The McIntosh C220 Preamp
For audiophiles who are enthralled by balanced XLR connections, the C220 offers one set of inputs and one set of outputs that do the balanced XLR thing. It also has enough other single-ended RCA inputs and outputs to handle all comers. Ergonomic niceties include presets for each input that remember your last settings such as whether you were listening in mono. Cool. The C220 can run two complete systems via its multiple and independent stereo outputs. It even has honest to goodness treble and bass controls with an audiophile-approved defeat button. One ergonomic feature I wasn't knocked out by was the very twitchy volume control. If you aren't careful you can go from 0 to 95 dB in nanosecond with only a quarter-turn. For fine-tuning the volume you MUST use the remote. And a manly remote it is, very full of buttons, and so big that it is impossible to lose. Just don't sit on it. The black and blue marks will linger for a couple of weeks.
How does the C220 compare with my longtime reference preamps? First off the Bel Canto PRe3 has a cuter and more desktop-friendly remote. The C220 betters the Bel Canto PRe3 when it comes to liquidity and lack of midrange grain, but ties it in terms of contrast and dynamics. Both preamps throw up equally large soundstages, but the C220 has better depth but slightly less precise lateral imaging Compared with the Monolithic Designs PA-1 passive/active preamp the C220's midrange is juicier and gutsier. It also delivers more dynamic contrast and jump. Resolution may be a tad lower through the C220, but you have to listen very closely to hear a difference. The C220 has an indescribable something that makes music sound more musical. Chalk it up to tubes I guess. No matter how much time you spend listening to music through it, even at hazardous-to-your-hearing volume levels, it never gets tiresome or fatiguing.
Niggling aside, if you love music (and who doesn't) you are going to adore this big shaggy dog of a preamp (list price $3,300). If you bring it home, you won't want to turn it off. You will be stuck at your desktop, enthralled, and unable to eat, sleep, or relieve yourself. Don't say you weren't warned.
This latest Stax incarnation has more in common sonically with my longtime reference Lambda Nova/SRM-1 Mark 2 combination than I expected. Differences were noticeable, but not drastic. The newer Stax system has slightly more top end extension and air. It also sports a lusher midrange that makes the older system sound mechanical and noticeably less musical. For critical monitoring purposes the old system still works more than fine, but in ultimate audiophile terms the new Stax combo delivers a more enticing combination of euphony and musicality. A larger percentage of this improvement comes from the SRM-006tII tube output driver rather than the ear speakers. When compared to the older Stax Lambda Novas, the SRS-404 ear speakers sounded better, but the difference wasn't nearly as big as the difference between the new SRM-006tII vacuum tube output driver and my venerable SRM-1 mark 2 solid-state output driver unit. This made me feel sorta bad since I own two SRM-1 mark 2 driver units.
Compared to even well above average conventional headphones the Stax system smokes the competition. Sure, my Grado RS-1 and Sennheiser HD-580 phones sound musical and involving, but they don't get down to the very back of the hall and bottom of the mix like the Stax can. It's like comparing a pair of binoculars to a stereo microscope.
If I didn't already have two complete Stax ear speaker systems the good folks at Yama Enterprises (Stax US Distributor) would have to sneak up under the dead of night to repossess the SRS-4040II Signature System. Spend more than ten minutes with it and you'll understand why everything else are just headphones.
US Distributor: Yama Enterprises www.yamasinc.com
Stello DA100 D/A Converter
The Stello DA100 feature set is so perfect for a high-end desktop system that I can't help but think it was actually designed for that as its primary purpose. It has the standard digital inputs - coax and Toslink, as well as USB. The front panel has a four-way input selector, on/off toggle and an "upsample" switch that lets you take the 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling rate up to 193 kHz. Its small footprint - 8x2x11 inches - makes it easy to put almost anywhere. I put the Stello pair right on top of a Bel Canto S300 amplifier.
My only complaint with the DA100 functionality was that I heard no difference when the upsampling switch was engaged. I listened using a wide variety of sources from i-Pod MP3s up to my own live concert CD masters. There was no difference that could I detect. None. Nada.
Compared with the other D/A currently in my possession, the Perpetual Technologies PA-3/PA-1 with Monolithic power supply combo, the DA100 acquitted itself admirably. It's a touch more musical than the Perpetual with a slightly juicier harmonic balance. The Perpetual combo sounds a bit more dynamically agile with transients having a slightly greater "jump factor." Spatial characteristics including depth, width, and lateral focus were identical. My final conclusion - this is one heck of a good D/A.
The HP100 is designed to be a basic line amp that doubles as a headphone amplifier. The front panel is pretty basic - volume, inputs (it only has two) power 0n/off, Neutrik XLR / phonejack for headphones, and a high/low gain switch. The HP100 has the same physical footprint as the DA100.
I have several ergonomic quibbles with the HP100. First and foremost is its turn-on thump. It's forceful enough that with sensitive speakers and a robust power amp you might be very unhappy with the results. The high/low gain switch doesn't really do much - maybe 6dB? More of a difference would be better. Finally the A/B filter on the back which lets you choose between 20Hz and 200kHz and 20Hz to 20kHz is poorly labeled. Is A the first setting and B the second, or vice versa? I don't know, and after trying both and hearing no discernable difference, I don't much care.
The HP100 ranks as a very decent line stage and excellent headphone amplifier. Compared with the Bel Canto PRe3, the HP100 sounds slightly grey and lifeless, with less dynamic contrast, snap and pace. The HP100 also has a slightly darker harmonic balance compared to the Bel Canto. However the HP100's resolution and inner detail is on a par with the Bel Canto. When you consider the small amounts of sonic difference and the fact that the HP100 is only 1/3 the price of the Pre3, it begins to look like a super-value.
So, after nine months of gestation, I can confidently recommend both the Stello DA100 and Stello HP100 as deserving of serious consideration in a first-class high-end desktop system.