Audiophiles once took it as given that LPs sounded better than CDs—end of discussion. Things are no longer so cut-and-dried. In my seven years as a contributing editor to Stereophile, I've seen an enormous improvement in the quality of digital software and playback-delivery systems. The early-1980s recording and remastering anomalies that made listening to early digital recordings so fatiguing are largely things of the past, though advocates of massive compression, jacked-up gain, and compensatory EQ ("Sounds-better-on-cheap-radios," they dully chant) continue to sully the waters of natural resolution.
It's a simple premise: power corrupts. You can buy the finest audio components in the world, but if the foundation of your aural house is rotten, you won't get anything vaguely resembling the level of performance your gear was designed to provide. Over time, I've come to realize just how fragile the audio signal chain is, dependent as it is on electrical sources fatally compromised by all manner of aural schmutz pouring through the local grid. I've become obsessed with figuring out how to liberate my system from the line noise, reactive loads, and voltage anomalies that veil the presentation, obscure resolution, and limit dynamic range.
Rogue Audio's Magnum Ninety-Nine tubed preamplifier is derived from the original Rogue Sixty-Six that I reviewed in October 2000. The Sixty-Six was designed to offer consumers a taste of high-end performance in a vacuum-tube line stage. By constrast, the Magnum Ninety-Nine's pedigree is pure audiophile, with a more sophisticated mu-follower circuit topology aimed at the purest expression of performance.
I'm a big believer in the notion that if you can't hear a difference, why pay for it? I also believe that the ultimate goal of any high-end system should be to simply disappear and leave the listener immersed in the presence of the music. System synergy is paramount, and how you spread your compromises around and make your tradeoffs work for you is generally more significant than how expensive the final tab is. Thank God there are still plenty of companies out there dedicated to the proposition that ultimate resolution and build quality are anything but antithetical to real-world value.
Over the course of several months, during which time I auditioned the Vacuum Tube Logic TL-5.5 tubed line-stage preamp with a variety of power amps and loudspeakers, I began to reassess many long-held notions about the "characters" of solid-state and tube components. Sometimes the TL-5.5 revealed its musical pedigree with all the midrange juiciness and sublime textural detail that one traditionally associates with a triode front-end, while at others it evinced a level of focus, transparency, and frequency extension I more readily associate with solid-state purity—all in a stylish package featuring a remote volume control and a full range of performance enhancements that belied its affordable price.
Though each link in the audio chain is significant in its own way, we seem to spend more time agonizing over the choice and setup of loudspeakers than any other component. Floorstanding or stand-mounted? Full-range frequency extension or minimonitor coherence? Multiple-driver complexity or two-way simplicity? Pleasurable and forgiving or resolved and revealing? And even when money is no object, how much speaker do you really want...or need? It might sound splendid in the shop, but how will it couple with your room? How will it integrate with your other gear? Is it easy to set up and drive or will it involve specialized gear and a massive overhaul of your current rig?
With this review I conclude an audiophile's progression through the price/performance ratios of three very musical solid-state integrated amplifiers: the NAD C370 ($699, reviewed in January 2002), the Arcam DiVA A85 ($1499, February 2002), and now the Simaudio Moon i-5 ($2595). In the process I was fascinated to hear how each amp recommended itself to its targeted price point. Likewise, it was most instructive to hear how they spread their compromises around. With a rough doubling of suggested retail price from the NAD to the Arcam, there was a degree of sonic refinement introduced. However, the leap in improved sound from the Arcam to the Simaudio was more significant. And in quantifying the benefits another $1000 worth of enhancements can confer, I discovered what constitute real high-end bona fides.
Although audiophiles may muster little enthusiasm for the home-theater-driven audio marketplace of the 21st century, its prerequisites have inspired manufacturers to cram as wide a range of flexible programming features into as highly resolved a set of performance packages as possible. Thus we're now witnessing a new generation of exceptionally musical electronics with high-end performance targeted at two-channel enthusiasts, but all primped and prepped for integration into an expanded audio-video rig.
NAD has been out there on the leading edge of entry-level high-end sound long enough that some audiophiles reckon they invented the category. Sure, we should give serious props to the likes of Creek, Rotel, Musical Fidelity, Arcam, Denon, and Parasound, all of which have made significant contributions to the musical aspirations of budget-conscious pilgrims. But I continue to harbor warm feelings about my last extended visit with an NAD component: the inexpensive yet supremely musical L40 CD Receiver, which I reviewed in the June 2000 Stereophile.
People come to high-end audio with different needs and expectations—some fairly reasoned, some slightly more highfalutin. Some listeners want to get as close as possible to an immersion experience, be it of a live performance or of some more idealized studio ecstasy. Others are enraptured by the status and sex appeal of big, hot-rod components, and simply dig gear—much as they might dig the visceral rush of a high-performance car. Still others compulsively upgrade their equipment in search of some unattainable perfection. But no matter the initial motivation, all roads eventually lead back to a love of music.