My reviews always begin in bizarre ways. Take David Manley...please! (Just kidding.) On the last day of Winter CES 1995, I found myself towing a tuckered-out JA to a few final rooms. (This was just after the January '95 David Manley/Dick Olsher tube-rolling brouhaha, footnote 1, regarding who should do what to whom, and with which particular tube.) So as we passed Manley's room, John Atkinson thought to stick his head in (the noose) and say hello.
I've always wanted to review one of Madrigal's Mark Levinson products, and finally my prayers have been answered. The chosen victim? The No.32 Reference preamplifier. Note that "Reference" moniker. The No.32 is the first Mark Levinson preamplifier to carry such appellation. They're not kidding.
I wasn't raised a McIntosh lad. My dad used Fisher, Bogen, Leak, and Ampex tubed electronics—and, at one time, even home-built speakers—to keep the house filled with a steady, enriching flow of Mozart. He never owned a Mac component, and, when going upmarket, reached for B&O, alas. So while I knew that many audiophiles hold tubed McIntosh gear—especially the early designs—in very high regard, I was somehow never bitten or smitten. But let's face it—for lo these many years, McIntosh has been for many the name in quality American audio. Take my friend Dan, to whom I've referred several times in the pages of Stereophile. He runs a tubed Conrad-Johnson 9 preamplifier, but wouldn't dream of giving up his 270Wpc solid-state McIntosh MC7270. He's goldurn proud of it!
While walking home from the office the other day I passed a gleaming, perfectly detailed Harley-Davidson, lightly customized, as many are these days. I didn't stop and drool, but I couldn't unsnap my eyes from it. As I drew parallel to that hawg, a Ricky Martin look-alike threw his leg over the saddle and thumbed the starter. No, you don't have to be a tattooed, beer-gutted redneck anymore to rear up and slam down on a kick-starter of one of those beasts. These days, it's all done with the push of a button. Dude.
One memorable afternoon during HI-FI '97, Kathleen and my pudgy little self were hustling down the crowded corridors of San Francisco's venerable St. Francis Hotel, trying to make the Nagra press event. The Nagra suite was crowded with buzzing journalists, their anticipation palpable—the new Nagra PL-P preamplifier was about to enjoy its official debut. Suddenly the door to the demo room flew open. The vacuum created by the stampeding hordes nearly sucked the hors d'oeuvres off the table.
Nagra's VPA amplification system consists of two slim, handsome monoblock amplifiers intended for vertical placement. They look good adjacent to the speakers. However, two 845 tubes put out a lot of heat, so the amplifier should be at least a foot away from your speakers...unless you're looking for a nice crackle finish.
Pass Laboratories' X amplifier series represents the efforts of designer Nelson Pass to prove that simple linear amplifier topologies can be scaled to provide high-quality audio performance at very high power levels. The handsome X1000 monoblock under scrutiny here, the largest and most powerful amp in the Pass stable, makes 1000W into 8 ohms and a mighty 2000W into 4 ohms. The amplifier has no global negative feedback, and only two gain stages: the front-end provides all the voltage gain and feeds a high-current follower stage.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2001, Pioneer announced the US launch of the DV-AX10, the first of their long-awaited "universal" disc players, previously available only in Japan. Right out of the box, it plays SACD (two-channel only), DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, CD, and CD-R discs. For two-channel operation—which is exclusively how I examined it—and via its easy-to-navigate menus (footnote 1), I set the DV-AX10 to two channels as the default for all modes, including SACD. Except for hybrid discs, which I'll come to presently, the DV-AX10 is, blessedly, a set-it-and-forget-it machine.
The match between amplifier and speaker for single-ended operation is critical, which is why John Atkinson suggested I let Wavelength's Gordon Rankin lead when it came to choosing a speaker to partner his special-edition Cardinal amplifiers. If you're not talking roughly 92dB sensitivity and a fairly benign load, say no lower than 6 ohms, you're just not talking single-ended. That precluded running the Cardinals on the big Avalon Ascents with their lowish 86dB sensitivity (in spite of the relatively benign impedance curve).
After more discussion it became evident that the best speakers to use were the very ones Gordon employed in his own reference systemthe Swiss-made Reference 3A Royal Master Control loudspeakers.