Listening #91 Page 3

How did the 2b compare with the Shindo Masseto I've owned and used for exactly three years, alongside my original Fi? The huge-sounding Shindo is the more obviously tubeish device, with a richer, slightly darker character overall. Remarkably, the 2b had even greater scale than the original; just as remarkably, the Masseto is slightly bigger still. That said, the Fi 2b forgoes the heavier, more timbrally saturated sound of the Shindo for a more open sort of clarity and, almost certainly, greater degrees of timbral neutrality and textural cleanness.

It's also worth noting that the 2b was a delight to use. Its MC input switch came in handy whenever I wanted to swap between my low-output Ortofon SPU and my high-output EMT OFD 25 mono cartridge. (The latter sounded extremely nice with the Fi 2b in its high-impedance MC setting; although the very expensive Hommage T1 outboard transformer could wring still more color and juice from the EMT, the Hashimoto wasn't far behind.) Unlike my Shindo, the Fi's mono switch worked with every input. The detented volume control had both a precise, positive feel and a satisfyingly wide range of fine adjustment. And, with the exception of a minor glitch in which excess downward pressure on the volume gear momentarily muted the phono output—easily remedied by bending one switch contact out of the way of another—the Fi 2b behaved humlessly, noiselessly, and consistently well.

The sound of the Fi 2b preamp was like a Schubert piano trio: logical, perfect, well balanced, apparently immortal, and glowing with beauty of the truthful sort. Like all other Shindo preamps and amps that I've heard, the Masseto is like 20th-century American poetry at its best: The sound contains as much meaning as the notes/words themselves, and every performance is shot through with the kind of random beauty that, if it wasn't part of the original, sure as hell should have been.

I need both, of course.

Aside from the full-Monty Fi 2b, with the step-up transformers and the instruction sheet, Don Garber also offers an MM-only version without step-up transformers ($7600), and a line-only version ($7000). Thanks to the current state of the art of computer-based digital audio replay, I can rest assured knowing that even those who settle for the latter will still hear what's so special about this thing.

"This is the best I can do for a preamp, at the moment," Garber told me. "Years from now, who knows?"

O, Canada
A few weeks ago as I write this, John Atkinson, Stephen Mejias, Robert Deutsch, Keith Pray, and I represented Stereophile at the Salon Son et Image: an enduringly interesting and well-run home-entertainment show in downtown Montreal. From my first hour at the sprawling Hilton Bonaventure—an impromptu bar-food fest shared by most of the above, along with Simaudio's Lionel Goodfield, Dynaudio's Michael Manousselis, DeVore Fidelity's John DeVore, Tone Imports' Jonathan Halpern, and Ayre Acoustics' Steve Silberman—to my last, I had a splendid time. It was also the least snowy SSI in memory, and despite the cold winds, and one cab driver who seized on my unfamiliarity with Canadian currency and stole $10 from me, Montreal was its enduringly fashionable and food-friendly self.

During the Show, John, Stephen, Robert, and I submitted to the usual "Ask the Editors" panel: typically my least favorite part of any show, given that I'm not keen on public speaking. But this was the best one yet, completely lacking in antagonism, and characterized by intelligent and interesting questions. Such as (I paraphrase): Do you think Stereophile should devote more attention to vintage audio products? Remarkably, just a week or so later, the same question came up in the "Critics Corner" of And again, within the past week, the topic was raised in a group e-mail among some of Stereophile's writers.

Unsurprisingly, among that last group there is no unanimity of opinion. Perhaps just as unsurprisingly, I'm very much a vintage audio fan (although I think it would be unwise for a mainstream magazine with limited editorial space to lavish too much attention on any subgenre). I own a number of vintage components myself, some of which—my Thorens TD 124 turntable and Quad ESL loudspeakers in particular—I use regularly, simply because I prefer them to most of their modern counterparts.

In fact, if one were to include in the genre NOS parts (all of the tubes and about half of the passive components in my Shindo preamp and mono amplifiers), reissues (the EMT 997 tonearm), and current-production designs that haven't changed in 40 or more years (several stereo and mono pickup heads from Ortofon and EMT), then the word vintage could be applied to most of the items in my reference system. Which, incidentally, sounds wonderful.

But there isn't as big a gap between vintage and new hardware as some appear to think. Ignoring for the moment digital sources, class-D amplifiers, distributed-mode loudspeakers, and various refinements made possible by such recent materials as Sorbothane and carbon fiber, it seems to me that audio products haven't changed as much as have audio people. And of the latter, it's the consumers who've changed most of all (although the marketers are never far behind). What has changed is the apparent willingness of consumers to spend considerable money, endure considerable inconvenience, and devote considerable floor space to domestic audio gear. Of course the engineers of 50 years ago could have made a phono preamplifier, the construction of which would require nearly a week of workdays for resistor-matching alone. Or a turntable with a main bearing that's machined to within a micron's accuracy (footnote 2). Or a single-ended-triode amp with a large enough output transformer to resist saturation all the way down to 30Hz. Or a 400-lb speaker with reasonably uncolored, wide-range sound. But no one back then imagined that consumers would ever tolerate, let alone want, such things.

In the years since Quad ESLs and Marantz Model 8s were available new, people's imaginations have expanded to include a whole lot of nutty ideas. Today, the average fan of perfectionist audio wouldn't look twice at an amplifier with a price under four figures, any more than the average fan of sci-fi adventure films would consider seeing a movie that was made for less than $30 million. The difference is, there's enough of the latter consumers that they don't bear the financial brunt, $4 Cokes and $5 bags of M&Ms notwithstanding.

Vintage audio isn't all about squawky things with no bass and no treble and a constant wash of background noise, any more than contemporary audio is all about plasticky-sounding trophy systems designed around shit like The Sheffield Track Record and the Casper soundtrack. Minds, like taverns but unlike circuits, work only when open, so do try everything that comes your way: You needn't wait to hear what we or anyone else thinks about it before you do.

Footnote 2: I'm always amused when people express the idea that the Linn LP12—or whatever other contemporary product—was the first real high-end record player, by dint of its (admittedly) high-precision build: Anyone who would say such a thing has apparently never examined the main bearing of a Thorens TD 124.
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