Older audiophiles remember the splash NAD made in the late 1970s with the introduction of their 3020 integrated amplifier ($175). Ridiculously cheap, it looked graceful and sounded warm, inviting, and holographic. Removable jumpers between the 3020's sections permitted enthusiasts to determine whether the magic resided in its preamp, its power amp, or in some synergy of both.
The one thing I've liked about designer Mike Creek of Creek Audio as much as his design talent is his predictability. I've been following his integrated-amplifier designs for nearly 20 years now, having reviewed, in sequence, the CAS4140s2 (for another magazine), the 4240SE (Stereophile, December 1995, Vol.18 No.12), and the 5350SE (March 2001, Vol.24 No.3). In each case, I was sufficiently impressed with the review sample that I bought it and made it my new reference in my second, affordable system. The predictable part comes from Creek's traditional nomenclature: an "s2" or "SE" (Special Edition) designation has always denoted a modest upgrade, and a numerical uptick in the model number a more significant upgrade, the level of significance denoted by the specific digit being increased. Hence, the update from 4240 to 5350 is intended to indicate a greater improvement in sound than the update from 4140 to 4240.
At the extreme high end—Halcro, VTL, Boulder, etc.—reviewers gush about a lack of character. If you're paying $20,000, you want a preamplifier or power amp to disappear. At those price points we also want extreme, unfatiguing resolution, and noise that's well below what most people would consider audible. But at those prices, an absence of character is definitely something most people aspire to.
As you read this, are you listening to your stereo? Whatever the music, what you're actually hearing is your public utility's AC as modulated by your power amplifier. No matter how good the gear, the final result can be only as pure as the power feeding your components. Unfortunately, plenty of sonic schmutz usually comes along for the ride.
Each time I attend Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment Show, I look forward to two things. The first is the opportunity to perform classic and original jazz music with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins. The second is to seek out the most exciting new, affordable speakers to review over the following year. Both buttons were pressed for me quite admirably during HE2005 at the New York Hilton, but this time it was not an affordable speaker that most impressed me.
Were I trying to make a living by giving piano recitals, David Stanhope's new CD, A Virtuoso Recital (Tall Poppies TP184), just might tempt me to wash down a fistful of pills with a bottle of Scotch. The saving grace being that Stanhope seems to have enough things to occupy himself with in his native Australia. The risk of his showing up in New York City and playing a recital, thereby giving a lot of people existential crises and sleepless nights, seems remote.
If you spotted an EICO HF-81 at the local Goodwill, you'd think nothing of this plain-Jane integrated amplifier in its nondescript gray case. But if you kept on walking, you would have passed up one of the best-kept audio secrets of all time. The HF-81 hails from hi-fi's pioneer days, before chromed chassis and slick Mac transformers. It isn't ultracool-looking, like early Marantz or McIntosh gear. It doesn't have the nostalgia factor of a Fisher. It's not a supercheap eBay steal like a Stromberg-Carlson or a Heathkit. So what's the deal?
Wilson Audio Specialties' David Wilson likes to say that you should build a stereo system from the speakers down. Of course he does—he sells speakers. But that doesn't mean he's wrong. So recently, when offered an inexpensive new product for review, I decided it would be a good test of Wilson's theory. I tried driving Wilson's $45,000/pair MAXX2 speakers with Outlaw Audio's RR2150, a $599 stereo receiver.
In September 2005, for the first time, I attended the Expo of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA), in Indianapolis. Although I saw many familiar faces and companies, it was apparent that the event was dominated by a spirit very different from the one that pervades this magazine or the high-end exhibitions at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). That spirit, however, does suffuse the rest of CES, and is well represented at Primedia's own Home Entertainment shows. That spirit encompasses video, and a view of audio that differs significantly from that of traditional audiophiles. Multichannel surround sound is taken as read, and novel technologies are prized higher than the proverbial "straight wire with gain."
Lovers of Italian wine, travelers to Italy, and, of course, Italians, may be familiar with this story. It seems that in the year 1111, Henry V was traveling to Rome to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. A member of his entourage, one Giovanni Defuc, was very fond of wine, and had the practice of sending ahead one of his servants to sample the wine in each place. When the servant found a wine that he particularly liked, he would write "Est!" on the door of the establishment, which was a signal to his master that the wine is (est) good. Having arrived at Montefiascone, the servant found a wine he thought so superb that he wrote on the door of the inn "Est! Est!! Est!!!"
Yet another of the best systems I've ever heard at a hi-fi show was an exhibit by some former distributors for the English manufacturer Exposure Electronics, at a Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in the late 1980s. The exhibitors seemed to believe it was better to impress with a humble product than to overwhelm with a full-bore assault, because they limited their display to a single amplifier: the then-new Exposure X (as in "10") integrated, mated to a record player comprising a Linn LP12 turntable, Ekos tonearm, and Troika cartridge, and a pair of Linn Kan loudspeakers.
Here we are, back to the Arcam I know and love: a company that not only invents good products, but good product categories as well. Like the Arcam Black Box of the 1980s, which gave so many people fits at the time—yet which, once you heard it, made good musical sense. It made good marketing sense, too: With that one stroke, teensy, weird, nestled-away-in-the-English-countryside Arcam did nothing less than create the domestic market for outboard digital-to-analog converters.
The French-made Kora line has been in and out of American distribution over the past decade. It's currently imported by Norman AV of Aventura, Florida. With the window of opportunity open again, I decided to listen to Kora's modestly priced hybrid integrated amplifier, the Explorer 150SB ($2030).
Living with a brand-new Cyrus amp was a pleasantly nostalgic thing to do, even from the start: It arrived in a clean and downright attractive carton that seemed designed specifically to contain a brand-new Cyrus amplifier. Think of it! And I haven't even mentioned the nice owner's manual or the balance control or the headphone jack. As I said: the good old days.
How times have changed. When Krell first debuted its KAV-300i, in 1996, it risked having people question its high-end credibility simply for having considered producing an integrated amplifier, much less an affordable one. After all, Krell was the company best known for massively overbuilt—and, many claimed, overpriced—power amplifiers that were uniquely capable of driving speakers of ridiculously low impedance. In Martin Colloms' review of the 300i in the July 1996 Stereophile, he asked the question on everyone's minds: "Is Krell risking its reputation?"