New Speakers From Stirling Broadcast

We’ve just received the new SB-88 compact monitor from Stirling Brodcast and it is a stroke of understated excellence.

Fresh out of the box, they sound a little stiff, but 50 hours of dynamic program material at moderate volume has them on full song.  An 8-inch, two way design, they resemble the BBC LS 3/6 design, though in a slightly smaller cabinet.  Sound is relatively close to the Harbeth Compact 7, that is a favorite here at TONEAudio.  As our test pair continues to open up, we will have a full review of these in the near future.  Stay tuned.  You will be able to purchase them at Acoustic Sounds soon.  MSRP: $3,033.

Primare I22 Integrated

Incorporating a DAC inside an integrated amplifier has been going on for some time now, with mixed results, and the Primare I22 is a product arguably aimed more at the music lover who likes to keep things simple.

The I22 pictured here includes the $799 DAC board (with 24/96 USB and 24/192 Toslink and SPDIF inputs) for $2,498.  Those of you already in possession of a good DAC can order your I22 without DAC for $1,799 and those on the fence can add the board later for $799, without a huge financial penalty.

While aimed at a consumer who will probably spend $1,000 – $4,000 on a pair of speakers to round out a system, the I22 is well at home driving the $35,000 KEF Blades.  Its 80 watts per channel prove more than adequate to really rock the orange KEF flagship speakers.

Taking advantage of Primare’s UFPD (Ultra Fast Power Device) technology, which combines the Class D amplification stage and output filters into a single device, the claimed sonic improvements are readily apparent:  This is a thoroughly modern Class D design, which suffers from none of the sonic artifacts that characterize (and often plague) this configuration.

Listening to the multi-layered vocals of 10cc’s “Marriage Bureau” is a treat – all of the late ’70s multitrack wizardry is in full effect, including the great Moog synthesizer tracks, with everything well sorted and keeping its own distinct sonic space.

The ins and outs

The front panel is the essence of understatement, with a single volume control, flanked by a pale white LED indicator panel, displaying the input in use along with the volume level.  Just to the right is a pair of small, machined buttons to select input, and one more to switch between standby and power-on mode.  Incidentally, this might be counterintuitive to some, as the LED glows when the I22 is in standby mode, extinguishing when the amplifier is on.

Inputs 1-5 are standard line level inputs with RCA jacks and inputs 6–8 are digital inputs (if you’ve had the DAC board installed), with a Toslink, USB and SPDIF.  For the duration of the review, we used the Meridian Control 15 server via SPDIF and the Aurender A10 server via USB.  The majority of the files used were 16 bit/44.1, with a bit of dallying into the world of high res.  Hardcore audiophiles might squeal about the lack of 24/192 USB capability (or DSD for that matter, but I’m not the least bit concerned); however, for those streaming files from a laptop or other digital source, primarily of CD and MP3 quality, the I22 will be just fine as it is.  Should the highest resolution digital files be your priority, order the I22 without the DAC board, or just use an SPDIF converter with your laptop.  Pairing a Mac Book Pro with the M-Tech USB converter recently reviewed worked perfectly, requiring only a minimal investment of $179.

Setup takes but a second to unbox; connect speakers and source and you’re rocking – it couldn’t be easier.  Though it might not be important to some, the I22 is lusciously understated and feels considerably more expensive than its modest price tag might suggest.

Like every other Class D amplifier we’ve tested, the I22 does respond incredibly well to an upgraded power cord and line conditioning.  Adding a power cord and the EVO 3 line conditioner from ISO TEK removes a layer of glare and cloudiness that you might mistake for the sonic signature of the amplifier, giving the I22 an even smoother, more natural sound.

Resolution without regret

Both Carole King’s Tapestry and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, downloaded via HD Tracks easily illustrate the onboard DACs ability to resolve the difference between standard and high-resolution files.  An even better demo was evident with Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s self-titled album, also in 24/192.  Both vocalists occupied their own space, delicately layered upon each other, with a delightful smoothness – again offering higher than expected for the price asked.

The deep low-frequency content in the Daft Punk album focuses on a primary strength of Class D amplifiers – bass response, providing equally solid heft and control.  This is very impressive with the KEF Blades, but even more so with the $1,499/pair LS-50s which really come alive via the I22, exhibiting tremendous LF response.

Equally compelling is the rendition of analog tracks, captured to 24/96, via my Nagra LB studio recorder, using the AVID Acutus Reference SP/Lyra Atlas/Indigo Qualia analog front end.  Again, resolution takes a big jump for the better, i.e. more natural, underscoring the overall sonic performance of the onboard DAC.  Sifting through a series of recent digital captures from the Music Matters Jazz Blue Note catalog makes it even easier to listen to the amount of texture the I22 is capable of rendering when the source material is up to the task.

Finally, combining a Rega RP6 turntable and Exact cartridge via the latest tube phonostage from Monk Audio (12AX7 powered, $1,195 MSRP) rounds the system out nicely for those wanting to make the foray into analog without breaking the bank.  Spinning Daniel Lanois’s Black Dub album, chock full of acoustic and electronic texture, proves how smooth this amplifier is capable of sounding.  While you wouldn’t mistake it for a valve amplifier, it is in no way harsh; in fact, a number of audiophile buddies didn’t know it was a Class D design until it was revealed.

The second track on the Lanois album, “I Believe In You,” features some great drum sounds, that are all captured with excellent depth, texture, speed and delicacy – especially with the brush work via drummer Brian Blades.  Many Class D designs have a tendency to sound somewhat thin in the sense of a two dimensional soundstage, yet here the Primare does very well.  Lead vocalist Trixie Whitley has always stood out in front of the soundstage, as she does on my reference system.  Comparing this to a somewhat similarly priced PrimaLuna tubed integrated, the tubes definitely throw a more three dimensional soundfield, but in comparison to similarly priced solid state kit, the I22 more than holds its own.  And you don’t have to screw around with vacuum tubes, either.

Simple, stylish, sonic excellence

Those wanting bells and whistles should look elsewhere.  However, if you want great sound wrapped in an understated enclosure that will not call much attention to itself, I can’t think of a better choice than the Primare I22.  Now, the only thing you need decide is if you want it in silver or black, and whether you’d like the DAC board or simply use the matching (and equally enticing) C22 CD player.   We are very happy to award this amplifier one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013 – even more so, with the DAC installed.

The Primare I22 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,799

$2,498 (with DAC) (factory) (US Distributor)


Digital Sources               Meridian Control 15, Aurender S10, MacBook Pro

Analog Source                Rega RP6/Exact Cartridge, Monk Audio Phonostage

Speakers                       KEF LS50, KEF Blade, Harbeth Compact 7

Cable                            Cardas Clear Light

Accessories                   IsoTek Evo 3 power conditioner, power cord.

NOS – New Old Stash

I don’t know what your listening habits are…

While cleaning my office/studio/listening room, I found a cache of unopened and hence, unplayed records.  It gave me pause for a second, perusing through the stack, thinking that I was not only feeling nostalgic on this particular day of record shopping, but pretty lucky as well. A little bit of old school hip hop, some classic jazz and some major heaviness from the 60s. I even found a few vintage MoFi’s lurking in the pile.  Where were they when I was thinking of listening to them?

I realize that we all find our joy in a different place.  Some enjoy being completist collectors, some enjoy searching rarities, while others just dig hanging out in a record store and smelling the vinyl.

But I suggest that for a day or two (maybe even longer) you step back and enjoy the collection you’ve already acquired.  I’ll bet that you too have some hidden treasure!

-Jeff Dorgay

The Wadia Intuition

One of the most exciting products to hit this January’s Consumer Electronics Show, Wadia’s Intuition combines their latest DAC technology, combining the current version of their award winning Digimaster algorithm, a digital preamplifier, and a 350 watt per channel (into 4 ohms) high efficiency power amplifier.

It is capable of processing 192khz/24 bit files via the coax, optical and AES inputs, while offering 384khz/32bit and native DSD playback through the USB input.

We will have a full review in a few weeks, which will be the world’s first in-depth review of the Intuition.  We’ve got a wide range of speakers to pair it up, from KEF (Blades and LS-50), Dynaudio (Evidence Platinum), Focal (Maestro Utopia), and GamuT (S9), so stay tuned.  Even after a few days, the Intuition continues to impress in every way.

My Favorite Picture of You

As a young man, Guy Clark made his name as an edgy, new-breed country songwriter along with the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury. Now 71, he’s taken on the mantle of lion in winter.

My Favorite Picture of You is a finely wrought, late-in-the-day statement. The centerpiece is the title track written for his wife, Susanna, who died in 2012. On the album cover, Clark holds a Polaroid of her as a young woman. The song is a shattering ode to that photo and all it represents: the good times, the bad times, and the woman who stuck with him through it all.

Clark displays a deep social conscience in several songs. The bright Tex-Mex melody of “El Coyote” belies the darker story at its heart: undocumented Mexican workers exploited and abandoned by the “coyote” they’ve paid to smuggle them across the border. “Heroes” spotlights a damaged Iraq War veteran after they’ve come home. Employing old-school country recitation, Clark tells the story of a scarred young man going off the rails: “A silver star and a pistol in a drawer/The morphine just ain’t workin’ no more.” Like John Prine’s classic “Sam Stone,” “Heroes” cuts with scalpel precision, focusing on the raw specifics of one soldier’s story.

The singer’s songs are built on mournful cello, quietly burbling banjo, sweet fiddles, and warm acoustic guitars. Melodies are memorable and winning. But the lyrics, delivered in Clark’s weather-beaten voice, that resonate most of all. Like a gifted short-story writer, Clark is all about details honed to a razor’s edge. “Rain In Durango” is a shrewdly observed character study of a rambling girl: “She wound up with a backstage pass/Was hangin’ with the pickers in the band/Till her heart got broke by a banjo man/Now she’s had all the bluegrass she can stand.”

Every cut is a smart, distinctive gem. The riveting western story-song “The Death of Sis Draper” would make the late Marty Robbins smile. Clark also casts a sharp eye on the dangerous, addictive life of an artist in “The High Price of Inspiration.” And he offers up a cheeky take on life in “Good Advice.”

“Don’t give me no advice that rhymes/I’ve heard it all a thousand times/Don’t start preachin’ between the lines/Give me somethin’ I can use.” What Clark gives us is thoughtful art. My Favorite Picture of You is a quiet treasure. —Chrissie Dickinson