When Wilson Audio Specialties' Peter McGrath offered me a pair of MAXX2 loudspeakers to review, I reminded him of just how small (15' by 21' by 8') my room is, and how close I sit to any speakers in it.
A straight wire with gain? That's what a line stage is supposed to provide, but few in my experience actually accomplish it, and I'm not sure that most audiophiles would really want it that way. Some want a bit of tightening and brightening, while some prefer a bit of added warmth and richness. But whatever the preference, none of us wants too much of a good thing—the tighter, brighter line stages better not sound etchy and hard, and the warmer, richer ones better not sound thick and plodding.
The French-made Kora line has been in and out of American distribution over the past decade. It's currently imported by Norman AV of Aventura, Florida. With the window of opportunity open again, I decided to listen to Kora's modestly priced hybrid integrated amplifier, the Explorer 150SB ($2030).
Everyone's got their prejudices, and mine are against turntables with box-like plinths and big slabs of undamped acrylic. I have no problem with either in models that cost a few grand or less, but once you get into high-priced terrain, less plinth and less acrylic usually yields better performance. Generally, though, all a plinth gets you is a vibrating surface to transmit or store and release energy. Who needs that? If your high-performance 'table has a plinth, you need to heroically damp it the way SME does in its Model 30, and the way Rockport did in its System III Sirius.
"A guy's gotta carry a cow across a river. He's not strong enough, of course, so the only way he can do it is to cut the cow into pieces, carry them across a few at a time, and re-assemble the beast on the other side. When he's finished, he's got a cow on the other side of the river, but it's not exactly the same cow."
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.
Over the past year or so, a parade of expensive loudspeakers has passed through my listening room (footnote 1), each claimed by its manufacturer to deliver the real musical deal. Like the people who designed them, these speakers have come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. While the designer of every one of these speakers has claimed "accuracy" and "transparency" as his goal, the truth is, any concoction of pulsing cones, ribbons, sheets of Mylar, or whatever that's bolted into or on top of a box makes music because it is a musical instrument. How could it be otherwise, when all of these accomplished and expensive loudspeakers have sounded very different from one another, and made me feel different while listening to them?
Gunther Frohnhöfer, Acoustic Signature turntable designer and company owner, informed me last week that the business relationship between his company and Ballmann, the manufacturer of the German Behold line of electronics, which includes a headshell-mounted 768kHz/24-bit A/D converter (see my "Analog Corner" column in the forthcoming April 2005 issue of Stereophile), has been severed. Frohnhöfer has relinquished his position as Ballmann's general manager. "Doing both my own product and the Behold electronics line was too much for one person to handle," he told me. Instead, Frohnhöfer will focus on his core turntable business, while Mr. Ballmann will continue developing, manufacturing, and marketing his electronics line.
"So what kind of music do you listen to?" I heard myself asking Leif Mårten Olofsson, designer of the Coltrane, Coltrane Alto, Duke, Miles II, Mingus III, and Monk loudspeakers, before I could take it back. The small company, headquartered in Göteborg, Sweden, where Volvos are made, has been building and marketing loudspeakers for the past six years, though Olofsson confesses he's been building them for 30 years, ever since he was 12.
I don't know Gram Slee from Gram Parsons, or which House he was in at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School, but let me tell you: If you'd just been listening to a bunch of budget phono preamps, as I had, then came upon the GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V, you'd think someone had switched out not just the phono preamp but your entire system. You might think you were listening to a different pressing or a different cartridge. How can this be?