Heavy Metal:

Everything Hans-Ole Vitus makes is heavy. Really fucking heavy. Break-your-back heavy. But those who possess the strength to lift his SM-010 monoblocks out of the boxes will be rewarded with fantastic sound. That said, it’s become very popular of late, at least in the United States, to take shots at the wealthy and, in particular, at luxury goods. So if the idea of a $40k pair of amplifiers seems offensive, let fly the invective and take a pass.

While my bias leans towards vacuum-tube gear, the finest Class A solid-state amplifiers (like the recently reviewed Pass Labs XA160.5s) offer equal palpability and don’t require having to regularly forage for tubes. Heat is the only drawback to Class A units. They are power-hungry animals, but wildlife worth feeding.

Vitus gear not only feels powerful, it looks powerful just sitting on the rack. Also available with massive red-, gold-, or black-anodized front panels, our SM-010 review samples were anodized in a stunning shade of dark gray. I’d love to see more manufacturers adopt this trend. Apologies to the Oakland Raiders, but haven’t we had enough silver and black?

Beneath the SM-010’s top panel lurks a masterpiece of modern know-how—a tidy circuit layout revealing clean electrical and mechanical design. Top-grade parts are used throughout. An enormous power transformer, custom designed for Vitus, is a work of art in its own right—and not the usual toroid that exists in most other amplifiers. Individual amplifier boards, connected directly to the circuit boards to keep signal paths as short as possible, are to the left and right of the power supply.
A solitary XLR input, along with the standard IEC power connection and two speaker outputs to facilitate bi-wiring, makes it easy to integrate a pair of SM-101s into any system. These beasts can be used as 100-watt-per-channel amplifiers in Class-AB mode or 40-watts-per-channel amps in Class A mode. With every speaker, save the Magnepan 1.7s, Class A mode yields enough power for all but the most intense listening.

Flick of the Switch

The SM-010s power up in AB mode but can easily be switched into Class A via the remote control or front panel. Yes, my inner Homer Simpson loves any adjustments that can be done from the comfort of a listening chair—it really does make the evaluation process easier. When switched to Class A, the change in the amplifiers’ performance is slightly more than subtle, acting as a tube amplifier does when switching from pentode to triode mode. Unlike all the tube amplifiers I’ve auditioned that offer this function (and make a loud ker-chunk sound when altering modes), the Vitus effortlessly and silently switches between A and AB, making sonic inspections all the more interesting. And while engaging triode mode with a vacuum-tube amplifier usually bestows more midrange lubricity, it comes at the expense of bass control. The SM-010s require no such sacrifice.

Again, like a tube amplifier, the SM-010 needs a solid hour or two for the slight initial haze to dissipate. While not green in practice, if you want to experience the best it has to offer (especially in Class A mode), leave the amps on for a day before you begin critical listening. However, prepare to see a bump in your electric bill the following month!

Listen to This

On “Hear My Train A-Comin’” from Jimi Hendrix’s recent Winterland compilation, the Vitus’ deliver the virtuoso’s distorted guitar in spades and Noel Redding’s bass playing in a way I’ve never experienced. Textures in the latter blend with the distortion, the mix growling as if emanating from the band’s vintage Ampeg amplifiers. Metallica’s so-called “Black Album” offers similar revelations when cranked up. The plucked bass line in “Nothing Else Matters” flaps my pants leg as it does at a Metallica concert. All six of my GamuT woofers work strenuously and, yet, stay controlled. I’ll trade all the string quartets in the world for five minutes of this experience, and the Vitus amplifiers grant my wishes. After a full day of seriously heavy music (that, admittedly, to the disappoint of editor Bob Gendron, did not include any St. Vitus albums), these amplifiers cannot be broken. Moreover, while they got extremely warm, their sonic character did not change.

Big solid-state power normally promises stout bass response, and the SM-010s prove no exception to the rule. Yet these amplifiers’ innate ability to unveil layer after layer of musical performances melts brain cells. If you have speakers as equally revealing as the SM-010s, you’re in for a fatigue-free experience—no matter how high or low the listening level.

Indeed, classical music aficionados will relish the delicacy with which the Vitus’ render string and wind instruments. My GamuT S9s feel like big headphones when I listen to the oboes in the Netherland Wind Ensemble’s Beethoven Wind Music. For me, texture and nuance are the chief characteristics that turn listening sessions into musical events. With the SM-010s in my system, I’m still going to great lengths to listen to records I’ve heard hundreds of times to see if I can mine new aural data.

Great amplifiers also magnify differences between mediocre recordings and standout efforts. Score another victory for the SM-010s. Used extensively in TONEAudio’s Pink Floyd coverage for Issue 40, the Vitus’ exposed subtle nuances between various Dark Side of the Moon pressings as if merely presented with apples and oranges.

Whether in AB or A mode, the SM-010s exhibit dead-quiet backgrounds with zero noise when used in conjunction with the equally silent Vitus preamplifier. When mated with my ARC REF 5 and REF PHONO 2, there’s a slight bit of tube rush—but nothing from the Vitus. This makes for a dynamic presentation, and contributes to the amplifiers always sounding much bigger than you’d expect 40-watt monoblocks to sound. They actually remind me of my favorite amplifiers from the 80s—Mark Levinson ML-2s—but boast healthier depth and detail.

The SM-010s also excel at precise acceleration and deceleration, never blurring transients. Vide, Morris Pert’s lightning-fast percussion runs in “The Poke,” from Brand X’s Masques. The amps’ perfect pace separates the percussion from the rapid-fire drumming, each keeping control of its own space. Such ability to instantaneously start and stop significantly contributes to the SM-010’s non-fatiguing sound.

Other Synergies

Partnered with my reference GamuT S9s, the SM-010s are in many ways the equal of my reference Burmester, Pass Labs, and ARC amps but, nonetheless, retain their own sonic signature. While each amplifier has its own virtues and near-faultless performance, the Vitus amplifiers thrive in their ability to resolve great detail without ever becoming fatiguing—even after full-day listening sessions.

While mixing and matching, I discovered a few synergies to be unmistakably good. For example, the B&W 802 Diamonds are completely different speakers when used in concert with the SM-010s. Normally, the 802 is very revealing and, when married to an amplifier that is either harsh or forward, mirrors the amp’s presentation. With the 802s, the Vitus sounds particularly tube-like in the upper registers, replete with the slam and control you expect from a powerful solid-state amplifier.

Heard through this combination, Keith Jarrett’s Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 possesses extra depth and decay, sounding more realistic than I recall—especially on the opening “Prelude & Fugue No. 1 in C Major.” While Shostakovich is traditionally a forceful composer, this piece assumes a wistful delicacy through lesser amplifiers, as Jarrett’s light touch becomes lifeless and flat. The ultimate test? Play the composition at the low volume it demands. The Vitus passes with proverbial flying colors.

B&Ws aside, the oddest albeit most interesting combination I experienced with the SM-010s occurred with the compact Penaudio Cenya speakers. Most people would not mate a $40k pair of amplifiers with a $4,000 pair of speakers, but hey, why not give it a try? The Cenyas sounded supercharged, disappearing in the room as never before, almost as if a subwoofer entered the equation.

Not Just Another Brick in the Audio Wall

Some audiophiles argue that speakers are everything to a system, while others, maintaining the garbage in/garbage out theory, believe the source the most important link in the chain. I feel every part is equally important. But I’ve also seen plenty of astonishing speakers and fantastic source components humbled when lacking proper amplification. Truth be told, I’ve heard modest speakers deliver performances I never thought possible when a standout amplifier drives them. So, at the end of the day, I’m an amplifier guy.

A pair of Vitus SM-010 amplifiers will present no compromise to your system no matter the quality of your other components. These behemoths may even inspire you to make a few improvements once you get used to their abilities. While the price is high, it’s commensurate with the level of build and sound quality. Think of the SM-010s as an ultimate audio destination—desert-island tracks optional.

Vitus Audio SM-101 Monoblocks
MSRP: $40,000/pair
Manufacturer Information: www.vitusaudio.com


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

Phono Preamplifier ARC REF Phono 2

Preamplifier ARC REF 5, Burmester 011, Vitus SP-101

Digital Source dCS Paganini Stack, Sooloos Control 15

Speakers GamuT S9, Verity Amadis, B&W 802 Diamond, Magnepan 1.7

Power Running Springs Dmitri, Maxim PLCs, RSA Mongoose Cords

Cable Shunyata Aurora SP

Accessories SRA Scuttle Equipment rack, SRA Ohio XL equipment bases, Furutech DeMag, Loricraft LR-4 record cleaner

Audion Phono Stage

Fresh from the Fed Ex Truck from France, (say that ten times as fast as you can…) the Audion phono stage is here for review. With the trend of phono preamplifiers heading ever upward, it’s refreshing to see a unit that looks this good and sounds this good weighing in at $1,995. While you might think that the MM input leaves something to be desired, there are a lot of great MM carts in the $300-$1,000 range that will probably sound fantastic with the Audion. The investigation has already begun, with great results.

They promised us a few hours on the clock, and out of the box the Audion sounds excellent. With a pair of ECC88 tubes, tube rolling options are plentiful (I’m thinking a pair of EAT tubes), so this will be a fun review. Stay tuned.

Factory link: http://www.audion.co.uk/

US Distributor: http://www.trueaudiophile.com/

The Latest from Audio Engine…

Audioengine 5+ (A5+) Premium Powered Speakers deliver audiophile-quality sound and features at a price that continues to set the standard for affordable high-quality audio. Connect your iDevice, computer, TV, or any other audio component for great stereo sound in any room. The new A5+ incorporates the same award-winning design as the original A5 but includes customer-requested upgrades and features.

A5+ features and upgrades
– built-in power amps
– advance tuned cabinet with rear-ported waveguide
– remote control
– dual RCA and mini-jack inputs
– upgraded connectors
– improved thermal management
– variable preamp line out
– new stand-mount threaded inserts
– user-selectable sleep mode

Pricing and Availability
Audioengine 5+ starts at US$399/pair and is available from over 200 authorized resellers or online direct: audioengineusa.com

Does A5+ sound better than the original A5?
Email to request a sample and find out! Also keep us in mind for any upcoming holiday product giveaways or contests.

If you’ll be in Denver this weekend, please stop by and listen to the A5+ and check out our other new products:

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF)
October 14-16, 2011
Marriott Denver Tech Center, Room 438

TONEAudio Gear Review Index is Here!

We’ve reviewed a pretty big pile of gear in the last six years and it can be tough to wade through it all…

So, we’ve launched our new Review Index, which we will be updating 8 times per year to help you sort
it all out. Feel free to download it here:

Let us know what you think, and if there is anything we can do to make the data more accessible.

B&W Teams Up With Lou Reed and Metallica

New York king of avant-rock Lou Reed and best-selling hard rock band Metallica will be featured as part of the exclusive Bowers & Wilkins Sound Sessions series.

The invite-only Bowers & Wilkins Sound Sessions are part of the company’s experiential marketing campaign in North America designed to engage with audiences directly by offering fans access to VIP-only, listening events with their favorite artists while experiencing the music through the world-class Bowers & Wilkins speakers, Zeppelin Air iPod docks and P5 headphones. Recent Sound Sessions events were held with, among others, Academy Award-winner, Jeff Bridges, in Los Angeles and rock superstars, Coldplay, in Austin, Texas.

“Our Sound Sessions are designed to showcase our best-in-class performance with some of the finest artists in the world across all genres, and we are privileged that Lou Reed and Metallica have agreed to be part of this series to celebrate their new, collaborative release, Lulu,” said Tyler Fairchild, Director of Strategic Brand Development for Bowers & Wilkins.
As fearless musical pioneers of different generations, the combination of Lou Reed and Metallica was always going to deliver something startlingly different and exciting, on visceral and cerebral levels. These two giants of modern music first came together in October 2009, at the 25th anniversary Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame concerts in New York. Metallica – founding members singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich plus guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Rob Trujillo – played with the hometown hero Reed on Velvets classics “Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat”. Reed pronounced, “We knew from then that we were made for each other.”

“It’s definitely not a Metallica album, or a Lou Reed album”, offers Kirk. “It’s something else. It’s a new animal, a hybrid. Nobody in our world, the heavy metal world, has ever done anything like this.”

“It’s made us a better band. It’s going to freak some people out”, says Rob. “And that’s good.”

“This,” said Lou, “is the best thing I ever did. And I did it with the best group I could possibly find on the planet. By definition, everybody involved was honest. This has come into the world pure. We pushed as far as we possibly could within the realms of reality.”

The Lou Reed/Metallica Sound Session will be held at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York City on October 24, 2011.

TONEAudio Magazine Issue 40

An Interview with Pink Floyd Drummer Nick Mason
By Bob Gendron

Budget Gear: The NAD C316 BEE
By Jeff Dorgay

Journeyman Audiophile: The BelCanto C5i Integrated/DAC
By Jeff Dorgay

Macro: Six Great Speakers For Your Desktop
By Jeff Dorgay

Old School: The NAD 3020
By Steve Guttenberg

Tone Style

New! The Wino: A Trio of Warm Weather Wines
By Wayne Garcia

The Nike+ GPS Watch

Fiat 500 Sport

SureFit Flashlight
By Kevin Gallucci

Monkees T-shirt

The iGrill

KISS Plushies!


Pearl Jam 20: Bob Gendron covers Pearl Jam’s two day festival

Thievery Corporation By Jeff Dorgay

Current Releases:
Fresh Releases in the Pop/Rock World
By the TONE Staff

Audiophile Pressings
James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Jean-Michel Jarre and more
By Paul Rigby and Jeff Dorgay

Jazz and Blues
Three new releases from Bill Frizell, James Carter Organ Trio and New Zion Trio
By Jim Macnie


ARC PH8 Phono Preamplifier

GamuT M’inent M3 Speakers


B&W’s 802 Diamond Loudspeakers and a visit to B&W
By Jeff Dorgay

The dCS Debussy and a peek inside the dCS Factory
By Jeff Dorgay

MSB Platinum Data, CDIV Transport and Signature DAC IV
By Steve Guttenberg

Benz Micro Ruby Z Phono Cartridge
By Lawrence Devoe


The Curvalicious Dali F5 Speakers

High-end audio products are often subcategorized by a single factor. For instance, in the mid 70s, many speakers built in California had a “West Coast Sound” characterized by a forward treble and somewhat forceful bass. Meanwhile, speakers from the other side of the country were said to possess an “East Coast Sound” favoring midrange accuracy.

While it’s tough to pigeonhole modern speakers according to such parameters, speakers from Denmark seem to share a natural tonality and an ability to capture the essence of instrumental texture without calling attention to their presence. Dali excels at these aspects. Its new F5 Fazon loudspeaker takes prior achievements two steps further by combining timeless styling with great sound and a small footprint.

Available in gloss black, white, or red, the Dali F5 is gorgeous to behold and will look right at home in the most fashionable of homes. Best of all, at $4,495, the F5s are affordable works of art.

Details, Details

Beautiful woodwork is a Danish hallmark, and Dali has always offered great cabinets. Throwing a wrinkle into traditionalism, the curvy F5s are machined from a block of aluminum. The speaker features an absence of parallel surfaces in order to keep to a minimum any cabinet resonance.

The three-driver complement works in a 2 ½-way configuration, with the crossover points set at 800 and 3200Hz, respectively. Dali maintains that their incorporation of wood fibre mixed into the pulp cones utilized in the dual 5-inch woofers are significant contributors to the model’s natural sound; adding increased cone stiffness and a more randomized structure. It also helps with the inner damping of the cone, a claim that only a few minutes of listening confirms as true. I have a personal preference for soft-dome tweeters; I’m always willing to forgo a smidge of ultimate resolution in the service of timbre. And here, the F5 delivers with a 1-inch soft dome tweeter that, as Ice-T would’ve said before he became a “Law and Order” mainstay, keeps it real.

A pair of banana jacks flush-mounted in the silver bases and a tiny compartment that allows you to completely conceal your speaker cables round out the form-and-function factor. Acoustically transparent speaker grilles magnetically attach; your décor and offspring will decide whether they should be left on or off.

Grilles aside, you should have the F5s playing music in a few minutes. Thanks to fairly wide dispersion, they will not suffer terribly if not aligned just right. If you are in the position to fuss over speaker placement, the F5s yield a bit more bass extension if you can keep them about 18 inches from the rear wall. Since the tweeters rise only 29 inches from the floor, lower seating grants the best imaging performance.

Finally, don’t let the 87db sensitivity frighten you: These speakers are incredibly easy to drive and work equally well with tube, transistor, or Class D amplification. Anything from 25 watts per channel and above should get the job done.

The F5’s Evaporative Nature

The F5’s bass response is solid but not overbearing. At first blush, one might think the speakers slightly thin because the upper-mid bass response isn’t goosed to provide a false sense of thickness. However, when called upon to move air, the pair of 5-inch woofers is mightier than the spec sheet suggests. Sampling Peter Gabriel music, old and new—via Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and his more recent Scratch my Back, respectively—the speakers dispense ample impact. Via the F5s, there’s more than enough oomph on “Back in NYC” to sound convincing and hold at bay any thoughts of a subwoofer. Moreover, textures present in the acoustic bass line of “Heroes” on Gabriel’s latest record affirms that’s what is sonically conveyed is anything but one-note bass.

The F5s often remind me of my favorite mini monitors’ midrange clarity. Yet the former take up a smaller footprint than my Harbeth P3ESRs on Sound Anchors stands. Tracking through Pat Metheny’s new What’s It All About? demonstrates how well these speakers keep pace with the guitar icon’s fretwork and harmonics without becoming lifeless and flat.

Of course, enthralling midrange and ample bass don’t alone make a fantastic speaker. Thanks to the small woofers, the F5s offer the degree of coherence required to effortlessly disappear in a room. The resolution will convince you that something very special is happening—an experience that allows you to ease back in the chair and focus on the musical event. Vide, “I’m a King Bee” from Grateful Dead’s Fillmore East: April 1971. The record boasts a wide range of texture and complexity that challenges the best speakers. Answering the bell, the F5s create a wide soundstage that mimics the Fillmore’s hall ambience.

Fatigue-free Finesse

Many speakers make impressive showings during a 10-minute demo. You know the drill: A salesperson plays some plucky guitar bits, runs through some female vocals, and even spruces it up with a touch of classical music or piano fare. It’s often all presented at high decibel levels. Still, you walk away impressed, perhaps so smitten that you reach for your wallet. But somehow, after a few extended listening sessions, those new speakers lose their luster and you’re right back to where you started.

A natural feel, which might initially make the F5s slightly less exciting, is what will keep you enthralled with them down the road. Even after full-day sessions with the F5s, they never become tiring. As much as a crammed Sooloos music server gnaws at my inner DJ and tempts me to spin singles, I find myself listening to many records all the way through with the F5s—truly the mark of a great speaker. I just want to stay in the groove, whether it’s with yet another version of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

No, the F5s do not present the finite level of “pinpoint imaging” that some more decidedly audiophile speakers possess. However, they throw a full-bodied and three-dimensional soundfield. The wood blocks and triangle in Serge Gainsbourg’s “Douze Belles Dans la Peau” from Chant a la Une illustrate this strength. The triangle sporadically pops in all around the room, while the wood blocks are distinctly left of center and somewhat diffused, sounding just like a pair of wood blocks when I strike them in my listening room.

Dynamics are equally impressive. Although small woofers can only move a finite amount of air, these speakers’ woofers give a gold-ribbon performance when faced with heavier fare. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and the Who present no problem. But, if your tastes tend towards the heaviest metal, I suggest adding one of Dali’s subwoofers. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” comes across just fine, but Danzig’s “Am I Demon” requires a stronger push over the cliff. Just as important as dynamics, the F5s retain their open character at low volume levels—not always an easy trick and, perhaps, even more telling of a given speaker’s linearity.

Well? Hello, Dali.

Dali F5 Loudspeakers

www.dali-speakers.com (factory)
www.soundorg.com (US importer)


Digital Source Sooloos Control 15 with dCS Paganini stack
Analog Source Avid Diva SPII/SME 3009/Ortofon SPU
Phono Preamplifier ARC PH6
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson MV-50C1, Channel Islands D500 Mk.II, McIntosh MC 452
Cable Cardas Clear

The Vendetta SCP-2 Phono Stage

Saying that one is “getting in the DeLorean” and going back in time, like the wacky-haired Doc Brown in Back to The Future, has become popular parlance for reminiscing about the past. Wishful pop-culture references aside, I recently drove a DeLorean, and it’s nothing worth remembering. But I also test drove something else from the 80s that proved much better than that fabled car.

John Curl, the master circuit designer, formed his own company during the Reagan era after being unfairly treated by a number of high-end audio manufacturers. Aptly, he named his firm Vendetta Research and helped launch it with the phono preamplifier you see here. It’s price? A staggering $1,895—a seemingly exorbitant cost when cable television amounted to a few dozen channels and a $23 monthly bill. You could even buy a nice, clean Porsche 356 for only a few grand back then!

Going back in time again, I remember the day I purchased a used Vendetta in 1989. I was driving a Fiat 850 Spyder held together with duct tape. I moseyed into Scottdale’s Esoteric Audio to pester the local audio merchant when owner Gary Hjerpe escorted me into the back room. Puzzled, I became worried he was going to administer justice, Wild West style, given that I had been a lot of kicking tires of late. Instead, in a low, reverent tone, he said, “I just took a Vendetta in on trade from one of my wealthier clients. It’s perfect. You need this.”

Yes, people that drive $300 cars need $2,000 phono preamplifiers. For those of you that don’t know, a Fiat 850 Spyder’s engine is barely the size of a loaf of bread; its radiator resembles the small boxes that contain iPads. Daring to cruise around in such a car also meant that I needed to keep spare cash in my pocket. And the Vendetta sounded so good. The instant I played the first record, I knew the preamp was not going back to the store and that my credit card would be maxed.

At the time, my system included a Dynavector Ruby Carat mounted on an Oracle Delphi II. Channeled through Quad 57s, the music sounded heavenly. At last, I knew what J. Gordon Holt meant when he proffered, “Every disc I played sounded more like the master tape.” But, as fate would have it, the Fiat soon failed me, and I had to move the Vendetta down the road. It became a luxury I could no longer afford. After making the purchase, its new owner slithered off into the night, the amp grasped tightly under his arm. Oh, the horror.

Worried that my second go-around with this intriguing piece of gear would summon the feelings of attending an ill-fated high-school reunion, I unwrapped the Vendetta with trepidation. The memories were good, yet analog has come a long way since the mid-80s. Still, like a Vincent Black Shadow, this phonostage is legendary, causing grown men to speak in hushed tones when mentioning it. Having just reviewed the Parasound JC-2 phonostage, also designed by John Curl (and quite amazing in its own right for $2,500), I was extremely curious to hear how this box would perform.

My AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Koetsu Urushi Blue proved a perfect match for the Vendetta, which only allows the input loading to be varied from 20 to 200 ohms. It took 24 hours for the last touch of haze on the top end to disappear, but once it did, yow!

Quiet? Forever and always the Vendetta’s hallmark. This was one of the first phono preamplifiers that prompted reviewers to issue descriptive comments such as “inky black backgrounds.” When discussing the Vendetta in regard to his latest Parasound creation, Curl mentions that FET transistors he utilized in the construction of the former no longer exist. “Even if I could get my hands on semiconductors that good, a Vendetta would have a $8-$10k price tag,” he says. And he’s not crazy. Having a couple of phono preamps at my disposal that tip the scale between $12-$20k, I can attest that the Vendetta still stands up to pricier newcomers.

Imaging is fantastic, extending way beyond the speaker boundaries. Dynamics are powerful yet controlled, and there is plenty of bass weight. To ensure the noise floor is kept to the absolute minimum, Curl didn’t even include an LED on the front panel to indicate power status. Indeed, even with an ARC REF 5 preamplifier turned all the way up, the only noise present is a slight bit of tube rush (from the REF)—and this at a level more than necessary to drive my power amplifier to its peak power output.

Sadly, this Vendetta had to leave my studio and go back to its original owner, who requested anonymity so that people won’t beg him to sell it. Want one? A cursory check of eBay for this white whale revealed that a fairly clean SCP-2A unit recently sold for $1,600. That buyer is in for a treat.

Now you can live in the Wilco Building…

Our editor Bob Gendron (who lives in Chicago) just tipped me off to this incredible real estate deal…

No, it’s not a vacation timeshare in some bizarre place, it’s a luxury condo right in downtown Chicago. Show off your enthusiasm for modern architecture and Wilco with this 2 bedroom condo located in Bertrand Golberg’s Marina City, also displayed on the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Here’s a link: http://bit.ly/n3NJEo

$535,000 and a 42nd floor view of Chicago can be yours. Very cool.

Channel Islands D500 MKII Monoblocks

Early class D amplifiers resemble the first efforts at CD players; a great idea that wasn’t fully realized on the first iteration or two. If you’ve been around long enough to remember just how bad those first CD players sounded, you’ll probably agree that the first class D amplifiers offered up the same aural aesthetic, sounding two dimensional, somewhat shrill on the top end and fatiguing after a short period of time.

In the last year or so, class D has improved dramatically and recent efforts by Devialet (a variation on the class D concept), Audio Research and Bel Canto reveal that these amplifiers can hold their own with their more current hungry brothers.

Add Channel Islands to that list, matter of fact, put them right at the top. The latest D-500 MKII monoblocks you see here are incredibly capable. Unlike other designs the CI amplifiers utilize a custom, full-bridge module that is not available to the DIY community along with some of their own circuitry. CI owner Dusty Vawter told me that they only use the UcD modulator and Class D output section of the module. The rest is customized in house. “You need to do some serious R&D to get great sound, you can’t just stick an ICE module in a box.”

Channel Islands has built some massive power supplies to go along with these amplifiers. While small on the outside, they weigh almost 30 pounds each. Popping the top reveals large capacitor banks and heavy wiring – these amps are built to rock. However a little bit of patience is required; the D500 MKIIs sound pretty stiff out of the box, but once powered up and played for about 2-3 days, the congestion clears to a bold, dynamic sound. Vawter mentioned that the modules have some power constantly applied when in standby mode, so they only take about 10 minutes to sound their best once the initial run in has been completed. Considering that these amplifiers only draw about 13 watts of power each, I suggest leaving them on all the time.

Speaker Compatibility

Past experience with Class D amplifiers reveals they are often sensitive to speaker matching, just like a vacuum tube amplifier- some combinations can be fantastic, while others can be awful, so an audition is definitely required. We made it a point to audition the D-500 MKIIs with a wide range of speakers: The Verity Rienzis, MartinLogan Aerius and ElectroMotion, the Magnepan 1.6, 1.7 and 3.7s the new Dali P5, Harbeth P3ESRs, B&Ws 805 and 802 Diamond and of course, my reference GamuT S9s.

This comprises a fairly wide range of loads, some easy to drive, others not as much. The D-500 MKIIs turned in an excellent performance in with everything on the list except for the B&W Diamonds. Wanting to verify whether this was anomalous behavior with my speakers or something else in my reference system, installing the D500 MKIIs in another system featuring 800 Diamonds exhibited the same rolloff in the HF region, compared to all the other amplifiers at my disposal. I would suggest the owners of B&W’s Diamond series to get a thorough demo first and CI agrees – they offer a 30 day money back guarantee – less a 10% restock fee and return shipping. A small price to pay to assure system synergy.

It’s also worth mentioning that the D-500 MKIIs worked well with a wider range of speakers than any other Class D amplifier I’ve yet sampled. And they are an exceptional match with the Magnepans, which are typically power hungry. If you are considering a pair of Maggies, the CI monoblocks would be at the top of my list.

Preamplifier Compatibility

The D500 MKIIs are neutral tonally, neither adding warmth to the sound, nor forward sounding in a way that could be construed as a thin presentation. However, system synergy and compatibility is always an issue – in the view of this writer perhaps one of the most important, yet most often disregarded elements of system setup.

Marvelous results were achieved with all four of the preamplifiers on hand. (Croft 25, McIntosh C500, Burmester 011 and the Audio Research REF 5) All but the Croft were balanced preamplifiers and connected thusly. While the arguments continue to go back and forth about the value of balanced versus single ended design, I preferred the D500 MKII’s in balanced mode more – the presentation appeared a bit quieter overall. However, if you have a single ended (RCA) preamplifier, don’t shy away from these amps, you will not be disappointed.

Preferring the combination of a tube preamplifier with a solid state power amplifier to cheat the equation, if you will – getting the grip and slam of solid state with the added warmth of tubes thrown in for good measure worked well here. Neutrality is a two edged sword; some want to hear everything on a record “warts and all,” while others want hyper detail, with yet others liking a certain amount of tonal richness to the sound (that can either be described as warm, romantic or even distorted).

Biases exposed, a little bit of tonal warmth still gets my vote, as long as it doesn’t affect the pace of the music – a tough order, but it can be done. The perfect combination ended up being with the McIntosh C500 control center, a two box preamplifier that incorporates an excellent MM and MC phono stage built in, with enough inputs for everything you can imagine. Vawter encouraged me to take this direction, “We have a lot of customers that really enjoy our amps with a tube preamp.” The C500 used as a reference component at TONEAudio is hot rodded ever so slightly with a full compliment of EAT 12AX7 tubes that retains the tonal balance of this preamplifier while offering more dynamic range and a lower noise floor.

Because the D500 MK IIs possess very high gain, (32db or they can be supplied as a higher gain model featuring 38db of gain), most preamplifiers should present no problem and these amplifiers should lend themselves well to a passive preamplifier as well. When using the CI amplifiers with the ARC REF 5, the level never went past 15 on the fluorescent display to achieve maximum volume, which is very low. Even vintage preamplifiers with minimal output will have no problem driving the D500 MKIIs to maximum output.

Further Listening

The neutrality that these amplifiers exhibit makes them a great building block because they will not add to the character of other components in your system, making it easier to lock in speakers (undoubtedly the toughest component to interface with your room) and amplifier while tuning to taste, if necessary, elsewhere. Think of your amplifier and speakers as the rhythm section in a band – that essential foundation, that everything else builds upon.

Trixie Whitley’s lead vocal just leapt out of the GamuT’s on the first track, “Love Lives” from Black Dub’s self titled album, with Daniel Lanois’ backing vocals floating from left to right across the soundstage, somewhat diminished in the distance. An abrupt switch to a few trippier selections from Jean-Michel Jarre further confirmed the three-dimensionality delivered by the D500 MKIIs. Equinoxe never sounded better, and Zoolook offered up stirring bass lines.

Following this quest for bass a little further, Ursula 1000s disc, Mystics proved that the D500 MKIIs could not only deliver a large soundfield, but they could deliver deep bass with power and control. Pushing the G9’s to rave music was effortless and even at deafening volume (It felt like being back at the MICS festival in Monaco, minus the dancing girls) these amplifiers kept a lock on the pace, offering up wall shaking beats with no shrinkage of soundstage in either dimension. And of course, all the Yello tracks rattled the room.

This grand soundfield increased as I switched to vinyl – after a few of my favorite LP’s I forgot that I was listening to the tiny boxes on top of the $60,000 pair of Bumester 911 power amplifiers. Again, Vawter encouraged me to compare the D500 MKIIs to the best amplifiers I could get my hands on and they proved formidable. When listening through the GamuT S9s there was still one hurdle between the Burmester, ARC and Pass Labs amplifiers at my disposal in terms of removing the last bit of grain, or palpability, but I can’t remember ever hearing a pair of $5,000 amplifiers sounding anywhere near this good. It was only when I returned to the big bucks amps that I noticed a difference.

Making the power hungry Magnepan 1.7’s part of the equation was equally splendid. One of the biggest dilemmas with the Magnepan speakers is that while they are highly revealing for an inexpensive speaker, they require a lot of power to really light up the listening room. The D500 MKIIs took control of the Magnepans as well as some of the world’s best amplifiers have- I can’t think of an amplifier I would suggest more highly for someone looking to build a high performance system around the 1.7’s (or the 3.7’s for that matter) at a reasonable cost.

The absence of a sound

The Channel Islands D500 MKII amplifiers sounded great and made no missteps while in our care. We will be adding them to our reference fleet of amplifiers, so you will be hearing more about them in the months to come. I feel compelled to give these amplifiers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011 as well – they represent tremendous performance and build quality. A well thought out product in every way.

The Channel Islands D500 MKII monoblocks



Preamplifier McIntosh C500

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

Phono Stage ARC REF Phono 2

Speakers Gamut S9

Power Running Springs Maxim and Dmitri power line conditioners