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Over the past ten years or so, I’ve listened to quite a few Esoteric products: the DV-50, DV-60, and X-01 D2 disc players, the MG-20 speakers, and the P-03 transport and D-03 DAC, with G-0S clock. Almost every time, I came away feeling respect but not love for the gear, and never lust. These components could extract information in a way that was crystalline and competent, but that after a while I found annoying as hell. Esoteric’s house sound reminded me of early iterations of ceramic drivers: tremendous clarity, but without that breath of life that connects me to the music I love. And music, always and everywhere, should move you: it should excite, enflame, dazzle, and astound. Needless to say, I never bought an Esoteric component, always opting for more romantic-sounding, usually tubed gear, whose colorations helped offset the inherent flaws of the Compact Disc, rather than ruthlessly expose them as Esoteric gear does.
Or, I should say, did.
Just over a decade ago, loudspeaker manufacturer Vivid Audio sprang up in a most unusual place -- not the Shire of Middle Earth, but Durban of South Africa. Such a curious location would not be terribly surprising if assembling MDF boxes, OEM drivers, and crossover kits were what the new company had in mind -- a woodshop can be located almost anywhere. But Vivid’s raison d’être is diametrically opposed to such a conventional approach. Vivid’s principals set as their goal nothing less than world-class sound. Willing to test previously uncharted waters, company founder Philip Guttentag and close friend and ex-Bowers & Wilkins president Robert Trunz called on Laurence Dickie, the creative genius behind B&W’s Matrix-enclosure innovations and groundbreaking Nautilus superspeaker, to bring to bear his driver designs and enclosure acumen.
Vivid launched themselves in July 2004 with the Oval line of B1, K1, and C1 models, but it was a few years before their efforts percolated into the consciousness of the world of high-performance audio. Yet when Vivid broke through the din of “me-too” competence, they did so globally. SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider, always on the lookout for original thinking and outstanding sound, admits to having initially passed by the Oval B1 ($15,000 USD per pair) -- the keystone of Vivid’s original line of speakers -- thinking it a mere novelty. After learning of Dickie’s key role, of the pedigrees of Vivid’s principals, and the seriousness of their efforts, Doug deemed a second look warranted. He found the B1 revelatory, concluding that “there isn’t a speaker costing less that I like more . . . . [Y]ou can consider me a fool for having overlooked Vivid Audio and the B1 for so long, based on mere assumptions.”
I was originally slated to review PBN Audio’s InnerChoice Lucy minimonitor, and was very much looking forward to it, given my relatively recent interest in higher-quality stand-mounted monitors. I was also looking forward to hearing the Lucys because they would give me a glimpse -- albeit a small one -- into the mind of Peter B. Noerbaek (hence PBN), who has designed some very highly regarded speakers and electronics. Did you know that PBN even offers turntables? Me neither, until I perused their website. In fact, Noerbaek e-mailed me a photo of a $100,000 ’table he’d just sent to a customer in New York. It was a stunner. Anyway, due to other production demands, it was going to take a while to get me a pair of Lucys, so PBN asked if I’d be interested in reviewing one of their latest design projects instead.
The Scan-Speak B741 is a fairly good-sized, three-way floorstander incorporating some very high-end components. Twist my arm -- an even bigger glimpse into the mind of PBN. Maybe we’ll see ya later, Lucy.
I’ve long been a fan of preamplifiers from Blue Circle Audio. From their early, surprisingly affordable, tube-driven models to the hybrid and solid-state preamps available today, Blue Circle has provided something for everyone. The sounds of their preamps have never been etched, or so overburdened with detail that you could hear a fly crawling on the recording-studio wall. Nor did they sound too tubey. Blue Circle preamps have always served the music, and the upgrade program instituted by founder-designer Gilbert Yeung has made it possible to begin relatively inexpensively, then upgrade to exceedingly good sound.
One of the questions readers often ask is how I choose what to review. My answers vary: What’s new that readers might be interested in? What products are creating buzz in the audiophile community? What looks promising in terms of sound? Over the years, I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on what products will ultimately lead to reviews -- positive or negative or somewhere in between -- that lots of folks will want to read, and that knowledge informs my decisions. A Dynaudio speaker is always a good bet for review, and the reasons are as clear as day.
Some companies can be counted on, and Dynaudio is one of them. This Danish manufacturer produces high-performing loudspeakers in a wide range of prices, and has a devoted following built up through years of success. From examining acoustical measurements, both our own and those of other magazines, I know that Dynaudio speakers are technically excellent, as they should be -- the company is one of the few speaker manufacturers to have its own anechoic chamber. They also make all their own drivers. Also, I’ve rarely heard a Dynaudio speaker, at an audio show or elsewhere, sound anything less than very good, and more often than not it sounds better than that. All of this is to say that I felt that Dynaudio’s Confidence C2 Signature ($15,000 USD per pair) would be a good candidate for a review: something that would be likely to perform well, and that readers would thus be interested in.
Pass Labs amplifiers have inspired more than a few moments of lust in the hearts of veteran audiophiles. Big, beautiful, powerful, and expensive, their sound, according to some, has advanced the state of the art. But audiophiles may not know about designer Nelson Pass’s second company, First Watt, which produces a line of electronics smaller, cheaper, but possibly even more innovative than the mighty Pass Labs models. The First Watt amps give Nelson Pass an opportunity to try new circuit-design technology on a limited scale. The first FW products were unusual amplifiers designed to work well with single-cone drivers such as the legendary Lowthers, but over the years the line has been expanded to include preamps and crossovers.
Illusion is the first of all pleasures.
-- Oscar Wilde
Reference. The word has been trotted out and flounced so shamelessly by so many audio manufacturers and appended to the names of so many products that, as with cat dander and country music, I’ve managed to build up an immunity to it. However, with the right associations the word still carries impact -- as, for instance, when an industry name as well respected as Simaudio produces an “R”-word product like the Moon Evolution 810LP dual-mono reference phono preamplifier, which the manufacturer describes as “an all-out assault on phono preamplification” engineered and built without consideration of cost. As you might expect, the 810LP is a serious piece of kit in terms of engineering, build quality, and, alas, price. At $12,000 USD, it’s not for the faint of heart or wallet, though by high-end standards $12k is by no means stratospheric. Still, I shy away from calling it a “bargain.”
Boulder has been making amplifiers since 1984, and the model 1060 stereo amplifier, the subject of this review, has been in continuous production since 1999 -- in stark contrast to the upgrade cycle of three to four years that some manufacturers have made part of their business strategy. While the name Boulder comes from the company’s site of operations, in Colorado, I think most folks would assume it reflects their products’ weight -- the 1060 closes in on 140 pounds (with no handles to assist in positioning it . . . ugh!).
The high-end audio industry is a niche market; always has been, and I suspect it always will be. Annual production runs for kilobuck CD players can be measured in dozens of units, in stark contrast to the thousands or tens of thousands made by a Sony or a Bose. But those industry monsters have marketing departments and distribution systems that span the globe. Contrast that with high-end audio, where many products are the results of efforts by a single driven person.
Last fall, I was talking to Gilbert Yeung, Blue Circle Audio’s founder and chief designer, about an amplifier he was working on. He felt it was something special. He told me he’d soon be in my area, and asked if I’d like to hear it.
Yeung came by with an unnamed prototype. When he told me that it generated only 18-20Wpc, I told him I didn’t believe it, and that even if it were true, I didn’t want to damage the amp by overdriving it. He invited me to give it my best shot. I smirked and thought, So be it.
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