On the fringe of the already far-out field of high-end audio is a group of purists who subscribe to the belief that, in sound reproduction, simpler is better. They typically design electronics and speakers according to stripped-down, low-tech theories from the early days of electronics, the 1920s and ’30s-ultraspare tube circuits for amplifiers and likewise bare-bones concepts for speakers. When done properly, these systems can often outperform, in terms of sheer goose-pimply realism, even the best of today’s complex high-tech designs. Sometimes bigger is not better.
One of the leading purveyors of these seemingly retro amplifiers is Art Audio, whose designers work closely with European tube factories to revive production of classic audio tube types that it feels reproduce music more realistically than other, more common tubes, not to mention solid-state devices and integrated circuits. Art Audio specializes in a design of amplifier termed single-ended. Most common tube circuits, called push-pull, divide the audio wave into two halves, the positive and negative, and assign those parts to two different tubes, then must recombine those halves into a whole wave for the output. In a single-ended design, the audio wave is maintained as a whole and amplified by a single tube so its coherency is retained throughout the process. This simpler design, according to single-ended adherents, results in a more musical, more dynamically accurate sound.
Perhaps the essence of Art Audio’s product line is the PX-25 amplifier ($6,000), which utilizes an old tube design, the PX-25, once legendary for its ability to make beautiful music, but which was abandoned by the 1940s. Art Audio was instrumental in bringing this tube type back into production and has designed a very special amplifier to showcase its strengths. Though it produces only 6 watts of power, combined with the right speakers the sound of this baby is unbelievable.
So what is the right speaker for this wonder? It must be a speaker of great efficiency, meaning its rating in that area should be at least 92db or greater so that those minimal watts can create maximum energy.
And the Cain & Cain Abby ($1,599), mentioned in these pages a few months back, is just such a speaker-its efficiency rating is 95db. Terry Cain loves the sound of single-ended amplifiers and has designed a series of speakers that mate fantastically with these flea-powered components. In addition, Cain’s skills as a cabinetmaker ensure that his speakers are exquisite pieces of furniture in addition to their exemplary sonic abilities. To follow through with the simpler-is-better philosophy, in the Abby, Cain uses a retro concept that employs a single driver-unit to handle highs, mids and bass. Though the driver itself is rather small, the cabinet is constructed in such a way that bass information is reinforced to compensate for the smallish size of the actual cone. Since there are no electronic crossover circuits to muddy the sound, a certain purity is maintained and the efficiency rating is kept high as well. But make no mistake: These wonderful speakers will shine with just about any amplifier to work their particular style of magic.
But with the PX-25, the marriage was made in heaven. I ran this combo through its paces with a large number of CDs and was never less than awestruck by the results. On Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Magic, the band came alive in my living room with the piano serving as a solid anchor for a sound that seemed to float right in the center, but spreading out past the edges of the speakers themselves-a very believable soundstage. On “Green Chimneys,” from Monk’s Underground, Charlie Rouse’s sax was holographic front and center while Larry Gales’ bass solo was tight and hopping with a convincing attack on the strings and plenty of bottom to back that up while the overtones were clean and round. The all-important piano sound was rock solid-it sounded just like a piano should, and with Monk you can’t ask for more.
Switching to something with a bit more backbone, I plugged in My Love by Salena Jones, an early ’80s disc recently reissued as an XRCD from JVC, which employed Stuff-Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Cornell Dupree and Steve Gadd-as her backup band. On this forgotten classic, liquid funk just oozed out of the speakers, and her voice was solid with no artifacts; I could sense her gutsy presence in the room. As for revealing Stuff’s stuff, there was no shortage of bass and plenty of punch to complement Gadd’s tight-as-ever drumming.
This speaker and amp combination reveals everything in a recording, so the temptation is very real to keep yanking old favorites off the shelf for an updated audition, resulting in lost nights and even lost weekends. You get hooked after a while and become relentless in the quest to hear nuances in your CD collection other systems might miss.