[SOUNDSTAGE!] Marc Mickelson is the
Editor-in-Chief of SoundStage!
Please send comments to
Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
October 2005

A Tale of Two Systems

The theme song for audio reviewers could be "Solitary Man." Writing about audio gear is something done alone, probably because so much serious listening is done alone. Given this, it's important for us audio reviewers to broaden our critical context by coming out of our music dens to sample systems other than our own every now and then. Shows are good for this, but you have to adjust your expectations downward, as so many show systems do not sound their best. Even better are visits to manufacturers, whose listening rooms are used for research, so the sound systems in them often perform at very high levels.

In this spirit, I drove to Minneapolis following CEDIA Expo last month to visit Audio Research and Magnepan. I was at ARC to gather information and take some pictures for an upcoming Feature Review on the Reference 3, the latest in a very long line of distinguished Audio Research preamps. I didn't actually visit the Magnepan factory, but I did go to the home of Magnepan president Jim Winey to hear his system.

I have heard various collections of products at Audio Research, and the best of these used Wilson Audio Sophia speakers in ARC's largest listening room. This time, I was in the sweet spot in the same room, but the equipment was completely different. A full complement of Audio Research Reference electronics -- Reference 3 preamp, Reference 210 mono amps, and the new Reference CD7 CD player -- drove a brand-new pair of Wilson Audio MAXX 2 speakers. Of course, I knew the MAXX 2s well -- I had lived with them for quite some time -- but the electronics were pretty much unknown to me. I had heard the Reference 3 at CES, but that was it.

The room in which everything was set up doubles as a quality-assurance checkpoint. It is where Warren Gehl, who listens to every Audio Research product before it leaves the factory, makes sure that each new preamp, amp and CD player sounds the way it should. Most audio companies check products to ensure that they are operational when they leave the factory, but ARC tests each product's sonics as well. On the day of my visit, a long line of MP1 multichannel preamps was outside the listening room awaiting Warren's attention. Knowing that ARC doesn't make a multichannel source, I asked Warren what he uses to check each MP1. "I check each input and output as stereo pairs and compare them against each other." That's dedication.

When I heard the Sophias in this room, I marveled at the soundstage they cast. The speakers completely disappeared and left behind a musical picture that had extreme depth. The same was true of the MAXX 2s in this space. The soundstage required a moment of adjustment -- you don't hear such depth from reproduction every day -- but afterwards the layering of instruments and singers was thrilling because of the spatial sophistication it represented. But this wasn't all. There was also spot-on tonality and an easy, fluid character that was occasionally interrupted by bursts of visceral power. This was clearly one of the very best systems I've heard anywhere, including my own listening room. Audio Research's new Reference products seem to be on the same performance plateau as the Wilson Audio MAXX 2s. Synergy, not complementary colorations, defined their use together.

Jim Winey's system was different in a couple of obvious ways. It was a multichannel setup featuring five top-of-the-line MG20.1 speakers, three in front of the primary listening position and two to the sides. You haven't witnessed the extremes to which audiophilia can go to until you've seen five MG20.1s in the same room. Jim played a variety of multichannel recordings, and some, like Swing Live [Chesky 223], sounded startlingly real. Swing Live was recorded live at Makor, a Manhattan nightclub. It felt as though I was sitting at a table in the middle of the audience, people chattering and clapping around me. This helped set the atmosphere for when the music began. This system also cast an impressive soundstage -- one that extended from my right shoulder all the way around to my left, with over 15 feet of space in front of me.

What I found most interesting while listening to Jim Winey's system and comparing it in my mind to what I heard at Audio Research only a couple of hours earlier was how both systems accomplished some of the same things, but achieved them by utterly different means. I've maintained since I began writing about audio equipment that any opinion on what is good or bad is of minor importance compared to what each writer can convey about the distinct character of the sound he or she hears. These systems proved this once again. I could say that both "sounded spacious," "showed impressive dynamics," and "had great bass power," but none of these phrases would get to the heart of what made these two super systems unique.

While audio reviewing certainly involves close listening to products in one's own system, it also requires exposure to the various forms that reproduced sound can take -- just what my trip to Minneapolis provided. Now, I just have to convince Audio Research to send me some amps and a CD player to go with the MAXX 2s and Reference 3 already here -- in the name of greater context and better audio reviewing, of course.

...Marc Mickelson

Copyright SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved