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The tubed integrated amplifier is the ne plus ultra of audio. Strong words, those -- fighting words, even. But think it through: The tube integrated is the Platonic ideal of amplification. It’s one box that performs all the required, necessary tasks -- and nothing more.
While it’s true that technology stands still for no man, it seems that every pimply, shining-morning-faced schoolboy with a MacBook seems to think you need to add a DAC to every bloody component in order for it to do anything actually useful. While buying a DAC-in-the-amp might be reasonable if you plan to upgrade next year, I’m firmly against locking today’s computing technology into a product you might want to use for a few years, and doubly against it when considering an audio component of reference quality (and high price). Digital technology changes so rapidly that it just doesn’t make sense to incorporate it into an expensive amp or preamp that you might actually want to keep.
Triangle Manufacture Electroacoustique, of France, has been making loudspeakers for over 30 years. Although the company doesn’t enjoy the footprint in North America that would give them the broad name recognition of a Paradigm or a Bowers & Wilkins, they are one of the larger speaker manufacturers in Europe. Boasting their own anechoic chamber -- something possessed by only a very few speaker makers -- and designing and manufacturing their own drive-units, Triangle has impressive technical capabilities that must be the envy of many companies.
Today, Triangle has six loudspeaker lines with models ranging in price from hundreds of dollars (their Color models) to many thousands, for the flagship Magellans. Clearly, Triangle wants to serve a diverse market by covering as many different price points as they can manage. Wanting to experience the best of what Triangle offers, but also wanting a speaker whose size and cost were still approachable by many serious audiophiles, I chose the smallest Magellan floorstander: the Cello, which retails for $12,000 USD per pair.
Audience’s top cables comprise its Au24 line. The second generation, the Au24 e cables, appeared several years ago, and were reviewed by Vade Forrester in February 2009.
The third generation, the new Au24 SEs, debuted last year. Besides cables, Audience also manufactures power conditioners, crossoverless loudspeakers with very clever 3” full-range drivers, and a surface treatment for optical discs. If you were to ask Audience how they characterize themselves, they’d probably say that they’re a company of audiophiles and engineers.
Over the past six years, I’ve noticed that a few elite audio manufacturers have been incorporating, into their newest phono preamps, other equalization curves in addition to the standard one established in the 1950s by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These ultra-choice tubed and tube/solid-state models range from the Audio Research Reference 2 ($12,000 USD) and Allnic H-3000V ($13,900) up to the Zanden 1200 Mk.3 ($25,000) -- mighty tall cotton for the average audiophile. But there’s good news. Zanden has now developed a solid-state phono stage that’s relatively affordable -- the 120, launched at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, lists for $7500.
You can say many things about the Grimm Audio LS1, but not that it is ordinary. What is the Grimm LS1? The easy but incorrect answer is to simply say that it is a loudspeaker. Actually, it’s an all-but-complete audio system that includes analog and digital interfaces, digital crossovers, amplifiers, and speakers. To play music, the only other thing you need is a source component.
The design of many of today’s speakers is dictated by how they will appear -- including whether or not they look like “high-end” components. However, the LS1 was mainly designed by Bruno Putzeys, the man behind the Hypex and Mola-Mola brands -- someone with a solid technical background who seems able to balance the various priorities of loudspeaker design. Nothing in the LS1 seems to have been left to chance, or dictated by anything but solid engineering.
Most speakers today have a narrow front profile and considerable depth, but the Grimm LS1 ($29,900 USD per pair) is tall, wide, and shallow: 45”H x 20.3”W x 6.25”D. Included in that height are the speaker’s two legs, which house the DSP crossovers and amplifiers. The cabinet is available in veneers of Light or Dark Bamboo, or in Corian. A separate, optional bass unit, the LS1s, goes on the floor between the legs. The result is a very efficient construction that I think is quite beautiful.
In our modern world, we constantly see established brands extending their product offerings to increase market share and, thus, profitability. Mercedes and BMW targeted larger pools of buyers by attempting to distill their marques’ luxury pedigrees into, respectively, the A-Class and 1 Series. Toyota went upmarket with Lexus, and even Ferrari has occasionally upped the ante with limited editions of such statement cars as the F40, the Enzo, and LaFerrari. The pattern is repeated again and again in various consumer industries and product lines, and the high-performance audio industry is no exception. Speaker manufacturers do it all the time (e.g., Vandersteen’s progression upward over 30-plus years from the 2 to the 3 to the 5, then the Seven and, soon, the Nine). Similarly, we have followed closely when technology leaders like dCS push ever higher, from their Elgar through Scarlatti lines to, now, the Vivaldi models.
Over the past few years, Bob Clarke of Profundo has hosted me for some impressive and pleasurable demos, both at audio shows and at his new home in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin. The systems he sets up usually include analog chains and these always feature cartridges made by Transfiguration, a small Japanese firm specializing in low- to medium-output moving-coil transducers. Last spring, during a listening session in Round Rock, as we enjoyed an Ella Fitzgerald LP of tunes made famous by bebop genius Charlie Parker, I mentioned, as casually as I could, that I was curious about Transfiguration.
Clarke said he’d just received the first production units of the Phoenix S cartridge ($4250 USD), a new redesign of the Phoenix that he thought was a significant improvement over the Phoenix Mk.II ($2750, discontinued). He believed the Phoenix S had more musically relevant resolution, was more open and extended on top, and sounded smoother and more free of grain.
How much should you spend these days on a digital-to-analog converter? It’s a loaded question. The knee-jerk audiophile answer is “How much do you want to spend?” -- as if that’s really going to tell the consumer what they need to know. Shouldn’t the answer also be “What level of sound quality are you seeking?” and “What system components do you have now?”?
In the last few years, my idea of what is an acceptable amount to pay for a DAC has changed. I think the most anyone should ever need to spend is about $15,000 USD, maybe a smidge higher. For that you can get a state-of-the-art DAC from, say, Ed Meitner -- or Berkeley Audio Design’s new flagship, the Reference. Unless your ultimate goal is bragging rights, I don’t see any reason to spend the $30k, $40k, $50k, or even more that some companies are charging.
In my youth, in audio’s dark ages, when LPs were the primary format for recorded music, a preamplifier was a single box housing a line stage and a phono stage. Today, however, preamplifier is often used as a synonym for line stage. If you’re a vinyl fan, there’s a good chance your phono stage is a separate component with its own power supply -- a phono preamplifier. That makes economic sense; despite the resurgence of interest in vinyl, many of today’s audio systems have only digital sources, and the surge of interest in computer audio will probably only increase the popularity of all-digital systems.
The floorstanding Magico S3 costs $22,600 USD per pair and measures 48”H x 12”W x 12”D, a small footprint that makes positioning them considerably easier and more rewarding, particularly in rooms not dedicated to listening. The speaker’s effective width is increased to 16” with handsome outrigger stands that, when set properly, couple the speakers to the earth’s continental shelf. Despite its modest size, each S3 weighs 150 pounds -- like all current Magico speakers, its cabinet is made of aluminum well damped to suppress any ringing. The S3 is also the largest of Magico’s S models to have a monocoque chassis, which is claimed to provide greater stiffness than the multi-piece construction of, say, the S5.
The S3’s fit and finish in one of Magico’s six basic M-Cast finishes (Black, Pewter, Silver, Rose, Bronze, Blue) is beyond reproach. For a modest upcharge, you can get the S3 in a painted, M-Coat finish. Like other Magico speakers, the S3 is made almost entirely in house. No off-the-shelf drivers for these guys; the S3 has the same beryllium tweeter and Nano-Tec midrange driver found in the S5 ($29,400/pr.), along with a pair of newly developed 8” woofers instead of the 10” model used in the S5. While I greatly admire inventors who first must invent something else in order to realize their true inventions, I sometimes wonder if it’s actually necessary, or merely marketing fluff to justify a designer’s OCD. In the case of Magico’s Nano-Tec drivers, it seems to have been necessary. Here’s why.
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