Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista kWP preamplifier & Tri-Vista kW Monobloc power amplifier Page 3

As one's system improves, cardboard-cutout recordings of musicians can become living, breathing entities. Over the years, and playing the same original pressing, I've been amazed by the transformation undergone by Miles Davis's performances on Kind of Blue: from a reasonable facsimile of a trumpet to one in which the harmonic and textural complexities of air, brass, valves, and lips are laid bare; a recording in which I can virtually "see" the instrument, "feel" it move on and off mike, and sense Davis's lips forming his embouchure.

Cables and power conditioning had enormous effects on the kWs' sound—more than I usually hear (see "Accessories" Sidebar). During a visit from a software manufacturer, I switched out a cable, and his head almost did a 360. Later, I removed the Shunyata Research Hydra passive power-line conditioner and, after some listening, replaced it with Shunyata's latest model, the Hydra 8. Then my head did a 360. I wondered whether I could actually describe the kWs' sound, so different was their presentation with different cables and AC conditioners. I could make these amps sound sterile or warm, coherent or rhythmically uncoordinated. The qualities that remained consistent were those of unlimited dynamics at both ends of the volume scale, the floating sensation I've already mentioned, the bass control, and the overall sense of effortlessness and relaxation while maintaining full musical grip.

I've just thrown on an original UK LP of the Who's Tommy and have gotten another surprise. I have never heard the acoustic guitar in the right channel sound so physically real, or the overall presentation so enormous.

Enter the Tri-Vista kWP
When I replaced the Halcro dm10 preamplifier with the VTL TL-7.5 (reviewed by Paul Bolin in October 2003), the sonic picture immediately became warmer, more relaxed, with a midband I could sink my head into like a down pillow. Some dynamic expression was sacrificed, and the picture was more congealed and somewhat less three-dimensional, but it was also less analytical and more emotionally expressive. While instrumental space and resolution of inner detail were not presented quite as starkly, and bass dynamics took a slight hit, bass textures and the sheer physicality of the sound improved. In terms of long-term listenability, tunefulness, and musical flow, the VTL 7.5 scored big points.

The combination of the VTL TL-7.5 preamp and the Musical Fidelity kW amps was a match I didn't think could be improved on, and given my lack of enthusiasm for Musical Fidelity's Nu-Vista preamp a few years ago, I wasn't looking forward to the change. But once it was made, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista kWP was easily competitive sonically, and that's saying a lot. Both preamps include tubes in their circuits, but the VTL has that distinctively warm 12AX7 sound, while the kWP's sound was somewhat less distinctive, some would say more neutral.

At first I was somewhat disappointed with the kWP's somewhat more recessed, less relaxed midband, but as it warmed up and broke in, its strong suits became more apparent and the memory of the VTL 7.5's lush midband faded, replaced by the kWP's greater dynamic expression and its amazing ability to carve out space and specify image location. However, being presented with so much information in such detail will not appeal to everyone. Over time, I came to thoroughly enjoy the kWP's dynamic slam, grand stage size and image scale, and the absolute authority of its iron-fisted control of the bass. Yet it never sounded etched or "solid-state."

The kWP preamp proved to be an ideal mate for the kW power amps. Ironically, it was the Tri-Vista kWP-kW combo that pointed out the Tri-Vista SACD player's somewhat lackadaisical bass control and focus compared to the Krell SACD Standard).

After a few weeks of enjoying the kWP, I re-installed the VTL TL-7.5 and re-experienced its sumptuous but not excessive midband glow and smooth overall musical flow. It had more of a "relaxed fit" that at first was disappointing—it wasn't as detailed, and didn't reach down quite as far or as tightly on bottom, as the kWP, nor did it have the Tri-Vista's top-end extension and shimmering detail. But when I'd re-acclimated myself to the TL-7.5, I didn't miss the kWP's supercharged presence and impressive dynamic grip. If the Halcro dm10 was the detail and neutrality champ and the VTL 7.5 the smoothest operator, the MF kWP fell in between, with a fine combination of richness, dynamic expression, bass extension, and transient clarity.

As for Antony Michaelson's "proper phono section," though it was competent, it couldn't compete with standalone phono preamps like the ASR Basis ($4995), the Sutherland PhD ($3000), or the Manley Steelhead ($7000). In direct A/B comparisons with those designs, the kW's phono section didn't grip the music as tightly, couldn't control the bottom end with the same authority, and lacked the dynamic grandeur and overall image focus of the outboard boxes—but given the latters' cost, that should surprise no one. I understand why Musical Fidelity wanted to include a full-service phono stage in the kWP, but I don't believe anyone willing to spend $11,995 on a preamp who is seriously into analog will accept anything but a first-class outboard phono section. But if building a terrestrial digital tuner into an HDTV gives the buyer incentive to add a rooftop antenna, perhaps including a very good phono preamp in the kWP will encourage buyers to add a turntable.

Once the lucky few have snapped up the 75 sets of Tri-Vista kWPs and kWs, they'll become collector's items. With the kWP, Musical Fidelity has built an expensive, full-function preamplifier whose build quality and sound fully justify its majestic price of $11,995. Whether its buxom industrial design and outlandish remote will appeal to its target audience of the well-to-do remains to be seen.

As happened when I reviewed the Boulder 2008 phono preamplifier in July 2002, inserting the Tri-Vista kW Monoblocs into my system delivered not just a different sonic color or style, or marginally improved sound compared to anything I'd heard previously, but rather a unique and sensational upward step in both sheer sonic pleasure and in the communication of musical meaning. I try to be stingy with superlatives, in order to create a wide range of reviewing "dynamics." But when used with appropriate associated gear and, especially, the optimum cables and power-delivery devices (see "Accessories" Sidebar), the kWs reached a new peak performance level in my experience. They're easily the best-sounding amplifiers I have ever heard—as well they should be, for $23,995/pair.

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