Strange Bedfellows

by Roy Gregory | August 18, 2015

eviewing audio equipment can be a lot more complicated than it seems. On the face of it, the idea of manufacturers queuing up to lend you expensive kit might seem like some audiophiles’ idea of heaven, but that’s because they’ve never had to deal with the logistical challenges, niceties and no-shows. The problem is that not only is a lot of this stuff utterly unmanageable, but the more expensive it gets the pickier it gets about what it wants to play with -- and that’s before the twin issues of "approved partners" and politics raise their heads.

Occasional reviewers, those lucky souls who don’t actually rely on reviewing audio equipment for their primary income, rarely have to juggle more than a couple of pieces of kit at any one time. But for the full-time audio scribe, existence is a never-ending procession of equipment passing through his life and listening room. All you can do is try to juggle things to ensure that each product arrives in good time to settle in and warm up, as well as at the same time as other equipment that will (hopefully) offer an appropriate match for it.

Now factor in just how many product-launch schedules or availabilities slip, how often a unit suddenly has to be elsewhere, departs the reservation (a polite way of saying that it, er, ceases to function) or a manufacturer or distributor suddenly decides that the scheduled review isn’t such a great idea -- which might be for any number of reasons, not all of them sinister -- and it soon becomes apparent that the distant thunder of the reviewer’s carefully constructed web of arrangements crashing around his ears is a frustratingly common one, normally accompanied by the gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and a deep exploration of the outer reaches of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

Normally, such plans are based on experience, information received and careful negotiation with the various parties involved: "I’m sure that the GruntMeister Gravitas Behemoth monoblocks really will be the perfect partners for your new Fairy’s Kiss electrostatic minimonitors." You might well laugh, but I remember a similar conversation revolving around the Levinson No.33H and Stax ELS-F81. But there are other factors that also inform such planning, not least assumption, prejudice and politics. More often than not, when the wheels fall off a complex string of arrangements, the result is a prolonged, shuddering train wreck of scrambled compromise, disappointment and recrimination. There again, just occasionally it throws up an unexpected pearl, a gem of a system that would otherwise have remained buried beneath the weight of prejudice and ill-founded expectation.

Take a look at the picture -- a close look: Now there’s something you don’t see very often. Yes, that’s a Wilson Sasha W/P Series 2 ($31,950/pair) hooked up to a Naim Statement NAP S1 amplifier ($150,000/pair) with a combination of Nordost Odin and Valhalla 2 cables. On paper at least, that’s definitely a setup that makes some sort of sense. But in the audio industry, things are never that simple, and each of the products here has a carefully proscribed list of approved dance partners -- none of which includes the other products featured here. The audiophile cognoscenti are probably already in shock, while the flat-earthers can’t decide whether to send in the hi-fi goon squad or the fire brigade. Such is the depth of the philosophical and electrical incompatibility represented here that it should probably be measured on the Audio Richter Scale. Except that the musical results are quite simply exquisite: delicate and nuanced, finely textured, superbly resolved but with real grunt, authority and drama when called for. Just how exquisite? You’ll have to wait for the full reviews to find out, but the results are as engaging as they are surprising.

Okay, so I lucked into the combination -- and I’ll admit to having a few standbys waiting in the wings -- but this system is musical proof that you never know what to expect until you try it. Now all I need is a second pair of Naim’s Statement monoblocks to fire up the Wilson WATCH Dog subs.

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