The Best Value in Audio

Sometimes, taking what looks like the easy route turns out to be a bust. The line for cabs outside the Alexis Park Resort Hotel in Las Vegas, home of the high-end audio exhibits at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show, must have been at least 50 people long. So much for the post-9/11 forecasts of doom that had preceded the convention: last fall's Comdex may have been a bust, but the official CES visitor count of 100,307, if a little lower than the past two years' attendances, still seemed respectable (and surpassed 1999's total of 97,370).

I had wanted to go to the newly opened Tuscany Hotel, where Mike Maloney's outboarding T.H.E. Expo was headquartered, but if I waited for a cab, I wouldn't make it in time. What the heck—I'd been told the Tuscany was a only a couple of blocks from the Alexis. I squeezed off a quick hit from my asthma inhaler and took off on foot.

Fifteen minutes later, I was wheezing and still walking. Yes, it was only two blocks, but I'd forgotten that the new cities in the Southwest are scaled in a manner friendlier to cars than to pedestrians. By the time I got to the Halcro suite at the Tuscany, I needed the glass of Australian red wine handed me by the amplifier manufacturer's US representative, Philip O'Hanlon. I settled down in a sofa behind Wilson Audio's Peter McGrath and let the declamatory beginning of Brahms' Piano Concerto 2, one of Peter's live Florida Philharmonic recordings, wash over me. In the darkened room, Bruno Leonardo Gelber's piano was there, hanging between and behind the Wilson MAXX speakers. Now this was worth the walk!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The day had begun at the Wilson suite at the Mirage, where David Wilson played the Utah company's new Sophia loudspeakers for me. Wilson demonstrations are always meticulously organized, and this one was no exception. The ancillary components—Audio Research CD player, Spectral DM-360 monoblock power amplifiers, and a Nagra PL-L preamp—were beyond reproach. David put on one of Keith Johnson's superb Reference Recordings of the Turtle Beach Chorale and I settled back in my chair.

Something didn't seem right. I looked back at the equipment rack, where I saw two Nagra preamps (see photo on p.73). Well, perhaps one was being used as a spare. I went back to the music. Nice, very nice. Detailed, dynamic, a good sense of both the musical flow and of the recording's performing space. I'm looking forward to the $11,700/pair Sophias arriving chez Atkinson.

"Not bad, eh?" David Wilson was definitely chuckling.

"Uh-huh." I tried not to give too much away.

"What you were listening to," beamed Mr. Wilson, "was not the $15,000/pair Spectrals. The amp was actually the Parasound under the table, which costs around the same as the sales tax on the Spectrals!"

We listened to the Sophias driven by the Spectrals, then again by the $650 Parasound, the two Nagra PL-Ls being used to match levels exactly. Yes, the Spectrals did sound better, with more focused, more palpable soundstaging and another half-octave of bass extension, but the little Parasound was not nearly as far behind as you'd expect from the difference in price.

Which, of course, was the point of the demonstration. As explained by new Stereophile writer Paul Bolin in his CES report in this issue (p.65), David Wilson wanted to make the points that the loudspeaker is still the component that makes the single biggest difference in a system's sound, and that first-rate speakers will still sound great driven by modest electronics—so if you've been put off from acquiring a pair of, say, Wilson speakers because you can't afford to upgrade your amplifier at the same time, it's okay to use your current amplifier until next year's tax refund arrives.

Convincing as the Wilson dem was, it flies in the face of my own experience over the years, in which I have found that even inexpensive speakers blossom when driven by megabux electronics. I shall reserve judgment, therefore, until I can arrange a comparison in my own room of two identically priced systems: one with the emphasis on the speakers, the other with it on the amplification.

There was no question, however, about the pedigree of the amplification driving the Wilson MAXXes at the Tuscany via Transparent cables. Yes, the source was also beyond reproach—a 24-bit Nagra-D tape played back via a Muse 296 DAC and a Meitner preamp—but the $25,000/pair Halcro dm58 monoblocks wrung a sound from the big Wilsons that I found astonishing in the natural sweep of its dynamics. Other listeners—Kal Rubinson, for example—preferred the sound in the other Halcro room, where the Australian amps were being used to drive Revel Ultima Salons. But on the MAXXes, that Brahms concerto and the following recording—another of Peter's live Florida recordings, "Der Abschied" from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, with mezzo-soprano Janice Taylor and conductor James Judd—re-created the original event to an extent I have heard only rarely. High fidelity.

Which, of course, is what the 700 or so products we recommend in this issue's installment of our ever-popular "Recommended Components" try to do. But, as you can see from Kristian Soholm's letter (p.10), at least one reader is not impressed.

Almost all of Mr. Soholm's points have been addressed at length before in the magazine, so I'll point you to our website home page and ask you to enter the key phrase "Recommended Components" (include the quotes) in the site's search engine. But I will address Mr. Soholm's dismissal of the way the listing is put together, and the ratings, as "silly" and "insulting."

When J. Gordon Holt first published "Recommended Components" in the 1960s, in Vol.1 No.5, it was a compilation of the views of one man. As the reviewing staff expanded, there had to be a way of incorporating everyone's opinions. What I do, therefore, is ask the magazine's writers to act as advocates—to tell me why the products should be recommended or not recommended, as the case may be, and what class they would choose were it up to them.

But as much as I respect these guys, it is not up to them. Like a judge, I make note of everything each advocate says about each product, both in person and in reviews. Unlike a judge, I also take my own experience into account. Ultimately, it is my call what class each component falls into. So yes, Mr. Soholm, compiling the listing is definitely a subjective process. Which is why it is so important not to go only by the ratings when you read "Recommended Components." Which is why it is so important for you to read the blurb for each product. Those blurbs may be short, but they reflect the opinions of everyone at the magazine who had something to say about the product. And if you intend to buy a product on the list, you must read the original reviews, many of which are available free of charge on our website.

I write these words having just returned from a superb performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" at Carnegie Hall, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's under its new conductor Donald Runnicles. As good as the Halcro-Wilson system sounded in Las Vegas, it didn't get close to the real thing. As Brent Trafton says in this issue's "Letters" (p.13), "a live performance is still the best value in audio today."