Consonance XBB Turntable:

It’s a great time to be a vinyl enthusiast. Despite all the excitement over five- and six-figure turntables, many audiophiles are not spending that kind of dough on record players. There are a lot of music lovers exploring vinyl for the first time and getting their feet wet with a $300 to $500 table-and-cartridge combination, but if you really want a stronger dose of analog magic (and remember, digital keeps getting better all the time), you need to spend some more money.

How much money you ask? I’ve always felt that about $1,500 to $2,500 is an excellent plateau for a turntable and phono-cartridge combination. If you can increase your budget to this range, you’ll get a much more substantial analog experience than an entry-level table has to offer without heading off to never-never land. Of course, this number is not in stone, but this is where I’ve always felt you can really enjoy the subtleties that make analog fantastic. For the time being, I’m assuming that you already have a phono stage built into your preamplifier or have a suitable outboard phono stage already on hand. If not, budget about another $1,000 here and you will be well rewarded.

If you can afford to make this kind of investment in an analog front end, there are a plethora of choices when shopping for a new turntable. There are some bargains to be found on the web occasionally, but more often than not, used-turntable transactions end up with a frown instead of a smile because precious few people take the necessary care to pack a turntable so that it reaches its destination in one piece. So for now, let’s talk new.

The competition

There are some great tables in the $1,000 to $2,000 range from Rega, VPI, Pro-ject and a few others, not to mention the outstanding Clearaudio Concept we reviewed just recently. Add one more to your list: the Consonance XBB is the real deal, and it takes a different approach than the others in its immediate price range, making it very intriguing.

Ian and Rachel at Grant Fidelity have been importing some great gear from China over the past few years combining high performance with some very reasonable prices, and their customer service has been exemplary. We just reviewed their Shugyuang Premium EL-34 tubes last issue and they are fantastic. And well-worth mentioning, their customer service is second to none. So I was very excited to receive their latest turntable, which has an MSRP of $1,465 with the standard nine-inch tonearm. For an additional $210, you can add a 12-inch arm tube that will require configuring the turntables’ base differently so you can achieve the proper spindle-to-pivot distance required for the 12-inch tonearm.


The XBB is a plinth-less design that goes together quickly. Once you remove the metal bars that make up the base and lower the one-inch-thick acrylic platter onto the bearing surface, the only remaining step is to attach the unipivot arm and dial it in with your favorite cartridge. And what a cool tonearm it is! The long, carbon-fiber shaft is somewhat reminiscent of the one featured on the Well Tempered Arm, with a quick disconnect so that additional arm tubes can be easily substituted. Once exposed, the main bearing can be filled with the supplied oil to damp its movement.

The Consonance arm uses a threaded tube that allows you to set the VTA easily for any cartridge, which is a rarity at this price point. Once you snug down the two round washers on top and below the arm mount, there is a 4mm Allen bolt in the turntable base to snug the tube the rest of the way. Fail to take this last step and low bass will suffer.

The other side of the tonearm connector has a short pair of unshielded leads that connect to a pair of RCA jacks, allowing you the flexibility of choosing your own phono interconnect. While convenient in theory, this was my only complaint with the table. With these just hanging loosely from the tonearm mount, I see this as an area that could be problematic for someone who accesses this on a regular basis, changing cables. You could very easily bump the counterweight and send the tonearm bouncing across a record. Set-it-and-forget-it types will be fine, and in all fairness, I’d still rather see this arrangement than have such a good turntable be handicapped by a mediocre tonearm cable that is hardwired in place.

When unpacking the Consonance turntable for the first time, be careful not to misplace the belt; it is a very fine, monofilament material (much like fishing line) wrapped around a tiny paper bobbin. It does not stretch at all. So again, caution is the word when installing it.

Cartridges and setup

Once assembled, a quick speed check with the Acoustic Sounds test record and my digital multimeter revealed that all was well. The 1000 Hz track played at exactly 1,000 Hz right out of the box.

The Consonance arrives sans cartridge, but I did try a range of cartridges in the $400-$1,000 range, settling on the Clearaudio Maestro Wood MM. I was able to achieve excellent performance with the Lyra Dorian as well, but staying with a moving-magnet design really kept with the ethos of not getting too carried away with the checkbook on this setup. If you already have a MC preamplifier, a great MC cart in the $1,000 to $2,000 range will not embarrass this table.

Cartridge setup is straightforward, but if you’ve never used a unipivot arm before, the “floppiness” at the pivot point is somewhat unnerving until you get accustomed to it. When setting the azimuth, it’s critical to have the half-moon shaped counterweight perfectly level or you will have some serious channel-balance issues. You will spend a bit of time going back and forth between optimum tracking force and perfect azimuth adjustment, but your cartridge will be much better off for it. Anti-skate is set with a small hanging weight, as is common on many of the Pro-ject arms.

The table was auditioned primarily in my second system, consisting of the McIntosh C500 preamplifier and MC 1.2kw power amplifiers driving a pair of B&W 805D speakers with JL Audio Gotham Subwoofer. Near the end of the review period, it was transferred to my main system to provide direct comparisons with my reference table/cartridge combinations.


I was immediately struck by the openness of the presentation with the Consonance and spent an uncharacteristically long time listening to female vocalists. When listening to K.D. Lang’s All You Can Eat LP, there was a wealth of inner detail that is not normally present to this degree on similarly priced tables. It seems like Consonance and Clearaudio have both raised the bar substantially for turntable performance in the $1,400 range. I noticed the same effect with Fleetwood Mac’s self titled remaster on Mobile Fidelity; as Christine McVie’s voice faded out on “Warm Ways,” there was a longer gradation between the softness in her voice than that delivered by my trusty Technics SL-1200 on input 2. This is indicative of a solid-bearing design, not letting the finest details get lost in the noise floor. And just like the Clearaudio table, the DC motor responds very well to battery power, giving this table even better low-level resolution. But that’s an article for another time.

In fear of mellowing out too much, AC/DC’s 12-inch 45 maxi single of “Let’s Get It Up” was the next selection, and if you are an AC/DC fan, searching one of these out is a must. Although the album on which this track is originally featured (For Those About to Rock) is somewhat compressed, spreading this track out on a full side of vinyl spinning at 45 rpm is a tour de force of rock dynamics, giving you a tremendous insight into what a wall of Marshall amplifiers really sound like. Make no mistake, this table can rock and even though the Consonance is a suspensionless design, it is relatively impervious to acoustic feedback, even at high SPL.

While the battery power will increase the resolution of this table, the parameter that might drive you crazy is making the choice for a mat. The table comes supplied with a 2mm thick, spongy rubber mat. Ian told me that the table’s designer prefers to use the table with no mat, but that was a bit too harsh for my taste. If you have a cartridge possessing a more lush tonal balance, this may be just perfect. Experimentation on the mat is a worthwhile endeavor and will help you fine tune the table to your liking.  For now, the standard issue, Rega felt mat is my favorite and easily removable arm wands make it easy to use multiple phono cartridges.


Add the Consonance XBB to the very short list of fine turntables in the $1,500 to $2,000 range. It offers everything that an analog lover would want (great sound, ease of setup and a tweekable upgrade path) with no downside at a very reasonable price. This one is joining our long-term turntable fleet.

AVID’s new SCT Cable Arrives For Review

Building on the success of its latest phono preamplifiers, UK turntable manufacturer AVID has set its sights on the cable market. We’ve received the SCT interconnects and ACT speaker cable, so they are playing nicely in system two, consisting of the McIntosh C500 control center, ARC REF 150 power amplifier, and a pair of B&W 802 Diamond loudspeakers. Of course, there is an AVID table in the mix—two of them, actually, the Diva II and Diva II SP (also in for review).

Glamour shots have just been taken, so we’ve just begun listening. So far, so good, but we’re not letting the cat out of the bag just yet. Stay tuned to our Facebook page for review progress, but right now, it looks like AVID has produced another winner.  For more information, click here.

Octave MRE 130 Monoblocks

Merely mentioning that you still listen to vinyl records in casual conversation amongst non-audiophiles almost always invokes a raised eyebrow. And if you try to explain the thrill of vacuum tubes, people that don’t give you a dog-like stare will surely move you to the penalty box. But as vacuum tube fans know, current designs continue to advance like the Energizer bunny, with the best examples light years ahead of the humble beginning of the Williamson circuit from the 1940s. In 1955, the Heathkit version of the original circuit claimed to have “performance far beyond the finest speaker systems available.”  Much has improved since then.

Hailing from Germany, the Octave MRE 130 monoblocks look straightforward in terms of aesthetics. But they’ve also combined a few unique features, along with meticulous attention to detail, to create a pair of power amplifiers that sit at the top of their class. The standard MRE 130 monos run $16,000 per pair, and thanks to external power supply modules ($7,500 additional per pair), allow for the option of taking their stunning performance even further.

The most distinctive aspect of these amplifiers is the substantial redesign of the classic pentode amplifier circuit. The first part of the Octave approach is its power management system, which not only provides a soft start for the tubes, but also furnishes a separate supply that is optimized for the input stage—as well as another for the output stage and a third section that takes care of the additional current requirements of the pentode circuit. In addition, an electronic protection circuit protects the amplifier from damage, should tube failure occur while remaining audibly transparent.

While Octave has only been distributed in the United States for a few years, the company began in 1968 when founder Andreas Hoffman’s father began a transformer-winding factory in Germany. Hoffman started building solid-state amplifiers in 1975 and turned his attention to tubes in 1977. In the years that followed, his products won numerous awards in Europe and Asia.

The MR 130 amplifiers are rated at 100 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load and 130 per channel into 4 ohms. Available in silver or black, the MR 130s are substantial at 46 pounds (22.7kg) each, but not so heavy that they need more than one person to lift.


Removing the tube cage reveals a complement of two 12AU7s (ECC82C) and a 6C5 as driver tubes, with a quartet of 6550s for the output stage. They can also be configured with KT88s. The review pair came with KT88s installed, and Octave was thoughtful by including two spare power tubes. The company should also be praised for producing one of the most comprehensive and well-written manuals in the industry. It offers background on the design, a thorough explanation of how to properly bias the tubes, and finally, for the technically inclined, measurements.  Hoffman has indicated that future versions of the MRE 130 have been slightly modified to ship with a 6SN7 in the place of the 6C5, to make it easier to find replacments, but assured me that there is no change in sound.

Once the tubes are installed in their respective sockets, the output tubes need to have proper bias set. Five LEDs indicate bias status. A middle green LED indicates correct bias, while a yellow one to the left of center glows with an underbias situation and a yellow one to the right indicates overbias. An orange LED all the way on the far left is used when installing a fresh set of tubes. Finally, a red LED on the maximum far right position only lights when a tube is defective.

The remainder of the setup is straightforward, with two pairs of easily accessible speaker binding posts and a pair of RCA and XLR input sockets. Input type is selected via a switch, and the inputs can be shorted as well, so you can change cables without causing amplifier or speaker damage. XLR connectors are offered, but the amplifier is not fully balanced, as Hoffman doesn’t feel that it’s a superior way to design a tube amplifier.

Although the manual states that output tubes can take “up to 300 hours to sound their best,” my review samples had just come from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where they had about a week on the clock. I did not hear a change in amplifiers’ sound character during the test period, other than that of initial warm-up. The MRE 130s require about 45 minutes to sound their best.

It’s also worth mentioning that an output tube failed during the course of this review, and while such an episode may have caused drama with other amplifiers, the MRE 130 simply went quiet. The corresponding red LED lit up to indicate the defective tube. Once the latter was replaced, the MRE 130 went back to performing flawlessly.

Listening Impressions

Beginning with a handful of audiophile classics, I was instantly struck by the soundstage depth and fine detail offered by the MR130s. The LP of the Fleet Foxes’ debut encapsulated such characteristics, keeping the band members’ harmonies wonderfully separated. And the title track from the new Fleet Foxes record, Helplessness Blues (reviewed this issue), proved quite a treat as well. The heavily layered vocals were easy to pluck from the main musical line, as they floated above and in front of the big bass drum in the background.

John Fogerty’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s self-titled album (45RPM Analogue Productions version) proved equally captivating. Shortly thereafter, the band’s “Suzie Q” equated to retro treat, with the lead guitar distinctly defined in the far left channel, full of glorious distortion as Fogerty chimed in and out of the right channel. Yet the bass guitar sounded diffuse, hanging back behind the performers. It was as if bassist Stu Cook was off playing in another room.

While most tube amplifiers impart a glorious sense of pace and a generous measure of air, they usually falter in the area of bass control. But the MRE 130s did not fall victim to the common problem that plagues all but the world’s best tube amplifiers— proof that Hoffman’s power-supply design is highly successful. The funky bass lines in George Michael’s “Hard Day” from Faith arrived with just the right amount of weight and grip, and without losing control. Keep in mind that this song usually overwhelms most tube amplifiers and ends up boomy.

I was equally impressed with the deep bass performance of the MRE 130s when grooving to George Clinton’s “Why Should I Dog You Out?” from The Cinderella Theory. If you have speakers capable of delivering major low-frequency extension, the MRE 130s will step up to the plate. Depth and dimension were definite specialties of the MRE 130s even if they weren’t the equivalent of my Burmester 911 mk.3s. But the Octaves were about to make some big performance gains.

Increasing Performance: Step One

Users not interested in experimenting with different tube configurations will enjoy the MRE 130s as outfitted at the factory. However, if you are a maniacal tube enthusiast that always searches for more performance, rest assured that more is on tap. Towards the end of the review period, the new KT120 power tubes were released. And while this model isn’t a plug-in replacement for every amplifier that utilizes 6550 or KT88 tubes, Hoffman assured me that the MRE 130s’ power supply was up to the task of this particular tube’s increased current demands.

Hoffman also claims that, without redesigning the amplifier, it really won’t produce much more power than with the stock KT88 tubes. Yet, with the KT120s installed, the sound quality tremendously improved on both ends of the frequency spectrum. Bass became deeper and tighter, with even better control than before. The MRE 130s already exhibited some of the most controlled bass I’ve ever heard from a tube amplifier, and with the KT120s, they offer even more grunt.

At the other end of the spectrum, more air circulated around cymbals than before.  Heading back to the CCR catalog, the high hat cymbals seemed to float better while the overall sound achieved a heightened level of refinement. Acoustic instruments became fleshed out with more body; the more complex sounds of the violin and piano took another step towards reality. Originally recorded to two-track 30 i.p.s. tape, Liz Story’s Steinway on her Solid Colors LP suspiciously sounded like the one in my living room.  The amplifiers did an excellent job of letting me just forget about the gear and get lost in the musical presentation.

While the MRE 130s came with a pair of JJ ECC82s (12AU7) installed in each unit, swapping them out for the new Pvane 12AU7s from Shunuang yielded more delicacy. Substituting your favorite NOS tube may change the tonal character of the amplifier, but the new Pvane tubes did not alter tonality. They simply dropped the noise floor of an already very quiet tube amplifier even further, and peeled off a layer of grain that I didn’t previously know existed.  If you do nothing else to your MRE 130s, I highly suggest making this small change.

Step Two: Adding the Big Black Boxes

After becoming thoroughly familiar with the MRE 130s in their stock form and then again with upgraded tubes, another big performance jump came via the Super Black Box, which incidentally, is silver. While a pair of Super Black Boxes add $7,500 to the MRE 130s’ price tag, the improvement is major—and well worth it. As you might suspect from such a substantial upgrade, the soundstage immediately became larger in all three directions, the upper register had more clarity, and the bass possessed even more heft and control.

Whereas Naim gives you the opportunity to add a completely different power supply, the Octave Super Black Box is a giant capacitor bank tethered to each amplifier by a massive power cord and connector. Once powered up, the Super Black Box has a blue status indicator—just like the power amplifier. Should you feel the need to disconnect them, a yellow LED glows for approximately two seconds, indicating the discharge. Hence, you will not be exposed to any harmful voltage when unplugging them.

Digging through deep tracks to locate old-school synthesized bass, I dusted off Edgar Winter’s Jasmine Nightdreams. The second cut, “Little Brother,” has a fairly loose and whumpy albeit powerful bass line that was much more agreeable with the Super Black Boxes in place. The song lost some looseness but not the character of the bass.  I discovered the same effect when playing “Word Up!” from Korn’s Greatest Hits, Vol.1. The driving bass line attained more authority and punch than before, an experience that led me to revisit most of the initial tracks I used to determine the MRE 130s’ character. A definite transformation.

Still, the improvements afforded by the Super Black Box went beyond bass performance. The three-dimensional aspect of the presentation increased to the point that I felt as if I were listening to surround sound. Kraftwerk’s Tour de France took on an uncanny sense of depth that normally requires an analog source to achieve. I found myself listening start-to-finish to several albums in the digital format that I normally experience one or two tracks at a time before moving on. The MRE 130s’ resolution healthily expanded, as did the jump in dynamic range.

Hoffman also told me that one of the side benefits of additional power-supply capacity lowered the amplifier’s output impedance, which accounts for its spectacular bass performance. Such extra capacity also gives the MRE 130s’ the ability to more easily drive difficult loads. I had no problem driving my MartinLogan CLX speakers or the Magnepan 1.6s, each notoriously tough to drive with tubes. Without the Super Black Boxes in place, the MRE 130s ran out of juice with the Magnepans and rolled off the highs with the CLXs. This upgrade is a must if you plan on using these amplifiers with either speaker.

Before adding the upgraded tubes and Super Black Box, the MRE 130s took a back seat to my Burmester 911 Mk. 3 monoblocks in terms of imaging and delicacy. But, after I made the changes, the Octave units held their own in these areas when played within their limits—very impressive for a pair of amplifiers that cost one-third as much as the Burmester gear.


While I can’t imagine using the Octave MRE 130s without the Super Black Boxes now that I’ve had the experience, they are fantastic amplifiers without the add-ons, and Octave is to be commended for giving the end user the opportunity to work their way up to a statement product.

The Octave MRE 130 monoblocks should satisfy all but the most power-hungry systems. If 130 watts per channel is not enough, Octave also produces floor-standing Jubilee monoblocks, which we will audition in the near future. If you’ve always wanted the benefits of tube amplification without any of the drawbacks, these amplifiers are for you.

Octave MRE 130 Monoblock Amplifiers

MSRP: $16,000/pair; Super Black Box: $7,500/pair

Manufacturer Information:


Analog Source                        AVID Acutus Reference SP w/SME V and Koetsu Urushi Blue

Digital Source                        dCS Paganini (4 box stack), Sooloos Control 15

Phono Preamplifier            ARC REF Phono 2, Octave Phono Module

Preamplifier                        Burmester 011, McIntosh C500

Speakers                        GamuT S9, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan 1.6, B&W 805D

Cable                                    Cardas Clear

Power                                    Running Springs Maxim and Dmitri power conditioners, RSA and Shunyata power cords

Accessories                        Furutech DeMag, SRA Ohio Class XL+² equipment platforms, Loricraft PRC -2 record cleaner

New CD Player and Integrated Amp from Primare…

CD22 CD Player

The CD22 is the successor to and upgrade for the successful CD21 CD Player.  It is housed in Primare’s signature heavy alloy chassis, designed to provide strength, rigidity, and isolation, while also damping vibrations from external sources.

The internals include a switchable sample rate converter (44.1/48/96/192kHz), single Burr-Brown PCM1792 DAC with active MOSFET transistor, and SMD technology that keeps the signal paths isolated and as short as possible.  Also befitting its audiophile credentials, the CD22 contains no capacitors in the signal path: a DC servo takes care of any DC offset present in the circuit or from the DACs.

The display of the CD22 is isolated from the audio circuits and is dimmable in 4 steps (when connected to the I22 via IR, the CD22 and I22 display brightness can be matched). RS232 is included for connection to a larger home automation system.

INPUTS: USB, IR 3.5mm, RS232, Trigger 3.5mm

OUTPUTS: 1pr x RCA (analogue), 1 x S/PDIF (digital), 1 x optical (digital), RS232, IR, Trigger

The CD22 is available in black or silver finish for immediate shipment at a US retail price of $1695.

I22 Integrated Amplifier

The I22 is a 2 x 80wpc Class D Integrated Amplifier that utilizes Primare’s proprietary UFPD power technology.  It is designed to provide high power output with very low distortion as well as system control for the new 20 Series range of separates.  The I22 is proud to be “green”, as its Class D design makes it extremely efficient without generating excessive heat, and its standby mode only consumes 0.3 W.

Inside the heavy alloy chassis are two discrete UFPD amplifiers, with the preamp section fed by its own dedicated power supply.  All signal paths are as short as possible and all signal controls (source selection, volume, and channel balance trim) are performed purely in the analogue domain.  Volume and balance controls employ a single LM1972 attenuator; source selection is via high performance relays.


The use of switch mode power electronics is gaining in popularity as the result of its lower energy consumption and as a way to squeeze more amplifier channels into smaller spaces.  Unfortunately Class D amplifiers and their switch mode power supplies have traditionally deserved a reputation for poor audio quality, characterized by rising THD with frequency. Primare’s UFPD (Ultra Fast Power Device) technology, however, provides for the possibilities of a full-range ‘audiophile’ Class D design. It features a consistent 26dB feedback loop gain across the entire audio bandwidth and is stable way beyond the audible frequencies. This is quite easy to achieve in conventional linear ‘continuous signal’ amplifiers, but much more difficult in ‘non-continuous’ high speed switching amplifiers.

Rather than have the amplifier and then the filter as discrete stages, the UFPD design integrates the two, making control with feedback much more immediate and accurate.  The UFPD amplifier actively adapts the loop gain to keep the total loop stable during start-up, clipping, and current limit.  It senses the changes to the filter output and compensates by applying the precise amount of feedback.  This adaptive pole control allows for several more dBs of constant loop gain across the audio band and maintains performance irrespective of load (impedance) variations.

The UFPD treats all signals equally, regardless of frequency or slew rate, and has the ability to suppress the filter resonance entirely.  Consequently THD is kept very low at all frequencies.  With this very wide “load independent” frequency response, UFPD is able to drive any speaker while maintaining control and accuracy.

In conjunction with UFPD, Primare uses an isolated PFC (Power Factor Control) technology in the power supply, which controls the current from the mains voltage so that it is a pure sine wave with the same frequency and phase as the mains voltage.  The isolating stage of the converter works in a ZVS mode and as a result, the switch flanks contain a lower quantity of harmonics, providing lower EMI and a clean environment for the amplifiers to work in.


An optional retailer-installed DAC board is available for the I22, allowing not just the connection of an existing CD player but also the streaming of music files from PCs and Macs.  Three digital inputs are included: isochronous USB-B (16-24bit/44.1-96kHz), optical (16-24bit/44.1-192kHz), and S/PDIF (16-24bit/44.1-192kHz).

The DAC consists of two chips: Analog Devices’ AD1855 and TI’s PCM1792A.  And although the I22 uses a conventional USB input, it is non-standard, exhibiting reduced jitter and improved clock performance by using TI’s USB streaming chip TAS1020B.


Output Power            2 x 80wpc at 8Ω, 2 x 160wpc at 4Ω
Analogue Inputs        4 pair RCA

Optional DAC Board        1 x USB-B Input
1 x Digital Optical Input (TOSLINK)
1 x Digital Coaxial Input (RCA)

Input Impedance        15kΩ
Analogue Record Out        1 pair RCA
Pre Out            1 pair RCA
Output Impedance        RCA 94Ω
Frequency Response        10Hz – 20kHz, -0.5dB
THD + N            < 0.05%, 20Hz – 20kHz, 10W at 8Ω
Signal-to-noise            -95dB
Power Consumption        Standby: 0.3W, Operation: 19W
Net Weight            10kg

The I22 is available in black or silver finish for immediate shipment at a US retail price of $1695.

The optional DAC board for the I22 is also available immediately at a US retail price of $595.

The Decware Zen Torii is simply amazing

After hundreds of hours of initial listening, the Decware Zen Torii continues to improve, as designer Steve Deckert said it would.  While the full review will be in issue 40, suffice to say that this is one of the most musically engaging amplifiers I’ve had the pleasure to experience.  If you’ve ever spent time with a great SET and thought “If this only had 2-3 times the power, I could live with it,” your ship has arrived.  After owning a number of the world’s finest SET amplifiers, I can easily support Deckert’s claim that the Zen Torii is certainly the equal of any SET I’ve owned.

The best news is that the Zen Torii has 25 watts per channel.  Utilizing a pair of EL34 power tubes per channel as well as tube rectification and voltage regulation, it offers a sound that is fast, detailed and dynamic, with bass and treble controls that let you fine tune the amplifier to your speakers.  These are not tone controls in the classic sense, altering the frequency response of the amplifier.  The bass control controls the impedance match with your speakers, so it doesn’t increase or decrease the amount of bass as it does change the tonal character of the bass from soft to taut – so there is no right or wrong setting, but it does allow you to tailor the sound exactly to your liking.  Per the instruction manual, the treble control allows a gentle roll off of the high frequencies and is not in the actual signal path.

Digging further in the well written and illustrated owners manual reveals that this amplifier is a tube rollers’ delight, with a number of options available.  So far, we’ve stuck with the stock tubes, but when the rainy winter season hits the Pacific Northwest again, it will be time for some experimenting.  I’ve been stockpiling a few different types of EL34’s, some variations on the 5U4 rectifiers and even a couple of different voltage regulators.  If for no other reason, the blue glow of a pair of OB3’s looks like fun.

But all techie goodies aside, this amplifier sounds wonderful.  Pricing for the standard Zen Torii is $2,975 and the model reviewed here features a $500 V-Cap upgrade and a 21 position stepped attenuator, which will also allow you to maximize the output of your preamplifier to get maximum dynamic range.

These are 25 of the best watts you will find anywhere, at any price.  If a 25wpc tube amplifier is your idea of nirvana, I suggest calling Mr. Deckert now and getting in line, there is usually a waiting list for one of his amplifiers – but your patience will be rewarded!

(photo courtesy of Decware)

B&W’s MM-1 Portable Speakers:

“Where’s the sub?” Those were the first words out of my mouth as I entered Danny Haikin’s office at B&W in London earlier this year. He just smiled and said, “There isn’t one. That’s just coming from the two desktop speakers.” Then we spent the better part of the next hour talking about music while I got a proper demo of B&W’s latest masterpiece, built upon the technology incorporated in its Zeppelin models.

Indeed, a few years ago, B&W wowed the desktop/iPod world with its original Zeppelin and built on that success with the Zeppelin Mini and recently, an upgraded Zeppelin model. My tour of the B&W factory (full article to follow in a future issue of TONE) revealed a substantial amount of brain trust devoted to the Zeppelin line. The forward-thinking mindset has paid off handsomely for B&W, which now sells the Zeppelin and MM-1s through Apple stores as well as its own dealer network.

Like the rest of the B&W range, the MM-1s possess the understated elegance for which the marquee is known. While the $499 price might initially catch you off guard, the first listen proves reassuring. Incorporating a version of the Zeppelin’s DSP (digital signal processing) engine, the MM-1s are a two-way active speaker system that uses a tube-loaded tweeter—just like those in the company’s higher-end models—and a long-throw bass driver. The brochure claims that the MM-1 “is a true hi-fi speaker, shrunk to fit on your desktop,” and is absolutely correct.

Each of the MM-1s only takes up a 3.9 inch (100mm) x 3.9 inch square on your desktop and stands a mere 6.6 inches tall (170mm). The enclosures are wrapped in black textured grille cloth that is similar to B&W’s larger speakers, and trimmed with a brushed aluminum band and top plate. Our art director’s design sense immediately piqued during the photo shoot.

Quick Setup

The MM-1s looked like so much fun that I resisted the urge to read the instruction manual. I’m happy to report that the average computer user can be rocking in a matter of minutes. Three essential connections need to be made: The 4-pin umbilical from the left speaker to the right, the USB port from the right speaker to your computer, and the power supply to the right speaker.

I had to sneak inside my iMac’s sound control panel to direct sound output to the MM-1s via USB, but that was about it. The only glitch in the operation came when using the Control:Mac software with my Sooloos music server. For those accessing a Sooloos, you will have to use the supplied AUX cable to go between your Mac’s headphone output and the MM-1’s AUX input. The Mac will not send audio output from the Sooloos back out via USB. iTunes and Rhapsody users will have no trouble.

Once connected, volume can be controlled via the chrome band on the right speaker, the control panel on your computer, or with the egg-shaped volume control that is standard issue for the Zeppelin series. This is incredibly handy, should you utilize the MM-1s outside of an immediate desktop region. They actually worked quite well in my kitchen, fed via a nearby Apple Airport Express.

Verifying Initial Observations

To be sure I wasn’t brainwashed at B&W’s HQ with a tarted-up prototype, I began my listening sessions with tracks containing some bass.  First up, Thomas Dolby’s “Pulp Culture” from Aliens Ate My Buick. Then, after auditioning a few quick cuts from Tone Loc’s Loc-Ed After Dark, I was firmly convinced that the MM-1s had enough bass on tap. The warm sound I remembered from my London visit confirmed that these are serious desktop loudspeakers.

The B&W DSP engine works wonders, allowing the MM-1s to disappear on your desktop in an almost uncanny way. Prince’s One Nite Alone perfectly played to this strength, creating a soundfield that went well beyond the desktop’s borders. While not always convenient in an office environment, spend 30 minutes with the MM-1s, and you’ll never want to listen to headphones again.

With rock, rap, and funk checked off, time spent with acoustic music confirmed the speakers’ versatility and shared heritage with top-line B&W models. The Sooloos made it incredibly easy to switch between the desktop system with the MM-1s and my reference system built around B&W 805Ds. Both pairs of speakers had a similar, airy character, especially with piano and violin. Listening to Keith Jarrett’s Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 equated to a spectacular experience on the desktop; with my eyes closed, it seemed like a piano was floating on my desk.

Serious Resolution

An uncanny level of resolution sets the MM-1s apart from many of the other powered computer speakers I’ve experienced. They reproduce spatial cues and create a three-dimensional soundfield in a way I’ve yet to experience with this type of product.

Even the most inexperienced listeners are easily able to hear the difference between low-res MP3 files and standard 16bit/44.1khz files of the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly. Yet the variation became more stunning when playing back the HD Tracks’ 24 bit/176khz versions. My friends were not only amazed by how much more information surfaced, but how effortless it was to discern such detail on a pair of $500 desktop speakers. For example, the texture in Mick Jagger’s voice on “Ruby Tuesday” proved staggering.  The only way I could get my desk back was to blast Steel Dragon’s “Death to All But Metal.” And while this deejaying change helped me regain my personal space, the MM-1s were still clearly up to task.

No Need to Fear High-End Sound

If you’ve been on the sidelines or fearing the complex world of high-end sound, jump in with a pair of B&W MM-1s. You won’t need any special cables or know how. And the speakers won’t leave a huge dent in your wallet.  Just plug them in and enjoy your music in a much more immersive way than you did before. Who knows, you might even be tempted to head to your B&W dealer for a pair of 800s one day. Good sound is contagious. This is truly a product you will wonder how you ever lived without.

Click here to visit the MM-1 site.