April 10, 2018

Bellevue, Washington, USA


On March 30 and 31, 2018, my wife and I visited Mike Lavigne, and his wonderful wife, Pam, at their beautiful mountain home outside of Bellevue, Washington, USA.  Mike invited me to listen to his state-of-the-art audio system in a large, custom-made, dedicated listening room.  The listening room is located in a barn adjacent to the main house.  The barn — or “man cave,” as Mike calls it — also includes exercise equipment and a big-screen television for watching sports in a room above the listening room, as well as large countertop areas for record cleaning equipment and unused audio components, a large bathroom and shower, a bar area with a refrigerator, and additional spaces for custom-built shelves for LPs.  The entire building is devoted to making it easy and convenient for Mike and Pam and their guests to spend hours listening to music. Behind the main house and the barn one sees a postcard-perfect landscape of forest, mountains, snow-capped peaks and blue sky with white cotton clouds above.


Mike’s LP playback system consists of the NVS Reference Wave Kinetics turntable and Joel Durand’s Telos Sapphire tonearm, on which rides a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge.  Mike also had an Ortofon MC Anna cartridge until recently, but he sold that to raise funds for other purchases, including the American Sound AS-2000 turntable by David Karmeli of Vintage Audio Specialties Inc. and an SME 3012R tonearm.

Mike uses the battery-powered darTZeel NHB-18NS preamp which has a built-in phono stage.  Prior to the NHB-18NS Mike used a Lamm LP2.1 phono preamp and LL2.1 line stage.  Before switching to Lamm preamplifier components he used an Aesthetix Io phono preamplifier.
Mike is the proud owner of the third pair of Evolution Acoustics MM7 loudspeakers ever built.  The MM7 is a two towers per channel system.  On the full-range tower a single 5” ribbon tweeter crosses over to two 7” midrange drivers.  These midrange drivers are crossed over at 250Hz to four 11” mid-bass drivers.  The mid-bass drivers roll off starting at 40Hz, and there is an adjustable crossover to the bass towers below 50Hz.  Currently Mike has that crossover set at about 38Hz.  Each bass tower consists of four 15” drivers which are powered by two built-in Class D amplifiers of 1,000 watts of power each (4,000 watts total over both bass towers).  In total the four MM7 columns weigh approximately 3,000 pounds.  The MM7s are 97dB efficient, and present a seven ohm nominal load.
The speakers are driven by darTZeel NHB-458 mono-block amplifiers.  Mike uses interconnects by Evolution Acoustics, power cables for the 458s by Evolution Acoustics and power cables for other components by Genesis Technologies.

The NVS Reference rests on a Herzan TS-140 active isolation platform which recently has been modified into a Tana by Taiko Audio, a Dutch manufacturer.  Taiko Audio takes a standard Herzan and improves it by out-boarding and upgrading the power supply, and by screwing a panzerholz platform to the aluminum top of the Herzan.  The new outboard power supply rests on a panzerholz base.
Mike has an extremely elaborate and truly state-of-the-art digital playback system which I had no interest in hearing, because I have zero interest in digital audio.  We used the digital system only to warm up the darTZeel amplifiers during an extended lunch break.  (You cannot do that with LP or tape!)  Mike has deployed an elaborate array of Tripoint and Entreq grounding products, which I do not understand and which we did not discuss.
The entire system is powered by a 100 amp, wall-mounted Equi-Tech isolation transformer and balanced power device.  Dedicated AC circuits branch out from the Equi-Tech and terminate in Furutech NCF outlets and NCF cover plates.


Literally leaving the best for last the most important component Mike uses was the first component he built:  a completely dedicated, custom listening room designed by a professional acoustics firm.  Much of my report which follows is attributable to Mike getting this room correct (i.e., measurably sonically neutral).  I have always believed that the room is the largest and most important component in any audio system.  My experience with Mike’s room and system confirms this.

Mike’s listening room is 29 feet long, 21 feet wide and 10 feet high.  When the barn was stripped and prepared for conversion into a dedicated listening room the structure was lined on all sides with two layers of 5/8” drywall.  This created the inner shell of the room.  The visible outer surfaces are maple veneer plywood.  A layer of Quietrock 545 – – a 1 3/8” sandwich consisting of a sheet of 3/8” aluminum and layers of gypsum — lines the first third of the left side wall and of the right side wall starting from the front wall.
The side walls of the room form a large, shallow oval.  This is interesting because when I visited Walt Disney Concert Hall I noticed there are no straight planes or right angle surfaces anywhere in the concert hall; virtually every surface is curved.  Mike’s listening room duplicates some of the acoustic design techniques employed in classical concert music halls.

For the last  couple of years I have been mired in learning about acoustics and working with acousticians to figure out appropriate modifications to an existing space to optimize it as a dedicated listening room.  I have learned some things about elementary acoustics during this process.  Mike’s room design adheres to well-established acoustic principles.  If one considers the room to be the most important component of a stereo audio system, then the most important component in Mike’s system is, I think, ideal.


Walking into Mike’s room I believed:

— Ceramic drivers have a tendency to ring and can sound bright.  (Mike is adamant that this stereotype does not apply to the MM7s.) 

— The Goldfinger Statement cartridge has a 10dB rising top end (measured by, and told to me in person by, the late, but much-loved, A.J. Conti of Basis Audio). 

— Solid-state amplifiers invariably have some sonic artifact which makes you aware that you are listening to the sterility of transistors, and not to the liquid naturalness and musicality (whatever we mean by that word in this hobby) of tubes. 

— When you drive ceramic cones with solid-state amplifiers and read vinyl grooves with the Goldfinger Statement cartridge there is no way you are not going to create a bright, analytical-sounding system which emphasizes detail at the expense of naturalness.

Don’t we know that ceramic drivers can sound “tizzy?”   Isn’t it a measured fact that the Goldfinger Statement has a rising high-frequency response?  Isn’t it true that I have never in my life heard a solid-state amplifier that didn’t sound, in some tell-tale way, solid-state?
Why doesn’t a system in which the Goldfinger Statement sends the signal to an all solid-state pre-amplification and amplification chain driving ceramic cones sound bright or edgy?  I would argue that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and that in virtually any system other than Mike’s system this anticipated result would obtain.  So what is so different about Mike’s system?
What I learned very quickly about Mike’s system is that it breaks the high-end audio “rules” — or what many of us, including me, have come to believe, from gear auditions and from listening to our own systems and allowing our own systems to become our sole personal references, are the high-end audio “rules.”  Clearly, something else is going on in Mike’s system because it is not possible both for these “rules” (i.e., stereotypes) to be true and for Mike’s system to break these “rules” the way it does.  So, what is going on?  Or, is it possible for these “rules” to be true in virtually every system other than Mike’s system?


Many an audiophile, whether out of cost constraint, insufficiently extensive system auditioning experience or simply personal sonic preference, assembles a system by selecting a loudspeaker or an amplifier or a source component he likes and then adding what he believes to be sonically complimentary components to build a system to achieve the sound he desires.  One may like a certain loudspeaker but hear that the loudspeaker has a slightly analytical or “hot” sounding tweeter.  The audiophile may choose a tube pre-amplifier to soften and to counter-balance the excessive treble energy from the tweeter.  The audiophile may choose a phono cartridge which is warm in the mid-bass in an effort to even out the upward-tilting frequency balance of the speaker.  Not wanting to tack too far to the “warm” sounding side the audiophile may then choose a solid-state amplifier on the detail emphasizing side or a neutral to lean sounding cable to attempt to re-balance the frequency response of the system which may have become unbalanced by a warm sounding tube preamplifier or cartridge.

This audiophile is, perhaps unwittingly, attempting to balance a coloration in his initial component with off-setting colorations from subsequently-selected components.  But this audiophile’s system has become untethered from “neutrality.”  How can his system reveal all of the information encoded in the grooves of the vinyl record if his tube amplifier is very subtly blunting the energetic, leading transient of the blow of a brass instrument?  How can he hear all that may be revealed by a recording if his slightly-lean cables and his solid-state amplifier are deducting or bleaching some of the musical information available on the recording?
I now understand from my experience listening to Mike’s system that unless an audiophile builds a system by aiming for neutrality with every component decision the colorations of components he acquires may be obscuring some of the information available on the source media.  Cumulative, but sonically-offsetting, colorations may result in the desired sound, but inevitably this process will cause the sound to meander to a sonic “co-ordinate” which is untethered from neutrality — which is divorced from “true North.”  If each component is selected significantly on the basis of its own neutrality — that it does not on its own introduce a coloration of some sort — then there is no coloration or sonic fingerprint which needs to be balanced or remediated by one or more other components in the system.  With every component Mike seeks neutrality and the absence of colorations.
Another aspect of Mike’s declared audio philosophy is that “everything matters.”  From the footers under each piece of equipment to the material from which the platform under the footers is fabricated to the composition of the boards inside the walls to the electricity coming out of the outlets to ground paths to the loudspeakers to the screw tension of the covers on the AC outlets — everything matters.
Mike is intellectually honest when he stipulates that he does not know how or why things sound as they do.  He is not a scientist or an electronics engineer, and he does not pretend to be.  (I sometimes pretend to be an electronics engineer due to my early experience building Heathkits and as an amateur radio operator.)  Mike is confident of his ability to hear what is going on with a component, but not to explain it.  He might have a theory, but he considers it only a theory, as he believes there is no way to separate the sound of a component from the sound of the whole system.  Mike does “not have preconceived notions about why something sounds the way it does.”
For example, while I am reporting that A.J. Conti measured the Goldfinger Statement to have a rising high frequency response Mike does not have any reason to believe that that cartridge is tipped up in its high frequency presentation.  Mike theorizes that it is possible that the Durand Telos Sapphire tonearm is uniquely capable of controlling the resonance of the Goldfinger Statement.  By keeping the cartridge under control Mike believes that it might exhibit a different sound in his system than it would in a system whose tonearm was not effectively controlling the resonance of the cartridge.
Mike also believes that the custom power supply and the panzerholz platforms added by Taiko Audio to the Herzan active isolation device on which the turntable sits might be helping to dampen unwanted energy from the Goldfinger Statement cartridge.  Likely the Goldfinger Statement would appear in many audio systems to be a cartridge with a rising treble output.  But Mike, by seeking neutrality at every stage, and, in this case, by selecting a tonearm which he theorizes may be subduing the Goldfinger Statement into neutrality, is able to control that unwanted resonance, and the cartridge does not mislead listeners into concluding that it is bright or analytical-sounding.
Maintaining natural musical energy is another aspect of Mike’s system-building philosophy.  He does not believe in over-dampening rooms with wide-frequency absorption.  He does not believe in rubber feet and sorbothane sheets under equipment to absorb as much as possible all vibrations.  Mike’s “system is conceived to retain all the energy and only control what has to be controlled.”
Rather than wallpaper the walls of his listening room with wide-frequency absorber material when the room was built Mike started more neutrally and chose two layers of 3/4” maple-veneered plywood.  A couple of years ago Mike perceived in the room a slight excess of high-frequency energy or perhaps reflections — what he calls high frequency “hash.”  Mike fine-tuned his room by covering much of the front wall and the sidewalls with a very thin fabric.  Mike believes that this thin fabric attenuates the high frequency “hash” without absorbing a broad range of frequencies and dampening the “life” or “energy” out of the room.

Could one argue that if some component in the system benefited from having high frequencies dampened then such component itself by definition is not neutral?  I think this is a valid argument, but we have to start somewhere, and we have to try to avoid chasing our tail.  I think a valid rebuttal is to argue in favor of solving for neutrality with each component decision, and then tweaking one of those components, or tweaking the acoustics of the room, to achieve neutrality if a particular component exhibits some deviation from neutrality which causes the system plus the room overall to deviate from neutrality.  This is not the same as the process of layering in offsetting colorations in a confused and failing effort to net out to a “neutral” sound; this is a belief in the achievement of system neutrality by selecting each component based on its lack of coloration, and an acknowledgment that one component may be deviating from neutrality and in need of some corrective action to allow that component to exhibit neutrality, or to cause the sound emanating from the system and the room overall to be neutral.
I do not think of my personal component selection process as one of balancing different colorations to net out to a neutral sound (but I am open to the critique that that is exactly what I do).  I think I choose neutral components and then select one or maybe two components to steer that basic neutrality towards the slightly bloomy, slightly harmonically rich, slightly “liquid” side of the sonic spectrum which I personally think better represents the sound of live, unamplified music.


My visit to Mike’s barn made me realize that we think audio things, and we make sonic conclusions, based on sandcastles of prejudices, inaccurate judgments, spurious correlations and mere theories.  Very few of us have an ultimate neutral reference standard by which to judge each individual component and to attempt to figure out what is contributing to what sound quality — what truly is causing a perceived sonic attribute or an assumed coloration.
When some people find a Benz Micro LP-S cartridge or a ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge to sound more “natural” than a Lyra Atlas or an Ortofon MC Anna or a Goldfinger Statement is it because they are perceiving correctly the inherent, true, essential sonic nature of the cartridge, or is it because the tonearm is failing to control the resonance of a seemingly bright cartridge?  Is it because the solid-state amplifier in the system is over-emphasizing the leading edge transient of music, and we are accusing falsely the cartridge (or the pre-amplifier or the cables) of the sonic crime?  What if we are misreading the true nature of the cartridge (or any other component under scrutiny)?  What if the cartridge, in fact, is neutral but the tonearm which carries it or the turntable to which the tonearm is mounted is introducing some kind of anomaly or non-neutrality which impairs or skews what is a truly neutral performance by the cartridge?  How would most of us ever know?
Perhaps we audition a system and come away from the audition believing that tube electronics are failing to resolve all of the details in the music.  But how do we know it was the tubes causing this?  Perhaps the sound of the system was insufficiently detailed because the cables connecting the components are of a copper composition which smoothes out detail or truncates the leading edge of musical transients?  Why do we conclude that the tubes are smoothing out the sound when the culprit could be a turntable whose spring suspension is somehow dampening the musical “life” coming out of the tonearm/cartridge assembly?
Perhaps the system sounds overly smooth not because of tubes shaving off detail but because the acoustic treatments in the room are absorbing too much of the energy produced by the system?  Perhaps the uneven frequency response of the room is adulterating the performance of every component which in the system?  How are we to avoid being adrift in a morass of dueling sonic assumptions and prejudices, and paralyzing nihilism, if we cannot be confident that the most important component in the system — the room — is reasonably neutral to begin with?

I am now certain that unless an audio system starts with a reasonably neutral room the audiophile will never be able to discern accurately the true nature of each subsequent component he selects.  I agree with Mike that in order truly to solve for neutrality the first component must be neutral and the second component must be neutral and the third component must be neutral, and so on.  If for some reason a system assembled this way exhibits some coloration or anomaly, then that singular non-neutrality can be addressed. In Mike’s case that singular anomaly was either the generation of excessive high-frequency information or the occurrence of unwanted high frequency reflections in his listening room.  This non-neutrality was solved with a thin fabric on sections of the walls and the ceiling.


Fortuitously, when I visited, Mike had in his listening room not only the darTZeel 458s but also Lamm ML3s and Valve Amplification Company Statement 450s.  Mike purchased the Lamms to enjoy a sonic presentation on vocals and simple instrumental music which is different from the sonic presentation of the darTZeels on those types of music.  The VACs were in the house on loan from a friend.  As I am trying to decide whether to attempt to use a high power SET amplifier on my 89dB sensitive Gryphon Audio Pendragon ribbon panels covering 200Hz and up or to stay loyal to high-power, Class AB, push-pull tube amplifiers which I have enjoyed for 18 years (VTL MB-750s) I was lucky to be able to compare all three amplifiers on different types of music.
The sound pressure level generated by 32 watts from the ML3s on the 97dB sensitive MM7s translates to an output requirement of about 200 watts on my 89dB sensitive speakers.  (My room is shorter than Mike’s room, but my room has a taller ceiling so the cubic footage of both rooms is about the same.)  One hundred and thirty watts is the approximate output of the 833 SET tube amplifiers I am considering for my system.  


What can 32 SET watts accomplish on a 97dB sensitive loudspeaker system?  That is the question Mike hoped to answer with his purchase of the Lamm ML3s.
I like very much Lamm electronics. I have enjoyed Lamm electronics in every single system in which I have heard them.  Like many listeners I might find the Lamm electronics to be a touch “dark” sounding, but I find that sound to be more natural and more consonant with live music than the traditional Audio Research “illuminated” sound.  (I have on excellent authority that this traditional ARC sound is not representative of the new generation of ARC Reference series amplifiers.)
While I will be using an Aesthetix Io phono stage in my system I have no doubt that the Lamm LP1 Signature phono preamplifier would be quieter than the Io.  The Lamm would be my second choice.  I chose the Io over the Lamm phono stage mainly because I want to generate all of the gain with tubes, rather than shift some of the pre-amplification responsibility to a step-up transformer.  I think the Io will be a little bit bloomier and a little bit richer sounding than the Lamm.  (But with the Io am I giving up something in transparency by pushing the signal through all of those tubes versus the less valve-complex Lamm?  I would say “probably.”  But I just love the Io!)
The ML3s were more natural and “liquid” and emotionally involving on vocals and simple acoustic instruments than were the VAC Statement 450s or the darTZeels.  “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley on Grace sounded as good as I have ever heard it.  “After the Goldrush” by Neil Young on After the Goldrush sounded very engaging.
But the performance envelope of the 32 watt ML3s was more limited than I was expecting.  I thought most pop music and most jazz music would be within target range of the ML3s on the MM7s. But I was wrong.
On a song such as Neil Young’s “Old Man” the dynamic instrumental on the track became congested and a little mixed up on the Lamms compared to the VACs.  With the VACs the various instruments could be heard more individually and clearly, as though they were physically separated on the stage, instead of all being played in the same space on the stage.  Simple jazz music was rendered with greater believability and naturalness on the ML3s than on the VACs, but more complex jazz music revealed the headroom limitations of the Lamms. When the Lamms’ reach exceeded their grasp the sound hardened a little bit and I could hear the music become compressed, as though the ceiling was lowered toward the stage.  The sound also became less resolving and less clear.
I think the ML3s are absolutely state-of-the-art amplifiers.  I think they must be at least equal to the best 32 watts produced by any amplifier in the world today.  Another brand’s 32 watts may be different, but I do not see how they could sound better.  If Vladimir Lamm made a 150 watt version of the ML3s I would buy those amplifiers.  Only by zeroing in on the one or two things the ML3 does not do perfectly when presented with a challenging combination of speaker sensitivity, dynamic requirement and room size could I find anything at all to critique.


The VAC Statement 450s sounded more like what I am used to with the VTL MB-750s:  very dynamic, powerful, transparent, high-power, Class AB, push-pull tube amplifiers that can meet every musical challenge without breaking a sweat.  The compression effect I heard from the ML3s on Neil Young’s “Old Man” was completely absent when we played that track through the VACs.
Mike explained that compared to the transparency of the ML3s and the 458s he hears the 450s to have a sonic signature through which he must listen to the music.  I interpret Mike’s comment to mean that the VACs are slightly less transparent than the other amplifiers — like there is a pane of glass between the musicians and the listener, whereas no such pane of glass exists between the listener and the ML3s or between the listener and the 458s.  Mike does not perceive this tube-related signature between himself and the performance with the ML3s or with the 458s.

I could not hear this sonic signature or this slight loss of transparency.  But I have listened to high-power, push-pull, tube amps for 18 years.  Maybe I just don’t notice, or maybe I simply am unable to detect, what might be a slight loss of transparency (compared to two of the very most transparent amplifiers in the entire world) because I am so accustomed to the sound of banks of output tubes in push-pull configuration?
Compared to the ML3s the 450s could handle every type of music thrown at them.   There was no sense of any dynamic constraint or headroom limitation.  On vocals with simple acoustic accompaniment I personally have not heard any amplifier which can beat the ML3s.  But for lively jazz music and symphony orchestra music I preferred the VACs.  On such music I believe that you gain more in power and dynamic capability with the VACs than you lose in transparency versus the Lamms.


I am one of the first people to criticize anything I hear from solid-state amps which I do not like.  I have spent my whole life not hearing a solid-state amp I could live with (the Vitus SM-011 being a possible exception, but my audition of it was too brief).
The darTZeel 458 does not exhibit any solid-state signature or solid-state “nasty” I could detect.  It does not exhibit any coloration or “flavor” I could hear.  I think I finally understand what “colorless” means with respect to amplifiers because I think I finally heard an amplifier example of “colorless.”  The 458 does not sound solid-state; it does not sound like anything. The only artifact I could hear is that the 458 sounds a shade “dry” compared to the 450, and maybe two shades “dry” compared to the ML3.

This visit taught me that Mike has been more correct, and many others have been more incorrect, than I previously assumed.  I believe that Mike Lavigne and Michael Fremer are accurate about their reports on, and impressions of, the 458s.  (Mike Lavigne and Michael Fremer have reported substantially the same sonic characteristics of the 458s.)  “The Great Gate at Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition (Reiner, CSO, RCA Living Stereo/Classic Records 4 disc 45rpm) is an incredibly dynamic piece which makes it easy to hear what Mike Lavigne has been writing about the 458 for years:  seemingly unlimited dynamic range, unlimited dynamic capability and unlimited headroom; allows the most complex music to soar without hesitation or restraint; extremely transparent; highly resolving; and very detailed but not analytical, edgy or bright.  Mike’s reported impressions sometimes have been met with skepticism or allegations of hyperbole.  Now hearing the 458s myself I understand what Mike has been writing about them, and I agree with him.
Only in direct comparison to the darTZeel 458s could I discern that the VAC 450s are not quite as ultimately dynamic or as microscope resolving as the 458s.  Only in direct comparison could I hear a very slight smoothing of detail compared to the VACs.  The VACs do not exhibit quite the seemingly unlimited dynamic power and speed of the 458s.
I was very surprised that the darTZeels do not add to the sound, or exhibit, any edginess or brightness or over-etched artifact like every other solid-state amplifier I have heard.  But they do not smooth out anything, either.  The 458 is a very impressive actualization of the apocryphal “straight wire with gain.”
With the 458s on “The Great Gate at Kiev” cymbals crashed with almost the speed and detail and decaying shimmer of the real instrument.  Drums pounded with almost the physical energy and sonic breadth of  the actual instrument.
I have enjoyed six symphony orchestra concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, over the last few months, including “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  The 458s allowed Mike’s system to achieve the highest level of realism — the greatest suspension of disbelief — I have ever experienced in my entire life on complex classical music.  This system exhibited the sound closest to the dynamics and the power and the immediate, unrestrained “rise time” and “jump factor” of live musicians playing real instruments that I have ever heard!


The transparency on “The Rose” by Amanda McBroom on Growing Up in Hollywood Town (Sheffield Lab 13) was surprising to me as I had trouble distinguishing the incredible transparency I was hearing from the MM7s with the transparency I think I remember hearing from ribbon speakers and from electrostatic speakers.  This suggests to me that the ribbon tweeter in the MM7s is a very high quality driver, and that it is doing a great job.
We listened to the entire Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat album.  Jennifer Warnes’ voice sounded as rich and breathy and realistic as I have ever heard her.  
Overall the system does not sound bright or analytical in any way.  I would not say it sounds warm, exactly, but it certainly is more warm and natural sounding than it is cold or lean sounding.  But it really does not sound warm or cold; it does not sound bloomy or lean.    I would say the system sounds truly neutral
I always took the word “neutral” as either a synonym of, or as a euphemism for, lean or a bit cold or sterile sounding.  For the first time in describing the overall sound of a system I am not using the term “neutral” in a vaguely derogatory way or in a damning with faint praise way.  When I describe Mike’s system as sounding truly neutral I mean it, for the first time, in a complementary and admiring way.
The low frequency capabilities of the system gave me the sense that the system is capable of life-like, and virtually unlimited, power and punch.  Eight 15” drivers aimed at you will give you that sensation.  This system has the greatest dynamic capability and a sense of the highest musical “ceiling” I have ever heard.


Three Studer A820 tape decks, two 1/4” machines and a 1/2” machine, adorn Mike’s room.  Mike played a variety of 1/4” and 1/2” master tape copies.

I continue to find tape to sound totally amazing.  Voices on tape can sound more in-the-room real and life-like than voices on most LPs.  There was a realism and presence and density of vocals and instruments on tape that was astounding.  But Mike proved to me that the highest-quality reissues on 45 rpm vinyl can rival, and in some cases can beat, the sound quality of tape.  Overall, tape rules!


I learned a great deal from this visit.  In certain respects I learned more than I really wanted to know.
The room is the first and most important component.  If you do not get the room right — if the room is not neutral — then the sounds of all of the components which come later are suspect, as you cannot be sure what element or component is responsible for what sonic attribute you are hearing.  You will be chasing your tail attempting to attribute a particular sound or sonic characteristic to a particular component.  The conclusions you make about the sounds of components, and the theories you develop in an effort to explain those sounds, and the correlations you assume, likely will be spurious.
I personally still will trade off the last level of dynamics and detail from solid-state amplifiers for the slightly more liquid sound I hear from tubes, even from high-power, push-pull tube amplifiers.  But I now understand completely why, for Mike, the darTZeel NB-458s are the ultimate, do-everything, state-of-the-art amplifier.
Overall, as a general-purpose, do-everything system, Mike’s system is the best stereo system I have ever heard.  A limited purpose system designed specifically to maximize the beauty and realism of vocals with simple acoustic instrumental accompaniment — such as electrostatic speakers or ribbon panels driven by high-power tubes — probably can create a greater level of suspension of disbelief on that type of music.  A limited purpose system designed specifically to maximize the realism of jazz musicians playing in a jazz club or of a string quartet performing in a living room — using high-efficiency horn loudspeakers driven by Lamm ML3 amplifiers — probably can create a greater level of suspension of disbelief on those types of music.
On complex symphony orchestra music Mike’s system is better than every other stereo system I have ever heard.  This should not be a surprise, as maximizing the realism of big classical orchestral pieces is Mike’s goal.
I had an amazing two full days and evenings with Mike, and I am very grateful for his time and patience.  I am thankful for Mike’s and Pam’s hospitality and friendship!
Ron Resnick
Mono and Stereo Senior Contributing Reviewer