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This year's RAMF show was pleasant and filled with a wide variety of products to listen to, ranging from one-piece tabletop units with iPod docks to large, elaborate systems with mega-buck price tags. Even so, I got the impression that the industry is in “maintenance mode” rather than really developing any new direction from last year, which is just fine; we do not necessarily need industry shifts every year. Computer-music file severs are the trend, indeed, but that has been the case for a few years now. In my category, my impression was that quality continues to improve in relationship to price and that the sound of tube and solid-state amplifiers (generally speaking) also continue to converge—provided the tube amps are paired with appropriately benign speaker loads.
Long those lines, the Coincident Speaker Technology M300B Frankenstein MK II (SET) mono amplifiers ($5999/pair) mated to the CST Pure Reference Extreme speaker (Issue 215) sounded anything but slow and tubby in the bass. The overall sound was open, authoritative, extended, and also quite tactile with plenty of textural substance. If the M300B's 8 watts are not enough power (and they were more than enough for the P. R. Extreme), CST also makes the Dragon 211PP MK II (push/pull) monos based on the 211 output tube. If other 211 push/pull amps are any indication, the Dragon should provide 70 very powerful watts.
Also free of a tell-tale romantic midrange and a plump low end were two tube amps from Audio Research Corporation, the Reference 150 stereo ($12,995) and Reference 250 monoblocks ($26,000 pair). In various systems they sounded balanced, detailed, full-range, nuanced, and extended. The 40W deHaviland KE-50A push/pull monoblock ($10,800) sounded well-balanced and agile when paired with Sonist Recital 3 speaker. Also, of special interest to those with an eye for fewer system chassis, the Valve Amplification Company's beautiful, full-featured (including an mc phonostage) integrated tube amp, the 85W Sigma 160i ($9990) sounded fantastic with the Tannoy DC 10T speakers ($7000) and Audioquest cables: extended, detailed, with a beautiful blend of fullness and speed.
Less expensive amplifiers with tubes included the Jolida JD 1000CRC 150W integrated ($2500) powering the Von Schweikert VR-33 ($3750), which sounded much more detailed and nuanced that I expected. The tube and MOSFET Fet Valve preamplifier ($2500) and Fet Valve 600R hybrid amplifier ($3500) from Audio By Van Alstine, feeding a pair of Salk Signature Sound SongTower QWT speakers ($2700), delivered engaging, clean, dynamic sound—especially when one considers their sensible prices. Also, representing a bargain was a new line from Odyssey. I heard the 150W Kismet hybrid Integrated Amplifier ($3500) that combines a newly developed linestage section with the proven Khartago power-amp modules in an upscale chassis. There is actually a separate, full-sized chassis that contains the outboard power supplies with separate transformers (and turn-on switches) for the preamp and power amp sections. When paired with the Kismet Reference Monitor speakers ($3500), the sound of the system was big, bold, and detailed—although plagued by a bit of bass boom in the room it was in. The Kismet line also has separate power amplifiers ($2500 stereo, $4900 mono) and a new phonostage ($2900).
Edging closer to a more liquid quality, coupled with soundstage depth and image solidity, many solid-state amplifiers are every bit as 3D-like and continuous-sounding as their tubed cousins, and this now applies to less than top-tier SS amps, too. The Corona Line C11 preamp ($8800) and 300-watt C21 power amp ($9200) from Germany's MBL sounded remarkably grain-free and three-dimensional. Of course, the omnidirectional MBL 116 F speakers contributed to some of the fine sound. Also from Berlin, the Music Culture MC 601 preamp ($3495) and 300W MC 811 power amp ($7995 each) driving the MC 331 floor-standing speaker ($9995/pair) had a solidity and composure, along with plenty of subtle details and dynamic shading, that made for engaging listening. The 180W AMR AM-77 amplifier ($9995) can be configured to run as an integrated amp, a stereo power amp, a mono amp (with a second AM-77, of course), and even as an integrated mono amp (through a master/slave connection). Fronted by a First Sound P.D. 4.0 (+Paramount) preamp ($9270), the AMR sounded clean, powerful, and relaxed, defying typical tube or solid-state classification.
On the budget solid-state side, the Sim Audio Moon 350P preamp with on-board DAC ($3000) and 125W 330A power amp ($3250) and the Thiel SCS4 speaker ($3690), all wired up with Straight Wire cabling, sounded very clean and detailed with plenty of weight and foundation. This room also had a slightly forward presentation, but I assume this was mainly the Thiels rather than anything else. Also, the brand-new 150W NAD C 390DD ($2600) Direct Digital DAC/amplifier derived from NAD's M2 (Issue 198) sounded pretty darn nice driving the PSB Imagine mini and matching dual PSB subs.
The amplifier on my beat that really made a positive impression was the 300W solid-state Vitus RS-100 integrated amplifier ($13,000). Paired with the fabulous YG Carmel speaker ($18,000), the RS-100 pushed my audio buttons: continuous, 3-D, neutral, unforced details, air, liveliness, and, best of all, it tracked the subtle dynamic shadings that musicians use to express emotion in their work rather than merely playing notes. Vitus is known for its expensive Class A amplifiers ($25,000 and up), so you can imagine my enthusiasm when I heard a more reasonably priced integrated amp sounding so good in the Vitus room. By no means cheap, the RS-100's sound quality was right up there with the $25k-and-up boys.
Kirk Midtskog's Best in Show
Best Sound (cost no object)
Musical Surroundings Room: Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood TT, Goldfinger Statement cartridge, Aesthetix IO phonostage, Callisto Eclipse preamp, Atlas amps, and Vandersteen 7 speakers
Best Sound (for the money)
Vitus RS-100 integrated amp and YG Carmel speakers—one of best combos I have heard at this price level
Audio By Van Alstine's tube/MOSFET Fet Valve Preamplifier and Fet Valve 600R amplifier
Most Significant Product Introduction
Vitus RS-100 integrated amplifier
Most Significant Trend
Switching amplifiers that do not sound chalky: AVM, BCM, MBL-Corona Line, Devialet, and Veloce, for examples