When I went to Tokyo this past spring I met a number of Japanese high-end audio designers. Alas, Fumio Ohashi, chief designer at Bridge Audio Labs (BAlabo), was not one of them. That’s a pity because I would’ve enjoyed talking to him about his $60k BC-1 Mk-II linestage preamplifier and $78k 500Wpc BP-1 Mk-II stereo power amplifier, both of which are superb. Indeed, they’re so good that two members of my informal listening panel think the BAlabo amp and preamp (in combination with the Audio Research Reference 2 phonostage, the Magico M5 loudspeakers, and MIT’s Oracle MA-X interconnect and Oracle MA speaker cable) are the best electronics they’ve heard in my system—and for the past ten years or so, they’ve heard everything I’ve had in my system.
What makes their opinions especially interesting is that, unlike the more equipment-oriented listeners in my little panel (who lean toward Soulution and/or ARC), both of these guys are first and foremost music lovers. Both are avid concertgoers and record collectors; for them music, live and recorded, comes well ahead of gear (although each owns a very fine stereo system). Indeed, when I pointed out to one of them, in my best Absolute Sound manner, that the Soulution 700 monoblock amps and 720 preamp were more dead neutral than the slightly darker, altogether more beautiful-sounding BAlabo BP-1 and BC-1, he said: “So what? No stereo is ever going to recreate the real thing, so why not make the music beautiful?”
Why not, indeed?
I addressed the question of what recorded music should sound like in my blog called “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” (see www.avguide.com/blog/lets-call-the-whole-thing). You may recall that in that blog I said that the Soulution 700 amplifier and 720 preamplifier made recorded music sound more like what it was—voices and instruments recorded on tape and then mastered for reproduction on disc—while the Audio Research Reference 610-T made recorded voices and instruments sound more like actual voices and instruments in an actual hall. Each presentation was distinctly different, and yet each presentation was also very “realistic.” This raised the interesting question of exactly what it is that we are trying to recreate on our stereos: a facsimile of what was recorded (the faithful to mastertapes or to mike-feed school of high fidelity) or a facsimile of what the instruments that were recorded sound like in life rather than through microphones and editing consoles (the faithful to the sound of the real thing school of high fidelity). Now comes a third paradigm: What might be called the “as you like it” school of high fidelity, a facsimile of the way we idealize or remember the sound of instruments and vocalists, based on life experience and recordings.
In many ways, this last has always been the most popular choice. It is the least prescriptive and the most immediately appealing, for it really amounts to saying: “Go with what pleases you most; go with what sounds best to you.”
Although it may not be TAS-like to say it, I myself am drawn to this last option. One listen to the BAlabo gear could tell you why. It’s so damn beautiful and easy and pleasurable to hear. I don’t mean it’s just beautiful and easy and pleasurable, BTW, although I’m not sure there would be anything wrong with that. It also sounds very much like the real thing and very much like the recorded thing. In other words, it is very true to life and very transparent to sources. It is every bit as clear and detailed as Soulution (maybe, more); it has better grip and definition and beauty in the low end than any amp I’ve yet heard with the M5s; it is startlngly fast and dynamic. But it is adding something that neither the Soulution or the ARC gear is adding (or adding as much of)—a voluptuous richness of timbre and texture that is simply ravishing. (It is also softening and sweetening the treble a bit, which may explain BAlabo's slight overall “darkness.”)
One could write all this off as “euphonic coloration,” but why write off something that is so pleasing to the ear—so much the way we would like music to sound (and so often remember it sounding at its best)? If instruments still sound like themselves but altogether gorgeous (like themselves in a dream); if musical lines are so clear—and they are—that you can hear the contribution of every instrument, foreground, middle ground, and background, even (or especially) when they are playing different dynamics, if what usually becomes confused when played loud remains as utterly clear and coherent as it does when it is played soft, if you hear not just new details but what amounts to a new gestalt (a more complete, transparent, comprehensive, and comprehensible “whole”) with each listening, then why, indeed, write it off?
There are—or may be—good technical reasons for the unique way that BAlabo sounds. (Its astonishing way of “holding things together” even at loud levels—of maintaining both the beauty and resolution of parts and wholes—may be attributable to BAlabo’s remarkable grounding scheme, about which I will have more to say when I review the BC-1 Mk-II preamp and BP-1 Mk-II amp). But for the time being let’s just say that BAlabo is perhaps the best example I’ve heard of electronics that sound gorgeous and real and recorded.