The "Reference" designation is thrown around a lot in the world of perfectionist audio. It's most often used to elevate the top of the line to a higher perceived status. Occasionally, as in the case of the VTL TL-7.5 line stage that I reviewed in October 2003, it genuinely denominates a component that is clearly superior to its competition in most aspects of performance.
How did Michael Jordan, talented as he was at the peak of his powers, always manage to impose his will on his teammates to push them to victory when it counted most? What made Sandy Koufax able to elevate his pitching to a superhuman level when the stakes were highest? A knowledgeable, hardcore sports fan can watch the performance of two players with nearly identical statistics and, after not too long, tell you which one is merely very good and which one is great. What makes a star are intangibles—those qualities you can't quantify or analyze, but can't help but recognize when you're in their presence.
There is always a conflict between the needs of reviewers and the realities of the marketplace. Once a reviewer has invested his time and energy in a review, he would like that product to remain in production for all time, which would allow it to be used as a reliable recommendation forever. But whatever the product and whatever the category, sales of a product almost always follow the same triangular curve: a sharp rise at the product's introduction, a maximum reached sometime thereafter, and then a steady decline to a sustained but low plateau. Marketing-minded manufacturers therefore introduce a new model every three or four years, in hopes of turning that single triangle into a continuous sawtooth wave.
Lindell Audio, a Swedish professional-audio company, was founded in 2010 by recording engineer Tobias Lindell, and claims to offer equipment "by engineers, for engineers." Tobias Lindell specifies the features and functions that he wants each product to incorporate; the actual circuit designs are by others. Although Lindell's corporate headquarters are in Sweden, the products are manufactured in China, and are competitively priced.
Recently I found myself on the phone with Linn's chief design engineer, Bill Miller, talking about switch-mode power supplies. Affable Mr. Miller was ensconced in Linn HQ in Glasgow, Scotland. After a bit I inquired if Head Man Ivor Tiefenbrun was about the manse, and was quickly handed over. "You're such a cheeky guy. Why'd you call it the Klimax?"
This review should have appeared more than a few months ago. When I reviewed Linn's Troika cartridge back in the Fall of 1987, in Vol.10 No.6, Audiophile Systems also supplied me with a sample of the Linn LK1 preamplifier and the LK2 power amplifier, which I had intended to review in the due course of things. As it transpired, however, I was less than impressed with the LK2, finding, as did Alvin Gold back in Vol.9 No.2, that while it had a somewhat laid-back balance, it also suffered a pervasive "gray" coloration, which dried out recorded ambience and obscured fine detail.
When Philip O'Hanlon of On a Higher Note, Luxman's US distributor, delivered the B-1000F monoblocks, it took three of us to wrestle their shipping crates into my house and then into the listening room. Once they were unpacked, it still took two of us to maneuver each of them into positionat 141 lbs and 16.9" wide by 11.6" high by 23.3" deep, the B-1000F is far from easy to shift. Fortunately, O'Hanlon had also brought along a pair of Stillpoint stands specifically made for the Luxmans; the B-1000Fs certainly wouldn't have fit into my equipment racks. (The Stillpoints are lovely things. I recommend 'em if you go for the B-1000Fs.)
When O'Hanlon told me the price of the stands$2500/pairI asked what the amps cost.
"Fifty-five," he said.
"You mean the stands are 45% of the price of the amps?"
Founded in 1925, Luxman has long been one of Japan's most highly regarded audio manufacturers. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Luxman's tube preamplifiers and power amplifiers occupied the top shelves of high-performance audio retailers, and to many older American audiophiles, the Luxman name is as familiar and esteemed as those of such storied American brands as McIntosh and Marantz. Luxman's combination of rich, warm sound, superb build quality, and indelible industrial design made its products fully competitive with other brands then considered among the world's best.
Some of the old audio names, such as Eico and Pilot, are gone. Others—Fisher, AR, KLH, H.H. Scott, etc.—have been rendered meaningless by corporate mergers and acquisitions. Yet more than 50 years after their founding, McIntosh and Marantz, arguably the two most prestigious names in American high-quality audio electronics, survive. The products they make today are probably closer in spirit to their original classics of half a century ago than at any time since the early 1970s.
"A high-quality amplifier must be capable of passing rigid laboratory measurements, meet all listening requirements, and be simple and straightforward in design in the interest of minimizing performance degradation..."—Cdr. Charles W. Harrison Jr., Audio, January 1956 (footnote 1)
I must admit, right from the outset, that I find reviewing electronic components harder than reviewing loudspeakers; the faults are less immediately obvious. No preamplifier, for example, suffers from the frequency-response problems endemic to even good loudspeakers. And power amplifiers? If you were to believe the older generation of engineers—which includes some quite young people!—then we reached a plateau of perfection in amplifier design some time after the Scopes Monkey Trial but well before embarking on the rich and exciting lifestyles afforded us by Reaganomics. (In the UK, it is generally felt by these people that the date coincided with the introduction of Quad's first current-dumping amplifier, the 405, in 1976.)
The No.331 is the latest iteration in a series of Mark Levinson 100Wpc, solid-state, stereo power amplifiers. Extensive cosmetic alterations, internal structural changes, and new circuit designs make it quite different from the No.27 and No.27.5 models that preceded it. These design refinements emanate from Madrigal Audio Laboratories' latest flagship amplifier, the $32,000/pair, 300W RMS Mark Levinson No.33 Reference.
My father could not resist buying electronic and photographic gear. As soon as he heard about a new Polaroid camera, or a new weather radio, tape recorder, or color television, he'd go shopping. He'd be even more eager to buy an updated version of what he already had, particularly if this meant there was a story to tell. He'd buy one for himself, and sometimes he'd give me and my three brothers one of our own for a birthday or Christmas gift. (I often thought he took more pleasure from giving to us than he did from getting his own.)
Chances are you've never seen an amplifier quite like the Mark Levinson No.33H. That's because there's only one other amp that's anything like it: the Mark Levinson No.33, upon which it's based. Both amps are more tall than broad, looking almost as though they're resting on their ends; heatsinks cluster around their side-panels. In the city of the High End, the No.33 and No.33H are skyscrapers standing tall above the warehouses.