"I've got the world on a string, sitting on the rainbow Got the string around my finger, what a life, Mama, I'm in love. Life's a beautiful thing, as long as I hold the string I'd be a silly so-and-so if I should ever let you go."—Ted Koehler
Stereophile editor John Atkinson said one evening in 1995, "What I find fascinating is that, in an industry as mature as audio cables, a new company can appear out of the blue and upset everything." He was gently poking fun at my admission that I found cable design fascinating, in particular the practice of combining different conductor materials.
I've had the pleasure of using The Direct Line Stage Line Stage (originally called the Director) from Ron Sutherland for the past few months. This active line-stage preamp (it has no phono section) is available from Acoustic Sounds for $3000.
When I went to my shelf of Stereophile back issues to find Paul Bolin's seminal review of the Halcro dm58, I was shocked to find myself leafing further and further back—through not only 2004 but 2003 as well, all the way back to October 2002 (Vol.25 No.10). It doesn't seem possible that it's been almost four years since Halcro exploded onto our radar screens, the dm58 emblazoned on that issue's cover alongside the banner headline "THE BEST AMPLIFIER EVER!"
VPI Industries' TNT turntable and JMW Memorial tonearm have evolved through several iterations over the last two decades. Some changes have been large, such as the deletion of the three-pulley subchassis and the introduction of the SDS motor controller. Others have been invisible—a change in bearing or spindle material, for example, or the way the bearing attaches to the plinth. And, as longtime Stereophile readers know, I've been upgrading and evolving along with VPI, most recently reporting on the TNT V-HR turntable (Stereophile, December 2001).
The original plan, back in mid-2004, was to audition an entire Ensemble system and then review the individual components over the next two years. Most audio companies produce lines of matching products, but Ensemble takes it a bit further, with a modular approach and extensive commonality of everything from chassis to circuit boards. They firmly believe that everything affects sonic performance, and their approach helps ensure a consistent sound throughout their line.
About once a week, I hear about some new audio accessory heralded by breathless claims of stunning performance gains that "you've got to hear for yourself." Most of these I ignore, and of those I do consider, nearly all wither when subjected to logical engineering analysis. Every so often, however, one of these wonder widgets finds its way into my system.
Life used to be simple. A preamp was a phono stage, a line stage, and the controls necessary to manage a system. Sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part you could say "preamp" and everyone knew what you meant. With the rise of the Compact Disc, however, phono stages became standalone components or optional extras, and most manufacturers concentrated on the line stage and controls, pursuing the ideal of "a straight wire with gain."
When I reviewed VTL's MB-750 monoblock amplifier in the December 1997 Stereophile (Vol.20 No.12), it was a transitional time for the company. Luke Manley had recently taken it over, and he and his wife and partner, Bea Lam, were aggressively retooling. They introduced new business systems, including rigorous inventory and quality control; rebuilt VTL's dealer network around top-rank dealers; and systematically upgraded the products themselves to improve their consistency, reliability, manufacturability, and performance. VTL's goal, Luke explained to me at the time, was to build amplifiers that competed with the very best, and to "make the tubes invisible to the customer."
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.