Snickering was heard from the major consumer electronics purveyors when California Audio Labs came out with the original Tempest, their first CD player using tube output stages. But not from the audiophile community. It was, all things considered, an inevitable product; I'm certainly not the only one who wonderedbefore the emergence of California Audio Labswho would be the first to build such a unit. The obvious candidates were Audio Research or Conrad-Johnson. But those companies apparently read the audio tea-leaves and, perhaps perceiving the early high-end hostility toward the new format, apparently decided to bide their time. (With regards to tube players, they're still biding it, though C-J has had a prototype player up and running for some time.)
One of the most striking aspects of high-end audio is that you can never take any component for granted. Most of the radical change in audio at present takes place in new front-end and speaker technologies, but other components are changing as welland with at least as much impact in making recorded music seem believable.
Before launching into Stereophile's first-ever report on a Mark Levinson product, an important point needs to be clarified. Although Mark Levinson products were originally made by Mark Levinson, they are no longer. Au contraire, Mark Levinson products are now being made by Madrigal, Ltd., which bought Mark Levinson Audio Systems' assets and trademark two years ago. Mark Levinson's products, as distinguished from Mark Levinson products, are now being manufactured by a company called Cello. But the subject of this report, the Mark Levinson ML-7A preamplifier, is a product of Madrigal, Ltd., not of Cello. Now that I've made that all perfectly clear, we may proceed.
Although the idea of a $1000 moving-coil cartridge no longer shocks audiophiles, it is still not exactly what I'd call "Mainstream Hi-Fi." Audio magazine's 1984 Equipment Directorythe most complete such compendium published in the USlists only 10 models in this price range, not counting the Kiseki Lapis Lazuli at a whopping three-and-a-half grand! I have not tested most of these, nor have I tried any of the current models from the Japanese Koetsu firm, which was first with the gall to put a $1000 price tag on a cartridge. But I have tested a couple of one-granders during the past few years, and was sufficiently unimpressed to be hesitant about testing any more samples of what were beginning to look like nothing more than monumental ripoffs. So when Ortofon sent us the MC-2000, I was naturally less than enthusiastic about trying it.
It says something for the state of technology that, after a quarter of a century, there still is no authoritative explanation for why so many high-end audiophiles prefer tubes. Tubes not only refuse to die, they seem to be Coming back. The number of US and British firms making high-end tube equipment is growing steadily, and an increasing number of comparatively low-priced units are becoming available. There is a large market in renovated or used tube equipmentI must confess to owning a converted McIntosh MR-71 tunerand there are even some indications that tube manufacturers are improving their reliability, although getting good tubes remains a problem.