Musical Performance: ***½
Sound Quality: ***
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
The first time Portland, Oregon singer-songwriter M. Ward heard the Billie Holiday album Lady in Satin (1958), he was in a California shopping mall, more than 25 years ago. The sound came from a distance, on the other side of the mall. “I remember mistaking her voice for a beautiful perfectly distorted electric guitar,” he says in the press release for his new album, Think of Spring. He described what he heard as “some other-world thing floating there on this strange mournful ocean of strings” and he was “hooked for life.”
In his inimitably matter-of-fact fashion, Magico’s Alon Wolf once told me that “We make loudspeakers, not furniture.” The statement seemed to imply that, for him, form must always follow function. I suspect that the philosophies of most discerning audiophiles are similar. That’s one reason why ultra-high-end systems are often found in dedicated rooms replete with treatments, cable lifters, and fastidious attention paid to ensure that those systems are performing optimally, no matter the imposition. Everything else is subordinated to the pursuit of maximum sound quality.
Well, I’m glad that’s over. 2020, that is. For much of last year, most of us remained cooped up, with little chance to hear new gear in proper listening environments. Many of you shopped virtually, ordering equipment without first having heard it, instead relying on reviews, dealer advice, and the goodwill of other audiophiles willing to share their experiences on message boards—hardly ideal, but better than nothing. With no High End show in Munich, Germany, to go to—not to mention all the other canceled audio shows around the globe—many product launches were pushed back or conducted online. The result? I didn’t get to hear nearly as much new gear as I do in a typical year. I suspect you’ve had the same experience.
When I unboxed Vinnie Rossi’s new L2i Signature Edition integrated amplifier-DAC, two things stood out: 1) It’s good-looking and extremely well built. 2) I didn’t see how it could be worth $22,490 (as reviewed, with optional DAC module; all prices USD). It wasn’t until I’d spoken with founder-owner-designer Vinnie Rossi himself that I began to appreciate what I’d been sent. (See my profile of Rossi and his company.)
This is intended as a companion piece to the review of Vinnie Rossi’s L2i Special Edition integrated amplifier.
In my 35th year on this pale blue dot, I’ve come to realize how little intrepidity courses through my veins. I have so little appetite for risk and uncertainty that my day job is effectively spent identifying and minimizing these variables. There’s value to this kind of mindset: stability, consistency, security. But this mindset is anathema to visionaries and creators. Unlike me, these individuals don’t see the here and now and wish only to protect and fortify it. Their gaze extends beyond the horizon and what is, to some potential reality of what could be. Vinnie Rossi is just such a person.
Verve Records B0032589-01
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
“The sound of popular music in the third decade of the 21st century is predominantly electronic,” Stuart Nicholson writes in his liner notes to The Lost Berlin Tapes, a newly released live recording of a March 1962 performance by Ella Fitzgerald. Nicholson notes that while the current generation of singers frequently perform with the aid of electronic enhancements, Fitzgerald required only her voice, a microphone, and—for this performance—a jazz trio playing acoustic instruments. She’s so well known, even nearly 25 years after her death, that her first name alone is listed on the cover of the new album; just as it was in 1960, when Verve released Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin.
I remain conflicted about my Vault subscription with Third Man Records (TMR). Four times a year, TMR ships me a release for around $70 (all prices in USD). The title is generally announced a month or so before it’s shipped, so there’s never really a surprise when it arrives. The albums are beautifully pressed and of exceedingly high quality, and the packaging is truly deluxe. The package usually includes at least two LPs, often with a 7″ 45rpm bonus disc, and some sort of glossy booklet. For some inexplicable reason, TMR often includes a DVD of concert footage. Given that I haven’t had a DVD player hooked up for years now, I don’t get much satisfaction from this inclusion.
So you’re on the hunt for an integrated amplifier in the mid- to high four figures. There are many options, and in some ways it would be hard to end up with one that wasn’t at least very good. But you’re a discerning shopper, with a refined taste who can’t be bothered with any of the run-of-the-mill, high-powered, class-AB options littering the audioscape. Class-D amps are out due to their lack of character. Most tubed amps require that the owner bias and occasionally replace the tubes -- and what are you, a mechanic? No, you’d rather be listening. Finally, you go weak in the knees when you see a product proudly emblazoned with “Made in the USA.”
Last month, I wrote “The Best Loudspeaker Brands for Both Luxury and Performance: The Definitive List,” a shortlist of the best luxury and high-performance loudspeakers on the planet. Only four brands made the grade, though I listed two more as conditional entries. I knew I’d raise some hackles -- the extreme exclusivity of that list put off some readers and posters to various online audio forums. But anytime you state that one thing is better than another thing, or that anything is “the best,” you’re going to alienate some people -- and that’s never more true than when discussing high-end audio. I stand by what I wrote.
When you’re sitting in front of the Audio Research Reference 160S stereo amplifier ($22,000 USD), it’s hard not to see the appeal. Its GhostMeters are a brilliant design touch that modernizes the look of a metered power amplifier. So named because their needles appear at the front of an otherwise transparent pane of acrylic graduated in watts, the GhostMeters let the user simultaneously watch the needles dance along with the amp’s power output while peering past the meters to the glow of eight KT150 output tubes. Listening to music over a high-end stereo system can delight more than one sense -- if this sort of visual delight supports your pleasure in listening, then a plain ol’ slab of thick aluminum just won’t do.
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