Who among us hasn’t thought about what matters most in an audio system? The subject often comes up when the total cost of the high-end audio components we’re buying to assemble a system must fit within a certain budget. For example: If you believe that garbage in results in garbage out, then what will most matter to you will be the source component—a turntable, a DAC, a CD player—which means you’ll be willing to spend relatively more on that component. Many audiophiles find that the most significant audible differences among high-end brands tend to be between speaker manufacturers; consequently, those audiophiles are likely to spend the lion’s share of their budgets on getting the best-sounding speakers they can afford. Still others will tell you that the magic resides in the preamplifier—and many of those folks will swear that, all else being equal, what makes the biggest improvement in sound is a tubed preamp. Coming up with an answer to the question of which component matters most, and then acting on that answer, is part of the fun of being an audiophile.
In May 2020, when MSB Technology announced their S202 stereo amplifier ($29,500, all prices USD), I thought it a perfectly sized power amp. I could move its 90 pounds myself, and its dimensions of 16″W x 7″H x 19″D meant that it could fit many places, including the shelf of an average-size, high-end audio rack. Still, I could see, even in the photos, that it was a substantial machine. Its contoured aluminum case and chassis—in this model they’re the same thing—were obviously the results of lots of CNC milling, and inside, its jewel-like parts and layout made clear that the S202 was a lot more than a pair of tiny class-D amps rattling around inside an otherwise empty box.
Blue Note Records B003313501, B003313402
Formats: LP, CD, 24-bit/96kHz FLAC download
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****½
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
Tone Poem is Charles Lloyd’s third outing as leader of the Marvels, the quintet that derives much of its unique sound from the combination of Bill Frisell on guitar and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. Lloyd’s stalwart rhythm section, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers, who have appeared on many of Lloyd’s recordings since the mid-2000s, completes the group.
In 2011, Classé Audio introduced the CP-800 preamplifier-DAC ($6500, all prices USD) to replace the well-received, analog-only CP-700 preamplifier ($8000); both models are now discontinued. In 2013 I reviewed the CP-800, our editorial team named it a Reviewers’ Choice, and I made it my reference preamplifier. The CP-800 remained largely unchanged until late 2016, when it, too, was discontinued.
This is intended as a companion piece to the review of Estelon’s X Diamond Mk II loudspeakers.
Estelon is unusual. The Estonia-based company is unusual for a variety of reasons, actually. Consider the company’s loudspeaker creations, which echo its silhouetted logo, to see what I mean. They’re elegant, feminine, fashion-forward. These are not words that you would ascribe to the far majority of loudspeakers on sale today. The depressing truth is that so many brands in the high end couldn’t market their way out of a khaki factory. One need only attend a regional audio show to see this in action—or maybe inaction? Cultivating a brand, a lifestyle—this requires a variety of skillsets and a dedication to execution, and that’s before you get to the product itself. Too many companies are myopic, with the Field of Dreams-esque “If you build it, he will come” attitude that the sound or performance envelope alone of a product should see consumers clamoring to lay down their hard-earned cash. That’s not how business works. And that’s not how this business works.
To many audiophiles, this one included, luxury loudspeaker maker Estelon has largely been a mystery. What I knew about Estelon before this review—and I follow the upper end of the hi-fi market closely—was entirely superficial: They’re based in Tallinn, Estonia, in northern Europe; before COVID-19, they displayed their wares at Munich’s annual High End show; the shapely forms of their speakers are often described as elegant; and those speakers are not inexpensive.
EmArcy Records/Verve Records MG 36037/B0032412-01
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
Jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown was only 25 when he died in a car accident in 1956, but during the four years he recorded as a leader and sideman he developed a strong following among fans and fellow musicians. His sure tone and melodic inventiveness led critics to compare him with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but his greatest influence was Fats Navarro, who, like Brown, died young. Highlights of Brown’s short recording career include working with jazz drummer Art Blakey and sessions with West Coast jazz players—both as leader and as coleader with saxophonist Lou Donaldson—but he hit his stride in the quintet he cofounded in 1954 with drummer Max Roach.
During the long, grinding lockdown here in Canada, so many have had and still have it way worse than our family. All four of us (including the dog) are healthy, and Marcia and I remain gainfully employed. I thank our lucky stars that we’ve been, so far, unaffected by anything other than boredom and monotony. All I have to gripe about are the first-world problems of the affluent.
A little less than two years ago, I reviewed Audio Research’s Reference 6 preamplifier ($15,000, discontinued; all prices USD). Little more than a day of listening later, I’d decided I wouldn’t be sending my review sample back, and ever since, the Ref 6 has been my reference preamp. Asked to review the Ref 6’s successor, the Reference 6SE ($17,000), my answer was a no-brainer: Yes.
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