T.H.E SHOW 2009

Part 6

Luke Manley switches cables between his new preamps

Mr. Manley was demoing his new $6,000 5.5 preamp and rather out of the norm, he was comparing it to his own 6.5 preamp which sells for about twice the price. His VTL S4000 amp ($27,000) was powering the big Avalon Indra's (below) to quite the spectacular quality. He asked what we'd like to listen to for the comparison and when a copy of Ellington's "Blues in Orbit" was spotted, that was it. He played the more expensive 6.5 first, then then switched cables and played the 5.5. There was a significant difference in character as well as overall detail and texture, even at those elevated pricepoints. It was fascinating. Of course, the 6.5 was superior, but was it twice as good as the 5.5? That is impossible to say after a 5 minute A/B of one song. Of course, it's pretty difficult to make those kind of value judgments on any level because everyone has different biases and what they consider most valuable. And then how much they are willing to pay for the increase in performance. Then there is that pesky "Law of Diminishing Returns" to deal with. That's why reviews like ours that at least try to make some sort of sense of performance versus cost are important to those looking to have great sound at reasonable prices.

We then asked Luke a question we've presented to several amp/preamp makers; "Is it better to purchase a better preamp than a better power amplifier, or vice versa?"

Luke laid out a long laundry list of legit factors that make that choice not so simple. Impedance matching between the two, length of cal bes, current and even the type of music most listened to. "Small music such as a female vocal with just piano or small ensembles make it hard to tell what's going on. There's limited frequency range, dynamics and soundstage for instance". Then he added candidly, "That's why you hear so many demos like that at shows like this". He's right on that count. Unless you take your own music, you are likely to hear Diana Krall, Patricia Barber or the like being played - not full symphonies."If someone listens mainly to small music, they might get away with a lesser model preamp", he said. But his bottom line was that in general, for people who listen to a wide range of music and who have to make a choice, it is better to buy a superior preamp and skimp a little on the power amp side. A preamp can have a much bigger affect on sound quality than a power amp .Adding more, he repeated what has been said in many amp circles; "Making a big amp sound as good as a small amp is a trick", he told us. By "trick", he did not mean subterfuge, he meant that it is harder to make an amp with lotsa watts sound as musical as a smaller output model.


Luke also had on display his recent ST-150 stereo power amp, though we did not get to hear it.



Here's a speaker for the value minded - the Sonist Concerto 3. These speakers are designed to work well with low power, triode powered tube amps such as EL34's and 300B's, although any speaker with an easy load will also work better with solid state amps. It's amazing how many solid state amps struggle with speakers with impedances that roam much below 8 Ohms - and a lot do. Many high-end owners are listening to a lot of clipping and distortion and don't even realize it because of bad matches between amps and speakers. This is directly related to what Luke Manley was saying, as have many others. Fact: A system that is lower priced but well matched within itself and also to the room will almost always sound better than a mega-buck system that is badly matched among its components and to the room. That's one of the reasons that systems at shows often sound, um, not so good. Speaker makers, to lower costs, often team up with amp makers to exhibit in the same room. Then different disk players are sometimes added.The result is that there are very bad matches. It is not uncommon for exhibitors to change horses mid show because of that, resulting major differences in system quality depending on what day you visit the room. Fun, huh?

Sonist was teamed up with DeHaviland - a good match. There were other problems though - they had to toe in the left speaker much more than the right because of an acoustic problem in the room. You can see it in the picture. We could tell that the Sonist's are high quality speakers and would appear to be a screaming bargain at around $3,500/pair, but it was obvious they were not playing at their optimum. We asked for a review pair and were answered enthusiastically. We look forward to hearing them in a better room.


Have you heard of Hegel?

Hegel is a Norwegian product designed by a very interesting guy named Bent Holter. He was excited to tell us about the unique engineering technology in his many products - we count 10 in the current catalogue. Luke Manley, Tim de Paravicini, Joe Fratus, Dennis Had and others are tube gurus. Bent Holter is apparently a transistor guru. Like tubes, transistors are not all alike and some are better than others, even within the same brand, model and batch. For his amps, Bent has developed and patented his "SoundEngine"technology which monitors the signal passing through different stages of amplification and corrects errors when needed. It does not work all the time, only when needed. (Sounds similar to DAC technology with jitter correction and CD playback error correction, doesn't it?) He also uses separate power supplies for large and small current sections - not just one big one for everything. All of his products include full balanced circuitry.

Speaking of DAC's, his new H100 integrated amp introduces a soundcard DAC for computer input.

Hegel also makes 2 CD players at $2,995 and $4,495.Hegl's prices are are firmly in value territory with integrated amps starting at about three grand, preamps for $2,295 and 200 wpc power amps that start at $3,995. We were impressed.



There's more! Go to Part 7