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.
The French-made Kora line has been in and out of American distribution over the past decade. It's currently imported by Norman AV of Aventura, Florida. With the window of opportunity open again, I decided to listen to Kora's modestly priced hybrid integrated amplifier, the Explorer 150SB ($2030).
There's something a bit oddball about the notion of a $16,500 integrated amplifier—until you stop to consider that the market is fairly drenched with preamps and power amps that, together, cost that much and more. And putting both pre- and power amp in a single chassis cuts down on storage (one less shelf), accessories (one less pair of cable), and electrical outlets (one socket freed up).
Is Krell risking its reputation? With the KAV-300i, an integrated amplifier that was originally envisaged as an export model, but for which home demand is clearly increasing, the Connecticut-based amplifier manufacturer is dabbling in low-cost territory. Previous Krell amplifiers have been known for their prodigious drive capability. Time and time again, it is found that the true measure of the bass performance of a big speaker isn't realized until a Krell power amplifier is brought into service. But how could an amplifier with a meaty 150Wpc specification and full remote control be built to sell for just $2350.
How times have changed. When Krell first debuted its KAV-300i, in 1996, it risked having people question its high-end credibility simply for having considered producing an integrated amplifier, much less an affordable one. After all, Krell was the company best known for massively overbuilt—and, many claimed, overpriced—power amplifiers that were uniquely capable of driving speakers of ridiculously low impedance. In Martin Colloms' review of the 300i in the July 1996 Stereophile, he asked the question on everyone's minds: "Is Krell risking its reputation?"
In a perfect world, I would own the following: one good turntable (footnote 1), one good tonearm, one good pickup head, one good step-up transformer, one good integrated amplifier, and two good loudspeakers. And some decent cables. That's all, except maybe a home and a dog and some records and some books and one good guitar.