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If we propose that the quality of audio devices is described by their ability to differentiate audio signals from recordings, cables, sources etc., then the Luxman L-550A II will sit on the very top of amplifiers up to 20000zl, sharing the peak with the Aaron No.1.a. What does differentiating imply? It means that the more a device magnifies differences, the fewer obstacles remain in its signal path. In other words, it is more transparent and does less damage to the signal. This is one of the best but of course not only methodologies for conducting listening research. A splendid article covering this topic while showing the thinking of the folks of the American Internet magazine EnjoyTheMusic can be found under Are You On The Road To... Audio Hell? by Leonard Norwitz (EnjoyTheMusic) and Peter Qvortrup (Audio Note UK) who propose that this is the only 'scientific' way of comparison. Comparative tests using as reference devices from the same price tier or much costlier equipment are essentially flawed as their reference points are imperfect and this method tells little about the comparison to a live event. That last one is only partially helpful as we must rely on a memory of what we heard which does not correlate to the individual recordings we hear at home. There is much truth in those statements. Data gathered in the process of differentiation evaluations are powerful and easily accessible. In my opinion, this method isn't the whole truth because it tells nothing about many aspects of the sound like tonal balance yet it is a valid part of my own tests.

The four aspects I try to assess are:
  • comparison by contrast - a Leonard Norwitz description here
  • comparison to a much costlier known reference point,
  • comparison to a reference point from the same price tier
  • comparison to a live event.

No death threats please for placing the live event at the end of the list. For one, all entries are equal. Two, knowledge of the sound of real instruments is a 'basic' knowledge and part of a normal education process on listening, learning to use the brain and understanding how things should sound. We cannot bring a concert into our homes nor would it be the same acoustics. It becomes a different performance. Remembering a concert experience invokes a time delay that is too large to play anything but a supporting role. Those are of course the basics but it is on those that we need to build detailed research to describe how a device sounds.

Regardless of methodology, the ability to differentiate sits in first place of the best systems I know. They are not best because they differentiate best but this element is always an important ingredient. That is why, when I hear a device like the Luxman capable of that, I grow very careful like a worker returning to his home and wife with a paycheck. The Japanese amplifier is brilliant in this regard. That does not mean it's flawless, that it can be blindly recommended. I will mention a few mostly higher priced competitors that are equally interesting but different. (During the review, the Luxman was available for 10900zl based on the yen to zloty exchange. This price will remain for a while, then settle at 14900zl. That's why I treated this piece as though selling for 15000zl all along).

I just wrote that the resolution of the Luxman was splendid because a moment ago I reviewed the equally interesting but twice as expensive Belles IA-01 - and had the Aaron on hand for further comparisons to determine the cause of this phenomenon exactly. For example, I put together two different pressings of certain discs and want to now recall two that summarize the experiment nicely: Herbie Mann & The Bill Evans Trio Nirvana and Peter Gabriel IV (or Security). I wrote about the first one some time ago but it is nice to return to it. The regular Rhino version from Germany is very pleasant but the instruments sound as though the disc is mono. By contrast, the newest Japanese SHM-CD pressing is stereophonic, with instruments scattered between both channels. And it is far worse. The Belles showed that very thoroughly. Without any trace of doubt I preferred the European version but even so, I was not fully clear on why. Something was apparent but without exaggeration, only playing those recordings over the Luxman allowed me to properly analyze the why. The Japanese amplifier does not just show what is happening but at the same time, why and what the effect thereof is. That's like deconstructionism where the sound is first disassembled, then examined and finally put back together. Seemingly this was the same recording with the same sounds but our perception became radically different. We perceived everything deeper. That makes the Luxman into an outstanding device. And this isn't about detail per se as there are amplifiers like the Pass INT-150 or Accuphase A-550 and E-450 that are as good or better.

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I speak of a performance that is resolved, detailed and thorough without being degraded by its mastering quality. I was stunned by how good the Genesis disc Calling All Stations sounded. Ray Wilson's voice still was very badly recorded but it did not cause any vexations. Due to a very well developed treble and harmonic coherence, the flaws of the mastering, although present, did not get in the way. This was similar to a good turntable whose pops and ticks are shown 'next' to the music and as such, occur in another plane of perception to become less offensive. The brain does not tire over them trying to catch up with the music. It knows the noise to be different. The Luxman was similar.