What's the biggest challenge facing today's hi-fi manufacturers? I'd say, 'Fighting boredom.' I popped into my local hi-fi emporium on Saturday and left underwhelmed by the much-of-a-muchness of over 200 components, all 430mm and black and, well, boring. It positively frightened me. And that's just the mass-market dreck. High end? It's more a case of sheer overkill. As in: there are far too many brands out there chasing far too few customers. The blessed, welcomed Recession we're still enjoying -- as Darwinian an event as one can name -- has failed to achieve the one good thing which comes out of recessions. It has failed to weed out the manufacturers, cull the herd. And so onto Metaxas, a part of the herd fighting gamely with a welcomed dose of iconoclasm.
As far as I can tell, Metaxas faces the same challenges that all high end brands outside of the Big Five (Krell, Mark Levinson, Threshold, Audio Research, Jeff Rowland) have to face. Semi-obscurity and 'smallness' are curses or virtues depending on who's doing the talking and who's doing the buying. What Metaxas has going for it is styling just freaky enough to polarise married couples and behaviour which suggests that Kostas Metaxas has used Ferrari rather than Mercedes as his standard of excellence. In other words, switching on a Metaxas amplifier is an adventure. It's as if the original TVA-1 has come back to haunt us.
The ludicrously-named Opulence pre-amp and Soliloquy power amps are the top of the range in yet another over-crowded catalogue. Price-wise, they're hardly exorbitant by today's measures: the pre-amp sells in line-only form for £4600 or £5500 with phono section and a brace of the 100W Soliloquys costs £5990. If you consider lots of polished surfaces to be luxurious (eg, if you're of German extraction), then the Metaxases are definitely upscale. One thing's for certain: MAS doesn't scrimp on fascia detail, the two-box Opulence's outboard power supply looking as much like a stand-alone component as the main chassis, or 'mainframe' as MAS calls it.
The pre-amp is minimalist but useable/practical and demanding no great sacrifices if you run a system consisting of more than one source component. The facilities include four line source inputs with record out facility, full tape monitoring, direct access of the phono section, muting, stepped balance in 1dB stages, volume and stereo/reverse. All of the hardware -- the front-panel toggles and rotaries, the socketry at the back -- is top-quality. The mains-isolated power supply connects to the mainframe with an umbilical cable terminating in a computer-grade connector and its front panel provides on/off and LED monitoring of mains conditions. The outboard unit is of such overkill design which, by virtue of the large transformers and heat sink visible to all, could be mistaken for a small power amplifier. Which, it turns out, it is: the company describes the power supply as a 'single channel of the Iraklis power amp', operating in Class A.
However much this control unit looks like a proper piece of laboratory equipment, the amplifier resembles an...I don't know what. All I could think of was that gag about a camel being a horse (or elephant) designed by a committee. A verbal description suggests something whole and right and complete and conventional, in that it has a chassis, a front panel and heat sinks. But, as with the smaller Solitaire I reviewed last year, it's just daft. The front panel serves no purpose whatsoever, aside from holding the name plate, because the on/off switch and on indicator are mounted on the front of the chassis; when the fascia is fitted, the combination rocker switch/indicator peeps through a cut-out. So you can actually dispense with the front panel.
At least a proper case protects innards from the elements and keeps fingers and falling objects away from the electronics. Behind the free-standing fascia is a lump of a transformer in a black can, four copper-coloured, phallic capacitors and lots of shiny steel. The chassis is edged in sharp, ankle-scratching heat sinks. And I was mightily disenheartened to find that, when I moved the Soliloquy with one mitt on the black transformer case that it came away in my hand.
The company describes the Soliloquy at the world's only fully-regulated solid-state amp which doesn't employ any capacitors in the regulator circuits or bypassing the regulator outputs. Each Soliloquy consists of five complete amplification circuits on a single PCB, designed to produce absolutely stable voltage and current irrespective of the mains conditions. To this end, the unit features a 2kW grain-oriented steel, bifilar wound transformer that's electrostatic and Faraday shielded. Those highly visible caps supply the energy storage to the output stage and filter the input voltage gain stage. The caps are bolted directly to the PCB. This layout, however much I take the mickey out of it, has been designed for ultra-short signal paths; I just don't share the company's faith in the public's handling of 'naked' electronics, however safe the units may be. Remember: this country can boast consumers who plug electric irons into the auxiliary mains circuits on the back of integrated amplifiers, and put electric frying pans onto gas burners.Read more about the Opulence and the Soliloquy on Page 2.