The Dynaudio Contour 60 loudspeakers had just landed in the Music Vault and the Soulution 711 stereo amplifier was on its way out the door. A second set of speakers, the TAD ME-1 compact standmounts, were inbound. I had an amplifier lined up for review that would have given me a smooth transition from the Soulution, but, as often happens with these things, that shipment was delayed. Now my concerns were that there’d be a gap between power amps, and that I was running the risk of changing so much in my system in so short a period of time that I would muddy the waters of which outswapping of gear had caused which change in the sound.
I could have borrowed an amp from some manufacturer or other. It would have been an easy fix, but I didn’t want to do that with a component I’d never heard -- I can’t review a new amp and a new set of speakers simultaneously. So I did what many of you would probably have done: I browsed Audiogon.
Lo and behold, it didn’t take long to find a solution that turned out to be far better than I could have imagined. But before I tell you about it, some backstory:
Way back in the early 1990s, years before I began reviewing for the SoundStage! Network, a friend and I took a post-college trip from North Carolina to California. We flew into Sacramento, drove to L.A. via the Pacific Coast Highway, and came back up I-5 to spend a few days in San Francisco before returning to Sacramento to fly home. At the time I had, at my apartment back in North Carolina, a used McIntosh Laboratory MC2100 power amplifier with matching MX113 tuner-preamp, a Carver something-or-other CD player, and a pair of Bose 901 speakers. It was my first crack at a high-end system: I’d been told that a lot of doctors were buying the McIntosh-Bose combination, so it must have been good, right? I’d saved my money and bought them used. I was in business.
But even then, I knew there was a lot more out there. At the time, I treasured each installment of Audio’s annual Equipment Directory issue, and had ordered enough back issues of Stereophile to be aware that there was a great big world of gear out there that I had yet to experience. I knew we’d have an afternoon free in Sacramento before the flight back east, so I made a point to see if any local high-end companies were open.
I found Coda Technologies. I didn’t know a lot about them, but I did find out that they manufactured high-end amps, and for that reason alone I was intrigued. I called them, awkwardly asked if they could give me a tour of their facility, and they were gracious enough to let a 23-year-old know-nothing wannabe audiophile come in to look around. I was greeted by Eric Lauchli, Doug Dale, and Lorin Peterson, the engineers who’d left Threshold to form Coda.
I was amazed at what I saw. What probably made the biggest impact was watching gold-plated circuit boards being installed in what was then the flagship System amplifiers that Coda became known for. Once I learned that those amps cost in the thousands of dollars, I knew I’d have to have a real job (at the time, I was employed by the YMCA) before I could even consider one. But before I left the Coda facilities that day, I spied, on a workbench in the back, an old, cool-looking amp with meters inset into the faceplate. It was a Threshold [cue oohs and ahhhs], and the personal amplifier of one of Coda’s owners (don’t remember which one), which he’d acquired before leaving Threshold. I inquired about it and, knowing how much money I had left from my vacation, asked if I could buy it. I don’t remember how we settled on a price, but I believe it was about $550. I could tell that it had some sentimental value for the owner, but I think he saw the wide eyes of a budding audiophile and so made it easy for me. From that day forward, I always remembered Coda.
Then I got a real job. And a credit card. The world changed.
I cycled through some amplifiers from Krell and others. Finally, years later, I heard the Coda Technologies Model 11 and System 100 amplifiers, among others, and was amazed at the quality of sound. I brought home a Model 11 and compared it to a Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 8T that I also had on hand. In a direct comparison, I could not believe how much more focused the Coda sounded, or that the 8T’s bass now sounded soft and rolled off. The Model 11 stomped it.
Back to 2017: There it was on Audiogon, staring back at me from my computer monitor: what looked to be a close-to-mint Coda Model 11. I knew this amp, had loved this amp back in the day, and the guy selling it for $1500 even had the box and original manual from 20 years ago. I figured, what the heck? By now, having reviewed several Coda models over the years, I knew Doug Dale, so I knew I could get it fixed if it needed to be. Plus, I knew the sound very well -- that 100Wpc class-A sweetness had etched itself in my mind’s ear for all time many years before. I took a chance.
The Coda Model 11 arrived via FedEx. I was surprised to see that even its 20-year-old box was still in great shape. It gave me hope that the amp would be the same, and when I got it home and unboxed it, a wave of nostalgia washed over me: Man, was this amp a beauty -- visually understated by today’s standards, but gorgeously built and constructed. When I popped the top and saw those gold circuit boards, there was nary a speck of dust to be seen. As I fired it up to begin listening, I felt I’d hit the jackpot.
I had zero disappointment in the sound. Yeah, the Model 11 couldn’t throw as expansive a soundstage as one of Gryphon’s big, current amps, and it didn’t display the holographic imaging that is the province of Soulution models, but for a 20-year-old amp it sounded terrific: precise and clear, with the touch of golden glow to the midrange that’s the calling card of a good class-A design. There was no mechanical noise, and, very surprisingly for an amp of this vintage, the Coda was extremely quiet: I could hear no more noise through the tweeters of the Dynaudios than I had with the Soulution 711. How could this be? This thing is 20 years old.
This experience has led me to search my soul. In 20 years, how far has the high end really come? One thing is certain: There is real, lasting value in great high-end gear, both yesterday’s and today’s. I’ve been as guilty as any in wanting only current-model components: I get excited when I see product announcements from my favorite manufacturers. But Coda’s Model 11 has taught me that perhaps I’ve been too hasty in some of my “upgrades” through the years. The truth is that the best companies -- like Coda Technologies -- make gear that will give a lifetime’s worth of great sound. The best designs of yesteryear are still very good designs today, and if they’ve been well taken care of -- as my Model 11 clearly was by its previous owner -- you’re likely to have something that can make great sound for decades longer. There are treasures to be found in the used market.
I can’t say that my new old Coda Model 11 will find a permanent home in my system. But it’s far more than merely something to tide me over and get me by. If and when I replace it, it will be with something that not only betters it, but betters it without costing me an arm and a leg. Which means its replacement will have to be a pretty special amplifier itself. Until that happens, the Coda Technologies Model 11 is my new reference solid-state power amplifier. And I’m as surprised by that as you probably are.
. . . Jeff Fritz