Conrad-Johnson Design, well-known purveyors of vacuum-tube electronics, introduced the ET2 Enhanced Triode preamplifier, featuring a single-ended triode voltage gain stage direct-coupled to a high-current output buffer. For once, this is not another $18k preamp; the price is a relatively modest $3500.
More than once, I've teased Convergent Audio Technology's Ken Stevens about calling his preamp SL-1 Ultimate. I mean, once you've got something that's the Ultimate, where can you go if it's improved—and there is no audio product that can't be improved, even if only to a minor degree. He subsequently introduced a preamp called the SL-1 Legend, but it was about double the price of the SL-1 Ultimate, and Ken said that it was sufficiently different from the SL-1 Ultimate that it could be considered a new preamp, deserving of a new name.
"Lightning strikes twice," says the blurb on Ayre Acoustics' new KX-R preamp, referring to the 1996 introduction of the Colorado company's original K-1 preamp, considered to be among the best preamps. The KX-R ($18,500 in aluminum finish) retains the zero-feedback, fully-balanced configuration of the K-1, but has a Variable Gain Transimpedance (VGT) circuit, with something called "equilock circuitry" for the gain devices. This was explained to me as a circuit design that does not attenuate the inputs at the front end, and thus improves the S/N ratio. The KX-R is a slim but heavy unit (41 lbs), and as you can see, it looks stunning.
Anglo-Chinese brand Quad is not one of your consumer electronics companies that revamps their entire line every year (whether it needs to or not). Some might even consider their approach a bit stodgy, resisting change. So when they come out with not just one new product but a completely new series, that has to be considered news.
After seeing audio components that cost thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars, I always find it refreshing to encounter ones that cost a fraction of those prices. Case in point: the Nu Force S-1 integrated amp (10Wpc), which costs just $199, shown here by Jason Lim, CEO of Nu Force. The company also offers a matching speaker, the Icon-1, a small unit using a single driver, the combination, including cables, selling for $399. The system sounded pretty good, too!
If one were to judge by the new product introductions from Ayre and Jeff Rowland Design, $18k seems to be the price point for high-end solid-state preamplifiers. Rowland's new Criterion preamp uses NiMH batteries in the power supply; these are more easily available than the lead-zinc ones that were used in Rowland's previous top preamp—and, of course, the design of the Criterion features a number of improvements from its predecessor. Rowland also introduced the new Continuum integrated amp, available in two version: 350Wpc ($7200) or 500Wpc
($8800), the latter featuring power-factor correction.
Continuing my game of guess-the-nationality-of-the-manufacturer, I walked into a demo room that had a very-nice-sounding system with the brandname Nightingale. My thought was British (I recall vaguely a British speaker designed by John Jeffries many years ago bearing that name) or Japanese (as in the Emperor’s Nightingale). However, the answer was Italian. They make electronics as well as speakers: they were demming the prototype PTS-03 battery-operated preamp ($8000), the Gala power amp ($6000), and the new CTR-2 speakers ($9000/pair). I also saw what I thought was another power amp (the one on the right in the picture), so I asked about it, and was told that it was actually the power supply for the amp. I wasn’t doing too well in my guessing here!
Britain's Cambridge Audio is known for its modestly-priced integrated amps and such, but now they've decided to move upmarket by introducing separate preamps and power amps. The Azur 840E ($1499) preamp and Azur 840 power amp (200Wpc,
$2199) are based on top-of-the-line Cambridge Azur 840A integrated amp, with upgraded power supplies and other improvements. Here they are, pictured with Ian McArthur of Audio Plus, the North American importer.
Carat Audio's products are sufficiently new to North America that the only prices available are still in Euros. (They do have distribution.) Designed in France and made in China, the A57 integrated amp (80Wpc, 899 Euros), C57 CD player (649 Euros), and T57 tuner (349 Euros) look like anything but budget products, resembling products from Primare or YBA. An indication of the quality of the design is that the power output of the A57 nearly doubles into 4 ohms (80 into 8 ohms, 150 into 4 ohms)—very unusual at this price level.