Legend Audio Design Starlet integrated amplifier Page 3
Words such as "glow," "aura," and "velvet" came to mind, though there was nothing sloppy about this triode presentation. There was very nice weight, articulation, and tonal presence to the acoustic bass and bass drum on "Dinah," though in terms of rhythm and pacing, the attack was less snappy, more laid-back than through the Manley Stingray. Nevertheless, on "Spanish Key," from Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65774), the Starlet did a commendable job of sorting out the complex blasts of electric keyboards, twin bass, and dueling drums, building a soundstage from the bottom up while allowing the halo of reverb around Davis' horn to glisten at the top of the aural pyramid. And when this Starlet distorted, it did so like a lady—that is, musically, and commensurate with the distortion in the recording.
Still, if you're a measurement purist like John Atkinson, you'll recoil in horror. The Starlet was no muscle amp with enormous reserves of dynamic range, and was quite finicky about how I adjusted it for the level structures of particular recordings—which, as you know, vary wildly. I found this 40W triode amp to be sensitive enough to be less forgiving of mastering anomalies, and of volume freaks (like me) who audition with less efficient speakers. As good as the Starlet sounded at low to moderate volumes, there seemed to be an optimum range beyond which I couldn't drive it.
I discovered this with some really hot, fast transients from Ralph Towner's 12-string guitar on "Moor," from his duet album with Gary Peacock, A Closer View (ECM 1602): they made the top end go crunch. I tend to play things a lot louder than most of you probably do, but it did make me wonder what was going on. I adjusted the volume accordingly, and proceeded without incident...
...until I played a new 20-bit remastering of Thelonious Monk playing Miles Davis' "Bags Groove" (from Thelonious Monk: The Complete Prestige Recordings, Prestige 3PRCD-4428-2). The difference in mastering levels was so great I almost jumped out of my chair. But when I backed off to the proper level, the sound was so seductive, in the jazz midrange/after midnight sense, that I listened contentedly to this track for hours.
To those contemplating making the Legend Audio Design Starlet the heart of their main systems, I suggest a judicious and thorough exploration of matching speakers. While the Starlet was a musical match for the Joseph RM7si's, with exceptional definition at the lowest volume levels—a pretty fair indicator of an amp's musical pedigree—I could drive it only so far. This is why my reference point is the tube/solid-state, ultra-high-current Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista combo, which easily puts out 300Wpc into an 8 ohm load, and thus is damn sure a bear to clip (an attribute shared in spades by its more affordable, sonically evolved musical progeny, the A3CR power amp.).
In all fairness to the Starlet, any caveats I would offer as to the Starlet's performance would be based on room size, speaker efficiency, and a realistic appraisal of the range of music you'd be playing, and the level of physical impact and immediacy you deem appropriate or desirable. Less efficient speaker, too much gain; add some fast, physical transients and voilè—you will clip this amp.
Likewise, if you're looking for the last word in rhythm and pacing, you may find the Starlet lacking. Not that it's sluggish—there's realistic weight and presence to the bass, with a captivating sense of harmonic detail and truth. But this is not a snap-crackle-pop amplifier. And while I thought the Starlet had juiciness, detail, and midrange refinement comparable to those of the Mesa Tigris and VAC Avatar (if perhaps a touch more velvety and inviting), those products have greater dynamic range—the former with extra slam, the latter with extra speed.
But that's the story of, that's the glory of triode. The Legend Audio Design Starlet is a simple, straightforward example of the genre, a fine performer whose joys and sorrows must be taken in the context of its price. At $2995 it has a fine sense of weight and tonal presence and a sweet, airy soundstage. Its balance is lush and euphonic without being syrupy, yet fully detailed without those details being either italicized or blandly rolled-off. With its liquid-cherry midrange and smooth, natural patina, the Starlet is just about everything one could wish for in a high-quality, relatively affordable, all-triode tube integrated amplifier. If you treat this Starlet tenderly, obey the speed limit, and match her to an appropriate loudspeaker, she should reward you with performances worthy of a true diva.