I've been attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show for years, and usually come away with the impression that there are too many "me-too" products. I see a numbing similarity of approach of manufacturers within a chosen discipline: solid-state power amps in black and silver bristling with heatsinks, single-ended triode amps with their glow reflecting from bronze or wood panels, MCPU/DSP-centered devices with sleek, flat cases and intimidating remote controls, etc.
There's a whorish aspect to reviewing that some readers and industry critics never tire of mentioning, as if they've stumbled onto some great revelation: that we writers seem to flit from new product to new product, sometimes gushing like cracked fire hydrants over one amplifier one month, only to gush over another amp the following month.
It's a reviewer's privilege to be able to switch back and forth between tube and solid-state gear (or combinations thereof) as the mood or the assignment moves him. Still, I find I'm inevitably drawn back to the Epicurean delights of triode tube gear. When done right, there's an alluring musicality to it, like the breath of life. However, in any tube vs solid-state contest, the relative tradeoffs between tone and resolution—sweetness and articulation, euphony and frequency extension—must be taken into consideration.
Audio Research's first 21st-century, audiophile-quality line-stage preamplifier combines retro-tech vacuum-tube amplification and power-supply circuitry with innovative, remote-controlled gain, balance, tape monitoring, and signal routing. The price is also 21st-century: $9995. As in ARC's Reference phono section, the Reference Two's pair of vertically mounted circuit boards results in a single, relatively tall chassis.
Ideally, through the medium of a synergistically balanced set of high-resolution components, we seek to re-create an acoustic event with a palpable sense of realism—as in timbre, dynamics, room cues, and dimensionality. Have I ever experienced a system commensurate with the experience of sitting 12th-row-center at Carnegie Hall for Boulez conducting Stravinsky? Close, but...
This is an era in which products and websites are "launched," but in the past two years Herron Audio has sort of oozed its way into the public ear. With little visible promotion or splashy advertising, Herron is now spoken of within an ever-widening audiophile circle.
I suppose that most high-end designers dream about making a Statement Product—their best effort, without regard for price. Victor Khomenko, majordomo of Balanced Audio Technology, got the bug and came up with the VK-50SE. This hugely full-functioned line-stage preamp derives its Special Edition (SE) moniker from the eight hot-running, super-hush-hush Russian 6H30 Reflector SuperTubes that populate the circuit board.
While high-priced equipment can easily acquire stature on grounds of outright performance and physical appearance, we critics have more admiration for genuine achievement at lower price levels. One such product was the all-triode SP8 preamplifier from Audio Research, launched back in 1982 and priced at $1400. This classically tasteful preamplifier came equipped with a medium-sensitivity phono equalizer and the usual tape and line inputs.
"It costs as much as a car—and not a used jalopy, either." That's what goes through your head as you contemplate this magnificent $20,190 piece of audio jewelry. I don't mean "jewelry" pejoratively; the tubed Jadis RC JP80 MC Mk.II is a gorgeous, gleaming hunk of retro-looking machinery. Two hunks, actually: an equally large remote power supply is connected via an umbilical cord terminated with an elbow connector the size of house plumbing.
They say you never forget your first time. For me, it was an Audio Research SP-6B that had been heavily modified by Analogique in NYC—which meant, among other things, that yellow capacitors shunted other yellow capacitors all the way up to the top plate. That first taste of the High End—prior to that, you might say my face had been pressed against the window—was definitely love at first listen. That SP-6B was warm yet detailed, and I ended up building a system around it that at least one friend described as a huge musical wet kiss.
Almost two years ago, Conrad-Johnson's Lew Johnson came to Santa Fe while visiting his western dealers. We were chatting about acquaintances in the industry as I showed him the new house I'd barely moved into when he spread a blueprint across a stack of record boxes and showed me a design for a new product.
One memorable afternoon during HI-FI '97, Kathleen and my pudgy little self were hustling down the crowded corridors of San Francisco's venerable St. Francis Hotel, trying to make the Nagra press event. The Nagra suite was crowded with buzzing journalists, their anticipation palpable—the new Nagra PL-P preamplifier was about to enjoy its official debut. Suddenly the door to the demo room flew open. The vacuum created by the stampeding hordes nearly sucked the hors d'oeuvres off the table.
In just a few years, Sonic Frontiers has evolved from a parts and kit vendor to a full-line audio manufacturer (footnote 1). Their initial offerings were well received, but their kit origins were apparent in the layout and cosmetics of their products. While SF still offers kits (like their high-value Assemblage DAC-2), the new line of vacuum-tube electronics has world-class construction, design, and packaging. This generation of SF equipment is evidence of their advanced evolution, even though their constructor genome can be detected in the use of audiophile-preferred, as opposed of OEM, components.
"Musical Fidelity X-10D" it said on the box. No, this is not bathtub mildew remover or laundry detergent. Actually, it's hard to figure out exactly what it is. The box is little help. Musical Fidelity calls the X-10D "the missing link," a "pure Class A CD-player accessory."
It's hard to know what to call the SHA-Gold. It is a superb headphone amplifier—maybe even the target all future headphone amps need to shoot at—but it's also a full-function preamplifier. At two grand, it's not exactly a unit you'd add to your current system just to get a headphone connection...Wait a minute! What am I saying? I'm sure that there are folks out there who would add this to their existing reference systems as casually as I'd buy the Audio Alchemy headphone amplifier—but they'd be missing out on a great line stage.