The other great electrostatic amp we’ve recently evaluated is HeadAmp’s terrific Blue Hawaii SE, which in a sense stands as the yin to the Woo WES’ yang—an amp that, while offering plenty of resolution and detail, focuses strongly on capturing the warmth, life, and overall integrity of the music. As reviewer Tom Martin put it, “the Woo tends to deconstruct music into its component parts, while the Blue Hawaii reveals the parts but deftly reconstructs them to present a musical whole that make sense.” Where does the Liquid Lightning fit within this picture? The simple answer is that it finds a middle path somewhere between these two competitors. It is every bit as revealing as the Woo, yet rarely draws attention to itself in ways the Woo sometimes does, perhaps because it avoids exaggerating midrange frequencies and transient details. The Cavalli shows you what’s there, but not more than that. At the same time, the Cavalli also expresses much of the warmth and life in recordings (assuming the record in fact possesses those qualities), not by enhancing “warmth” or “life” in any way, but by simply revealing what’s already there.
The important thing to remember is that all three of these amps truly deserve recognition as world-class products; the differences between them, though readily observable, are nevertheless fairly subtle. Which you prefer could be largely a matter of personal taste, although I think there is much to be said for the “middle path” approach that the Cavalli amp brings to the party.
One final note on living with the Cavalli/SR-009 combo: You should prepare yourself for the fact that the Cavalli/Stax pair will very likely show you things you don’t already know about your favorite source components or recordings. Be prepared, therefore, for surprises and new discoveries. As heard through the Cavalli, differences between ancillary components become easy to hear and assess, while recordings open up in unexpected new ways—sometimes revealing previously hidden sonic riches, but occasionally exposing sonic “clunkers.” My point is that the Cavalli amp leaves nothing on the table, sonically speaking; it will give you everything your recordings have to offer, every time you fire it up—a prospect that is at once very exciting, but at times just a bit intimidating. Can you handle the truth?
As I mentioned above, the Cavalli invites you to become a connoisseur of recording and mixing techniques, and it also can show you why in some cases simpler two-microphone recording techniques can yield better (or at least more coherent-sounding) results than more elaborate multi-mic processes. A great example would be the gorgeous Jim Merod/Steve McCormack recording of the Joe Wilder – Marshall Royal Quintet on Mostly Ellington [BluePort/NuForce CD & 96/24 DVD]. Listen to “Mood Indigo” from that track and note how grippingly realistic Royal’s alto sax sounds. You’ll not only hear the rich, pure, sophisticated tonality of the horn itself, but also the almost subliminal fingering and mouthpiece/reed noises and occasional sound of breaths being draw in as Royal plays. The presentation is incredibly clear, nuanced, and profoundly revealing. Later, when Wilder joins in with his trumpet, the same level of realism prevails. But what the Cavalli will go on to show is that the entire track gives consistently great treatment to each of the instruments in the ensemble—there are no quality shifts or drastic changes in listening perspective as the focus moves from one soloist to the next. This is the sort of listener’s judgment call that the Liquid Lightning enables you to make with complete certainty; there is nothing ambiguous or equivocal about its sonic presentation.
The Liquid Lightning also does justice to well-recorded pop/folk music, as you can plainly hear if you listen to “Closer” from Steve Strauss’ Just Like Love [Stockfisch, Multichannel SACD]. This is a terrific studio recording that uses multi-mic recording techniques, which was recorded and produced by the very gifted Günther Pauler of Pauler Acoustics. Pauler tends, in my experience, to give his pop/folks recordings a slightly larger-than-life quality, a fact that the Cavalli of course makes obvious, but in a way that tends to present each instrument and voice in the most favorable possible light. A good example would be Strauss’ voice, which while not “beautiful” in the traditional sense, is nevertheless rich, touched with a just-right amount of grit and texture, and full of expression. As Strauss sings, the Cavalli shows you Pauler takes certain small, tastefully applied production steps to maximize the singer’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses (in particular, a tendency for the voice to sound overtaxed on bigger vocal swells). Thus, you’ll hear Pauler adding subtle bits of reverb to add sweetness and depth, or managing relative gain levels to help keep Strauss’ voice in its comfort zone. Happily, each of the instruments in play gets the same careful treatment, so that you’ll easily hear the light, delicate, dancing quality of Strauss’ acoustic guitar, the haunting arc of Beo Brockhausen’s soprano sax, and the deeply evocative and richly textured growl of Hans-Jörg Maucksch’s fretless electric bass. As each element takes its turn in the spotlight, you may find that the listening perspective shifts just a bit (something that almost inevitably happens in multi-mic recordings and that the Cavalli amp plainly exposes), but in each case the perspective chosen seems nearly ideal for the instrument and/or musical passage at hand. But above all, the Cavalli leaves you with not only with the enjoyment of having heard a beautiful track beautifully reproduced, but also with the sense of having gleaned insights into the way the record was made. If you enjoy insights like these, then you have grasped a big part of the Liquid Lightning’s appeal.