When I reviewed Simaudio's Moon Evolution 880M monoblock amplifier for the June 2013 issue, I communicated via phone and e-mail with the company's VP of marketing, Lionel Goodfield. When the topic of hearing the 880Ms at their best came up, I could almost imagine him shrugging as he said, "Just use it with the most transparent, revealing preamp you can find." Not surprisingly, he then went on to say that Simaudio's own Moon Evolution 850P would serve nicely in that role. My cynical side might normally have discounted any such suggestion from a marketing man, but I'd been hearing the same sort of thing from other sources. And, as it happened, there was an 850P at Stereophile World Headquarters . . .
In the early 1970s, Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holta man I used to describe, with all due respect, as having been clothed by the haberdasher to the homelesssaid that Audio Research's SP-3 tubed preamplifier was "the closest thing available, in fact, to the ideal straight wire with gain" ie, it would amplify the signal without editorializng in any way. Back then, the SP-3 cost $595. Today it would cost around $3500. But TAD's C600 dual-mono, solid-state, balanced preamplifier costs more than 10 times that: $42,000.
In April 1987, Anthony H. Cordesman had mixed feelings about the Mod Squad Passive Line Drive System Control Center. (Read his review here.) Introduced in 1984, the Line Drive offered volume and balance controls, five line-level inputs, and switching and monitoring for two tape decks. You didn't plug it into the wall; it provided no gain. Was it even a proper preamp? (footnote 1)
AHC demurred. "I'm not sure that I'm ready to advise anyone to take the risk of not buying a unit with a top-quality phono stage, no matter how well CD or DAT perform," he concluded, between commenting on Middle East wars.
It was the strangest thing. In the fall of 2008 I was comparing Ayre Acoustics' then-new KX-R line preamplifier with no preamplifier at allI was feeding the power amplifier directly with the output of the Logitech Transporter D/A processor. (Levels were matched for the comparisons, of course, made possible by the fact that the Transporter has a digital-domain volume control.) Being a rational being, I knew that the active circuitry of a preamplifier, as well as the extra socketry and cables, would be less transparent to the audio signal than a single piece of wire. I wanted to determine by how much the Ayre preamp fell short of that standard.
NAD's T 187. Another pre-pro? And not inexpensive at $3000! Why do I care?
First of all, NAD has come to the forefront of established full-range manufacturers as innovators in digital audio. From their original digital preamp, the 118, which I reviewed in the July 1998 issue; to the M2 Direct Digital amp, reviewed by JA in March 2010; to the Masters M51 high-resolution DAC, reviewed last July by Jon Iverson; and their Masters M50 and M52 music-streaming devices, NAD has never simply repackaged available chips and modules, but has always gone their own way.
One of the most striking aspects of high-end audio is that you can never take any component for granted. Most of the radical change in audio at present takes place in new front-end and speaker technologies, but other components are changing as welland with at least as much impact in making recorded music seem believable.
I was setting up for some musical demonstrations I was to present for a Music Matters evening at the ListenUp! store in Boulder, Colorado, in May 2011. For these events, an audio store invites manufacturers (and the occasional journalist) to demonstrate to local audiophiles the musical benefits of high-end audio playback. In Boulder, I was to share the store's big listening room with Dave Nauber, president of Classé Audio, who had set up a system with B&W Diamond 802 speakers, a Classé stereo amplifier, and a preproduction sample of Classé's new CP-800 preamplifier ($5000), all hooked up with AudioQuest cable. I unpacked my MacBook, with which I was going to play the high-resolution master files of some of my Stereophile recordings, and looked around for a DAC. There wasn't one.
The Threshold FET nine/e ($2595) is the junior sibling of the FET ten/e, a solid-state preamp that has earned a rave review in March 1991 from noted tubeophile Dick Olsher (Vol.14 No.3), itself a development of the FET ten that J. Gordon Holt reviewed in September 1987 (Vol.10 No.6). Would my ears, accustomed as they are to the pitter-patter of electrons traveling through a vacuum, have a similarly positive response to the FET nine/e?
In recent years, Adcom has carved an enviable niche for themselves in the entry-level category of high-end audio. Their excellent GTP-400 tuner/preamplifier, which I reviewed in September 1989 (Vol.12 No.9), has further enhanced their reputation for musically satisfying sound at affordable prices. The GFP-565 is Adcom's newest preamplifier and their most expensive to date. The GFP-565 was designed to offer more than simply excellent performance for the price asked. This new arrival is Adcom's attempt at manufacturing a preamplifier which can compare favorably to the most expensive state-of-the-art products offered by other high-end manufacturers. As such, its $798 price tag is still reasonable, especially when the 565 is compared with other preamps in the under-$1000 price range.
I asked for a sample of the K-5xe so I could do a Follow-Up to Sam's review, but other review commitments kept getting in the way. When I finally spent some time with it (S/N 10J002), I found the sound a little on the robust, forward side, which made system matching problematic. Then, as I was about to spill some ink on the K-5xe, I got an e-mail from Charlie Hansen letting me know that the development of the QB-9 USB DAC had led them to rethink the K-5xe's design, and that Ayre would be sending a sample of what would be called the K-5xeMP. After a longer delay than I had anticipated, the K-5xeMP, priced at $3500, arrived for review.
Cycles can be seen in the fortunes of companies. Likewise cycles can be seen in the performance of companies' products. A particular range will appear to have got it just right, whatever "it" is. The designer may have hit a winning streak and thus steal a lead over the competition. C-J set a new state-of-the-art preamp standard in the late 1980s with their Premier Seven, and some of that expertise and experience are beginning to pay off in the shape of new high-performance preamplifiers at realistic prices. Two important products have emerged from all this in C-J's moderately priced FET range, namely the PF-1 preamp and the matching MF-200 power amp. By audiophile standards, these are moderately priced at $1295 and $1995, respectively.
The AV7005 is Marantz's second multichannel preamplifier-processor and, at $1499.99, the least expensive pre-pro I've used or reviewed. The Integra DTC-9.8, which has been resident in my stable since 2007, when it cost $1600, and its successors, have since then steadily risen in price. The Marantz's predecessor, the AV8003 ($2599.99), was highly praised in many quarters. I never got my hands on one because, like a churlish child, I felt it lacked features I considered essential. Other reviewers didn't seem bothered by those limitations, or were unaware of them. The AV7005, however, looks and feels like a winner for music and home theater. I see no evidence of skimpingthe AV7005 sports such high-end features as balanced outputs, network controllability and streaming, and, of course, HDMI v1.4a for compatibility with 3D and all audio codecs.
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.
When I started out on my multichannel mission in 2000, it was with an all-digital Meridian system that relied on lossy, compressed sources like the original Dolby Digital and DTS formats, or on synthesized surround based on Dolby Pro-Logic or Meridian's own TriField. With the appearance of first SACD and DVD-Audio and then Blu-ray, discrete lossless multichannel recordings became available, but there was no way to output those signals in digital form for interconnection to other components for playback or further manipulation. Most audiophiles, me included, already had analog preamps and power amps. It was only with the appearance of HDMI and the accompanying HDCP content protection that we could output those digital signals, and over a single cable to boot. Today, there are A/V receivers, some costing less than $500, and more than a handful of audiophile-oriented preamp-processors, that can accept such lossless high-resolution multichannel content as PCM, DSD, Dolby TruHD, and dtsHD Master Audio.
The debate over which audio component is most important in determining the quality of a system's sound is one that has been with us for decades. Recently, it came up in a conversation I had during a visit to a Manhattan high-end shop, when I was told about a discussion on the topic by Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn) and David Wilson (of Wilson Audio Specialties). You don't have to be a seasoned audiophile to predict their respective positions, but when I was pressed to take a stand, I paused.