Mesa Engineering Baron power amplifier

Some audiophiles tend to get a mite sniffy around those of us who have expensive tastes and limited budgets. I've always been willing to spend the price of a new car on a set of speakers, but I never had the cash or credit. The sonic virtues of hefty, high-powered Krells and wondrous, single-ended tube designs always enchanted me, but when you're raising a family you make do. Through my experiences in a high-end audio establishment I learned the metaphysics of mixing and matching as befits my lowly caste, and I gradually developed sophisticated reference points, so that as the years swept by I managed to inch my way up the aural food chain.

I've been writing about jazz, blues, rock, progressive pop, R&B, worldbeat, and classical music since 1976, and along the way developed a near fatal predilection for good audio. "What'll it be, son—200 watts per side or conjugal relations with your spouse?" I'm thinking, I'm thinking. However, unlike some of the solemn, stressed-out tweaks I've encountered over the years working in record stores and retail audio, the music comes first, you dig?

Someone once observed that for listeners experiencing a profound emotional response to a piece of music, the quality of the delivery system is incidental. I can't recall if the researcher was an audio engineer or a behavioralist, but we've all experienced this curious aural phenomenon. It's as if the Creator, not merely content to endow us with souls, retrofitted our being with some sort of spiritual Dolby processing, so that if the music was truly inspiring our level of concentration would rise to match it, and we could filter out much of the noise, RF interference, harmonic distortion, and shitty reproduction, and focus in on the music, restoring a level of frequency response and dynamic range commensurate with the gravity of the experience.

But you can't polish a turd.

A case in point: Many years ago when I first got into the music business, a magazine publisher had me and my staff out to his suburban digs for a party. Our host's high-end system was his pride and joy, and he'd purchased his house partly on the basis of the big sunken living room's superb acoustic configuration. Now this cat was a malevolent little Howdy Doody, but his audio system was so screamin' that to this day I accord him a grudging degree of respect. He had a pair of those classic B&W R2D2 jobbers, some bitchin' separates, a beautiful tonearm, moving-coil cartridge and turntable, and a vaulted ceiling that rose like the steppes of a rice paddy over this huge bay window—this snoid had turned his living room into the Hollywood Bowl. The sonic impact was palpable, the soundstage as broad as the Pacific and deeper than the Marianas trench, but Kenny Rogers' The Gambler represented the zenith of our seeker's transcendence.

So am I making a case for listening to Tatum or Horowitz on some jive upright? Of course not—bring on the German Steinways. Am I suggesting that true spiritual seekers can be content with department-store rack systems? May I never experience flat frequency response below 100Hz.

Still, I learned a long time ago that the human being was the ultimate instrument, and that sometimes, in scaling the sacred slopes of Mount Compromise, chance encounters with the goddess of Price-Performance Ratio can transform your humble audio environment to the point where you suddenly find yourself standing on hallowed ground.

Fate knocks
During the past two years a series of oddly providential events overtook me, and I was finally able to approach something approximating my vision of audio nirvana. First of all, I got lucky, copped a workable recording budget, and got to produce an audiophile-quality freeform jazz recording. I was able to assemble a dream team of great improvising musicians (Ginger Baker, Bill Frisell, and Charlie Haden) in a magnificent recording studio (Allen Sides's Ocean Way), with a vintage Studer two-track ½" and an audiophile-quality Focusrite mixing board (by Rupert Neve), the help of an authoritative, simpatico recording engineer (Malcolm Cecil), and a superb mastering engineer (Ted Jensen of Sterling Sound). A lot of my intuitions about sonics, artists, and repertoire turned out to be dead on, everything clicked, and Going Back Home (Atlantic 82652-2) was widely praised by jazzbos and audiophiles alike.

Then fate tossed what at first seemed like a bean ball, but which upon closer inspection came to resemble Newton's apple. One fine spring morning I looked out my fifth-floor window and discovered that an auto-parts collector had accepted my '82 Toyota on consignment for immediate export to South America. So much for bucolic escapes from Manhattan. But as summer turned to fall, I assuaged my grief with the knowledge that my auto insurance money had gone unspent, and that cash and credit previously set aside to fund my mechanic's weekend retreat were burning a hole in my pocket.

So inspired, I got a great price on a used Conrad-Johnson PV5 tube preamp, and had a set of speakers and passive subwoofers custom-built for me by Elliot Zalayete of Zalytron (featuring Cabasse and Focal drivers). Then this past spring I found myself wandering the portals of the Waldorf=Astoria at Stereophile's HI-FI '96, where I heard any number of superb systems—many of which caused my eyes to mist over and my loins to ache from transducer envy—but I also heard some pricey artifacts in wedding-cake cabinets that left me decidedly unmoved and reassured in my simple peasant wisdom. However, a chance assignation on the ninth floor sent me scurrying back home, and before you could say "capture ratio" I found myself, calculator in hand, contemplating a year or so of peanut-butter sandwiches. I had seen the burning bush.

The system Mesa Engineering's Tom Menrath had set up in their Waldorf suite featured a Wadia 16 CD player employing digital attenuation running direct to the Mesa Baron amplifier. The system used FMS interconnects and speaker wire and Aerial Acoustics Model 10Ts. Even in the abysmal acoustic environment of a hotel suite, the Baron's musicality and transient response were plainly apparent. Then they played a CD that I was very familiar with—Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Paris, Texas (Warner Bros. 25270-2). The clarity, transparency, soundstage depth, and detailed imaging revealed layers of room ambience I'd never perceived.

When I got home and put on the same disc, the differences were disconcerting. Even factoring in the focus and sonic superiority of the Wadia system to my humble Audio Alchemy unit, it was disconcerting to realize that I'd barely scratched the potential of my speakers—they laid bare the sonic limitations of my old amp.

Now, I've been around; listened to all kinds of sounds, experienced a lot of live music, and heard some extraordinary sound systems in my time—I always thought I had pretty good aural reference points. But it was humbling to finally experience just how much sonic impact and dimensionality a great power amp imparts to a sound system. When you visit a fine high-end store, one of the biggest challenges facing a salesman is helping you to zero in on what kind of amp will best suit your system, acoustic environment, and musical tastes. You might be attracted to the warmth and airiness of a low-powered tube amp, but if your listening tastes run beyond jazz and classical to rock, hip-hop, and other highly processed source material, this type of amp probably won't satisfy you in the long run. And while a high-powered solid-state amp might convey the sonic impact and immediacy you crave—especially in the low end—the lack of subtlety and detail on acoustic music may grow tiresome after a while.

Which is part of what makes the Mesa Baron such a remarkable performer—it's a true musical instrument. I'm not going to undertake a technical analysis, A/B it against other amps, or make outrageous subjective claims for it. There are lots of great tube and solid-state amps out there that I'd be thrilled to own. What I will tell you is that the sound of this dual-mono, all-tube amplifier has made me deliriously happy. Its remarkable level of flexibility and musicality recommend it to economically impaired music lovers for whom high-end performance has always been just out of reach—and possibly even to those of you for whom cost is no object.

When I first auditioned my speakers in tandem with the Mesa Baron, I used Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball (Asylum 61854-2) to impress my wife. Producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois's avant-garde vision of rustic Americana has lots of ambient detail and some outrageous low end, featuring a clear, bottom-heavy portrayal of the toms and bass drum (recorded with ribbon mikes). Well, her eyes were popping out. "The first time you played me these speakers I was feeling the sound in my pelvis, but now I'm experiencing it right in the heart," she marveled. "Well, there you are," I enthused. "The true tube chakra."

Mesa Engineering
1317 Ross Street
Petaluma, CA 94954
(707) 778-9505