So you’re on the hunt for an integrated amplifier in the mid- to high four figures. There are many options, and in some ways it would be hard to end up with one that wasn’t at least very good. But you’re a discerning shopper, with a refined taste who can’t be bothered with any of the run-of-the-mill, high-powered, class-AB options littering the audioscape. Class-D amps are out due to their lack of character. Most tubed amps require that the owner bias and occasionally replace the tubes -- and what are you, a mechanic? No, you’d rather be listening. Finally, you go weak in the knees when you see a product proudly emblazoned with “Made in the USA.”
Last month, I wrote “The Best Loudspeaker Brands for Both Luxury and Performance: The Definitive List,” a shortlist of the best luxury and high-performance loudspeakers on the planet. Only four brands made the grade, though I listed two more as conditional entries. I knew I’d raise some hackles -- the extreme exclusivity of that list put off some readers and posters to various online audio forums. But anytime you state that one thing is better than another thing, or that anything is “the best,” you’re going to alienate some people -- and that’s never more true than when discussing high-end audio. I stand by what I wrote.
When you’re sitting in front of the Audio Research Reference 160S stereo amplifier ($22,000 USD), it’s hard not to see the appeal. Its GhostMeters are a brilliant design touch that modernizes the look of a metered power amplifier. So named because their needles appear at the front of an otherwise transparent pane of acrylic graduated in watts, the GhostMeters let the user simultaneously watch the needles dance along with the amp’s power output while peering past the meters to the glow of eight KT150 output tubes. Listening to music over a high-end stereo system can delight more than one sense -- if this sort of visual delight supports your pleasure in listening, then a plain ol’ slab of thick aluminum just won’t do.
Impulse! Records B0032077-01
Musical Performance: *****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
In 2019, Verve Records and Impulse! Records, both now owned by Universal Music Enterprises, reissued titles from their catalogs on LP in a series they called Vital Vinyl. Sales were undoubtedly good, because Universal has now partnered with Acoustic Sounds to release selections from its extensive vault of jazz recordings on vinyl. The Acoustic Sounds releases will include LPs that originally appeared on the Impulse!, Decca, EmArcy, and Philips labels. Recordings from its Blue Note holdings will continue to be reissued in its Blue Note 80 and Tone Poet series, which launched in 2019.
In 1993, Rotel released the first three models in what became their critically acclaimed Michi line of electronics: the RHB-10 power amplifier, the RHC-10 passive controller, and the RHQ-10 equalizer. Rotel claimed that the Michis represented the very best they then had to offer in terms of design, technology, and sound quality. Over the next few years Rotel released five more Michi models, including a smaller power amplifier (RHB-5), an active preamplifier (RHA-10), an FM tuner (RHT-10), and a mammoth CD player (RHCD-10). The Michis were easily identified by their deep-gray cases of heavy-gauge steel, complemented by meticulously finished side panels of Japanese redwood -- but it was the many progressive technologies implemented in each that made them special.
The last several months I’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink on luxury purchases, high-end sound quality, and where they overlap. It began in August 2020, with “The Purchasing of Luxury Audio and the Pursuit of Hi-Fi Are Two Different Hobbies,” in which I examined why people make luxury purchases in general, how this global appetite for luxury goods includes high-end audio, and why an audiophile who seeks only the high-fidelity reproduction of recorded music might be completely removed from such an experience.
My very first hi-fi purchase was a pair of Dynaudio Contour 1.8 Mk.II floorstanding speakers, in 2002. My local dealer had set up a head-to-head with Bowers & Wilkins’s vaunted Nautilus 804, a beautiful loudspeaker that I fully expected to take home a pair of. But something about the boxy Dynaudio spoke to me.
Some 15 years ago, after improving the sound of my two-channel audio system by upgrading all of its cables, I looked into doing the same for my home-theater rig. An obvious place to begin was with the Monster Cable coaxial S/PDIF interconnect that was between my DVD player and A/V receiver. Remember, this was around the time HDMI cables first appeared.
You’d think the Great Pandemic of 2020 would create the perfect conditions for getting some writing done. Well, if you lived in the Thorpe household, you’d be wrong. Back in July, we decided to invite risk, expense, and chaos into our lives and start some major home renovations. We bashed down some walls to make our first floor into one large open-concept space, re-doing the kitchen at the same time. The second-floor bathroom became a full-on gut job, and the basement powder room (a small room with a toilet and sink, in case that euphemism isn’t shared by the rest of the world) also got some love.
Merge Records MRG 730LP
Musical Performance: ***½
Sound Quality: ***½
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
Bob Mould is mad as hell and wants you to know it. In an online interview he describes his new album, Blue Hearts, as “the catchiest batch of protest songs I’ve ever written in one sitting.” Even when he’s contented, as he was on Sunshine Rock (2019), Mould plays exhilaratingly loud and fast rock’n’roll. Add anger to the equation and you get, well, punk rock. On “American Crisis,” the first single from the album, Mould and his band sound more like the Sex Pistols or the Clash than anyone else.
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