When I unpacked the Rogue Audio Atlas, I didn't know how much it cost. After examining its chassis of high-grade steel, its silver-anodized aluminum faceplate, its sleek and slightly rounded edges, and, above all, its two chunk-o'brick transformers—for such a little thing (a foot-and-a-half square by half-a-foot high), it's heavy—I guessed around five grand. Then I called Rogue Audio and learned that it retails for $1395.
Two audiophile buddies of mine both own Rogue Audio M-150 monoblocks. I'd always been impressed with not only the sound quality of the M-150, but also its price. For $4495/pair, I thought my friends got a whole lotta amp for notta lotta dough. In this day and age, it's a rare and wonderful thing to get a pair of monoblocks, made in the US by a real audio company, that give you 150Wpc of tube power for under $5000. When Rogue came out with an update of the M-150, the M-180 ($5495), I thought it might be a good subject for my first full review in Stereophile. John Atkinson thought so too. I also thought it would be interesting to compare the M-180 with the very tube-like and almost identically priced Pass Labs XA30.5 two-channel amplifier ($5500), a sample of which I had on hand. (see my Follow-Up in August 2009).
I'm a big believer in the notion that if you can't hear a difference, why pay for it? I also believe that the ultimate goal of any high-end system should be to simply disappear and leave the listener immersed in the presence of the music. System synergy is paramount, and how you spread your compromises around and make your tradeoffs work for you is generally more significant than how expensive the final tab is. Thank God there are still plenty of companies out there dedicated to the proposition that ultimate resolution and build quality are anything but antithetical to real-world value.
One drizzly, gray morning I found myself with an unexpected hole in my schedule and an unusual hankering for doughnuts. Since my move to Portland, Oregon, last August, people from around the country have told me that I just had to try the over-the-top creations over at Voodoo Doughnuts. So I donned my raincoat and walked through downtown Portland for one of Voodoo's fried, raised, and glazed treats. Once inside Voodoo's tiny storefront, I chose two confections: a maple-bacon bar (yep, they put a whole strip of bacon on top of a doughnut), and an Old Dirty Bastard doughnut with chocolate frosting, Oreos, and a peanut-butter topping. They were delicious, and way more doughnut than one man should eat.
The internal battle between the head and the heart, between the analytical and romantic sides of our nature, is a difficult one. I'm an engineer, so it seems as if my cold, calculating side should have the upper hand. This is true in a lot of cases; most of my actions and decisions are based on straightforward, logical analyses. However, things like a house full of castaway dogs, or a garage full of quixotic British cars and Italian motorcycles, suggest that my heart holds sway reasonably—perhaps distressingly—often.
Ars-Sonum is a Spanish audio company that, as far as I can tell, makes only one product—but it's a doozy (footnote 1). The Filarmonía SE is a tube integrated amplifier that is, in many ways, an homage to Dynaco's iconic Stereo 70 power amplifier of 1959, but the Filarmonía is by no means a slavish copy. Get down to specifics, and it's actually more of a clean-sheet-of-paper design.
Just who does Bruce Rozenblit think he is? And why is he saying those things about the late Julius Futterman? Rozenblit, relying heavily for guidance on his Electrical Engineering degree, has crafted an OTL (output-transformerless) amplifier that flies in the face of contemporary design dogma. To hear Bruce tell it, he's tamed the breed—this is how OTLs should have been done to start with, Futterman notwithstanding.
The last time I was in England, I happened to be rummaging through some boxes in my mother's garage, boxes containing photographs, my old school books, concert programs, diaries, postcardsall the bric-a-brac you collect throughout your life that you'll never have a need for and can never discard. If anything, such rubbish is perhaps the nearest thing to roots that anyone can have these days. Among the boxes was an amplifier that had been an everyday companion of mine for many years, the vintage Vox AC100 I had used to amplify my Fender bass when on the road.
The VTL 225W DeLuxe monoblocks are very similar to the 300W monoblocks that received such an enthusiastic reception from J. Gordon Holt a year or so ago (in Vol.11 No.10) and, ultimately, most of the audiophile community. Technically, they differ only in output tubes and transformer: the 225W uses EL34s, the 300W uses 6550s. The 225Ws, at $4200/pair, cost $700 less than their more powerful brothers. The question may be raised: Why have two models so close in price and performance? According to David Manley, the 225Ws were built on special order for audiophiles who preferred the sound of EL34s to the 300Ws' 6550s. Demand was so great for the EL34 version that he decided to add it to the line. They look almost identical, the only difference being the smaller output transformer on the 225W and an additional filter capacitor on the 300W's top chassis.
Most reviewers look for a "hook" or angle of some kind when it comes time to write a review. After all, how many ways are there to get excited about audio equipment? Kathleen and I like to focus on the human side of the High End. So it was with some amusement that I watched the obstacles swirl around what I thought would be a fairly straightforward review of the Vacuum Tube Logic MB-1250 Wotan monoblock power amplifier. My thought was to return from single-ended to push-pull with a bang! I'll say...
It all began at the January 1996 WCES, where I found my shorts positively welded to the listening chair during a memorable musical blast at VTL. Luke Manley and his extreme audiophile wife Bea had a good thing going and they knew it. People were talking. "Did you hear those monster two-storey VTLs on the Alón Vs?"
Stop me if you've heard this one: Back in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, I debated professor of music engineering and magazine columnist Ken Pohlmann on a talk show on the CBS radio network. The subject was analog sound vs digital sound, but I guess when Pohlmann felt I was getting the upper hand, he felt he needed to play the tube card. Derisively, he said, "I bet you're one of those tube guys, too, aren't you?" Before I could open my mouth, he continued: "You know, the Soviet Union's military gear, including the MIG fighters, ran on tube electronics, and look what happened to them!"
The VTL MB-450 series began life in the late 1980s as the Deluxe 300, a pair of which I once owned. Over the years the basic design has been improved and modified, in the forms of the MB-450 (1996) and the MB-450 Series II (which I reviewed in January 2008). The tube complement remains the same: eight 6550s in the push-pull output stage, a 12AT7 input tube, and a 12BH7 driver. Into a 5 ohm load, the MB-450 III is claimed to produce 425W in tetrode mode or 225W in triode, from 20Hz to 20kHz.
Not only does the venerable vacuum tube refuse to lie down and die, as everyone predicted when audio went solid-state; it continues to deliver better performance than anyone had imagined it could. Only a few years ago, we could characterize "the tube sound" as being sweet but soft at the high end, rich but loose in the midbass, deficient in deep bass, and bright and forward, usually with excellent reproduction of depth. Since then, we've seen the introduction of what might almost be called a new generation of tube amplifiers, which rival solid-state units in those areas where tubes used to have weaknesses, but have given up little of the tube's sonic strengths.