Even as the gulf narrows between the sounds of the best solid-state and the best tubed amplifiers, most listeners remain staunch members of one or the other camp. Similarly, when it comes to video displays, the plasma and liquid-crystal technologies each has its partisans, though that conflict's intensity is relatively mild, perhaps because video performance, unlike audio, is based on a mastering standard that establishes color temperature, gray-scale tracking, color points, and the like (I'm deeply in the plasma camp). But in audio, the "standard" is whatever monitoring loudspeaker and sonic balance the mastering engineer prefers, which makes somewhat questionable the pursuit of "sonic accuracy." Still, in a power amplifier, a relative lack of coloration is preferable to amps that Stereophile editor John Atkinson has characterized as "tone controls"usually, if not exclusively, of the tubed variety.
After I read Brian Damkroger's rave review of the Audio Research Corporation's Reference 5 SE line stage in the November 2012 Stereophile, I was excited about getting the review sample into my system so that I could do a Follow-Up (February 2013). However, the sample had already been returned to the factory, so I called ARC to see if it could be rerouted eastward to me. Chief Listener Warren Gehl answered the phone.
"Sure, you can listen to the Ref 5 SE, but I'd assumed you were calling about the Reference 75 amplifier."
"Reference 75? What's that?"
"It's our newest amplifiera half-power version of the Reference 150."
The challenge is biblical in character, if not in scope: A half year after railing, in these pages, against our industry's overabundance of products that cost more than $20,000, fate has given me such a thing to review.
I knew nothing of Ypsilon when I first saw its products in a room at an overseas audio show. Even though the speakers in this system were complete unknowns, I was convinced that it was the electronics that were responsible for the magical balance of what I was hearing. That was confirmed when I reviewed the VPS-100 phono preamplifier in August 2009 and PST-100 Mk.II preamplifier in July 2011.
Ever since I became a Stereophile contributing editor, people have asked me, "How do you determine what equipment you're going to review? Do you get to pick your own, or does John Atkinson tell you what to do?"
I've chosen roughly 85% of the components I've reviewed for Stereophile, those choices made on the bases of what I find interesting, and what I think readers would like to know about. It's as simple as that.
It began when I reviewed the MartinLogan Montis loudspeaker (September 2012). The amplifiers I had to drive the pair of them were the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premier integrated ($2999), the Audiopax Mk.II (no longer available; the Mk.III costs $22,000), and the Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7 ($9000). The first two are tubed, with power in the 3040Wpc range; the solid-state Simaudio puts out 150Wpc. The Audiopax, which sounds great with my Avantgarde Uno Nanos, turned out to be not such a good match for the Montises: weak in dynamics, and too soft sounding. The PrimaLuna and the Simaudio were better overall, each with its strengths and weaknesses, though neither was ideal. I really liked the ProLogue Premier's tonal characteristics, and wondered what a higher-powered tube amp would sound like with the MartinLogans.
It's always good to have a reference. No matter the endeavor, references help guide us and set standards for all we do. For many hours of every day, I'm lucky to enjoy the reference of live, unamplified music. Right now, I average over 20 hours a week of rehearsals and performances of various ensembles, and four to five hours of listening to recorded music on my hi-fi. Clearly, for me, my musical reference is not the sound of my audio system, but the sound of live music created in various venues and acoustics.
Even at its humblest, a 300B is a fine thing. And at its best, this classic triode output tube can deliver some of the most intoxicating music playback imaginable. If tubes are liquor, the 300B is clearly absinthe. (The 2A3 is Cognac, the 45 is Armagnac, the F2a is Tequila, and the EL34 is vodkawhich is to say, you can make almost anything out of an EL34, from the repulsive to the sublime.)
One drizzly, gray morning I found myself with an unexpected hole in my schedule and an unusual hankering for doughnuts. Since my move to Portland, Oregon, last August, people from around the country have told me that I just had to try the over-the-top creations over at Voodoo Doughnuts. So I donned my raincoat and walked through downtown Portland for one of Voodoo's fried, raised, and glazed treats. Once inside Voodoo's tiny storefront, I chose two confections: a maple-bacon bar (yep, they put a whole strip of bacon on top of a doughnut), and an Old Dirty Bastard doughnut with chocolate frosting, Oreos, and a peanut-butter topping. They were delicious, and way more doughnut than one man should eat.
Years ago, while editing Listener Magazine, I received a call from a record-company publicist with whom I was friendly: The drummer Ginger Baker, whose work I admire, was promoting a new release, and we were offered a 30-minute telephone interview with the artist. I jumped at the chance, but wound up leaving the article in the canpartly because it was so short, partly because its subject was so cranky. As with vacation trips to certain locales, second prize would likely have been 60 minutes with Ginger Baker.
My guest, an occasionally nice person, didn't mean her question in a nice way. It was pointed and derisive: a needle intended to burst whatever it was that made me think filling a room with thousands of LPs was a good idea. She didn't wait for an answerit would have been "Not quite"but I half think she half expected me to see reason on the spot.
For anyone who's been around the audiophile block a few times, Conrad-Johnson Design is a brand that needs no introduction. My first acquaintance with Conrad-Johnson was before I began writing for Stereophile (more than two decades agotime sure flies fast when you're having fun!). I was in the market for a new preamp, having become convinced that my Dayton Wright SPS Mk.II was the weak link in my system, and had narrowed my choices to two similarly priced products: a solid-state model made by PS Audio (I'm not sure of the model number), and the tubed Conrad-Johnson PV-2ar. They were carried by different dealers, who allowed me to take their preamps home over the same weekend for a direct comparison. I was impressed by both preamps, and was sure that either would represent an improvement over the Dayton Wright, but in the end decided to go for the PV-2ar. I later traded it in on a dealer's demo unit of another Conrad-Johnson preamp, the PV-5. And, as it turned out, one of my first reviews for Stereophile was of Conrad-Johnson's PV-11 preamp.
In his "Manufacturer's Comment" in response to my review of the original Music Reference RM-200 power amplifier in the April 2002 issue, designer Roger Modjeski admitted that being a manufacturer was not his first choice. "Frankly, I'd rather consult than produce," he claimed. "I'd rather be making a living doing stand-up comedy," I said to myself after reading his comment.
The VTL MB-450 series began life in the late 1980s as the Deluxe 300, a pair of which I once owned. Over the years the basic design has been improved and modified, in the forms of the MB-450 (1996) and the MB-450 Series II (which I reviewed in January 2008). The tube complement remains the same: eight 6550s in the push-pull output stage, a 12AT7 input tube, and a 12BH7 driver. Into a 5 ohm load, the MB-450 III is claimed to produce 425W in tetrode mode or 225W in triode, from 20Hz to 20kHz.
It's been a while since I've had a classic amplifier in my system, and McIntosh Laboratory's MC275 is as classic as they come. Introduced in 1961 as the "powerhouse" of that era's newfangled stereo tube amps (two 75W amplifiers in one chassis!), the MC275 retained its position as the amplifier to ownchallenged only, perhaps, by Marantz and a few othersuntil 1970, when it fell prey to the widespread wisdom that transistors were king and tubes were dead, and the model was discontinued. The MC275 briefly returned in 1993, in a limited "Commemorative" edition to honor the late Gordon Gow, longtime president and chief designer of McIntosh Labs. To everyone's surprise, that edition sold well, and McIntosh, gingerly at first, crept back into the tube business.