Much has happened in the analog world since I reviewed SME's flagship Model 30/2 turntable for the March 2003 Stereophile (footnote 1). Back then, spending $25,000 on a turntable (without tonearm) was an odd extravagance intended only for those seriously committed to the format, and who already owned large LP collections. Although new LPs were being pressed in growing numbers, the resurgence of vinyl was still spotty, and the long-term prognosis for the old medium remained in question.
The Type A has served as Snell Acoustics' flagship loudspeaker since 1974. The Type A Reference System reviewed here is the sixth update of the late Peter Snell's original three-way floorstanding design, and is the most radical departure from Snell's original. Gone is the pair of "upright bricks of polished wood and stretched cloth" (footnote 1) that delighted decorators because they functioned best against a wall. Today's Type A Reference $18,999 price tag (footnote 2) purchases two tall midrange-tweeter towers, two huge subwoofers, two short but heavy enclosures housing the outboard passive crossover networks, and a small electronic crossover.
"How do you make an object common as a box iconic?" asked Bob Graffy, Snell's vice president/brand manager. He and Joseph D'Appolito, Snell's chief design engineer, were sitting in my listening room, discussing cabinet designs. Graffy noted that KEF had sought the same in their distinctive, silvery, cylindrical Muon loudspeaker ($150,000/pair). For the flagship model in their Illusion series, Snell commissioned Gerd Schmieta, former designer for Ideo, to integrate D'Appolito's wish list for an ideal enclosure: a narrow, rounded upper baffle for the midrange and tweeter, wider at the base for the woofers, holding a constant cross-sectional area while maximizing cabinet volume, and compliance with a 15° tip test.
The Amati Futura is the third Sonus Faber loudspeaker to be called an Amati. The first, named simply the Amati and priced at $20,000/pair, was reviewed for Stereophile by Michael Fremer in June 1999. I reviewed the second, the Amati Homage Anniversario ($27,500/pair), in May 2006.
At present, my writing chores are divided between two fields: domestic audio and lutherie. Having invested considerable time in both, and having by now met a number of builders who are distinguished in one or the other, I can say with all confidence that the best share a simple, single point of view: Everything makes a difference.
Yamaha once made a loudspeaker shaped like an ear. I felt sorry for the guy (especially if he was an audiophile) who had to write the ad copy explaining why a speaker shaped like an ear would sound better than one shaped like a shoebox or a wedge of cheese. An ear-shaped loudspeaker makes about as much sense as an eyeball-shaped television. But what about a loudspeaker that is designed like a musical instrument?
That is not a typo. The company is named Soulutionas in soul commitment to designing and manufacturing the finest audio gear it knows how, as in souldiering on in the face of skeptics who can't imagine why a power amplifier that puts out 130Wpc into 8 ohms or 260 into 4 ohms should cost $45,000, or weigh as much as a small pickup truck.
Designer Dr. Roger West got his first taste of electrostatic transducers many years ago during a stint with Janszen (remember the Janszen tweeter?). To realize the potential of the full-range electrostatic loudspeaker (ESL), he and Dr. Dale Ream formed a new company dedicated to ESL research and development. West describes this company, Sound-Lab Corp., as "the electrostatic speaker specialists."
Spiral Groove's new Centroid tonearm ($6000) arrived just a few days before press time, so it would be risky to say anything definitive about it. But I will take that risk: using the system described in my review of the SG2 turntable, this may be the best tonearm I've heard. Its sound is different in ways that will open people's ears, and I predict that it will affect the design of every tonearm from now on. The Centroid's design deserves and will await full coverage in its own review, but here are the basics: It's a fluid-damped unipivot design unlike any other that gives the user fine adjustment of all relevant parameters.
High-end audio exists at the intersection of art and science. Either discipline can produce a good product, but it takes both to create the very best. The Sonic Frontiers gear I auditioned many years ago, for example, was technically sound, nicely built, and sounded goodjust never as sublime as products from, say, Audio Research or VTL. On the other hand, an experienced, insightful designer such as Quicksilver's Michael Sanders can create wonderful products from humble circuits and parts, but be ultimately limited by the underlying technology. But when brilliant design, uncompromised execution, long experience, and artistry all come together, the results can be staggering.
The sound of the Stenheim Alumine loudspeakerits openness, transparency, and freedom from temporal distortions, not to mention its good bass extension for such a small enclosurereminded me at once of my favorite small loudspeaker from the late 1980s, the Acoustic Energy AE1. On reflection, the comparison is extraordinary: The two products are as different as night and day, the AE1 being a wooden loudspeaker with a metal-cone woofer, the Alumine a metal loudspeaker with a pulp-cone woofer. I suppose one can skin a catfish by moving the knife or by moving the fish.
Saying that Sutherland Engineering builds a nice line of phono stages is like saying that the Porsche 911 Carrera is a nice line of sports car. The Sutherlands all share common design philosophies, features, and sonic attributesbut just as ramping up from Porsche's classic Carrera Coupe ($78,000) to the GT3 ($115,000) or the Turbo S Cabriolet ($172,000) increases the level of performance and distills the Porsche experience down to its essence, ascending the Sutherland line from the PH3D ($1000) to the 20/20 ($2200) to the Hubble ($3800) buys more of what Ron Sutherland is all about.
Things didn't start off auspiciously. I'd been after Symphonic Line's Klaus Bunge for more than a year to send me the Kraft 400 Reference monoblocks. Finally he called. He said he was going to be in town for a few days, and he had with him a pair of what he described as his "traveling" Kraft 400s, which he proposed to leave with me.
In the early 1970s, Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holta man I used to describe, with all due respect, as having been clothed by the haberdasher to the homelesssaid that Audio Research's SP-3 tubed preamplifier was "the closest thing available, in fact, to the ideal straight wire with gain" ie, it would amplify the signal without editorializng in any way. Back then, the SP-3 cost $595. Today it would cost around $3500. But TAD's C600 dual-mono, solid-state, balanced preamplifier costs more than 10 times that: $42,000.
High-end audio is in some ways a dynastic beast, though without as many "begats." One of the world's most successful loudspeaker manufacturers in the years following World War II was the Wharfedale company, from Yorkshire in the North of England. Wharfedale was founded by Gilbert Briggs in 1932, who in the 1950s handed over the reins of Technical Director to fellow Yorkshireman Raymond Cooke. Cooke left Wharfedale in 1961 to found KEF Electronics Ltd., where he subsequently appointed Goodmans designer Laurie Fincham as Chief Engineer in 1968. Fincham led a team of young engineers, including Mike Gough, who eventually joined B&W, and Yorkshire-born Andrew Jones, who became KEF's Chief Engineer in 1989, before Fincham was lured to Harman's Infinity division, in Northridge, California, in 1993. Jones followed Fincham across the Atlantic, where he worked on Infinity's Prelude, Overture, and Reference Series speakers, before joining Pioneer in 1997. The Japanese company had established a state-of-the-art speaker-design facility in Southern California, and Jones was invited to lead the design team.