Stereophile's Products of 2006 Joint Amplification Components

2006 Joint Amplification Components

Conrad-Johnson ACT2 preamplifier ($12,000; reviewed by Wes Phillips, Vol.28 No.12, December 2005 review)
Halcro dm88 monoblock power amplifier ($39,900/pair; reviewed by Brian Damkroger, Vol.29 No.8, August 2006 review)
McIntosh C1000 preamplifier ($17,000–$26,000; reviewed by Michael Fremer, Vol.29 No.8, August 2006 review)

Runners-up (in alphabetical order)
ASR Emitter II integrated amplifier ($24,900; reviewed by Michael Fremer, Vol.29 No.10, October 2006 review)
Ayre V-5xe power amplifier ($4500; reviewed by Sam Tellig, Vol.29 No.5, May 2006)
Chord SPM 14000 Ultimate monoblock power amplifier ($74,000/pair; reviewed by Paul Bolin, Vol.29 No.3, March 2006 review)
mbl Reference 9007 monoblock power amplifier ($26,600/pair; reviewed by Michael Fremer, Vol.29 No.9, September 2006 review)
Musical Fidelity kW750 power amplifier ($10,000; reviewed by Michael Fremer, Vol.28 No.12, December 2005 review)
Simaudio Moon Evolution W-8 power amplifier ($10,500; reviewed by Kalman Rubinson, Vol.29 No.3, March 2006 review)
Sutherland Direct line stage ($3000; reviewed by Sam Tellig & Brian Damkroger, Vol.29 Nos.1 & 9, January & September 2006 review)
VTL S-400 Reference power amplifier ($22,500; reviewed by Brian Damkroger, Vol.28 No.12, December 2005 review)

Six very different components were each awarded at least one first-place vote in our Amplification category, among them the battery-powered, four-box ASR Emitter II integrated, the powerful and quiet Simaudio Moon W-8, and the absolutely neutral VTL S-400. However, it was the three-box McIntosh C1000 preamp that just barely edged out the Conrad-Johnson ACT2 preamp and Halcro dm88 monoblock for the highest honor. While the Mac had slightly more votes overall, the C-J and Halcro each won more first-place votes, and finished so close that we thought it only fair to crown all three.

The Mac system, comprising the C1000C controller/power supply and two separate, fully balanced preamplifiers, is built to cover all your audiophile needs. The solid-state C1000P and the tubed C1000T preamps are nearly identical and sounded remarkably similar: the tubed unit produced the tonal balance and neutrality commonly associated with transistors, while its solid-state partner delivered a bloom usually associated with tubes. Though the C1000's flexibility is almost unlimited, Mikey was sometimes frustrated by the configuration options. "If you like puzzles, you'll enjoy playing with it," he said. But, in the end, he was more impressed by the Mac's way with music: "The C1000 was like a great dish whose individual ingredients you can't taste—you just enjoy the blend of flavors without wanting more or less of anything."

Like a fine wine (and even a few good audiophiles), the Conrad-Johnson ACT2 only improves with age. While it made an impressive showing in last year's voting, it couldn't quite match up with the inimitable darTZeel NHB-108 power amp. This year, however, and despite imminent replacement by a Series 2 edition, the ACT2 was awarded three first-place votes, more than any other contender in this category.

Boasting a retro-futuristic look, its Russian 6N30P tubes displayed and protected behind three Lucite rings and topped off with a vented circular cap, the ACT2 is "a work of art as beautiful to behold as it is to listen to." Even Madison Avenue can't keep up with that kind of gold. But what most captivated our man Wes Phillips was how well the ACT2 communicated the essence of music: "It was a revelation—as was every recording I listened to through it." WP closed his original review with a sigh: "I'm sure glad I'm not Conrad-Johnson. This will be a tough ACT to follow." We'll just have to wait and see how the ACT2 Series 2 competes.

The Halcro dm88 is another amplifier with a fine pedigree. Its elder brother, the dm58, was 2002's Amplifier of the Year and Product of the Year. Indeed, it was the star of that show, sweeping away all other competition. If the dm58 had a flaw, it seemed to be one dealt by its own firm hand: the amp's overwhelming neutrality and purity could sometimes leave us wanting a bit of pleasant tonal richness. Sometimes, even the most analytical audiophile needs a gentle hug.

The changes rung on the revolutionary dm58 to create the dm88 include revised voltage-amplifying and power amplifier stages, improved magnetic shielding between the input and output stages, new power-supply circuitry, and updated power generation. The result? Now all of the dm58's neutrality is complemented by the dm88's bit of warmth and sweetness. "The dm58 was Kansas, the dm88 was Oz," said lucky reviewer Brian Damkroger. "The realism, and the way the system melded my listening room to the performance and space, were eerie." That's the kind of magic we love.