Though less than half of what the Emmeline Stealth II sells for -- which does, however, double as a 4-input preamp -- the fully broken-in MPX3 signaled from first turn-on that it would perform in at least the same elevated leagues. That meant sticking it into the 'big rig' where it would benefit from a truly best-case front-end to show what it was made of: Accustic Art Drive-1, Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII or Audio Aero Prima DACs; Stealth Audio Indra & Varidig analogue and digital cables; BPT BP-3.5 Sig and Walker Audio Velocitor powerline conditioners; and Crystal Cable Reference cords.

While the Stealth sounds like a tube amp designed by a solid-state guy, the MPX3 sounds like a tube amp designed by an advanced tube lover. That is to say, the Stealth doesn't mine the harmonic envelope and bloom available from tubes to the same extent Mikhail elicits from his MPX3. What's more, his piece fully maximizes the peculiar expansive 3D soundstaging magic the best tube amps are known for whereas the Emmeline is a bit more matter-of-fact and distinctly drier.

In a nutshell and to this listener, the MPX3 suggests a combination of the Eastern Electric MiniMax and Wyetech Labs Pearl preamplifiers, wedding some of the former's possible lushness with the speed, linearity and plasticity of the latter. This translates into a high-resolution machine that walks that fine edge between detail and warmth, magic and reason to a somewhat more artistic extent than the two-box Stealth which seems more shy about the glorious timbral domain the MPX dives into head first.

What's important to stress is that this deeper and fuller tonal palette doesn't come at the expense of articulation, precision or velocity. That's the part reminiscent of Wyetech Labs' credo about bandwidth, speed and linearity.

These qualities were beautifully showcased by the monster album Lagrimas Negras, a very unique collaboration between octogenarian Cuban piano ace Bebo Valdés and Flamenco cantaor Dieguito El Cigala [Bluebird 82876-55910-2]. It marries Afro-Cuban sons, boleros and montuno/guajira material -- such as you'd expect from Compay Segundo or Omara Portundo -- with the hoarsely glittering vocals and inherently untamed spirit of authentic Flamenco cante. First recommended to me by Jay who writes an audio column for the Robb Report, my sales clerk at Barnes & Nobles in Albuquerque reported that a gushing NY Times music review had turned this album into the #1 best-selling Barnes & Nobles album of the last two weeks. I haven't seen the review but, if it drove hordes of music lovers into the genial embrace of Bebo &
Cigala? It must have been both articulate and eminently fitting. It's indisputably one the year's most surprising and best albums and will find instant favor with all lovers of the Buena Vista Social Club. Yeah, we're talking that type of universal appeal and musicianship.

Envision Chucho Valdéz-style Cuban Jazz, simply executed with just a little less vigor and athleticism considering our pianist's 84 years of age. Add upright bass, the occasional musette-style violin or Paquito D'Rivera on sax, some light percussion and sparse backup vocals. Everything's lite on its feet, heavily syncopated, with a dynamically very nuanced scale of finger pressures on those black and white keys. Flurries of subtle fast notes are interjected by massive asymmetrical left-handed rhythm-keeping attacks. There's even intermittent right-handed accents to create a very jagged landscape of notes that stick out of the musical fabric to varying degrees. Added to this very percussive style of piano playing is a vocal delivery very rich in various 'dirty' harmonics. This juxtaposition of the lyrical and the percussive is a poster child for complex subtlety and the MPX3 sailed through the associated challenges like a champ.

The lower piano registers came across with fulsome weight; Javier Colina's bass rang out with rotund warmth while being endowed with sprite and bouncy elan; the piano's tinkly high keys had body and sparkle, Cigala's climaxes cleanly separated into multiple bands of overtones; and the tunes conveyed that peculiar mixture of elegance, vigor and joi-de-vivre that seems so typical of the old Cuban music and its Satchmo-like ambassadors. While this music lives and dies on its riddim, its time keeping isn't at all mechanical like a little sewing machine. It swings and jives. Now sharpen the transients, shorten the decays and strip the harmonic structure of some of its glow. You'll end up with something tighter but more constricted - something more soldieresque but less dancy. An example of this style of approach and delivery were my AKG K-1000s driven by the remarkable First Watt F-1 current-source amplifier which gripped these inefficient 'phones like an arm wrestler grips the hand of his opponent - until judge or victory do us part.

The result was stupendous recording-monitor precision and stellar cleanliness better than I've heard yet from the K1000s - but also a certain amount of sterility which had to be broken up by preceding this particular combination with a lusher tube preamp like the MiniMax. It's all a matter of balance and personal taste. In that department, the MPX3/ATH-W1000 combo under review represented total perfection for a listener with my -- well-published -- biases. This amplifier additionally pulls a trick that will be very welcome to those who usually complain about the confined middle-of-the-skull presentation of headphones. This SinglePower unit expands the soundstage both laterally and in the depth dimension. It seems to extend it beyond the side-to-side geometry of what's between your ears -- hopefully plenty of juicy grey matter -- and towards your occipital e.g. backwards, slightly behind you as though your head was more amorphous than usual and bigger than you should like to admit.

This tube-derived holography is well-known with speakers but translates here in a surprisingly tacit way to sealed headphones. It's hard to pin it down to specific aural contributors but moving to the Emmeline Stealth II, some of this buoyant, expansive and aerated flavor compacted or dissipated. That's why I earlier distinguished between these amplifiers by calling the Stealth II designed by a solid-state engineer whose allegiances remain audible regardless of what output devices he works with. If you're interested in a tube amp that deliberately accesses particular strengths of tubes while transcending their weaknesses, the MPX3 is the perfect choice. It's very low intrinsic noise floor and stiff power supply give you control, dynamic scale and superior ambient details while the harmonic richness and extended tonal finishes make for the swing of things and a distinct elegance.

That doesn't mean that hard-hitting fare like the Senegalese HipHop Rap of Daraa J [Boomerang Wrasse 105] lacked slam or aggressive delivery. Drum machines remained cold and heartless machines, artificial high hats lacked the HF shimmer of the real thing that clearly distinguished the Cuban flute of David Aubaile on "Esperanza" as acoustic. That song's an Afro/Latin homage "to the end of our pains... we will always build. My generation wants to come up for air...". We're back again to balance and that delicate choice between honesty and listenabilty, high fidelity and long-term sustainability. It's easy to hear when a component has it, it's harder to explain what exactly makes it so - but the MPX3's clearly got it. Big time!