A lot! The current status quo:
Here are a few discoveries that have me excited over their uncommon combination of performance and price. Price of course always mandates recitation of the law of relativity. What's affordable to some is out of reach to others or plain mad. That said, my personal quest is informed by solid exposure to the sometimes silly but truly excellent. The job at hand is to take those standards and apply them to far more affordable offerings, with the intent to identify those which compromise so little that you wouldn't be much the wiser outside of a direct A/B (if at all).
While I have long since put my wallet where my mouth it when it comes to Zu Cable speakers, I honestly wasn't prepared to find myself equally impressed with their cables. The long and short of that story now is that for $495/1m/pr and $1,200/8'/pr, Zu's top-line Varial interconnect and Ibis speaker cable outperform plenty of rather costlier cables. Apparently due to details in their undisclosed geometry, these modest-looking though very well-made and flexible cables have ultra-low noise floors, meaning you hear all the detail at very low levels. Put differently, these cables appear to sound louder than others at equivalent levels. These are highly resolved neutral cables without tone control tricks up their thin sleeves. They clean out the fuzzies to let you hear more without interpreting the data through designer voicing. At the end of the day, I see no reason to spend a penny more on cables.
On the preamp front, I've fallen hard of late for the transformer-attenuated passive approach if/when mated to superior triode amps that don't want help in the tone and body department. Rather than lean, cold, flat and sterile, the passive/triode combo let's me hear the glorious amplifier/speaker combination without introducing another -- detracting -- flavor. An added bonus is elimination of redundant gain which, in a high-efficiency speaker context, means losing noise. Good riddance!
At $2K and 2.5K respectively, the Stevens & Billington-fitted copper AudioZone PRE-T1 and Music First Audio Passive Magnetic are dead ringers for triode fiends who don't require extra gain but need the invisible functionality of volume control and source switching. The moral of that story goes along these lines: "A superior well-balanced amp requires no assistance to sound excellent. Rather, preceding gain stages are liable to thicken the sound, reduce transparency, slow down speed and step back articulation." This is no blanket endorsement for this type of passive. After all, it requires full-on excellence on part of the amplifier/speaker combination to suggest that absolutely nothing is missing there that wouldn't benefit from some help elsewhere.
At first glance, two big ones for a passive don't appear to be any great bargain. However, the Permalloy core/Mu-metal shielded tapped precision transformers that control volume in these devices are expensive little buggers. We're not talking an Alps Blue Velvet pot or even a classy GoldPoint or DacT ladder-type affair. Different class altogether. TVCs or transformer volume controls aren't cheap then. However, for what they are and how they sound -- or rather, not sound -- they could be the ultimate solution for triode hounds who well know that too much of a good thing (too many tubes in a system) can easily backfire. Viewed from that angle, 2 grand for superior sound suddenly does look like rather a bargain (and the British piece allows bi-directional conversion of RCA and XLR feeds - go in one way, come out another).
Which brings me to two $3,000 triode amps, the Yamamoto Sound Craft A-08S and the Fi 421A. Both are micro power SETs at 2 and 4 watts respectively and thus fringe products. They can only be used as intended -- and hence successfully -- with speakers of not just high sensitivities but also bass alignments that don't rely on high damping factors. Mate them properly, however, and you have a no-noise, very modern sound that combines spunk, speed and dynamics with tone and monster soundstaging, sort of like what we might hope would happen if we stuck a few 6SN7s into a Class D switch-mode amp: Neutral, high resolution, ultra quiet, with a goodly dose of tube magic that never reaches into the liability bag of valves.
Besides sterling sound, either amp further instills serious pride of ownership as a truly hand-crafted products made by a bona fide artisan. Purchasing such goods supports people who are pushing forward the art of audio rather than the art of building gigantic sonic emporiums. So there you have it - the most promising specimens of my most recent fishing expedition in the realsizing boat. Again, I'm voting with my wallet. The Zu Cables are already mine, the Yamamoto will be once the bill comes due. And if Santa Claus likes me this year, the Passive Magnetic might have to follow suit. Besides working like the proverbial charm with the Yamamoto, it also makes for a killer review instrument to hear amplifiers for what they really are. Office equipment, get it? I need it for work fer cryin' out lawd...
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