One of my best friends is a serious jazz collector with a side interest in good replay gear. The last time we got together over a meal, he asked, "What do you think is really the most important component in an audio system?" He might have added "these days": It's a subject we come back to from time to time.
The challenge is biblical in character, if not in scope: A half year after railing, in these pages, against our industry's overabundance of products that cost more than $20,000, fate has given me such a thing to review.
My guest, an occasionally nice person, didn't mean her question in a nice way. It was pointed and derisive: a needle intended to burst whatever it was that made me think filling a room with thousands of LPs was a good idea. She didn't wait for an answerit would have been "Not quite"but I half think she half expected me to see reason on the spot.
Years ago, while editing Listener Magazine, I received a call from a record-company publicist with whom I was friendly: The drummer Ginger Baker, whose work I admire, was promoting a new release, and we were offered a 30-minute telephone interview with the artist. I jumped at the chance, but wound up leaving the article in the canpartly because it was so short, partly because its subject was so cranky. As with vacation trips to certain locales, second prize would likely have been 60 minutes with Ginger Baker.
Today is Monday, February 5, and it's so buttercupping cold outside that the custodian couldn't get our school's oil burner started. Consequently, my daughter is home for the day, playing on the rug in front of the fireplace. (Santa brought a wooden castle and a fine selection of medieval figurines, some of which are headed for the dungeon as we speak.) I'm at my desk in the music room, on the upwind side of the house—and the wind is murder. The west wall is cold. The north wall is cold. The floorboards are cold. But the air inside is warm as toast: I'm driving my Quad ESL speakers with a Joule Electra VZN-80 amplifier ($12,000) that isn't at all bashful about squandering a goodly amount of energy as heat. I can't think of a more delightful quality for an amp to have, at least on a day like this.
When audio designer Ken Shindo was a little boy, his father kept an enormous collection of 78rpm records in their home in Tokyo. During the final days of World War II, the Japanese authorities did their best to evacuate the city, but the elder Shindo was steadfast: He refused to leave, for fear that the records would be gone when he returned.
Neither its rather pedestrian name nor Manley Labs' own literature gives much of a clue as to the 175 monoblock's special pedigree. Where are the bands, the fanfare?! After all, the rolling-out of a 6L6based high-power audiophile-grade tube amplifier definitely qualifies in my book as a momentous occasion. Deplorably, such happenings are rare indeed; the 6L6 has been unjustly neglected in high-end circles.
There's something special about big tube amplifiers. No other audio component has such a primal appeal or can so quickly reduce grown (?) audiophiles to Homer Simpsons sighing, "Mmmmm...toooobs." EveAnna Manley, president of Manley Laboratories, understands the effect of high-powered tubes on the audiophile brain and shares the obsession. A Harley rider, mountain climber, and devoted music lover, she is one of the industry's most individualistic characters. You just have to appreciate a gal who ends each CES by blaring Rage Against the Machine at top volume.
My reviews always begin in bizarre ways. Take David Manley...please! (Just kidding.) On the last day of Winter CES 1995, I found myself towing a tuckered-out JA to a few final rooms. (This was just after the January '95 David Manley/Dick Olsher tube-rolling brouhaha, footnote 1, regarding who should do what to whom, and with which particular tube.) So as we passed Manley's room, John Atkinson thought to stick his head in (the noose) and say hello.
In the name of journalistic ethics (footnote 1) I have to come clean. David Manley once gave me a gift. He presented me with a large, rather heavy, Russian-made watch at the 1995 Las Vegas WCES. A very manly watch: In fact, it said "Manley" right on the dial. The watch worked fine for about six months. Then it developed a very subjective approach to timekeeping. Time stood still, and my life wasn't even passing before my eyes. The watch has become a nice, albeit slightly ugly, miniboat anchor; now my rubber ducky stays where I put it in my bathtub.
It's no secret. David Manley has not been big on single-ended amplifiers. Not enough muscle. You're better off with push-pull. Still, with a growing market for single-ended stuff, I'm sure Manley saw a need to do something. Of all tube designers, Manley has always been among the most prolific.
McIntosh Laboratories is back in the act with a limited-edition revival of the MC275 tube amplifier, the original of which was produced from May 1961 through July 1973one of the longest model runs in hi-fi history.
New companies devoted to tube gear keep cropping upin recent years, America's VAC and Cary and Canada's Sonic Frontiers. The same thing appears to be going on in the UK. The pages of British magazines are filled with new tube gear.
It began when I reviewed the MartinLogan Montis loudspeaker (September 2012). The amplifiers I had to drive the pair of them were the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premier integrated ($2999), the Audiopax Mk.II (no longer available; the Mk.III costs $22,000), and the Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7 ($9000). The first two are tubed, with power in the 3040Wpc range; the solid-state Simaudio puts out 150Wpc. The Audiopax, which sounds great with my Avantgarde Uno Nanos, turned out to be not such a good match for the Montises: weak in dynamics, and too soft sounding. The PrimaLuna and the Simaudio were better overall, each with its strengths and weaknesses, though neither was ideal. I really liked the ProLogue Premier's tonal characteristics, and wondered what a higher-powered tube amp would sound like with the MartinLogans.
I wasn't raised a McIntosh lad. My dad used Fisher, Bogen, Leak, and Ampex tubed electronics—and, at one time, even home-built speakers—to keep the house filled with a steady, enriching flow of Mozart. He never owned a Mac component, and, when going upmarket, reached for B&O, alas. So while I knew that many audiophiles hold tubed McIntosh gear—especially the early designs—in very high regard, I was somehow never bitten or smitten. But let's face it—for lo these many years, McIntosh has been for many the name in quality American audio. Take my friend Dan, to whom I've referred several times in the pages of Stereophile. He runs a tubed Conrad-Johnson 9 preamplifier, but wouldn't dream of giving up his 270Wpc solid-state McIntosh MC7270. He's goldurn proud of it!