Epiphanies only come when you stop looking for them, and mine came in a room full of preschoolers watching cartoons at a Pizza Hut. I was taking my little nieces Alix (4) and Casey (1) out for dinner, and the last thing on my mind was audio; we wanted to PARTY! So my girlfriend Dara and I bundled them up in their car-seats and we high-tailed it over to the Hut, with visions of continuous-loop Tom'n'Jerry and cheap buffet pizza dancing in our heads.
If you asked me to name a single specific high-end audio component that could make or break a system, I'd name the Linn LP12 turntable. Of all the thousands of hi-fi products I've heard over the years, not a one of 'emnot a speaker, amplifier, or digital processorhas been able to draw me into the music, no matter what the associated componentry, like the LP12. I've heard the most highly regarded speakers/amps/processors fall flat in certain situations due to a lack of synergy with their surrounding systems, but I've never heard an LP12-based system that didn't put a smile on my face and make me green with envy.
I should begin this review by confessing that I've never been a fan of subwoofers. Most subwoofer systems I've heard have been plagued by a familiar litany of sonic horrors: poor integration between subwoofer and main speakers, boom, bloat, tubbiness, slowness, excessive LF output, and an overall presentation that constantly reminds the listener he is hearing a big cone moving. To me, subwoofers often sound detached from the music, providing an accompanying thump that bears little relationship to the sound from the main speakers. Rather than revealing the music's harmonic underpinnings, subwoofers often obscure them in a thick morass of featureless boom. In addition, adding a subwoofer often destroys the qualities of the main speakers that made you buy them in the first placejust to name a few of my observations (footnote 1).
"I've know I've seen this amp before," I thought to myself when I lifted the $1200 Muse Model One Hundred out of the box, and I wasn't thinking of Robert Harley's review of the identical-looking Muse Model One Hundred Fifty reviewed in January 1990, either. No, I'd seen this amp before, somewhere else, in some other magazine, but with a different manufacturer's name.
When Ken Kantor helped to found Now Hear This, Inc. (most commonly referred to by its initials, NHT) in 1986, he brought with him a wealth of design and production experience learned from stints with NAD and Acoustic Research. He also brought a desire to build and market products that a wide range of people could afford. NHT began by producing small, two-way designs distinguished by the angled front baffle which remains the company's trademark. The latter is no gimmick, but was designed to optimize the loudspeakers' radiation pattern, a matter of keen interest to Kantor ever since his undergraduate thesis work at MIT. This interest continued at AR, where he was responsible for the MGC-1 loudspeaker—probably his best known pre-NHT loudspeaker design.
What makes someone a good hi-fi reviewer? A fine critical sensibility? A good technical background? Ears? Eyes? Nose? Throat? So many different people are reviewing audio gear these days that it's downright impossible to characterize a good reviewer. But I do know that Beavis and Butt-head would make killer hi-fi reviewers!
I dig tube amps. When all's said and done, good tube amps seem to sound more like real life than most solid-state gear; even after listening to and enjoying the hell out of musical solid-state designs like the Audio Research D-240 II and the Muse Model One Hundred, once I hook up the big VTL Deluxe 225s again it's just like going home. I could go on about timbral accuracy and clearer midrange textures, but the bottom line is, music just plain sounds better when you shoot it through good tubes, and once most people experience that magic, they're hooked.
I have a theory about "showing off" systems. I call it Zen and the Art of Keeping Your Yap Shut. Think about it: what's the first thing that pops into your head when someone tells you how great their system sounds? "Yeah, right!"