Enter then the stiffest test yet of my new found optimism when it comes to higher output power: the Hovland STRATOS mono-blocs. Rated at 400 Watts into an 8 Ohm load and 690 into four, these certainly tick the box when it comes to power delivery. But they follow directly in the footsteps of Hovland’s RADIA, a 125 Watt stereo chassis that’s been my amp of choice for some five years. And in all that time, nothing save the two hideously expensive amps mentioned above has threatened its sonic superiority. Its innate balance of agility and resolution, lively dynamics and power on demand have given it the ability to sound like a small amp but drive all but the most difficult loads. Now, the Karan and c-j designs have surpassed its performance, the Ayre MXRs have equaled it – and all are more capable with difficult loudspeakers. The question is can the STRATOS retain the RADIA’s virtues whilst delivering nearly four times the power? The directness of the comparison will make for a stiff test (remember just how impressive the RADIA is, how well it does the small things) but then Hovland have a way of meeting such challenges and coming out on top. Externally there’s no mistaking the STRATOS lineage. Like all Hovland designs these are more about the careful execution and optimization of proven technology than the creation of ragged edge circuitry, more about a deep understanding of the elements comprising the design and their interaction than the invention of new distortion types to justify a price tag. The sheer care and attention that goes into every aspect of circuit layout, component selection and mechanical construction, the functional elegance of the final physical form make these the most Bauhaus products I’ve come across. Just like the RADIA, enormous care goes into the creation of a nonresonant chassis that acts to drain destructive vibrational energy away from the active components. The beautifully milled casework is edge to edge constructed from panels of differing thickness to inhibit eddy currents and damp structural resonance, helped by sandwich construction with images to focus and step away from the loudspeakers. Others might prefer the alternatives, but full marks to Hovland for offering a properly integrated solution. Just remember to make sure that the amps are evenly supported on all four feet, with no freedom to rock.
Hovland are adamant that the STRATOS sounds superior in balanced mode and there’s no denying the added focus and grounded sense of stability that comes with the XLR connections. However, for me they also cost you some of the very fluidity and expressive verve that makes this amp so special, dynamically flattening the sound and introducing a restraint to the sense of musical momentum. Given the identical cables this could be down to the superiority of the NextGen phonos over the XLR connectors. Fortunately, with both connections provided you don’t have to take my word for it and there will certainly be those who prefer the balanced option. But in my system at least, there is a musical magic that is effortlessly apparent with the singleended cables. If you own the STRATOS you’ll have paid your money so you can take your choice…
If the STRATOS look like a Hovland product, their sonic fingerprint is even more apparent. Putting the mono-blocs into the system simply to ensure that they were working properly after their journey it was four days before I realized that they were still there, quietly going about their business. That level of instant acceptance, even before I started playing with lights, cones and cabling is impressive indeed, reflecting the fact that these amps have that trick (one enjoyed by so few hi-fi components) of simply sounding right. Time and trouble spent working on wringing the last ounce of performance out of them just increases that effect, producing results that will have you sitting back with a silly (and slightly self satisfied) grin on your face as you do that hi-fi rite of passage, the ritual wading through recordings old, new, borrowed and blues.
Keyword to describe the STRATOS’ way with music has to be coherence, both for their even projection of energy across the frequency range but also for their speed and control in the temporal domain. Whether it’s the pizzicato bass lines that usher in the second movement of Barbirolli’s Sibelius 2 with the LSO (tubby and blurred on the recording but kept jauntily up to speed by the STRATOS) or the massive synthetic shipyard soundscape that opens Jackie Leven’s ‘Defending Ancient Springs’ (I told you I was pulling out the old favourites!) the notes and sounds are precisely placed in space and time, happening when and where they should for maximum musical effect. But it’s not just leading edge precision that’s important here. The STRATOS also deliver a natural life and weight to notes, body to their centre, length to their tail that ensures their duration is right too. Music never sounds clipped or hurried, a quality I’ve been aware of but never fully appreciated until the arrival of the Grand Prix Audio turntable, a product for which the STRATOS offer the perfect foil.