True Stories from Positive Feedback
What if feels like to write audio reviews

A perennial comment on the Internet goes as follows: "How can you objectively review any audio component without double-blind testing? Everyone knows that audio-memory only lasts a few minutes. Without double-blind test protocols, reviews will inevitably be contaminated by expectation and peer pressure."

Comments like this demonstrate the writer has never done any serious audio reviewing. Let's put it this way: you visit a friend who is a hard-core ice-cream fan, they hand you a fresh pint of Haagen-Daz Chocolate-Chip Ice Cream, you take it home, you admire the elegant package, you open it up with great anticipation, you look at the yummy ice-cream, you smell the chocolate-chip bits, you dig into the ice-cream, take the first glistening bite --- and it tastes like brocolli! Now, I like brocolli, but sitting on a plate with butter on it, not as a surprise ice-cream flavor!

Would you remember an experience like this? Of course you would! You'd never forget it. That's what hi-fi reviewing is really like. If the sonic differences are so piddling small you need a scientific double-blind test to discern it, forget it. Differences that tiny aren't even worth worrying about. The only things worth reviewing are the really big differences, where you call all your friends and tell them, "You gotta hear this!"

During the time I was writing reviews for Positive Feedback magazine, I must have heard something like thirty to fifty amplifiers, twenty cables, twelve speakers, and assorted DACs and other things, not to mention hundreds of other things at the CES in Las Vegas. Yes, of course, the PF reviewing staff would get our hopes up, and really get excited about some component that just came off the UPS truck. Let me tell you a few stories.

Great Expectations

This is the story of the Pass Aleph Three. I had already written glowing reviews of the Audio Note Ongaku and Reichert Silver 300B, both of which sounded wonderful on the Ariels, and was looking forward to hearing a moderate-power transistor amplifier of top-flight design. I had complained in print that low-power transistor amps typically got bottom-of-the-barrel treatment, thanks to market positioning and cost-cutting. I felt that a simple, low-power amp could potentially sound better than a big-watt cousin if it received the same kind of attention-to-detail of the super amps.

David Robinson, publisher, editor, and all-around review co-ordinator, told me about the much-awaited Pass amplifier, which might be exactly what I was looking for. A very clean and elegant 30 watts from one of the top transistor designers in the world, a man on the same elevated plane as Mark Levinson. This could really be something!

PF has a staff of several reviewers, and for once I was at the head of the line (I was at the end of the line for the Ongaku and Reichert amplifiers, so I didn't get them more than two weeks). I went over to David's place, picked up the amplifier in it's quite heavy carton, signed the paperwork (gotta do these by the book, also lets David know what products are where), and drove home in great anticipation.

Opened the box, wow these things are heavy, and found they looked like cubist porcupines, heat-sink fins around all four sides, with a clean top and bottom. Very efficient, and elegant in an industrial way. Got the interconnects and speaker cables on to the small connector block (very tight quarters), and fired them up. Now, I knew from experience that transistor amps can sound pretty nasty out of the box, especially after a long ride across Portland in the ice-cold trunk of the car. So I let them warm up to operating temp for a half-hour, then press "Play" on my Laserdisk transport and Monarchy M-33 DAC/Linestage. Uh-oh. Icy and cold, no bass at all. It must need more break-in time. So I put a sampler CD on "repeat", and headed out for dinner.

Some time later, Karna and I return home, swap CD's, and play the first one again. Oh dear, icy and cold, no bass at all. This isn't going well, two hours made no difference at all. It must need a lot of time, like DAC's, which can take weeks. I played a few CD's in a casual way, nope, they all sounded the same, not inviting at all. So I give up on listening, put on the break-in CD I had borrowed from David, and replaced the Ariel speakers with 8 ohm dummy-load resistors. I was going give this thing the full treatment, so no listening until tomorrow.

Came back from work the next day, had dinner, watched TV, read a while, and sat down for the moment of truth. Removed the break-in CD, re-connected the Ariels, and put the first CD back on again. Oh dear oh dear. Almost exactly the same. Icy and cold. Maybe 10% improvement after 24-plus hours of pounding. This review isn't going well. I call David, he suggests trying different cables, I drive over the next evening, and get a collection of speaker and interconnect cables ranging in price from $100 to $1200 a set. A big pile of wires. I keep burning-in the Aleph Three, and next weekend, start trying different speaker cables.

Hmm. One cable sounds bass-heavy and so muffled the vocals are inaudible, two are bright and cold, and one (the most expensive ones, by the way) is tonally neutral but nothing special at first listen. The high-priced spread stays in, I do more listening with different CD's, try different interconnects (which makes little difference), and come to the reluctant conclusion the sound isn't going to get much better. The tonal balance is reasonably neutral, no grain at all is audible, but there's no depth or sparkle to the music. Just to be certain, I pull my dusty 1977 Audionics CC-2 out of the closet, and the sound immediately improves. A little grainy in the style of Seventies transistors, but good depth portrayal, plenty of dynamics, and quick bass. Go back to the Aleph Three, all gone.

Does this mean the Aleph Three is no good? Not at all. But it certainly doesn't seem to work with the Ariels. It must have been voiced on very different speakers - Wilsons, Theils, Altecs, who knows? It's obvious from the build quality and the sterling reputation of Nelson Pass the Aleph Three is a good amplifier - it just doesn't work with the Ariels. There's a compatibility problem of unknown nature. With no circuit diagram, no way of knowing what it might be.

I called David and the Alephs found a happier environment in another PF reviewer's home, where the Aleph went on to get a positive review and a writeup in the magazine. One of the little-known things about Positive Feedback is the reviewers have quite different systems and quite different tastes in audio - there's no "Party Line" as in other magazines. We can and do disagree with each other. The one rule is no "hatchet-in-the-head" or "damn with faint praise" reviews. If a product doesn't work for anyone, it goes back without comment. PF is about making new discoveries, not "Crossfire" style "I'm right, you're wrong" polemics where there has to be a bad guy to beat up on.

Zero Expectations

Six months after the Aleph debacle, a pair of amplifiers arrived at David's door from an unknown company back East called R. E. Designs. They made their way to my house, and they turned out to be two big 75-watt monoblocks. Each LNPA-150 chassis has two massive toroidal power transformers, one per rail, each with its own rectifier bridge. Yes, that's four toroids for two channels. The regulator board, which powers the entire amplifier, is actually a little bigger than the amplifier board, which is rather compact. Very serious power supply indeed, better than anything I'd ever seen in a consumer product. The anodizing on the front panels was a faded-out purple - the anodizing house has obviously messed up on the first run.

With some trepidation, I connected the amps, and powered them up. When everything seemed to be thermally stabilized, I gingerly hit "Play" - and was greeted with gorgeous music. Karna rushes into the living room and says "What did you get? Are we hearing those new amps?"

This was the first thing since the lamented departure of the Ongaku and Reichert SE-DHT amplifiers that really brought the music back again. She had really soured on transistor amps after that, and was surprised to see no glowing tubes anywhere in the room. I was too. No grain, no grit, none of the dreaded lifeless transistor sound, instead it was sparkling, lively, and very dynamic. Very much in the same league as the Ongaku and Reichert, and much superior to any of the visiting transistor or PP pentode amps that followed. And they sounded that way from the first turn-on. In fact, there was no sonic difference between afternoon and 2 in the morning, which was the first time I'd ever heard such a thing. Usually the "quiet hours" resulted in much better sound thanks to less noise and hash on the power line. Not so with the LNPA-150's - they sound good all the time; just turn them on and listen. There must be something to the regulation after all!

We listened all evening and much of the night, playing one CD after another, revelling in the sheer beauty and involvement of the music. The TV stayed off, and musical evenings continued through the week. One night, as we drifted into reverie on the couch, Karna says to me: "We should buy these. How much are they?"

She'd only said that once before, when we were reviewing the Reichert Silver 300B's. The Reichert's were $5,500, nearly half the price of our 1987 Acura. The LNPA-150's were a more tempting - and affordable - $3,000 a pair. All you men out there, you know WAF is 100% when she asks without any prompting, "how much are these?" It doesn't get any better than that.

I wrote an enthusiastic review for PF, and very strongly considering buying them. I had the go-ahead from my sweetie, the money in the bank, what was stopping me? Well, the lure of my own amp, the Amity (named after my daughter). Considering the Amity took another two years to light up the room, and then turned out to be very picky about preamps, Karna was right. We would have had several years of wonderful music while I was planning and building the next project. The puritanical impulse to defer gratification was a mistake - why deny yourself beauty when you work on another project? If anything, the presence of beauty is a better inspiration than a distant promise of future reward.

Five-Minute Specials

On a lighter note, there were two amplifiers (which will remain anonymous) that resulted in Karna and I just looking at each other and breaking out laughing. One sounded like a transistor radio left at the beach too long, with faltering batteries and scratchy reception. The other sounded like a 1955 Seeburg jukebox that needed new tubes halfway through "Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Polka-Dot Bikini" - you remember that one, don't you? Oh well, I guess you had to be there.

The Library

© Lynn Olson 2002. All Rights Reserved.