Having evaluated any number of integrated amplifiers in the past year or so, I've repeatedly been impressed by the ways in which designers build versatility and sonic distinction into their single-box designs. In matching those that sounded and measured the best—such as the tubed E.A.R. V20 (October 1999) and the solid-state Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver (January 2001)—with appropriate speakers and source components, I was able to attain high-resolution musicality with a minimum of fuss. Crave high-end sound but require even less complexity? You could dispense with interconnects altogether by integrating a high-quality CD player into a remote-controlled receiver, as Linn has with the diminutive Classik that I reviewed last November.
Musical arguments in favor of separate components are compelling and well-documented. But there's also something musical to be said about reducing the number of power sources, keeping signal paths short and direct, and hard-wiring connections between components rather than employing multiple sets of interconnects. So while a designer must inevitably confront certain tradeoffs, the explosive growth and popularity of single-box products in the past few years contradicts the received wisdom passed down by some of the more sniffy audiophiles: that such unduly proletarian products are terminally compromised in terms of absolute levels of music reproduction.
In the ongoing audiophile debate over the relative merits of solid-state vs tube amplification, compelling cases can be made for the overall musicality of both methods. And while there's a lot to be said for the dynamic headroom, bass focus, clarity, frequency extension, and silent performance of solid-state gear, it's funny how much you can come to miss the aural verities of tube electronics after a prolonged absence.
July came in this year like September: cool, crisp night air and bright, clear days. The humidity and temperature remained low throughout the week I spent setting up the Denon AVR-4800 surround A/V receiver. So, crouched down behind its crowded rear panel, wiring up eight loudspeakers and multiple inputs, I wasn't sweating from the temperature. Launching the new multichannel Denon AVR-4800's surround audio-visual system required hard work, trial and error, and an emergency trip to the UPS terminal in the Bronx. While there were great musical pleasures ahead, the path to music-surround knowledge was rougher than I ever imagined it might be.
When I learned that Madrigal Audio Labs was marketing their first integrated amplifier, the Mark Levinson No.383, I felt this was a big change for the Connecticut company. Mark Levinson literally started the high-end marketing revolution back in the early 1970s by manufacturing cost-no-object separate amplifiers and preamplifiers. The purist designs had one overriding rule: employ the simplest circuit path possible. Each amplifier or preamplifier used only individual circuit-board components (no integrated circuits) and had a minimal number of controls, eschewing elaborate switches and tone controls. Mark Levinson Audio Systems and its successor, Madrigal Audio Laboratories, has continued this philosophy of separate components for the past 25 years.
Why would a sharp mind offer a $15,000 integrated digital amplifier to a reviewer who has been characterized in the audio press as the "self-proclaimed Analog Messiah" and a "hyper-Luddite"? That's the first question a self-centered reviewer asks himself. Yours might be: "A $15,000 integrated amplifier from...Sharp?"
In Hinduism, an avatar is an incarnation of spirit—a god who descends to earth in bodily form. For Kevin Hayes of the Valve Amplification Company (VAC), the Avatar was meant to be nothing less than his defining statement of the state of the audio designer's art. Drawing on the high-tech refinements and scrupulous attention to individual components that distinguish his flagship high-end amps and preamps, Hayes has filtered it all down into one attractively priced integrated amplifier.
Have you ever gone into a high-end audio emporium dressed not to the nines, but more like the threes or fours, and been ignored by the shop's staff because they've sized you up as being too low-budget? Even though you were carrying a high-powered, fully equipped, state-of-the-art wallet in that fanny pack, they assumed the opposite and shunned you.
Convergence is a widely used buzzword in today's consumer-electronics industry. However, other than using my PC's soundcard in the office to play back MP3-encoded music and plugging the Mac in my listening room into my reference system in order to experience Riven with the highest possible sound quality, I've kept a low profile in this area.
There's an aesthetic dimension to the Manley Laboratories Stingray that transcends high-end audio and borders on modern sculpture—not unlike the E.A.R. V20, which I auditioned in the October issue. Still, the Stingray is by no means an exercise in gimmickry. Form has clearly followed function at every step in the design process, the ultimate goal of which was to fashion a vacuum-tube integrated amplifier with real-world power that defined the outer limits of high-end performance in a functional, affordable, bare-bones package...with a touch of style.
The women in my family and extended circle of friends are generally captivated by good sound, but are often appalled by the brutish, monolithic packaging that passes for "styling" in high-end gear. "Not in my living room," is the refrain, often played in a minor key.
Obviously, no one wants to listen to exaggerated bass, italicized highs, or colored mids. But if you (as I have in the past few months) plug in several high-quality integrated amplifiers, each designed to a different price point, into the same basic signal chain, you'll experience a wide disparity of sound signatures.
I hate all those automobile reviews that go on and on about a car's design aesthetics. C'mon, I can see what it looks like, even if only in the pictures. Just tell me things I can't appreciate without a run on the Autobahn.
Consider the lowly spork, that modern marvel of versatility: half spoon, half fork. In theory, you should be able to eat just about anything short of a flank steak with it. But the sad fact is, whether you're eating soup or salad, you might as well try to shovel it in using a tongue depressor. The damn thing's so versatile, it almost doesn't work at all. There's a lot to be said for specialization.