Everybody loves a bargain. No—make that: Most people love a bargain. Some just want the best, and they don't care about the cost. Some even distrust and reject out of hand any product that's not expensive enough. If you're one of these people, you might as well stop reading this review right now—the PrimaLuna ProLogue Three and ProLogue Seven are not for you. $1395 for a tube preamp? $2695 for a pair of 70Wpc tube monoblocks equipped with four KT88 tubes each? Must be based on old designs in the public domain using cheap parts carelessly assembled...
In any category of product or service, there is a gold standard—one company that epitomizes the best in its field of endeavor. Consider the Rolex watch, the Ferrari sports car, the Steinway piano, the Dunhill pipe. All of these artisanal manufacturers have spent decades, even centuries, earning their names' cachet with their histories of consistent excellence. While high-end audio boasts no names with a 60-year pedigree, such as Ferrari's—much less Steinway & Sons' +150 years—there is one firm whose storied past stretches back to the very emergence of the concept of high-end audio itself: Audio Research Corporation.
It's hard to know what to call the SHA-Gold. It is a superb headphone amplifier—maybe even the target all future headphone amps need to shoot at—but it's also a full-function preamplifier. At two grand, it's not exactly a unit you'd add to your current system just to get a headphone connection...Wait a minute! What am I saying? I'm sure that there are folks out there who would add this to their existing reference systems as casually as I'd buy the Audio Alchemy headphone amplifier—but they'd be missing out on a great line stage.
RCA's time-honored 6SN7 may be the coolest tube of all. The octal-based dual-triode has its own Wikipedia entry—something not even the 2A3 or 300B can boast—along with its own website. The 6SN7 is chunky, rugged, and handsome. Best of all, it's available, probably because people keep coming up with very good uses for it. In that sense, the 6SN7 is the Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup of the tube world.
Still burning in my bank of childhood memories are misty images of the glowing green lettering on the McIntosh tube preamps and tuners that populated the windows of the audio stores that once lined lower Manhattan's Cortlandt Street. Leonard's and most of those other retailers are long gone—as are most of the audio brands that shared their windows with McIntosh, and that once symbolized the might of American innovation and manufacturing. Even the World Trade Center, the controversial complex that replaced Cortlandt Street's "Radio Row," where the hi-fi industry was born, is tragically gone.
If you review hi-fi long enough, you get to the point where you've heard it all before. Actually, there are several versions of that point: One is where you've heard all the claims before, and the other is where you could have sworn you've actually heard this component before.
My opinions keep changing—more evidence of life before death, I suppose—including my thoughts on audio-system hierarchies. I used to think that preamps were among the most sonically influential components, certainly more so than power amplifiers. I'm not so sure anymore (footnote 1).
Not every audiophile needs an amplifier powerful enough to tax a small town's power grid while simultaneously draining his or her bank account. So, having quickly sold out of its ultra-limited-edition, extravagantly powered and priced combo of kWp preamplifier ($14,995) and kW power amp ($27,995) that I reviewed in January 2004, Musical Fidelity (footnote 1) set about capitalizing on the enthusiastic reviews earned by those giants with less expensive, less powerful, "real-world" replacements.
It's been 10 years since Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) introduced their first products: the VK-5 line-stage preamplifier and the VK-60 power amplifier. (I reviewed both in the December 1995 Stereophile, Vol.18 No.12.) The success of these and other BAT products has allowed designer Victor Khomenko (the "VK" of the model designations) and partner Steve Bednarski to quit their day jobs at Hewlett-Packard; they were joined by Geoff Poor as a partner to handle the sales end of the enterprise. BAT's current lineup includes several preamps, phono stages, a CD player, and tube as well as solid-state amplifiers. The top of BAT's preamp range is the VK-51SE, which costs $9000; their top tube power amp is the VK-150SE monoblock ($17,000/pair); if you want their best phono stage, the VK-P10 will set you back $8000.
A "CD processor," is how I distinctly heard Cary Audio's Dennis Had describe it. The venue was Stereophile's High End Hi-Fi Show in New York last April. Nothing really unusual in today's digital marketplace, I thought to myself, though a bit out of character for a company dedicated to vacuum-tube technology. But wait a minute. Dennis had described it as an analog CD processor. Analog!? Well, yes, the unit processes the analog signal from a CD player.
On the first morning in June I opened all the windows in my listening room and played Classic Records' LP reissue of Dvorák's Cello Concerto (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2490), with Piatigorsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The sunny weather put me in a fine mood, and so did the sound of my music system, which made me feel prouder than usual: Was ever a Linn record player more expertly adjusted? Wasn't I smart for keeping those Lamm monoblock amplifiers? Could a pair of Quads possibly sound better than mine?
A straight wire with gain? That's what a line stage is supposed to provide, but few in my experience actually accomplish it, and I'm not sure that most audiophiles would really want it that way. Some want a bit of tightening and brightening, while some prefer a bit of added warmth and richness. But whatever the preference, none of us wants too much of a good thing—the tighter, brighter line stages better not sound etchy and hard, and the warmer, richer ones better not sound thick and plodding.
They say you never forget your first time. For me, it was an Audio Research SP-6B that had been heavily modified by Analogique in NYC—which meant, among other things, that yellow capacitors shunted other yellow capacitors all the way up to the top plate. That first taste of the High End—prior to that, you might say my face had been pressed against the window—was definitely love at first listen. That SP-6B was warm yet detailed, and I ended up building a system around it that at least one friend described as a huge musical wet kiss.