I had a wonderful audio moment the other night. It was late in the evening, after a long day. I was standing in the middle of my makeshift listening room—Trish's dining room—and in spite of the fact that we were moving in just a few weeks, I'd just unpacked and set up my combo of VPI TNT Mk.V-HR turntable and tonearm with Grado Statement cartridge and dug a box of LPs out of the stacks in the garage. I cued up Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia/Classic CS 8192), and the first notes of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" froze me in my tracks.
Should an audio component accurately reproduce the signal it's fed, or should it evoke the sound and feel of live music? Accuracy or musicality? This question has been at the heart of high-end audio since its inception. Back then, the question often took the form of the tubes-vs-transistors debate. Proponents of solid-state pointed to the far superior measured performance of transistor designs, and claim that they thus more accurately reproduced the input signal. Tube lovers steadfastly maintained that their gear sounded better, more naturalmore like music. Since then, both camps have eliminated the obvious colorations of their respective technologies, and the levels of performance of today's best tubed and solid-state gear have converged. At the same time, the circuits themselves have blurred into hybrids of various sorts, different mixes of devices and circuits.
VPI Industries' TNT turntable and JMW Memorial tonearm have evolved through several iterations over the last two decades. Some changes have been large, such as the deletion of the three-pulley subchassis and the introduction of the SDS motor controller. Others have been invisible—a change in bearing or spindle material, for example, or the way the bearing attaches to the plinth. And, as longtime Stereophile readers know, I've been upgrading and evolving along with VPI, most recently reporting on the TNT V-HR turntable (Stereophile, December 2001).
I'm a tinkerer. From homemade audio isolation and room-treatment products to a local area network (LAN) connecting my Macintosh laptops, I'm always building or modifying something. One of my latest projects is a combination of parts swaps and custom-machined bits to better adapt the ergonomics of my exotic Italian Bimota motorcycle to my distinctly un-Italian 6'3" frame. But regardless of what I'm into, I can't resist the urge to tinker.
How much power do you really need? What does it do for you, anyway? Even before the single-ended renaissance, the prevailing wisdom was that you really didn't need that much power. When I had a pair of Met 7 speakers, even the "1 watt" indicator LED was hardly ever lit. Ditto for my time with a Threshold Stasis Two—all those cool power-indicator LEDs just sat there dark. Besides, everyone knows that power can be had only at tremendous cost, both monetary and in terms of other performance attributes.
When I reviewed VTL's MB-750 monoblock amplifier in the December 1997 Stereophile (Vol.20 No.12), it was a transitional time for the company. Luke Manley had recently taken it over, and he and his wife and partner, Bea Lam, were aggressively retooling. They introduced new business systems, including rigorous inventory and quality control; rebuilt VTL's dealer network around top-rank dealers; and systematically upgraded the products themselves to improve their consistency, reliability, manufacturability, and performance. VTL's goal, Luke explained to me at the time, was to build amplifiers that competed with the very best, and to "make the tubes invisible to the customer."
My life is characterized by periods of relative calm interrupted by huge transitions. This last year has been a doozie, with changes in just about every aspect of my life: new cars, motorcycles, and guitars, new jobs and relationships, and, finally, the contemplation of a cross-country move. With a little bit of luck, all of this upheaval will end in a long period of relative calm.
"The bottom line is that good stuff really is better, and unfortunately, it usually costs more," proclaimed my friend Charlie over lunch one day. Our conversation had drifted to our newest toys, and although Charlie isn't an audiophile, he's passionate about his hobbies and appreciates performance and quality. He'll talk animatedly about exotic mountain bikes or Leica cameras, for example, and he has a garage full of Snap-On hand tools. Last winter he conducted an exhaustive search before selecting a particular pair of Zeiss binoculars—and the price of one of his James Purdey or 1930s-vintage Charles Daly shotguns would stagger even a veteran audiophile.
"I've got the world on a string, sitting on the rainbow Got the string around my finger, what a life, Mama, I'm in love. Life's a beautiful thing, as long as I hold the string I'd be a silly so-and-so if I should ever let you go."—Ted Koehler
Like the $29,000 Boulder 2008 phono preamplifier, the new Whest PhonoStage.20 with its MsU.20 power supply costs as much as a car. Fortunately for you, that car happens to be my first new Saab, which cost exactly $2737 back in 1972. The solid-state Whest costs $2595, so it's a few hundred dollars cheaper. But at only a tenth the cost, it comes closer to the Boulder 2008's performance than it has any right to. That it's good enough to be mentioned in the same paragraph should tell you something about how good I think it is. Nor did it come to me hyped by the manufacturer—it took me by surprise from the minute I first heard it. I began my listening right away, before reading anything about the circuit design.