I hate audio shows. All those manufacturers and retailers desperately demonstrating their products, knowing how impossible it is to do them justice in a hotel room. They might be saying, "It has gold-plated circuit boards and unobtainium binding posts," but all I hear is Please love it, please love it, oh puhleeze . . .
Two audiophile buddies of mine both own Rogue Audio M-150 monoblocks. I'd always been impressed with not only the sound quality of the M-150, but also its price. For $4495/pair, I thought my friends got a whole lotta amp for notta lotta dough. In this day and age, it's a rare and wonderful thing to get a pair of monoblocks, made in the US by a real audio company, that give you 150Wpc of tube power for under $5000. When Rogue came out with an update of the M-150, the M-180 ($5495), I thought it might be a good subject for my first full review in Stereophile. John Atkinson thought so too. I also thought it would be interesting to compare the M-180 with the very tube-like and almost identically priced Pass Labs XA30.5 two-channel amplifier ($5500), a sample of which I had on hand. (see my Follow-Up in August 2009).
Remarkably, I set out to audition the Hyperion HT-88 amplifier ($2800/pair) over two years ago, only to be confounded by shipping errors, miscommunications, and, in the end, a stealthily defective tube. I almost gave up.
Stop me if you've heard this one: Back in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, I debated professor of music engineering and magazine columnist Ken Pohlmann on a talk show on the CBS radio network. The subject was analog sound vs digital sound, but I guess when Pohlmann felt I was getting the upper hand, he felt he needed to play the tube card. Derisively, he said, "I bet you're one of those tube guys, too, aren't you?" Before I could open my mouth, he continued: "You know, the Soviet Union's military gear, including the MIG fighters, ran on tube electronics, and look what happened to them!"
Ars-Sonum is a Spanish audio company that, as far as I can tell, makes only one product—but it's a doozy (footnote 1). The Filarmonía SE is a tube integrated amplifier that is, in many ways, an homage to Dynaco's iconic Stereo 70 power amplifier of 1959, but the Filarmonía is by no means a slavish copy. Get down to specifics, and it's actually more of a clean-sheet-of-paper design.
When I attend Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment show, I rarely sit and listen to music for very long. Instead, I try to hit every room, press the flesh, find out about new products, and play a little jazz.
When audio designer Ken Shindo was a little boy, his father kept an enormous collection of 78rpm records in their home in Tokyo. During the final days of World War II, the Japanese authorities did their best to evacuate the city, but the elder Shindo was steadfast: He refused to leave, for fear that the records would be gone when he returned.
Today is Monday, February 5, and it's so buttercupping cold outside that the custodian couldn't get our school's oil burner started. Consequently, my daughter is home for the day, playing on the rug in front of the fireplace. (Santa brought a wooden castle and a fine selection of medieval figurines, some of which are headed for the dungeon as we speak.) I'm at my desk in the music room, on the upwind side of the house—and the wind is murder. The west wall is cold. The north wall is cold. The floorboards are cold. But the air inside is warm as toast: I'm driving my Quad ESL speakers with a Joule Electra VZN-80 amplifier ($12,000) that isn't at all bashful about squandering a goodly amount of energy as heat. I can't think of a more delightful quality for an amp to have, at least on a day like this.
When I unpacked the Rogue Audio Atlas, I didn't know how much it cost. After examining its chassis of high-grade steel, its silver-anodized aluminum faceplate, its sleek and slightly rounded edges, and, above all, its two chunk-o'brick transformers—for such a little thing (a foot-and-a-half square by half-a-foot high), it's heavy—I guessed around five grand. Then I called Rogue Audio and learned that it retails for $1395.
Everybody loves a bargain. No—make that: Most people love a bargain. Some just want the best, and they don't care about the cost. Some even distrust and reject out of hand any product that's not expensive enough. If you're one of these people, you might as well stop reading this review right now—the PrimaLuna ProLogue Three and ProLogue Seven are not for you. $1395 for a tube preamp? $2695 for a pair of 70Wpc tube monoblocks equipped with four KT88 tubes each? Must be based on old designs in the public domain using cheap parts carelessly assembled...
In this hobby, nothing's for nothing. To get that gorgeous midrange, with its harmonic depth and inner detail, tube-amp enthusiasts are willing to give up some things in the bass. Tube folks put up with heat and occasional maintenance—routine or otherwise. To get the ideal middle, fans of single-ended triodes are even willing to shave off considerable dynamic range and settle for ultra-efficient speakers that often have limited response at the frequency extremes. Those who say nothing is lost by preferring tubes are in denial.
My stepfather wore only second-hand clothes as a child and never understood why anyone would deliberately wash the color out of his new dungarees. By the same token, the senior members of our hobby, many of whom recall with fondness the transistor's advent, don't understand why anyone would now wish to throw away their newfound power. Some people deserve to be blessed for their point of view, even as the world moves away from it.
When I reviewed VTL's MB-750 monoblock amplifier in the December 1997 Stereophile (Vol.20 No.12), it was a transitional time for the company. Luke Manley had recently taken it over, and he and his wife and partner, Bea Lam, were aggressively retooling. They introduced new business systems, including rigorous inventory and quality control; rebuilt VTL's dealer network around top-rank dealers; and systematically upgraded the products themselves to improve their consistency, reliability, manufacturability, and performance. VTL's goal, Luke explained to me at the time, was to build amplifiers that competed with the very best, and to "make the tubes invisible to the customer."