Legacy link:
This new site was launched in July 2010. Visit the older site to access previous articles by clicking above.

Ultra Audio's site platform was changed in August 2010. For equipment reviews previous to that, use this link to transfer to the old site.

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.”

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.

Reviewers' ChoiceIn 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.

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.

Reviewers' ChoiceMy 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.

Reviewers' ChoiceWhen I heard I’d be reviewing Mola Mola’s Tambaqui DAC, the first thing that came to mind was not its bespoke field-programmable gate array (FPGA) architecture, nor that it was designed in part by class-D amplifier luminary Bruno Putzeys. No, what came to mind was an easily Googleable Facebook post about the Mola Mola, aka the ocean sunfish, that went viral in 2017. The relevant passage of that foul-mouthed screed:

In 2007, Synergistic Research developed a DC-biased, electromagnetic (EM), AC-filtering cell that they claim improves the quality of AC by affecting the movement of electrons through its conductive materials. According to Synergistic, the cell works without current restriction -- the Achilles’ heel of many early power conditioners, and of more than a few still sold today. In fact, Synergistic says, the more AC-powered devices are fed through the cell, the better it works.

I don’t like the idea of meeting my heroes. The athlete likely takes performance-enhancing drugs and womanizes. The inspired yet tortured artist’s genius no doubt springs from a lifetime of trauma, haphazardly managed through substance abuse. And the stunning object -- a car, watch, loudspeaker -- is ultimately only that: an object, a thing, designed and made by beings as imperfect as you and I. The more I obsess about these people and things, the greater the expectation, and ultimately the greater the disappointment.

It’s easy for reviewers to digest a company’s products by starting at the bottom of a manufacturer’s line and working their way up to the top models. You’re initiated into what that company can do at a lower price, and hopefully you see and hear more and better as you ascend their price ladder. It seems to make psychological sense to experience a company’s line this way, and it often works out just as you’d hope: the higher the price, the better the qualities of build, appearance, and sound.

Few spirited e-mail threads are exchanged among the SoundStage! Network’s editorial staff. With so many articles coming out each month that need eyes on them to ensure that they’re squeaky clean for your reading pleasure, I find myself weighing in only when I spot something amiss, or I see a chance to lob a snarky remark at the infallible Jeff Fritz or the Napoleonic Doug Schneider. Recently, however, an objectivist/subjectivist discussion broke out that prominently featured the topic of “bias.” No matter where you are on that continuum, bias is of course unavoidable, and to suggest otherwise would be ignorant.