White Lightning Speaker Cable by Nordost

Let’s just assume for a minute, you are of the mindset that premium cable makes a significant difference in how your system can sound. For today, if you aren’t with us, just move on. Your day will go easier, and no need to raise your blood pressure over this subject. Still with me?

It can be easy to lose sight of the cable option when bombarded by the cost of some of the mega items. Sure, Nordost’s Odin II speaker cables are crazy, insane money to a lot of us. So is a new Porsche 911GT2 RS. Even if you love the brand, a $300k 911 is probably out of reach. So if you head to your Porsche dealer and plunk down $55k on a new, basic Boxster, you’re still reaping the benefits of this high technology company every time you turn the key.

It’s the same way at Nordost. If you readjust your thinking and look at their top cable as their platform for technological advancement, you won’t freak out. Forget about that for now. And with my Darth Vader helmet/voice synthesizer on, I’m telling you that you probably don’t need a set of Odin 2 speaker cables just yet.

Hit by lightning
White Lightning, that is. About 400 bucks will get you a 2m pair of White Lightning speaker cables that are nice and flat like the Nordost Valhalla cables. These modestly priced speaker cables take full advantage of Nordost’s core technological prowess. The solid core, 4 9s copper conductors are sliver plated and covered with silver plating, utilizing Nordost’s “Mechanically tuned spacing” to keep said conductors at a constant width.  Terminated with any combination of spade or banana, they should work with anything in your system.

Considering the level of resolution these cables bring, I’d love to experience them with solid pin ends to try with a few of the vintage recievers in my collection. However, in the context of our vintage conrad-johnson PV12 and MV50 amplification chain, the Nordost cable performs brilliantly, as it does in the middle of our evaluation of the First Watt SIT-3 power amplifier.

Just as so many audio enthusiasts fall victim of using speakers that are too large for the listening room, and not getting the desired result, this happens all to often with cable. A disproportionate amount of the total system cost is spent on wire, and when the cables don’t transform the system into something it’s not capable of, the only conclusion is that cables suck.

A great place to hang your hat

Working with a few system options ranging from a few thousand dollars all the way up to about $20k, the White Lightning speaker cables perform very well. While they did not take me to a higher plane of existence, they do deliver a wonderfully clean window to the amplifier/speaker interface everywhere I used them. No discernable tonal alterations were present, with dynamics and soundstaging all great. One combination in particular that benefitted the best was the PrimaLuna ProLogue One and Klipsch Forte IIIs, with the Pure Audio Project Trio 15 Horns as alternate speakers.

For those not familiar, both of these speakers are incredibly efficient (101db/1watt, and 96db/1 watt, respectively) and tend to magnify anomalies in the high frequency range. The result with the White Lightning cables was dramatically better than anything else I’ve used that is comparably priced and could live happily ever after with these cables in that system.

Think clear

I’ve never really experienced or understood the claims of many internet pundits as to cables being “tone controls” to anywhere the extent described. What I have experienced is a level of clarity more often than not. A “good” cable to me, reveals more musical information, without damage to the electrical signal, or a disruption of tonal balance.

This is what I experienced with the Nordost White Lightning speaker cables. A marked jump in clarity, without a tipped up high frequency response, and a lack of graininess that often accompanies silver coated copper cables.

Tracking through a number of piano heavy pieces, really proved magical with the White Lightning cables, and a number of times, I thought the lack of resolution in the system was the amplification, it just proved to be the cables. I’d compare it to the difference you hear in good digital vs. mediocre digital. That kind of thing.

A great update

I’ve talked to so many audiophiles across the world that are looking for a modestly priced upgrade to their system. I can’t suggest the Nordost White Lightning speaker cables highly enough. If you’ve been to a Nordost dealer event, or hifi show demo, they put a pretty compelling argument for their cable that’s easy to hear.

And thanks to a wide dealer network, your chances to get your hands on a pair for a quick demo is very high. Test drive if you can, and that should seal the deal. I’m happy to give these one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2018.

The Nordost White Lightning Speaker Cables

$400/pair, 8 foot length, RCA or banana

www.nordost.com

Peripherals

Analog Source VPI Cliffwood table and Cliffwood Phono

Digital Source OPPO 205

Amplifier PASS INT-60, PSAudio Sprout 100, Conrad-johson PV12/MV50

Speakers Klipsch Forte III, JBL L-100, Focal Sopra no.3, Pure Audio Project Trio 15 Horn

Nordost Purple Flare USB

I’m an implementation junkie. I confess loving products that are well executed.

With so many garage builders entering the cable industry, with shoddily produced goods packaged like they came from a scout troop bake sale or estate sale, Nordost produces cable that feels great in your hands. And thanks to their extensive dealer network, they stand behind their products 110%. Having been in business for decades, should something ever happen to a Nordost product, it will be taken care of.

Cable is about sound, or actually a lack of it. The better the cable, the more the music gets through without harm, distortion or other complication. Other than Ethernet cable, there’s nothing the naysayers like to naysay more than USB cables. Yes, yes, yes, they are just bits. It shouldn’t matter what you use to transmit digital data. An $8 Best Buy cable sounds just as good as a $239 cable from a high-end manufacturer and we’re all just biased or brainwashed.

But it doesn’t

For years I’ve made fun of hifi reviewers mentioning how much their significant others like the sound of a pair of speakers or an amplifier. This time it’s me committing the unmentionable, self-indulgent sin. However, I do present a slightly different spin on this one. My wife, Pamela has jumped into the high end game with her Headphone Artsmagazine, and though a newcomer to the audio world, has spent a tremendous amount of time listening to a variety of different gear. She’s absorbed a lot, and has become fairly opinionated on what she likes and does not like.

Ever the trooper, she recently accompanied me to one of Nordost’s events being held by our friends at Audio/Vision San Francisco. Nordost’s Michael Marko always puts on a great demo and this one was good as ever. He starts with a basic USB DAC setup, and this time we were listening to music through a PrimaLuna HD integrated, an amplifier we are both intimately familiar with and a pair of small YG acoustics speakers.

Serving up tunes via a MacBook Pro running Roon and Tidal, the difference between the generic USB and Purple Flare is dramatic, one you don’t need to strain to hear. When Marko switches again to the equally purple, but $600 Frey 2 USB, an even more dramatic change in clarity occurs.

There have been numerous discussions on the web, as well as at hifi shows, by the worlds top cable designers as to why a well-designed USB presents a more coherent audio signal. It’s not just 1s and 0s. But this is another argument for another day. Leave this one for a long night, Google, and your favorite adult beverage.

Sometimes a cable is the best change

Regardless of what your system consists of, if you’re serving up tunes via laptop or other USB connected device, a premium USB cable between it and your DAC provides a nice, incremental upgrade. There’s nothing like a system refresh.

We tried both – using both a Mac Mini running Tidal and Roon, delivering digital signal to a Gryphon Kalliope DAC and an Aurender D100 server, via its USB audio output. Both benefitted from the Purple Flare, with the same result over a generic USB cable. We both noticed the same effects in three different areas

Background depth/noise level

When auditioning fairly sparse tracks, like the acoustic guitars featured in the jazz classic, Friday Night in San Francisco, you can instantly hear more space between the soloists, along with smoother, more defined decay after their fingers hit the strings. All classical selections ditto – a deeper, more quiet background makes for a greater feel of ambiance. And, you hear the difference more going back to the generic cable after you’ve listened to the good stuff. It’s unmistakable. Even our non audiophile friends that we subject to this kind of madness from time to time couldn’t define the effect in audiophile terms, but all made the same comment that “the music sounded more relaxing” with the Nordost cable in place. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Larger soundstage

This was another area that the non audiophiles picked up right away. The sound field painted by the system swelled in size in all three dimensions with the Purple Flare as the conduit. Stevie Nick’s voice in Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”feels almost buried in the mix with the generic cable, yet with the PF substituted, she now has a space of her own and comes out front and center. Great recordings feel larger and densely packed recordings open up more and are less fatiguing to listen to. Even my favorite live recording (and arguably one of the worst sounding records, ever) KISS-Alive! perks up when delivered via the PF. I wanted the best and I got it.

Grain reduction

Dealing with digital files can lead to a somewhat harsh and grainy experience. Again, going back to acoustic and sparse vocal tracks shows this off more quickly. Tracking through a lot of Blue Note jazz titles, piano and drums are cleaner, and reproduced with much less digital glare. Again, this translates to a more natural, less fatiguing sound. Even when we just used the PS Audio SPROUT 2 as our source, ($599 for those that aren’t familiar with this little marvel) and a pair of vintage JBL speakers, the effect of the PF is still right there.

Take one home and try it

As I’ve mentioned in past Nordost reviews, because they offer a wide sales network, you should be able to go to your Nordost dealer and get a convincing demo pretty quickly. You won’t have to strain to hear the difference with this one. I could ramble on and on, citing track after track. Get in the drivers seat and listen for yourself. The only advice I can give is to not audition the Frey 2, you might find yourself spending even more money on cable. Ha.

The Nordost Purple Flare USB

$249

nordost.com

Acoustic Energy AE100 Speakers

Listening to a 24bit/192khz file of Jeff Beck’s There and Back, the tiny AE100s instantly impress with a massive soundstage and incredibly good dynamic range. Thanks to their wide dispersion, the AE100s sound great, no matter where you’re sitting, making them versatile performers. Paired up with a vintage PrimaLuna ProLogue One and a modest pair of Tellurium Q Black speaker cables (about $20/foot), I’ve built a hell of a core system here.

Initial listening has my little 35-watt per channel PrimaLuna running out of juice before the AE100s do, so switching to their HP Premium integrated (nearly 100 wpc with KT150 tubes) really lights these speakers up in a way that the lower powered amplifier did not. Should you be considering a pair of AE100s, and like to crank it up now and then, don’t be shy with the power. Equally excellent results were had with the new IN-100 integrated from Gold Note.

Small speakers are always a no brainer for a small room, and the AE100s excel in a modest size room, yet they are not at a loss in my 16 x 26-foot main listening room. About ten feet apart on 24-inch stands, the AE100s produce a big sonic picture and perform admirably, holding on to the bass groove in the Pretenders “Waste Not, Want Not.” Letting ROON wander as it’s known to, the next track up is AC/DCs “Evil Walks.” A major twist of the volume control produces incredible results – this relatively dense recording just comes to life and I’m not hunting for a subwoofer. And we’re talking loud. A few friends that managed to experience the AE100s were, shall we say, thunderstruck. Ok, crappy AC/DC puns finished.

Finding the sweet spot

Unlike a panel speaker where the window for good listening is narrow, these speakers wide dispersion eliminates this issue, but you’ll need to find the perfect alignment to achieve stunning bass response. Should you place the AE100s on a stand perpendicular to the floor, they will sound small, flat and thin.

The key is to get a few degrees of upward tilt, so seek out stands with feet allowing for some adjustment. Proceed with care, going a half turn at a time and you’ll catch the sweet spot. You’ll know when you hit it (roughly around 4-5 degrees upward tilt) because it sounds like someone added a subwoofer. You’ll only need a few bass heavy tracks to find it and when you go too far, everything disappears, bass and treble.

More than woof and tweet

Just the frequency extension and dynamic capability of these speakers would be more than enough for them to earn their keep. In addition to a very uncolored midband, the soft dome tweeter is resolving and never harsh. Moving the AE100s to the main system, they render enough fine detail to hear differences in fairly expensive phono cartridges, though not at the minute level that my reference speakers do. Keep in mind this is a test many $1,000 speakers can not pass.

Plugging back in to my Focal Sopra 3/REL 212 reference, I’m instantly reminded of what the AE100s aren’t capable, yet these little speakers nail so much of the fundamentals, you’ll never feel left out of the music. Should you be a newcomer to the world of audio and make the AE100s the anchor of your system, you’ll be spending a lot more on speakers come upgrade time. If and when you do, this is a pair of speakers you should hold on to forever.

Quite the accomplishment

Entry level audiophiles complaining that all the good choices cost megabucks, look no further than the AE100s. These small monitors will only set you back about $495 a pair and deliver stunning performance. Combining a 4-inch paper cone woofer and 1-inch dome tweeter, Acoustic Energy claims these to be “small speakers capable of high output.” They fulfill this promise and more.

It’s easy to get spoiled listening to top line gear every day, and easy to lose track of what things cost. Though we make it a point to seek out sub-$1,000 components in this column offering higher performance than you might expect, the AE100s are more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards. Beyond that, these are the most impressive pair of $495 speakers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, in nearly 100 issues of producing this magazine. The fun factor the AE100s offer is off the chart.

Bravo.

The Acoustic Energy AE100

$495/pair

www.acoustic-energy.co.uk (factory)

www.soundorg.com(US Distributor)

MartinLogan’s Perfect TV Partner

In my other job in the 2-channel world at TONEAudio magazine, I’ve put the MartinLogan Motion 35XT’s through their paces, and they are fantastic speakers. Taking the concept further, we have the SLM range of speakers you see here.

The X3 is the most expensive of the range at $999, but it uses three of MartinLogan’s Folded Motion transducers and six, 4-inch woofers, squeezing a left, right and center channel in a sound bar that is just a shade over 6 inches high, 48 inches wide and only 2 inches deep. Available in white or black, the SLM X3 should fit into any décor easily.

In addition to the ease of integration, kudos to MartinLogan for offering a pair of small feet that can screw right into the SLM X3, so that in case you live in an apartment that frowns upon you permanently mounting things into a wall, it will just sit right up on a tabletop. Ms. Bubble and I also found this super handy in this mode, transporting the SLM X3 from living room video system to bedroom system. Both have small, powered, wireless Paradigm subs, so this is a breeze, and it’s nice for apartment dwellers on a budget, allowing great sound wherever you are. The rest of you can either buy a second one for the other system and mount via standard anchors to your wall.

It might be an issue for some that the SLM X3s are not powered, but I love the fact that they are not. Considering MartinLogan’s expertise at speaker building (and just like the Motion freestanding speakers) the combination of high-quality drivers and crossover network components inside the cabinet will blow you away with the sound quality – so you’re not limited by the electronics in the box. You can build your audio/video system with simple electronics, and as your system improves, you won’t have to upgrade the speakers.

Borrowing a pair of 35XTs from a friend and using my Paradigm MRX520 surround sound receiver with Anthem Room Correction and a small Paradigm subwoofer makes for a fantastic theater system with little effort. If you haven’t used Anthem’s ARC, it’s a treat and gives great sonic result without agonizing terribly about “where to place the speakers.” With the SLM X3 beneath my 70” LG TV, the 35XT’s back behind the couch as rear speakers and the sub hidden in the room corner, I was rocking in about 30 minutes.

As the SLM X3s only go down to 120hz, you will need a subwoofer. Again, I suggest ML or Paradigm because you can get all the bits from the same dealer, (Gotta love one-stop shopping!) and they will work swimmingly together. Finally, having front, center and rear speakers using the same tweeters gives a more cohesive overall sound.

Though the SLM X3 has a very similar sonic signature to the rest of the Motion range, listening began using the soundbar just as front speakers, with the sub off in the corner. Even if this is all you can muster to begin with, it will dramatically increase your television enjoyment. The monsters in Game of Thrones are much more convincing, and the spacy sound bits in Rick and Morty were a blast. Not to mention gaming is way more fun with big sound.

Remember, MartinLogan cut their teeth decades ago building some of the worlds finest speakers for 2-channel audio enthusiasts, so the SLM X3 delivers the goods in a way that most soundbars don’t. Using just the left and right channel of the SLM X3, on the dresser with subwoofer augmentation makes beautiful music. Stepping up to the Esoteric F-07 integrated we recently reviewed, the SLM X3 does not disappoint. Thanks to the 93db/1-watt sensitivity rating, you’ll be quickly evicted no matter what you are powering the SLM X3 with if you aren’t prudent!

Stereo imaging is big, bold, and wide, regardless of musical choice and these speakers provide luscious tonal capability. Vocal tracks come alive, and thanks to the lightening quick response of those Folded Motion tweeters, drums and percussion are incredibly realistic. Even if you never use the center channel, the SLM X3 and a small subwoofer make for a great, albeit compact stereo music system, which has infinite potential for expansion.

Moving to a full multichannel system is spectacular, and if you don’t want stand mounted speakers behind you, there are two smaller models to the SLM lineup that can be mounted vertically. This would be the way I’d roll if in a compact space, to keep things tidy.

Though priced at the upper end of the soundbar spectrum, the SLM X3 is a premium solution. It’s like three high-performance MartinLogan speakers, tailor-fit into a compact housing. They refer to it as an “Ultra-Slim Folded Motion speaker. This is a premium product from one of audios finest companies. Highly recommended.

The MartinLogan SLM X3 Speaker System

$995

https://www.martinlogan.com/motionSeries/models/ultra-slim.php

The Triangle LN-01A Powered Speakers


With a plethora of fairly cool powered speakers on the market these days, it can be tough to choose.

Triangle makes it easy with the LN-01As because in addition to being a great pair of powered speakers, priced right at $799/pair, they include an on-board DAC, subwoofer output, and an MM phonostage. The phono input makes the deal for me, because what’s the point of a “compact” system, if you have to add a bunch of other boxes, right?

Spinning records with a recently restored Dual 1229 and Grado Black cartridge is a lot of fun with these little speakers, the built-in phonostage performs well, with decent frequency response and dynamic range. Triangle offers a turntable, produced by Pro-Ject, but any basic table/cartridge combination will work well here. We tried a couple of budget Grado, Shure and Ortofon cartridges with excellent result.

Though it defeats the above mentioned compact ethos, plugging in a recently restored TEAC reel to reel deck makes for a cool new and old combination. Watching the VU meters bounce when playing a few mix tapes is indeed romantic with the Triangles.

Sly and the Family Stone’s classic “If You Want Me to Stay” is rendered faithfully, and that bass control on the remote comes in handy; whether you’re in the party mode wanting more sock, or just need to compensate for room placement, these modest tone controls are highly effective. Take off the audiophile hat and enjoy, I say.

Switching the program material for something more raucous (like Slayer) proves the French pair can rock. “Reigning Blood” had to be turned up to painful levels to get the onboard amplifiers to clip, making the LN-01As capable party guests. Even more so if you add a small subwoofer. Our trusty REL T5 rounded out the lowest notes, giving our favorite hip-hop and EDM tracks more body, especially at party levels. A little sniffing around on eBay can get you something you can live with for a few hundred bucks and keep the total system cost around a thousand. That’s tough to beat.

Very Versatile

Setting up the LN-01As is a simple task. Everything you need to get started, including a 20-foot length of speaker cable to connect the passive left speaker to the right speaker, where the amplifier and related electronics, is included in the box. A small yet capable remote is accompanied by an excellent instruction manual, to guide you through the process.

Coax and optical digital inputs are provided along with a line level analog input and the phono. Music can also be streamed via Bluetooth. A USB is not offered with the LN-01As, but everything included performs at a high level. I’d rather see more performance and less connectivity, but your tastes may differ. A quick comparison, running TIDAL from a MacBook Pro via line level, streamed from an iPhone 8 via Bluetooth and an older Sony CD player’s optical output reveals the digital input a winner in ultimate fidelity by a slight margin over the line level, with the Bluetooth third, though still very good. The key here is flexibility. The LN01As work great on a desktop, bookshelf, or on dedicated stands all the same. They use a rear-firing port, so take care not to place them right up against a wall, or the lowest frequencies will roll off slightly.

Passing judgement

The Triangle Esprit floorstanders we just finished auditioning were incredibly good overall and an incredible value. The same level of sonic excellence and workmanship is here with the LN01A, though both speakers are intended for entirely different audiences. Admirably, the LN01A shares all the audible virtues that the more substantial speakers offer, and share a similar voice. The highest highs and lowest lows are slightly rolled off in comparison to the larger speakers (as expected) but the lovely, natural midrange that we experienced with the Esprit is in full effect with the much smaller LN01A.

The LN01As are comfortably at the top of the class, providing you don’t need to have a USB input. However, we feel that the functionality offered by the on-board MM phono stage and subwoofer output far outweigh the lack of a USB input. The only mystery is the sampling rate of the DAC, but again, what it accomplishes with TIDAL files is outstanding. I can’t imagine that many music lovers with an $800 system going to the expense of downloading high-resolution files.

If there is one suggestion to be made with these speakers, considering how tiny the remote control is, a full function smartphone app might be a useful upgrade to the LN01A. But seriously, I’m thinking of buying the review pair and a Pelican case to have these at the ready for when we take a road trip. Exellent as these speakers are in the house or office, they would make great traveling companions!

The Triangle LN01A powered loudspeakers

$799/pair (white or black)

http://www.triangle-fr.com/en/activeseries/ln01a

Focal’s New KANTA no.2 Speakers

Part One: Initial Impressions

Old school auto mechanics have a saying, “If you want ‘em to run hard, break ‘em in hard.” With no connecting rods to send through an engine block, I can’t resist the urge to turn the volume up loud, the minute the photos for this review are finished. A quick playlist of Alice Cooper is queued up and a heavy hand on the volume control has “Hey Stoopid” filling the listening room with authority, my reference orange Focal Sopra no.3s in the shadows and the REL 212SE subwoofers turned off.

Where the Sopras were slightly stiff right out of the shipping cartons, the new Kanta no.2 is smoother and more relaxed, so we’ll see where this goes over the next few hundred hours. Out of the box, these are one of the most pleasing speakers I’ve spent time with – in this case a stunning first impression.

Expecting a pair of yellow Kantas (we love bright colors here at TONEAudio) the glossy Galouise Blue pair that arrived are just as stylish. Pamela gave them an instant thumbs up, mentioning that they nearly match the color of my bright blue Fiat 500e and current iPhone case. Who says guys can’t coordinate colors? Having seen nearly all the color combinations at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, they are all fun, and I applaud Focal delivering a few color combinations more daring than the standard white, black and wood.

The Kanta driver compliment consists of a 6.5” midrange, pair of 6.5” woofers and a new Beryllium dome IAL tweeter. Focal has updated their cone material again, this time using a Flax sandwich cone. They claim that this offers a “warmer, richer tone,” and a quick switch back to the Sopras confirms this. Which will you prefer? Both are excellent, but a trip to your Focal dealer for a listening session will help you decide. A sensitivity rating of 91db/1 watt means they won’t need a ton of power to get the job done.

Doing the audiophile thing, bouncing back and forth with 45 seconds of a wide range of musical material not only wins me over on the $9,995/pair Kantas, it brings two questions to mind: how can Focal keep making better and better speakers for way less than their $200k + pair of Grande Utopia Ems and what will the next Grande Utopias be?

The Kantas combination of technical excellence, sonic purity and sheer beauty, even after a few hours of listening is incredible. In the weeks to come, we will cover a lot more ground, mating the Kantas to a wide range of amplification from SET all the way up to our massive Pass Labs monoblocks.

For now, consider the Focal Kanta no.2 speakers one of the best first dates ever.

More info here:

https://www.focal.com/en/home-audio/high-fidelity-speakers/kanta/kanta-no2

An Excellent Powered Solution From Triangle

Triangle has just sent us their new, powered ELARA LN-01 speakers and they are a nice twist on the powered monitor thing. We just finished with their floor standing Antal EZ’s over at TONEAudio and were very impressed with the sound, style, and finish.

The $799/pair LN-01s are two-way powered speakers, but much more. With a pair of 50 watt, Class-D amplifier modules in each speaker, they feature wireless, optical and RCA connections for digital music, but wait, there’s more. In addition to a line level AUX input, there’s a built-in MM phono stage too. This makes em a step above the competition. A variable level output for a powered subwoofer also increases the versatility of these little satellites.

Our review is in the works, but these are very exciting. Triangle heats up the powered mini-monitor race!

http://www.triangle-fr.com/en/activeseries/ln01a

Those of you in the Bay Area need only stop by our friends at AudioVision SanFrancisco to get a test drive. Tell em we sent you!

The ProAc Tablette Anniversary


In many ways the Brits are the kings and queens of getting great sound out of small speakers.

A typical British listening room is usually in the neighborhood of about 12 x 15 feet (3 x 5 meters), so this suits apartment living well. ProAc calls this diminutive speaker the Tablette and commemorating 30 years of production, calls this model the Tablette Anniversary. Typical British understatement. The Tablettes need about 30 watts per channel to really sing, but should you be a more crazed audiophile, the better your source components are, more giddyup the Tablettes will have. The Simaudio NEO Ace that we currently use as a reference in the Audiophile Apartment, makes for an amazing combination. Music lovers on a budget will do well to consider a Rega Brio  amplifier at $899 (review link here), another favorite around here. If you’re on a really tight budget, spend all your money on the speakers and grab a Harmon Kardon 730 vintage receiver. You can find one on Ebay for $150, get rocking now and find a better amplifier later.

The minute you fire up these tiny (10 5/8” H x 6” W x 9 ¾” D) marvels, you’ll be knocked back like the dude in the Maxell chair. These little speakers rock the house with full range sound that is incredibly disproportionate to their size. And yes darling, they produce real bass. Ok, you won’t be able to blast Skrillex or Deadmau5, but on all other program material they have enough reach in the lower register to enjoy everything else. Auditioning Stereolab’s Dots and Loops proves very palatable indeed, with sounds bouncing all over the room! The next track, “Lift Off” from Mars & Mystre keeps the energy high and we’re all striking poses around the living room like we’re at Fashion Week.

Streaming the title track from the Afghan Whigs Gentleman album via Tidal at high volume, Greg Dulli’s voice reaches right out of the speakers pulling me to attention. These little boxes can play loud, really loud if you need them to. Slowing it down for Elvis Costello’s rendition of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” from The Spy Who Shagged Me brings the vibe back to a more relaxed mode, revealing the character that defines his voice. Just letting my laptop swim through my music library, served up by ROON made this review a ton of fun; there was nothing these little speakers can’t handle.

You can place the Tablettes anywhere in your room. If you place them up on a shelf, try to get them out from the wall as far as possible as their rear port will do wonky things to that glorious bass if you place them right up against the wall. For more critical listening, we suggest some 28” speaker stands so that the tweeter is pretty level with your ears. This will give the most expansive sound, but if you must compromise as many of us apartment dwellers do, you still won’t be disappointed.

$2,200 is a lot of money to spend on speakers, but the ProAc Tablettes are so good, they could be the last pair you buy. And should you ever move out to that big McMansion, you can always add a subwoofer, but that’s another story!

The ProAc Tablette Anniversary

MSRP: $2,200

www.soundorg.com (US importer)

www.proac-loudspeakers.com (factory)

The SVS SB16-Ultra Subwoofer



After listening to the SVS SB16-Ultra for some time now, it’s still been tough to put into context, yet a recent test drive of the latest 650 horsepower Z06 Corvette brings the point home clearly.

Sometimes nothing floats your boat like sheer, pavement melting horsepower. Maybe the Z06 lacks some of the finesse of the current offerings from Porsche or Ferrari, but when you put the pedal to the floor and light up the tires, you can’t help but smile. There are a few things the Vette does that it’s more refined European cousins don’t and that’s it’s magic.

For $1,995 you just can’t beat the SB16-Ultra, though if a 3db down point of 16hz still isn’t enough LF extension for you, the even larger PB16-Ultra ($2,499) will take you down to 13hz. I remember hearing a 10hz tone once, and it felt like someone was pounding a nail through my head, so proceed with caution. Cranking up a long playlist of Aphex Twin has me convinced that the SB16-Ultra delivers the goods in a big way. Tracking through my favorite bass heavy cuts from Fink, Infected Mushroom, Snoop Dogg and even Pink Floyd prove tons of fun. 40 years later that heartbeat at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon just rules. The SB16-Ultra pumps it out so hard, you feel it in your stomach, you feel it in your soul.

It’s easy to get used to the SB16-Ultra until you shut it off. Then, the opiate center of your brain that is excited by major bass experiences immediate withdrawals. Much as I enjoyed my time with the SB16-Ultra (and contributor Ken Mercereau bought one as well) I really love it in the context of a theater/gaming system. While many subwoofer experts agree that you should have a pair of subs, a sole SB-16 gets you rocking in a big way, in a hurry. Barely bigger than a dorm fridge, it’s easy to find a spot.

Easy to love

One of the toughest parts of owning a subwoofer is integrating it with your main speakers as seamlessly as possible. SB16-Ultra makes this a breeze, thanks to the best app I’ve ever had the chance to experience. But first, take a bit of time getting the best sound you can from your SB16-Ultra the old-fashioned way; move it around. Don’t let the compact 20-inch cube fool you, unless you are super buff, keep in mind it tips the scale just over 120 pounds, so here’s a suggestion: grab a piano dolly. I like the “Milwaukee” ones from Home Depot.

You’ll have to decide on corner or mid room placement, and this will probably be determined somewhat by what you have to work around and how much flexibility you have in room placement. All things being equal, corner placement offers the most reinforcement from the floors and corner. I’d suggest the corner if you’re SB16-Ultra is being used for movies and games, where you want those cannons to embed you in the couch.  Should your listening be weighted more toward music, you might consider placing a sole SB16-Ultra just off center from your speakers and starting there. We’ll get back to this in a minute. You’ll also need a pair of interconnects to go from your amp or receiver, if you connect the SB16-Ultra via the line level ouputs. RCA or XLRs will work just fine. The SB16-Ultra has right and left inputs, or if you are doing a strictly theater setup, it has a single LFE input as well.

The coolest app ever

Fine tuning a subwoofer is tough, constantly getting up from your listening position, making adjustments and then sitting back down to listen and evaluate. First world problems, I know, but you want it to be awesome, right? SVS makes it easy with the absolute best app I’ve ever seen for this kind of thing. Better yet, the app explains and walks you through all the adjustments, and they do such a great job, even if you’ve never done anything like this, you’ll be rocking in no time.

Should you want to skip the “tune it by hand” part of the setup, the room gain feature of the app utilizes the digital signal processor (DSP) inside the SB16-Ultra, to compensate for being too close or too far away from room walls or corners. This eliminates that boominess that gives subwoofers a bad name. Once all parameters are set to taste, merely save your results as a custom preset. Done.

Getting into it

After spending about 30 minutes making small movements out and back from the wall in room two, with a pair of MartinLogan ESP9 speakers, the app makes it easy and fun to fine tune the system. Starting with the “music” preset, the first adjustment on the list after setting the level is the low pass filter frequency, and as the ESP9s go down past 40hz with ease, setting the sub to 35 hz, selecting a 24db/octave slope to get it out of the way quickly. Working with the Graham Audio LS5/9s, a gentler curve works better. The wide range of adjustment offered makes this easy with a little practice and patience.

Once you get used to going this far, move on to the room gain and parametric EQ settings. Again, SVS lets you vary frequency and “Q.” The Q setting varies how wide the frequency you select has an effect and the app lets you see this in real time. If you want a gentle bump to the bass, you can adjust the Q thusly. If you want a very narrow bump or cut, this can also be accommodated. If new to EQ settings, go at this with broad strokes at first to really get a feel for how the filters and EQ affect the sound.

This is why the SVS app really rocks; whether you are new or experienced, it’s so easy to experiment with all the settings, just to see how they affect your system’s tonal balance. And it’s so easy to back in and recalibrate, the more seat time you have. It makes hifi fun. It’s also worth mentioning that for the MartinLogan owners out there, the curved front metal grill matches the ML aesthetic perfectly.

Off to the movies

Moving the SB16-Ultra into my home theater system, with a set of Dali Fazon speakers (enlisting that dolly again) and an Anthem MRX-520, it is even easier to dial in the sub, letting Anthem’s built in ARC room correction do the heavy lifting. Still, I did a bit of fine tuning and depending on the program material, it was nice to have the app to use more as a tone control. Just like with musical selections, not all movies are mixed equally, and it’s nice to have the option of easily goosing, or cutting back the bottom end a bit to taste.

Even though my Dali’s have fairly small woofers all the way around, the SB16-Ultra does a great job integrating that big 16-inch driver with all these small 4-inch woofers, a testament to its design. Streaming London Has Fallen, I got more than my share of shooting, the minute I tuned into Netflix. Cranking up the volume to nearly movie theater levels and watching a barrage of car chase scenes from the Fast and Furious franchise, everyone came away convinced that the SB16-Ultra adds a sense of realism that you just can’t get without a moving serious air.

On top of that, service

In the event you can’t get your SB16-Ultra performing to what you feel it’s potential is, the SVS staff is there via phone or chat to help you back on the path. I tried the chat feature with excellent result and had my wife give them a call too. Both times, we were rolling in no time and this speaks volumes about the SVS staff. They really go out of their way to lend a hand, and in a day of customer service being nearly non-existent, I give SVS major kudos here.

All SVS products have a 45-day trial period, so if you just don’t like the damn thing, or the roommate you thought you could sneak that subwoofer past gets snarky with you, you can return it at no risk – SVS even covers the shipping. But I doubt you’ll want to part with it.

After living with the SB16-Ultra for some time now and using it in a variety of different hifi systems, I happily report excellent results in all circumstances. Whether you are working with a pair of minimonitors, your favorite panels, or massive floorstanders, the SB16-Ultra delivers stunning bass performance. With 1500 watts of power on tap, you’ll most likely bottom out your main speakers way before you push the sub too far. We certainly couldn’t no matter how loud the cannons blasted, the buildings blew up or the beats dropped.

All this, with major support and a no-risk return policy adds up to an Exceptional Value Award in our book. And, should you jump off the cliff and get a pair, SVS gives you a $200 discount. The holiday season is on the way, treat yourself! Highly recommended.

The SVS SB16-Ultra subwoofer

$1,999

www.svsound.com

A High Value Amp and Pre From Emotiva


With record clamps fetching upwards of $3,000 these days, it’s nice to see that someone has some common sense.

The PT-100 preamplifier and A-150 power amplifier from Emotiva offer great performance at a price everyone can enjoy.
Both barely tipping the scales at $299 each, the PT-100 preamplifier also includes a 24/192 DAC, headphone amplifier and a tuner,
all in one box. Oh yeah, it even has a MM/MC phono stage too.

The A-150 amplifier is substantial, with a class AB output stage and a real power supply to match.

Both offer uniform, yet tastefully understated cosmetics, as part of Emotiva’s BAS-X series.

Our review is almost finished, but the short story is you can’t go wrong with these two. Whether you make this pair
the anchor for your first, last, or additional system, the level of sound quality and functionality can’t be beat.

Click here to see the rest of the lineup. (they have some pretty cool sub/sat speakers too!)

B&W’s White Zeppelin


We’ve lived with every generation of B&Ws Zeppelin desktop audio system, and each one is better than the last.

Stay tuned for a full report on the current, wireless model…

MOON by Simaudio’s Neo ACE


A number of well-worn clichés come to mind when attempting to describe the new ACE all in one music player from Simaudio; crescent wrench, Swiss army knife, etc etc. Yet none of them truly encompass how awesome it is.

This Montreal audio company has been building award-winning components for 36 years and is well known for their massive amplifiers, DACs and killer phono preamplifiers; all having five figure price tags. Yet the ACE barely tips the scale at $3,500.

And that’s for an amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, streamer, MM phonostage and headphone amplifier. You’d spend that much on five sets of moderately priced interconnects and power cords, not to mention a rack to hold all that stuff.
What you may not know is that Simaudio has been on fire for the last 3 years, taking the expertise that comes with having all phases of design, manufacturing and even metalwork under one roof and distilling that essence down to incredibly affordable components that do not sacrifice performance. Their award winning Neo 230HAD headphone amplifier and Neo 430HA headphone amplifier, both incorporate DAC’s, function as excellent line stages, but the ACE does everything.

Excellence does trickle down

Having used many of their top components for years over at TONEAudio, Simaudio combines rock solid build quality (all of their components carry a 10-year warranty, and their service department looks like something from a Maytag repairman commercial) with contemporary styling, and intelligent ergonomics. Most importantly, MOON components have always provided best in class sound to match the ergonomics and functionality.

Even their instruction manuals are well written, and for those of you that normally blow off this stage of the installation, you can get up and rolling with the ACE ignoring the manual, but it offers such a depth of features, it will serve you well to spend some time with the manual.

In the 60s and 70s, it was common to go to the hi fi shop and purchase a receiver; incorporating an AM/FM tuner along with a high quality phono stage, so that you only needed to add a pair of speakers and maybe a turntable or a tape deck and roll. Today, with streaming being the way most music lovers roll, the ACE has you covered, with Simaudio’s MiND streamer built in. Just head to the app store, download “Moon MIND controller” and your zooming, with Tidal integration. You can also stream from your favorite mobile device via Bluetooth, so friends can easily share their music when visiting.

Inputs galore

Thanks to a built in DAC with 8 digital inputs that accommodate anything you can throw at it, your laptop, iPod or other digital device easily integrates into your system. Decoding everything from 16/44.1 CD quality files up to DSD is a breeze. Or go old school digital and play CD’s via one of the ACE’s three analog inputs, which I took advantage of thanks to a MOON Neo 260D CD player. Should you incorporate a MOON by Simaudio CD player into your ACE based system, the slender remote included will also control said player; a nice touch towards simplicity.

Rega’s new Planar 3 turntable with Elys 2 cartridge (also in for review) proves a fantastic match for the onboard MM phono stage. Analog playback via LP is equally enjoyable through the ACE and after a couple of tracks, it’s obvious that this was not an afterthought. Stepping up to a VPI Classic Two table and Sumiko Blackbird high output MC cartridge also was a lovely match with the ACE and this all in one is certainly up to the task of connecting an equally expensive turntable.

Rounding out the package, the headphone amplifier is stunning with Sennheiser, ADC, Audeze and OPPO phones, so it should be compatible with whatever you’ve got in your stable. Again, emphasizing convenience, Simaudio thoughtfully includes a 1/8th inch stereo jack on the front panel labeled MP, so that you can plug in a pad, pod or phone from the analog outputs should you so desire.

Magnificent ergonomics

One more small, but significant touch in the ergonomics department, the ACE is the company’s first product featuring an OLED readout, making it easy to read in any ambient light level. Here’s to hoping this display makes it into all future Simaudio components. Another luxurious touch giving this product a much higher feel than its price suggests.

The 50-watt per channel power amplifier is up to the task of driving everything we have on hand for review, including the Quad 2812 electrostats and the somewhat inefficient Rogers LS5/9 speakers. Synergy with the $10,000/pair Focal Sopra no.1 speakers in for review is equally enthralling, but may be more than you want to spend. The point is that the ACE provides a level of sonic refinement way beyond what you’d expect for the price.

The MOON by Simaudio Neo ACE is a component you can live with for a long time, and make multiple source and speaker upgrades before you might even entertain going back to separates again. Major audiophiles in the audience, take note; TONEAudio will be featuring a more in-depth analysis in the weeks to come, running the ACE further through its paces with more analog and digital sources as well as exercising all of the digital options.

However, the short recommendation, should you want a high performance, all in one component, the ACE is for you. This is one of the best values we’ve seen in high performance audio in a long time. And, after purchasing the review sample, it will be a permanent reference component here.

Simaudio Neo ACE

$3,500

www.simaudio.com

The Focal Sopra no.1 Speakers



For a city of barely more than a half million people, Saint-Etienne, France is a pretty cool place. In addition to it’s fantastic cuisine, it’s ranked 19th globally for innovation, a virtual hotspot of technical activity. And it’s home to Focal, an equally innovative speaker manufacturer.

A few years ago when I visited the factory, there was something lurking in the corner of the R&D department that would later become the floorstanding Sopra no.2. Inquiring about the prototype, I was quickly escorted out and politely asked not to mention anything about what I saw. It all became clear at last year’s Munich hifi show and here we are today with three Sopra models. The no.1 is the smallest model, stand mounted, with an MSRP of just under $9,000/pair, including the massive yet stylish stands, leaving nothing to chance. Visually similar to Focal’s Diablo Utopias, costing nearly twice as much, the Sopra no.1 takes advantage of all new technology, developed by Focal to get higher performance from a smaller form factor.

A two-way system, the new woofer and tweeter, not only achieve lower distortion figures than past models, they are very efficient with an 89db sensitivity rating, assuring compatibility with modest powered amplifiers. We had excellent luck pairing the Sopras with both solid-state and vacuum tube amplifiers. For those wanting more info, click here.

Walking around the Focal plant, the level of technical expertise combined with an equally high level of old world, hands-on craftsmanship is stunning. The Sopra line of speakers are built from their innovative drivers up to the finished product completely by hand via the same craftspeople building the $225,000/pair (not a typo) Grande Utopia EM speakers. It shows the minute you slide them out of the box. These speakers are drop-dead gorgeous, and our test pair is coated in a flawless white finish. Beautiful as the walnut veneer is, the Sopra’s sophisticated shape bets for a shiny, solid color. Black, red and orange is also available – all are equally spectacular; your décor will determine which you choose.

Commandeer a bit of help to unpack the Sopras as they weigh just over 40 pounds each with the stands equally massive. Thanks to built-in, easily adjustable spikes, which are easily retractable until you find the best balance between bass punch and midrange clarity, initial setup is a snap. We suggest starting with the Sopras about six feet apart and about three feet from the wall if possible.

Proceed to move them apart until the stereo image falls apart, then move slightly back together. Then move them as a pair (might want to grab a tape measure for this) closer and further away from the wall until you get the best bass response without booming. Grab your favorite bass heavy hip hop or EDM tracks to sort this out quickly.

Once you’ve completed this task, sit back and have an adult beverage, but not too many if you want to fine tune the speakers further. Patience still intact, experiment with toe in and then if you really want a gold star, experiment with tilting the speakers back on their axis slightly. This is where those large adjustment knobs at the base of the stands are worth their weight in gold. When you get this angle just right, the stereo image rendered between your speakers really gets deep. Now you can really get the party started.

Yoko Ono’s vocals on “Yes I’m a Witch” is absolutely creepy. She sounds like she’s everywhere in the room, haunting you wherever you go, thanks to the Sopra’s great dispersion characteristics. Sit on the couch, sit on the floor, walk to the kitchen – she’s still right there. But that’s what you pay the big money for; big sound. Exercising the bass is equally entertaining spinning Mr. Scruff’s Trouser Jazz. The bass energy here keeps you nailed to your seat and tracking through the album, all of my party guests are flabbergasted by just how much air these small speakers can move.

Fun as these audio acrobatics are, the PR copy about Focal’s new driver technology is absolutely true. These speakers are fatigue and distortion free. The only downside is that if you have a lot of amplifier power on tap and live in an apartment building, you may just have a few neighbors knocking at your door, so be prepared for crisis management or party time.

The Focal Sopra no.1 speakers are a premium offering from one of the world’s finest speaker manufacturers and paired with top shelf components will provide you with a world class listening system. They get our highest recommendation.

The Focal Sopra no.1 Speakers

www.focal.com

$8,995/pair, with stands