Issue 58


Old School:
Pass Labs Aleph 5

By Jerold O’Brien

995: Sounds that Won’t Break the Bank
Peachtree Audio’s Deep Blue Music Player

By Rob Johnson

Journeyman Audiophile

Naim’s Uniti QUTE2 All-in-one

By Jerold O’Brien

Personal Fidelity:

Grado Labs Factory Tour

By Ian White

Astell & Kern AK120 Portable High Resolution Music Player

By Bailey S. Barnard

TONE Style

Book Report:  The Power of Punk

By Kristin Bauer

Vini Italiani!
By Monique Meadows

The Jaguar F-TYPE featuring Meridian Audio

By Jeff Dorgay

Handcrafted Vinyl Crates

By Rob Johnson

More Stylish HiFi


Current Releases:

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

Audiophile Pressings

Jazz & Blues
By Jim Macnie

Live Music:

Mudhoney at Mayne Stage

The Pixies and the Replacements at Riot Fest Chicago

By Bob Gendron


Simaudio Neo 380 DAC

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum Speakers

Gato Audio DIA250 and DIA400 Integrated/DAC

From the Web

ELAC FS249 Speakers

Wadia Intuition Integrated/DAC


Nagra 300p Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

A Year With The KEF Blades
By Jeff Dorgay

D’Agostino Momentum Stereo Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

The Devialet 110
By Jeff Dorgay

KEF R300 Bookshelf Speakers

Full-line speaker manufacturers, like Focal, B&W and the brand featured in this review, often deliver the most bang for the buck in the middle of their product ranges.  These products may not have the ultimate performance of the flagship, but they don’t cut corners either, as can often be the case with entry-level models.  And while KEF has been garnering a lot of justified praise on its specialty speaker models, like the Blade and the LS50, the potential buyer looking for a relative audio bargain would do well to investigate the KEF R Series.  There’s some fine stuff happening in this range, folks.

The R300 is the larger of the two bookshelf models in the R Series.  And unlike its smaller sibling, the two-way R100, the R300 is a three-way bookshelf, which is not the most common of layouts for a stand-mounted speaker.  It is interesting to note that the smallest speaker in KEF’s Reference Series, the 201/2, is also a three-way stand-mounted model.  I’ve heard the Reference 201/2 on a number of occasions and have always been really impressed with its honest presentation of music.  I’m here to tell you that the R300 gets within a stone’s throw of the 201/2, doing so at a much more reasonable price; the R300s cost $1,800 per pair, compared to $6,000 for the 201/2s.

Technology and Performance

Unlike KEF’s former middle range, the XQ Series, which were great sounding and gorgeous to boot, these R Series products won’t win any beauty contests.  They are simple-looking boxes, albeit ones that are superbly finished and constructed.  The review pair of R300s arrives in a nice black-gloss finish.  (Rosewood and walnut veneers are also available.)  The beauty of this range is in the technology and performance.  Some nice touches with this line include the magnetically attached grilles and the strapless bi-wire capability, which makes for easy bi-wiring and lets you forget about losing the gold-plated brass strap usually supplied with speakers in this price category.

The R300 features yet another generation of KEF’s Uni-Q driver, which is central to most KEF products, giving them their signature coherent sound.  For those unfamiliar with the Uni-Q, it is KEF’s way of making the midrange and treble drivers into a point-source radiator—the often sought-after but rarely attained ideal for a lot of speaker manufacturers.  This generation Uni-Q benefits from the same technology in KEF’s flagship Blade speakers.  The midrange cone is made from an aluminum-magnesium composite, which makes for much-desired lightness and stiffness.  Ribs across the surface of the driver cone minimize resonance, while the surrounding material provides further dampening.  The tweeter, which is made from the same material, is rear vented to reduce backward pressure, minimize distortion and increase power handling.  KEF’s tangerine wave guide fits over the tweeter diaphragm to further control the already wide dispersion characteristics, particularly those at the highest frequencies.

The 6-inch bass driver is also a stiff and strong aluminum affair, anodized with a satin-like material, with a large aluminum voice coil and a vented magnet assembly behind it.  One quickly realizes that this rather conventional-looking box is anything but—there is a lot of technical sophistication packed into this small cabinet.

Initial Assessment

I play music through the R300s for 80 hours before optimizing them up for serious listening, with perfect placement via a pair of 26-inch Sound Anchor stands to put the Uni-Q driver at ear level relative to the sitting position from my couch.  With this placement, the front plane of the speakers is 3 feet from the back wall, with each unit 3.5 feet from the sidewalls.  A slight 5-degree toe-in puts the optimum listening point with the most-stable imaging just over 9 feet from the speakers.

Serious listening begins with some small-ensemble jazz selections.  First up, the self-titled Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Paul Motian Trio, from three musicians needing no more introduction.  On the album’s Miles Davis/Ron Carter bluesy composition “Eighty One,” the R300 captures the interplay of these musicians in a seemingly large acoustic space.  The speakers reproduce Carter’s muscular acoustic bass without bloating, but with a tightness, depth and scale that is surprising given the small stature of the speaker.  Drums appear dramatic, with a snapping snare that shows off the quick acceleration of the Uni-Q driver.  Cymbals sound physically higher in the mix and have a textured shimmer with plenty of decay—this tweeter is indeed a honey.  In the midst of all this, Frisell’s quirky guitar stays locked front and center, as occasional biting chords punctuate the mix.  The R300 paints an engaging and natural portrait of this trio playing at the top of their game.

Next up, the Tord Gustavsen Quartet’s newest CD, The Well, on ECM; the soulful R&B composition “Circling” proves highly satisfying.  The R300 puts Gustavsen’s piano squarely between the speakers in a very deep space, keeping the recording well organized amongst the rest of the players.  The brushwork on drums emphasizes the low distortion of the Uni-Q driver—there is some real magic going on in this small cabinet.

The Best for Last

I turn to vinyl for some female vocals, starting with Ella Fitzgerald’s “Black Coffee,” from the soundtrack to the 1960 film Let No Man Write My Epitaph.  This sparse ballad is no more than Paul Smith on piano accompanying Fitzgerald, and brings to the forefront the precise imaging capabilities of the Uni-Q.  Fitzgerald’s lead vocals are focused dead center, yet you can hear her moving around the mic during the tune, with soft piano dancing in the background all the while.  This level of realism keeps me riveted to the chair for the entire album.

Patti Smith’s voice is a tough one to capture without it sounding overly harsh or shrill, and can go awry with speakers based on metal drivers, degenerating her vocals into a ball of harshness.  The ease with which the R300s handle this intricate voice instantly reveals just how effectively KEF has tamed stray resonances.  Howard Tate singing his 1960s hit, “Get it While You Can,” illustrates the integration of these drivers, with the rise and swell of his raspy, wide-ranging voice revealing no anomalies.  Rocking out with Television’s album Marquee Moon is just good fun, yet playing this rock classic louder than is prudent demonstrates how much punishment these speakers can handle—they are much like the Blades in this respect.  And it does get the juices flowing!

As with all small speakers, the R300s do a fantastic job spatially with large-scale orchestral music.  They excel at delivering the timbre and tonal richness of The Reiner Sound via Classic Records’ 200-gram reissue of this Living Stereo classic.  And while the fundamentals of the plucked double bass remain true to sound and texture through the R300s, there is definitely a limited reach to their low-frequency abilities.  Should your musical taste require more extension, consider KEF’s R400b powered subwoofer, a perfect companion to these stand speakers.  But that’s another review…

With so much attention focused on KEF’s amazing LS50, the R300 holds its own surprisingly well.  It shares the LS50’s Uni-Q driver technology and to some extent its voicing, but it is a different animal indeed.  The LS50 offers a slightly wider frequency response, with a smidge less midrange purity.  However, it does appear to play slightly louder, so each will appeal to a different user.  Think of the LS50 as a European version of the Lotus Esprit, and the R300 as its slightly heavier yet slightly more-comfortable U.S. sibling.

It should be noted that the R300’s reasonable 88-dB sensitivity means anything over about 25 watts per channel is a go—depending on your room size, of course.  Tubes or solid-state power amplifiers work equally well, and the R300 is more than resolving enough to illustrate the differences.  In the end, the R300 is proof positive of an exciting product from a legacy company that understands vertical integration.

KEF R300 Bookshelf Speakers

MSRP:  $1,800 per pair


Analog Source VPI Classic 1/Sumiko Blackbird
Digital Source  Simaudio MiND streamer    Rega DAC
Preamplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    Klyne SK5-A
Power Amplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    Krell KSA-50

Polk Audio LSiM703 Speakers

Polk Audio has been making high-quality products since 1972.  Over the last few years, the company has been stepping up its game at the high end of its product line, beginning with the LSiM707 floorstanding speakers, which we reviewed back in issue 42.  The $1,500-per-pair LSiM703 bookshelf speakers reviewed here capitalize on the same technology and driver advances as the larger 707s, but do so in a smaller package.  And like the $4,000-per-pair 707s, the 703s perform well beyond what their modest price tag suggests.

The three-way LSiM703 employs a rear port and Polk’s Dynamic Sonic Engine design, which places the 3.25-inch midrange driver and 1-inch ring radiator tweeter in separate chambers within the speaker enclosure, further isolating the driver units from the acoustic vibrations produced by the woofer.  The midrange and woofer cones are constructed of polypropylene, which is injected with air to form a honeycomb structure that combines the benefit of low mass, stiffness and high damping.  The crossovers include both Mylar and polypropylene capacitors, as well as non-magnetic air-core inductors, which are less prone to electrical-signal disturbance and thus deliver improved transparency.  This construction provides a good balance between sensitivity and smooth frequency response, and is indicative of the speaker’s build quality in general—from the flush grilles, right down to the high-quality jumpers between the binding posts, which can be bi-wired.

Our review samples are finished in an attractive cherrywood veneer.  (Ebony is also an option.)  The speaker’s MDF-based enclosure is exceptionally inert, which a classic knuckle-rap test confirms.  I leave the grilles off for all listening sessions, though they will come in handy wherever prying fingers or noses lurk.  I find that the LSiM703’s bass response and imaging focus benefit from inert stands, and my 26-inch-tall Sound Anchors prove a perfect fit.

Engineering Excellence

The detail paid to the time alignment, transparency and coherency comes through the LSiM703s immediately, allowing the heart and soul of the music to shine, regardless of musical genre.  Malian vocal legend Salif Keita’s album Papa, with its modal melodies and deep grooves, is a magical experience through the compact Polks, which require proper toe-in to create a convincingly holographic presentation.  I suggest the classic equilateral triangle configuration for optimal results.

The Stranglers’ classic track “Golden Brown” is a great reference, combining a dry but well-recorded lead vocal and great melody with intricate interplay between bass and drums.  Lesser speakers homogenize these elements, but the Polks shine, keeping the pace and keeping the individual elements separate from one another.  I put this tune on repeat for more than a few plays.  On the title track of Lisa Hannigan’s Passenger album you can hear every breath and lip purse on her closely miked vocals—a tough accomplishment for a speaker in this price category.

While the LSiM703s are not an overly analytical or strident speaker, they are precise in the way that their realistic presentation draws you into the music, and then holds you there.  Music lovers will have a difficult time using them strictly for background music.  They start and stop transient musical events on a dime, with no overhang, confusion or timing issues.  The Polks sometimes even seem to have the authority and realistic weight in the bass region of floorstanders, with the bass guitar and bass drum having real impact and definition.  The only trade offs that become apparent after extended listening are the sudden falloff of the deepest bass notes and the last bit of midrange refinement that far costlier speakers offer.

To their credit, the LSiM703s always stay out of the way of the music, allowing the distinctions between different masterings of classic albums to come through with ease.  The speakers also spotlight newer recordings that fall victim to the “loudness wars,” and give recordings with excellent dynamic range plenty of breathing room.  In this regard, they remind me of my Thiel CS2.4 floorstanders; that’s pretty good company, considering that the Thiel’s cost four times what the Polks do.

The LSiM703s work equally well with solid-state or tube amplification, making them an easy fit for whatever you have on hand.  I fall smitten when pairing them with the Carver Black Magic 20 stereo tube amplifier I just finished reviewing; combining EL84 tubes and the smoothness of the Polks makes for a seductive, user-friendly system.

A Superb Value

The overall feel of the Polk LSiM703s is one of a more relaxed ease, mixed with high-quality construction; nothing screams budget in their sound or appearance.  That’s the advantage of going with speakers from a company with 40 years of engineering and manufacturing expertise.  Polk has hit the bull’s-eye with the LSiM703, proving that a big company can easily compete with (and even excel beyond) what a smaller artisan company can accomplish, and do so at a moderate price.  These speakers are on my suggestion list for friends on a reasonable budget in the market for quality bookshelf speakers.  We are happy to award the LSiM703s one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

Additional Thoughts

By Jeff Dorgay

Visiting the Polk factory in 2010 and seeing a full complement of ARC REF components in the demo room, I knew the company was serious about “getting back into the audiophile market.”  Touring the factory and getting a chance to talk to the engineering staff, it’s clear that Polk really wants to make a mark with the LSiM series, which the company has done with great success.  On many levels, I’d even compare Polk to Hyundai in the sense that it is making a reasonably priced product that scores as high or higher than Lexus on the J.D. Power surveys.  Another great parallel is the KEF LS50 mini-monitor.  It’s amazing what big speaker companies can accomplish when they apply their design and manufacturing expertise to a real-world pricing structure.

Before shipping the LSiM703s off to Andre, I was anxious to see just how much of the 707 floorstanders sound was available here.  Because the 707, 705 and 703 all share the same components in their Dynamic Sound Engine driver design, you really only give up low-frequency weight and dynamics as u come down the range, so those listening in a smaller room aren’t really sacrificing much.  In my smaller (13-foot-by-16-foot) room, these speakers really rock the place, and a little bit of room gain goes a long way.

While these speakers can illustrate the differences between amplifiers incredibly well, I share Andre’s excitement for using them with tube amplifiers.  I have excellent results with the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated, as well as with my vintage Conrad Johnson MV50.  Combining the speakers with the Rega Brio-R integrated amp, a Rega DAC and a Mac mini makes for a smoking system for about $3,500—which is a perfect place to start your audiophile journey, or just stay there happily ever after.  There’s never been a better time to be a music lover and an audio enthusiast.

Polk Audio LSiM703 Speakers

MSRP: $1,500 per pair


Amplifier McIntosh MA6600 integrated amplifier
Digital Only C700R CD Player    Logitech Squeezebox Touch with Keces XPS   Rein Audio X3-DAC
Cables Transparent MusicWave MM2 speaker cable   Darwins Cables Silver interconnects    Kimber Kable Opt-1 TosLink

Paradigm Reference Signature S8 Loudspeaker

Spoiler alert:  The Paradigm Reference Signature S8s are amazing speakers that don’t cost a small fortune.  They offer performance way beyond what you’d expect for $8,998 a pair.  Many of us know the Canadian company for its smaller speakers and great home-theater systems, but the Signature S8s have major audiophile cred.

Eddie Jobson’s Theme of Secrets paints an enormous sonic landscape in all directions, with low-level detail and spatial cues galore.  It’s a fantastic yet obscure audiophile freak-out record that, in a great system, feels like a surround-sound mix from two channels, which is a test that the Ref Sig.S8s pass handily.  The beryllium tweeter and line-array-type configuration give the speakers a high degree of coherence, which is a major contributor to their ability to reproduce vocals—male or female—with such lifelike ease.

The ’80s club classic “Sex (I’m a…)” from Berlin encourages twisting the volume control.  The Ref Sig.S8s keep the driving disco beat firmly anchored without losing track of the seductive lead vocals, while also keeping all of the backup vocals sorted, as they pop in from all over the soundscape, mildly suggesting what our lead vocalist might be.  The cranky, out-of-phase lead vocals in Sheep on Drugs’ version of “Waiting for the Man” takes a similar turn, with a great mix of vocal layers and spacey electronic effects zooming all over the listening room—further showcasing the fact that these speakers possess extraordinary imaging abilities.

Those with more traditional tastes, take notice:  The Paradigms perform equally well rendering the delicate shadings of Anne Bisson’s “Dragonfly” or Annie Lenox’s strong lead vocals in “No More I Love You’s.”  Tracks like these reveal that the integration of the tweeter and midrange driver directly below it is fantastic.

Thanks to their 92-dB sensitivity, the speakers barely budge the power meters of the 200-watt-per-channel D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier that I’m currently enjoying.  The Momentum really grips the Ref Sig.S8s’ four 7-inch woofers, proving that you won’t likely need to pair these speakers with one of Paradigm’s massive subwoofers.  Justin Timberlake’s “Let the Groove Get In” is the only track with which I can actually push the multiple woofers to their boundaries, with the Momentum’s needles moving in earnest to the song’s opening bass riff.

Taking further advantage of the powerful low-frequency abilities of the Ref Sig.S8s, I demo some Aphex Twin—and there’s loads of low-end rumble, but everything else is smooth sailing.  If you really need to rattle the foundation of your house, or love your movies loud, ­by all means peruse the Paradigm catalog.  However, most of us will be thrilled with the bass response that these speakers deliver.

Best of all, the high sensitivity of these speakers allows a wide range of compatible amplification, making them a fantastic anchor for your system.  We can continue the tired chicken/egg argument of whether one should prioritize the speakers or source components—but I suggest building around a pair of speakers that you love, because they ultimately require more effort to interface with your environment, visually and audibly.  And what’s not to love here?

Quality is Key

The Ref Sig.S8s may have a relatively small footprint—about 4 feet tall, with a base measuring 8.5 inches by 20.5 inches—but they are massive on quality.  Paradigm creates such high-value speakers by designing and building all of its drivers in house at its factory near Toronto in Canada.  Unlike many lesser speaker companies, which are often forced to work with off-the-shelf drive units—and sometimes make up for a driver’s inadequacies by tweaking the crossover network, and thus produce a substandard result—Paradigm builds it all from the ground up.

Visiting Paradigm last year revealed what a large proportion of its factory is devoted to research and design.  Paradigm is one of a very small group of speaker companies that not only builds their own drivers, but also only builds drivers specifically to meet the needs of a speaker, once that speaker’s objectives are finalized.  And because the company has such a large operation—the factory is almost 260,000 square feet—there are tremendous economies of scale in terms of the raw materials they can purchase.

Even Paradigm’s tiniest Atom mini-monitors ($398 per pair) feature these same levels of design and engineering excellence and attention to construction detail.  I’m sure that a company outsourcing all of these components would have to charge twice as much for a similar speaker—and many do.

The Cradle Will Rock

Near the end of this review, HDtracks announced the release of the first six Van Halen albums on 24-bit/192-kHz download.  What better way to evaluate the performance limits of the Ref Sig.S8s than to crank Van Halen for an afternoon?

I start slow, with David Lee Roth on “Ice Cream Man,” and the speakers illuminate the delicate vocal stylings of this track, which is full of echo and reverb, with S8s reproducing Eddie Van Halen’s acoustic guitar flawlessly.  Midway through the track, as the rest of the band chimes in, the Ref Sig.S8s have no problem accommodating the driving bass line and the drums.  The amount of clean, undistorted sound these speakers produce is as impressive as the finesse with which they deliver it.

These are far from just being rock-and-roll, brain-damage speakers.  They do finesse as well as they do loud, making them a fit for whatever music you enjoy.  Bill Bruford’s The Sound of Surprise, for example, is an album that bridges classic jazz patterns with some great prog rock riffs.  On the track “Half Life,” piano floats amidst Bruford’s slower interludes, but the Ref Sig.S8s can instantly accelerate when the program material dictates.  Playing acoustic fare also underlines the speakers’ worthiness of great amplification.  The beryllium tweeter strikes a perfect balance of resolution, clarity and timbre that benefits from being fed thusly.  These speakers easily reveal the subtle differences between the megabucks power amplifiers we had in for issue 53.

Having used these speakers with a wide range of amplification, I’d suggest going the tube route if you have to compromise your amplifier budget.  The slight softness of a modestly powered tube amplifier will provide a more musical result overall than an inexpensive solid-state amplifier.  For those of you closed to the idea of a metal-domed speaker, I submit that it was probably the amplification used that ruined the experience for you, not the speaker.

The Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier proves an excellent low-price, high-performance partner for the Ref Sig.S8s, as does the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated tube amp.  And it just gets better as you go up the food chain.  The new 200-watts-per-channel Plinius Hautonga integrated amplifier that we are currently auditioning is a brilliant combination with these speakers, offering wonderfully lifelike sound and limitless dynamics.  With these speakers, those with amplification in the $5,000-to-$10,000 range might even be scratching their heads, wondering why their more well-heeled audio buddies bothered spending more.

Under the Hood

Beneath the veneered cabinets, which are available in beautifully finished cherry or gloss black, lurks the best technology that Paradigm has to offer (though the company has just released a 30th anniversary model that looks very intriguing…).  The 1-inch pure-beryllium dome tweeter of the Ref Sig.S8 is coupled to a 7-inch cobalt-infused aluminum midrange, which utilizes a dual-layer voice coil and an enormous die-cast basket that acts as a heat sink—critical for a driver that takes the bulk of the bandwidth in this three-way speaker system.

Four 7-inch woofers round out the package, with an on-axis spec of −2 dB at 39 Hz, and a typical −3 dB at 24 Hz in an average room.  Our trusty Stereophile Test CD confirms that the speakers can deliver on a strong 30-Hz track, with a dip at 25 Hz and then quickly fading off after this point, even with the massive Pass Xs 300s driving them.  This is very impressive performance for a pair of $8,998 speakers.

Don’t let the compact footprint fool you:  These slim speakers weigh 100 pounds each, so unless you turn green when someone makes you mad, get some help to unpack and move them into place.  The Ref Sig.S8s come with small rubber feet, and a full set of spikes.

Paradigm suggests that you use the speakers with grilles on, as this is the way they were voiced.  Always one to follow directions, I go this route and concur that this is a slightly smoother sound, though it makes the high-frequency response slightly more pronounced if you remove them, especially when using a tube amp.  Plus, there’s so much craftsmanship here that it just seems a pity to hide it all beneath those grilles!

Setup is straightforward, beginning with the speakers about 9 feet apart on the 15-foot short wall of my main listening room, with a slight toe-in to make the listening position about 10 feet back.  As with any speaker, I like to key in on the bass response first—going for the best combination of power and locking them into the room, and then making slight adjustments for imaging later.  The Ref Sig.S8s are not terribly fussy speakers to work with, thanks to their great power response and wide dispersion, so even those with modest skills will be happy with the results.  But, if you’re so inclined, 30 minutes of serious geeking out will reward you with a more three-dimensional soundstage.

If you’re looking for a pair of speakers that offers serious five-figure performance without a five-figure pricetag, consider the Paradigm Reference Signature S8s.  In the scheme of today’s wacky audio world, where $100k speakers are no longer rare, these are refreshingly great—and we are happy to give them one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Paradigm Reference S8 Signature Speakers

MSRP: $8,998 per pair (available in cherry or piano black)


Analog Source AVID Volvere SP turntable    SME V tonearm    Koetsu Urushi Vermillion cartridge
Digital Source Light Harmonic DAC    Sooloos Control 15 server
Preamplifier ARC REF 5 SE
Amplifier ARC REF 150    D’Agostino Momentum stereo    Rega Brio-R integrated   PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated    Plinius Hautonga integrated
Cable Cardas Clear

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

The market for sub-$1,000 speakers continues to get hotter.  Combining modern design tools and talented engineers with manufacturing in Asia allows more great-sounding loudspeakers to occupy this price range.  Products from Definitive Technology always come up at the top of friends’ and reviewers’ lists.  The SM 65 speakers reviewed here retail for just $900 a pair.

The SM 65 stands 20 inches tall and measures 18 inches from front baffle to back panel.  Weighing in at 22 pounds apiece, this is no “mini monitor.”  The speaker’s gloss-black front baffle is attractive and features a D’Appolito array, with Def Tech’s proprietary 5.25-inch midrange driver above and below a specially treated aluminum dome tweeter.  Interestingly, the speaker combines a top-firing passive radiator with a phase-coherent crossover network and heavy internal bracing on the cabinet—this is top-quality stuff for a speaker at this price.

Simple Setup

The SM 65s are finished in black, and each speaker comes equipped with two sets of high-quality binding posts to allow for bi-wiring.  I single-wire the speakers with a pair of Transparent MusicWave cables.  Def Tech supplies a set of attractive grilles with the speakers, but all of my listening was done without them.  The speakers benefit from high-quality stands; I use stands from Sound Anchors for my review.

Toeing-in the SM 65s at about 20 degrees works perfectly in my room, and because of the speakers’ small size, they are easily adjusted to achieve the ideal balance for your room and taste.  The review pair arrives with a few hours on the clock, so it only takes an hour or so for the speakers to settle into a groove that keeps me in the listening chair for hours.

The SM 65s’ 92-dB sensitivity makes them incredibly easy to drive; they require very little power to rock the house, which makes them a good fit for low-power tube amplification.  They are an excellent match for the 20-watt-per-channel Bob Carver Black Magic 20 stereo amplifier I reviewed last issue.  Our publisher even mentions that he has excellent results pairing the SM 65s with his 25-watt-per-channel 845 SET amplifiers and the EL-34-powered Ultravalve amp from AVA.

Getting Down to Business

After just a brief listen, I quickly discover the areas in which SM 65s are superb.  First and foremost, they excel at presenting soundstage depth, providing the best I have experienced from a sub-$1,000 speaker, with the recording space extending well behind the speakers.  The soundstage width these speakers provide is equally enticing, as they spread the performers across my listening room.  Even more exciting is the tonal purity through the midrange that the SM 65s deliver; vocals are beguiling, as are acoustic instruments.  Piano, strings and acoustic guitar are well represented, which is a tough mark to hit at this price.

Thoroughly satisfied with speaker position, I turn first to the sublime new release from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away, which I have been listening to a lot recently.  This is one of the most melodic and focused recordings of Cave’s amazing career.  Midway through this dramatic song cycle, it becomes clear to me that I’m experiencing a performance, rather than merely listening to a home playback system, which is a rather rare occurrence for a speaker of this size.  Through the SM 65s, Cave’s voice is as present and dimensional as one could hope for, especially within the context of the sparer arrangements—a definite goose-bump moment.

The excellent 2002 remaster of Lou Reed’s classic album, Transformer, is a blast through these speakers, with all the elements of the mix coming together as a coherent whole.  Key tracks like “Satellite Of Love” and “Walk On The Wild Side” sound fresh and lively.  It’s easy to hear why this album was so hugely influential.

Marvin Gaye’s overlooked masterpiece, In Our Lifetime, is equally revelatory.  The genius of Gaye’s catchy melodies, funked-up rhythms, dense arrangements and famous vocals (which are clearly at their peak at this point in his career) all feel as if they are framed in a halo, while the speakers easily keep pace with the snappy bass lines and syncopated beats—pure magic.

Staying on the Marvin Gaye kick, I turn next to his sprawling masterwork from 1978, Here, My Dear.  This R&B/funk classic sounds otherworldly through the SM 65s, which never single out any obscure detail at the expense of overall musical flow; it feels like I am sitting at a mixing console in a smaller room.  The StudioMonitor lives up to its title.

By Comparison

Though my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s are considerably more expensive than the SM 65s, both pairs share aspects that I enjoy—primarily seamless driver integration and tonal purity.  Even after a short time, it’s obvious that the SM 65s make great music.  They are highly balanced speakers that make extended listening sessions a breeze, while eschewing fireworks for timbral clarity.

The $900 SM 65s use the same mid-woofer and tweeter as the $400 SM 45s, which TONEAudio recently reviewed, as well as an identical cabinet design.  The simple enclosure is perfectly acceptable at $400, but as we approach the $1,000 mark, there are a handful of competitors providing better aesthetics.  I’d happily pay another $100 to see the SM 65s in a cabinet more worthy of their sonic performance.  (Perhaps a Signature series is in order?)  The same goes for the binding posts and jumpers, which seem to be plaguing a number of other speakers these days.  The SM 65s’ binding posts are difficult with beefier speaker cables.

However, these are minor points.  In the end, the sound quality of Def Tech’s SM 65s proves paramount.  These are a great pair of speakers around which to build a high-performance yet reasonably priced system.

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

Lounge Audio Phonostage

A $200 Miracle.  The prudent audiophile always has the DIY path as a reasonable alternative to the ever-increasing cost of hi-fi equipment.  While the option is certainly a valid one, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, it’s all too easy to spend the cost of a factory-assembled unit and still have a pile of wires that sounds like hell—though, as some of my obsessed DIYer friends say, “That’s the fun.”

Over the years, companies offered kits to help bridge the gap, allowing you to save on labor costs and keep uniform quality of parts, in addition to giving you the emotional reward of actually building your own component.  The best companies even had technical support, offering repair services if you strayed too far off the path.  The famous Dynakits of the 1960s are a perfect example of this, and many of these components are still playing today.

But what if you just aren’t good at being a backyard engineer or soldering components to a PC board?  Having more knowledge than a mere hobbyist is especially important when it comes to producing a phonostage, whose high gain and delicate signal makes it even easier to screw up than wiring a power amplifier.

Enter, Robert Morin, who after working for Harman, Alesis, and Hovland, decided to design his own phonostage—one that wouldn’t break the bank.  He explored the LCR option for phono equalization, consisting of an inductor (L), capacitor (C) and resistor (R) network.  As this was often used on some of the early cutting lathes to achieve the proper RIAA curve when making the record, it made perfect sense to mirror this on playback.

(For those not familiar with any of this, click to this Wikipedia article for a decent explanation of how the RIAA curve works)

To make a long story short, when a record is made, the treble is boosted and the bass is attenuated.  Upon playback, the opposite of this equalization curve is applied to level the frequency response back to flat—at least in theory.  The better job a phonostage can do with this, the more lifelike and musical your records sound.

Morin claims that his tenure at Alesis gave him the “design-for-the-common-guy bug.”  His Lounge phonostage succeeds beyond measure on so many levels.  It’s even packaged in a nice wooden case, with a cool, glowing-blue LED placed in the Plexiglas top plate.

A LOT of Music in a Little Box

Morin mentions that when he was on the final design stage of this project, a few of his colleagues mentioned that the Lounge had a “nice, rich sound.”  The Lounge reminds me of the Thorens TD-124, which I’m currently using it with, via a freshly refurbished SME 3009 tonearm and NOS Ortofon VMS 20 Mk II cartridge.

I was not immediately floored when I put the tonearm down on the first record; but once powered up for 48 hours, the Lounge really blossoms.  Listening to the MoFi remaster of Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom is utterly fantastic.  This little preamp has pace in spades, with a nice solid bottom end, which is something budget phonostages always lack.

Revisiting the Doors box set proves equally illuminating.  I start with the original self-titled album.  The organ on “Twentieth Century Fox” floats between my recently refurbished Acoustat 1+1s, powered by the Octave Jubilee monoblocks.  The driving bass line is reproduced with a texture that sets me back in my listening chair.  That’s right, I’m using the Lounge in the context of a six-figure system, and it’s delivering the goods in a major way.  The soundstage is expansive in both directions, with a delicacy that belies its modest price.  This is just way more music than you’d ever expect from a $200 box.

Even in a modest system, the Lounge excels.  We’ve set up a great “real world” system, consisting of a used Pass Labs Aleph 3 power amplifier ($700), used Conrad Johnson PV-12 linestage ($600), a pair of KEF LS50 speakers ($1,500) and Rega RP3 turntable with Exact cartridge ($1,200).  Compared to a handful of phonostages in the $200-to-$500 range from Cambridge, Rega, Naim and Lehmann, the Lounge is miles ahead in every way: dynamics, tonality and frequency extension.  It’s on par with the rest in terms of having a low noise floor, as they are all solid-state designs.

What really separates the Lounge is the ease with which the music just flows.  There isn’t a hint of grain anywhere.  The big-bucks phonostages at my disposal certainly have more dynamic slam, with more HF extension, etc., but the Lounge gives you such a big slice of the pie that you won’t be sitting in your listening chair feeling like you’re missing out on anything.

It also performs well with a wide range of cartridges.  While the VMS 20 Mk II is one of my favorite go-to MMs (and can be had for about $150 with a little luck), I also use the Ortofon 2M Blue, Grado Master moving-iron and Shure V15mxVr cartridges with equally good result.  Sumiko’s Blue Point and Blackbird high-output moving-coil cartridges, which have a lower 2.5-mV output (all the others are in the 5-mV range), still prove excellent matches for the Lounge.  It’s worth noting that the Blackbird can sound a little thin with the wrong phonostage combination, but it gives a robust performance with the Lounge—one of the best I’ve experienced.

The Analog Bargain of the Millennium

Here’s where you get to take advantage of a single man’s passion.  The average $200 phonostage has about fifteen bucks worth of parts under the hood.  Add casework, shipping, a cool box, overhead, dealer network, etc., and pretty soon you’re looking at 200 clams.

As I’ve got nothing against the mainstream manufacturers for earning their dues, the Lounge cuts out all the middle steps and essentially gives you what you’d have to pay $1,000 for, because Morin doesn’t have a distribution network or the overhead of a big manufacturer.  And God knows how many hours of development lurk in this little box that will probably never be amortized.

Of course, Mr. Morin is only one man, and he’s only going to produce so many of these, so companies like Cambridge Audio won’t be shuttering the plant anytime soon.  But for those of you in the audience that truly love music and are on a tight budget, this one will blow you away.

The bad news is that I might just be spoiling all of this by telling you about it.  Should Morin ever take this to the next level, you’ll never be able to buy a Lounge for $200.  If this were packaged in a little bit fancier case and on the rack at your favorite dealer with a $1,500 price tag, you’d still be telling your Internet-forum friends what a killer deal the Lounge is.  I originally purchased the Lounge with the intent of making it a Facebook contest giveaway, but I’m keeping it as a permanent reference in room two.  This is one of the most enjoyable hi-fi components I’ve listened to in a long time.  Buy one now, while you still can. -Jeff Dorgay

The Lounge Audio Phonostage

MSRP: $200

Lounge Audio

The Lounge Store on eBay

Boulder 3050 Monoblock Amplifiers

What do you get for a whopping $205,000 dollars?  You get real music, provided you have speakers and ancillaries up to the task.  Each of Boulder’s massive 3050 monoblocks weigh 450 pounds and supply 1500 watts of Class-A power per channel, delivering an experience beyond anything I’ve ever heard.  The price tag of awesome is rarely a small one.

You also need a dedicated 220/240-volt line for each monoblock amplifier.  My wimpy 20-amp dedicated lines are not enough for me to commandeer a pair of these for review, so I go to the mountains of Boulder, Colorado, home of Boulder Amplifiers.  Forget the usual audiophile excuses about how a review can’t be written without the product being in your own system, because in this case the Boulder listening room features a pair of Focal Grande Utopia EM speakers, a model I am very familiar with.

“We haven’t sent these out for review because no one has enough AC power in their listening room to accommodate these,” laughs Boulder’s Rich Maez as we tour the factory.  And I’m guessing that only a privileged few also have floors stout enough. For those with enough power on tap and hefty floors (and the wherewithal to afford a pair), the 3050s arrive with Colorado-mined black granite bases that perfectly match the asymmetrical shape of the amplifiers.

The Epitome of Craftsmanship

The visit begins in the machine shop, where the exquisitely machined parts that make up a Boulder amplifier come to life.  Each 3050 heat sink is machined from a 115-pound solid billet of 6061-T1 aluminum alloy.  Once through Boulder’s various CNC machining centers, the amps undergo a series of final finishing operations, ending with bead-blasting and clear-anodizing processes.  As impressive as the chassis and heat sinks are, perhaps the coolest part of each Boulder 3050 is the massive power switch, which features a highly polished paddle machined from stainless steel.  It’s actuation feels like the clunk of a Bentley door.  (Click HERE to visit our website for more pictures of the Boulder factory.)

Shop foreman Ian Balmforth has been with Boulder for over 15 years, having inherited the job from his father, and he takes a tremendous level of pride in his work.  The rest of the employees in the Boulder factory share the same level of enthusiasm for their work, often putting their efforts and expertise into different phases of component production and for different models.  When orders are ready for a batch of 3000-series components, they work on nothing else until the run is complete.  Whereas so many products are built in hours, the Boulder 3050 monoblocks take approximately four weeks each to complete, from the time the raw metal enters the dock until the finished, tested and safely crated amplifiers leave.

Fully balanced, differential power amplifiers from start to finish, the 3050s offer only balanced inputs, and the driver stage consists of Boulder’s latest discrete 99H modules.  A giant metal tunnel runs through the center of the amplifier chassis, with four separate, potted transformers inside, which helps drop all mechanical and electrical noise to the theoretical minimum.

Power and Control

The Boulder 3050s have more power than anything else you can buy, but sheer watts are not the whole story.  Boulder’s president Jeff Nelson explains it as a “factor of control,” telling me that the more power available and the more devices to distribute the load—there are 120 output transistors in each 3050—the easier and more precisely the amplifier can control the movement of the speakers’ drivers and the EMF that the woofer cones generate.

Rich Maez begins my listening session of the 3050s with an introduction to the range.  Everything is driven by Boulder’s 2010 preamplifier and 1021 network disc player.  The 1008 phonostage we reviewed back in issue 27 sits on another rack with a SOTA turntable.  AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” plays through the 800-series monoblocks (also reviewed in issue 20) with good results.  Everything Boulder is famous for is here in spades with this $12,000 pair of amplifiers:  Bass weight and control, lightning-fast dynamics and a big soundstage—impressive and duly noted.

Switching the cables to the 1050 monos and then to the 2050 monos clearly illustrates the progression.  Tonality remains the same, but each pair of amplifiers reveals more music than the models before.  Going up the range brings a lower noise floor, more weight and more dynamic jump.  And the 2050, which has been Boulder’s flagship for years, is indeed impressive, with the Grande Utopias turning in a truly grand performance.

For those not familiar with the Focal Grande Utopia EMs, they are one of the world’s finest loudspeaker systems, but their stunning level of resolution can disappoint if the rest of the system doesn’t deliver the goods, and I have heard this speaker turn in more than one lackluster performance over the years with mediocre systems.  (That’s my polite way of telling those of you who don’t like the Grande Utopias to shut your pie holes…insert smiley face.) They excel here.

Music’s New Definition

Wonderful as the 2050s are, the 3050s are a quantum leap in every aspect of performance.  Revisiting the AC/DC track is a stunning experience.  The Grande Utopias simply liquefy in the room now that the 3050s are powering them; there seem to be no speakers whatsoever, just music.  Tonality remains the same, but soundstage width and depth jumps to another level with the 3050s.  The Grandes become even more coherent, fading further into nothingness.  I’ve been listening to Back in Black since the day it was released in 1980, and I’ve never heard it like this.  The drums now have the force to convince you that you’re listening to the real thing, along with the right texture and tonality of the various drumheads.

Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” stretches out between the speakers, with natural-sounding cymbals and endless texture present in the recording; it feels as if you can hear all the way inside his horn.  This speaker-amp combo delivers a similar effect with the piano, which just floats directly out in front of the left speaker and is rendered to perfect scale, as a drumstick cracks down on the rim of the snare and Miles’ trumpet glides in so gently you don’t even notice it until the sound is there in full force.

These amplifiers deliver unbelievably tight pace and texture in the low-frequency register, regardless of volume level, again giving a feeling of being in the performance instead of just listening to it.  Acoustic bass is fleshed out perfectly, with just the right amount of resonance and texture, while electric bass growls as it should.

Unlimited Dynamics

Revving up the tempo with a dose of hard bop, Rich goes for some Freddie Hubbard, whose horn on “Philly Mignon” blows me back in the listening chair—Maxell-man style.  The complete lack of clipping or compression continues to amaze me as the hours roll by.  The opening bit to Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” feels as if you are in an elevator 6 feet under the floor, moving up through solid matter to listening level and then up another three stories.

The bongos in Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken” take on a life of their own, sounding much larger than life.  While I’ve often dismissed Dylan’s Oh Mercy album as flat and uninvolving at the standard 16-bit/44-kHz resolution, it comes alive in all three dimensions in this system.  I don’t even want to listen to vinyl!

More time goes by as I investigate countless tracks that I’ve heard time and time again on many systems.  I’m continually amazed by the new experiences these amps deliver—from the Beatles to Metallica.  As Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong run through “Isn’t this a Lovely Day,” I feel as if the room’s walls are missing and the performers are walking around me as they sing.

Playing music through the Boulder 3050 monoblocks is hallucinogenic.  Continually stunned by everything I choose, I don’t want to leave the listening chair, but by now it has become dark and everyone but Maez and Nelson have long gone home for the day, so it’s time to call it a night.

Boulder achieves the ultimate with the 3050s:  They resolve more detail than anything I’ve ever experienced, yet they are never harsh or off-putting in any dimension.  As I listen to quite a few albums I am infinitely familiar with (some of which are not known for their sound quality) the music comes alive through the Boulder/Grande Utopia combination in a spectacular manner.  I’ll go on record to say that this is the most musically lifelike system, coming the closest to the real thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.

Meeting the Goal

Boulder president Jeff Nelson claims his company’s ultimate goal is to produce an amplifier devoid of sonic signature, one that lets the music come through as it may.  For this reviewer, Boulder has succeeded fantastically.  In the early 1990s, in his review of Boulder’s original 500AE power amplifiers, Stereophile editor at the time, J. Gordon Holt, said that the amplifiers “are just not there.”  Though incredible progress has been made in 22 years, this still remains the essence of the 3050s.  They truly disappear, becoming a conduit of music unlike anything I have experienced.

The paradox of the Boulder 3050s is twofold:  Hearing them will reset your bar in terms of what is possible in the world of reproduced sound, even if you only listen to average recordings.  They will also spoil you for anything else.  You don’t really need that 401k, do you?  You’ll be too old to enjoy it anyway, right?  For our readers fortunate enough to afford a pair of 3050s, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

In addition to otherworldly sonic performance, Boulder amps come with a level of craftsmanship that is also beyond anything else I’ve experienced.  Most Boulder amplifiers produced over the company’s history are still in use, and most are still owned by the original owners.  Boulder doesn’t do “mid-model updates,” and a quick glimpse at eBay shows only a couple pieces for sale on the secondary market, and they command high prices.  (Three of the six sellers say their reason for selling is that they bought the next piece up in the Boulder line.)  I can’t imagine where you would go after owning a pair of the 3050s.

Those a little less well heeled might consider the 900-watt-per-channel 3060 stereo amplifier, which sells for $115,000.  It will still require a single 30A 240-volt outlet, but Rich Maez assures me that it offers up a very enticing experience.

Having spent plenty of time with some of the world’s top amplifiers, I can tell you that the Boulder 3050s deliver the goods.  This is not a case of paying three times as much for a miniscule increase in performance; this is a mind bender.  You’ll never be the same.

Boulder 3050 Monoblock Amplifiers

MSRP:  $205,000 per pair (including granite bases)

Boulder Amplifiers

Unison Research Phono One Valve Phonostage

Vinyl lovers have no lack of choices these days when it comes to purchasing a phonostage.  Whether you’re an analog beginner or a veteran, your needs are covered from the entry-level price point all the way to the mega-buck region.  But when narrowing down the characteristics and features that are of particular importance, the choices start to thin out a bit: outboard power supply, check; great build quality, check; great cosmetics, check; tube based, check; good cartridge-loading options, check; Class-A zero-feedback design, check; Italian, check.  Italian?  If you’ve checked all of those boxes then you’ve arrived at Unison Research.

The $3,295 Phono One is a rather attractive product from the Italian firm.  Unlike the usual aluminum box, this beauty features a black-powder-coated steel case, along with a wood front panel and a sculptured wood accent panel on the top—which gives the phonostage a unique look and provides damping.

The power supply is housed in a separate enclosure, which an umbilical cord connects to the main chassis.  This separation is very critical in phono applications where the signal is delivered at such low levels; in a tube-based product it becomes even more important.  Using an external power supply is not the cheapest way to build a phono preamplifier, but it insures low noise and prevents the delicate phono signal from being contaminated by power-supply noise.

Peeking inside the main chassis reveals nicely laid out circuit boards populated with quality parts.  The board containing the tubes is separate from the RIAA EQ section, and isolated from the chassis via four rubber grommets—a nice feature that reduces any sort of vibration coming from outside the unit, and damps any possible microphonics coming from the tubes themselves.  The five tubes in this section are new production Tung Sol 12AX7s.  I did all my listening with the supplied tubes, eschewing my usual enthusiasm for tube rolling, because all of my favorite matched 12AX7s are quads!

Easily Adjustable

The back panel of the main chassis offers gold-plated RCA connectors for input and output, along with DIP switches for cartridge loading.  MC-resistive loading options are set at 20, 50 and 100 ohms, which is enough to cover most of today’s MC cartridges.  For moving magnet, the ubiquitous 47k ohm is the only option, though capacitance can be set at 100, 200, 320 and 420 pF.  An Ortofon MC 20 Super 25th Anniversary and a recently restored Lyra Clavis provide the basis for most of my MC listening, with a NOS Acutex 412 STR and a tried-and-true Shure V 15 Type IV for MM duties.

Beginning with the Lyra Clavis loaded at 100 ohms proves palatable (even though this cartridge usually requires a higher load) in concert with the latest Audience Au24SE phono cable, which is a favorite here at TONEAudio.  This cable is optimized for cartridges with low internal impedance, such as the Lyra and Ortofon.  When I switch to the Shure and Acutex MM cartridges, I use an AudioQuest King Cobra cable from the tonearm to the phonostage, achieving outstanding results with both setups.

The first LP on deck is Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues.  The song “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow” showcases her distinctive voice, which can be irritating unless everything in the chain is near perfect.  In this case, her generally high-pitched tone comes through in great detail but with a welcome smoothness in the higher registers.  The Ortofon proves best at the 20-ohm setting, but both of these extremely low-output MC carts expose the noise floor in the Phono One—our publisher has better results with MC carts in the .5-MV range.  (See “Additional Listening” below.)

Next up is The Soundtrack of Our Lives, with “In Someone Else’s Mind” from the Behind the Music album.  This Pink Floyd-ish tune features double vocals that the Phono One easily unravels and separates in the sound stage, with background percussion and droning sound effects placed way back, even behind the music.  Peter Gabriel’s debut solo album, a Direct-Disk Labs reissue of the original Atco Records release, again proves that the Phono One is a natural performer.  The phonostage easily handles the soaring crescendos at the end of “Humdrum,” separating the various instruments and studio effects while keeping the vocals completely intelligible, even at the highest levels.

Act Two

When I switch to my MM cartridges, the Phono One really starts to shine.  I don’t know whether the MM stage received extra attention during the engineering phase or whether my MC cartridges simply did not have complete synergy with the product.  In any case, the big bang comes from the lowly Shure cart for the rest of the evaluation period.  As in all things vinyl, you never know what’s going to sound best until you’ve run down all the options.

Esperanza Spalding’s Junjo begins the second round of evaluations in earnest.  On the leadoff composition, “The Peacocks,” the Phono One presents the instruments in space and in a beautiful front-to-back fashion.  The drum kit exhibits tremendous attack, while the cymbals show intricate detail without distracting from the rest of the mix.  And, of course, Spalding’s bass lines are muscular and clearly delineated.

Anne Bisson’s album Blue Mind serves as the obligatory female vocal demo.  The song “Camilio” is a mournful, quiet ballad.  The Phono One conveys the full emotion of the song through Bisson’s breathy voice, which floats exactly between the speakers, while the phonostage presents the acoustic bass as a strong foundation.  If you’ve had the chance to hear Bisson sing up close and personal at any of the recent hi-fi shows, you’ll recognize this instantly.  My final choice is Steve Miller’s Born 2 B Blue album.  The tune “Ya Ya” is a wonderfully recorded affair and sounds fantastic through the Phono One.  The highest compliment I can pay this phonostage is to say that it will allow you to take off your audiophile hat and let you just get into the music—no chin-stroking analysis required here.

The inner tweakazoid in me experiments with a few power cords at the end of the evaluation, just to see if more performance can be wrung from this Italian beauty.  After four tries, I settle on the Crystal Cable Ultra, which provides the best combination of speed, dynamics and musicality.  After getting used to this combination, I switch back to the stock cord, and quickly realize that a good power cord is a worthy upgrade for the Phono One.

With so many phonostages vying for your dollar, the Phono One is at the high side of the price range for what it offers; but, with an excellent electrical and physical design, the Phono One is a wonderful alternative to another stamped-out black box.  And now, with Colleen Cardas added to the dealer network as the U.S. importer, this Italian wonder is easier than ever to experience outside of a hi-fi show, and that’s a good thing.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I was instantly drawn to the visual style of the Phono One, but then I’m a sucker for all things Italian.  And the price doesn’t put me off either; I’ll always pay a few extra bucks for style points.  That’s why I drive a Fiat Abarth instead of a Hyundai Veloster.

Following Mr. O’Brien’s lead, I try a handful of MC cartridges with slightly higher outputs.  Sticking with Ortofon, the Cadenza Bronze MC, with its neutral tonal balance and .4-MV output, proves perfect in room two; I mount the Cadenza on an SME 10 turntable with SME V tonearm (and this cartridge works incredibly well when loaded at 100 ohms).  The Rega Apheta MC, which works best at lower loading, provides incredible synergy loaded at 20 ohms via the Phono One, which delivers what is perhaps the best performance I’ve ever experienced with this cartridge.

The Grado Statement 1 also proves fantastic with the Phono One; its .5-MV output and 47k loading requirements are no problem at all, underlining the fact that you can mate this phonostage with a premium cartridge in the $2,000-to-$3,000 range.

Finally, swapping the factory tubes for a full set of EAT tubes transforms this great preamplifier to an exceptional one:  Dynamics improve and noise drops, so I’ll go out on a limb and suggest tube rolling with this one—just make sure you get five matched tubes.

The Phono One is certainly good enough to be purchased for our ever-growing fleet of phonostages, so we will report back towards the end of the year, with a long-term follow-up, after it has been used with an even wider range of phono cartridges. – Jerold O’Brien

Unison Research Phono One Valve Phonostage

MSRP: $3,295 (Factory site) (US Importer)

Simaudio MOON 850P Evolution Preamplifier

The Simaudio MOON Evolution series 850P has a number of interesting technical elements that make it an amazing preamplifier.  If you happen to be the type of audiophile who is swayed solely by technical expertise and specs, you should mosey down to your MOON dealer to buy an 850P right now.  If you’re the type of audiophile who craves a component that is both completely musical and free from coloration and grain, you should also head down to your dealer, if only to demo the 850P, which I think you will find more than worthy of your equipment rack.  In Brief: the 850P is wondrous.

The argument continues as to whether or not vacuum tubes exceed the performance of transistors in terms of retrieving more information from the source and why.  As the boundaries are pushed on both fronts, the results are equally excellent.  I’ve always liked the wonderful midrange and airiness of vacuum tube preamplifiers—that holographic image they are known to provide.  Many call this a sort of euphonic coloration, and for whatever reason, I enjoy it.  Especially with digital sources, a bit of that tube magic always seems to go a long way.

Lately, at the extreme high end of the price spectrum, I have found that a handful of solid-state preamplifiers provide a magic that I’ve never heard from tubes.  I’ve recently had the good fortune of listening to some excellent (and high-priced) examples from Indigo/Qualia, Burmester and Robert Koda, all of which deliver top-quality sound from a solid-state design.  You can add the Simaudio MOON 850P to that short list of preamps that offer a combination of cleanliness, dynamics, resolution and quietness unsurpassed by their vacuum-tube brethren.

Considering that a fully matched and optimized set of NOS tubes for one of my favorite tube preamplifiers commands about $2,000 these days (with no guarantee on the tubes), I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the 850P will work effortlessly for decades, always plugged into the wall and always ready to go.  And the 850P only draws 27 watts from the line in the process, so there is no eco-guilt associated with leaving it on continuously.

I’m still not ready to abandon the glowing bottle entirely, if for no other reason than the fact that sometimes different is good, if not downright enjoyable.  But for those becoming tired of chasing down NOS vacuum tubes (and I for one am tired of vacuum tubes that now cost more than my first car), the 850P is liberating.  Yet, after a few months with the 850P and the companion 880M power amplifiers that we reviewed recently, I’m convinced that these new MOON pieces belong to an elite group of components that offer their owners a no-holds-barred level of performance.

The two-box, 72-pound 850P is priced at $28,000.  One of the boxes is for the power supply and the other is for the gain, control and switching circuitry.  The two chassis’ are tethered together by three umbilical cords; two 4-pin XLR  cables (for left and right channel DC power) and an 8-pin RJ45 etherCON cable (for data communications). The cost of this level of high performance is concurrent with the price tag; if anything, compared to other units I’ve auditioned costing consistently more, it’s really quite the bargain.  Should you desire blue LEDs on the front panel, rather than the standard red, it can be done for an additional $625.  When we visited the factory, they explained that the blue LED’s are quite a bit more costly than the red ones.

Truth in the Listening

Like every other Simaudio product we’ve auditioned, the 850P needs about four or five days of being continuously powered up before it blooms into its final sound.  With no capacitors in the signal path, it will not require hundreds of hours of break-in time, so you can get down to business straight away.

Serious listening begins with the Rolling Stones live album Brussels Affair (Live 1973), with the classic track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which seems a bit ironic, as the 850P really does offer it all.  Feeling the band spread out on stage in front of me—through the $120k-per-pair Sonus faber Aida speakers, with a pair of 880M monoblocks—I’m instantly immersed in the performance.  With the 850P, I get what I want and what I need: a highly resolving musical performance with an absence of noise and grain.

It goes without saying that the 880Ms are a perfect match for the 850P, and in the context of a mostly MOON system (I use the 810LP phonostage for analog source material and the dCS Vivaldi for digital duties), you’ll forget that you’re listening to a stack of solid-state gear.  As I hinted at in the beginning of this review, the 850P is truly without a sound of its own, and when mated to the other MOON components, it’s dead quiet.  Even when putting my ears directly up to the Aida tweeters, there is no background noise coming through.

Digging Deep

Even an average recording, like Run-DMC’s King of Rock, comes alive through the 850P.  This linestage offers up layer upon layer of texture, with atomic clock-like pace.  The slightly wavering analog synthesizer in “Can You Rock It Like This?” is firmly anchored, while the other keyboard floats in and out of the mix, as Run and DMC assault the soundstage.  Their shouts from the left and right channels echo well into the background.  All of this remains on top of some massive bass beats that go deeper than I’ve experienced before.

On a quest for even more bass, I turn to SBTRKT’s self-titled album, which underlines the sheer drive and control that the 850P can deliver.  When pushed to near-live sound pressure levels, the Aidas feel as if we’ve added a pair of subwoofers to the system, shaking everything in my listening room that isn’t nailed down.  The soundfield now extends well past the speakers, almost seeming to extend past the walls themselves.  A quick dose of heavy rock, care of the Scorpions smash album Love at First Sting, reveals more treasure.  This early digital recording, which is somewhat densely packed, still has it’s digital edge, but is much more open, with depth in all three dimensions.  The two lead guitarists now have plenty of space between them, where on a lesser system they just feel like the same guitar overdubbed.  This is a subtle enhancement, but an exciting one.

It’s these small details, from records that you’ve listened to hundreds of times, that makes the 850P amazing and worth the scratch—if you’ve got the space on your Visa card.  The way the pedal steel gently enters the mix at the beginning of Matthew Sweet’s “You Don’t Love Me” feels like a Navy SEAL rising up out of the water slowly, never drawing attention to himself.  Whether it’s the gentle swish of a brush on a cymbal, the plucking of a violin string or the sound of fingers sliding up the neck of an acoustic guitar, the clarity of the 850P provides subtle insight into any musical performance, going the extra step towards creating the illusion of real music in your listening room.

Revisiting Herb Alpert’s disco classic “Rise,” from the album of the same title, is simply a blast.  Even though the MoFi LP has somewhat of a “smiley faced” EQ curve, the bongos at the beginning of the track explode out of the speakers with tremendous texture, again bringing something new to the sonic picture.

Considering how much more music the 850P illuminates from tracks with average production values, the really great recordings in my collection come alive in a big way.  Solo vocals prove irresistibly silky.  Tone and timbral accuracy are also perfect.  Aficionados of classical and jazz will be floored at the additional amount of information now available.  While this preamplifier does not embellish, fatten or sweeten the sound at all, it maintains tonal richness, with lifelike renderings of acoustic instruments.

If the rest of your system is of equal capability, the MOON 850P will take you to an even higher level.  In addition to Simaudio’s own 880M amplifiers, I pair the 850P with a few other fantastic amplifiers and achieve equally satisfying results: the vacuum-tube-powered Octave Jubilee monoblocks, the solid-state Burmester 911 MK3, the Xs 300 monoblocks from Pass Labs and the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier—all of which prove an equally capable match for this stellar linestage.  If your system isn’t in the stratosphere yet, the 850P is the perfect building block to start down that path.

Under the Bonnet

Those with multiple program sources will love the 850P.  With four single-ended RCA inputs, three fully balanced XLR inputs and a monitor loop (RCA inputs), control flexibility is the name of the game.  But it doesn’t stop there.  With a pair of balanced XLR outputs and another pair of RCA outputs (one fixed and one variable), the 850P can accommodate any combination of multiple power amplifiers, crossovers or powered subwoofers.   Like every MOON product, the foundation of the 850P begins with the power supply.  In this case, its massive, dual mono supply is in a separate box with transformers custom built for this application only, rather than relying on off-the-shelf parts.

In addition to the overbuilt power supply, the 850P also utilizes Simaudio’s M-Octave damping system, which suspends the circuit boards via an eight-point suspension to minimize the amount of internal mechanical vibration and external environmental vibration—and the system works well.  Placing the 850P on an HRS platform proved pointless; there was no change in sonic character.

We rarely use the “B word” here at TONEAudio, but the volume control on the 850P is the best one we’ve encountered from a mechanical and electrical standpoint.  Using the control manually reveals a highly damped feel, and the precision attenuators are so tightly matched that the level increases in .1-dB increments.  Twisting the volume control a bit more vigorously then allows 1-dB changes.  Nice!

Thanks to careful, high-quality component choices, the 850P should provide years if not decades of trouble-free service.  And don’t forget Simaudio’s 10-year warranty.  With so many garage builders, whose total yearly output rarely reaches double digits, it’s nice to know this is a company with years of history to support a product of this caliber.  You can revisit our Simaudio factory tour here, to get a glimpse of what goes into making the MOON components.

Indeed Special

The 850P is a rare product, in the sense that the typical audiophile adjectives don’t really apply.  It doesn’t destroy or annihilate, it just gets out of the way.  And while that may sound simplistic and devoid of fanfare, if you’ve been on a quest for an ultimate preamplifier, you know how tough this is to achieve.  This is a rare component in the way it disappears, revealing nothing but the music carried through it.  Those still wanting the tube sound might not be convinced, but regardless of what your built-in prejudices are, anyone in the market for a destination preamplifier should audition the 850P.  I’ve yet to hear one that reveals more music.

Simaudio MOON Evolution 850P Preamplifier

MSRP: $28,000


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge    SME V tonearm    Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge
Digital source dCS Vivaldi digital playback system    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10 server
Power amplifiers Simaudio MOON 880M monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks    Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks    D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier    Burmester 911 MK3 stereo amplifier
Speakers GamuT S9, Sonus faber Aida    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution   Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan
Accessories GIK room treatment    Furutech DeStat and DeMag    Audio Desk Systeme RCM

Oppo BDP-105 Universal Player

After a few months with the Oppo BDP-105, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s the perfect digital anchor for just about any system.  If you’re a music lover, this player will allow you to listen to anything your heart desires on any kind of media.  If that weren’t enough, it’s also a 24-bit/192-kHz DAC that lets you play all the digital downloads in your music collection—I can’t think of a better DAC for the price.  Those collecting music files in the DSD format are also covered, the BDP-105 can play DSD files from any optical or USB storage too. And if you’re a movie nut, Oppo throws in an awesome DVD/Blu-ray player with the deal.

But that’s just scratching the surface.  If you’d like to get back to listening to music, just go online and order a BDP-105.  It rules.  I’ve auditioned a lot of great digital players over the years, with reasonable to ridiculous pricetags, and the BDP-105 makes the entire process so painless; it’s a wonderful thing indeed.  It’s hard to believe that the MSRP is only $1,199.

The earlier Oppo players of just a few years ago came across as slightly lacking in mechanical finesse, though they represented an excellent price/performance benchmark.  But you can forget whatever you thought you knew about Oppo.  The BDP-105 is a world-class product, from the casework to the thoughtful packaging.  If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that you were unpacking a $20k Meridian player, right down to the nice bag that the case is wrapped in.  Also included is a concise owners manual that easily guides you through all of the setup procedures—an essential read for those using both the audio and video portions of this player.

The remote is straightforward and all business.  This is where the $1,199 Oppo differs from the $20k Meridian player (and even trumps the mighty Meridian).  In addition to the standard-issue backlit remote, Oppo also provides a free, downloadable app for Android or iOS users, allowing you to leave the remote in the box.  For someone always losing remotes (like me) or despising clutter (my wife), this is an outstanding solution.  The menus are easy to read, and the app separates functionality into two screens: one that acts as an express remote, and one with the full feature set of the remote.  This is a brilliant move that I wish more manufacturers would duplicate.

Getting Down to Business

Those wanting to skip the manual and just concentrate on playing with their new shiny thing (or in this case, matte black) can get pretty far without the manual.  CDs and SACDs play without needing the user to access the remote control or external monitor.  Playing the discs in your DVD-A or video collection requires a monitor, so that you can set the correct multichannel aspects for your system.

While I’m not much of a videophile, it’s worth mentioning that this player integrates fantastically with my Anthem MRX 700 home theater receiver.  (Be on the lookout for this combination being mentioned frequently in upcoming concert-disc reviews.)  The video performance of the BDP-105 is simply stunning, and I’d happily pay the 1,200 bucks asked for just the video section of this player.  Operation is quick, color rendition is excellent and the noise floor is supremely low, resulting in a very saturated picture.  But that’s another review for another day.

Regardless of disc chosen, the BDP-105 plays them quickly and effortlessly with no long boot-up sequence required.  When listening to audio discs, users can access a “Pure Audio” mode from the remote to shut down all of the video processing circuitry, providing optimum audio performance—and this is worth doing.  On the extended “Mountain Jam,” from the recent MoFi release of the Allman Brothers classic album Eat a Peach, the midrange frequencies open up, and the Pure Audio mode removes a layer of grain from the high frequencies.  The extended drum solo on this record reveals good attack and transient response, while the audience mixed in confirms an excellent sense of the three-dimensional spatial perspective.

For someone with a wide range of music, all in different formats, the BDP-105 helps to bring the fun back to music collecting.  Now, when you’re shopping at the local used music store, or eBay, it won’t matter what the format is.  While this reviewer is not on the DSD-download bandwagon yet, it’s nice to know that new BDP-105 is already equipped to handle this format, and the other Oppo player I have needed only a quick firmware download/install to be fully capable; perhaps at a later date we will explore this option.  For those interested in the full media capabilities of the BDP-105, please click here.

Ins and Outs

Those moving away from optical discs will enjoy the DAC performance of the BDP-105.  With coaxial, Toslink, asynchronous USB and HDMI inputs, the BDP-105 is a perfect digital hub for any source, whether it’s a computer or a transport.  RCA, HDMI and balanced XLR outputs (along with full 7.1 outputs) make the BDP-105 equally easy to merge into any system.  Those just starting to assemble a component system can even take advantage of the BDP-105’s variable outputs and work without a preamplifier or linestage.  Stepping up to the main system in room one, utilizing identical Cardas Clear interconnects, I find no difference in sound quality between the RCA and XLR outputs, and the BDP-105 has no problem driving long interconnects of either style.

The BDP-105 works well in the context of a system built around a PrimaLuna ProLogue power amplifier and a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers.  Nothing in the owner’s manual specifies whether the volume control is in the analog or digital domain, but the volume control works effortlessly from the remote or phone app.  Those wanting to build an all-digital system could easily live with the Oppo player and a power amplifier.

My reference Sooloos Control 15, via the S/PDIF input, provides excellent synergy, as do high-resolution digital files played from the Aurender S10.  I use the Meridian Audio Core 200 to sample the Toslink input, and a MacBook Pro for the USB input, running iTunes and Amarra.  All inputs work without a hitch, providing good fidelity and the ability to easily switch between them without noises or glitches.  This player is positively painless to use, no matter what the source!

To make sharing music even easier, there is a USB input right on the front panel that lets you plug a USB stick directly in, provided the music files are in standard formats.  When the player is hooked up to a video display (which you’ll need for DVD and Blu-ray formats anyway), you can even stream music files from your NAS.  If there’s a format that the BDP-105 can’t handle, I haven’t got it.

Comparisons Big and Small

The BDP-105 does so much right and nothing wrong.  Unless you put the player head-to-head with something like a dCS stack or the DaVinci DAC (on a world class system), you won’t even miss the resolution that these flagship players offer—and those comes at a much higher price.  While the following is a somewhat silly comparison, it does outline the boundaries of the BDP-105’s performance envelope:  Jumping into a friend’s Ferrari F430 immediately reveals what my little Fiat Abarth is incapable of; yet, when I’m back in the Abarth’s drivers seat for 10 minutes, happiness returns and I’m not missing the F430 one bit.  And let’s not even talk tune-ups.

Comparing the BDP-105 to similarly priced hardware, and even players costing twice as much (some even more), the Oppo is ahead by a country mile.  There are a few DACs in the $1,000-to-$2,000 range, the Rega in particular, that sound slightly more “analog-like,” revealing a smidge more music than the Oppo, but none of these players have the format diversity that the Oppo offers.  It even has an onboard headphone amplifier that works as well as anything you’ll pay a couple hundred bucks for; the Oppo headphone amp proves compatible with all of the headphones at my disposal.

Whether rocking out with Alice in Chains or a peaceful Mozart symphony, this player always delivers a highly musical experience.  Highs are well rendered, and, if anything, the tonal balance of the BDP-105 is ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, which is a good thing with most digital files.

Fans of acoustic and vocal music will be thrilled with the natural sound quality that the BDP-105 reveals.  Even after a few months, I remain impressed with just how much performance is here for this price.  The title track from Dessa’s 551 sounds fantastic, with the combination of vibes, her husky voice and the deep bass beats.  The mix stays coherent with the lead vocals well out in front while the vibes occupy a larger-than-life, diffused part of the recordings space.

A Fantastic Buy

The BDP-105 feels substantial when lifted from its box, and removing the cover reveals a tidy layout.  A miracle of surface-mount efficiency, the Oppo has separate boards for power supply, analog circuitry and the DAC section, all tied together with flat cables.  The construction suggests Mark Levinson–level quality more than anything else.  This player is a benchmark for sound at its price, as well as for build quality.  I’ve seen more than a few $5,000 players that are mostly air under the hood.

While we are more than happy to award the Oppo BDP-105 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013, it is worthy of even more.  This is a rare component that ticks all the boxes from both a sonic and an engineering perspective, and that is tastefully designed and luxuriously packaged to boot.  No, you don’t get a dCS Vivaldi for $1,195, but you do get a digital player that can deliver every format imaginable, doing so at a level better than every one of its peers.  And there’s that free video player thrown in with the deal.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

For an encore, we will be comparing the BDP-105 to its lower-priced sibling, the $499 BDP-103.  Watch the Comparo section of our website.

Oppo BDP-105

MSRP:  $1,199


Music servers Apple iMac w/Amarra    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Nagra Jazz
Power Amplifier D’Agostino Momentum Stereo
Speakers Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Cable  Cardas Clear
Power IsoTec Super Titan

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

Music First Audio, based in Hastings, East Sussex, in the U.K., has been making passive “preamplifiers” for a number of years.  Technically, it may be a stretch to call these products preamps, since they are 100 percent passive in nature, providing no active gain.  (Referring to Music First Audio products as passive linestages may be more technically correct.)  It is worth noting for those needing more than unity gain that there is a +6-dB switch on the rear panel of the Classic v2.

The transformers have dual primaries, allowing them to be connected in series as a step-up device offering the +6-dB option, or parallel as a 1:1 transformer.  Bear in mind that selecting the +6-dB option does cut the range of attenuation by an equivalent amount, but it also allows pairing with older components with lower outputs. It can still drive your power amplifier to full output, and sound quality is not compromised in the least by selecting this option.

Before getting to the heart of the product under review here, the Classic “Preamplifier” v2, it is appropriate to discuss the product category of passive linestages in general.  A preamplifier in the classic sense provides input switching among sources, a signal boost to drive a power amplifier and, of course, volume attenuation.  An active preamp also gets involved in impedance matching, which can be critical.  Purists, however, claim that the extra gain stage is unnecessary in most cases, since most modern sources can drive a power amplifier directly.  The issue then becomes volume control, so you don’t blow up your amp and speakers.

There a several ways volume control can be engineered into a passive linestage.  The most common is a resistor-based attenuator.  This approach, while valid, does have some possible disadvantages, like frequency-response aberrations and issues with interconnect length.  A far more technically advantageous approach is the transformer solution, sometimes referred to as a TVC-based design (for Transformer Volume Control).  This allows for a total decoupling of your sources from the power amp, avoids impedance mismatching (which can lead to a loss of HF information and/or dynamics) and maximizes transparency.  The Classic v2 uses two transformers, one per channel.  However, this approach is more costly and complex.  The unit is priced at roughly $4,000 (or £2,200).

Direct to the Source

Music First Audio’s parent company, Stevens & Billington Limited, has been around since 1963.  The company’s transformers are highly regarded for quality and tight tolerances in both the high-end-audio and broadcast industries.  In describing the differences between the Classic and the company’s higher-end Baby Reference, company owner Harry O’Sulivan said, “The Classic features our original transformer design, honed over the years and first finalized in late 2002.  In the years that followed, we realized that an even better transformer offering the pinnacle of performance would take time, and proved to be an even costlier process—resulting in the transformers used in the Reference and Baby Reference models.”

This new transformer features a core that is 25 percent larger, and delivers improved low-frequency response and high-level power handling.  The transformer in the Classic v2 also uses a 25-percent-larger core but retains the winding structure of the original—a clear trickle-down effect.

The Classic v2 drives both Audio Research VS55 and Bob Carver Black Magic power amps, using Darwin Ascension Silver interconnects, for the duration of this review, in place of my Audio Research SP16L active tube preamp.  The connected source is a Bryston BDA-1 DAC.  A quick comparison instantly reveals that the Classic v2 removes subtle layers of thickness and grunge, and the most transparent to-source sound I’ve ever experienced with these amplifiers.

With the Classic v2, music emerges from noticeably quieter backgrounds than my tube linestage can deliver.  While I have used some excellent active linestages over the years, the Classic v2 offers more resolution everywhere, with more distinct details, where in the past many of these details were more homogenous.  This effect feels much like the difference between master tape and a second-generation copy.

Further Listening

The DVD-A of Seal’s Best 1991–2004 sounds huge via the Classic v2, offering up bass performance on this disc that sets new standards for control and articulation in my reference system.  Yet at the same time, the subtle, exotic textures that are a hallmark of this performer are now much easier to distinguish.  While “Killer” and “Kiss from a Rose” have been my reference tracks for years, the Classic v2 offers a fresh perspective—which is always an exciting experience with a new component.

A new reference recording, Steve Earle’s recently released The Low Highway, clearly illustrates Earle’s inspired playing.  Textural cues—like the wood and steel of Earle’s acoustic guitar, the snap of the snare drum, and the creative accompaniment of fiddle, piano, banjo and mandolin—are a cinch to identify in the mix, convincingly showcasing the muscular backing band of this troubadour.

The incredibly low noise floor of the Classic v2 serves quieter, more intimate music well, perhaps best of all, again allowing more of the lowest-level details to come through.  The spacious, minimal arrangements of Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem stretch out and breath at a much lower listening level, freed from the electronic noise of an active linestage.  The Classic v2 brings these performances closer to life, with an enormous sound stage projecting the instruments in the stereo image well beyond my speakers’ boundaries.  This masterful imaging performance and the low noise floor are the Classic v2’s greatest strengths.

The Fine Points

Four RCA inputs and two balanced XLR inputs should suffice for most users.  The standard Classic only offers a single pair of (switchable) RCA or XLR outputs, but for those requiring a second set of outputs to drive a powered subwoofer or additional amplifier, this can be added to your unit at modest cost, as can other customizations.  Keeping with the purist approach, Music First ships the Classic v2 without a remote, but one is offered for an additional $1,000.  The fairly elaborate remote includes a rear-mounted stepper motor, so there is no interaction with the signal path.

So the major question is, “Do you want just the facts or a preamplifier that can perhaps embellish somewhat?”  As we well know, some preamplifiers can do just that, adding some dynamic weight and even a sweetness of tone, which can be a good thing in many cases.  The Classic v2 allows the music to come through with an addicting sense of purity.  Most modern sources have enough output to drive power amps and all but the most insensitive speakers to satisfaction.  So the need for an active preamp can be a preference more than a necessity in many cases.

The other question to be raised is whether to take advantage of Music First’s silver or copper transformer wiring.  The company admits on its website that it does not consider the silver a premium sound option, though the silver wire is more costly and tougher to work with.

If transparency, a virtually non-existent noise floor and quick transient response are priorities, the Classic v2 should be high on your short list for linestage auditions.  A nice bonus is that it feels like a luxury component, and is made with precision and an attention to detail that can only be accomplished with low-volume, bespoke components.

The Classic v2 is a revelation, providing performance that will only be limited by the source components driving it.  How much better is the company’s Baby Reference, with the full-blown transformer design?  Stay tuned, as I’ll be reviewing one shortly!  If you’re tired of exotic power cords and tube rolling, this is the linestage for you—enthusiastically recommended.

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

MSRP: Approx. $4,000 (£2,200)


Speakers Thiel CS2.4
Preamplifier Audio Research SP16L
Power Amplifiers Audio Research VS55    Bob Carver Black Magic
DAC Bryston BDA-1
Transport Musical Fidelity M1 CDT"
Server Mac mini/Squeezebox Touch
Cables Transparent    Audience    Darwin    Element    DH Labs
Accessories Audience aDept Response aR6 power conditioner    Symposium Rollerblock Jr. ball-bearing isolation    Shakti Stone electromagnetic stabilizer

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.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Funk Firm’s Little Super Deck

MSRP:  $1,995

Dynavector DV-20X2 Low-Output Moving-Coil Cartridge

Dynavector has been a household name in the phono-cartridge business since the mid-1970s.  I have fond (albeit slightly faded) memories of an early generation Dynavector moving-coil cartridge that set me back a couple of C-notes (big bucks for that era).  That cartridge’s ability to extract inner detail and provide sheer musicality from my treasured LPs opened up new vistas for my then-youthful ears and made me a moving-coil fanatic for life.  In the following three-plus decades, I have had dozens of MC cartridges in my sound systems, but the DV-20X2 represents my first return trip to the Dynavector domain.

Getting the Lowdown on Low Output

An increasing number of MC cartridges are being offered in high- and low-output versions.  The DV20X2 cartridge comes in both high-output (2.8 mV) and low-output (0.3 mV) versions; the latter is discussed here.  This well-made cartridge features a 6-mm aluminum pipe cantilever with a Micro Ridge nude diamond stylus and neodymium magnets.  Weighing in at 9 grams, it will be compatible with most available tonearms.

Whether phono inputs are already included in a preamplifier or come installed on freestanding phonostages, they are often optimized for either moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridges.  Meeting the specifications of these inputs is critical for optimum performance.  High-output MC cartridges are usually intended for inputs capable of handling a much higher signal without overloading (a feature typical of MM inputs).  Low-output MC cartridges are designed for phonostages that have step-up capability for their much lower signal amplitude.

Over the years, there has been much discussion about the comparative virtues of high-output versus low-output MC cartridges.  While these two types of cartridges differ in the number of coil windings and often in their weight, die-hard vinyl fans tend to prefer low-output versions, citing their alleged greater purity of sound.  However, before going with a low-output MC option, particularly one with the output level of the DV-20X2, it is vital to know if your phono preamp has sufficient gain, so you can avoid a significant noise penalty.

Get Moving

For this review, I used a modified VPI Aries turntable with outboard flywheel, a Nordost-wired VPI 10.5i tonearm and a Pass Labs XP-15 phonostage.  Having considerable experience with other low-output MCs, I set the XP-15 at its highest gain (76 dB); and after some preliminary listening, I settled on an impedance of 100 ohms (within the range recommended by Dynavector) and tracking force of 2 grams.  Installation was non-fussy, and with my linestage gain turned up to normal listening levels in the absence of a source, there was, blessed be, no noise.

For the past two years, I have become obsessed with a cut from Esperanza Spalding’s Grammy-winning Chamber Music Society (Heads Up).  On the snappy Brazilian tune “Inútil Paisagem,” Spalding exchanges lines in English and Portuguese with noted jazz singer Gretchen Parlato.  This song not only tests a cartridge’s resolving ability to distinguish between the two female voices singing in the same range, it also tests how well the cartridge keeps the background acoustic bass notes in focus.  No problems here, as the two women (and Spalding’s bass) get right into my room with great pace and pitch.

Whether or not you are a Patricia Barber fan, her albums are consistently blessed with great sound.  For its full panoply of vocals, lively percussion, throbbing baseline and intermittent trumpet riffs, the track “Constantinople” on Modern Cool (Premonition Records, OOP) is tough to beat.  A cartridge is sorely taxed to keep up with these proceedings, letting us hear all of the interweaving lines, and here the Dynavector definitely keeps its cool.

I have always been a sucker for live recordings that eschew the artifice inherent in most sound studios.  There is a delightful little holiday record (sadly no longer in print) called The Christmas Revels (Revels, Inc).  This LP features a talented community music group in live performance of traditional music of the season.  The stage action is constantly shifting as the musicians move around, there is the expected assortment of background noises and listeners get a real sense of an organic performance.  I feel that DV-20X2 gives me most of what I expect when compared to the previous representations from my other (and far more expensive) cartridges.

A supreme test for any cartridge is the closing scene from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, in which a huge storm gathers (in the orchestra) and the god Donner delivers a lightning bolt with the strike on an anvil.  The only recording that I have ever heard that does this piece justice is the 1958 Decca LP (recently reissued as “The Golden Ring” Highlights disc, a part of a deluxe Decca vinyl box set).  The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, delivers the music, and an actual anvil was used for the onstage sound effect.  A huge wall of sound just blows out of the speakers and this cut tests a cartridge’s ability to resolve complex instrumental voices and its ability to stay in the grooves when the music goes fortissimo.  I’m happy to report that the Dynavector never flinches on this one; had Wagner been in my listening room, I’m certain that he would have smiled.

A Dynavector to Die For?

One sign of a great cartridge is its ability to draw listeners in and, in so doing, compel them to play entire LP sides rather than stopping after a single cut.  And the DV-20X2 cartridge is just that kind of analog transducer.  At its $850 asking price, it’s not nearly as steep as the top of the Dynavector price line—or, for that matter, any of my current reference cartridges, the least expensive being the $1,995 Lyra Helikon (also a low-output star).  What the Dynavector does well is convey a palpable soundstage, retrieving much of the detail that resides in the groove (without being overly analytic).  It also easily handles complex sound signals without getting swamped.

If not the ultimate word in any of these categories, this MC cartridge will still provide substantial listening enjoyment with terrific musicality.  Provided your phono preamp is up to handling low-output MC cartridges, this is an easy one to recommend to serious vinyl lovers.

Dynavector DV-20X2 Low-Output MC Cartridge

MSRP: $850


Preamplifier Pass Labs X-30
Phonostage Pass Labs XP-15
Amplifier Pass Labs XA100.5
Speakers Martin Logan CLX
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Dmitri and Maxim
Cables and Power Cords Nordost Valhalla and Odin

Elac’s FS249 Black Edition Loudspeakers

As I unbox the Black Edition versions of ELAC’s FS 249s, I become enthralled with their simplistic, rectangular tower design and sheen black finish.

Once getting the speakers standing tall (3 feet 8.5 inches tall, to be exact) with their cloth grilles removed, I am intrigued by the sight of the geometric patterns forming their black driver cones and the small, horizontal lines displaying their golden ribbon tweeters. And these ELACs are even more appealing sonically than they are aesthetically.

In fact, after several weeks of listening, I have to double-check the speakers’ price to make sure that Robb Niemann of Rutherford Audio, ELAC’s North American importer, hadn’t forgotten a zero. The FS 249 BEs are priced at $8,000 per pair. Having demoed my fair share of speakers 10 times that value, I am shocked to find that this level of quality can be had for a relatively inexpensive eight grand.

(NOTE: You can skip ahead to “On with the Show” toward the end of this article to read the listening notes, if you’re not interested in company background information and technical nuts and bolts.)

Up to Snuff

I must confess that I conduct the entirety of my review of these speakers with a front end sooner found mated to a pair of much costlier speakers. The Burmester 089 CD player/preamp and 911 stereo power amplifier, priced at about $30,000 each, deliver the goods in my system and push the ELACs to the peak of their performance envelope. The 911’s 350 watts per channel of juice is way more than enough to power these speakers, which have a sensitivity of 90 dB and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Users so inclined can bi-amp these speakers.

Having heard this Burmester duo with several five- and six-figure speaker pairs, I will say that the FS 249 BEs are not out of place here. I would have to conduct a careful side-by-side comparison to discern a separation in sound quality that would justify the leap in price to the much costlier speaker I’ve demoed. The ELACs offer a very high value proposition indeed.

Much of this bang-for-your-buck performance can be attributed to the fact that ELAC designs and builds the majority of its speaker components in house. Founded in Kiel, Germany, in 1926, the company—then called Electroacustic GmbH—has a long history of technical innovation to rival that of today’s most highly regarded German manufacturers. The company originally focused on sonar and acoustic signal technologies and, following World War II, shifted its attention to producing a variety of consumer goods, from sewing machine to car parts.

It soon entered the audio realm, first with radios and then with turntables and phono cartridges. The company changed hands a number of times over the years and began designing and building speakers in the 1980s, releasing its first true innovation in 1985, with the omnidirectional 4Pi tweeter, which put the company on the loudspeaker map. Then, in 1993, ELAC purchased a patent for a version of the Air Motion Transformer (AMT), a folded-diaphragm tweeter designed by German electrical engineer Dr. Oskar Heil in 1972 that had gained popularity as an alternative to traditional tweeter designs.  And this is where my sonic adoration of the FS 249 BEs begins.

Guts and Glory

ELAC calls its version of the AMT tweeter the JET (for Jet Emission Tweeter), and the FS 249 BE speakers use the third iteration of this design. The company supplies its JET tweeters to a number of manufacturers and, although those companies remain undisclosed, the JET design is easily recognizable. (It should also be noted that a number of manufacturers have copied this design, but few attain the level of sonic success of the JET.)

This tweeter comprises a folded foil membrane driven by a series of neodymium-magnet rods, forgoing the traditional voice-coil assembly. The materials used for the tweeters, according to ELAC, can withstand operating temperatures of 180 degrees Celsius, whereas others break down at 60 degrees. The result is a reduced loss of electrical-current energy, which is also partly due to the tweeter’s large membrane—which, because of its folded design, has approximately the same surface area as a cone driver with an 8-inch diameter—and its lighting-quick speed. The foil membrane’s low mass requires considerably less movement to generate the same audio response as a dome tweeter. According to ELAC, the JET tweeter is accurate to within 1/100th of a millimeter (which is 10 times thinner than a human hair).

The so-called “crystal cone” diaphragms of the speakers’ driver units are also notable in their design. The FS 249 BEs feature three of these drivers: one 5.5-inch midrange driver below the tweeter, and two 7-inch bass drivers stacked below the midrange. The diaphragm cones of these drivers, which can be found throughout much of the ELAC range, are extremely lightweight and rigid.

The driver cones are constructed from an aluminum-paper composite foil that has been stamped with dozens of little triangles. This design follows the same principal of structural dynamics as Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic spheres—which most people will recognize from the giant Spaceship Earth globe at Walt Disney World’s Epcot center in Orlando, Fla. This design makes the diaphragms extraordinarily rigid, with high “tensional integrity,” as Fuller liked to say, so that they are virtually free from resonance and sonic coloration. The diaphragms are affixed to the driver’s voice coil at both the neck and the base, helping to extend their frequency response by nearly an octave, according to ELAC.

In the Black Edition version of the speakers, the cones are (you guessed it) black instead of the silver used for the standard 240-series speakers. The BE speakers also feature a number of non-aesthetic upgrades, including bigger and better voice coils, refined crossovers and capacitors, and high-grade internal wiring from the signal-transmission wizards at the Dutch firm Van den Hul, which specializes in cabling, phono cartridges and phono preamplifiers.

ELAC is so confident in the construction of its speakers that they come with a full 10-year factory warranty. Knowing all of the technological expertise and high-quality componentry that goes into the FS 249 BEs, I am chomping at the bit to get them set up and singing.

Getting Situated

After several days of positioning the speakers—countless OCD adjustments extend the duration of tweaking into weeks—I find that the speakers perform best in my listening room when they are a little more than 2 feet from the back wall, with the speakers just over 7 feet apart and the listening position about 8 feet from the speakers. Much experimentation results in a 15-degree tow-in providing the optimum imaging in my listening space, which is 12 feet deep and about 16 feet wide, with the right side open to the dining area.

I am quick to admit that my listening space is not ideal—but whose is? Luckily, the FS 249 BEs ship with a pair of rubber plugs to quell the air released from the rear-firing bass ports in the upper portion of the speaker cabinets. (The speakers also have a larger down-firing port in the underside of the cabinets.) I find these plugs useful when listening to music with louder-than-usual bass responses—the low frequencies of some hip-hop, techno, and booming classical recordings can be a little overwhelming in my room. The speakers also come with two little foam disks that can be placed around the tweeters to help control the high-frequency dispersion in smaller rooms. For most music, I prefer the sound without the foam disks, but the tightened dispersion is immediately noticeable when the disks are applied.

On with the Show

The speed and pinpoint imaging of the JET tweeters make complex and detailed music a lot of fun to listen to. And so I turn to Sufjan Stevens’ Come on Feel the Illinoise (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2005), which is a meticulously made album, with loads of ambient musical details filling up the periphery of the soundstage. The title track begins with a rhythmic piano in the right channel that the full band matches after two bars. The 5/4 time signature in the first part of the song, paired with a smorgasbord of sounds that includes a xylophone panning across the soundstage, make this a difficult song to track, but the ELACs keep up with great success—these tweeters are indeed speedy. And all instruments are given the proper weight, with the imagining of the tweeters accurately placing them across a spacious three-dimensional soundstage that displays ample depth and height. The trumpets enter the mix front and center during the chorus and then, without overpowering Stevens’ airy vocals, the brassy cry begins to rise above the mix, showcasing the vertical capabilities of the JET tweeters.

These tweeters also bring to light the delightful idiosyncrasies of subtler music. At first listen, Alexi Murdoch’s Time without Consequence (Zero Summer Records, 2006) is a very delicate album, with Murdoch’s baritone voice layered softly atop the minimalistic mix. But, at elevated volumes, the depth of the music emerges. On “Beathe,” Murdoch’s palm mutes on his acoustic guitar have substantial precision and weight, while the JET tweeters illuminate the mix’s various background minutia: distant cymbal crashes, slow pulls of a cello, and even what sounds like rhythmic amplified breathing at the right side of the soundstage. This is a seemingly simply mix, but the ELAC speakers reveal the magic lingering beneath the surface.

Similarly, these tweeters provide an abundance of headroom—up to 50 kHz, according to ELAC—which is especially noticeable when reproducing the female vocalists whose albums are common audiophile references. These listeners, however, may find themselves wanting a bit more midrange fullness from such eerily clear recordings. But I find that the speakers deliver vocals from Ella Fitzgerald, Carole King and Adele with all the breadth and gusto I would ever want. My go-to jazz albums from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock also sound as good as they ever have: Dueling solos remain separate but equal, with brass and keys having ample brightness without being overbearing, while strings and drums keep their precision and tightness as they climb down the frequency spectrum.

With most music, I do not find myself wanting for additional bass grunt—the FS 249 BEs dip down as low as 28 Hz, according to ELAC. String- and percussion-heavy classical recordings from Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók have the appropriate amount of room-filling boom, giving the illusion of sitting in the middle of a grand concert hall with a 50-foot ceiling.

On “Stinkfist,” the first track on Tool’s Ænema (Zoo Entertainment, 1996), the bass is plenty heavy through the ELACs—even too heavy. This is a key example of when inserting the bass-port plugs is a major plus. Doing so subdues the bass enough to allow the rest of the mix to come through in its full and terrifying glory.

On rap and hip-hop recordings—including examples from Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and the Roots—the beats are full and punchy when listening at moderate levels. But when cranking the volume to club levels, some listeners may find themselves a bit disappointed that the ELACs don’t rattle their rib cages out of their chests. The same goes for dance and electronica music. But if bone-rattling bass is what you seek, then I imagine you’re more in the market for speakers with a couple 10-plus-inch woofers. For those of you not throwing dance parties at your home, these speakers will more than satiate your need for bass bump and general musicality.

Hooked on Teutonic

This all-German system is indeed a harmonious package. The Burmester front end enables the FS 249 BE speakers to perform at their absolute peak—and, as I mentioned earlier, these speakers are a bargain at just $8,000 per pair.

Their highs, courtesy of the remarkable JET tweeters, go above and beyond expectations, with clarity, precision and a three-dimensional soundstage on par with those of speakers costing two or three times this price. For 98 percent of listeners, the midrange and bass responses—thanks to well-conceived and well-built driver units with superior designs and electronics supporting them—will prove full and sharp, and will meet all of their musical needs.

ELAC FS 249 Black Edition loudspeakers

MSRP: $8,000 per pair



Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

As I tear through some of my favorite reference tracks, I’m not only taken by the Viola Bravo stereo power amplifier, which I’ve heard sound fantastic at a number of recent hi-fi shows, but I’m also amazed at how much it shares with the best solid-state amplifiers I’ve heard, particularly the big Boulders.  We have here a new contender for the top of the mountain, complete with glowing green power indicators.

Rather than opt for a monoblock design, Viola takes a different tack by going with a dual-chassis configuration.  One of the boxes holds the majority of the power supply, including a 2-kV power transformer, and the other contains the amplification circuitry, with strategically placed 80,000-uF capacitors located near the output-stage nodes to keep power close at hand.  This setup works brilliantly; the Bravo produces a fast, clean sound, without sounding harsh or grainy.

This approach also makes for a sound not unlike that provided by a pair of monoblocks: a huge soundstage combined with amazing stereo imaging and precise placement.  As Prince walks between the channels on “Shy,” the speakers momentarily melt as the volume of the guitars gently increases and the other instruments join in.  This is a special amplifier indeed.

Viola Labs’ principals Paul Jayson and Tom Colangelo spent part of their early careers at Levinson, and the Bravo definitely has the trademark solid bass response of the best Levinson designs of yore, but with a much more palpable midrange and even more natural highs.  The bass line in the title track of George Michael’s Older goes straight to the gut, controlling my KEF Blades as few amplifiers in recent memory have.  Only the massive Pass monos have more grip in my system, but it’s really a close call.  Viola claims that the Bravo needs a 25-amp line to deliver the absolute maximum power, but we only have dedicated 20-amp circuits here, so we’ll take them on faith.  It is worth noting that the Bravo never feels strained in the least, even on a dedicated 20-amp line.

Put On Your Kidney Belt

With the power supply weighing in at about 125 pounds and the amplifier weighing about 90 pounds, you’ll need a friend to help you unpack and place these fairly large enclosures (17 inches wide by 9.6 inched high by 26 inches deep).  The duo also tips the price scale at $58,000, so if you are paying in small coins, you’ll need strong biceps there, as well.

These tidy enclosures eschew exposed heat sinks in favor of fan-cooled operation, with a massive umbilical cord joining the two boxes.  These two elements are the only shortcomings of the design.  The umbilical cord, which is connected via spade links on each box, can present a problem, especially if you’re among the 8 percent of people with some form of color blindness.  Either way, attach the umbilical carefully, one wire at a time, to avoid a loud (and costly) boom at turn on.  As far as the fan goes, it’s not completely silent.  Those living on a steady diet of rock, jazz and hip-hop (like yours truly) will never notice it, but if your taste turns more towards string quartets at low volume, the fan will be invasive.  The Bravo’s fan is not as quiet as the one in my ARC REF 150, so I’d say it could use some improvement.

The Bravo delivers 350 watts per channel into 8 ohms.  If that’s not enough juice for you, the power easily doubles as the load is halved, thanks to the Bravo’s true-voltage-source design.  Taking things a step further, the amp’s fully balanced design allows it to be configured in bridged or parallel mode for higher power.  The bridged mode is better for situations requiring higher voltage output (i.e. higher impedance speakers), while the parallel mode is better for speakers with higher current demands.  You can even link four pairs of amplifiers together to get 3,600 watts per channel into one ohm!  Viola certainly gets big points for being infinitely flexible with this amp’s configuration options.

Because it is a fully balanced amplifier, the Bravo offers only XLR inputs, which do not present a problem for the reference preamplifiers at my disposal from Simaudio, Nagra, Burmester, Robert Koda and Audio Research.  Whether running through a short length of Cardas Clear cables or a 20-foot pair, the Bravo works flawlessly.

The manual could use some photos to better describe the differences in operation, but it is well written.  One would think that paying almost 60 large for the amp would warrant a little more thought in this area (à la Sonus faber), but Viola is no more guilty on this front than most.  However, a well-written and well-illustrated manual is an essential part of the ownership experience at this level.

Nits Aside

You’ll forget about these minor points the minute you begin listening.  And while you’ll forget about the 40 matched output devices, you won’t be able to lose track of the control this amplifier brings to bear on your favorite music.  From the first track, you can tell this one is very special.  Where my Pass Xs amplifiers take on an almost tubey sound, the Bravo is extremely neutral, with no detectable sonic signature.  It is part of a miniscule subset of solid-state power amplifiers having no character, no grain and no coloration whatsoever.

All of the large speakers at my disposal (GamuT S9, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, KEF Blade, and Sonus faber Aida) are phenomenal matches for the Bravo, and thanks to its highly resolving nature, it easily showcases the differences in character between said speakers—making it a true reference-quality component.  The S9s and the Aidas in particular both have potent low-frequency reach and they both play to the Bravo’s strong points of extension and control.

A quick trip down memory lane to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here proves highly illuminating.  The heartbeat at the beginning of DSOM bores into my soul at high volume; the elevator at the beginning of “Wish You Were Here” is equally overwhelming as it blasts across the soundstage, reminding me just how great these recordings still sound, even after all these years.  I had an equally fun experience listening to the Bravo in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, when Genesis speaker designer Gary Koh was playing Infected Mushroom at discotheque levels.  Awesome!

We can go on and on about the complete lack of background noise present with the Bravo, but that’s selling it short.  What you really notice instantly is the tremendous dynamic swing that it is capable of producing.  Several major Music Matters Blue Note listening sessions keep me coming back for more.  The explosive nature of these records, not held back in the least by the Bravo, makes drums, percussion and horn blasts all the more exciting and all the more real.  I’ll even go as far as to say that it sounds better than when I was listening to a few of these albums via the master tape at Kevin Gray’s studio.

This astonishing level of dynamic clarity is even more persuasive with music that is limited in this area.  Records that you thought were somewhat limited (like the recent Slayer box set) still are, but with this much range at your disposal, they do come more alive than ever before.  And thanks to the Bravo’s effortless delivery of high power, you can really blast these tracks without fatigue.

Of course, lovers of big orchestral music will be in heaven playing their favorite large-scale masterpieces through the Bravo.  Make sure your speakers are capable, though!  While it is not an audiophile classic by any means, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition on DG is still a fun test track, with the end of the first movement coming to a major crescendo that almost always has the extreme dynamic peaks compromised.  Here, the Bravo sails through effortlessly.

All About Power

Again, thanks to the amp’s complete lack of grain, the level of timbral accuracy that the Bravo provides is incredible; yet, its ability to resolve the minutest details gives the last bit of realism to recorded music, doing so in a way that few amplifiers can match.  I firmly believe that this is what allows your brain to stop thinking about the gear, the system and the presentation, and just get further into the music and the performance.

Whether listening to Van Halen or Vivaldi through the Bravo, I never find myself entering the analytical reviewer mode.  This is something only the world’s finest components can do, and it is a rare treat.

Having spent a lot of time with great amplifiers large and small, I still prefer large—just as I’d rather drive a car with massive horsepower than one without.  Big power done right tends to eliminate many of the shortcomings of various speakers, because of the control it provides.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bravo is one of very few amplifiers we’ve tested that does not respond to any kind of power-line conditioning whatsoever.  Its massive choke-based supply has a power-factor correction of .96 (very close to the ideal PF of 1), providing plenty of current on musical peaks.  Connecting the amp to a dedicated 20-amp line is more than sufficient, and adding the Running Springs Maxim line conditioner or IsoTek Super Titan offers no improvement—a major testament to the Bravo’s power-supply design.

Top of the Heap

The Viola Labs Bravo power amplifier is, in every way, one of the finest we’ve had the opportunity to audition; it is definitely a destination product.  If your mindset is in sync with the Viola design ethos of the amplification being dead neutral, neither adding nor subtracting anything, this is a droid you should audition.  Build quality is equally superb and the amp carries a prestigious design pedigree, brought to life by two of high-end audios most respected men.  Just get a good workout in before you unbox it!

Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $58,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable     TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phono Preamplifier Indigo Qualia
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifiers Audio Research REF 5SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10    Nagra Jazz    Simaudio 850P
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum    GamuT S9    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Aida

Rogers EHF-200 MK2 Integrated Amplifier

It’s easy to build a tube amplifier, relatively speaking.  I did it in high school electronics class.  It played music and buzzed like hell, but it sounded fairly good compared to the JVC receiver my parents owned.  There was just something unmistakably yummy about the way acoustic instruments and vocals sounded through my old-school AR speakers that hooked me on tubes forever.

It’s not so easy to build a great tube amplifier, though.  I’ve got no skills in that arena.  Many of today’s tube-amplifier manufacturers follow one of two paths: rebuild a classic from the vintage era (1940s and 1950s) with good success, or embrace more modern technology and tubes to produce an amplifier with the best characteristics of legacy and current thinking.  Put the EHF-200 MK2 from Rogers High Fidelity squarely in the latter camp.

This amplifier takes full advantage of company principle Roger Gibboni’s years of engineering expertise in the world of communications and radar technologies.  The amp combines solid circuit design and meticulous point-to-point wiring with high-quality current parts, like a massive 1100VA toroidal power transformer and beefy output transformers, to create an instant classic.  Gibboni says on the Rogers website that one of the company’s goals was “to create an amplifier that your kids will fight over when you’re gone.”  And with a lifetime warranty, the EHF 200 MK2 should outlive you.

He has succeeded brilliantly, and if the beautiful casework doesn’t convince you, then remove the bottom cover and gaze at the workmanship.  It’s instantly obvious that this amplifier is built with a lot of TLC—and built to last more than one lifetime.  Only the highest-quality, tightest-tolerance parts lurk under the hood.  MSRP for the MK2 model, which includes preamplifier inputs and a variable-level output, is $14,000 even.  (The standard EHF-200 model does not have this flexibility and so it is priced slightly less at $11,500.)  The MK2 features three single-ended RCA inputs on the rear panel, along with another set on the front panel.

Spacey Indeed

The Radiohead classic “High and Dry” instantly reveals the spatial abilities of this amplifier.  Lead singer Thom Yorke is firmly anchored in the mix, with some strong guitar bits and a few layers of synthesizers perforating the mix in a highly obtuse but effective and three-dimensional way.

Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” comes through my vintage Acoustat 2+2s with a fervor that I’ve never experienced since having the speakers expertly rebuilt.  There’s an unmistakable magic that has always existed between tubes and electrostatic panels that always seems to make the world stop for a while as you drink it in.  Thanks to the drive this amplifier possesses, triode mode rules the day, and so young Springsteen’s voice is buoyant between the 8-foot-tall panels.  And thanks to the subwoofer outputs, driving a pair of powered subs is a cakewalk—a valuable feature often overlooked on many integrated amps.

Major Style Points

The EHF-200 oozes style, from the deep red color of the chassis to the cool blue power meter on the front panel.  And, of course, glowing vacuum tubes are always a hit with music lovers and audiophiles alike.  The amp comes with a billet remote that is a piece of sculpture, and Rogers also includes a microfiber towel with the company on it logo to keep your amplifier free of fingerprints and scratches.

From the amp’s carbon fiber and rhodium speaker binding posts to the finely machined controls, it’s clear that the amount of thought that went into this product is indeed high.  Its built-in headphone amplifier works symbiotically with the usual suspects in my headphone arsenal, which includes Grado, Sennheiser and Audeze phones.  Each Rogers amplifier even comes with a handwritten note from the person who assembled it, telling you to enjoy your purchase—a nice personal touch.

It’s worth noting that there is a pair of RCA input jacks on the front panel, a reviewer’s dream if there ever was one!  No more fishing behind the equipment rack to find the remaining input.  Active audio hobbyists who switch and compare gear on a regular basis will really appreciate this feature.

Every aspect of the EHF-200 operates with extreme silence, from the subtle clicking of the volume attenuator to the switching back and forth between triode and ultralinear modes.  Some amplifiers we’ve auditioned clunk fairly dramatically when changing modes, requiring the amplifier to be turned off every time, but the EHF has no such problem.  You will immediately notice more gain in ultralinear mode, but this reviewer finds the extra sweetness of triode operation to be worth the small increase in gain required for full output.  My reference dCS Vivaldi has 6 volts of output, so this was no problem at all.

Major Performance, Too

Style without substance is meaningless—and when the pedal goes down, the EHF-200 MK2 fires up.  With a quartet of KT120 tubes, (two per channel), the EHF produces 117 watts per channel into 4 ohms in ultralinear mode and 80 per channel in triode mode; just flip a switch on the top panel to change modes.  The power tubes are all biased automatically, so there is no need to worry about adjustments or scouring the earth for matched quartets.  This should make the EHF as trouble free as a tube amplifier can get.

The applause in Cheap Trick’s “Day Tripper” hints at the EHF’s ability to reproduce a large soundstage.  This amplifier paints a musically accurate picture that still renders a hint of tubeyness.  The EHF’s overall tonality reminds me of the much more expensive Octave Jubilee monoblocks that we recently reviewed.  The EHF is not as warm as a Conrad-Johnson amplifier, but it’s not quite as reserved as my Audio Research REF 150.  And though the REF 150 has a bit more power (150 wpc versus 117 wpc), the EHF is a thousand bucks less for a full integrated.

Though the Acoustats have a sensitivity rating of only 82 dB per watt, the EHF has no trouble driving them to more than adequate levels, even in triode mode, which again is absolutely dreamy.  The rest of the speakers at my disposal are all considerably more efficient, so the EHF never runs out of steam, unless I play music so much louder than is reasonable and prudent.  And even then, it clips so gently that there is only a slight compression of the soundstage to warn you that you’ve gone too far—that is, if you aren’t paying attention to the little blue meter on the front panel.

Wendy Lewis’ lead vocal on the Bad Plus’ For All I Care is positively goose-bump inducing, especially her detached rendition of the Bee Gees classic “How Deep is Your Love.”  The EHF is a tonemeister, always straddling the line of perfection, never embellishing too much, yet it is always musical and engaging.  The subtle harmonics on both ends of the frequency spectrum from Charlie Hunter’s eight-string guitar on his Bing, Bing, Bing! album bounce around the room in a spectacular manner, with decay that seems to go on forever—another hallmark of a great tube amplifier.

I move the EHF to room one and pair it with the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blades, and it continues to dazzle with it’s ability to generate serious low-end grunt.  Cranking the latest effort from Kanye West illustrates how well this amplifier not only generates serious LF information, but how much control it also exhibits.  Keeping the party rolling with Genghis Tron’s Board Up the House disc adds layer after layer of highly distorted guitars to the driving beats, neither of which cause any difficulty for the EHF.

Tonality is beyond reproach, as hours of listening to audiophile classics will verify.  Those living on a steady diet of female vocalists and plucky acoustic guitar records will surely wet themselves over the EHF’s presentation.  And those who like to rock (I salute you) will dig the dynamics that the EHF brings to the table.  Its robust power supply allows it to play louder than its size and specs would suggest.  Cranking up the live version of the Tubes’ “I Was a Punk Before You” is exhilarating, as is Jeff Beck’s album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s.  There’s just something about tube amplification that lends itself to raucous rock—and the EHF delivers in spades.

Tube Choices

Some will argue about the sonics of the KT120; yet, after living with this tube in a number of other amplifiers, I am in the love it camp.  The EHF works well with the KT120, offering more than enough delicacy to make the most devout tubeophile happy.  It offers better dynamic contrast and impact than the KT88/6550 is able to muster.  And we’re only talking four power tubes here, so when it is time to re-tube, it won’t cost a fortune.

With the 12AX7 in good supply, the sky is the limit for those feeling the need to tube roll.  The EF86 tube is NOS with no major substitutions, so if your taste doesn’t go to the exotic, re-tubing the EHF will be painless.  After trying a handful of different 12AX7s at my disposal, sticking with the stock JJs proved a great place to hang my hat.  Stick with the stock tubes and enjoy, I say.  And stick with the packaged Quiet Cable power cord too – this would easily set you back a thousand bucks, for something equivalent from one of the majors.  I tried my favorites from Shunyata, Cardas and Audience with no improvement whatsoever, so use the one in the box with confidence.

An Elegant Solution

With so many people trying to simplify their lives, the Rogers EHF-200 MK2 is a refreshing solution.  Of course, $14K isn’t exactly play money, but the sound quality delivered by this amp easily equals or betters most amp/preamp combinations that are similarly priced.  And remember, going with a combo solution will require at least one premium interconnect and a pair of power cords, so if you’re playing at this level, plan on dropping at least a few extra thousand on wire just to be on par.

With the EHF-200 MK2, Rogers offers a world-class solution in one box.  Add your favorite digital and analog sources (should you be so inclined) and you’ve got a super system that fits on a single rack.

This is an amplifier we thoroughly enjoy.  If you’ve been looking for something a bit out of the ordinary and a bit more bespoke that offers the full-on tube experience, look no further.   The EHF-200 MK2 is fantastic.

Rogers EHF-200 MK2 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $14,000


Analog Source SME 10 turntable    Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge    Aesthetix Rhea phonostage
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos Control 15
Speakers Acoustat 2+2    KEF Blades    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable Cardas Clear Light
Power Running Springs Dmitri

Wilson Benesch Full Circle Turntable

You could save up what it would cost to buy yourself a Porsche Cayman S or a two-week holiday in the Bahamas, and still not be able to afford a set of Wilson Benesch’s top-of-the-range Cardinal speakers.  So when the British manufacturer offered its Full Circle turntable up for review, I was initially wondering just how many circles would be on the price tag—surprisingly, not many.  In fact, the Full Circle (complete with the company’s A.C.T. 0.5 tonearm and Ply MC cartridge) turned out to be a relatively low-cost, high-value bundle.  It’s priced at about $4,400 (£2,795).

And, while some decks look like they are all elbows and sharp angles, the Full Circle is all curves—so much so that I half expected it to launch into a chorus of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” once I got it out of the packaging and put it together.  The assembly took about 30 minutes.

The Full Circle follows a lineage chock-full of careful research.  The deck is a direct descendent of the company’s first turntable effort, which it released in 1990 as the first deck to feature carbon-composite structures and which Wilson Benesch soon followed with the world’s first hyperbolic curved tonearm.  To create the current iteration of the table, the company upgraded the motor and dropped the sprung suspension, which it replaced with a combination of compliant rubber and carbon-fiber cantilevers.

In terms of the chassis design, the Full Circle “is constructed of two component parts,” says Craig Milnes, Wilson Benesch’s Design Director.  “The lower part has the motor attached to it.  The upper part is where the vinyl is transcribed and so it has to be isolated from the vibrations of the motor.  The task was to link the two systems but isolate them at the same time.  Between the top sandwich and the bottom sandwich, you have rubber compliant feet that deal with the load frequency coming from the motor.”

A secondary system, says Milnes, tackles the high frequencies, utilizing thin carbon-fiber rods that sit between three aluminum pillars, which are on top of the second sandwich.  A stainless-steel sub-platter features a phosphor-bronze bearing and also serves as the host for the belt.  A piece of felt lies on top of the acrylic platter.

The 0.5 tonearm sits on a carbon-infused steel rod and utilizes an intriguing kinematic bearing system, which is formed by three captive ball bearings, with a fourth bearing dropped into the center to locate the arm.  This system, says Milnes, is superior to a normal ball-race system, because it removes the stiction problems that require a force to change the bearing’s state from stop to go, and also eliminates the unipivot design, which can suffer from excess wear around the bearing tip.  “Even if the kinematic balls wear,” says Milnes, “the rate of change will be the same on every one of the balls and will have no effect on the center of the point of movement.”

But perhaps the most integral feature of the tonearm is its carbon-fiber tube.  While carbon fiber is a popular design material, it is often poorly implemented, according to Milnes.  “Off-the-shelf carbon rods might be stiff, but they’re not damped,” he says.  “To do it correctly, it has to be optimized.”  For the 0.5, doing it correctly entailed creating a one-off tool that enabled the company to produce an arm with a homogeneous, integrated headshell and enhanced dampening by allowing the carbon fiber to flow in a twin-walled, overlapping, double-helix pattern.  “Everything about the tonearm is unique,” says Milnes.  “We went out on a limb to prove that the result was possible.  The headshell has to have different characteristics than the arm.  It requires super stiffness and super damping, but you also want it to flow naturally into the tube so that the energy that flows from the headshell goes into the rest of the tonearm, where it can be absorbed and damped.  This is the stiffest tonearm in the world and it’s the most highly damped tonearm in the world.”

The final part of the Full Circle package is the Ply cartridge, which utilizes a generator from Benz Glider.  Wilson Benesch then adds its own carbon-fiber body.

Sounding Off

There are two reasons to buy a Full Circle: to invest in a new midrange system, or to take the first step in a hi-fi upgrade.  For the latter, I wanted to find out exactly what a Full Circle offers, so I hooked up a Rega RP3 turntable, Rega Brio-R integrated amp and Spendor S3/5R2 speakers with Tellurium Q Blue speaker cables.

Mounting the Full Circle on its pedestal stand (about $770), I played “Tribal Statistics,” from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band 1983 album Somewhere in Afrika.  Attempting to replicate a bare-bones upgrade, I temporarily shunned a phono amp and plugged the Full Circle directly into the Brio-R’s phono section.  I immediately detect a dramatic reduction in distortion, an increase in clarity and an ordered, structured soundstage, while each instrumentalist now has space to maneuver.  The music flows, rather than sounding squeezed out of the speakers.  The bass is not necessarily weightier, but it is full of character and integrated within the mix, while synths have a textural, informative presentation.  The vocals prove to be nuanced and delicate.

I then add the roughly $630 Trichord Dino phono amp to better support the Ply moving-coil cartridge, and the music jumps from very good to spectacular.  The entire soundstage opens up, with the bass roaring from the Full Circle with both mass and authority, while the percussion provides a forceful rhythm that grounds the entire track.  The vocal performance is full and rich, and the midrange is dynamic, offering greater breath and reach.

Turning to Ella Fitzgerald’s “Bewitched,” via Speakers Corner’s reissue of the Rodgers & Hart Songbook, I find the smooth tones of the vocals both clear and free from stress, while the lazy percussion, which normally sits hidden behind the piano, is now visible, adding depth to the mix.  The piano now dances around the soundstage with a syncopated swing, as the bass provides a steady underpinning in contrast to the flighty keys.

So how far can the Full Circle go?  I integrate it with my reference system, replacing the Circle stand with a Decent Audio wall stand (approx. $440).  Starting this time with Fitzgerald, I notice a new layering within her intonation changing the focus of the delivery.  The track’s guitar, which was almost unnoticeable previously, now emerges like a butterfly from a cocoon, providing added depth and complexity to the overall performance.  The piano also has a new grandeur that takes nothing away from its jazz tones but that does give the song added gravitas and weight.  Meanwhile, the bass offers a low-frequency tone and shade that extends the melodic range of the song, with the overall soundstage now showing a new depth and height.

When I move back to Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, the Full Circle almost pins me to the rear wall.  The bass is shatteringly powerful, pushing me to the rear of my chair with its drive, while extending the range of the lower frequencies.  The vocals finally reveal the multi-tracked nature of the recording in clear tones, providing new focus to the delivery.  The upper midrange, supported here by the synth backing and guitar, is now calm and smooth, without a hint of brightness.  Superb instrumental separation also allows the ear to hear each instrument from different angles as each settles into the soundstage.


The Full Circle proves that it is highly tweakable.  For example, I replace the supplied felt mat with an Oyaide BR-12 mat (approx. $140), which opens up the soundstage further, tightens up the bass, reduces the distortion and improves clarity, while adding focus to the overall presentation.

Topping the Full Circle off with an Oyaide STB-MS vinyl stabilizer (approx. $250) gives the music a sharp emphasis and adds to the weight of the lower frequencies, providing much greater stability to the overall presentation.  The whole delivery of the soundstage exudes control and solidity.

Elegantly designed, well made and easy to install, the Wilson Benesch Full Circle gives a typical hi-fi system a confident and commanding suite of lower frequencies, with an airy midrange that oozes detail.  Showing that it also responds well to tweaks and other improvements, the Full Circle will prove an ideal purchase for beginners, audiophiles and hi-fi enthusiasts.  -Paul Rigby

Wilson Benesch Full Circle Turntable

MSRP: Approx. $4,400 (£2,795)


Analog Source Avid Acutus turntable    SME IV tonearm    Benz Glider cartridge
Preamplifier Aesthetix Calypso
Speakers Quad ESL-57 electrostatics with One Thing Audio upgrade
Power IsoTek Super Titan    IsoTek power cords
Cable Tellurium Q Blue and Black

AVA Ultravalve Vacuum Tube Amplifier

The finger snaps on Thomas Dolby’s “The Ability to Swing” hang in midair between the speakers, as Dolby’s highly processed yet ethereal vocal enters the mix.  “It isn’t worth a bean, if you haven’t got the ability to swing,” he declares.

Indeed, the six-figure system assembled in room two is in full swing right now, but the amplifier powering the Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution speakers is the humble AVA Ultravalve, not the $65,000 Octave Jubilee monoblocks I’ve been using for some time.  This is truly an amazing amplifier.  If I powder-coated the chassis a certain shade of blue-green, slapped an Air Tight badge on the front panel and told you I paid five figures for this little jewel, you’d believe me—it’s that good.

With so much excitement about the vinyl resurgence of the last few years, some of you have forgotten how popular vacuum tubes have also become lately.  Yet, in the midst of these newer products sprouting up, it’s easy to forget some of the players that have been around for quite a while.  Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) is that “other” amplifier company in Minnesota—Audio Research is located nearby—and it is a perfect example of a manufacturer that has quietly gone about its business making great products without a ton of fanfare.  And you rarely see products from AVA for sale on the secondary market.  The company obviously has a legion of loyal customers,

No matter how much time I spend with mega-dollar power amplifiers, I always love a variation on the Dynaco Stereo 70 theme.  While I’ve never heard one that I didn’t like, there are big differences between them.  Some have a softer, warmer presentation and definitely embellish more than others; the original ST 70 is the prime example of that voicing.  With these types of amps, your best recordings don’t sound much better than your worst, but everything sounds somewhat liquid and dreamy—not a bad place to hang your hat if you have a modest system, or a lot of MP3s.

Tube Through and Through

Frank Van Alstine has been at this game for a long time.  He started out modding and repairing Dynaco electronics 30-plus years ago, and revamped the ST 70 circuit so much over the years that it is now truly his own design now.  The Ultravalve is still based on a pair of 6CA7 output tubes (EL34 or KT77 tubes can be used as well), but it does not have a switch for triode mode, fancy power output meters or anything that distracts from the amplifier’s performance.  And its price is right: $1,999 puts one in your hot little hands.

Like the original ST 70, the Ultravalve uses a 5AR4 rectifier tube and a pair of more readily available 6GH8A small-signal tubes in place of the now long-obsolete 7199 tubes in the ST 70, which is fetching premium prices online.  The Ultravalve is one of the first power amplifiers I’ve listened to with which I just don’t feel the need to roll tubes.  It sounds just fine as is, and a little bit of research shows that there aren’t a lot of variations on the 6GH8A tube anyway.  Perusing Mr. Van Alstine’s board on the AudioCircle forum shows him to be a practical man, so I just enjoyed the amp’s stock tubes.

I do upgrade the power cord to a Cardas Clear cord for my review, only because that’s what I use with everything else and we value consistency here.  The Ultravalve does benefit slightly from the upgraded power cord and from being plugged into a Running Springs Dmitri power conditioner.  But keep in mind that none of this is necessary to enjoy the Ultravalve.

Removing the bottom panel of the highly polished stainless steel chassis reveals tidy workmanship throughout, again showing that AVA sticks to the basic layout of a ST 70: driver circuitry on a well-thought-out PC board and the rest of the amplifier wired point to point.  There is a switch on the rear panel to float the ground, as well as three binding posts for 4-, 8- and 16-ohm speakers; this is my only gripe with the Ultravalve.  It really could use some beefier binding posts for those of us with bigger speaker cables.  My solution is just to re-terminate with bananas plugs.

Ace of Bass and Dynamics

Bass control is a big part of the equation here.  The original ST 70 has a puny power supply and it shows up in the playback, with the bass response lacking dynamics and sounding wild and wooly.  An original Conrad-Johnson MV50 isn’t much better.  An original Marantz 8B has a more liquid midrange but still falls short down under.

As brilliant as the Sonus faber Guareri Evolution speakers are, like any high-performance Italian product, they are a bit picky about what you feed them.  Just like my Fiat Abarth getting grumpy when filled with anything less than premium gas, the Evos need current and control to give a stellar performance and sound as big as they should.

And when delivering Nine Inch Nails’ “Help Me I Am in Hell,” the Ultravalve sounds big. I move the amp out into room one, with the KEF Blades (with their 90-dB-per-watt sensitivity), and it sounds damn big, with guitars floating around the soundstage and the heartbeat at the end of the track filling the listening room.  Upping the game with a much more densely recorded track, “Mr. Self Destruct” from NIN’s album The Downward Spiral, I find that the Ultravalve not only keeps the groove of the driving synth bass well intact, but it also does not lose the focus.  The amp starts and stops on a dime as Trent Reznor brings the music to barely a whisper, only to audibly assault us again and again with a huge ball of sound and dynamics.

It’s still hard to believe I’m listening to a $2,000 amplifier.  For those of you in the audience thinking that it’s sheer insanity to put an amplifier like this in a system like this, I submit that it’s the only way to see what its performance envelope truly is.  Daft Punk’s Homework lights up the Blades and I can turn the volume up to the point where I feel like I’m back in New York at Fashion Week.  All that’s missing is the catwalk.

The Ultravalve carefully follows Stanley Clarke as he rips up the fretboard on “Bass Folk Song No. 7,” clearly demonstrating its ability to keep the Blade’s 9-inch woofers in control.  The amp reveals Clarke’s delicate touch on the fretless bass, and it never gets sloppy, slow or wooly.

It’s also Got Top

The Ultravalve is ultra quick, even when playing a less-than-superb recording, like The Stooges self-titled album, on which the amp keeps its composure, provided you don’t turn the volume past the point of soft clipping.  Rather than getting harsh, like many other low-powered tube amplifiers we’ve auditioned, the Ultravalve begins to suffer from a collapsed soundstage.  This degradation is slow at first, but the amp then quickly slides into the same flat, brick-walled sound that plagues many of today’s digital recordings.  But if you keep the Ultravalve within its comfort zone, you’ll be handsomely rewarded.

Miles Davis’ “Diane,” from Steamin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet, proves open and spacious, with Philly Joe Jones’ brushwork on the drums exquisitely rendered, as Davis floats through the soundstage.  This amplifier becomes more convincing the longer you listen; about an hour is required for it to open up completely, but it is still damn good two minutes after initial turn on.

Perhaps the only stretch for the Ultravalve while paired with less than highly efficient speakers comes when asking it to reproduce large-scale orchestral pieces or electronica at club levels.  Prokofiev’s suite from The Love for Three Oranges taxes the Ultravalve as the large kettle drums reach full throttle, requiring listening at less than what might be considered a live level—but how often do you do that?

Back to Earth

Using the Ultravalve with similarly priced components is highly rewarding.  It is fully capable of anchoring a modestly priced but high-performance system.  Mating the amp to a Conrad-Johnson PV-12 preamplifier (with CJ’s recent capacitor updates), an Oppo BDP-105 universal player and the Rega RP6 turntable, with a pair of KEF LS50 speakers, proves breathtaking—especially for a relatively inexpensive system like this one.  But you’ll be surprised just how damn good the Ultravavle sounds as part of a no-holds-barred system.

While the 35 watts per channel of the Ultravalve may not be enough juice for everyone, if that much wattage will work for you, I cannot recommend this amp highly enough.  The level of resolution, tonality and bass control this amplifier offers for $1,999 is unmatched by anything I’ve ever experienced at this price point.  I am very proud to award the Ultravalve one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  I’m keeping this one!

AVA Ultravalve Vacuum Tube Amplifier

MSRP: $1,999

Audio by Van Alstine (AVA)


Analog Source SME 10 turntable    Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge    Aesthetix Rhea phonostage
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Oppo BDP-105
Preamplifier Conrad-Johnson PV-12c1    Nagra Jazz    Robert Koda K-10
Speakers Dynaudio Confidence C1    KEF LS50    KEF Blade    GamuT S9    Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Cable Cardas Clear

Estelon XA Speakers Loudspeakers

For a number of reasons, it’s always tough to get a full read on any speakers’ performance at a show, although the Estelon XA was the most interesting new speaker I heard this fall at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.  The seductive, curvy shape immediately caught my eye, and I paused on seeing the ceramic drivers.  No sooner had my mind passed judgment that these were just another set of ceramic driver speakers that wouldn’t rock, I heard some fairly dynamic music and drew a different conclusion.

Estelon designer and founder of the company Alfred & Partners, Alfred Vassilkov has been creating speakers and crossover networks for other companies for the past 25 years, and he is finally bringing a product to market under his own name that is 100 percent his vision.  When the concept for these speakers was born in 2006, Vassilkov faced a dilemma: there was no enclosure material available that would suffice for his ultimate design.  Now, with a new marble-based composite material that Vassilkov has patented, his concept has been born.

This exotic, computer-modeled shape is cast as one solid piece, much like the monocoque tub for a Formula 1 car, and then coated with multiple coats of an automotive finish.  The Estelon speakers are available in gloss or matte black. Our review pair arrived in the matte finish, which looks similar to the matte finish on the newest models from Lamborghini and Range Rover.  While robots were initially employed to apply the finish, they could not produce cabinets that were up to Vassilkov’s high standards, so the robots were abandoned in favor of some highly skilled humans.  The photos truly do not do these cabinets justice; the matte finish is seductive in person.

The Estelon XA is a three-way design, using all-ceramic Accutron drivers, a 1.2-inch tweeter, a 7-inch midrange and the latest 11-inch woofer.  They have a single set of binding posts and weigh about 190 pounds each.  MSRP is $43,900 per pair, which  includes delivery, setup and a pair of custom-made flight cases that are laser cut on the inside to fit the speakers snugly.

Simple Setup

Though the XA’s are a little tougher to move than a traditional wood speaker because of their curvy shape and slippery finish, they shouldn’t take long to place in your room.  My listening room is 16 feet deep and 24 feet wide, and while I began my listening where my GamuT S-9’s normally reside, the final placement ended up just slightly further apart, with the Estelons just over 10 feet from each other (tweeter center to tweeter center) and the front of the tweeters about 40 inches from the rear wall. Vassilkov and his European representative, William McIntosh, were kind enough to visit my studio and double check my setup.  After about an hour or so of their attention to detail, we were all convinced that the speakers were performing to the best of their ability in my room.

Their large base made them easy to slide around on my carpeted floor, and once the optimum spot was found, fitting the spikes gave the anticipated last bit of bass performance.  Minor movements of an inch here and there during the next few days after Alfred’s visit only confirmed that we had the speakers in the right spot in the first place!

The XA’s have a sensitivity of 89db/1watt, 4-ohm impedance and a suggested range of amplifier power from 20 to 200 watts.  They are indeed very easy to drive and I had no problem getting great sound with my freshly restored C-J MV50 tube power amplifier that only produces 45 watts per channel.  Again, thanks to the chameleon-like characteristic of these speakers, you will be able to enjoy whatever kind of amplification you have, so you won’t have to go amplifier shopping to accommodate your new speakers.

While about eight different amplifiers were used in the evaluation, the majority of my listening was done with the solid-state Burmester 911 mk.3 (and later a pair of 911’s) and the all-vacuum-tube Octave ME 130 monoblocks.  I found these amplifiers to be extremely tube friendly and easy to fine tune with different cable.  I tried the latest from Kubala Sosna (which is also used for internal wiring), Cardas Clear, AudioQuest Sky and my reference Shunyata Aurora cable, all with excellent luck.  Each cable set exhibited its own characteristics, and each seemed to suit a particular amplification choice slightly better than the other, making the XA’s easy to fine tune to perfection.

The Sound

I found their lack of coloration, while maintaining a high level of coherence, the XA’s strongest suit.  As a panel-speaker enthusiast, coherence is one of my biggest hot buttons,  and the XA’s delivered this in spades.  Precious few cone speakers that I’ve heard at any price can truly pull this off, so I came away highly impressed with this aspect of these speakers’ performance.

In the past, other speakers I’ve heard with the Accuton drivers have never floated my boat, for lack of a terribly technical description.  They either have sounded too forward or somewhat restrained; great with classical music at moderate level but not a speaker that could really rock out with conviction.  The Estelon’s shattered this belief; they always maintained a balance between being resolving yet natural with the ability to play any music as loud as I wanted to.

As someone who typically listens to music in 8-12 hour shifts, a fatiguing speaker will reveal itself quickly, and the XA’s passed this test with flying colors.  This is a wonderfully open speaker that you can listen to for days on end.  I was reminded of the MartinLogan CLX’s time and time again because of the XA’s transparency and ease of delivery.

The Bottom

One of the first test tracks queued up was Tom Jones’ “What Good Am I,” from his current album, Praise and Blame. Jones’ voice is closely miked and this is one of those recordings in which you can hear him breathing in the room, full of emotion.  It’s a sparse arrangement, with Jones accompanied by acoustic guitar and a pounding kettle drum that will rattle your ribs if your system is up to the task.  The XA’s excelled, reproducing this drum with the necessary texture to avoid the “one-note bass” effect, capturing the attack and decay with ease.

Before investigating a few more of my favorite bass-laden tracks, one more Tom Jones cut was in order, “Style and Rhythm” from his last album, 24 Hours. Though not as exquisitely recorded as his current record, this is a great track to crank up loud and dole out some speaker punishment.  With a pair of Burmester 911 mk. 3’s in monoblock mode and about 800 watts per channel on tap, it was no problem even at ear splitting levels.

After running through the usual bass test/torture tracks, including everything from the Telarc 1812 overture LP to my favorite electronica tracks, the Estelon XA’s remained unrattled.  There was nothing I could throw at these speakers that caused them to stumble.

The Top

Because the ceramic tweeter is very revealing, you may find that less-than-exceptional electronics are not up to the task.  I assure you that after living with these speakers for some time and auditioning everything from a vintage Pioneer receiver all the way up to the Burmester 911 monoblocks, I could hear exactly what my gear is capable of producing, especially in the upper registers.

I would categorize the upper-frequency tonality as revealing and perhaps ever so slightly forward, yet without grain. A little too much zip in the cable or amplifier realm might be too much of a good thing with the XA’s, but warm and gooey isn’t the answer either; this only makes the speakers sound slow and muddled.

Again, the ESL-like speed of the XA’s gave cymbals the correct amount of tone and decay without sounding harsh or overly brilliant. Art Blakey’s drumming on Lee Morgan’s Tom Cat was sublime through these speakers. I was grinning ear to ear after listening to a large selection of my favorite Blue Note remasters; these speakers definitely reveal the truth.

The Middle

Every audiophile has their hot button. Some want pinpoint imaging, others want subterranean bass and 10 others want something entirely different. But for me, a speaker lives and dies with correct midrange.  Of course, all of the other aspects of HiFi reproduction are great fun; I just can’t live with a speaker long term if it can’t get the midrange as close to perfect as possible.

Without a boring you with the minutiae of a long punch list of favorites, suffice to say that these speakers nail the midband, another testament to a perfect integration of cabinet, crossover design and careful choice of drivers.  Upon listening to “Lay Your Hands on Me” from the 45 rpm, 200-gram Clarity Vinyl pressing of Peter Gabriel’s Security, Macintosh remarked, “I”ve never heard that track sound this good.”  This is the level of tonal accuracy that justifies the five-figure price tag.

Low and high level dynamics

The Estelon XA’s provide engaging performance at any volume level, another aspect that can be attributed to the world’s finest speakers.  Even when listening to music that you could easily speak over, the stereo image does not collapse and there isn’t a volume level that the speakers suddenly “come alive.”  While there is a definite level at extremely high level that the speaker finally starts to compress, it is much higher than is reasonable and prudent for 99 percent of us.  The one thing that could lead to trouble with these speakers is that they are so clean right up to the point where the stereo image starts to flatten; they might be damaged by an amplifier that does not have a lot of clean power in reserve.  If you really like to rock, pay careful attention to your choice of amplifier and err on the side of too much rather than too little power.  Come to think of it, when rocking out, can you really have too much power?

The outstanding MoFi pressing of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” will tell you everything you need to know about the low-level dynamics of these speakers.  At the beginning of the track as Gaye is starting his intro rap, you can hear a number of other people in the background, all on different layers, and when he starts to sing, the myriad vocal layers are easily distinguishable.  Again, this is in full effect from low to high volume.

The lack of grain and overhang that the combination of drivers, crossover and cabinet contribute (or perhaps distract from) the presentation is instantly apparent while listening to violin and piano.  One of my favorite test records of recent months is The Jung Trio: Dvorak Trio In F Minor Op.65, available on SACD or 45 rpm LP from Groove Note Records.  The speed and tonal purity required to reproduce the violin and piano are one of the greatest challenges to a speaker system, provided the electronics are up to the task.  The XA’s played this recording flawlessly and was one of a very short list of speakers that almost fooled me into thinking these ladies were performing in my room.

Depending on whether your taste in music takes you to a heavy-rock band or a full-scale orchestra, you will not be disappointed in the XA’s with either type of program material.  I had just as much fun listening to Mahler as I did Van Halen, and I never felt that the speakers were running out of juice.

A very special addition to the high-end loudspeaker world

Though Alfred & Partners is a new company, it comes built on years of experience in the field.  The fanatical attention to detail shows what can be accomplished when a great driver set is combined with cutting-edge materials and design.  We give these speakers our highest recommendation and look forward to listening to some more of Estelon’s creations in the months to follow.  This is a pair of speakers that I could not fault in any way, no matter what music I listened to.

And if you’d like to get a substantial helping of what I heard during my evaluation, stop by Estelon’s room in Las Vegas at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, where the speakers will be showed with the same Burmester 089 preamplifier and 911 mk. 3 power amplifiers that were used for this review.

The Estelon XA Speakers

MSRP:  $43,900  per pair (US)

€ 29.900 per pair (Europe)

Alfred & Partners, Estonia


Analog sources Oracle Delphi V w/SME iV.VI and Koetsu Urishi Blue    Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar and Grado Statement 1
Digital sources dCS Paganini Stack    Sooloos Music Server    Naim HDX
Preamplifier Burmester 089    Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Phono Preamplifier Audio Research REF 2 phono    AVID Pulsare
Power Amplifier Burmester 911mk. 3 (pair)    Octave ME130 monoblocks    McIntosh MC 1.2kw monoblocks    McIntosh MC275    Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    First Watt M2
Cable Various from Shunyata Aurora    Kubala Sosna Emotion    AudioQuest Sky    Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri, Maxim and Duke power conditioners    RSA and Shunyata Power Cords    Shunyata SR-Z1 Outlets

Burmester 911mk.3

I’ve probably listened to a thousand amplifiers in the past 25 years and have easily owned at least 75-100 in search for the perfect balance of tonality, dynamics and reliability.  Proponents of every different amplifier topology have their reasons why their pet choice is “the best,” forsaking all others in the process. But the main argument usually comes down to the tube camp vs.  the solid-state camp.

While I’ve always loved vacuum tubes, I have different requirements than the average listener who may only turn on his or her system for a few hours a week.  With a reference system that is usually playing at least 12 hours a day, the tube game can get tiring in a hurry, especially when you’ve chased down some unobtanium tubes for your pride and joy.

If you’ve fallen under the spell of a great vacuum-tube power amplifier, it’s hard to wipe the experience out of your memory bank; that tonal delicacy and three-dimensional, airy presentation is indeed seductive.  It’s the same for the best examples of the solid-state camp with bottomless dynamics, weight and bass grip that you can’t get on the other side of the fence.

I’m happy to report that you can have it all in one box: the Burmester 911 mk.3.  It’s not inexpensive.  Current MSRP on a 911 mk.3 is $29,995.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve already thrown half of that price tag away over the past 10 years, swapping amplifiers in and out of your system.  A couple of thousand here, another thousand there, and pretty soon you’ve flushed a year’s worth of your kids’ college tuition down the drain. And you’re still not quite happy.  I know that feeling all too well, and I’m right there with you.

Sixty seconds to music

The 911 mk.3 couldn’t be easier to set up.  This 90-pound amplifier is covered with heatsinks on all four sides, so don’t play catch with it.  The powder-coated silver aluminum case has a pair of handles on the rear panel that makes it easy to move into place on your rack of choice.

There is a pair of balanced XLR inputs, a 15-amp IEC socket for the power cord of your choice and binding posts with gigantic plastic wing nuts that make it a snap to attach the beefiest speaker cables you can imagine.  A pair of 12-volt trigger outlets is provided to allow the 911 mk.3 to be turned on from your preamp, if it is so equipped.  I’ve never shut off the 911 mk.3 since it’s been here, so while handy, it’s not been necessary.  The front panel has a single power switch with power-on and standby LED’s.  Plug it in, turn it on and enjoy.

Built to take it

Much like the black Porsche 911 turbo in Bad Boys, the Burmester 911 mk. 3 crashed into my life.  While awaiting the delivery of the 911 and the companion Burmester 011 preamplifier, I received a phone call.  “Is this TONEAudio Magazine?”  “Yes…” “Great, I have a damaged palette that I found in the middle of the street with your companies’ name on what’s left of the label.  Give me your address and I’ll be right over.”

At this moment I was horrified that the 911mk.3 and the 011 were destroyed and my relationship with Burmester was not getting off to a great start.  Twenty minutes later, a very nice man from Northwest Gas arrived with a palette in the back of his pickup truck that looked as if it had been dropped out of an airplane.

Upon inspection, the 011 was without a scratch and the 911 mk.3 only had a slight dent in the left corner of the top faceplate.  Nothing sounded loose internally, and upon plugging them both in, they worked perfectly!  When I told Burmester’s Robb Neiman about my experience, he said “Oh yeah, we had a pair of our speakers get dropped out of the cargo plane at CEDIA this year.  They fell 30 feet and only had a tiny scratch.  They played fine.”  If this doesn’t speak volumes about the rock-solid build quality of Burmester, take a peek inside the chassis where everything is massively built and tidily tucked in place.

The essence of musicality

During the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to use the 911 mk.3 with about 20 different pairs of speakers, all with excellent results. But the bulk of the review listening was done with the Verity Audio Sarastro II, the MartinLogan CLX, the GamuT S-7 and recently the YG Acoustics Anat II Studio.  All world-class speakers in their own right and all of them have given their best performance with the 911 mk.3.

I’ve also had about 20 amplifiers come through my listening room, either for review by me or on their way to someone else on the TONEAudio staff.  All great amplifiers to be sure, but every time I put the 911 mk.3 back in the system, I always felt like I was back home.

The best way to describe the 911 mk.3 (and for that matter all the Burmester electronics I’ve heard) is complete neutrality and complete lack of grain.  As I’ve mentioned in the 082 integrated review, everyone who has heard the 911 mk.3 always makes the comment that it does not sound like solid-state amplification, nor does it sound like tubes.  I’ve never heard an amplifier that does a better job of getting out of the way of the music than the 911 mk.3.

The bass is powerful and articulate, the mids seamless and smooth, and the highs are extended, not harsh, grainy nor forced in any way.  When working on a review of the vintage Mark Levinson no.23, it reminded me of how that amplifier had a midrange that was pushed slightly forward.  A few other solid-state amplifiers exhibited an artificial quality to the midrange or high frequencies that always left me thinking “pretty good for solid-state.”  This thought never went through my head while listening to the Burmester amplifier.

Three of my favorite large solid-state power amplifiers – the CJ Premier 350 (my previous reference for almost five years), the McIntosh MC1.2KW monoblocks and the SimAudio Moon W-7 monoblocks – each have more power than the 911 mk.3. But at the end of the day, none had the complete neutrality, lack of grain and smoothness that the Burmester has.

When playing my MartinLogan CLX’s at insane levels, I found my self wishing for a touch more power, but that was really pushing it.  Should you find yourself at that point, you can use the 911mk.3 as a mono amplifier and just add a second one.  I experienced a very similar CLX-based system that used a pair of 911’s, and that was the ticket for those who need the ultimate push over the cliff. Or perhaps the top-of-the-line 909 power amplifier …

Richly detailed

Dynamics are big fun, and so is bass grip and slam; that’s what large solid-state power amplifiers are famous for.  What continues to hold my interest so strongly after six months with the 911 mk.3 is the way this amplifier continues to unravel records I’ve been listening to my whole life on a countless variety of systems.

Even with records that aren’t known for killer sonics.  One day while stuck in an early 70’s groove, I was listening to Three Dog Night’s Seven Separate Fools CD and noticed a few layers of violins and mellotron that I’ve never heard on “Pieces of April.”  Sure, that’s a crazy music choice, but the point is that while the 911 mk.3 is an extremely high-resolution component, it is not one that sacrifices musicality for ultra detail, it blends both.  My favorite aspect of the Burmester gear is that it does not transform your system into something that you can only listen to a limited number of “audiophile approved” pressings. It brings more enjoyment to your entire music collection.

Same thing with DEVO’s Q: Are We Not Men?, A: We Are DEVO? While evaluating the original to the current remaster, this record took on a whole new dimension, with the soundstage expanding in all three dimensions.  Fast forward to current releases, “Adrien” on Peter Kruder’s (of Kruder and Dorfmeister fame) new disc, Private Collection, starts with chimes that just float slightly to the left of the soundstage, but the echoes travel all the way right and sound as if they trail off behind the listening chair.  Indeed, very trippy.

Another favorite disc that features very densely packed music is The Word is Out, by Jaco Pastorius and his Big Band.  This is a killer fusion album that has a great mix of acoustic and electronic instruments with a lot going on simultaneously.  Even at high volume, Pastorius maintains his space just slightly left of center without his bass line becoming flabby, with the drums miked somewhat behind the plane of the speakers, while the horns float in front of the mix, going all the way from left to right.

While at times almost impossible to describe, the 911 mk.3 is very linear in its performance, regardless of where you have the volume control set, until you push it so far that the soundstage flattens out, ever so slightly.  Even at this point, I wasn’t hearing any harshness or clipping.  Though the 911 mk. 3 is claimed to be heavily biased into class-A operation, it didn’t get overly warm during normal listening, and no matter how hard I pushed it, would not shut down.

I continue to draw the same conclusion with the 911 mk. 3. It has a huge, three-dimensional soundstage that I would normally associate with tubes, with the pace and drive I would normally associate with solid state, yet the weaknesses of neither.

As good as it gets

After six months of listening day in and day out, I can find no fault with the Burmester 911 mk.3 and am happy to say that this will become my new reference amplifier.  It was dropped off of a truck on its way to me and I’ve often played it continuously for 24 hours day after day when breaking in new speakers, and it’s never let me down in any way.

The 911 mk. 3 offers perfect balance in my book; it is highly detailed and articulate, yet not harsh, and it is tremendously musical without being dark or rolled off in any way.  This is truly the best power amplifier I have ever experienced.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Burmester 911 mk. 3 Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $29,995


Analog source Spiral Groove SG-2 turntable w/Triplanar arm and Lyra Skala cartridge
Digital source Naim CD555/PS555    Wadia 781I   SimAudio 750
Phono preamplifier Nagra VPS w/VFS isolation base and Red Wine Audio Black Lightening power supply
Preamplifier Burmester 011    Conrad Johnson ACT 2/series two    Nagra PL-L
Speakers Gamut S-7    Harbeth Monitor 40.1    Martin Logan CLX    Verity Audio Sarastro II YG Acoustics Anat II studio

Nagra PSA amplifier

Just in case you are wondering, PSA stands for Pyramid Stereo Amplifier.  If you were like me and were drooling over those cool pyramid-shaped monoblocks from Nagra a couple of years ago, this is the next step in their product line.  The PSA delivers 100 watts per channel, as opposed to the 200 watt per channel PMA monoblock amplifiers and is priced at $6595.

If you want an amplifier that not only sounds great but is a show stopper, along the lines of a Ferrari Enzo, the PSA is the ticket.  I guarantee anyone that sees this in your home and has even a passing interest in aesthetics will be intrigued by this amplifier that can easily pose as a piece of modern artwork.  Everyone that saw it in my studio was fascinated by its stunning good looks.

I first saw the PSA at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October, where the head of U.S. Sales for Nagra, John Quick was showing it off with Nagra’s new CD player and a new pair of Verity Audio (another favorite of mine) Rienzi speakers in a huge room.  The PSA had no problem driving these speakers as loud as I needed to hear them.  I made it a point to drag each one of the TONE staffers in attendance down to the Nagra/Verity room to hear this system!

As someone who grew up with giant amplifiers from ARC, Krell and a few others, I definitely went through massive amplifier phase of my audiophile life.  Granted, I worship great sound above all else, but when I can get great sound in a beautiful package it’s a huge bonus.


The PSA is not a terribly large pyramid, with a base of 15” x 15” and about 10” high.  It weighs 35 pounds, so you can actually think of it as your personal pyramid.  All kidding aside, this is a serious amplifier and though it possesses a switching power supply, it is a traditional audio amplifier, not Class D.

It will run comfortably on a 15 amp circuit, as it only draws 500 watts at full output. It features a pair of WBT binding posts on the rear panel along with a pair of XLR input connectors.  Nagra is kind enough to supply a pair of RCA adaptors, so if your system does not have a balanced input you are covered.  Please note, in the interest of keeping a compact rear panel, there is only the single pair of balanced inputs.

As our vintage columnist Kurt Doslu likes to say, “Don’t play catch with this one!”  However, I liked the shape so much; I actually put the PSA up on a pedestal.  I had an old concrete pedestal that looked like a column from the porch of one of the houses in Gone With the Wind, but this was not the optimum setup for the ultimate sound quality.

I had great luck using the PSA on a large Symposium Ultra platform that I often use as an amplifier stand.  Once connected to my Aesthetix Callisto Signature, we were ready to begin listening. My test unit had already had some hours put on it at the RMAF, so I can not accurately tell you how long one takes to break in; this one sounded great after two days of continuous play.  The rest of my system was rounded out with the Penaudio Serenades, Wadia 581 and the AVID Volvere turntable with a Sumiko Celebration cartridge installed.  I used a pair of Cardas Golden Reference interconnects with XLR termination and left the PSA balanced from the Callisto with excellent results for the majority of the review period.  I tried it both ways, but with the Callisto, could not hear a difference between the two.

Due to the close proximity of the speaker binding posts, I would suggest having the ends that go to your amplifier terminate with banana plugs.  I did manage to get some spade lugs in the terminals, but if you are looking for the most aesthetically pleasing setup, go for the bananas, it looks much tidier.

Lurking underneath the cool pyramid top panel is a set of jumpers to adjust the input sensitivity for the PSA.  You have a choice of 1V or 2V sensitivity.  My Callisto has a lot of gain, so I chose the 2V setting and that was perfect, keeping maximum volume right around the 12:00 position on the volume controls, just how I like it.

Does the sound live up to the fashion forward design?

Definitely.  I was very impressed with what I had heard at the RMAF, so I figured if they could get sound that good at a show, it would be considerably better in my more reasonably sized room and I have not been disappointed.  If I were to sum up the PSA in only one word, I would call it precise.  Ah, but it comes from Switzerland, so why would you expect anything else but precision from the Swiss?

To expand this definition a bit more closely, what I noticed immediately about the PSA is that it has a very dynamic sound, but never out of control.  The highs are extended without being exaggerated or grainy.  The bass has weight and texture, but you will never mistake this one for a Krell amplifier, either.  It’s just right.

If you are an audiophile that wants an amplifier that is very tonally accurate and has the punch of a solid state amplifier over tubes, this is one to put on your short list. (especially if you are a person that is design conscious)

Some people will make fun of this amplifier for having a tiny blue LED for power output and a tiny red LED to indicate clipping in the lower right corner of the front panel.  I say it’s a lot of fun and a very useful device.  But fear not, there is a switch beneath the amplifier under a small cap to turn the blue level LED off of you prefer. If you had to judge clipping by ear, you would be melting tweeters by the bucketload, because on the rare occasion that I did see that red LED light up, I was listening to music WAY TOO LOUD and it sure didn’t sound like the amp was going into clipping at all.  I also found the gently pulsing blue light coming from the base of the pyramid to be very soothing.

As I was in the middle of the Charlie Hunter interview while working on this review, I listened to the PSA with a lot of jazz in addition to the whole Charlie Hunter catalog. The PSA always did a fantastic job with revealing the most minute details and the trailing edges of percussion instruments.  Cymbals had great air as well as attack on Charlie’s first album Bing, Bing, Bing!  Not to worry though, when things got a little bit beefier on his current release, Copperopolis (especially the first cut) this amplifier did not flatten out.  Taking this groove to its ultimate conclusion, I went for broke, put Joe Satriani’s The Extremist (back in the day, Charlie used to take guitar lessons from Joe…) in the player and really cranked it up.

Even with very dense rock guitar music, the PSA held its poise and did an outstanding job of preserving that precious space between the notes.  Exceptional quality from a solid state amplifier indeed.  Then I sharpened all my razor blades.  Just kidding.

Very neutral…  just like Switzerland

The really handy thing about a power amplifier that has this neutral of a sound is that you can do your system tuning elsewhere.  Because my Callisto is a bit on the slightly warm and slightly wet side of the presentation, for me it was the perfect match to the PSA.  I did try it with a number of different preamplifiers, but I kept coming back to the Callisto with this one.  I haven’t had a chance to sample the excellent Nagra PL-L or PL-P linestages yet (which are both tube units), but again I really enjoyed what I heard at the RMAF, so watch for a future review.

Some of you may have the burning question as to whether 100 watts per channel is enough.  Always a tough call, but I think that in most cases it should be more than adequate. It depends on the side of the room and what speakers you are pairing it with.  The 87db Rienzi speakers were playing in a room that was 22’ x 26’ (with an 11’ drop ceiling) and the sound was very big and involving, so I would think in a moderate sized room with speakers in the 87-90db range, you should have more than enough power to spare.

My main listening room is 16’ x 24’ and I never ran out of power with the PSA with my 87db Penaudio Serenades, or the 84 db ACI Sapphire XL’s.  The only speakers that did give it some grief were my Apogees, but they give almost every amplifier grief due to their 82db sensitivity and 3 ohm load.

A very interesting alternative to the box

In my book, the Nagra PSA’s performance justifies its price.  Add their legendary build quality and outstanding mechanical aesthetics and you have a pretty interesting little amplifier.  If your listening requirements demand good sound, high quality and intriguing looks, this is the amplifier for you!

Nagra PSA amplifier

MSRP: $6595


Preamplifiers Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2    Aesthetix Callisto Signature
Speakers Tetra 506 Custom    Penaudio Serenade    DeVore Gibbon Super 8
Analog Sounce Avid Volvere w/SME V arm and Sumiko Celebration cartridge    BAT VK-P10SE phono stage
Digital Source Wadia 581
Interconnects Cardas Neutral Reference
Speaker Cable Cardas Neutral Reference
Power Cords Running Springs Mongoose
Power Conditioning Running Springs Jaco
Vibration control Finite Elemente Pagode Signature Rack with Cerepucs and Cereballs   Symposium Ultra Platform and Rollerblock Jr.s

B&W Zeppelin

The quandary we’ve had was to put the Zeppelin in the iPod section of our website or review it as a regular hifi component.  After spending quite a bit of time with it, we’ve all come away with the same conclusion:  this is so much more than a fancy set of iPod speakers with a dock, it’s really a high performance portable audio system.  You can add another digital component via the combined digital/optical input jack, just like the ones on an Apple Power Book.  For iPod Video users, there is an S-Video out, so you can place your Zeppelin right below a plasma screen and watch your favorite episode of Desperate Housewives with amazing sound quality!

I don’t know how B&W is making a penny on these.  With the retail price at $599, the Zeppelin is more than an exceptional value; it might be the hi-fi deal of all time.  Where else can you get a pair of 2-way powered B&W speakers with a powered sub in a package like this for such a low price?  The demand for these is so high, I couldn’t even buy the review sample!  They are selling every one they can get their hands on and I know everyone who got one of these under the Christmas tree freaked out.

I had to do this review in stealth mode the minute I found out I couldn’t get one for my daughter in time for Christmas…

Tech stuff

As I said, the Zeppelin uses a pair of 3 ½” glass fiber midrange drivers along with a pair of dome tweeters that are claimed to be very similar to the ones in B&W’s legendary 800 series. Each individual midrange/tweeter combination has it’s own 25 watt amplifier  Bringing up the bottom is a 5- inch bass driver with a 50-watt amplifier, so this system has a total power of 100 watts!  You can find more information here.

This will give you the complete story of the engineering behind the Zeppelin as well as some great photos.

The Zeppelin is definitely a case of where a picture isn’t worth a thousand words. The photos don’t tell you is what a substantial piece of hardware this is.  When I first unboxed the Zeppelin I was not prepared for how well this is built and how heavy it was!  Again, this is not an entry-level piece of gear that’s been jobbed out to meet a price point.  The Zeppelin is built to the same high level of fit and finish that B&W’s flagship products possess.

The Zeppelin plugs into a standard AC outlet and uses a two-prong AC cord, so it does not have an IEC jack. Just to go over the top, I used an ICE Cube adapter and plugged in a new Shunyata Helix Alpha/VX power cord. This $1600 accessory takes the Zeppelin a bit out of the “budget hifi” column but it did allow it to be all it can be.  Spectacular. For the rest of you with a more level head, rest assured, the Zeppelin sounds fantastic with the stock power cord as well.

The Sound

The comparison to the 800 series is a great one.  I just happen to have a pair of B&W 805S speakers in my living room, powered by a stack of Classe components and there is more than a slight family resemblance going on, especially in the tonality department.  For those of you that have B&W speakers somewhere else in your home you can now take it with you.  I’d seriously consider having a lined road case built, so I could take one of these with me wherever I go!  (That is if there is ever one in the store to purchase!)

With the big connection between B&W and Abbey Road Studios, it just seemed right to make the first thing I played on the Zeppelin a Beatles song; Eleanor Rigby to be precise and the violins sounded fantastic, the timbre was spot on.  This is serious hifi.

B&W claims that the Zeppelin is down 6 db at 47hz and 22khz.  I imported my Stereophile test disc into my iPod and ran a low frequency sweep.  Without actually measuring it, I can’t completely verify this, but the output on the 50hz track was very strong, with some output at 40hz still, so I’d bet they are right on the money.  Listening to some of my favorite discs by Tosca, Kruder & Dorfmeister and Mickey Hart, the Zeppelin has plenty of bass that not only has good extension, but good texture and definition.

The biggest compliment I can give the Zeppelin is that when using uncompressed tracks, this system sounds like you are listening to at least a couple thousand dollars worth of gear.  Thanks to that long, Zeppelin shape, the tweeters are far enough apart to give you a very good stereo image.

Highs are extended, possessing plenty of detail, but not crunchy.  Listening to acoustic instruments was very pleasant and never fatiguing.  I felt that there was a lot of air and texture that again was way beyond what I’d expect for this price.  The only bad news is that the Zeppelin has more than enough resolution to reveal the difference between compressed and non-compressed tracks with ease.  I suspect many iPod users will have a new music experience should they re-rip some tracks in Apple Lossless format or uncompressed.


Usually when someone asks me to suggest a hifi system under a thousand dollars I want to take a shower, because I always feel terrible about what I’ve suggested.  No more, the B&W Zeppelin is a wonderful piece of gear that I have already happily suggested to more than one friend.  I am also very happy to give the Zeppelin one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2008.

The Zeppelin does it all. It’s well built from a company you know and trust.  Its design is stunning, fits anywhere and only requires one power cord to make it work.  Best of all, the sound quality is phenomenal and should put a smile on the face of even the fussiest audiophile. There is no better accessory for the iPod than the Zeppelin if you want an all inclusive system.

B&W Zeppelin

MSRP: $599

B & W  Group North America

Symbol Audio Tabletop HiFi

Symbol’s new Tabletop HiFi offers a refreshingly attractive alternative to the more traditional form factors of audio equipment.  In essence, the HiFi is a powered music playback system, but the console’s unique nuances make it so much more than that.

The HiFi, which measures 28.75 inches long by 9.5 inches high by 8.5 inches deep, offers an absolutely clean and modern-looking appearance free from visible knobs, controls or indicators.  All the owner sees from a listening position are two 4-inch, full-range drivers set widely apart on the HiFi’s face.  A built-in Class-D amplifier provides 8 watts to the front drivers and 15 watts to the 5.25-inch subwoofer.  Symbol hides the down-firing woofer beneath the cabinet, which has dual rear ports.  With so much hardware crammed into a small space, the HiFi tips the scales at a substantial 30 pounds.

On the rear of the unit, the HiFi offers a master volume knob as well as a separate control for the subwoofer, allowing the owner to tailor the sound to his or her preference.  The rear-facing controls require the user to lean behind the unit to visually locate them, until the placement of the controls becomes familiar, but the volume knob is easy enough to reach over the top of the unit.  The HiFi offers only one input, a 1/8-inch minijack.  If a user intends to switch between multiple sources, a cable splitting adapter or other manual intervention is needed.

When ordering a HiFi, soon-to-be owners have the opportunity to customize the appearance of the face and cabinet.  Options for the front include a walnut or oak finish, or a clean white or gray; cabinet finish options include walnut wood grain or a minimalist black, white or orange.  For families with young children, it’s probably a good idea to go with the protective, poke-proof metal grille option for the drivers.  The grilles match whatever finish you chose for the rest of the unit.  The many custom options allow the HiFi to be either a striking visual element for a room, or a chameleon blending into the background.  Either way, those houseguests who do notice it will find both its aesthetics and its sonics appealing.

Symbol Audio’s HiFi is available for $1,800, regardless of finish choices.  Given the unit’s single-box, single-input design, it’s clear that the Symbol Audio solution is a purist one that’s not trying to complete directly with full-blown component stereo systems.  It’s designed to fill a room with sound from a single source, and do that job very well.  Those audio enthusiasts seeking multiple input options, pinpoint stereo imaging and a broader soundstage may be served better by more traditional stereo equipment.  But for those who prioritize the appearance of a beautiful, stylish and unobtrusive audio system, and who also want good sound to complement it, the HiFi is an elegant solution.

Symbol Audio Tabletop HiFi

MSRP: $1,800

Pass Labs Xs 300 Monoblock Amplifiers

Even with a track that is not bass heavy, the Pass Xs 300 amplifiers immediately show their superiority.  Sinéad O’Connor’s luscious voice on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” from her album Am I Not Your Girl? lingers in the air between the KEF Blades in a way that it never has before—her voice is bigger and airier, with a higher degree of “reach out and touch it” than I’m used to.  And when Michael Jackson takes us through a time warp with minimal accompaniment, courtesy of The Stripped Mixes, he truly feels right in the listening room about five feet in front of the couch.  The realism is staggering.

In the world of high-end audio, where Internet-forum pundits loudly proclaim that expensive gear is not worth the money and that its curve of performance versus diminishing returns is incredibly steep, I must strongly disagree in favor of the Xs 300s.  Having lived with Pass Labs’ $22,000-per-pair XA160.5s monoblocks for over a year, and then having stepped up to the $34,100-per-pair XA200.5s (a huge jump in performance) and now taking the leap to the $85,000-per-pair Xs 300 two-chassis monoblocks, I’m still staggered at how much more of everything is available with Pass’ flagship amplifiers.

Here in Portland, Oregon, one of America’s greenest cities, my aging hipster friends would mess themselves if they knew I had a pair of amplifiers that draw 1,000 watts each, all the time.  Okay, so I’ve thrown concerns about my carbon footprint out the window with these amps, but I do walk to work and I’ve replaced all 22 of the 50-watt halogen bulbs in my studio ceiling (along with the 15 in the house) with LEDs that only draw 7 watts each.  That just about makes up for the power that these massive monos consume.  I’d light the place with candles and eat dirt before I’d give up these amplifiers!

As TONE staff member Jerold O’Brien helps me unpack these super-sized beasts, which weigh in at 168 pounds for the power supply and 130 pounds for the output stage, we become awestruck:  The Xs 300s have six banks of output devices per channel and Pass has increased the bias current by a factor of 10 compared to the XA amplifiers.  And as Pass Labs’ Desmond Harrington is fond of saying, “This means more control.”  Interestingly enough, Jeff Nelson of Boulder Amplifiers says the same thing, and both the Boulder 3050 monoblocks and the Xs 300s are definitely the two most incredible amplifiers I’ve ever heard (for those of us who are not worried about the price tag).

Where the mighty Boulders take more of a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, the Xs 300s sound more like a gigantic tube power amplifier with tighter grip and more bass grunt, while retaining the airy character and ravishing tonality that you would normally associate with vacuum tubes.  I’d happily put the Xs 300s up against any vacuum-tube power amplifier on the market, regardless of price, and I’d still prefer them to tube power.  The Xs 300s are equally yummy, and knowing you’ll never have to forage for power tubes again is a major bonus.

Love at First Listen

O’Brien and I are both equally stunned when we begin to hook up the Xs 300s.  Way too anxious to just let one stack sit there while taking the photos for this review, we connect one of them to the GamuT S9s.  We look at each other and O’Brien exclaims, “Dude, your system sounds better in mono with one of these than it does with the pair of XA200.5s.”

Strong words indeed; this is the level of performance increase that comes with spending twice as much money with a reputable company.  If you’ve ever fallen deeply in love at first sight then you know how this is.  The Xs 300s are love at first listen.  (After months of using them with an incredibly wide range of speakers, from the $1,500-per-pair KEF LS50s to the $150,000-per-pair GamuT S9s, I’m even more smitten with them now than the day I unpacked them.)

By the time we have the photos done and the second channel connected, it’s time for some shut-eye, so the Xs300s are left to play all night, and we’ll reinvestigate them in the morning.  As is the standard procedure with massive class-A power amplifiers if they are going to be on all night, no heat is needed in the studio.

The next day’s listening session begins with a comfortably toasty listening room, but more importantly, the amplifiers are now thoroughly warmed up.  Normally, we always leave solid-state power amplifiers on 24/7, but this is just not practical with the Xs 300s, because they produce such a prodigious amount of heat.

Boxes Ticked

The amount of sheer control the Xs300s provide is unbelievable—there is truly nothing they won’t do.  When we swap out a few of the other amplifiers we have on hand for the Xs300s (even the awesome XA200.5s), it feels as if a subwoofer has been added to the system, even with the tiny KEF LS50s—which, incidentally, sound amazing through these four-box wonders.

It isn’t just all power and punch, though:  These amplifiers offer the magic of incredibly high resolution, without throwing delicate tonality out the window.  You’ll notice tasty little nuances in your favorite well-worn recordings, prompting the desire to revisit as many of them as possible.  I predict many late-evening listening sessions once you get these fully broken in.

A perfect example is Ornette Coleman’s Ornette on Tenor. This straightforward bop record features great interplay between Coleman on sax and Don Cherry on trumpet, backed up with bass and drums—a sparse mix to be sure.  The sax and trumpet tear it up across the wide stereo mix, with the drums and bass exploding from the left and right channels, respectively.  The scale at which all of this takes place, especially in the way the Xs 300s render height, makes it all sound so convincing.

The Hammond organ sounds fabulous as it creeps into the mix at the beginning of War’s “The World is a Ghetto.”  The Hammond is barely there, just skating in and out of your consciousness, but it adds an unmistakable texture to the track—all the better in 24-bit/192-kHz resolution courtesy of HDtracks.  All the while, the funky, wah-pedal-laden guitars segue in over layer upon layer of horns.  Backing up to “The Cisco Kid” proves equally enlightening.  When a piece of gear can render a track that you’ve heard way too many times and still keep you riveted, you know you’re onto something special.  This is what the top of the mountain looks like, or rather sounds like—and it’s good.  No, it’s wonderful.

Those who live and die by the sword of pace and timing will be equally enthralled with the Xs300s.  The needle in the gigantic round meter on the front panel of the amplifier chassis stays firmly planted in the center, indicating that the amp is staying in single-ended class-A operation.  Until pushed well past reasonable and prudent levels, the needle barely ever budges, as is the case when powering the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blade speakers.

Jazzman Marc Ribot’s Silent Movies is a collection of atonal tracks that exhibit laser-sharp focus through the Xs 300s.  The decay of Ribot’s heavily processed guitar on “Natalia in Eb Major” is so realistic that I’m magically transported back to the 10th row at the Montreal Jazz Festival as I soak it all in.  As Ribot switches from distorted electric guitar to clean acoustic, the Xs 300s allow the notes to just linger in the air so that you can feel the strings resonate.

Comfortable at All Levels

Even at practically intolerable volume levels, the Xs 300s hold their poise completely, with no soundstage collapse whatsoever.  Audioslave’s “Gasoline” is by no means an audiophile darling, and it’s actually somewhat compressed; yet, on a great system this track can be unraveled.  With the meters just beginning to budge from their stops, I can feel my brain rattling around inside my head from the sheer sound-pressure level, but the pounding drums and lead guitars stay in place and Chris Cornell’s high-octane scream stays anchored, drilling itself into my being.  These amplifiers remain composed, even at these elevated levels.

Yes, this kind of listening is bad for your eardrums, but being able to pressurize your listening room at near concert levels (no matter what kind of music you enjoy) is enthralling to say the least, so use the Xs 300s with care.  A sound-level meter would be an apt accessory for these amps.

In the end, every aspect of music reproduction sounds more convincing with these amplifiers.  Pass Labs founder Nelson Pass has always been a proponent of the “first watt” methodology (i.e. if the first watt doesn’t sound great, why bother with the rest?), and he went so far as to built a pair of small power amplifiers bearing that name.  We’ve reviewed most of the First Watt amplifiers and they are superb; the massive Xs 300s manage to retain that same level of delicacy while still providing major power.  There are just some speakers with which 15 watts per channel simply won’t cut it.

Setup and Stuff

If you think you really don’t need 300 watts per channel of class-A power, think again.  The combination of speed, control and bone-crushing dynamics offers an experience you just don’t get with less power, even at low listening levels—it’s more about the control these big amplifiers provide than just power.  Incredible acceleration is an added benefit of all this power, along with the ability to stop instantly.  The Xs 300s are lightning fast with no hangover or fatigue.  They’ve been playing nearly nonstop since they arrived, and at the end of a 16-hour day I can still keep going back to the record rack for just one more.

Like the other Pass amplifiers we’ve used, the Xs300s require about 100 hours of play to be all they can be, but they are damn good straight out of the box.  Once you become intimately familiar with them, you will notice that they sound slightly hazy at first turn on, and gently yet linearly they come out of the fog over the course of about 90 minutes.  Everything just gets easier as they reach operating temperature.

Because of the heat they generate, these amplifiers need ventilation, and Pass confirms that you can stack the chassis one on top of the other, but be sure to give them plenty of room.  And if you are in tight quarters, make sure you have decent HVAC.

The Xs 300s can be used with balanced or RCA inputs, though they are fully balanced amplifiers.  The ARC REF 5 SE and Robert Koda K-10 preamplifiers work fantastic, as do the Simaudio MOON Evolution 850P and Burmester 011.  Even my vintage ARC SP-11 Mk. 2 works well, but the high resolution of the Xs 300s does reveal the limitations of this great vintage piece.  The only real downside to the Xs 300s is that you’re likely to find yourself wanting linestage and source upgrades.

A pair of enormous cables connects the chassis with the biggest Neutrik connectors I’ve ever seen.  I plug each monoblock set into a dedicated 20-amp line, even though the power cords are of the 15-amp variety—there’s no point in putting regular gas in your Aston Martin, right?  The four speaker binding posts are the super-coolio Furutech carbon-fiber jobs that ratchet tight and click when you’ve reached the proper torque, which is a nice touch.

The $85,000 Question

Though saying so may result in some hate mail, the Pass Xs 300s are worth every penny of their $85,000 price tag.  Considering a few other amps on the market that I’ve sampled, Pass could probably charge an even 100 grand for them and easily get away with it.

But you have to ask yourself a couple of questions before making this kind of a purchase decision:  Do these amplifiers take you somewhere you’ve never been before, giving you an experience that you just can’t get with a lesser product?  Are they built with a level of precision, care and attention to detail commensurate with other products at a similar price?

Yes and yes—and then some.  Fortunately, I’ve had the privilege of listening to a lot of fantastic amplifiers in the $20k-to-$40k range over the last few years, and the Xs 300s are considerably better.  They reveal more music and are more transparent, with bottomless dynamic power and they present no problem driving any of the speakers I have at my disposal.

So if you’ve got the system, the software and the scratch, buy these babies—you won’t regret it one bit.  And the couple of readers I’ve talked to who have jumped off the cliff agree with me.  These are indeed very special amplifiers.

Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks

MSRP: $85,000 per pair

Pass Laboratories


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar and SME V tonearms    Lyra Atlas and Clearaudio Goldfinger SP cartridges
Phono Preamplifier ARC REF Phono 2 SE    Indigo Qualia    Pass Labs XP-25    Simaudio MOON 810LP
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Speakers GamuT S9    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Aida    Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

In the world of hi-fi audio, some equipment just begs to be stared at, like gear with the big blue McIntosh power meters, or a brightly glowing 845 output tube.  Others, like classic 1970s Pioneer receivers, welcome being pushed, touched and turned.  In the case of Peachtree Audio’s nova125, this little integrated amplifier inspires anyone within arm’s reach to caress its real-wood casing.  The appeal is instantaneous.

Classic curves aside, the nova125 is a 21st-century integrated amplifier designed for the digital-audio enthusiast.  With USB, Toslink, and two coaxial inputs, the nova125 has one’s preference for music-server output covered.  Just a single analog input joins the digital quartet, leaving room for those needing a vinyl fix, with the help of an external phono preamp.  A set of RCA preamp output jacks are included if you desire to move up to separates, or want to add a powered subwoofer (or two) to your system.

My nova125 review unit arrives with a dark rosewood veneer case—cherry wood and high-gloss black are also options.  The amp measures 14.8 inches wide, 11.5 inches deep and 4.4 inches tall.  It weighs in at just under 15 pounds.  While diminutive compared to my reference Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated, the nova125 is solid in stature.  Its elegant yet understated front face, with rounded buttons outlined in blue light when engaged, accentuates its curvy look.  Even the tube window has rounded edges.  The smooth, damped action of the volume control, should you choose not to use the remote, has the feel of an amp twice the price of the nova125, which has an MSRP of $1,499.

What’s in a Name?

True to its model designate, the nova125 delivers 125 watts per channel into 8 ohms (or 220 watts into 4 ohms).  This integrated begs to be pushed to the limit, easily pressurizing my 13-foot-by-18-foot listening space through my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 speakers.

The thundering bass lines on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” pulsate through the room, with the nova125 keeping the woofers well controlled—the Harbeths are speakers that need major current drive to sound their best, and the nova125 delivers.  Keeping in the Zep groove, I turn to “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the bluesy fourth track on Led Zeppelin III.  The nova125 reproduces John Bonham’s legendary drumming with incredible finesse at the beginning of the track, while Jimmy Page’s guitar eases in slowly and later screams with authority.  The Hammond B3 shines through very convincingly and with plenty of weight.

I then challenge this little amp with a pair of Magnepan 1.6s, which are notorious for easily absorbing the output of most amplifiers, driving them into fits of clipping.  The nova125 is up to the challenge, and proves its mettle.

Next up are various orchestral works, which the nova125 reproduces honorably.  Filling the room with “Jupiter,” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, which I play at high volume, the nova125 stays with the musical score, and the soundstage never collapses—my ears give up first.  Surviving this torture test proves that the amp has a robust power supply and the ability to drive a wide range of speakers, something that, until recently, was a problem for many Class-D amplifiers.

ICE amplifiers are known for their solid bass response and drive, and the Nova 125 does not disappoint.  The deep, sinister bass beats on Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor,” from his recently released Yeezus, rattle everything in my listening room that isn’t nailed down.  A few classic tracks from Pink Floyd prove equally compelling.  The quality of the bass response that the nova125 delivers is as impressive as the quantity, with more texture than I would normally expect from an integrated amp at this price.

The 6N1P vacuum tube that lurks behind the nova125’s front panel can be used as a buffer stage, and it can be easily switched in or out of the circuit via the supplied remote.  Offering a bit more smoothness, the tube really adds some warmth to MP3-based selections, and it is also nice to have on hand for a bit of system tuning.  This isn’t necessary with the already forgiving Harbeths (though still enjoyable for this listener), but it makes a huge difference taming the edges on budget speakers.

The critical midrange region is perhaps the only area where the nova125 can’t really escape its price point and topology; though, to be fair, this is the downfall of all ICE designs.  Mumford & Sons’ “Hopeless Wanderer,” for example, is full of powerful acoustic guitar work, and it feels a little congested coming through the nova125 in comparison to my reference Simaudio i-7 (which, to again be fair, is priced new at $6,000, making it four times the cost of the nova125).  Luckily, the Peachtree amp’s tube buffer goes a long way to mitigate this.

I borrow one of Peachtree’s original Decco integrated amps from a friend for comparison, which reveals the tremendous progress that the company has made in a just few years.  The design of the nova125 is miles ahead in every respect.

Doing Digital

Connecting an Apple MacBook via the amp’s USB input allows me to compare how the nova125’s built-in ESS Sabre 9023 DAC chip handles 16-bit/44-kHz files versus 24-bit/192-kHz files.  S/PDIF and Toslink inputs are also available, so the nova125 should accommodate whatever source you have at your disposal.  Using iTunes with the Amarra upgrade works perfectly, and you can save $100 on a copy of Amarra when you register your nova125.

Dialing back from the hard rock of Led Zeppelin, I go with the Indigo Girls, whose stunning harmonies reveal that the nova125 is a cut above other ICE amplifiers.  The buttery smooth vocals on “Watershed” illustrate the openness and lack of glare that the nova125 provides when powering the Magnepans.  It’s a perfect example of clarity without the edge.  This amplifier is a non-fatiguing delight.

Just Add Analog

A well-rounded integrated amp, the nova125 offers a single analog input, making it easy to add a turntable.  Pairing the amp with the $200 Lounge Audio phonostage we reviewed in issue 55 and the $400 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable (with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge) makes for a synergistic low-cost, high-performance system.  For those craving a richer analog experience, the nova125 is not out of its league paired with the Rega RP6 turntable with Exact cartridge (though this duo has a higher price tag than the nova125), easily illustrating the increased resolution that the Rega combination has to offer.  As great as the nova125’s DAC is, the recent Mobile Fidelity 45-rpm remaster of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan underscores the palpability that this amp is capable of, capturing a lot of the space and decay in Dylan’s voice, along with the texture of his harp.

For the headphone crowd, the nova125 comes with 1/4-inch jack on the front panel.  The amp’s headphone section is far from an afterthought, delivering a sonic signature through a pair of Sennheiser HD800s that stays true to that of the speaker output.  The sharp percussion hits on R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” stay quite even, with no edgy boost to break the smoothness.  Vocals lack the last bit of resonance that a dedicated headphone amplifier provides, but as a part of a multipurpose unit, the nova125’s headphone offers worthwhile private listening when speakers aren’t a viable option.

The Final Score

Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” a phrase that suits the Peachtree nova125 perfectly.  Great sound, contemporary industrial design and incredible flexibility make this amp a tough one to beat.  We are pleased to award the Peachtree nova125 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

And it really appeals to this Portlandia resident that Peachtree has taken a major green initiative with its products.  The California Air Resources Board has certified the MDF used for Peachtree cabinets, its packing materials are recycled and the company’s veneers are sourced from Forest Stewardship Council–approved suppliers.  Well done, Peachtree!

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,499

Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier

Even the most dedicated analog enthusiast might want a digital option now and then, if for no other reason but convenience.  Should you be a minimalist analogophile craving a line-level input, the Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier will be your dream come true.  While many of the audio world’s famous preamplifiers include a high-performance onboard phonostage, the Statement takes it a step further by including a line-level input along with a world-class phono and linestage.

The Coincident offers a perfect balance of performance, elegance and simplicity that, for $5,999, won’t break the bank.  That would be a great deal for a linestage or phono preamplifier alone, but getting them both on one chassis for this price has to be one of the best audio bargains going.  And those chassis are highly polished stainless, so they will never tarnish or pit, staying beautiful forever. Don’t forget that combining both functions on one chassis eliminates the need for another expensive interconnect and power cord, sweetening the deal even further.

Mega Quality

Every aspect of this preamplifier exudes quality, but it also takes an old-school approach that suggests the people at Coincident truly savor music.  Absent is a microprocessor display or remote control, and you must adjust the volume for each channel individually, because vacuum tubes, by design, require taking things at a bit slower pace—but this is a good thing.

You’ll probably want to get this chrome-plated beauty rocking right away, but should you have the patience, remove the bottom panels from each of the two chassis for the power supply and preamplifier.  The power supply alone weighs 41 pounds, which is more than a lot of power amplifiers we’ve reviewed!  The preamplifier chassis reveals an equally enticing attention to detail, with precision attenuators, Teflon coupling caps, Teflon tube sockets and meticulous point-to-point wiring throughout.  A supplied umbilical cord that is easy to connect couples the two chassis together.

While there is only one line-level input, there are two line-level outputs, so the Statement can be integrated into a system with more than one power amplifier.  Whether your system is multi-amped or utilizes a powered subwoofer, you’ll find this to be a nice touch.

Thanks to its use of four 12AX7 tubes, the Statement should play music until the Earth cools, unlike a few other vacuum-tube designs that rely on exotic NOS tubes.  The new factory-supplied Mullard tubes work incredibly well and for all but the most fanatic tube roller these will be the only tubes you’ll ever need—much like with the current Nagra preamplifiers.  However, should you really have the itch, a set of EAT tubes or custom-matched Telefunkens will extract a few more molecules of music from this high-quality preamplifier—or it may just sound different to you.  I suggest sticking with the factory tubes and calling it a day.  I never find myself wanting to swap tubes other than for mere investigative purposes, but I’m a lazy tube roller, even on a good day

But I did use a wide range of phono cartridges to investigate compatibility with the Statement.  When utilizing a precision-wound transformer that has four loading ranges (available separately for $2,499, for those of you requiring an MC step-up)—with impedance loads of 3 to 10, 11 to 30, 31 to 100 and 101 to 300 ohms—the only high-performance cartridge the Statement was not compatible with was my Grado Statement 1 moving-iron cartridge, which possesses a 0.5 mV output, but still needs to be loaded at 47k ohms.

The sound of the Coincident Statement is unmistakably vacuum tube with step-up transformer: delicate and resolving yet ever so slightly softer in comparison to the best solid-state and hybrid designs.  And it’s worth mentioning that my solid-state reference happens to be the 65-thousand-dollar Indigo Qualia, so the Statement is in damn good company.

Neither is wrong, any more than preferring a Ferrari over an Aston Martin or vice versa, and the sound of your overall system will determine if this is a perfect match for you.  Having listened to countless Coincident demos, it’s more than safe to say that in the context of an all-Coincident system, with the company’s speakers (which are highly resolving, lightening fast and extended), the match is heavenly.  Coincident consistently presents some of the most musically revealing sound out on the show circuit.  Its gear always proves musical, dynamic and highly engaging.

Getting Down to Business

I begin listening with an old classic, Tommy Bolin’s Private Eyes, and the Statement instantly reveals the nuances lurking in the grooves of this average recording.  Even though the drums are highly processed, they have more weight and particularly more decay than I’m used to on this record.  If I had to sum up the Statement in only one word (though I have plenty of other kind words for the Statement), that word would be decay.   This preamplifier does a phenomenal job at reproducing the subtle decay present in analog recordings—much like that feeling you get when playing back a great analog tape.

Examining a Japanese pressing of Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle proves immersive.  Listening to “The 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” through the Statement puts a new perspective on this classic.  Not only does the bass line of this tune emerge from the mix, but the accordion also now permeates the track with it’s own voice and Clarence Clemmons’ signature sax floats in the space between the speakers, where it often loses its pace.  And, of course, there is more rawness and more immediacy to young Springsteen’s voice, along with a few more layers of background vocals that I swore were not there before.

I then switch program material to a more recent vintage, Low’s latest album, The Invisible Way, which the Statement renders forcefully, capturing the dynamics of drummer Mimi Parker’s big kettle drum on “Waiting” in a manner close to that of experiencing the band live.  Iggy Pop’s latest record still sounds dreadful, so the Statement will not create magic where there is none—this isn’t a vintage Mac or Marantz tube preamplifier.

What it does do highly successfully is achieve a near-perfect balance of musical resolution, without being harsh, and tonal contrast that is slightly on the warm side of neutral, yet it is never slow, rolled off or plodding.  This is a pretty tough thing to achieve, even for a five-figure preamplifier, and impossible for a $5,995 unit—until now.

The recent ORG pressing of Marianne Faithfull’s Strange Weather clearly illustrates the finesse with which the Statement handles the female voice.  Faithfull’s voice, now seasoned by years of abuse, comes alive through the Statement, this time through the Lyra Atlas cartridge, via the AVID Acutus SP Reference turntable with TriPlanar arm.  Moving to my other Acutus Reference SP, utilizing the SME V arm and Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge, I discover that the Statement easily resolves the difference between these two premium cartridges, which possess very different yet equally enthralling characteristics:  The Lyra proves the closest to neutral sounding that I’ve had the pleasure of using, while the Clearaudio is slightly robust and equally exciting.

The Statement is also the perfect anchor for someone at the ground floor of assembling a music system based around a high-quality analog source.  Even if a high-dollar table isn’t in your budget or on your rack now, the Statement has the capability to grow with your needs, no matter how you want to go.  Moving downstream a bit to the VPI Classic 1 and Dynavector 17D3 proves equally satisfying, as does the Rega RP8/Apheta combination.

As with many transformer-based phono setups, the Statement is a particularly good match with the Denon DL-103R and Ortofon SPU cartridges, so even audiophiles on a relatively modest budget will enjoy this one.

True to the owners manual, the Statement needs about 100 hours to sound it’s best, so a couple of weekends and you’re good to go.  That being said, it sounds damn good cold, right out of the box.

Digital if You Must

As part of a minimalist system in room two, fed by the wonderful, four-box dCS Vivaldi digital playback system, the Statement is not outclassed in the least, its tube topology adding a bit of extra depth to digital recordings, even those reproduced via the Vivaldi.  The rest of the system in room two is no slouch either: a pair of Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution speakers ($22k/pair), the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier ($30k, also in this issue) and the SME 10 turntable with SME V arm, sporting a Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation cartridge.

The Bad Plus’ Blunt Object: Live in Tokyo provides one of my favorite acoustic torture tests, with its driving, atonal rhythms, massive drums and thundering piano crescendos, punctuated with applause.  Listening to the trio romp through their version of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” is a sheer delight, with the drum kit sounding larger than life and all of the delicate piano work reproduced flawlessly.  Another great word for the Statement is texture.  Acoustic instruments sound incredibly natural and lifelike, with an abundance of timbre and tone, in a way that fools you into thinking you are actually hearing the real thing—the true test of any component, and the Statement passes it easily.

Another relatively benign recording that really comes alive through the Statement’s line-level input is the self-titled debut from the Wallflowers.  Granted, the dCS stack does its part extracting as much sound as could possibly be buried in that limited bit stream of a Red Book CD.  Yet, there is much more separation between bandleader Jakob Dylan’s voice and the rest of the band than is normally there, with acoustic guitars fleshed out better, occupying their own distinct space better than before.  There’s no question that the Coincident Statement can hang in the context of a six-figure system comprised of some of the world’s finest components.  Interestingly, it’s easier to confuse young Dylan with a young Springsteen on a lesser system, in terms of texture and vocal styling.  The Statement reveals the difference between these two vocalists with crystal clarity, as it does when comparing Seal to Peter Gabriel—the differences in phrasing between them is now night and day.

Award-Winning Performance

Not only did I purchase the review sample of the Coincident Statement, but we are also awarding it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  This product defines what we’re after for the category: top build quality and performance for which you’d expect to pay a lot more.  I pulled the wool over the eyes (and ears) of a few of my audiophile buddies, who weren’t aware of Coincident, telling them that this preamplifier cost 25 grand—and they all believed me.  I know I promised that I’d use my powers for good instead of evil, but it’s tough to resist with this one.

Bottom line, if you are an analog lover searching for the perfect anchor to a high-performance system, you need look no further than the Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier—and you certainly need not spend any more money.  We suggest this one very enthusiastically.  -Jeff Dorgay

Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $5,999

The Allman Brothers Band – Eat a Peach

We positively reviewed the SACD version of this album in Issue #54. All the same sonic attributes apply, but this one goes to 11.  Whisper-quiet backgrounds, and thanks to an analog master tape, this classic sounds better than ever. We’ll even argue that this is the definitive edition, save those with a rare white-label promo.  -Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 2LP

Carole King – Tapestry

Another well-ridden audiophile warhorse, Tapestry has been remastered a number of times on multiple formats. Do you need this one?  Not if you have one of the others cut in recent years. Classic Records’ 33RPM single-LP still gets the nod for overall clarity and a stronger, more well-defined bottom end. However, the collector market pushed its price to as high as $400 for an unopened copy.

Expertly mastered by Bernie Grundman and pressed at Pallas in Germany, this freshly minted edition is one of the better versions available. However, the loss of high-frequency information and smoothness makes itself known, suggesting that perhaps these tapes are ready for retirement.  -Jeff Dorgay

ORG Music, 180g 45RPM 2LP

Sly and the Family Stone – There’s a Riot Going On

On initial spin, if you think this record is not really up to audiophile standards, dig out your original and you’ll be surprised at just how terrible the latter sounds.  While this pressing still sounds somewhat hot on the top end (part of which might be the result of Mr. Ludwig’s mastering), with distortion artifacts present, the new version sounds like butter.

Skip right to the single “Family Affair,” and you’ll instantly get the groove and see why this record topped the charts.  The female backing vocal has much more presence, and more distance between it and Stone’s heavy lead vocal. Cymbals still sound buried, but there is a bevy of groovy, funk-laden guitars out in the open.  The other hit. “(You Caught Me) Smilin,” is also well represented, with a much larger stereo image than the original Epic pressing.

The surfaces on this double 45RPM set are incredibly quiet, whereas the originals are awash in tape hiss and sound like an 8-track in comparison. Surprisingly, even though the LPs are cut at 45RPM, the tracks still only take up about a half of each LP side, respectively, so ultimate dynamics remain lacking.  -Jeff Dorgay

ORG Music, 2-45 rpm LPs

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones

Back in the beginning of 1979, when this record made its debut, it became a demo staple in every hi-fi store. Even the original pressing sounded decent, and budding vinyl enthusiasts can usually find a clean copy for a few bucks about anywhere.

Both the original MoFi and the current MoFi remasters have more dynamics and quieter surfaces than the original WB pressing, and each will set you back about $30.  However, the current MoFi release exceeds its predecessor in every way but one: the “smiley face” EQ. (For those unfamiliar with this term, it means that the upper treble and lowest bass frequencies have been slightly boosted in the attempt to gain some listenability, more excitement, if you will.) Pressed on the original JVC “Super Vinyl,” the original is still a smidge quieter than the current pressing, which is excellent.

It’s up to you whether you bypass the first track, “Chuck E’s in Love,” since it was played to death on the radio and MTV. The rest of the record still holds up after all these years, with great arrangements and a stellar cast of musicians, including Dr. John, Tom Scott, Randy Newman, Jeff Pocaro and Neil Larsen, to name just a few.

Bass response is now sorted, there is more midrange palpability and ambience throughout, and the record now reveals a higher degree of low-level detail.  Jones’ voice possesses more decay on all tracks, and those that have frequently listened to this record will notice more nuance from beginning to end.  And, while this album has grooves going almost all the way to the center label, MoFi did a much better job of cutting this copy. The inner-groove distortion creeping in on the label’s original is eliminated, another bonus.  -Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g LP

Sonus faber Venere 3.0 Loudspeakers

I always look forward to the arrival of houseguests.  And, as far as visitors go, the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers make a great first impression—even before the music begins.

With these speakers, priced at $3,498 per pair, Sonus faber made some compromises, but did so without losing brand cred.  To achieve the speakers’ reasonable price, Sonus faber moved production offshore to China, in a factory closely resembling its Italian facility.  The 3.0s are the flagship of the Venere series, which abandons the classic Sonus faber look, borrowing instead the lyre-shaped cabinet of the company’s top-of-the-line Aida speakers.  The 3.0s are available with a glossy finish, in either black or white, as well as with a walnut-wood finish for an extra $500 per pair.

After escorting the speakers up to my listening room and unboxing them, I feel under-dressed in my T-shirt.  My review speakers feature white side panels, complemented by a black top and front.  I’m tempted to ask the speakers if they prefer their martinis shaken or stirred—the cocktail party music would soon follow.

You Look Maaaaarvelous!

Sonus faber describes the speaker as having a “lyre shape.”  I describe it as being shaped a bit like a pear when looking at it from above, with the narrow part at the back raised slightly.  The speakers are squared off at the front to create a flat plane for the drivers.  Ultimately, this combination of angles, curves and lines gives them a sculptural aesthetic—or perhaps a look similar to those of the robots in Bjork’s “All is Full of Love” video.  But let’s stick with the former descriptor.

The Veneres are sizeable floorstanders: about 4 feet tall, with enough room to house a silk dome tweeter, a 5-inch midrange driver and two 6-inch bass drivers, plus a rectangular port at the bottom.  The base is made of strong glass with aluminum connectors at the edges, where you affix the tapered, spiked cone feet.  This combination provides a solid anchor for the Veneres, but take note that the spikes are quite sharp at the business end; they will easily pierce carpet or leave noticeable scratches on your wooden floor—or your foot.  Consider yourself warned.

Two sets of binding posts facilitate bi-wiring or bi-amping, and the included jumpers make it easy for those of us with only one set of speaker cables.

Strike a Pose

Eager to see if the speakers’ sonic capabilities match their good looks, I begin the setup process.  The Veneres are fairly easy for one person to move.  I appreciate their 47-pound weight (as does my back) after having lugged my reference Piega P10 speakers out of their usual position, which is where the Veneres’ placement process begins.  After trying to fine-tune their placement in my 17-foot-by-20-foot listening space, I find that the starting point ultimately offers the best acoustics—about 4 feet from the back wall, 2 feet from the side wall, and about 8 feet apart.

After some toe-in experimentation, I determine that the Veneres require only a small amount for best imaging.  Like two polite and conversational party guests, the speakers are not too finicky about where they stand, and their oration inspires active listening.

The Best Of Chesky Classics & Jazz & Audiophile Test Disc offers some helpful tracks for speaker setup, demonstrating the ways in which surround sound can be simulated using a pair of speakers.  In one example, David Chesky walks around an omni-directional microphone tapping on a tom-tom drum.  In another example, the experiment is simulated using digital-processing technology.  When placed well, good speakers can make Chesky and his drum appear to travel a circular path around the listening room.  Very good speakers placed optimally can make it seem as if Mr. Chesky is walking behind the listening position, which is especially noticeable with the digitally processed track.  The Veneres prove very capable of this auditory illusion.

Start the Show!

Once optimized, I’m exciting to fire up the speakers—and am quickly impressed.  It’s clear that Sonus faber put its biggest investment into the Venere 3.0 where the money belongs: the sonics.

First of all, these speakers do a shockingly good job of extending the perceived width of the stage on which the musicians are playing.  Aimee Mann’s “One,” from the soundtrack to P.T. Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, starts very simply, with her voice front and center, which the Veneres render very well.  Later, with the onset of additional instruments, the song explodes out to each side of the soundstage.  The speakers manage to bring those bits of music around the edges of the room into the listening area.  The same is true with larger orchestral pieces, like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos.  These speakers incorporate that broader stereo image seamlessly into my listening space, with sound floating beautifully around the room.

I will say that the front-to-back depth of the speakers’ perceived stage is limited, as one might expect from any speaker in this range.  Live at Luther College, from Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, is a great test for this, as individual audience members shout various requests and comments toward the musicians.  Elements in the distant of the recorded space seem pushed forward toward the plane provided by the Veneres.

While tight and tuneful in the bass registers, the Veneres do not dip below 38 Hz, according to Sonus faber’s specs, which is confirmed by my own test tracks.  Madonna’s “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” offers some very low notes, which are barely audible through the Veneres.  But for most people, especially those living in small spaces or condos, limited low frequency be a desirable characteristic to reduce late-night complaints from sleeping neighbors.  Those seeking very low, foundation-rattling bass punch may find the Veneres a bit light for their tastes.  For most types of music, the bass of the Veneres balances well with the overall mix.

I enjoy Portishead’s “Cowboys,” but the vocal effects in this recording can make Beth Gibbons’ voice quite fatiguing on an overly revealing system.  The song illustrates the Veneres’ extended but forgiving highs.  The speakers let the overall musical experience shine through, as opposed to drawing the listener’s attention to a single, hard vocal edge.

While some more expensive speakers reproduce more nuances, the Veneres tend to take the high road, as if you are sitting further back in the auditorium, where each onstage pick of the guitar, draw of the bow across the cello strings or squeak of the saxophone diminishes sonically over a distance.  For example, Beck’s “Lonesome Tears” features a single triangle strike with an extended ring; some of the immediacy, sparkle and ambient decay is lost with the Veneres’ reproduction, but they still do a mighty good job of it.

Here Come the Papparazzi

It’s obviously nor fair or helpful for you, the reader, to compare the Veneres to my Piega P10s, which start at $9,500.  In absolute terms, the Veneres give up some transparency, realism and detail compared to higher-end speakers.  But for $3,498, the level of balance these speakers offer is stunning.

Sonus faber’s voicing choices for this speaker are well thought out, being more musical than analytical.  The Veneres are well balanced for many types of music, including rock, classical and jazz, as opposed to exceling only at one genre.  They reproduce vocals wonderfully, bringing them to the front instead of recessing them into the mix.  The bottom line is that the price is right and the speakers provide countless hours of listening pleasure.

It’s very exciting to experience wonderful products like these, which can fit realistically into many audiophiles’ budgets.  It’s hard not to give the Venere 3.0 speakers an enthusiastic recommendation.  A few compromises aside, they offer very impressive audio performance.  Combining this with their attractive, modern look and bargain $3,498 price tag makes these a stellar value and very much worth your audition.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

After spending some quality time with Sonus fabers flagship Aida, I found it very intriguing to see just how much of this lineage could be achieved in such a reasonably priced speaker.  All of the style cues suggest that this new speaker has come from the same brain in terms of style.  For those not intimately familiar with the top of the Sonus faber range, you’d be hard pressed to tell the Venere 3.0s were made in a Chinese factory—they are that good.

Instead of trying to make the speaker cover a wider range while sacrificing quality, Sonus faber settled for a bit less ultimate bass weight to help keep the range in top shape.  Unless you are playing Deadmau5 at club levels in a big room, I doubt you will find these speakers lacking.

The Venere not only has a heavy dose of Sonus faber heritage, it is also a nice balance between the warmer, more forgiving SF of old and the resolution that the Aida brings to the table.  The Venere’s 90-dB sensitivity rating makes the speaker an excellent match for just about any amplifier, tube or transistor with more than 25 watts per channel on tap.  Whether I mated the Veneres to the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium power amplifier recently in for review, (35wpc/EL34 tubes) or my vintage Pass Labs Aleph 3 (30wpc/solid-state Class A), I couldn’t find myself ever requiring more power than this within the 13-foot-by-16-foot confines of room two.

This combination of beautiful sound, timeless visual style and high build quality wins the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  These are top performers in their price range.  Those wishing for a wood cabinet can step up to a walnut wood finish for $3,998 per pair.

The Sonus Faber Venere 3.0

MSRP:  $3,498/pair  (gloss white or black)

$3,998/pair (walnut wood) (Factory) (U.S. distributor)


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 with Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Penaudio Sinfonietta Loudspeakers

Growing up with a Finnish grandma, the word “sisu” became part of my vocabulary at an early age. According to her, there isn’t a perfect translation into English since the word represents a guiding philosophy — a mindset — rather than one specific thing. Loosely translated, the term embodies qualities of perseverance, determination and resilience.

The Finnish speaker manufacturer Penaudio embraces sisu in their constant efforts to evolve great products into even better ones. New for 2013, Penaudio’s Sinfonietta loudspeaker makes its debut. As you might guess from its name, it’s a direct descendent of their flagship Sinfonia and looks like, well, the bottom half of one.

TONEAudio reviewed several Penaudio speakers over the years and are a perennial staff favorite, yet the Sinfonietta takes the lineage to the next level.

More than a pretty face

Listening to the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ Sinatra at the Sands on vinyl it’s hard not to chuckle at Sinatra’s banter between songs. As he jokingly describes his own childhood appearance to the audience, “I was born a very skinny kid…So skinny my eyes were single file. Between those two and my belly button my old man thought I was a clarinet.”

That album rendered through the Sinfoniettas brought an unexpected moment of irony as I looked at the speakers’ narrow, seven inch front baffle. Below the fluid cooled dome tweeter are two vertically stacked, five inch drivers separated by a few inches. As the Sinfonietta’s single-file “eyes” centered by copper-colored pupils stare back at the listener, the small port on the front is vaguely reminiscent of the navel Sinatra joked about.

A slender “clarinet”, however, the Sinfonietta is not. Looking head-on the speakers disguise the muscle behind their narrow face with a 21-inch cabinet depth. Each speaker sports a 10 inch, paper-coned, side-firing woofer on one side near the bottom. With a depth three times its width each Sinfonietta has a wide base which creates additional stability and facilitates insertion of spikes.

Available in several equally attractive wood finishes, our sample pair showcase the Rowan wood option. Regardless of the finish Penaudio creates a unique look to their speakers as if they were made entirely of many parallel, thin wood sheets. The subtle gradients of the natural wood color provide a beautiful, organic quality to the speaker which is understated, but hard not to admire. The fit and finish on this speaker is well executed and with so many veneer options the Sinfonietta complements a room’s décor rather than dominating it. Beautiful sound may be the primary goal of any speaker design, but equally beautiful looks never hurt!

Dancing with Sinfoniettas

My usual speakers moved aside to accommodate my temporary Rowan wood-veneered roommates, and to provide a starting point for optimal Sinfonietta placement in my 17’D x 20’W x 10.5’H listening area.  After a full hour of scooting the 110-pound Sinfoniettas around the room in an effort to eek every last drop of sonic benefit from them, it’s clear they are not simple to place. I’m also fairly certain the neighbors below my condo will have concern about my mental state given all my apparent pacing back and forth between the speakers and my listening position.

Subtle movements of these speakers prove meaningful sonically and so the investment of time for proper placement is critical for getting the most musical enjoyment from your audio investment. For example, at some locations the bass overpowers my room, but small adjustments of speaker placement bring it back into check.

Ultimately the Sinfoniettas sweet spot is 3.5 feet from the ASC Tube Trapped back wall and about 8 feet apart. This combination offers the reward of an exceptionally wide soundstage – one which extends well beyond the speakers themselves – as well as great bass extension and depth.

Trying many different angles of toe-in requires experimentation too. Starting with the speakers toed at a fairly aggressive angle, crossing in front of the listening position, moving them outward a few degrees at a time helps identify the optimal placement angle. In my case the Sinfoniettas offer the greatest combination of resolution and depth of soundstage with small amount of toe in and their theoretical target well behind my listening seat.

What’s Shakin’?

Penaudio suggests minimum power for the Sinfoniettas to be 50 watts into 8 ohms. Fed 250 watts though, you might be advised to add a seatbelt to your listening chair. The powerful voice of these speakers emerges as a single, cohesive experience despite the many drivers and crossover points which comprise the Sinfonietta’s design.

Other than transparency what first stands out when listening is the Sinfonietta’s bass presence. During songs like Massive Attack’s “Angel” or Bill Laswell & Jah Wobble’s “Subcode” very low bass notes produce a resonant ratting of the glassware in my kitchen cabinets! The Sinfoneittas are easily capable of filling a much larger room than mine with sound. Based on the vibration in my sofa (and my kidneys) while listening, a smaller room might find itself overly-consumed in bass.

Smooth Operator

String instruments like those presented in “Sleep Will Come” by Bliss and the upright bass rendered in Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” are portrayed with deep and woody delicacy.

Sia’s emotive voice on “I Go To Sleep” proves captivating each time I hear it. However, the recording’s vocal crescendos can be a bit overpowering on some equipment where highs go beyond “extended” and into the realm of stridency. Mated with complementary electronics upstream, the Penaudios strike a well-voiced balance by providing non-fatiguing, natural-sounding highs without the often-accompanying side effects.

With the Sinfoniettas, the width of the virtual soundstage and the specific placement of the various instruments and vocals within it are revelatory. Air’s “Venus” and Ray Lamontagne’s “Be Here Now” provide stellar examples of the Sinfonietta’s sound-staging prowess as notes and voices wrap around the listening room.  Lyle Lovett’s “Church” is a challenging image portrayal, given multiple instruments and a choir behind the singer. The Penaudios handle the layering with finesse.

In larger group performances, like Pink Martini’s “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love”, the physical speakers blend seamlessly into the virtual width and depth of the performance in such a way that, with eyes closed, it’s difficult to point out the speakers. Sound seems to emerge from all around the Sinfoniettas including the trumpet nestled in the rear stage behind them.

Other strong suits for the Sinfoniettas include detail and nuance. The gravel in Leonard Cohen’s voice on “Be For Real” is not just audible, but tangible. Listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rendition of “Little Wing”, the guitar’s strength and delicacy both emerge with aplomb. The speakers also portray fast, realistic sounding percussive strikes followed by gentle decay, regardless of who’s on the drum kit.

Rock On!

One of the Sinfonietta’s greatest strengths reveals itself as ability to rock when compelled to do so. Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” pack ample, visceral punch. Electronica like “Juanita/Kiteless” from Underworld’s Everything, Everything Live proves equally invigorating. At medium-to-higher volumes, the Sinfonietta’s drivers demonstrate their ability to move air – sometimes quickly and forcefully enough to generate a noticeable pop in my ear, even from a distance of 11 feet. I’ve had this experience plenty of times before, but usually only in the presence of live drums.

In my listening space, the Sinfoniettas had the potential to produce the same physical impact with many types of music when played at a moderate volume. Listeners craving this level of tangibility, will find it in spades with the Penaudios. Those preferring a more relaxed, warm, musically-emotive presentation from their loudspeaker could find the Sinfoniettas a bit intense in some systems. As such, room size and upstream equipment synergy are important considerations for the full enjoyment of these speakers. There is no right or wrong answer here. Some people like bourbon, some prefer wine. Both can be excellent.


With the Sinfoniettas, Penaudio creates a speaker which commands, and even demands, active listening. Those seeking an energetic, detailed, and accurate portrayal of music will certainly embrace it through the Sinfoniettas. If my grandma were still alive I think she would agree they bring the sisu of their Finnish heritage to the listening room.

For those in the market for a speaker in the $20,000 range, the beautifully designed Penaudio Sinfoniettas prove worthy of your consideration.

The Penaudio Sinfonietta

MSRP:  $20,000/pair


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 with Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Dynaudio Xeo 3 Wireless Speakers

Dynaudio’s reputation for coaxing great sound from a small cabinet remains intact with the Xeo 3 speakers, which add wireless operation to the mix, as do the floorstanding Xeo 5s.  This is indeed an exciting prospect for those not wanting to deal with a traditional amplifier-preamplifier-DAC setup, or the looming cable mess.  For Dynaudio’s Xeo speakers, the term “wireless” is only slightly misleading, as AC power is still required and you still need to connect a small interface to your computer, but you can kiss interconnects and speaker cables goodbye!

Pre-flight Check

The modestly sized Xeo 3s are 7 inches wide, 10 inches deep and 11 inches tall, and are available in white or black, with either glossy or satin finishes.  The front grilles disguise a 5-inch woofer and 1-inch soft dome tweeter derived from Dynaudio’s Excite X12.  This small size allows for multiple placement options.  Our art director has been using them as near-field desktop speakers for some time now with excellent success.  (I received a Marge Simpson growl as I pried them away from her for this review.)

Those preferring to mount the speakers on stands will have the best results using 24- to 30-inch-tall stands, which will keep the tweeter close to ear height.  The speakers’ rear-firing port does not interfere with operation when close to the wall, so placement on a tabletop or desktop also works well. Dynaudio offers its Stand 3X matching stands (available in gloss black, gloss white, matte black or silver finish), which feature cable management for the Xeo power cord and retails for $350 per pair.  If using the speakers on a tabletop, desktop or shelf, I advise placing something small, soft and squishy beneath the speakers to act a buffer between the woofer and said surface. Dynaudio markets its SF1 speaker foot base for $85 per pair as a solution for such applications.

The Xeos have an MSRP of $1,950, with the wireless transmitter costing an extra $350.  It’s worth noting that operating the speakers does not require interfacing them with your current Wi-Fi setup; they have their own direct 2.4-GHz wireless connection from the transmitter to the speakers.  Plugging the transmitter directly into your computer eliminates the need for the provided power supply, which further minimizes desktop clutter.

While a nearly $2,000 price tag might seem high at first for a pair of compact speakers, the Xeo 3s are each equipped with a pair of 50-watt onboard power amplifiers – one for the woofer and one for the tweeter.   Because the digital amplifiers integrated into the speakers is a PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) design, it recalculates the incoming digital signal data in a way that the drivers see the data much like an analog sine wave.  This offers the least amount of signal conversion loss, but does limit the files that can be played to 24 bit/48khz.  Dynaudio’s well-written manual will take you through the full setup in just a few minutes.  I run Windows 7, and my initial trepidation melts away, as the Xeo 3s’ setup requires just a few mouse clicks; our art director concurs that the Mac side is equally trouble free.

Setting a Course

There are a few switches on the back of the speaker boxes with which you will need to familiarize yourself.  The power switch activates the 50-watt built-in amps; once the speakers are on, the remote puts them in low-power standby mode when the speakers are not in use.

The speakers also sport a few other switches, which enable various usage scenarios.  You can designate each speaker as either a right or left channel module in a stereo setup, or you can use them both in mono mode.  When using the Xeos as a main stereo pair, or as rear speakers in a home-theater setup, one left and one right speaker are the obvious choice.  For those wishing to fill a larger space with sound, or those not worried about stereo imaging, the speakers can be set to mono—a cool feature if you need sound reinforcement for a party.

Note that each pair of Xeos has one speaker with a small blue LED light behind the grille, which blinks to acknowledge that the remote signal is active.  While the speakers communicate with each other to preserve the same volume level, there is no volume control on the speakers themselves—so don’t lose the remote!

Multiple pairs of Xeos offer enormous versatility for those wanting sound throughout their listening space.  A second toggle switch on the rear panel of the speakers assigns one of three zones—A, B or C—and each transmitter can be assigned to any of the zones.  All speakers can be set to receive the audio signal from one transmitter and one source, thereby playing the same content on all of them.  Alternately, you can plug different sources into different transmitters (purchased separately) and assign that audio signal to any speaker pair.

These scenarios facilitate, for example, playing computer-based music on one pair of Xeos in a bedroom, while the main room hosts a movie from your DVD or Blu-ray Disc player.  The volume of the Xeo pair in each room can be adjusted independently by their respective remotes.  Again, refer to the well-illustrated manual for setup assistance.

Born to Fly

The Xeo 3s perform beyond what their small size might initially suggest.  The internal amplifiers are well matched to the speakers, optimizing the sound produced and ultimately offering great value.  As with all the other Dynaudio speakers I’ve experienced, the hallmark ease and midrange clarity of the brand is well intact here.  The richness of Anjani’s voice on the title track to her 2006 album, Blue Alert, alongside the delicate and tuneful rendering of piano and saxophone notes, demonstrates just how well the Xeo solution works to create a satisfying musical experience.

Waldeck’s “Slowly” illustrates the Xeo 3’s ability to generate solid, dynamic bass, despite its small enclosure.  Magma’s “Horn Antenna” further reveals the low-frequency capability of these speakers.  Again, table mounting will add a little bit of LF gain and grunt, but at a slight loss of imaging finesse.  The speakers reproduce the other end of the spectrum with equal ease and precision.  The cymbal strikes in Norfolk & Western’s “Letters Opened in the Bar” illustrate a gentle ring and delicate decay.

Further listening with recent Blue Note releases on XRCD confirms the ease with which the Xeo 3s handle acoustic instruments.  The gentle vocal styling present on Jakob Dylan’s first solo effort, Seeing Things, combined with the acoustic guitar on the opening track, “Evil is Alive and Well,” demonstrates the large sound space these speakers can reproduce without losing the delicacy of the track to wireless transmission.

The only restriction to the Xeo system is the 24-bit/48-kHz limit of incoming files; for now, those with major high-resolution music collections will not be able to enjoy full-bandwidth audio with a Xeo system.  The Dynaudio Xeo 3 speakers present great value, fantastic sound and excellent build quality to the music lover who is perhaps not ready to go for a full-blown audiophile system, but who is dissatisfied with the similarly priced wireless offerings from Sonos, B&O and Bose.   In this respect, the Dynaudio Xeo 3 is miles ahead of the competition in terms of its natural delivery and tonal finesse.

Addidional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Of course I had to torture these speakers with some Iron Maiden, Slayer, Van Halen and Zeppelin just to see if they could take it.  And like the Confidence C1 IIs I’ve been using as a reference in room two for a year now, these tiny Danish marvels rock the house—or in this case, my desk.  Using the Xeo 3s on either side of my 30-inch Apple Cinema Display makes me wonder why anyone would ever want a pair of headphones.

The mix is immersive, with the stereo image unfolding between me about a foot in front of my head, as I blast David Lee Roth’s “Ice Cream Man,” and then quickly segue to Maiden’s “Powerslave.”  The small, wireless Dynaudios provide fatigue-free listening during long photo-editing sessions, and underline just how much they have in common with the Confidence series.  This is where you can really reap the benefit of a compact speaker produced by a major speaker company that builds its own drivers, and that possesses extensive research and design capabilities.  The technology trickle down is tough to ignore.

Even if the Xeo 3s don’t turn you into a sound-crazed audiophile right away (but they just might), don’t forget that analog input.  It’s a great way to augment the sound of your television, or perhaps sneak a turntable into the mix.  Plugging the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon table (paired with the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge and Lounge MM phonostage) into the Xeo expands my desktop/small-room experience tremendously.  Spinning some of my favorite albums in this space has me forgetting all about the high-res files on my Mac mini.

Everyone on the TONEAudio staff who had a chance to play with the Xeo 3s agrees that they are excellent in every way, from their subtle aesthetics to their ease of setup and use.  We are happy to award them one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Dynaudio Xeo 3 Wireless Speakers

MSRP: $1,950 per pair; $350 for the Xeo wireless transmitter; $350 per pair for optional Dynaudio Stand 3X; $85 per pair for optional Dynaudio SF1 speaker foot.



Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Chord Electronics Chordette QuteHD DAC

“Open the pod bay door, Hal.” As I unbox the Chord Chordette QuteHD DAC, I cannot help but recall that famous quote from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The Cordette is indeed reminiscent of the HAL 9000 computer from the movie, complete with a large, round eye, which offers a view into the internal circuitry.  This window emits a variety of colors from the device’s internal LEDs, and the red glow, which appears when the DAC is converting a 44.1-kHz signal, is eerily HAL-like.  Other colors appear at higher bitrate conversions, and the Chordette is capable of handling a whopping 32-bit/384-kHz signal.


The Chordette measures only 6 inches wide, 3 inches deep and 1.75 inches tall, which allows placement on a shelf or next to an existing piece of equipment on your audio rack.  The anodized aluminum exterior has nicely rounded edges and is available in a variety of colors, including blue, black, and silver.  The DAC’s power arrives from a thin-wired wall wart.  For those seeking a minimalist audio solution, the Chordette provides a welcome form factor.

“It can only be attributable to human error.”

Setup proves very straightforward, with the Chordette offering one option for the analog output: a stereo pair of single-ended RCAs.  Users do have the option to connect it to digital sources via USB, optical or coaxial inputs.  It’s important to note that the coax input is in the form of a BNC connector, not the more common RCA variety, so those wishing to connect a source using this input will need the appropriate cable.  BNC connectors are great for their ability to transfer a signal and physically lock onto their receptacles, but I’d like the option to connect both types of coax inputs.  Luckily, I have a Stereovox XV2 digital cable on hand that offers BNC on one end and RCA coax on the other.

Installing the Chordette is simple and seamless, with the packaged CD containing drivers for the USB setup.  Once I place the disc in my PC, connect the USB cable and power up the Chordette, Windows 7 has no problems recognizing the DAC and activating the needed drivers.  Mac users need only go to their control panel and select the Chordette as their digital output device.

The Chordette is a black-box solution, meaning there are no buttons, switches or knobs to control it.  Simply connect your digital sources and the DAC takes care of everything else.  Without an input selector, the Chordette prioritizes incoming signals when multiple inputs are connected simultaneously.  For instance, if coaxial and USB cables are both connected to the unit the default priority is the USB input; optical is the lowest priority.  When I pause the USB source material from the computer, the Chordette begins its search for the next-ranked input source, which in my case is the coax connected to a CD player.  After about 20 seconds, it resumes playing the second source automatically.  For those with a single digital source this could not be simpler.  For those with multiple sources, it’s mostly a matter of stopping any source you don’t want to hear.  Even when unplugging the USB cable in the middle of a song, the DAC makes a quick search and, after a pause, it moves on to the next available connected source.

“I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.”

With the Chordette, joys are many and quibbles are very few.  It creates a supplemental “drive” to the music.  It doesn’t actually speed up a song, but it creates a subtle sense of urgency that pulls in (and holds) the listener.  Attack on guitar plucks and drum beats in Gipsy Kings’ Ritmo de la Noche commands attention, but it never overpowers the big-picture musical experience.  Yet, on smaller-scale solo performances, the Chordette still accentuates delicacy and nuance, making this DAC a great option for all types of music.

The Chordette provides a nicely balanced presentation across all frequencies.  Highs are realistically and enjoyably rendered; mids are smooth and lifelike; and bass presentation is punchy, full and deep.  One small experiential variance from my usual reference, in the form of “Otherwise” by Morcheeba, reveals low bass notes pushing upfront in the virtual stage and competing a bit with the vocals.  Admittedly, I enjoy a little extra heft in some recordings so this aspect will prove a non-issue for many listeners, especially those with smaller speakers.

This DAC also provides a stellar level of detail across all sample rates.  Even a 48-kHz translation demonstrates audible improvement over a standard 44.1-kHz CD.  A CD of the Connecticut Early Music Ensemble performing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons puts a shiver down my spine during a few passages—an experience I don’t have too often.  With ribbon tweeters, a small amount of perceivable sharpness emerges at times in lower-resolution digital recordings, which can detract from the musical experience.  But this DAC really draws me into the musicality of a song rather than simply evaluating the equipment producing it.

When I use the Chordette’s coax connection to a CD-quality source, the sound is marvelous.  However, the perceived width of the performance has some limits.  Air’s “Venus” provides a good test for this.  With some other DACs, the musical experience extends well beyond the speakers’ limits and remains there.  The Chordette is reined in a bit and does not exceed the physical speaker boundaries to the same degree.  I do find some improvement in this regard when using the USB connection, or when using a dCS Purcell to upsample to 96 kHz.

What the Chordette creates between the speakers is both dramatic and convincing.  Johnny Cash’s cover of “Danny Boy,” recorded late in career, reveals the age in Cash’s voice.  There’s an emotional undertone in it that transcends the song itself, especially when accompanied by the distant-sounding pipe organ.  For those wanting to experience every nuance up close, in a front-row seat, this DAC enables that experience.  Those who prefer to sit further back at a performance may find the detail a bit much.  But even for those listeners, I expect many will enjoy the change of seat location as the Chordette ushers them toward it.

“Road to Hell: Part I” by Chris Rea sonically simulates a person driving a car down the highway in the rain.  On this track, the Chordette does an incredible job recreating front-to-back depth and layering.  Windshield wipers scrape from side to side, the radio switches between various news stations and many cars drive by in the distance with a whoosh.  The portrayal of these elements though the Chordette is exciting:  The passing cars sound well behind the speakers, with their tires rolling over a wet road; the wiper blades appear ahead of the listener, as though clearing rain from a pane of glass between the speakers (you can hear that the driver needs to buy some new blades); and the simulated radio stations, with news updates panned left and right, have a sound one would expect from old car speakers.

“You guys have really come up with somethin’.”

When asked about its status, the HAL 9000 replied, “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”  While obviously not conscious, the Chordette QuteHD certainly puts its skills to the fullest possible use in a home audio system.  The team at Chord Electronics has done an outstanding job designing and voicing this amazing little DAC.  It offers flexible input options, a very small footprint and extreme ease of use, as well as adaptability for both low- and high-resolution digital sources.  Combining these attributes with wonderful sound, this DAC proves a marvelous addition to a stereo setup.  For those evaluating DAC options around the Chordette’s $1,700 price range and who enjoy feeling like they are in the front row at a musical performance, the Chordette is a fantastic option.

Chordette QuteHD DAC

MSRP: $1,700

Chord Electronics


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

As I dislodge the packing material from the shipping box containing the Parasound CD 1, it’s easy to have a positive first impression of the flagship of the Halo product line.  I set aside the cardboard and Styrofoam layers to find the player carefully wrapped in a bag of blue velvet.  I can’t help but recall the lyrics that Bobby Vinton made famous:  “She wore blue velvet.”

Physically, the CD player complements the Parasound Halo product series.  As one might expect from name of the collection to which it belongs, the CD 1 sports blue LEDs that cast lighted halos around the buttons flanking the red power indicator in the center of the player’s faceplate.  The CD 1 is built from the ground up to play only Red Book CDs and CD-Rs, plus the standard CD layer on SACDs.  I have to admit that my own digital collection is about 95 percent Red Book CDs, but I prefer to have the ability to play SACDs or DVD-As without needing a second player.

Users have a few options in the unit’s setup menu.  One function worth noting is the “CD eject” option.  The default is to eject a disc when the unit is powered off, but overriding this is a good idea if the player is behind a cabinet door with limited clearance.

The provided Halo remote facilitates access to common features, many of which apply to the CD 1 only, while the others apply to the Halo JC 2 or P 7 preamplifer.  The remote allows users to select a CD track by number, or by the forward or back buttons.  Fast-forward and fast-reverse are also nice touches, should you want to relive a particularly striking musical passage.  The remote also offers a polarity switcher for phase matching as well as a display dimmer.  While the remote has very accessible and practical functionality, it’s very utilitarian and made of a light, somewhat flimsy-feeling plastic.  For a unit of this build quality and price point, I’d prefer to see a more elegant metal remote.

Ours a [CD] I held tightly

Connecting the unit is simple and flexible.  The CD 1 offers both RCA and balanced XLR analog outputs, as well as three digital output options—BNC, coax and optical—for those who might want to use it as a transport.  The Halo’s software takes 20 seconds to load before it’s ready to play a disc.  When the desire for a music fix strikes, this boot-up time feels much longer.

The CD 1 is a slot-loading player, and discs require a fair amount of pushing before the player decides to accept them.  When about an inch of the disc remains outside the player, the CD is sucked in with startling grip and speed.  Once the CD disappears, the player ponders for 10 seconds while evaluating the disc’s contents, and then plays the first track automatically—giving you just enough time to reach the listening chair and catch the first few notes of the song. While it’s pondering, the CD 1 is actually buffering the first 30 seconds of disc data, helping to reduce the error correction associated with a more traditional CD player.  The end result – a less digital, less fatiguing sound.

As I sit down for my first listen, I notice that the display is too small to see any information from my listening position.  This isn’t too much of an issue if you’re familiar with the disc being played, but if you’re not so familiar with the material you might need to use binoculars, or wait for the chorus, to determine which track you are hearing.

Warmer than May Her Tender Sighs

Any quibbles with the user experience quickly fade from mind once this player starts singing.  For analog playback, the Parasound offers a toggled choice of discrete or op-amp analog outputs.  In the discrete setting, the sound is produced from the transistor output stage.  In the op-amp setting, the signal is sent directly from the op-amp output stage.  The different options impart subtle changes to the overall sonic signature.  While the settings are similar, the op-amp setting lends a bit warmer feel, with a slightly more relaxed presentation; the discrete setting offers a bit more perceived detail, but on poor recordings this sonic edge proves more obvious.  Experimentation for your own preference on each disc is encouraged and there is no right answer, so it’s great to have both options.

Music from this player sounds smooth and natural, with all the nuance and subtlety one could hope to coax from a CD.  Bass, mids and highs complement each other wonderfully, and no particular region of the audio spectrum appears to stand out from the others.

I seek out my best CD source material to put the CD 1 though its paces, and Mobile Fidelity recordings prove a great starting point for evaluation.  It’s exciting to experience the player’s portrayal of Beck’s Sea Change on the MoFi disc.  The triangle strike in “Lonesome Tears” offers a beautiful, natural-sounding ring and very long decay rivaling the best I’ve experienced.  Beck’s vocals are equally beguiling as the lyrics and emotion spill from his voice.  The Parasound does a stupendous job of layering front-to-back musical elements, even when they may overlap in the perceived left-to-right stereo image.

During “On the Run,” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (MoFi), it’s easy to pick out a man panting and running from right to left, as well as his 90-degree turn to run away from the microphone, thereby fading into the background.  “Us and Them” offers a similar experience, as gentle echoes pan and spiral around the perceived source of David Gilmour’s vocals in the center.

Madonna’s “Candy Perfume Girl” starts with a synthesized, pinpoint sound bouncing left and right.  The CD 1 manages to put that element in front of the speakers, rather than being recessed between or behind them.  I have not experienced this effect to the same degree with very many pieces of equipment.

“Song for Olabi,” from Quiet Letters by Bliss, combines vocals with drums, shakers, rain sticks, flutes and synthesized notes.   Not only does the CD 1 present these instruments with sound that is surprisingly organic, but it also places them on the stage so that a front-row listener can both hear the instrument and visualize it.  I find myself looking for a musician “behind” the person at the front of the stage holding the shaker.  While many pieces of audio equipment tend to blur and compress sonic elements together into a more two-dimensional space, the CD 1 stitches together all the subtle sonic queues in a recording to extend and separate the musical experience into three dimensions.

On Dirty Martini’s “House on Fire,” the CD 1 renders the glockenspiel with more realism than I have heard in a recording.  Okay, there aren’t a lot of songs in my collection that include glockenspiel, but you get my point; the delicacy and decay of the notes sound both lively and lifelike.

Lower quality CDs, like Sisters of Mercy’s First and Last and Always, proves a little bright-edged, as I’d expect, but the Parasound still manages to encourage the vocals to come closer to the front of the soundstage, instead of being recessed within the mix.  The CD 1 does not sugarcoat the CD experience, but it does make the most of the material provided.

As a transport, this player offers equally stellar experiences.  It manages to chisel out each and every digital bit on the CD before sending it to an outboard DAC.  Several experiments confirm the capability of the DAC within the CD 1, proving itself competitive with my reference digital processing gear in many ways, though the musical presentation is not quite as wide with the CD 1.  I find myself wishing the Parasound included a digital input to allow experimentation with its interpretation of other digital sources, like a computer.  But for those needing only CD functionality, this player is sublime.

In My Heart There’ll Always be…a Memory

At $4,500, the Parasound CD 1 is a significant financial commitment for a device that plays only Red Book CDs.  At the same time, the sonic portrayal of music is every bit as good as many transport plus DAC combinations I’ve heard over the years.  The discrete and op-amp settings provide the ability to do some sonic tailoring to match your system—and being able to switch on the fly is a bit like having two CD players in one.  For those in the market for a dedicated CD player in this price range, the Parasound CD 1 offers exceptional sound and a very rewarding musical experience.

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

MSRP: $4,500



Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

IQ Audio M300 Monoblocks

As class-D amplifiers continue to evolve, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to test examples such as IQ Audio’s new monoblock, dubbed the M300. While each M300 is very compact—7.75 inches wide, 7.75 inches deep and a 3.25 inches tall—the amps should not be taken, well, lightly.  Their physical size-to-sonic-punch ratio makes them a bit like the Sugar Ray Leonard of the amp world.  The M300s deliver a hefty 150 watts into 8 ohms, and 300 watts into 4 ohms.  According to IQ’s literature, the M300s can also handle loads in the 2-ohm range.  So at this price point—$1,495 per pair—you get a lot of watts per dollar.

Weighing In

My lower back confirms that the modest dimensions of the M300s make them a cinch to move and integrate into my audio system.  At a mere 7 pounds apiece, the M300s are easily tucked under each arm, leaving me with spring in my step as I move them to the listening area.

A Mark Levinson No. 335 amplifier, which weighs a spine-warping 150 pounds, normally inhabits the lowest shelf in my audio rack.  I prefer not to move this behemoth out of the way for review equipment if I can avoid it—as long as my guest amplifiers have a place that allows them good ventilation and vibration control.  The M300 packs a lot of technology into a small package. The M300 uses a software programmed micro-controller input and buffer stage, and a SMPS power supply that enables the M300 to deliver FTC rated power into both 4 and 8 ohms, i.e. not just peak power.

The tiny size of the M300 offers many placement options that larger amps do not.  In my case, each amp has a temporary residence perching atop a 26-inch-tall bookshelf speaker stand.  These improvised amp pillars present each of the M300s quite nicely as they display the subtle blue LED power-up ring complementing the amps’ matte-black facades.  After a few minutes examining and admiring my sonic visitors, the process of connecting them to the rest of the system begins.

Against the Ropes

The M300s use the manufacturer’s IQ-torque binding posts, which enable easy and solid connections for spade speaker-cable terminations. It’s worth mentioning that these binding posts are similar to the ones used on much more expensive Boulder and Pass amplifiers, and so much easier to work with than those plastic coated ones featured on many amplifiers today. IQ principal Bruce Weisberg mentions that they chose these binding posts for their sonic qualities as much as convenience – a nice touch for a $1,500 pair of amplifiers. Rather than twisting a small 5-way binding post by hand and then tightening it further with a post wrench, I’m able to easily tighten the M300s’ large key-shaped posts without using extra tools.  As I twist the posts, I can’t help but recall some of my favorite childhood wind-up toys.  Gentle ribbing aside, I personally love the choice IQ made with these posts and the firm connection they facilitate.  Once they are cranked down, nothing is coming loose.

However, this connection type may present a problem for some users:  First, there is no accommodation for banana plugs; and second, with such a low amp height, there is little space between the binding posts and the surface the amp rests on.  As a result, thick cables may require mounting to the binding post in a way that leaves the cables pointing outward or upward from the amp, providing the M300 with something of a rooster-tail.  With that in mind, other users may find that speaker stands like mine aren’t such a bad idea.

Accompanying the binding posts on the back panel of each amp are both RCA and balanced inputs, as well as plenty of room for the power cable of your choice and two 12-volt triggers.  Because of their versatility, these amps can evolve with your system as you acquire or replace new components. And the M300 comes with the IQ-kord power cable, which is a 15A power cable featuring hospital grade IEC plugs and EMI / RF isolators.

And for some economic and environmental peace of mind, the M300s have an Energy Star–rated efficiency.  They do not get warm and the power-handling technology that IQ built into them enables them to consume very little power while at idle.

Ring the Bell

The first thing you notice sonically about the M300s is the non-fatiguing way they present music.  Regardless of musical genre, the M300s avoid stridency.  They render jazz, classical, rock, and electronica very well, allowing the listener to sit back and enjoy the musical experience without the “wince factor” that some equipment creates.  I put these amps through the Four Johns test—that is, listening to Cash, Coltrane, Digweed and Philip Sousa—and the music retains the heart of the performances without harsh sonic artifacts.

The M300s bring to life the guitar plucks on “Give My Love to Rose,” from Johnny Cash’s American IV, with delicacy and richness.  While the amps tend to place the vocals into the mix a bit, they do render the song’s emotional content very well, accurately portraying the age and gravelly roughness in Cash’s voice.

They also render John Coltrane’s saxophone with clarity and grace.  Those who have sat near a live saxophone performance know that the sound can have a natural sharpness in some cases.  The M300s manage to reveal the detail of Coltrane’s performance without adding any harshness beyond that already inherent in the recording.  Through the M300s, the jazz legend’s album Blue Train is both engaging and relaxing.

Ready to Rumble

Fans of electronica know that bass punch and depth are necessary to get people out on the dance floor.  IQ claims a frequency response of 5 Hz to 45 kHz for the M300s, plus or minus 3 dB.  As I’m not able to get the dog next door howling at notes beyond the upper range of my hearing, I can’t verify sound above 20 kHz.  I can say with conviction, however, that the bass indeed goes very deep.  In addition to low-frequency test tracks verifying an audible and tangible 20 Hz rumble in my room, John Digweed’s remix of “Warung Beach” illustrates the M300s ability to provide plenty of get-up-and-go.

Recordings of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” conducted by John Philip Sousa offer varying degrees of audio quality, so I cheat a bit on my theme by deferring to recordings by modern conductors.  Here, the M300s do a very nice job of revealing the dynamic contrasts of the various instruments.  Flute notes dance through the air with delicacy; cymbals have a solid crash and a slow decay; and brass instruments are easily identified.  In a recording like this, adequate power is necessary to get the heft of the performance through my speakers—and the M300s do not disappoint.

Facing Heavyweight Contenders

So what’s the downside?  Unfairly comparing the M300s with my $8,000 reference amplifier (over five times the price of the IQ pair) reveals a few shortcomings that seem aptly illustrated with an analogy:

Viewers can appreciate Monet’s lily paintings differently depending on their distance from the canvas.  At 20 feet away, the colors, shapes and scenery are pleasant to experience as a whole.  But when viewed from just a few feet away, the painting’s impressionistic brush strokes reveal a texture and detail not detectable from further away, allowing for a deeper and more nuanced level of appreciation.  Once seeing the painting up close and in person, it’s difficult to appreciate scaled-down images of the same painting in a book, which do not portray the detail that you know is there.

Similarly, the M300’s sonic portrayal places the listener a metaphorical 20 feet from the music, leaving him or her a well-rendered sonic picture, but one that lacks some of the detail that my reference amp provides: organic realism, pinpoint imaging, a three-dimensional soundstage with width and depth, ambiance and front-to-back layering of instruments and vocals, along with a very quiet, black background.

While the M300s do an exceptional job delivering very deep bass, these low-register responses are not as tight, defined or tuneful as those delivered through my reference amp.  Again, these characteristics are something I’d expect from amplifiers at a higher price point.  I do not expect the same level of quality from a pair of monos in the $1,500 price range.

The Verdict

For everything that they do well, the M300s provide great value.  IQ made smart decisions in the designing and voicing of these amps.  They offer durable ease of use, stellar energy efficiency, enjoyable and non-fatiguing portrayal of music, the power needed to drive challenging speaker loads, and a neutral sonic profile that renders all types of music quite well.

At $1,500 per pair, the M300s are certainly worth an audition.  And the great news is that IQ sells direct from its website and stands squarely behind its products with a 30-day audition period for anyone who makes a purchase.  With this risk-free guarantee, why not decide for yourself if the M300s are a good fit for your system?  For this price, I think you’ll find that this pair of amps is a knockout.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Rob has made excellent points, and after some time with these tiny amplifiers, I concur with his assessment.  However, here are a few more points to ponder:

When purchasing a power amplifier in the $1,000-to-$2,000 range, there are always tradeoffs to be made.  And though there are a few integrated amps, like the Naim UnitiQute or the Rega Brio-R, that come across as slightly more palpable—especially through the midband—there’s no substitute for cubic inches (or, in this case, power).

More power on tap gives you more speaker options.  The M300s can drive a pair of Magnepan MMGs or 1.6/1.7s, while the two others either can’t (Naim) or only can to a point (Rega).  Sure, Class D amps, while having come a long way tonally in the last few years, can still sound a little sterile—and there’s nothing like a great tube preamplifier to warm that up a bit.  The IQ 300s actually use selected discrete mosfets in the output stage, another contributor to their musical nature. So I did just that, with the recently rebuilt Conrad-Johnson PV-12 and its full compliment of CJD Teflon capacitors under the hood.  The extra body of an older tube pre like this one goes a long way to bridge the timber gap between the M300s and my Magnepans.  The result sounds fantastic, especially in light of the M300’s price.

IQ Audio M300 Monoblocks

MSRP: $1,495 per pair

IQ Audio Corporation


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog Source Marantz TT-15
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Zu Soul Superfly

High-end companies like to claim that they create speakers that don’t sound like other audiophile speakers. Usually, such assertions are just talk. But Utah-based Zu Audio breaks almost every rule of speaker design. What’s more, its American-manufactured designs kick ass, and play nice and loud without raising a sweat. And since all Zu models feature a 10.3″ full-range driver that covers bass, mid, and well up into the treble range, they don’t use a complex crossover network. This almost direct-coupled approach yields major sonic dividends in the critical midrange region.

In Zu’s Soul Superfly, the main driver extends slightly beyond 10khz, and is augmented by a supertweeter that uses a Polish-made 1″ composite dome tweeter mounted in a beautifully machined aluminum-flared horn. Most tweeters on two- or three-way designs are crossed over much lower, typically between 1.2—4kHz. Zu’s technique makes for a dramatic difference in the way the speaker puts sound in the room. Boy, does it ever!

Big Brother and Little Brother

The Soul Superfly is a hot-rodded version of the Soul, and the models sport a few key differences. The Soul is internally wired with Zu Mission cables; the Superfly is cabled with Zu’s silver alloy B3. While the Soul uses ERSE Pulse-X audio grade polypropylene capacitors, the Superfly utilizes Mundorf Silver/Oil capacitors inline with the tweeter. The Superfly’s cabinet is internally coated with a layer of QuietCoat Composite paint, with the MDF bonded with a penetrating binder; the Soul is untreated MDF. The Superfly employs a Cardas copper speaker wire clamping connector forged to the internal cable harness; the Soul uses traditional five-way binding posts. The Superfly can be custom ordered in any finish; the Soul is only available in Zu Smooth Matte black.

A Modest-Sized Speaker, Served Best with Tubes

Zu designs are super-efficient, and the Soul Superfly is no different, boasting a very healthy 101dB @ 1 watt spec. So it can rock the house with just a handful of watts. Don’t worry, power handling hasn’t been slighted; this bad boy can handle 300 watts. The Soul Superfly’s 16 ohm impedance favors tube amps, so I used three: the Miniwatt N3 with 3.5 watts per channel; the Jolida FX10 with ten watts per channel; and a Luxman SQ-38u 30-watt integrated. The Superfly’s high impedance also makes for a splendid match with OTL (output transformerless) tube amps from Atma-Sphere, Transcendent Sound, and Futterman. Zu claims that solid-state amps won’t be the best matches with the Soul Superfly, but the company produces a few models that work equally well with solid-state amplification.

As far as space demands are concerned, the Soul Superfly isn’t that big. It measures 38″ high and 12″ square at its base, while the sloping side panels meet at the 9.5″ square top panel. The MDF cabinet feels solid, and the speaker weighs 50 pounds. Build quality is excellent, and the model is available in three standard textured finishes: Chocolate, Cosmic Latte (beige), Cosmic Carbon gray. Zu also offers extraordinary custom-finish options, albeit for a whopping $2,000 extra. The fee is based on 20 extra hours of labor and the cost of expensive paints. But the charge is worth it. That metallic lime green Soul Superfly I spotted at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest? Absolutely stunning.

Class Comparisons

Sonically, the Soul Superfly is tonally rich and solid, and possesses a weight that few other speakers anywhere its price range muster. Credit the 10.3″ driver’s air-moving power, dynamic punch, and near full frequency bandwidth for the gravitas. The sound is not as transparent as Magnepan’s spectacular MG 1.7 panel speaker ($1,995/pair) I reviewed in Issue 30, but the 1.7 can’t match the Soul Superfly’s tonal richness. If you want both—transparency and soul—be prepared to drop more dough.

Zu’s Essence is a larger speaker, and utilizes a ribbon tweeter, making for a more refined-sounding experience. Still, I’m partial to ribbon tweeters. The Essence sounds bigger, with more air, resolution, a deeper soundstage, and more bass definition than that of the Soul Superfly, all for a higher price.  The Essence doesn’t even match the Magnepan’s walk-through transparency, but like the 1.7, Zu’s speakers march to a different beat.

The Soul Superfly’s big attraction? The way it unleashes dynamics. You’d be hard pressed to find another box or panel speaker anywhere near the Soul Superfly’s size or price that touches it. In this sense, the speaker sounds more like a horn speaker, but without the usual horn (cupped-hand) colorations.

Amplifiers As Soul Food

I never thought Philip Glass’ music had a wit of soul until I played it on these speakers. I liked the idea of Glass’ music, but it often sounded cold, mechanical, and uninviting. The Soul Superfly changed my longstanding opinion once I played Glass’ Glasspieces LP. Whoa. The music’s rhythms and grooves had me going, big time. The Soul somehow uncorked more of the music than I’d heard before. This was material that, after all, was once performed by living, breathing players, and it’s the hi-fi’s job to bring them back to life. The Soul did just that.

Early 1970s Columbia LPs tend to sound thin and hard, but that wasn’t the case with Al Kooper’s I Stand Alone when played through the Luxman SQ-38u integrated amp. The record’s strings and brass, bathed in reverb, were a treat, and Kooper’s elastic vocals seemed more humanly present than I’d previously experienced. The Soul Superfly projected a large soundstage, with fairly sharp focus. Not bad for an LP purchased for 99 cents at Princeton Record Exchange.

Switching amps, the Jolida FX10 did a fine job goosing the Soul Superfly into action with the Black Keys’ raunchy blues. The duo’s latest, Brothers, is a low-down romp, with massively distorted guitar and pummeling drums, and is best enjoyed with the volume cranked way up. The FX10 obliged, though the Luxman coaxed even more grunt from the mix. In addition, the Luxman delivered considerably more meat on the bones, but the FX10’s sound was immensely satisfying on its own. Brothers sports the best batch of tunes from any Black Keys album, and the Soul Superfly only increased my love for the record.

The designation of the tubiest-sounding amp in the listening chain fell to the Miniwatt N3, a single-ended design that utilizes a single ECC83 twin-triode tube feeding one EL84 output tube per channel. The N3 delivered a healthy 3.5 watts per channel to the Superflys, and they loved it. Sure, it looked almost comical: A teensy 5.25″ wide and 6″ deep amp next to the Souls. But those 3.5 watts were sweet and clear, with a truly gorgeous midrange and pleasantly full bass. Tone color and dimensionality were absolutely yummy, and textures came through with utmost transparency. The Miniwatt N2 sells for just $378, but I could happily live with it and the Soul Superfly.

As might be expected, the Luxman SQ-38u integrated tube amp (review in the works) proved the best overall mate with the Soul Superfly, yielding more holographic imaging and a very un-hi-fi, yet totally musically convincing sound. Instruments sounded more natural, and after three different amplifiers, I became convinced that the Soul Superfly was designed for tubes. Why? There’s a rightness to the sound that my solid-state amps can’t match. Bass doesn’t go subwoofer deep, but it’s generously proportioned.

The solid-state Pass Labs XA100.5 monoblock amps exerted a profound sense of control over the Soul Superfly, the sort of difference that could be definitely felt when a drummer really whacked his kit. The big solid-state monoblocks offered more slam and dynamic contrast, but the overall tonal balance shifted to the cooler side. While this never appeared mechanical or harsh, it was easier to forget about the gear when I had a tube amplifier in the chain.

Blow Out the Candles

Zu just celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2010, and it seems like the company has only begun what will be a long run. The Soul and Soul Superfly are the latest additions to a promising product line and should be perfect fits for those with low-to-moderate-powered tube amplifiers that want something out of the ordinary.

Zu Audio Soul Superfly

MSRP: $2,600 a pair


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Electronics Parasound JC 1 preamp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp    Parasound JC 1   Miniwatt N3   Jolida FX10    Luxman SQ-38u    Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    XLO Signature-3 interconnects, speaker cable and power cords    Audioquest Sky interconnects

Devialet D-Premier

As you look at the gorgeous French polished aluminum box that isn’t much larger in size than a medium Dominos pizza container (and probably not much heavier if you order your pizza with extra meat and cheese), forget everything you know about high-end audio. The Devialet D-Premier is anything but cheesy. It belongs in the Louvre—with a great pair of speakers connected, of course. But it will look equally stylish in your listening room. While it appears to be a square box at first glance, when you place it on a countertop or other flat surface, you detect the slight curve of the casework, which adds to the visual complexity.

Much more often than not, associating the word “lifestyle” with an audio component is the kiss of death, as the term usually means “mediocre performance wrapped in a shiny box.” What makes the D-Premier so exciting is that it offers world-class performance in an elegant, compact enclosure. If you happen to be someone who has always loved music, but avoided a high-end system because you didn’t want all the boxes and cables overwhelming your living space, the D-Premier is the perfect solution.

Peruse the company’s website (, and you might be under the impression that the D-Premier is merely an integrated amplifier. Yet it’s quite a bit more. This compact sculpture houses a complete audio system: There’s a 240-watt-per-channel power amplifier, full-function preamplifier, 24 bit/192khz DAC, phono preamplifier, and a wireless bridge all tidily packed inside. As of this review, the wireless function and HDMI input were not yet enabled, but when they are ready in the fall, it will only take a quick firmware update via an SD card slot located on the rear panel to gain the additional functionality. You’ll be able to painlessly download the software via the Devialet website and make the upgrade just as you would on a camera or laptop, insert the card, reboot, and voila, a new component.

One of my biggest challenges in writing this review was figuring out exactly what to call the D-Premier. With such a wide range of capabilities, for now, let’s think of it as an integrated amplifier with benefits. The D-Premier features an analog input that can be configured for MM or MC phono use, and an additional line-level analog input, both via RCA jacks. In addition, four RCA S/PDIF inputs, a pair of TOSLINK optical digital inputs, an XLR AES/EBU digital input, and an HDMI 1.3 input are onboard, so you can connect anything but a balanced line-level source via XLR connectors. One set of speaker outputs is provided, as is a line level RCA output for a subwoofer. Bass level can also be controlled via the remote.

Far Beyond Class D

Devialet takes a different approach to amplifier design with its patented ADH (Analog/Digital Hybrid) technology, which utilizes a pure Class A driver directly connected to the speaker outputs, with the Class D output section doing all the “heavy lifting” as a current provider connected in parallel. More technical information is available on the Devialet website, but to simplify, the Class A section sets the distortion-free sonic signature of the amplifier and the Class D provides high-power output with low heat, allowing for the compact form factor.

The D-Premier utilizes a pair of Class D output modules, yet it is driven by a pair of Class A amplifiers in a unique hybrid module configuration that provides the advantages of both designs and the limitation of neither. First and foremost, the D-Premier does not sound like any Class D amplifier I’ve ever heard. I admit a slight personal bias against Class D amplifiers even though I keep auditioning every one I can get my hands on. But shortcomings remain. They typically offer a degree of sterility in their presentation, and in my experience, have been highly speaker-dependent, much like an SET or OTL amplifier. Hence, an optimum match yields decent sound, but a less than optimum one makes for a mediocre musical performance. Even the best examples have sounded somewhat flat. That said, it is clear that Devialet’s technology represents a quantum leap forward in tonal purity.

Pairing the D-Premier with a wide range of speakers (GamuT S9, B&W 805D, Magnepan 1.6) along with several models I had in-house for review and photography (Zu Soul Superfly, Martin Logan Aerius i, PMC DB2i, Totem Forest) all provided synergistic combinations and a consistency I’ve never experienced with traditional Class D amplifiers.

While Class D amplifiers often exhibit an impedance mismatch with some speaker/speaker cable combinations, resulting in a sound that is brittle and lifeless at best or seriously rolled off at the HF portion of the frequency spectrum, the Premier-D did not change its character. But remember, it is not a pure Class D amplifier. I did all of my testing with the factory standard settings, yet the amplifier characteristics can be optimized to your speakers to allow for the most advantageous combination. Again, custom tuning is as easy as upgrading the firmware, and makes the D-Premier obsolete-proof.

The most interesting result of my speaker swapping related to how well the D-Premier performed when driving the Magnepan 1.6s, which are notoriously power-hungry. 240 watts-per-channel is usually the place that gets the party started with these speakers, yet the D-Premier not only effortlessly drove them to realistic sound levels, the sound quality was fantastic, offering a three-dimensional soundstage with excellent bass extension and texture. The Magnepan 1.6 speakers remain in my arsenal if for no other reason to torture amplifiers. There are precious few under-400 watts-per-channel amplifiers that I’ve heard that can really grab hold of the Magnepans and offer the control and sheer current delivery that the speakers really need.

Should the need for even more power arise, the D-Premier can be configured to be part of a multiple amplifier system. So, you could easily multi-amp your Magnepans or any other speaker in such a manner. Multiple D-Premier units can be configured for bi-ampflication or as bridged mono amplifiers. The amplifier section is stable into 2-ohm loads and is rated at 240 watts per channel into a 2-6 ohm load and 190 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load.  Devialet allows two adjustable parameters for the power amplifier section: maximum power and the impedance of the speaker used. According to Devialet’s Mathias Moronvalle, “When tuning the amplifier to anticipate high current for a given voltage due to low speaker impedance, the amplifier can deliver more peak current and thus, operate more linearly.”

My GamuT S9 speakers, while highly resolving, are ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, so the D-Premier turned in a brilliant performance here. It’s also worth noting that this amplifier was not terribly affected by differences in cable. Switching between Cardas Clear, AudioQuest SKY, and Shunyata’s Aurora showed a difference between the three, but not as much as it did with my reference Burmester gear.

A Balance of Resolution and Musicality

The measured specifications of the D-Premier indicate an amplifier that seems to be completely free of any distortions with a noise floor of over -130db. Even with the volume control at maximum, not a hint of background noise emanates from the speakers.  If I had to describe the D-Premier’s presentation in one word, it would indeed be “clean.”

D-Premier is one of a small group of components that is highly resolving without being harsh. It will, however, reveal every bit of nuances in the connected source hardware as well as your software, so if your source material is not up to snuff, prepare to be outed. If you want forgiving sound, buy a vintage vacuum tube amplifier with EL-34 tubes.

The depth of the soundstage that the D-Premier presented continually impressed. Devialet’s unique method of blending Class A into the mix gives this amplifier its magic. No matter what music I listened to, I experienced a tremendous amount of image depth that resulted in a highly realistic musical experience. On the intro track from the Beatles’ LOVE, that mosquito felt as it was buzzing directly in front of my nose.  I had a similar experience with “Equinoxe 1-4” from Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe; I found myself surrounded in synthesizer sounds seemingly coming from all around the room. Zoolook was equally enchanting.

Bass was tight and well controlled, and the highs were extended albeit smooth.  The D-Premier diverged from its standard solid-state and vacuum-tube competitors at the very end of frequency extremes. When I listened to one of my favorite acoustic bass recordings, Charlie Haden’s The Private Collection, every bit of Haden’s playing came through with the required amount of texture, conveying convincing realism, especially on the 24/96 version. And when I mixed it up with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” the electric bass line had plenty of speed and snap. My reference Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks had a richer presentation, but these amplifiers (and the accompanying preamplifier) have a price tag that’s about six times that of the D-Premier. Hence, the performance is way beyond what you would expect at this level.

The D-Premier has an upper register that has to be heard to be believed; it is devoid of a signature sound. I listened to quite a few acoustic recordings to try and define one, but it had none. At least in terms of sound quality, Ginger Baker’s drumming on Cream at Royal Albert Hall is sublime, especially when he hits his favorite ride cymbals with the small bolts affixed to them. Once again, no signature was added or subtracted.

It’s important to keep in mind that, for $15,999, you are getting essentially four components and really, five if you take into account the music streaming capabilities. Break down the price, and it’s impossible to find an amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, and phonostage of this caliber for $16k, not to mention the requisite three additional sets of interconnects, three power cords, and additional rack space needed to accommodate all the gear. If you are going to use all of these features, the D-Premier is an incredible bargain. But even if you just use it as an amplifier, preamplifier, and DAC, it’s nearly unthinkable to get such high performance for this price. I certainly haven’t heard anything that compares.

Too Cool

For those who love to argue about the validity of Apple’s hardware versus everyone else’s hardware, a simple swipe of the mouse will tell you the difference. The action of Apple’s mouse eclipses anything in PC world; you both notice and appreciate it, or the care spent on the mousing algorithm has gone to waste.

By comparison, the D-Premier’s volume control is not only visually compelling but possesses the best control action I’ve ever felt. In the day of stepped attenuators via remote, the D-Premier’s square control module’s action is silky smooth. It feels like the throttle in a Bentley Continental R; the sound builds gently and evenly, just like the thrust of the Bentley’s V12. Once you experience it, you will be spoiled for anything else. And unlike most components that use an IR sensor—limiting the remote control to a line of sight ranging from about 10 to 15 feet—the D-Premier remote is controlled via RF, so you should be able to control the volume from anywhere in the house.

Another huge plus? The ability to hang the D-Premier on the wall and completely bypass the equipment rack—whether in a design-conscious environment, one where space is at a premium, or both. Thanks to a removable panel that hides the cables and the highly polished surface, the D-Premier all but disappears into the room. A pale blue light that indicates the volume level and input source is the only way you’d ever suspect it’s an electronic component. Everything is controlled from the remote. Just like Apple, the packaging is as artfully done and the instruction manual easy to understand—no detail is ignored.

Oh, the smooth, exquisite, polished finish of the D-Premier begs to be caressed. But resist the urge, because you’ll mar its perfection with your fingertips. However, if you and your friends can’t resist, a microfiber cloth and a gentle cleaner will keep it in top shape. (Use the same cleaner that you use to keep a flat-panel display screen clean. Do not use Windex, 409, or any heavy duty cleaner as it will probably stain and streak the polished aluminum casework.)


The DAC section has 24/192 capabilities through the S/PDIF and Optical inputs, but there is no USB input. I used the dCS Paganini transport via S/PDIF and balanced connections, and concur with Devialet that even better performance was achieved with the balanced connection. The low noise floor again made such a conclusion apparent, especially when listening to classical recordings recorded digitally. The silence with this combination proved to be uncanny.

When comparing the D-Premier’s DAC to a number of standalone DACs in the $2,500 to $5,500 range, the Devialet was the clear champion in terms of dynamics and tonality. Some of this must be attributed to the simple signal path that’s involved. Again, much like the phonostage, this DAC should be more than capable for 95% of the most demanding audiophiles. Those wanting more performance will have to spend five figures on a DAC alone, which means more boxes, cables, etc., defeating the purpose of this savvy component.

The D-Premier upsamples everything to 192khz/24-bit resolution from a fixed-frequency, low-phase noise clock source. Devialet feels that this architecture provides extremely low jitter and contributes greatly to the DAC’s highly transparent sound. After extended listening to digital files, one walks away from the D-Premier is unfatigued, especially when listening to acoustic instruments. It’s one of the rare DACs that I’ve heard at any price that makes you forget you are listening to digital and allows you to just concentrate on the program material.

A Fresh Phonostage

Like most other phonostages, impedance and capacitance loading is controlled in the analog domain, with a network of resistors and capacitors switched in and out (but controlled again, by the SD card configuration). That’s where any similarity to standard phonostages ends. The default setting of the D-Premier’s phonostage is a standard moving magnet arrangement with 47k loading. I began listening with the Grado Statement 1 mounted on the Spiral Groove SG-2/Triplanar combination. While the aforementioned cartridge is a moving iron design, it uses a standard 47k loading and is fairly impervious to capacitance loading. Thanks to the D-Premier’s high gain and ultra low noise floor, its lower output of .5mv was no problem. This proved an excellent match for the rest of my system, offering up an eerily silent background.

I’ve never heard a phono preamp with a -130 db noise specification, which alone makes this configuration interesting on a number of levels. I spent a fair amount of time searching my record collection to find the quietest pressings. After listening to the last year’s worth of Music Matters Blue Note releases, I moved on to Speakers Corner’s pressing of Santana’s Caravanserai. The mellowest Santana album, it features involved percussion that punctuates Santana’s guitar tracks. The intro to “Song of the Wind” is particularly quiet. With the D-Premier’s ultra-low noise, the track seems to build out of nowhere. The component blends the silence of a digital recording with the warmth of analog: A perfect combination.

How does it happen? The phono signal is sent through a set of Burr Brown analog-to-digital converters (again at 24/192 resolution), and the RIAA equalization is applied in the digital domain. Again, Devialet feels that this approach offers greater linearity and more accurate translation of the RIAA curve than performing the task in the analog domain.  While analog purists may wretch at the idea of taking their beloved analog signal, digitizing it, and processing it digitally, the D-Premier flawlessly functions. Devialet provided a custom profile for the Shelter 501II MC cartridge; it worked perfectly when I made the change. In the future, Devialet will supply “cartridge profiles” for most of the major cartridges in use, and again, it will only require rebooting the D-Premier and uploading the settings.

Again and again, the D-Premier defies comparison. Because the phonostage is so quiet, it offers a different perspective with its low-level detail retrieval. However, when moving to my reference Audio Research REF 2 Phono, the latter still had a more inviting analog presentation. Such a last bit of analog magic comes with a pricetag that’s almost twice that of the D-Premier. Those with perfectly clean records, and especially classical music lovers, will really appreciate this phonostage. At the risk of repeating myself, but remaining entirely honest, the onboard phonostage easily meets or exceeds most of the phonostages I’ve experienced in the $5,000 range. With performance at this level, 99% of D-Premier users will probably be thrilled. It’s certainly much better than any other onboard stage I’ve heard in an integrated, save the one in the darTZeel CTH-8550, another very, very expensive amplifier.

More on the Horizon

As they say on late-night television infomercials, “Wait, there’s more.” In the future, the D-Premier will have a functioning HDMI 1.3 input, so you will be able to use the amplifier along with your video system or as a high-quality DAC for playing back Blu-ray music discs. There will also be a wireless adaptor, which means you will be able to stream from your favorite computer source, just like you would with a Squeezebox.  Only an extension board needs to be installed at your dealer, the antenna is already in place. (When these additional features become available, the D-Premier will return to TONE this summer for a follow-up review when these additional features are available.)

In the interim, there’s no reason not to make the D-Premier the hub of your audio system. The only thing missing is a USB port for the DAC. But considering the number of high-quality USB>S/PDIF converters on the market, I wouldn’t consider its absence a deal-breaker. There isn’t a wasted square millimeter of space inside the enclosure, so I don’t know how Devialet engineers could have squeezed another board under the hood!


The Devialet D-Premier is a top-shelf audio component in every way; it’s even better when considered as a complete audio system in one box. Revolutionary engineering combined with short signal paths and minimal need for external cables all adds up to incredible sound that will have very broad appeal. Clichés aside, the D-Premier is more than the sum of its parts, in concept, performance, and value. If you take advantage of all the functions it offers, I don’t know how you could possibly acquire an amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, phono preamplifier, and music streamer for the cost of the D-Premier. Of all the components to which we have awarded our Exceptional Value Award, I can’t think of one more deserving than the D-Premier.

If all that weren’t enough, the component’s elegant design makes it blend into any decor with ease, forever banishing the idea of not having a high-performance audio system only because of the ensuing clutter that comes along with a rack and cables.

Whether you are downsizing from a rack full of gear or starting fresh, the Devialet D-Premier offers world-class sound, meticulous attention to detail in both style and construction, and a virtually unlimited upgrade path. What’s not to love?

The Devialet D-Premier

MSRP:  $15,999

(North America)


Digital Source Sooloos Control 10    dCS Paganini transport
Analog Source Spiral Groove SG-2/Triplanar w/Grado Statement 1    Rega P9/RB1000 w/Shelter 501 II    Audio Research REF 2 Phono
Speakers GamuT S9    B&W 805D    Magnepan 1.6    MartinLogan Aerius
Cable Cardas Clear interconnects and speaker cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri    Running Springs Mongoose power cords

Totem Acoustic Forest Loudspeakers

One of the most exciting aspects of high-end audio is finding an unassuming product that delivers big results. Totem Acoustics has a well-deserved reputation for producing small speakers with a big sound. If you’ve experienced a Totem demo at a hi-fi shows, you know the company demonstrates a habit of playing its entry-level speakers more often than the flagship models, as if to reinforce this message.

My personal fun with the Totem Forest speakers began with the first track I played, Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” The review pair arrived courtesy of an East Coast Totem dealer rather than directly from the Montreal factory, so some of the break in was already complete. A solid week spent listening to classic rock, served up via the McIntosh MS750 music server, handily finished the break-in period.

Not that I minded looking at the speakers in the meantime. My Forests were finished in Ice, a high-gloss finish that has the slightest tinge of gray, and part of the family of four “design” high-gloss paint finishes that include Dusk, Sky, and Fire. (Black, Blue and Red). They are also available in white satin and three wood finishes: black ash, mahogany and cherry. Finish quality on the review pair was as smooth as anything coming from the Wilson factory, a highly impressive feat for a $3,500 pair of speakers.

Unique Approaches

Totem’s preference to call its speakers “columns” underlines the distinctive aspects that make up the Forest. The color gives the Forests the appearance of being larger than the 7.7 x 34.3 x 10.6″ (195 x 870 x 270 mm) measurements suggest. The rounded front edges are different than many of Totem’s other models. And instead of utilizing conventional spikes to mechanically couple the speakers to the floor, designer Vince Bruzzese took a novel approach. A trio of aluminum “Claws,” with balls arrayed in a triangle pattern, comprises a very solid base. Functionally, the balls act like spikes and decouple the speaker from the floor.

The Forest is a two-way design, featuring a 6.5-inch (165mm) woofer and a 1-inch (25mm) chambered aluminum dome tweeter, with a second-order crossover at 2.5 kHz. Drivers are neatly flush mounted, and according to the well-written manual, should be listened to without grilles. Totem is firm in its belief that grilles are optional. Unless you have small children or shed-prone pets, they will probably be unnecessary.

Peeking inside the cabinet reveals the same level of attention to the finer details. The interior is sprayed with borosilicate damping material instead of stuffing foam. Similarly, the crossover network is also robustly built with top-quality components and heavy wiring.

Straight-Ahead Setup

The Forests spent the most time in my 13 x 19 foot family room, which has an 8-foot ceiling. During the initial weeklong break-in period, the speakers were randomly placed but still threw a very convincing three-dimensional soundfield. These are not finicky speakers.

Listeners that spend a few hours on placement will reap tremendous rewards, as careful setup techniques yielded even better sound. In my room, the Forests ended up three feet from the rear and side walls, with my listening position about 8 feet back. Wide dispersion is a Totem hallmark, and the Forests were one of the few speakers I’ve experienced that did not require toe-in alignment. (Not that they sounded overly harsh with the toe-in array.) The wide dispersion also helps when listening casually from another room. Guests were always impressed at how good the Forests sounded, even when used as background entertainment.

Important note: The Forests’ imaging performance suffers if you have to place them too close to the rear or side walls. If possible, give the speakers at least 18–24 inches from any wall. Their rated power handling is 50–200 watts, with a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, making the Forests easy to drive with solid-state or vacuum tube electronics. I got great results with the AudioEngine N22 amplifier and vintage Marantz 2230B (22–30 watts per channel), so if you currently don’t have the budget for speakers and speakers, the Forests provide a great foundation on which you can build.

Taking Care of Business

Thanks to the surfeit of power supplied by the i-7 amplifier, it was easy to put the Forests to task. In most instances, your ears will give out before the speakers do. When listening to the Pixies’ “Allison” from Mobile Fidelity’s remaster of Bossanova at high volumes, the Forests still maintained the placement of the individual guitar tracks without experiencing any soundstage collapse.

If required, the Forests produce serious bass, but you will need to spend time fine-tuning them to your liking. A mass-loading compartment is located in the bottom of each speaker, and I found the perfect balance by placing about eight pounds of sand in each one. The upshot of utilizing the loading option instantly materialized on the music sources. Don Williams’ deep, gravely voice became tighter and better defined with the sand in place. And the thunderclaps in “Gaia,” from James Taylor’s Hourglass, carried a lot more weight than expected.

Instrumental pieces posed few challenges. John Berry’s sweeping, percussion- and horn-driven soundtrack to Dances With Wolves requires speakers with a wide soundstage in order to pull off the connection to the wide-open Dakota prairie. The French horns in “Journey to Fort Sedgewick” arrived with sublime tonality. And while the Forests admirably handled the percussion and detailed bass line in “Pawnee Attack,” the track illustrated the speakers’ understandable limitations. A small speaker can only move so much air, and the cut forced me to scale back the volume.

Dialing down the volume and switching the program material to Wilco’s 2009 self-titled album, I found the harmonies on “You and I” taking on a magical character. Whether you prefer Johnny or Rosanne Cash, listeners that favor male or female vocalists will enjoy the midrange body the Forests offer.

While the Forests proved an excellent match with vacuum-tube electronics, just like the Mites and Rainmakers that I have used extensively, they were a much better match with my modded PS Audio Trio C100 integrated amplifier than the aforementioned two examples proved to be. Your amplification choice shouldn’t be a limiting factor.

Final Call

Equally pleasant at low and high volume levels, Totem Acoustic Forests offer a highly musical experience for a modest price. They play well with the three major amplification types: solid-state, vacuum tubes, and Class D.  Factor in the ease of setup and a gorgeous pair of cabinets that come in a wide range of finishes, and you end up with a perfect recipe for a fatigue-free speaker that’s enjoyable to look at as it is to hear.

Additional Listening:

With so much attention placed on the stratosphere of hi-fi components, it’s always thrilling to hear something as engaging as the Forests at a price that most audiophiles can afford. Per Totem’s instruction, I used no toe-in on the speakers and put them about six feet apart (tweeter center to tweeter center) in my main listening room, which measures 24 feet wide and 16 feet deep. Placing them about four feet from the rear walls minimized sidewall interference. The Forests had a perfect balance of midrange clarity and sacrificed nothing in the bass department.

Even though these speakers are slightly on the lower side of the sensitivity scale, at 87db, the 45-watt-per-channel Conrad Johnson MV-50 C1 and 25-watt-per-channel Pass Labs M2 had a much easier time driving the Forests than they did my Magnepan 1.6 or Vandersteen 2CE speakers, which have similar sensitivity specifications. Since 25-40 watts will only get you so far, a quick swap for the new Simaudio Moon i700, with 175 watts per channel, offered me the ability to play my favorite metal and large-scale classical tracks without strain—at least until things got very loud.

The key term with these speakers? Balance. The Forests’ top-to-bottom coherence caught me off guard in the initial listening sessions. I wasn’t missing my panels, yet the Forests moved a serious amount of air when I wanted to get wacky with the volume control. By comparison, the Magnepans can be very beguiling when listening to solo vocals, but don’t rock with authority. The Forests ably captured vocal nuances and spatial cues, but also had the speed and weight necessary to thoroughly enjoy records like Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone.

Indeed, the Forests’ strong suit relates to how they offer a healthy dose of resolution without crossing over to the dark side of harshness. However, the speakers will reveal shortcomings in your gear if it is not up to par. Connect the Forests to a budget solid-state integrated and you will probably be disappointed. But don’t point your finger at the Forests. Spend a few extra bucks on some worthy components (I suggest a nice tube amp), some decent cable, and I suspect you will share my amazement in hearing that $3,500 speakers can sound this good. TONE is proud to award Totem one of our first Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Totem Forest

$3,495 per pair


Analog Source Rega RP1 w/Ortofon Super OM40    Simaudio 5.3
Digital Source McIntosh MS300 Music Server    Simaudio D300 DAC
Amplifiers Simaudio Moon i7    Vista Audio i34
Misc Shuynyata Venom 3 power cords

Polk Blackstone TL2 and PSW111 Speaker Combination

One of the biggest concerns facing the audio industry is how to lure new converts to the wacky world of gear. These days, the higher end of the high end will easily set you back six figures. That’s not only out of reach of Joe Six-Pack, it’s out of reach of most rational humans that don’t earn seven figures. At TONE, we continue to provide more coverage of entry-level and vintage gear for good reason; we all have to start somewhere. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You can get satisfying sound on a tight budget, and the Polk Audio Blackstone TL2s will stretch your audio budget further than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Since its emergence in the mid-70s, Polk’s mantra to offer high-end sound without matching high-end pricing has remained the same. On a recent visit to its corporate headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, I saw and heard a number of its latest efforts, including a new flagship speaker in the $5,000 per pair range. But the most exciting thing I saw was the Blackstone TL2 speakers you see here.

For $99.99 each, you get a pair of tiny satellite speakers that use a 3 ¼-inch-long throw woofer and ½-inch silk dome tweeter in a tiny cabinet weighing only about 3 pounds that I guarantee will blow you out of your chair, ala the old Maxell cassette man, when they are mated with the matching PSW111 subwoofer ($299.99.) So, for $500, you can have a rocking set of speakers that won’t take up much space in your living area.  Add a great vintage 70s receiver for $200 to $300, and you still have enough money left from a $1,000 bill to grab a decent used turntable.

Five- and six-figure speakers are pretty normal in our world, so it’s incredibly cool when you hear something this amazing for $500. For the stylistically inclined, rest assured that these speakers look as great as they sound. Their curved cabinets should fit any decor, whether you use them with stands or mount them to the wall or ceiling.

How Does Polk Do It?

Beginning with its RM 3000 system, Polk entered the world of small satellite main speakers with a powered subwoofer in the late 80s. The tiny speakers and their powered subwoofer listed for $700 and redefined what a sat/sub system could do.  They may not have invented the genre, but they certainly moved to the head of the class in short order.  More than 20 years later, Polk remains at the forefront, building a better system for $200 less. Of course, some of this is due to offshore manufacturing, but most of the credit goes to the experienced design team located in their Baltimore.

Employee turnover is very low at Polk, and a majority of the staff has been with the company for decades. Such depth of experience makes it a lot easier to build a substantial base of knowledge. Every aspect of Polk speakers is designed from the ground up, which also helps in a situation like this, because instead of trying to build a box around off-the-shelf components, Polk’s engineers designed everything to solve the specific problem of making a high-performance speaker fit in a small enclosure.

Just like Polk’s larger speakers, the TL2 uses a ring radiator tweeter that is similar to that used in its LSi floorstanding speaker systems. The company’s Time Lens system of aligning the woofer and mid bass on the same plane gives the speakers a high level of coherence, making them sound much like a single-driver speaker but with the performance advantages of a two-way system. (Read about the TL2’s other unique features here:

Set-up Options

Polk offers three different ways to use the TL2/PSW111 combination. No matter what your amplification situation, it’s a breeze to utilize. The system can be used with your speaker level outputs, line level outputs, or, if you have a multichannel home-theater system with an LFE input, that will also work.

The TL2 claims a low-frequency response spec of -3db at 125Hz, but you can take advantage of room gain by placing the speakers in the corner of the room or near the rear walls. They will even work well on a bookshelf, though imaging performance may suffer. The PSW111’s LF crossover setting is variable from 60Hz to 150Hz. A 60Hz setting is too low for the TL2s and leaves a hole in the upper-bass response, but start at that level so you can slowly bring up the subwoofer level and presence.

Should you lack sophisticated measurement tools, play a few bass-heavy tracks and fine-tune the level and frequency crossover controls until the speaker system has sufficient bass weight without the subwoofer sounding rough or boomy. You’ll know you’ve nailed it when you get full-bodied bass response from the tiny speakers and can’t really tell where the sub is located in the room. If you have access to test tones, you can get a great feel for where the satellites stop and the subwoofer takes over, making it easier to concentrate on overall system smoothness.

Mind-Blowing Sound

Any pre-conceived notions you may have about small speakers will vanish the minute you play music through the TL2s. Having heard more than my fair share of outright lousy inexpensive (under $1,000/pr.) speakers, the TL2s are a treat, even for those of you with champagne taste and budgets. Initially staying in the budget groove, I plugged in my used Pioneer SX-424 receiver that I picked up for $60 on eBay for last issue’s “Slummin” column. Using 50-cent-per-foot Radio Shack speaker wire and a used Denon 3910 universal disc player (also purchased on eBay for about $200) made for a highly impressive budget system, and a great place for any music lover to start their journey.

Even with 15 watts per channel, the little Polks played authoritatively. When listening Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies, I could crank “I Stay Away” to (small) room-rattling levels. A brief stint with favorite tracks that have a lot of LF energy will help you optimize the subwoofer to perfection and attain more musical enjoyment.

As much fun as the TL2/PSW111 combination is with a vintage receiver, I wasn’t ready for the big jump in sound quality I got when stepping up to better electronics.  First, I swapped the SX-424 for the Cambridge Audio 840P (a 90-watt-per-channel solid-state integrated amplifier) and then, for the Croft Series 7 tube preamplifier, and finally, the Micro 25 hybrid power amplifier. Each took the sound quality further than the preceding setup. Indeed, the TL2s are extremely revealing speakers.

Suffice to say that, when mated to the $2,500 Croft setup, the Polk combination more than held its own. Connecting it to world-class electronics revealed imaging performance and reproduction of spatial cues that I expect from speakers costing much more. Granted, with the dCS Paganini stack driving the system, you could now easily hear the speakers’ limitations, yet they still made no missteps. The only errors were those of omission. But if you don’t listen to music with huge dynamic and frequency extremes, you may never miss a thing. Once properly setup, bass from the three-speaker system boasted excellent detail; this was not a case of hearing just one-note bass thump away. I was particularly excited listening to Marcus Miller’s new A Night In Monte Carlo, which contains several great bass solos.

The mids are natural and open, neither squawking nor beaming. Fans of vocal music will be thrilled with the large helpings of coherence. Listening to Anja Garbarek’s “Big Mouth” on her Smiling and Waving proved a joyful experience. The shifts in her timbral character as she goes from a highly processed background vocalist to a cleaner, main vocalist were easy to track with the speakers, as they never lost control of the electronic instrumentation in the background. Ani DiFranco’s live version of “Amazing Grace” from Living in Clip was another fun song that the TL2s aced. DiFranco’s complex vocal stylings fall flat and lose natural resonance on unresolving speakers. But the Polks sailed right through, delivering a rich performance. And if you are sick and tired of Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go” (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) but hooked on plucky acoustic guitar music to serve as test material, try DiFranco’s “Gravel”–you may have a new favorite test track.

And if it’s power you want, it’s power you’ve got. I was consistently impressed with how loud these little speakers played without breakup. Though many of us believe that you can only get “big sound from big speakers,” the TL2/PSW111 combination renders such thinking obsolete. Even when spinning some of my favorite heavy tracks from Led Zeppelin, UFO, and Deep Purple, I was able to push these speakers extremely hard before distortion started to set in. And yes, I dialed up the volume up to levels that would certainly cause the average apartment or dorm dweller to get angry looks from neighbors.

Finally, the Polks do something that almost no budget speaker does well: They offer up a liberal share of resolution at low volumes. And in tackling this challenge, they do an even better job with tube amplification than solid-state. Even at quiet conversation levels, it was easy to discern the differences between Robert Plant and his backing vocalists on the recent Band of Joy. This degree of dynamics and contrast reveals a high level of linearity that I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing at this price.

Oh, and for those looking for the ultimate computer system, the TL2s perform incredibly well when used nearfield on a desktop. With the subwoofer under your desk, the TL2s throw a huge soundstage. Matching them with the latest MiniWatt three-watt amplifier served as a perfect choice, as it coupled tube warmth with the speakers.

You Know You Want ‘Em!

I’ve rarely heard a pair of $1,000 speakers, let alone a $500 set, which possesses this level of balance. You need the subwoofer to make them sing, but it’s worth the extra money. The $600/pair Silverline Minuets are also excellent, but don’t have the TL2/PSW111’s bass grunt or cheaper price. The Polks win the day.

If I were starting my hi-fi journey today, these would be the speakers I would buy. The Polk TL2/PSW111 combination offers everything a music lover could want: Great imaging, weighty LF performance, tonal accuracy, and the ability to play loud when required. And they are solid enough that, should you join the ranks of dedicated audiophiles, you will be able to go through a few rounds of electronics upgrades before you start thinking about a better pair of speakers. The TL2s are that good; they may just stay in your family forever.

Polk Audio’s claim of “Big Speaker Sound Without the Big Speakers” is spot-on.  TONE is eager to award the TL2/PSW111 speaker combination one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011, and they will be the speaker to beat for one of our Product of the Year Awards this December. Enthusiastically recommended.

The Polk Audio TL2 speakers and PSW111 subwoofer

MSRP: $99.99 ea (speakers), $299.99 (subwoofer)


Digital Source Denon 3910    dCS Paganini stack
Analog Source Dual 1219/Grado Red    Rega P3-24/Denon 103
Amplification Pioneer SX-424    Cambridge Audio 840P integrated amplifier    Croft Series 7 preamplifier/Micro 25 power amplifier
Cable Audio Art IC-3, SC-5    Radio Shack speaker cable

Nagra MSA Amplifier

Swiss hi-fi manufacturer Nagra built its reputation on the ability to produce high-quality audio components in very compact casework. The company has continually honed its engineering and design skills, making every speck of space in pro audio gear count. Such expertise has resulted in consumer gear that looks very similar to pro gear.  Indeed, when I visited Nagra’s factory last summer, the MSA amplifier was in its final design stage. Prototypes sat on the table, along with another new amplifier that uses 300B vacuum tubes.

Unfortunately, with its “bigger is better” philosophy, the U.S. market has been a bit reluctant to embrace Nagra. Nothing could be more shortsighted: Nagra gear often outperforms the stuff in the large boxes. We’ve used quite a bit of its gear as reference components over the years, and the sound quality has always been first rate. The MSA power amplifier is yet another example of the firm’s engineering prowess.

The current MSA amplifier utilizes a single pair of power MOSFET output transistors and is completely symmetrical from input to output, featuring only a pair of XLR input connectors. Should you need single-ended RCA inputs to accommodate your preamplifier, Nagra supplies a pair of Neutrik adaptors in the boxs. The amplifier also has a pair of switches that adjust input sensitivity to 1V or 2V for maximum output. It’s a handy feature, especially if you have an older preamplifier that doesn’t have a lot of gain, or if you’d just like to optimize the volume control range of your preamplifier. The MSA is also designed to be used as a bridged monoblock, so listeners requiring more power can easily add a second amplifier and double the power output.

Requiring the same amount of rack space as the Nagra PL-L preamplifier (11 x 9 x 4.6 inches), VPS phonostage, or CDP CD player, the $11,750 MSA takes advantage of Nagra’s VFS Vibration Free Support platform to further improve sonics. Unlike the pyramid-shaped PSA amplifier, rated at 100 watts per channel and outfitted with an LED display to indicate power and clipping, the MSA adds the familiar Nagra modulometer power indicator along with a red LED to indicate clipping. These touches prove very useful, especially when playing heavier music, as the MSA does not sound harsh when driven to modest levels of clipping.  An optional cover is available to hide the heat sinks, but they are such a functional piece of modern art, it’s a mystery as to why anyone would want to cover them up. A familiar rotary switch used for on, off, mute, and “auto” functions rounds out the styling cues.

Initial Impressions

At just 21 pounds, the MSA is easy to unpack and set up. Thanks to the gigantic heat sink located on top of the amplifier, it runs cucumber cool. Even when pushed hard with heavy metal favorites, it barely got warm to the touch. The MSA does not require much space to keep it within operating limits.

My review sample already had some hours on the clock, but my experience with past Nagra gear has been that it only requires 50-100 hours of break-in time. Much like any solid-state amplifier, the MSA opens up and sounds its best after being powered up for a few hours, and can be left in the “on” mode all the time, or the “auto” mode where it will slip into standby mode after a few hours. In the interest of being green, the MSA draws only one watt of power in standby mode.

Top, Bottom, and In Between

Having lived with the Nagra PSA power amplifier for a few years, it’s fair to describe its “sound” as extremely neutral. The PSA adds or subtracts little, if anything, from the presentation. This characteristic may be good for some. But for anyone looking for a bit of tonal embellishment, it may not serve as a proper fit. I’ve always preferred the sound of the PSA with the PL-L tube preamplifier, as the latter claims an ever so slight warmth to its presentation, making the two a highly enjoyable and musical combination.

While the MSA stays true to the Nagra philosophy of signal purity, there is an additional dose of signal purity and delicacy to the presentation. It might be due to the single pair of output transistors. Currently under review, the First Watt M2 also uses a single pair of MOSFET output transistors and has a sonic signature that’s not unlike the best vacuum tube SET amplifiers I’ve experienced. The difference with the MSA? It possesses the low-level detail of the world’s finest SETs, yet also maintains the grip and control associated with a great solid-state amplifier. An outstanding combination, it underscores my philosophy that, with solid state, you can have it all.

Granted, some users will need the extra bit of power that the PSA brings to the table. My reference GamuT S9 speakers have an 89db sensitivity rating, and unless I played fairly compressed rock music (for example, Def Leppard’s Pyromania) I rarely pushed the MSA to its limits. Even when cranking the band’s “Rock, Rock (Till You Drop),” I remained impressed at the ease the MSA exhibited, even with its little red LED almost solid in appearance. The Nagra owner’s manual does not list the latter as a “clipping indicator,” per se, but as a warning that the output stage is passing more than 9 amps of current. I can push the PSA harder, but it was not as composed at the limit as the MSA. For those with more refined musical taste, the MSA should provide more than enough juice.

Balanced in all aspects of performance, the MSA excelled with pace and reproduction of inner detail. When listening to DEVO’s “Blockhead” from Duty Now For the Future, the underlying synth riff never got buried in the mix, as it’s wont to do with lesser amplifiers—especially during the chorus, when the band members yell “Blockhead!” Should classic DEVO not be your liking, Keith Jarrett basically achieves the same effect as he sings along in a trademark disjointed manner while playing piano.  During one of his improvisational bursts in “No Moon At All” from the 2010 duo album Jasmine, Jarrett’s voice floats right above the keys as it does when you hear him live. Since he uses a standard Steinway on the performance, it was easy to compare the tonality between the recorded instrument and my Steinway. The MSA displayed perfect tonal realism with acoustic instruments.

Furthermore, Charlie Haden plays bass on Jasmine, underscoring the MSA’s quick transient attack and delicacy. You can hear every move of Haden’s fingers sliding up and down the neck of the bass. And while the MSA was long on texture, it did not run out of steam when asked to produce prodigious bass, either. Playing deejay and spinning club-music favorites from Kruder and Dorfmeister, as well as the recent Hotel Costes 14, featuring some great tracks by Tosca, I was stunned at how well the diminutive amplifier controlled the woofers on my reference speakers.

But what takes the MSA into another realm is its ability to resolve subtle spatial cues. No matter what my choice of program material, I always managed to hear those little sonic treats that only come to life on the world’s finest amplifiers. An extra layer of guitar here, one more overdub there: These are the things you either forget about when using a lesser amplifier or, your brain attempts to fill in the gap. But when you hear them through your speakers, you know you are indeed listening to something special.

As it did with the other Nagra components with which I’ve paired it, the VFS platform ($1,925) added more clarity to the MSA’s overall presentation, most notably on low-level acoustic passages. Admittedly, the VFS did not make as dramatic of a difference with the MSA as it did with my VPS phono preamplifier, no doubt due to the vacuum tubes in the VPS being more sensitive to outside vibration. I highly recommend first getting intimately familiar with the MSA and auditioning the VFS at a later date.

Style and Performance

If you are looking for a high-performance music system that needs to fit in a compact space, I can’t suggest the MSA highly enough. This one is a precious jewel, offering a level of refinement only heard from some of the world’s best (and most expensive) solid-state power amplifiers. Adding the PL-L preamplifier makes for a genuinely formidable combination. And while 60 watts per channel isn’t everything to every audiophile, if you have a pair of speakers with the efficiency to optimally operate with this level of power, you will likely find the MSA an enchanting wonder.

Nagra MSA Power Amplifier

MSRP: $11,750  (VFS Platform, $1,925)


Analog Source Rega P9/Shelter 501II    Audio Research REF 2 Phono
Digital Source dCS Paganini Stack    Sooloos Music Server
Preamplifier Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Speakers GamuT S9    B&W 805D
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri

Silverline Audio Minuet Supreme Speakers

Mini-monitor speakers have long been audio’s little darlins—easy to place, reasonably prices, aesthetically pleasing. As evidenced by an unofficial website (,  the Rogers LS3/5a BBC monitors still inspire cult reverence. Not that longstanding judgments against small speakers have gone away. Critics maintain that they get lost in larger listening rooms, suffer from limited bass extension, and don’t generate enough air or image. Alan Yun apparently remains oblivious to such noise.  His company, Silverline Audio, a breeder of high-performance speakers, has given birth to the “runt” of the litter, the Minuet Supreme.

The Minuets Move In

Given the hernia-inducing weight of some high-end equipment, it was a welcome relief to receive a 15-pound carton that a mere mortal can easily hoist. While unpacking these little beauties, I was impressed with the handsome rosewood vinyl veneer, high-quality speaker terminals, and compact size (9″ x 5.5″ x 7.25″). On the surface, nothing seems unusual about the Minuets’ design. These are 2-way rear-ported bass reflex transducers with nominal 8-ohm impedance and claimed frequency response of 60–28,000 Hz. A 1″ silk dome tweeter and 3.25″ paper-pulp cone mid/woofer, protected by a removable black grille, cross over at 3500 Hz. The cabinets seem well braced, and yield a dull “donk” when rapped.

Setting up the Minuets was a piece of cake. They settled solidly, aided by Blu-Tack on my spiked 28″ Target speaker stands, loaded with 60 pounds of lead shot. The Minuets can be bi-wired, which is how I  hooked them  up for this review. After a few days of serious break-in, the Minuets wound up 5 feet from the front wall, 6 feet from each side wall, and 10 feet from the comfy couch in my 15’ x 21’ x 8’ listening room.  They were placed 8 feet apart, and angled about 30 degrees toward the listening position.  I did most of my listening with the grilles removed.  However, if you have curious children or pets, leave the grilles on; the small sonic differences are not worth risking any damage to the drivers. And sure, my front end electronics—Pass XP-20 preamp and XA-100.5 monoblocks—and associated interconnects, power cords, and speaker cables (Nordost Odin) were overkill. But I had to hear what the Minuets would do with my best stuff.

Minuets Sing and Dance

When first hearing a speaker, I want know how it reproduces small ensembles and solo instruments. Since small groups and soloists can actually fit into many listening rooms, playing such music remains my favorite assessment of the speaker’s ability to recreate “reality.” In handling Duke’s “In a Sentimental Mood” from Mark Levinson’s Live Recordings at Red Rose Music, the Minuets had Chico Freeman’s sax and George Cables’ piano sounding just as I imagined they would in an intimate lounge. Another test came courtesy of James Boyk playing Prokofiev’s challenging Sixth Piano Sonata off 20th Century Masters, a track that boasts great dynamic range and percussive effects. No sweat for the Minuets; the piano was life-sized and appropriately brilliant.

Good recordings of vocal groups help evaluate a speaker’s capacity to pick out individual players. I cranked up Ann Savoy and Her Sleepness Knights belting out “If Dreams Come True,” where Savoy sings upfront and is backed by violin, guitar, piano and upright bass. The Minuets had no trouble keeping tabs on each instrument, particularly the dancing bass. I continued with a big-band Latin number, the self-titled cut from Pacquito d’Rivera’s Tropicana Nights on Chesky Records, a 96kHz/24-bit download brimming with in-your-face dynamics and pace. The Minuets did the tricky salsa footwork without missing a step.

If I get lucky, a new component always leads to at least one magic moment. Aptly, the Minuets came through during the holiday season, when conveying the spaciousness of John Rutter’s “Nativity Carol” as performed by the San Francisco Choral Artists on Star of Wonder. The song features the natural warmth of a mixed chorus pitted against a hearty pipe organ in a large hall; Silverline Audio’s itsy-bitsy speakers never got lost reproducing the fantastic details.

Similarly demanding, Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” opens with a sustained subterranean organ pedal and low strings. Despite its age, Georg Solti’s 1958 Decca recording remains unsurpassed in its evocation of the primordial orchestral chords. I played the cut several times just to be sure that I wasn’t becoming delusional about the extended clean bass that the mighty mites emitted. Nope: A personal reference for 30 years, Sheila Jordan’s Sheila LP sounded as fresh and lifelike as ever, with Jordan’s voice and the accompanying upright bass right there in my room.

Maybe Size Doesn’t Matter

Totem Acoustic’s original Model 1s were the last mini-monitors to hold sway in my system. That was about 20 years ago. While I’ve always had a soft spot for the 1s, they never got me all the way up the stairway to audio heaven. The Totems handle upper and midrange quite well, but shortchange the bass extension and image size.

After living with the Minuets, I have good reason to rethink my opinion on mini-monitors. These little guys sound much larger than they have a right to sound. Voice reproduction, an important personal criterion for assessing a speaker, was warm and natural. High frequencies were extended in a good way, and not edgy or analytic, a compliment to Silverline Audio’s choice of tweeter and crossover implementation. The Minuets’ ample bass and astonishing height and depth of image came as huge surprises.

Of course, there are a few practical considerations that should be taken under advisement. The speakers can produce pretty big sound, but their sensitivity (88db) is lower than that of many larger speakers. Silverline recommends amplifiers ranging in power from 10–300 watts RMS. During the review, I substituted Pass amps with outputs of 30 to 150 watts per channel. Pushed to near- realistic levels, the Minuets sang best for their supper when fed by amps capable of at least 100 watts per side. Before purchase, try auditioning the speakers with your own amplifier to be sure it is juicy enough to properly drive them. And since the Minuets are light in weight, they require solid stands to provide critical isolation and stability.

The Minuets are not labeled “Supreme” for nothing. These proverbial little Davids weren’t embarrassed by anything I threw at them. No, you won’t get the huge soundstage made possible by big panels. But you will get fabulous sound in the critical octaves and a satisfying sense of space. For those interested in home theater applications, Silverline Audio makes a compatible center channel. Just add another pair of Minuets, season with a compact subwoofer, and sit back and enjoy. What a bargain.

Bel Canto e.One FM1 Tuner

We live in an era of audio contrasts. Digital disc players and music servers coexist with vinyl playback systems like lions and lambs. Reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks appear headed for white elephant status. FM radio, the only other major analog holdout, remains under siege from satellite and Internet broadcasting. So why bother with a new analog FM tuner?

I posed the question to John Stronczer, CEO of Bel Canto Design. A self-confessed FM fancier, he sees the creation of the FM1 as a “challenge,” a device that applies his company’s advances in digital-signal processing to taming the occasionally wild analog FM signal. Stronczer wisely resisted the temptation to “throw in” HD Radio because of its inferior compressed sound.  He’s convinced that there are enough audiophiles who will appreciate the fruits of Bel Canto’s labor and prefer the superiority of honest analog FM sound. The performance of the FM1 should prove him correct.

The Wonderful World of FM Radio

My long love affair with FM radio started with a Dynaco tuner in the 1960s and was fueled by stations like Chicago’s WFMT. Leaving the city’s bitter cold for Augusta, Georgia’s humid heat, I found that my FM options had also gone south. To fulfill the need for high quality cultural programming, I turned to two local public radio stations.  Unfortunately, they reside in the low rent district of the FM band. Their weaker signals led to the acquisition of quieter, more sensitive FM tuners—including those from Magnum Labs, Fanfare, Day Sequerra—and supporting them with excellent antennas.

Of course, listening habits change over time. After discovering digital music servers, I started spending more time with Internet radio and less with my beloved analog FM tuner. The good news about digital music servers is that they access thousands of radio stations that cover all genres. The bad news: highly compressed signals (usually 128 kbps or lower) that reduce frequency response and channel separation. While I didn’t miss analog FM’s snap, crackle, and pop, I missed its air and dynamics. Enter the FM1, Bel Canto’s first serious foray into the world of analog FM tuners.

FM1 Crosses My Threshold: The Magic Box

Aesthetically, the FM1 shares the compact, understated façade of its e.One stable mates.  A multifunction knob selects broadcast mode, station frequency (call letters and program data when available), and signal strength. The supplied remote can store 10 preset channels and controls other compatible Bel Canto equipment. Pushing the “tuner” button enables forward and reverse channel selection, operation display, and forced mono for noisy stations.

On the back, the rear panel is cleanly laid out. From left to right, there is a power switch; an input for the basic outboard power supply or optional VBS1 (virtual battery) and LNS1 (line power supply); XLR or RCA analog ouputs; an antenna input; an RS-232 control port; and bank of digital outputs (SPDIF/BNC, Toslink, and AES/EBU). The “magic” in this little box comes from its sophisticated digital signal processor (DSP) that massages the raw FM signal. After digital processing, the signal can be routed to analog or digital outputs (as a 96kHz/24-bit data stream). This onboard technology is an offshoot of Bel Canto’s extensive DSP research. I listened through both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs feeding my Pass preamp, and through the digital coaxial outputs into a PerfectWave DAC.

The most critical and time-consuming part of setting up the FM1 is described in the concise user’s guide under the heading “Choosing Your Antenna.” The supplied wire antenna is intended to ensure proper functioning of the FM1, but not for critical listening.  As my housing subdivision falls between rural and urban in terms of broadcast signal strength, I followed the company’s recommendations to the letter. I also placed a Magnum Labs Signal Sleuth between the antenna lead-in and the FM1. The Sleuth greatly aids the cause of public radio stations found at the far left of the FM band.

The Listening Sessions: The Sounds of Silence

It took nearly two hours to set up my two antennas. A Fanfare FM-2G antenna took turns with a Winegard multi-element Yagi, the latter as ideal for single-family homes as the former component is for apartment dwellers. The FM1 is more sensitive to antenna selection, orientation, and placement than just about any tuner I’ve used. I regretted not being able to use an oscilloscope to assist in the tedious but essential process of antenna adjustment. Fortunately, the FM1’s signal strength display readout on the front panel offers considerable help with antenna orientation.

Greater Augusta sports 18 analog FM stations that have Internet counterparts, enabling a direct comparison of both broadcast methods. The Fanfare whip antenna retrieved 12 stations suitable for listening; the Yagi got all 18 and was used for most of the critical sessions. While the FM1’s signal strength indicator ranges from 0 to 100, a reading of at least 40 is needed to prevent the tuner defaulting to Blend (reduced channel separation) mode. With either antenna, only 8 stations hit the necessary target: My two public radio favorites and six popular music stations.

FM noise, the Achilles heel of analog stereo broadcasts, was minimal for the strongest stations. Bel Canto’s latest design is the quietest tuner I’ve ever heard. Public radio stations sounded better than their pop counterparts that typically EQ their signal for “boom and sizzle” aimed at car and portable radios. The FM1 mercilessly exposed such differences in broadcast techniques, just as a good tuner should.

My “aha” moment came when comparing Internet broadcasts from a Logitech Squeezebox Touch connected to a PerfectWave DAC. The analog broadcasts had a slight hiss, but their air, imaging, and warmth easily bested that of the highest-quality digital stations. Voices sounded more natural on the FM1 and lacked the pervasive tubiness of many Internet sources.  After many A/B comparisons, I was hard pressed to detect a consistent difference between the FM1’s digital and analog outputs—both sounded excellent. Best overall sound came from balanced operation.

To further experiment, I retrieved my old Fanfare FM-1A from storage. After hooking it up to the same antennas and playing it through balanced outputs, the tuner picked up all of the stations that the Bel Canto unit captured. The Fanfare did a creditable job with dynamics and imaging, yet its noise level, even on the best stations, registered noticeably higher than that of the Bel Canto and intruded on my enjoyment of the music.

Signing Off

Like a first date, many of us fondly remember FM radio as a gateway to new life experiences. The top FM stations had the best sound and programming capacity that went far beyond that of our home music libraries. These stations also served up rare recordings and live concert broadcasts.

So, before you conclude that $1500 is too steep an admission price, consider that it’s a one-time cash outlay compared to the ongoing and rising expense of annual digital subscriptions with high-speed Internet portals. And, in the end, remember, you’re footing the bill for lower fidelity.

Bel Canto’s FM1 is evolutionary in its handling of FM noise. It breathes new life into your stereo system, regardless of its vintage or price point. Analog FM remains a viable audio option, and will be around for the foreseeable future. If you live in a metro area blessed with strong, clear FM stations and highly varied programming, the FM1 presents one of the best modern arguments in support of the radio medium that I’ve ever heard.

Bel Canto e.One  FM1  FM Tuner

MSRP: $1,495


Digital Sources Esoteric P-03    D-03    G-Orb    UX-Pi    Logitech Squeezebox Touch     Meridian Sooloos   PS Audio PerfectWave
Analog Sources VPI HRX w/12.7 arm, Rim Drive    VPI Aries w/10.5i arm, flywheel, SDS Controllers
Phono Cartridges Clearaudio Goldfinger v.2    Clearaudio Stradivari
Phono Preamplifiers Pass XP-25, XP-15
Preamplifiers Pass XP-20    Lexicon 12HD-B
Power Amplifiers Pass XA-100.5    Pass X-3
Speakers Martin Logan CLX, Stage, Script-I, Descent-I (2), Descent (2)
Interconnects Nordost Odin and Valhalla
Speaker Cable Nordost Odin
Power Cords/Conditioning Nordost Odin and Valhalla    Running Springs Audio Dmitri and Maxim
Vibration Control Black Diamond Racing
Room Treatment Echo Buster, Corner Busters, Bass Busters, Double Busters

ZZ Top – Deguello

I was a little scared to lower the tonearm on Rhino’s pressing of this 1979 set after my dreadful experience with Rio Grande Mud, but this one brought my faith back. (This leads me to believe that my copy of Rio Grande Mud is defective. I’ve had much better than average luck with audiophile pressings over the years, so perhaps my number was up.) Everything you love about ZZ Top is here in spades: big blazing guitar riffs, grumbling bass lines, and powerful albeit sparse drumming that has made this band famous. How can you not love a record that not only features “Cheap Sunglasses” and “I’m Bad I’m Nationwide” as well as deep cuts such as “Hi Fi Mama” and “A Fool For Your Stockings?” While some might dismiss the fare as party music, the playing on Deguello is top-notch, replete with guitar sounds that could easily be mistaken as those of Stevie Ray Vaughan. When these guys weren’t clowning around, they were damn good musicians.

Dusting off the original pressing revealed an overall flatness and fairly high level of surface noise. The new Rhino version offers mega dynamics, with Gibbons’ guitar cutting through the grunge and now front and center. Frank Beard’s drumming is also much cleaner, with the cymbals enjoying huge helpings of decay and smoothness.

My only complaint? Rhino didn’t pay the same level of attention to the album’s packaging as it did with Rio Grande Mud. The cover came apart in my hands as I removed it from the shrinkwrap. Tough to swallow for collectors that really obsess over replication, and for $25, we deserve better.  –Jeff Dorgay

Rhino, 180g LP

ZZ Top – Rio Grande Mud

Back before the two front men in ZZ Top had massive beards and kicked their space shuttle into autopilot, the Texas trio really rocked. Need evidence? The band’s second album, Rio Grande Mud, is a blues-rock powerhouse. Bassist Dusty Hill’s rendition of “Francine” sounds like Ted Nugent turned up to 12, and guitarist Billy Gibbons demonstrates serious grit.

Unfortunately, this record is flat. While the sticker on the cover talks about all the care that went into the pressing, the highs are muffled and shallow. It sounds like the LP was transferred from a cassette tape, not a master tape. If the label read “Friday Music,” I wouldn’t be so surprised, but given that Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman did the work and claims an excellent track record, I’m reserving judgment until another copy is procured. -Jeff Dorgay

Rhino, 180g LP

Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever

Bolstered with confidence from my recent experience with Friday Music’s remaster of Robin Trower’s Bridge of Sighs, I decided to give the label’s offerings another spin, especially considering it just pulled another one of my 70s favorites out of the vault: Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever, the record that in 1977 made the Nuge an ubiquitous presence on rock radio.

A quick switch between the Friday version and my early stamper original reveals the former being quieter and smoother—definitely a job well done by Kevin Gray this time. While most of us have heard the title track more than enough, Cat Scratch Fever boasts a handful of great tunes that did not get much airplay before 10 p.m. Thanks to the extra air on “Death By Misadventure,” you’ll now hear more drumming finesse as well as a few extra layers of background vocals where, previously, there was only one fat background vocal track. And “Live it Up” has way more cowbell than on the original. (I’m not kidding.)

Combine these improvements with dead-quiet surfaces and zero inner-groove distortion, and the results maximize the heaviness of this rock classic; Friday’s edition is a major success. Let’s hope Gray and Co. soon get their hands on Free For All and Ted Nugent. That said, the packaging is sub par. The cover is dreadfully reproduced, very yellow with so much contrast it looks like the color separations were made from a color copy made at Kinko’s. But I’m guessing you aren’t buying a remastered copy of Cat Scratch Fever for the album art.  – Jeff Dorgay

Friday Music, 180g LP

The B-52’s – The B-52’s

Much as I love the B-52’s, I forgot just how awful this record sounded. And really, there’s excuse for the shortcomings. In 1979, the CD was still years away, but you’d never guess by giving this new wave classic a cursory listen. Compression is king; cymbals are crunchy and the soundstage is flat and two-dimensional. To make matters worse, the group’s signature “Rock Lobster” tune is plagued with inner-groove distortion. Arrgh.

MoFi’s Silver Label version instantly trounces the standard issue pressing. During the opening “Planet Claire,” there’s a great bongo track that is all but lost in the mix on the original. The remaster gives the aforementioned instruments plenty of room to breathe along with the vocal tracks. This pressing has oodles of bass energy; by comparison, the original sounds like a system with the subwoofer off and seems to roll off around 80hz with no weight. (Like all of the early Van Halen albums.)

And “Rock Lobster” now sounds incredible. Vocalists Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson now have a much more distinct sound, especially when experienced after hearing the original pressing, on which they just blend in to be one, fat vocal track. And all traces of inner-groove distortion are banished on both sides of the LP, a testament to the care put into this pressing.

MoFi’s Silver Label is just getting started; the label has many interesting titles in the queue. Who needs another copy of Kind of Blue anyway?  -Jeff Dorgay

MoFi Silver Label, 140g LP

INXS – Kick

It’s somewhat ironic that MoFi kicked off its new Silver Label with a mainstream pop title, but a sense of humor is always welcome in this wacky business. According to Josh Bizar, head of marketing for Music Direct, owners of the MoFi label, “While we can’t always put our hands on the original master tape for the Silver Series, as we do with our standard pressings, we get as close as we can, and on some of these records, we’ve actually managed to get the original master. The big difference is that these records are mastered and cut in real time on 140g vinyl instead of 180g vinyl. The quality is still to the high level you’ve come to expect from MoFi.”

When Kick was released in 1987, the LP was on its way out the out door, and though many records were still recorded and mastered on analog tape, most of the vinyl getting pressed was mediocre at best. Originally produced by Chris Thomas (Pretenders, Elvis Costello) and mixed by Bob Clearmountain (Van Halen, Doobie Brothers), Kick proved no exception; revisiting my original pressing revealed CD-like sound, with healthy doses of compression and treble boost. MoFi’s version still has a touch of HF boost, but it’s a huge improvement over the analog original and miles ahead of the CD. The radio and MTV classic “Need You Tonight” doesn’t even feel like the same tune. Replete with added spaciousness, you can hear lead singer Michael Hutchinson’s vocal stylings much easier and, like the rest of the album, there is now a healthy dose of LF energy.  The bass is consistently heavier throughout, giving this record a much fuller sound, perhaps the most so on “Mystified” and “New Sensation.”

Should you find yourself in a totally 80s mood, Kick is fun to revisit as it’s chock full of familiar hits and finds INXS was at the top of its game. It’s amazing at how much more music there’s on this record that many of us never heard the first time around. And after spinning both sides, it’s clear that MoFi has kept their promise. The surfaces are just as quiet as any of the label’s recent half-speed-mastered LPs, and while the latter still possess extra degrees of ultimate smoothness, the results are excellent and worthy of your hard-earned cash.  And for any collectors concerned about cover quality, the printing is first-rate, too.  – Jeff Dorgay

MoFi Silver Label, 140g LP

Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean

Though not a remastered album, the newest record from Iron & Wine is certainly produced to high audiophile standards. Mastered by Greg Calbi, Sam Beam and Co.’s latest has much more of a pop feel than his past effort, The Shepherd’s Dog, which possesses more of a folk/Americana flavor. Longtime fans may even be taken back at the approach, which at times takes a turn down a highly ambient path. Those encountering Iron & Wine for the first time may be equally surprised, provided they explore the group’s earlier works.

If you didn’t know better, you might think Brian Eno had a hand in this record instead of resident Iron and Wine producer Brian Deck. It’s a very cool departure, but Beam doesn’t go so far out of his orbit to completely abandon the sound that originally put him on the mainstream radar a few years ago. A cursory listen to “Half Moon” anchors you to the band’s past.

And the recording quality is outstanding. Calbi has taken care not to push up the levels and squeeze the life out of the intimate recording. From the start, on the opening “Walking Far From Home,” the bass rattles the floor while the entire record has a very wide, lush soundstage reminiscent of the best studio creations of the 70s.

As a bonus, a CD is included for the iPod and music server generation. Once again, it’s nice to see the major labels nail it. And with vinyl sales up again in 2010, it would be great to see the $20 LP-and-CD combination become the norm. Sign me up. – Jeff Dorgay

Warner Bros., 180g LP and CD

Art Pepper – The Complete Art Pepper At Ronnie Scott’s Club: London 1980

Pure Pleasure always does a great job of bringing obscure treasures to light. In the case of rescuing Art Pepper’s legendary shows at Ronnie Scott’s in 1980, the label has struck pure gold. Originally recorded for the long-defunct Mole Records, these records became nearly impossible to find and, if you did manage to locate them, incredibly expensive. This remastered 7LP set includes both Mole releases as well as 17 previously unreleased tracks, courtesy of Pepper’s wife having uncovered the lost material.

The performances are simply fantastic. Pepper’s playing is awash in nuance, and the Milcho Leviev Quartet is in constant sync with the saxophone master. Moreover, the audience is so quiet that you almost forget the music is played before a crowd. And, there’s only a slight duplication of material, with “Red Car” and “Ophelia” played at both the June 27 and 28 shows. However, the different renditions, performed on back-to-back days, reveal Pepper’s genius. His audience banter, also preserved on the albums, adds to the fun and realism.

As for the sound? Studio-like, with the venue’s dimensions perfectly recreated. All 14 LP sides are immaculately clean; not a click or a pop anywhere, and BIG dynamics throughout. Better still, the liner notes claim that the records were made “using multi-microphones in a straight stereo mix with no noise reduction, limiting, compression or EQ.”

The set also includes a booklet with photos, program notes, and commentary—great for any aficionado. Whether you are a completist that owns practically everything, or a relative newcomer to jazz or analog, this box set should be in your collection. -Jeff Dorgay

Pure Pleasure Records, 7LP Box Set