Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K.364 is perhaps the perfect choice for this exercise. Not only does it play heavily on the tonal contrast between violin and viola, but enduringly popular it has been recorded across the years by multiple artists in an almost dizzying range of styles. Of the early stereo recordings, Decca’s 1963 impression, featuring the brother’s Oistrakh is deservedly highly regarded – leading to the almost inevitable slew of supposedly superior re-issues. I don’t have the original LP, but amongst my collection you’ll find a Universal/Decca gold CD and an FIM XRCD. Listening to these two on the 10 Series amps, it’s hard to credit that it’s the same recording. The gold CD sounds thin, pinched and gutless in comparison to the warmth, dimensionality, full-bodied swagger and instrumental interplay of the FIM disc. The instrumental conversation at the heart of the performance, the character of the key instruments and the way their exchanges lead you through the piece is far more convincing. This is a musical as opposed to a sonic distinction.
Now add the Pentatone SACD to the mix and things get really interesting. The 2007 recording features Julia Fischer in her pomp and highlights the dramatic change in musical style and recording technology that occurred over the intervening four decades. The playing is more precise, angular and incisive, matched by the recording’s clarity and increased focus on the individual instruments. The agility and poise of Fischer’s bowing will be strikingly familiar to anybody who heard her playing at this time, that intense combination of power and technique. But at the same time, while she rises to the challenge of the exposed, spot-lit presentation created by the recording, one wonders whether the lyrical sweep, graceful symmetry and innate communicative qualities of the Oistrakh’s performance doesn’t strike a better balance. Fischer’s brilliance does overshadow her partnering soloist and raises the question as to which set of artistic decisions you prefer. Whilst there’s no escaping the slightly incongruous nature of the heavily upholstered Moscow orchestration, smaller, more agile ensembles present their own challenges. It’s a fascinating musical and artistic conundrum and, if the contrast between recordings like the 1958 Philips Felix Ayo/I Musici recording of The Four Seasons and Amandine Beyer’s performance with the seven members of Gli Incogniti is way less equivocal, this level of insight is exactly what makes music so fascinating – and exactly the level of insight high-end audio should be providing.
In use, these amps provide a string of similar experiences, examples of the effortless access they deliver. From the dramatic contrast between the instrument Sol Gabetta plays for the Elgar Cello Concerto and her usual instrument, used for the Martinu Concerto on the same Sony disc to the contrasting styles of great pianists: the delicacy and poised phrasing of Mitsuko Uchida, the explosive dynamism and positivity of Jan Lisiecki or the lucid articulation of Clifford Curzon. The character and significance of each is effortlessly revealed by the 10 Series amps, just as the voices, characters and different venues are laid bare on Heartworn Highways or Jim Wight’s sardonic and pointedly twisted vocals penetrate deep beneath the surface veneer of US social norms. But in the long term it’s the expressive and communicative subtleties that are even more important. That might be the astonishing depth that Uchida brings to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto or the stark difference in musical subtlety and insight between the first and later CD release of Benedetti Michelangeli’s Beethoven Concertos and the SHM SACD version. This is as far from the musically muscle bound delivery of most ‘super-amps’ as you can get. It’s all about the finest musical nuance, the weight of a note and the space between it and the next, the natural sense of pace and time, the lowest and least intrusive noise floor – all backed up by the kind of stick that only 300 seriously quick Watts can provide. What the 10 Series rams home in no uncertain terms is just how much of a performer’s expressive range and technique is smeared, air-brushed or simply obscured by other amps. It’s not just the utter clarity that’s impressive, it’s the unforced ease with which it is achieved, the fact that you just don’t notice them working.
They say it is difficult to prove a negative, to demonstrate when something doesn’t happen. Well, it’s not hard to hear it! When it comes to system sound, the 10 Series are simply not part of the equation. Stirling Trayle talks about “quieting” a system – where noise is considered anything that doesn’t happen in the right way, in the right place and at the right time. Wadax talks about “eliminating error”. Both are useful concepts in understanding not just what the 10 series achieves, but how it does it and, along the way, why it defeats the law of diminishing returns. I already said that what’s important about these amps is what they don’t do, but let me explain that further. Let’s just suppose that a system properly reproduces 99% of the recorded information. You might think that doesn’t leave much room for improvement, but look at it through the other end of the telescope. If you can improve that percentage by half a point, you’ve reduced the system error by 50% – and that matters! Just as your eyes fasten not on the snow blanketed vista but the line of footprints that stretch across it, because your ears are your primary defence mechanism, your auditory system pays more – much more – attention to what shouldn’t be there than what should. Listening to the 10 Series that construct makes perfect sense, as well as explaining why apparently small quantitative differences can have such a profound impact on musical performance. The earth doesn’t actually have to move in order for the earth to move – and post 10 Series my earth has most definitely moved.