In the ongoing audiophile debate over the relative merits of solid-state vs tube amplification, compelling cases can be made for the overall musicality of both methods. And while there's a lot to be said for the dynamic headroom, bass focus, clarity, frequency extension, and silent performance of solid-state gear, it's funny how much you can come to miss the aural verities of tube electronics after a prolonged absence.
My quandary on receiving for review the Linn Majik DS-I: What, precisely, is it supposed to do? Does the Majik DS-I contain a hard disk and music-ripping software, so I can use it to store all the music in my CD collection? Does it have a graphical user interface (GUI) that at least matches the one provided by the endearingly free Apple iTunes? Does it include a DAC that allows it to play the music files I've already put on my computer?
Phono cartridgesalong with mothballs, hobnails, laundry bluing, hot-water bottles, lighter fluid, fur coats, and typewritersare among the most outdated of consumer goods: To most people who make their living in the world of consumer electronics, every new cartridge that hits the shelves is little more than a coughing spasm from the death-room down the hall. You can imagine, then, the welcome accorded new samples of the even more anachronistic pickup head, which combines phono cartridge, headshell, and barbell into a product one seldom sees outside the school librarian's junk drawer. New pickup heads, which tend to look the same as old pickup heads, are manufactured in pessimistically small quantities, and seldom get much attention.
In my column for Stereophile's March issue, I criticized a handful of records for combining very good sound with very bad music. A few readers expressed dismay, wondering what gave me the right to call music good or bad, especially since virtually all music is loved by someone (its mother?). But as far as I know, the magazine received a total of zero letters wondering what gave me the right to call sound good or bad. Hmmm.
A new integrated amplifier called the Lars Type 1, which made its debut at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, has given my notion of a dichotomy between mainstream audio and alternative audio a severe beating. In that sense, the Lars Type 1 has been a life-changing product, although the change took longer than expected for me to digest.
Let's not beat around the bush: this is what an amplifier is supposed to look like. The silver front panel contains over a dozen knobs and switches, yet somehow avoids seeming cluttered. The solid wood cabinet wouldn't look out of place next to Hugh Hefner's cognac decanter. And the controls! The SQ-38u is as full-function as they come ("as they used to come" would be closer to the truth), with a Balance knob, separate Bass and Treble Tone Controls, a low-frequency cutoff (aka "rumble") switch labeled Low Cut, a Mono/Stereo switch, and a mute button; plus switching and connectors for two pairs of loudspeakers. Everything but curb feelers.
Musical arguments in favor of separate components are compelling and well-documented. But there's also something musical to be said about reducing the number of power sources, keeping signal paths short and direct, and hard-wiring connections between components rather than employing multiple sets of interconnects. So while a designer must inevitably confront certain tradeoffs, the explosive growth and popularity of single-box products in the past few years contradicts the received wisdom passed down by some of the more sniffy audiophiles: that such unduly proletarian products are terminally compromised in terms of absolute levels of music reproduction.
There's an aesthetic dimension to the Manley Laboratories Stingray that transcends high-end audio and borders on modern sculpture—not unlike the E.A.R. V20, which I auditioned in the October issue. Still, the Stingray is by no means an exercise in gimmickry. Form has clearly followed function at every step in the design process, the ultimate goal of which was to fashion a vacuum-tube integrated amplifier with real-world power that defined the outer limits of high-end performance in a functional, affordable, bare-bones package...with a touch of style.
Years ago, when I taught high school choirs, I had many types of kids in my ensembles. Though none exclusively fit the overly stereotypical lineup of kids on Fox TV's Glee, I always managed to have a nice assortment of jocks, preps, goths, motorheads, geeks, wastoids, and dweebs. One of the things that always fascinated me was how the big, tough jocks would turn out to be the most sensitive, emotional singers. It was always a touching moment when an otherwise stoic football star or wrestler would get all misty while singing the final song of the year-end concert. It showed me that the toughest exteriors often hide the creamiest creampuffs.
To celebrate his 30 years with the company, Marantz threw designer Ken Ishiwata a birthday party in the form of an assignment: Design a new, limited-edition integrated amplifier and SACD/CD player bearing his initials. (Only 500 of each will be made worldwide.)
We crotchety middle-aged (and older) audiophiles frequently sit around and whine about the apparently rising median age of enthusiasts of two-channel audio. "We need to do something to attract the youts to our cause!" one of us will say. (Youts? See Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny.)
When I learned that Madrigal Audio Labs was marketing their first integrated amplifier, the Mark Levinson No.383, I felt this was a big change for the Connecticut company. Mark Levinson literally started the high-end marketing revolution back in the early 1970s by manufacturing cost-no-object separate amplifiers and preamplifiers. The purist designs had one overriding rule: employ the simplest circuit path possible. Each amplifier or preamplifier used only individual circuit-board components (no integrated circuits) and had a minimal number of controls, eschewing elaborate switches and tone controls. Mark Levinson Audio Systems and its successor, Madrigal Audio Laboratories, has continued this philosophy of separate components for the past 25 years.
Although she'll deny it, my wife thinks ill of me because I've failed to buy her a new Mini Cooper. I can point to a number of things in my defense—especially the Mini's lack of all-wheel drive, which we need for climbing our quarter-mile driveway in bad weather, and its insufficient cargo and passenger space—all of which would constrain a Dudley-owned Mini Cooper to recreational use only. And a new round of car payments would be difficult to justify for those reasons: not because I'm cheap, and not because I'm too old to appreciate a car that's fun to drive.
What, I hear you asking, is an integrated drive? The MID is part of McCormack's much lauded "Micro" series (see my review of their Micro Line Drive in Vol.18 No.6), which are designed to offer the same dedication to quality as McCormack's full-size components, but at a lower price (and in a smaller package). The MID was initially the Micro Headphone Drive, sporting two ½" stereo phone-jacks on the front panel, a two-position input switch, and a volume control. The rear boasted two inputs and an output (controlled by the volume pot). It was designed to be a high-quality headphone amp and a minimalist preamp. In this configuration, I ran into it at the 1995 WCES where—almost as a gag—Steve McCormack had made up a few ½" stereo phone-plug to 5-way binding post connectors. He could, he explained, run small speakers from the headphone outputs. There was a serious purpose behind the joke, of course. Showing that the MHD could drive speakers spoke volumes for its ability to drive headphones.