Legend Audio Design Starlet integrated amplifier Page 2
The Starlet offers lower gain than most other integrated amplifiers, meaning that it seems quieter. With the CD player in Pause, I had to turn the Starlet's volume up past 3 o'clock to hear even a small amount of residual hum. Now that's quiet.
"No, it isn't," wrote back Gaylord. "The careful balance of normal characteristics can result in a very non-normal listening experience. Noise and perceived noise are determined by many factors that have been addressed by other manufacturers, but [one overlooked factor seems to be gain structure]. If the gain structure and distribution of the playback system are consistent with that of the recording system, not only are headroom and space optimized, but the perceived noise is optimized as well.
"Generally, the Legend amplifiers are medium- to low-gain devices...that have the right overall gain to match the standard recording practices. Did it ever seem odd that the 'sweet spot' on a mixing console's linear faders [is] the same relative gain value for a wide range of mixing consoles from manufacturers with differing design theories? It is simply that the summed noise is at its lowest in relationship to signal at that point. Legend products match that gain structure that optimizes noise performance when the entire system—from microphone to preamp mixer to mastering media to playback device to preamp/power amp to cables and, finally, speakers—is considered as a whole."
Quiet As It's Kept
I was immediately captivated by the Starlet's quiet backgrounds and its exceptional tonal balance. Compared with the Mesa Tigris and VAC Avatar integrated amps I have reviewed in the past, I was shocked at how quiet the Starlet was, how supple and gradual the onset of gain was, and how solid its overall resolution at very low volumes.
The only tweaking I did with my reference system concerned speaker cabling and the configuration of the two-way Joseph RM7si Signatures. (The Signature version substitutes an aluminum-cone bass/midrange driver for the original's Kevlar cone.) To optimize the performance of my full-range Celestion A3 loudspeakers, whose three 8" bass drivers cross over to a 7" midrange driver at 300Hz, I've mostly been using a biwire configuration by Synergistic Research that was recommended to me by Robert Stein of the Cable Company: Resolution Reference Mk.II for the bass, and Designer's Reference for the mids and highs. This combo has proved very effective with the Celestions or Josephs and Musical Fidelity's Nu-Vista preamp and Nuvista 300 power amp.
The Starlet's load impedance is optimized through an internal tap to work with a 4, 8, or 16 ohm load. I told Ray Leung that for this evaluation I'd be using the Joseph RM7si Signatures, with their nominal impedance of 8 ohms, and the Starlet was configured accordingly. The Josephs have a steep, 120dB/octave crossover to the tweeter at 2kHz, and whatever the nature of the interaction between amp, cables, and speakers may have been, I was experiencing some graininess in the bass. I thought it best to simplify the setup, and so employed a set of JPS Labs jumper cables (spades on both ends of heavy-gauge wires) to reconfigure the RM7si Signatures for single speaker cables, and broke out two 8' runs of JPS Superconductor 2, their top-of-the-line speaker cable (footnote 1).
Once I had the cabling optimized, I found the Starlet to be a tone machine, and a most appealing one. Given the price/performance tradeoffs between tubed and solid-state gear, it seems a given that if you're seeking unlimited Dionysian attributes, you need to spend a whole lot more money on separates, or you need to venture into the realm of high-powered solid-state. But if you're content with more modest Apollonian attainments, there is much to recommend in the lush refinements of this triode design.
The Starlet really shone in its portrayal of acoustic music. On the first movement of the Juilliard String Quartet's performance of Elliot Carter's String Quartet 3 (Sony Classical S2K 47229), when the four players pass around a pizzicato motif, the Starlet maintained a rock-solid image—I could clearly discern the musicians in a half-circle before me, with good soundstaging depth and depiction of low-level room sound. While the soundstage was hardly the last word in transparency, when the composer called for more extreme juxtapositions of intervals, there was a sepia glow to the strings that drew me deeper into the music. What's more, the rendering of whistling upper partials and high overtones was taut and accurate, without any glare or zizziness.
Footnote 1: I've gotten good results in the past by using the less expensive JPS Superconductor Single with tube amps, but the stiffer, heavier-gauge Superconductor 2 is even better. Bass focus and extension are superb, and the way the 2 helps flesh out midrange details is magical. Where the 2 differs most significantly from the Single is in the presence region of the midrange: while the 2 is lushly detailed in the mids, it's appreciably less brassy, and while even more extended in the high end, it's also decidedly laid-back. The Superconductor 2 is more revealing and much less forgiving than the Superconductor Single, which is why I used 2s for my final listening sessions.