January 1, 2008

Editor's Choice

Year Y2k+7 was an interesting one in the audio world. The shrinking US dollar slowed sales for certain items, but two seemingly opposing forces -- analog playback equipment and digital media servers -- enjoyed increasing popularity and brisk sales. So it seems especially apt that the best product I came across last year is actually a pair of products that perform the same function, but they do so by different means.

In my review of the Convergent Audio Technology JL2 Signature Mk 2 amplifier ($16,995), I called it "a triode amp with guts, or an easy-going muscle amp." This is an amplifier whose sheer drive and bass power belie its 100Wpc rating, but its "fine, filigreed" treble and "juicy midrange" civilize this brute. But there was more to this amp's sound, something hard to define with words but easy to hear -- "the almost unexplainable confidence it instilled as I listened to music with it." "I had the sense that the JL2 Signature Mk 2 conveyed each recording in the way it was meant to be heard -- with all its subtlety and power, aggression and elegance." That's a complete musical picture.

It was only after I had returned this amp to the manufacturer that I began to ponder how the JL2 Signature Mk 2 did what it did -- while it was here, the music was too absorbing for such analysis. It was Ken Stevens' skill as an engineer and probing nature that have taken the JL2's triode circuit to new heights. Refinements include a pair of 27-pound output transformers and a single isolation transformer for the abundant AC power the amp needs. All were designed by Stevens, who also chose the amp's parts based solely on how they sounded. I put the JL2 Signature Mk 2 in heady company -- the Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 and MAXX 2 speakers -- "a group of the finest audio components I've reviewed."

But even with all of the praise I hefted on the JL2 Signature Mk 2, if I had to pick a single amplifier as my favorite, even among the many truly great amps that I've heard, it would be the latest version of Ralph Karsten's OTL powerhouse, the MA-2 Mk III monoblock ($32,800 per pair). The transparency of its midrange was dramatic and involving to my ears in a way that the sound of no other amp is, and its lightning-quick attack never came at the price of hardness or etch. "Unforced resolution" is how I summed things up, "the earmark of the highest performance high-end audio has to offer."

While matching an OTL amp with speakers can be a costly game of trial and error -- impedance mismatches wreak sonic havoc -- the MA-2 Mk III is seemingly immune, driving all manner of speakers, even those rated at 4 ohms, with apparent ease. The MA-2 has been around for so long that it's easy to overlook it in favor of whatever new amplifier is turning heads, including newer OTL designs. Yet, when I sat down to listen, the MA-2 Mk III was an amplifier whose assured way with a musical signal pushed all other amplifiers from of my consciousness.

If I ever have a spare $33,000, I will be sending it to Ralph Karsten for a pair of his MA-2 Mk IIIs. In the meantime, the CAT JL2 Signature Mk 2 is more within a dreamer's reach and an amplifier that I will bet can drive even the most uncooperative speakers. With either amp, you get a lot of memorable music for your dwindling dollars.

...Marc Mickelson

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