I believe that one of the key elements to the success of any amplifier is microdynamic finesse. In that regard, the Stereo 88 is very good. Though certainly fast enough, I would stop short of calling it the most incisive amplifier I've ever heard - no supernatural speed, really. Where the Stereo 88 does seem to set itself apart is on the other side of that transient: The decay, the way it lets go of a note. The Stereo 88 has a way of allowing the natural erosion that maintains the music's harmonic balance in a superior way until it completely fades. Somewhat difficult for me to describe is the way music descends to nothing in its harmonic entirety, perhaps owing to the Stereo 88's very low noise floor and transparency. Does superior transparency allow such a natural decay; or does such a natural decay denote superior transparency? I'm not sure. Whichever it is, the Audiopax Stereo 88 got it. In addition to the way this lends an additional degree of authenticity to the music, it also lends an air (pardon the pun) of real space on well recorded orchestral and acoustic music. You not only hear music fade to nothing, but you hear it with the hall's sonic signature superimposed. Hence the Stereo 88 does a superior job of conveying a very realistic acoustic environment.

After dinner music

One afternoon I was huddled up in the reviewer's cave contentedly listening to Lyle Lovett's self-titled LP [MCA 5748]. The rest of the family was in the next room watching TV. Abruptly the telephone rang. Suddenly I was aware of my wife's conversation just above the din of the TV, not to mention above my music. Previously, I wasn't even aware of the TV's sonic intrusion. It was then that I realized how, though I was able to truly hear and enjoy my music, I was listening at some very relaxed levels. Once cognizant of all of the above, I realized just how transparent, detailed and communicative the Stereo 88 really is. It was somewhat of a revelation that I was able to listen through the music despite it being in competition with so much extraneous noise. Frequently, in order to achieve such a connection, I'm forced to crank the volume to such a level as to intrude on the family's TV enjoyment in the next room. Not with the Audiopax Stereo 88 - it's one amplifier that doesn't need to shout.

Huey Lewis and the News' Sports LP [Chrysalis FV 41412] should have provided a bit of a challenge, macro-dynamically speaking. With no low-pass filtering on the phono stage engaged, I feared that the deep bass on "Heart And Soul" would require a touch too much juice from the Audiopax. Nonsense. It didn't. As a matter of fact, "Bad Is Bad" sounded even more surprising - strong concussive bass for a sustained period was the rule, with not so much as a burp. More importantly than the 88's ability to create satisfying SPLs under the stress of such a sustained bass signal? The fact that the bass was so tight and controlled, with no hint of sounding strained or forced. Terrific.

By the time I pressed play on Neil Young's Unplugged CD [Reprise 9 45310-2], I thought I pretty much knew what to expect from the Audiopax: For starters, expansive 3-dimensional soundstaging and sharply delineated images. Young's voice and guitars were so hear-through, so sharply delineated and realistically mimicked that I had to remind myself. I was listening to Red Book CD, not its SACD cousin. Interestingly -- and something that I've never really made note of before -- was the way the perspective on Young changes from track to track. The beginning of "The Old Laughing Lady" had Young sitting in the distance, guitar on his lap, amongst a very wide and well-focused soundstage that eclipsed the width of my speakers.

Upon commencement of "Mr. Soul", the Stereo 88 produced a much more intimate view of the scene. The guitar with its heavier emphasis on the bass strings sounded much closer. The soundstage shrunk in width as well as prominence and was now restricted to the width of the speakers. Paradoxically, there was absolutely no change in perspective on Young's vocals. It now seemed to be located significantly beyond the plane of the guitar though still neatly presented and fully fleshed out.

One endearing trait of this Audiopax was the way it presented a lot of detail - plenty of soundstaging and imaging information, as well as much about what exactly was happening on the stage. I could hear into all the guitars, for example, being privy to much more information than members of the original audience would have been. Sometimes, with certain amplifiers or speakers, this kind of information can actually cause me to detach from the music. It becomes too supernatural, too distracting, too unrealistic. Not so with the Audiopax. I can't really put my finger on why, but instead of dissecting the performance into a thousand pieces, somehow it was able to make it gel into a single cohesive whole.

My friend Jules has a theory. People sometimes buy underpowered amplifiers when they really need more power. Subsequently, they limit their enjoyment to music that sounds good at the attainable levels. He may be right. To make sure that the Stereo 88s had what it took to make all my music sound its best, I reached for James Horner's Casper soundtrack one night [MCAD 11240]. This lively piece of orchestration ("No Sign Of Ghosts" in particular) is populated by everything from delicate triangles (which sounded splendid in their suspended ethereal delicacy) to some of the most brutish double basses you'll find.

It all sounded superb at my hardly lethal yet completely satisfying listening levels. Nothing seemed compromised by power restraints. On a whole, the Stereo 88's 15 watts resonated with more authority than most people -- myself included! -- would have predicted. Not only did the basses charge the room, they resonated with a superb amount of texture and finesse, on their own and through the recording hall. A visceral experience to be sure. Not that this CD was all about thrilling basses and power; while "No Sign Of Ghosts" and the Stereo 88 did combine for high marks on fortitude, so did the Audiopax and "Casper's Lullaby" hold hands for spiritual transcendence. Beautiful.

Inevitable comparisons to past loves

The Audiopax Stereo 88 reminds me of one of my all-time favorite tube amplifiers. Like the Stereo 88, my old flame owed the lion's share of its success to a fantastically clean and emotionally communicative yet intellectually honest midrange. Its treble was so well behaved and balanced as to almost defy description. Bass was tight and controlled enough that the listener would easily forgive the absent last iota of brute power. The amp? The Audiopax Model 3 integrated. What precluded a universal recommendation was an output of only 7.5 watts. On the other hand, what made the no-longer-available Model 3 even more memorable was its price - $1,980 USD. True, that's a far cry from the Stereo 88's $5970 USD. But what the Stereo 88 delivers is the same degree of performance (or higher - don't we all view past loves with rose- colored glasses?), double the power output, a degree of adjustability designed to optimize performance with just about any appropriate speaker and a fit, finish and build quality that is both heads and shoulders better to instill real pride of ownership.

I've already made some general observations regarding the Stereo 88 vis-à-vis such notable amplifiers as the CJ MV60 and the ARC VS55, which, though very good in their price and power output classes, don't really compare in the areas of ultimate transparency and not-being- thereness. But stay tuned for a more comprehensive comparison between the Audiopax Stereo 88 and an amplifier much more its own size: The Art Audio Carissa. It promises to be a study in contrasts, believe me.

That Timbre Lock thing

In my case it, was easy to dial in the Timbre Lock adjustment at the beginning of the review period. I did so without really consciously analyzing what was going on with the sound. I played with the adjustments moving the LED indicators back and forth until the music just sounded right. This mainly consisted of finding the point at which the music had the greatest degree of natural focus. In my case, I ended up with the LED at the illuminated eleven o'clock position.

It wasn't until the review was just about completed that I went back to see just what exactly the adjustment was doing. Perhaps the most illuminating of songs used was Jennifer Warne's "Bird On A Wire". With its strong and clean opening bass drums, the abundance of soundstage information and the clear and clean vocals, I found it fairly easy to map out the Timbre Lock's adjustments.

In a nutshell, here's what happens: Adjust the timbre lock controls to the counter-clockwise position and the seven o'clock indicator lights. The sound is dry, with the abundance of bass power diminished as the bass drum sounds muted and you no longer sense the drum mallet bouncing off the taut drum skin. Bass resonance is very close to nil. Almost all the air and spaciousness is gone, most soundstaging information greatly reduced. There is also a very noticeable grain overlying the music that won't take a trained ear to hear.

Advance the adjustments to their stops in the clockwise position and the sound is very different. At the 5:30 position, the first thing you notice is the amplifier producing more gain, making the music louder. (So much for the objectivist's credo that louder is always better!) The bass takes on a new heft - a bit too much and not as tight as at its optimum. Midrange is again not as clean and focused as in the optimum position, which we passed right through to get to this point on the dial. There is now a touch of grain but not nearly as much as in the opposite extreme. Lastly, there is a billowing sense of space and the opening bass drum now resonates like crazy. While soundstaging is more exciting, imaging specificity has deteriorated.

It's important to understand that these observations of the Stereo 88 -- and my ideal setting of 11 o'clock -- are specific to using my Silverline Sonata II loudspeakers, in my room and with my gear. Perhaps more than ever, your mileage would likely vary. Just let your ears be the guide.

Conclusion: A kiss at the door?

Obviously, I liked the Stereo 88. I recommend it highly for a lengthy and enjoyable audition to anybody in the market. The only question? Whether or not it has enough power for you. Fifteen watts is not a lot, but in the right hands, in the right rooms and in the presence of proper system matching, it sure is magic.

To e-mail reviewer, click his name.
Distributor's website