Karan Acoustics KAL Reference Dual Mono Preamplifier ($14K w/phono stage, $13K w/o) This incredible Karan is the best sounding preamplifier that I have heard in my system. The Karan possesses a purity and harmonic rightness that allows it to provide a very lifelike musical experience. Matched with Karan’s KAS 450 power amplifier, the sound was a match made in heaven. Simply an “amazing” performer. [Key Kim]
 

Marantz MA-9S2 Reference Monaural Power Amplifier ($7,999.99 each)
The new Marantz Reference Series Model MA-9S2 is the solid state successor to the MA-9S1 I reviewed in 2006. My initial listening tests indicate that the 9S2 has kept the promise of the original Models 9S1 and then some, with a design that leaves nothing to chance in creating outstanding monoblock amplifiers that take their place, in my experience, among the very finest in analog amplification available today. I cannot fault the Marantz in any area. If you are looking for amplifiers that provide the most neutral, smooth and balanced reproduction available and the price is within your budget, you owe it to yourself to audition the Marantz MA-9S2s. A full upgraded review is being considered. [Lew Lanese]

                        

Margules Audio Tube Amplifier U280sc ($3390.00).
The saying “too good to be true” doesn’t apply often but Julian Margules has produced a tube amplifier that is outstanding and worthy of the accolade. The U280sc is a Class A 70 watt Ultralinear/ 30 watt Triode self-biasing tube amplifier that is so flexible it can accommodate KT88/6550/KT99 or KT100 vacuum tubes. The U280sc is one of the most user friendly musical sounding amplifiers that I have heard in a long time. I was able to change from Ultralinear to Triode, change impedance levels from 2 to 4 to 8 ohms, and go from a stereo amplifier to a set of monoblocks with just a flick of a switch. In stereo mode the U280sc is a stellar performer with a sweet midrange, extended well defined highs and tight powerful bass. With the addition of a second amplifier I would classify the performance as musical nirvana. [Craig Fitzpatrick].

Melody 1880 tubed integrated amplifier
My exposure to the Melody brand came about during a late night web browsing session a couple of months ago. Having just installed the mega-buck Vitus SM-101-mono amps as well as the Behold amplification system, I was hardly in need of another power plant. After digesting a couple of rave reviews (Yes, reviewers read reviews), and learning the modest asking price of the $2200 KT88 equipped M-1880, I sent off an e-mail to Melody which was promptly returned the next day. My initial desire was to review the mono-amps but only the integrated was available so I jumped at it.

First off, the packing, build quality and over all fit and finish of the Melody integrated is way beyond what we could have expected even a few years ago at or near this price point. The lush black laquer simply drips from the sturdy sculpted chassis. Once warmed up, I was giddy with delight with what I heard. Despite being under powered for my enormous room and relatively inefficient speakers, in the right system this little beauty will deliver liquid, dynamic and tonally true renditions of instruments and voices. While I would not call the sound lush, it was colorful in the best sense of the word. On concert recordings, the dynamics were very lively with great micro-contrasts and surprising drive for such modest power. Review to come. [Greg Petan]

NuForce Ref 9 SE Version 2 (V2) amplifier board.
For around a year, my sound system has included a pair of tiny NuForce Reference 9 SE amps that replaced two huge Mark Levinson 33H monos. Never have I heard a more unambiguous David-&-Goliath contest. To make matters even better, NuForce has developed its second-generation amplifier board. I've been checking it out by way of two Reference 9 amps (the model one down from the Reference 9 SE) pending the arrival of the V2 version of the Ref 9 SE. The Ref 9 V2 is at the very least the equal of the Ref 9 SE V1. I'd not hesitate to recommend it to anyone at any rung on the ladder to audio heaven. Superb. [Mike Silverton]

Nuforce Ref 9 SE Monoblock Amplifiers ($4000 for the pair)
Great bass? Check. Clean, articulate and non-fatiguing highs? Check. Sumptuous midrange? Check. Currently my reference amplifiers, Nuforce has ushered in a new era of performance-to-price ratios and I'm extremely happy to witness it. These things are wonderfully musical and grab a hold of my Thiel 2.2's with no apparent distortion like a Ferrari F1 racer does to the track. Super efficient and always cool to the touch. Dynamically astounding when setup properly. (I didn't realize their full performance potential until removing some old "band aide" tweaks in my system.) Paired with a good passive preamp the Nuforces have me in audio heaven that makes sleeping seem like a nuisance. Be forewarned though - the amount of RFI they put out will overwhelm any nearby radio tuner. My Fanfare FT-1A tuner is rendered useless while the Ref. 9's are on. [Alvester Garnett]

                                               

Pass Labs X-350.5 Stereo Amplifier ($9,800): The sub-$10K price range has busted at the seams these past couple of years from stalwarts and newcomers alike. Pass Labs contributes to the upper-end of this category with the $9,800 X-350.5. Having reviewed the original X-350, I was not prepared for the level of improvement of the 350.5 over the older design. While not perfect, there is a sense of “rightness” to the sound, a lack of solid-state artifice resulting in musicality built upon a foundation of bass control and frequency extension that will quickly make you a believer. Unlike many high-strung, high aspiration amplifiers, Pass Lab’s amplifiers, of which I have owned three, are intensely reliable. In the unlikely event of a problem, the folks at Pass will take very good care of you. [Greg Petan]

Shindo Cortese Stereo Amplifier ($9,500)
I first heard Shindo gear approximately 3 years ago, shortly after Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports began importing the Shindo line into the United States. I was immediately captivated and ultimately built my system around a Shindo preamp, amp and turntable. (I hope to one day complete the chain with a pair of Shindo field coil-based speakers). While I have enjoyed each and every piece of Shindo gear I have heard, the Cortese amp is perhaps my favorite. This diminutive (14” wide W x 7” tall x 9”deep) SET amp uses one F2A power tube per channel, each putting out 10 Watts. Like all Shindo gear, the Cortese excels in its ability to capture the dynamic flow of the music in its incredibly natural-sounding midrange. The area in which the Cortese really distinguishes itself is the bass; with regard to both extension and control, the Cortese is like no other SET amp I have ever heard. While some amps - for example, the Shindo Western Electric 300 B Monoblocks - surpass the Cortese in certain sonic attributes, the Cortese more than holds its own, and never fails to provide incredibly satisfying musical reproduction. [Larry Borden]
 

Vitus Audio SS-010 Amplifier ($13,000)
Essentially an integrated amp. It features two line inputs (balanced and unbalanced) and input selection and volume can be controlled from the faceplate or via remote control. Build quality is silly good and functionality is great. The best part? This is the most powerful 25 watts I’ve ever heard! A bit on the pricey side but it’s easy to see and hear where the money went. This is absolutely gorgeous stuff folks. [Dave Thomas]

 

Vitus Audio SM-101 Mono Amplifier ($50,000): This past year introduced the latest line up from Vitus Audio. Inserting the beautiful 100-watt, switchable class A/AB SM-101 mono blocks into the system cleaned up a mess that I did not even realize was there. What in particular does your $50K buy you? Driver control, bass extension, neutrality in the best sense of the word along with rhythmic drive and hold on to your hat dynamics will clear the throat of even the best systems. [Greg Petan]