Being entrenched in high-end audio for the past two decades has given me plenty of insight into the inner workings of this business -- because I regularly talk with manufacturers and readers, I get to hear from both sides of that equation. And since I’m editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! family of publications, I know the press angle, too. But sometimes, I just can’t figure out the burning audiophile questions that are staring me right in the face.
This article is a cry for clarity. Here are my current stumbling blocks, most of them the results of attending Munich’s High End 2014 this past May. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Write in with a good answer to one or more of these and I’ll publish your response. Just include your name and your country of origin. Here they are:
Why do FM Acoustics products costs so much? When Doug Schneider and I visited the ghost town that was Hifideluxe -- the parasitic show that accompanies High End in Munich, Germany, each year -- we wandered into the FM Acoustics room. I was most curious to hear and see this Swiss brand’s products because I knew they cost, like, a bazillion dollars. I sat down to a full FMA system and listened for a few minutes. The sound was . . . OK, as in “Let me sit back and read a book while I listen.” There was nothing startling or inspiring about it, though it wasn’t offensive either. I got up out of my seat after a couple of songs and walked over to a display of FMA’s amps and other components. I noticed their thin top panels -- no thick, precision-machined, Boulder- or Gryphon-like cases for these guys. The smaller components had the sort of extruded, one-piece cabinets I’ve seen wrapped around some $500 USB DACs. I inspected FMA’s speakers and saw a decent paint job, though I could still see the seams between panels that denote a lack of attention to detail in the finishing process. Superficial observations, I know. But a quick Internet search shows that FMA’s 1811 Mk.II stereo amplifier, for example, costs in the neighborhood of $125,000. I don’t get it. Maybe they’re charging those prices based on their own subjective assessment of their products’ sound quality? I sure can’t see how the prices reflect their manufacturing costs.
Why isn’t Krell building real power amps anymore? The Krell FPB-700cx cost $14,000 when it was available a decade ago. This 180-pound monster had two 4kVA transformers, and a fully regulated output stage with banks of transistors. There is no conceivable speaker this powerhouse could not drive into oblivion. Its 700Wpc-into-8-ohms output doubled down all the way to 2 ohms, at which it reportedly could produce over 6000W before it quit. The top Krell amp now, the Duo 300 ($8500), produces 300Wpc into 8 ohms, weighs 70 pounds, and has fans to cool it instead of the massive heatsinks that all Krells used to have. The transformer is 750VA. What gives? Am I the only one who sees the new Duo models as “home theater” amps designed for custom installers? They’re not what founder Dan D’Agostino once envisioned, and what built the company: audiophile powerhouses, a man’s amp, the baddest dudes on the block. If you’re listening up there in Connecticut, please rethink this and tell us that there’s a second line of amplifiers coming that will be the real deal. To the Krell management, remember what Stephen Covey said: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Is Devialet really, really better than everything else? If you ask Paul Miller of Hi-Fi News & Record Review, he’ll tell you yes. Doug Schneider will say the same thing. Our latest review from Hans Wetzel follows a string of others that make that claim. And growing legions of owners sing the same praises -- and I don’t mean “best for the price” or “best for an integrated-DAC.” But are Devialet’s 120, 200, and 250 better than the costliest combos of separate DACs, preamplifiers, and power amps that you could assemble yourself? As I said, just ask Paul and Doug. Granted, some message-board audiophiles say no, but you have to wonder whether they’re just reflexively defending the six-figure purchases they’ve already made, or if they’ve actually done the necessary comparisons. As for myself, I don’t know that the Devialets are the very best ever at any price, but I intend to find out this year with my own ears. We’ll see if there’s a definitive answer from the collective audiophile community, but I doubt there will be.
What happened to the Mark Levinson brand? There was a time, not so long ago, when the name Mark Levinson was revered. Whether amplifier, preamplifier, or digital component, when the classic ML logo preceded a model number, you just knew that it would be a contender for the state of the art. Remember the No.30 digital-to-analog converter? How about the epic No.20 and No.20.5 monoblocks? These products were icons, and represented the aspirations of many audiophiles. Lately, not so much. While the Levinson brand still lives, no one I know speaks of it in reverent tones. The No.53 amplifiers have gotten pretty good reviews, but these days I hear nothing of their digital products -- like Krell, ML now seems to make more “home theater” amplifiers than anything else. Maybe the company’s products still are up there with the best, but ML’s messaging isn’t that good -- it often happens in a too-corporate environment. Or maybe the team of engineers Levinson had back in the Madrigal Audio Labs days are long gone, and there’s no one left at the Harman Luxury Audio Group who can design really great stereo components. I wish I knew what the deal was, because I miss this iconic brand, and often wonder if it’s ever coming back.
As I said at the outset -- if you can shed light on any of this, let ’er rip.
. . . Jeff Fritz