Moscode 401HR power amplifier Page 2
Heat the beat and the rest'll turn sweet
George Kaye knows his amp. Effortless ain't the half of it. When I pressed Play on Manu Katché's Neighborhood (CD, ECM 1896), Marcin Wasilewski's piano leapt out of the Dynaudio Special Twenty-Five loudspeakers. No, leapt isn't quite the word, but neither is thundered or roared or anything else that connotes bombast. It's just that suddenly there was a piano in the room, followed by cymbals and an acoustic bass and, suddenly, a very real—and real-sized—trap set.
Yes, I know this is all part of the miracle we call high-fidelity music reproduction. There was no band in my listening room, of course, but the Moscode 401HR came frighteningly close to making me believe there was, not simply because it sounded real but also because it felt real. It possessed that jump factor to such a stunning degree that it felt as if the moving air creating the sounds was physically striking me. It couldn't have been that, of course. I wasn't playing the music at trouser-flapping volumes, nor was I listening through loudspeakers capable of creating such a palpable breeze. Something different, however, was definitely going on.
If by effortless Kaye means that the 401HR produced dynamic extremes and the shadings between them to an extraordinary degree, he's right on the money. If you like background music, don't go near the Moscode—you'll hate it. It celebrated the explosion of sound when Manu Katché taps his Zildjian cymbals or the rim of his Remo tom-tom. The 401HR illuminated the fuzzy burr of trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's breathy embouchure as he softly plays on "Lullaby," and captured the icy perfection of his fat, piercing projection later in the same solo. It sucked me into the liquid runs and explosions of triplets that Wasilewski produces on his Yamaha concert grand. And, for Pete's sake, it definitely did not let me ignore Katché's pulsing, skittering, rhythmic time keeping. No, if music belongs behind the other things you're doing, don't even audition the 401HR—you'll hate it.
When windbag reviewers go on and on (and on and on) about dynamic contrast, we audiophiles frequently assume that's code for plays loud—which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. However, these days, there's so little dynamic range in most recordings that it doesn't really matter if a hi-fi plays loud or not, it'll sound loud. John Atkinson wrote about this in 1999, and it may be even worse today. A better yardstick for measuring dynamic performance is how much variation a component wrings from recordings that actually possess gradations in loudness—and the recordings whose dynamic ranges still manage to impress me aren't necessarily those that threaten my lease.
One of my favorite such tests is a recording of Biber's Mysteriensonaten, by Marianne Rônez and Affretti Musicali (CD, Basic Edition 910 029-2), that Art Dudley kindly sent me a few years ago. It's essentially a series of violin sonatas backed by bass continuo (mostly chamber organ, but sometimes theorbo or viola da gamba). Hardly a dynamic treasure chest, you'd probably imagine—and, with some systems, you'd be right. But get yourself a fat pipe to pump the info through and it's compelling stuff. Rônez uses her bow to great effect, coaxing an astonishing panoply of tones and consonances from her violin, and her continuo players are masters at supporting and pushing her along. It's a rich and compelling experience—at least, that's what the 401HR told me.
Densely produced pop tracks, such as Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star," from That's the Way of the World (SACD, Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2016), were also delightful—layer upon layer of interlocking rhythm guitars and horn lines created a deep, continuously unfolding sonic universe. After nearly 30 years, I'm still not sure I like the music, but I sure do love the way it sounds. The Moscode 401HR, being an amplifier that seemingly shares Harvey Rosenberg's preference for passion over reason, makes that disconnection seem awfully petty—how could I not love something that sounds as good as "Shining Star"?
What is best in music is not to be found in the notes
While I enjoyed the Moscode 401HR during its solo audition, I was freaking out a tad trying to imagine what I could compare it to when it came time to evaluate it against another amplifier of similar aspirations and/or price—one that had been reviewed in Stereophile and thus was a "known" quantity. Finally, the penny dropped and I realized that my own reference amp, the one I actually own and listen to when I don't have any deadlines, was a hybrid tube/solid-state device with a monster power supply and a retail price slightly over $5000 when it was last available: the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, reviewed by Michael Fremer in December 1999. Actually using my reference as a reference—what a concept!
Despite their surface similarities, the Musical Fidelity and Moscode amps were quite different in performance. Both delivered big, beefy sound, as you'd expect from 200Wpc and 300Wpc amplifiers. Neither ran out of juice with either the Dynaudio Special Twenty-Five or Thiel CS2.4 speakers, nor would I imagine them doing so with nearly any speaker I could have paired them with, short of the original Thiel CS5s played at Larry Archibald New Year's Eve Party Levels. (Long story short: big room, power-hungry speakers, and John Atkinson and yours truly making a run to Stereophile HQ for some seriously heavy metal just before midnight.)
However, that said, the 401HR, which is rated at 100Wpc less than the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, actually sounded bigger. Not louder, exactly, just more present, especially on the Katché disc, where the dynamic range—the swings between loud and soft—seemed more extreme. A point in the Moscode's favor, I think.
The Nu-Vista 300, however, sounded sweeter and more "civilized" at the higher frequencies—in the cymbal overtones and saxophone harmonics, for example. The Moscode had a bit more of a "burr" at the leading edges of the notes. Was this a sign of greater accuracy—did the 401HR have a lower noise floor that allowed me to hear details that the Nu-Vista obscured? I went back and forth on this one. On the one hand, the Moscode seemed very slightly rougher, but sometimes smoothness is simply a loss of detail. (That "burr" can be tempered somewhat by trying other types of voltage-gain tubes, but I confined my comparison audition to the stock set. Perhaps a Follow-Up on tube differences is in order.)
Here's why I went back and forth on whether the Moscode's sound was a bug or a feature: While some listeners (perhaps even I, every other day) might prefer the smoother presentation of the Musical Fidelity, I felt the Moscode had more life and snap. It was more exciting to listen to. That doesn't mean it lacked nuance, as Biber's Mystery Sonatas clearly showed. The textures of horsehair on string, of wind sliding through stops, of theorbo theorboing, were vivid and warm. Here, I actually felt that the Nu-Vista was limiting the information flow. The presentation was flatter and less involving—very slightly less involving, but still.
Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself
The problem with high-performance audio is the same problem that high-performance anything faces: The good is so much better than the norm that determining what's best is impossible—and perhaps beside the point. Read the reviews and you can be convinced that there's a new "must-have" every month, especially if you don't know what it is you want.
There are lots of superb power amplifiers at the $5000 price point, and I can't actually think of a bad one. Almost all of them are well built, should last a long time, and probably measure well. What separates the Moscode 401HR from the pack is that it is different—like its inspiration, Harvey Rosenberg, it is unapologetically and enthusiastically what it is.
What it is is robust, full-bodied, and perhaps a little opinionated. It is also delicate and, to my ears at least, true to the music. I can't tell you that it's true to the music's intent—for one thing, I have no clue that I'd know what that is—but what the 401HR does sounds right to me.
In a world where most things sound good, sounding right seems like a giant step forward—or, at least, away from the pack. Whether you observe any specific ritual or not, Harvey Rosenberg was right about one thing: There are some experiences worth preparing yourself for, and auditioning a truly special amplifier such as the Moscode 401HR is one of them.