Even as Robert Harley was writing his Stereophilereview of the $3995 Mark Levinson No.38 remote-controlled line preamplifier (it appeared in August '94, Vol.17 No.8, p.98), Madrigal Audio Laboratories announced an upgraded, cost-no-object version, the No.38S (footnote 1). At $6495, the 'S is significantly more expensive than the junior version; although it uses the same chassis, power supply, and circuit topology, it's in all other ways a different preamplifier.
Threshold is one of the longest-surviving high-end audio companies. Founded in the 1970s by Nelson Pass and René Besne, it was acquired by a large, publicly traded corporation in 1988. This had both positive and negative results in that Threshold was then able to expand its activities, adding the cost-effective Forté line of products, but energies were drained away from cutting-edge design. Besne left the company in 1991, while Pass resigned in 1992 to pursue other interests. (These blossomed into the Pass Aleph 0 amplifier reviewed by DO in March '95, Vol.18 No.3.)
Until just recently, only companies known primarily for their surround-sound processors were producing the most advanced—and most expensive—Home Theater products. No longer. It was inevitable that traditional high-end audio manufacturers would begin producing equipment for this fast-growing market.
High-end audio companies take different approaches to staying successful. One way to maintain a market position is to continue improving fundamental designs, offering a little higher sonic performance with each model. The latest products from a company employing this approach will look and operate very much like their first products.
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.
"Uhh! What is it?" I was being prodded on the arm. Admittedly it was gentle, almost polite prodding, but prodding it still was, a rude disturbance of the cocoon I had woven around myself in seat 31J of the American Airlines MD-11 winging its way across the North Atlantic. I pushed Pause on the Discman, insensitively not waiting for an opportune cadence in the Brahms Piano Quintet that had been my erstwhile virtual reality.
Compared to the Krell KSA-300S power amplifier that I also review this month, the KRC preamp's design is, at first glance, almost conventional. But its thoroughly high-end internal design has been equally well thought-out and executed. Its main, four-layer, glass-epoxy circuit board is for the audio signal, DC power, and groundtwo layers for the latter are said to minimize noise. The gain stages are pure class-A and complementary. As in the amplifier, the circuit is direct-coupled, with servo circuits controlling the DC offset. The fully regulated power supply is housed in an external chassis. Seven inputs are provided: four single-ended, two balanced, and one single-ended tape. All inputs are line-level except for the optional, single-ended phono stage. (This review will address the line stages; a Follow-Up will discuss the phono stage's operation.) There are three outputs: balanced and single-ended main outputs, and a single-ended tape output.
Founded in 1984 by Mark Levinson, the man responsible for the original Mark Levinson products (footnote 1), Cello has slowly become more visible within the high-end audio consumer market, as well as establishing a presence in the recording industry with very high quality microphone preamps, tape electronics, power amplifiers, and equalizers. Taking a holistic approach, Levinson offers Cello systems complete from preamplification and equalization stages through amplification to loudspeakers. He can also set up a complete recording studio for you, including the microphones, microphone preamplifiers, and tape decks. Cello manufactures their own interconnect and speaker cables, cutely called "Cello Strings." Besides marketing his products through high-end dealers, Levinson has established two showrooms, in New York and Los Angeles, dedicated to sales of Cello systems and components (as well as a few selected source components from other manufacturers).
Stardate: 3087.6. Location: somewhere in the 4th quadrant. In response to Captain Kirk's orders, Mr. Sulu throws a few well-chosen levers and sliders—not much different in design and function from those used by Flash Gordon and Captain Video—to redirect the Good Ship Enterprise where no man has boldly gone before. New adventures begin immediately after the bridge crew pick themselves up off the deck and nonchalantly resume their stations.
The Threshold FET nine/e ($2595) is the junior sibling of the FET ten/e, a solid-state preamp that has earned a rave review in March 1991 from noted tubeophile Dick Olsher (Vol.14 No.3), itself a development of the FET ten that J. Gordon Holt reviewed in September 1987 (Vol.10 No.6). Would my ears, accustomed as they are to the pitter-patter of electrons traveling through a vacuum, have a similarly positive response to the FET nine/e?
About three weeks ago, while perusing the gear in a local audio retail establishment, I overheard a salesman, who could well have been selling used cars, giving a classic spiel to an obviously confused customer. "You see, sir, all preamplifiers basically sound alike, especially with line-level inputs. The only differences are in the number of features." He went on to tell his prey that spending big bucks for high-end products such as Krell or Mark Levinson (neither of which he sold) would be a big mistake. I choked back my automatic response of a certain bovine term, but thought it better to continue my fly-on-the-wall masquerade.
"Desperation is the Mother of Invention." Isn't that how the proverb goes? Certainly it applied ten years ago in the case of the Philips engineers working on the development of the Compact Disc system. Given a specification that had included a 14-bit data word length, they had duly developed a 14-bit DAC chip, the TDA1540, only then to be informed that the CD standard decided upon after Sony joined forces with the Dutch company would involve 16-bit data words. (Thank goodness!)