I am an electrical and mechanical engineer who's been in this hobby for 26 years now. Our system is entirely dedicated to our love of music and we listen critically every day. Our 1500 CDs and SACDs, and countless digital files comprise just about every type of music you can think of. We also use Tidal streaming extensively these days. I believe that achieving highest quality sound is primarily dependent on setup execution, and not on component cost.
The Nanos are extremely efficient, making concerns about amplifier power irrelevant, and, most importantly, guarantees that nothing is ever lost in translation. Their resolution is so clear, so musical, and so right, that music entrances me for hours on end. Now that I've experienced their sound of life, I don't think I could ever go back to conventional speakers.
I own a wide variety of amplifiers because the Nanos allow each one's personality to shine through, and getting to know them in otherwise the same system (speaker/room/human) is great fun and highly instructive. It has given me the opportunity to expertly hone my hearing and to delight in a new sound experience every month or so when I change amps. There is no one best amplifier anyway; just like there isn't one best musician.
I find that high value is an elegant guide to attaining my desired result. I also feel that a huge amount of experimentation is needed to establish a true reference point. Here is a list of past equipment I've had in my little music room that has led me to what I have today:
Lavardin IS Reference BPT BP-1 Signature Plus Devialet Expert 120
Nordost El Dorado Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck
Nottingham Ace Space tonearm
Dynavector Karat 19A mk2
Audio Research SP6-C1
Threshold S/150 mk2
Acoustic Research XA
Finale Audio 2A3M-FFX McIntosh MX110Z
LTA Berning ZOTL10
Triode Labs 2A3 SET
Wyred 4 Sound STP-SE
Audio Research LS26
Primare Systems A30.1
Kora Eclipse B/C
Triode Labs 2A3S
Rogue Stereo 90 with 6550
Ayre C5xe mp
Finale Audio F168R 6BM8 Transcendent Mini Beast OTL Pass Labs XA30.5 Conrad-Johnson Classic I McIntosh MC452 BC Acoustique A3 Atoll IN-100 Wright Sound WLA12A Tom Evans Linear A Classe Delta CA-2200 Plinius SA-50 Mk3
McIntosh C46 McIntosh MC122 Audio Aero Prima Mk2 Unison S2K Cairn Fog v3 Kora Titan monoblocks Cairn Fog v2 Ayre AX-7e Kora Eclipse version A Kora Galaxy Reference (x2) Cairn KO2 Pass Labs Aleph 30 McIntosh C42 Kora Eclipse version C WAVAC MD-300B Kora Eclipse version B 47 Labs Shigaraki 4717 Focal JM Lab Electra 926 Reference 3A MM DeCapo i MIT AVt 1 non-biwire Monitor Audio RS1 Innersound i-Pre Zu Birth McIntosh MC202 KEF iQ10 NAD C720BEE van den Hul Orchid XLR Rega Apollo NBS M/S II MIT MI330S3 RCAs Sony SCD-C333ES Cayin CD-50T QED Silver Anniversary XT Gutwire Basic 2 Van den Hul First Ultimate mk2 QED Qunex 1 Cary SLP-98 Triangle Antal ESw Kimber Select KS1121 B&W Nautilus 804 MIT T2 biwires Rogue Audio Magnum 99 Kimber Kable 8TC Belles GR8 passive Energy Connoisseur C8 Monitor Audio Silver RS6 MIT AVT2 biwire Primare CD31 MIT Shotgun S3 Sony SCD-XA777ES Pro-Ject RM 6 SB, Blue Point #2 McIntosh MC7100 Cambridge Audio 640C Audio Research LS3b Classe CP50 (x2) Epos ELS3 California Audio Labs Icon MkII Omega Loudspeakers TS1 Music Hall CD25 McIntosh C712 (x2) Sony ST-550ES McIntosh MA6500 Consonance CD2.2 Guerrilla Hyper DH Labs Q10 McIntosh MC2125 Jolida 302b Conrad Johnson PV10a Marantz SA-8260 Odyssey Stratos Arcam CD72 Sony SCD-CE595 McIntosh MC7200 (x2) Classe DR10 Paradigm Reference 100.2 Elac 101 Triangle Comete ES Classe CA200 Nordost Flatline Mk2 Nordost Solar Winds Kimber KCAG Atlas All Cu Navigator van den Hul Orchid RCA Bryston 4B Adcom GFA-545 mk2 BAT VK-3i Jolida JD100 Yamaha TT-400U Krell KSA100 Krell KAV250 Conrad Johnson MV55 Kora Explorer 90SI Granite 657 Jolida 1701A Totem Acoustic Hawks 3A Master Control Kora Explorer 150SB Myryad Z140 Klipsch Heresys van den Hul The Second van den Hul D352 van den Hul Mainsstream NAD C740 Rotel RCD-1072 Signal Classic cables
German ultra-high-efficiency speaker with full dynamic range. The active-design approach and ideal sensitivity maximize dynamic headroom in the most natural and logical way possible. The result is music is never lost in translation. It's the most incredible sound I've ever heard from a speaker. So alive and so clear! They make most other speakers sound like "cones-in-a-box" by comparison. Having the lowest possible distortion allows the personalities of each amp to shine through like no other speakers in my experience. Avantgarde manufactures everything either in-house or locally for their speakers. This has become a rare thing these days, but it's critical when making top-level equipment since it allows them to fully optimize every component, as well as the sum total. And not only that - they offer impeccable customer service too. Their entire business model achieves the goal of combining precision engineering with a wholistic understanding of gestalt and purpose. The end result is priceless.
Velodyne DD-15 subwoofer
Finally got a subwoofer. Ever since I'd left my little room at my old house, I'd noticed my bass wasn't as fleshed out or as deep since I now have insignificant room reinforcement. But the Nanos were good enough that I was able to overlook it until the right deal fell from the sky. And now it has. Bought a Velodyne Direct Digital 15" with a 1250W switching amplifier and man what a difference it has made! Everything is better, all the way up to the treble. It is a terrific addition. The Nanos have two "subwoofers" already but the speakers are designed to sound "of a piece" rather than "two horns with a sub." This is to preserve the speed needed to have a smooth midrange transition. So now the DD15 does the heavy lifting and its graphical interface for optimization of the sub is brilliant. My response is perfectly integrated, and it sounds like it.
Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe preamplifier
TEAD's preamp, considered to be the world's best by a couple 6moons reviewers. All I can say is that after going through 16 preamps, the Vibe is the only solid-state piece I've fallen in love with. The TEAD Lithos regulators allow for huge bandwidth and huge dynamic range that yield equally superlative sound. It's an amazing design that only Tom Evans seems able to come up with in a simple and elegant way. Mega-detailed, mega-transparent, and mega-musical. It's so good that it sounds completely different with each amplifier I hook up to it. I've never had a preamp like this before.
Tom Evans Audio Design Pulse power supply
Optional power supply for the TEAD Vibe preamp. One box houses Lithos regulators and capacitor banks while the other box houses a custom-made 70VA transformer that Tom and his team designed for this preamp. I've opened it up and was surprised to see so many parts in both boxes! Very very complex for what is badged as a "simple" power supply. It's no wonder it costs so much. I also think it looks much nicer than the new Pulse 2 supply.
Kora Electronics Crescendo tube preamplifier
French-made, fully-balanced, single-gain-stage vacuum tube preamplifier. It was designed for use with Aries monoblocks, and what a wonderful combo they are, but this preamplifier is unbelievably good with all my amps, whether run balanced or single-ended (a rarity). The Vibe is killer solid state, but there is something very special about the sound of this preamp. It balances extreme clarity and resolution with a friendliness and sophistication that is unique in my experience. It's such a shame that so few people will ever get to know this design. This is the second one I've owned - I kicked myself for years for selling my first one, and I thank my lucky stars I found another! Current tubes: pair of 1957 Raytheon black plate 12BH7
Kora Electronics Aries hybrid monoblocks
Totally unique French design using a 12BH7 to feed 2 HEXFETs in single-ended parallel. On paper, it looks like it'd never work, but in fact these little amps sound magical. What is special about these amps is their wonderful coherence and the accuracy of their timing. They have an ease about them and yet the treble information is all there. Jazz suits them perfectly. I call it "Kora Coherence" because all the Koras exhibit this trait no matter how different the design - and Kora has made quite a range of designs, unlike 95% of hifi companies. They were true hifi artisans and these little monoblocks make that imminently clear. Current tubes: 1960 GE gray plate 12BH7A.
After a bad experience with the MC452, I decided to give McIntosh one last chance. It is hard for me to get by without blue eyes after all these years, and I will forever remember the sound of my MC7200. I came to the conclusion that the phase irregularities of the 452 might be due to the fact the circuit is optimized for a power level above what my speakers require. After all, it's very hard to perfectly balance so many transistors, especially at low-power outputs.
It turns out that reducing the transistor count by 75% does the trick! The 152 is by far the finest solid-state amp I've had in my system. It's incredible. It's smooth and rich, yet fast and delicate. It's really rare to find an amp that can combine such clear resolution with enveloping musicality, but this one does it better than any I've experienced so far. The 7200 has been resurrected - and this time with autoformers! I'm in love with this little amp.
Unison Research S2 SEP
Italian single-ended pentode amp using EL34 tubes. I recently recapped the entire thing with upgraded capacitors, and optimized the operating point for even better performance. It basically runs as a "mostly-triode" amplifier with lower plate current. The sound has gotten even more musical, without hurting resolution whatsoever, and as a bonus my tubes will last much longer. Downside is that now it only makes about 4W (instead of 10), but my speakers don't care.
This amp loves to boogie! Tons of fun to listen to and get this - it has the most potent bass of any of my amps! It can shake the walls if the recording has enough extension. It often feels like my favorite amp since it is unfailingly musical with terrific detail and a deliciously smooth presentation. It's similar to the F138FFX but with an even bigger soundstage and more nuanced image separation. I want to point out too that it has foil-wound output transformers - the cheap transformers in the new versions of this amp don't even come close to this level of quality. Current tubes: Psvane 6CA7 TII, NOS Philips 6189W.
Rogue Audio Model 88 amplifier
I recently stumbled upon this most incredible amplifier. It is actually a Tempest integrated but I'm running it in "preamp bypass" mode so it acts like a regular amplifier (Stereo 88 version 4) since the preamp is passive. It sounds phenomenal with my solid-state TEAD Vibe preamp (it doesn't really get along with the Crescendo for some reason).
It clearly sounds best in triode mode, 30 Wpc, and I'm currently using my preferred EH KT88 in it, and 8 Ohm taps. My comments relate only to this arrangement. The pentode mode lacks microdynamics, and the treble is crude in comparison. It's a completely different amp in triode.
Simply put, this is the only amp that truly rivals the 152. Resolution is as good, though restitution is not, but then dynamics are surprisingly similar, and it makes everything sound so alive! Not the finest in soundstaging, but everything else is superb. One of the cheapest amps I've ever owned, and yet in terms of "hifi," it's nearly the best. What a find!
PS, I tried a Rogue Stereo 90 just to see, and even after I had optimized the circuit and run in a new set of tubes, it just didn't have the magic of the 88. It runs the tubes too hard and everything falls on its face in the vain attempt of making it barely more powerful. The 88 is way better.
McIntosh MC240 push-pull amp
The classic 1961 MC240 needs no introduction. After 50 years of use, it naturally needed a complete overhaul so I spent two solid weeks rebuilding it to perfection by replacing all the capacitors, diodes, rectifiers and bias resistors with proper parts, and tweaking all the voltages to exactly match specification. It is no surprise this amplifier is a legend when you hear it play music. It's warm and relaxed with tremendous inner detail. Full tube sound at its finest. Current tubes: quad of TAD 6L6GC-STR, pair of GE gray 12BH7s, pair of clear-top RCA 12AU7s, trio of Electro-Harmonix 12AX7s
Finale Audio F138 FFX
This amp uses one EL84 per channel in pentode mode with tube rectification, pure Class A. I have optimized its design for my speakers to get unbelievable performance gains over the stock design. In this new configuration, it only puts out about 3W (instead of 6) but sounds like 500W - its bass can shake the walls! It sounds the way I'd hoped my McIntosh MC452 would have sounded.
I got a full suite of fancy Hashimoto magnetics because the heart of a tube amp is its transformers. It's so coherent, so rich, so detailed, so musical - it really has zero drawbacks now that I've modified it. Forget SET - SEP is where it's at. It doesn't quite have the resolution of the Tempest/88 or 152, but it has wonderful musicality similar to the S2 that's augmented by the clean treble extension the EL84 is famous for.
Currently using: 6P14P-EV, EH 12AX7, 1969 Mullard Blackburn GZ34 rectifier.
Electrocompaniet AW60 FTT
Giving solid-state another try, this time a 60W amp from Norway. It is very revealing and exposes the different recording styles in a very clear way. The highs aren't quite as nuanced as my tube amps, but for solid-state, it has a very impressive soundstage and liquid midrange that isn't easy to find at any price. It's no wonder their flagship models are so revered - these designers really know what they are doing.
McIntosh MCD301 sacd player
The CD player that has it all: body, dynamics, tone, subtlety, extension, potent bass, natural midrange and airy highs. It allows the performance of the music being played to come alive like no other sources I've heard, whether vinyl or CD based. It has psychedelic imaging and a walk-in soundstage that I still can't believe to this day. I recently A/B tested it against an Ayre C5xemp and it was no contest. I don't understand why the C5xe is so loved by reviewers because in my system it sounds constricted and small in comparison to my 301.
Audioengine D2 wireless DAC
This is the way to stream music!! Great DAC, great signal strength, and way-better sound than the Airport Express. I cannot believe how good this thing sounds for only $600. There is nothing out there with this amount of simplicity and ease of use for the money. I feel this product is highly underrated based on its features/abilities and it's superlative sound. I feel lucky to have come across it!
DIY tube amp for iPhone/Macbook using 6N6P
A lot of people feel the aural inadequacies of music files are because of inferior DACs. This, in fact, isn't the big problem. Even expensive DACs are actually cheap parts. The big problem is a weak power supply in the device that makes the sound anemic. Making high-current drive is big, bulky and expensive - 3 things that are not conducive to MP3 players. So I took advantage of knowing this to improve the sound of my Audioengine D2. I designed a tube output stage for it based on the rare (i.e., cheap) Russian 6N6P, as a cathode-follower buffer. This circuit makes it a transconductance amplifier which does nothing to the voltage (it's already sufficient) but boosts current drive a huge amount to correct this characteristic inadequacy. It took a good bit of tweaking to get the most of the design but the outcome is shocking. The amount of microdynamic detail and decay of the notes that was 'restored,' or whatever, is really amazing. Downloaded music files have gone from terrible to sublime. It's made a believer out of me and my friends (for whom I've had to build similar ones :).
Piega P-4L mkII ribbon speakers
Fantastic Swiss speakers that have an aluminum cabinet. Effortless sound and shockingly powerful bass from such a small tower, which makes it perfect for TV room use. It's very hard to beat a ribbon tweeter when it comes to articulate highs. These little speakers revolutionized the TV watching experience. I've placed them near the back wall so the bass is just right - I've had people ask where the subwoofer is, but there isn't one!
Emotiva Stealth DC-1 DAC preamp
Really slick design with analog input and fully-balanced circuitry to match the Cairn KO2. I use its built-in DAC for iTunes, Bluray, and DirectTV. Warm and inviting sound that is clear and composed. Hope to score a Cairn Nitro with DAC board eventually to replace it.
Cairn KO2 Class A/AB solid-state amp
French-made fully-balanced solid-state amp that now drives the Piegas in the TV room. Super powerful, fantastic build quality, terrific soundstaging, a bargain on the used market, can be switched between Class A and AB (10W versus 100W), and has an "auto-on" feature that is super handy for the TV room.
I.C.E. Model 473-3 AC line filter
CM and DM noise filter. None of the audiophile frills and hooplah - this is electrical engineering at its finest. It filters out a massive bandwidth and cannot restrict current flow. $4,000 performance for $80. Everyone should have one of these. I have one feeding each system.
MIT Z-strip with circuit breakers
8 outlets with single-cap parallel filtering and circuit breaker protection. I really have this for the circuit breaker as the filtering is minimal compared to the ICE.
van den Hul, Blue Circle, and MIT power cords
A variety, each with a job and purpose. I particularly love the BC power cords and want to get more of them.
van den Hul and Cardas interconnects
AJ van den Hul and George Cardas are the cable wizards of the world, in my opinion. They truly understand what they are doing.
Cardas speaker cables
It's really hard to beat George's cables, but eventually I want to get van den Hul speaker cables - if I can ever figure out which one to get!
DIY rubber eraser cable lifters
Found these very-soft erasers at a craft store for $2 each. One thing is for sure about their performance - I can't feel the vibration on the cables with my hand anymore!
Dedicated power circuit with hospital outlets
it makes a difference...
VTI BL503 and BL404 audio racks
My audio racks, super nice for the money. They are the best deal going, hands down. I got the silver poles, silver caps and black shelves. Price is for both racks.
The demo list is mostly chronological and that helps me go back and remember what I had, and what I compared them to. It's definitely crazy to go through so much stuff, but it's the best way to develop a "ground" reference. All circuits have to have a ground to know what exact voltages they have, and humans are no different, even though few realize it.
Not too many horn choices around. Two of my audio buddies bought Avantgardes after hearing mine. They couldn't listen to their old systems anymore! They are remarkable, especially considering their design is far from textbook ideal. But when it comes to making music, I haven't heard anything that comes close.
I too have modded all of my amps, except for the MC152. It's amazing how much impact capacitors have, isn't it!?! Totally underestimated even by most engineers. I haven't tried the Duelunds mostly because I don't think they would fit in any of them lol, but a buddy of mine has and he loves them, as well as the Obbligatos.
I have been tempted by a Tubadour before. I keep feeling like I can better my little CXNv2, but then when I sit down and listen to my system, I don't want to change a single thing.
I love it! Your philosophy is so wonderfully correct. And your opinions are informed by so much critical listening and equipment comparisons, what a wealth of knowledge.
I am considering a move to horns for exactly the reasons you posted about and find your approach inspiring.
P.S. Would be really great if you could alphabetize your enormous demoed equipment list by manufacturer so people can scan through rapidly and check to see if you'd heard a particular piece of gear. Super impressive!
They are manufactured by Boltz. I have two of their CD racks, MM-160, that hold about 220 CDs each. They are very sturdy. For my use, they have only one drawback: if CDs fall to one side they will fall out of the rack completely. The racks comprises just side panels and rods with the CDs standing vertically on two rods and backed by a single rod.
The MM-160s sell for about $200 each. I'm not using mine at the present because I added built-in shelves a while ago.
Ah yes, Kora. The wonder that was. Luckily pieces of them still live on throughout the world, and I do my best to keep them going. In fact, I'm going to be repairing and rebiasing a pair of Cosmos soon, and I just finished recapping and retubing a Galaxy Reference.
When they are just right, they are incredible amplifiers. The thing that gets me, now that I've owned or heard pretty much every model they've ever made, is that they came up with new and unique designs that no one else does...! And yet they all sound equally fantastic in different ways. Those guys understood the black magic that is recreating great sound. Most designers just build something and hope it sounds good when they are done, but Cyril and François knew it would sound great as they designed it. The advantage of this savoir faire is clear in all their amps' performances.
The Galaxy Reference that I just finished sounds 'absolutely glorious.' Those are the perfect two words to describe its sound. It has a gigantic soundstage in which musicians are recreated with a certain joie de vivre that is always witnessed live, but rarely revived from a recording. Its music is majestic and subtle at the same time, and has a way of finding new background melodies that were not even noticeable with many other amps. Big power triodes at their finest is a glorious thing.
I saw your Tranfomatic but not familiar with them. My experience with 300B has been sub-optimal thus far. The WAVAC 300B sounded mushy and dark even though all the circuit voltages and tubes were fine. Then I have a pair of Finale Audio 2A3FFX monoblocks in for repair right now that are going to need a complete redesign of the driver stage for them to sound right. I hope to get them singing as I know they can be awesome.
Arthur, I still remember and enjoyed the sound of the Kora stereo amp that my friend loaned to me. If they were not a danger to deal with and hard on tubes, I would consider owning them. What a shame they went away. I do enjoy my 300B amp from Trafomatic out of Serbia and the new Sofia blue tubes.....
I have tried and tested a few components lately. The biggest stand-out has been a 1982 Audio Research SP6, version C1, that I repaired for a friend. It needed some new caps and tubes, but man oh man is it wonderful. Its extremely musical presentation is imbued with fun, and never gets old. It worked equally well with a variety of amplifiers. The only downside is that it has too much gain, especially in my system, but perhaps that is part of the reason it sounds so good...don't know. Either way it's a tour-de-force, especially considering the LS3b has the dubious honor of being the worst preamp I've ever tried, and the LS26 sounded tubby and hollow by comparison. It makes me want to try more vintage ARC preamps to see what they can do.
Hi Cio52, thank you for your compliments. I have not tried a C45, but I've had a C42, a C46, and a C48, so I have a pretty good idea what the C45 is like already.
Your system looks great! I have a friend who had Harbeths and I loved them. I think he regrets having sold them.
I would suggest you try an MC152. It has mightily impressed me! It is definitely better than my MC452 was, at least with my speakers. And it can actually put out 250W. In general I've found that fewer transistors results in better sound.
You have a wonderful system, great comments, and a vast willingness to try new gear. Very impressive. You've had some solid state preamps in your system and I would suggest you try a McIntosh C45. The C45 is all analog 5.1 balanced and single ended unit that I use in a 2.1 configuration. What I like about it (beyond great sound) is that it has balanced and single ended sub-out connections so you can easily adjust the sub volume from -12db to +12db just by pushing the trim button on the Mc remote. Also very easy to have a 2.2 system if you want. My first sub was a Velodyne DD-10 which failed and I replaced it with a JL Audio e110 that sounds great. I too listen every day because my ears aren't getting any better.
The photos of your system, dated April 26, 2012, were posted in today's Audiogon email blast. The racks for storing your CD's interest me (of all things!). Did you make them, or are they manufactured? If manufactured, then by whom?
Thank You for the feedback on the W4S STP. I understand that it is a passive till a certain point and then changes to active mode - something like that. I do want to try an active preamp in my system - now that my new speakers are pretty good revealing the details.
The premise that since a known reviewer is all over a component, I must therefore equally love it, brings up several issues I've been thinking about. And in light of recent posts on here for the first time in a long time, I see that this premise is still a rampant problem that fuels completely pointless pissing contests.
Through the years of testing gear (see Description above), one thing I've come to realize is that reviews are practically useless. I don't even subscribe to any magazines anymore, and I've given up posting in this forum and others.
There are so many variables, not the least of which is a human, that there is essentially no value in comparing a component in two different systems. Cable effects, loading effects, speaker setup, room characteristics, distractions, source material, frequency response, human hearing, mood, etc., all play a role in the outcome. Statistically speaking, that makes it just about pointless, and practice bears that out - if you do enough testing of your own.
My mantra is "buy and try." That way, you can make up your own mind, in your own system (that's the one that matters). There's no other way to know what YOU will think about a component. My advice is to listen a lot, develop a reference point, and then learn to trust your ears instead of someone else's.
Then the question becomes, what should I buy? For that, I say get whatever "tickles your fancy." That's it! Enjoy the music.
It lacked dynamics. At first it sounded quite good, but then the more I listened to it, the more I realized that it was actually restrained, and lacked the sparkle of reality in the treble. But my speakers are extremely sensitive to dynamics - on most other speakers you probably wouldn't even notice there was a problem.
I have been restoring an MX110Z and an MC240, both from 1965. To test it out, I hooked up the revamped 110 in my system to see how it performs. After the new tubes and caps burned in, I am amazed at the result. Wow! It sounds so modern and clean and clear! I can't believe it sounds this good. No wonder it has achieved cult status. I'm going to have have a hard time giving it back to its eager owners. This is the biggest surprise I've had in a long time.
I A/B compared the DAC in the McIntosh C48 to the DAC in my AudioEngine D2. The DAC in the C48 does 32/192, and the one in the D2 is a BB1792A 24/192. I have always loved the 1792, but with all the new DACs that have come out since its heyday, I thought it would be interesting to carefully compare it to the C48's.
Well, the overall outcome is that they are extremely similar. I was expecting the C48 to leave the 1792 behind simply by virtue of being a newer design, but it did not. Central voices were a tad more forward with the Mc DAC, and the soundstage was perhaps a smidgen wider, but in a blind test, I would struggle to tell them apart.
Then I added my 6N6P cathode follower to the D2, as I normally have it, and found that this combo was much better than the C48 alone could offer - more bass, bigger soundstage, improved image separation, better rhythmic flow, etc. No comparison. It is yet another example of my argument that it's not the DAC chip that matters - it's its output stage implementation that determines how good it will sound.
The latest in my preamp shootout, a McIntosh C48, turns out to be the clear winner. The previous ARC LS26 and W4S STP were let-downs, as described previously, but the C48 is something special. It has a clear and commanding sound quality, with the beautiful refinement that McIntosh has always been known for. I am surprised at how forward it is for a Mc, and yet has impressive bass and excellent soundstage width. Dynamics and stage depth are not quite as good as my TEAD Vibe, but it is only noticeable in direct comparisons with the same tracks. Otherwise, the C48 exhibits the coherence of a true hifi preamp, with all the functionality one could ever want or need. I could easily live with this one. It channels the fond memories I have of my C42 from long ago.
Yes I know! A buddy of mine has a Music First and I've been trying to sweet talk him into sending it to me to try out, so I've been holding off on buying one. I am the one who actually suggested he try an MF when he said he wanted a passive (he has Avantgarde speakers too). So far I haven't taken my own advice...but the chance to hear an MF is coming. I have read about Promitheus' offerings; sounds like he's an interesting character. I have yet to come across one of his designs though. Thanks for reminding me about both of these TVC.
Aball, You need to really try a TVC and not a passive - especially when you have such an efficient front end. See if you can get a loaner from Music First. I love my TVC and am trying to upgrade my loudspeakers around it. The transparency on these things are phenomenal. I would have recommended the Promitheus Reference C-Core or Signature, but not sure of how their delivery times are currently. Every time these 2 come up on used markets, they get picked up fast.
I also tried an Audio Research LS26 preamp. This thing is terrible, despite the fact the tubes were in great shape. The noise floor is so high that it obscures fine detail. People with low-efficiency speakers probably don't notice the problems, but I was shocked that ARC would produce something with such an obvious design flaw. Overlooking the poor resolution, it does have very-good dynamics, and the display is beautiful. But the midrange is a bit dry, the treble is fairly coarse, soundstaging is flat, and there's hardly any bass. Quite a disappointment in my system.
Gave another passive preamp a try: W4S STP-SE. I'm always drawn to try passives but so far it hasn't worked out. This preamp is heavier than expected and the circuit seems very-well designed, but the sound quality does not make the cut in my system: Whether used single-ended or balanced, the treble is not very clean or extended, and the bass is not very deep or nuanced. The midrange is quite good however! But overall this preamp is unable to sound special, nor is it hi-fi.
Right after getting the 152, a David Berning LTA ZOTL10 amplifier came across my path and I had to get one. It's such a bizarre design, and since switching circuits are my specialty, I had to have one. No one does it like David. Such a complex circuit results in a really complex personality. I'm having trouble putting my finger on it. I've been playing with different tubes and the results are all over the map! It sounds great, but it's not there yet. I look forward to getting to know it better.
My latest amp is the new McIntosh MC152. On my speakers, it was clear that my past MC452 was not successful in properly establishing the "first watt" of power. It just sounded disjointed. But this baby 152 with its much-simpler circuit is incredible! Not only did it fix the 452's problems, but it adds incredible 3D soundstaging. Only my Aries can rival the enveloping sound of this amplifier. And it has fantastic resolution - probably the finest I've ever heard - and it's only really obvious with the Vibe. People who say these amps don't have the final bit of resolution have a system that needs work, because in mine, it's superlative. And along with all this fine sound, it looks fantastic too! It actually has better proportions than the 452, so I'm in love with this new little McIntosh. They have come a long way with their autoformer amps in the last couple decades. Kudos to Mc!
Looking back through the long list of equipment I've had, there are some notable standouts that were clearly a big step up in performance when I got them. Here are the ones I will never forget buying, since they made my jaw drop, in order of occurrence: