MartinLogan Motion 4

I must admit, I’m almost never impressed with what I hear at audio shows, and it’s not for the manufacturers’ lack of trying. It’s always tough to hear anything decently at a show, even if the room is set up fairly well. But at last year’s CEDIA convention, there was something that really blew me away, the final prototypes of MartinLogan’s new Motion series, especially when I saw how tiny they were.

While MartinLogan is well known for their electrostat speakers, they have been making great strides with their ATF planar tweeters over the past few years, the Motion series uses the same air motion technology for their tweeter that was made famous by ESS in the 1970’s. The air motion driver has made a big comeback in the past ten years, showing up in flagship speakers from Dali and Burmester to name a few. Because of its folded ribbon nature, this tweeter has the speed of a panel speaker, offering the transparency that MartinLogan is famous for, but in a much smaller form factor.
Only about 5 x 5 inches and just over a foot tall, MartinLogan managed to stuff a 4 inch woofer with a folded bass port into this tiny, curvy enclosure along with the new tweeter. The Motion 4 has a rated sensitivity of 90db/1watt, but it is very easy to drive. I used these speakers exclusively in my living room system to see how well they would work in a small environment.


I used the speakers about 9 feet apart (2 feet from the side walls, 18 inches from the rear wall) on a pair of carbon fiber Whitworth stands, with a tiny bit of blu-tack between the speakers’ base and that of the stands. The Motion 4’s also have a mounting flange for wall mounting, which should prove handy in a compact surround sound system. I also made use of one of their new Dynamo 700 wireless subwoofers that we will feature a detailed review on soon. Suffice to say for now, it’s another home run from MartinLogan, providing outstanding performance, value and perfect integration for the Motion 4’s. I would highly suggest one of these to round out a full range system based around the Motion speakers, whether it is two-channel or multi channel.

The Motion 4’s have some recessed binding posts that are easy to get at if you are stringing something similar to zip cord or the basic upgraded wire that a lot of home installers use. Those wanting to use somewhat higher quality cables need to be sure they are terminated with banana plugs. Spades of any kind will not work, due to the recessed nature of the binding posts. The Motion 4’s only weigh 6 pounds each, so I can’t imagine using mega speaker cables with these speakers anyway.
binding post
The Audioquest Colorado speaker I used for my listening sessions was probably a bit overkill for this application, but it worked great and did provide better sound that later switching to $1/foot Radio Shack speaker wire could offer. The bottom line is that these little speakers are capable of a healthy dose of resolution. The rest of the reference system was rounded out with a Naim Uniti (50w/ch solid state) all in one receiver, which allowed CD’s, FM, Internet radio and my iPod to be used as sources and the Prima Luna Prologue 1 vacuum tube integrated (30w/ch) along with a Denon 3910. For those that will be using the Motion 4’s as the start of a two channel system, rest assured that they are easy to drive with tubes or transistors, making this speaker even more versatile.

The Sound

In a small room with corner placement, the Motion 4’s have a surprising amount of bass on tap, much more than their LF range spec of 75hz would suggest. Adding the slight warmth of the Prima Luna to the mix made me wonder at first if a subwoofer was even necessary, and if you aren’t listening to Pink Floyd at bone crushing levels, you might not either. MartinLogan concentrated on making a great speaker that only goes down to 75hz cleanly rather than a mediocre speaker that goes down to 50hz, sacrificing everything else to get that last bit of ultimate bass. Remember, adding a subwoofer to a speaker with lousy midrange isn’t HiFi.

The key to appreciating and enjoying this speaker is how much quality it offers, and for those of you that have MartinLogan speakers in your main listening room and perhaps need a second system, or would like to build a small home theater system in another room, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much of the core ML sound is on tap here.

I went through a fair share of my classic rock favorites, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, The Doobies, etc. to get a good feel for how these little speakers would perform on music that I know like the back of my hand. Friends and family members were all amazed at the natural sound the Motion 4’s possessed, and a couple of MartinLogan owners were equally impressed.

Again, the key to this speaker is the midrange performance and transparency, they offered. Cymbals sound incredibly right and these speakers do a great job with solo vocals as well. I never really felt like I was listening to a pair of “budget” speakers. Those listening to a steady diet of jazz and classical music will notice a slight bit of grain in the upper mids, but that’s being really fussy. Again, remember, these are entry-level speakers, not a pair of CLX’s.

At the end of the test, my $35 Pioneer receiver from the 70’s was substituted for the Naim, to see how these speakers would perform in an “extreme budget” system, and they passed the test quite handily. While they are capable of high resolution and will shine with better electronics, the Motion 4’s will offer a lot of sound with anything you hook them up to.

The speakers are very robust and even with a 35-watt amplifier at my disposal; I was amazed at how loud they would play in my small room. When I got wacky with Megadeth, Metallica and Korn, I could tell they needed more oomph, but that’s what that Dynamo subwoofer is all about. If you add one of those to the mix, even the most hardcore metal head should be very happy indeed.

A Breakthrough

When I heard the Motion 4’s in front of a pair of CLX’s (playing through some very nice gear from McIntosh) at CEDIA, I was really impressed. While many of the people in the room exclaimed, “are those the big speakers?” I knew they weren’t the CLX’s, because I own a pair, but they certainly didn’t sound like, are you ready…
A $500 pair of speakers. That’s right. A pair of Motion 4’s will only set you back $500. Though my head is usually up in the clouds listening to five figure speaker systems, this is truly a breakthrough in budget speaker performance. No one on the staff guessed the price on the Motion 4’s; the closest bid was $800 a pair. Having just recently reviewed a number of small monitor speakers in the $1,500 – $3,000 a pair range, these speakers have got to be one of the best buys in high end audio today. Add that Dynamo 700, which is wireless ready, and you’ve got an amazing speaker system for under $1,200, and a great foundation to a system in the $2,000 – $3,000 range.

If we are going to get more people excited about the world of HiFi, this is definitely what we need a lot more of. I am very happy to award MartinLogan one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2010. Don’t let the price fool you; the Motion 4’s are worthy of the MartinLogan name on the box.

-Jeff Dorgay

The MartinLogan Motion 4

MSRP: $499/pair


Amplification Naim Uniti, Prima Luna ProLogue 1

Digital Sources Denon 3910, Oppo BDP 83

Cable Audioquest Colorado

Power Shunyata Hydra 2, Shunyata Venom power cords

Devialet D-Premier Integrated Amplifier

We are honored to have the opportunity to receive the first D-Premier integrated amplifier/DAC from Devialet in the United States for review.  It will be featured in our February 20 issue, but for now, we’re giving our readers the opportunity to ask some questions and share a bit of the review process as we head towards production.  We will be doing this going forward with select reviews to give you more of a chance to interact with us.

And, to answer the main question that is probably on your mind, it DOES sound as good as it looks, perhaps better!

Rega Isis CD Player

Rega has established a solid reputation over the last thirty years now for building reasonably priced components packed with value beyond their price point. Rega turntables have always been a triumph of function and simplicity, with a legion of fans that span the globe. Founder Roy Gandy is a champion of giving his customers high performance without a high price tag, and didn’t even start building CD players until about ten years ago. His sense of humor is evident in their website, where it’s mentioned that Rega was “the last major high end company to build a CD player.”

About that same time Rega also introduced the P9 turntable. Then $4,000 and now $5,000, ten years later (with the tonearm upgraded from the RB900 to RB1000 status), this was Rega’s only entry into more expensive components. One of my reference turntables for the last few years, the P9 is a very special table, offering performance well beyond its pricetag, just like every other Rega product.

In 2008 that trend was continued with the introduction of the IOS phono stage and later on in the year, the Elicit integrated amplifier. Something was definitely up at Rega. Though still very reasonably priced in market terms, at about $3,000 each, these components were still a considerable step up from the Fono and Brio.

A visit to the Rega factory this year revealed a company more committed to performance and value than ever. Rega is a fantastic mix of 21’st century modernization and early 20th century craftsmanship, with their own spin applied. Towards the end of our tour of the plant, the group I was with was taken to an assembly room where something very different was going on.

A $9,000 CD player, from Rega?

That’s not a typo. Yes, that’s right, $9,000 for a Rega CD player. But it’s a very special CD player. In the past, Rega has always been fanatical about offering the highest value they feel that they can build. Because they only outsource a tiny percentage of their production, they have become very efficient and eliminate multiple sources of markup that eventually get passed on to the consumer.

They have not varied from their chosen path with the ISIS a single millimeter, however the focus has changed somewhat. The ISIS is the first product Rega has built that has not had a target cost attached to it; it’s simply the best player that Gandy and his staff feel they are capable of building, with cost no object. Coming full circle to Rega’s core values, the pricetag is only $9,000. The average Rega customer that’s been raised on P3 turntables and Apollo CD players ($800 and $1,000 respectively) is freaking out at the thought of a $9,000 CD player from their favorite British HiFi manufacturer. Has Roy Gandy gone mad?

If anyone should be freaking out, it should be the manufacturers of CD players in the $20 – $50k range. It’s definitely a contender and in typical Rega fashion, offers value way beyond its price point. Even if you haven’t had the chance to see them assembled at the factory, the minute you open the box, the attention to detail is apparent.Rega crate

The ISIS comes packaged in a very sturdy yet tasteful mini-crate with the ISIS logo cut in the high-density, closed cell foam internals. It gives you the feel that something special is inside, without being extravagant. When you remove the 55-pound (25kg) CD player from the box, you know it. The massive aluminum chassis reveals a look not unlike past Rega players, with their famous “spaceship” top loading door and red LED’s on the front panel, but seriously fortified all the way around.

In addition to the player, a substantial billet remote control is included that is on par with what you would expect with the world’s finest audio gear as well as a pair of high quality RCA interconnects and a substantial power cord. I would value both of these items in the $500 – $1,000 range if you bought them as aftermarket items. A very nice touch I’d say, but I’d love to see you being able to have the option of them being terminated with XLR’s.Rega remote

Which leads us to something else you’ve never seen from Rega, a pair of balanced XLR jacks on the back panel. This takes advantage of the ISIS having fully balanced, differential circuitry throughout. There are also standard RCA outputs for those requiring it. The DAC in the ISIS uses a pair of Burr Brown PCM 1794 D to A converters running in parallel dual mono mode. Analog and digital stages have their own separate power supply transformers and there are ten individual voltage regulator stages in the digital section along with another ten for the analog stage. This is indeed a very serious bit of digital hardware.

Those worried about the viability of the CD format and getting your player serviced in the future, fear not. Inside the owner’s manual, there is a signature from the technician that assembled your ISIS, another tech that QC’d the electrical and mechanical systems and the tech that tested and archived not one, but two spare laser units. I think it’s safe to say that the ISIS will last longer than most of its owners and I appreciate this attention to detail, with CD transport mechanisms getting scarcer all the time.Rega rear view

An outstanding DAC that happens to play CD’s, or the other way around?

As the market for high performance CD players is probably nearing its end, Rega gives you the option to use the ISIS as a USB DAC as well. Personally, I’d love to see an SPDIF input on this player, but considering the recent success of the Ayre USB DAC, I’m guessing this is not a deal breaker for the current crop of audiophiles that are more computer based.

While you might be clinging on to your shiny discs for now, the ISIS gives you the options to go both ways and that’s what makes the ISIS such a great value. The DAC performance of the ISIS was also outstanding when streaming files from my Mac Book Pro via the USB input, which is switchable from the front panel or the remote. The only serious drawback to the ISIS is it’s inability to read 24bit/96khz files and this may be the Achilles heel for someone wanting to make this player part of a more computer based system. With 24/96 files becoming the new standard, this will limit your music choices going forward. Personally, I see the ISIS in the same light that I do my Naim 555, a statement CD player for someone with a large collection of physical media.

Which $800 bottle of wine would you like with your dinner?

With the ISIS in short supply worldwide, the question everyone has been asking me is how does is stack up ultimately to the five figure players I have here as reference components? Damn good, I say. Comparing the ISIS to my reference Naim 555 was an interesting study in presentation. It was a big help that we had the ultra revealing YG Acoustics Anat II speakers around for the duration of the review. As part of a six-figure reference system, the 555 still had the ultimate edge in terms of overall analog-like smoothness, but not by a large amount.

Interestingly, the edge went slightly in favor of the ISIS in terms of tonal contrast and transient attack. When listening to the cymbals at the beginning of “Euthanasia Waltz” on Brand X’s Livestock CD, the Rega player offered slightly quicker attack on the leading edge, but didn’t decay as smoothly as the Naim. However, when comparing the playback of this track to the Wadia 781i, the ISIS had a definite edge in upper end refinement, though it did not have quite the subterranean bass slam of the Wadia. (Neither does the $32k Naim player)

But this level of tonal contrast is what I kept coming back to with the ISIS and I would say that is it’s shining virtue. It has more than enough extension at both ends of the frequency scale to keep the fussiest audiophile happy, with plenty of weight to the presentation, but much like the YG Acoustics Anats, the ISIS has a delicacy about it that few players at any price match. Acoustic instruments have a layer of texture that is unmistakable with the ISIS and makes the player a lot of fun to listen to. Spinning “Down On the Farm” from Guns N’Roses The Spaghetti Incident, you can really distinguish the difference between Izzy Stradlin’s guitar setup and Slash, better than I’ve ever heard on this disc. And of course your favorite female vocals will sound just fine.Rega lid open

Tonal accuracy is also a strong suit with the ISIS. Lovers of acoustic music will notice the extra layer of detail and tonal body that the ISIS provides. Going back through some of my favorite jazz standards from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins underscored what a fantastic job this player does at nailing the tonality of acoustic instruments. Naysayers of high end digital will be taken back at how natural this player sounds with violin and piano.

Of course we’re splitting hairs here, but that’s the kind of things that people purchasing five figure CD players do. A bit of madness if you will, but all good fun. The ISIS is a player that allows you to make that last jump to where you become immersed in the music, instead of thinking “this is really good for digital.” Again, there are only a handful of players at any price that achieve this lofty goal.

Perhaps not for the typical Rega customer

The Rega ISIS is a digital audio player that is worthy of being on the top shelf with the world’s best components. I own a couple of those players myself, and after extensive listening and close comparison, this player delivers the goods. If you own one of these players, you probably won’t be trading in your Naim, Wadia or Meridian player for the ISIS, but that’s not who I feel this player is aimed at. If you are someone who has always lusted after one of those $20 – $50k players, but can’t or won’t write that check, the ISIS is the way to go. I’ve had the privilege of listening to most of the world’s best CD players, some with pricetags that you’d swear should be on the window of a Porsche instead of a CD player and I feel the ISIS will deliver 95% of the performance of the five figure players for nine grand. It’s well worth the asking price; If I had to start over, I’d buy an ISIS, pocket the other $20k and go shopping for a nice used Boxster.

With that in mind, the Rega ISIS has stayed true to their core values by offering a product that offers the best performance in its price class. This is why we chose this player as our Digital Product of the Year for 2009. It makes a stellar match to their new OSIRIS amplifier, that will be reviewed in the December issue of TONEAudio. And, yeah it’s that good too.

The Rega ISIS CD Player

MSRP: $8995.00 (USD)

Manufacturers Information: (US Distribution)


Preamplifier: Burmester 011 Preamplifier

Power Amplifier: Burmester 911mk. 3 Amplifier, Rega OSIRIS Amplifier

Speakers: YG Acoustics Anat II Studio

Cable: Shunyata Aurora Interconnect, Shunyata Stratos SP spkr. cable

Power: Running Springs Dmitri Power conditioner, RSA HZ power cords

Mini Watt Amplifier: Take a Fresh Look at HiFi

No matter what your position in the audiophile game, you need a MiniWatt. This is one of the most fun pieces of gear I’ve seen in about fifteen years. (The last time was when the Antique Sound Labs Company sold their $99 tube monoblocks…) The MiniWatt is a 2.5-watt per channel tube amplifier that weighs a couple of pounds and only takes up about a 6 x 6 inch footprint on your desk, about 15 x 15 centimeters for our friends in the rest of the world.

It uses a pair of 6J1 and 6P1 tubes and a self contained AC power supply. The rear side of the transformers have banana jacks wired directly to them for your speakers and there is one set of RCA jacks to plug in an analog source. ALOAudio and their retail store 32 Ohm Audio is the exclusive American distributor for these little jewels, and when I stopped by their store last week, they weren’t even open and people were already buying them. “Wanna take one home?” Ball asked me as I was surveying the new store. Look, shiny thing!mini watt rear

Hurry up and plug it in

I wasn’t even half way to my car when I thought of hooking the MiniWatt up to my Zu Essence speakers that have a sensitivity of almost 100db. Knowing the luck I’ve had with Zu’s and 2A3 amplifiers in the past, I knew that this would be a rocking combination. The minute I hit the door, the MiniWatt was plugged in to the living room system, with the tubes warming up.

For the nerdtrons in the audience, I hooked the MW up with a pair of Zu’s Libtec speaker cables and a pair of Furutech Reference III interconnects to my Marantz Pearl SACD player. You think I’m crazy hooking up about $4k worth of ancillaries? It didn’t stop there, I had a spare Shunyata Python CX power cord, and so I was now ready to roll with the whole setup plugged into a Running Springs Haley power conditioner.

FYI, for those considering the MiniWatt to be the hub of a “budget” system, it works great that way too. Later on, after the amplifier was fully evaluated, I broke out the $50 Pioneer 563 Universal Player and my favorite $100 Polk Audios and was still very impressed with the watt top

2.5 watts can accomplish a lot

Powering the Zu’s the MW was able to blast. I zipped through some of my favorite metal discs and was amazed at how loud I could play Van Halen with this tiny amplifier. TONEAudio writer Jerald O’Brien stopped by for an adult beverage and thought I was using the Lavardin integrated amplifier that is also in for review. He was pretty surprised when I told him it was just the MW. “I thought that was a new headphone amp!” he remarked.

We proceeded to spin more discs and after some jazz and vocals, it was evident that this tiny tot was no mere toy amplifier; it delivered the goods. Because this amplifier has the tubes driven in ultralinear mode and those are some pretty small output transformers, it’s slightly grainy, but that’s judging it against my Bottlehead 2A3 monoblocks, which are silky smooth and with some upgraded 2A3’s will set you back a couple thousand bucks. You’ll never touch tubey goodness like this for $229.

What impressed me the most about the MW was the amount of bass power and control it had, which wasn’t limited to the Zu’s. Going through another cache of tracks from Pink Floyd, Genesis and Spock’s Beard, we were convinced that the MW could really get down. I also had a ton of fun using it as a desktop amplifier with a pair of KEF XQ20’s that feature their Uni-Q driver and are very coherent. Soundstaging on my desk between my 30” Apple Cinema Monitor was wide, wide, wide and dynamics remained excellent, even with speakers only having an 88db sensitivity. Near field listening has its benefits.

Pondering the Zu’s again, which have a nominal impedance somewhere around 14 ohms, I thought the MW just might be a good headphone after all and gave my Sennheiser 650’s a try. Again, excellent luck, so this could also work as a headphone amplifier for some phones. I didn’t get a chance to give this configuration extensive testing, so it might not work with every situation, but if you buy a MW I suggest giving your phones a test drive while you are at it. It’s small enough to carry into the bedroom for some late night listening with your iPod and favorite phones.

More performance

I suppose you could get crazy and mod the heck out of the MW, (and this could be a future article because I have a hard time leaving well enough alone) but an easy upgrade is to spend another $45 and get the “upgraded tube set” from ALO which includes a pair of Russian tubes to replace the 6N1’s on the outer left and right, while the two middle tubes are replaced with a pair of vintage Western Electric 403, which is a 7 pin mini pentode tube.

This made a big difference in the overall sound, increasing the soundstage about 25% and eliminating some of the grain that was present in the upper midrange/lower treble range. This is definitely the best $45 upgrade you will ever hear, so I suggest just ordering your MW from Ken with the better tubes, you won’t regret it.Mini watt upgrade

Award winning fun

I am happy to give the MiniWatt amplifier our Product of the Year award in the “Budget Audio” category. This is a great amplifier, period. If you are just starting out in HiFi, you can make a pair of single driver, high efficiency speakers, add a source and be digging music on a pretty tight budget that you will really enjoy and our world definitely needs more products like this. And I can’t think of a more fun way to enter the world of vacuum tube audio if you haven’t yet.

This little amp is the real deal folks. Highly recommended.

– Jeff Dorgay

The MiniWatt Amplifier

MSRP: $229, updated tubes, $30 additional

USA Importer:

Ken Ball/ALO Audio,

MiniWatt home page:

Neko Audio D-100 DAC

Digital Excellence:
The Neko Audio D100 DAC

With the DAC making such a big comeback in the last year especially, the market is heating up again, much like the early 90’s when it seemed everyone had a DAC for sale.  But then, DAC chips took a leap up in quality and a big leap down in price; single box players started to rule the day.

Fast forward to 2009 and the DAC is back, but for a different reason.  Computers and portable music players have people wanting to integrate those sources into their systems, while many are replacing their CD players entirely in favor of using a laptop or computer based music server as a primary source component.

There are some old and new players back in the game, almost all with excellent results.  Of course, the extreme high end has latched onto this again with a handful of mega DAC’s in the five-figure range, but I believe the excitement is at the $1,000 price point.  We have had the good fortune to review quite a few different models in this range, but for now, one stands head and shoulders above the rest, the D100 from Neko Audio at $1,295.

Digital Direct to You

Like Benchmark and a few others, Neko gets the job done at a reasonable price point by going direct to the customer, avoiding the traditional dealer network.  Considering the added cost and time of establishing such a dealer network, this makes the D100 much more competitive.

Because the D100 is so small and relatively lightweight, it is easy and inexpensive to ship.  Adopting the current business model of a number of other high-end audio companies that sell direct, there is a 30-day money back guarantee for the D100.  I doubt there will be many asking for a refund.

The only caveat is that Neko Audio is a newcomer to the industry, so they do not enjoy the reputation and legacy product support that a company like Naim, Wadia or Meridian does.  But for this kind of money, I feel it’s worth gambling on the new guy in town.

A New approach

Where most DAC’s use a series of op amps or some form of active circuitry in their analog sections, the D100 is unique in the sense that it uses high quality passive components and a pair of Jensen transformers in the output stage.  Digital conversion is done with a pair of the ubiquitous Burr Brown PCM1794’s operating in mono.

The D100 keeps it simple, with a small case (10.5″ x 2.5″ x 6.5″) and minimal controls.  There is an on/off switch on the back, inputs for RCA SPDIF and Toslink with a selector switch on the front panel.  For now, designer Wesley Miaw has chosen to forgo a USB input, but says that this will be implemented in the next version at a higher cost.
Because of the output transformers, the output is balanced XLR on the D100.  You can use adaptors or purchase RCA to XLR interconnects directly from Neko Audio at a very reasonable cost.  My reference system is balanced today, so I plugged in a pair of Shunyata’s newest Aurora interconnects and got to work listening.  Having spent a lot of time recently with the PS Audio Digital Link III, the Benchmark DAC-1 and the Cambridge DAC Magic, I was very anxious to see how the D100 would stack up.  As always, my main references were the Naim CD555 and Wadia 781i SE, which can also be used as a DAC.

Natural Digital

It’s rare that these two words go together and even more rare at this price point, but the D100 is a stellar performer.  Long-term readers of TONEAudio know that I’m not a flavor of the month reviewer, and seldom gush about anything, but the Neko Audio D100 is damn good.

To sum it up in one word; natural.  When you are playing the digital game at the $1,000 price point, the words “it sounds really good for digital” usually end up falling out of your mouth, but the D100 is the first DAC at this level that I’ve found truly musical in the sense that I would a decent turntable.  Though I have a ton of megabuck digital hardware here, I started my audition of the D100 with my Wadia 170i, my iPod full of uncompressed music.

Vinyl resurgence notwithstanding, I could be just as happy with a Wadia 170i and this DAC as I would any turntable/arm/cartridge and phono preamplifier at this price point, so the D100 passes the ultimate test for me.

An unfair comparison

When I spoke with designer Wesley Miaw on the phone, he wanted to know what differences I found between the D100 and the more expensive digital components.  The real gap between the D100 and the money no object digital, is a lack of ultimate resolution and dynamics, but more often than not (and especially at this price point) this can be a good thing with digital.  Personally, I would always rather err on the side of musicality than go the other way with too much detail in all but the most transparent systems.

Listening to vocals and acoustic instruments was a treat on the D100 and even after day long listening and Photoshop sessions, I never walked away from this DAC feeling the slightest bit fatigued.  If I had to compare the sound of the D100 to something, it would be my Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s. They too lack a slight bit of ultimate detail, but do such a great job with the midrange and have such a natural sound, I find myself forgetting about the rest of the fine points and concentrating on the music instead.  It’s rare when any digital component can do this at any price.  Sure, when I drop a disc in the Naim CD555, I see what’s missing, but the D100 is great digital that you can live with that doesn’t cost a princely sum.

Sonic signature

I spent the majority of the review period using the D100 with my Sooloos music server.  With 5000 CD’s on tap, I was able to cover a lot of musical ground in a relatively short period of time.  I suspect eliminating the opamps from the circuit and going with the output transformers has a lot to do with the grain free, almost slightly warm presentation that the D100 achieves.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear there was a pair of 12AX7’s under the hood!  But the great news is that there isn’t and you won’t be at the mercy of the tube pirates to have this sound.

The overall tonality of the D100 is rich and engaging.  When listening to my favorite classic jazz cuts (Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc) I instantly keyed in on the portrayal of acoustic instruments in a real space.  Cymbals sound smooth, with a lot of air and the proper amount of decay, never crunchy.

Yet the D100 had enough punch and dynamic drive to keep me happy listening to Metallica, Tool and Mastodon.  This isn’t a wimpy sounding DAC at all.  Much like a Koetsu phono cartridge, the D100 embellishes slightly, but in a good way.  It allows great recordings to shine, but helps a bit with the less than stellar recordings.  For most of us with less than perfect music collections, I can’t see this ever being a problem.


Variables and other system synergies

I made it a point to use the D100 with a number of other transports, from my budget Pioneer 563 up to the Wadia 781SE.  Because this DAC does not have a USB input, computer audio fans are limited to using the Toslink input only, unless your computer has an SPDIF output like my HP TouchSmart does.  Music played from my MacBook Pro via Toslink was very good, but a step down from the SPDIF input; the presentation shrunk somewhat in all dimensions, but this is no fault of the D100, this is the sacrifice you pay with Toslink on any DAC.

Should you have an older CD player in your system, the D100 is definitely your ticket to ride.  Everything from the Pioneer 563 to a friend’s Rega Planet 2000 player was improved substantially by adding the D100 to the mix.

Top Gun, at least for now

As we all know, computer years are even shorter than dog years, so there could be a new contender in six months.  However, if your taste in sound at all mirrors mine, and you value tonal correctness and musicality above all other parameters, the Neko Audio D100 is the DAC to beat for reasonably priced digital excellence.  This DAC put on an admirable performance stacked up to the mega buck stuff and for those of you with a system in the $2,000 – $30,000 range; this may be all you ever need.
I am happy to award the Neko Audio D100 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2009 and hope that Mr. Miaw has continued success.  Keep an eye on this guy; he’s got some great ideas.

The Neko Audio D100 DAC

MSRP:  $1,295    Factory direct, 30-day return policy



Digital Sources Naim CD555, Wadia 781i SE, Sooloos Music Server, Pioneer 563, Rega Planet 2000, McIntosh MS300 music server

Electronics Burmester 011 Preamplifier, Burmester 911mk. 3 Power Amplifier

Speakers MartinLogan CLXw/pair of Descent i subwoofers

Cable Shunyata Aurora interconnects, Shunyata Orion Speaker cables, ALO Audio Digital cable

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Jaco Line conditioners, Shunyata Hydra 2 line conditioner, Running Springs Mongoose power cords, Shunyata Anaconda VX power cords

Accessories Burmester V1 and V3 racks, Finite Elemente Pagode signature racks, Manley Massive Passive Studio Mastering Equalizer, Manley Skipjack,  Shunyata Dark Field cable elevators

Peachtree Nova

When Peachtree Audio brought out their Decco amplifier/DAC combination two years ago it was an amazing product for $800. It featured a 50wpc integrated amplifier with a tube in the input stage to add a little bit of warmth to its basic 16/44 DAC smoothing out some of the digital grunge. It featured a slot on the back for a SONOS controller and a decent headphone amp on the front panel. Anyone wanting a basic system only needed to add a digital source, some inexpensive speakers and voila! Instant HiFi. The sound quality was excellent for the price point but if you moved up on the speaker food chain, you could hear the limitations of the Decco pretty quickly.

The guys from Peachtree didn’t let the initial success go to their heads with their sophomore effort the NOVA. At first glance it looks almost identical to the Decco, but it has been improved in every way. This is a serious piece of HiFi gear, folks.

The amplifier’s power has been upped to 80 watts per channel and they kept the tube in the preamplifier, offering you the option to switch it out of the circuit, running the amplifier all solid-state. It uses a single 6922 and for the life of me I wouldn’t know why you would want to do remove it from the signal path, because it still adds a welcome touch of warmth and body. If you swap that 6922 for a vintage NOS Mullard, the NOVA takes another big step in the musicality department and one exotic tube won’t break the bank. But the switch it is a very cool convenience feature, if you just happen to blow a tube late one evening and don’t have a spare you can just push the button on the remote and you are back in business. A very nice touch.

The outer case of the NOVA is available in a gloss black, rosewood or cherry finish. Our review sample came in cherry and was very attractive. When powered up, the NOVA’s power button glows red until warmup, then becoming blue, with whatever input you’ve selected pulsing with a blue glow until the signal is playing. The buttons have a damped feel to them, but the volume control feels somewhat benign. Of course none of this will matter if you use the handy remote control, and at this price level, I’d rather see a manufacturer scrimp in the feel department to maximize the sonic capabilities and that’s exactly what has happened in the NOVA.

Very versatile, plenty of inputs

The NOVA has three sets of analog inputs, with one of them switchable as a HT pass through, a pair of RCA S/PDIF digital inputs, a pair of Toslink digital inputs and a USB input. There is a fixed level output and a variable output, which allows you to use a powered subwoofer with the NOVA or just use it as a preamplifier, feeding a different power amplifier. There is one pair of speaker outputs, with the standard Chinese plastic coated binding posts. I’m not a fan of these but on a $1,200 integrated I can certainly live with them.

The slot for a Sonos still exists and I can’t think of a better match for a Sonos system than the NOVA. This has to be the most painless way to ingrate a music server into a 2-channel system. The front panel features a standard ¼-inch headphone jack and offers first class sound. I had the opportunity to use the new Sennheiser HD 800’s and was very impressed with the NOVA’s performance on a pair of headphones worth more than the NOVA itself! For the headphone listeners in the audience, I had no problems driving my Grado GS1000’s, Sennheiser 650’s and AKG K701’s; the NOVA’s headphone amplifier is very versatile.NOVA web rear

However, the NOVA’s digital versatility was what impressed me the most. Using the budget Pioneer 563 and a Marantz Pearl K1 CD players as transports, I also had the Wadia 170i and a Mac Book Pro connected to the NOVA to give it a thorough workout.
The NOVA has taken the biggest step up from the Decco in the DAC department, now featuring the ESS 9006 chips from SabreDAC, the company that supplies McIntosh with the 9008 chips used in their MCD 500. Those expecting the performance of the Mac for $5,000 less will be disappointed, but if you are looking for a very musical DAC with an integrated amplifier thrown in, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Thanks to the analog inputs, I spun some records as well, adding the Cambridge Audio 640P and my modded Technics SL-1200 to the mix, again proving what an excellent all around achiever the NOVA is. Thanks to this flexibility, the NOVA should be able to cover any future expansion plans you have for your system.

The Sound

I started my listening sessions with the NOVA with my recently acquired set of Spica TC-50’s because they offer incredible performance for the dollar (If you can find an unmolested pair) and possess a degree of resolution that you’d be hard to match with today’s’ budget mini monitors under $1,500 a pair.

If you’ve been around the HiFi world for a long time, you might remember when the NAD 3020 integrated amplifier hit the scene. For about 200 dollars, it was amazing in it’s ability to offer serious high quality sound for such a low priced amplifier and held its own with separates costing a lot more. Perhaps the (highly overused, these days) phrase “giant killer” came from reviewers listening to that famous little integrated. The NOVA does well to hold up this tradition.NOVA web overhead

To round out the review, I used a number of monitors from KEF, Snell, ProAc and Harbeth to investigate the amplifiers’ performance with more upscale speakers before the NOVA ended up in my living room system, paired with the ZU Essence speakers. The Zu’s are a little unfair because they have a sensitivity of almost 100db, so most anything can push them to way more than adequate levels, but they are an excellent reference because they are so detailed and offer great midrange tonality. If an amplifier is going to fall down, the Zu’s are merciless at revealing its shortcomings. Again, I was highly impressed with the combination and pairing the NOVA with the Zu’s provided incredible dynamic range. The NOVA is much cleaner sounding throughout the range than its predecessor and the extra power goes a long way to make it compatible with a much wider range of speakers.

The NOVA worked particularly well with ERA’s D5 mini monitors (also available from Signal Path International) and at $995 a pair, makes a pretty unbeatable combination. There’s no way you can get close to this level of sound quality at a mass market shop for $2,000. Watch for an upcoming review of the D5’s.

After extensive listening, all of the NOVA’s sins are those of omission. It could certainly use more refinement in the highs and control in the lows. But then it would cost $4,000. The difference between the NOVA and the higher priced gear is in the fine details. When listening to solo piano or violin recordings, the extreme highs became somewhat brittle and the level of tonal richness that you would expect with higher priced gear was absent.
Also, overall soundstage shrunk compared to the MCD 500 or the Marantz Pearl. This was expected though, as these players are $6,000 and $3,000 respectively.

When comparing the NOVA with an inexpensive transport to a number of CD players in the $800-$1,200 range, it was consistently as good or better. The minute you switch to Pearl Jam or Yello, your worries will disappear.

Well worth the pricetag

And remember, you are getting a preamplifier, headphone amplifier, power amplifier and DAC for $1,200! I dare you to come even remotely close for twice this amount of money with separate components.NOVA web remote

While the NOVA was an exceptional performer no matter which way I used it, I think the killer application is as the hub of a computer based playback system, because the NOVA’s USB implementation is excellent. I enjoyed this amplifier the most when playing uncompressed WAV files from my Mac Book Pro. With the low price G4 Mac Minis are fetching on eBay, you could build a complete music system that you could control from your iPhone for peanuts. A Squeezebox would also be an excellent choice.

Playing within its abilities, the NOVA will never cease to amaze you.

The NOVA is an outstanding value

The Peachtree NOVA offers so much performance and versatility for $1,195 that it is more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value awards for 2009.

Whether you are an audiophile on a budget, need a great second system or are sending your kids off to college; anywhere you need high performance audio without a stack of components, the NOVA is the best suggestion I can make. I’ve never used the word best in TONEAudio’s history, but this is the best budget HiFi component I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. – Jeff Dorgay

The Peachtree Audio NOVA

MSRP: $1,295

Manufacturers Information
Signal Path International


Digital Sources Pioneer 563, Marantz Pearl K1 CD player, McIntosh MCD 500 CD player, MacBook Pro, Squeezebox, QSonix music server, Wadia 170i

Analog Source Sound HiFi Technics SL-1200, Cambridge Audio 640P, Sumiko Blackbird

Speakers Zu Audio Essence, Harbeth Monitor 40.1, ERA D5, Spica TC50

Cables Audience AU24 S/PDIF digital cable, Zu Libtec Speaker cables, ED 422 interconnects

Accessories Shunyata Hydra 2 power conditioner, Shunyata Venom power cord¬¬¬¬

The Boulder 1008 Phono Preamplifier

Introduced in 2002, the Boulder 2008 phono preamplifier caused quite a stir and was considered the top of the analog mountain by many. With three inputs and variable EQ options for older recordings, it left no bases uncovered. It still remains king to many people, but at $33,500 out of reach for all but the most well heeled audiophiles.

In November of 2009, Boulder announced their 1008 phono stage at a price point of $12,000. While not a budget component by any means, the 1008 is on par with similar offerings from ARC, Aesthetix and a number of other players in the $10K realm. Utilizing a lot of the technology from the 2008, it features a single chassis design and only two inputs, with the additional EQ functions already built in. The low cut filter only has a 20hz option (where the 2008 is switchable between 5hz, 10hz and 20hz), but the 1008 is still balanced from input to output. In addition to the EQ and low filter selectors, there is also a mono button on the front panel for use with mono recordings. The Boulder 1008 is ready for anything you can throw at it, if it’s on vinyl.

Boulder web-full viewA peek inside the box reveals Boulder’s meticulous construction and outside, their flawless casework. Though light by Boulder standards at 32 pounds, the 1008 is a bit more manageable than it’s larger brother, but equally potent. (And it still weighs as much as some power amplifiers I’ve reviewed.) A one-chassis design, the 1008 still features dual mono construction throughout and heavy duty shielding on the power transformer to isolate it from the rest of the circuitry. Thanks to 70db of gain, and a noise floor that redefines quiet, you should be able to use any phono cartridge available, no matter how low the output with no issue. The MM input features 44db of gain, and allows for adjusting the capacitive load as well, so the 1008 is infinitely configurable to suit your needs.

The 1008 offers two pairs of balanced outputs as well, so that the 1008 can not only run into your linestage, but the second set of outputs can drive your choice of recording device. I used the 1008 with my J-Corder/Technics RS-1500 open reel deck and made some superlative copies of my favorite analog tracks. At 15 i.p.s., the result was dead quiet, capturing almost all of the magic of the original. Digital captures with the Nagra LB were also fantastic, going from balanced out of the Boulder into the balanced inputs of the Nagra and this has proven a great way to get more of my vinyl collection into my Sooloos digital music server.


Operating the 1008 is very straightforward, thanks to Boulder’s well-written and illustrated instruction manual. I wish more manufacturers’ would follow their lead, offering some decent color photos. I have no bigger pet peeve in the audio world than purchasing a component with a five-figure price tag that has a cryptic instruction manual.

As my review sample came straight from booth duty at this years’ Consumer Electronics Show, it did have some hours on the clock, and while it sounded fantastic out of the box, did continue to improve for the next 100 hours or so.

Boulder web-Pers cardOther than placing the 1008 on my rack and plugging it in to a Running Springs Dmitri power conditioner (with Shunyata Python CX power cord, as all of my other low level components are), the only setup necessary was changing the loading on input two to low gain via a switch and unsoldering the 100 ohm resistor from the removable “personality card”, so that I could investigate the moving magnet and moving iron cartridges in my collection from Clearaudio, Grado and Soundsmith. The other cartridges used on input one were the Lyra Skala, Dynavector XV-1s and the ZYX Omega, reviewed in issue 28 of TONEAudio. I briefly auditioned the Clearaudio DaVinci, but found its slightly forward presentation not to my liking with the 1008.

Because the inputs of the 1008 are also balanced, it is to your advantage if you can have your favorite tonearm cable re-wired to a balanced configuration. Like headphones, a phono cartridge can be connected in a true balanced configuration, and though I had excellent results with the supplied Boulder XLR>RCA adapters, (you must use the Boulder adapters to keep phase correct on the inputs), going all balanced offered even a little more “blackness” to the backgrounds.

Massive, like a boulder

Boulder electronics are known for dynamics and resolution, and the 1008 is worthy of the name on the front panel. Not expecting much out of the Boulder, five minutes out of the box, still (literally) ice cold from the UPS truck, I had just thrown a copy of Supertramp’s Crime of the Century on the Raven TWO with the ZYX cartridge. I was not prepared for what I was about to hear; while the volume was down fairly far for the opening track, I cranked up the volume somewhat and the first sax blast on “Bloody Well Right” set me back in the couch. With dynamics like this on a garden variety album, I couldn’t wait to get some hours on the clock to really see what the 1008 was capable of.

Though the larger Boulder phono stage, the 2008 is held in awe by most people, reviewers and mere mortals alike, I’ve never been fortunate enough to get a great demo of this piece, so I had no preconceived notions with the 1008. However, once it was on continuously for a few days, it just kept opening up further for another week.

Where my reference Nagra VPS/VFS with Red Wine Audio Black Lightening is no slouch, and with accessories approaches the price of the Boulder, I firmly believe they will appeal to different listeners. Even with the battery supply, the Nagra gets to about 95% black in backgrounds but the Boulder goes slightly further. When listening to large-scale classical music, this preamp really has a lot of grunt.

Much like a race car with massive brakes, what surprised me about the 1008 was it’s ability to stop on a dime. It handles the swing of a kettle drum perfectly, reproducing just the right amount of air and resonance after the strike, yet coming directly to a full stop without sounding bloated. As my knowledge of classical music is mostly confined to the tried and true warhorses, I won’t bore you with my selections, but suffice to say that tonality is spot on with the 1008 and that should you purchase one of these, you will not be disappointed.

Boulder web-rear viewMoving back into my comfort zone, I revisited the Supertramp album that I began my evaluation with and was impressed at how much bigger the sound had grown in all three dimensions, very impressive. Next stop, the recent remasters of the Kraftwerk catalog. The driving beats in Tour De France were pounding, and at extremely high level, starting to shake my building. Thanks to that 20hz low pass filter, I was able to drive my system to discothèque levels without a hint of feedback. This also came in handy with moderately warped records. With a system that extends to 20hz, recorded anomalies that were not a problem when my system bottomed out at around 30hz now are front and center. The filter worked well without diminishing the subterranean bass drive of the system.

Yet light as a feather

I’ve noticed that some gear capable of tremendous dynamic swings can sacrifice weight for detail. While this can be very exciting in the initial listening sessions shortly after bringing said gear home from the dealer, it can soon become exhausting if not outright annoying.

This is another area that the 1008 does not disappoint. Good out of the box, once fully broken in and stabilized, I was always surprised at how much low level detail and low level texture was always on tap. Interestingly, this is what had me listening to more classical and acoustic music for this review than in many of my past articles. That extra bit of resolution on tap just made classical music so much more enjoyable, that I found myself actually buying some new classical albums to listen to during the review period!

The 1008 was also able to recreate an uncanny sense of height when listening, and this is one of the toughest things for a system to get right, or even achieve at all. When switching back to the EAR 834P (one of my favorite affordable phono stages), everything just seemed to line up laterally, with all energy coming from the soundstage at the same height. I noticed this very distinctly while listening to Steve Earle’s Townes LP. Instantly upon switching from the EAR to the Boulder, not only did each instrument get it’s own, very distinct space, the banjo felt as if it was slightly higher off the ground than the guitar and Earle’s voice was placed right between the two.

Of course, the Boulder costs almost ten times more than the EAR, but the point is that this 12 thousand dollar phono stage is not a case of spending a lot of extra money, only to get a fancy case and a modest improvement in sound. The improvement is huge. If the rest of your system is up to the task, the Boulder will offer performance concurrent with its price tag.

The 1008’s tonal balance is as near perfect as I’ve had the chance to experience. Where my reference Nagra adds just the slightest drop of body to the sound (not that that’s a bad thing for 99% of my record collection), the Boulder neither adds nor subtracts anything. At the same time it does not commit the ultimate audiophile sin in my book of overdamping everything at the expense of transient attack. Acoustic bass sounded just right, and electric bass had the right amount of bounce. While some may describe this as clinical, I prefer to call it neutral. Again, if you’d like a drop of warmth that can certainly be adjusted by your choice of cartridge.

Additional functionality

If you are using a high-end MM cartridge or a Moving Iron cartridge from Grado or the Soundsmith, the 1008, will extract every bit of detail the cartridge is capable of. I happened to have all three on hand and was amazed at how much these cartridges were able to deliver. My current favorite, the Clearaudio Maestro Wood, mounted on the Technics SL-1200 with Sound HiFi mods and SME 309 arm consistently amazed listeners with its big sound through the Boulder preamp. What’s the point of having a second phono input if you don’t take advantage of it?

Boulder web-eq closeBoulder rounds off their design with a few extra touches that make the 1008 a great choice for the real vinyl connoisseur. There is a separate EQ selector for early Columbia and EMI records as well as the early Decca ffrr recordings. While I don’t have many of these records in my collection at present, should the 1008 become part of my reference system, I would no longer shy away from them in the future.


The Boulder 1008 does everything right and nothing wrong. If you think you need vacuum tubes to get depth and delicacy in a top shelf phono stage, think again. You can say goodbye to tubes forever and not miss a molecule of music with the 1008. In anything but an extremely forward sounding system and all but the most harsh phono cartridges, it should be a perfect match. Personally, I think those of you in the audience with a cartridge on the slightly warm side of the tonality equation (DV XV-1s, Koetsu RSP, ZYX Omega, etc) will be in vinyl heaven, able to get the body you are used to, with an extra dose of slam and dynamics thrown in for good measure.

Boulder web-input closeFor the vinyl enthusiast that dreams of owning a Continuum table and Boulder 2008 phono preamp, but will never be able to scratch together $200k, trust me, combine the Boulder 1008 with your favorite $25k table, arm and cartridge and go to bed with a big smile on your face.

The Boulder 1008

MSRP: $12,000

Manufacturer: Boulder Amplifiers


Turntables Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar, TW Acustic Raven Two with SME iV.Vi and SME 309 arms, Acoustic Signature Analog One Mk. III with SME iV.Vi arm, Technics SL-1200 (with Sound HiFi mods) and SME 309 arm

Cartridges ZYX Omega, Lyra Skala, Clearaudio DaVinci, Dynavector XV-1s and 17D3, Sumiko Blackbird, Grado Statement, Soundsmith “The Voice”, Clearaudio Maestro Wood

Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier Burmester 911 MK.3

Digital Source DCS Paganini stack

Speakers GamuT S-9

Cable Shunyata Aurora (interconnect), Shunyata Stratos SP (speakers), Furutech Silver Arrow and AG-12 (tonearm)

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners, RSA HZ and Mongoose power cords, Shunyata Python CX power cords

Best sound at T.H.E. Show

Somewhere between the odds and ends at T.H.E. Show, just down the street from the Venetian, where CES is featuring most of the high performance audio, there is a beacon of light. Well, sound, actually.

Should you be attending T.H.E. Show, do not miss the Blue Light Audio exhibit in Room 4044. Jonathan Tinn is has a stellar exhibit, that is by far the best sound at the show.

On display is his new Wave Kinetics reference direct drive turntable with a Durand tonearm and the Ortofon MC A-90 cartridge, the Playback Designs MPS-3 player darTZeel amplification and the amazing Evolution Acoustics MMMicroOne speakers.

The most amazing thing is that this six figure reference system is driving a $2,000 pair of speakers (not a typo) and the combination is fantastic. With solid bass down to 35hz, these small but stylish speakers threw a huge soundstage, with a tonality so realistic, you’d be hard pressed not to think you were listening to at least a $10-15,000 pair of speakers.

So, even if you only have 20 minutes to spend at T.H.E. Show, drop in the lobby and see the wonderful ladies from The Montreal Salon Son & Image Show (you can’t miss them, they have blue hair) and stop by Room 4044. You won’t be disappointed.

McIntosh MR88

Sometimes, one longs for the hi-fi simplicity of the 1970s. Back then, FM radio functioned as the prime source of listening for many a music lover. AOR FM was in high gear, and people just tuned into any number of stations to get a music fix. Those with audiophile leanings often invested in a separate tuner to optimize the FM sound quality. Often, a manufacturer’s top-of-the-line tuner represented the best and most highly engineered product in its whole line. Companies such as Yamaha, Pioneer, SAE, Kenwood, Sansui, Marantz, Technics, Sony, and McIntosh waged a high-stakes tech war to see who could develop the king of the airwaves: A tuner with clean, clear reception coupled with good sound.

MR65B, MR71, MR74, MR78…MR88?

At first glance, I mistook the MR88 for a classic McIntosh model, with the stellar MR65B and MR74 coming to mind. The $4,000 unit’s cosmetics are distinctly retro. A tuning knob connected to a flywheel, a glass tuning dial, and an illuminated dial pointer reinforce the traditional McIntosh appearance. But any analog suggestions are instantly dispelled upon power up: A window displays station frequency, shows station call letters, and scrolls RBDS text when the unit is switched on.

The MR88 is basically an all-digital DSP device that uses every manner of technological wizardry to deliver terrestrial or satellite signals in crystal clear, noise-free fashion. It even has an spdif digital out that can be sent to your favorite DAC, via a coax or Toslink cable. Various other provisions make the MR88 a thoroughly modern, future-proof component. An RS232 port is at the ready for communicating with an external control device; a service port allows for firmware upgrades; an IR input, power control input, and output for receiving and sending trigger signals to and from other McIntosh components round out the prudent touches.

Master of the Frequency Domains

Once installed and warmed up, the MR88 was put through its paces as an analog-only tuner. A default receiving mode will automatically select the HD feed from many stations, but setting it to receive the non-HD signal is easy. I connected the unit to my preamp using the greatly appreciated balanced outputs; an outdoor antenna was connected via an F-connector located on the back of the tuner.

While my standby Kenwood KT-8005 grabs about 15 stations with a strong low-noise and low-distortion signal, the MR88 claimed 18. A local jazz station, KMHD, came in strong and clear, as did KQAC, the local classical station. Both provided many hours of pleasurable listening through the MR88. Its ability to throw a convincingly deep and wide soundstage fooled more than a few listeners into thinking a CD was playing. However, the tuner’s greatest strength lies elsewhere.

Switching to back the default Auto receiving mode, the listener will hear a blending of the analog and digital signals that provides the best sound quality. Stations with HD broadcasting capability come in with noise-free clarity. The user also gets a much wider bandwidth with HD. Compared to the analog signals, bass extension goes lower and high frequencies extend further. iBiquity Digital Corp., the purveyor of HD technology, touts the sound as CD quality. A slight exaggeration, as the signal is basically an audio compression codec combined with an enhancer called SBR (spectral band replication). The latter replicates higher frequency content by transposing harmonics up from the lower and mid-frequencies at the decoder. Theoretically, SBR is based on the principle that the psychoacoustic part of the human brain tends to analyze higher frequencies with less accuracy, thus any harmonic phenomena associated with the spectral band replication process needs only be accurate in a perceptual sense, and not technically or mathematically exact.

Such myriad handling of the signal yields a slightly artificial aspect to the sound that owes to the nature of the format, not the MR88. Purist audiophiles might not fully endorse the sound, but average listeners should be quite pleased, especially considering the added content currently available on HD. As you move up and down the dial with the handy remote, you can hear the tuner first grab the analog signal and then switch over to the HD broadcast. Once the transfer occurs, one instantly perceives the increase in clarity and bandwidth. Moreover, there’s a dramatic reduction of noise on marginal signals. Employing this mode, the number of listenable stations in my area rose to 35 due to the HD2 and HD3 broadcasts.

AM, XM: The MR88 Does It All

Fans of Howard Stern and Major League Baseball broadcasts, rejoice. The MR88 is also XM Satellite Radio enabled, further increasing the content options and variety. As with AM and FM, the MR88 allows users to program up to 20 preset XM channels.

Want more? The MR88 also does wonders with the AM band. News, weather, talk, and sports are here for the taking. And AM reception quality is no afterthought. An innovative AM antenna deemed the RAA2 connects to the tuner via 20 feet of network cable, enabling optimum antenna positioning and mounting. Aficionados will recognize the approach as a far cry from foldout ferrite rods, ubiquitous on the back panels of most old-school tuners.
Speaking of the old school, adding more digital to the mix often yielded poorer sonics. While I experimented by using the digital out to my DAC, and comparing the sound quality with the balanced analog out signal, results were mixed. The most satisfying overall sound was obtained through the analog output stage.

Can streaming audio on the Internet replicate what the MR88 accomplishes? Some might be tempted to think so. But the MR88 is a different animal. From the comfort of a sofa, you can enjoy favorite FM broadcasts, listen to HD Radio content, dive into XM Radio, and get the weather report without moving so much as the remote control.
Indeed, the MR88 is a substantial audio component that’s steeped in McIntosh tradition. Sturdily built with a giant power supply, great fit and finish, wonderful looks, and excellent performance, it offers a thoroughly modern and forward-looking take on the traditional AM/FM tuner.

MSRP: $4,000

McIntosh Laboratory, Inc.
2 Chambers St.
Binghamton, NY 13903-2699
(800) 538-6576

Avid’s Anniversary Turntable

Avid HiFi, clearly on a roll after releasing their stellar Pulsare phono stage (watch for the review here, shortly) has topped their line of turntables with the Limited Edition Anniversary model, of which only 10 will be made, in celebration of their 10th anniversary.

This table is a step beyond their Reference SP and comes with a dedicated stand that will hold the table, the Reference SP power supply (now split into two separate enclosures) and a shelf for a phono stage. The cost is £20,000. It looks to be a massive setup, that should be the highlight of any analog lovers system. I’ll have a full report when I visit the AVID factory in February.

Nerd alert! It’s time for CES again…

Now that we’ve all had a bit of holiday cheer, it’s time to head to Las Vegas for the mecca of the electronics world – CES. While TONE will be concentrating on the high performance audio at the Venetian, with the launch of TONEPhoto on the horizon, we will be spending some time at the main hall as well.

As always, CES is a chance to catch up with our industry partners, readers and check out the latest and greatest goodies. We will have a report on CES and next weeks’ NAMM show in the February issue of TONEAudio, so stay tuned.

Hope to see you there!

* Photo courtesy of Liquid Image….