Ideally, through the medium of a synergistically balanced set of high-resolution components, we seek to re-create an acoustic event with a palpable sense of realism—as in timbre, dynamics, room cues, and dimensionality. Have I ever experienced a system commensurate with the experience of sitting 12th-row-center at Carnegie Hall for Boulez conducting Stravinsky? Close, but...
As often as not, it ain't the heat—it's the stupidity. When confronted by the smattering of self-referential dilettantes, acrimonious Internut wannabes, and obsessive-compulsive types who suck the air out of our aural fun-house, I find myself overcome with the desire to program my phaser for CLIP.
In Hinduism, an avatar is an incarnation of spirit—a god who descends to earth in bodily form. For Kevin Hayes of the Valve Amplification Company (VAC), the Avatar was meant to be nothing less than his defining statement of the state of the audio designer's art. Drawing on the high-tech refinements and scrupulous attention to individual components that distinguish his flagship high-end amps and preamps, Hayes has filtered it all down into one attractively priced integrated amplifier.
There's an aesthetic dimension to the Manley Laboratories Stingray that transcends high-end audio and borders on modern sculpture—not unlike the E.A.R. V20, which I auditioned in the October issue. Still, the Stingray is by no means an exercise in gimmickry. Form has clearly followed function at every step in the design process, the ultimate goal of which was to fashion a vacuum-tube integrated amplifier with real-world power that defined the outer limits of high-end performance in a functional, affordable, bare-bones package...with a touch of style.
The women in my family and extended circle of friends are generally captivated by good sound, but are often appalled by the brutish, monolithic packaging that passes for "styling" in high-end gear. "Not in my living room," is the refrain, often played in a minor key.
Obviously, no one wants to listen to exaggerated bass, italicized highs, or colored mids. But if you (as I have in the past few months) plug in several high-quality integrated amplifiers, each designed to a different price point, into the same basic signal chain, you'll experience a wide disparity of sound signatures.
You might recall that ditty from childhood about the little engine that could (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...). It's an apt metaphor for high-end audio. In traversing the aural sepulchers of last winter's Consumer Electronics Show and the summer's HI-FI Show, I routinely encountered one divine sound system after another. Yet while I never tire of transcendent sonics, eventually I become inured to the procession of celestial, cost-no-object speakers. It's like having a white-light experience, then returning to the gritty reality of life on earth, where for most of us cost is not merely the object, but the determining factor in finding an optimal balance among audio components.