It doesn't take a genius to appreciate the audacity of naming a company after Albert Einstein, the iconic science and math whiz. Clearly, company founder and owner Volker Bohlmeier knew what he was doingthis German brand of boutique electronics has enjoyed worldwide critical and marketplace success since its founding more than 20 years ago.
Compared to the Krell KSA-300S power amplifier that I also review this month, the KRC preamp's design is, at first glance, almost conventional. But its thoroughly high-end internal design has been equally well thought-out and executed. Its main, four-layer, glass-epoxy circuit board is for the audio signal, DC power, and groundtwo layers for the latter are said to minimize noise. The gain stages are pure class-A and complementary. As in the amplifier, the circuit is direct-coupled, with servo circuits controlling the DC offset. The fully regulated power supply is housed in an external chassis. Seven inputs are provided: four single-ended, two balanced, and one single-ended tape. All inputs are line-level except for the optional, single-ended phono stage. (This review will address the line stages; a Follow-Up will discuss the phono stage's operation.) There are three outputs: balanced and single-ended main outputs, and a single-ended tape output.
Ideally, LPs should be played with the pickup stylus remaining tangential (ie, at a 90° angle) to the groovejust as the lacquer from which the LP was ultimately stamped was cut in the first place. Over the years, many attempts have been made to accomplish this. Back in 1877, Thomas A. Edison's original machines tangentially tracked his cylinders, but Emil Berliner's invention of the flat disc put an end to cylinders altogether. In the 1950s, a number of companies marketed so-called "tangential" trackers that used dual arms, based on conventional pivoting arrangements, to change the angle at which the headshell was mounted as it moved across the LP side. In 1963, Marantz introduced the SLT-12, which used a plastic pantograph to move the stylus across the record surface. Garrard's Zero 100 pivoting arm controlled its independently pivoting headshell with a bar that extended from the main bearing of the tonearm.
If you've followed their story here and elsewhere, you probably know that Tokyo's Shindo Laboratory (footnote 1) has a reputation for defying the two most monolithic of all high-end audio commandments.
It was a dark and stormy night. A biting, cold wind cut through Sam's skimpy jacket; ice crystals clung tenaciously to his bushy moustache. As he approached his front door, visions of a toasty-warm, Krell-heated listening room softened the chill. He could feel the glow already; his Krell amp had been on all day, awaiting his return.
Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, always had a thing for horn loudspeakers, feeling that these archaic beasts offered a "jump factor" that could never be rivaled by conventional, direct-radiating designs. A horn drastically increases the efficiency with which electrical power is converted into acoustic power, which means that for a given sound-pressure level, a smaller amplifier can be used compared with a direct-radiator, and that all distortions, both electrical and mechanical, can theoretically be much lower. Yet outside of a small circle of enthusiasts, horns never got much of a following in high-end audio, and as high amplifier power became plentiful and relatively cheap, horns largely disappeared from domestic audio use (except in Japan).
This massive, two-box beauty from Denmark costs $60,000, and I wish I could tell you it wasn't really better in most ways than the already outlandishly priced and sonically superb Boulder 2008. I can't.
The arrival of the Mark Levinson No.30 digital processor more than 2½ years ago marked a turning point in digital-audio reproduction. Although the No.30's $13,950 price tag put it out of reach of all but a few audiophiles, its stunning performance suggested that much more musical information was encoded on our CDs, waiting to be recovered by better digital processors. Further, it was inevitable that this level of performance would become less expensive over time. I was more excited by the No.30 than I've been over any other audio product. In fact, its musical performance was so spectacular that it alone occupied the Class A category in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
While headphone listening remains secondary to that of loudspeakers for most serious listeners, it's still an important alternative for many. And while good conventional headphones exist, electrostatics are usually considered first when the highest playback quality is required. As always, there are exceptions (Grado's headphones come immediately to mind), but most high-end headphones are electrostaticsuch designs offer the benefits of electrostatic loudspeakers without their dynamic limitations. Last year I reviewed the Koss ESP/950 electrostatics (Vol.15 No.12), a remarkable set of headphones from the company that practically invented headphones for serious home listening. Here I listen to examples from two other companies, each known for its headphones since Pluto was a pup.
Snickering was heard from the major consumer electronics purveyors when California Audio Labs came out with the original Tempest, their first CD player using tube output stages. But not from the audiophile community. It was, all things considered, an inevitable product; I'm certainly not the only one who wonderedbefore the emergence of California Audio Labswho would be the first to build such a unit. The obvious candidates were Audio Research or Conrad-Johnson. But those companies apparently read the audio tea-leaves and, perhaps perceiving the early high-end hostility toward the new format, apparently decided to bide their time. (With regards to tube players, they're still biding it, though C-J has had a prototype player up and running for some time.)
Considering that the crates they're shipped in are each as large as a Manhattan studio apartment, once they'd been set up in my listening room, Focal's Maestro Utopia III speakers weren't as visually overpowering as I'd anticipated. The elegant dark-gloss front baffles, the gloss-gray side panels, and the fact that the speaker's three subenclosures are vertically arrayed so that the top, midrange section is angled down, significantly reduced their apparent size.
Before last year, I had no more than a professional interest in the products of Wilson Audio Specialties. But before last year I hadn't experienced Wilson's Sophia Series 2 loudspeaker ($16,700/pair)which, like the wines I tend to order when my wife and I go out to dinner, is the second-cheapest item on their menu. Within weeks of the Sophias' arrival, respect had turned to rapture, like to love, and an entirely new appreciation for Wilson Audio was mine (footnote 1).
Over the years that I've been reviewing hi-fi, I've had my share of loudspeakers that drew comments from everyone who visited during the audition period. Some of those comments were about the speakers' appearancemost often about their sizeand some were about how good they sounded. Vivid's G1Giya loudspeaker ($65,000/pair), its narrow-baffled, swirling cochlear shape molded from fiber-reinforced composite, elicited more comments of both types than has any other speaker I've reviewed.