When Carolyn Counnas, co-founder of Zesto Audio, contacted editor John Atkinson to ask about getting the Leto, the company's tubed line stage preamplifier ($7500), reviewed in Stereophile, JA suggested that I do the job. I'd recently reviewed competing designs from Nagra and VTL (see reviews in April 2013 and June 2013, respectively) and I was thrilledI always look forward to hearing a tube preamp from a company I'm unfamiliar with, and besides, I'd seen pictures of the drop-dead-gorgeous Leto. After nearly 30 years of reviewing all sizes and pedigrees of preamps, power amps, and integrateds, I'm weary of staring at nondescript rectangular boxes in various shades of silver and black.
If you travel along Route 20 in upstate New York, you might see the hitchhiker my family and I refer to as the Old Soldierso called because this slightly built man, whose age could be anywhere from 55 to 90, is always dressed in a military uniform from some long-ago campaign. When we first saw him, his topcoat suggested a recent return from Chateau-Thierry; in more recent sightings, the old man has taken to wearing the trim khakis and sharply creased legionnaire cap of the late 1940schronological zigzagging that made me think, at first, that this traveler was aging in reverse.
As I've lately had the pleasure of reviewing some impressive tubed components, I asked myself why I hadn't ever reviewed anything from VTL Amplifiers. My history with VTL goes back to the 1986 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago (wouldn't it be great if CES returned to that city?), where Vacuum Tube Logic cofounder Luke Manley and his father, the late David Manley, made a big splash with David's preamps and amplifiers. To publicize the fact that amps were designed and made in Britain, the Manleys wore the cheesiest Union Jack T-shirts I'd ever seenthe kind they sell in those cheap tourist traps in Piccadilly Circus. When I recently ribbed Luke about those shirts, he admitted that "They fell apart as soon as we returned home." I told him that I hoped his products were more rugged.
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.
In its comparatively few years in the marketplace, the line-level preamplifier appears to have established commercial parity with its full-function big brother. That this was inevitable was clear as far back as the mid-'80s. The advent of the CD and the proliferation of digital sources argued for a modular approach to preamp design. In such an environment, line-level sources (eg, DAT, CD, even analog tape) deserve special attention.
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.
I must admit that, for a long time, I found it difficult to accept the idea that a major portion of one's audio budget should be spent on the preamplifier. Speakers, yesthey produce the sound; amps drive the speakers, so they're important. And source components? Well, everyone knows it's garbage in/garbage out. But a preamp? Even the name suggests something that's not quite the real thing, like pre-school, pre-med, or premature. Unlike amplifiers, they don't have to contend with loads that sometimes approach a short circuit, and heat dissipation is not normally a problem. What's the big deal?
At what point does a domestic audio product cease to be an appliance and assume a loftier place in one's home and heart?
We all can agree that a Bose Wave CD player sits at one end of that continuum, a Koetsu Jade Platinum phono cartridge at the otherbut what of all the products in between? Scarcity, mode of manufacture, appearance, even sentimentality ("This is just like the one my father used to have!")each plays a role, but there's no doubt that price tops the list: The more we pay, the more we love (footnote 1).
Though essentially a two-man operation based in Athens, Greece, Ypsilon Electronics has been, since 1995, turning ears and eyes throughout the audiophile world with purist, hand-crafted electronics whose sound seems to defy characterization. Even under audio-show conditions in difficult hotel rooms, and often driving unfamiliar loudspeakers, the sound of Ypsilon electronics seems to evaporate in ways that few products manage, leaving behind less residue and more music.
While high-priced equipment can easily acquire stature on grounds of outright performance and physical appearance, we critics have more admiration for genuine achievement at lower price levels. One such product was the all-triode SP8 preamplifier from Audio Research, launched back in 1982 and priced at $1400. This classically tasteful preamplifier came equipped with a medium-sensitivity phono equalizer and the usual tape and line inputs.
The name "Audio Research" will be familiar to many readers of this magazine. It belongs on the list of that select group of manufacturers who continue to offer the audiophile and music lover equipment which enables him or her to truly enjoy the muse. With equipment of this caliber, one is no longer caught up in the anxiety-inducing process of listening to (evaluating) the equipment used in the presentation of the music. Instead, the listener can focus attention on the much more important message uncovered in the music via the performance and conveyed through the network of transducers, cables, tubes or FETs, more cables, more tubes or FETs, and more transducers, to the brain. If this process has been successful and our sensitivities heightened, our souls will be touched.
It doesn't take a genius to appreciate the audacity of naming a company after Albert Einstein, the iconic science and math whiz. Clearly, company founder and owner Volker Bohlmeier knew what he was doingthis German brand of boutique electronics has enjoyed worldwide critical and marketplace success since its founding more than 20 years ago.
If you've followed their story here and elsewhere, you probably know that Tokyo's Shindo Laboratory (footnote 1) has a reputation for defying the two most monolithic of all high-end audio commandments.
Sometimes, a product review in Stereophile can breed additional reviews. Shortly after I reviewed the Audio Valve Conductor line stage in the July 2009 issue (Vol.32 No.7), I was contacted by NAT's US distributor, Musical Sounds: "Hey, if you liked the Audio Valve Conductor [$13,995], you'll love the NAT Symmetrical line stage at $8000! Would you like to review it?" Aside from Michael Fremer's review of the battery-powered NAT Signature Phono stage in the July 2007 issue, I was unfamiliar with this Serbian maker of tube electronics. But "Sure," I replied; "why not?"
At our best, audiophiles are the selfless and generous custodians of a thousand small libraries, keeping alive not only music's greatest recorded moments but the art of listening itself. At our worst, we are self-absorbed, superannuated rich kids, locked in an endless turd-hurl over who has the best toys.