[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
July 1999

An American Favorite!

"Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas…with the music at top volume and at least one pint of ether."

--Hunter S. Thompson

There are bats all around us…

While I cannot personally vouch for the safety of ether, I do have my own short list of methods to keep the weasels at bay, if only for an hour or two. All of them, like this month’s standout system, are fairly simple yet deeply fulfilling and guaranteed to have you coming back for more.

Boldly going where no audio reviewer with an ounce of pride has gone before

  1. Krispy Kreme doughnuts

I am not ashamed to admit my obsession for the greatest American treat since the Reggie bar -- the glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut. A number of my fellow SoundStage! writers rolled their eyes when I dragged a very tired Doug Schneider to a KK location in suburban Las Vegas following the Stereophile party at CES ’99. But their cynicism turned into a feeding frenzy once we returned with the magic treats. Reliable sources have reported back to me that a certain editor-in-chief of a web-based audio/video magazine was spotted waiting in line at the opening of a Krispy Kreme location in Mesa, Arizona. Any of this ring a bell, Marc?

Go for the chocolate-iced warm off of the belt, and forget everything that some snob on the Food Network told you about the superiority of French pastries. You’ll finally understand what Sheena Easton was talking about with that wacky "sugar walls" song.

  1. Lincoln Center - Avery Fisher Hall

Any audiophile worth his or her set of Shakti Stones should take the time to visit Lincoln Center and hear classical music at its best. The Marx Brothers have convinced me that I should pass on the nearby opera (although you can bet your 1849 lira to the US dollar that I’ll be checking out the patrons of La Scala while covering Milan ’99), but there is something very special about this particular venue. I would be the first to admit that I know about as much about classical music as Idi Amin knows about vegetarian restaurants in Soho, but none of this matters when you get to hear a stupendous performance of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or Billy the Kid (hey, it’s classical American music to my ears). There isn’t a high-end system on the planet that can compare to an experience like this, so stop playing with your interconnects (you’ll go blind!) and spend your audio shekels wisely.

  1. Seashell Fish & Chips

It is certainly possible that I was absent on the day that Rabbi Nussbaum did his lecture on lesser-known Jewish dishes, but I’m fairly positive that halibut and chips were never really a hot item in Poland. I just have a hard time envisioning my great-grandfather, Aaron Goldberg, chowing down on some mushy peas and asking my Bubie to pass him the malt vinegar. General Tso’s blintzes? Absolutely! (My great-great Bubie was an orthodox Chinese Jew.)

With the deck stacked against me, I still managed to discover the world’s greatest fish-and-chips shop in central London. Standing in line with the rest of the droogs is part of the experience, but the culinary orgasm that you will experience at the Seashell makes the world seem like a better place. If you survive (the small order of halibut and chips requires an entire edition of Hi-Fi News & Record Review), take a stroll through nearby Regents Park and look for drunken, twenty-something British women playing a really bad version of softball with a bat designed for someone slightly smaller than Yoda.

While watching the women giggle and stumble their way around the bases (hey, it’s hard to distinguish first base from third after three or four pints!), say something clever like "I bet Star Wars hasn’t opened here yet. Wanna know who lives?" Within 30 seconds, you’ll be pitching for both sides, and after the game, you’ll have all the time in the world to explain why you prefer vinyl to the sound of CDs.

Coming out of the closet

Say what you will about the sonic attributes of single-ended amplification, but I remember a time not so long ago when the high-end community was desperately looking for something to re-energize its juices -- and help prop up sagging sales. Who could ever forget that magical time when vinyl was disappearing into a black hole, Tupac was still with us, and audiophiles wasted countless hours debating the merits of $13,000 digital-to-analog converters? Fortunately, while all of that meshugas was polluting the air, the Jedi Knights -- I mean single-ended designers -- were busy figuring out how to restore order to the galaxy. Two Jedi in particular, Qui-Gon Willis and Obi-Wan Rankin, working at opposite ends of the universe (Hucknall, UK and Cincinnati, Ohio) introduced two of the most resolving and emotionally moving products that audiophiles had heard in a great many years -- the Wavelength Audio Cardinal monoblocks and Art Audio Diavolo stereo amp. It is only after months of intensive e-mail therapy with my analyst Dr. Harvey "Gizmo" Rosenberg and the many hours that Steve Rochlin and I spent together in the halls of higher learning (I just love it when they wear those tiny cowboy outfits with the tassels!) that I am able to talk about my obsessive-compulsive relationship with SETs.

If you look back into the SoundStage! archives and read my review of the Art Audio Diavolo ($5995), you will discover that I was extremely impressed with the sound of the 13 watt single-ended beast from England. For starters, the Diavolo wreaks havoc with the narrow-minded view that single-ended tube amps can’t reproduce satisfying bass (dB would probably call it distortion). Used with an appropriate pair of speakers (88dB+, 8-ohm load), the Diavolo will reproduce articulate, tight, tonally accurate, bass. Very simply, the Diavolo’s intestinal fortitude comes from its split-core power and output transformers. I wish that there were more to it than that, but it boils down to the fact that Art Audio uses some of the best transformers that money can buy. I’m sure that Tom Willis could have used inferior components and increased his margins, but when he decided to use a steroid-induced 300B variant called the KR-32B, the situation called for something extraordinary. Don’t believe me? Have a listen for yourself.

Another reason why I think that the Diavolo soars above the rest of the single-ended crowd (the Wavelength Audio Triton Signatures get this right too) is that its designer recognized that a great amp (even one powered with a 300B triode) must have the ability to reproduce all of the musical spectrum and not just the midrange. I’ve heard single-ended amps whose midrange performance was so bloody good that I was certain that the performer was in the room with me and my imaginary wife (Madeleine Stowe, and I have a great marriage), but once the bass kicked in and I kicked the volume up a notch or two, it was ballgame over. The Diavolo can sound slightly hard on top (experimentation with a number of tubes and vibration devices confirmed that the tube was the culprit), but its overall performance is just so impressive that I consider it one of the best of the breed. For an additional $200, Art Audio will install a volume pot to make this one of the coolest integrated amps on the planet -- this is what I use. The only drawback is that it has only one set of inputs. I wonder if I can convince Tom Willis to offer one with three without compromising the sound quality. Hmmm…

What kind of Planet is this?

The introduction of a 16-bit CD player this late in the game probably wouldn’t raise too much interest among consumers -- unless the company bringing the product to market happened to be Rega. About 17 months ago, the most successful turntable company on the planet (200,000 ‘tables/arms sold over a 25-year period) decided to join the digital revolution. To Rega’s credit, Roy Gandy never deviated from the master plan of producing affordable high-end products that would last longer than the original purchaser. With the decline of vinyl (some might argue the decline of the high end as well), Rega probably had to produce a CD player, but they resisted the temptation to produce just "any old CD player," and bless their hearts for taking the time to do it right.

The Planet ($950) is a quirky little guy, very much like the company, and one of the few pieces of high-end equipment that actually has some personality. Some people may disagree with me, but I like its transport mechanism and swing-up lid/clamp. It has performed flawlessly over the past 15 months, and it’s good to know that somebody out there still believes in product reliability. The front controls are a little on the small side, but the ergonomic remote does what it is asked to do without any arguments. The one thing that bothers me about the Planet is that it doesn’t deal well with intense vibrations (no, I don’t mean shaking the thing with your hands). My Planet resides on a beefed-up version of Greg Weaver’s DIY equipment rack, and unless I place the Planet on one of the top two shelves, deep bass causes it to skip. It’s really annoying, but I’ve managed to control the problem with a combination of Black Diamond Racing Cones and Vibrapods. The bottom line is: the supplied feet are useless, and you need to use some form of vibration control.

The Planet isn’t the best CD player ever, but for under $1000 it sure as hell deserves serious consideration. No, it is not the last word in transparency or low-level resolution, but it took only about a week with the Planet connected to the Art Audio Diavolo for me to truly understand how good a player this little guy is. After trying the Planet with integrated amplifiers from Audio Analogue, Naim, KR Enterprise, Primare, Copland, Arcam, Rotel, Yamaha, and YBA in an attempt to find the ultimate combination, I found that the clear winner was the Diavolo. The Planet’s slightly warm presentation combined with the Diavolo’s vividness and low-end authority made for a "Sell the house! Sell the kids! I’m not coming home EVER!" experience. I can tell you this, I’ve never heard any other system as basic as this one sound as good.

Hey Mr. NRA man, save this bird for me

The Meadowlark Audio Kestrel ($1250/pair) really needs very little introduction. It is living proof that the high-end industry can produce excellent products that are affordable. In a small- to medium-size room, the Kestrel is as confident and musical-sounding as any two-way on the market. At 89dB, the Kestrel is a perfect match for the Diavolo, and I assure you that your ears will give out before this combination will. If you really need earth-shattering bass response and a cleaner midrange, spend the extra bucks and buy a pair of Meadowlark Hot Rod Shearwaters. The one area where the Kestrel betters its larger sibling is in the area of soundstage width. If a really wide soundstage that extends from one side of your room to the other matters, you should really enjoy the Kestrels with the Diavolo. With the exception of large symphonic works, this system can pretty much do it all well. It’ll do Green Day, Béla Fleck, Bill Frisell, Dvorak, Tori Amos, and Prodigy without showing real signs of strain, and the Diavolo’s tubes look so pretty in the dark.

The missing link…

I tried six different brands of cable with the entire system and the clear winner (by a very wide margin) was the sexy shiny stuff from Nirvana Audio. The SL-series cables are very revealing, and I was initially concerned that they would make the system sound too aggressive, considering the forward nature of the Diavolo, but the Rega Planet stepped in and added some necessary warmth to balance things out. One area where the Nirvana cable really decimated the competition was in the bass. I’ve never heard the Kestrels’ bass extend so far down and with such tautness. The Nirvana cable is rather expensive, but it works superbly in the context of this system and should be considered first.

That’s really great Ian, but I can’t afford this!

I recognize that the price tag of this system (close to $10,000) puts it out of reach for most people, so I have come up with a few alternatives. If you can’t afford the Diavolo, and you must have a tube-based system, I would suggest trying one of Gordon Rankin’s Wavelength Audio integrated amps (this alone will save you a few thousand dollars). If you spring for one of Gordon’s beauties, use either the Nirvana or the Harmonic Technology cables. The Harm Tech cables sound really good with the Diavolo as well.

If you are looking for a solid-state integrated to power the Kestrels, I can enthusiastically recommend the Naim Nait 3. The green hornet from Salisbury, England has more than enough power to drive the Kestrels to dangerously loud levels. The Naim integrated can boogie down, although some may not like its slightly dry-sounding bass. The Naim’s vivid presentation compliments the warmth of the Planet, very much like the Diavolo does. The difference in price between the two is about $4000. Sonically, I could live with either one, but the Diavolo is as good as I’ve heard.

...Ian White


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