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I’ve never been into tweaks. The thought of spending hour after hour replacing the supports of components or speakers with this footer and that, then straining to hear a difference, sounds worse to me than sitting in a bare room watching paint dry. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Heck, it’s been years since I reviewed even a cable. I prefer the meat and potatoes of audio reviewing: amps, speakers, and a source component here and there. The only tweaking I do -- and I don’t really consider it tweaking in the tweakiest audiophile sense -- is to fine-tune the positions of speakers, and micro-optimize the acoustic properties of my listening space, the Music Vault. I’ve found that both can lead to clear improvements in sound.
In February 2014, when I reviewed the David Berning Company’s ZH-230 power amplifier for SoundStage! Ultra, I instantly fell in love with it. Its sound consigned to the scrap heap -- or at least to the closet -- every other amplifier I’d tried in my system. This tubed design eschewed the output transformers used in virtually every other tube amplifier in the world, and which are responsible for lots of sonic problems. Everyone who heard it agreed that the sound was just splendid, and its 30Wpc easily drove my sensitive horn speakers.
In 2003, I asked a representative from Synergistic Research why, unlike many other cable manufacturers, the company didn’t make a power conditioner. The rep stated that, despite Synergistic’s many models of interconnect, speaker cable, and power cord, head designer Ted Denney had yet to discover a power-conditioning technology he thought worth developing. According to the rep, only when Denney had found something that he thought would move the field forward would he put the Synergistic name on it.
Just before he left for college, my son turned me on to a TV show that’s become my new binge-watching passion. Netflix’s Chef’s Table is a visual and gustatory feast, and the first episode introduced me to the culinary talents of Massimo Bottura, chef of the three-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. On the short list of objects in my house that are getting or have gotten better with age are a 1989 bottle of Krug Champagne, my cast-iron frying pan, my wife’s red hair, and a bottle of Manodori -- Bottura’s meticulously crafted, perfectly aged balsamic vinegar. Drizzled over risotto, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, arugula, or fresh-picked berries, Manodori’s complex, multilayered taste is a perfect example of how well certain things in life can age.
Audiophiles can instantly tell the difference between a traditional high-end component and a “lifestyle” product. It’s either one or the other, and until recently, their paths did not intersect. In fact, the death knell for a new product’s credibility in the audiophile community was rung as soon as the word lifestyle appeared anywhere in its vicinity.
What is the true foundation of a seriously good audio system? I’ve heard very knowing people say that speakers set the character of the sound. Others argue that the amplifier is the key, as its power range and operating characteristics might also determine everything else. But, to more than a few, the true heart of any audio system is the preamp. Finally, there are those who insist that it’s source equipment -- the turntable, tonearm, and cartridge, or the digital player and/or DAC -- that determines each of our stereophonic fates. Yet before any of these essential components can contribute anything to the audio chain, it’s the power we get from our wall outlets that drives all else. No matter the quality and prowess of our vaunted audio purchases, saith a happy few, we won’t be able to realize the full capabilities of any of them without clean, reliable electricity.
When the SoundStage! Network’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Fritz, asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a speaker from Audio Physic, I knew little about the German company other than that they’d been around for a while and had produced some highly regarded loudspeakers. I typically review more modestly priced speakers, primarily from North American manufacturers. And while I knew that Audio Physic was well established, I hadn’t known that they’ve been around long enough to have celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2015.
Nearly every audio journalist I know hates to review cables. Aside from their being lazy buggers, there are some good reasons they feel that way: 1) cables sometimes require lengthy break-in, and manufacturers aren’t always helpful about specifying a break-in time; 2) the differences in sound between cables are sometimes minuscule; 3) cables can sound different from a reviewer’s reference cables without sounding better or worse; and 4) cables’ sound may be system-dependent. But occasionally, a set of cables comes along that sounds so different -- and, sometimes, better -- that we find ourselves coaxed into reviewing another set of cables.
“Have fun dancing with the Devil.”
It’s the sort of line a B-movie bad guy would growl. It’s not the sort of sign-off you expect to see at the end of an e-mail from the founder and CEO of a high-end audio manufacturer. Yet Flemming E. Rasmussen, of Gryphon Audio Designs, in Denmark, had written just that in confirmation of my receipt of his company’s Diablo 300 integrated amplifier. If it were any other manufacturer, I’d have rolled my eyes and moved on. But Gryphon’s creations are bold and unusual looking, and I’d waited a long time to review one. I chuckled. Nervously.
Immediately before putting fingers to keypad for this review, I spent a considerable amount of time reviewing Constellation Audio’s Inspiration Preamp 1.0 ($9900 USD). I began that review by touching on the company’s lineage, highlighting a few of the minds responsible for its products, and describing its three product tiers. The Inspiration series comprises Constellation’s least-expensive models, succeeded by the Performance series, and finally their flagship line, the Reference series. But while the Inspiration models are Constellation’s introductory products, they’re by no means budget, stripped-down, bare-bones offerings. In fact, if I had to pick one word to define the Inspirations -- and in particular the subject of this review, the Inspiration Stereo 1.0 amplifier -- it would be value.
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