THE HiFi OG™ part one: I still love streaming

THE HiFi OG™ part one:  I still love streaming

The recent skirmish with Neil Young and his bandmates has brought a new round of discussion about ethics surrounding streaming and streaming services. I’m not interested in re-kindling that argument.

I respect Young, CSN, and Joni Mitchell for all taking a stand. They were some of the original musical protesters, and their songs still ring true today.
However, this is just about the act of streaming. And why I enjoy it so much. If you’ve been reading our pages for a long time, you know we jumped on board with this concept when the original Sooloos music server was a $15k buy in. To stream your own discs and files. Crazy, but the Sooloos, now Roon interface is still the gold standard for my world.

I miss the interaction

As much fun as it used to be spending a day at the record store, combing through all the new and used records, how many times did you go to your favorite record store(s), and not find what you were looking for? Not that you probably didn’t still buy twice as many records as you planned on – way guilty as charged here.

For those of you lucky enough to frequent incredibly friendly and financially viable record stores, you might have gotten turned on to new artists by the staff, or by in-store performances. Sure I miss concerts, but I really miss going to Music Millennium here in Portland and seeing a new band up close do four or five songs right in the store. It’s gonna be a long time before that’s happening again, if ever.

How much is convenience worth?

The fun yet frustrating part of record shopping is being enough in the know to buy records you want to keep. Back when new records were under $10, and used records well below that, a few bad choices were merely absorbed in the ever growing record collection.

I wish I was at a point in time where I could just spend endless hours in the record store crate digging. Nah. I don’t. I’ve always had too much on my plate to spend a whole day to find a couple of albums. I don’t like camping either. And so it goes.

Once ROON came along, and then integrated itself with Qobuz, Tidal, and whatever other streaming service you might use, finding more music became interesting again. ROON remains the key to musical enjoyment, especially if your musical enjoyment is heavily weighted by musical exploration. I don’t care how old or young you are, once a few thousand albums (regardless of format) pile up, it gets harder to keep them all straight.

The video and radio stars are both long dead

Some of us of a certain age discovered new music via FM radio, and still others with MTV. Often, you had to stay up late with either format, but that’s where the treasure was buried. But now with ROON, it’s an absolute blast to select one track, no matter what the genre or artist and let ROON go from there. Their random playback algorithm beats everyone else when it comes to staying close to the original groove you started with. It’s eerie at how the machine reads my mind at times.

You may enjoy music for different reasons than I do – it’s all good. But if you share my love for musical exploration, and reminiscing, you really should consider making ROON, Tidal, and/or Qobuz part of your world. Much like the way the original Sooloos found tracks in your collection that you hadn’t heard in ages, combining this with the entire catalog at Qobuz and Tidal is wonderful. I enjoy nothing more than working away and hearing a track that was off my radar for some time. Which can often lead to digging through the virtual crates and adding another 30 or 50 albums to my library. Some will make it to physical media, others will be like movies – experiencing them once or twice will be enough.

I truly hope vinyl will always be with us. But that’s another movie and a different script. And I can say without question, with the last two years being fairly discouraging of close social interaction, the ability to easily explore a ton of new music has truly saved my sanity.

Why High-End Audio Gear and Luxury Goods Are Strange Bedfellows

Why High-End Audio Gear and Luxury Goods Are Strange Bedfellows

To the segment of the high-end audio industry trying to reposition components as luxury goods, I have a message: you’re barking up the wrong tree. To the new entrants trying to create “curated luxury goods experiences,” I submit that you’re wasting your time. No, I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m actually trying to help.

As someone who’s spent an incredibly disproportionate amount of my income on audio gear since I turned 14 and who has been writing about said equipment for more than two decades, I have gotten to know many audio enthusiasts around the globe. My love of automobiles has also introduced me to another segment of affluent consumers. In addition, my first wife’s parents were incredibly wealthy and put me in touch with people in their network. While I may not be a total expert, I have relevant data points to share from four decades of experience. And, being the human equivalent of a fox terrier, I always ask questions. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Many of our industry’s best companies possess a level of passion for visual and electronic design that matches the intensity of any of the world’s finest automobile manufacturers. They also have the same density of thought. But a difference occurs downstream. Almost no one thinks you’re awesome because you bought a $100k DAC. (Guilty as charged.) In our influencer-driven, ADD world, hi-fi doesn’t have the same cache of a new Porsche GT3 or a Patek Phillipe watch. Sorry, but it’s true.

Don’t believe me? Tell 100 non-audio people you just bought a pair of Sonus faber speakers. (Again, guilty.) I’ll bet a healthy sum that nobody will even know what you’re talking about, other than you got a pair of speakers. Tell the same 100 people you just bought a new Rolex and they will all be impressed or possibly start a conversation with you about watches or jewelry. Tell 100 people you just bought a new Harley, Ducati, or Porsche 911, and you’ll probably have at least a dozen new friends that want to hang with you.

Why? One reason is because hi-fi isn’t transportable. You can’t take it to lunch and show it off or attend a cars-and-coffee event, casually trotting over to the pack after getting out of your new toy. Like it or not, part of the appeal of owning luxury goods is getting to brag about them and being included in a community. Hi-fi doesn’t work that way. For example, telling 100 Porsche owners you just bought a new GT3 might start a minor argument about whether you bought the right one with a manual gearbox or Porsche’s excellent PDK automatic. No matter which option you chose, you’re still a god in that universe. Tell 100 audiophiles you just bought a $50k turntable, or even better, upgraded your system with $50k of premium wire, and 97 of them will tell you why you’re an idiot and why their $4,000 system is far better than your mega system. The issues run deeper.

Because they are often experience-driven and time-challenged, high-income earners don’t spend major cash on high-end audio systems. On rare occasions, I’ve met a few people with means that love to hang out with friends, relax, and listen to music. Some are members of the Greater Toronto Area Audiophile Club. I know there are more, and I’ve seen a few groups on Facebook that I’d love to meet when travel eases again. But assuming that someone who owns a nice car or a collection of nice cars (or watches, cameras, wine, etc.) will automatically want to buy a mega audio system, even if it is branded a “luxury good,” is just wrong.

Maybe it’s because music is a deeply personal thing. It might also relate to high-end audio’s exclusionary nature. In order to derive the most pleasure from a system, you must sit in the sweet spot. Alone. In silence. That’s not something everyone wants to do. Most people would rather go to a concert. Or go on vacation. Granted, the recent COVID lockdowns and limits on mobility have contributed to a couple of terrific years in the industry. Still, I’m curious how many will upgrade their systems with equal enthusiasm when it’s relatively safe to travel again.

Where does that leave us?

The future of audio isn’t bleak. There are more and better choices than ever before. The point of entry for serious sound is far less expensive than any other time in history, and the proliferation of online retailers and used-gear vendors has made it easier to acquire last year’s toys. I’ve always said well-loved, pre-owned gear is a great way to start an audiophile journey.

A good friend who has been an audio retailer for as long as I’ve been buying gear once said: “My average customer is like you, a person that makes a decent living, that spends way too much of it on his hi-fi system. Where do I get a mailing list for that?”

While that doesn’t make for exciting social media, I suspect the world of high-end audio will still thrive the way it always has: by way of enthusiasts and enthusiast publications. Keep passing the word around.  -Jeff Dorgay

Talking about my/your generation

Talking about my/your generation

Here’s a note to all you Millennials, Gen X, Y, and Z’ers.

For as long as I can remember, the generations have been arguing about why we hate each others’ music, why your music sucks and my music is awesome, and why in order to appreciate high performance audio you have to like my music.

You don’t have to like my music at all. Seriously, I’m a boomer and I hate a lot of the music from “my generation.” I’d rather go to the dentist and get my teeth cleaned than listen to the Eagles again. I’m mega bored with “Kind of Blue.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sucking up to you to try and be cool, woke, or trying to get you to like me – I’m not fond of a lot of your music either, but seriously, who gives a shit?

It’s your music, it’s personal, and that’s all that matters. I hated being told what to do, what to listen to, and what was cool when I was your age, and I still hate it.

Best of all, with so much music to stream these days, if you feel so inclined, you can dabble in the music of my generation if you feel like it, without having to commit to buying physical product. You know what sucked in a major way in my day? Getting pulled in by a great “hit single,” or great video clip, only to buy the entire album and find out it was the only good song on the album. Adjusting for inflation, $6 in my day was about (you guessed it) about $40 in todays money. We couldn’t return records we didn’t like and that’s why so many boomers brag about their massive record collections. Most of it sucks.

This is what killed the music industry. All the suits signing mediocre acts that had no business making records in the first place. How long did anyone think that business model was going to last?

There are always exceptions to the rule, on both sides of the fence, so don’t bother sending me nastygrams trying to impress me with your cool record collection and prove me wrong. Again, it’s all about you. It’s not about me at all. However, I do love K-Pop. So shoot me.

At the end of the day, if you need some help with a phono cartridge or a pair of speakers and we can be of help, always happy to pitch in. But when it comes to us agreeing on music, are you kidding?

But it’s really ok.

Judge, Jury, and Executioner

It’s interesting lately that there are a number of people in the hifi industry complaining about what things cost. My experience has always been that those that can’t afford to play usually make a bigger noise by trying to discredit things out of their reach. For some odd reason, this seems to take place more in the hifi industry than any other place.

No one loses their shit over a $500,000 watch, a luxury yacht, or a condo in Monaco. It is what it is, and it costs what it costs. Some people have always wondered why I compare audio equipment to automobiles. There are a number of reasons, but a parallel that I hope makes sense is the price of obsession with details. To a lesser extent, an obsession by some with measured specs.

Just as measurements will tell me how quickly a car will stop from 100 mph to zero, they won’t tell me how the brakes will feel. Do they bite hard initially and then let up? Will pedal pressure applied to braking effort exerted be linear? Will they fade after three hard stops or not at all? At that point, I either need to read comments from a few reviewers I know that have drawn the same conclusions I have, and then take a test drive to verify.

I’m not saying measurements don’t matter, they just don’t tell the whole story, and for the most part, they don’t tell me what I need to know to make a purchase decision. Not with hifi, cars, or a number of other things I enjoy. Measurements for me, are just additional data points. Nothing wrong with that.

I think high performance audio by nature, is an obsessive pursuit, and getting past a certain point of diminishing returns costs exponentially more, because it has an exponentially higher cost to get there. Honda can make reliable 250 hp engines all day long for minimal cost because there is a scale of engineering and manufacturing that makes sense. Getting 8 more horsepower out of Max Verstappen’s 950 hp F1 engine for the next GP might cost millions of dollars – for basically two engines. (His and his teammate’s) Is that worth it?

To the person who an automobile is nothing more than “something to get between point a and point b,” probably not. To the people trying to win a Formula 1 Constructor’s Championship, every one of those 8 horsepower is priceless.

We can even take something as benign as a chair. You can buy a reasonably good knockoff of a $9,000 Knoll Barcelona chair, for about a grand. Can you tell the difference? Can your friends? Will you tell them you bought the less expensive chair if everyone’s together at a party complimenting your good taste? 20 feet apart, it’s tough to tell, but when you get up close, the differences are fairly easy to spot. But again, is it worth the difference to you? Are you a bad Smurf for buying the knockoff if you appreciate the style but just don’t have the dough? No shame in that, nearly all of us have to make compromises in our life, no matter what our income.

And so it goes for high end audio. Do we need beautiful speakers like the top Estelons, Wilsons, Magicos, Sonus fabers, etc, etc, etc.? (And I’m not singling these speakers out for any other reason than they are some of the finest speakers on today’s market that offer an extremely high level of execution)

A number of people have sniped about the $850,000 Wilsons and “why they cost so much money.” Years ago, I had a pair of $179,000 Gamut S9s. They were lovely. Then Gamut principal Lars Goller told me that for the 20 pairs of S9s they would probably sell, they would never recover the amount of time and resources committed to the S9 project. I also used to own a pair of MartinLogan CLX speakers, and again the folks at ML told me that they made over 30 prototypes (that all ended up in the dumpster) before they finalized the CLX, and probably spent as much engineering time on the shipping cartons as they did the speakers. (Anyone who had a pair of ML’s past flagship knows why this is so.)

So the major questions remain? Is this stuff worth it? Is a reviewer – any reviewer really qualified to make that call? It always takes a minute to criticize what’s cost millions of dollars and thousands of hours to build. Just because I can’t afford something, doesn’t make it invalid.

In nearly 20 years of reviewing gear, and over twice that buying the stuff, we’ve found a groove here that pretty much coincides with what we own in our own systems, with the occasional deviation when something mega makes itself available. And we’ve found that most of our readers have systems in the $5,000 to about $200,000 range, so we try to keep it within the reach of our readership, and our level of experience and comfort.

Do I think 500-thousand-dollar turntables are crazy? Sure, in the context of my system, my record collection and my income, without a doubt. However, the people buying 500-thousand-dollar turntables (and they are out there) aren’t worrying about people like me that can’t afford the stuff they can afford to purchase. That customer is obsessed, and maybe that 500-thousand-dollar turntable doesn’t sound all that much better than your favorite $40k turntable. (but I don’t know I haven’t heard one), That’s not the point.

The point is it’s awesome, and someone not only wants that awesomeness (and exclusiveness) and is willing and able to pay for it. That’s why the people that produce those things do what they do. Having met more than my share of people that make incredible hifi over the years, I can say with 100% conviction that they don’t get out of bed thinking “how can I make a valueless thing for crazy money and fleece the public today?”

Can I afford to play at that level? Nope. But I think it’s incredible that people go to work every day figuring out how to make amazing things better. Defining things (and someone else’s hard work) in terms of your limited reality is insulting to everyone. It’s disrespectful to the people that have put their soul into building these things, it’s discouraging to the people that aspire to have these things, and it’s insulting to the people that have purchased them.

And even to answer the question on whether that more expensive thing is worth it, some people enjoy things for the art and execution of it. A geeked out Subaru STi can be tuned to 500 hp fairly easily and inexpensively. If all you want to do is win a stoplight Grand Prix, victory can be yours. Would I rather have a Porsche GT3RSR? You bet. Sometimes, it is about execution and if you can afford it, who am I to tell you it sucks?

Yet, this is a trend I’m seeing in the hifi industry more often than not, and I think it’s disturbing. I just can’t get behind discouraging the pinnacle of anything. There is more great gear at incredibly affordable prices today than ever, so why discourage what’s happening out on the fringe? Some people want more than just getting back and forth from point a to b. Even though I can’t afford a lot of this gear, I will continue to celebrate it.

The “Best”

I’m always amazed at how many products out there are claimed to be “the best.”

What does that even mean? Best for what? Best for who? Whenever this word is used (and I’ve used it REALLY sparingly in the last 17 years) it draws a mental line in the sand meaning nothing is better than this, because well, it’s the best.

My travels to Europe and Asia, interacting with others around the world leaves me thinking that other cultures aren’t quite as fixated on being the best, and having the best. I think we Americans have more of a propensity for needing to have the best. Laurie Anderson did a great tune called “0 and 1,” from her Home of the Brave soundtrack. As she says in her computer enhanced voice, “everyone wants to be number one, nobody wants to be 0, a loser.” Yet in this analog world that we all seem to worship, there are precious few shades of grey.

I have a hard time believing that all the people that design and build hifi gear want to build products that are less than. And on the flip side of that maxi single, there are so many claiming to be the best. How can there be that many bests. The New York Times recently claimed that a very popular $600 turntable is “the best turntable.” As Hall and Oates say in “Possession Obsession,” so why would you want more?

Well, why would you?

I fear that in today’s influencer laden society, no one wants to be caught with having any less than the best, yet there are so many great products available. There have never been more variations on the theme, regardless of what shape your hifi system needs to take.

This is something I’ve agonized over since I started writing about hifi. Trying to have enough insight to put things into perspective. To try and help you make intelligent purchase decisions that will help you. It’s not about me/us at all. We’ve all drawn our lines in the sand as to what we like, and what helps us achieve our music reproduction goals.

Back when I worked at The Absolute Sound, and used to chat with the late, great Harry Pearson on a semi-regular basis he always used to say: “Kid, don’t use the B-word. Resist the urge. The minute you do, you’ve painted yourself in a corner you can’t get out of.”

And while attaching those four letters to one of our reviews would certainly get us a lot more web traffic, and perhaps a better ranking on Google searches, it doesn’t help you one bit. What happens when you bring that best turntable or those best speakers home and they aren’t the best? Hmmmm. How likely are you going to be to listen to what we have to say in the future?

For all but the few people that can build an awesome system out of the chute and have the fortitude to stay there, the pursuit of building an audio system is usually a journey, an evolving thing. As cool as it is to say “I’ve got the best..” you probably don’t, because it doesn’t exist.

Here’s to hoping you’ll continue to enjoy your journey, wherever you are on that path, and that you can have the courage to enjoy the gear you’ve spent your hard earned money on, whether it’s the best or not.

-Jeff Dorgay

Vinyl Madness

Vinyl Madness

I have a confession to make. There are multiple records in my record collection that I have bought but still haven’t listened to.

And there are records in my collection that I no longer love. As part of the ongoing new year’s resolution to de-clutter, The LP collection here is getting another round of sort and dispose. This may sound heretical to some of you but about four years ago, Pam helped me go through my collection of about 11,000 LPs and see what I didn’t listen to anymore. So we’re all clear, this was not my wife on my case about having too many records, it was me pondering someday having to move all that vinyl.

It took us a week to go through, sort, re-catalog, and decide what would go and what would stay. A few days later, I had about 3500 LPs in my collection. Erik at Gig Harbor Audio was kind enough to take them all off my hands and give me a fair price for them. (If you bought some cool records at GHA in the last few years, chances are high, there’s a little bit of me in your record collection!)

However, with promos coming in, purchasing some records over the last two pre-COVID years and general entropy, the force is telling me that another round of cleanup needs to happen. Years ago, we picked up the WaxRax RC-2 record cart, and it remains a fantastic tool in the listening room.

So, here’s how it’s breaking down:

The RC-2’s 300 record capacity will hold the top 300 records I hold dear. This will make it easy to roll those records between rooms 1 and 2 for easy equipment evaluation. As I’ve been collecting vinyl from MoFi since day one, an entire bank of shelves will be devoted to MoFi. Everything else will be in alphabetical order for somewhat easy access, and I’m removing the shrink wrap from anything that’s gotten away.

A pair of road cases make the perfect storage space for all of the 45rpm maxi singles in my collection, placed conveniently next to the Technics SL-1200 Mk. 5 with Shure M44 cartridge. But there will be no scratching. Sorry, I just can’t go there.

Finally a new pile of “records that haven’t been listened to” in one crate will be placed front and center to get on top of immediately.

Next, it’s time to get all the CD’s and SACD’s in order.

So far I haven’t found anything that has to go.  :).

A Heartfelt “thank you” to Cardas Audio

A Heartfelt "thank you" to Cardas Audio

We’re going on about 10 months of this now…

As we put the finishing touches on our yearly “Awards” issue, and everyone in the audio industry is deciding which great audio products are the best of the best for whatever reason, I’d like to spotlight some genuine human kindness. I’ve had the privilege to get to know a lot of people in the high end, but I admit to a soft spot for the people at Cardas Audio, for a number of reasons.

I really appreciate the consistent positivity of Angela Cardas, and her husband Josh.

The saying goes, that actions speak louder than words, and this certainly applies here. Very early in March, the Cardases sent a bunch of goody boxes out with a big red tag (If you know Angela Cardas, you know that beyond the signature blue that covers nearly all of their cables, her favorite color is bright red) that said in big, bold letters, “Keep calm and carry on.”

Inside the box were assorted snack treats, a great bottle of gin, sourced locally, and some Cardas swag. And why not?

But the thing that I thought was the coolest, especially in a time where there was no hand sanitizer on the store shelves, and you couldn’t get a roll of toilet paper to save your life, they enclosed a small bottle of hand sanitizer that you could attach to your key ring. As someone who constantly loses their keys, wallet and phone on a regular, I’ve taken to wearing the most important keys in my life around my neck. My wife Pam jokes that I should have a “don’t feed sugar, and don’t medicate” tag on that key ring, but that’s another story for another time.

Needless to say, I’ve worn that Cardas hand sanitizer bottle around my neck every day of my life, since the day it arrived, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s been refilled. Though it’s looking a little bit worse for the wear and tear, I can’t help but think perhaps that one small act of kindness may have saved my life this year. I’m 60, had asthma as a kid, and could stand to lose 20 pounds, thanks to the lack of activity over the last year. In short, I’m probably a prime candidate for Covid complications.

As much as I’ve minimized interaction with the outside world in the last 10 months, there have been a number of times that I went to the gas station, or FedEx, or whatever, that I forgot to take a pair of latex gloves. That squirt of hand sanitizer may have been just the thing that’s kept me out of the ER.

Looking back on a recent scare this week, fearing that despite my efforts to self quarantine, I may have contracted this damn virus anyway, my test results came back negative yesterday, and I exhaled a major sigh of relief. So, for now, you’re still stuck with me.

So, I say to all of our readers, and friends in this industry, this is a great time to reflect on everyone that’s gone just a little bit out of their way to make sure we’re all still standing. More than ever, I really look forward to when we can all hang out in person, at a show or a dealer event, have a beer and a few good laughs. Who knows? Maybe we won’t even take some of the arguments so seriously…

Again a big thanks to Angela Cardas for the thoughtful gift.

I still love buying hifi gear!

I still love buying hifi gear!

Note I used the word “buy.”

You might think that even though I do this every day, I’m over the thrill of finding great hifi. Nothing could be further than the truth. In the last week, I’ve put down a deposit on my own pair of Dirty Weekend speakers from ZU Audio, purchased the review pair of Lumina 1 speakers from Sonus faber, (you can read the full review here) and bought a vintage Sansui AU-717 integrated amp.

This is still fun, and it’s still exciting to not only find bargains in high end audio, but to re-discover classic pieces from your history that you miss. (and possibly regret selling)

I’m truly looking forward to the last few weeks of this year. We’ve got issue 105 with awards coming up, and quite a few reviews that we’ve just finished that need to be posted on the TONE website. Issue 106 is already in progress for a Feb.1 launch, and we’ve got our heads down on a new, optimized for mobile, version of TONE.

Crazy as 2020 has been, we are looking forward to the months to come, and hope that maybe by summer or fall, we’ll get to see some of you in person again.

Stay safe, and happy holidays to you and yours.

RIP, Eddie VanHalen

Can’t believe I just heard the news that Eddie VanHalen, co-founder of legendary heavy rock band, VanHalen is gone.

Where were you when you heard “Eruption” for the first time? I was working at Southridge Mall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a little record store called Galaxy of Sound. We were hanging out at the counter, price guns in hand when the rep from Warner Brothers walked through the door with one white promo album in his hands. He walked up to the stereo, and took the record that was playing off and looked at us with a slightly drug-induced smile (it was the 70s you know), put the record down on the platter, and just before he dropped the needle, said: “You little fuckers will never hear anything like this, again. This is coming out on Friday and I’m giving you a glimpse of history.”

We heard “Eruption” and freaked out. The next 30 minutes flew by, and though we begged him to leave the record with us, he would not. It was Wednesday, February 8th, and true to his word, the world of rock was changed forever two days later.

It was cool to be there first. Many have been influenced by EVH, and though he had his demons, there’s never been another Eddie VanHalen on the scene.

Rest In Peace.

Fake News and Audio Reviews

Fake News and Audio Reviews

Now that we are well into our 16th year of publication, it seems apparent that there are still some in the audience that don’t fully understand what we do, why we do it, and what sets us somewhat apart. Now is as good a time to clarify as ever, eh? Many of you have been reading us since the early days, so I’m guessing you like our approach enough to stay. And for that, I thank you very much.

However, there is still the occasional snarkiness lurking, and just as in today’s world situation, claims get made, no matter how unfounded they might be. You might even go as far as to call it “fake news.” Without trying to offend anyone, I’ve never bought into the concept of fake news, I’ve always seen every news outlet as having somewhat of a slant or bias. We’re human beings, and no matter how much we might try to be 100% objective, it creeps in because for better or for worse, we nearly always put things into context-based upon our experience.


So, when I read about world events, I try to digest multiple sources, perform a mental Venn diagram, see where the overlap is, and draw the best conclusion I can. If possible, thanks to the large group of people I’ve managed to get to know here, I get on the phone and call someone. An event in the UK (or any other place) may look one way in our news, yet to people that live there often have a completely different spin. Boots on the ground get the message across.

I feel that audio reviews are the same. No one review will give you a complete insight into a product, because we are all coming from a different place, with different hot buttons, and of course, different biases. Or shall we say, priorities? Most audio reviewers are just like you – audio enthusiasts, mega audio enthusiasts. Often the difference between you and us is that we’ve spent more time listening to a broader range of products than you have, and the hope is that our additional experience will add insight. At least that’s my hope.

When I was on the other side of the desk, I was a very avid consumer of high-end audio products, as any of my long time friends will attest. But that was a different time when dealers could afford to let you take a lot of things home for the weekend to test drive. Still, that was nothing compared to the gear I’ve had the privilege to listen to in my tenure at TONE. We can argue that aural memory is fleeting. I think that if you pull most of the veteran reviewers aside, they will all agree that most manufacturers have a unique enough voice to their products that they have a general knowledge bank in their heads. Quads sound different than MartinLogan, though they are both ESL speakers, and they both sound different than a pair of Magnepans, though they are all dipole radiating panel speakers. And so on.

Need the info

I’m guessing you probably have similar biases, which is why you prefer tubes over solid-state, mini-monitors over floorstanders, metal dome tweeters over soft dome tweeters, etc., etc., etc. That kind of thing. That’s what makes this pursuit of assembling a satisfying music system so exciting and frustrating at the same time. You can’t be everywhere, you can’t go to all the HiFi shows, and you can’t take everything home for the weekend.

So, you probably lean on a mixture of reviews, FB groups, internet boards, and such. What I see as the problem with the latter two, is that it usually devolves into a pissing match with people looking for validation on what they own. The Magnepan person tells you that Magnepans are the best because that’s what they own. And to them, they are. Just as the person who has a pair of single-driver speakers and a 2A3 amplifier will tell you that their approach is the one correct route to nirvana. Finally, it all just turns into a shouting contest, with gnashing of teeth and everyone going away mad. Even more today amid our current crisis, when tempers flare, and nerves are pretty raw to begin with.

Exploring audio gear was supposed to be what made audio fun.

Again I hope that you can gain some insight from all of us. The overlap is where it’s at. The other reviewers all have their unique perspective to offer, but you have to dig a little deeper to find out where their biases lie. Sometimes they will even tell you, which helps, but if you read any reviewer long enough, you get a feel for what excites them, as well as what the limitations of their systems and rooms are. You even find out what their musical tastes are – which may help or may lead you further off the track.

Lew Johnson of Conrad-Johnson once told me to “pick 25 tracks you hate to evaluate gear because when you’re done, you’ll hate them.” For those of you that know what I’m talking about, there is a secret society of audio professionals that absolutely HATE that damn Jennifer Warnes song about the horse. But it’s a tool.

 It’s hard to get excited about an audio component, or put it in perspective if the tracks described throughout the copy have no meaning to you. Thankfully, streaming music now makes it much easier to listen to whatever a particular reviewer is using to evaluate a component.

But at the end of the day, it’s genuinely about the overlap. While I do not suggest buying a component strictly on a review (mine or anyone else’s), it helps to read as much as you can. I think it’s a safe bet that when a product gets a concise review here and elsewhere, it’s worth your time to investigate. Again, the current world situation has increased the degree of difficulty in this case.

Our approach

While we are occasionally criticized for not writing “negative reviews,” whenever I’ve suggested to a manufacturer at a HiFi show that we should start that trend with their product, they always back down. Interesting.

In today’s market, I don’t feel that any of the major companies, or for that matter, even the second-string companies are making rubbish anymore. With the advent of the internet and death by audio forum, bad news travels faster than ever, and if you are a company that builds inferior products, offers dreadful customer service, or both, your days are numbered. And your death will come much faster than me or anyone else writing a negative review. This is where the forums and FB pages can come in handy when researching a purchase. 

If a disproportionate number of end-users are reporting similar failures or consistent bad service, this may be a product to avoid. A reviewer has no way of knowing the answer to that question.

I like to joke that everyone can usually have a great time on vacation. Everyone is happy with their HiFi purchase until something breaks. How a dealer or manufacturer handles things when it all goes pear-shaped is another matter entirely. Sooner or later, nearly everything breaks. That said, I have worked with manufacturers that I have never had a failure with, but that’s an article for another day. When a manufacturer or their supporting dealer gets you sorted out and back to listening to music quickly and painlessly, that’s a big plus – and you can’t get that from a review.

Where a number of the automotive magazines do “long term tests,” keeping a car for a year to see how maintenance is performed, what breaks, and how much it cost to repair, most audio gear does not fail in the short period it is here for review. We have had a few things that have either arrived destroyed (no fault of the mfr) or have failed repeatedly during the review period, but those products have not made it to the completion of the review process. And to be fair, this has only happened a few times in nearly 1700 product reviews.

You’re super busy, and I get it

This leads to the core of our approach. My goal from the beginning with TONE was to be like a great concierge in a great hotel. Not to be “Mr. Know It-All of Hi?Fi.” I’ll let you in on a little secret, no one is. There are thousands of you and a few of us. Collectively, you will always know more. A great concierge listens to their guests, building their knowledge base on feedback received. More than once, our readers have led us to products we didn’t know about.

So, I’ve always felt our job is to help you make a shortlist. When you get into a hotel at 7 pm, tired from traveling all day, and you just want a good steak – now, and you want your clothes pressed in time for your 8:30 meeting tomorrow morning, that person behind the desk handles it. You don’t want to be bothered with 20 Yelp reviews (with at least three of them negative) you want to be taken care of.

That’s how I see my personal responsibility to both you and the audio industry. Need a great tube preamp with balanced inputs in the $5k-$8k range? We’ll help you find it. Need a pair of tube friendly monitor speakers that will work great in a 13 x 15 room, custom color a bonus? Got you covered.

In the context of TONE, writing a disparaging review, wastes everyone’s time, and that means in addition to finding great products for you to put on your list, I have to seek out crappy products to bash. Is that helping anyone?

What makes our process a little different

Nearly all TONE reviews begin with us vetting the products we’re interested in, rather than getting random products and being surprised. We don’t have enough hours in the day. If that’s truly the approach you want, we are not your HiFi magazine.

I’ve always felt our job is to describe a product thoroughly enough, that YOU can decide to put it on your shortlist. Many times our reviews lack the “conclusion” paragraph in most other reviews. That’s on purpose, and it’s a tribute to your intelligence. If we’ve done our job correctly, you will draw the conclusion yourself. Isn’t that the best conclusion?

This is why we always have a clear photo of the rear panel. How many inputs are there? Balanced, RCA, or? Usually a shot of the remote control too. It’s those little things. We always try to use a pair of speakers with a wide range of amplifiers, from low power SET to high power solid state. The other way around for amplifiers. The Magnepan or ESL owner is always going to want to know if it will drive “their speakers.” So we keep a pair of each on hand, specifically for this purpose.

Once the overall sound character of a component is identified and agreed upon (somewhere on the scale of warm, through neutral, to somewhat bright/forward) and put in the context of speakers, cables, and associated components, our focus turns to functionality. We feel how something will integrate into your environment and system can often be the deciding factor. We once reviewed an incredible, $60,000 phonostage that only had one input and no gain/loading adjustments. This isn’t a fit for everyone, but for the handful of people that are looking for just that, it’s a perfect choice.

A nine-watt SET amplifier, no matter how glorious it sounds, isn’t going to drive a lot of speakers. A mini-monitor with flawless midrange, won’t play techno music, a luscious moving coil cartridge with only .15mv output won’t work with all phono preamplifiers. And so on. This is why we take the shortlist approach.

We also try our best to determine if said review components are easy or tough to set up because you all have different skill (and patience) levels. I feel this is often overlooked in product reviews of all types, and can often lead to hifi frustration. I’ve heard many systems not give their all because of lack of setup, not component shortcomings.

See where I’m going with this? It’s neither my job nor my responsibility to make the ultimate decision for you. My job is to help you weed through the jungle of the myriad of products out there. No matter what you buy, there will always be something different, or perhaps that reveals more music than the component you just purchased. That’s why you rarely see the B-word (“the best”) in our pages. Someone always has infinity plus one.

You may or may not know that I photograph every component that graces the pages of TONE. I spent my last life as an advertising photographer and then as a fine art photographer creating high-quality images in the automotive world for years.

 I enjoy photographing the gear almost as much as I do listening to it.

The bigger picture is that I listen to every single component that has been in this magazine. It has helped to give me a broader knowledge base, but it has also helped add that “additional listening” section that you often see in our reviews. Not everyone on the staff has ten phono cartridges at their disposal, or a range of amplifiers, cables, etc. Knowing how a component sounds when it leaves to head to one of our reviewers makes it that much easier to read their copy, and fill in those blanks at the end if they’ve missed something due to lack of additional associated components.

The last link in the chain

Our job would be so much easier if we could visit your house, size up your room, system and music collection – making suggestions that we think could help you build a system, or get to the next level of audio performance. In a pandemic free world, that would be your dealers’ job, and this is why we’ve been running the “dealers that mean business” section at the back of the magazine.

 This part of TONE is a free service to you and those dealers listed. There are a few dealer ads in the magazine, but the DMB section is no cost to those dealers. They are all establishments that we have visited personally, have attended events at, and talked to their customers about the level of service received. Some of these dealers I have even purchased components from over the years. In short, these are dealers I would spend my money with, and get my endorsement.

A final bit of clarity

If you’ve read this far, thank you. This has been a long “blog” post, but I hope it helps clarify how we operate. We’ve received a lot of wonderful emails and phone calls, along with some great in-person chats with you over the years, and precious few nastygrams. 

If we’ve helped make the path a little less confusing, and helped lead you to a satisfying audio experience, then we’ve done our job. That’s always been our goal.

And throughout this wacky time, I hope we can continue to be a useful resource for those of you that read our pages.

Lockdown – Day 58

Lockdown - Day 58

Almost two months into this, the local and global landscape has certainly changed.

I’m guessing that all of you have been touched by this now, one way or another. We’ve lost a couple of friends here, and have had a number of others go through the current virus and come out the other end in one piece. We’ve been talking to a lot of you, so keep the cards and letters coming.

We’re staying isolated, except for the occasional grocery store run. We’re midway through issue 102, which will concentrate on approachable speakers, and one of our favorite speakers, the new JBL L-100 Classics, just received a new set of blue grills, to change the mood up a bit.

Social media is rife with pictures of how you are all coping, and equally rife with hostility. Tempers are starting to fray. So, I’m hoping you can spend the weeks to come more on the “share ten records you love” side of the fence than the “quick angry mob” side of the fence.

While incendiary nasty-grams continue from the usual sources, the outpouring of email and FB messages, just to check up on us and see how we are doing, is truly appreciated. It’s been nice to hear from so many of you. Keep the cards and letters coming!

Farewell, Art Dudley

In case you haven’t heard the news, we lost one of the industry’s finest writers today.

Unfortunately, Stereophile’s Art Dudley is no more. When I heard the news just a few days ago that he was having problems with cancer that had returned, I had hoped he was going to be ok and had no idea that he was having issues with cancer in the first place. But that was Art, never one to trouble you with that kind of thing. No Go Fund Me page, no posts on social media, looking for sympathy – he just carried on.

While I would love to wax poetic about what great friends Art and I were, we weren’t. We always chatted at the various shows he attended – which wasn’t many because Art hated to fly. A few years ago, I was shocked to see him at the Munich show, but he just laughed and said he had mustered up the courage to go.

That really sums up Art Dudley on one level. He was always understated and always a perfect gentleman. Along with Jonathan Halpern (of TONE Imports, no relation to us), Art and I had put on a seminar about the “Virtues of Vintage Audio” at the New York show eight or nine years ago and had a blast doing it. The room was standing room only, with attendees spilling out into the hall. If you are a Stereophile reader, you know how much Art loved Quads, SET amps, tubes, and his beloved Thorens TD-124 turntables.

After that, we had even chatted about doing a book together, but alas, we were both too damn busy. I sincerely regret not following up on that, because I’m sure I would have learned so much from him. But we always joked about it in the halls.

What made Art such a great writer – one of the best, if not the best in the world of audio reporting, was that his motivation was pure. He lived and breathed this stuff. It was in his soul. And this is what made his articles so enjoyable, whether you agreed with him or not. It always felt like you were right there in the room living it with him – a goal that all of us that write about audio should aspire to. His articles were always a near perfect balance of reporting and telling a story without making it all about him. A good friend of mine compared him to another favorite journalist from the automotive world – Peter Egan. An excellent and worthy comparison.

Even though we were never great friends, I will miss Art tremendously, and always remember him fondly. My sincere regret is that we never did get to be good friends. I think we would have had a lot of laughs together.

Lockdown: Day 15

Lockdown: Day 15

As somewhat of a self-imposed hermit anyway, I’m keeping my head down, staying out of the traffic pattern, and staying busy.

There’s plenty of work to do here, and we will continue to produce content at TONE as if things were back to what we used to consider normal. Our hope is to produce a bit more, in the hope that we can at least provide a minute of distraction here and there.

For those that are interested, we’ll be posting weekly to let you know what’s up and what we’re working on. I truly hope that you are all safe, sound, and out of harms way. Here’s to all the strength that you can muster right now. If we provide a little bit of distraction, that’s great. If you need to be alone and not think of music or hifi right now, we understand.

The new APL-10 preamplifier and AFM-25 monoblocks from Rivera Audio Labs continue to amaze. The ultimate in simplicity, this all tube preamp and hybrid (tube input stage, solid state, Class-A output stage) monoblocks are an excellent match with the 94db/1 watt Focal Stella Utopia Ems. Rounding out the system is the PSAudio Perfect Wave DAC, a Torus TOT line conditioner, and all cable from Cardas Audio.

The overall sound is very natural and open. As a big fan of Class-A amplifiers from Pass, Luxman (along with vintage Krell and Levinson) the Rivera amps have all of that in spades, yet the tube/hybrid design offers a bit more magic. 25 watts per channel won’t be enough for everyone, the other two Rivera amplifiers offer 50 wpc and 100, effectively. We’ll have a full review soon, but these are a true joy.

You can find out a little more here at Rivera Audio Labs…

And, their North American importer, TONE Imports (not affiliated with us, but it has a nice ring to it, eh?)

PS:  I understand that most of you probably have way bigger fish to fry right now, than worry about what your next hifi purchase is going to be, and that to just tell you to “Just take it easy and listen to music for the next few weeks” may not be much solace. So you won’t be getting that one from me.

So, take good care, and stay safe my friends.

An answer to one of audio’s ultimate questions:

An answer to one of audio's ultimate questions:

Just say yes to streaming music at your favorite hifi show. Seriously.

Sitting in the airport waiting for the flight home, I’ve just spent the most fun time ever at an audio show. The Florida Audio Expo was an absolute pleasure to attend. But you can read me gush about that tomorrow or Tuesday. For now, I have an issue, I’d like to see solved – pronto.

While it’s been fantastic that the folks at Qobuz have been “the official streaming partner” of all the year’s past audio shows, it’s worthless. You can’t stream audio at an audio show – ever. How messed up is that?

Though everyone is proudly playing vinyl and even reel to reel tape at the show, with excellent result, that isn’t helping those that know nothing about our world. I love analog in every delivery method possible – but I’m obsessed with audio. It’s all intriguing. But I’m not your customer at an audio show.

After 17 years now of listening to a lot of the same people ask the same question, “how do we bring new people into our world?” We have the answer with Tidal, Qobuz and ROON. But no one fucking uses it. I’ve only been to one room in the past year that could answer yes to the “Hey, are you streaming Tidal and Qobuz here, so I can pick some music I want to hear?” question. PS Audio at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was the only one doing it, and it’s no coincidence that they were packed to the gills. Everyone in that room was having a great time. Listening to their music.

I attend shows to interact with our readers and colleagues in the industry. I’m not terribly interested in sitting down to listen to gear at shows, because A: it’s probably in the review queue anyway and B: I don’t want to take the seat from the paying customers that want to get a listen and ask questions. It’s your show not mine.

Which brings us full circle. I think the most important way to bring people into the world of high end/high performance audio, whether you are selling a $2,500 system or a $250,000 system is to give the participants an “ah-ha” moment. To deliver an experience that is immersive enough to get them tapping their toes, digging the vibe, and asking questions. I think you’ll all agree with me that music is personal, so there’s no quicker way to get the “boring” light on my dashboard to illuminate, than to play music I’m not interested in. Again, forget about me, think about your potential customer. I guarantee they are thinking the same thing.

I strongly suggest ALL of my industry colleagues to consider this. People who have never really experienced great sound, who are listening to budget buds, phones, or powered speakers are going to be so blown away by streaming music on even a modest DAC that you’ll hook them. The key ingredient? Play THEIR music. I don’t care how much you don’t like hip hop, or whatever, get over it for five minutes. I’ve had to listen to “Keith Don’t Go” and all the other tracks we’ve all suffered through for years now. Wanna sell more hifi? Buck up. Play their music.

The only thing worse than waiting for someone in a demo room fumbling through their collection of 100 LPs to play a track I’m totally uninterested in, is the track I’m totally uninterested in. Again, I don’t care because I’m already drinking the Kool-Aid. It’s ok if you don’t have music to make me happy.

But your potential customers, that’s another story. I’ve been hearing the same thing exiting rooms now for 17 years:

“That guy’s music suuuuucked”
“I hate classical music”
“Jazz is boring”
“I think it sounded good, but it wasn’t music I like”

Not much has changed. I still heard way too much of that at this show, and this was the friendliest hifi show I’ve ever attended.

So, going forward, I’m begging you all to reconsider your position and make a streaming option available in your room for the uninitiated, so when you get the wide-eyed “wow, I’ve never seen/heard anything like this,” you can hand them the tablet and pick out a track or two that they know like the back of their hand.

I challenge every manufacturer and show presenter to find a way to make this happen. I guarantee this will bring more people into our world.

What the hell is “high end audio” anyway?

What the hell is "high end audio" anyway?

After 40 years of being an audio enthusiast, consumer (and someone covering this world for the last 17 of those years) I think we have a fundamental confusion in what we’re talking about.

To me, “high end audio” means something condescending, something unapproachable, something you can’t have. It means the secret handshake, the elite club.

I’d rather it not be that way.

In the world of cars, you have cars that get you from point a to point b reliably, like a Toyota RAV 4 or a Kia Soul, that are perfectly good cars (I’ve owned both of em) and they get the job done with no fuss. And for probably 99 percent of the population that’s just fine. If you think I’m nuts, how many of your friends, male and female, have said at one point or another, “cars don’t mean anything to me, I just need one to get from a to b and back.”

There’s no shame in that at all. Most people don’t give a shit about cars.

I’ve got news for you, most people don’t give a shit about audio either. But almost everyone loves, or at least likes music. But for so many, it’s something in the background, it’s something to listen to on the subway, or when friends are over. Or sing along with.

It’s something to get from point a to b.

But high performance audio is something completely different. High performance audio, like high performance cars, motorcycles, bicycles, cameras, concentrates on delivering more experience, no matter what the approach. It doesn’t always have to be expensive, and it doesn’t always have to be brand new. $30,000 will buy you a well-appointed Toyota camry, or it will buy you a really nice, used Audi S4. Think about it. If you love the way a car feels going around a corner, or stopping hard, you’d probably rather drive the Audi.

But even if you take the new approach, high performance audio does not have to break the bank. Many of the manufacturers that we might consider “high end,” and perhaps even out of our reach, make great products, that are very affordable. And they are all a great place to start your journey.

A perfect example of this is Vandersteen Audio. Their flagship 7s cost upwards of $60k/pair, but the current version of their model 1 is just under $1,500/pair. If that’s still crazy money in your book, look at the Paradigm Atoms. $299/pair. Both of these speakers are designed and built by the same people that build the flagship models with plenty of TLC.

I can cite plenty of examples in the realm of amplifiers, preamplifiers, DACs and turntables, but I’m guessing you know most of the players.

You can spend a little bit of money or a lot of money. That is up to you and those are your personal priorities.

But stop worrying if your system is “high end,” and where that line begins. Think “high performance,” or even “performance oriented.” Then we can all play, and we can all get on with it. Best of all, we can all get back to enjoying music, to a greater degree than what a mass market solution offers.

Who’s with me? If you’re enjoying music, and you’re having fun doing it, you’re in. It’s really that easy.

The JBL L-100 Classic

The JBL L-100 Classic

In 1982 I wanted three things: A Nikon F2 with motor drive, a BMW 320i and a pair of JBL L-100s. I got two out of three. I needed the Nikon to earn a living, and a new 3-series was about 13k, well equipped. But I did get a pair of L-100s and they rocked.

But then I became an audiophile and I was too cool to have JBLs. I bought a pair of Magnepans and got serious about hifi.

As the years passed, the L-100s kept nagging and a few pairs of vintage L-100s have come and gone. I still have a pair of originals, which have been modded to sound a bit better than I remember. I drag them out once in a while and connect them to my Nakamichi 600 wedge series components, lamenting how far hifi has come in 4 decades.

That all changed at last years Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Harman was showing the new, Classic L-100s in orange! Woo hoo, the signature foam block grilles were back! And the sound was out of this world good.

Today, I use a Nikon D800, and there’s a fairly clean 83 320i in the driveway for old times sake, but it’s more like my vintage L-100s. Not modern transportation anymore.

But these new L-100s rock. The first track played is Joni Mitchell’s “Car on a Hill” and it’s the late 70s again. Awesome.

– And a big thank you to Steve Rowell at Audio Classics for making this happen.

Why I don’t always listen to as much new music as I should

Why I don’t always listen to as much new music as I should

I’m a hifi reviewer, with an excellent music system at my disposal and thanks to Tidal, Qobuz and Roon, I pretty much have the world’s biggest record store available 24/7. That’s better than the flying cars they promised me when I was in high school – really, it is.

So why don’t I explore new music every minute of the day?

In all fairness, I am still sampling as much as I have time for, but at this point in my life, day to day can get in the way more than I’d like. Flipping through the updated copy of Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, I bookmarked 8 titles that I hadn’t heard, and about 20 that I didn’t own, or have in my Roon library. Not bad.

But there’s great music being released every day. I’m not one of those crabby old men that thinks all of today’s music suuuuucks (though I do find some of it a little derivative at times), but it boils down to this:


I usually get unglued with a vengeance when people make the blanket “everybody/nobody” statements, so I’ll refrain from it here. I don’t know what everybody my age is doing or thinking, but based on my limited experience, it boils down to hours in the day.

Think about it, you’ve got that keep the bills paid app spinning all the time. Maybe you’ve got the future college fund, future wedding fund (maybe future divorce fund), retirement, vacation, health insurance, and fitness apps running all the time, along with a few special interest apps. If you’re a hifi enthusiast on top of that, you’re probably thinking about the system a bit as well.

All of these apps are eating up bandwidth. And battery power. While I’d like to think I’m pretty perky (and relatively immature) for 60, there are days I still feel like an iPhone 7 that’s had it’s performance limited because of an aging battery.

Which brings us back to the initial question.

Whenever you try something new, you are taking a 50% risk that it’s going to suck. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, but as a function of time, when you are on the downhill to EOL (end of life, as my perky 42-year old primary health care physician is fond of saying) there’s only so much time left.

You’ve got three hours to listen to music. How much of it do you devote to potential bad experiences? Do you play it safe and listen to Mahler V, or Led Zeppelin II, or take a risk, knowing that if you don’t get what you want, that’s 40 minutes of your remaining battery life you won’t get back. Excitement versus stability, the age old question.

Those of you that are more on the adventuresome side of the risk avoidance spectrum no doubt are still jumping off the cliff every chance you get. And I salute you. Further, you’re the ones I follow on Facebook and when you’re excited about a new album, I go to Roon and usually stream it right away. This has actually bumped the success rate with trying new things to about 80% positive, which I appreciate more than you know. As Lyle Lovett said once, “If it’s not too late, make it a cheeseburger.”

Some days I just want comfort food instead of the latest fusion cuisine. And sometimes, Van Halen II is just what the doctor ordered. But again, I encourage you to sample as much music as you can make time for, it’s never been easier. That’s one of the things that keeps me going every day. And please, keep sharing those new albums on social media. It’s always nice to be surprised.

Motorcycle Money

Motorcycle Money

A recent TONE Facebook post had a number of people pissing themselves in anger over a $5,300 Louis Vuitton record case that’s not even available anymore.

They all screamed “stupidity,” because after all, who would spend $5,300 on a box that holds only 50 records? (to be fair it does have an extra compartment for some CD’s and “accessories.”

Would I buy one? Probably not at $5,300, but I might for $2,000 – it is pretty cool. For those interested, LV will still make them through their custom shop, but that’s not the point.

There’s always been a disheartening angst for things outside of our budget. So many are so easy to dismiss things that don’t make sense financially to them. As Stewie Griffin on Family Guy is fond of saying, “whatever gets you through the night, bitch.” However, by this definition, more than half of the stuff in our world is stupid because it is non-essential. Everything that is above the baseline of what we need to get by is not required and therefore open to ridicule.

Geez. Those of us that enjoy hifi live in a world of non-essential stuff. Really? You’re going to sit there straight faced and tell me your non-essential stuff is more worthy than my non-essential stuff?

Let’s put this in context. Your neighbor buys a new Ducati Panigale-V4 Speciale, tipping the scales at pretty close to $40,000. You think he or she is a God. (And I must admit I’m pretty envious too…) Said neighbor is probably only going to put a few thousand miles a year on that beauty, so it might translate into about an average use of an hour a day, spread out over the course of a year.

Yet neighbor number two that just spent $40k on a hifi system that they will probably use 4-10 times that much, is an idiot. Even more, God forbid, they spent $40k on a pair of speakers or a turntable. And it’s not like that Ducati is going to get you to the emergency room.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a gearhead to the core. I’ll be the first one across the fence slapping my neighbor on the back when they are out in the driveway admiring their latest acquisition. But this is how I see hifi – motorcycle money. There are plenty of people driving nice cars and nice motorcycles that aren’t terribly wealthy people – they’ve just decided to spend a (perhaps) disproportionate amount of their income on something that brings them joy for whatever reason.

So, if you’re wondering why hi end audio attracts neither new people nor women to the ranks, this is why. Who wants to be part of that? Think about it.  – Jeff Dorgay

McIntosh Announces MA252 Integrated…

McIntosh Announces MA252 Integrated...

Today McIntosh announced the release of their new MC252 integrated amplifier, to a wide range of polarizing comments around the world.

With an MSRP of $3,500, this is a pretty kick ass little package. The approximately 12 x 18 inch footprint makes it about the size of a PrimaLuna amplifier, so it’s not going to take up a ton of space wherever you end up placing it, and at only 28 pounds, nearly anyone can lift it into place – pretty cool for McIntosh.

A hybrid design, the MA252 uses four tubes in the input/driver segments and a solid state output stage, delivering 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 160 per channel into 4 ohms, so you’ll have enough juice to drive most any speakers. A headphone amplifier is included and an MM phono section as well.

You can see by the rear view, that there is one balanced XLR input, two unbalanced RCA inputs and the phono, along with a single, mono output for a powered subwoofer. This should make it easy to make the MA252 the anchor for a great compact system.

Visually, the 252 pays homage to past classic McIntosh tube amplifiers, adding the current aesthetic of LED’s underneath the tubes and a digital display to indicate function and volume level. You’ll love it or hate it, but it’s pure Mac, and built on the same assembly line in Binghamton, New York with all current day McIntosh components.

We look forward to a full review as soon as samples start shipping!

Please click here for more tech bits!

Farewell, Gérard Chrétien

Farewell, Gérard Chrétien

I just heard the sad news that Focal’s Gérard Chrétien passed away on Sunday, October 1.

I had the pleasure of meeting him the first time about five years ago when I toured the Focal factory, with my friend John Bevier. Gérard was a wonderful host, giving me quite the tour, making sure I knew everything there was to know about Focal, making sure I fully understood the unique blend of technology, craftsmanship and passion that makes them tick. After business hours, he was. even more gracious, taking us around the city and availing us to some great meals while we were there.

Every time I saw him at a hifi show, no matter how busy, he always took the time to come over my way and give me a big hug. Even though I am a relative newcomer to this industry, he always inquired to how I was doing. With that big smile of his, without fail he would say, “How is that beautiful wife of yours?”

Always a kind man, always a professional, and always a perfect gentleman. That’s how I’ll remember Gérard Chrétien.

With Great Respect…

With Great Respect...

Cleaning the closets a bit today, I ran across the first issue of The Absolute Sound.

From Sping of 1973. Damn, I’m getting old. I remember reading it at my neighbor, longtime friend, and sometime TONEAudio contributor Todd Sageser’s house. I used to look at the mighty Phase Linear 700 amplifier on the shelf, with its gigantic, glowing, power output meters in the mall at Schaak Electronics and wonder what it would be like to have that much power.

44 years later, HP is no longer with us, and neither is Schaak Electronics. But I was fortunate enough to work for both of them, and I learned something from each. I even owned a couple of Phase Linear amplifiers over the years. And no, they never burst into flames.

Harry Pearson influenced me, with his obsessive quest for great sound, and his methodology influenced my approach at TONE, especially that of having a reference system where one and only one component was swapped at a time.

If you had the good fortune to encounter Mr. Pearson, you know he was a wild dog, in the best sense of the term. When I told him my dog’s name was Harry, he immediately thought I had named my Kerry Blue terrier after him. I confessed that my wife had named him after her screen heartthrob, Harrison Ford, Pearson retorted, “Well she hasn’t met me.”

And so it goes. It’s pretty amazing to see The Absolute Sound still thriving in 2017 and an entire industry and vocabulary sprout up from this 36 page leaflet, devoid of ads and photography. We’ve come a long way baby.

Vinyl is better, well…kinda

Vinyl is better, well...kinda

With all the horror surrounding last months article in The Wall Street Journal, on “the vinyl boom being over,” it appears that records are still being made and records are still being sold.

Certainly, tons of turntables, cartridges and phono preamplifiers are being produced as well. So is the sky falling or is it not?

But what a lot of enthusiasts, hipsters, and industry pundits (especially the ones that are old enough to have been around for the first go of the vinyl trip) seem to always forget is that just because something is imprinted on a slab of vinyl doesn’t mean it’s automatically awesome, it’s automatically better than a digital recording and that “digital sucks,” because it doesn’t.

This isn’t the start of a digital vs. analog debate. That’s a tired conversation as far as I’m concerned. VERY tired. But back in the 60s and 70s, until vinyl’s near demise in the mid 80s, a lot of what gets pressed sucks, sonically. As inconvenient as records and tapes were, the CD was really produced as a stopgap to all the piracy that was going on.  With digital recording and data storage such new mediums, I’m going to guess that the suits in charge probably never foresaw the 52x CD writers and 100 pc cake pans of blank CDs at Costco in the mid 90s. Oops.

After a major resurgence, vinyl is probably going to wind down a bit. It’s a matter of logistics, spare parts, and availability of raw materials. Most of all, it’s got a lot to do with what’s being pressed. While most of the audiophile remasters are still being done with great care, a lot of what the remaining major labels are kicking out is definitely sub par. And even the reissues are less than adventuresome in the choices being made. If not for Mobile Fidelity going off the beaten path now and then with a little Judas Priest here and a little KC & The Sunshine Band there, the reissue market would be incredibly boring.

It doesn’t help that used prices keep going up, up, up, either. The good news is now you can find whatever obscure record you couldn’t find in your local used vinyl shop. The bad news is that you are going to pay dearly for it. All of this supply and demand stuff is what it is. I love music and will always listen to it, no matter what the medium and I’ll probably always have at least a few turntables and some records. Will vinyl keep rolling merrily along? I hope so, but I hope that we can see a little bit more attention paid to quality, instead of just banging it out. This isn’t what killed vinyl the first time, it’s what killed the music industry.

Here’s to hoping for the future…

Bummer mix…

Bummer mix...

The only thing I love more than cassettes is schmaltzy sci-fi movies, and I think most of you would admit that Guardians of the Galaxy, parts one and two are pretty silly. They had me with the Carfox as badass thing. But this is not a movie review.

TONE contributor Paul DeMara (also a mega cassette enthusiast) and I seemed to have the same epiphany to get our hands on the movie soundtracks practically the same day. When I saw that an actual cassette of the “Awesome Mix vol.1” and “Awesome Mix vol.2” along with a special “Cosmix Mix” was available at Amazon and I could have all three the next day for $5 (thank you Amazon Prime!!!) there was no stopping me. My better half just rolled her eyes, but hey, it’s not like I spend money on golf.

Packaged to look like a mega mix tape you might have made for a friend in the late 70s, albeit with handwriting that’s a little too neat, (though they do give the label a mock soiled appearance, insinuating that it’s been in the main character’s pocket for years) the music contained is pretty darn good. Certainly reflective of what might have been on one of my mix tapes back in the day.

But that’s where the fun ends. The sound quality sucks on the cassette version. Considering how much trouble it was to get rights released on something like this, why not go the extra mile and make it sound good? Bernie Grundman is credited with the mastering job, so maybe the LP version sounds good. Hmmm.

Well, I’ll fix them. Breaking out the Nakamichi 600II right now and a pile of vinyl. I’ll just substitute my own.

R.I.P. Gregg Allman

R.I.P. Gregg Allman

It’s sad news today to hear of Gregg Allman’s passing. It seems like only yesterday that I saw Allman put on an incredible performance at Portland’s Rose Garden, and we published Jaan Uhelszki’s intriguing interview. That was December of 2010. It is crazy how the time flies.

So, for those intrigued to view a snapshot, we pay homage both to Ms. Uhelszki and Mr. Allman today…

Gregg Allman never planned on becoming one of America’s most recognizable white blues singers. In fact, in the early days of his career, it was his brother Duane who did the singing in the Allman Joys, one of the rst incarnations of the bands that the brothers put together prior to founding the Allman Brothers Band.

“I don’t think I really grew into my voice until I turned 50,” claims the 62-year-old icon, speaking by phone from his home in Savannah, Georgia while preparing to release his first solo album in 14 years. “I’ve always been my worst critic and would tell myself that I sound like a million other people at once. But then one day I woke up and said, ‘Well, by God I do have a style all my own.’”

Of course, many consider Gregg Allman’s most signifcant contribution to rock’s historical record is his role as the lead singer, organist, and principle songwriter for the archetypal Southern band founded by his older brother Duane in 1969. Yet the younger Allman had a parallel career as a solo artist almost from the onset of the Allman Brothers, an outfit that proved its mettle with an organic synthesis of blues, jazz, folk, rock, and country influences—and the exquisite dual guitar interplay between Duane and Dickie Betts, a tandem that got so heated on some nights that a listener couldn’t tell where one musician started and the other left off.

Ironically, it was because of these very strengths that one of the band’s most obvious gifts—Gregg Allman’s languid blues pacing and mournful growl—was often overshadowed. Allman’s solo work gave him the recognition that he sorely deserved. “I started thinking about my solo album long before there even was an Allman Brother Band,” he remembers. “A lot of the songs I’d written just weren’t right for the group. I took one of the songs I wrote to the band and they didn’t care for it. It was ‘Queen of Hearts.’”

That winsome love song to his former wife became the cornerstone of a solo career that produced seven solo albums over the next four decades. Hardly a prolific output, but if Allman is anything, he’s careful with his words. A recurring theme in many of his earlier songs is the thundering sound of silence, and his quiet resolve to communicate in spite of it. “I was so anesthetized for so long. I just wanted to be away from it, but I wanted to still be there. Check in on reality, but to do that, you get loaded. A lot of people have great losses. “I didn’t do the best I think I could’ve done.”

Allman realized he nally had to clean up when, at the Allman Brothers Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Willie Nelson came up to him and asked if he was all right.

“‘No. I am not all right’, I told him,” Allman recalls. “I think it had something to do with the vodka bottle sitting next to me. I was off dope, but I was a mess. I never believed in God until this point, but I asked him to bring me out of this or let me die before all the innings have been played. I just wish we could redo it that night. You know, let me have another crack at that acceptance speech.”

Allman’s life became further complicated when he learned he needed a liver transplant, brought on by the complications of Hepatitis C. The singer received a new liver last July. Before the operation, he recorded his rst album since 1997, Low Country Blues, with Grammy- winning producer T-Bone Burnett. All but one of the songs on the record is a cover. Yet the way Allman inhabits them, you’d think that he wrote every single one.

“I did think about mortality quite a bit when I was recording. It certainly affected my song choice. But oddly enough, I was not worried. I felt protected. Plus, the doctors are such masters at doing this [operation] now, I wasn’t scared.”

Ju: When do you know when it’s time to record a solo album? Do songs keep forcing their way into your psyche, or does pressure just seem to build up?

GA: A lot of these poor slobs have a contract that calls for a certain amount [of albums] every certain amount of years. Of course, those ways are pretty much dying out. But it’s just like you said. All of a sudden, it starts eating at you a little bit and it comes and goes. Then two, three more years pass and you feel, ‘”Hey, boy, it’s time.” Those feelings won’t go away, like unfriendly ghosts. You say to yourself, “What is it that I do, except travel around the freaking world busting my ass playing songs?” Then, on the other hand, you’ll get a bunch of feelings like, “Gosh, I wish we played some new songs.” Then, all of a sudden, you kind of have this epiphany: “Oh, I get it, it’s time to record.”

On Low Country Blues, except for one song you wrote with Warren Haynes, you play all covers. That’s a first. How do you inhabit other people’s songs? How do you know what to cover?

Well, you have a real connection with the song, and of course you have quite a yen for it, and you know immediately what you want to do with it. If you don’t, you shouldn’t cover it. Songwriting is such a vague damn subject. The song’s there and it’s not there, you know? It can go in any given second.

You teamed with T-Bone Burnett, who has thousands of songs stored on his computer. He said he went through them and chose some for you to sort through. Was that an efficient way to work, with T-Bone doing the heavy lifting of whittling down the songs for you?

Heavy lifting? The heavy lifting was trying to make something out of that damn thing that he sent me because there were things like old Billie Holiday songs. You could hear scratches and crackles on the old 78s that I trudged through. Plus, I didn’t know it was coming to me digitally. It was tiring to go through all of that.

You start the record off with “Floating Bridge,” told from the perspective of a man drowning.

That’s a good song. That’s the first one we cut, and I think it was one of the ones we did in just one take. First takes just scare the hell out of me. I went out to LA and had just had met the guys I was going to record with. Well, I already knew a couple of ‘em. But I got out there and I say, “All right guys, let’s run this first one through.”

They had already heard the same tired versions of this song that I had, so I wanted to just rehearse it to see what’s happening with all of us together. As we ran it down I was thinking, “Man, this sounds good.” You can tell right away when the musicians meld and when they don’t. And they really did; it was just uncanny. We got through the song and I asked, “How’s it sound in there, T-Bone?” “Come on in and hear for yourself,” he says. I thought he was kidding, right? So I said, “ Turn on the red light and let’s take one.” “No, you’re nished. You’ve already got it,” T-Bone says. “Wait a minute, man. Half of us don’t even know the son of a bitch yet,” I replied. He’d recorded it, and that’s what you hear on the record.

That’s a Sleepy John Estes tune. For being so young, you and Duane always had sophisticated musical tastes.

There used to be this radio station called WLAC that was in Gallatin, Tennessee that we’d listen to at night—that was the only time you could get it. They would play Howling Wolf and Little Walter and Sleepy John Estes and Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, and Bobby Bland. Everybody that today I just really revel. I was 17 years old, we were on the chitlin’ circuit, playing all these funky little clubs. We had to play Beatles songs just to be able to stay in the clubs. Because if you didn’t play so many Top 40 and so many Beatles songs, they’d say “You can you hit the bricks.” So we did, but then on the side, my brother and I would play the blues. We had so much energy back then. We worked six nights a week and rehearsed in the afternoon. So this album [is about] the songs that I couldn’t play in the clubs back then.

The last producer you worked with was Tom Dowd. After he died, how did you choose somebody to work with? How did you know T-Bone was the right guy?

He listened to WLAC. When Dowd died in 2002, I thought, man, what in the hell are we going to do now? I guess we’ve had it, there’s no way we’re going to record. I thought Michael Barbiero was an okay producer but he didn’t have that “thing,” like he knew what you were thinking. And with the Bone, man, he was just right there. Then, if he’d get hung up on something, I would free him loose, and vice versa.

Your brother’s spirit looms on this album. Do you think history has accurately represented him?

Boy, I really think it has. I think for what he did, and for the length of time he did it, and as genius as it was, he made a big footprint. I would venture to say that had it been me instead of him, there wouldn’t have been too many ripples in the water. No, I mean I think he’s real, real happy with me that I kept on going, and I owe a lot of it to him and I feel a lot of him coming through me. I have this psychic friend that lives near me. She said that when I  first met her I hated her guts because she said, “You know, your brother comes around all the time. He’s always around you, can’t you feel him?” And I was just like, “Who in the fuck do you think you are?” You know, telling me that even after so many years, you know, that I’ve longed for my brother and all that. She said he takes the form of a little bird. He wakes me up every morning. That little bird comes to my window every single morning of my life.”

Digital vs. Analog = TIRED…

Digital vs. Analog = TIRED...

I can’t believe that in 2017 audio critics are still whining and complaining about whether analog sounds better than digital. Really?

It just seems like such a tired argument. Sure, I still remember the disappointment back in 1983 when I brought that first compact disc player home from the hifi store. It was kind of flat and brittle sounding, to be sure. But I bought one anyway, because I figured the brainiacs would make it sound better eventually, and it was a cool format. Sure enough, they did.

We’ve listened to so many great DACs lately, here at TONEAudio, I just don’t think digital is a disappointment anymore, no matter what the price point. As much as the used market for really good records has gone so far upscale, bargain analog finds are few and far inbetween these days. Crappy records from the thrift store played on a mediocre turntable that isn’t optimized isn’t the analog magic. Not for me anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I love analog. I’ve got 11 turntables and three world class phono stages. I love listening to records. But I’ve got a couple of incredible digital front ends too, and it’s come to the point that digital just isn’t the redheaded stepchild it once was. Combine that with the convenience of Tidal, Roon and a few other great ways to catalog and play your digital files back, and the inherent fiddliness of analog isn’t always the way I want to roll.

There are still times when the lights are low, the planets line up, the tubes are warm, and there’s a perfect pressing on the table. That’s one of those magic moments where analog still gets the nod in the seduction department. It’s cooler than cool that analog is still alive, going strong and there are more great choices than ever. I listen to everything. And I mean everything. I’ve been known to bust out the 8-track collection now and then, not to mention the pile of minidiscs that are lying about. It’s all good. It’s all music.

I truly don’t understand the logic that listening to a record is so much more meaningful, because you flip through your stack of records and oogle the jacket, pouring over the liner notes. I didn’t do that much of that back in the 70s and 80’s, and I do it a lot more now with Google at my disposal. Or that because music is being played from a hard drive that I don’t or can’t listen to an entire album because digital has made me into this ADD person who can’t focus and only plays single tracks. Much as I used to love making mix tapes on cassette or reel to reel tape (I even made em on 8 track) I spend nearly as much time agonizing over what music to play for an afternoon or evening. And I still listen to albums all the way through, just like I did with records. Actually, I kind of like the seamless quality of digital where I can listen to both (or all four) sides of an album in it’s entirety. It’s not like I didn’t go through a pile of records, playing a track or two of this and a track or two of that back when they were the only way to listen.

If anything, having Tidal at my command has led me to buying more vinyl, and the records I do buy are keepers. But as TONE’s former music editor (and legend) Ben Fong-Torres used to tell me, “you don’t know what everyone is thinking because you don’t know everyone.” So rather than extrapolate and assume that everyone is doing or not doing this or that, I can only speak for myself and a close circle of friends that share my viewpoint and habits. Not to mention a few that are diametrically opposed.

I’m just as engaged with my music no matter what the format. And I truly hope you are too.

Blast from the past…

Blast from the past...

Painting listening room three, and playing Tetris in my head as to where everything is going to go, etc., etc., I subconsciously pick John Klemmer’s Touch on TIDAL and wonder where has the time gone? Back in 1979, when I was painting the walls in my first apartment, this was the record I bought on the way home from the hardware store, with a few gallons of bright white paint in the trunk.

The system was different then: A pair of ESS AMT-1 towers, a Phase Linear 400 and a Nakamichi 600 series preamplifier (along with a Technics SL-1200 TT) were my pride and joy. Much has come and gone since then, yet a current spec SL-1200 still provides compelling music, and a stack of 600 components have been lovingly restored by Echo Audio and Gig Harbor Audio, so the memories are intact.

38 years later, bright white and John Klemmer still seem like pretty good choices. What are you listening to today?

Choosing the Best Subwoofer for Your System

Choosing the Best Subwoofer for Your System

If you’re subwoofer curious, but not sure which way to turn, you’re not alone. We asked the folks at SVS to share some of their tips with us. Here’s their advice on how to choose the best sub for your HT or 2-channel system:


Bass is the sonic foundation of all movies and music, and when you want palpable, room-energizing bass, there’s no substitute for a high performance home subwoofer. The low frequency energy generated by a subwoofer can be incredibly subtle, like the pluck of a bass guitar string, or an all-out, chest-thumping assault on your senses, like an explosion filled car chase in a movie.

On their own, most loudspeakers don’t come close to generating the levels of low frequency extension and bass output as a powered subwoofer, and in many instances, subwoofers are one of the most impactful sonic upgrades you can make to a home theater or audio system.

With all the different subwoofer choices out there including ported and sealed models, different amplifier power ratings, and driver sizes that range from 8-inches up to 20-inches and beyond, it can seem daunting to find the best subwoofer for your room and listening tastes. To make it easier, we’ve listed some key variables to consider.

Décor and Room Integration

Successful integration of audio equipment with home decor is a high priority for many enthusiasts. When thinking about how a subwoofer will fit within your living room, home theater or other area, this is what you need to know:

Overall Size/Footprint: A subwoofer needs to fit into the allocated location without blocking or altering normal foot traffic patterns. For planning purposes, use the ‘real world’ footprint dimensions of the subwoofer, which includes the grille and some extra space for the power cord and signal cable. In locations where floor space is tight, consider a sealed box subwoofer, which tend to be more compact than their ported counterparts.

Finish Options: Most subwoofer manufacturers, SVS included, offer several finish options to complement your loudspeakers and other AV components. Piano gloss lends a high end feel to a home audio system and is perfect for upscale decors. Consider a more durable and scratch resistant black ash/oak or other wood grain finish for high-traffic areas with kids and pets or to match a classic wood look. In dedicated home theaters where the lights are dimmed, lower reflectivity finishes will help minimize light glare.

Room Size and Playback Level

Room size and layout has a major influence on subwoofer performance. Large rooms with open floor plans and vaulted ceilings require a more powerful subwoofer to deliver a convincing bass experience. Another option when feasible is to go with dual subwoofers since two smaller subwoofers generally offer better bass performance across the entire listening area, than a single large sub. You can read about some of the other benefits of having two or more subwoofers here: Why Go Dual.

In addition to room size, your preferred system playback level also has a significant influence. If you like to push your home audio system to loud levels (like an IMAX theater) and want to generate sound pressure levels that let you ‘feel the bass’ from action movies and music, consider a larger subwoofer with a higher amplifier rating and a bigger driver to achieve extreme performance. Conversely, if you listen at more moderate levels, a smaller and less powerful powered subwoofer can deliver a no-compromise experience that enhances all your audio content, and will also be easy to integrate in your room.


Most people don’t have unlimited funds to spend on bass, so budget is an important factor. High performance subwoofers require massive magnets and motor structures as well as powerful internal amplifiers, which makes them heavy. Cheaper lightweight subwoofers simply can generate the same amount of bass and SPLs to the limits of human hearing as larger, heavier models, which almost defeats the purpose of adding a subwoofer. You should be prepared to spend at least $500 for this level of performance in a small to medium sized room and more for larger rooms.

Common Home Audio System Applications

Below are some SVS subwoofer model recommendations for common system applications. While these recommendations are a good starting point, contact SVS for an expert consultation and comprehensive system evaluation to make sure you are choosing the best model.

PC-Based Audio System: Usually situated in an office, bedroom or den, a compact sealed sub like the SB-1000 subwoofer is a natural choice for PC-based audio systems, and it can fit almost anywhere in the room, even behind the PC monitor or under a work desk.

Secondary Home Audio System: Bedroom or Media Room: This increasingly common application typically involves a wall-mounted HDTV, some type of media streaming device, and a sound bar or small satellite speakers. Consider the SB-1000 or the slightly larger and more powerful SB-2000 subwoofer for a great combination of sound quality, performance and compact size.

Primary Media System: Living/Family Room: This popular set-up accommodates the widest possible range of subwoofer models, depending on the room size, playback level and décor integration. The SB-2000, SB13-Ultra, PC-2000 and PB-2000 are all excellent choices in this category for their combination of relative compactness and excellent performance across all genres of movies, music and audio content.

Dedicated Home Theater System: In this application, demanding Blu-ray movies and other high definition content are played at maximum output levels for an IMAX caliber bass experience. Maximum performance and high output (particularly at the deepest frequencies) is a top priority. This is where the larger, reference quality subwoofers come into their own, delivering a visceral and room-shaking audio experience on movie night. Depending on the room size, the following models are all excellent choices: PC-2000 or PB-2000, PC12-Plus or PB12-Plus, SB13-Ultra, PC13-Ultra or PB13-Ultra, SB16-Ultra or PB16-Ultra. The ported cylinder models offer essentially the same performance as their ported box counterparts, but with a smaller footprint, and are a great choice where floor space is tight.

2-Channel Music System: Whereas ported subwoofers shine with extreme low frequency extension and output, sealed box subwoofers are a natural choice for critical music applications because they deliver that tight, fast, detailed and articulate bass without sacrificing slam, which music lovers crave. Depending on the room size and playback level, the SB-1000, SB-2000 and SB13-Ultra will all deliver a fantastic music experience. For the ultimate in 2-channel bass, consider dual subs for true stereo bass and a more balanced soundstage.

Still Unsure About the Best Subwoofer for Your Home Audio System?

Chances are, if you’re in the market for a subwoofer, you already have loudspeakers. To help with the initial first step, SVS developed the Merlin subwoofer and speaker matching tool, which suggests the ideal subwoofer based on your specific speaker models. Merlin takes into account frequency range, output capabilities and other factors to offer an appropriate match, and with over 4,000 loudspeaker models across every brand on the market included, and recommendations generated by acoustic experts, Merlin is an excellent first step towards finding the perfect subwoofer match.

Still have subwoofer questions? We invite you to email the SVS Sound Experts at [email protected].

The new Sonus faber Homage Tradition Collection

The new Sonus faber Homage Tradition Collection

The question is often posed, “How do we get more people to engage in the world of high end audio.”

Too often this is followed up by a bunch of grumpy old men, sitting in chairs at a hifi show, somewhere between minor arguments over minutiae and falling into sleepy time.

If you’re a 20 or 30 something person casually observing this, I’m guessing you don’t want to be part of this group. I’m 50 something and I don’t want to be part of this group.

Arriving at the beautifully appointed World of McIntosh townhouse in NYC’s SoHo district for the unveiling of Sonus faber’s latest Homage Tradition collection. The tagline is “Everyday Luxury,” and I couldn’t agree with them more. They’ve come up with a range of new speakers between about $16,000 and $30,000 that incorporates everything they’ve learned building their flagship models.

I could go on and on about the technical and mechanical details, but it’s not necessary. When you hear them, you’ll know instantly. And when you see them and touch them for yourselves, the sheer quality is evident.

But I suggest you watch this video:

Sonus faber and the McIntosh group really get what it takes to not only make fine audio cool, but they give it the respect it deserves. Hence the name “Homage tradition.”

I wanna be this guy and you do to. Well, at least we can all have a pair of Sonus faber speakers and dream….

Custom Cardas!

Custom Cardas!

If you have cable requirements that are slightly off the beaten path, and don’t like the idea of keeping (or losing) multiple adaptors on a regular basis, call the folks at Cardas Audio and get some custom cables made, pronto!

Josh Meredith at Cardas Audio and the team just sent me a pair of Clear Light interconnects to go from XLR to RCA, so that I have a wider range of connectivity with the PrimaLuna HP Integrated that I use as a reference component on my Audiophile Apartment site, and it only took a short while. It’s always better to have a completely positive connection and this is the way to roll. Even those of you with Burmester gear, or others using a non standard pinout, it’s easy to call Team Cardas and get exactly what you need.

Cardas welcomes the opportunity to build custom cables and as Meredith told me, “We definitely want to promote that we can do custom cables. As a general rule, if the connectors exist, we can probably make a cable with them.”

I’ve been using Cardas Cables in my personal and reference systems for over 15 years now with excellent result. Here’s another great reason to purchase their products.

The ELAC Discovery DS-S101-G

The ELAC Discovery DS-S101-G

Why is the ELAC the world’s best music server? Because it fucking works. And it works right now.

I apologize if you are offended by my coarse language, but I have spent nearly a decade screwing around with music servers and “computer audio.” Before I did that, I was an early adopter in the world of digital imaging (I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop since version 0.8 – before it was even a commercial product) and I’ve torn out a lot of my hair over this stuff.

I am sick and tired of music servers that have gobbled up my life on setup, maintenance, tagging, metadata, etc., etc., etc. I have flushed hours of my life down the drain that I am never going to get back. You name it, I’ve tried it. I must admit I’ve stuck with my Sooloos system because it works most of the time and the interface is awesome. But back when I bought in, it was a pretty expensive system.

But the ELAC DS-S101G is $1,099 and you will have it up and running in less than 60 seconds. No joke. Plug in your Network cable, the digital output of your choosing and power that little jewel up. As soon as the LED indicator glows solid white, launch the LIFETIME, bundled version of Roon Essentials, tell it where your NAS or USB drive is, and enter the password to your favorite music service. TIDAL integration took 5 additional seconds.

That’s it. Done. It took me a lot longer to write this blog post than it did to hook up the DS-S101G. I hope you’ll be so kind to read my thoughts on sound quality shortly. In my Audiophile Apartment system, which features the outstanding Focal Sopra no.1 speakers, Audio Research Preamp, Nagra Power Amp and the MOON by Simaudio 780D, it sounds pretty damn good right now.

Seriously, don’t wait for my review. Just go buy one.

Here’s a link to the ELAC website….

The Cardas Audio 4181 Outlet – YES!

The Cardas Audio 4181 Outlet - YES!

Audiophiles love to argue about the subject of power delivery.

I can’t say I blame them, a lot of super expensive power products either do nothing, or worse yet, actually degrade the sound of your system. Unfortunately, this always seems to be a point of contention that the mainstream press loves to jump all over, further shaming those of us that are true believers.

30 years ago, I was paying 20 bucks a pop for “hospital grade” outlets in my listening room, and even though power conditioning products hadn’t even hit the market yet, combining this with a couple of dedicated outlets and paying attention to how my house and breaker box was grounded made for better dynamic contrast and a lower noise floor.

There are a number of boutique outlets out there that cost crazy money. The Cardas 4181 is $159. While that’s a lot more than a standard outlet, or even the go to hospital grade plug, which is now about $30 at Home Depot (and not a bad choice if you don’t want to plunk down $159 per on these blue meanies) but this outlet is built to a high standard.

No, I didn’t see God and installing the 4181 didn’t take me to a place of audio nirvana that will have me exhausting my adjective gland here, but what it did do, in conjunction with a pair of Cardas Clear Beyond power cords, each connected to dedicated 20 amp lines, each one feeding a Pass Labs XS300 monoblock (drawing 1000 watts each, all the time) was give the system an ease at high volume it did not have previously. And I’ve been listening to these amps for a few years now and am intimately familiar with their nuances.

Honestly at low volume, I didn’t notice a major change, but as the volume grew, adding the Cardas goodies makes a difference. I’d compare it to putting premium gas in your turbocharged car versus the cheap stuff. Slogging through the drive through lane at Starbucks, you’ll never notice it, but when you swing out to pass that slow moving Camry (and we have a LOT of these in the Pacific Northwest) it’s a little easier.

Whether that’s because of the high quality materials used for the contacts in the outlet, the firmness by which said outlet holds the power cord, or a combination of both, I know it works. While $159 is spendy for an outlet, in the context of your entire system, it’s a pinch.

I see optimizing your hifi system much like setting up a race car. You get a couple of horsepower here a couple of horsepower there, all from attention to the small details. That can add up to the difference between making the podium and not. Of course, hifi is not as serious as being the F1 world champion, but, all these little differences do add up.

While you’re swapping those outlets, double check the ground connection in your circuit breaker box, or have your electrician do it for you. Make sure the ground connection is tight, as well as all the connections to the circuit breakers, especially the ones feeding your system. Lastly, take a peek at the ground outside. If it’s not up to snuff, replace it as well.

I’ve seen audiophiles tear their hair out over noise issues and spend thousands of dollars on power cords and line conditioners, only to find out the major problem was the ground. The good news is that if you address this stuff first, you’ll notice the diff that the power cords and outlets make even more.

Should you choose to accept this mission, you can find the 4181 outlet right here:

And for our friends outside the US, they make a Shuko version as well. Good stuff!

So, happy listening. I hope that if you give a couple of these a try, you have the same result, or better, that I’ve had. The Cardas 4181 Outlet will definitely add a few more horsepower to your system.

The Best Boink Music…

The Best Boink Music...

Today, Spotify announced their list of “Top 10 Shagging songs” here:

I agree that most music is subjective, and we all have our favorites to initiate or accompany the mating ritual. Here’s mine – in no particular order. If this is all TMI, sorry about that! I hope you’re open enough to either be inspired or amused. Keep in mind, these are not staff choices. Like Captain Kirk, I stand alone on this one. Let the comments begin.

1.  Prince – One Night Alone

2.  Mickey Hart – Eliminators

3.   Pat Metheny – Are You Going With Me?

4.  Anja Garbarek – Big Mouth

5.  Dylan – I Want You or Just Like a Woman

6.  Crash Test Dummies – I Want to Par-Tay!

7.  Crowded House – Whispers and Moans

8. Dusty Springfield – Breakfast in Bed

9. The Tubes – Let’s Make Some Noise

10. Art of Noise – Moments in Love

Extra Credit:

Stephen Pompougnac – Hotel Costes (the entire series)

The Pretenders – Bad Boys Get Spanked

Judas Priest – Turbo

Kiss – Deuce

Squeeze – Tempted

Betty Davis – Game is my Middle Name

Sly & The Family Stone – You Can Make it if You Try

Fun, But Obvious:

Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get it On

Beatles – Why Don’t We Do It In The Road


Anything by REO Speedwagon, Journey or Styx

What you’ve got isn’t rubbish!

What you've got isn't rubbish!

We all suffer somewhat from new product envy, and perhaps a little bit of ADD at times when it comes to hifi gear (or cars, cameras, etc.,etc.) wanting the newer, shinier thing the minute it becomes available.

Of course the people producing these products want to sell you a newer, better, zootier box. And while you might think that it’s all marketing driven, remember – that’s what said manufacturers have an engineering team for. They don’t just build a preamp or pair of speakers and send the engineering department on an indefinite paid holiday when the product launch is over. It’s their job once a product is finalized to figure out how to make it better.

Most products of any kind have a specific lifespan in mind. Some companies bring new models to market more often than others, with a number of factors to consider. Development cost, marketing cost and potential backlash all figure into the equation, and it’s always particularly difficult during the transition period for everyone when something new is launched.

There will always be a percentage of disgruntled purchasers that bought the “old model” a month or two before the “new model” hits the ground. I feel your pain, I’ve done this with more than one car, camera, computer and preamplifier over the years.

However, if it is possible to get into a more Zen state and realize that the preamplifier or phono cartridge you brought home a few weeks or a few years ago and thought was fantastic, still is. Think of how much joy you got opening the box and unpacking that shiny new jewel and hooking it up to your system; sitting back thinking “wow, this sounds great.” Revisit that feeling if you aren’t in the position to sign up for the latest/greatest new thing. It will calm you down. Your current preamp doesn’t suck, just because there’s a new offering from said manufacturer.

I drive a Porsche Boxster. Not a new, $85,000 Boxster, loaded with a Burmester audio system and tons of carbon fiber bits, but a 2001, non-S model that I bought used a few years ago for $9,000. With a 100 thousand miles on the odometer. And yesterday, out driving on a rare 67 degree sunny February day in Portland, Oregon, I was thinking about the first time I saw a Boxster on the floor of Scottsdale Porsche back in 1996, when I was driving an “old” 1988 944 Turbo. The dealer took me out for a test drive, and as much as I wanted that car, it just wasn’t the day to buy a new Porsche. 20 years later that used, blue Boxster still feels pretty damn good. So do a number of audio components that I’ve owned for years. Some for decades.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting anyone stop buying audio gear. And I love unpacking new, shiny things as much as anyone. But I do hope that if today’s not the day to upgrade your system, that you still enjoy your system as much, if not more as you always have.  – Jeff Dorgay

A New York November to Remember!

A New York November to Remember!

The team at Innovative Audio Video is hosting special November events to unveil their fully renovated showrooms, each brimming with fantastic audio components. Kicking off the celebration on November 12-14, products from Wilson, D’Agostino, Meridian, Spiral Groove, and BACCH-SP will be the main attraction. Special guest representatives from audio companies will be onsite too, including sessions with Wilson Audio’s Peter McGrath, Meridian’s Ryan Donaher, Dr. Edgar Choueiri from Theoretica, and also Bill McKiegan from D’Agostino.

For more details on each day’s calendar of activities, check out the Innovative website.

The party continues on November 19-21, with more special audio treats. Naim Statement equipment, the new Spectral pre-amp, Avalon loudspeakers, and other gear will be on hand to see, hear and enjoy.

RSVP for the events of your choice here, or call them at +1 (212) 634-4444 to let them know you’ll be coming. We’re sorry the TONE team won’t be able to join you there, but please share photos of your visit!

Happy birthday to us!

Happy birthday to us!

Do you remember where you were ten years ago? I do. I was rushing frantically to finish the first issue of TONEAudio. We had been working around the clock and were having last minute server issues, so the magazine actually was successfully uploaded five minutes before I jumped on the plane to head for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest to show it off. It was a crazy time to be sure.

The first guy I met at the show was Lee Weiland, from Cryo Parts, who sadly passed away in 2011. We had both been up all night and were exhausted but enthused that this show would be a productive event for both of us. He handed me one of his machined record clamps to review and wished me luck. We always stayed in touch and for the next four years, he would always be the first guy I went to see arriving at the show. The next guy I met was Lew Johnson from Conrad Johnson, who took note of the Conrad Johnson t-shirt I happened to be wearing. “Nice shirt,” he smiled and after a few minutes he agreed to send me a Premier 350 power amplifier and ACT 2 preamplifier, which would become the anchor of my reference system for years to come. Overall, it was a positive experience. I came home with enough advertising support to keep TONE going for the rest of the year and it was on to CES for our next issue and the adventure that would become TONEAudio Magazine.

Ten years later, I’m still buried the day before RMAF, getting last minute shipments out to manufacturers, editing photos, and trying to squeeze every bit of work I can into this day before I hop on the plane tomorrow morning. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you all for being a part of it! I hope to see a few of you at the show!

TONEAudio’s Products of the Year 2014

TONEAudio’s Products of the Year 2014

Another year has zoomed by and we’ve had the privilege of listening to a lot of great gear to report on.  Choosing a Product of the Year always carries the dilemma as to whether we bestow the title on something relatively unobtainable, or something modestly priced that we feel offers such over-the-top performance that it can’t be beat by a long shot.  Over the years, we’ve done both, and this year we’re taking the latter approach with the OPPO HA-1 headphone amplifier and their PM-1 phones.

We like to keep the trophies to a minimum in the hope that they remain meaningful, and we’ve actually handed out fewer than last year, with only five items in the Publisher’s Choice column.  As we’ve said in the past, we are always on a quest to help you find the most intriguing products for your short list, so on one level, everything we’ve taken the time to review is award worthy.

Check out the Oppos and other TONEAudio Products of the Year in our Spotlight section!


Jeff Dorgay

Old School: Sean Brady’s Vintage Favorites

Old School: Sean Brady's Vintage Favorites

In this issue, Sean Brady from Audio Video Choices in Phoenix, Arizona is our guest columnist.  Though Brady has been in the hifi world for quite some time, he’s always understood the value of accepting the customers’ old gear on trade.  As many an audio enthusiast will tell you, “you have to get rid of the old before you can bring in the new.”

For many of us, cherished preowned gear is a great way to enter the hobby – not only from a financial standpoint, but from an ecological standpoint as well.  It’s definitely green thinking to recycle rather than just unbox something new.

Through the years, Brady, like the rest of us, has a few pieces that have become favorites to own, sell and share with the rest of us.  Here’s what an audio vet has to say:

Radio Craftsmen C500/500A

My first choices are two amplifiers that bookend the the production of vintage tube amplifiers. The Radio Craftsmen C500/500A Williamson Triode is a subtly refined Williamson triode amplifier. Using a pair of Mullard KT66 output tubes, 15 watts are available with an ultra-wideband response of +/- 1dB from 10Hz to 50kHz. Tube rectification, octal-based 6SN7 tubes for front end/driver, and high quality transformers are utilized in this classic implementation of the Williamson amplifier circuit.

Radio Craftsmen was founded in Chicago in 1947, around the same the time as  McIntosh, Fisher, Scott, and Harman Kardon. The C500A was designed in 1953 by Sid Smith, the same Sid Smith that went to work for Marantz in 1954 to design their famous tube amps, preamps, tuners, and crossovers. Even by today’s standards, the C500 is clear and sweet with superb musical performance. And the description of its performance in the original brochure reads like something you would find for a modern amplifier.

McIntosh MC-350o Amplifier

Next, the king of amplifiers (for me anyway), is a majestic pair of ultra-rare McIntosh MC-3500 designed by Mile Nestorovic. The MC-3500 is the limited home version of the McIntosh MI-350 industrial amplifier – a true piece of industrial art. Rated at 350 watts per channel, Stereo Review magazine revealed an astonishing 500-watt output at 0.08% distortion on the test bench.

These big Macs are the only vintage tube amplifiers that I have ever heard give a great ride to the demanding Wilson MAXX loudspeakers. (We usually pair the MAXX with solid-state amplifiers possessing major current reserve.) The MC-3500s have tremendous low-frequency extension and control with seemingly unlimited headroom. The effortless dynamics and smooth extended high end are so musically involving, it’s tough to believe these are vintage amplifiers.

For a little perspective, in 1968 a pair of 70-watt Marantz Model 9 amplifiers cost $780 when the McIntosh MC-3500 pair was $2200! To this day, this is the most powerful tube amp McIntosh has built.  At one time the Grateful Dead used fourteen MC-3500 amps in their famous “wall of sound” system, and they were loaned to the Woodstock festival as well.

Marantz Model Twenty FM Stereo Tuner

The exquisite Marantz Model Twenty FM Stereo Tuner, the first solid-state Marantz tuner after the legendary tube 10B, with arguably superior reception and sonics to its predecessor, features an oscilloscope for monitoring center of channel tuning, multipath, and audio output. The scope even has an external audio input. A world class tuner (still) it is preferred by many to the 10B, as it requires less frequent adjustment. This was made by Saul Marantz and company in Woodside, New York.

Electro-Voice Patrician loudspeaker

The Electro-Voice Patrician loudspeaker is one of the largest home systems at 325 pounds! Here is how E-V described it: “Let’s start at the bottom (as much as an octave below most other woofers). Our thirty-inch diameter Model 30W woofer reproduces 15 Hz fundamental at full volume without doubling. Nothing less than a live performance can compete with the sound you hear and feel from this giant speaker.”

Over a decade of engineering refinement has made this E-V Model SP12 woofer unexcelled in mid-bass performance (and it’s also an uncommon value as a full range speaker from 30 to 15,000 Hz.

It takes this sophisticated team of compression driver and patented diffraction horn to fully satisfy the rigorous demands of the treble range. There’s no smoother combination than the E-V T25A compression driver and 8HD horn.

Ruler flat from 3,500 to 23,000 Hz! But extended range is just one of the benefits of the T350 VHF driver. Its exclusive throat and horn design spreads undistorted highs to every corner of your listening area. Delightful!

These unusual components have been combined in the Patrician 800 – often acclaimed as the world’s finest loudspeaker system. $1,095.00 in traditional cherry cabinetry. It’s waiting to be challenged by the most powerful, widest range amplifier you can buy. Listen. The difference you hear is what high fidelity is all about!

Revox A700

Many regard the Revox A700 as a thinly disguised Studer professional analog reel recorder, as this machine is well built with the performance to match. It was very advanced for its time and  remains so today. This $3000 machine has three speeds – 3.75/7.5/15ips – and records two tracks on ¼-inch tape. At 15 ips the frequency response is 30Hz to 22kHz +2/-3 dB with signal to noise at 65 dB or better. High end reel-to-reel has a very natural sound, with no stress or congestion.

McIntosh MPI-4

Yes, we need a bright, shiny object with lights and switches, Let’s not forget the McIntosh MPI-4 is a laboratory-grade instrument. It provides the facility to continuously monitor the quality of the performance of a stereo system. The MPI-4 can sample and display signals from the tuner, preamplifier, and power amplifier without reconnecting cables. Signals are displayed on an oscilloscope screen calibrated with scales for tuning, measurement, and testing.

As a tuning aid, the instrument is a guide to exact FM station selection and precise tuning. The screen displays FM signal strength, modulation percentage, and multipath interference. Audio signals may be viewed for stereo balance, strength, phase, and channel separation. Output power of the power amplifier can be seen at any instant during program performance, or stored to develop a trend over several minutes.

With the addition of test discs, the MPI-4 can show compliance and trackability of a phono cartridge, frequency response of the preamplifier and power amplifier, audio distortion, and stereo speaker balance.

In one of its operational modes, the MPI-4 becomes a dual trace oscilloscope, and when operated thusly, the left and right stereo channels appear simultaneously, yet separately, on the screen for direct comparison. Featuring a  “triggered sweep,” the MPI-4 permits the viewer to choose a single tone and lock it on the screen for careful inspection and measurements.  In the ‘60s no righteous system was without an MPI-4, but this is still a very valuable tool today.

– Sean Brady

Four Favorite Upstarts

Four Favorite Upstarts

In the ten years of TONE’s history, we’ve seen a lot of new products come and go, but a few great ones have stuck.  It’s been fun to watch these four companies grow and mature, but it’s equally fun to wind the clock backwards and take a look at their humble beginnings.

ModWright SWL 9.0

Approx. $1,200

Back when the high performance audio segment of CES was held at the Alexis Park hotel in Las Vegas, I met a nice guy from Portland that had made a name for himself modding CD players named Dan Wright.  He had just started building his own preamplifiers, and had converted the entire basement of his house into a very tidy, organized workshop.  His first product that came into my world was the SWL 9.0 linestage.  It was a tidy box with great sound.  So much so, that I got rid of the Conrad Johnson PV-12 that I had been using in favor of this newcomer.

Shortly after our encounter, Wright moved into his own facility, started hiring employees and expanded his product line considerably.  Now a force at the major hifi shows, ModWright has become a well-established company, but that original 9.0 still stands out as an incredibly good bargain.  Wright still services them, and when you can find an owner willing to part with one, the SWL 9.0 makes for an incredibly good anchor to your hifi system.

Coffman Labs G1-A


Another Portland local, Damon Coffman hails from the medical equipment industry, yet his passion for music and design led him to build his own preamplifier after a life long quest for better sound.

The G1-A combines the best of retro and contemporary design, both inside and out.  Coffman auditions and hand picks what he feels are the best sounding NOS (new old stock) components, combined with contemporary parts, depending on application to create the G1-A.  With an onboard MM/MC phono stage and headphone amplifier, the G1-A is an incredibly versatile performer, like some of the great, full function preamplifiers of audio’s past, from McIntosh, Audio Research and C-J.

A new G2 is in the works, and Coffman has also put his stamp on the Prautes headphone amplifier from Cypher Labs, but this is where it all began.

PrimaLuna ProLogue 1

$1,095 (when new)

I began my hifi writing career at The Absolute Sound, and instead of the boring NAD integrated amplifier I was supposed to review for my first article, Robert Harley called one day (about two weeks after the ProLogue 1 appeared on the cover of Stereophile) and asked if I wouldn’t mind reviewing the ProLogue 1 instead.  Oh boy, would I, I thought.

This little tube integrated amplifier was built like nothing I’d ever seen for just over a grand, and it sounded pretty damn good too.  I got my first byline in the audio world and editor Harley left in, what would be a ubiquitous quote in PrimaLuna’s marketing campaign heard round the world.  “How does it sound? It sounds bitchin!”  11 years later, PrimaLuna amplifiers still sound bitchin, and their product line has grown tremendously.

Audeze LCD-2 Headphones


About seven years ago, when the headphone renaissance was just beginning, Audeze burst on the scene with a planar magnetic headphone that took everyone by surprise.  They not only cracked the ceiling with a $1,000 headphone, they produced a pair of phones with a sound that was, up until now, limited to the likes of electrostats like Stax, which are still nearly impossible to purchase.

They’ve done an update to the basic design, making them even better than ever.  Though the product line has expanded and they’ve gone through some growing pains, Audeze has held the line on the LCD-2s price, making them a best buy and a head to head competitor with OPPOs $995 PM-1, another titan.

– Jeff Dorgay

10 Favorite Headphones from HiFiGuy528

10 Favorite Headphones from HiFiGuy528

Though Mike Liang is no longer part of our staff, now that he’s gone on to be national sales manager for Woo Audio, he’s still the biggest headphone enthusiast we’ve ever met.  Between his YouTube channel, where he’s always unboxing new phones, and his own personal headphone collection of over 120 pairs, he’s a maniac.  And he’s definitely heard enough cans to have a solid opinion on what he loves.  Here’s his list.

AKG K3003


The AKG K3003 comes in two flavors, with and without Apple iOS 3-button in-line remote.  It is a reference-class 3-way design featuring one dynamic and two balanced-armature drivers in a tiny stainless steel housing.  The interchangeable sound-tuning filters (bass boost, reference sound, high boost) make these IEMs incredibly flexible.  The build quality is top notch and the sound is absolutely stunning.  The K3003 reveals more musical detail than I’ve ever heard in a universal fit IEM.  Pairing it with the Astell&Kern AK120II, I constantly ponder why I really home Hi-Fi system.

Sony MDR-CD900st

About $200

Sony is not a newcomer to the world of high-end headphones, yet often their coolest stuff never makes it here to the States.  The MDR-CD900st is a perfect example.  On the outside it looks a lot like the consumer-grade MDR-v6, but don’t be fooled.  The CD900st is a completely different animal in the sound department and more comfortable than its doppelgänger.   Its sonic signature is relatively neutral.  As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out” – so the better your source, the more you will be impressed.  In fact, this model is a studio monitor “officially” only offered in Japan through Sony Professional Division.  But our Japanese friends on Amazon can get you a pair for around $200 USD.  The MDR-CD900st is a gold nugget in the sand – a gem that is worth digging up.

Sennheiser HD700


Big soundstage, crystal-clear highs, tight bass, fast response, easy to drive, and extremely comfortable are all traits of the Sennheiser HD700.  Many of the design cues and materials used in this second-to-the-top model are derived from the company’s most technologically advanced headphone – HD800 (which will set you back almost twice as much).  For better or worse, the HD700 is more forgiving than HD800, meaning the low-resolution music in your collection will be a lot more enjoyable than listening through the flagship HD800. If you are on the fence about getting into personal audio, give the HD700 a listen on a good quality DAC/amplifier and you’ll see why the hobby is so strong.

RHA T10i


Reid Heath Acoustics is a relatively new headphone company based in Glasgow, Scotland.  My first experience with their products was the MA750i; it was love at first listen, and I felt it should cost more – a lot more.  The new T10i is even more impressive for only $199 – only a slightly higher price than the MA750i.  The T10i is made from injection-moulded stainless steel which is impressive at this price point.  Another impressive feature is the tuning filters that are similar in effect to the ones that the $1499 AKG K3003 uses.  Yes, you can change the sound by changing between reference, bass boost, and treble boost filters.  This functionality makes the RHA T10i an incredible value.

Beats Solo2


The new Beats Solo2 is a completely new design from the ground up. The stereotype that Beats headphones are kids’ overpriced neck candy – with below-average sound quality – no longer applies.  The new Solo2 sounds much more natural and is greatly improved over the model it replaced: the Solo HD.  Gone is the sonic signature that dogged early Beats designs; muffled midrange and boomy bass that overwhelms the rest of the music is a thing of the past.  The Solo2 sounds clean, clear, natural, and has tight punchy bass that sounds great with a wide variety of music genres.  Give the new Beats Solo2 a try before you dismiss it.  Honestly, you may not find a better portable headphone for $199.

Audio Technica ATH-M50x


The M50 has been around for a long time and shares equal popularity with the Sony MDR-7506 among audio professionals.  Audio Technica took a trusted old friend and gave it the modern features users have been demanding with the new M50x.  The ear pads are upgraded for extended comfort; the cable is now detachable and comes with coiled, straight, and a short one for mobile use.  The M50x sounds much like the M50, which is a good thing for those loving the sound of the old, now upgraded with more functionality.

Focal Spirit Professional


Focal is known for their incredible Utopia loudspeakers for the home listening room as well as a full line of studio monitors used by sound engineers around the world.   The Spirit Professional is part of Focal’s family of headphones – Spirit One and Spirit Classic.  Don’t let the low $349 price tag fool you, as the Spirit Pro shares a lot of DNA with Focal’s multi-thousand dollar studio monitors.

B&O H6


Bang & Olufsen practically invented the concept of audio gear featuring high style, so it’s no surprise they’ve contributed heavily to a segment of personal audio often referred to as “fashion headphones.”  The BeoPlay H6 is no stranger to this world, bringing aluminum ear cups, a genuine leather headband and lambskin-covered memory foam earcups together in a sexy and luxurious design.  But the most amazing part of the equation is that the magicians at B&O pulled it off for such a low price.

All would be lost if these were just a pretty pair of phones, but they’ve got the sound quality to make them much more than “just a pretty face. The H6 may have you rethink the fashion headphones segment.

Beyerdynamic T51


The new T51i is a closed-back headphone featuring memory foam pads for extended comfort, blocking out environmental noise while on the go. First and foremost, it’s high quality; audiophile sound comes from the Tesla drivers

that are derived from its much-pricier sibling – T5p.  The “i” signifies Apple “made for iPod/iPhone/iPad,” while MFI certification means you can control your iDevice and take phone calls right from the 3-button in-line remote.  At $299, the Beyerdynamic T51i has Hi-

Fi sound without the Hi-Fi price.

MrSpeakers Alpha Dog


Dan Clark, AKA MrSpeakers, modifies the modest $129 Fostex T50RP to a headphone rivaling some of the best headphones on the market – at only $599.  One of Dan’s modifications is replacing the ear cups with a 3-D printed housing.  MrSpeakers Alpha Dog is the world’s first 3-D printed headphone.   Dan also swaps the stock ear pads for custom lambskin pads that are extra thick and pillow-like comfy.  In fact, the only thing left from the original Fostex are the heavily modified planar magnetic drivers and the headband that holds the headphone together.  Before you spend $1K or more on a headphone, you need to give the Alpha Dog a listen first.  Thank me later by taking me out to dinner with the money you saved.

A few of my favorites:  Jeff Dorgay

While I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a headphone guy, Mike’s enthusiasm is overwhelming, and I can’t help but admit I’ve caught some of his fever.  I don’t have anywhere near the collection he has, but I do have a few of my own favorites as well.

Oppo PM-1


HiFiMan and Audeze are major players in the planar magnetic headphones, but even though Oppo is a bit late to the dance, their contribution is stunning.  Like all other Oppo products, the PM-1 offers world-class performance at a reasonable price, yet no corners are cut.  This is the Oppo magic.  While the PM-1s are obviously tailored to be a perfect match with their own headphone amplifier, the PM-1s sound fab with every amp I’ve plugged them into, and they are also incredibly efficient and easy to drive from an iPhone or iPad, making an external amp an option only for the most maniacal.  A definite plus for someone who is on a plane 40 times a year.

Koss Pro 4aaa

About $50 on the secondary market

Though no longer made, the original Pro 4aaa from the late ’70s is just as cool as hooking up an old pair of Advent or JBL speakers to a vintage receiver.  If you were there the first time around, grab a pair of these on Ebay, put on Dark Side of the Moon, and head back there for half and hour.  You’ll see what I mean.

Beats Solo 2 Special Edition


I agree with Mike’s take on the Solo 2s and share his respect for this brand.  Beats always gets a bum rap by snooty audiophiles, but after listening to more than a few pairs, I’ve become a staunch supporter.  And these feature a Hello Kitty motif.  What could be better, I ask you?

Sennheiser HD650


Sennheiser’s latest HD700 and HD800 phones are definitely more resolving than my workhorse HD650s, but especially when upgraded with a better cable from your favorite headphone aftermarket vendor (I suggest the cable from ALO Audio) about half of the darkness that surrounds this model is gone, and that makes them a hell of a lot more listenable.  They lack the ultimate resolution of the HD700 and HD800, but for long listening sessions are still one of my favorites, being entirely fatigue-free.

Jeff Dorgay’s 9 Favorite Amplifiers

Jeff Dorgay's 9 Favorite Amplifiers

While many people argue that speakers are the anchors of an audio system, I will always contest that the power amplifier is just as critical (if not more so) to a system’s overall sound. A great amplifier can make a mediocre pair of speakers come alive, but a great pair of speakers powered by a mediocre amplifier still sound mediocre. In celebration of the power amplifier, I decided to list a few of my favorites from over the years, in no particular order. Hit us up on Facebook with your favorite power amp. We always love to hear from readers.

Audio Research D-79

From $3,250 to $6,000 (for the D-79C mk. II)

Many audiophiles have said that the D-79 is the best amplifier that ARC ever built. With a massive power supply for its modest 75 watts per channel, the D-79 drew 750 watts from the AC line at full output. All four versions of the amp utilize a matched pair of 6550 output tubes with an additional 6550 as a voltage regulator, though each iteration of the amp uses a different input, driver and phase splitter complement of tubes.  Personally (after all, this is a favorites issue), I prefer the additional warmth of the original D-79 with 12AX7 tubes.

These still run about $3,500 for a super-clean version, and unless ARC itself updated the power supply in the last 10 years, it’s going to need an overhaul—and it’s going to be expensive. This remains a wonderful amplifier, with big dynamics, a massive soundstage and tons of sheer grip. Ralph Lauren once said every man should own a 12-cylinder car. I submit that every true audiophile should experience a D-79.

Mark Levinson ML-2 Monoblocks

From $3,000 to $6,000 per pair

Much like the ARC D-79, the ML-2 monoblocks from Mark Levinson were big and beefy. Designed by John Curl and Tom Colangelo, these Class-A monoblocks ran hot. While they were only rated at 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, they did double that into 4- and 2-ohm loads, making them a perfect match for the Magnepan Tympani 1Ds that graced my listening room in the early 1980s.

Since no replacement sheet metal is available, go for the cosmetically cleanest pair you can find. There are still a few people who can work on these, so get yours checked and rebuilt, stat!

Conrad-Johnson MV-50

About $1,000

Not CJ’s first tube power amplifier, the MV-50 was introduced right at the beginning of the ’80s and quickly became a staple of hi-fi stores carrying the brand. It offers 45 watts per channel of tube power and a magical midrange that would define the company for years to come. Using a pair of 6CA7 output tubes per channel, this understated, champagne-colored beauty made music like precious few other amplifiers could.

Those wanting a bit more modern CJ sound can have their MV-50 sent back to the factory to have the power supply rebuilt and premium CJD Teflon capacitors installed in the circuit to bridge the gap between old- and new-school sound. It’s a brilliant piece of gear either way.

Pass Labs Aleph 3 and Aleph 5

About $1,000 and $2,000

Nelson Pass likes to say that he creates amplifiers with “the sound of tubes minus the hassle.” When referring to the early Aleph amplifiers with heat sinks as the entire case, local hi-fi dealer Kurt Doslu likes to say, “Don’t play catch with it.”

All kidding aside, this single-ended, full Class-A design provides 30 watts of tube power with all the midrange magic of my beloved MV-50 but with major bass control and a dead-quiet background. It’s a combination you’ll either love or hate, but it will definitely become an addiction if you are on the love side of the equation. Pass builds everything like a tank, so these babies run forever. And the company can still fix the Aleph 3, so you can send yours back to Pass for a tune up anytime.  Should you want a little more juice, the Aleph 5 produces 60 watts per channel, but slightly less sweet than the lower powered model.

Pass Labs Xs 300 Monoblocks

$88,000 per pair

Moving from past to present, my current reference amplifiers are also from the mind of Nelson Pass. I make no apologies for being a Pass fan, and the last few generations of big Pass Class-A amplifiers have been wonderful; however, there was always that slight bit of delicacy that the Aleph 3 possessed, with its single output device, which was tough to find in the big amplifiers.

Those familiar with the design philosophy of Mr. Pass know that he is a fan of the less-is-more school of thought, but you just can’t achieve high power without a little bit of complication. But the Xs 300s bridge the gap, making big power with no sonic compromises. Drawing 1,000 watts of power for each channel, they will alter your carbon footprint somewhat, but for sound this glorious, isn’t it worth installing some LED lightbulbs as an offset?

Burmester 911 MK3


In issue 32, I called the 911 MK3 “the best solid-state amplifier ever made.” And though a few things have come down the road that exceed the performance of the 911 (you can bridge them together for even more power, which changes the game somewhat), it is still one of the finest solid-state amplifiers I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. While not quite as liquid as the mighty Pass Xs monos, the 911 is probably the most Class-A-sounding Class AB amplifier I’ve experienced; it is only one chassis and draws considerably less AC power.

Much like the Porsche automobile sporting the same name, the Burmester 911 offers a large dose of what the money-is-no-object amplifiers do, but for a lot less—just as the Porsche 911 has similar performance to the much more expensive options from Ferrari and Aston Martin.

Rega Brio-R


Rega’s little amplifier that can is an integrated that pumps out 50 watts per channel into 8 ohms and has an outstanding MM phonostage built in. For those of you who loved the original Naim Nait, here is an amp in a similar vein, but with enough power to drive quite a few more speakers.

The Brio-R, like my favorite Pass amplifiers, features a tonality leaning towards the warm side and while not quite tubey in nature, it will never be mistaken for a harsh, etched solid-state amplifier. The midrange is yummy, but there is still enough extension and slam to get the dynamic contrasts right. If I were on a tight budget and didn’t want to sacrifice sound quality, this is the one I’d choose and would match it up with a pair of MartinLogan Aerius speakers from my favorite used hi-fi store.

Nagra 300p


Okay, so I have expensive taste. But if we’re talking about favorites, I’ve never listened to a Nagra product that I didn’t like. The 300p is especially dear to me, as I had the privilege of seeing the prototypes coming right off the drawing board a few years ago when I visited the factory.

The 300p uses a pair of 300B output tubes per channel in a push-pull configuration, producing about 20 watts of power per channel—much better than the average 9 watts per channel that an SET design with a single output tube can muster. This topology is implemented to great effect, as the 300p is as mellifluous as any SET I’ve experienced and far less affected by speaker load. Topping it off, the 300p is dead quiet and produces way more low-end heft than you would expect from a 20-wpc tube amplifier. It’s kind of costly going in, but this is an amplifier that you will pass on to your grandchildren.

Decware Zen Mystery Amp


I was going to include the Decware Torii amplifier that I’ve been using for some time now as my last favorite on this list, but then a new package arrived from Steve Deckert.  Though it’s not nearly broken in yet, the Zen Mystery amp takes the basic design of the Zen monoblock amplifiers, puts them on one chassis with a slightly lower output (40 watts per channel vs. 60 for the monos) and offers a healthy drop in price to boot.

For those who need a bit more push over the cliff than the 25 watts per channel that the Torii delivers, but can’t afford the $11k pricetag of the monoblocks, the ZMA will be your pot of gold.  Much like the Torii, this is one of the most incredible amplifiers I’ve ever experienced.  With more power, the ZMA has a much wider range of speakers it can work well with.  If you want an amplifier to last the rest of your life, call Decware and get in the queue for one of these.

Mark Marcantonio’s 7 Cheap and Cheerful Favorites

Mark Marcantonio's 7 Cheap and Cheerful Favorites

As the guy on the TONE staff who covers some of the more “reasonably” priced gear, I am a big fan of trickle-down technology. Amazing things are happening at the high end of the audio food chain, which means that what was once reference-grade technology is now available in much more affordable and even entry-level components. And so the pool for high-quality but inexpensive gear is growing. I’ve had the opportunity over the last few years to audition and review a lot of amazing examples. What follows are seven of my standout favorites.

Shunyata Venom 3 Power Cord


So, it’s time to replace those stock power cords sticking out the back of your recently upgraded system, but the thought of saving up some serious cash for just one replacement cord at a time makes you ill. Try a different approach. The Venom series power cords from Shunyata Research are designed for budget-conscious yet discriminating listeners, and it was developed as a way for users to affordably upgrade their entire system. For just $125, each the Venom 3 power cord has been widely praised for providing great value.

The company’s president, Caelin Gabriel, has put together all the critical elements: Shunyata-specified CDA 101 12-gauge oxygen-free copper, slow and steady cryogenic treatment, 100-percent aluminum shielding and brass connectors—the same base features found in the company’s excellent Helix series power cords. Don’t believe your ears? Hook one up to you high-definition television and see the improvement in color saturation and black level. My entire system receives its juice via the plum-colored Venom 3.

Magnepan MMG


With so much mystique surrounding panel loudspeakers, there’s no better place to start than with Magenapan’s entry level speaker.  The MMG can only be purchased directly from Magnepan, and thanks to their eliminating the dealer markup, you get a remarkable speaker for a very reasonable price.  While the MMG lacks the treble extension of the ribbon tweeter in the higher priced models, they are much easier to drive, making them a fit with a much wider (and less expensive) range of amplifiers.

The most interesting aspect of these speakers is that they will provide pleasant, room filling sound with a mass market receiver, yet they really come alive with a big, high current solid state amplifier, so they can be the last component you replace as you move down the upgrade path.

Magnepan has recently introduced a “Super MMG,” featuring a center bass panel for $1,200, and while it reveals more music than the original (which is still offered), it takes away from the mega budget ethos of the MMG.  The original MMG is perhaps one of the best buys in all of high end audio, and still the one I suggest to all my friends.

Audioengine D2 24-Bit Wireless DAC System


For those in search of a quality but budget-friendly solution for wirelessly transporting music from their computer/server in one room to their audio system in another, Audioengine offers the two-piece D2 wireless DAC system. It consists of a sender and a receiver unit, with a range of 100 feet. I found clean, quality sound at 70-plus feet and through several walls.

The 24-bit, 192-kHz asynchronous DAC of the receiver unit is controlled via the PCM1792A chip. The D2 does a very good job for a budget DAC at extracting the inner details from various recordings. The system does a particularly good job of resolving female vocals like Kathleen Edwards and mallet-played percussion instruments. And the DAC section is definitely not an afterthought. Users with multiple systems can add as many as three receivers. The D2 system continues Audioengine’s streak of impressive but affordable gear.

Peachtree Audio nova220SE Integrated Amplifier


Musical, powerful, solid and sexy are all words that accurately describe the Class-D nova220SE integrated amplifier. Sporting 21st-century input choices (USB, two optical and a coaxial), along with a very respectable built-in ESS Sabre 24/192 asynchronous DAC, the nova220SE is a digital-music-lover’s dream. Making the amplifier section sound even sweeter is a tube buffer in the preamp section.

At 220 wpc into 8 ohms, the nova220SE has no problems holding a solid grip on the notoriously power-hungry Magnepan 1.6s, even when the loads drop into 2-ohm territory. Skip the worries about careful speaker matching with this chip-based amplifier section; it plays nicely with at least five very different speakers types. And with a built-in DAC, the nova220SE a financial and sonic bargain.

Rega RP1 Turntable with Ortofon OM5 Cartridge


Looking for a turntable to start your vinyl journey? Head straight to the Rega RP1. Take it from someone who was in this mode a few years ago, when I wanted to reacquaint myself with analog but needed to stay on a slim budget (though the stunning Rega P9 at the TONE studio had me thinking of taking a second job). The RP1 has more than satisfied my thirst.

Ridiculously easy to setup and ground-wire free, the RP1 does all the basics right. Later on, one can move up the cartridge ladder from the solidly performing Ortofon OM5. (I’m currently running the Super OM40 with excellent results.) With the RP1, Roy Gandy of Rega has created a turntable that both the vinyl-curious youth and the reminiscing rest of us budget audiophiles can enjoy for years to come.

Lounge Audio Phonostage


Though I’ve only heard it at the TONE studio, the Lounge Audio LCR MKIII phonostage deserves every bit of the praise that publisher Jeff Dorgay wrote in his review. It’s warm, grain-free sound belies its miniscule $300 price tag. Designer Robert Morin nailed the RIAA curve reproduction, which the phonostage does with a wide variety of cartridges. Whether part of Jeff’s budget system or six-figure reference system, the Lounge makes a fine impression with a wide soundstage, excellent pace, and a surprising low-end frequency response.

With this phono pre, you can take the extra $800-plus you would have spent on another option and put it towards a finer cartridge or speakers. This little wood box perfectly illustrates how satisfying budget audio can be.

Golden Ear Technology Triton Seven Speakers

$1,400 per pair

On rare occasions, I can’t stop thinking about a product long after the review is over. The Triton Seven is one such example. No matter what room I placed them in during my review, the speakers managed to make the space their own. With surprisingly full bass response (down to 29 Hz) and terrific imaging, these speakers caught my attention and didn’t let go.
If the whole family is to share one system, the Triton Sevens could very well be the nirvana speakers. Whether hip-hop, metal, acoustic, jazz or symphonic music, these slim towers play each with enthralling gusto. Need them to be a part of a home-theater setup? No problem—they’ll give you enough dynamics, clear vocals, and bass response to have you skipping the purchase of a subwoofer. If I could turn back the clock, I would have bought the review pair and dealt with the wife’s scorn.

– Mark Marcantonio

Rob Johnson’s 7 Long-Term Favorites

Rob Johnson's 7 Long-Term Favorites

I’ve been meaning to update my 20-year old car, but the love of music, and buying the audio gear that reproduces it, keeps getting precedence. Fueled by a life-long passion for audio, my reference system has evolved over the course of many years starting with a Sony boom box at age 12. During all those years many pieces came and went. As with many kindred audiophiles, the very slow process of sonic improvement involves selling the weak link component and buying a better one, whenever saving, horse-trading, or sweat equity makes purchases possible.

With so much great gear out there, it’s exceedingly difficult to skinny-down my own “favorites list” to a scant seven components. However, a few have stopped me in my tracks, arrested my desire to flip them, and elevated the performance of my reference system with a synergistic contribution aligning with my personal sonic preferences. Each of my favorites have taken long-term residence in my home due to their fantastic sound, marvelous build, and exceptional reliability – all equally important. In each case, I’ve purchased those pieces of gear as my budget permitted. Putting my money where my ears are is the greatest compliment I can give to any audio component, and I want to thank the manufacturer of each piece for their dedication, passion, and hard work producing something that brings so much musical joy to my life.

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

The Sonus faber Olympica III floorstanding speakers are beguiling for their astonishing sound as well as their dashing good looks. While they have limited capability for producing the lowest bass frequencies, they won me over with their organic sound, incredible ability to produce a three-dimensional sonic image of any well-recorded performance, and the almost tangible way the drivers re-create instruments and vocals. Sonus faber creates their own drivers in-house, and therefore can wrap them in an ideally mated cabinet design. Listening to Johnny Cash’s American IV album through these speakers still proves revelatory.

Closing my eyes, Olympicas can provide me the momentary illusion that Cash himself is sitting in the living room. In a world of cost-no-object speaker designs, $12,500 is a very fair price for speakers of this quality. While Sonus faber produces even higher-end speakers, the Olympica IIIs demonstrate very little compromise and reveal all the nuance of components upstream – even when those components might be more expensive than the speakers themselves.

Burmester 911 Mk3 Amplifier
Of the amps I’ve enjoyed over the years, the Burmester 911 Mk3 stands strong as a current favorite. First, the Burmester’s outward appearance demonstrates not only gorgeous aesthetics, but incredible attention to every detail. Beautifully crafted heat sinks and an equally elegant ventilated top panel hint at the musical beauty locked within. However, the 911’s voice confirms it immediately. Sound reaches ever so slightly to the warm side, but with detailed reproduction that captures every nuance of a recording. With 350 watts of solid-state power into 4 ohms there’s plenty of juice for virtually any speakers mated with it. Crystalline highs, beguiling mids, and a tight, controlled, musical bass leave no frequencies un-pampered. Along with the delicate sound reproduction comes a soundstage that extends away from the speakers in all directions. Vocalists stand out front, ambient details stretch to the sides of the speakers and though the rear wall behind them. This Burmester is a marvelous amp and certainly one that has proven itself worthy of standing the test of time, in both my system and our publisher’s.

SME Model 10 Turntable and Model 10 tonearm

While SME’s 20 and 30, exceed its capability, the model 10 proves itself a workhorse with sonic reproduction, and a show pony in aesthetics.  Yes, it was love at first sight. The SME model 10 turntable looks like a modern sculpture. Though it’s an entry-level turntable in the SME family, the model 10’s build quality does not reveal any shortcuts. With a unique vibration dampening system beneath the heavy platter, records spin uninhibited. A screw-down record clamp holds vinyl to the platter with a tight grip allowing the tonearm and cartridge to pull each nuance from the record grooves. Mated with a matching SME 10 tonearm and a great cartridge, the ‘table offers a wonderfully organic analog experience. The model 10 also offers an upgrade path for those who seek it. The SME V tonearm takes it to an even higher level of musical reproduction.

Oppo BDP-103 Blu-Ray Player

Price-performance wise, Oppo’s players are a pinnacle of achievement. At $499, the BDP-103’s produces stellar video and audio reproduction. On the video side, rendering of Blu-Ray discs and streamed video content offer a wonderfully crisp and colorful picture. On the audio side, 7.1 surround sound proves equally remarkable. As another plus, the BDP-103 is a very good Redbook CD/SACD player or transport when used solely in an audio capacity. With a wireless or Ethernet internet connection, BDP-103 enables streaming directly from Netflix, Pandora, and other sites as well as music streaming from a NAS. There are more resolving (and more expensive) players including the 103’s brother the Oppo BDP-105. However, for a one-box unit that serves so many purposes in a home audio-visual system, I find myself hard-pressed to suggest another player that does so much, so well, at its price point.

Jena Labs StreamDancer USB cable
$500/5 feet

As with power conditioners and vibration control, speaker and interconnect cables can have a sonic impact on system sound. The more revealing my reference system has become, the more the subtle differences between cables become evident. After experimenting with many to find the best synergy for my own system, my quest led me to a USB cable from Jena Labs. Made of braided, liquid nitrogen immersed, high-quality copper, all the Jena Labs cables are hand-made in Oregon. The cable enables wonderfully natural, rich sound, plus great extension of lows and highs without any harsh etch that can accompany higher frequencies with some cables. I keep several other high quality USB cables on hand for testing, but none get as much dedicated listening time as the Jena Labs USB.

Ultimate Ears UE18 Custom In-Ear Monitors

When traveling on planes, custom in-ear monitors are a best friend. Not only can they seal out the sounds I don’t want to hear, but they allow me to pipe into my head exactly what I do want to hear. With a tight ear seal keeping unwanted sound out, they can enable great sonics at a lower volume, reducing ear strain. I purchased my pair UE18s three years ago, and still use them many times a week at the gym, on walks, riding mass transit, and during all my travels. The fit is perfect, and the sound they produce offers a very detailed, but non-fatiguing quality. With a snug-fitting IEM hugging the ear canal bass is robust and tuneful, with great mids and highs elevating the sense of musical enjoyment. I also enjoy JH Audio JH16 IEMs, but the UEs were my first custom IEM purchase and they have proven durable well beyond my expectations. I love their sound as much today as I did when they first arrived in the mail.

Ultimate Ears Custom Ear Plugs

At the same time I sent my earmolds to Ultimate Ears to make UE18 IEMs, I also had them make for me a matching set of custom ear plugs. I love recorded music, but of course, have a passion for live music too. These provide the perfect way to protect one’s valuable hearing, but not completely muffle the sound of the performance.  UE’s ear plugs are made of a firm but flexible translucent material that seals the ear canal perfectly, just like their IEMs do. Because the ‘plugs are designed to maintain a neutral sound, it’s rather like having a volume knob for your head. No Frankenstein-esque bolts are needed though. To accomplish this feat UE offers each owner a choice of small filter inserts that slide into the earplugs and reduce external volume by 9, 15 or 25dB. Those who need varying levels of hearing protection for different environments can buy all the filters and change them easily on-the-go. I use the -15dB inserts every time I go to a show.

-Rob Johnson

More thoughts on the “Wife Acceptance Factor”

More thoughts on the "Wife Acceptance Factor"

Motivated by my friend Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney’s article on the same subject that you can read here, I must say I agree with her, but for some different and more wide-ranging reasons.

Having sold hifi years ago, I remember customers getting all excited about a system only to say, “My wife will never go for it.”  Granted, there are a lot more attractive speaker choices these days, but this was always a bullshit line, and my friends that sell automobiles say the same thing.  It’s usually a way to get out of wasting a salespersons time on things you can’t afford – throw your wife or girlfriend under the bus because she’s not there.  This is even more of a bullshit line because if you’ve been paying any attention at all to the person you’re married to or cohabitating with, you should have a really good idea as to what they deem acceptable or not.  And if you don’t, you’ve got way bigger problems than what speakers to try and put in the living room.

I can’t tell you how many people’s homes I’ve visited with massive televisions, and when I ask the fateful question, “how did you ever get that monster past your wife,” the answer is almost unanimous – “she’s the one that wanted it.”  Which leads me to believe that women aren’t the firewall between guys getting cool stuff and not getting cool stuff.

We’ve made fun of the dreaded WAF on more than one occasion, and our first cartoon in issue two of TONEAudio, drawn by world renowned New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly says it all.  Her feminist sensibilities have always helped to make light of our wacky audiophile world.

Ask any Meridian Sooloos dealer how many $15k Sooloos music servers they’ve sold and who the ultimate buyer was – it’s almost always been the gentleman customers’ wife or girlfriend that perked up when she saw how easy to use and engaging the Sooloos is.  It’s the same reason I have used their server since day one and continue to this day, even though there are better sounding choices out there. I really just want to listen to music, and though I’m engulfed in technology all day long, I’m tired of screwing around with it.

We’ve been seeing a similar response to the Devialet; men and women are tired of having that big rack system and loom of cables in their home.  Back when that was the only option, we had to deal with it, but after years of high performance gear that doesn’t look like something stolen from the set of a Mothra vs. Godzilla movie, there are clearly more stylish choices available.

How and why we buy

However, the further ranging issue here is how we shop for things. Having attended a number of hifi shows and events across the world, I tend to gravitate towards the women in the audience because I’m always curious what level they are participating.  They are usually kind partners in crime, hanging out with their significant other because they love gear, reluctant partners that would rather be anywhere else but here or women that own and appreciate fine audio. The first group is always affable and further discussion usually reveals that they love music and more often than not are leaned on heavily during set up because they have more acute hearing than their buddy that’s obsessed over said gear in the first place.  The second group is no fun at all, and the final group is incredibly intriguing to me because my limited experience with female audiophiles reveals an entirely different consumer.

Some broad sweeping generalizations

Granted, my experience with female audiophiles is limited, but much like my female friends that ride motorcycles and love automobiles as much as I do, I’ve noticed a similarity in approach.

The women I’ve chatted with see the hifi system as a means to an end – a way to listen to and enjoy music, and they tend to make a higher initial purchase than most men I’ve talked to.  Where guys more often than not are really caught up on the gear, and the constant upgrading of the system, women tend to actually enjoy their systems more.  One female customer I talked to at an event said, “If I need a $50k system to get the job done, show me why and if it makes sense I’ll write the check.  Don’t sell me a $10k system and then try and get me to keep upgrading it, I’m not interested.”

Talk to the average hifi guy and the first words out of his mouth tend to be bragging about his system, how it’s the best and how it kills, destroys, annihilates (etc. etc.) everything else out there, especially the substandard gear you own.  I’ve never had this conversation with a female audio or auto enthusiast.

My friend Kathleen Thomas, who works for AudioQuest recently said on Facebook, “Is the man cave the room with the shittier hifi?”  And I’d have to agree.  Most so called man caves I’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of visiting were chock full of neon beer signs and a stereo system I wouldn’t give to my neighbors kids.  Now a dedicated listening room, that’s another story, albeit a luxury relatively few people can afford.

In the end, will we see more women interested in hifi?  I certainly hope so, because our industry needs more enthusiasts if it’s going to survive, but the bigger problem (and a great subject for a whole series of articles) is really free time.  Male or female, we live in a more accelerated world from hifi’s humble beginnings back in the late 1950s.

While we are bombarded with more data streams than ever before, perhaps it’s a better reason than ever before to sit back, relax and listen to some of your favorite music without distraction – something that both sexes enjoy.

Reflections on Another Record Store Day

Reflections on Another Record Store Day

Another Record Store Day has come and gone, with many of my friends and our readers home counting their booty.

And yes, some of this shit has gotten incredibly overpriced to the point where it is starting to look just a bit like exploitation, but all in all, still some good finds were available.

I just wish we didn’t have to wait for more unique content to show up on a solitary day.  I’m also curious as to how many people  actually get turned off by the inability to find the real treasure on RSD and just go back to digital files.  I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

This article from the BBC is interesting, because once again it pigeonholes people buying vinyl records into a cultish group that is mental at worst and naive at best.  Can’t you just enjoy music and happen to buy LP’s?  I guess that’s just not dramatic enough.

For all the born again vinyl evangelists, I’m curious if there are others like me, who just enjoy music and don’t really wig out about what format it’s on.  Don’t get me wrong, I love vinyl just the same and have plenty of them lying about.  I just don’t have to have my music on an LP to get in the mood.

So, for all of you that enjoy music, enjoy vinyl, yet don’t belong to a “tribe,” I salute you.  Carry on.

Why we refuse to predict the future!!

Why we refuse to predict the future!!

I write very few actual rants in this space or in TONEAudio‘s publishers letter for good reason:  I want this to be fun.  I’ve always felt that the minute we bring our personal baggage into the editorial, it really stops being fun.  I don’t care if audio writers from across the pond disagree on how to set up a turntable or how to rip digital audio files.  Really, I don’t. And I care way less about it when they make it a personal bitchfest.  BORING.  I’d much rather talk about anything but audio at that point.

But the one tired subject that does push me over the edge is the constant waste of bandwidth on articles dealing with the future of the hifi industry. I’ve spent a lot of time on an airplane over the last ten years, going to trade shows, visiting factories and talking to both dealers and end users about this stuff, tirelessly.  Music and hifi has been the major obsession in my life since about age 13, so you’d think I’ve got at least a bit of a handle on it, right?  Well, kind of.

However, as much as those of us in the audio press would like to think we are all so plugged in, we really aren’t and here’s why:  our filter is too small.  Way too small.  It’s simple math.  There are 317 million people in the United States alone, and as of the other day, TONEAudio is read in 129 countries, so how can we possibly know what everyone is thinking, doing, or purchasing.  Really?

I get it.  It makes for great Google numbers to print “the sky is falling” editorial copy about how the industry is dying, or no one listens to music anymore, or there is no good music, etc., etc., etc. This ends up being terribly inaccurate at best and self-serving at the worst.

First thing I remember from news writing 101, was “never assume anything.”  Considering that many of us know 50 – 100 people and maybe have a peripheral reach of a thousand people, how can we possibly make these broad, grandiose speeches, declaring the rise or fall of anything?  I know I can’t, and I won’t.  My data is way too skewed.

Most of my friends are music and hifi fanatics (like minds, eh?) so any data I would cull from them would be useless to the readership at large.  I can’t believe how many people I know that own six figure hifi systems and own thousands, if not tens of thousands of albums, so it would be equally easy to think it’s all ducky going forward from where I sit.

Having visited more than my share of manufacturers that are somehow, in spite of all this death-speak, managing to ship every box they can build, I’ve reached the conclusion that someone has to be buying this stuff.  And with new manufacturers like Sonos, Peachtree and others having similar success stories, I fail to accept that the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. But then, that’s not terribly compelling copy, is it?

My challenge to my colleagues for 2014?  How about some insightful commentary, instead of just going for the low hanging fruit.  Remember, almost all of you were right there proclaiming (with equal certainty) the death of analog twenty years ago.

NOS – New Old Stash

NOS - New Old Stash

I don’t know what your listening habits are…

While cleaning my office/studio/listening room, I found a cache of unopened and hence, unplayed records.  It gave me pause for a second, perusing through the stack, thinking that I was not only feeling nostalgic on this particular day of record shopping, but pretty lucky as well. A little bit of old school hip hop, some classic jazz and some major heaviness from the 60s. I even found a few vintage MoFi’s lurking in the pile.  Where were they when I was thinking of listening to them?

I realize that we all find our joy in a different place.  Some enjoy being completist collectors, some enjoy searching rarities, while others just dig hanging out in a record store and smelling the vinyl.

But I suggest that for a day or two (maybe even longer) you step back and enjoy the collection you’ve already acquired.  I’ll bet that you too have some hidden treasure!

-Jeff Dorgay

Bowers & Wilkins Partners with Maserati

Bowers & Wilkins Partners with Maserati

The two European manufacturers get together for the audio system in the new Quattroporte sedan, a dressed-up pair of 805 speakers, and a global DJ tour.

Maserati is far from the first luxury carmaker to market with a premium sound system in its cars—but pair that with the new 805 Maserati Edition speakers from B&W, which provides the stereo for the Italian carmaker’s 2013 Quattroporte sedan, and a DJ throw-down at a hanger in Hollywood, and you’ve most certainly got our attention. (The Hollywood event in early June was part of the global Seven Notes tour. For these events, DJ/producer Howie B, who has worked with Björk and U2, among other acts, spins music inspired by the seven tones of a Maserati engine in action, with B&W delivering the chest-thumping sonic goods. Click here for more details on the tour:

The Quattroporte audio system is no mere car stereo, and I’ve heard similar systems from

Naim (for Bentley), Bang & Olufsen (for Audi and Aston Martin) and Burmester (for Porsche). The B&W system in Maserati’s roughly $130,000 Quattroporte easily holds its own in this competitive market. With B&W drivers and tweeters and Harman-sourced electronics, the 15-speaker, 1,280-watt stereo produces an audiophile-grade listening experience from any of the car’s four seats. The system offers a big display panel in the dash with intuitive touchscreen control, and easy synchronization with your digital-music device of choice.

B&W’s 805 Maserati Edition speakers aren’t too shabby either. The stand-mounted monitors are basically B&W’s flagship 805 Diamond speakers dressed up with the same materials used in the cabin of a Maserati, including bird’s-eye maple veneer, black Italian leather, and the Maserati trident symbol. The cost of the speakers, which will be available this fall, are likely to come at a premium over the $5,000 price tag of the standard 805s—but if you’re paying well over six figures for a Maserati, you might as well throw in a few extra bucks for matching speakers.

-Bailey S. Barnard

How about Record Store Month?

How about Record Store Month?

Seriously, how about it?

With so many vinyl enthusiasts, new and old excited about this event, Record Store Day is growing to the point where it’s becoming more exclusive than inclusive.  Here in Portland, Oregon, my favorite record store owner, Terry Currier, of Music Millennium told me that “the line around the building started at 10 last night.”

A few other stores I know echoed the same sentiment, receiving so many titles that they got two or three copies of that could have easily sold a 100 copies, possibly more. Another store owner, preferring to remain anonymous, was a bit more bleak. “The limited edition model worked better when people weren’t aware of vinyl – it helped to build enthusiasm.  Now that the demand is there, customers go away from the store crabby when they can’t get the RSD goodies.”

So how about it Record Companies?  While you might lose a buck or two, making a few less RSD collectibles, you’d make a lot more money and achieve a lot more good will if those of us that actually listen to the records we purchase could get our hands on it.  Maybe compromise with Record Store Week? It appears the demand is there.

Update: NYC Show

Update:  NYC Show

I certainly had a lovely time at this years HiFi Show in New York City…

Put on by the Chester Group, the same folks that sponsored last years show, things went incredibly smoothly for the UK based firm, considering they overcame a few major hurdles. First, there was a lot of hotel construction that was in progress, that no one expected during show week, when it was being organized almost a year ago, and there were a few water and power failures that necessitated some major jackhammering during the day on Saturday as well as some tenant evacuations on Sunday evening.  Yikes.

However, the show was not only well attended, it was a diverse crowd, perhaps the most diverse crowd I’ve seen at an audio show in the US.  Montreal and Munich do an excellent job at attracting kids and women to the party, but the US shows tend to be more often than not, a high percentage of beard tuggers.

It was nice to see a few groups of younger people, like the ones pictured in the VPI Industries room, not only grooving on the music, but asking to “turn it up…”  It was also nice to talk music and audio with some of our female readers and get their feedback on things.

The Chester Group and their US liasons, Sally Goff (formerly the face of McIntosh) and Christina Yuin (our director of sales) made an excellent effort to bring some seminars and events that were a lot more music centric, and wider ranging than I’ve seen in a long time.

SoundStageDirect and The SoundOrganisation, along with PMC Speakers contributed with their “Studio to You” series of lectures, bringing in some famous recording and mastering engineers, to discuss their part of the process.

And, speaking of music, this was the first show in memory that also did not consist primarily of audiophile standards. I did avoid a couple of rooms (still) playing “Keith Don’t Go,” but by and large, it was a much more musical show overall.  The Rutherford Group was rocking everything from Swedish House Mafia to Elvis on acetate, AudioArts NYC had a wide range of jazz, classical and blues, on vinyl, and Johan Coorg of KEF was a mixmaster – spanning a very wide range of music as well.

Rounding things out, Stereophile’s Michael Fremer was there, with his turntable setup seminar, and Art Dudley (also of Stereophile) and I held a spirited panel discussion about vintage hifi, which I am told by the folks at the Chester Group, had the highest attendance of all the seminars.

Again a thanks to the Chester Group for performing above and beyond the call of duty, and all of you that attended.  I hope to see you again next year.

For those of you craving more room by room coverage, stop by Stereophile’s website, where they have done their usual concise job.

The Virtue of Vintage

The Virtue of Vintage

If you happen to be at the New York Audio show this weekend, please stop by and sniff around.

And, if you feel so inclined, I invite you to sit in on “The Virtue of Vintage,” a presentation Stereophile’s Art Dudley and I are putting on at  11am on Saturday.

Art’s tales of restoration have certainly inspired me over the years, so it’s an honor to be sharing the stage with him.  He’s invited some other vintage restoration experts, who will help you walk through the joys of using some of the best of audio’s past.

We look forward to seeing you there!