Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amplifier Wes Phillips, September 2006
The surprise wasn't that a big, powerful monoblock had, um, power; the startling part was how subtly that power was employed. The natural comparison for the $3500/pair Portal Paladin seemed to be my reference power amp, the two-chassis Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300. Of course, the Nu-Vista isn't strictly speaking a monoblock—its two chassis are split into a power supply and a signal amplifier—and its limited edition of 500 units sold out long ago. On the other hand, John Atkinson called it back in 1999 "possibly the best-measuring amplifier I've ever seen," and it's what I own.
For the acid test, I kept the system source my Ayre C-5xe universal player, and the preamplifier the Conrad-Johnson CT-5. Cables were Stereovox Colibri and biwire runs of Stereovox Firebird. Although I'd used other speakers during the audition, I felt the Canton Vento Reference 1 DCs were the most demanding and revealing I had on hand, so I used 'em.
Is 100W an audible difference? I guess that depends on whether you're talking about the difference between 5W and 105W amplifiers or between 200W and 300W amps. Certainly, the Paladins didn't seem softer than the Nu-Vista 300, or any less capable of driving the Cantons. Yet the Nu-Vista seemed a trifle more lively at the top end of recordings—even those ancient Jelly Roll Morton sides. It wasn't so much that the Paladins sounded dark, just that the Nu-Vista had a shade more sparkle.
But that's not quite it: sparkle sounds as if I mean more zing on the overtones, when in fact it was almost as if the Nu-Vista had a bit more control there. Less sizzle and more splash—if by splash I mean the effortless way water seems to flow around stone when it falls from a height.
The Patti Smith Band, on the other hand, sounded about the same whichever amp delivered it. The galumphing rhythm, Smith's physical delivery of her lyrics, and the hell-bound momentum were intact either way, No, again, more than intact: both danced on the edge of chaos, which means it wasn't chaos, 'cause chaos don't dance.
That's the grace I spoke of earlier. The Paladins kept things together with style, which is what grace is—as they exhibited with the Chopin, where control was all. Except, of course, that control must be hidden within grace if it's not to sound labored. The essence of Rubinstein's Chopin is that it simply charms the ear.
The Nu-Vista delivered that charm in the same way as Rubinstein, as though he'd never given it a thought. And, in the final analysis, so did the Paladins—with a tad less insouciance, perhaps, because the Nu-Vista 300 really did make it seem easy. But the Paladins didn't make it seem exactly hard. They sure did make it seem believable—and when you're achieving the impossible, believability is not to be sneered at.
I'm making it seem as if the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista was better, especially at such between-the-cracks properties as charm, but again, that wasn't quite the case. The difference between a stellar performer like the Nu-Vista and run-of-the-mill products isn't immense, but it's significant. The difference between the Nu-Vista and the Paladins was even more subtle—and I'm not sure it's terribly significant. The Paladins don't establish a new benchmark, but they sure didn't miss the old one by much.—Wes Phillips