It's hard to know what to call the SHA-Gold. It is a superb headphone amplifier—maybe even the target all future headphone amps need to shoot at—but it's also a full-function preamplifier. At two grand, it's not exactly a unit you'd add to your current system just to get a headphone connection...Wait a minute! What am I saying? I'm sure that there are folks out there who would add this to their existing reference systems as casually as I'd buy the Audio Alchemy headphone amplifier—but they'd be missing out on a great line stage.
Musical Fidelity's Tri-Vista kWP, introduced in 2003, was an impressive, high-tech, "statement" audiophile preamplifier. Its outboard power supply weighed almost 56 lbsmore than most power amplifiersand its hybrid circuitry included miniature military-grade vacuum tubes. As I said in my review of it in the January 2004 Stereophile, the kWP's chassis and innards were overbuilt, the measured performance impressive, and any sonic signature imposed on the signal was subtle and, essentially, inconsequential.
Not every audiophile needs an amplifier powerful enough to tax a small town's power grid while simultaneously draining his or her bank account. So, having quickly sold out of its ultra-limited-edition, extravagantly powered and priced combo of kWp preamplifier ($14,995) and kW power amp ($27,995) that I reviewed in January 2004, Musical Fidelity (footnote 1) set about capitalizing on the enthusiastic reviews earned by those giants with less expensive, less powerful, "real-world" replacements.
Thoughts of power, domination, and audio road-rage enter one's mind when contemplating Musical Fidelity's SUV-like, limited-edition, 20th-anniversary offerings (footnote 1). (Only 75 sets of kWPs and kWs will be made.) The gleaming, brushed-aluminum, two-box, oversized, overweight Tri-Vista kWP preamp is fortress-like—the "kWP" looks as if chiseled into the faceplate by grimy, sweaty hands. Each of its boxes weighs almost 56 lbs. The unit's milled-aluminum remote control, the size of a Volkswagen Microbus and looking like something Fred Flintstone might wield, must weigh over 5 lbs. The kWP outputs more juice than many power amps: 55V, with 20 amps of peak-peak instantaneous current!
"Musical Fidelity X-10D" it said on the box. No, this is not bathtub mildew remover or laundry detergent. Actually, it's hard to figure out exactly what it is. The box is little help. Musical Fidelity calls the X-10D "the missing link," a "pure Class A CD-player accessory."
Branding can be powerfula well-developed brand connotes strong images in the consumer's mind. Apple means ergonomics, elegance, ego. Fremer means analog, exuberance, fastidiousness. Rolex means Swiss-made, precision, expensive. Nagra means Swiss-made, precision, expensive.
Unpacking and installing a new component is always cause for excitement, even if one does it with almost mechanical regularity, and the anticipation is greater when the component is from a manufacturer of almost mythic reputation. So when John Atkinson asked if I'd like to audition Nagra's new PL-L preamplifier, I feigned calm as I accepted the assignment, even while remembering those years in college radio when I had to schlepp big Ampexes and Maggies. The sexy, portable Nagras were the stuff of dreams. Finally, I thought, I'd get my hands and ears on one.
One memorable afternoon during HI-FI '97, Kathleen and my pudgy little self were hustling down the crowded corridors of San Francisco's venerable St. Francis Hotel, trying to make the Nagra press event. The Nagra suite was crowded with buzzing journalists, their anticipation palpable—the new Nagra PL-P preamplifier was about to enjoy its official debut. Suddenly the door to the demo room flew open. The vacuum created by the stampeding hordes nearly sucked the hors d'oeuvres off the table.
Sometimes, a product review in Stereophile can breed additional reviews. Shortly after I reviewed the Audio Valve Conductor line stage in the July 2009 issue (Vol.32 No.7), I was contacted by NAT's US distributor, Musical Sounds: "Hey, if you liked the Audio Valve Conductor [$13,995], you'll love the NAT Symmetrical line stage at $8000! Would you like to review it?" Aside from Michael Fremer's review of the battery-powered NAT Signature Phono stage in the July 2007 issue, I was unfamiliar with this Serbian maker of tube electronics. But "Sure," I replied; "why not?"
At what point does a domestic audio product cease to be an appliance and assume a loftier place in one's home and heart?
We all can agree that a Bose Wave CD player sits at one end of that continuum, a Koetsu Jade Platinum phono cartridge at the otherbut what of all the products in between? Scarcity, mode of manufacture, appearance, even sentimentality ("This is just like the one my father used to have!")each plays a role, but there's no doubt that price tops the list: The more we pay, the more we love (footnote 1).
Everybody loves a bargain. No—make that: Most people love a bargain. Some just want the best, and they don't care about the cost. Some even distrust and reject out of hand any product that's not expensive enough. If you're one of these people, you might as well stop reading this review right now—the PrimaLuna ProLogue Three and ProLogue Seven are not for you. $1395 for a tube preamp? $2695 for a pair of 70Wpc tube monoblocks equipped with four KT88 tubes each? Must be based on old designs in the public domain using cheap parts carelessly assembled...
It's a reviewer's privilege to be able to switch back and forth between tube and solid-state gear (or combinations thereof) as the mood or the assignment moves him. Still, I find I'm inevitably drawn back to the Epicurean delights of triode tube gear. When done right, there's an alluring musicality to it, like the breath of life. However, in any tube vs solid-state contest, the relative tradeoffs between tone and resolution—sweetness and articulation, euphony and frequency extension—must be taken into consideration.
Rogue Audio's Magnum Ninety-Nine tubed preamplifier is derived from the original Rogue Sixty-Six that I reviewed in October 2000. The Sixty-Six was designed to offer consumers a taste of high-end performance in a vacuum-tube line stage. By constrast, the Magnum Ninety-Nine's pedigree is pure audiophile, with a more sophisticated mu-follower circuit topology aimed at the purest expression of performance.
In just a few years, Sonic Frontiers has evolved from a parts and kit vendor to a full-line audio manufacturer (footnote 1). Their initial offerings were well received, but their kit origins were apparent in the layout and cosmetics of their products. While SF still offers kits (like their high-value Assemblage DAC-2), the new line of vacuum-tube electronics has world-class construction, design, and packaging. This generation of SF equipment is evidence of their advanced evolution, even though their constructor genome can be detected in the use of audiophile-preferred, as opposed of OEM, components.
I had a wonderful audio moment the other night. It was late in the evening, after a long day. I was standing in the middle of my makeshift listening room—Trish's dining room—and in spite of the fact that we were moving in just a few weeks, I'd just unpacked and set up my combo of VPI TNT Mk.V-HR turntable and tonearm with Grado Statement cartridge and dug a box of LPs out of the stacks in the garage. I cued up Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia/Classic CS 8192), and the first notes of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" froze me in my tracks.