|It appears that "high end" audio gear is moving backwards rather than forwards. If you doubt this, take a look at the November 2003 issue and the test results of the electronics reviewed.|
As a case in point, the Pass XA160 mono-block amps that were reviewed perform pretty horribly. While most folks that read these forums know that i'm not shy about being a fan of Nelson Pass' work, i don't have much good to say about these over-priced boat anchors. Most will probably remember what a hard time that i gave the PS Audio HCA-2. In effect, most of the comments that i made about that amp apply to this amp. From what i can tell, the comments that i made about the PS may not be strong enough as compared to how poorly the XA160's performed, especially at the price. Lack of current output, high distortion figures, non-linear frequency responses, the ability for the loudspeaker to modulate the output of the amp, etc... were all evident in the test results. To top it off, the input and output impedances will make this unit quite sensitive to the components ( preamp, speakers, etc...) that it is mated with.
Regardless of who's name is on this unit, how "pretty" it looks ( gorgeous ), what it weighs (200 lbs per monoblock) and the parts quality inside, quite honestly, this unit performed like a really crappy "vintage" ( read that as "low tech" ) tubed unit from the days prior to audio civilization. All this "eye candy" and a sore back for only $18K a pair !!!
As we move to the next product review, we look at the BAT VK-51SE. While this unit was more consistent than the Pass, some of the design choices made are obviously not good ones. The most obvious flaw that i see with this unit is that it changes sound / tonal balance as the volume is varied. Even when the gain control is adjusted for the flattest response, the top end starts sloping off gradually above 5 KHz. As you increase the gain, you now introduce low frequency roll-off into the equation also. If really standing on the throttle, the unit doesn't even make it down to 100 Hz within a -3 dB tolerance window !!! Obviously, this is not very good or linear and is poorer performance than one would expect out of a "reasonable" pair of speakers, NOT line level components !!!
As such, you can't expect consistent sonics from this unit unless you listen at one gain setting. If you have only one source component and all your recordings are of the same intensity, you "might" be able to find a reasonable setting. Since i highly doubt that this is the case, especially the part about consistent volume from recording to recording, you can pretty much count this out.
On top of the variations that this unit produces on its' own, one can introduce a whole new gang of variables into the equation once you start factoring in input / output impedances into the equation. I'll just say that this unit isn't going to be very versatile in terms of what components it mates up with in terms of amp selection. All this "high tech performance" for only $8500. Make that $9000 if you want the convenience of a remote.
Moving a few pages further, we run into the "giant killer" AH! Njoe Tjoeb ( pronounced "new tube" ) 4000 cd player. This is a highly modified / hot-rodded Marantz unit with tubes added, a "super clock" and the option of a "plug & play" upsampling board, fancy footers and an upgraded power cord. Depending on what you want to spend, the base unit is $700. If you go for the unit fully loaded with options, you can feel your bank account drained to the tune of about $1200.
Take one look at the frequency response of this unit and you'll see that it is far from "neutral". To top it off, distortions are higher along with a lack of suppression of AC harmonics. Jitter is pretty high for a unit with a "superclock" i.e. higher than other units i've seen with no "superclock". As such, this unit doesn't appear to be a "killer" of any type other than being able to "flatten your wallet in one swift motion".
Obviously, "high end" has come full circle. That is, it would appear that "audiophiles" are more concerned with asthaetics and reputation than actual performance and fidelity. The folks that used to laugh at Bang & Olufsen are now falling for looks at an even higher price. While the sonics may differ from Bang & Olufsen, the end result is that none of these units are "accurate" or capable of being called "high fidelity" units any more than Bang & Olufsen gear of yester-year was. The fact that B&O are now trying to jump back into "high end" with some truly innovative products just goes to show that one can't judge a company or product by its' cover any more.
Having said that, the above mentioned products can't really be called "Hi-Fi components". What they can be called are "flavoured audiophile toys". The funny thing is that J. Gordon Holt had commented on this type of situation arising within the industry and there are letters in this issue agreeing with that point of view. J. Peter Moncrieff also talked about that in IAR Hotline 76-80 quite a while back and found it rather pathetic. Count me in with that crowd too.
I do have to credit JA and the guys for having the guts to print these test results. While there is plenty of "dancing" in all of the reviews along with more than enough "gushing" ( the Pass review in specific ), it was pretty obvious that JA really DID make mention of the technical problems that each of these products displayed. As usual, Stereophile remains consistent in the fact that they continue to test, measure and display the results for all to see. For this, i offer a very hardy pat on the back, vigorous hand-clapping and whistling. THANK YOU from all of us that like reading and interpreting spec's for ourselves. Having said that, JA still tried to down-play these flaws somewhat by giving the "old soft shoe" at the end of his technical comments.
As i've said before, one has to buy and use what they like and makes them happy. With all of the various and BLATANT "flavouring" that is going on with audio gear nowadays, one really must know what they want and how well components will blend together in their system. It would appear that the days of trying to achieve "accuracy" and "musicality" with with each piece of gear are over. Now audio is kind of like Baskin-Robbins i.e. you've got to know what you like before you order what are VERY specific "flavours" for each product selected.
Let the buyer beware.... Sean
PS... I've got my flame repellent armour on along with an oxygen tank and a full battery of weapons. After this post and the responses that i think i'll get, i know that i'll need all of that and maybe more : )