The challenge is biblical in character, if not in scope: A half year after railing, in these pages, against our industry's overabundance of products that cost more than $20,000, fate has given me such a thing to review.
I knew nothing of Ypsilon when I first saw its products in a room at an overseas audio show. Even though the speakers in this system were complete unknowns, I was convinced that it was the electronics that were responsible for the magical balance of what I was hearing. That was confirmed when I reviewed the VPS-100 phono preamplifier in August 2009 and PST-100 Mk.II preamplifier in July 2011.
It was the strangest thing. In the fall of 2008 I was comparing Ayre Acoustics' then-new KX-R line preamplifier with no preamplifier at allI was feeding the power amplifier directly with the output of the Logitech Transporter D/A processor. (Levels were matched for the comparisons, of course, made possible by the fact that the Transporter has a digital-domain volume control.) Being a rational being, I knew that the active circuitry of a preamplifier, as well as the extra socketry and cables, would be less transparent to the audio signal than a single piece of wire. I wanted to determine by how much the Ayre preamp fell short of that standard.
Branding can be powerfula well-developed brand connotes strong images in the consumer's mind. Apple means ergonomics, elegance, ego. Fremer means analog, exuberance, fastidiousness. Rolex means Swiss-made, precision, expensive. Nagra means Swiss-made, precision, expensive.
What better way to celebrate the expiration of a noncompetition clause than to debut a product that has no competition? That's what Dan D'Agostino appears to have done with his Momentum monoblock amplifier ($55,000/pair)his first new product since leaving Krell, the company he cofounded more than 30 years ago.
Most reviews are straightforward. One preamplifier or power amplifier replaces another. DACs are swapped out. A new pair of speakers takes up residence in the listening room.
But some products demand a complete revision of a system's architecture. Such was the case with Devialet's D-Premier ($15,995). Not only is this French product an integrated amplifier, with phono and line analog inputs; it has digital inputs and an internal D/A section.
The Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandra XLF costs $200,000/pair. So does a Ferrari. Perhaps if Wilson Audio Specialties sold as many pairs of XLFs as Ferrari sells cars, the price might drop. For now, $200,000 is what you pay.
Can a loudspeaker possibly be worth that much? Add $10,000 for speaker cables, and that's what I paid for my first home in 1992. Today, the average American home costs around $272,000, which is likely less than the cost of an audio system built around a pair of Alexandra XLFs.
Mark Levinson founded Mark Levinson Audio Systems in 1972, but sold it, and the right to market audio gear under his own name, to Madrigal Audio Laboratories, then owned by the late Sandy Berlin, in 1984. Harman International bought Madrigal in 1995. As well as Mark Levinson, Harman's Luxury Audio Group now also includes digital processing pioneer Lexicon, speaker manufacturer Revel, and JBL Synthesis. The Mark Levinson brand is now headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana, at the Crown Audio facility, another Harman-owned brand. The No.53 ($25,000 each; $50,000/pair) is Mark Levinson's first new Reference series monoblock since the No.33, way back in 1993, when Madrigal owned the company. Like other Mark Levinson products, it is manufactured at an independent facility in Massachusetts.
I've heard a lot of great audio components over the years, but even in that steady stream of excellence, a few have stood out as something special. These are the products that, in their day, set a new standard for performance, and many of them are ones I wish I'd hung on to. Among these products are three preamps from Audio Research: the SP3A, the SP6B, and the SP10 (footnote 1). I know I'm not alone in viewing these models as classics.
The audiophile does not pursue music reproduction because it is useful; he pursues it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If music were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and if music were not worth knowing life would not be worth living.
My apologies for corrupting the well-known statement by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (18541912), in which he described his relationship with science and nature. But substituting audiophile for scientist and music for nature, I feel the sentiment expresses what drives many audiophiles to the extremes for which mere mortals often chide us.
In April 1987, Anthony H. Cordesman had mixed feelings about the Mod Squad Passive Line Drive System Control Center. (Read his review here.) Introduced in 1984, the Line Drive offered volume and balance controls, five line-level inputs, and switching and monitoring for two tape decks. You didn't plug it into the wall; it provided no gain. Was it even a proper preamp? (footnote 1)
AHC demurred. "I'm not sure that I'm ready to advise anyone to take the risk of not buying a unit with a top-quality phono stage, no matter how well CD or DAT perform," he concluded, between commenting on Middle East wars.
A recent (unpublished) letter to the editor argued that the reference for audio perfection is the sound of real instruments in a real space. The writer claimed that, since the art and/or science of audio is advancing, and because it is a "scientific truth" that the closer you get to perfection, the less divergence there is components, that therefore there should be less difference in sound among the components listed in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" than among those in Class B, much less Class C. This should be true of loudspeakers, he said, but even more true of top-rated amplifiers, since "they inherently have less divergence."
For a manufacturer to squeeze money from the stone that is my CD-player budget, his products would have to be both exceptional and affordable. And as long as I'm reporting from Fantasyland, I'll ask that they also be obsolescence-proof.
The phenomenon of the "singing flame" has been known since the 19th century. Place electrodes either side of a flame and, if you apply a high enough audio-modulated voltage to those electrodes, the ionized particles in the flame will cause it to emit sound. (Search YouTube for "singing flame" and you'll find many examples.) This principle was developed into a practical loudspeaker in 1946 by a French inventor, Siegfried Klein, who confined an RF-modulated arc to a small quartz tube, coupled it to a horn, and called the resulting speaker the Ionophone. An intense radio-frequency electrical field ionizes the air between inner and outer electrodes to produce a distinctive, violet-tinged yellow flame in the quartz combustion chamber. When the RF field is modulated by the audio signal, this causes the almost massless ionized flame to expand and contract in what should be a perfectly pistonic manner.
Around the turn of the century, a review of the latest hair-raisingly expensive turntable would often begin with a soothing chant that, yes, the RotorGazmoTron XT-35000 is a tad pricey, but it will be the last piece of analog gear you ever buyso go ahead, take the plunge. A dozen years later, pressing plants are stamping out LPs 'round the clock, and new high-end turntables are rolling off production lines at a respectable clip. So who knows whether today's Cassandras might be equally premature in bewailing the death of the Compact Disc? Which is to say that I can't in good conscience urge you to pay $12,000 for a CD player on the grounds that the medium's about to die, so splurge now while there's still something to splurge on. But if you have the scratch, and the itch for such a product, step right up and let me tell you about the Krell Cipher.