As part of my employer's never-ending attempts to transform me from an engineer into a manager, I am constantly being sent to seminars and courses, some of which are eminently practical—like "Managers and the Law," which taught us how to avoid getting ourselves and our company sued. Others are more esoteric, like a recent seminar on "paradigm shifts." A paradigm shift, we were told, is a fundamental change in the way we look at things, arising from a change in a belief so inherent that it's unconscious.
I've been attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show for years, and usually come away with the impression that there are too many "me-too" products. I see a numbing similarity of approach of manufacturers within a chosen discipline: solid-state power amps in black and silver bristling with heatsinks, single-ended triode amps with their glow reflecting from bronze or wood panels, MCPU/DSP-centered devices with sleek, flat cases and intimidating remote controls, etc.
There's a whorish aspect to reviewing that some readers and industry critics never tire of mentioning, as if they've stumbled onto some great revelation: that we writers seem to flit from new product to new product, sometimes gushing like cracked fire hydrants over one amplifier one month, only to gush over another amp the following month.
It's a reviewer's privilege to be able to switch back and forth between tube and solid-state gear (or combinations thereof) as the mood or the assignment moves him. Still, I find I'm inevitably drawn back to the Epicurean delights of triode tube gear. When done right, there's an alluring musicality to it, like the breath of life. However, in any tube vs solid-state contest, the relative tradeoffs between tone and resolution—sweetness and articulation, euphony and frequency extension—must be taken into consideration.
Audio Research's first 21st-century, audiophile-quality line-stage preamplifier combines retro-tech vacuum-tube amplification and power-supply circuitry with innovative, remote-controlled gain, balance, tape monitoring, and signal routing. The price is also 21st-century: $9995. As in ARC's Reference phono section, the Reference Two's pair of vertically mounted circuit boards results in a single, relatively tall chassis.
Ideally, through the medium of a synergistically balanced set of high-resolution components, we seek to re-create an acoustic event with a palpable sense of realism—as in timbre, dynamics, room cues, and dimensionality. Have I ever experienced a system commensurate with the experience of sitting 12th-row-center at Carnegie Hall for Boulez conducting Stravinsky? Close, but...
This is an era in which products and websites are "launched," but in the past two years Herron Audio has sort of oozed its way into the public ear. With little visible promotion or splashy advertising, Herron is now spoken of within an ever-widening audiophile circle.
Almost two years ago, Conrad-Johnson's Lew Johnson came to Santa Fe while visiting his western dealers. We were chatting about acquaintances in the industry as I showed him the new house I'd barely moved into when he spread a blueprint across a stack of record boxes and showed me a design for a new product.
One memorable afternoon during HI-FI '97, Kathleen and my pudgy little self were hustling down the crowded corridors of San Francisco's venerable St. Francis Hotel, trying to make the Nagra press event. The Nagra suite was crowded with buzzing journalists, their anticipation palpable—the new Nagra PL-P preamplifier was about to enjoy its official debut. Suddenly the door to the demo room flew open. The vacuum created by the stampeding hordes nearly sucked the hors d'oeuvres off the table.
In just a few years, Sonic Frontiers has evolved from a parts and kit vendor to a full-line audio manufacturer (footnote 1). Their initial offerings were well received, but their kit origins were apparent in the layout and cosmetics of their products. While SF still offers kits (like their high-value Assemblage DAC-2), the new line of vacuum-tube electronics has world-class construction, design, and packaging. This generation of SF equipment is evidence of their advanced evolution, even though their constructor genome can be detected in the use of audiophile-preferred, as opposed of OEM, components.
It takes more than passing courage to make another assault on building the world's best tube preamplifier. You face stiff competition from well-established firms like Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, and Counterpoint. Such units can't be made inexpensively, and you face the steadily growing problem of tube supply: it is getting harder and harder to get tubes that are stable, have predictable sound and performance characteristics, and are long-lived. And you have to show audiophiles who have been burned before that you will still be around when they need service.
"Musical Fidelity X-10D" it said on the box. No, this is not bathtub mildew remover or laundry detergent. Actually, it's hard to figure out exactly what it is. The box is little help. Musical Fidelity calls the X-10D "the missing link," a "pure Class A CD-player accessory."
What a thankless task! No, not reviewing audio equipment (though the case could be made). I'm talking about preamplification in the digital age: who needs it? The EAD DSP 9000 MK3 digital processor I'm using includes an ingenious full-resolution digital-domain volume control accessible by remote control.
We thought Audo Research's previous-model SP-2C (footnote 1) was excellent, but this is even better—the closest thing available, in fact, to the ideal straight wire with gain. Our sample had a minor glitch—there was a slight "plop" if you rotated the tone controls rapidly—but we could find nothing else about it to criticize. Currently, by far the best preamplifier than money can buy. And would you believe it uses tubes (at reduced heater voltage, for extended life and cooler operation)!
How important is the use of balanced circuit typology in the design of preamplifiers and power amplifiers? Ask the top audio designers (I didn't, but just play along, okay?) and you'll get a wide variety of opinions. Some reject the balanced approach outright, arguing that it represents a needless duplication of circuit components, and that better results can be achieved if the same attention and resources are devoted to perfecting a single-ended circuit. In his provocatively titled article "Balance: Benefit or Bluff?" (Stereophile, November 1994, p.77), Martin Colloms questioned the advantages of balanced designs, suggesting that while the results may be better in certain respects (eg, noise level), the reproduced sound may suffer in other, perhaps more important ways (eg, rhythm and dynamics).