For those who frequent the audio discussion groups on the Internet, the method by which Stereophile selects products for review seems to be a continuing source of fascination and conjecture. Supporters of fledgling manufacturers—whose products these Webcrawlers just happen to own—rail against the rule that products to be reviewed in the magazine must have at least five US dealers. Some suggest that Stereophile's selection of review products is all about catering to advertisers and friends in the industry, a process that seems intended to exclude their favorite products from consideration.
We audio writers have our niches. Mikey loves analog, Artie likes to play with horn speakers and assorted oddball British kit, and I really enjoy reviewing affordable speakers. There's something exciting about hearing the fruits of the labors of a creative designer who's applied his talents to meet a stringent price point and created a speaker that can entice into our hobby the financially challenged music lover.
I'm not sure what motivated me to read the owner's manual for the Audio Valve Eclipse, but I'm glad I did: As it turns out, this line-level preamplifier has at least one distinctive feature that I would have missed otherwise.
If any single link in the audio chain should be free of sonic personality, it's the preamplifier. Though a preamplifier's basic job description is "source selector with volume control," from hi-fi's earliest days preamps have been the designated dashboard: the more dials, switches, and lights, the better. All that control came at the cost of quiet, transparency, and tonal neutrality. Still, the quixotic quest for the mythical "straight wire with gain" continued to lead to minimalist designs, including impractical unbuffered "passive" preamps, in which cable length, thus capacitance, affected frequency response.
It's been 10 years since Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) introduced their first products: the VK-5 line-stage preamplifier and the VK-60 power amplifier. (I reviewed both in the December 1995 Stereophile, Vol.18 No.12.) The success of these and other BAT products has allowed designer Victor Khomenko (the "VK" of the model designations) and partner Steve Bednarski to quit their day jobs at Hewlett-Packard; they were joined by Geoff Poor as a partner to handle the sales end of the enterprise. BAT's current lineup includes several preamps, phono stages, a CD player, and tube as well as solid-state amplifiers. The top of BAT's preamp range is the VK-51SE, which costs $9000; their top tube power amp is the VK-150SE monoblock ($17,000/pair); if you want their best phono stage, the VK-P10 will set you back $8000.
How important is the use of balanced circuit typology in the design of preamplifiers and power amplifiers? Ask the top audio designers (I didn't, but just play along, okay?) and you'll get a wide variety of opinions. Some reject the balanced approach outright, arguing that it represents a needless duplication of circuit components, and that better results can be achieved if the same attention and resources are devoted to perfecting a single-ended circuit. In his provocatively titled article "Balance: Benefit or Bluff?" (Stereophile, November 1994, p.77), Martin Colloms questioned the advantages of balanced designs, suggesting that while the results may be better in certain respects (eg, noise level), the reproduced sound may suffer in other, perhaps more important ways (eg, rhythm and dynamics).
I suppose that most high-end designers dream about making a Statement Product—their best effort, without regard for price. Victor Khomenko, majordomo of Balanced Audio Technology, got the bug and came up with the VK-50SE. This hugely full-functioned line-stage preamp derives its Special Edition (SE) moniker from the eight hot-running, super-hush-hush Russian 6H30 Reflector SuperTubes that populate the circuit board.
Rudyard Kipling said that "never the twain shall meet." He was speaking of East and West, but in the world of audio, his adage has most often been applied to what has been the traditional chasm between the sounds of tubes and solid-state. Tube advocates thump the tub for the timbral and spatial glow, the absence of harsh, odd-order harmonic distortions, the harmonic completeness and holistic spatiality that only fire bottles can provide. Solid-state advocates point out the superiority of their preferred gear in terms of bass depth, power and control, low noise, and ultimate detail resolution. That chasm between the characteristic sounds of tube and transistor has narrowed appreciably in the latest generations of gear, as each type of circuit has become capable of embodying some of the other's trademark characteristics. But between the camps, friendly competition continues.
Several issues back, we reviewed rather enthusiastically a pre-production prototype of this preamp. The original was an unprepossessing-looking device on two chassis, interconnected by a 3' umbilical, with a squat little preamp box and an even squatter power supply with humongous cans sticking out the top. We averred that it sounded nice. The production model is so nicely styled and functionally smooth that we wondered if it might not be another Japanese product. 'T'ain't.
I've been attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show for years, and usually come away with the impression that there are too many "me-too" products. I see a numbing similarity of approach of manufacturers within a chosen discipline: solid-state power amps in black and silver bristling with heatsinks, single-ended triode amps with their glow reflecting from bronze or wood panels, MCPU/DSP-centered devices with sleek, flat cases and intimidating remote controls, etc.
Ideally, through the medium of a synergistically balanced set of high-resolution components, we seek to re-create an acoustic event with a palpable sense of realism—as in timbre, dynamics, room cues, and dimensionality. Have I ever experienced a system commensurate with the experience of sitting 12th-row-center at Carnegie Hall for Boulez conducting Stravinsky? Close, but...
A "CD processor," is how I distinctly heard Cary Audio's Dennis Had describe it. The venue was Stereophile's High End Hi-Fi Show in New York last April. Nothing really unusual in today's digital marketplace, I thought to myself, though a bit out of character for a company dedicated to vacuum-tube technology. But wait a minute. Dennis had described it as an analog CD processor. Analog!? Well, yes, the unit processes the analog signal from a CD player.
RCA's time-honored 6SN7 may be the coolest tube of all. The octal-based dual-triode has its own Wikipedia entry—something not even the 2A3 or 300B can boast—along with its own website. The 6SN7 is chunky, rugged, and handsome. Best of all, it's available, probably because people keep coming up with very good uses for it. In that sense, the 6SN7 is the Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup of the tube world.
I had it all wrong. I assumed that the "SLP" in SLP-98P stood for stereo line preamplifier. But Dennis Had, Cary Audio's founder and chief designer, told me that it actually stands for sweet little preamplifier. In a day and age when acme is a word without meaning and the fighting Irish are neither, this strikes me as a risky marketing gambit—but one that may be effective if the name proves true.