Thoughts of power, domination, and audio road-rage enter one's mind when contemplating Musical Fidelity's SUV-like, limited-edition, 20th-anniversary offerings (footnote 1). (Only 75 sets of kWPs and kWs will be made.) The gleaming, brushed-aluminum, two-box, oversized, overweight Tri-Vista kWP preamp is fortress-like—the "kWP" looks as if chiseled into the faceplate by grimy, sweaty hands. Each of its boxes weighs almost 56 lbs. The unit's milled-aluminum remote control, the size of a Volkswagen Microbus and looking like something Fred Flintstone might wield, must weigh over 5 lbs. The kWP outputs more juice than many power amps: 55V, with 20 amps of peak-peak instantaneous current!
Overachievers tend to rankle people after a while. Musical Fidelity, a relatively small British company run by Antony Michaelson, has issued a stream of high-performance, high-value electronic products over the past few years, along with a limited-edition line of pricier designs based on the military-spec nuvistor vacuum tube. With few exceptions, Musical Fidelity products have garnered outstanding reviews worldwide, with consumer acceptance to match. Michaelson is also an accomplished clarinetist, recording and issuing classical-music CDs in his "spare" time.
Older audiophiles remember the splash NAD made in the late 1970s with the introduction of their 3020 integrated amplifier ($175). Ridiculously cheap, it looked graceful and sounded warm, inviting, and holographic. Removable jumpers between the 3020's sections permitted enthusiasts to determine whether the magic resided in its preamp, its power amp, or in some synergy of both.
This tiny, lightweight, battery-powered jewel is loosely based on Nagra's VPS phono stage that I reviewed in October 2008 but uses bipolar transistors instead of tubes. The bottom of the company's familiar brushed-aluminum case has a grippy rubber material die-cut to spell Nagra. It's intended to keep the preamp from sliding, but stiff cables will have the BPS hanging in the air if you're not careful. The BPS costs $2399.
Not that many years ago, it seems, every sound crew in Hollywood and around the world recorded production sound using a compact, open-reel analog tape recorder made by Nagra. The first iteration of the Swiss-made machine appeared in the early 1950s. Shortly thereafter, with the addition of an inaudible recorded tone that allowed easy syncing to picture, the Nagra recorder became the industry standard, and remained so through the 1980s. To this day, Nagra's line of audio products retains the look of those early recorders.
Give an engineering team a blank page and a blank check and there's no telling what they'll come up with. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, for example, one company showed a $25,000 CD transport with laser-pickup mechanism that was separate from its disc drive—almost the cosmic equivalent of having the sun revolve around the earth.
Naim's new "statement" CD player, the CD555 ($20,300 by itself, $28,150 with PS555 power supply), breaks no new technological ground. Rather, in typical Naim fashion, it attempts to optimize 16-bit/44.1kHz CD performance by paying fanatical attention to the devilish details. It doesn't play the DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, or SACD formats, nor does it have a digital output—and it doesn't create an illusion of higher resolution by upsampling the data.
To compartmentalize or not to compartmentalize, that is the question. Does one review an expensive CD player at the dawn of the 24-bit/96kHz digital age by pulling a "Clinton," standing defiantly before a jury of audio peers to deliver a speech on the state of the CD art, boxing in, roping off, and all but ignoring the new, supposedly unimpeachable medium?
There's nothing groundbreaking about the technology included in Naim's new $22,400, two-box, remote-controllable, top-of-the-line NAC 552 preamplifier. Still, the inclusion of two sets of RCA input jacks is a departure from Naim's tradition of DIN jacks, and the NAC 552's programmability is unusual for a high-end two-channel audio product. And you can order RCA output jacks at no extra cost, which is how my review sample was configured.