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THE METAXAS OPULENCE PREAMPLIFIER
reviewed by Martin de Wulf Bound For Bound For Sound magazine USA
Being rich has its benefits. One of whcih includes the ability to appreciate and be a connoisseur of the finest audio equipment. And while I don't consider myself a materialist (nor am I rich), when the opportunity comes along to audition a product of exceptional capabilities, I go for it. Such is the case with the Metaxas Opulence. This is the kind of preamp for which Robin Leech should be crooning, "We are searching the workd over for the preamp that will tempt your senses and we leave no stone unturned. From the palms of the Bahamas to the high speed corners of Monaco, to the opulent white sands of the French Riviera, Lifestyles of the Outlandish Audiophiles lets you be the King of Audioland for a day."
Upon setting sight on the visual delights of the Opulence, one begins to feel like the King of Audioland. Its build quality is of fine parts and previous metals, made and machined to the highest level. Like so many things designed to an ideal instead of a price point, the Metaxas preamp has a strong physical character that sets itself much apart from anything ever used before. Looking at the control chassis, you can see your reflection in the tempered metal of the chassis top and sides. The controls are chromed, and the switches have a positive feel to their operation. Even with an outboard power supply, the top of the control chassis radiates considerable warmth; this is a preamp that truly does operate fully in "class A" with a generous amount of current drive.
And then there is the power supply. To my knowledge, there is nothing in the industry remotely like it. So many components from the penthouses of the high-end allege freedom from power line fluctuations and garbage AC. Yet, when tested by BFS, all benefit from the use of a power line conditioner of one kind or another. Not the Opulence. To my astonishment, under all kinds of conditions, natural and contrived, the Opulence maintains its composure perfectly; it is a rock. This is of course an artifact of the fanatical concern for electrical stability that starts with the supply. Unlike so many supplies that are basically a transformer and a couple of filter caps, the Opulence uses one side of the 50 wpc Iraklis power amplifier to provide it with power. Of course it is outboard, and it employs a dual transformer configuration. It too throws considerable heat, and for that reason should be provided with a fair amount of passive ventilation. Metaxas has several options for umbilical cords between the supply and the control center. At first I wasn't sure, but continued listening revealed the newest cord to be a fine performer and the proper choice.
The control lay-out is pretty conventional, having the standard volume control, balance and input selectors. The obligatory mute switch is present in the form of a toggle labled "defeat". The unit is out of mute, when the switch is in the up position. One feature missing, that a product of this sophistication should have, is a phase inversion switch. Heralded bythe controversial Clark Johnsen, the importance of phase inversion has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. It's true that many recordings are a phase related mess, some instruments being "in", some instruments being "out", on the same cut! But when you need it, you need it, and the preamp is a sensible place for it.
DEGREE OF ABSOLUTE TRANSPARENCY. With all the rave reviews being written in the audio rags today (unfortunately we are not entirely innocent in this regard), it has become difficult to convey true excellence; everything is the best in the world, or so we are told. To date, BFS has legitimately exploured only two electronic compoonents that can be called the "worlds' best", or at least seriously compete for such consideration. Those component's include the C.E.C. TL-1 transport and the Altis Ultima outboard digital to analog processor; and there are plenty of persons in the "know" that would take issue even with those assessments. So, when I started my audition of the Opulence, concern arose immediately as to howI was going to describe the sonic performance of something that, at least at first, seemed to be redefining all my expectations from a preamp. There was the tonal neutrality of the Reference Line Preeminence, the hair of the peach as in the Audible Illusions M3, the air and dimensinalty of the Joule Electra, the incredible timbre and coherency of the Counterpoint SA-5000, the bass control of the Encore, and the seamlessness of the OCM preamps; the Opulence incorporated, successfully, all these positive aspects that I had previously found desirable in preamps of a wide variety. And as we shall discuss later, it was doing something that I had not heard a preamp, any preamp, do before. At that exact point in time, I knew that writing the review of this preamp would involve its own special problems. The critique-o-meter would have to be re-set and fine tuned even further if a meaningful audition were to result. Another blathering, slobbering, adjective ridden "rave" was not going to be the review de jour. Let somebody else write that. Something different is needed here.
Let me start out by telling you about the danger of being true. The R.E. Designs LNPA 150 amplifier strikes me as basically true. I've told my friends that. The Metaxas Opulence strikes me as basicaly true also, as does the Altis Ultima and the C.E.C (which doesn't mean that they are perfect). The danger in being one of these products is that it is most likely going to be hated or loved - extremely. Seldom is there an in-between. It goes this way. When a product is true to its input, it sonically disappears; as in, gone, ain't there, can't hear it, does not intrude, no sonic character at all. At the same time, the tru component allows the gear ti´ to it to sound its best. For example, in a preamp, it will buffer its input so that the performance of the source is optimized when fed to the power amplifier. That is being true. That is having what I have in the past called "absolute transparency". The true components lets you hear everything else in the system because it does not intrude, it is transparent. In some cases that can be a wonderful experience, you are a step closer to the original event. In others, it may be just the beginning of the nightmare. The true component is no longer covering up deficiencies in the electronics that surround it. Now, the frequency resonance in that new moving coil is exposed, the ringing in the upper octave of the old CD player starts to grate and do those speakers really sound so thin in the lower mids? The building of a system is at best a series of compromises and flaw matching. Put in a component that is basically true and the precarious balance struck can be tipped ine one way or another. However, a true product can also reveal secrets long hidden away and unretrievable with the lesser electronics. So there is some danger in being true, but that's the risk assumed when the search is realism in the home. In the long run, the true product (or at least as true as one can get) will pay satisfying dividends. In some very fundamental ways the Opulence speaks the truth - love it or hate it.
Inserting the Opulence into the "Big Rig" revealed musical information in a new way. It's not that all of a sudden I was hearing sounds that were inaudible before; that rarely happens. But, with the Opulence I was hearing things in a more recognizable way. Cobwebs that I previously didn't know were there were brushed away with a new broom, the sound from the speakers was washed clean revealing subtle nuances that before had been passed off as low level veiling or smearing. Silence went to sudden sound without there seeming to be a transition period... and then it could stop just as dramatically. Images that were, in the past, dimensional, now had discernible sides and backs! There was fuzz on the peach, but now, I could see around the peach, I could now bite it and taste it . My concept of recorded dimensionality was changed and enlightened. When listening to this preamp, the sensation of hearing my souce material, of going back to the source itself was gripping. When listening to the original NEAR-50m, there was always the feeling that the speaker was accurately mimicking the microphone that recorded the original event in some very important ways. The Opulence takes that thrill of being there even further. And that is where I see controversy brewing.
The Joule Electra LA-100 was the first preamp to let me know that something was going on. It was as if the music was under a magnifying glass. Some call it stage perspective, but whatever it is, it was as if some of the music was in my lap. I'd heard that before, every audiophile has. But with the LA-100, iÝ was different; even though the center image was detailed and intimate, the rest of the performance still layered well behind the speakers. There was a huge bubble of depth. Ordinarily, when a component has an up front, in-your-face presentation, everything is up front; there is little or no depth at any layer. The Opulence was even more present and assertive. Some images (usually at center stage) were right there at the frontal plane of the speakers, but without transgressing further. And yet, the depth was still there. It was an unusual experience, but one that seemed somehow right nonetheless. After considerable thought and analysis, I have come to the conclusion that it is the Opulence and the LA-100 that are right in the way they present the music.
Here is my reasoning. With the Opulence in the system, I went to some blues and jazz recordings that I had a good idea as to the microphone placement used. Now, even if you haven't been in a recording studio, you've probably seen a music video of a band making a recording. Or you've been to live concert and seen the placement of the mics in relation to the performers. If you have the chance, watch the Eric Clapton "Unplugged" video and make note of where the mics are, and then listen to the recording playing attention to the perspective. If a microphone is within inches of a singer's mouth, or a guitar has a mic a few inches from the box opening (image your ear where the mic is) what kind of perspective should you hear? Up front, big and intimate, that's what you should hear! Granted, recording engineers can move a particular image back, forth, left and right. However, the detailing, the intimacy, the closeness, should still be there, regardless of what the engineer does. The Opulence, more than any preamp that I am aware of, properly captures the perspective created by the microphone placements during the recording session. And yet, when going to the standard classical fare, the Opulence lays back, and a more distant perspective results - just like it should. When listening, don't jump to conclusions with the Opulence. It does sound different, and it probablyh won't sound like the preamp you are used to. But be patient, listen for a while and think about how a recording is made, and see if the Opulence doesn't best fit the requirement of telling the truth, instead of telling you what you want to hear.
This review is running over, so let me quickly go over the obligatory aspects of the sound. Bass is tonally right, as well as going deep just the way a good preamp should. As I've said, dynamics are great, especially in the highs; they really fill. The resolution floor goes as low as any preamp one can buy. I do think that we will see some improvement in two areas however: First, while high frequency dynamics and transients are a revelation, after the transient, on the decay, this preamp could be more delicate and airy. As it is, it's not bad, actually it is very good but it could be better. My other nit is pretty minor ( I said the critique-o-meter was going to be biased up on this one) and it involves the back of the stage. The Opulence reveals all, but at the back of the stage where the sounds are exceedingly small, there were times when I had difficulty locating the source of certain sounds. The clarity is always there, but actually pinning down some of the activity at the rear wall took some effort. Now, I should state that the Opulence is still more articulate in this regard than just about anything out there, but this preamp, by its excellence, demands to be judged by the strictest standards available.
CONCLUSION. This preamp truly begs the question (I'm paraphrasing Harry Pearson of TAS): Can you truly tell how good a component is until you hear something better? In many ways, I think you cannot, particularly when that çømponent so brazenly aßsaults the state-of-the-art. If you listen to live acoustic music, you know that NO system, no matter how expensive, comes remotely close to the real thing. Therefore, our systems, no matter how sophisticated, are only an approximation of reality. How then can we know how far we can go until we get there? The Metaxas Opulence stretches our acoustic expectations. At present, it defines the standard as to how far we can travel into the music... and it does so with style, even if your not rich or famous.
Bound For Sound, Chicago Show report
METAXAS AUDIO. This company intrigues me. In Chicago I had the opportunity to spend considerable time listening to the equipment of Metaxas. I think this is an incredible story. Kostas Metaxas is first a publisher of "style and fashion" magazines worldwide. He writes articles, controls content, and interviews some of the top persons in the design industry; his distribution is international. But he had time on his hands, so he learned about and started designing audio electronics on his own - just like that! OK, so lots of people do that, and they come out with average or below average gear. But, that's not Kostas. He came out with some truly amazing things right out of the gate. And he designs from the ground up, things like; amplifiers, preamplifiers, loudspeakers (electrostatic and dynamic) digital processors and digital transports. He wants to do it, so he does it; and the quality of his designs are exceptional.
So I find a spot on the sofa next to the door and start watching the people that come in. To my surprise, many of the people that come into his room are other manufacturiers, manufacturer's reps, or audio engineers (PHD types). They ask Kostas questions of every kind concerning everything from electrostatic stators, to DAC layout, to switching, to preamp power supplies. Everything! Some guys from a highly respected loudspeaker manufacturer were amazed at how he builds his electrostatic loudspeakers. (He does things that they had never thought of). He told a manufacturer that the design of his preamp power supply was inefficient and poorly designed, then told him how to fix it. He then discussed, in depth, digital processor design with a manufacturer of such devices. Kostas not only understood the intimate details of the other guy's design, but he had some pretty interesting ideas on how the other guy could improve his product; improvements that the other designer really couldn't argue about. And he critiques these other designers in such a way that they didn't feel on the defensive or put down. You talk to Kostas for five minutes, and there is an air of instant respect for his ideas and the way he presents them. He's street smart, he's exceptionally intelligent, he's versatile and he has a sense of humour that is disarming. In many ways he strikes me as one of the last of the renaissance intellects. And his designs reflect his brilliance.
The sound in his room? Despite the room being way too small, if you stood well away from the two story electrostats, the sound was glorious, well above the ordinary, and a contender for best sound at the show if room conditions were better.