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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.
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.
It’s not imperative for me that an audio component be visually flashy or fancy. I still love the clean, classic simplicity of, say, the basic burnished metal faceplate of a vintage Conrad-Johnson or Audio Research model—no knobs or buttons other than a power switch. That said, there’s something about watching the myriad meters of my reference system of McIntosh Laboratory amplification components dancing in a blue glow—my experience of the sound is enhanced by the system’s visual appeal.
In December 2017, I reviewed and then bought Esoteric’s one-box Grandioso K1 SACD/CD player and digital-to-analog converter ($31,000, discontinued; all prices USD). That’s a lifetime ago in the fast-paced world of digital audio, but some things haven’t changed—for one thing, as evinced by the K1’s successor, the Grandioso K1X ($36,000), Esoteric is sticking with the format of 4.75″ shiny silver discs. From the company known for having virtually perfected the SACD/CD transport, that’s no surprise.
Mike Viglas and David Reich founded Classé Audio in 1980. Their first product, the DR-2 class-A power amplifier, quickly gained notoriety for its ability to convincingly drive loudspeakers to unexpectedly high volume levels despite its diminutive power-output specification of 25Wpc. To this day, the success and sound quality of the DR-2 serve as hallmarks for every Classé product since.
In his inimitably matter-of-fact fashion, Magico’s Alon Wolf once told me that “We make loudspeakers, not furniture.” The statement seemed to imply that, for him, form must always follow function. I suspect that the philosophies of most discerning audiophiles are similar. That’s one reason why ultra-high-end systems are often found in dedicated rooms replete with treatments, cable lifters, and fastidious attention paid to ensure that those systems are performing optimally, no matter the imposition. Everything else is subordinated to the pursuit of maximum sound quality.
When I unboxed Vinnie Rossi’s new L2i Signature Edition integrated amplifier-DAC, two things stood out: 1) It’s good-looking and extremely well built. 2) I didn’t see how it could be worth $22,490 (as reviewed, with optional DAC module; all prices USD). It wasn’t until I’d spoken with founder-owner-designer Vinnie Rossi himself that I began to appreciate what I’d been sent. (See my profile of Rossi and his company.)
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.
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.