High-performance audio has always been and will probably remain a cottage industry perpetuated by talented and visionary individuals whose products reflect their singular visions and whose companies often bear their names, though of course there are notable exceptions. One of them is Constellation Audio. No single star dominates the appropriately named Constellation Audio, which arrived on the scene at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show with a seemingly impossible debut roster of products: stereo and monoblock amplifiers, preamplifiers, digital file player/DACs, and phono preamplifiers, each category of component represented by members of two distinct lines: no compromise and some compromise.
Things didn't start off auspiciously. I'd been after Symphonic Line's Klaus Bunge for more than a year to send me the Kraft 400 Reference monoblocks. Finally he called. He said he was going to be in town for a few days, and he had with him a pair of what he described as his "traveling" Kraft 400s, which he proposed to leave with me.
In the September 2005 issue (Vol.28 No.9), I reviewed Simaudio's first reference-quality power amplifier: the 1000W, 220-lb Moon Rock monoblock ($37,000/pair). At the time, the Rock was a dramatic departure for Simaudio, then primarily known as a maker of midpriced gear that was good for the money. I found a lot to like about the Rock, concluding that while it wasn't quite up to the standard of the best superamps of the time, it was very goodand, for Simaudio, an admirable first shot at the state of the art.
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.
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.
When I first saw Anthem Statement's M1 at the 2011 CEDIA Expo, it was a bolt from the blue. Happening on this flat, black slab of an amplifier lying on a display table or bolted to a wall, reminded me of the appearance of the iconic monolith in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The M1's dimensional ratios are not 12:22:32, and there are many other one-rack-unit ampsyet, like the monolith on the moon, the M1 was in such striking contrast to everything else in its environment that it demanded attention and reflection.
"Grand Integra" is the name Onkyo has given to its line of perfectionist-oriented audio products, and the M-508 is the cheaper of Onkyo's two Grand Integra power amplifiers. (The flagship model is the $4200 M-510, reviewed by Larry Greenhill in Vol.8 No.8, featuring "high current capability," and rated at 300W continuous per channel.)
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."
There is always a conflict between the needs of reviewers and the realities of the marketplace. Once a reviewer has invested his time and energy in a review, he would like that product to remain in production for all time, which would allow it to be used as a reliable recommendation forever. But whatever the product and whatever the category, sales of a product almost always follow the same triangular curve: a sharp rise at the product's introduction, a maximum reached sometime thereafter, and then a steady decline to a sustained but low plateau. Marketing-minded manufacturers therefore introduce a new model every three or four years, in hopes of turning that single triangle into a continuous sawtooth wave.
As large as a small file cabinet and weighing 223 lbs, MBL's most powerful amplifier, the Reference 9011, is a tour de force of electronics design and implementation that will set you back $53,000 if you're a single-ended stereo enthusiast, or $106,000 if you like pure balanced mono.
To judge from the $6400 Mimesis 8, Goldmund walks its own way when it comes to power amplifier design. High-end solid-state amplifiers from US companies like Krell, Mark Levinson, Threshold, and the Jeff Rowland Design Group marry massive power supplies to large numbers of output devices (these often heavily biased to run in class-A), built on chassis of such nonmagnetic materials as aluminum. By contrast, the Mimesis 8 has a magnetic (steel) chassis, and uses a relatively modest power supply, that for each channel based on two main 4700µF reservoir capacitors. The 8 offers just two pairs per channel of complementary output MOSFETs (Hitachi K134/J49). These carry a modest bias current of around 80mA total.
As I write this, in early August, the global economy is in flux and the stock market gyrates, seeming in stark contrast with the gleaming, luxurious audio components that surround me. Perhaps there is some prescience in my rising interest in reasonably priced, high-performance products, as exemplified by the Oppo Digital BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player, which I reviewed in this column in September. Surely there must be other products that provide truly excellent sound at prices strikingly lower than expected.
I was talking last winter to Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson, who had been enthusing about his forthcoming stereo amplifier, the AMS100. It would be physically enormousalmost a yard deepand commensurately heavy at 220 lbs. Despite its bulk, its maximum rated output would be just 100Wpc into 8 ohms. It would also be expensive, at $19,999. And to cock a snoot at environmentalists and their concerns, the AMS100's output stage would be biased into class-A up to its rated 8 ohm power, meaning that, even when not playing music, it will draw around 10 amps from a typical US wall supply of 120V. This also means that it will run very hot, making the amplifier impracticable for summer use in homes without central air-conditioning. Like mine.
Cycles can be seen in the fortunes of companies. Likewise cycles can be seen in the performance of companies' products. A particular range will appear to have got it just right, whatever "it" is. The designer may have hit a winning streak and thus steal a lead over the competition. C-J set a new state-of-the-art preamp standard in the late '80s with their Premier Seven, and some of that expertise and experience are beginning to pay off in the shape of new high-performance preamplifiers at realistic prices. Moreover, the pressure was on to develop better power amplifiers to match. Two important products have emerged from all this in C-J's moderately priced FET range, namely the PF-1 preamplifier and the matching MF-200 power amp. By audiophile standards, these are moderately priced at $1295 and $1995, respectively.
"Larry, you have too many amplifiers!" exclaimed John Atkinson during a recent visit. This surprised meI didn't think it was possible to have too many amps. While I'm not going to open an amp museum, I do have a starter collection of Mark Levinson amplifiers from different eras. This either makes me exactly the right or the wrong person to size up Mark Levinson's new No.532H.