Let's Call The Whole Thing Off!

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Let's Call The Whole Thing Off!

For the last six months I’ve been listening to the best solid-state amplifiers I’ve yet heard in my home: the Soulution 710 stereo and 700 monoblock. This gear (coupled with Soulution’s superb 720 full-function preamp or 721 linestage or MBL’s superb 6010 D preamp, for that matter) produces a level of transparency to sources unparalleled in my experience of hi-fi. As I’ve said, repeatedly, on line and in print, I am now able to hear “into” recordings to an unprecedented degree—to hear the way the recording and mastering engineers recorded and mixed the mastertapes, as if I were peering over their shoulders when they did their jobs. The whole chain of preamplification and amplification is—forgive me for the cliché but it actually applies—as clear as glass, increasing the amount of some kinds of information by an order of magnitude.

Although I don’t know this for a fact, I’d bet (on the basis of what I’ve heard and read) that Soulution has achieved this extraordinary window-pane-like neutrality and consequent transparency by lowering distortion. (The head technician at a German audio magazine which rigorously tests equipment under review actually hung the test results of the Soulution 710 in a gold frame above his desk—they were that exemplary.) The Soulution also boasts extraordinary bandwidth, channel separation, peak power and current. In other words, these Swiss amps are technological marvels (as they ought to be for the money asked). I cannot recommend them highly enough to those with the wherewithal to afford such amazing things. BUT….

You can’t hear it, but I just heaved a sigh. Three weeks ago I took the Soulution gear out of my system (the preamp and CD player are being updated) and put in my old standbys and references, the Audio Research Reference 3 preamp and 610T power amps. Everything else—speakers (Magico M5s), sources (Walker Black Diamond record player with Da Vinci Reference Grandezza cartridge), cabling (Tara Labs Omega and Zero Gold)—stayed the same.

Audio Research is one of the few tube-gear companies that doesn’t look askance at solid-state. Indeed, from go some forty years ago, William Zane Johnson took solid-state’s lower distortion, higher speed, greater clarity, and more extended bandwidth as goals, and since then ARC gear has slowly but clearly been amalgamating the virtues of transistors and the virtues of tubes. This said, the 610Ts are audibly higher in distortion (you can hear some tube grain that you can’t hear through the Soulution amps), lower in transparency (details of mastering and mixing don’t jump out at you quite as vividly as they do through the Soulution amps), and lower in bandwidth (they don’t have the “grip” that the Soulutions have in the low bass or the midbass). And yet…and yet…I’ll be damned if the ARC gear doesn’t sound at least as much (if not more) like live music—at least to my ear and the ears of most of my informal listening panel—as the two wunderkinds from Switzerland.

How is this possible?

Well, as long-time readers of The Absolute Sound know full well, the official line is that we don’t believe measurements add up to a complete or adequate picture of a device under test. But the unofficial one, at least for me, is: “I don’t know.”

Somehow tubes are still resolving certain kinds of information about textures and colors and dimensions that solid-state, for all its glories, misses—and vice versa. It’s as if both gain strategies were colorblind, except one can’t see red and the other can’t see green.

Lord knows I’ve read countless explanations of why tubes—the more continuous, less-discrete-by-nature amplification devices—sound the way they do, and why transistors—the faster, less-restricted-in-bandwidth, lower-in-certain-kinds-of measurable-distortions amplification devices—sound the way they do. And while I do believe that both gain strategies have moved closer together sonically, they still sound enough different that you wouldn’t mistake one for the other (or at least, you wouldn’t for long).

To put the difference I hear in a nutshell, ARC tubes make music “breathe” in a way that the Soulution amps (and, for that matter, other solid-state and tube amps) don’t (or don’t quite). Voices, instruments are projected in the way they are in life. It’s as if ARC doesn’t just capture a beam of frontal radiation but the glow of musical energy around and behind a voice or instrument as well. I know folks who would chalk this up—perhaps rightly—to harmonic or TIM distortion. Nonetheless, it is a very lifelike effect—this bloom and air and light. ARC gear also has a delicacy of tone and texture that the Soulution amps also have but, since they don’t express it with the same breathy bloom and air, don’t have in quite the same way.

On the other hand, the Soulution amps will tell you exactly how (and how well) a recording was recorded; they will change the presentation of tone color and instrumental texture and soundstage shape and size chameleon-like with each recording, where the ARC gear tends to make records sound more alike (though I don’t want to oversell this point because the ARC gear IS transparent to sources, too, but noisier, less exacting, less precise). 

Here is the conundrum: Both the Soulution and the ARC gear sound extraordinarily realistic, in spite of the fact that their presentations are clearly different. If one is “right” and the other is “wrong,” how is that possible? 

I know there are those who would argue in favor of the Soulutions' utter transparency. They would say, and I would largely agree, that an amp should be a documentarian not an artist. It should give you the thing itself and not an impression of the thing. But what “thing”? They would point you to the sound of “live mic feeds” or mastertapes and say: “THIS thing. Which amp is more faithful to THIS?”

And yet a live mic feed is still the sound of the mic, a chain of electronics, speakers or cans, and cabling. A mastertape, even auditioned off the tapehead in a recording studio, is still the sound of the mic, a chain of electronics, tape and tape heads, and speakers or cans. If we’re faithful to that processed sound, then what about the absolute sound? The sound of actual instruments in a real space, unmediated by electronics? Have we been kidding ourselves all along about its primacy? Should we have called this magazine The Recorded Sound?

I used to think I knew the answer to this—and would’ve come down on the side of life versus recording. But the Soulutions confused me—and confused the issue--more than ever before. They are so transparent and so lifelike at the same time (with the right recordings). And yet, taking them out and putting in the ARC and hearing an entirely different order of lifelike musical information confused me again.

Which is right and which is wrong? Like I said, I don’t know anymore. Tomato, tomata, potato, potata…let’s call the whole thing off, or at least call it a draw and leave it up to the individual listener.