Integrated amplifiers are hot. I don't mean in the literal sensealthough having a preamplifier and stereo power amplifier in the same chassis usually results in higher running temperaturesbut in the metaphorical one. Once viewed as the type of component that no serious audiophile would consider buying, integrated amps have made a comeback in popularity and prestige. Consider: the October 2006 "Recommended Components" issue of Stereophile listed 29 integrated amps, whereas the October 2011 issue lists 40. Stereophile's 2010 Amplification Component of the Year award went to an integrated amp, the Audio Research VSi60, beating out a host of heavy-hitter preamps and power amps. The 2012 Stereophile Buyer's Guide lists 400 integrateds.
Lovers of Italian wine, travelers to Italy, and, of course, Italians, may be familiar with this story. It seems that in the year 1111, Henry V was traveling to Rome to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. A member of his entourage, one Giovanni Defuc, was very fond of wine, and had the practice of sending ahead one of his servants to sample the wine in each place. When the servant found a wine that he particularly liked, he would write "Est!" on the door of the establishment, which was a signal to his master that the wine is (est) good. Having arrived at Montefiascone, the servant found a wine he thought so superb that he wrote on the door of the inn "Est! Est!! Est!!!"
Given that Quad's founder, the late Peter J. Walker, wasn't around to design the Quad II Classic Integrated, the English firm relied instead on Tim de Paravicini, whose credits include the comparatively recent Quad II-eighty mono amplifiers and QC-twentyfour preamplifier (not to mention his own line of E.A.R./Yoshino electronics and countless other well-regarded products). It's with respect for both men that I say: In turning to Tim de Paravicini, Quad has probably chosen the closest approach to the original.
You can read all about an automobile, check its gear ratios, and ponder the engine's horsepower all you want—but until you put yourself in the driver's seat and take that baby out for a spin, you have no idea whether or not it's going to be fun to drive.
I can imagine the gaiety and mirth that filled the halls of the electronics industry in the 1950s, as engineer after bespectacled engineer realized that the transistor would soon consign to the outposts of oblivion those ancient technologies that had preceded it. Before longsurely no more than a decadethe hated vacuum tube would vanish from the Earth, along with the tube socket, the tube tester, the tag board, the high-voltage rail, and that lowest rascal of them all, the output transformer. What a jubilant time!
Besides my 20th wedding anniversary and the 15th anniversary of Listener magazine's first issue, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Roksan Audio Ltd., easily one of the most innovative design and manufacturing firms in British audio. Before Roksan came upon the scene in 1985, none of us had ever seen a loudspeaker whose tweeter was isolated from its surroundings by a sprung suspension. Or a commercial phono preamplifier designed to fit inside a turntable, just a centimeter away from the tonearm base. And who among us could have guessed that the Linn LP12's hegemonyamong flat-earthers, I meanwould be broken by a turntable from outside of Scotland? Yet the Roksan Darius loudspeaker, Artaxerxes phono stage, and, above all, Xerxes turntable accomplished those things and more, to the genuine surprise of nearly everyoneand to the benefit of our industry at large, as other firms took those ideas and ran with them.
My first one-piece stereo—I think I paid $60 for it, including a pair of speakers with pegboard backs—gave me a lot of pleasure when I was young, and I loved it. Everything that came after has been better in every way but one: None has inspired that kind of love. And most have left me wondering if there might be something just a little bit better.
Why would a sharp mind offer a $15,000 integrated digital amplifier to a reviewer who has been characterized in the audio press as the "self-proclaimed Analog Messiah" and a "hyper-Luddite"? That's the first question a self-centered reviewer asks himself. Yours might be: "A $15,000 integrated amplifier from...Sharp?"
In my review of Krell's FBI integrated amplifier in the July 2007 issue, I noted that $16,500 (it now costs $18,000) seemed an astonishing chunk of change to spend on a product category generally associated with "budget" gear. Now, the 2011 edition of the Stereophile Buyer's Guide lists no fewer than 19 companies selling integrated amps for five figuresone goes for $100,000!which perhaps suggests that economic slumps prod even the well-heeled to alter their habits. There are, after all, advantages to cramming a preamplifier and a power amplifier into a single box: you need one less pair of interconnects, one less power socket, one less cabinet shelf. And if the integrated contains state-of-the-art parts, elegant circuitry, and a hefty power supply, what's the problem?
And so we have Simaudio Ltd., the veteran Canadian high-end electronics firm, leaping into this realm after 30 years of business with the Moon 700i, priced at $12,000only two-thirds the price of the Krell, but aimed at the same downsizing but still toney demographic.
I was the member of the family on whom the others could depend for technical assistance: mending eyeglass frames, fixing the radio, replacing the lightbulb in the oven, getting the car to idle smoothly. No job too big or too small. House calls a specialty.
Fearless leader called me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing the Simaudio Moon i-1 ($1500), the entry-level integrated amplifier in Simaudio's Classic line. Hmmm. I'd been very impressed by all of the more expensive Simaudio products I'd heard at Stereophile's Home Entertainment shows over the years, and the 50Wpc Moon i-1 would be an interesting match for the affordable speakers I've had in-house lately. Send it on, JA!
With this review I conclude an audiophile's progression through the price/performance ratios of three very musical solid-state integrated amplifiers: the NAD C370 ($699, reviewed in January 2002), the Arcam DiVA A85 ($1499, February 2002), and now the Simaudio Moon i-5 ($2595). In the process I was fascinated to hear how each amp recommended itself to its targeted price point. Likewise, it was most instructive to hear how they spread their compromises around. With a rough doubling of suggested retail price from the NAD to the Arcam, there was a degree of sonic refinement introduced. However, the leap in improved sound from the Arcam to the Simaudio was more significant. And in quantifying the benefits another $1000 worth of enhancements can confer, I discovered what constitute real high-end bona fides.
In sixth grade, I was given a Victorinox Swiss Army knife. I loved it. An avid camper and erstwhile Boy Scout, I was amazed at how many things I could do with this well-made, pocket-size wonder. I used its tweezers to remove splinters and ticks, its scissors to cut thread, its can opener to prize open tins of baked beans, and its knife blade to whittle, occasionally cut myself, and generally wreak teenage mayhem.
As I grew older, I discovered that using specialized tools for a given job was generally easier, faster, and more pleasurable than using my Swiss Army knife's utilities. Though I could cut a tent's ground cloth with my knife's scissors, a plain-Jane pair of Fiskars worked much better, an OXO can opener got me into those baked beans much faster than my Victorinox could, and even my Swiss Army knife blade didn't stay as sharp or fit in my hand as well as a simple Buck knife. Still, there was no doubt that my Swiss Army knife was a great tool and a good value, even if it was never the best tool for a specific task. To put it another way: The value of my Swiss Army knife was broad but shallow, while the value of something like my OXO can opener was narrow but deep.
Winter has returned to Cherry Valley, New York, and I'm reminded of a bad habit that I used to conceal: On cold mornings I started my car well before driving off, then actually weighted down the accelerator pedalwith the heavy socket tray from my toolboxin an effort to keep the idle high, and thus more quickly warm the windshield and the interior. Whether my lazy trick had the desired effect is a matter of some debate, but I wish now that I hadn't been so wasteful and so casually fouled the air.