When I first laid eyes on the Paravicini M100A monoblock power amplifiers at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2001, an audiophile in the room squinted at my badge and cried out, "Hey, J-10, these amps have your name written all over 'em!"
It's now 10 years since the launch of the two high-resolution audio disc formats, SACD and DVD-Audio. Yet, perhaps partly because both were hobbled in various ways to please the record industry, perhaps partly because too many supposed hi-rez releases sounded no better than CD, and perhaps partly because record retailers weren't sure how to display the formats to their best advantage, neither took off in any substantive way. DVD-A disappeared, and SACD survived only as a niche format for high-quality classical releases in both two- and multichannel forms. As we got deeper into the same decade, digital technology, despite various sparks and flashes, went into the doldrums. Mainstream digital technology was increasingly concerned with squashing the music into fewer and more portable bits, not with increased sound quality. Even the concept of "CD sound quality" began to seem an unattainable goal, as MP3 files became the dominant music carrier.
It was an audacious demonstration. For the launch of Aerial's 20T loudspeaker at the end of 2002, Aerial's head honcho and designer, Michael Kelly, had arranged to compare the speakers reproducing the recorded sound of virtuoso violinist Arturo Delmoni with the real thing. The setting was the ornate dining room of one of Newport, Rhode Island's many mansions, and, given the inevitable differencesdue to the facts that a violin has a very different radiation pattern from a loudspeaker and thus excites the room differently, and that the recording inevitably gives the listener a double dose of the room's acousticthe demo was successful. There was much subsequent argy-bargying between Stereophile's reviewers about who would review the Aerial 20T, but it was Michael Fremer who eventually wrote about it in April 2004.
Whenever anyone marvels at the enormous Genesis II.5 loudspeakers in my house, I'm quick to tell them that the II.5 is the smallest, least expensive loudspeaker made by Genesis Technologies. In fact, the company makes two larger speaker systems, the $33,000 Genesis II and the $70,000 Genesis I (footnote 1).
In an ideal world, I'd have every phono section I've reviewed in the past 16 years on hand to compare with these three and with all that arrive in the future. But because I have a life, I don't, and I wouldn't even if I could, though some readers (and one retailer) have insisted that that's the only way that I could possibly be of any use to them. Ha! And for those who are concerned that I've neglected the Manley Steelhead, not so! It's still my reference.
Though taller, narrower, deeper, more gracefully sculpted, and even more mantis-like than the MAXX Series 2 that I reviewed in the August 2005 Stereophile, at first glance the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 3 seems little more than a minor reworking of its predecessor with a major increase in price: from $44,900 to $68,000 per pair. But first looks can be deceiving. Take a closer, longer gazeor, better yet, spend some time listening (especially if you've spent time with the MAXX 2)and you'll quickly realize that while the familiar Wilson design concepts remain in play, the MAXX 3 is far more than a minor reworking of an older model.
As the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show neared its end, I wandered into Blue Light Audio's room, which was dominated by the innards of darTZeel's new NHB-458 monoblocksthink of a 3D "exploded" diagram and you'll be on target. So impressive was that display of brute engineering that I almost didn't notice the amplifier that was actually making the music: the CTH-8550 integrated ($20,300).
Is anyone in this economy shopping for a four-box, rack-swallowing, two-channel SACD/CD player contending for the state of the art and costing $79,996? dCS is betting that its Scarlatti will attract a small crowd of those wealthy music enthusiasts who, in any economy, reliably pony up for the best. For the rest of us, the Scarlatti will be a spectator sport.
We audio writers have our niches. Mikey loves analog, Artie likes to play with horn speakers and assorted oddball British kit, and I really enjoy reviewing affordable speakers. There's something exciting about hearing the fruits of the labors of a creative designer who's applied his talents to meet a stringent price point and created a speaker that can entice into our hobby the financially challenged music lover.
A compact horn loudspeaker. Isn't that an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, or military intelligence? From such venerable speakers as the half century-old Altec Voice of the Theater and the Klipschorn, as well as more modern examples like the Avantgarde Acoustic Trio, horns have always been big. The original Avantgarde Uno was the smallest speaker in Avantgarde's line, but it was still visually imposing, with a big horn midrange on top, a horn tweeter below that, and a powered sealed-box subwoofer at the bottom. (I reviewed the Uno 2.0 in Stereophile in August 2000, Vol.23 No.8, and the Uno 3.0 in August 2002, Vol.25 No.8.) The Uno and its siblings, the Duo and Trio, are perhaps the antithesis of the in-wall loudspeakers beloved by interior designers. These speakers do not fade into the backgroundnot visually or sonically.
It says something for the state of technology that, after a quarter of a century, there still is no authoritative explanation for why so many high-end audiophiles prefer tubes. Tubes not only refuse to die, they seem to be Coming back. The number of US and British firms making high-end tube equipment is growing steadily, and an increasing number of comparatively low-priced units are becoming available. There is a large market in renovated or used tube equipmentI must confess to owning a converted McIntosh MR-71 tunerand there are even some indications that tube manufacturers are improving their reliability, although getting good tubes remains a problem.
Sennheiser's long-awaited (seven years) HD800 sure isn't subtleat least, not in appearance. The HD800's large earpieces are made from a combination of absorbing composites and functional metal accents, and are huge. Of course, they have to be to house the 56mm ring-radiator transducersand to mount them so they're firing "back" to your ears from the front. Also not subtle is the price: $1399.95.
As we approach the end of the 21st century's "oughts" decade, many feel that playing music from a discrete physical medium is positively 20th century. Much of my own music enjoyment now comes from computer files, often high-resolution, streamed to my high-end rig via a Logitech Transporter or Bel Canto USB Link 24/96. It is perhaps a paradox, therefore, that high-end audio companies are still devoting so much effort to developing expensive, state-of-the-art disc players. In April I very favorably reviewed Meridian's superb 808i.2 CD playerpreamplifier, which costs $16,995 as reviewed, and Michael Fremer is about to review the ultimate Scarlatti SACD playback system from another English company, dCS. The $80,000 price tag of the Scarlatti makes the subject of my review this month, the Boulder 1021, seem relatively affordable at $24,000.
Before launching into Stereophile's first-ever report on a Mark Levinson product, an important point needs to be clarified. Although Mark Levinson products were originally made by Mark Levinson, they are no longer. Au contraire, Mark Levinson products are now being made by Madrigal, Ltd., which bought Mark Levinson Audio Systems' assets and trademark two years ago. Mark Levinson's products, as distinguished from Mark Levinson products, are now being manufactured by a company called Cello. But the subject of this report, the Mark Levinson ML-7A preamplifier, is a product of Madrigal, Ltd., not of Cello. Now that I've made that all perfectly clear, we may proceed.
Musical Fidelity's founder, Antony Michaelson, arrived at my house to help me set up the two chassis of his sleek, limited-edition, $30,000 Titan power amplifier. (The task requires at least two people.) A week later, a representative of Musical Fidelity's US importer, KEF America, dropped by to listen and to deliver three of Musical Fidelity's new V-series products: a phono preamp, a DAC, and a headphone amp. All three fit comfortably into a small paper bag; the price of the three was $700.