For anyone who's been around the audiophile block a few times, Conrad-Johnson Design is a brand that needs no introduction. My first acquaintance with Conrad-Johnson was before I began writing for Stereophile (more than two decades agotime sure flies fast when you're having fun!). I was in the market for a new preamp, having become convinced that my Dayton Wright SPS Mk.II was the weak link in my system, and had narrowed my choices to two similarly priced products: a solid-state model made by PS Audio (I'm not sure of the model number), and the tubed Conrad-Johnson PV-2ar. They were carried by different dealers, who allowed me to take their preamps home over the same weekend for a direct comparison. I was impressed by both preamps, and was sure that either would represent an improvement over the Dayton Wright, but in the end decided to go for the PV-2ar. I later traded it in on a dealer's demo unit of another Conrad-Johnson preamp, the PV-5. And, as it turned out, one of my first reviews for Stereophile was of Conrad-Johnson's PV-11 preamp.
In his "Manufacturer's Comment" in response to my review of the original Music Reference RM-200 power amplifier in the April 2002 issue, designer Roger Modjeski admitted that being a manufacturer was not his first choice. "Frankly, I'd rather consult than produce," he claimed. "I'd rather be making a living doing stand-up comedy," I said to myself after reading his comment.
The Audio Research D-160B has been heavily modified since the D-160A, and uses the same technology as the D-70, D-115, and D-250. It embodies William Z. Johnson's latest transformer and power supply designs, his latest choice of capacitors and resistors, and the same independent regulation of screens, drivers, and front end. D-160s and D-160As can be converted to D-160Bs for $1500.
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.
Most reviewers look for a "hook" or angle of some kind when it comes time to write a review. After all, how many ways are there to get excited about audio equipment? Kathleen and I like to focus on the human side of the High End. So it was with some amusement that I watched the obstacles swirl around what I thought would be a fairly straightforward review of the Vacuum Tube Logic MB-1250 Wotan monoblock power amplifier. My thought was to return from single-ended to push-pull with a bang! I'll say...
It all began at the January 1996 WCES, where I found my shorts positively welded to the listening chair during a memorable musical blast at VTL. Luke Manley and his extreme audiophile wife Bea had a good thing going and they knew it. People were talking. "Did you hear those monster two-storey VTLs on the Alón Vs?"
The VTL 225W DeLuxe monoblocks are very similar to the 300W monoblocks that received such an enthusiastic reception from J. Gordon Holt a year or so ago (in Vol.11 No.10) and, ultimately, most of the audiophile community. Technically, they differ only in output tubes and transformer: the 225W uses EL34s, the 300W uses 6550s. The 225Ws, at $4200/pair, cost $700 less than their more powerful brothers. The question may be raised: Why have two models so close in price and performance? According to David Manley, the 225Ws were built on special order for audiophiles who preferred the sound of EL34s to the 300Ws' 6550s. Demand was so great for the EL34 version that he decided to add it to the line. They look almost identical, the only difference being the smaller output transformer on the 225W and an additional filter capacitor on the 300W's top chassis.
The VTL MB-450 series began life in the late 1980s as the Deluxe 300, a pair of which I once owned. Over the years the basic design has been improved and modified, in the forms of the MB-450 (1996) and the MB-450 Series II (which I reviewed in January 2008). The tube complement remains the same: eight 6550s in the push-pull output stage, a 12AT7 input tube, and a 12BH7 driver. Into a 5 ohm load, the MB-450 III is claimed to produce 425W in tetrode mode or 225W in triode, from 20Hz to 20kHz.
It's been a while since I've had a classic amplifier in my system, and McIntosh Laboratory's MC275 is as classic as they come. Introduced in 1961 as the "powerhouse" of that era's newfangled stereo tube amps (two 75W amplifiers in one chassis!), the MC275 retained its position as the amplifier to ownchallenged only, perhaps, by Marantz and a few othersuntil 1970, when it fell prey to the widespread wisdom that transistors were king and tubes were dead, and the model was discontinued. The MC275 briefly returned in 1993, in a limited "Commemorative" edition to honor the late Gordon Gow, longtime president and chief designer of McIntosh Labs. To everyone's surprise, that edition sold well, and McIntosh, gingerly at first, crept back into the tube business.
Victor Tiscareno and Byron Collett of AudioPrism are known in audiophile circles for their complete line of power-conditioning products. (See Barry Willis' omnibus review in the December 1998 Stereophile.) Their intimate knowledge of the ever-capricious electrical supply has resulted in a series of front-end components bearing the company's logo. The flagship Mana Reference monoblocks, under consideration here, represent AudioPrism's collected wisdom and engineering savvy taken to its logical extreme.
I hate audio shows. All those manufacturers and retailers desperately demonstrating their products, knowing how impossible it is to do them justice in a hotel room. They might be saying, "It has gold-plated circuit boards and unobtainium binding posts," but all I hear is Please love it, please love it, oh puhleeze . . .
Two audiophile buddies of mine both own Rogue Audio M-150 monoblocks. I'd always been impressed with not only the sound quality of the M-150, but also its price. For $4495/pair, I thought my friends got a whole lotta amp for notta lotta dough. In this day and age, it's a rare and wonderful thing to get a pair of monoblocks, made in the US by a real audio company, that give you 150Wpc of tube power for under $5000. When Rogue came out with an update of the M-150, the M-180 ($5495), I thought it might be a good subject for my first full review in Stereophile. John Atkinson thought so too. I also thought it would be interesting to compare the M-180 with the very tube-like and almost identically priced Pass Labs XA30.5 two-channel amplifier ($5500), a sample of which I had on hand. (see my Follow-Up in August 2009).
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!"
In the name of journalistic ethics (footnote 1) I have to come clean. David Manley once gave me a gift. He presented me with a large, rather heavy, Russian-made watch at the 1995 Las Vegas WCES. A very manly watch: In fact, it said "Manley" right on the dial. The watch worked fine for about six months. Then it developed a very subjective approach to timekeeping. Time stood still, and my life wasn't even passing before my eyes. The watch has become a nice, albeit slightly ugly, miniboat anchor; now my rubber ducky stays where I put it in my bathtub.
Although I'll be spending most of my time at Stereophile reviewing affordable gear, I will from time to time examine so-called "trickle-down" designs from high-end designers who have made their mark in the upper-price echelons. More and more, such designers are taking what they've learned and applying it to less-expensive products in order to broaden their customer base. Cary Audio Design, for example, of single-ended triode fame, has entered the ring with the SLM-100 pentode monoblocks.