THE METAXAS MARQUIS/SOLITAIRE
Reviewed by Ulrich Michalik, HI-FI EXKLUSIV, Germany
Alas, an amplifier combination for 20,000DM. Right now, where the whole world talks about saving, where we cut down expenses and freeze our living standard for the next ten years. At least. Doesn't matter, you say, freezing doesn't mean to live in poverty. Up to now you have allowed yourself an amplifier for 20000DM and you will also do it in the future. You just won't spend 25000 or 30000DM. This version of the new modesty makes sense. It is good enough not to arouse the suspicion of levelling mania. At the same time it is relative, because everybody is concerned, more or less.
I must admit right at the beginning: to me, personally, a 20000DM amplifier is suspicious. It is not because I'm harassed with social envy. To my opinion, one is satisfied with only half the budget in 99.9% of all the cases, or the result might even be better. Furthermore, I get a pain in the neck, thinking of somebody getting cheated or spending (too) much money on things he doesn't need. This again makes the tester himself suspicious. He should test cheaper things. And leave the noble ones to colleagues, who feel attracted by them, as Ulrich Wienforth said so well.
There is some truth in it. Nevertheless, to my opinion, a journal like "HIFI exklusiv" must allow itself the luxury of prejudice. At least sometimes. Firstly, to avoid that every report only meets common expectation. And secondly, to give prejudiced authors like me the chance of reparation. Audiophile rehabilitation, so to say.
In my case it is about this remaining 0.1%, about this noble stuff, which is not only more rare and more expensive but perhaps also better, ie., more musical than the reasonably priced rest. This kind of curiosity I have preserved. Of course, no matter how the article will end, a part of my 'street credibility' will be lost. Is it a happy end, then I have lost my soul to the establishment in the eyes o the low-cost party. If it is not so, it's vice versa. Anything in between, and it is even worse! But so what, I'm writing this introduction without having heard any bar of music with a Metaxas amplifier - let's have a look.
Perhaps you had the same experience as me: the name Metaxas came across you for the first time in the mid eighties. No, not under the sun of the Acropolis, because I would never allow myself puns full of brandy neither at this place nor in the following sound descriptions. Here and now all is about the man Kostas Metaxas, respectively about his remarkable Hi-Fi creations. The first series production of the sympathic Australian, a phono prepreamplifier named PP-1, was introduced in 'Das Ohr' and was judged euphorically.
Unfortunately, the young fame vanished as quickly as it appeared because of never-ending trading problems and it took nearly a decade until Kostas Metaxas appeared in the German headlines for a second time. But this time the premises were much better.
With Pirol a reliable, German governor was found, able to put up a technical service and delivery support; a trading team, which doesn't look for earning fast money, but to establish the trading name Metaxas for a long-term period. Up to now nothing has to do with sound, but it makes it much more easier for me to write. Perhaps even to rave. For I needn't be afraid of prospective customers standing in the rain afterwards. Like now and then in other cases with exotic equipment...
Describing the outlook, I can fortunately be brief: Rolf Winters (Page 53) photos can say more than a thousand words. Looking at the design: to my opinion the amplifiers are looking noble without being ostentatious. In any other case I'd refer to my first sophistry now: don't trust anybody above 20000. You know what I mean. Instead, let's dive into the internals of the Metaxas, because of the innards make mouth water to every friend of technical aesthetics. Like all big control-centres of Metaxas, the 9000DM Marquis is divided into two parts, ie., it consists of the real preamplifier and a separate power supply.
As an electrical naval-string between the two components serves a sufficiently long 5-core-cable, by means of which hum can nearly be excluded in the sensitive audio circuits. A clever decision, not to stint a few centimetres of cable at this place. Nevertheless, the power supply box houses two strong 100VA toroidal transformers and 40000 microfarads of primary filter capacity. AddiÝional 20000 microfarads are placed inside the Marquis, before the voltage regulator circuits start to work. The Marquis has one phono and four high level input terminals, which are bombproof and gold-plated: thus thick cables can be used with a good conscience.
The second largest Metaxas preamplifier (after the Opulence) is a real double mono construction with big emphasis on short signal paths. According to the constructor, the maximal path length for the input until it reaches the output terminals is about 80 cm, which should sound better than the same amount of highend cable. He will have tested it.
Capacitors in the signal pth are another thorn in Kostas Metaxas' sides. They are a 'necessary evil' and should be avoided wherever possible and right (Page 54) from the start of the design. If it is impossible to get rid of them - for example in the phono-rectification, in the DC servo or the security circuits - he takes 1% polystyrene types and leaves it otherwise with two small 10 picofarad stabilisers. The statement, Metaxas be the only amplifier constructor in the world who builds discrete voltage regulators around a little bit far off. I remember ad hoc a preamplifier coming from England where something similar is realised for 3000DM...
Nevertheless, the voltage regulator of the Marquis is a hard nut to crack. The positive 'master' consists of two accurately selected ultra low noise semiconductors of the audiophile type LM394. The non-inverting input is fed from a Zener voltage reference which is fine-tuned by another two transistor amplifier stage. The inverting input with negative feedback controls and regulates the output voltage up to +-0.05% maximal tolerance and ensures that the output resistance - in plain words: the damping coefficient - is constantly high in a wide transfer range: in the case of Metaxas it is supposed to do so up to 5 megahertz. The negative regulator with current mirror circuit is built in the same manner, whereby now the inverting input serves as a 'slave' in favour of the positive 'master'.
Also about the phono correction Kostas Metaxas has thought a little. The result is the so-called 'zero phase shift' circuit, which in clear should mean a linear RIAA curve and no problems with phase shifts. In the Marquis, the straightening of the predistorted signals is only made in the circuit with negative feedback and after a very precise 'open loop' amplification has done the most difficult part of the work. This is, according to Metaxas the requirement for the use of an extremely high speed circuit design. It also doesn't need any time compensation afterwards. Sounds promising, especially to old-fashioned guys like me, who still like to hear LP's. Another advantage: nearly every common MM or MC pickup can be used with the Metaxas without any noise problems. How the fine-tuning has to be done is explained in the manual in a way that every layman and even every reporter can grasp. Therefore a second manual is not needed at this place, neither for me nor for you.
What else is in the Marquis? Capsuled potentiometers from Alps for example, best material for the motherboard, tight-fat signal paths, noble components wherever you look and all in a craftsman's fashion as you would expect it in this price region but as you will not always get. If I had to give credit I would be, for the first time, in generous mood. Even more so as the power amplifier is a credit to its name, too.
Surely, the Solitaire, second in the Metaxas hierarchy after the Soliloquy, is an impressive jewel. But one with which one can be seen without being looked at as a brilli-millionaire. An argument, which should not be underestimated to my opinion. Behind the highup metal front with a hand-engraved logo and the well designed transformer it goes on flat like a board. So flat that the four copper-shiny Roederstein capacitors and the wide ranging heatsinks act as a welcome variation. At least to my taste.
But probably you don't mind what's my taste. You want to hear facts. O.k. The heart of the Solitaire is a 1000VA transformer with an absolutely equal - say in technical terms: balanced - wiring on the secondary side. Thanks to this nowadays old-fashioned and unfortunately rarely used, because time consuming, wiring technique the greatest possible symmetry is achieved between the two channels, even if 'full throttle' is required. Other positive effects: later core saturation, increased bandwidth, smaller response susceptibility to dirt in the net and a reduced cross talk. Together with the 132000 microfarads capacity, the transformer results in a comfortable power reserve, in practice much more than one would expect from the conservative power statement of two times 130VA at 8 ohms. But a small side-swipe I cannot resist: The one, in the really beautiful Metaxas prospect promised, 1600VA transformer was not in the test amplifier (see picture). But better forget about numbers and be sure: with this unconditionally stable Solitaire even the worst current consumer is well looked after.
That this is to be understood qualitatively and quantitavely shows a deeper inspection of the circuit design. Once again short signal paths were the highest credo of Master Metaxas. Looking at only 15cm from the input to the output, one can say that he was successful, even more as the connection between the transformer and the bipolar high speed power transistors are within the length. About the construction and the design of the power circuit one can speak for days, but in this short article only a few highlights can be mentioned.
Instead of conventional bridge rectifiers, Metaxas counts on parallel high speed diodes, by which the high frequency behaviour should be better and a more dynamical, impulse sound should be achieved. The inevitable dose of feedback is with 11dB very small, what can only be achieved with a drastic selection of the power transistors. Kostas Metaxas statement that nine of ten transistors fail (Page 55) seems plausible against this background. Are all noble amplifiers such bean-counters? It seems as if I had to test such big things some more often.
But, before you, dear reader, misunderstand this as a threat, be quiet: I don't feel any desire to describe other busters like the ones from Metaxas. Under all battleships, which I tested with fun lately, the two Australians are the most sympathetic ones. Ad lib I can mention only two items of the same price region from which I got a comparable musical impression - these two were the big Rowland preamplifier and the small Rowland mono power amplifier, and that was a long time ago. Damned long ago!
What has happened in between, respectely has tried to happen, didn't impress me at all - nor my like-minded colleagues. It was good for feeding the above mentioned prejudice. O.k., in between there was one or another - speaking with Roland Kraft - 'hot valve' or sometimes a good transistor. But a mega-dollar buster which really turned me on - nothing. During heretic hours the parole went on: The more expensive, the more lousier!
This is of course nonsense in absolute terms, but a sense of truth is in it. Everybody who is concerned with HI-Fi everyday and has healthy ears and a sense for price-performance-relation will confirm this. Now I hope that a big fraction of the readership can follow my terminology when I state: 20000DM are a hell of a lot of money. If this is true and if I assume that testing people hear in the same manner, not even better, than everyday people, the only question to answer is: Are 20000 DM for a Metaxas combination too much money, enough or even too less money?
(Page 56) Now, things become subtle. For my attempt to be honest will probably not be interpreted as I would like it. I claim that the Metaxas combination is a bargain. A bargain for all those who like to surround themselves with 20000DM amps, who appreciate an exotic touch, who honour handcrafted top products, to whom the well-known US brands seem too ordinary.
The Marquis sounds - almost - as good as the immortal Coherence One of Rowland Research, all other contemporary exhibition preamps are simply flattened by it. The Marquis is as fast as the devil, creates a beautiful aura without any indication of blowing up, has glow and spirit, temperament and slyness. It has fire. In comparison with the Marquis, most so-called super preamps sound waste, flabby, boring. I needn't give any names, just look into the various hit lists and you know which ones I mean. And I mean them all.
The Marquis generates a pressure in the deep and the deepest frequency ranges that must be heard - also and in particular with CD reproduction. Unbelievable. But beyond pressure, it generates something else, something even more rare: a feeling of easiness, of unrestricted a delight to play. Let me explain it further with a negative example. You know, perhaps only unconsciously, this vexedness, this - sorry - laggardness with which numerous noble amplifiers survive round after round. Superficially, everything is o.k. - tone colour and timbre, coarse dynamics and reproduction of details - but in reality, nothing is in tune. For nothing is moving, because no air is available, no atmosphere is transmitted, because - depending on personal temper - one either falls asleep or permanently tries to give the thing a kick in the ass. For one is not reached by the artistic performance, one is not involved, one stays outside. Of all this the Metaxas combination is miles ahead. It brings life to the listening room, it acts neither sterile-analytically nor smoothingly-softly. About faithfulness, I cannot tell anything really negative with a good conscience. Nevertheless, both amplifiers possess their own, very special character.
Under the acoustic magnifying glass the latter looks as follows: the preamp is the whiskier part of the combination, faster in reaction but sometimes also more scrubbing. While the power amp tends to soften the edges from time to time, to hide some roughness in the program, the Marquis is the exact opposite. The preamp does not fear clear statements, especially with phono-MM reproduction, uncovers any recording weakness and this in an unambiguous way one might not really be interested in. With CD or an MC system, the preamp then acts more homogeneously, though also a bit less energetic and with slightly reduced fine dynamics.
As a decided moving coil fan, I'd rather prefer the opposite method, but I can understand the philosophy of Kostas Metaxas only too well. Being unable to eliminate the principal drawbacks of the digital signal processing, he at least wants to wrap its shadows as pleasing as possible.
To melt together these seemingly contradictory properties of the preamp and the power amp in such a successful manner - this deserves respect. A clever guy indeed, this Kostas Metaxas - and a villain who links an evil thought with it.
The Metaxas amps offer real value for money. Craftsmanship is, as mentioned, without any fault: two months o non-stop use may indicate suitability for everyday's life. There are no scratching potentiometers, no humming transformers, no noisy waterfalls, not even blowing fuses. All this makes the Australian jewels sympathical. I can stand almost everything, except mimosa like kilo-buck electronics. The two Metaxas items also represent good value for money because they offer, each for itself, more than the standard. Eg., the Solitaire is more imputable, more steady, more precise and subsonically more tremendous than any Sumo power station of nominally multiple output power. Even under heaviest demand, the Solitaire doesn't give in, seems always capable of another speed up - as long as the loudspeaker doesn't give up.
Furthermore, the Solitaire isn't picky at all with speaker principles. A complex dynamic 4-way speaker like the Infinity Kappa 8.li brings the amp to top performance as do the extremely difficult electrostatic loudspeakers of Putz or the old Martin Logan CLS. The real astonishment is met however, if one connects - against all odds - the Metaxas power amp with a brilliant 300 DM loudspeaker like the Energy Point 1e. Then the Canadian shoe box sounds immediately like a noble speaker of ten times the price, surprises with bass contours, midrange resolution, transparency and easiness of treble which exposes almost any expensive high price loudspeaker of similar size as a bad joke.
Similar things are true of the musical qualities of the Marquis. High level as well as phono inputs simply sound two classes better than 99.9% of what otherwise defines the 2000-5000DM class. One can hear more of everything o dynamics of the rhythm, or articulation of voices, of the generation and disappearance of single tones, of the recording room, of its acoustic, it's dimension - of the music.
(Page 57) The remaining mysterious 0.1% of the cheaper stuff, however, let me end my report with a two-sided statement. Pirol might not become angry after all if I refer, as an example, to the integrated amplifier Arcam Alpha 3 of the same importer. That amp, on the first sight, does everything badly: It has coarser resolution, brings less detail to daylight, is dynamically limited and can at best - smell the authority of the Metaxas giant in the entire bass range. Nevertheless, the 800 DM underdog, a cleverly constructed guy as it is, creates hardly less fun when listening to the music. This is something to prevent the statement of an unrestricted recommendation for the Australian dream amplifiers.
If one reduces Hi-Fi stuff to what it is meant for - a tool to reproduce music - then the Metaxas amps are, without doubt, a better tool than the small Arcam. But, to my opinion, no tool that justifies the enormously higher price. This judgment has created problems for me several times already and it will not improve my relation to the big-thing industry this time either. Nevertheless, let me give the following advice. If you own a 0.1% amp and if you had to plan your savings in order to buy Marquis and Solitaire, then drop this subject - you won't become happy with it. If on the other hand, your personal definition of value for money looks a bit different, if you are willing to pay the lot for the last little improvement and if you are also able to afford it - wonderful. In this case, the present article meets its purpose.
Then one obtains with Metaxas what he has always dreamt of. The other does not obtain what he needn't dream of, but is allowed to go on dreaming.