The first time I heard an Audio Note preamp was seven or eight years ago, when I sampled their entry-level M1—a refreshingly musical thing that brought the same kind of color and drama to preamplification that Audio Note's more famous products brought to the driving of speakers. And the M1 cost only $1250 at the time, with phono stage. (Newcomers, please don't wince: That's awfully cheap for what it was.)
My wife and I have this ongoing riff: We try to make each other laugh by sharing examples of words we've looked at too quickly and misread—mistaking offered for overfed, bagel for kegel, that sort of thing. All very subtle and dry and Garrison Keillor. You can hear the belly laughs from there, can't you?
Most of us have at least some taste for gear that jumps out—for audio components whose sonic and musical distinctions are easy to hear from the start. In audio, unlike in the art of music itself, there's nothing wrong with being obvious.
Consider the fate of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century astronomer who challenged Ptolemy's notion of Earth being the center of a finite universe—and in doing so went head to head with the church of Rome. Bruno's scholarly diligence and fearlessness were rewarded not with fame, riches, or accolades from his colleagues, but with a hot-lead enema, after which he was burned at the stake. Next heretic in line, step right up, please.
Anyone over 40 who's worked in a hi-fi or record store will remember the Pfanstiehl catalog, a pulpy thing that most shopkeepers chained to their counters, like a phone book. Pfanstiehl made replacement styli for virtually every record-playing device of the day, and their catalog contained page after page of tiny line drawings of nothing but phonograph needles, all lovingly rendered in three-quarter view. You couldn't browse it without being brought up short: My God, how many different needles are there? And how is it possible that a single company could tool up for so many products and still make a profit?
I had it all wrong. I assumed that the "SLP" in SLP-98P stood for stereo line preamplifier. But Dennis Had, Cary Audio's founder and chief designer, told me that it actually stands for sweet little preamplifier. In a day and age when acme is a word without meaning and the fighting Irish are neither, this strikes me as a risky marketing gambit—but one that may be effective if the name proves true.
Like most people, I'm not interested in long, windy essays about audio reviewing, having barely enough time and interest for audio itself. But I do perk up when the debate turns to the audio reviewer's purpose in life: Should I write about everything that crosses my path, or should I limit my attention to those products that interest me, and that stand a chance of being good?