Issue 52

TONEAudio’s Music Annual

By The TONE Staff

A complete list of our record reviews for the past year along with a comprehensive
overview of our concert coverage and artist interviews, with an issue by issue listing
at the end. A perfect recap for your record purchases this year! Keep this one on
your tablet or smartphone to jog your memory.

Illustration, by Liza Donnelly

REVIEW: German Physiks Unlimited Mk. II Speakers

We’re kicking off a new format in our Spotlight section, giving our readers a chance to interact with us in the product review, as we provide it in multiple parts.

We begin with the German Physiks Unlimited MK II, their newest speaker offering virtually the same experience as their larger models, with this speaker optimized for smaller spaces.

The new speaker makes no compromise in component quality, but the smaller size and more basic cabinet finishes allow a lower, $13,500 MSRP, making these speakers available to a wider audience.

If you’ve never had the chance to experience the German Physiks speakers, they are fantastic – for a number of reasons, but perhaps the one they are most noted for is their unique, omnidirectional DDD driver.  This driver uses the same carbon fiber material as the one used in their top of the range, $300,000 speaker system.

Those loving the seamless sound of an ESL, but not terribly fond of the single person sweet spot that they provide, will appreciate the wide dispersion characteristics of the Unlimited.  Much like the current MartinLogan ESL hybrid speakers, the DDD driver in the Unlimited goes from about 200Hz to beyond audibility.  Lacking a crossover network in the critical vocal range makes for a transparency that few speakers achieve.  Mated to a downward-firing 8 inch woofer in a cabinet with a footprint of only 9.5 x 9.5 inches, placing the Unlimited is much more flexible than with most speakers.

Weighing only 63.7 lbs (28.9kg) each, the Unlimiteds are easily set up with one person, and their 88db/1 watt sensitivity makes them easy to drive with the amplifiers at my disposal.

The GP website says, “Free yourself from the tyranny of the sweet spot,” and they couldn’t be more right.  While these speakers do benefit from about 20 minutes of optimizing the bass driver in the room, those with no speaker setup skills will still be able to achieve excellent results.  I’ve never used a pair of speakers that were this easy to place in my three listening rooms.

Thanks to the ultra wide dispersion and built in time alignment of these speakers, you won’t need to bother with rake angles and the downward firing woofer eliminates toe in as well.

The DDD driver breaks in relatively quickly at moderate to high volume.  Slightly stiff in the upper mids for the first 20 or 30 hours, the Unlimiteds get right down to business.  I suggest 100 hours of play with the speakers loosely placed and then concentrate on placement for the smoothest bass response in your room.  In room two (13 x 15 feet), this ended up being about two feet from the side and rear wall.  This will vary in your room, depending on the reflectivity of the surfaces present, so feel free to experiment.

Steady playback of a bass heavy track will set you right in no time at all, and because these speakers are manageable, you won’t need any help to get it done.  Once optimized for the best bass response, an ideal distance between the rear and side walls with each speaker will help imaging somewhat.  Fortunately, these speakers are much more tolerant of room acoustics than any panel speaker I’ve used, but I suggest those inclined to get the optimum results to experiment with some light diffusion.

Placing a GIK RPG diffusor just behind and just to the side of the Unlimiteds (in the smaller room) provides an even wider, more dramatic stereo image.  But, unlike your favorite panel or cone speaker, don’t go mad with the room treatments.  Placing absorbing panels behind and at the first wall reflection points will kill the spaciousness of these speakers.  The fact that they are designed to work with the reflective surfaces in your room makes them incredibly flexible.

A wide range of amplifiers were used, all with good effect, from the 40 watt per channel PrimaLuna ProLogue up to the Burmester 911 mk.3. My 25 watt per channel 845 SET amplifiers were a nice match, but I wouldn’t suggest using much less than 25 watts per channel. The Unlimiteds are very resolving, so their only limitation will be the electronics and cable you supply.

The German Physiks Unlimiteds redefine the audiophile phrase, “the speakers disappear in the room.”  Spend about 10-20 minutes optimizing the placement and you will forget you even have speakers in the room.  Very cool.

That’s it for our first installment.  We’ve been listening intently, so tune in next week when we offer more in depth analysis of multiple listening sessions.  Our final install ment will offer further commentary on a wider range of associated components, and our favorite synergistic combinations.

Initially, everyone on the staff is highly impressed with these speakers, they are easy to set up and thanks to their compact size, integrate into any décor.  Please feel free to leave your comments and questions.

Click here to visit the German Physiks website.

AVID Ingenium Turntable

In the world of racing, lighter is better and anything not contributing to getting across the finish line first is deemed useless, but in the world of turntables mass is usually considered an asset.

We’ve seen a proliferation of tables that merely just chunk on the weight – adding massive platters and enormous plinths, (often eschewing real engineering in the process) chroming everything along the way to justify a high price. This has never been the mantra at AVID.

AVID designer Conrad Mas continues to refine his design in the hope of making a table in the highly competitive price range occupied by the Rega RP6, VPI Traveler (and a few others) without compromising the engineering and performance principals that make an AVID an AVID.

AVID has always taken a more intelligent approach, using mass where needed to get the job done along with a highly tuned suspension to extract the maximum amount of information from those delicate grooves.  Their highly successful Diva and Diva IISP turntables use the same W-shaped plinth, derived from the original Acutus design, forming the critical bridge between the tonearm and the turntable bearing, with a simplified elastomer based suspension.  The Ingenium’s MDF platter, bearing, spindle and clamp are directly off the Diva II assembly line; but its plinth uses a simpler, rectangle-shaped part, keeping CNC time to a minimum.  It also allows the user to see the spindle rotate during playback – kind of cool for technology lovers. The elastomers are a different shape than those of the Diva series tables, but made of the same material and to the same tolerance.

This configuration brings AVID performance to a wider range of customers. If AVID’s Volvere turntable is a Lotus Elise, think of the Ingenium as a Caterham 7; distilling the AVID concept as far as it can go, but no further.

Would you like some fries with that?

Setting the tonearm down on War’s “Lowrider” reveals the signature AVID sound – big dynamics and rock solid bass. You can’t have a Diva IISP for $1,350 but you do get a lot more than you bargain for at this price, and the Ingenium succeeds brilliantly. The big question is how to configure your Ingenium.  The table is available without tonearm, drilled for a Pro-Ject Carbon arm for $1,300, 9-inch SME arm for $1,350 and a 12-inch SME for $1,550.  It can also be purchased in a dual arm configuration for $1,950 – the model we have here.  The entry level Ingenium is available with the Pro-Ject arm already installed (and it is a great arm, also featured as standard equipment on the Oracle Paris) and can be ordered with or without the AVID clamp, again an effort at keeping cost to a minimum with performance at maximum.

Mr. Mas and I have gone back and forth about the validity of a dual tonearm setup (he’s against it, I’m for it), so his catering to the true analogaholic and offering this option is highly commendable. I am convinced that this functionality, usually limited to some of the world’s most expensive turntables, is an essential feature to fully enjoy analog, whether you use that second tonearm for a mono cartridge, a budget cartridge for playing rough records, or an alternate tonal balance at the ready.

Spending a ton of cash in the context of a dual arm Ingenium isn’t necessary to reap the benefits.  With so many used SME, Rega and other arms on the market, that second arm is well in reach.  For this review, the SME 309 arm ($2,250 new, usually around $800 on the used market) and the new Ortofon TA-110 ($1,495 new) offer the best of both worlds – both having removable headshells, with the Ortofon using a more universal headshell, compatible with the vintage SME 3009 and the Technics SL-1200 tonearms.  The Ortofon arm is easy to install, streamlining the process for those loving to mix it up with their cartridge collection.  The majority of my listening was done with the Shure V15mxVr, the Ortofon MC Vivo Blue and the Zu Denon 103 – all cartridges in a range of about $400 – $600.

I modified an Ortofon arm adaptor from the Volvere SP, but AVID should have these available shortly as a regular item for the Ingenium.  Should you be as impatient as I am, the threads can be gently drilled clean with the aid of a drill press to keep the holes perpendicular to the board, allowing the threaded screws supplied with the Ingenium to clamp the board down.  This is the opposite of the other AVID turntables.

A joy to listen to

Tracking through the Art of Noise’s Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? reveals a wide and deep soundstage, with all the minute synth bits and vocal echoes floating all over the room, well beyond the speaker boundaries – the mark of a great turntable. (or hallucinogen) The bass line in “Moments in Love” stays solid, never lacking weight or focus at the expense of blurring the musical information in the rest of the track.

The combination of layered vocals and multi-instrumental talent on Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos’ Duas Voices, again highlights how well the AVID/SME combination retrieves inner detail and preserves transient attack.  This album is full of lightning fast acoustic guitar runs and explosive percussion – Vasconcelos’ specialty. The degree of texture present with the bongos here is enlightening, and the rich decay of each guitarist’s hands as they slap against their guitar bodies adds to the dimension of realism that this table offers.

More great guitar licks abound on Ry Cooder’s Into the Purple Valley, with a plethora of layered vocals here too.  This densely packed record is a torture test for low-level detail and tracking ability – if everything isn’t sorted, it just sounds like an AM radio. Another test easily passed by the Ingenium.

Basic functionality

The rock solid bass and image detail can be chalked up, in part to the excellent speed stability of the Ingenium.  The Feickert analog tools reveal the Ingenium spot on in terms of speed and when monitored over time, unwavering.  AVID deviates from the standard practice of most other belt drive turntable manufacturers using a low torque motor to drive the platter, choosing a high torque, high power motor instead – feeling this offers better control over the platter and minimal effect from stylus drag.

The Ingenium starts up with the sheer spin of a direct drive table, at full speed almost immediately. The only odd bit about the Ingenium is the power button; instead of being built into the plinth or in an outboard enclosure, it’s merely a rocker switch incorporated into the AC cord.  Be sure to route the cable accordingly so that it can be easily accessed.  A small sacrifice indeed, for this level of performance.

The basic elastomer suspension works well to isolate the table from the room. Acoustic feedback was nonexistent at high volume, and arbitrary raps near the Ingenium on the equipment rack barely came through the speakers. Not as effective as the suspended AVID tables, but way better than the non suspended tables in my collection.

Fantastic results

At the end of the test, mounting an identical SME 309 tonearm on the AVID Acutus Reference SP table confirms how well the entry level table stacks up against AVID’s finest, with the Zu Denon cartridge affixed to each arm, using the Aesthetix Rhea phonostage as a conduit to my reference system.  The Ingenium provides stellar performance in the context of a Journeyman level system (Electrocompaniet integrated, a pair of KEF LS-50s and the AVID Pellar phonostage), and it is no slouch in my reference system.  Compared to AVID’s top table, the lineage is clearly confirmed.  The Ingenium shares all of the same virtues of the Acutus Reference SP, just in a smaller dose.

True to the AVID design brief, each table up the range consistently reveals more music than the one before it. Having owned or reviewed every AVID table in the range except the Sequel, I can say this with 100% confidence.

Because our test Ingenium is fitted with a tonearm costing nearly twice as much as the table itself, even cursory comparison with the Rega RP6 and VPI Traveler isn’t fair. However, it is to AVID’s credit that this table performs so well with the 309, offering the prudent enthusiast a major glimpse at what high end analog is really all about without spending five figures.  We will get a standard edition Ingenium without clamp and featuring the Pro-Ject arm to investigate further very soon.

Utilizing the second tonearm configuration proves a ton of fun. The Ortofon arm makes it a cinch to go through my collection of cartridges mounted on the standard Ortofon headshells, swapping one for the other at will.  Though slightly retro, the Ortofon SPU is another heavenly match for the Ingenium.  Substituting the Lyra Kleos Mono, normally used on the Thorens TD-124 extracts a great performance from my mono Beatles and Stones records.  Grado, Ortofon and Denon (to name a few great examples) all offer fantastic mono cartridges in the $200 – $300 range, so you can take full advantage of this functionality without going broke, I just happened to have the Kleos on hand.

Even those with a modest collection of mono LP’s, will be surprised at how much more lifelike they sound played back with a proper mono cartridge.  The Shure M97xe also proves a great match for the AVID table/Ortofon tonearm combination and provides a budget alternative as a starter cartridge, it’s excellent for tracking through questionable yard sale finds, or favorites that are warped.  In some instances, the thrift store specials sound better with a low budget cartridge.

This level of performance, convenience and style makes for an award winning product.  We awarded the Ingenium one of our ten Publishers Choice awards for 2012, and feel that this table is at the top of the $2,000 turntable category in every way. But just as in racing, the competition is always in your rear view mirror.  The good news for analog lovers is that we all benefit from this competition.

The AVID Ingenium Turntable

MSRP:  $1,350 – $2,560 (depending on configuration)

Tonearm Ortofon TA-110, SME 309, SME 3009
Cartridge Ortofon Vivo MC Blue, Zu Denon 103, Shure V15mxvr, Ortofon SPU, Grado Master 1
Phonostage AVID Pellar, Decware Zen, Aesthetix Rhea
Amplifier Electrocompaniet ECI 3
Speakers KEF LS50, Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cables Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

Skogrand SC Markarian 421 Cables

The secrets of the technology behind Skogrand cables seems to be as mystic as Norwegian mythological world and beings.

Mr. Skogrand doesn’t reveal much about the technology implemented. While this might seem a bit arrogant at first, the performance of Skogrand Cables speaks volumes. Over the last year you may have noticed Skogrand cables in many highly respected systems and within the homes of audiophiles and music lovers where you don’t ask about the price… So why do they choose Skogrand’s?…

Read the full review here at Mono & Stereo:

(Copy and photo, courtesy of Mono & Stereo)

CES 2013

According to the official CES website, this was the most highly attended show ever, with attendance over 150,000.

This is quite a jump from when it was only about 110,000 back in 2009, shortly after the economy tanked in the fall of 2008. The number is calculated by tallying everyone who physically got a badge holder, not just those registering.

Just down the street, the Venetian hotel showcased 95% of the “High Performance Audio” exhibits, with dCS, Nagra, Audio Plus Services and a few others across the street, displaying in the Mirage hotel.  The Home Entertainment Show was located a few blocks down the street at the Flamingo, more of a consumer show; similar to THE Show in Newport Beach and managed by Richard Beers, who handles both shows. Unfortunately, the Vegas THE Show is nowhere near the draw of its southern California counterpart.  It remains the ghost town that it’s been for the last few years.

Without taking an official tally, attendance seemed a bit off at the Venetian this year, as it was last year since CES has moved to a “middle of the week” format.  Now taking place Tuesday through Friday, instead of the usual Thursday through Sunday, the schedule change eliminated a lot of the bloggers and such from the world of high end audio, as many were unable to leave their day jobs to attend, leaving foot traffic steady, yet manageable. Many vendors commented that though foot traffic was down, qualified inquiries were way up.

As I mentioned on our Facebook page, If you are interested in room by room coverage, with commentary on every rack of gear present, visit the Stereophile site.  They did an excellent job and had a full compliment of writers on hand, working tirelessly to get fresh coverage up each day.

Here’s my take on what was trending:

More products with high aesthetic sense.  While “lifestyle” is such a dirty word in the high end audio industry, more products are appearing that wouldn’t look out of place in a design conscious environment.  I.e., hifi doesn’t have to be just for the man cave anymore.  With some great examples from Meridian, BelCanto, Nagra and Peachtree, to name a few, perhaps the most stunning product introduced this year is the Intuition from Wadia Digital.

Combining a Wadia DAC with a 350 watt per channel (into 4 ohms) integrated amp, this product looks like a bit of a variation on the Apple MacBook Pro design brief.  Available in four finishes: matte black, matte silver, turned aluminum and the nickel plated masterpiece you see here, the Intuition features multiple digital inputs (of course, it will grab the digital bitstream from your Apple device) and an analog input.

Picking up on the trail blazed by Devialet at the 2011 CES (by far the coolest product at the 2011 show), the Wadia is poised for success.  Retail price, depending on finish will be in the neighborhood of $8,000.  We look forward to a full review as soon as it’s available.

Happily, vinyl just keeps gaining steam, with more turntables, phono cartridges and phonostages than ever.  Regardless of budget, spinning records has never been easier or more fun.  Who would have thought ten years ago, that vinyl would be so vital in 2013?

Streaming continues a meteoric rise, with nearly all of the majors offering a streaming product, incorporating your tunes ripped to various storage devices, along with incorporating your favorite internet radio station, or online music provider all from the convenience of your mobile device. Simaudio’s MiND 180 is the perfect example.  This technology has become far less garage and much more glamour in the last year, making it easier than ever to get music from the net to your home.

Personal audio is still on a rising trajectory, with more of the majors getting into the headphone amplifier game.  This Pathos Class-A amplifier shown here at $1,495 underscores the majors commitment to performance and style.

The most intriguing development on the software side of the equation is the new PONO player, brainchild of Neil Young and Bob Stuart (of Meridian Audio).  I heard a very exciting demo of music via the PONO process, and it is well done.  Neil Young is calling it “sound from God.” I’d say he’s not far off track. More info when my NDA’s expire.

Another welcome trend, is that of more women on both sides of the fence.  There were more women presenting and attending this segment of the show than in years past and this will dovetail nicely with the women joining the TONEAudio staff in the next few months.  Stay tuned for their observation on the industry, the gear and their own personal pursuit of hifi.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Kronos Turntable

It’s not every day you get to see something new for the first time, and as a reviewer, so much better when said new component is in a system that you are actually familiar with.

The debut of the Kronos turntable in Montreal just happened to be in a room possessing the same dimensions and orientation of my own, built around a system featuring a pair of Sonus faber Stradivari speakers, all powered by Audio Research Reference components.  So much for making the excuse of “needing to hear it in my system!”  Kronos designer Louis Desjardins was even using a Lyra Skala cartridge, one of my current references at the time.  Many others voted the Kronos room best sound of the Montreal show – and it’s reassuring to see multiple critics agree on what constitutes great sound.

I’ve been living with the Kronos turntable for eight months now, so consider this a “long term” review.  It’s easy for reviewers and audiophiles alike to get caught up in the excitement of a product, either at a dealer or in the fever of a show environment.  Clearly everyone was buzzing about the Kronos in Montreal last year, and the other shows the table has been presented.  Desjardins has been strategic, not letting just anyone use his table at shows, keeping the exposure limited to fantastic systems.

Yet after living with the Kronos for the better part of 2012 and having the chance to use it with multiple tonearms and cartridges, my impression is even better than it was when the audition began. Minimizing my results, the SME arms both lend more weight to the LF spectrum, while the Graham is slightly more nimble, ever so slightly more resolving.  However, both are close enough, especially when using the SME V-12, that your choice of cartridge will be the ultimate deciding factor.  And neither proved to be a “wrong” choice.

Double your pleasure

The key aspect of the Kronos table is it’s two platters.  Other manufacturers have produced tables with more than one platter, but Kronos’ variation on the theme is to rotate their second, identical, 30-pound platter in the  opposite direction of the main platter spinning the record.  In essence, it completely cancels any vibration induced by the first.  Mitsubishi licensed a similar technology to Porsche back in the 1980s for the engine in the 944.  This 2.5-liter, straight four-cylinder engine was as smooth as a BMW inline six utilizing a counter rotating shaft opposite the crankshaft to achieve this effect.

Due to the plinth size of the Kronos, this table is better suited to 12-inch tonearms.  Our review began with the SME 312, with guest appearances by the SME V12 and Graham.  The short story here is to buy the best arm you can afford with the Kronos; its astonishingly low noise floor reveals every last molecule of detail the arm is capable of extracting from your cartridge.

Grain gone

Feickert’s PlatterSpeed app reveals 33.33 rpm exactly.  The Kronos also has a pair of LED readouts, monitoring the speed of both platters and it tracked perfectly with the Feickert measurements.  The aluminum top platter has a carbon fiber inlay and no mat is needed.

Initial listening begins with the Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, the cartridge that has replaced my Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum with no regrets and is a favorite because of its general easygoing character, and synergistic match with SME tonearms.  (Full review here)

The rock solid speed accuracy of the Kronos is immediately noticeable, playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64. This instrument is tough to get right and on lesser tables devolves into a screechy mess.  The first 30 seconds of this piece right before the orchestra joins in, is so delicate, yet a joy to hear rendered by the Kronos, all of its subtle overtones gracefully intact.  The long synthesizer sustain at the beginning of Triumvirat’s “The Capital of Power” reveals the same thing.  On a budget table, the synth warbles like a cassette that’s been left in the sun too long, yet here an unmistakable richness comes through.

This combination of speed accuracy and the 12-inch tonearm, makes it easy to fool yourself that perhaps you are listening to a reel to reel tape, or a linear tracking arm. The usual crew of analog fans that stop by to check out the latest gear all made similar comments, and even those outside the fringe, commented about “how real” the music sounds played on the Kronos.

The Kronos integrates inner detail with wide dynamic swings.  The only other table in the studio with a 12-inch tonearm is the AMG V-12; so comparing the two is not a direct “apples to apples” comparison.  24/192 digital samples (via the Nagra LB recorder) confirm the benefit of the longer tonearm, yet the Kronos has an unmistakable sonic signature, even when captured to high-resolution digital files.

Tons of texture

On a certain level, the Kronos is not unlike the $150,000 Continuum turntable in its rock solid bass stability and texture resolution.  Auditioning highly familiar LPs with bass heavy grooves instantly unearths just how special this turntable is.  Even the heartbeat at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon, is more visceral, has more dimension and subtlety than before. The opening bass riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” utterly fantastic, you can almost feel the grille cloth rattling on John Paul Jones’ bass cabinets.

This is not limited just to the bass.  Acoustic instruments take on more charm via the Kronos too.  Those loving female vocals will be in heaven.  The transition as Betty Davis’ goes from bedroom whisper to bar room growl in “Bar Hoppin” is seamless.   I suppose you could listen to Eva Cassidy, nah. Male vocals are equally exciting.

However, the fine detail that this table exposes is its greatest strength.  Tracking through Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets unearths an abundance of buried treasure, especially on the track “Dead Finks Don’t Talk.”  Re-assessing a cache of densely packed records opens up recordings that felt overly compressed, again proving how much information is really packed in those fine grooves.

I’ve always felt that a great hifi system should expand your music collection, not limit it to a handful of audiophile darlings that always seem to be stuck to the platter.  Much like the AVID Acutus REF SP, the Kronos’ ability to disperse the music buried in the grooves more evenly, makes records that might have been passed off as not worthy of your system much more palatable.  Resolution without fatigue is the essence of the Kronos turntable. Even my awful copy of Boston’s Don’t Look Back sounds pretty darn good.  Imagine what the best pressings in your collection will sound like.  It’s better than that.

All this quiet makes the Kronos a perfect place to test-drive premium phono cartridges.  With the Lyra Titan-I, Atlas and Clearaudio Goldfinger at hand, (and the Nagra LB close by) it was time to up the ante.  All three of these mega dollar cartridges perform flawlessly in concert with the Kronos, though I would suggest the SME V-12, Graham or something equally magnificent.  The 312 is a great way to enjoy the Kronos, and works well with a wide range of cartridges, but if you are going for a cost no object cart, I feel you might be leaving a bit of resolution at the door with the 312.

Get a solid shelf

The Kronos weighs 90 pounds when you remove the parts from the neatly packed, aluminum flight case.  The box was so compact, that when it arrived, we initially thought they forgot to ship something.  High marks to Kronos for shipping their table in such a compact, yet robust case – it’s a definite value add.

With three separate sub plinths, two motors, a motor controller and of course those two 30 pound platters, I expected setup to take all day, yet designer Desjardins had the Kronos ready to roll in under 45 minutes, with the Sumiko cartridge nearly optimized to perfection.  A few test tracks later, it was fully dialed in and we went to lunch.

The Burmester equipment racks in the TONEAudio studio are not the last word in vibration control, but they are overbuilt, supporting heavy gear with ease.  Because of this, they are particularly handy at seeing how well a turntable’s suspension does at filtering out ambient vibration.  Even when pounding on the top shelf, the Kronos stops the vibration from getting through to the speakers – highly impressive.

Utilizing a pair of ultra high quality Swiss DC motors, the Kronos table makes use of a small external power supply connected via two cables. A three-pin cable transmits the DC power, and the other; a four-pin cable transmits data, making it impossible to connect things improperly. One of the many small details that makes the Kronos so special.

Capacitance sensors power the table on and off, and change the speed, so they will never have to be replaced, and the digital readout is amply sized, making it easy to see what you are spinning!  Desjardins claims a one-year interval on lubricating the pulleys and five years on the main bearings, keeping maintenance to a minimum.

Every aspect of the Kronos turntable feels over built, with fit and finish equally excellent for what was turntable number two in the eventual production run of 250 units.  As Desjardins wrapped his visit this spring, he had already sold 50 tables worldwide since its official introduction in January of 2012 at the Consumer Electronics Show. It will be exciting to see just what he’s got in store for 2013.

In the light of other tables from AVID, Clearaudio and SME to name a few, the Kronos is polished and up to task.  I award the Kronos one of our nine Publishers Choice awards for 2012 – it remains as enjoyable to listen to as the day it arrived. Here’s to Louis Desjardins’ continued growth and success.

The Kronos Turntable (limited to 250 units)

MSRP: $28,000


Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2, Vitus Audio MPP-201
Power Amplifier ARC REF 150
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Speakers GamuT S9, Sonus faber Aida
Cables Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

Lehmann Black Cubes

We are working feverishly to sort the differences between the Lehmann Black Cube and Black Cube Signature.

We’ll have firm pricing after CES and a side by side review in the Comparo section of TONEAudio very soon.  We’ve always enjoyed the high performance, low cost and simplicity of the Black Cube, so stay tuned!  Lehmann is now distributed by Ortofon in the US, so we are looking forward to test driving more of their products in 2013! (manufacturer site)

Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation Cartridge

Since many of today’s LPs are mastered from digital sources, many vociferous audiophiles willingly sacrifice dynamics and resolution on the altar of tonality. Yes, the vinyl revolution has an ugly side.

Combining this trend with the strong resurgence in vintage gear becomes akin to dealing with comfort food for your ears. Half of your brain wants foie gras. The other half craves a chilidog. Sophistication? Or comfort and convenience? What if you could have both or, at least, a great mixture of the two? Enter the Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation (PSP).

In theory, something slightly mellow makes sense, and it is nearly impossible to have one cartridge that suits everything in your record collection. If you must draw a line in the sand, siding with tonality isn’t a bad way to roll. The only problem with said approach? Truly great recordings don’t sound much better than the mediocre albums.

Still, hyper-detail gear only goes so far. How many times have you heard a mega-bucks system playing a current audiophile treasure with aplomb, but falling horribly short of expectations when spinning your favorite record? At the end of the day, you want Led Zeppelin, Belle & Sebastian, Diana Ross, and Fleet Foxes to all sound equally great on your system. Plus, the surgeon general says listening exclusively to audio pap like Jacintha is bad for your health. The PSP yields tonal complexity, resolution, and dynamic power with little sacrifice.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Average

A two-edged sword, resolution can be a blessing and a curse. The key to the PSP’s success relates to its capability as a high-quality daily driver. While some cartridges send you on a limited quest to uncover details previously obscured from view on your best pressings, the PSP illuminates information on less-than-amazing records. Of course, the sonic spectaculars sound great with the Sumiko, but now, I find myself listening to LPs I haven’t heard in ages—titles lacking audiophile credentials.

The Fabulous Poodles’ Mirror Stars never sounded better on my stereo. Even if you aren’t predisposed to 80s Britpop, you probably have your own short list of records that sound less than, well, great. And sure, current pressings, such as Amy Winehouse’s posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures, sound as dreadful as anything produced in the Reagan Era. But the PSP transforms Winehouse’s posthumous record from nearly unlistenable to a platter you can enjoy on a top-notch system.

The PSP does a fantastic job of analog triage with terrible records, and comes into its own with records possessing average to above-average sound quality. Spinning Classic Records’ Led Zeppelin 200g remasters elicits thrills. The cartridge rocks with the best of them, boasting a tonal richness that isn’t thin or sterile. John Paul Jones’ bass playing on Led Zeppelin II possesses the requisite fatness, with no loss of dynamic slam. The PSP keeps the musical pace locked down.

A quick comparison to the Koetsu Urushi Blue, mounted on an identical AVID Acutus Reference SP (both ‘tables playing through the Vitus Audio MPP-201 phonostage), brings to the fore the Koetsu’s sonic signature. Both cartridges are equally mellifluous through the midband. But when compared directly to the PSP, the Koetsu sounds slow and rolled-off on the high end—and lacking low-level detail. With the PSP, the drum solo during Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” reveals more sparkle in the cymbals, more leading-edge transient attack, and yes, more percussive textures.

Tom Petty’s recent Kiss My Amps: Live illustrates the cartridge’s serious dynamic punch and attack. “Takin’ My Time” often transitions from loud to soft. Sumiko’s cartridge always keeps separate Petty and Mike Campbell’s guitars, and convincingly captures the audience’s swelling cheers. With the Pass XA200.5 monoblocks pushed to their limits, the PSP’s meaty presentation comes damn close to recreating the live Heartbreakers feel I’ve heard many times before.

Space, the Final Frontier

Listeners that prefer solo vocalists and/or acoustic recordings will be right at home with the PSP. Its rich tonality and wide dynamic contrast only tell half the story. The cartridge navigates snaky grooves with ease. Spinning Music Matters’ 45RPM edition of Art Blakey’s Indestructible tells one everything they need to know about the PSP’s tracking.  Blakey’s explosive drumming is in your face, as it should be. On ORG’s pressing of John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, the PSP effortlessly handles the saxophonist’s rapid-fire deliveries and ensures that the brassy “blats” are lively and full of sparkle. Both the aforementioned high-velocity discs often cause lesser cartridges to mis-track.

The PSP also delivers every bit of vocal breathiness. MoFi’s current remaster of Priscilla Ahn’s A Good Day shows how the PSP renders the subtleties of the singer’s delicate voice without presenting her on an overblown soundstage. Rather, she’s revealed to enjoy an exquisite, finely gradated tonal palette in a realistic space. I experienced similar revelations with Anja Garbarek’s Smiling & Waving, on which her voice sounds real in tone and in regard to spatial dimension.

Nuts and Bolts

The PSP sets up quickly. Its medium compliance value (8 x 10-6 cm/dyne) is ideally suited to tonearms like the SME (Sumiko is the US importer). Any model in SME’s turntable range makes for a great match. Having turned in fantastic performances with the Funk Firm FX II•R, TriPlanar, Rega RB 1000, and SME 309, 312 and V, it’s safe to say the PSP works well with a wide range of tonearms.

The PSP spent the majority of its review time mounted to the SME V tonearm, which mated with the AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable. When the splendid Kronos turntable arrived, I installed the PSP with equally brilliant results on the SME 312 tonearm. Sumiko specifies a load range of 100-1000 ohms, with 200 ohms proving optimum on the Vitus MPP-201 and ARC REF Phono 2 SE phonostages and providing the best balance between high-frequency smoothness and extension. Experiment, however, as your phonostage may yield better results with a different combination. Tracking force is specified at 1.8 – 2.2 grams, with 2.05 grams the best on both SME arms at my disposal. In addition, the PSP has a .5mv output, so gain shouldn’t be an issue with an MC phonostage or step-up transformer.

Much like Koetsu cartridges we’ve sampled, the PSP benefits from optimization and attention to VTA, even if these aspects aren’t as critical here as with other cartridges.  Think of the PSP as a set of speakers with a big “sweet spot.” It’s worth taking the time to dial in, but you can expect excellent results along the way—especially if you have an arm like the SME or TriPlanar, which make it easy to set VTA. This cartridge also requires precious few hours for mechanical break-in, as it sounds natural out of the box and slightly improves after 25-30 hours.

Loving It

Audiophiles that want or need to settle on owning one high-performance cartridge will have a difficult time topping the PSP, especially if you are a tone aficionado. For those on stricter budgets, I highly suggest Sumiko’s $2,499 Pearwood Celebration II. It possesses similar tonality, with slightly less dynamic swing. Of course, the better your table/arm/phonostage, the more you will appreciate what the PSP brings to the dance.

Can you get a little more detail here or a little more slam there? Yes, but it’s going to cost a lot more money. Or, you will have to reconsider your listening priorities—and now you’re back to that place where you primarily listen to just twenty of the records in your collection. That scenario isn’t for me. The PSP is staying in my reference system as my daily driver.

Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation Cartridge

MSRP: $3,999


Analog Source AVID Reference SP w/SME V, Kronos w/SME 312
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2, Vitus Audio MPP-201
Power Amplifier ARC REF 150
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Speakers GamuT S9
Cables Shunyata Aurora
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

LessLoss Blackbody

As part of our newly formed alliance with Mono&Stereo, writer Matej Isak begins with one of the most controversial products in high end audio today, the LessLoss Blackbody field conditioner.

Sure to start a hellacious fight on any internet forum you mention it, and capable of inducing an unremovable frown from any engineer you reveal it to, this little black cube (that costs $1400) is sure to amaze, annoy and possibly impress more than a few audiophiles.

Both Matej and I are not “tweaky” audiophiles.  We don’t have those things that look like coat racks in our listening rooms, we don’t smear goooey stuff on our gear and we don’t wear foil hats, or participate in any of the other alchemy that often passes for audiophile improvements.  That’s not to say that I don’t believe in a good set of interconnects, power conditioning, or room treatments. (Especially room treatments) My dog chewed all of the Shunyata wire elevators to bits, and after a while, I never missed them.

Yet these little black boxes seemed over the top, I couldn’t resist. I wanted to hate them and I wanted to tell the world that they are useless.  However, after trying them with a number of different components, there is definitely something going on here. And I can’t explain it for the life of me. And I still suggest you spend the $1400 that one of these Blackbodies cost on room treatments before you even think of buying one of these…

So, I turn you over to our host Matej.  And I must say I concur with his findings.

Please click here to read the full Mono&Stereo report:

Our Top Nine “UN Awards”

The end of the year always brings award mania.

It’s like the end of your kids soccer season, everyone wants a trophy.  Now that our awards have been spoken for, there are still a few things that keep gnawing at me. But we can’t give everything an award, can we?  While my hope is always that you read every page of every issue of TONEAudio, I know you’re busy, or you don’t care.

But here’s nine more things that I spent time with this year that I just enjoyed the hell out of.  Are they the best in class? I don’t know.  But I had a ton of fun listening to them, and even wrote a check for a few of them.  I suggest they are worthy of your time.


-Jeff Dorgay, Publisher

1.  Thorens TD-125 Turntable, rebuilt by Vinyl Nirvana. (

Proprietor Dave Archambault’s home page says “Your internet resource for AR Turntables,” but he does a cracking job on the Thorens TD-125 as well.  I selfishly wish he’d start working on the LP-12, but I digress.  While I’m not quite finished with a full review of the TD-125, this thing is beautiful.  Archambault does amazing work and offers a true alternative to the analog enthusiast wanting something different than the popular choices from Rega, et. al. in the $1000 – $2000 range.  The model pictured here was fitted with an SME 3009 tonearm and a price tag of about $1600.  Vinyl Nirvana also works carefully with a custom plinth maker to really take these these tables to the next level of restoration, should you so desire.  Standard woods are about $375 each, and you can order more exotic wood at an additional cost.  Should you be motivated to either purchase a table from VN, or just have him restore yours, I can’t suggest the new plinth highly enough.

2. Thorens TD-124 Turntable, rebuilt by Swissonor. (

Forget everything you think you know about the Thorens TD-124 turntable.  Rebuilt by Swiss craftspeople, with a handful of improvements that will turn your head as well as your ear, including a non magnetic cast iron platter that sounds straight out of a Bond film, this turntable delivers an amazing sound that has one foot firmly planted in the past, with the other in today.  Capitalizing on the precision these tables were originally built with, Swissonor tastefully updates this turntable in a manner that reveals more music, yet doesn’t hide the true character of this classic.  If you love vinyl, you owe it to yourself to experience this turntable.

3.  Goldpoint SW2X Input Switcher. (

Those needing to add an extra balanced input, switch between amplifiers, or perform quick cable comparisons, look no further.  This is the droid you need.  Well made and reasonably priced.  There is a balanced version (currently in-house) with two inputs and a single ended RCA version with four.

4. Apple iPad Mini (

Apple haters, sod off.  I know it doesn’t have the Retina display and it will probably be replaced with a new model by the time you read this, but the Mini is the best way to control a music server that I’ve ever encounter, whether you use iTunes or a proprietary music server from Sooloos/Meridian, Aurender, Naim or one of the others.  The screen size is just big enough to see easily, yet small and light enough to fit comfortably in one paw, where the standard iPad does not.

5. Omega Headphone Stand (

These cost way more money than they should, but they are just so damn cool, they prove irresistible.

6. Solidsteel WS-5 Turntable Shelf (

Much like real estate in Manhattan or Tokyo, sometimes the only way to go is up.  If you’re adding turntables and out of rack space, this is the way to roll. Properly installed, it will support up to 130 pounds, so it’s perfect for a reel to reel tape deck too.

7. Furutech DeMag (

Sure to get you crucified on any audiophile forum by merely mentioning it, the Furutech DeMag works brilliantly on LP’s, removing the last layer of grain and grunge from the presentation.  How does it really work? Who knows? Yet it does and every skeptic I’ve given a proper demonstration walks away admitting defeat while they scratch their head.  If you’ve taken your system as far as it can go and you still crave more, the Furutech DeMag will give it to you.

8. Ikea Expedit Shelves (  Though a few internet pundits have circulated photos of collapsed Expedit shelving units showing catastrophic results, a bit of 1/4-inch plywood, a few strategically placed brads and a bit of heavy duty glue makes the Expedit a stylish and robust record shelf.  Just don’t put a heavy amplifier or turntable on the shelf with spikes.

9. EAT ECC88 and ECC803 Tubes ( Another expensive accessory, these precision crafted small signal tubes deliver sound quality that rivals any vintage tube you’ll get your hands on.

REVIEW: Durand Tonearms – Talea

Listening to Frank Sinatra sing “Stormy Weather,” via the Talea Tonearm, combined with the Miyajima Kansui cartridge and AVID Volvere SP turntable, the utter clarity this combination provides is unmistakable.

Sinatras voice is crystal clear (thanks, in part to the latest MoFi remaster) yet with a beguiling dimensionality even beyond what I’m used to from the same combination, with a different tonearm.

It often feels like a wacky episode of Mythbusters, here at TONEAudio. A tonearm with a wooden armwand?  That can’t work.  A wood body cartridge with a wooden arm?  That will sound terrible. Transistors? Forget it.

Audiophiles are usually highly opinionated.  The longer many spend in the pursuit of high quality sound, the tougher their convictions are to change. I’m positive I was a wire-haired fox terrier in another life and I gravitate towards the different, the unexpected, or the thing that “shouldn’t” work.  Leading me instantly to the Talea.

This $9,500 tonearm arrives in a neatly constructed wooden box, that probably doesn’t cost all that much to make, yet the amount of care spent in its design and execution foreshadows the thought spent on the tonearm’s construction.  To those that complain about the containers that some gear is packaged, I appreciate the extra effort.  At this price, packaging commensurate with the product goes another step forward, reinforcing value. You wouldn’t feel quite right about buying a bespoke watch in a cardboard box, would you?

The Talea is a unipivot design, and is available with a fixed tonearm cable or a breakout box, allowing the use of standard 5 pin tonearm cables. Having this option will be of more interest to the user enjoying more control over this parameter.  Initial listening was done with the fixed tonearm cable, a Discovery Cable Plus 4.  Due to the delicate nature of the phono signal, and after using a number of premium cables at my disposal, I suggest sticking with the permanent cable, so that the delicate phono signal travel through as few junctions as possible.

The Talea is a 10.3-inch arm, but its offset pivot point allows it to be used in the same applications that a 9-inch arm can be fitted.  A quick call to AVID produced a custom mounting plate, and now that their engineers have the CAD profile stored, any AVID owners considering the Talea need only drop a note to the factory.  Those using a different table can take advantage of the handy mounting template and protractor included.

Assembly and setup is straightforward, taking about 45 minutes via the skilled hands of Mr. Durand.  After a few cartridge swaps, I quickly got the hang of the Talea, and thanks to VTA and azimuth on the fly, this is the easiest tonearm I’ve had the pleasure of setting up.

Color but not colored

Tonearms, like loudspeakers often take a different approach in their construction.  One school of thought works in aluminum and composites, attempting to subdue every molecule of vibration and resonance from the cabinet, letting only the sound of the drivers come through.  Yet another works with the driver and cabinet resonances to produce the final sound.

I’ll make no bones about it; I prefer the latter approach in speakers.  The massive, metallic speakers have always left me just a little cold. Guilty as charged when it comes to analog.  What’s the point of getting away from all the things that digital has to offer, strictly for an analytical sound?

After hundreds of hours listening to the Talea, it doesn’t sound colored.  It’s more like tint in the color of a photographic image, or muddiness in the middle tones of color that mask fine gradations are absent with the Talea – it is truly a high definition tonearm.  Think of the difference between listening to a comparison between a rare Stradivarius violin and something less exotic.  Or for that matter, a 1963 Fender Stratocaster versus a Squire Stratocaster. The notes produced are the same, yet the fine tonal gradations, the decay, the feel is completely different. There is more tonal saturation everywhere.

That’s what the Talea brings to the game.  Designer Joel Durand, a musician himself, discusses the myriad variations taken in developing this tonearm and how every material chosen for the arm is based strictly on its final effect on sound quality.  Listening to Joe Henderson’s sax on Pete La Roca’s Basra (Music Matters 45 rpm) is a true analog delicacy.  Every little quirk in Henderson’s playing is instantly delivered to the listener, while the cymbals linger that extra bit, fooling you into thinking that you are listening to the real thing.

A quick comparison

Even the mega, distorted guitar of Neil Young on his recent Americana release feels more real, more inviting. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of the moment when something new enters the sound chain and even easier to be fooled into thinking the new gadget is better than what we remember.
A pair of identical Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC cartridges mounted to the Talea and the SME V arms, each on AVID Volvere SP turntables with matching Furutech AG-12 tonearm cables reveals a distinct difference between the two tonearms. While this reviewer prefers the dedicated cable, for comparison purposes, the arm wand with a breakout box allows easy cable swaps and isolates the tonearms from the reproduction chain.

Tracking further through Americana, the Talea not only delivers more texture and tonal saturation, it is the master of low-level musical nuance.  The songs featuring Young’s wife, Pegi illustrate this perfectly. When using the SME, Mrs. Young is somewhat buried in the mix. Switching to the identical setup with the Talea, her voice is more easily discernible, with her voice having a more liquid quality.  The growling guitars in “Travel On” feel more like you’re sitting in a club, twenty feet from the stage. Switching back to the SME, some of that air, space and magic is gone. Much like the difference between a great triode tube amplifier and a single ended triode amplifier.  There’s an unmistakable richness that you will respond favorably to or not.

Speaking of magic

The Talea has a fine-grained presentation, not at all unlike analog tape.  What might be initially mistaken for a slight softness is actually an ultra fine gradation in both directions, loud and soft.  This arm is the essence of natural sound; switching back and forth immediately to the SME V and TriPlanar arms (again with identical cartridges) reveals a presentation that you will either dismiss or adore.  Put this reviewer in the adore category, but again remember my bias – I prefer things with a drop or two of smoothness.

On everything I could throw at the Talea, it presents a more natural timbre than everything else at my disposal, and for those fearing that a unipivot design can’t generate a solid bass foundation, you need look no further than this tonearm.  The Talea, like the VPI arm (also a unipivot) doesn’t give up anything in terms of weight, just the slightest bit of ultimate slam, that I only noticed on the heaviest rock records.  It is so much more intriguing everywhere else, I don’t see this as a compromise – and most of this can be mitigated by the phono cartridge you choose to pair with the Talea.  The only cartridge that proved a bit soft for me in this tonearm was the Koestu Urushi Vermillion, however one staff member was highly smitten with this setup.

Listening further up the tonal scale, reveals no lack of dynamics and acceleration. Snare drums and percussion bits are as vital played through the Talea as with anything else at my disposal. The more time spent with this tonearm, the more it seduces.  Its superlative ability to capture musical tones in such a natural way, just makes you forget about anything else.

While you might prefer something else for a steady diet of Led Zeppelin or Slayer, should your tastes drift more towards acoustic music, the Talea will spoil you for anything else.

Which is right?

We will probably argue over the merits of the finest examples of vacuum tube or solid-state electronics, the arguments will go on until the Earth cools.  But in my system, with the cartridges at my disposal, the Durand Talea is one of the most satisfying analog experiences I’ve ever had, especially in combination with the Miyajima Kansui cartridge (review in progress) or the Clearaudio Goldfinger.  This is a tonearm you should own. It is on the list of our Publishers Choice Awards for 2012.

The Durand Talea Tonearm

MSRP:  $9,500


Analog Source AVID Volvere SP, AVID Acutus Reference SP
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2, Pass XP-25, Indigo Qualia
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Speakers GamuT s9, Sonus faber Aida
Cables Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

The Latest Flagship Components From Cambridge Audio

No matter what you own, it’s usually unnerving when a “new model” hits the market.

Especially so with hifi gear. And certainly if you just bought the previous model just before the newest, latest, greatest arrives. I feel your pain.

The most agonizing questions are “Should I trade up?” “Immediately?” “Is what I own now rubbish?” “Is the new thing really better?” Maybe, not necessarily, definitely not, and yes.  As a current Cambridge owner, I’m always impressed with the effortless way their products work.  They are logically designed from an electrical and ergonomic standpoint; while the manuals are well written, you can turn these components on and start listening without reading them.  Best of all, both components share the same remote, allowing those of us a bit more on the OCD side the opportunity to keep one tucked away, looking pristine.

I’m a sucker for understatement, and Cambridge’s US importer, Daniel Jacques is a smart guy.  When discussing the review of the new CD player and integrated, as he was telling me about the new features, decided it would be an excellent idea to send me the past models so I could directly compare them.  “You’ll see for yourself the progress we’ve made on the new units, even though they look almost the same.” He said with a smile. Other than a few more buttons on the CD player, you’d never know the difference.  Not that I condone this kind of behavior, but these are stealthy enough to sneak right in without anyone knowing the wiser. If you get caught, this review will self-destruct.

An audio omen

During the photo shoot, it appears our Canadian friends have given us a gift. Mickey Hart’s At The Edge is in the CD tray of the 851C. Very familiar with this disc, why not start the comparison right here?  Both pairs of Cambridge components were plugged in and powered up for 24 hours before serious listening began.  The third track, “Slow Sailing,” features a thunderous bass line that begins a bit loose, so amplifiers with no grip go to pieces here.  The new amplifier jumped right out in front in a major way, driving the German Physiks Unlimited mk.II speakers (also in for review), with more weight, more grip and more speed in the bass region than the 840A.  This is a gun demo disc to play really loud if you have the juice, because it sounds so tribal, with the drums having a big, bold sound.  Veteran drummer Hart blends in a myriad of exotic percussion instruments, filling the soundstage in all three directions.

The German Physiks speakers are a great place to start, because the proprietary DDD driver is fast, clean and accurate, much like an ESL.  The bottom line is garbage in/garbage out, and most modestly priced amplifiers can’t cut the mustard with these speakers.  With the $30k Burmester 911 and $65k Octave Jubilee monoblocks now taking a back seat, my informal listening associates were all duly impressed with the amount of finesse the 851A brings to the table.  Even more impressive for the MSRP of $1,849, up from the $1,495 commanded by the 840A it replaces)

Power to drive

Almost all listening was done with the German Physiks Unlimited IIs, a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 IIs, the new KEF LS50s and my recently restored Acoustat 1+1s – notoriously tough to drive.  Even with the Acoustats, the 851A breezes through.  It’s no surprise that the two most demanding speakers in the group (the 1+1s and the Unlimiteds) reveal the upgrades to Cambridge’s XD amplifier circuit and increased power supply capacity to the fullest.

Don’t be confused by the moniker:  XD does not denote a class D amplifier under the hood of the 851A. XD refers to “Crossover Displacement,” the way that Cambridge has finely tuned the crossover point of their amplifiers transitioning from Class A at low power to AB at higher power.  The 851A also takes advantage of a massive toroidal power transformer – you’ll notice the weight as you unpack it.

The 840A and 851A both claim a power output of 120 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load and 200 watts per channel into a 4-ohm load – enough for all but the most inefficient speakers.  Either will drive a pair of Magnepan 1.7s to modest level with decent grip, but the newer amplifier does a better job, where the 840A seems to struggle a bit.

This amplifier is well composed at all volumes, yet at modest volumes, where it stays more in Class-A bias, it’s easy to think you are listening to a much more expensive amplifier indeed.

The ins and outs

One of the 851As best features is its plethora of inputs and outputs.  There are five strictly RCA inputs, with input 1 and 2 having the option of balanced XLR or standard RCA inputs. And, for the true analogaholic, a tape monitor loop.  Those using a powered sub woofer or wishing to bi amp are also rewarded with a variable output. (RCA)  Cambridge has also thoughtfully supplied a standard RS-232 port, an extension for the IR remote and their own control bus, so that you can link an all-Cambridge system together.  Two sets of speaker outputs, switchable from the front panel make it easy to increase the flexibility of a system based on the 851A and those with stacked Advents.

Cambridge’s newest version of their “silicon gate” volume control tracks true and features precise volume control in small increments.  They also claim extremely accurate channel balance with this volume control.  Best of all, the front panel includes a bass and treble control.  Purists will freak, but music lovers will love them.  Just like the ones on my Cambridge 740A, they can be switched out when not in use, but work very well, providing only modest adjustment at the extreme ends of the audio spectrum.  These are especially good if you decide to use your 851A to anchor a high quality two-channel system for video playback as I do.

Headphone listeners will be pleased with the onboard headphone amp.  With a wide range of phones from the Grado 60i, all the way up to the LCD-2 (a range of about $100 – $1,000), the internal amp is on par with anything you’ll find externally for a couple hundred bucks.  Not a bad thing to include on the chassis. Those who haven’t partaken the pleasures of the head-fi world will find the 851A a great place to start your journey.

The front panel is well laid out and much like the Porsche 911; the control layout is similar from one generation to the next.  Those encountering the Cambridge marque for the first time will find the 851A and 851C well thought out, and not requiring the remote for most functions.  The large alpha numeric display is easy to read, and you can tailor the display to your inputs, so instead of reading “input 1” and “input 5,” they read “CD player,” “DAC,” or whatever you’d like to label them.

CD Player surprises

While the 840A and 851A have virtually identical specs, their companion disc players are more dramatically different.  They each upsample digital data from the digital inputs and CD drive to 24bit/382khz, the 851C goes further, with its new, ATP2 upsampling, which is said to further reduce jitter over the previous Q5 upsampling system implemented in the 840C.  In addition to a refinement of the prior system, ATP2 offers three distinct digital filter choices:  A Steep roll-off filter, A Linear Phase filter and a Minimum Phase filter, to optimize digital playback better towards your personal taste and software. The 851C has the same price jump ($1,499 to $1,849) I suggest experimenting with the different filter options, but be warned, it can make you a bit mad, trying to figure out which one is the best choice.

Much like the amplifier, the newer 851C offers more refinement, however here we found the major gains more in HF smoothness and low-level detail.  Reproducing acoustic instruments is a strong suit of the 840C, yet the 851C improves this aspect of digital reproduction significantly.  The opening drum rolls on the Pretenders “Private Life,” from their self-titled album have more attack and more immediacy, while the bells in the background linger and decay more delicately.  The oboe is also reproduced with more texture via the newer player, tracking through the Netherland Wind Ensemble’s Greatest Hits.

While quick A/B comparisons reveal the improvement in the new player quickly, perhaps the most dramatic difference happens after listening to one player for about an hour, then making a quick switch to the other.  The soundstage shrinks noticeably going from 851C to the 840C, and when going in the other direction, things definitely have more vitality and immediacy.

As both players can be used as a DAC, high-resolution files again shine brighter on the new model.  A sequence of female vocal tracks in 24/96 and 24/192 formats from Dusty Springfield, Carole King and Bjork all illuminate more resolution on tap.  Interestingly enough, the 851Cs ability to navigate Janis Joplin’s voice on Pearl is the most telling of the new players capability.  Much like a violin being butchered on a budget player, Joplin’s raspy voice translates with more body and ease on the 851C. Both players do a commendable job illustrating the difference between high res files and standard 16bit/44.1khz files, but the 851C makes it clearer.

Whether you consider it the most interesting change or the most useful, the 851C now offers a precise digital volume control and variable outputs.  Three sets of digital inputs, offering a choice of balanced AES/EBU, S/PDIF co-axial and Toslink optical as well as a separate USB input (with a switchable ground lift) makes the 851C the perfect hub for the music lover that has no interest in analog sources, this makes the 851C a killer value. Connect your favorite power amplifier and roll.  Its single ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs make it compatible with any amplifier.

We had excellent luck with tube and solid-state examples. The combination of the 851C and the new Prima Luna ProLogue Premium power amplifier with 40 watts per channel of tube power along with the KEF LS50s proves beguiling in a small room, albeit not as powerful as the companion 851A.  Either way, it’s nice to have the option.

For those not wanting a rack full of gear, the 851C had no problem driving a 6 meter length of XLR or RCA cables to a handful of power amplifiers we had on hand.  There were no issues with HF rolloff or output drive.  A simple menu click enables the variable output. And like the 851A, the inputs can be labeled via the remote.

Refinement is the word

If you currently own an 840A and 840C, you still possess some great gear, and depending on the speakers you’ve paired with this combo, you may not feel the urge to make the move to the next models.  However, those taking the plunge will not be disappointed, there is enough of a delta to rediscover your current music collection without guilt.  This is a great pair, offering high performance and enough power to drive almost any speaker with headroom to spare.

For those starting from scratch, the Cambridge Audio 851A and 851C deliver high performance, excellent functionality and understated good looks.  We call that an “exceptional value” and I am happy to award these two components our first Exceptional Value Awards of 2013.

The Cambridge Audio 851A integrated amplifier and 851C Disc Player/DAC/Digital Preamplifier

$1,849 ea. (mfr) (US importer) (Canadian importer)



995: Sounds that Won’t Break the Bank
AudioQuest’s DragonFly
Blue Aura Blackline Integrated Amp

By Mark Marcantonio

Old School:  The Krell KSA-50
By Ken Kessler

Ground Zero:  A Quest for the First System
By Jeff Dorgay

Macro: Sound for Small Spaces

AKG K702 65th Anniversary Edition Phones

Logitech UE 9000 Phones
By Michael Liang

Tone Style

The Gorbals Restaruant
By Jeff Dorgay

McIntosh McAire: First Look!

AViiQ Quick Change USB Dock

Angry Birds Star Wars

The Modern Record Console

Revolution Acoustics

The Wino: Champagne!
By Monique Meadows


Current Releases:

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

Bob Gendron’s Rock and Pop Favorites

The Year’s best audiophile Pressings

The Year’s Best Box Sets
By Bob Gendron


Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC

AVID Ingenium Turntable

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC Cartridge

Bryston BHA-1 Headphone Amplifier

From The Web:

Kronos Turntable

Durand Talea Tonearm

Creek Audio Wyndsor Phonostage

TONEAudio’s 2012 Products of the Year:


Sonus faber Aida Loudspeaker
By Jeff Dorgay

AudioTechnica AT-OC9 III Cartridge
By Tim Moyers

Robert Koda Takumi K-10 Preamplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

VPI Traveler Turntable
By Jerold O’Brien

Totem Acoustic Mani-2 Speakers
By Lawrence Devoe

AMG V-12 Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay


SL-1200 Upgrades: Sound HiFi

Though I am not a huge fan of modded gear, I’ve always appreciated the ingenuity exhibited by the DIY side of the audio world.

Just like my other favorite hobby (automobiles), there is always plenty of room for the wrench turners to coexist with the check writers, and while they always like to banter about whose approach is more pure, the decision to mod is up to you.

If you are new to the modding game, keep in mind that a modded piece rarely has great resale value, because once you start tinkering with anything, there are only so many people who will want to purchase your version of nirvana.  So keep that in mind before you get out the Sawzall. In this case, if you perform the Sound HiFi mods with care, you could reverse the process and go back to a stock SL-1200, should you decide to sell it.

From the beginning

My journey in HiFi started with a Technics SL1200 about 35 years ago, yet I quickly got caught up in being a proper audiophile trading that table in for a belt-drive Rega Planar 3.  To be fair to the Rega, I still prefer the sound of a P3 to the sound of a stock Technics SL-1200, which I find rather dark and cloudy sounding overall.  Careful attention to detail when setting up an SL-1200 will wring every bit of resolution for which it is capable, but this is still not a ton.

The good news is that Technics has been building the SL-1200 for a long time and the core turntable mechanism (motor, base and platter) is robustly built.  The direct-drive mechanism has a lot of torque and the table has a very weighty presentation with a fair amount of bass detail despite its other shortcomings.  While a basic “audiophile approved” turntable can easily run a couple thousand dollars without a tonearm, you can still find a like – new SL-1200 on the secondary market for $400 -$500 (in the U.S. anyway), so this is an excellent platform for modification.  Think of the SL-1200 as the Volkswagen GTI of the turntable world.

I’ve investigated the KAB series of modifications for the SL-1200, and they have ultimately left me cold because I still feel that the stock SL-1200 arm is the weak link in the equation.  The full suite of KAB mods certainly improve the SL-1200, the minute I drop a record on a Rega P5, or a nice used Linn LP-12, I’m still not that interested in the Technics.

However, the rabid enthusiasm for the 1200 out in the world of internet forums has kept my interest piqued.  The Sound HiFi mods described here were brought to my attention by a good friend on the MartinLogan forum (an SME owner) who had just heard the modded table at a friend’s house with an SME 309 arm fitted.  “You need to get this mod in for review.  You won’t believe how great the SL-1200 sounds with this arm and a good cartridge.”

Dave Cawley of Sound HiFi ( has been running a HiFi shop with on-site repair facilities for a long time and is a true analog enthusiast.  During our phone conversation, he said, “Look, I sell AVID, SME and Clearaudio.  I’m not going to tell you my mod will turn an SL-1200 into an SME 20, but I do think you will find it very interesting.”  Should you live anywhere near Sound HiFi in the U.K., they can modify your 1200 for you if you are not so inclined.  Sound HiFi also still services and refurbishes the legendary Technics SP-10 broadcast turntable, which is enjoying a tremendous resurgence in the audiophile world.

Choices, choices

There are a few different options to this series of modifications.  The external power supply is about $450 at current exchange rates (£299), the arm board for an SME arm is £89.95 and they also offer a great mat for £89.95.  A series of upgraded feet and a clamp can also be purchased to take the SL-1200 to the limit of its performance envelope.

Our European readers may have an easier time of this, as the SME arms are not as expensive there as they are here.  However, there always seems to be a great deal on a used 309 that someone is trading to move up the ladder.  A 309 in excellent shape can usually be had for about $900, and I’ve seen them as low as $700.  The M2-09 is a less expensive arm, but in much shorter supply and I’ve actually seen them selling for more than a 309.

I prefer the mechanical robustness of the 309, and the stock SME tonearm cable isn’t bad either, though once you get done with all of this, you now will be able to easily hear the difference an upgraded tonearm cable will make.  Should you decide to take this even further, I highly suggest the Furutech AG-12 tonearm cable. It offers world-class performance, and I use it on my other two SME tonearms.

Some assembly required

The Sound HiFi kit is relatively easy to install, but it will require good basic soldering and mechanical skills.  If you have never done anything like this, I would not make this your first electronic project without the help of a friend possessing some skills.  The instructions that come with the Sound HiFi kit have a few holes in them, so we will be posting some additional tips and photos on our website to guide you a little better.

Granted, I’ve seen far worse, but being a visual person, I wouldn’t mind just a few more pictures to ease the process.

As with all electrical and mechanical projects, the key is to budget an hour or so of quiet time and give yourself room to spread out everything.  As you remove the bottom cover of the SL-1200, there are quite a few screws to keep track of.

All the parts required were included and the organization of the kit was very tidy.  I was taking my time and taking pictures along the way. Two hours later, I had a very nice looking SL-1200 with an SME 309 ready for setup and adjustment that looked as if it came that way from the factory.  This speaks volumes about the quality of the Sound HiFi modifications.

The Sumiko Blackbird that I had been using on the SME 309 fitted to my Raven Two is now only a headshell swap and quick readjust away.  Now you have the versatility of setup that the SME arm offers while retaining the removable headshells that made the stock SL-1200 desirable.

The sound – glorious!

Yes, you heard right; I’m gloating about the sound of an SL-1200.  I performed the modifications in two steps –  first the power supply and then the tonearm – so that I could evaluate each step’s improvement to the overall sound.  Thanks to removing that big transformer from under the platter and adding the more robust external power supply, the SL-1200 sounds more open and focused, even with the stock arm.  But when the SME arm was added, the table goes from capable to outstanding.

The more practical readers in the audience will note  that adding the external power supply, arm board and a decent used SME 309 to the mix, I’ve quadrupled the original price of the SL1200; wouldn’t I be better off just spending $2,000 on a proper turntable, in a box with a manufacturer’s warranty?

Well, yes, if you worry about that sort of thing. But no, if you want to push the boundaries of what you can achieve for an investment of $2,000 in a turntable.  I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a lot of turntables in the $2,000 – $3,000 range from Rega, VPI, Pro-Ject, Music Hall, etc., and for my money, this one is the one to beat.

Would I give up my Rega P9/RB 1000 or Raven TWO with SME 309 for this table?  No, it’s not that good, but it’s so damn good for $2,000, paired up with your favorite $900 cartridge, that you may not ever need to spend more money on a turntable unless you have a mega system.  This truly is a magic combination, being much more than the sum of its parts. Some find joy in customization, while others find joy in turnkey solutions.

The big-bucks tables still offer more resolution at the frequency extremes, with more fine detail throughout, and that’s what you pay the money for.  But balance is the key to a great HiFi system, and for the Journeyman Audiophile, a five-figure analog setup is a waste of money.

I noticed immediately that the wonderful bass presentation of the stock SL-1200 is still there and, if anything, improved.  The table now had plenty of weight and  a high degree of bass definition.  When listening to Charlie Haden’s Private Collection on Naim records, I could really enjoy all of the texture present in his acoustic-bass playing. The one-note bass feel of the stock table now gone.   My favorite early Genesis records now sound  more like what I’m used to on my reference tables, and even LL Cool J sounded a lot better, with more bass slam and control.

I was not ready for the amount of delicacy and resolution through the midrange and high frequencies offered by the modded SL-1200.  The stock table is a clunker with acoustic music or densely recorded rock records; things become two dimensional lacking any kind of proper depth.  Honestly, I’d prefer a decent CD player to a stock SL-1200 any day.

With the Sound HiFi mods in place combined with the SME arm, serious analog magic is going on.  This is an analog setup you can be proud to own.  My usual group of audiophile buddies teased me to no end when they saw a Technics table sitting on the rack next to my Raven TWO and Spiral Groove SG-2, but the minute I put a record on, everybody shut up.

Listening to the first track on Lindsey Buckingham’s current release, Gift of Screws, the acoustic guitar barely makes it to the outer edges of the speakers with the stock table.  The Sound HiFi version extends the soundstage about three feet past the speaker boundaries, with a healthy measure of height thrown in.  Everything has a lot more body and my LP’s sound great again, not flat and lifeless as they did on the stock SL-1200.

Vocals take on a realistic character, now clearly hearing the subtle details that make good analog such a treat, with a very expansive soundstage no matter what I was listening to.  Combined with my ARC PH3SE phono stage, the SL-1200 and Sumiko Blackbird make an excellent showing. Stepping up to the Nagra VPS/VFS, even more detail is present.

Sure, pairing this table up with a $4,000 cartridge and an $8,000 phono preamp is a bit overkill, but the Sound HiFi SL-1200 makes a good showing.  Playing more in its league, with the Shelter 501, Sumiko Blackbird, Lyra Dorian, etc., and  a Lehman Black Cube SE, Dynavector P-75 mk.2 or the like, I dare you to find more pleasing analog playback for this kind of money.

Get out your credit card and call Dave

Again, if the idea of a project like this is not for you, the cost of shipping an SL-1200 to the U.K. and paying to have these bits installed may outweigh the cost of the end result.  Those of you who are handy and up to the challenge of creating something wonderful for a reasonable expenditure should look no further.  I can’t think of a more musically revealing turntable for this kind of money and I’ve heard most of them.

When assembling a system in the $10k range, every place you can save $500 is a big plus and money that can be invested in more performance elsewhere or perhaps for some room treatments or even more music!  The Sound HiFi modded Technics SL-1200 gets my highest recommendation, and you can plan on seeing it around here for a long time as my reference table at this price point.

NOTE:  This article was originally published in issue 22 of TONEAudio.  Dave Cawley has some even newer SL-1200 bits that we will be investigating soon.  This story is far from complete!


Preamplifier                Burmester 011

Phono Preamplifiers   Nagra VPS/VFS, Nagra BPS, ARC PH3SE

Power Amplifier         Burmester 911 mk.3

Speakers                      MartinLogan CLX w/JL Fathom F110 subwoofers (2)

Interconnects              Shunyata Aurora

Speaker Cables            Shunata Orion