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.
It seems I'm always reviewing an integrated amplifier from Creek Audio. It started in the late 1980s, when I fell in love with the capabilities of inexpensive, well-designed audio equipment, sparked by the spectacular sound of a pair of Celestion 5 bookshelf speakers at a Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. I was reading an issue of Hi Fi Heretic (now defunct), for which my friend Art Dudley wrote, and it included a survey of various inexpensive British integrated amplifiers, some of them made by Creek. I was already familiar with the company, but hadn't listened to affordable British electronics since I'd lived in London, in the early '80s. I got a Creek 4140s2 integrated and was amazed at its neutrality, its lack of etched sound, its natural reproduction of instrumental timbres. I ended up buying it, and used it to review bookshelf loudspeakers.
The name sounds perfect. It fits neatly next to those of Messrs. Leak, Sugden, Walker, Grant, Lumley, and others of Britain's most rightly revered amplifier builders. In fact, when their distributor called and asked if I'd like to review the latest amplifier from Croft Acoustics, I accepted without actually knowing who they are, simply because they sounded like someone I was supposed to knowsomeone who's been around for 60 years or so, shellacking bell wire in an old mill with a thatched roof.
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).
July came in this year like September: cool, crisp night air and bright, clear days. The humidity and temperature remained low throughout the week I spent setting up the Denon AVR-4800 surround A/V receiver. So, crouched down behind its crowded rear panel, wiring up eight loudspeakers and multiple inputs, I wasn't sweating from the temperature. Launching the new multichannel Denon AVR-4800's surround audio-visual system required hard work, trial and error, and an emergency trip to the UPS terminal in the Bronx. While there were great musical pleasures ahead, the path to music-surround knowledge was rougher than I ever imagined it might be.
Most reviews are straightforward. One preamplifier or power amplifier replaces another. DACs are swapped out. A new pair of speakers takes up residence in the listening room.
But some products demand a complete revision of a system's architecture. Such was the case with Devialet's D-Premier ($15,995). Not only is this French product an integrated amplifier, with phono and line analog inputs; it has digital inputs and an internal D/A section.
Each time I attend Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment Show, I look forward to two things. The first is the opportunity to perform classic and original jazz music with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins. The second is to seek out the most exciting new, affordable speakers to review over the following year. Both buttons were pressed for me quite admirably during HE2005 at the New York Hilton, but this time it was not an affordable speaker that most impressed me.
The women in my family and extended circle of friends are generally captivated by good sound, but are often appalled by the brutish, monolithic packaging that passes for "styling" in high-end gear. "Not in my living room," is the refrain, often played in a minor key.
If you spotted an EICO HF-81 at the local Goodwill, you'd think nothing of this plain-Jane integrated amplifier in its nondescript gray case. But if you kept on walking, you would have passed up one of the best-kept audio secrets of all time. The HF-81 hails from hi-fi's pioneer days, before chromed chassis and slick Mac transformers. It isn't ultracool-looking, like early Marantz or McIntosh gear. It doesn't have the nostalgia factor of a Fisher. It's not a supercheap eBay steal like a Stromberg-Carlson or a Heathkit. So what's the deal?
Psst! Got a minute? I'd like to bend your ears a bit and tell you about a component that'll lift you from the doldrums of audio angst and transport you to the relaxing calm induced through the enjoyment of music. That's what it's done for me, and I'm so excited about it I can't wait to tell you.
Yet another of the best systems I've ever heard at a hi-fi show was an exhibit by some former distributors for the English manufacturer Exposure Electronics, at a Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in the late 1980s. The exhibitors seemed to believe it was better to impress with a humble product than to overwhelm with a full-bore assault, because they limited their display to a single amplifier: the then-new Exposure X (as in "10") integrated, mated to a record player comprising a Linn LP12 turntable, Ekos tonearm, and Troika cartridge, and a pair of Linn Kan loudspeakers.
Three years ago, the idea of a solid-state integrated amplifier that sold for only $1250 yet combined some of the best performance aspects of a Naim Nait and a Dynaco Stereo 70 seemed likely to resonate with consumers and critics alike. And it did: Introduced in early 2005, the British-built Exposure 2010S was an unequivocal hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and remains in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Deservedly.
The naming of audio companies is a tricky business. Ideally, the name should be distinctive, so that people will remember it, and descriptive of the products. However, given the proliferation of audio manufacturers, it's getting more and more difficult to come up with a name that fulfills these criteria, and some names are similar enough to lead to confusion. In one of my show-report blog entries from the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, instead of correctly listing a company name as Divergent Technologies, I called it Definitive Technologies, which is the name of an another audio company—and was rightly chastised for it in a comment by a reader. I'll bet that no such confusion will occur in the case of Flying Mole Electronics. (As far as I know, there is no Flying Groundhog Electronics.)
The very first amplifier I bought was a Harman Kardon PC-200, aka The Prelude. It was a 10Wpc integrated, but I chose it over the competition for some of the same reasons that the HK 990 has appealed to me. Almost all amps back in the1960s had a plain cake-pan chassis with tubes, capacitors, and transformers studding the top. Integrated amps had the standard four knobs on the front for input selection, volume, bass, and treble. The HK PC-200 had an enclosed black chassis cage that formed a graceful cowl over the brushed-copper front panel and the six matte-black knobs: for Input selection (with three phono turnover settings), Volume, Bass, Treble, Loudness contour, and Treble rolloff. In addition, it had a Rumble Filter switch. The PC-200 was not only more beautiful than the rest of the push-pull competition powered by EL84 tubes, it also had more useful features. (Take that, you fans of the Grommes Little Jewel!). Over the decades, H/K products have always been stylish and innovative, but in today's fractured marketing world, most such creative energies are applied to audio/video receivers and lifestyle products.