ARC SE Models Arrive!

The new SE version of the spectacular REF 5 preamplifier and REF Phono 2 have just arrived and our mascot is enjoying them even before they are out of the box.

According to ARC, both models have larger, improved power supplies, along with some internal parts upgrades as well.  Both of these units benefit from what ARC learned developing their 40th Anniversary preamplifier.  Reviews will be in process as soon as we can get the pup down.

For more info, click here:

Issue 44

Budget Gear:  The Ortofon MC Vivo Cartridge

By Jerold O’Brien

Journeyman Audiophile: The Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amp
By Jeff Dorgay

Tone Style

Kuma’s Corner:  Metal, Beer, Red Meat and Anger!

By Bob Gendron

Visiting the Macallan’s Distillery in Scotland

By Bailey S. Barnard

Cool Jazz Ice Cube Trays

The iCade Gaming Console

iRobot Roomba Vacuum

B&W’s Zeppelin air

And, much more…


Live Music: Bob Gendron covers Wilco

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

Audiophile Pressings
Skynyrd, Carole King, BTO and more
By Lawrence Devoe and Jeff Dorgay

Jazz and Blues
Three new releases from Esperanza Spalding, Bryan & The Gaggards and the Tord Gustavsen Quartet
By Jim Macnie


PS Audio P10 Power Plant

Dynaudio Confidence C1 mk. II speakers


Danish Modern: The Davone Ray Loudspeakers
By Steve Guttenberg

Single Box Perfection:  The ARC REF 150 Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

Myriad Options: The Monk Audio Phonostage
By Jacob Heilbrunn

A Case of Bass:  The MartinLogan Montis Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay


New High Performance Separates from Onkyo

Legendary manufacturer Onkyo is now shipping their latest Reference components, comprised of the M-5000R power amplifier (remember those cool power meters from the 70’s? They’re back!) featuring 150 watts per channel, the C-7000R CD player and the P-3000R Preamplifier that features an on-board DAC and phono stage.  The M-5000R has an MSRP of $2,699, the C-7000R, $1,699 and the P-3000R, $1,899.

These looked very impressive at this years Consumer Electronics Show and will be making their way here for review shortly.  Stay tuned.

World’s First Review!

Imagine controlling ten our even twenty thousand full-resolution albums from your iPad while basking in the comfort of a cozy couch or listening chair. Meridian’s new Media Core App for the renowned Sooloos music server makes it possible. If you’ve played with a Sooloos at a hi-fi show or a local dealer, you know the effortlessness with which a Sooloos presents a large music collection. And if you are a current Sooloos owner, you’ve been dreaming about this marriage since the minute you unpacked your iPad.

Sooloos’ strengths are its speed and ease by which its touchscreen allows users to jump from album to album, and across genres and artists. It simultaneously loads up the music you want to hear at that exact moment, accessing music collections via album covers and you can discover the other albums in a set and by the artist in your collection.  It’s better than flipping through musty record bins.

The cost of a complete system will be a barrier to entry for some, as the Control 15 core (which is essentially a complete Windows PC with an integral touch screen and Smartlink output and has 500 gb of internal storage that still requires external backup) has an MSRP of $8,500.  Those with larger music collections need only add the Media Drive 600, which can be configured to contain about 7500 albums with backup.

Still not a budget music server, the iPad/Media Core 200 dramatically lowers the cost of a Sooloos system and can easily grow with your budget and music collection. Along with more storage, sound quality can also be improved with the addition of an MS 600, 818, or 808.3 digital front end.  MSRP on the Media Core 200 is $4,000.

According to Peter Welikoff, Meridian’s US Director, the average Sooloos user has just under 3000 CDs—meaning that a single Media Drive 600 should satisfy all but those listeners with giant libraries. For the latter, Sooloos is infinitely scalable. Enno Vandermeer, the man behind Sooloos’ architecture, says he’s aware of users with 25,000-disc collections reporting their Sooloos’ perform flawlessly and without loss of speed.

Mind-bending as the system is, holding everything on the iPad screen is almost otherworldly. In addition to providing album-art navigation, clicking on an album image immediately reveals cover art, track listing, and credits. It also allows you to tag music by mood and genre. A music lover’s dream, the app lets you mix your collection at will, and affords instant additions or subtractions should your desires change.  And, you are only one click away from having reviews of these albums, courtesy of All Music Guide, at your disposal.  A welcome feature on the Control 15, but infinitely more enjoyable when perusing from listening position. Any time during your listening session, merely tapping the Meridian logo will display the current track playing, a nice touch.

Other favorite Sooloos features are there as well, focus and swim functions also allow you to concentrate on a particular artist, mood, or genre, taking random play to another level completely.  Want to just listen to 60’s blues, old school rap or string quartets?  Piece of cake, and no other music software allows this amount of control.

Setup is as easy as installing Angry Birds on an iPad. Upon launch, the app seeks the system core and takes about 30 seconds to load the album covers. (While the Sooloos system still claims optimum performance when hardwired to an Ethernet network, the Media Core App works wirelessly with the iPad, so you will need wireless capability on your home network as well.) Once installed and running, current users will marvel at the integration. Provided you have a strong Wi-Fi signal, the iPad controls the Sooloos system as quickly as the Control 15. However, if you do not have maximum signal, you’ll notice a slight lag in page-loading and track selection. This is like going from a manual transmission to an automatic—not objectionable, but not as snappy. Note: Should you be starting from scratch and using a pair of Meridian’s excellent powered loudspeakers, you only need the Media Core 200 and the speakers to make a complete system that can all be directly controlled from the iPad.

To faithful owners, the app is overdue. But the Meridian/Sooloos team wanted to be sure it was fully sorted upon release, and it performs without a hitch. When viewing final beta versions at CES this past January, you could still occasionally crash the iPad. I was unable to trip-up this final version.

As a veteran Sooloos owner, I couldn’t be more excited about this addition to the system. Sure, you can assemble computer-based music server together for much less than the price of a Sooloos. Yet Sooloos remains without peer when it comes to true plug-and-play solutions that seamlessly take care of backup files. Not to mention that it possesses the industry’s most intuitive interface. Bob Stuart makes it clear that the design goal with the iPad was to offer the same level of features and performance as the Control 15 on a portable platform, and it only takes a moment using the app to see that they have indeed.

Bringing this level of functionality to the iPad is beyond brilliant – it sets the gold standard for music servers even higher.  Legacy Sooloos owners take note, the Sooloos moniker will be fading away and new music server products will rolled out under the Meridian nameplate – everything under the hood and on the pad will remain the same.

The app is free now at the Apple App Store, but you will need a Meridian Music Server to take advantage of it.

Click here to go directly to the App Store.

Rega Apollo – R CD Player

Rega’s Apollo-R smokes the dCS Paganini. Okay, it’s not that awesome, but I got your attention, no? In all seriousness, the Apollo-R is a damn fine CD player. Even as computer audio continues to be all the rage, many people still enjoy dropping a CD into a transport and pushing “Play.” Rega is one reason why they do.

The Apollo-R matches the recent Brio-R and DAC in size and form. Rega uses a similar but not exactly the same case for everything—a strategy meant to retain high quality and performance while keeping the price low. However, Rega components sport a smart, stylish, and functional look. Legacy customers will notice the top-loading “spaceship lid” is continuous with that of the previous Apollo. The major difference is that the Apollo-R boasts a “half-size” enclosure akin to the Brio-R integrated amplifier and DAC.

Rega CD players do not take a disproportionate amount of time to acclimate or “break in.” Once unpacked and set up, the Apollo-R sounds smashing, and opens up even more once powered up for 48 hours. While Rega offers an upgraded mains cable with its flagship ISIS player, and extends this approach via the Apollo-R, purchasing an expensive power cord doesn’t jibe with the overall ethos. More improvement is easily had with the Rega DAC.

A Major Improvement

“The Apollo does a fantastic job with the fundamentals. Pace, timing, and tonality—they are all here in great quantity for the price.” That’s what I said about the Apollo in Issue 14. Both generations of Apollo possess a very analog-like quality, but aren’t the last word in transient attack or bone-crushing dynamics. Considering how many CDs are now mastered, such shortcomings aren’t awful.

Still, the Apollo-R adds extension and sock without compromising traits that made the original model so wonderful. That’s progress, especially when you consider the initial unit sells for $100 more. Notably, the advancements have not come at the cost of lost jobs at the UK-based Rega factory. Every product is still handmade by skilled technicians, many of which have labored at Rega for decades.

In Service of the Music

The minute you begin listening, Apollo-R’s signature characteristics spring to the surface. Highly non-digital-sounding, the player excels in peeling back the layers of complex, compressed recordings without instilling harshness. The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen is a somewhat-compressed CD that instantly goes south when experienced on a mediocre unit. But the disc reveals a fair amount of texture on a resolving player that straddles the boundaries of resolution and musicality.

On the record’s title track, it’s all too easy for lead singer Greg Dulli’s voice to become buried amidst the growling guitars, doing no service to this 1993 epic. The Apollo-R takes the challenge in stride, keeping Dulli’s vocal track separated from the other musical information. Black Dub’s self-titled debut suffers the same problem. The disc is crunchy and slightly compressed, enough so that it diminishes the overall experience. The Apollo-R tremendously improves the music delivery, again providing requisite separation while locking in the deep bass grooves.

Where the first-generation Apollo claims inherent smoothness, it’s obvious that some of the benefit comes at the expense of air and extension. The bell in “The Wedding” from David Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise showcases more natural decay via the Apollo-R. On the original model, it goes flat and decays too quickly. The new player sounds much more like the $2,595 Saturn and in some ways, better.

The Apollo-R’s greatest forte? The nimble way it navigates tough musical passages without losing its way. Diana Krall’s Live in Paris sounds great on damn near anything, but properly playing back Metallica or Rachmaninoff takes a great CD player. The Apollo-R passes both tests with ease.

Maintains the Pace

If you frequent either UK audio forums or newsstands, “pace” and “timing” frequently appear. These words apply to a hi-fi component (or a whole system) in terms of how well the latter keeps individual players sorted without sacrificing musical cohesiveness. Have you ever heard a band in which the drummer can’t seem to keep time with the rest of the group? That’s pace. Have you ever heard amateur musicians attempting a symphonic piece, and fail at starting and stopping in unison? That’s timing. And while not quite as magnified through a stereo system, music doesn’t adequately lock in and focus if reproduction mechanisms are found lacking.

The better your system, the more cohesiveness will be present. If you listen to a very inexpensive CD player, focus gets lost. As the source quality improves, so does this aspect of musical reproduction. The Apollo-R shines at keeping the pace in a manner that even curmudgeonly listeners will appreciate.

Tonality to Spare

So far, so good. But natural tonality separates great components from mediocre ones. Here, again, the Apollo-R proves sublime. On jazz and classical favorites, piano and violin are reproduced in a highly convincing fashion. This is not a CD player for which you’ll make excuses.

A few years ago, many audiophiles would brag about how a $400 turntable could humble the best CD players. Those days are over. Comparing the Apollo-R to the new Rega RP3 with Exact cartridge results in a much closer heat than I expected. While the vinyl possesses a skosh of midrange warmth absent in the digital player, the latter offers wider dynamic range and impact.

Comparing two excellent pressings of Beck’s Sea Change from Mobile Fidelity verifies these findings. Yet, when one biases the comparison, performing the same experiment with a random copy of Johnny Winter’s Second Winter and Mobile Fidelity’s gold Beck CD, the Apollo-R surpasses its analog counterpart. After hearing a few discs on the Apollo-R, it’s amazing to think about how far digital has come. Such performance would have cost thousands more at the turn of the century.

To DAC or Not to DAC

Rega’s $999 DAC takes the Apollo-R even further. Is it worth an extra grand? If you have a highly resolving system, you won’t be disappointed. Not to mention the upgrade affords five digital inputs and greater system-expansion capabilities—including the ability to play high-resolution files.

The DAC also brings superior smoothness to the overall sound, and when switching back and forth between the Apollo-R’s analog outputs and those of the DAC, graininess appears in the Apollo-R that you wouldn’t notice if you hadn’t comparatively listened to them. The units’ chipset is similar. Yet the DAC enjoys a beefier analog stage, a larger power supply, and the ability for the user to select digital filter options.

Unlike getting a sports car equipped with finely tuned sport suspension, where you sacrifice some ability driving on normal roads in exchange for increased performance, there’s no downside to adding the DAC. If you have an extra thousand bucks, and your dealer is kind enough to let you take the DAC home for the weekend, you’ll have a tough time bringing it back Monday morning.

A New Plateau

Rega has been on a roll for years, introducing a plethora of products in the top, bottom, and middle of its range—all of which share the common goal of striving to be class leaders. Admittedly “the last major high-end company to produce a CD player,” the firm doesn’t release transports just to add a button here or there. Substantial increases in performance are required. A recipient of our 2012 Exceptional Value Award, the compact Apollo-R CD player achieves those feats and more.

Rega Apollo-R

MSRP: $1,095                                  (UK)                            (US Distributor)


Amplification                          Rega Brio-R, Burmester 011 pre/911 mk. 3 power amp

Speakers                                  Harbeth Compact 7es3, MartinLogan Montis, GamuT S9

Cable                                       Cardas Clear

Red Wine Audio’s Signature 15 Amplifier

After dining at an eatery that offered “bite-sized” portions of signature desserts, I realized it’s truly possible to have a small albeit high-quality portion of something you really enjoy. For listeners wanting a solid taste of high-end sound on a limited budget, a few components promise a solid peek into the high end at a reasonable price. The audiophile press deems such modules “giant killers”— a misnomer as well as an overused term. In the end, you get what you pay for, and cost cutting means compromise. Nonetheless, you can cheat the equation in your favor.

Enter Red Wine Audio, known in the hi-fi industry for offering high quality at reasonable prices. The company cuts corners in the right places, benefiting quality-oriented audiophiles that keep an eye on the bottom line. Red Wine Audio’s units sport well-done albeit spartan casework. Features are kept to a minimum and the manufacturer sells direct, eliminating the markup required to maintain a dealer network. No, this business model doesn’t always work. But Red Wine Audio’s small boxes keep to a minimum shipping expenses. The firm also offers some of the industry’s best trade in-prices (sometimes a full 100%) when new models are introduced. These factors, and others, result in a fiercely loyal customer base.

Red Wine Audio’s sophisticated approach to battery-powered gear is its other main calling card. The strategy represents an excellent tradeoff: Instead of sacrificing quality, the company increases it by eliminating the big, beefy power supply present in most amplifiers and replacing it with the high-current Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) battery pack. Red Wine Audio correctly implements battery power, addressing a number of issues. Massive power transformers are fairly expensive. As are the huge bank of filter capacitors that must accompany a high-capacity power supply. Hence, Red Wine Audio’s method stifles the build costs, saving the user on the retail price and eliminating the need for an expensive power cord and line conditioner. To charge, the $1,500 Signature 15 only requires a connection to the AC power grid.

Proof is in the Pudding

Given the LiFePO4’s presence in the integrated amplifier, what better song to play than Nirvana’s “Lithium” as covered by the Bad Plus on For All I Care. The Signature 15 immediately captures the track’s dreaminess, with lead vocalist Wendy Lewis floating between the speakers, which do a fantastic job of disappearing. What’s responsible for the quiet backdrop permeating the presentation? The battery pack. And what’s blacker than black? The Signature 15.

The record’s next track, “Comfortably Numb,” is even more scrumptious. Lewis’ phrasing includes multiple dead stops and, thanks to the Signature 15’s slight warmth and incredible decay, she and the bassist float off into a super-quiet place. You’d never guess you are listening to a $1,500 integrated amplifier. And that’s exactly what makes the Signature 15 so awesome.


Thanks to the absence of background noise, instrumental and vocal textures are exquisitely rendered and low-level details easy to discern.  Zooming back through a recent crop of Audio Wave Blue Note XRCDs, I can’t help but notice what a killer job this amplifier does with Johnny Cole’s trumpet on Little Johnny C. Wow. The solo during “My Sweet Passion” makes me feel like I’m back in Kevin Gray’s studio listening to the master tape. The Signature 15 is the antithesis of grain.

Admittedly, the Peak Consult Kepheus speakers give the Signature 15 some help due to their high-resolution capabilities. Yet this amplifier’s “signature” sound plays through whatever speakers with which the unit is paired. If you’ve ever had the chance to listen to a great straight-line-tracking tonearm, you’ll find battery power possesses similarities.  There’s a certain cleanliness, and at the same time, an unmistakably, highly organic sound.

On the Cole disc, the Signature 15 captures the timbre of the horn with lightning-fast acceleration and deceleration, providing the necessary dynamics and furthering the illusion that one is listening to live music. Getting a little funkier, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters doubles as an obstacle course of acoustic pylons through which the Signature 15 easily weaves. It anchors the bass line while intelligently sorting Hancock’s layers of electronic keyboards.

Metalheads with inefficient speakers will need a different amplifier. 15 watts per channel (yes, it does double into four ohms) and a pair of 88db speakers will not rock you like a hurricane. However, you can listen at moderate levels with lower-efficiency speakers. The 85db Dynaudio Confidence C1 IIs, courtesy of an easy-to-drive first-order crossover, prove a wonderful combination on all but the heaviest music. Indeed, this partnership will come on like a dream to jazz and blues aficionados living in a small space.

Fleetwood Mac’s Blues Jam in Chicago stuns the senses, painting a soundscape that extends past the Dynaudios and all the way to the room boundaries, about 8 feet from the sidewalls. As much as I love big amplifiers, there’s something special about the simplicity a low-powered amplifier brings to the equation.

Nelson Pass and a few other designers often talk about the paradigm of the very simple circuit. It’s time to invite Red Wine Audio designer Vinnie Rossi to the conversation. With the Signature 15, he mines pure gold with an amplifier that expresses the soul of music.

More of What You Need…And None of What You Don’t

If you’re first and foremost a music lover, chances are you aren’t hung up on craving a ½-inch thick front panel, massive remote, or other fancy cosmetics that—while they are nice on the world’s finest components—don’t add to the sound. The Signature 15 is a budget component in price only. Its musical experience is caviar. Logistically, it features three high-level RCA inputs, a pair of solid speaker binding posts, and a buffered line–level output for those needing to incorporate a powered subwoofer. The binding posts and jacks are the same as those employed on my Conrad Johnson Premier 350 power amplifier. Again, Red Wine Audio follows a “quality where it counts” philosophy.

Removing the cover reveals a single 6922 (ECC88 or 6DJ8) tube and tidy layout. Battery and charging circuitry are off to one side, tube preamp/buffer stage on the other, and the AB Mosfet power amplifier hidden inside a red case. The Stock JJ ECC88 provides excellent tonal balance and low background noise. Anyone wanting to tube roll can fine-tune the Signature 15 to personal preferences, and still, the stock tube constitutes an excellent place to begin listening.

While the Signature 15 achieves stadium-rock levels with a pair of Klipschorns, Tannoys, or Zu speakers, achieving these highs isn’t what this amplifier is about. Rather, it hypnotizes via a level of refinement that few products at its price can. Even compared to the 2011 TONEAudio Product of the Year, the Rega Brio–R, the Signature 15 flaunts a purity that eclipses that of the Brio. (In the latter’s defense, it boasts a lower price tag, 50 watts per channel, and a nice built-in phonostage.)

Time and again, at reasonable levels, with the Red Wine Audio Signature 15, you’ll swear you are listening to a much more expensive amplifier. That’s this product’s essence: It’s a single bite of the best chocolate mousse. Yum.

Red Wine Audio Signature 15 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,500


Analog Source                         Linn LP-12/Shure V15vmxr

Digital Source                          Rega DAC, Sooloos Control 15

Phono Preamp                                    Monk Audio

Speakers                                  Zu Bookshelves, Harbeth Compact 7, Dynaudio Confidence C1 mk. II, Peak Consult Kepheus

Cable                                       Furutech Reference III

B&W’s Zeppelin Air

B&W began a revolution of sound, style and function in 2008 with the original Zeppelin. Competing with a plethora of cheapo iPod docks that sounded dreadful, B&W created an aural and visual tour de force, functioning much more than an iPod dock, with multiple inputs (line level, USB, Toslink and S-Video) to make the Zeppelin a true compact hifi system.

Past and present models look virtually identical, with only subtle differences between them.  The first generation Zeppelin has a polished aluminum rear face, where the Air sports black.  Around front, the iPod cradle now says “Bowers and Wilkins” where it said “B&W” before, but you won’t really need that cradle anymore.  The cradle indicator LED now glows purple, meaning you are connected wirelessly to your iPhone, iPod or iPad, once you’ve taken a few minutes to enable AirPlay.

While our original Zeppelin survived teenager torture for four years, everyone sighed a huge sigh of relief thanks to AirPlay, knowing there would be no more rough and tumble with the dock.  The wireless connectivity also makes for a ton of fun when friends visit – now everyone can play their music through the Zeppelin Air.

And What a Sound it Makes

The original Zeppelin redefined tabletop possibilities with its 2.1 speaker system, consisting of a centrally located woofer (powered by a 50 watt amplifiers) with a pair of Kevlar midrange drivers and dome tweeters (powered by a 25 watt amplifier per channel) derived from B&Ws 800 series of home speakers.

Those wanting to peruse some cool video clips with in-depth technology assessments can click here:

Everything in the Zeppelin Air has been upgraded.  The internal DAC is now able to play 24/96 files native (through the digital line input) and upsamples everything else to this resolution, along with the ability to grab the digital bitstream straight from the iPod, instead of merely using the line level output as the original model did.

Side by side, comparing the new and old Zeppelin is like comparing the Jaguar XK and XKR – most of the differences are under the hood. The speakers have been upgraded and now each one of the four drivers has its own 25 watt amplifier, rather than each midrange and tweeter pair sharing one.  This is evident the minute the volume climbs above a whisper – and much like the two Jags, you don’t realize how handy that extra power is until you climb back into the lesser car.  The Zeppelin always did an excellent job with heavy music, but now when playing hard rock or heavy hip hop, it provides a thunderous presentation.

The sublime seperaration between the bass line and guitars when playing Tool now makes the Zeppelin a serious metal machine.  With a tiny bit of room reinforcement on the kitchen countertop, “Intolerance” (from the Undertow album) fooled a few dinner guests into thinking the theater system in the other room was on.  And yes, I play metal when I’m cooking.  The increased bass response and power will appeal to those in the latter category as well, the deep synth bass pervading MIDIval PunditZ “Atomizer” had the cutlery rattling in a way the original never could.

Horsepower without finesse is uninteresting (or perhaps a Dodge Viper) and again the Zeppelin Air glides through effortlessly. The piano solo on Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” from the self titled album was brilliant and hung in the air well in front of the speakers possessing exceptional timbral accuracy.  Whatever secrets lurk in the DSP processing, the engineers in charge should get a pay raise.  If I only had $600 to spend on a system, I wouldn’t even bother with separates.  Those in a compact space will find that the Zeppelin Air makes a great addition to your flat screen TV for a lot less than any number of soundbars now available.

To Dock or Not to Dock

Handy as Air Play is, if the music on your iPod has been stored in Apple Lossless or uncompressed format, there’s a real advantage to plugging in – the new DAC takes the digital bitstream directly from the player, bypassing the one in the iPod.

It will only take a second to make you a believer in the cause of higher resolution.  The Zeppelin Air sounds deflated when you go back to MP3’s – it’s that performance thing again.  Should you be a real digital audio geek, you can import 24/96 files via the optical input and Mac Mini.  The Zeppelin has enough resolution to showcase high res files, and some of my favorite downloads from HD Tracks and the B&W Society of Sound websites were even more exciting than playing from the iPod in 16/44.1 mode.  Miles Davis’ horn on the title track from Tutu, exploded from the Zep, full of life and resonance.

Having both wired and wireless modes available makes the Zeppelin Air easily adaptable to however you’d like to listen.  AirPlay is perfect for casual listening, yet you can achieve substantially higher quality plugging your device directly in.

I’m Neither Dazed nor Confused

I’ve made it all the way through this review without making any reference to that great band with the same name, but my Anti-Zeppelin muscles can only stay flexed for so long.  I wound up the evaluation with “Stairway to Heaven.”  I couldn’t resist, and it was awesome.

Kidding aside, we are proud to award the B&W Zeppelin Air one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.  The worlds best iPod dock goes from marvelous to monstrous and in four years, the price has stayed the same, at $599.  The Zeppelin Air rules.

The B&W Zeppelin Air

MSRP:  $599

AVID’s Diva II and Diva II SP Turntables

Perusing the Car Configurator on Porsche’s Web site is daunting. Options abound, and prices get wacky in a hurry. Sure, you can get in the game for just under $50k, but the top end of the range demands about $150,000 from your savings. Your first instinct is to get more power—because, after all, that’s the testosterone-fueled thing to do, right? Yet just how much performance does an entry-level car possess? Can you still get the Porsche experience with the base Boxster?

It all reminds me of the time I sat across the table from race-car driver Hurley Haywood and discussed the perfect Porsche for everyday use. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “There are probably eight people in the world that can drive a Porsche 911 to 100% of its capability and you’re looking at one of them.” It’s hard to argue with the man that won the prestigious 24 hours of LeMans for Porsche three times, and secured more endurance racing titles than just about anyone else. “Just get the Boxster. It will do everything you need it to do, with no sacrifices in performance in day to day driving.”

A similar case can be made for the AVID Diva II and Diva II SP turntables. If the company’s $20,000 Acutus Reference SP isn’t in the budget, think of its entry-level ‘tables as the equivalent of a Boxster and Boxster S, incorporating priorities that make the top-end ‘tables fantastic—just in a slightly smaller, more compact packages. Both models embrace a healthy amount of Acutus Reference DNA at a fraction of the cost. The $1,995 Diva II is bettered by the $3,995 Diva II SP, which offers increases in sonic performance concurrent with the price, though each look relatively similar to the naked eye.

Techie Bits

Where some manufacturers begin their product line at the bottom, deriving higher performance by refining initial offerings, AVID takes the opposite approach by utilizing the Acutus as a starting point. Designer Conrad Mas builds as many aspects of the Acutus into other ‘tables as economically possible. All models are centered around a W–shaped sub-platter design, which provides high structural rigidity without extremely high mass. The sub platter is cast with variable density aluminum that acts as a conduit to drain vibration energy away from the tonearm mount and main bearing. The results? A turntable line with a signature sound free of resonance-induced coloration. Resolution and dynamics improve as you move up the range.

AVID’s top ‘tables utilize precisely wound coils for suspension. Yet the Diva versions use elastomers, made from an extremely high-grade Sorbothane that, according to Mas, does not degrade. The Diva II shares the same sub chassis and motor with the SP model, incorporating a DSP-controlled power supply and two-belt drive system. Many belt-drive turntables use a low-torque motor to spin the platter, yet AVID takes an uncommon approach via a high-torque motor, yielding low wow and flutter and great speed accuracy. Both ‘tables measure 33.3RPM out of the box. The Diva II is the only AVID model that does not require a motor swap when upgrading to the SP version.

The platter is the most visible difference between the models. While a cork mat covers each, the Diva II uses a less-expensive composite MDF platter than the massive, machined aluminum edition on the SP. Both ‘tables arrive with the sub chassis pre-drilled for an SME arm.

However, most popular arms (Rega, TriPlanar, Dynavector, and others) can be accommodated with an adaptor plate available from AVID dealers. Comparison listening between the Diva II and II SP came courtesy of identical SME 309 tonearms, each fitted with Dynavector DV20x2L phono cartridges and Furutech ag12 tonearm cables. Feickert Analogue’s Adjust + software assured identical performance from both setups.

With direct comparisons complete, further listening with the Rega RB1000, TriPlanar Vii, and the Funk Firm FX•RII yields excellent results, proving these ‘tables mate easily with the tonearm of your choice. A particularly synergistic albeit decidedly old-school match is achieved with a rebuilt SME 3009 and Ortofon SPU cartridge. The Audio Research REF Phono 2 boasts more than enough resolution to hear the differences between the two ‘tables.
Regardless of the arm, both models can be optimized in less than 15 minutes. Operation is smooth and simple, taking advantage of a machined aluminum clamp to tightly hold the record to the cork platter mats. The large motor also provides quick startup and enough torque to effortlessly work with foam-pad record brushes.

While I’m a longtime fan of SME tonearms, I suggest the Funk Firm for audiophiles more monogamous with cartridge choices. The FX•RII/Diva II SP combination produces some of the most lifelike sound I’ve experienced in the $6,000 range. The addition of a $379 Denon DL-103R equates to a well-rounded package that capably handles all types of music. The SME 309, or another tonearm featuring a removable headshell, will better serve listeners juggling multiple cartridges as well as those that enjoy changing cartridges. (Read my review here for more info on the Funk arm.)


The Diva II and SP share a neutral tonal balance and low mechanical noise prevalent in the Acutus. Theirs is a lively sound, possessing a weighty bottom end that never comes across as overdamped. Listening to acoustic music reveals bass notes possess enough warmth, resonance, and overhang to sound convincing. The opening bass line from “Tea in the Sahara” from the Police’s Synchronicity maintains Sting’s trademark smoothness—and the necessary acceleration to capture the mood. Both ‘tables have a similar weightiness (the SP wins out, however), and the SP is more expressive due to the presence of additional tonal shading.

The two models are most similar throughout the midrange. Should your musical tastes range towards smaller-scale music, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish any differences. Listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, which lacks huge dynamic swings and major bass excursion, makes it almost impossible to distinguish the Diva II from the Diva II SP. Only when switching to full-scale orchestral music, or Rammstein, does the extra dynamic range become readily apparent.

Speaking of Rammstein, both ‘tables are highly resistant to acoustic feedback when blasting “Ich tu dir weh” at high-volume levels. Yes, the AVID decks will satisfy hard-core metalheads in addition to everyone else, regardless of musical taste. This is not a feat aced by all turntables.

The II SP comes into its own with more complex music by furnishing more detail in all three dimensions. Santana’s self-titled debut showcases pinpoint imaging, with drums and percussion retaining distinct places within the studio-created soundfield. The Diva II does an excellent job decoding spatial cues and placement, and finite characteristics remain closely within the speaker boundaries. The II SP brings Santana’s guitar playing out in front of the imaginary boundary between the speakers, and the smallest percussion bits are more distinct and focused.

While both ‘tables admirably function with some of my best recordings, the II SP’s higher resolution uncovers more treasure on mediocre, densely packed recordings. The II SP also offers a bigger performance gain when paired with a premium arm and cartridge. The gap isn’t as vast with a Rega RB 300 arm as it is with the SME 309 or Funk Firm FX•R arm. I concur with Mr. Mas, who feels like the ‘table and arm are critical to an analog playback system, and that one can achieve better overall performance with a great turntable/arm setup and modest cartridge than the other way around.

The more time I spend concurrently listening to both ‘tables leads me to love the Diva II SP the most. However, in all fairness to the standard Diva II, the difference between the two represents a linear progression. You don’t get 85% the performance of the Diva II SP for half the price in the Diva II. A brief comparison with the $5,500 Volvere SP confirmed the same conclusion; the Volvere experiences a similar increase in performance when put head-to-head with the II SP.

Both decks are excellent. If I were writing the check (and I purchased a Diva II SP half-way through this review), I’d pair the Diva II with something like the Rega RB 250/300/301, leaving the higher-priced arms for the SP. Much, of course, depends on your other components’ performance. More system resolution favors the better table and arm combination.

AVID Diva II and Diva II SP Turntables

MSRP: $1,995 and $3,995, respectively (both without tonearm)

Manufacturer’s Information


Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk.3

Phono Preamplifier Vitus Audio MP-P201

Tonearms SME 309, TriPlanar Vii, Rega RB1000, Rega RB 300, Funk Firm FX•R, SME 3009 (rebuilt)

Cartridges Sumiko Pearwood, Lyra Skala, Grado Signature 1, Rega Apheta and Exact