As a young music lover, I never knew there were such things as separate preamplifiers, amplifiers, and FM tuners. All I knew was that if I wanted to play music from my CD player, hook up my VCR to my stereo, or listen to the radio, I needed that magical device: a receiver. It was all I ever wanted.
After using Bel Canto's e.One DAC3 with the McIntosh Laboratory MS750 music server, I was so impressed that I wanted to hear Bel Canto's CD transports as well. But willing as Bel Canto president and CEO John Stronczer was to supply me with a CD-2, he suggested I audition the S300iu ($2195, footnote 1).
After Fred Kaplan reviewed Boulder Amplifiers' 810 line preamplifier and 860 power amplifier for the December 2007 Stereophile, John Atkinson requested that I listen to the 860 in my own system for a while. Never having reviewed any Boulder kit, I was curious.
I hate all those automobile reviews that go on and on about a car's design aesthetics. C'mon, I can see what it looks like, even if only in the pictures. Just tell me things I can't appreciate without a run on the Autobahn.
Over the years, I have used and enjoyed in my audio system large, single-purpose components. Each of these chassis has had but one role: preamplifier, amplifier, digital-to-audio converter (DAC), etc. I guess I've been just a little suspicious of products with multiple functions crammed into a single small chassis; I've figured that the designer may have cut a corner that could affect the sound.
As strongly as I believe that the listening experience is the most reliable method of judging the quality of audio equipment, I've been biased against single-ended tube amplifiers because of their quirky measured performances. Without having heard single-ended under good conditions—much less living with an SE amplifier—I had concluded that many listeners must like them because they're euphonically colored by large amounts of low-order distortion and impedance interactions with the loudspeakers. SE amplifiers seem to be a departure from the goal of making the electronics transparent. Moreover, the range of loudspeakers suitable for SE amplifiers is so restrictive that I wondered why anyone would bother with these underpowered distortion-generators. I had fallen into a trap that I've repeatedly railed against: drawing conclusions without firsthand listening experience (footnote 1).
Late in 2006, I was watching John Atkinson set up a pair of DPA cardioid microphones in front of the stage of New York City's Otto's Shrunken Head to record a performance of my jazz quartet, Attention Screen (footnote 1). Before the first set, Wes Phillips approached me. "Bob, I found a piece of equipment you must review—the Cayin A-50T integrated amp. It's only 1300 bucks and you'll love it!"
Stereophile has reviewed two integrated amplifiers from Chinese manufacturer Cayin in the past: the A-50T, which I wrote about very positively in March 2008, and the A-300B, which Art Dudley reviewed in February 2007. So when I read about Cayin's $2195 SP-10A integrated amplifier, which has a wood-covered sleeve, just like the old Marantz and McIntosh gear and offers 38 watts of push-pull power, in our coverage of the 2008 CES, I put in on my must-write-about list.
With its high-end heart and home-theater brain, Chord's powerful CPM 3300 integrated amplifier ($9500 with the aluminum-cylinder Integra leg option, $8950 without) is a uniquely fascinating audio product well worth considering. High-tech innards and magazine-cover good looks don't hurt either, but what originally got me interested was the superlative sound Chord products have consistently delivered at trade and consumer shows when paired with Wilson-Benesch loudspeakers.
With the price of high-end audio increasingly reaching for the stratosphere, audiophiles appear to becoming much more value-conscious. This trend is reflected in the recent popularity of CD players over separate transports and processors, and particularly in the sudden resurgence in integrated amplifiers. An integrated amplifier makes a lot of sense: the buyer saves the cost of two chassis, two power cords, two owner's manuals, and an extra pair of interconnects. You also get a simpler system.
The search for signal transparency has led to much experiment and debate concerning losses in fidelity that can be traced to the preamplifier or—as it's more often and awkwardly called these days when the phono stage is omitted—the "line controller."
In this, my first equipment review for Stereophile, I'll begin by explaining my philosophy regarding reviewing inexpensive components. In my quest for products by designers who strive to establish new benchmarks for reproducing sonic realism at lower prices, I'll be looking for "value" components (a more appropriate term than "budget") whose designers logically fall into two camp. . .
Creek Audio founder/designer/co-owner Michael Creek is a quiet, friendly, unassuming man. Unlike some ego-driven electronics designers who tout their products very loudly from their pulpits, Michael Creek has been quietly designing high-quality, musical, and affordable integrated amps in black-metal boxes for nearly 20 years. His target market is the passionate music-lover who wants something a notch above an entry-level NAD or Rotel receiver, but whose bank manager would frown on splurging on electronic separates.