Talking about tube amps, specifically once you've agreed on the output tube and class of operation -- push/pull, single-ended, OTL -- isn't so different from discussing actors. It's simply a matter of class or tier. And I'm not talking pay scale. With any Tom Cruise-style schauspieler, you more or less know what you'll get regardless of the movie you pay to watch. You'll find yourself observing the process of acting. There's a limited range of expressive repertoire, a distinct style. It constantly reminds you of the self-conscious man behind the actor's mask. A truly powerful actor like Jack Nicholson has the unlimited vocabulary to completely own any role. Still, his sheer charisma of real-world personality often remains the connecting thread. You're no longer seeing one single Tom Cruise at work, you're now watching endless Jack Nicholson facets at play. Yet they're still Jack - brilliant, fascinating, often over-the-top, but visible remnants of persona. Only that rarest of Daniel Day-Lewis chameleons renders all predictions, technicalities and expectations mute. You only know that something completely unique is about to occur. Something that won't suffer any precedents in the actor's bio. You're bound to utterly forget identity and method. Simply compare My Left Foot, Gangs of New York, The Last Mohican, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Age of Innocence.

An audio component with bona fide High-End aspirations must emulate Day-Lewis. Be invisible, let the musical script take center stage. With rising levels of implementation, tricker execution of circuit architectures, better devices and an overall design goal of neutrality, the potency of component personalities eventually dilutes like homeopathy. You'll then question whether you're not just paying for an alcohol tincture in a fancy bottle, with even the faintest trace of medicinal substance evaporated. In the upper audio echelons, the various roads of approach to this inner sanctum finally converge. Perhaps not yet or never to a single point (and speakers excluded), but clearly congregating in a rather small space. They're sonically distinctly no longer all over the map. In other words, the closer you get to this elusive goal of 'just the music', the less it matters how you got there. In the sleek solid-state muscle car? On the tubed ox cart? Via a push-pull 32-cylinder block? By rickety foot-powered Riksha? Who cares? You're home now. Time to throw the coat over the bed rail. Stay for a while. Gonna use that remote to turn me on?

This as a reminder that once you penetrate the Left Foot Zone of audio, the component as actor should vanish. You now expect only weak and very occasional remnants of voicing. To discern those? That requires sitting through the whole blasted movie multiple times until it hurts, with meticulous pen & paper to disassociate from the emotional charge and catch the fella in the act of acting. Or, sifting through endless CDs for that certain track where you finally spot effort and method. This makes it ever more challenging to write up yet another platinum effort. When stuff gets better and better and more and more expensive -- as a trend, mind you; expense and performance aren't automatically synonymous no matter what silver solder you wire 'em up with -- there remains less and less to be said about actual audible performance. To make up for undue brevity, reviewers then often spin the long yarn upfront. They describe the machine itself, the cool factor, the outrageous build quality, the deluxe features, the lust-inducing gleam, the weight and high-carat plating details.

And why not? Once you arrive at this inner circle of ultra competence, that's all that can be jived about. Well, if you added measurements, you could still hypothesize at length over how they confirmed your subjective audible results - or wrestle with explaining how come your reviewer couldn't hear the obvious flaws so clearly suggested by the test bench. In the end, with any authentic SOTA effort, it comes down to this: Can you afford it? Do you like the looks? Do you dig the user interface? Does it have the features you want? Do you philosophically agree with the design choices? Is your lily gilded to the max? Are you filled to last-month pregnancy with pride of ownership? Are you ready to pop and happy?

If you had $3,590 and a premium source to strap them to, the modified Shanling SP-80 50-watt, EL-34 push/pull pentode monos with analog-domain High-End attenuation via BurrBrown PGA2310 chips (sync'd by communications link to operate in tandem via single remote command) should put a shit-eating grin on the face of even the most jaded audiophile prepared to part with $10,000 worth of smackers for a pre/power combo.

Before this smacks of laissez-faire tongue-in-cheekery, consider that included in this price is a very comprehensive Parts ConneXion modification package. There are four new reference grade Burr-Brown OPA627s in the preamp stage; upgraded Russian Electro-Harmonix 6SN7, Philips JAN-6188/6SL and JJ/TESLA E34L power tubes; 10 Black Gate C and FK Series power supply capacitors; 4 Auricap metalized polypropylene power supply bypass capacitors; 16 MultiCap PPFX-S polypropylene film and tin foil coupling caps as well as MultiCap RTX polystyrene film and tin foil coupling bypass capacitors; 48 Japanese-made Audio Note 0.5-, 1- and 2-watt signal path Tantalum film resistors; 2' of DH-Labs 99.99% pure silver 23-gauge solid-core, Teflon tape-wrap jacketed input wire; 16 IR Hexfred ultra-fast soft recover rectifying diodes and 2 SF4007 Vishay-Telefunken ultra-fast soft recovery diodes. Did I mention that WBT silver solder and the two sheets of SoundCoat?

With their fetching silver/gold/copper scheme and flawlessly machined metal work, the SP-80s have brains, too. Their circular displays sport 4-stage remote dimming and 0.5dB-step attenuation confirmation. Upon power-on, the units auto-default to -40dB unless the prior setting was less. In that case, the amp will recall the lower setting.

The designers in Shenzhen were rightly concerned over how to conveniently extend their remote volume facility to both amps simultaneously. Terminated with 1/8" plugs like you'd find on cheap headphones, an included communications link straps them together aft to execute commands up front in perfect tandem. Siamese twins. A rear-mounted toggle determines which unit becomes slave and which master. You want to make the left one bossman, sahib or bwana? The blue LED will confirm your choice. Aim the broad-dispersion all-metal full-function remote (it also controls the T-200 tubed SACD player)at that display. You're in charge of volume. Mute and illumination, too. This smart detail allows placement options in which the second amp could go into hiding. Not that I understand why you'd possibly want it to.

You see, the quality of CNC machining on the all-metal monos wouldn't blush being compared to the best Ultra-Fi from Italy or the US. Admittedly, the particular main-chassis finish is unusually fond of finger prints and requires careful and regular cleaning to remain its immaculate self. Killer looks don't always chill with ease of practice. The business ends sports hefty plastic-shrouded metal 8/4ohm terminals and the ubiquitous IEC power inlets while the included power cords are anything but standard Belden equivalents. Rather, they clearly play in the $300 to $500 leagues of aftermarket specialty cords.

Today's review of a modified Shanling follows our earlier evals of the equally supercharged Shanling T-100, Jolida JD-100 and Music Hall CD-25. The Shanling T-200, Quad QC-24 valve preamp and Outlaw M-200 high-power balanced transistor monoblocks will follow, all with cheerful Underwood Hifi makeovers performed at Chris Johnson's Canadian Parts ConneXion shop. The reason for this underwoody focus is simple. Modifications, when designed by knowledgeable technicians with good ears, can offer one of the highest bang-for-the-buck performance returns, especially when they begin with a rock-solid, attractive and already high-performance platform as here. 

After all, we're not talking the Ah Tjoeb model that begins with a very affordable Marantz to essentially gut everything except the chassis and transport/laser assembly. We're talking expensive Sony/Philips-type SACD player precedents. Such high-level mods deliberately focus on mechanical tanks that may merely lack in final audiophile pretensions what they more than make up for in comprehensive features and overall last-forever build quality.

When such modifications are further covered under the original manufacturer's warranty -- or, in today's case, by Roy Hall of Music Hall as Shanling's US distributor -- they can turn doubly attractive. With very sizable, potted and mechanically perfectly quiet transformers, the SP-80s also electrically acted mute in the minus 40-100 band I used with my Avantgarde hornspeakers. First audible hiss set in at 25, equating levels far in excess of dangerous on my high-sensitivity speakers. At unity gain of minus 12.5, noise became too overt to insert my PRe6 for a comparison. But for all practical intents and purposes, these Shanlings had nothing to say when not fed a signal via the side-mounted RCA inputs. Those are placed adjacent to the (right) 6SL7 input tube on each. Due to the monos' considerable overall length (19.25" including terminals), this requires an additional 18 inches of cable to reach past the rear panel where input terminals are customarily attached. It thus necessitates either reasonably close placement of the source to get away with standard 3-ft interconnects, or longer cables. Ready to finally use that remote for true dual-mono power and preamp action?