Aragon Stage One & 3005 preamplifier processor & 5 channel amplifier Page 2

One other design shortcoming is the 3005's lack of a 12V trigger, which would have allowed the Stage One to cycle the amp on and off. As a result, owners will have to use the 3005's front-panel power switch. The 3000-series amps offer dual output terminals for each channel to facilitate biwiring, something that the 2000 series lacked. However, neither the Dynaudio nor the Magnepan speaker system can be biwired.

The 3005 is a home-theater amplifier, so much was expected of it, including the often conflicting goals of high power, reasonable cost, and a modicum of respect for the aesthetic space carefully negotiated between the domestic partners who host the whole affair. The 3005's five channels are each capable of 300W into 8ohms and 500W into 4ohms; however, the 8ohms figure is obtained when only three channels are driven, and the 4ohms figure comes with no indication of the number of channels driven at all. One assumes the worst.

Many multichannel amps share one or more transformers to achieve their objectives of lowering weight, complexity, and, ultimately, cost. In the case of the 3005, one beefy toroidal transformer does the whole trick. As it's rarely the case that all channels, or even a majority of channels, will ask for maximum power at the same time, such a compromise makes sense—provided there's no negative impact on the sound. Of course, the 3005 can't compete in a numbers game with Aragon's own 200Wpc 8008 Mk.II, whose dual-mono approach of two separate power supplies gives it a peak power-consumption rating of 1.5kW, or 300W more than the 300Wpc, 5-channel 3005.

Curtain Call
The worst problem I had with the Aragon 3005 was that I managed to strip two of its well-designed (though apparently not well-engineered), spade-inviting, 5-way binding posts in the few months I connected with them. That's a miserable track record, given that the posts aren't hexagonal and weren't stripped by my post tightener, but by a mere couldn't-tell-a-lie-by-George US quarter. Fortunately, even after I'd stripped them, the posts still had enough pressure, when tightened, to bind all but the most uncooperative garden-hose speaker cables.

Beyond that bit of under-engineering, the 3005 was quite the powerhouse, driving the painfully demanding Magnepan speakers to graciously larger-than-life levels with nary a whimper. If the single transformer was in any way a limiting factor, you couldn't prove it in my system. There was no sense of diminishment on crescendos, none of the telltale signs of compression of a system approaching its limits.

However, compared to the best power amp I've used recently, the Balanced Audio Technology VK-6200 ($10,000), the 3005 lacked that last degree of jump factor. It presented a slightly more subdued dynamic, taking perhaps a bit longer to introduce the attack and demonstrating a somewhat retarded risetime (if such a thing can in fact be heard), so that I was given too long to consider the music's implications and thereby reacted cerebrally instead of viscerally. Slight diminutions in microdynamics failed to encumber the 3005's outstanding low-level resolution, however—again, just shy of the VK-6200, which, if you can afford it, you should at least listen to. But for a third the price, the Aragon stomps the competition.

When I cranked up Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (SACD, Capitol CDP 5 82136 2), the opening heartbeat that gives way to the watch, clocks, cash registers, and earthy commentary were all clearly distinct, inviting me to lean in, even though I knew full well that blood-curdling screams were soon to follow. But the Aragon beautifully captured the gentle warmth of the music as it washes over the fury of that beginning. On a macrodynamic level, what the 3005 might have lacked in attack it made up for in seemingly unlimited headroom. The thing just kept going on forever.

Tonally, the 3005 sounded luxurious. Don't infer from this that I mean its sound was dark, or timbrally compromised for euphonic result. In my memory, the Parasound HCA-2205A ($1999) was an amp that did shade ever so slightly to the darker side, owing perhaps to its tube-ish MOSFET output topology. As for the other extreme, the Amplifier Technologies ATI-1500 ($1695, discontinued) was a bit more spotlit, though never bright, and it sounded open and spacious, almost to a fault. The Aragon 3005 was more "right" than either of those amps, adhering honestly to neutral. With speakers as diverse as the dynamic Dynaudios and the full-planar dipole Magnepans, the 3005 seemed to extract the best each system had to offer.

The Stage One processor was a joy to use. Every processor I've had to date has had a quirk or bug that would occasionally require a power-cord reboot, but in the more than two months I used the Stage One, it never lost its ability to speak or communicate, despite inaction, brownouts, and any number of stupid reviewer tricks. Its design is well-thought-out and terrifyingly logical. The rear panel is absolutely spacious compared to most processors and all home-theater receivers, revealing little of the flexibility and number-crunching power of the Motorola 56367 processor and Crystal 24-bit/192kHz DACs within. On an ergonomic scale on which 1 is a square peg resting above a round hole, the Stage One is a 10.

All of that would be for naught if the Stage One couldn't deliver sonically, but I give the processor a standing ovation. The tone was as neutral as the 3005's, and highly complimentary to great movies and great music. There was none of the transistory tizziness I associate with some lower-end processors and even megabuck receivers. The noise level was practically nonexistent, allowing me to really hear into the soundtrack or song. Notes bubbled up from this silence as from the bottom of a deep crevice.

I know I've got something special when I find myself rediscovering my music collection, disc after disc. My LPs got a good workout. I swapped around some phono preamps, and the Stage One easily revealed differences between my solid-state Rotel RQ970BX (even but not full-bodied) and my tubed Audio Innovations P1 (brilliantly deep, but with output too low to be of any use, even with my high-output Grado cartridge). In the digital spectrum, jewel cases from Astrud Gilberto (CD, Look to the Rainbow, Verve 821 556-2) and Respighi's The Pines of Rome (CD, Telarc CD-80005) litter my side table, as I stubbornly refuse to put things back in the rack before I listen to them just one more time through the Aragons. There was a warmth and intimacy to the system, with the Magnepan speakers at least, that spoke well of the two components' ability to communicate the emotions of music.

I watched many movies over the months, including Finding Nemo (DVD, Disney 30078), in which the challenge of distinctly presenting a host of sea voices within their own aquatic space was easily handled by the highly resolving Stage One. The Enya-like music accompanying Marlin and Dori during their time inside the whale (chapter 21) was most enchanting, providing an emotional bedrock of security, at least for Dori and the audience—until the whale speaks, nearly exclusively and quite loudly, through the subwoofer. The highly resolving Aragon system was more than up to the task of delivering these underwater escapades in cinematic splendor.

The boxed set of Alias: Season One (Buena Vista 31216) is a must-have for conspiracy theorists everywhere. While I love getting old TV series like Wiseguys on DVD, such shows as Alias and The Sopranos were produced in widescreen formats for high-definition broadcasting. The original hi-def broadcasts were awe-inspiring in the video domain, but Alias looks mostly fantastic on DVD as well. More important, the sound is better and more consistent. In episode 4, "A Broken Heart," synthesizers and a chorus accompany Sydney as she breaks into a church in Malaga, Spain, though at times a slight hiss crops up in the background. The Aragon Stage One easily exposed even such slight flaws in this otherwise excellent serial.

My only gripe pertains to the radio tuner: the FM section was not up to its job. I pulled in far more stations with my 14-foot roof antenna connected to the Outlaw 950 processor, which also includes an FM tuner, than I did with the Stage One, and I never considered the Outlaw's performance all that exceptional in the first place. Scanning also tended to bring in far too many false positives that were basically just hiss, so the unit's sensitivity should be adjusted. Those stations that did come in fairly strongly also did little to hold my attention. If you're an FM buff, don't pull a "Gift of the Magi" and sell your McIntosh MR71 to pay for the Stage One. On the other hand, all my "radio" time at home is spent with DirecTV satellite stations, whose commercial-free content I find infinitely more satisfying than anything sponsored by the makers of Clearasil.

A Standing O
The pairing of the Aragon Stage One pre-pro and 3005 multichannel power amplifier is formidable indeed. Their combined price of $7500 is definitely beyond the high-end receiver market, but these components are designed for a specific purpose: maximum multichannel and stereo enjoyment. Most receivers, on the other hand, seem to be involved in a competition in which the needs of the marketing department outweigh the needs of the customer. If you're trying to build the finest home theater your budget allows, which is more important: finely tuned, user-selectable crossover points, or a second zone? The ability to fit into a single shelf on your equipment rack, or the ability to pump 500W into a 4ohms load? For me, these decision couldn't be easier. I'm in lockstep with Aragon's intelligent approach.

While the Aragon system is extremely powerful, its sound is all about nuance. Its resolution seems to be among the best—mostly due, I think, to its extremely low noise floor. Music and soundtracks always seemed to well up from a dark, velvety void. The soundstage depth was excellent and completely enveloping, especially with the Magnepans. The tonality was even and not excessively warm, but the Aragons could never be called "etched" or "dry."

For its ergonomics alone, the Stage One should be commended, and even studied by the high-end competition. Add this duo's exemplary, detailed, yet thoroughly inviting sound, and you have a new reference in the considerably-under-$10,000 market. Most highly recommended!