If Either of These Amplifiers is RIGHT


It was January 1986. Stereophile’s then publisher, Larry Archibald, and I were driving in his diesel ‘Benz sedan from Las Vegas to Santa Fe. We had shaken hands at the just-concluded Consumer Electronics Show on my replacing J. Gordon Holt as the magazine’s editor, and now, during the 750-mile drive, we mapped out the strategy to take what was then an “underground,” digest-format, somewhat irregularly published magazine to the position of dominance in audio publishing it still enjoys.
As Larry and I discussed on that 13-hour drive from Nevada to New Mexico, we began publishing every month with our October 1987 issue. We had planned to change to the large format you hold in your hands in January 1993. However, we missed that target, not hitting it until 25 years ago, with our January 1994 issue (footnote 1). And in January 2019 as in January 1994, our cover features two amplifiers. One of them is the 25th Anniversary “Reference Series” version of Cary Audio’s CAD-805 single-ended triode monoblock, that originally appeared on that January 1994 cover and is reviewed in this issue by Art Dudley. The other is Cambridge Audio’s Edge A solid-state integrated amplifier, also reviewed in this issue by Ken Micallef. While the Cary was joined on the 1994 cover by a solid-state Krell KSA-300S, the headline a younger me wrote back then still applies: “If either of these amplifiers is RIGHT . . . the other must be WRONG.”

One of the things Larry and I talked about in our 1986 odyssey was the inclusion in the magazine’s equipment reviews of measurements, which began in fall 1989. As I wrote a few years ago, my model for a review of an audio product was, then and now, a review of an Ortofon phono cartridge in the July 1966 issue of the English magazine Hi-Fi News, written by the magazine’s then editor, John Crabbe. The measurements in that review and the descriptions of the sound quality went together; one could not be read without reference to the other, and vice versa. Each supported the other.

But with the amplifiers on our January 1994 and 2019 covers, this model breaks down. Our reviewers praised both the Cary’s and the Cambridge’s sound qualities, but when it comes to these amplifiers’ measured performances, things could not be more different.

The large, heavy, inefficient, single-channel Cary is intolerant of low impedances, suffers from hum, and delivers only a limited amount of power, with a level of distortion that the late John Crabbe, for whom I worked at Hi-Fi News from 1976 to 1982, would have dismissed with a snort. The two-channel Cambridge delivers respectably high power even into low impedances, with vanishingly low levels of distortion and noise. And, as befits a 21st-century amplifier, it offers a full array of digital inputs, including a USB port and a Bluetooth antenna. These models represent polar opposites in amplifier design, but they can’t both be right. Only one can be telling the truth—the other must be lying.

Similarly, Chord’s Qutest DAC, which I review in this issue, has state-of-the-digital-art measured performance, while the identically priced BorderPatrol DAC SE, which Herb Reichert and Jon Iverson reviewed in our September and November 2018 issues, measured so poorly that I was concerned that our review sample might have been broken. It wasn’t, and, as Jon Iverson wrote in his Follow-Up, the lies the BorderPatrol DAC told were lies of commission: “It purred like a sweet, sultry voice, softly caressing my ears, nibbling them gently, even as it lied to me with every word. Contrast that with what I prefer to hear: a calm, even voice telling me the unvarnished truth, even if that truth may hurt a little.”

This in turn led to reader Duane Jackson writing, with more than a tinge of irony, in this issue’s “Letters,” Jon Iverson “has saved me from my mistaken enjoyment . . . The beautiful sound of strings that I hear at live concerts is a mistake made by my brain analyzing signals from my ears. Those strings should sound steely.”

The question is: Does that “mistaken enjoyment” stem from what the component is doing wrong, or despite it? I know how Herb Reichert’s “Mr. O” would respond. As for me, 30 years ago, I announced Stereophile’s introduction of measurements by saying “Measurements . . . will lift us above the level of the primitive. Reproduced music will not then be magic; it will just sound magic.” But as we approach the 21st century’s third decade, the arguments over what sounds musically magic and what measures well continues unabated.—John Atkinson