In my last column, in November 2011, I mentioned that preamplifier-processors are generally at a price disadvantage in comparison to the same manufacturer's A/V receivers. The economies of scale almost ensure this. Typically, to design a pre-pro, a manufacturer uses one of its AVR models as a platform; the result is most distinguished from its parent AVR by its lack of power amplifiers.
The very first amplifier I bought was a Harman Kardon PC-200, aka The Prelude. It was a 10Wpc integrated, but I chose it over the competition for some of the same reasons that the HK 990 has appealed to me. Almost all amps back in the1960s had a plain cake-pan chassis with tubes, capacitors, and transformers studding the top. Integrated amps had the standard four knobs on the front for input selection, volume, bass, and treble. The HK PC-200 had an enclosed black chassis cage that formed a graceful cowl over the brushed-copper front panel and the six matte-black knobs: for Input selection (with three phono turnover settings), Volume, Bass, Treble, Loudness contour, and Treble rolloff. In addition, it had a Rumble Filter switch. The PC-200 was not only more beautiful than the rest of the push-pull competition powered by EL84 tubes, it also had more useful features. (Take that, you fans of the Grommes Little Jewel!). Over the decades, H/K products have always been stylish and innovative, but in today's fractured marketing world, most such creative energies are applied to audio/video receivers and lifestyle products.
Let's not beat around the bush: this is what an amplifier is supposed to look like. The silver front panel contains over a dozen knobs and switches, yet somehow avoids seeming cluttered. The solid wood cabinet wouldn't look out of place next to Hugh Hefner's cognac decanter. And the controls! The SQ-38u is as full-function as they come ("as they used to come" would be closer to the truth), with a Balance knob, separate Bass and Treble Tone Controls, a low-frequency cutoff (aka "rumble") switch labeled Low Cut, a Mono/Stereo switch, and a mute button; plus switching and connectors for two pairs of loudspeakers. Everything but curb feelers.
Given that Quad's founder, the late Peter J. Walker, wasn't around to design the Quad II Classic Integrated, the English firm relied instead on Tim de Paravicini, whose credits include the comparatively recent Quad II-eighty mono amplifiers and QC-twentyfour preamplifier (not to mention his own line of E.A.R./Yoshino electronics and countless other well-regarded products). It's with respect for both men that I say: In turning to Tim de Paravicini, Quad has probably chosen the closest approach to the original.
In a perfect world, I would own the following: one good turntable (footnote 1), one good tonearm, one good pickup head, one good step-up transformer, one good integrated amplifier, and two good loudspeakers. And some decent cables. That's all, except maybe a home and a dog and some records and some books and one good guitar.
Around midnight, Natalie decided to move the party from her and Nicole's apartment (see last month's column) to our favorite local dive, Lucky 7, just a few blocks away on the corner of Second and Coles, in Jersey City. We threw wide the old red door and stepped into the stench of stale beer, the sound of cheap speaker cones tearing at the seams. I love Lucky's as much as anyone, but the music there on a Saturday night is always too goddamned loud.
Blind though I am to the allure of blind testing, I can appreciate some degree of review-sample anonymity: Distinctive products elicit distinctive responses, but a plain black box encourages us to leave our prejudices at the door. It asks of us a certain . . . objectivity.
So it was with the Micromega AS-400 digital source/integrated amplifier ($4495), the anonymity of which was compounded, in my case, by a generous helping of forgetfulness: I suppose I was told, ahead of time, that this was a class-D amplifier, but at some point in time before my first at-home audition I apparently killed the brain cells responsible for remembering that fact. So I was innocent of conscious prejudice when I listened to this elegant cipher of a box and wrote, in my notes: "Dynamic, dramatic, and almost relentlessly exciting with some recordings. Imbued pianos with almost too much dynamism for the roomtoo much being very good!but lacked some 'purr' in the die-away. Basically fine and fun. Wish it had a little more color and spatial depth."
My quandary on receiving for review the Linn Majik DS-I: What, precisely, is it supposed to do? Does the Majik DS-I contain a hard disk and music-ripping software, so I can use it to store all the music in my CD collection? Does it have a graphical user interface (GUI) that at least matches the one provided by the endearingly free Apple iTunes? Does it include a DAC that allows it to play the music files I've already put on my computer?
My first trip to a Consumer Electronics Show, in January 2010, was an eye-opener. Not only had I never before seen the phony glories of Las Vegas, it was the first time I'd been to a high-end audio show. Between the offerings on the top floors of the Venetian and T.H.E. Show at the Flamingo, I met some great people and heard some wonderful new products. One of those people was distributor Kevin Deal, and one of those new products was from Mystère. Though I was familiar with the PrimaLuna line that Deal also distributes, Mystère was, well, a mystery. However, after a listen to the Mystère pa21 power amplifier making a pair of MartinLogan speakers sing, and after noting the reasonable prices for some of Mystère's beautifully designed and built amps, I put Mystère in my review queue.
In my review of Krell's FBI integrated amplifier in the July 2007 issue, I noted that $16,500 (it now costs $18,000) seemed an astonishing chunk of change to spend on a product category generally associated with "budget" gear. Now, the 2011 edition of the Stereophile Buyer's Guide lists no fewer than 19 companies selling integrated amps for five figuresone goes for $100,000!which perhaps suggests that economic slumps prod even the well-heeled to alter their habits. There are, after all, advantages to cramming a preamplifier and a power amplifier into a single box: you need one less pair of interconnects, one less power socket, one less cabinet shelf. And if the integrated contains state-of-the-art parts, elegant circuitry, and a hefty power supply, what's the problem?
And so we have Simaudio Ltd., the veteran Canadian high-end electronics firm, leaping into this realm after 30 years of business with the Moon 700i, priced at $12,000only two-thirds the price of the Krell, but aimed at the same downsizing but still toney demographic.
Ten thousand hours. According to Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become truly exceptional in your field. For any endeavor, Gladwell contends, what will get you to Carnegie Hall isn't inborn talent but practice, practice, practice.
As with so many other things, from cell phones to soy milk, the idea of a portable MP3 player was something I at first disdained, only to later embrace with the fervor of any reformed sinner. But not so the idea of a high-fidelity iPod dock: Given that I now carry around several hundred high-resolution AIFF files on my own Apple iPod Touch, the usefulness of a compatible transport seemed obvious from the start. Look at it this way: In 1970, whenever I bought a music recording, I could enjoy it on any player, in any room in the house. In 2010, why shouldn't I enjoy at least that degree of convenience and flexibilitywithout resorting to a pair of tinny, uncomfortable earbuds?
In sixth grade, I was given a Victorinox Swiss Army knife. I loved it. An avid camper and erstwhile Boy Scout, I was amazed at how many things I could do with this well-made, pocket-size wonder. I used its tweezers to remove splinters and ticks, its scissors to cut thread, its can opener to prize open tins of baked beans, and its knife blade to whittle, occasionally cut myself, and generally wreak teenage mayhem.
As I grew older, I discovered that using specialized tools for a given job was generally easier, faster, and more pleasurable than using my Swiss Army knife's utilities. Though I could cut a tent's ground cloth with my knife's scissors, a plain-Jane pair of Fiskars worked much better, an OXO can opener got me into those baked beans much faster than my Victorinox could, and even my Swiss Army knife blade didn't stay as sharp or fit in my hand as well as a simple Buck knife. Still, there was no doubt that my Swiss Army knife was a great tool and a good value, even if it was never the best tool for a specific task. To put it another way: The value of my Swiss Army knife was broad but shallow, while the value of something like my OXO can opener was narrow but deep.
I'm a basically a tube guy, but I've never warmed up to most lower-powered integrated tube amps. Although I quite enjoyed the time I spent with the Cayin A-50T, which I reviewed in the March 2008 issue of Stereophile, over the years I've typically found I'd rather spend time with mid-priced, solid-state integrateds from Creek, Musical Fidelity, or Simaudio than deal with the loss of definition at the frequency extremes that I've heard from many lower-powered tube models. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached the VSi60, a 50Wpc integrated amplifier from Audio Research Corporation.