Plinius Hautonga

In case Plinius is a company that has slipped under your radar, they hail from New Zealand, and have been making incredible products for years now.

However, those that do know about the brand are doggedly loyal.  It’s a brand that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone slag out on the various internet forums, so they are doing something right.

Something indeed.  Having built their reputation on big, class-A power amplifiers, the Hautonga you see here is an integrated amplifier (with phono stage, no less) that features a 200-watt per channel class AB power amplifier.  Yet, much like the Burmester 911 mk. 3 and the new D’Agostino Momentum, the Plinius comes up with a remarkably grain free sound, that just might fool you that this understated beauty has a class-A amplifier under it’s cover.  Yet the MSRP is only $5,750.

It’s a very understated box, with gently rounded corners and an asymmetrical top plate, yet the rear panel is bright blue, similar to the French racing blue you’ve seen on factory Renault race cars.  It makes for a nice accent stripe where the top panel meets the casework.  The Hautonga is beautifully machined and is available in black or silver.  The control layout is the ultimate of simplicity; a large volume control and gently rounded push buttons to control the inputs.  Oddly, a balance control is absent – no big whoop for digital music enthusiasts, but this might be somewhat inconvenient for analog lovers.  Even if it were implemented from the remote – and the Hautonga has a sleek, stylish, yet commanding remote.

A complete integrated

In the tradition of the best integrateds, the Hautonga features an on board phono stage – handy for those wanting to keep rack clutter to a minimum. It does feature adjustable gain with two settings via on board jumpers, however loading is fixed at 47k ohms.  Though I’m not a fan of running most MC cartridges at this setting, there are still some great alternatives.

The cartridges in my arsenal that mate particularly well with the 47k/high gain combination are the Sumiko Blackbird, a moderately high output (2.5mv) that works fine with 47k loading, and the Grado Statement 1 moving iron cartridge.  With a .5mv output and 47k loading, this is a perfect, if slightly overpriced match (the Statement 1 is $3,500) for the Hautonga.  Keep in mind that Grado does make a series of wood bodied moving iron cartridges, all having a .5mv output, from $500 on up.  I’m guessing one of these on your favorite table will prove equally enticing.

Tracking through a handful of recent favorites from MoFi and Music Matters Jazz, I submit that the onboard phono is probably equivalent to something you might purchase as an outboard phonostage in the $750 – $1,000 range.  Not bad, considering the Hautonga is an awesome deal without the phono stage.  Highs are smooth and well sorted, the overall tonal balance neutral and background noise very low.  And then there’s the necessity for another set of interconnects and power cord; another reason a built in phono is such an awesome idea.

Entry level and Journeyman vinyl enthusiasts will probably never need more analog capability than the Hautonga’s on board stage provides.

Maybe on the next version of the Hautonga, they will open this up to adjustment, or offer a $5,000 version with no phono stage.  Bypassing the onboard stage, utilizing the Aesthetix Rhea phonostage, paired with the SME 10 turntable and Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, (an analog front end worth about $20k) the Hautonga easily resolves the difference in analog front ends – again showing off what a great amplifier this is.

Further listening

After a few days of being powered up, the Hautonga opens up to a full-bodied sound.  Ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, the more you listen to this amplifier, you’ll psyche yourself out thinking that it is class-A after all.  It’s also on the warm side when in operation as well, suggesting relatively high bias current.  The Hautonga actually sounds more like my Burmester 011/911 combination than the Simaudio 850P/880M electronics.

Whether paired with their own Tiki streaming audio player (review in process) or any of the digital players at my disposal, the Hautonga is a pleasure to listen to, regardless of source.  While lacking the last bit of resolution available with cost no object gear, dynamics and tonality have not taken a back seat in the design process.  Listening to the title track from Gary Numan’s latest album, Dead Sun Rising, the Hautonga powers the Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution speakers in room two with conviction. This record is full of deep, deep, synth bass lines and the Hautonga sails through effortlessly, even at high volume.

These are speakers that require a lot of current and control to deliver maximum performance and this proves to be a great combination.  Going for the ultimate torture test, swapping in a pair of Acoustat 1+1 speakers, which are usually tough to drive because of their wacky impedance curve and the highly capacitive load they present, was another easy task for the Hautonga.

Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth proves spacious, controlled and full of punch.  The rapid-fire bass riffs on the opening track, “Dissidents,” is tough to nail on a pair of Acoustats if the amplifier lacks current drive.  Yet cranking this up, the Hautonga handles it in stride, which leads to some more bass laden tracks from Peter Gabriel and Genesis. Again, this amplifier’s ability to provide controlled bass, full of texture on a set of speakers known for “”one note bass” is highly impressive.

Moving the amplifier out to room one and the KEF Blades is a ton of fun – and again reveals this amplifiers ability to provide a high quality musical experience with ancillaries much more expensive than you might pair it up with.  The Blades 90db sensitivity proves an easy load for this amplifier to drive allowing for plenty of dynamic range and showing off the bass control and drive. While fairly efficient, the Blades also need a fair amount of current to reproduce bass well.  This prompted a long playlist of Deadmau5, Skrillex, Daft Punk and Infected Mushroom, pushing the amplifier to its limits.  Even after hours of this treatment, the Hautonga stayed slightly warm to the touch but no more.

Subtlety beyond its pricetag

While the Hautonga can really rock out when required, what makes it a top performer is the level of resolution and inner detail it provides.  Tracking through the MoFi gold CD of Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, a number of small details come up in the mix that normally require more expensive electronics to extract – again convincing this writer that the integrated is one of the best ways to achieve high performance without breaking the bank.   With so many choices to damage the synergy between amplifier and preamplifier, having it all on one chassis saves the day for all but the most geeky – and patient end user.  An integrated is the fast track to great sound.

Vocals and solo acoustic instruments feel right played through the Hautonga.  Revisiting some early Windham Hill recordings from Alex DeGrassi and Liz Story illustrate subtlety, tonal nuance and a wonderful sense of decay.  The old audiophile classic, Solid Colors paints a great picture of Ms. Story and her Steinway, awash in detail rendered perfectly by the Hautonga/Blade combination.

The Jung Trio’s rendition of Dvorak’s Piano Trio in F Minor, Op.65, is another treat showcasing the fantastic tonal contrast and neutrality that the Hautonga has to offer.  Perhaps two of the toughest instruments to reproduce cleanly, the amplifier sails through, with the interplay between the sisters well intact.

Rounding out the picture

The Hautonga also features the other common niceties to round out the package, with four additional RCA line inputs in addition to the Phono and CD player inputs, along with a single XLR input.  A ground lift switch is also provided, which came in handy using a vintage tape deck that had a bit of a hum problem.

Preamplifier in and outputs, 12v trigger, and a HT Bypass assure that you can integrate the Hautonga into any possible system configuration.  They even provide a pair of speaker outputs for those wishing a fully biwired speaker connection.  So no stone really goes unturned.

Nits to pick:  very few, and well under what we’d expect at this price point.  All staff members that used the Hautonga, young and old complained about two things – while very stylish, the remote was fairly hard to read in black and when using the volume control button, it has too much torque, making fine volume adjustments via remote nearly impossible at worst and frustrating at best.  And last, the phono stage loading.  It’s a shame that a phono stage that sounds this good is limited to a handful of cartridges.

Neither of these are a deal breaker, and the Plinius Hautonga is such a stellar performer in so many ways, we are all in agreement that it is highly deserving of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Plinius Hautonga Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $5,750

And you can peruse their Facebook page here:


Analog Source                        Rega RP8/Sumiko Blackbird,  SME 10/Sumiko Palo Santos

Digital Source                                    Plinius Tiki, dCS Vivaldi, OPPO BDP-105

Speakers                                Dynaudio Confidence C1 II, Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution, KEF Blade, KEF LS-50

Cable                                      Cardas Clear

Tubey goodness from ALO Audio

Stop the presses.

In progress for some time, ALO Audio has just released their new headphone amplifier and will be showing it at THE Show in Newport Beach this weekend.   So if you are a headphone enthusiast, this is the one thing you should not miss while attending the show.  Hitting the block at “just under $5,000,” their masterpiece can drive four pairs of headphones at once, AND it drives the torturous HiFi Man HE-6 with ease…

This all tube design features 0B2 voltage regulators and a pair of 6V6GT output tubes, driven in single-ended, class A mode, with a power supply and output transformers worthy of a 20wpc power amp.  Can you say headroom and dynamics?

And, for hardcore headphone lovers that love to spin vinyl, there is a phono stage module on the way shortly, which we will also report on.

And this is fresh out of the box!  The ALO team tells me it takes 200 hours to reach full bloom, so it’s going to be running 24/7 until I get home from the show, then I will report back.

From Mono & Stereo: LessLoss digital cable

Mono & Stereo’s Matej Isak has been very excited about the entire LessLoss line of cable products, but here
he focuses his energy on their digital cable.

You can follow his observations here…

Further listening with the Unlimiteds

The entire line of German Physiks speakers, due to their omnidirectional nature, are incredibly easy to place, not requiring a tuned room to give their best performance.

This was readily apparent from the minute we unboxed them, making for the shortest set up we’ve ever encountered.  The major upside here is that the Unlimiteds will sound just as good, if not better than what you’ll hear at your dealer.

After a few months of enjoying the Unlimiteds, we took them on a quick, local road trip to confirm this theory, sharing them with a few staff members and a couple of traditionally difficult rooms, as well as a wide range of amplification.  As hinted at in the first segment of this review, the Unlimiteds really only require about 25-40 watts to get busy, thanks to a very gentle, unobtrusive crossover network that separates the down-firing woofer and their DDD omnidirectional driver, that covers the frequencies from 200Hz[RK1] on up.

First stop:  My living room

You might laugh, knowing that the publisher of TONEAudio probably has one of the worlds most dreadful sounding living rooms on Earth.  However, this room’s[RK2] wooden plank floors, large glass coffee table and highly reflective surfaces provides a great torture test, because most speakers usually require a lot of fiddling to even achieve passable sound quality.

This was the first big revelation with the Unlimiteds, and the reflective nature of this 11 x 17 foot room actually played to the strength of the speakers.  As I mentioned earlier in the review, the key to setting up the Unlimiteds (and I suspect all GP speakers) is to optimize for smooth, solid bass response.  Once accomplished, the rest falls into place nicely.  Powered by a Simaudio MOON 700i integrated (150 wpc) and matching CD player, the Unlimiteds create a gigantic soundfield in what is normally a troublesome room.  Gato Barbieri’s soundtrack from The Last Tango In Paris has his signature horn floating effortlessly, sounding larger than life, the speakers virtually invisible in the room.

Next stop:  Anechoic chamber

Well, not really, but one of my neighbors has a particularly dead room, full of rough hewn siding and an angled wood ceiling (much like staff member Jerold O’Brien) that sucks the life out of most of the speakers we’ve tried there.  Because of its absorptive nature, this room presents an equal challenge to my living room that is wildly reflective.

Should you possess a room like this, I suggest placing the Unlimiteds a bit closer together than normal, we achieved a coherent balance with the speakers about 6 feet apart rather than the normal 8-12 foot spread used everywhere else.  Due to the room absorbing the reflections that provide much of the spatial information, I also suggest listening in closer than you might in a normal to reflective room.

While the presentation sounded a bit small at the normal ten foot couch to speaker distance, pulling it in to 7 feet from the speakers brought the life and imaging performance back to life, providing an almost nearfield setup.  After hearing the Jung Trio’s recent disc of piano and violin, my neighbor also remarked that this was the most lifelike he’d heard acoustic instruments in his troubled space.

The last ingredient for a more benign environment is amplifier power.  Where the Unlimiteds could rock the house with 35 wpc in a highly reflective space, it took a couple hundred watts per channel to light them up in this sonically dense environment.  My neighbor had this well in hand with a pair of Parasound JC1 monoblocks at the ready.  Before long, we were playing Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” and clinking beer bottles in triumph[RK3] .

Final stop:  House party

A short road trip to a somewhat large room of 20 x 30 feet (with average acoustic properties) quenched my fears that these speakers could not play to a larger room.  Again, a little more power helps, but not as necessary as in the dead room.  The new Rogers EHF-200 that we have in for review (with 110 watts of KT120 power per channel) proves an exquisite match here, giving the Unlimiteds enough weight and control to really rock some house music.

Thunderball’s “To Sir With Dub” fills the room with solid beats, and after a little bit of experimentation, 11 feet apart is the magic spot for the speakers.  Placing the Unlimiteds in a large room provides an excellent listening position everywhere.  The image shifts slightly, but nowhere near what it would if you were listening to box speakers.  Whether sitting on the couch, standing off to the side or even sitting on the floor, well off axis, a great stereo perspective is achieved.  On many levels, these could be the ultimate speakers for your next party, because everyone can enjoy the music.  The Unlimiteds wide dispersion and smooth response also allows enjoyment of the music at a lower level than you would need from a pair of box speakers.

Mid way through the party, when someone got carried away with the volume control, reminiscing college days (and for me, that’s the late 70s) and cranking up Styx’ The Grand Illusion, we all got a chance to see that these speakers could deliver high sound pressure levels without fatigue and not lose their composure.

At the evening’s close, many of my host’s friends asked about the speakers, which were surprising, as there was, not an audiophile in the crowd.  Proof positive that you don’t have to be an audiophile to appreciate great sound.

Wrapping up

Living with the German Physiks Unlimited II loudspeakers has proved illuminating in many ways.  This is a pair of speakers that can be used in virtually any environment with a wide range of amplification, and requires minimal set up fuss.  Their tiny footprint and contemporary shape should also help them to blend into any décor situation as well.

Highly recommended.

And, after speaking with Robert Kelly, GP’s director of sales, they will be showing these speakers at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest again this year, with a show special price, for those interested.  Tell them we sent you!

First Impression: Monk-Audio Tube Preampli-le petit

We were so impressed with the Monk-Audio three input phonostage that we’ve made it part of our permanent reference collection.

Their latest effort, labeled the “tube preampli-le petit, still features three inputs, though this time utilizes a pair of 12AX7 tubes instead of the solid-state construction of their larger model.  Gone is the ability to adjust gain, loading and EQ, but the pricetag is very attractive – about $1,300. With the cost of the EAR 834P ever increasing, this could very well be its replacement.

Initial listening with a Denon DL-103r cartridge mounted on an SME 309 tonearm with the AVID Ingenium turntable reveals, a lively, dynamic sound with a very low noise floor.  In the weeks to come, we’ll be trying a handful of MM and MC cartridges, and report back with a full review.

Stay tuned!

Funk Firm Little Super Deck

Things that reference hallucinogenic drugs tend to pique my interest.  And the Little Super Deck (or LSD) from the Funk Firm will indeed take you on a trip to vinyl bliss, doing so for a lot less money than you’d expect—$1,995 to be exact.

Our review unit arrived in a very THX 1138–esque shade of white, but the table is also available in black or red, or with a black top and wooden base.  You can also dress it up with a different colored Achromat for an extra $99.  Brian Tucker of Pro Audio Ltd., Funk Firm’s U.S. distributor, suggests using only the 3-mm Achromat, as the 5-mm version raises the arm too far for the correct vertical tracking angle to be established and bumps the arm up against the dust cover.  A standard felt mat, similar to the one on a Rega or Linn table, is included at no charge.

Dropping the stylus on the record is a revelation, pure and simple.  After a few long evenings of playing records until the wee hours, I still find myself shaking my head, wondering how this much performance can be had for two grand.  As I listen to the records from the large pile of my Music Matters Blue Note collection, it becomes clear that this table gets to the heart of the music—it’s a master of tone.  Whether I’m listening to Herbie Hancock or Lee Morgan, the LSD delivers acoustic instruments with a level of tonal body and contrast that I’m not used to from a $2,000 turntable.

Though the sky is the limit for turntables these days, the $2,000-to-$3,000 range has so many excellent choices, with the playing field being upset on a regular basis.  Rega, Clearaudio, AVID, VPI and Pro-Ject (just to name a few) all have strong offerings that provide a major improvement in performance over tables costing about half as much.  With so much competition at this level, it’s a pretty exciting time for analog lovers who have a bit of spending money but who don’t want a table costing as much as a new car.

Some Assembly Required

A cursory look at the LSD doesn’t arouse suspicion, meaning that it looks fairly generic from a distance.  Closer inspection reveals just how much engineering has gone into this little marvel.  The LSD does not provide the same plug-and-play install that a Rega deck does, and there isn’t much similarity between the LSD and a Rega beyond the glass platters.  And, unless you’ve got good mechanical aptitude and are fairly intuitive, have your dealer set this baby up.

Unfortunately, the instructions for the LSD, which requires a fair amount of unintuitive assembly, are somewhat dreadful.  I understand that the cost of printing a manual like the one that accompanies a pair of Sonus faber speakers is prohibitive for a $2,000 turntable, but a high-resolution PDF file showing some actual pictures of the damn thing during each stage of the setup process should be considered essential.  I’m not singling out Funk Firm here, though:  I’ve yet to read a great turntable setup manual.

The photo included in the manual does illustrate the three-pulley “vector” system, which uses two additional free-spinning pulleys, so that the drive belt goes around the platter in a triangular formation, minimizing the need for multiple motors.  This is an ingenious solution for a table at this price, and a further example of how over engineered this product is—not to mention he fact that this system provides tremendous benefits when reproducing stringed instruments, particularly the violin.  Keep in mind that this is the same system used in Funk Firm’s flagship table, as well as the company’s $4,500 upgrade to the Linn LP12.

Just to see if this was all marketing hype or not, I used a shorter belt, driving the platter only with the motor pulley (returning to the Jung Trio for the same violin passages).  While you might not notice the difference the pulleys make when listening to your favorite rock records, those loving acoustic music will really appreciate the additional pitch stability this setup provides.

The LSD features a DC motor, similar to what designer Arthur Khoubesserian introduced decades earlier with his highly successful Pink Triangle table, powered by a small wall wart.  You can change speeds between 33 and 45 rpm using the switch on the plinth, which is handy for those having large record collections.

Moving Right Along

Those who are Jedi master enough to assemble the LSD will be highly impressed with how it implements some of its features.  Funk Firm takes a unique approach (patent applied for) to setting the anti-skate, using a weight attached by fishing line to a sliding rod. This allows for ultra-fine tuning of the anti-skate force, which couldn’t be achieved by simply putting the loop in a rung marked in ¼-gram increments.

Funk Firm also has a unique way to set the tracking force:  Using a combination of an under-hung counterweight and a vertical-track-force slider, located right on the arm tube, allows for a better optimization of mass on the table than merely adjusting the weight on the back end of the tonearm.  You can slide the collar up towards the headshell to increase effective mass for your favorite MC cartridge, and slide it back for the opposite effect when using MM carts.

The single screw holding the headshell in place allows adjustment of overhang and azimuth, and it is also a little tricky.  Keep the screw snug but not tight while making minor adjustments, or this will drive you bonkers.

This worked perfectly with my favorite MM, a NOS Ortofon VMS 20 Mk II, and the Lyra Kleos MC.  Dialing in the mass optimizes each cartridge better and ultimately eliminates that “thin” feeling that seems to accompany most budget turntables.  On the other side of the spectrum, my standard-issue late-’80s LP12 sounds slow and out of time by comparison—it lacks the sheer jump and acceleration on musical transients that this table possesses.  Some of this can be attributed to the F5 arm using the same Swiss Abec 7 bearings that my $5,500 SME V arm does.

Because of the F5’s ability to extract information from the black grooves, mating it with a cartridge that costs 50 percent more than the table still makes sense—though a cartridge at this level is probably at the limit of what most LSD owners will consider purchasing.  Lyra’s more reasonably priced Delos ($1,695) is a super partner for the F5 and LSD, as is the $850 Dynavector DV-20X2 and the $1,195 Sumiko Blackbird.  I also had excellent results with the $379 Denon DL-103R cartridge; the variable mass aspect of the F5 tonearm really comes in handy with this classic cartridge.

A Great Pickup Arm, All by Itself

As the F5 pickup arm is available separately for $1,295, the LSD seems like the ideal upgrade for a Rega table.  And, as we just happen to have a pair of P3s on hand, it makes perfect sense to take one for a spin, mounting an Exact 2 on each table. Those of you possessing a P25, P3, or P5 and wanting a serious upgrade should seriously consider an F5—everything improves dramatically.  The arm (sold separately) features the newer, three-point Rega mount.  The one supplied with the LSD is compatible with older Rega tables, and the mounting plate is similar to those of AVID tables.

My P3, already equipped with a Groovetracer subplatter, is now somewhat of a “Frankentable” with the F5 installed, but it’s a blast.  Bass weight increases dramatically:  Going back to The Art of Noise’s Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? reveals bass that goes deeper and hits harder.  However, the biggest improvement is that of inner detail.

When listening to George Harrison’s guitar on “Taxman,” there is definitely more bite and decay compared to the standard Rega arm, and overall pace is improved, as well—no more cowbell required.  A similar effect is realized with “Eleanor Rigby,” in that the violins now have more separation and body, and less grain.

Finally, we gave the F5 a spin on the new AVID Ingenium, with similar results.  As good as the LSD is, the F5 is the star of the show.

It’s Like Buying a Pickup Arm and Getting a Free Turntable.

Putting the Funk Firm LSD through its paces with a handful of cartridges proves that this table is a steal for $2,000.  When compared to equally priced competitors from SME and Rega, the F5 pickup arm makes the LSD an even better bargain, with some innovative features that the competition doesn’t have.  But remember, this table will need a good dealer or good skills to set up properly.

But once it was setup, I could not find fault with the LSD, no matter what kind of music I listened to.  Going back to a few of the higher-dollar tables in my collection, I could see what I wasn’t getting in terms of dynamics and resolution, but the LSD combines it all so well, it won’t leave you wanting much more, no matter how good your system is.

The LSD strikes such a good equilibrium of basic, balanced aesthetics and the ability to reveal a lot of music that it may actually be a destination turntable for many analog aficionados.  Those stepping up from anything in the $500-to-$1,000 range will be shocked at how much music is lurking in their record collection.

And because of this, we are happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Funk Firm’s Little Super Deck

MSRP:  $1,995