Last year, I set up a second system, in my wood shop. (Don't laugh. I do a lot of hand tool work). Audiogon scored me a Rega Saturn R, a Musical Fidelity A308 integrated, and the Dali Helicon 400 MK IIs I have always wanted to try. All hooked up with big fat Acoustic Zen cables. It's was a very good system, but noticeably tubby and loose - and quiet -on the bottom. The mids were gorgeous, but the highs, while musical enough on some material, were harsh and strident on others. I've never owned ribbons before, so I wasn't sure if that could be cured. I swapped in my other integrated, a Plinius 8200 MK II. It sounded slightly better, but not much. However, from listening to my first system, it seemed that amp had gotten old and tired. (Was it really worse, or was I just inflating my memories?) I decided to give the highly praised Vince Galbo rehab a shot. Vince has moved on, and a very helpful Ralph Abramo has taken over. So I sent him the amp and hoped for the best.

Let's face it, most people wouldn't spend $1200 on a new amplifier. But for a rebuild of a perfectly functional amp? I wasn't looking for a little refinement around the edges - for that outlay, I wanted a brand new sound. I run on the skeptical side, and if the return on this investment had been negligible, I would have been the first to write it off as a learning experience.

It turned out to be a magnificent improvement. Ralph broke the unit in for a couple of days, and I ran it for a couple more. OK, my impressions: I'll start with the bass. I listened to the same music before and after, so hopefully the comparisons are fair. The missing weight is back; the bottom end has vastly more presence. Not exaggeration, just impact. The bass notes are distinct and musical. My go-to track is Dire Straits "Ride Across the River" (Brothers In Arms, MoFi hybrid SACD). The bass line anchors the song, and those wonderful notes had been all but missing before the upgrade. I'm serious - I could barely hear them. After the upgrade, oh man, wonderful low notes. Let's just say I've been listening to a lot of Mingus lately.

The mids are gorgeous, but that's what they were before. Guitars, pianos, heck, clarinet, everything is pure music and sucks you right in. The treble, though? I went to my worst offender, the MoFi hybrid SACD copy of The Pretenders. Previously, the sound had been an unlistenable, eardrum-shredding pack of shrill. My expectations were not high, and I was not going to be impressed by anything shy of a total overhaul. Well - oh my! Yes, it's still a bit hot at the top, but the Plinius upgrade startled me with how well it tamed the ugly highs. I played it again the next day to see if I had been playing head games with myself, and came away just as impressed. I don't think the treble is rolled off at all, just less harsh and way more musical.

Was it worth the twelve hundred bucks? For me, it was. Look, I'm no audiophile. I don't write well about these things. But I love good sound. This has been a great upgrade for me. Aside from big top- and bottom-end improvements, there's a very gratifying balance of slam and detail (I dislike overly smooth systems) that had gone missing earlier, and an overall high level of sheer musicality. The main drawback: I've been listening to my best *sounding* CDs at the expense of other music I like. Yeah, life is tough.

On high rotation lately:
Steely Dan, Aja (MoFi hybrid SACD). Sonically and musically great, and so much fun to hear on this system.

Pink Floyd DSOTM (MoFi remaster, just for fun, even though it's not the 70s, I don't own a beanbag chair and I don't smoke weed). Sounds sooo good. I love the clocks filling the room. Does that make me a weirdo? Where did I put my black light posters....

Sade Greatest Hits. She is not my favorite artist by a long shot, but she sounds so good here.

Shelby Lynne, Identity Crisis. This is a very well recorded CD and really shows off her wonderful voice, Bill Payne's amazing keyboard wizardry, and features some of her better tracks (that's saying a lot). Damn, it sounds good on this rig.

Massive Attack, Mezzanine, just to play "Angel" and then move on. You're supposed to *feel* this song. You do.

Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark, Steve Hoffman remaster. My favorite Joni album with excellent sonics. This is all I ask for, her voice sounding natural and unimpeded by my gear. I've also been noticing what the band members are doing and hearing details I never noticed before. Fun.

Yello, Flag just for good, stupid fun. Listening to "The Race" for the dang race cars and the kick drums. This kind of stereo does that to you.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Couldn't Stand the Weather, MoFi SACD. Terrific remaster, top flight album (goes without saying), my system somehow playing with great slam yet a lot of detail and separation. I've been wearing this one out.Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms. Already mentioned, still an album I never get tired of (except for the Sting tune), and the sounds are just gorgeous, notably (obviously) Knopfler's guitar. Sometimes I stop my chisel work and just stand in the sweet spot and listen to the sax on Your Latest Trick, because it sounds so sweet.

Happy Listening