"Everybody's gotta get into the act!" Jimmy Durante used to say. That's what's happening with phono preamplifiers—they just keep being built, and I keep getting them for review. Up for evaluation in next month's column are new models from Perreaux, Musical Fidelity, Graham Slee, and a Chinese one, Ming Da. You can bet there'll be more.
As you read this, are you listening to your stereo? Whatever the music, what you're actually hearing is your public utility's AC as modulated by your power amplifier. No matter how good the gear, the final result can be only as pure as the power feeding your components. Unfortunately, plenty of sonic schmutz usually comes along for the ride.
I first spotted Audia Flight's exquisite-looking two-box phono preamplifier ($6100) at last year's Hi-End show in Munich, and now that Musical Sounds is importing Audia Flight gear, a review of the Phono seemed a good idea. I know nothing about Audia Flight or the designer, or what Italian audiophiles think of them, but the more time I spent with the versatile, exquisitely built Phono, the more I liked everything about it.
What a thankless task! No, not reviewing audio equipment (though the case could be made). I'm talking about preamplification in the digital age: who needs it? The EAD DSP 9000 MK3 digital processor I'm using includes an ingenious full-resolution digital-domain volume control accessible by remote control.
Getting a review sample of this unique ultrasonic record-cleaning machine took me years; apparently, Audiodesksysteme Gläss, a small German manufacturer, couldn't keep up with demand. I've also heard from a few sources that reliability was not high in the company's early days, but that now all that's been sorted out, as has manufacturing capacity.
Success can be a two-edged sword. With the Virgo (reviewed in September 1995), Audio Physic created a $5000/pair benchmark product at the midpoint of the company's speaker lineup. While an upgraded, $5800 Virgo is due out soon, the original version will remain in production, its price dropping to $4495/pair—less than it cost six years ago.
More, I think, than any other link in the audio chain, loudspeaker designs tend to reflect the personal preferences, opinions, and philosophies of their creators—think Henry Kloss, Paul Klipsch, Rudy Bozak, David Wilson, Jon Dahlquist, Arnie Nudell, and Amar Bose (just kidding). Consider, if you remember, where Ken Kantor took Acoustic Research when he took over AR's design reins. Might as well have called AR NHT, for all that the new designs followed the old.
Thirty-one flavors may work for an ice-cream chain, but a speaker manufacturer who sets out to please every sonic palate ends up with a serious identity crisis, pleasing no-one. From its inception in 1985, Audio Physic, based in Brilon, Germany, has been an event-oriented speaker company. Founder and original chief designer Joachim Gerhard focused much of his attention on providing listeners with the sensation of "live" by emphasizing coherent three-dimensional imaging and soundstaging—though not to the exclusion of timbral accuracy. Except for the Medea, based on a Manger driver (a fascinating design nonetheless), every Audio Physic speaker I've heard has fulfilled the company's mission statement.
"You can't get deep bass in your room," a reviewer from another magazine who'd never visited my room insisted recently on the phone. "Do you know how long a 20Hz bass wave is? It's 40 feet long, and your room is tiny."
There is a sweet spot in any manufacturer's lineup where minimum price and maximum performance meet. More expensive products in the line may offer higher fidelity, but the cost may not be commensurate with the improvement. For instance, VPI's HRX and Super Scoutmaster turntables cost more than their standard Scoutmaster model, and they perform better—but for my money, the sweet spot of VPI's line is the standard Scoutmaster, with or without such options as the outer clamp and Signature tonearm.