While Clearfield Audio may be a new name to many of you, it represents the marriage of two well-established members of the high-end community: Counterpoint and designer Albert Von Schweikert. Counterpoint had been working to add speakers to its product lineup for some time. The partnership with Von Schweikert, whom Stereophile readers will remember as the designer of the Vortex Screen favorably reviewed by Robert Harley in July 1989, fills out Counterpoint's high-end product line from sourcethe company showed a CD transport at the June 1993 CESto speaker.
The developmental history of Vortex speakers provides a meaningful framework for the design of the Clearfield offerings, especially the Metropolitans, or Mets. Like the Vortex designs, the Mets are three-ways with transmission-loaded bass. Like the Kevlar Reference Screen (reviewed by Robert Greene in The Abso!ute Sound's "double-issue" 83/84, December '92), the Mets use Kevlar-coned midrange units from Focal that cover a broad range from 125Hz to 2kHz. What's dramatically different is the overall driver layout.
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.
Those of our readers who are still anti-CD are going to be offended by what I am about to say. Partly because they do not want it to be true, but mainly because it is. I shall utter the heresy anyway: the Compact Disc is, right now, doing more for the cause of high-end audio than anything that has ever come along before!
In February 2013, I was taking part in a "Music Matters" evening at Seattle retailer Definitive Audio, playing some of my recordings and talking about my audio philosophy. I love taking part in these eventsin addition to Definitive's, in recent years I've participated in evenings organized by North Carolina's Audio Advice, Colorado's Listen-Up, and Atlanta's Audio Alternativesbut, as might be obvious, at each one I use a system provided by the retailer. The February 2013 system comprised Classé electronics and, to my surprise, Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus loudspeakers.
Is the high-performance audio industry stagnating? Are designers simply repackaging the past? Cynics claim so, but to me it seems that making that case gets harder by the day, as a parade of veterans continue to produce their best work.
I well remember my first "real" headphones: a pair of Koss Pro4AAs that I bought back in 1970. The Kosses were relatively expensive, but, like headphones today, they allowed an audiophile with limited cash to get a taste of high-end sound that was not possible with a speaker-based system. I bought the Pro4AAs because I had become fascinated with how the images of the instruments and singers were strung along a line between my ears inside my head. It seemed so much more intimatea more direct connection with the musicthan playback through loudspeakers.
More than a decade ago, Data Conversion Systems, aka dCS, released the Elgar Plus DAC, Purcell upsampler, and Verdi SACD/CD transport, for a total price of $34,000. In 2009 came the Scarlattia stack of four components for $80,000, also available individually (see my August 2009 review). The latest variation on the English company's theme are the four Vivaldi components, launched at the end of 2012 for a total price of $108,496.
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.
When I reviewed Simaudio's Moon Evolution 880M monoblock amplifier for the June 2013 issue, I communicated via phone and e-mail with the company's VP of marketing, Lionel Goodfield. When the topic of hearing the 880Ms at their best came up, I could almost imagine him shrugging as he said, "Just use it with the most transparent, revealing preamp you can find." Not surprisingly, he then went on to say that Simaudio's own Moon Evolution 850P would serve nicely in that role. My cynical side might normally have discounted any such suggestion from a marketing man, but I'd been hearing the same sort of thing from other sources. And, as it happened, there was an 850P at Stereophile World Headquarters . . .
With the help of 20:20 hindsight, it looks as if I made a decision when I joined Stereophile: to review a loudspeaker from Wilson Audio Specialties every 11 years. In June 1991, I reported on Wilson's WATT 3/Puppy 2 combination, which cost $12,740/pair in an automotive gloss-paint finish. This was followed in July 2002 by my review of the Wilson Sophia ($11,700/pair). And now, in December 2013, I am writing about the Wilson Alexia, which costs a not-inconsiderable $48,500/pair.
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.
Volti Audio's Vittora, a borrowed pair of which now sit at the far end of my listening room, is a great loudspeaker and, at $17,500/pair, a seriously great value. After a few weeks with the Vittora, I find myself convinced by the naturalness, momentum, and force that it found in every record I played: This is surely one of the finest horn-loaded speakers made in the US.
Even as the gulf narrows between the sounds of the best solid-state and the best tubed amplifiers, most listeners remain staunch members of one or the other camp. Similarly, when it comes to video displays, the plasma and liquid-crystal technologies each has its partisans, though that conflict's intensity is relatively mild, perhaps because video performance, unlike audio, is based on a mastering standard that establishes color temperature, gray-scale tracking, color points, and the like (I'm deeply in the plasma camp). But in audio, the "standard" is whatever monitoring loudspeaker and sonic balance the mastering engineer prefers, which makes somewhat questionable the pursuit of "sonic accuracy." Still, in a power amplifier, a relative lack of coloration is preferable to amps that Stereophile editor John Atkinson has characterized as "tone controls"usually, if not exclusively, of the tubed variety.
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.
Designer Dr. Roger West got his first taste of electrostatic transducers many years ago during a stint with Janszen (remember the Janszen tweeter?). To realize the potential of the full-range electrostatic loudspeaker (ESL), he and Dr. Dale Ream formed a new company dedicated to ESL research and development. West describes this company, Sound-Lab Corp., as "the electrostatic speaker specialists."