Wheeling in the RADIA simply underlined the confident superiority of the mono-blocs, the stereo sounding lean and clipped in comparison. Cut from the same cloth it wasn’t so much that the STRATOS offered better separation, just that it was more natural and intelligible. Listen longer and you’ll realise that this is down to the greater focus, presence and harmonic resolution of the bigger amp; images aren’t more separate, they are more solid and concentrated. In part at least that has to be down to the mono design’s deeper and more solid bass, a factor that means moving speakers becomes an essential part of any direct comparison. Simply drop the STRATOS into a system optimized for the RADIA and it will indeed sound sluggish and somewhat leaden. Pull the speakers forward an inch or so and the life and balance will fall back into place.
Where the Hovland signature is unmistakable with these amps is in their perspective. Some amplifiers, notably the Karans, establish the musical event in a coherent acoustic, allowing the listener to hear into the performance. The Hovlands do things the other way round. Their transparency, immediacy and presence put you in front of the performers, listening out, their emphasis on the individual instruments rather than the acoustic as a whole. That doesn’t mean that they pull music apart – they’re far too coherent for that. But it does mean that they offer a distinctly front and centre perspective – which is fine by me.
Clearly, this also accounts (at least in part) for their immediacy, agility and intimacy – all attributes of the RADIA. But what the STRATOS adds, what makes them so convincing and musically satisfying is the sheer substance and emphatic presence they bring to the performance. Believe me, when using the STRATOS when someone hits a drum it stays hit, while the rhythmic, harmonic and dynamic resolution and subtlety ruthlessly distinguish real drums from the synthetic. It’s that level of insight, natural tonality and musical purpose that makes the STRATOS such a compelling and emotionally effective communicator. It also places it in quite a different league to the still impressive RADIA.
Paired with the Grand Prix Audio Monaco turntable (carrying the Triplanar VII and Lyra Titan i) along with the Connoisseur 4.2 LSE and PSE, the Reference 3A Grand Veenas and the Nordost Odin cable loom, the results achieved were remarkable for the naturalness of their weight, pace and timing. The GPA Monaco has delivered a new level of performance in this regard, as well as the signal the Connoisseurs have always been craving. The tactile clarity and musical sophistication of the Grand Veena delivers the message intact. But the real lesson here is just how comfortable the STRATOS is in such company, revealing new aspects to and stretching the performance of such seriously heavyweight partners. The proof of that pudding is in just how deliciously accessible it makes recordings, how easily it sorts them out, from the densest of Protools bass mixes to the stark wonder of Cisco’s (latest and greatest) Heifetz Kreutzer Sonata. The power and poise of the maestro’s bowing, his effortless combination of grace and bite, his ability to stretch a note or pause, to accelerate into a blindingly fast phrase or glissando is in its own way a remarkable metaphor for the performance of these Hovland amplifiers: a single instrument holds you fascinated, captivated, the extreme dexterity of the playing at once impressively pyrotechnic and deeply musical, supremely confident yet perfectly balanced against the accompanying piano. One player, one instrument: a microcosm of musical range and power. To listen to this record on the STRATOS is to revel in Heifetz’ talent and technique so completely as to forget the system conjuring the magic and recreating it in your room and is there a higher compliment than that?
Where previous Hovland designs have always delivered remarkable musical coherence and value for money the STRATOS is quite a different beast. An out and out flagship designed to fear no competition, it has met the company’s target with ease. The Karan offers a more coherent sense of acoustic space and more comfortably mid-hall perspective, while the c-j LPM 275s offer richer and more vivid colours. But for immediacy and sheer musical articulation neither touches the Hovlands. It’s both a natural extension of the house sound and a towering performance, albeit one that arrives hobbled by a heavy price tag. Listeners will need to weigh the cost/benefit and sonic attributes of the available options with care, but if Hovland’s intent was to place a marker on the highest point then they’ve certainly succeeded. Somehow, I don’t see the fact that having got there they have to jostle for space causing them any sleepless nights.