Wavelength Audio Gemini monoblock power amplifier Letters

Two relevant reader's letters appeared in July 2001 (Vol.24 No.7):

Call him an optimist

Editor: As a longtime reader of Stereophile, I strongly support the present mix of objective testing and subjective reviews. While most readers, including myself, are primarily interested in how a component sounds rather than how it measures, the test data can often provide interesting insights.

That said, I must take exception to the "commentary" by John Atkinson in his test report on the Wavelength Gemini amp (May 2001, p.127). John criticized Gordon Rankin's decision to use an AC heater supply instead of a "high-precision" solid-state DC regulator, saying that he could see no reason for this other than philosophical—to avoid using any solid-state devices in the Gemini.

Unfortunately, the matter is not that simple. A tube heater supply can have a major impact on the sound of an amp or preamp. All other things being equal, the solid-state DC regulator can make the sound leaner and brighter compared to an unregulated DC supply or, especially, an AC supply. This is where the designer's judgment as to sound priorities comes into play. Does the regulator provide greater transparency and detail, or does it make the tonal balance anemic and unmusical? Gordon's choice may indeed be a significant contributing factor to the amp's warmth and musicality, even though in this case it comes at the high cost of significant hum.

The issue of AC vs DC heater supplies may seem arcane, but it is part of a larger trend. I believe that the high-end community, manufacturers and consumers alike, is reevaluating some of the so-called "improvements" in audio design made during the past 25 years, and we are finding that in many cases we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Just look at some of the design "improvements" implemented more or less across the board during this time: metal-film resistors replacing carbon resistors, plastic "designer" capacitors replacing oil and paper capacitors, plastic bypass capacitors in parallel with nearly all capacitors, solid-state diodes replacing tube rectifiers, removal of chokes from power supplies, widespread use of solid-state regulators, and silver-coated wire in place of solid copper.

Speaking very generally, each of the changes described above tends to make the component's tonal balance leaner and brighter. Is it any wonder that many high-end systems, even those with tubes, now sound too lean and too bright? Some can overlook the skewed tonal balance and focus on the improved imaging and apparent detail. But many more of us are shaking our heads and wondering whatever happened to that warm, rich tenor sax.

One solution, I believe, is to look back at the classic designs from earlier years and reevaluate what we gave up. Gordon Rankin is clearly doing this, but so are companies closer to the mainstream, like Audio Research (tube rectifiers and tube regulators), Cary (oil caps and tube rectifiers), Balanced Audio Technology (oil caps), and Ayre [and Musical Fidelity—Ed.] (power-supply chokes).

Call me an optimist, but I think this bodes well for the future. We can learn from history.—David A. Vorhis, Salisbury, MD, vorhis@shore.intercom.net

It is what it is

Editor: Over the past few issues, I've seen "Letters" devolve into a "this magazine sucks" or "no it doesn't" debate forum of almost cartoonish proportions. I've been a reader and/or subscriber for about five years, and I must say, I've failed to see any substantive change in the magazine over the last 12 months. Many would like to believe that Stereophile "sold out" to become a good corporate citizen, but I really don't think that's true. The magazine is what it is, and sometimes that can be darn frustrating.

Robert Deutsch's review of the Wavelength Gemini monoblock in May (p.125) is a great example of how the more things change at Stereophile, the more they stay the same. For $5000, you get a pair of ridiculously low-powered tube amplifiers designed around tubes that haven't been produced in 50 years? Okay, I'm still listening. You need to hire an electrical engineer in order to bring the amp's "buzzing" down to an "acceptable" level? Come on! How can you recommend a product that needs aftermarket tweaking to even function properly?

I realize one can read the review and draw his own conclusions, but there has to be a point where the reviewer needs to say "Wait a minute. There are hundreds of high-end amps on the market selling for $5000 or less that can reproduce recorded music very well. Why on earth would someone buy this one?" And yes, Mr. Atkinson, I read your footnote on p.129, and I don't think it was enough.

Reviews like this really create some doubt about the reliability of your reviewers. Because many products recommended in Stereophile are hard to find and available to many readers only though Internet or mail-order, many of us wind up buying based merely on an excellent review. I had a chance to audition most of the components in my own system before buying, but originally hunted them down based on "Recommended Components." When one decides to build a hi-fi system and plunk down $10,000-15,000, one should be able to rest assured that the products that one is buying (or even going out of the way to hear in a showroom) will at least function properly. I don't think there is even a question here.

The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of $5000 amplifiers on the market, and the vast majority of them sound very good. An even vaster majority function properly as-is, with no professional consultation required.—Rob Damm, robdamm@hotmail.com

First of all, Mr. Damm, it's an unfortunate fact of the reviewer's life that products submitted for review sometimes malfunction or interact unfavorably with the review system. The manufacturer almost invariably claims that these malfunctions or unfavorable system interactions are highly atypical—and fairness demands that they be allowed to correct the problem. We allow this at Stereophile, with the important proviso that everything is on the record, so that readers have full access to this information.

In the case of the Wavelength amplifier, the problem was a ground loop in the system, and the usual remedies were not effective. As I noted in the review, Gordon Rankin told me—and I have no reason to doubt his word—that this problem was not present in his system, and he's heard no similar complaints from his customers or dealers. This would seem to imply that the problem is not with the amplifier, but with system interaction. I called on Neil Muncy because of his expertise in dealing with these "systemic" problems. His assessment was that the problem could be solved by a simple wiring change in the amplifier.

I then had a choice. I could proceed with the review with the amp as-is, but this wouldn't be fair to either the manufacturer or the readers, in that there was reason to believe that the amplifier was not performing optimally in this system, so any conclusions would have limited validity. A second alternative was to ship the amplifier back to Gordon Rankin so that he could make the minor wiring change. This would effectively put the review on hold—very inconvenient, given the pressure of magazine deadlines.

The third option was to allow Neil Muncy to make the wiring change as agreed on with Gordon Rankin. This is the option I chose, and the wiring change did exactly what Muncy had said it would do. (Had the problem persisted, the amp would have gone back to Wavelength.) All of this is reported in the review, and readers can judge for themselves what weight to give it. (By the way, several readers on the Single Ended Triode forum at Audio Asylum thought that I was being too tough on the Wavelength, giving undue prominence to the discussion of problems.)

As to the question of why on earth someone would buy this amplifier, I attempted to answer this question in the review by describing the Gemini's sound in the system. The Gemini, as I also noted, is not the amplifier for everyone, and I have tried to provide information—including the chronicle of my experience with the grounding issue and tube problems—that would allow readers to decide whether it's the amplifier for them. There are, indeed, other good-sounding $5000 amplifiers on the market, and I certainly would not recommend buying the Gemini (or any other expensive non-mainstream product) without an audition and local dealer support. It sounds really good, though.Robert Deutsch