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."
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.
The one thing I've liked about designer Mike Creek of Creek Audio as much as his design talent is his predictability. I've been following his integrated-amplifier designs for nearly 20 years now, having reviewed, in sequence, the CAS4140s2 (for another magazine), the 4240SE (Stereophile, December 1995, Vol.18 No.12), and the 5350SE (March 2001, Vol.24 No.3). In each case, I was sufficiently impressed with the review sample that I bought it and made it my new reference in my second, affordable system. The predictable part comes from Creek's traditional nomenclature: an "s2" or "SE" (Special Edition) designation has always denoted a modest upgrade, and a numerical uptick in the model number a more significant upgrade, the level of significance denoted by the specific digit being increased. Hence, the update from 4240 to 5350 is intended to indicate a greater improvement in sound than the update from 4140 to 4240.
Living with a brand-new Cyrus amp was a pleasantly nostalgic thing to do, even from the start: It arrived in a clean and downright attractive carton that seemed designed specifically to contain a brand-new Cyrus amplifier. Think of it! And I haven't even mentioned the nice owner's manual or the balance control or the headphone jack. As I said: the good old days.
As the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show neared its end, I wandered into Blue Light Audio's room, which was dominated by the innards of darTZeel's new NHB-458 monoblocksthink of a 3D "exploded" diagram and you'll be on target. So impressive was that display of brute engineering that I almost didn't notice the amplifier that was actually making the music: the CTH-8550 integrated ($20,300).