In 1985 or so, a middle-aged audiophile who lived in New York City called to invite me to come listen to his stereo: It was, he assured me, the best in the world. All he wanted was the pleasure of my opinion, for which he offered the princely sum of $100. (As I learned in the months and years to come, this same audiophile called virtually every other audio writer in the metropolitan area whose phone number he could get hold of, making the same offer.)
Our December 2004 issue honored 56 contemporary audio products that stood out from the pack during the course of the year. Of those 56, fully nine were phonograph components (footnote 1), including one—the Linn Sondek LP12 turntable—that's been on the market for something like a hundred years.
My first reaction to the Prima Luna Prologue One was based solely on looks: For $1095, I might not have been disappointed had it sounded no better than a Bose Wave Radio. Its casework straddles the breach between vintage and modern in a way that little else does, at any price. The dark gray-blue finish, hand-rubbed to a tactile gloss, wouldn't look out of place on an Alfa GTV (the new one, which resembles a drop of oil). And for the first time in my experience, a high-end audio manufacturer has figured out a way to make a protective tube cage easy to remove and replace: with banana plugs and sockets. Why couldn't one of the high-price American brands have figured that out?
It's a strange sort of progress: As culture and commerce evolve, most people look for simple, easy solutions to their needs. Enthusiasts, however, go out of their way to complicate matters, often choosing products that are expensive and difficult to use. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of home audio, where typical consumers have embraced the notion of smallish, self-contained music systems—yet audiophiles, who are surely as crazy as bedbugs, seem bent on parsing an ever-increasing number of individually distinct products from the basic concept of a music system.
Giuseppe Verdi gave the world more than two dozen operas, some good sacred music, and one string quartet. He also provided the young Arturo Toscanini with one of his first big breaks—conducting the singing of "Va pensiero" at his burial procession—and gave the flagship consumer product from England's dCS Ltd. its name. That the latter two gestures were posthumous and unwitting does nothing to diminish their poetry.
I saw it coming back in 1996. That was when Rega introduced their full-bore assault on the state of the art of record replay, the Planar 9 turntable. The P9 was and is a superb product, but because it sells for $3900—more than five times the price of the company's bread-and-butter model, the venerable Rega Planar 3—its introduction created an enormous price gap. And that's not to mention all the numbers between 3 and 9 that have languished for so long: How could you not expect Rega to fill in the blanks with Planars 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8?
When I was a boy, silent dog whistles were all the rage. They were sold mail-order from the backs of comic books, alongside whoopee cushions and sneeze powder and X-ray spex. The whistles aren't so easy to find anymore, but don't read too much into that fact. Don't read into that at all.