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.
You can read all about an automobile, check its gear ratios, and ponder the engine's horsepower all you want—but until you put yourself in the driver's seat and take that baby out for a spin, you have no idea whether or not it's going to be fun to drive.
The search for signal transparency has led to much experiment and debate concerning losses in fidelity that can be traced to the preamplifier or—as it's more often and awkwardly called these days when the phono stage is omitted—the "line controller."
With the price of high-end audio increasingly reaching for the stratosphere, audiophiles appear to becoming much more value-conscious. This trend is reflected in the recent popularity of CD players over separate transports and processors, and particularly in the sudden resurgence in integrated amplifiers. An integrated amplifier makes a lot of sense: the buyer saves the cost of two chassis, two power cords, two owner's manuals, and an extra pair of interconnects. You also get a simpler system.
Is Krell risking its reputation? With the KAV-300i, an integrated amplifier that was originally envisaged as an export model, but for which home demand is clearly increasing, the Connecticut-based amplifier manufacturer is dabbling in low-cost territory. Previous Krell amplifiers have been known for their prodigious drive capability. Time and time again, it is found that the true measure of the bass performance of a big speaker isn't realized until a Krell power amplifier is brought into service. But how could an amplifier with a meaty 150Wpc specification and full remote control be built to sell for just $2350.
What, I hear you asking, is an integrated drive? The MID is part of McCormack's much lauded "Micro" series (see my review of their Micro Line Drive in Vol.18 No.6), which are designed to offer the same dedication to quality as McCormack's full-size components, but at a lower price (and in a smaller package). The MID was initially the Micro Headphone Drive, sporting two ½" stereo phone-jacks on the front panel, a two-position input switch, and a volume control. The rear boasted two inputs and an output (controlled by the volume pot). It was designed to be a high-quality headphone amp and a minimalist preamp. In this configuration, I ran into it at the 1995 WCES where—almost as a gag—Steve McCormack had made up a few ½" stereo phone-plug to 5-way binding post connectors. He could, he explained, run small speakers from the headphone outputs. There was a serious purpose behind the joke, of course. Showing that the MHD could drive speakers spoke volumes for its ability to drive headphones.
In this, my first equipment review for Stereophile, I'll begin by explaining my philosophy regarding reviewing inexpensive components. In my quest for products by designers who strive to establish new benchmarks for reproducing sonic realism at lower prices, I'll be looking for "value" components (a more appropriate term than "budget") whose designers logically fall into two camp. . .
As strongly as I believe that the listening experience is the most reliable method of judging the quality of audio equipment, I've been biased against single-ended tube amplifiers because of their quirky measured performances. Without having heard single-ended under good conditions—much less living with an SE amplifier—I had concluded that many listeners must like them because they're euphonically colored by large amounts of low-order distortion and impedance interactions with the loudspeakers. SE amplifiers seem to be a departure from the goal of making the electronics transparent. Moreover, the range of loudspeakers suitable for SE amplifiers is so restrictive that I wondered why anyone would bother with these underpowered distortion-generators. I had fallen into a trap that I've repeatedly railed against: drawing conclusions without firsthand listening experience (footnote 1).