Cello Audio Palette, Performance II Amps, Cello Stradivari Grandmaster Speakers Reviewed

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Cello Audio Palette, Performance II Amps, Cello Stradivari Grandmaster Speakers Reviewed

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Name a pursuit or hobby. Better still, think of your own prime passion. Think of the ultimate fantasy which relates to it. Cars? You probably fantasise about owning a Diablo and a place to drive it. Boating? You want a yacht. Food? A line of credit and a permanent table at Gundel. Champagne? A cellar full of Krug. And so it goes for all of us mere mortals who cannot afford to indulge in the ultimate extensions of our main type of pleasure. And, in the context of home theatre, you'd imagine that a videophile's Holy Grail would be to own a real cinema.

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I've just sampled the next best thing, nearly as costly but infinitely more practical than a 1500-seater needing a steady supply of 35mm films, staff and a heating bill running to five figures per annum. Think of the closest approximation of a cinema in the home and you've nailed it on the head. Think Cello and you've named it, too.

Most of us with videophile tendencies make do with cost-effective add-ons which combine to convert our 'normal' hi-fi, 'normal' VCR and 'normal' TV monitor into a surround-sound set-up. We do not believe for a moment that it's a substitute for a session at the Rialto (even if the actual sound quality is better), but it sure beats the hell out of the mono wheezes which always made TV viewing a compromise. After a time, we might graduate to larger screens, better hi-fi systems, more sophisticated processors, laser disc instead of tape. And we are happy with our viewing facilities so that we can return to them after seeing a film in the cinema without too much disappointment. That's because we tell ourselves that viewing in the home is not the same as sitting in front of a screen of billboard proportions. We adjust accordingly.

But Cello's Mark Levinson thinks big -- always has, always will. He doesn't understand the concept of 'limitations'. Whatever his rivals may think, whatever future hi-fi historians may write, the fact remains that Levinson, some 20 years ago, took hi-fi out of the Mickey Mouse league and plunked it straight into the luxo-class. He created the concept of cost-no-object design. For this, he was reviled by the right-on anti-materialists; at the same time, he enabled all other hi-fi manufacturers to move their goal posts by a few kilometres. The 1970s/1980s saw hi-fi reach levels of performance inconceivable in the 1960s. Now he wants to do the same for video.

Maybe Levinson feels that home theatre has now reached a level of maturity which will allow for the creation of a true video high end. Maybe he's acknowledged that hi-fi is moribund and its future depends on links with video. More likely, his motivation may be just his love for films, an enthusiasm almost as great as his love for music. A cynic might even argue that he's simply clever enough to see a sound commercial opportunity. Frankly, I don't care what moved Levinson. Rather, I appreciate that he's the first seasoned high end manufacturer to apply the same values to visuals that we have grown to accept as the standards for audio.

This lengthy preamble is necessary to prevent grunts of dismay similar to those which greeted the first big bucks hi-fi systems. The price of the top Cello video system is so far beyond anything currently on offer that the words 'leap' and 'quantum' come to mind. Levinson is not an apologist, nor should he (or any other manufacturer of luxury goods) become one. He is the first to acknowledge that Cello products are not 'affordable' in any conventional sense of the word. Indeed, your typical customer for the full-blown Cello Music and Film System will be a millionaire. He or she will have at least one spare room to serve as a dedicated home theatre. He or she will be either connected to the movie/video industry, using the home theatre system for business and pleasure, or an obsessive, wealthy, movie-loving civilian.

What I saw is the very latest version of the system first given a major public airing at last year's Summer CES. I had to fly to Hong Kong to see it (it's a tough life) because as of late 1992 only one full set-up had been produced; at the time, the two Cello showrooms in the US had earlier versions on display. Much of it will be familiar to those who have followed Cello's audio activities.

The sonics are handled by the well-known Audio Suite pre-amplifier, the Audio Palette equalisation system and the Performance amplifiers, driving a pair of the Strad Grand Master loudspeakers. This, of course, is dreamware, the kind of equipment which fights for the title of state-of-the-art alongside other high end products. But the items which concern us here, the items which point to a revolution in home entertainment, are all-new, leading edge and --as far as I can ascertain -- without any serious rivals.

The link between the music and the film portions of the Cello system is the D/A converter which accepts the laser disc player's audio output. As with everything on the video side of the Cello package, the DAC is the product of a collaboration, Cello joining with Apogee Electronics Corp of California (not the ribbon speaker builder but a name known in professional circles for studio quality hardware). Apogee has produced special versions of its Series 8 D/A and A/D converters for the Cello system, the units incorporating Cello-specified analogue circuitry, Swiss-made 3-pin Fisher connectors and a new front panel.

Read more about the performance of this system on Page 2.

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