German Physiks Unlimiteds: Further Listening

Living with the Unlimiteds for a few more weeks continues to reveal treasure.

The resolving nature of these speakers continues to impress everyone that hears them and their chameleon – like character should charm solid state and valve amplifiers lovers equally. They provide equally stunning performances with either.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay these speakers after extended listening is that they will improve in sound quality as you keep upgrading your equipment and are not out of place in a mega system, making them perfect for the audiophile not having a large room, not wanting to give up sound quality.

They are not at all finicky and great results are achieved with entry-level electronics; so this is a speaker you can buy with long-term system aspirations even if you don’t have the spare change to buy the whole system in one go.  And spinning vinyl, fantastic!  In room two with six turntable/tonearm/cartridge combinations at my disposal, it is easy to discern the nuance of each.  Most of my final listening sessions centered around the VPI Classic 1 turntable, fitted with an Eminent Technology ET2.5 tonearm and Grado Statement 1 cartridge.  The Aesthetix Rhea phono stage and Burmester 011 preamplifier fed the Jubilee monoblocks for a breathtaking analog experience.

Rock till you drop

The 10cc classic, Deceptive Bends instantly reveals the cinemascope like soundstage painted by the Unlimiteds.  The engaging studio trickery, full of layer upon layer of texture, overdubbed vocals and a wall of guitars comes alive through these speakers, feeling highly psychedelic, indeed. The opening beats of “Good Morning Judge” pin me back in the listening chair, neither the Unlimiteds nor the Jubilees any worse for the wear and tear.

This prompted playing the band’s most noteworthy hit “I’m Not in Love,” from The Original Soundtrack, harkening back to the Crème and Godley days of this wonderfully witty band.  In the middle of the track, as the female vocal wispily claims “big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry,” there’s yet another group of layered vocals set well behind the speakers main axis with a handful of tinkly bits floating all over the room as if I were wearing a giant pair of headphones.  Brilliant.

Turning the clock even further back (and turning the volume way up) to the Ten Years After masterpiece, A Space in Time, Alvin Lee’s acoustic guitar intro almost feels larger than life.  No matter how dense the mix, the Unlimiteds are masters of keeping the pace rock solid – something my favorite electrostats struggle with when there is a heavy bass line present.  Because these speakers can play so loud without distortion, I advise a bit of prudence – if you have a high power amplifier, you’ll find yourself constantly turning it up because the clarity of the presentation is so intoxicating.

Resolving reality

The Unlimiteds high resolution makes listening sessions fun, re-discovering favorite recordings mining low level details that may have been lost or diminished via other speakers.

As much fun as the Unlimiteds can be rocking out, they provide an extremely convincing look at acoustic music as well.  Thad Jones trumpet fills the room, playing the 45-rpm copy of Music Matters, The Magnificent Thad Jones. The wide, spacious sound of these speakers gives real instruments more room to breathe.  The lightening fast attack of the DDD driver does not blur drums and percussion in the least and cymbals fade out with an ease that fools you into thinking you are hearing the real thing.

Slowing down the pace much further to take in Bax’ Sonata For Flute and Harp illustrates the delicacy that these speakers provide, even at low volume.  The harp hovers between the speakers, allowing the flute it’s own space, with neither of these faint instruments polluting the sound of the other.

This clarity extends to the vocal range, male and female.  Again, the extreme clarity these speakers provide give vocals a sense of immediacy that is tough to beat.  Thanks to that low 200hz crossover, the DDD driver handles it all, not breaking up the coherency with a crossover network.

Whether you’re listening to Tom Jones, Tom Petty or Tom Waits, the Unlimiteds will satisfy and yes, female vocals are equally intoxicating.  Ella Fitzgerald’s “My Cousin in Milwaukee” is absolutely slinky.

Great dynamics

Visiting some of my favorite hip hop and electronic tracks, I had to push the Unlimiteds really hard to find their limits with the 600 watt per channel Burmester 909 power amplifier that we recently reviewed.  Anyone who is less than punishing will find they play incredibly loud without strain.  Much like a ceramic driver, the DDD is so clean it doesn’t go easily into distortion like a cone or dome speaker, it just kind of flattens out.  Again, this is way beyond the point of reason.

Romping through the driving beats in Thievery Corporation’s The Mirror Conspiracy poses no problems for these speakers, regardless of volume, again underlining their ability to reproduce a powerful bass line and maintain a huge spatial perspective with everything else.  Investigating a few classic dynamic tracks from Pink Floyd, Yello and Genesis are all handled with equal ease, making these incredibly well rounded speakers.

As well as the German Physiks Unlimited speakers perform on a wide variety of music, one of their best attributes is how user friendly they are, as I mentioned in part one of this review.  This is a speaker system that requires precious little fuss to setup, so you go instantly to enjoying your music when you bring a pair home.

The final part of this review will cover using the speakers with a wider range of electronics, and a couple of different environments, probing the rest of their limits.

Visit the German Physiks website here:

Tour of Zu Audio

Hi-fi isn’t just about boxes and wires – it’s about people.

Meet Christian Drecksel – paint shop guru and today’s tour guide of Zu Audio’s factory floor. I’m here to talk Union, a new loudspeaker that’s pitched sonically closer to Zu’s A-game Soul Superfly (right) than their entry-level Omen (left).  I’m keen to see the build process from woe to go.  First up: Drecksel drives me ’round to meet one of the local box cutters.

Zu outsource the cutting to a triumvirate of woodshops.  A rigid three-ply composite is cut to strict build specifications. CNC cutting tables ensure precision.  I get a sense that error-tolerance amongst team Zu is super low.  The factory itself has a feeling of long hours spent in the pursuit of high standards – everyone seems dedicated to a team outcome.  Music is nearly always playing downstairs and rarely does five minutes pass without my hearing someone, somewhere laugh hard.

For the rest of John Darko’s journey, please click here…..

Room Treatment From Vicoustic

Whether you’ve spent a small, medium or super size pile of cash on your system, chances are good that it’s not delivering the maximum performance that it’s capable of.

I’m guessing that many of you that have invested in great racks, cables and other accessories have not invested time in properly addressing the sound of your listening environment.

And for good reason, most of the products look at home in a recording studio at best, or a garage sale at worst: not at home in even a modestly design conscious environment.  But there’s an answer.  We’ve teamed up with the people at Vicoustic USA to show you just how painless and attractive a properly designed acoustic space can be.  Their products are beautiful and easy to install, and not prohibitively expensive.  We start the process next week.  We’ll be capturing video and taking a ton of pictures to document it all, so stay tuned. (pun intended)

Once finished, we will be doing a makeover of a lucky TONEAudio reader’s room later on this year, so you can see just for yourself just how much more enjoyable your system can be.

For those of you outside the USA, please go to for dealer and product information.

Audio Additives – Dig. Stylus Force Gauge

Here’s the answer for those wanting a digital stylus force gauge on a tight budget.

Music Direct’s Audio Additives Digital Stylus Force Gauge tips the scale at $79.99. About three times what the reliable Shure balance gauge will set you back, but much more precise.  Of course, if you’re going to set your table up once and forget it until you buy a cartridge in a few years, or if you bought a VPI table, in which case they include a Shure gauge at no charge, this is probably not for you.

However, with more analog enthusiasts sporting multiple turntables and tonearms with removable headshells, the thought of having two or more cartridges in your collection isn’t as crazy as it used to be.  And a digital scale to keep things precise makes it that much easier.

Setup is quick, a pair of AAA batteries keep this gizmo going, and once the scale settles down to all zeros, calibration is checked with a supplied reference weight.  Everything is tucked neatly in a foam lined box, making it easy to keep tidy.

Comparing the AA gauge to my reference Clearaudio Weight Watcher, the new contender proves spot on, with the ten turntables at my command.  The only question left to answer is long term stability, which we will answer somewhere down the road, as this handy gauge will be used on a daily here.

For now, this looks like the one to beat, and you can purchase one from Music Direct here.

A Visit to Simaudio

Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about Simaudio is that the entire company has only one person in its service department; he’s not terribly busy – and that’s a good thing.

When I compare Sim’s service guy, Mark Catalfamo, to the famous Maytag repairman, he laughs and points out that two thirds of the “repair” work executed on his test bench is just to confirm the performance of various review units that have been returned from around the world.

“We need to be sure that everything is still up to spec,” he says, “and that there has been no physical damage.”

This confirms that breakdowns with Simaudio gear is a rarity, precisely the reason the company offers a 10-year warranty on all of its products.  You don’t stay in business for thirty-plus years if you’re mired in constant repair issues.  Yet, should the need for service ever occur, the company has a substantial parts inventory on hand.

“We don’t have metal casework parts for all of our oldest models anymore,” says Costa Koulisakis, the company’s VP of Sales and Marketing.  “But we do have electrical parts—resistors, capacitors, transistors, etcetera—on hand to repair or refurbish practically everything we’ve ever made.”

This is something to strongly consider when making a purchase decision.  As additional evidenced, a cursory look at the secondary market reveals few Simaudio components for sale—and when you do find a pre-owned Sim unit, it commands a high price.  We at TONE have a number of Simaudio products in service as staff-member reference components, not to mention friends and family members who have enjoyed long, trouble-free relationships with their gear.  Koulisakis goes on to note that his customers are the same way.  “We tend to get customers for life,” he says.  “When they buy an amplifier, the old one is often moved to another room for a second system.”

Proudly Made in Canada

Simaudio has been in business since 1980 and has been running under the guidance of its current CEO, Jean Poulin, since 1993.  He is responsible for the company’s growth in recent years, having expanded the Sim product line, made major circuitry upgrades and upgraded the casework to the world-class design those components now enjoy.  All of this, he says, has regrettably kept him too busy to play his piano located upstairs at the company’s headquarters, just to the left of the main listening room.  “Once the move is complete I am hoping to find a bit more time to play,” Poulin says with a smile.

Every day, Poulin hangs his hat on the fact that, as more and more of the audio industry’s manufacturing heads to China, every aspect of Simaudio products is realized in Canada, either in the company’s factory or within a very tight radius.  The company has just moved into its current facility, which is just over 45,000 square feet and home to 42 employees.  It is more than just a factory, however:  In addition to all of the component-production facilities, it includes two state-of-the-art listening rooms and a performance space.  Sim has made great effort to keep the building as green as possible, going so far as to grow strawberries on the roof!

As far as audio parts go, the original extrusions that become product faceplates and heat sinks are produced near the Sim factory, but machined to their final forms at the company’s five-axis Haas CNC work center.  Going through the machine shop reveals a second, four-axis machine nearby.  Boards are stuffed only a few blocks away from the Sim facility, with all testing completed on Sim’s factory floor.  The company even takes an artisan approach with its front and rear product panels, which are silk-screened one at a time in an area of the shop dedicated to this process.  And to bust a common audiophile myth, the exquisite casework of a Simaudio product does not constitute a majority of its final price, thanks to having it everything produced in-house.

The design team at Simaudio feels that this high-quality casework adds to the finished product in more ways than one.  The billet-aluminum enclosures minimize vibration, which results in better performance, but there remains a stringent eye on quality and pride of ownership.  Simaudio uses 6063-T5 aluminum, which is not as hard as 6061-T6 aircraft-grade aluminum, but that is superior in appearance, since it can be more finely finished.

Koulisakis is quick to point out that, while the T6 aluminum has a higher tensile strength than the T5 they use, it is actually detrimental to the sound, because the extra stiffness makes it ring much more.  “The T5 aluminum is very stable and provides a surface that is easy to machine, anodize and brush, ” he says, also noting that any Simaudio piece you buy today will maintain its attractive look, without any fading or discoloration.

The Difference is in the Details

The vibe at the Simaudio factory is relaxed, right down to the desk in the reception room, which has been custom-machined to look like the face plates on Sim’s gear, right down to the blue LED in the center—a nice touch.  Many of the company’s employees have been there longer than 15 years, which is another key to product success and low failure rates.

While many of the engineering changes made over the years were to refine sonic performance, others were made in the name of reliability.  The most noticeable of these changes is that Sim now produces its own CD transport for the 650D and 750D DACs.

Upon close inspection, it’s easy to see that a number of parts inside Simaudio components are completely custom-made. Simaudio’s Marketing Manager Lionel Goodfield points out that the output transistors used in the company’s power amplifiers are also custom-made, in batches of 100,000, specifically for Simaudio.  “Once here, we sort and match these transistors to an even tighter tolerance for use in our amplifiers,” he says.  “It adds a few extra steps, but insures quality and product uniformity.”

Power transformers are also custom-made by a small firm nearby, for which Simaudio is the main customer.  “Jean’s background was in power supply and transformer design,” says Goodfield of Sim’s CEO, “so it was easy to design something unique to Simaudio.  Not having to rely on off-the-shelf parts has made it easier for us to achieve the low noise floor of our designs.”

By Music Lovers for Music Lovers

As mentioned earlier, there are two separate listening rooms at the Simaudio HQ: one about 20 feet by 30 feet and one about 20 feet by 15 feet, both of which help the staff simulate how Sim’s products will be used by customers.  With about a dozen speakers queued up in the entryway from Dynaudio, Thiel, MartinLogan, Wilson and others, it is obvious that the company makes every effort to be sure that its products work well with as many different varieties of speakers as it is practical to keep around.

During my visit, the second room was not quite finished, but the main room is most certainly a testament to what great gear can sound like when properly set up.  Here, Sim’s latest 850P Dual-Mono Reference Preamplifier, a pair of its 880M Mono Reference Power Amplifiers, the 810LP phonostage and the 750D DAC/CD Transport were driving a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers.  As a C1 owner, I came away with a new appreciation for not only how much the room contributes to the overall sound of a system, but also how much more sound lurks in a pair of great speakers when premium electronics are supporting them.  The equal level of resolution, tonal purity and ease this system provides again underscores how much care with which Sim builds its components.

This attention to detail is perhaps what best defines Simaudio’s approach to audio-product manufacturing.  The company’s designers, engineers and factory workers make some of the world’s finest-sounding gear.  But it is Simaudio’s attention to the minutest of details—not only in its manufacturing but also in its pursuit of a level of reliability that keeps its products performing at their best long after the sale—that gives the company’s components true heirloom value.  And, after a visit to the factory in Montreal, it is quite apparent that these guys love music, which takes the company’s gear beyond manufacturing.

Issue 53


995: Sounds that Won’t Break the Bank
AVA Media Maestro-50 Digital Amplifier

By Mark Marcantonio

Macro: Sound for Small Spaces

By Bob Gendron

Ressonessence Labs Concerto DAC
By John Darko

Dealers That Mean Business
Audio Arts NYC: An Oasis on 5th Avenue

Tone Style

Bang & Olufsen’s Beo Play A9
An Audio UFO
By Jeff Dorgay

Peter Roberts “Concentrique”
By Ken Kessler

Big Brother and the Holding Co. T-Shirt

CharLi USB Charger

Chocolate USB Stick

Fiat 500 Abarth w/Beats Audio

Scottvest Fleece 7.0

The Beer Snob: A look at Deschutes
By Bob Gendron


Current Releases:

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

Live Music:
David Byrne & St. Vincent
By John Darko

Leni Stern
By Jeff Dorgay

Audiophile Pressings

Jazz & Blues
By Jim Macnie

Classic Album Sundays
By Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy


Rega RP8 Turntable

Oppo BDP-103 and 105 Universal Players

Thorens TD-125 via Vinyl Nirvana

Boulder 3050 Monoblocks

From The Web:

Meridian Explorer

iRiver Astell&Kern AS100


PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Stereo Power Amplifier
By Jerold O’Brien

Penaudio Sinfonietta Loudspeaker
By Rob Johnson

Simaudio MOON 880M Monoblocks
By Jeff Dorgay

Bob Carver Black Magic 20 Amplifier
By Andre Marc

Pass Labs XA200.5 Monoblocks
By Jeff Dorgay

Burmester 909 mk.5 Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay


The iRiver AK100 High Res Player

Just when you thought the world of high performance personal audio couldn’t get any more crowded, with a plethora of great DAC’s and headphone amplifiers, iRiver released the AK100 music player.

It plays FLAC files and has the new Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip under the hood – allowing playback of up to 24bit/192khz files.

For those not of the nerd intelligentsia, suffice to say the AK100 is a major jump in performance over the iPod or for that matter anything else you’ve got in your pocket to play music. Initial response to the AK100 is good.  It’s wonderful to load some HD Tracks files and some DVD-a rips that can be enjoyed on the go.

But the fricking thing costs $700.  Awesome or insanity?  So just how good is the AK 100? As Pee Wee Herman said in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, “Some questions get answered, other questions pop up.”

We’ll do our best to uncover the rocks in the road, if any, and we will also explore the modded AK100 from Red Wine Audio, that promises to take this portable player even further.  Vinni Rossi’s iMod for the iPod has proved fantastic, and I still use the one he modded for me years ago.

And what about PONO, the new high resolution player that is the brainchild of Meridian Audio and Neil Young?  When it comes to high quality digital, don’t rule out Bob Stuart (ceo of Meridian) he’s a rock star in his own right.

Those are the questions we will answer in the weeks to come as we put the AK100 through its paces with as many top quality headphones as we can get our hands on, and use it as a source component in everything from a desktop system to a half million dollar hifi system.

Stay tuned for more, and feel free to comment here and on our facebook page.