One of the differences between mass-market and high-end audio is in product model longevity. By this I don't mean that high-end products necessarily last longer—although I think they generally do—but that models remain in a manufacturer's product line longer, perhaps being refined in an evolutionary manner. This helps products retain their value, and, when new models are introduced, these involve more than a cosmetic upgrade and some additional bells'n'whistles.
Klyne Audio Arts has an almost Zen-like approach to the design of its products. Like the best Japanese designs, Klyne's preamps are aesthetically pleasing in appearance, do exactly what they're supposed to, and their controls are not only where you would expect them to be, but have an almost sensually smooth action. Internal construction, too, is a work of art—the kind of design which, transferred to a tapestry, would grace the wall of any listening room. You have to see the insides of a Klyne preamp to appreciate how attractive-looking an audio component can be. But physical beauty is only one aspect of Stan Klyne's designs; of all the electronics manufacturers I know of, Klyne Audio Arts also makes products more adjustable than any others, so as to appeal to the needs of what I call compulsive tweaks.
Klyne Audio Arts is such a low-profile outfit that I marvel at its continued existence. It is reliably absent from the Audio and Stereo Review annual equipment directories, and if Stan Klyne has ever run an advertisement for any of his products anywhere, I haven't seen it, Yet Klyne Audio Arts always manages to have an exhibit at CES, where they display some of the most beautiful preamps and head-amps we see there, only to go underground again for another six months.
Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime. One day I'm reviewing the $139 Sonic Impact Super T power amplifier, and the next day Krell Industries delivers their $10,000 Evolution 505 SACD/CD player, $15,000 Evolution 202 preamplifier, and their $30,000/pair Evolution 600 monoblocks.
About three weeks ago, while perusing the gear in a local audio retail establishment, I overheard a salesman, who could well have been selling used cars, giving a classic spiel to an obviously confused customer. "You see, sir, all preamplifiers basically sound alike, especially with line-level inputs. The only differences are in the number of features." He went on to tell his prey that spending big bucks for high-end products such as Krell or Mark Levinson (neither of which he sold) would be a big mistake. I choked back my automatic response of a certain bovine term, but thought it better to continue my fly-on-the-wall masquerade.
Compared to the Krell KSA-300S power amplifier that I also review this month, the KRC preamp's design is, at first glance, almost conventional. But its thoroughly high-end internal design has been equally well thought-out and executed. Its main, four-layer, glass-epoxy circuit board is for the audio signal, DC power, and groundtwo layers for the latter are said to minimize noise. The gain stages are pure class-A and complementary. As in the amplifier, the circuit is direct-coupled, with servo circuits controlling the DC offset. The fully regulated power supply is housed in an external chassis. Seven inputs are provided: four single-ended, two balanced, and one single-ended tape. All inputs are line-level except for the optional, single-ended phono stage. (This review will address the line stages; a Follow-Up will discuss the phono stage's operation.) There are three outputs: balanced and single-ended main outputs, and a single-ended tape output.
There's always a certain amount of jockeying for position at the very top of the High End. Every few months, a new star burns brightly, getting all the attention. While the constant turnover at the cutting edge helps to define the state of the art, audiophiles should keep their eyes on the longer term. It's a company's track record—examined over a period of years—which defines its position in the market and the credibility of its products.
About a decade ago, I read in Stereophile about the SRC, an add-on remote-control unit manufactured by Acoustic Research. I bought one the next day ('swhat happens when you work across the street from a hi-fi shop). Suddenly I was able to make incremental changes in volume and balance from my listening position—and let me tell you that that's the way to do it. What a phenomenal difference in realistic dynamics and soundstaging.
One of the most striking aspects of high-end audio is that you can never take any component for granted. Most of the radical change in audio at present takes place in new front-end and speaker technologies, but other components are changing as welland with at least as much impact in making recorded music seem believable.
The roadster's throbbing rumble became a roar as the tachometer soared above 4 grand. Like a giant hand, its thrust jammed me back into the seat. Racing along low to the ground, feeling every curve and bump, I began to understand: the automotive virtues of smoothness and insulation had been swapped for firm road grip and the ability to transmit to the driver each jolt and curve in the surface below. Long before I'd climbed into the driver's seat of Porsche's Boxster S, I had known about its low-end snort and speedthe main reasons I was considering a leasebut I had not known about its ability to join sensation and purpose in such an intense bond.
I've spent six-odd years in a sort of hi-fi counterculture, playing with things like mono cartridges, one-box CD players, and cheap, homemade cables—and, of course, owning and listening to single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers and horn loudspeakers. But before all that, I owned components that, while more mainstream, did the job just as well in certain ways. That category included solid-state electronics (Naim, BEL, Spectral), dynamic loudspeakers of middling efficiency (ProAc, Epos, Magneplanar), electrostatic loudspeakers of very low efficiency (Stax), and even "high-end" accessories like Tiptoes and Shun Mook Mpingo discs (which I still have, although my five-year-old daughter has more or less permanently co-opted the latter for playtime use).
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.
I'm old enough to remember my family's first table radio that was made out of plastic. It was cream-colored, and it sat on the rearmost edge of our kitchen table: a less-than-timeless design in its own right, destined to be discarded at the end of one era and treasured again at the dawn of another, for more or less the same reason. But in 1958, a cream-colored plastic radio looked fresh, clean, and right, and its cheap wooden predecessor seemed dowdy and sad by comparison. That would all change in later years, of course. Then it would all change again.
Before launching into Stereophile's first-ever report on a Mark Levinson product, an important point needs to be clarified. Although Mark Levinson products were originally made by Mark Levinson, they are no longer. Au contraire, Mark Levinson products are now being made by Madrigal, Ltd., which bought Mark Levinson Audio Systems' assets and trademark two years ago. Mark Levinson's products, as distinguished from Mark Levinson products, are now being manufactured by a company called Cello. But the subject of this report, the Mark Levinson ML-7A preamplifier, is a product of Madrigal, Ltd., not of Cello. Now that I've made that all perfectly clear, we may proceed.
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.)