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Best of the Best 2002: Home Electronics: Best Audio Equipment

Updated Tradition

Audio Research, under the aegis of William Z. Johnson, has seen tube amplifiers go in and out of fashion since the original high-end revolution 30 years ago. In recent years, the company’s amplifiers have grown larger and more complex, but there has always been a coterie of audiophiles with a special passion for Johnson’s traditional, pure tube amplifiers.

Unexpectedly, Johnson came out of semi-retirement to update the classic midsized Audio Research amps of yore with technical niceties such as remote on/off triggering. The Audio Research VS55 power amp, in addition to resembling a vintage amplifier, addresses recent trends with its compact dimensions and ease-of-use in custom installations. At the same time, a power rating of 50 watts per channel suits today’s easy-to-drive speakers. But the real appeal is the sound: warm, rich, and so musical that it will have you digging out your old vinyl LPs.

Audio Research, www.audioresearch.com

Conversion Game

On the back of any dCS brochure is a list of customers who use the company’s digital converters. Instead of anonymous audiophiles like Charlie T. of Albuquerque (“I love your speakers!”), you find names such as Telarc, Sony Music, and the Library of Congress.

Understandably, expectations were high for dCS’s Verdi disc transport, which was created to feed its world-class converters. dCS is not a company that pays heed to the whimsy of fashion, so it began cautiously with CD and remained with two-channel sound even when SACD transport was added. Resisting multichannel music did not cause fans to revolt since the company has a planet full of satisfied stereo clients. Using two-chassis architecture, dCS put the mechanical elements in one box and isolated the electronics in another. Then the manufacturer added eight digital outputs—including true DSD output for SACD—a five-year warranty and the ability for upgrades.

dCS, www.dcsltd.co.uk

You Asked For It

Halcro earned instant praise from the audio community for its staggeringly powerful dm58 and dm68 amplifiers. Both offer superb sound quality, perfect fit and finish, and radical styling. The buzz swiftly created a universal demand for a matching pre-amplifier.

Unveiled in January, the Halcro dm10 pre-amplifier resembles the upper half of a dm68: Two vertical sections containing the power supply are connected by a “bridge” to the control unit’s circuitry. A large readout displays the volume levels, while rotary controls and an array of push buttons handle all the functions. Despite its arch modernity, this remote-controlled solid-state masterpiece gives proper respect to pure analog with its onboard phono stage. The fully adjustable settings allow you to optimize any cartridge so that you can extract the maximum output from your LPs.

Halcro, www.halcro.com

Loud and Clear

It was probably inevitable that Krell, known for its powerhouse amplifiers, would one day turn its attention to loudspeakers. Founder Dan D’Agos-tino began in speaker design, after all, long before he produced amplifiers for Krell. The company’s first speaker system is undeniably Krell-influenced, so the Krell LAT-1 speaker looks as if it came from a machine shop rather than a furniture store. D’Agostino specified that the finest drive units be tweaked to Krell’s standards. Then he housed them in a massive enclosure made of machined aluminum to produce a sonically dead, utterly rigid enclosure. In an ideal speaker, only the drivers move—not the enclosure—and the LAT-1’s cabinet is as inert as any you will find. Although Krell expects you to drive LAT-1s with one of its own power amps, the speakers are surprisingly easy to run on others.

Krell, www.krellonline.com

Old Dog With A New Trick

McIntosh is one of the industry’s oldest, most respected, and until recently, conservative brands. The latter changed in 1999 when it introduced its all-tube limited edition (only 559 were made) MC2000 power ampli-fier. McIntosh quickly discovered customers appreciated that the company still had the chops to deliver tube hardware of the finest sort.

Although McIntosh had been focusing only on solid-state, it responded by developing a tube pre-amp and power amp to remain in the catalog as regular items. The McIntosh C2200 pre-amplifier is the company’s first all-new tube pre-amp since 1968. The phono stage and tubes may seem vintage, but the C2200 is as computer-controlled as any current solid-state device. The McIntosh MC2120 power amp has glorious tube sonics with features and behaviors that smack less of a 1950s lawyer’s office than a current custom installation.

McIntosh, www.mcintoshlabs.com

Logical Process

Nagra is one of few audio companies involved in recording film sound tracks, so it has a unique insight into home cinema. With its pre-amp and power amp, the com-pany has shown that it could handle stereo with aplomb, and now it enters the multichannel world with the Nagra DAP processor/pre-amp. Handling as many as eight channels of audio, it processes the latest 6.1 and 7.1 channel formats at the highest resolution in use today. Converter specifications will be easily upgradable as new algorithms are created for the various formats.

The machined, all-aluminum chassis is pure Nagra, but there is one break from tradition: LED readouts instead of analog metering. Because of Nagra’s expertise in video, it has designed the DAP uniquely with no facilities for video signals. The Swiss company believes video signals should be kept as far away as possible from audio circuitry. Can we, therefore, expect a matching video processor in the future?

Nagra, www.nagrausa.com

Fearless Power

Theta’s “baby” five-channel amplifier is the sort of component that inspires confidence, just like its predecessor, the Dreadnaught. Built like its namesake battleship, the Intrepid multichannel power amp exudes power, even at a “medium” 100 watts per channel. Although the wattage is half that of the Dreadnaught, it will drive most modern loudspeakers, making  the Intrepid ideal for the demands of home cinema when convincing volume is essential to the experience.

In keeping with Theta’s practice, the Intrepid can be operated in fully balanced mode for the best possible type of connection to your A/C control unit. Naturally, the Intrepid feels most at home when fed signals from Theta’s own Casablanca or Casa Nova processors. The Intrepid doesn’t offer as much configuring flexibility as the Dreadnaught, but it retains remote switching, plenty of onboard safety features, and thankfully features a much smaller chassis.

Theta, www.thetadigital.com

Younger Sibling

How do you follow one of the best-selling high-end loudspeakers of all time? In its sixth iteration, the WATT Puppy system has spawned more imitators than any other Wilson Audio speaker. The familiar pyramid top situated on a bass enclosure delivers a huge amount of sound from the deceptively compact dimensions. It is justifiably regarded as a modern classic.

Wilson’s Sophia speaker is a fine addition, and from across the room it looks identical to the WATT Puppy. Additionally, the newcomer is a less costly option for multichannel sound and is easier to set up and drive. The speaker has one less bass unit, a fixed top section, high sensitivity, and presents an easier load for an amplifier.

Think of the Sophia as a Porsche Boxster to the WATT Puppy’s 911 Turbo. You have the same choice of Wilsongloss colors, and 95 percent of the performance for significantly less outlay.

Wilson Audio, www.wilsonaudio.com

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