A reader who asked to remain anonymous wrote to tell us the results of some tests he saw conducted on one of our top-rated loudspeaker systems. Frequency-response checks showed that the system had virtually no deep bass, a midbass peak, a midrange slump, and a high-end rise. Further checks had shown gross distortion at input levels of over about 6W, and a definitely limited (although adequate for Row-M listening) maximum output-level capability. Said reader then went on to ask how we could possibly consider such a speaker to be one of the best available.
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 Although Mark Levinson products were originally made by Mark Levinson, they are no longer.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.
A letter in the April 1988 issue (Vol.11 No.4) from reader Harold Goldman, MD, decried the seemingly appalling failure rate of high-end products, citing a $10,000/pair power amplifier, an $11,000 turntable, and a $1500 CD player which had all been reported in recent issues as having failed during or shortly after testing by Stereophile. And Dr. Goldman's list was far from complete. We have also experienced during the past couple of years the failure, or inoperation upon delivery, of two $2500 solid-state power amplifiers, a $1700 subwoofer, a $5000 hybrid amplifier, two pairs of $1200 loudspeakers, several pairs of under-$1000 loudspeakers, and many CD players costing over $1000 each, mainly those based on Philips transports.
Is it possible to make a $700 "mainstream-audio" power amplifier sound exactly like a high-priced perfectionist amplifier? Bob Carver, of Carver Corporation, seemed to think he could, so we challenged him to prove it.
In my rather jaded report from the 1986 Winter CES (Vol.9 No.2), I remarked that there was nothing really new in the field of high-end audio. Well, I was wrong. I overlooked the Acoustic Sciences Corporation Tube Traps, a patented new acoustic device designed by Arthur Noxon (president of ASC). The Traps represent the first practical and effective solution to a perennial audiophile problem: standing waves in the listening room.
One of the nicest features of the High End is its diversity. Regardless of whatever trend is fashionable, there will always be manufacturers to buck it, and sell alternative concepts and sounds. VMPS is just such a case. With few exceptions, the recent trend in speaker systems has been toward small-to-medium-sized "monitors" with good imaging and high resolution, but limited bass and dynamics (footnote 1). The VMPS SuperTowers provide the former, but buck the trend by adding reproduction of the deepest bass and outstanding full-range dynamics.
As the person who "invented" subjective testing, I have followed with great interest the many articles in the mainstream audio press which purport to prove that none of us can really hear all the differences we claim to hear, particularly those between amplifiers. My reaction has usually been: "Why didn't they invite me to participate? I would have heard the differences under their double-blind listening conditions." I could make that assertion with supreme confidence because I had never been involved in any such test.
There is something refreshingly no-nonsense about the design and construction of this turntable. It looks as if someone just said, Okay, this, that, and the other thing need to be done. Let's do it. And then they did it. In appearance at least, it is about as simple a design as you're likely to find. What sets it apart from other simple designs is that this one is built like a battleship! Everything is heavy-duty (notto mention heavy), from the 10-lb, lead-laminated aluminum platter to the ¼"steel-reinforced subchassis.
If you are to believe all the promotions for the Compact Disc, simply buying a player will transport you instantly to sonic nirvana. No background noise! No distortion! Flat frequency response from 20 Hz to 20kHz, pIus or minus zilch! The most perfect sound that modern hightech can provide! But if CD sound is so perfect, what are so many people screaming bloody murder about? It seems that half the golden ears who hear it are smitten with hate at first hearing. The other half finds it the best thing since tax shelters.
Editor's Note from 1992: This seminal J. Gordon Holt essay on how the art of recording natural sound became compromised in favor of unmusical artificiality for good commercial reasons was originally published in August 1964, in Vol.1 No.8. Though most people these days listen to classical music from CDs, not LPs, in the intervening decades, recording technology has not changed for the better as much as one might have hoped. Nevertheless, the days of wretched multimiking excess described by Gordon are past, and it's rare to find the music treated with the lack of respect typical of a mid-'60s Columbia session. Although some of the smaller companiesReference Recordings, Delos, Chesky, Mapleshade, Dorian, and Sheffield Lab in the US; Meridian, Nimbus, and Hyperion in the UKconsistently use honest, minimal miking, it is not unknown for the majors in the '90s to do likewise. And the use of time delay for spot microphones, pioneered by Denon in the mid-'80s, means that instruments that might tend to become obscured at orchestral climaxes can now be brought up in level without unnaturally time-smearing the sound. I still find it sad, however, that it is rare to hear the sheer dynamic range of a live ensemble successfully captured on a commercial recording.John Atkinson
I believe it was 1958 when I first heard a transistorized audio product. The Fisher TR-1 was a small battery-powered box that provided microphone preamplification and inputs for three magnetic phono sources.
Whenever an audio high-ender thinks about tubes, he usually thinks about Audio Research. This is only natural, because Audio Research Corporation was almost single-handedly responsible for saving tubes from oblivion in the early '70s when everyone else switched to solid-state. But ARC was soon joined in its heroic endeavor by an upstart company called Conrad-Johnson, which entered the fray in 1977 with its PV-1 preamp, priced at an affordable (even then) $500.
To high-end audiophiles, the Boulder 500 amplifier and its less expensive derivative, the 500AE (Audiophile Edition), would not seem to be "high-end" designs. They are designed around op-amps (felt by many to be generally poor-sounding), they have scads of negative feedback (which is perhaps why op-amps sound bad), and they have only a moderately hefty power supply. Why, then, is Stereophile publishing a review of an op-amp–based power amplifier? Read on...
These speakers inadvertently managed to put me in a good mood even before I listened to them, because of a dumb little gaffe committed by Thiel's packing department. Each speaker came with an Owner's Information sheet, which is nice. Each sheet included Unpacking (and Repacking) Instructions, which is nicer. But each sheet came packed inside the carton, underneath the speaker, where it was not accessible until after the speaker was dumped out of the box, which is pretty silly!