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.
In a way, you could say that Meridian started the now epidemic practice of modifying stock CD players (usually of the Philips-Magnavox species). The original Meridian player, the MCD, was a reworking of the first-generation Philips and was praised by J. Gordon Holt in these pages in his 1985 review (Vol.8 No.2). The Meridian Pro (Vol.8 No.6) won similar plaudits, and is still to be seen lurking in JA's system. And the original 207 was well-received by MC in Vol.10 No.3.
Klyne Audio Arts is such a low-profile outfit that I marvel at its continued existence. It is reliably absent from the Audio and Stereo Review annual equipment directories, and if Stan Klyne has ever run an advertisement for any of his products anywhere, I haven't seen it, Yet Klyne Audio Arts always manages to have an exhibit at CES, where they display some of the most beautiful preamps and head-amps we see there, only to go underground again for another six months.
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 Although Mark Levinson products were originally made by Mark Levinson, they are no longer.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.
Even as Robert Harley was writing his Stereophilereview of the $3995 Mark Levinson No.38 remote-controlled line preamplifier (it appeared in August '94, Vol.17 No.8, p.98), Madrigal Audio Laboratories announced an upgraded, cost-no-object version, the No.38S (footnote 1). At $6495, the 'S is significantly more expensive than the junior version; although it uses the same chassis, power supply, and circuit topology, it's in all other ways a different preamplifier.
High-end audio companies take different approaches to staying successful. One way to maintain a market position is to continue improving fundamental designs, offering a little higher sonic performance with each model. The latest products from a company employing this approach will look and operate very much like their first products.
Threshold is one of the longest-surviving high-end audio companies. Founded in the 1970s by Nelson Pass and René Besne, it was acquired by a large, publicly traded corporation in 1988. This had both positive and negative results in that Threshold was then able to expand its activities, adding the cost-effective Forté line of products, but energies were drained away from cutting-edge design. Besne left the company in 1991, while Pass resigned in 1992 to pursue other interests. (These blossomed into the Pass Aleph 0 amplifier reviewed by DO in March '95, Vol.18 No.3.)
Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the quality of the audio engineering emanating from Simaudio, which next year celebrates its 30th anniversary. In a world where the US facilities of some well-known audio brands have been reduced to a design office coupled to a warehouse for storing product manufactured overseas, this Montreal-based manufacturer, in order to keep full control over quality and hence reliability, does as much manufacturing as possible in-house, including metalwork, some printed circuit-board stuffing, and assembly. (See my photo essay starting here.)
The Mod Squad Line Drive System Control Center is a purely passive stereo switching unit with a volume and balance control, five line inputs, and additional facilities for two tape decks. It allows the audiophile to replace a preamp, with its active gain stagesand resulting colorationwith a device that introduces no distortion or coloration other than that in the wiring, switches, and controls.
Sometimes, I think life would be easier if I were an audio customer. If I didn't have to wait on the priorities of the electronics companies, I might have gone out and bought a Blu-ray player months ago. Had I done so, I would have been shocked to find that almost all BD players are released with fewer than the advertised number of features, and sometimes require firmware updatessometimes even a return to the manufacturerto have them installed.
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
The roadster's throbbing rumble became a roar as the tachometer soared above 4 grand. Like a giant hand, its thrust jammed me back into the seat. Racing along low to the ground, feeling every curve and bump, I began to understand: the automotive virtues of smoothness and insulation had been swapped for firm road grip and the ability to transmit to the driver each jolt and curve in the surface below. Long before I'd climbed into the driver's seat of Porsche's Boxster S, I had known about its low-end snort and speedthe main reasons I was considering a leasebut I had not known about its ability to join sensation and purpose in such an intense bond.
In my February 2000 review of Meridian's multi-talented, multichannel, multi-kilobuck Digital Theatre system, I fumed about the lack of a medium for discrete multichannel music. Even more loudly, I railed against the irresponsible mastering of many Dolby Digital and DTS discs, which place the listener in the middle of an ensemble and swirl the voices around his or her head with little concern for musical or artistic coherence.
It isn't enough to say that engineer Denis N. Morecroft is one of contemporary audio's few visionaries: He's one of a very few mature designers whose passion for doing things a certain way hasn't abandoned him in the least, and whose well-argued convictions seem stronger than ever. Thus, as others cave in to commercethe tube-amp designer who offers a solid-state product just to help his dealers fill a price niche, the source-component manufacturer who rails against digital audio one day and starts cranking out CD players the nextDNM Design remains the likeliest of all modern companies to stay its course.
I can't think of a product that was as eagerly anticipated as was Ayre's KX-R preamplifier ($18,500). Following in the footsteps of Ayre's MX-R monoblock amplifier, a Stereophile2007 Product of the Year, and milled, like the MX-R, from a 75-lb billet of aluminum, the KX-R also shares with its monoblock stablemate the Ayre ethos of zero feedback and fully balanced operation. But what really caused the buzz was the declaration by Ayre founder and chief designer Charles Hansen that the KX-R, with its use of a technology he calls Variable Gain Transconductance (VGT) to control the volume, would set new standards for signal/noise ratio.