Life used to be simple. A preamp was a phono stage, a line stage, and the controls necessary to manage a system. Sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part you could say "preamp" and everyone knew what you meant. With the rise of the Compact Disc, however, phono stages became standalone components or optional extras, and most manufacturers concentrated on the line stage and controls, pursuing the ideal of "a straight wire with gain."
I've had the pleasure of using The Direct Line Stage Line Stage (originally called the Director) from Ron Sutherland for the past few months. This active line-stage preamp (it has no phono section) is available from Acoustic Sounds for $3000.
When I reviewed VTL's MB-750 monoblock amplifier in the December 1997 Stereophile (Vol.20 No.12), it was a transitional time for the company. Luke Manley had recently taken it over, and he and his wife and partner, Bea Lam, were aggressively retooling. They introduced new business systems, including rigorous inventory and quality control; rebuilt VTL's dealer network around top-rank dealers; and systematically upgraded the products themselves to improve their consistency, reliability, manufacturability, and performance. VTL's goal, Luke explained to me at the time, was to build amplifiers that competed with the very best, and to "make the tubes invisible to the customer."
Nirvana Audio's cables have long been fixtures in my audio system: first the SL interconnects and speaker cables, and, after their debut in 1998, the S-X Ltd. interconnect. In 2002, after a long development process, designer Stephen Creamer introduced the companion S-X Ltd. speaker cable ($2780/2.5m pair, add $50/pair for biwire configuration). He explored a wide range of options, including dramatically different structures and materials, but always returned to the elements he'd used before—and ended up with a design that combined elements of his two existing speaker cables, the SL and the entry-level Royale. At its core, the S-X Ltd. has the Royale's two conductors, each a symmetrical Litz element consisting of 285 isolated strands of high-purity copper of several different gauges. In the S-X Ltd., the conductors are spaced slightly apart to minimize capacitance, wound into a twisted pair, and wrapped in FEP insulation.
For years, I thought of Simaudio gear as good-sounding, attractive, and modestly priced, often describing it to friends as "really good for the money." The $5500 Moon Eclipse CD player, which I reviewed in our April 2001 and April 2003 issues, stretched the "modestly priced" descriptor a bit, but its sound was still, I thought, really good for what it cost, and I adopted it as a reference. Simaudio expanded the Moon series and eventually discontinued its older, less expensive Celeste brand, but, I thought, its products could still be described as "really good for the money."
Back in 2003, while auditioning the Burmester 001 CD player ($14,000, reviewed in the December 2003 Stereophile, Vol.26 No.12), I discovered that my system sounded much better if I bypassed my preamplifier and ran the 001 directly into the power amps. I concluded by suggesting that potential customers consider building a system around the 001 itself and forgo a preamp altogether. The response from Burmester fans was immediate and unambiguous: As good as the 001 was on its own, it sounded even better run through its stablemate, Burmester's 011 preamplifier ($15,999). The pair had, they claimed, a significant synergy that I absolutely had to hear. It's hard to argue with determined German logic, and I'd begun shopping for a new preamp anyway. So here we are.
The possible approaches to any technical problem range from trial and error to first-principles physics. Then there's the "purist" approach—the simplest, most direct way to meet the challenge. Often, the purist approach doesn't pan out because of such phrases as "we need 60 tons of molten gold" or "can we cool the entire building to absolute zero?" But in the world of high-end cables, the purist approach is viable, and is exactly where you find Jeffrey Smith.
It's not unusual for a high-end audio company to originate in another segment of the high-tech electronics world, but it is a bit unusual when the spin-off is a cable company. That's the case with Empirical Audio, whose founder, Steve Nugent, spent 25 years as a digital hardware designer for Unisys and Intel. The key is that, in addition to standard design work, he chased "the more esoteric sides of design, namely grounding, shielding, ESD (electrostatic discharge), EMI (electromagnetic interference), transmission-line effects, and power delivery." Voilà—cable design.
Like the $29,000 Boulder 2008 phono preamplifier, the new Whest PhonoStage.20 with its MsU.20 power supply costs as much as a car. Fortunately for you, that car happens to be my first new Saab, which cost exactly $2737 back in 1972. The solid-state Whest costs $2595, so it's a few hundred dollars cheaper. But at only a tenth the cost, it comes closer to the Boulder 2008's performance than it has any right to. That it's good enough to be mentioned in the same paragraph should tell you something about how good I think it is. Nor did it come to me hyped by the manufacturer—it took me by surprise from the minute I first heard it. I began my listening right away, before reading anything about the circuit design.
I've encountered a number of audio products over the years whose thoughtful design and intricate craftsmanship brought to mind the expression "built like a Swiss watch." As often as I'd thought or even written that phrase, however, I don't think I'd ever stopped to seriously consider what an audio component might be like if actually built by the nation that produces Rolex and Breitling wristwatches.