There's an aesthetic dimension to the Manley Laboratories Stingray that transcends high-end audio and borders on modern sculpture—not unlike the E.A.R. V20, which I auditioned in the October issue. Still, the Stingray is by no means an exercise in gimmickry. Form has clearly followed function at every step in the design process, the ultimate goal of which was to fashion a vacuum-tube integrated amplifier with real-world power that defined the outer limits of high-end performance in a functional, affordable, bare-bones package...with a touch of style.
Though each link in the audio chain is significant in its own way, we seem to spend more time agonizing over the choice and setup of loudspeakers than any other component. Floorstanding or stand-mounted? Full-range frequency extension or minimonitor coherence? Multiple-driver complexity or two-way simplicity? Pleasurable and forgiving or resolved and revealing? And even when money is no object, how much speaker do you really want...or need? It might sound splendid in the shop, but how will it couple with your room? How will it integrate with your other gear? Is it easy to set up and drive or will it involve specialized gear and a massive overhaul of your current rig?
Some audiophiles tend to get a mite sniffy around those of us who have expensive tastes and limited budgets. I've always been willing to spend the price of a new car on a set of speakers, but I never had the cash or credit. The sonic virtues of hefty, high-powered Krells and wondrous, single-ended tube designs always enchanted me, but when you're raising a family you make do. Through my experiences in a high-end audio establishment I learned the metaphysics of mixing and matching as befits my lowly caste, and I gradually developed sophisticated reference points, so that as the years swept by I managed to inch my way up the aural food chain.
Obviously, no one wants to listen to exaggerated bass, italicized highs, or colored mids. But if you (as I have in the past few months) plug in several high-quality integrated amplifiers, each designed to a different price point, into the same basic signal chain, you'll experience a wide disparity of sound signatures.
It's a simple premise: power corrupts. You can buy the finest audio components in the world, but if the foundation of your aural house is rotten, you won't get anything vaguely resembling the level of performance your gear was designed to provide. Over time, I've come to realize just how fragile the audio signal chain is, dependent as it is on electrical sources fatally compromised by all manner of aural schmutz pouring through the local grid. I've become obsessed with figuring out how to liberate my system from the line noise, reactive loads, and voltage anomalies that veil the presentation, obscure resolution, and limit dynamic range.
NAD has been out there on the leading edge of entry-level high-end sound long enough that some audiophiles reckon they invented the category. Sure, we should give serious props to the likes of Creek, Rotel, Musical Fidelity, Arcam, Denon, and Parasound, all of which have made significant contributions to the musical aspirations of budget-conscious pilgrims. But I continue to harbor warm feelings about my last extended visit with an NAD component: the inexpensive yet supremely musical L40 CD Receiver, which I reviewed in the June 2000 Stereophile.
I suspect that the faces of many of the readers who thumb through the pages of Stereophile must resemble those peering out of some Norman Rockwell representation of Americana: little children, their noses pressed hard against the display window of an urban department store in the weeks preceding Christmas, eyes aglow at the sight of some epic model train or exquisitely detailed dollhouse. So near, yet so far.
BILL FRISELL: Gone, Just Like A Train Bill Frisell, electric & acoustic guitars; Viktor Krauss, bass; Jim Keltner, drums, percussion Nonesuch 79479-2 (CD). 1998. Lee Townsend, prod.; Judy Clapp, eng. AAD. TT: 69:58 Performance ***** Sonics *****