Matthew James
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Cello

Looking back at the more than 25 years that there has been a Cello, the endeavor has always had the same motto,

"The justification for a great music system is the same as for a great instrument: It makes possible a musical experience that cannot be duplicated by lesser means"

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The Cello Rhapsody

Just as a diverse palette allows more of the colors that make up visual reality to be displayed, this amp, more than any other amplifier, allows a deeper sense of the alluring charm of sonic reality to be revealed.

Cello, at one time possibly the most admired brand in the high-end audio world, has been revived. The return is made official through the appearance of the first new product, the Cello Rhapsody, a 200-watt per channel stereo amplifier. I can imagine that audiophiles who are well familiar with the appearance of previous Cello products may be puzzled by the drastic changes to the outward appearance of this amplifier. I, myself, gasped in amazement at its beauty, the first time I was in its presence. What a well considered chassis, conveying delicacy and sensitivity from the first glance. Virtually nothing of the old fashioned look of Cello products will be found here. The only remnant of those designs can be found on the rear panel, in the connectors that are used to connect the speaker cables. With this one exception, everything else is completely reworked. The visual changes left me anxious with anticipation about how the sound might also differ from that which had gone before.

That anxiety lasted only a few seconds. As soon as the first notes sounded, my memory of the sonic truth of Cello was rekindled. Something deep within me was touched, and the knowledge that Cello had been renewed gave me a sense of great joy. Cello has been brought back to market, and its activities are now supervised by Jim McCullough, who has been with Cello since 1997. The name of the Mr. McCullough's company is Matthew James, L.L.C., which was specifically founded to carry on the activities of the Cello brand. When the previous owner of Cello shut the doors in April 2000, Matthew James, L.L.C. purchased the assets of the company, including all of the inventory, the product designs, the Cello brand name and its stylized logo.

Jim McCullough has a long experience in the high-end audio industry. He spent five years at Madrigal Audio Labs and another five at Wadia Digital Corp. I have known him since the time he was at Wadia, and I can say that he is, in his own way, a sort of genius about the workings and sound of audio products. While not an engineer, the spirit of high-end audio is an integral part of his being. For example, the series of designs that came from Wadia Digital starting with the Wadia 6, were created based upon his ideas.

The first project for Matthew James (named after Mr. McCullough's son, Matthew, and his father, James) was to gather all existing documentation and to build from scratch each version of every product that had ever been manufactured bearing the Cello brand name. For instance, all four versions of the Encore preamplifier, three versions of the Audio Palette, three versions of the Master Supply, and on and on, through the entire catalog of Cello products, were built. Exhaustive comparative listening sessions were then commenced, and through intensive efforts the subtle differences in sound were correlated with the technical aspects of the various versions.

After this process, he consulted with others having intimate knowledge of Cello products, dealers, service technicians, and customers, outlining strategies and designing improvements beyond anything ever achieved in Cello products previously, to be incorporated into the new Cello products. Jim McCullough invested himself totally into the resurrection of the Cello brand, to share with the world the sonic beauty that he knew existed in those original products. His intention however was not simply to pay homage to what had previously been achieved, for he understood that this is a path that ultimately leads to irrelevance. His rebirth of Cello intends to build upon the accomplishments of the past, by creating components capable of sounding even more attractive than before.

The Rhapsody amplifier is based upon a design that was never realized in a production model previously. In addition to the unique electrical nature of the design, a multiplicity of novel mechanical approaches have been incorporated into the production of this product. In order to achieve maximum thermal conductivity, and the attendant consistency in performance of the metal-encased bipolar output devices, they are mounted to the heatsinks with all-metal hardware, compression washers and special graphite and metal-composite gaskets. The Rhapsody includes specially designed feet, which utilize hardened ball bearings and a proprietary coating process, to isolate the amplifier from the subtle, unwanted resonances that can affect sound reproduction.

I tested the Rhapsody at the Stereo Sound listening room with the B&W Signature 800 speaker, the Accuphase C-2800 preamp and Accuphase's DP100/DC101 CD/SACD player.

The first SACD I listened to was the Jeremy Montiero Trio's "A Song for You, Karen" and it confirmed that the Rhapsody had inherited the DNA of the Cello family's sonic refinement. There were many subtle sonic shadings evident, creating an attractive sound filled with charm. The singer's sexy voice floats with an undeniable clarity in the transparent air of the space where the recording was made. This has recently been a favorite recording of mine, and I listen to it often. Through the Rhapsody, it achieved a fascinating realism, adding an astonishing dimension to the sound that no other amplifier has revealed.

The next SACD, the European Jazz Trio's "Angie in Sorrow" also surprised me so much I nearly fell out of my seat. The ninth cut consists of a pizzicato wooden bass line, and the touch of fingers upon the piano keys is quite clear, as is the sensitively sizzling drum work on the cymbals. Even the slightest imbalance in harmonic frequency here will limit enjoyment. But the Rhapsody conveyed a speed and sonic clarity that delivered each note precisely and accurately. It was becoming abundantly clear that the Rhapsody was not an ordinary amplifier, as the B&W 800 Signatures achieved a tightness and a density to their sound which was more like the exceptional Avalon Diamond speaker in these regards.

The Schubert Piano Sonata No. 4, performed by Mitsuko Uchida, reveals even more about the Rhapsody. The subtle details of her expression are awesome, and the clarity of their reproduction was almost scary in terms of how realistically they were reproduced. The physical sounds of motion from the piano, fingers on keys and hammers on strings, are uniquely captured and communicate the elements of the sound of a piano being played, within an acoustical space, in a way that draws the listener completely into the music.

I listened to Bruckner's 9th Symphony conducted by Asahina and could hear quite clearly the musically accurate silky smoothness that is so vivid through the SACD format. As this was the maestro's final recording before he passed on in 2001, I must admit that I was touched by the sound and became quite emotional while listening to this disc. On the opening track, the realistic reproduction of the sound of applause, conveyed as obviously the sound of many individual hands clapping, demonstrated yet again the Rhapsody's most extraordinary ability: to deliver the critical connection, previously unheard through any other amplifier, to the sound of real music being performed. It is clear that this level of sound reproduction could not be achieved by the usual design approach that focuses on simply seeking better specifications as measured through an oscilloscope.

The final example from my listening session was the SACD "Waltz for Debbie" by the Bill Evans Trio. The ambient noise of the recording environment, the bustling of the audience, the clinking of glasses was so believably clear, that I felt like I was there. I have never heard this much revealed with such clarity through my system at home.

There should be no doubt that the Rhapsody is a descendant, containing the same genetic makeup, as its prior Cello family members. However, it is not a re-hashing of a previous product, but rather it delivers a critical sonic clarity, previously unheard through any other equipment. There may be audiophiles who do not like this sound, since the Rhapsody exhibits such a strong, unique, controlled and confident character. Nevertheless, I have found it to be totally mesmerizing.

-Takahito Miura