I am, clearly, fond of hi-fi — I’ve been hanging out on hi-fi mags since 1989, back when TVs were deeper than they were wide, we were still peering distrustingly at these new-fangled CDs, and we wouldn’t have known an MP3 if it had slid from under its developmental rocks and bitten us on our collective posteriors. So I’ve been reviewing hi-fi (on and just occasionally off) for 27 years. ‘Is it the best job in the world?’ ask my hi-fi-loving friends. Well, I’m not complaining, obviously.
But it wasn’t a love of hi-fi that brought me into hi-fi magazines in the first place. Rather it was a meeting point for two big themes of my life — music, in which I had been involved actively and passively pretty much since birth, since I was lucky enough to have a BBC music producer for a father, and electronics, which I had studied, also actively and perhaps sometimes a little too passively, at college. My first real jobs, bar teenage shelf-stacking at Kwik Save supermarkets and a big London bookshop, were playing with a band by night and fumbling through the deputy editorship of an electronics project magazine, ETI, by day. Later I shifted onto a UK midrange hi-fi magazine, where my combination of electronics knowledge and musical ear proved fairly useful.
Quite early in that job, I was ‘promoted’, not entirely willingly, to be Editor of a high-end audiophile magazine, whose experienced external contributors were almost unanimously horrified at finding themselves led by this youngster who couldn’t unerringly identify a KT88 at a hundred paces. We succeeded in making some fine magazines using their knowledge and my editing, but after a year or so of that I developed a travel bug, ended up finding a Canadian missus, and turned up here on your Australian golden soil to which I have now pledged eternal allegiance.
All these years later, I still remain somewhat allergic to the high-end. Don’t get me wrong — I love listening to it, but I don’t review it much. Partly because it’s all rather heavy and I live up 77 wooden steps (a handy excuse sometimes), but partly because I actually prefer reviewing midrange hi-fi, and even the entry level. It does mean spending time with some unlistenably bad products on occasion, but it also gives the opportunity to discover something which is a real surprise — attractively priced but performing far better than expected. Reviewing products costing tens of thousands of dollars, on the other hand — well you’d hope they’d perform nigh-on perfectly wouldn’t you? So with high-end you almost end up reviewing their faults — it’s a bit flat here, or it doesn’t play this file-type, maybe if I just upgrade this one cable — even if really, the bulk of the time it sounds glorious. Whereas a midrange cracker can be a really pleasant surprise, a proper unexpected ‘wow’ moment. It’s those moments that really light up a reviewing life.
This happens in video as well as audio — I had a ‘wow’ moment not with 4K, but certainly when I lived with an OLED TV for the first time. (Even the missus had a wow moment with that one.) In a presentation I attended recently, Paul Gray, an analyst for DisplaySearch/IHS, notes that researchers are finding that things other than 4K resolution may have a bigger wow factor — high dynamic range, higher frame rates, even deep colour. As he says, resolution alone isn’t that much of a ‘wow’ — and if you need a light on your receiver to tell you when Netflix is delivering 4K rather than full-HD, well, then something’s missing! It’s just not enough of a ‘wow’.
I mention all this because I had just such a moment of midrange delight during the preparations for this issue, when I plugged up the Merlin system from Musical Fidelity. I had not expected too much from the pictures of the small oval speakers each with just a single BMR (balanced mode radiator) driver, but from the first note things sounded spectacularly sweet, as you can read in the review starting on p40 of our June/July 2015 issue.
When you find this sort of thing you want to shout it from the rooftops, or at the very least, slap it on the cover. Even though the Merlin is, as I write, running in parallel with my main system (which is a few notches above midrange), I’m currently prevaricating over whether I can hang on to the Merlin for one more week before packing it up and sending it back to the nice folks at Audio Marketing. Of course that’s the other thing people always ask — ‘Do you get to keep it all?’ To which the answer is, unfortunately, no... one can delay occasionally, but one cannot keep. The job’s not quite that good!
Jez Ford, Editor.