Very few products exude opulence as do the Rowland amplifiers: the massive chassis, the gold finish, those sculpted handles on the front plate. For some strange reason the amp reminds me of Brutus Beefcake, the golden boy of professional wrestling, upon whom I stumbled one night while flipping through the myriad channels of our cable TV. The visual impact is the same: beefy. And then there's the price: also beefy.
Whereas the Pass Labs preamplifiers are designed by Wayne Colburn, the power amplifiers are the work of company founder and high-end audio veteran Nelson Pass, who even lays out his own circuit boards. The X-model amplifiers, beginning with the X1000 in 1998, were the first implementation of Nelson Pass's patented Supersymmetry topology (see "Nelson Pass on the Patents of Pass"). The XA series, which debuted in 2002, combined Supersymmetry with the single-ended class-A operation of the Aleph series. The XA.5 models offer detail improvements over the XAs.
Lindell Audio, a Swedish professional-audio company, was founded in 2010 by recording engineer Tobias Lindell, and claims to offer equipment "by engineers, for engineers." Tobias Lindell specifies the features and functions that he wants each product to incorporate; the actual circuit designs are by others. Although Lindell's corporate headquarters are in Sweden, the products are manufactured in China, and are competitively priced.
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.