The No.331 is the latest iteration in a series of Mark Levinson 100Wpc, solid-state, stereo power amplifiers. Extensive cosmetic alterations, internal structural changes, and new circuit designs make it quite different from the No.27 and No.27.5 models that preceded it. These design refinements emanate from Madrigal Audio Laboratories' latest flagship amplifier, the $32,000/pair, 300W RMS Mark Levinson No.33 Reference.
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.
I remember having a conversation with an audiophile some time ago about the thorny subject of choosing an amplifier. He was convinced, on the basis of an article he had read in Stereo Review, that all amplifiers of a given power rating sound pretty much the same. Although he was sufficiently well off to buy just about anything on the market, he didn't want to waste his money. He chose the amplifier for his system by going through the Audio Annual Directory Issue, calculating the price:watt ratio for each amplifier that was listed, and then bought the amplifier with the lowest price/watt figure that had enough power to drive his speakers. He didn't do any comparative listening and didn't consider buying anything that cost more for the same power, because he knew already that it wouldn't sound any different.
In the fall of 1982, I had just become the Editor of the English magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review. Hi-fi was in a state of flux. The Compact Disc had just made its debut in Japan, but the British and American launches were six months and a year away, respectively. The Linn orthodoxy prevailed about the role of the source in system performance, but there was no agreement about what was and was not important when it came to enhancing the musical experience. "Objectivists" insisted that amplifiers and even loudspeakers had pretty much reached a design plateau where no further improvement was necessary or even desirable, while "subjectivists" were fragmented. All I was aware of was that my system, based on Celestion SL6 loudspeakers, needed more of an undefinable something.
What is it about a component that makes the blasé High Ender sit up and say, "Hey, this is special!"? What elements of its reproduction reach out to you and won't let go? How does the intrepid audio reviewer find a way to describe these hopefully recurring moments of musical discovery which define the high-end experience? How many times, after all, can you say, "Ooooo, ahhhhh, that's the best [insert some part of the frequency range here]," ad nauseam? How much difference is there, anyway? Therein lies the tale...
I think every audio reviewer hopes for a surprise—when a good, but not outstanding, product is refined by the manufacturer into something special. The review then becomes an exciting discovery, reaffirming the pleasure one takes in good audio, and in listening to music being reproduced as it should be. It makes the listening exciting and the writing easier. The Classé Fifteen solid-state stereo amplifier is just such a surprise.
There's always a certain amount of jockeying for position at the very top of the High End. Every few months, a new star burns brightly, getting all the attention. While the constant turnover at the cutting edge helps to define the state of the art, audiophiles should keep their eyes on the longer term. It's a company's track record—examined over a period of years—which defines its position in the market and the credibility of its products.
"My car is supercharged, not turbocharged, so you see there's no throttle lag," explained Yves-Bernard André as he reversed at what seemed like 80mph up a narrow cobbled Paris street. "D'accord," I mumbled, afraid to loosen the white-knuckled grip I had on the passenger grab handles. Yves-Bernard's car may have been pointing the right way down the one-way street, but it was not actually traveling in that direction. Okay, so it was 2am and the good residents of the Dix-septième Arrondissement were busy stacking Zs (en français, "emplier les ronflements"). But I still didn't think we would've been able to explain the logic of the situation to the gendarmes (les flics, en français).
It was a dark and stormy night. A biting, cold wind cut through Sam's skimpy jacket; ice crystals clung tenaciously to his bushy moustache. As he approached his front door, visions of a toasty-warm, Krell-heated listening room softened the chill. He could feel the glow already; his Krell amp had been on all day, awaiting his return.
The Canadian audio industry has been mounting a challenge to other high-end manufacturers over the past few years. Ask any audiophile about Canadian audio manufacturers and chances are that he or she will have no trouble rattling off a string of respected names—Classé, Museatex, Sonic Frontiers, Mirage, PSB, Paradigm, Energy. And Bryston.
Okay, here you are: You're a Real World music lover trying to sling together a Real World hi-fi rig. You gotcha budget-king NAD/Rotel/JVC/Pioneer CD player, your SOTA Comet/Sumiko Blue Point analog rig, and your cool-man NHT/PSB/Definitive Technology entry-level speakers. Hell, you've even gone out and bought a few pairs of Kimber PBJ interconnects to hook it all up. This ain't no dog and pony showyou want that High-End High, not just some cheap'n'cheerful, low-rez rig to stick in the rumpus room so the kids can listen to that weak-ass, faux-grunge, watered-down Hendrix-howl that modern-day wimp-boys like Pearl Jam dish out to anyone under 30 who doesn't know any better.
On January 1, 1990, Canadian electronics manufacturer Bryston instituted a remarkable warranty program that covered each of their products for a full 20 years. This warranty includes all audio products ever manufactured and sold under the Bryston name. Besides covering parts and labor costs, the company will also pay shipping costs one way. This is all the more significant for their 4B NRB amplifier, which has been in production since 1976. The amp's $2k price, while not cheap, is at the lower end of what well-heeled audiophiles typically pay for amplifiers.
For many audiophiles, choosing a power amplifier is a vexing problem. Just how much must one spend to get true high-end sound and a solid build quality? How much power is really needed? And what amplifiers are suitable for driving low-impedance loudspeakers?