Reviewer: Chip Stern
Source: California Audio Labs Delta transport/Alpha 24-bit/96kHz vacuum tube DAC; CAL CL-20; Linn Unidisk 1.1 [in for review]; Super Tjoeb; Rega Planar 25 turntable with Rega RB600 tonearm and Grado Statement Master cartridge; Marantz PMD430 portable cassette player/recorder
Preamp/Integrated: Rogue Audio Stealth phono preamp; Manley Massive Passive; VTL 5.5 vacuum tube preamp; Sim Audio i-5
Amps: Musical Fidelity Nuvista 300; Mesa Tigris; McCormack DNA-500 [in for review]
Speakers: Joseph Audio RM7si Signature MKII; Dynaudio Special 25 [in for review]; Joseph RM25si Signature MKII [in for review]
Cables: Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II interconnects; active-shielding equipped Synergistic Research Designer's Reference Squared X-Series interconnects with mini-power couplers; active SRDR2 Solid-State Reference speaker cables; AudioQuest Panther interconnects and CV-6 speaker cables [in for review]; JPS Labs Superconductor II interconnects and speaker cable; JPS Labs Aluminata, Acoustic Zen Gargantua II and active-shielding equipped Synergistic Research Designer's Reference2 AC cords
Stands: two PolyCrystal equipment racks
Power line conditioning: Equi=Tech Q650 and 2Q Balanced Power delivery systems; Monster Cable AVS 2000 automatic voltage stabilizer
Sundry accessories: JPS Labs Kaptavator outlet center; Mondial Super-Splitter; NEC CT-2070S monitor
Room size: 12' x 20' x 10', long-wall setup
Review Component Retail: $1,799

Digital Ramblings
Time marches on, whether we care to reference it or not. And when it comes to HighEnd audio, the technical advancements in digital source components has been dramatic over the past ten years - and more so even over the past five. As a result, even as new digital formats vie for a place in the listener's lexicon, consumers now enjoy a wider choice of quality playback options for the venerable RedBook CD format than ever before. And not only does the digital front end gear of this millennia deliver better harmonic detail, spatial veracity, dynamic range and musical resolution, but at more and more competitive price points - now that's progress.

Still, it's funny how little perspective some audio enthusiasts have about these advances in chip-sets, DACs and various forms of up and over-sampling. I was reminded of this sometime back when an audiophile with whom I have been corresponding since my Stereophile days forwarded this adoring letter from a cognitive retard engaged in yet another self-congratulatory circle jerk on an Audiogon chat room in response to my Bricks Without Straw essay on Positive Feedback.

"Music is the brandy of the damned."
George Bernard Shaw

"Two years ago, when I knew zero about audio, I constructed my first system from pieces touted by Chip Stern in Stereophile. Yesterday I sold the (cue the reverent music) highly touted English CD player he is still pimping -- you know the brand, they're in every issue -- for less than half what I paid for it new, retail. Why? Because the Cary 308 kicked its butt across the parking lot. When it comes to whoredom, Chip Stern needs to look in the mirror...and don't get me started on Sam Tellig."

Before we rush to take away this persnickety nerd's crayons, let's offer him some more tangible, less conspiracy-based explanations by way of a slightly tangential preamble to my evaluation of a very compelling value in digital front end gear from the folks at Underwood HiFi and The Parts Connexion: Their Level-1 mod of the Denon DVD-2900 universal player.

First of all, regarding the aforementioned Musical Fidelity products we stand accused of pimping - I suppose that when Musical Fidelity stops putting out high value/high resolution audio products at competitive price points, then my fellow concubines Sam Tellig and Michael Fremer will stop kvelling about them in the pages of Stereophile. Second, am I supposed to apologize for one of the great values in HighEnd audio? When the Musical Fidelity A3 CD player was first distributed in the United States several years ago by Audio Advisor, it retailed for $999; and even when a change in distributors keyed a price increase to $1199, it remained an exemplary example of affordable digital reproduction.
click to visit artist's on-line gallery
Click on image to visit Piet den Blanken's on-line photo gallery

It was a very warm, natural, involving-sounding CD player; not overly analytical or hyper-detailed but sweetly inviting, rounded and full-bodied, with a vaguely tube-like countenance plus good rhythm and pacing. There were certainly players at the time of its release that trumped it for detail, depth of field and a certain steely firmness of resolution. But on the whole, these were more expensive units. Despite being supplanted by the newer A3CR in the Musical Fidelity line, the original A3 retains much of its value - a musical performer and a dependable reference point even after all these years.

So when our Audiogon detractor recovers from his hissy fit, perhaps he should pause to consider this: The mere fact that he was able to recoup close to half of what he paid for this CD player at retail is testament to the enduring quality of the unit. Finally -- besides the inescapable reality that the Cary 308 (with its more modern 96Hz/24bit HDCD technology) costs $500 more than the A3 did when it first hit the market some five years ago -- on behalf of more experienced audiophiles and dealers, let us pose this rhetorical question: Besides the obvious advances in technology, what key tidbit of information did our worthy constituent fail to consider before jumping to such rash and dismissive conclusions?

Why, system synergy of course. As in, what is your system composed of? Are you employing solid state or vacuum tube amplification? What type of neurological interface (cabling, interconnects and AC cords) were you employing? What is the size of your room; and are its acoustic characteristics bright and reflective or muted and woolly? What is the characteristic sound signature of your loudspeakers and how do they interact with your amplification? At the risk of dangerously over-simplifying things - are they more spatially expansive, fulsomely detailed, sweetly voiced and punchy like the Joseph Audio RM7si Signature MKII? Or do they possess the full-bodied low-end, dynamic veracity, time coherence, richly voiced midrange and smooth top end of the Vandersteen 2Ce Signature? All else being equal, and based on your musical tastes, room interactions and the overall voicing you're trying to achieve, if this Audiogon aspirant had a solid-state integrated amp like the Simaudio i-5 and some Josephs, then perhaps the Musical Fidelity's warmly inviting signature might relax things a bit and add a touch of body to the sound. Whereas if he was employing a tube integrated amp like the Rogue Stereo 90 and some Vandersteens, then the leaner, more pristine detail of the Cary would tend to tighten down the sound and make for a more airy and expansive soundstage.

new Vandersteen Model 5A
So while it might be more comforting for audiophile aspirants in the used gear cyber-bazaars to dismiss the knowledge and experience of brick and mortar audio dealers, to inveigh against the integrity of audio reviewers and to concoct a series of one-size-fits-all conspiracy theories to explain away a lingering case of acne pimples and buyer's remorse... might we suggest that the ear educates itself over time? That experience of listening to thousands and thousands of hours of live and recorded music can only enhance one's auditory reference points? That no two rooms or set of ears are alike; that how you experience music (and your budgetary constraints) will go a long way towards determining your audition and purchase decision? And that how you balance the relative sonic attributes of each component and allow them to compensate for each other in the signal chain will influence how you ultimately make your trade-offs work for you? Oh, yes, and that it is often the smallest details that make the biggest difference?