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The winter haze in Eugene, Oregon, where I live, hangs like a veil of thin gray fog over everything, diffusing light, draining color from the landscape, and contributing to my moods a quality of vague gloom for months at a time. But in my nearly 30 years here I’ve grown mildly accustomed to its character, seeking joy and the brilliant colors of life in other things -- cooking soups and stews, reading good books, scribbling essays and poems, growing fanatical about all things audio -- to drive away the clouds of accidie and despair brought by months of winter weather.
How many people know what a phono stage is? Of that microscopic cross-section of humanity, how many do you think actually own a standalone component whose only job is to amplify the tiny electrical signal generated by a phono cartridge?
For the past few months I’ve been evaluating two products from Balanced Audio Technology: the VK-53SE preamplifier and the subject of this review, the VK-255SE stereo power amplifier. The VK-255SE presents attractive measures of size, mass, gain, and power output for its asking price of $8995 USD, but would its impressive specifications result in equally impressive sound quality? I couldn’t wait to find out.
The current popularity of the integrated amplifier is unquestioned. This component category has risen in the esteem of audiophiles over the last decade and more, even as it has grown in complexity. On average, integrated amps can now do more than ever before. In fact, if a 2018 integrated doesn’t have at least a built-in digital-to-analog converter, it breaks with current convention. Streaming options, onboard storage for music files, wireless connectivity -- these and more appear on the lists of features of many of today’s integrateds.
I’ve said it before: No matter what type of audiophile you are, Furutech probably makes a product you’ve lusted after. In addition to power distributors and filters, and finished interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords, they make DIY bulk cables and component parts, and accessories that include the stainless-steel and silver-plated FI-50 NCF power-cord connectors, the Destat III Static Charge Eliminator for LPs and CDs, the DF-2 LP Flattener, Nano liquid contact enhancer and PC-α (Alpha) cleaning solution for CDs, the SK-III Electrostatic brush for discs and A/V gear, and a variety of AC outlets, cover plates, and fuses.
Back in May 2012, I reviewed the Raidho C2.1, a smallish, three-driver, floorstanding loudspeaker from Denmark that retailed for $28,000 USD per pair. A lot has changed since then for the manufacturer of that speaker, Raidho Acoustics. The primary designer of the C2.1, Michael Børresen, has left the company to helm Aavik Acoustics along with his partner, Lars Kristensen. Aavik makes some very expensive amplifiers and a DAC-preamplifier.
Part of the fun of being an audio reviewer is to discover new gear unknown to the general public. Such a device is this DAC from Waversa Systems, a Korean manufacturer previously unknown to me. Their founder, CEO, and lead design engineer, Dr. Collin Shin, draws on 30 years’ experience in developing low-noise, jitter-canceling chips for precision medical and military applications, to design circuits that will allow the listener to be enveloped by digitally encoded music. In designing this version of the WDAC3, Shin was assisted by legendary American audio engineer and SoundStage! Network equipment-measurement engineer Bascom H. King.
Rethm’s polymath founder, CEO, and designer, Jacob George, is based in Cochin, in southwest India. He brings to loudspeaker design a nontraditional vision informed by his love of wide-frequency-band, high-efficiency, single-driver speakers, vacuum tubes, his trainings as an architect and engineer, and a musician’s ear. His passions for audio and speaker design were driven by his pursuit of a type of sound reproduction that existed in his imagination: fast, coherent, highly detailed, yet nonfatiguing. The products of that pursuit have been steadily refined, and have culminated in the latest Rethm loudspeaker, the Maarga ($9750 USD per pair).
Over Thanksgiving and the ensuing week, I flew down from Oregon, where I live, to spend time at a retreat for artists (I write poetry) in northern California near the Bay Area. Because I also had friends to visit, I rented a car when I landed at the Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport, splurging on a full-size vehicle: a silver Chevrolet Malibu sedan. It was big and stable, gave good mileage, and had lots of features. It got me around -- to Berkeley and Lafayette, to San Francisco and Santa Cruz. But it didn’t have savoir faire. It lacked that je ne sais quoi that aging guys like me crave on getaways from our humdrum lives.
Integrated amplifiers have often been touted as space savers. Combining two components into one, the typical integrated amplifier also does away with a set of interconnects, and results in a smaller package than would be possible with separates. This saves not only on real estate, but on price as well. You’ve heard all this before.
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