I know from experience how exceptionally responsive especially the MiniMax preamp is to tube substitutions. Rather notable shifts from lean/fast to dense/relaxed can be dialed in easily and with no great cost penalty. And as I've already chronicled in my review of the MiniMax CDP in conjunction with the phenomenal Japanese audio-technica ATH-W1000 phones, the headphone socket of the HDCD-enabled player is so ridiculously good that it completely obliterates the need for any fancy outboard headphone amplifier - which in my book throws a really good free $700 version of a latter outboarder into our $900 Asian disc spinner. Value, anybody? That said, I still needed to explore how this player would hold up against a very popular competitor, the Jolida JD100 which I have in the Underwood-Hifi-modified Level-1 version.

I selected Souad Massi's Raoui/Storyteller CD [Wrasse 061] and in particular, "Hayati|My Life" to get a reading on whatever differences I might discern. This very gifted Algerian vocalist is unusual for not singing any Rai but concentrating instead on Tracy Chapman-reminiscent singer-songwriter fare that's delivered with a very open yet fragile voice pregnant with conflicting emotions like a teenage femme fatale.

The MiniMax was slightly more articulate and had better depth which, in conjunction, upped the refinement/ elegance ante particularly in the lead voice which was surrounded by more audible space and presence.
On one of my all-time favorite CDs, Barrio Chino's Mediterra Nostra [Candela/Tinder 861042], the same distinction was confirmed, with the Jolida sounding a bit coarser as though the MiniMax was marginally more resolved especially when things got complex, dense and intermingled. A bit slimmer, a bit more defined, spatially a bit more concrete or sophisticated, my personal biases in this context came down on the side of the Eastern Electric unit whose appearance additionally is somewhat more suave. There's just one
minor item about the maxi mini which could bug the wrong customer. By mechanically removing the auto-mute relay from the circuit, you'll hear a small mechanical click when you first start a CD or direct-access a track either by number or forward/reverse command. This mechanical click also records should you make compilations from various discs which requires putting the master CDs on 'pause', then hitting 'play' to insert this miniature pop ahead of every track recorded.

If you're playing your CDs beginning to end, I'm sure the one-time click just before the first track won't trouble you at all - but it's fair to mention this "feature" which some upscale players implement to remove the ubiquitous mute circuit from the audio path. While we're taking critical notes, the only other two minus marks I could attach to these electronics? One is a small amount of audible hiss even via standard-efficiency speakers, sans signal and as a function of power-supply noise floor. This is normal for affordable tube gear but extremists who shave twice a day and insist on everything being squeaky-clean might disagree and are thus properly notified. Lastly, I wish the binding posts of the amp were terminated in hex rather than round nuts to allow the use of a wrench instead of being limited to mere finger tightening.

What if you bought just one component out of this stack while stepping outside the 'more than the sum of its part' recipe of designed-in system synergy? My vote would go to the preamp as the true monster dragon slayer of the bunch that will stare down far dearer units as long as you've matched its sonics via proper tube selection to your system needs. For an after-hours bedroom rig in the privacy of your own skull, I can't recommend the MiniMax CDP/audio-technica highly enough. In fact, after reading that particular review, Bill O'Connell ordered a pair of W1000s himself to not disturb his 'little lady' in the wee hours of the morning. He reports 110% satisfaction so I'm confident it's not just zoned-out me who can go bonkers over this combo.

As a reviewer of often very expensive equipment, I don't expect ultimate perfection from affordable gear. What I'm hoping for is relative perfection. By that I mean an overall balance that doesn't telegraph any overt failings. Unless you compared in a dissective tunnel-vision fashion, you'd never be pulled out of the playback magic here by some notorious reminders of something being amiss, skewed, wrong, weak, out of whack or unsatisfactory. Call this a critical while reasonable perspective that savors a complex soup for the overall experience of taste, texture, body and finish but doesn't attempt to reverse-engineer the recipe with all its ingredients.

From that perspective, the MiniMax trio will leave you wanting for nothing. To be honest, with a budget of $2,700 for amplification separates plus a digital front-end with headphone jack, comprehensive remote, HDCD and digital out; with this level of fit'n'finsh and sonics - I wouldn't know where else to go. I should add that prolonged exposure to the rarefied airs of statement-level products -- whether one likes it or not -- tends to create a certain threshold below which one's attention quickly drifts and writes off components that others less jaded, over-stimulated or expectant could happily live with forever after. Let's be clear that even being used to some $85,000+ worth of designer gear did not elicit sentiments of compromise from the company of these Eastern Electric minis. Outside of the soundstage which is truly gargantuan, aspects like dynamics and ultimate transparency are simply scaled back a bit as you'd expect. More importantly, the peach, though smaller, still tastes every bit a peach.

That's the most important accomplishment of affordable anythings - to spread their compromises around in such an even-handed fashion that you don't notice them. Areas of relative compromise here involve incisiveness, rise times, noise floor and ultra-dynamic voltage swings. But the areas of tone and timbre, richness and depth, flow and involvement step out of this relativity and stand proudly on their own against far more expensive gear. This simply means that if the latter qualities are your priority, there really is no good reason to spend more. None. Should you fancy the former aspects more, you can get closer to your dreams elsewhere but chances are very good that you'll end up with less of the other qualities in turn. This should give you a good idea whether MiniMax squared to the third power is good for you or not. Today's award is for the system as a whole which clearly benefits from additive magic in how the components gel with each other. Going solo, it's the preamp that deserves an award - and we've already taken care of that in the past when we first came across it. For those in need of more power, watch for the new Eastern Electric M156 tube integrated which will be powered by a quad of the new EL156 power pentodes and two 5AR4 rectifiers for 40 watts of go juice. But if your speakers are the sensitive non-reactive types, don't underestimate today's amp. It'll be all you need, guaranteed.

In closing, kudos to MorningStar Audio for making the scary decision to go direct. This clearly benefits the consumer with super-attractive pricing. It also condemns the seller to waiting for phone calls or e-mails unless he's prepared to shell out the bick bux for advertising and other proactive promotional efforts. However, those often don't work as well as they should and regardless of results, will reflect back on what the goods need to be sold for to amortize the expensive propaganda. Because we're little guys ourselves, we sympathize with other little guys who are trying to make a go of it in these challenging economical times for luxury items of any sort. Best wishes then to Bill O'Connell and Alex Yeung. Their products truly deserve them and are about as luxurious as you can buy for a very reasonable amount of bread.
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