape player to the mix, along with remote and 30 preset stations. For further information: 866-367-2264; www.bang-olufsen.com.
SoundSpace 5 ($800)
A respected Japanese electronics name, Nakamichi has long been known for its high-end components. Now, however, it has reinvented itself to emphasize style as much as performance as its calling card. The company's SoundSpace series, for instance, falls somewhere between minimal art and Zen culture. Its brushed-metal frames provide a quiet presence: a backdrop for the richness and fullness of the sound it generates. The three-CD-changer SoundSpace 5 takes the shape of a series of picture frames, but what it actually frames is sharply depicted sound, rich in color and deep in bass shadows. Also like a picture frame, the SoundSpace units (a main one and two speakers) can be hung on a wall or tilted on a tabletop. Placed away from the wall, the Soundspace provides a more three-dimensional sound. Each speaker is individually amplified, and the radio tuner comes with 30 presets. Two remote controls are provided. For further information: 310-631-2122; www.nakamichiusa.com.
Wave Radio with CD ($500)
The Bose Wave Radio with CD just may be the ultimate simple tabletop listening device. The creation of legendary Amar Bose, it is the culmination of decades of innovation in speakers. The acoustic trick involved in the Bose system is the same one employed by the chambered nautilus seashell or the French horn: The acoustic wave-guide herds the low notes through 27 inches of resonating chamber rolled around itself into a kind of mouse maze inside the unit, magnifying the bass. The power of this bass is what lends the Bose an almost weird effect—listeners often seek in vain for the source of sound. It's like a ventriloquist's trick. For further information: 800-444-2673; www.bose.com.
Model 88 CD Table Radio by Henry Kloss ($350)
One of Amar Bose's longtime, crosstown rivals in the stereophonic world around Boston, ca. 1960, was legendary sound maven Henry Kloss, whose name was attached to speakers venerated by generations of audiophiles. Kloss' company introduced the first high-fidelity FM table radio, the KLH Model 8, four decades ago. Matching Bose year by year in improvements, Kloss now challenges him with his latest triumph, the Cambridge Soundworks Model 88 Table Radio with CD. In sheer fullness and warmth of sound, it gives the Bose Wave Radio a run for its money.
Both the Bose Wave Radio and Kloss' Cambridge Soundworks Model 88 turn on the principle that the ear perceives the bass (as opposed to the treble) as nondirectional. The bass is separated and treated on its own, with a subwoofer, leaving the treble to convey the sharper and more directional image of the sound.
This could be Arthur Clarke's "magic," but more it is proof that we don't want technology to be as baffling as someone else's sleight of hand, we want to it retain the wonder and power of our own magic. For further information: 800-367-4434; www.cambridgesoundworks.com.