If you’ve never spent any time on HiFiShark while searching for used or vintage audio equipment, I suggest that you prepare yourself for what you might find. Chaos and a lot of disappointment when the exact amplifier you have been looking for appears but the owner is in Croatia. Hard pass on that one. I love Croatia as a country and go there on vacation every few years but I’m not dropping $1,500 on some amplifier that I can’t visually inspect; I’m willing to drive 8-10 hours each way for something really special, but I’ve had too many items not show up or arrive broken in pieces to do that again.
One of the most obvious pitfalls of any piece of vintage audio equipment is the availability of parts and someone qualified to fix or upgrade it. I’m hesitant to recommend specific components if neither one of those scenarios is a possibility. Does it make sense to recommend the Aragon 4004 MKII or Audible Illusions Modulus 3A?
In my previous two installments, we recommended the Vandersteen 1Ci and MartinLogan reQuest loudspeakers because both brands still exist, offer comprehensive service and parts, and there is a lot of demand for both on the used/vintage audio markets. Both companies have been around for almost 40 years and are very successful.
The Aragon 4004 MKII has not been in production for a few decades but the current ownership at Indy Audio Labs are superb audio engineers and doing a great job presently with Aragon and Acurus. Based on my experience, they are there to help Aragon 4004 MKII owners.
We recently reviewed the Acurus Muse A/V Processor and it’s one of the best home theater products available; an aspirational piece of equipment for those of us who love watching movies in a dedicated home theater room.
Audible Illusions is also still in business and manufacturing high-end pre-amplifiers and power amplifiers. The brand flew under the radar for many years but has recently relocated from its factory in California to a new “state-of-the-art” facility in Ormond Beach, Florida.
The company offers a completely new version of its famed Modulus 3A pre-amplifier called the Modulus 3B. The prices have certainly increased over the past 20 years with the new model retailing for $5,400 USD.
Audible Illusions also offers new tube sets for the Modulus 3A and service/repairs for a fee. I would highly recommend sticking with their parts and recommended tube sets based on hours of online research on various forums.
So why are we talking about these two specific vintage audio components that will run you at least $2,500 on the used market?
Down the Rabbit Hole
New York Magazine ran a very famous cover in 1990 featuring Mike Kay, the owner of Lyric Hi Fi and Video; the New York high-end audio institution closed permanently during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mike Kay passed away in 2012 leaving behind a very important legacy. Not only was Lyric Hi Fi one of the most influential stereo shops in the world launching many of the brands that have graced the covers of stereo magazines for decades, but it created a very high standard for the retailers that would emerge across the United States.
The Absolute Sound would not exist had Mike Kay not convinced the late-Harry Pearson to launch his publication.
I was 20 when I saw that cover on the newsstand in a bookstore in Dupont Circle and its impact on the rest of my life was not something that I was expecting.
I remember flipping through the David Denby article and focusing on the stack of Aragon, Audible Illusions, California Audio Labs, and VPI components.
None of this equipment was easy for me to find in Toronto or D.C. where I lived at the time, so I hopped on the train and made my way to New York City to visit Lyric and Sound by Singer.
The New York Magazine article mentioned the more affordable Aragon 2004 and Audible Illusions Modulus 2B but my interest in the two brands was ignited.
Andrew Singer standing behind a pair of MartinLogan CLS was like a drug for me. I wouldn’t stop until I owned the speakers. 31 years have gone by and I’m looking for my 6th pair of MartinLogan speakers — which will definitely be my last. If I plan on living to my 52nd birthday.
The bipolar side of my personality became obsessed with high-end audio equipment and my desire to spend all of my hard-earned money from 4 years of working 60 hours a week during the summer at my parent’s pizzeria became a red flag for my family. Especially when I was attending a $30,000 per year college (1990) in a foreign country.
Aragon 4004 MKII
The Aragon 4004 MKII power amplifier was created by Mondial Designs; the short-lived design house owned by Dan D’Agostino of Krell. The 4004 quickly became known as the “poor man’s Krell” for its bottomless pit of power and similar tonal balance. It was a heavy chunk of metal with a unique ventilation design and heatsinks.
The 200 watt per channel 4004 MKII contained two separate mono amplifiers in a single chassis and could drive almost anything.
The amplifier could double its output into 4 ohms and was ideal for MartinLogan electrostatic loudspeakers and the Magnepan models of the period.
For all of its brute power, the 4004 MKII could sound remarkably transparent and detailed with the right pre-amplifier and speakers.
Audible Illusions Modulus 3A
The Modulus 3A was introduced in 1995 or 1996 and for a smaller brand, they were able to move a lot of product back in the day. Audible Illusions sold more than 15,000 all-tube pre-amplifiers during its first 15 years in business which is a lot for any high-end brand in 2021.
The Modulus didn’t become very popular in the US until 1984 or 1985 and it took a series of very positive reviews before the brand began to get noticed by the high-end crowd in America.
Audible Illusions was started by Art Ferris, a successful exporter of vintage McIntosh and Marantz gear to salivating customers in Asia. When the supply began to dwindle, he created the brand to satisfy the demand for American-made tube gear in Japan.
Fast foward to 1996 and the Modulus 3A was in heavy demand. The optional John Curl-designed MC phono stage was an option that many selected and was well worth the extra $500. If you’re a fan of Parasound, you’re very likely aware of John Curl’s products.
The Modulus 3A’s faceplate was a very substantial piece of metal that was 1/4″ thick. The 4 control knobs were beautifully machined from aluminum. The ventilated top cover was secured with nicely finished hex-headed screws and easy to remove; something that was necessary to deal with the tubes that often blew well before their time.
The line stage portion of the Modulus 3A was excellent but the phono stage was on another level for a tube pre-amplifier in 1996 priced at $1,895. Definitely not inexpensive but it could compete with some of the best products of the period and was very well engineered.
If you’re obsessed with measurements, the Audible Illusions Modulus 3A was near the top of the mountain for a pre-amplifier at the time. The power supply was housed in a separate chassis connected to the main unit with an umbilical cord.
Why should you bother trying to assemble a vintage system around these two components?
The concept has not changed and putting these two excellent components together with the right pair of loudspeakers created an excellent stereo system in 1996 and would work just as well in 2021.
The Aragon 4004 MKII needs the warmth and resolution of the Modulus 3A and any of the pre-amplifier’s shortcomings in the low end are quickly fixed by the intense slam and control of the 4004 MKII which delivered bass notes with authority, texture, and excellent pacing.
Two of the best components from the period and well worth the money today if the condition is excellent.