Chord QBD76 DAC

The Chord company has always been well-known for highly advanced aesthetic design in addition to advanced circuitry, and their QBD76 is no different.  A small but densely packed box with a unique shape, one of the QBD76’s claims to fame is the myriad of inputs it puts at your disposal.  While it features a pair of coax SPDIF inputs and a pair of Toslink optical inputs, there is also a USB input and a pair of balanced AES inputs (so that you can use the QBD76 in Dual Data mode).  But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the QBD76 is its Bluetooth input – that antenna you see is not for a wifi connection.  It allows your smart phone to transmit its digital music stream straight to your system.

This diminutive DAC feels even heavier than its 15.5 pound (7kg) weight spec would suggest.  Made from a solid billet of aluminum, the QBD76 has the same high level of quality that all Chord products share.  It is available in a standard polished silver finish, black anodized and a “brilliant” finish as an extra-cost option.  Described on the Chord website as “Audiophile jewelry for the home,” this finish looks as if the DAC has been chrome plated.  Very attractive, if that’s your thing, but also very susceptible to fingerprints.  MSRP on a standard finish QBD76 is $6,295.

Chord, of course, claims that this is “the World’s most technically advanced DAC,”  pointing to their use of field-programmable gate arrays (as does dCS) to perform the digital processing via software and much higher processing power than a standard, off-the-shelf DAC chipset would provide. This is a great approach because as digital technology upgrades, the processor will only need a software upgrade, making it ultimately less prone to becoming outdated.  They also claim that this is the only DAC to offer eighth-order noise shaping, resulting in better dynamics and 2,608 times oversampling and digital filtering.


On a few levels, this piece of gear is almost too Zen for its own good, and as is typical with way too much expensive HiFi gear these days, the instruction manual is equally cryptic. I thought my dCS stack was a bit tough to get around with the small type on the front panel, but at least it has a large LCD panel on each of its four boxes.  This is not a piece of gear that you will be able to operate right out of the box without first reading the the manual.

Looking directly overhead at the top panel, there is a large, round window that lets you peer inside the QBD76, which has a very cool, blue glow.  There is another, smaller round window that lets you see the various functions as you choose them with the unmarked buttons.  Should you be the type of user who plugs in a source or two and forgets about it, you will get over these minor quirks easily.

The sheer number of digital inputs is a nice touch because as more audiophiles gravitate towards computer playback of some kind, the DAC is rapidly becoming the central hub of their system, much as the preamplifier used to be.  Also impressive is the QBD76’s ability to drive two systems, one through the XLR outputs and one through the RCA’s, so  you could use it as a source for two systems without issue.

All of the inputs automatically sense the bit depth and sample rate of the incoming signal and adjust accordingly.  There is no option to bypass the oversamping and just play the digital signal in its native form, so this may be somewhat off putting to some digital purists.

I made it a point to run the QBD76 through its paces with everything from my dCS Paganini transport all the way down to my iPhone and aging Denon 3910 universal player to get a feel for its performance with a wide range of digital sources.  At least half of my listening was done with the Sooloos and Naim music servers, with a variety of files from 16/44 all the way up to 24/196.  While on loan from dCS, I also made it a point to play some 24/192 files with the dual-channel configuration.  As with my reference Paganini, this provided the most lifelike digital reproduction.

Though I am not usually prone to much tweaky system tuning with cables, etc., the QBD responded more to this treatment than any other piece of digital hardware I’ve used in recent memory.  This one definitely responded to power conditioning and a good power cord, so consider at least upgrading the stock cord on this unit and you will be rewarded. Though I used Shunyata’s Python CX power cord for most of my listening, even upgrading the stock power cord to their $125 Venom 3 made a very worthwhile improvement in HF smoothness and timing.

A highly resolving component

Massive processing horsepower under the hood certainly made for an impressive amount of data retrieval.  Having quite a wide range of digital hardware at my disposal, I was instantly impressed at this aspect of the Chord’s performance.  If I were going to make an initial comparison to the analog world, the Naim CD 555 is more like a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, the dCS Paganini like a Dynavector XV-1s and the Chord like a Clearaudio DaVinci.

Especially when listening to high-resolution source files, I was intrigued with the tiny nuances available from the Chord, and I would highly suggest investigating the buffer options; I felt the maximum buffer made for the smoothest sound, but your mileage may vary.  “Still…You Turn Me On” from Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery had a degree of texture in the low bass that I’ve never heard in my system to this extent.   I noticed that extra bit of bass texture in a few of my favorite Naim 24/96 downloads and the Mickey Hart Planet Drum and At The Edge CDs.  Again, making a quick comparison with the analog world, the Chord DAC’s bass characteristic reminded me of the Continuum Criterion we reviewed in 2008; there was a level of texture in the bass response that was simply stunning.

In terms of comparing the Chord to a few of the world’s top digital players (all costing considerably more than the QBD76, but if you are going to claim you make the best box, it’s fair game to compare with the big boys), it still falls short in terms of the ultimate weight possessed by the top players from Naim, Wadia and dCS that I had on hand.  Think of the QBD76 as a hyper performance 600cc sport bike, not a 1-liter bike.  An experienced rider can get it around the track almost as fast as the big bikes, but you’re working the bike 100 percent all the time.  Listening to full-scale orchestral pieces from Mahler and Shostakovich, I was able to hear well into the hall and get a great read on its acoustics, but the big crescendos left me wanting a little more. But again to quantify more accurately, my GamuT S9’s are solid down to 17 hz.

In all fairness to the Chord, if I were merely comparing the WBD76 with other examples I’ve heard in the equivalent price range, it would be tops in class. But when compared with the five-figure players, I knew there was more “oomph” to be had.

The double edged sword of high resolution

The other aspect of the Chord’s performance that will either be a perfect fit or the straw that breaks the camel’s back is its ultimate tonality combined with all that resolution. I’ve been accused of liking a tonal balance that’s slightly on the warm side of neutral, so any potential buyer should take this into consideration when reading my evaluations.  Even in my second system, which currently consists of a vacuum-tube version of the McIntosh MC500 preamplifier and the MC1.2k power amplifiers, I still always felt like I was listening to a digital source.

Though I found the Chord visceral and exciting with excellent pace, in my reference system, I could never relax and forget that I was listening to digital, as I have been able to with a few other top players.  I didn’t really see this as a negative for the QBD76, as I’ve never experienced this level of playback in any digital player below the $12k range, so it was not a disappointment.

Where I did find the Chord to be a perfect match was when I swapped the solid-state MC1.2kw’s for the vacuum-tube MC275 power amplifier in my third system, which consists of all vintage CJ gear, and it definitely voiced on the warm side of the fence and actually somewhat romantic and lush, if  you will.  Where a lot of other digital players sounded veiled and grainy, the Chord was a nice match, with the extra helping of resolution a solid plus.  Two of my other staff reviewers who are predisposed to liking a bit more detail in their presentation were absolutely smitten by the QBD76.  One of them regularly referred to my Naim CD555 as “dark,” so the beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Other features

I must admit that being able to mate my iPhone to my HiFi system without any wires and let my friends do the same is very cool, so the Bluetooth access of the QBD76 was very useful.  This feature is by far the perfect ice breaker at a party because friends always want to hear their own music when they drop by.  I would love to see this functionality in everyone’s HiFi system.

As I mentioned earlier, the multiple inputs on this DAC make it extremely easy to use the QBD76 as a digital hub and for comparing multiple sources.  Near the end of the review, I had one computer connected via USB, one via Toslink and two transports connected to the SPDIF inputs.  Those who have a modestly priced CD player will be instantly impressed at how much more performance they can get from their system should they not want to abandon physical media right away.  I was having a ton of fun using a Rega Planet CD player and a Mac Mini running Amarra through the QBD76.


As with any component at this price point, I would suggest a demo in your system to make sure the tonality is synergistic with your system.  Warm and romantic it isn’t, but it isn’t harsh or grainy either.  The Chord QBD76 will not embellish the more raggedy-sounding discs in your collection, but it will reveal some pleasant surprises in your best recordings.  Highly recommended.

The Chord QBD76 DAC

MSRP:  $6,295


North American Distributor:


Preamplifiers Burmester 011    McIntosh C500    Conrad Johnson ET3SE
Power Amplifiers Burmester 911 mk. 3    McIntosh MC275    McIntosh MC1.2kw Monoblocks   Conrad Johnson MV50-C1    Octave ME130 monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    MartinLogan CLX    Estelon EX    Harbeth Monitor 40.1    B&W 805D (w/Gotham Subwoofer)
Cable Shunyata Aurora I/C    Shunyata Stratos SP speaker cable    Cardas Clear I/C and speaker cable    Audioquest Wild Blue Yonder I/C and speaker cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim PLC’s    RSA and Shunyata power cords

Furutech GT40

I always enjoy teasing our publisher about the validity of five-figure gear and his recent obsession with the dCS Paganini stack.  Sure, it’s great for $60k – it should be for that kind of money.  But what about something for the budding audiophile, or even the veteran audiophile who has to live within a reasonable budget?  As I was pleading my case upon the last visit to the TONE studio, he just smiled and placed the Furutech GT40 in my hand.  “Check this out. It’s a phono preamp (MM and MC, no less), an analog-to-digital converter (24 bit/96khz) and a DAC.  Has a pretty good headphone amp, too, and you can use it as a linestage.  How’s that for just under $500?”

To be exact, $480. Though it weighs only about a pound, it feels solidly built with a nicely finished case and precisely machined volume control.  Around back, there is a pair of gold-plated RCA jacks that can be switched between MM phono, MC Phono or line level for the single input.  There is also a USB 2.0 input and a socket for the 9V AC wall wart.  That’s how they keep it so small – no power supply under the hood.

It really does it all

After putting the GT40 through its paces one function at a time, I found that it performs all of its tasks well and has no weaknesses.  The DAC and phono stage alone are easily worth the asking price.  Breaking this down, what kind of a phono stage would you get for $120?  Or DAC, Headphone Amp or ADC?  The GT40 is a bargain indeed, and after spending about an hour with it, you can see why we awarded it one of our Product of the Year awards in the budget category.

Keeping in the budget-system mode, the GT40 was used in a system comprised of a pair of Vandersteen 1C speakers, Technics SL1200 turntable (with Grado Red MM cart and Denon 103 MC cart) along with a recently refurbished Dynaco Stereo 70 and Dynaco PAS 3 preamplifier.  The GT40 was also used with a handful of aging CD players to see how it performs as an upgrade, as well as my HP Netbook to see well it captures and plays back digital files.

Gives great phono

After reviewing more than my share of inexpensive phono stages this year, I’d easily pay $400-500 just for the GT40, if it would only perform this function.  MM performance is good, but the MC performance is even better. Or perhaps the synergy between it and the Denon 103R cartridge was amazing.  This tiny preamp had great dynamics and drive, and my inner tweakophile kept wondering what the GT 40 would sound like with a massive power supply. As this had to be returned to Furutech, I kept the soldering iron safely locked away.  Playing a few of my favorite Joni Mitchell records, I was highly impressed with the lack of grain that was present.  While the sound wasn’t as warm as a tube phono preamplifier, it was definitely not clinical and dry.  Always good news at the lower end of the analog spectrum.  And thanks to no vacuum tubes under the hood, the GT40 is extremely quiet.  Quiet tube anything means a sophisticated power supply, and you can only get so much for five hundred bucks.


The Digital performance, both for capture and playback, was equally impressive.  The GT40 easily had enough resolution on tap to distinguish between my latest treasures from HD Tracks and their 16/44 equivalents.  The coolest thing about the GT40, though, is that you can use it as an analog-to digital-converter, going straight from your turntable into the sound-capture program of your choice.  A free download of Audacity did the job nicely and kept the cost of digitizing vinyl reasonable.  Again, if you’re looking for a modestly priced ADC, the GT40 is worth the asking price if you do nothing more than this with it.

A linestage too?

As much fun as it was trying out the GT40’s functions, I think the most fun I had with it was driving my Dynaco Stereo 70 direct.  It had no problem driving a 10-foot pair of DH Labs interconnects from the shelf where my SL-1200 resides, and it was a great conversation starter.  None of my more musically inclined buddies could believe I was running my system with “that little thing.”  For an audiophile on a tight budget who would like to use a budget turntable for analog and their laptop (or perhaps a Wadia 170i) as a digital source, the GT40 is tough to beat.

As mentioned at the beginning of the review, there’s a headphone amp as well, which leads to another great use for the GT40; it’s the perfect desktop component.  Thanks to the small size, there’s no desk on which it won’t fit, and if you live in cube world, it’s easy to slip in your briefcase and take home at the end of the day.  All the nerdtrons at work were very jealous of the GT40/Grado RS-1 combination; I had to bring it home with me at the end of the day or it would have disappeared.

A definite overachiever

The Furutech GT40 could very well be one of the best bargains in high-end audio today.  I heartily suggest buying one ASAP before Furutech decides to raise the price.  If they put it in a bigger box and tripled the price, you’d still be impressed with it.  And those of you with five- and six-figure systems, you need one, too.  You’d be amazed at how handy it is to have a DAC, ADC, phono preamp, headphone amp and linestage all in one tiny box.  Our publisher and I will probably have a wrestling match to decide who gets to keep this one!  – Jerold O’Brien

Kate Bush – The Sensual World

Following up its excellent remaster of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray turn in another winner with this new version of The Sensual World, the subsequent album in the singer’s catalog. While it didn’t enjoy as much commercial success, the effort stands as more of a severe creative undertaking, seeing Bush took four years to complete it.

By the time the album was finally released in 1989, CD was in full force and LPs had all but disappeared from record-store shelves. The original pressing possesses a big, punchy, highly processed sound that was all the rage in the late 80s, with plenty of strings and synthesizers in the mix. Cleaning up most of the grunge, Audio Fidelity’s edition takes it all a step further: Added dimensionality gives the music and production the feel of coming across like a good surround sound mix that, of course, you only need two channels to hear.

A slight bit of glare in the high frequencies suggests that this record may have been originally recorded on a digital tape recorder. This effect is much less noticeable here than on the original pressing, but The Sensual World is not as sultry-sounding as the Hounds of Love reissue. Still, the massive amount of low-frequency energy handily surpasses that on the original, lending real weight to the synth bass lines present on a majority of tracks. And, David Gilmour’s guitar solo on “Rocket’s Tail” claims more energy than the original.

The Sensual World is a worthwhile addition to any totally 80s collection, and while it doesn’t contribute to the sound quality, the label did a phenomenal job of reprinting the cover art. With so many $50 reissues cutting corners on jacket presentation, it’s nice to see packaging given due respect and the price held in line at $29.95.  -Jeff Dorgay

Audio Fidelity, 180g LP

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington – Ella and Duke at the Cote D’Azur

Somewhere between the original 2LP set and 1998 “Full Concert Release” on Verve, we have Mosaic’s 3LP set of Ella and Duke at the Cote D’Azur. The audiophile imprint’s new version encompasses the two original records plus the Duke Ellington album Soul Call, produced from the same French concerts recorded live to two-track tape in Juan-les-Pines between late June and July, 1966. Interestingly, the Mosaic website states that there is no engineer credit available for the mystery man that painstakingly captured these performances. But Kevin Gray at RTI took great care to get the tunes to vinyl, and the results are spectacular. By comparison, Verve’s CD reissues are flat and strident.

Tackling jazz standards such as “Misty,” “Mack the Knife,” and the Gershwin’s’ “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” along with a sultry rendition of  “Goin’ Out of My Head,” Fitzgerald is in top form. No matter the tempo, she delivers a more unrestrained performance than what’s experienced on her studio sessions. It’s a treat.

The Mosaic staff is to be commended for giving this jazz classic the treatment it deserves, not only restoring the sonics, but also including a booklet with rare photos and excellent liner notes.  Like last year’s Complete Thelonius Monk at the It Club, the set is limited to 5000 copies. Grab this piece of history before it’s gone. -Jeff Dorgay

Mosaic, 180g 3LP Box Set

Little Feat – Waiting For Columbus

Little Feat is a lot like the Dave Matthews Band in several regards. At heart, the group was a jam-oriented band comprised of excellent players. And just as every 90s frat party seemingly required a few Matthews records, so, too, did every 70s college soiree demand at least two Little Feat albums. Usually, the latter involved Waiting For Columbus. Recorded live in London and Washington D.C. in August of 1977, and regarded by many as one of the best live records of the era, the effort captures Feat at the peak of its career. Less than two years later, bandleader Lowell George would be dead.

The two-record set highlights a fairly random mix of tunes from the band’s first five albums, including the party anthem “Don’t Bogart That Joint.” It’s a fantastic showcase for the group’s evolution from roots rockers to a New Orleans boogie style unit to an ensemble that finished its main career as jazz-fusionists.

If you are a Feat fan and do not have this record, now is the time to get it. Mobile Fidelity’s 24k CD, while not quite as smooth as the 180g vinyl, is much better than all but the earliest pressings of standard vinyl. The audiophile label also produced copies of this record in the early 80s on 140g JVC “super vinyl” (as they all were back then). Sealed copies sell for around $125, with good-condition used copies regularly fetching $45-$65. Pocket the difference and buy the new version, as the student has eclipsed the master.

Yes, Stan Ricker did a great job on the original, but current MoFi engineer Shawn Britton aced this one. If you already have the original in your collection, you won’t be missing out if you don’t buy the newly minted pressing. However, for those that take the plunge, the current version has an even smoother high end and improved soundstage width and depth. The surfaces are dead quiet, again exhibiting MoFi’s fanatic level of pressing quality. Feat will not fail you on this release, no matter what format you choose.  -Jeff Dorgay

MoFi 180g 2LP set or 24kt CD

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Indestructible

Big, bold jazz demands big, bold grooves. Music Matters delivers that and more on Indestructible. The record starts with a giant drum thwack from Art Blakey and, immediately, the opening “The Egyptian” roars out of the speakers.

Throughout, the interplay between trumpeter Lee Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter pins you back in your couch as well as any Metallica record. This LP has big—no, huge—dynamics.  Indestructible takes your system and senses to the limit. And as much fun as the dynamic outbursts are, the most telling clue pertaining to sonic accuracy comes when Blakey slams his drumstick against the side of his snare. Percussion doesn’t sound any more realistic than that. It’s easy to see why Music Matters’ Ron Rambach cites this masterpiece as one of his all-time favorites. It’s fast becoming one of mine, as well. Begin or continue your exploration of bop here.  -Jeff Dorgay

Music Matters, 180g 45RPM 2LP

Marshall Major Headphones

Go to just about any rock concert and you’re bound to see a stack of Marshall amplifiers onstage. Due to their sound and reliability, countless musicians have relied on them for nearly 50 years. And while Marshall continues to comfortably dominate the guitar amp world, the company recently set its sights on shaking up in the mainstream headphone market. The legendary brand’s latest creation is the Major headphones, which redefine what most listeners will expect from $99 headphones.

With the Major, Marshall designed a stylish albeit rugged headphone that consumers will instantly associate with its legendary amplifiers. It all starts with the square earpieces, which replicate the physical shape of Marshall’s amplifiers. The vinyl is the same that’s used in the amplifiers, and the manufacturer went as far as to put the same texture on the earpieces. Fit and finish are exceptional. To ensure comfort, Marshall utilizes a soft faux-leather on the earpieces and on the inner side of the headband. The cord sports one of the best-designed plugs you’ll encounter in this price range. A gold-plated plug is over-designed to ensure longevity, and includes a spring to ease tension so that the cord doesn’t prematurely wear out.  Marshall also includes a 6.3mm adapter so that users can hook the Major up to a traditional headphone amplifier. The Major collapses for easy and safe storage.

Packing a solid punch, the Major sounded very natural with every type of music I played. Much like Marshall amplifiers, its overall sound character leans a bit towards the warm side, yet the latter characteristic doesn’t subtract from the sound. In fact, it helped create an overall smoothness that allowed long listening sessions to be non-fatiguing. And these headphones are faithful to the source. They let you hear everything on a recording, but do it in a way that isn’t clinical. We all know that there’s nothing worse than a hi-fi product that sounds like it is mining for information.

For example, on Oasis’s “The Masterplan,” off Stop the Clocks, Liam Gallagher’s vocals sounded exceptional. An enhanced sense of body brought the vocals to life and made them sound extremely realistic. There’s a lot happening in the song, but the Major never hid anything. I distinctly heard all the instruments and their associated subtle nuances, aspects that both added to the performance and drew me in. Changing gears, I turned to the Scorpions’ “No One Like You” from Blackout. The killer guitar work on the song proved that the Major possessed a clear and extended treble—never harsh or shrill, never rolled off. No, it wasn’t the most airy and sweet sounding, but still very good. I found myself listening to a wide variety of music with these headphones, and they handled every genre with ease. When I played White Lies’ “Death” from the band’s To Lose a Life album, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the bass.  This song is driven by a bass rhythm, and all the notes claimed solid weight and impact.

If you have low-resolution MP3 files, don’t worry, as they’ll sound very good via the Major. I had no problem listening to some of my lower-quality music files; I just lost a level of realism when I did. When I hooked the Major up to my Peachtree Audio headphone amplifier, the sound quality jumped in every conceivable area. Still, you can get legitimate hi-fi sound from the headphones even if only using a standard iPod.

Of course, the Major isn’t perfect. I really enjoyed the headphones’ sound quality, but noticed that the midrange sounded like it was tuned 1dB lower than the bass and treble, and didn’t have as much presence. In addition, while I liked the style of the square-shaped earpieces, the design didn’t prove to be comfortable for long-term listening. Marshall is trying to draw comparisons to its amplifiers, but a square design isn’t the best shape for ears.

That said, Marshall exceeds expectations with the Major. The level of refinement is exceptional, and the sound is smooth and clear, with extended highs and deep bass. Moreover, the model is built to a standard rarely seen at this price. At $99, the Major constitutes bargain. If you are looking for a huge upgrade at an affordable price, these headphones should be on your short list.  –Kevin Gallucci

Marshall Major Headphones

MSRP: $99

WESC Banjo Headphones

What happens when trendy street fashion gets crossed with headphone design? Nothing less than WESC (WeAretheSuperlativeConspiracy) Banjo headphones. WESC is a Swedish clothing company that sets itself apart by creating its own design trends. Extending its reach to the burgeoning headphone market, the firm recently launched a range of headphones for consumers that want to listen to their tunes in style. Banjo ‘phones represent a modern twist on traditional designs and are unlike most models you see on the street.

The Banjo clearly embodies simplicity, as the headphones are very minimalist and available in a variety of bold colors. My review sample came in Hot Orange, which appropriately describes the 80s throwback color. These are headphones that definitely scream, “LOOK AT ME!” Build quality, however, is average. The earpieces are an on-ear design and modestly comfortable, but the cushions could be softer and plastic coating a bit thicker. The materials feel budget, but for $54, you are not going to get Rolex quality. Intuitively, the headphone cord comes in two pieces and can be shortened so listeners don’t have to deal with any excess cord. Also, WESC included a pause button on the cord, so users can turn off their music without digging out their iPod player–a nice feature given the growing size of handbags and backpacks.

Sound quality is what you might expect for the price. The Banjo uses 40mm power drivers in a closed-back design. Sonics don’t fall in the hi-fi category, but they aren’t of stock Apple earbud variety, either. Listening to “Doll Parts” on Hole’s Live Through This yielded a presentation that fell somewhat short of natural-sounding. The headphones are far from grainy or harsh, but their overall sound is slightly processed. Courtney Love’s vocals lacked the realism afforded by hi-fi headphones. However, I was impressed with the transparency, and clearly heard all the instruments. It helped compensate for the uneven natural sound character, seemingly a result of degradation most likely caused by poor crossover design or budget-made drivers.

Changing pace, I tossed on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” from Thriller and was taken with the treble. The guitar solo possessed satisfying detail, and the highs sounded crisp. Ditto for Jackson’s upper register, which sounded extended and smooth. Unfortunately, this track suffered from the same problems encountered with Hole, the presentation just slightly off and unnatural. Keeping with the Jackson theme, I listened to OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” from the group’s breakout Stankonia and came away very satisfied with the headphones’ ample bass. My nitpick is that it wasn’t very tight and controlled, and thus, verged on boomy. The opening drums also lacked definition, showing again that the bass was sufficient but lacked desired control.

I wasn’t blown away by the Banjo, but for the budget consumer looking to upgrade from their flimsy iPod ear buds, the WESC represents a fine option. The Banjo has several pluses–as well as definite minuses. Capable of smooth, extended highs and decent transparency, the headphones lack the natural sound that’s a must for realistic sound reproduction. A middle-of-the-road model, the Banjo is better sounding than stock earpieces but doesn’t have the chops to compete with genuine hi-fi headphones. If you can spare a little more money, for around $100, you can find substantially better headphones–even if they don’t come with the stylish “wow” factor the Banjo delivers. — Kevin Gallucci

WESC Banjo Headphones

MSRP: $54

Decware Zen Head headphone amplifier and Phiaton MS400 headphones

Decware, Decware.  Aren’t those the guys who make the Zen tube triode SET amplifiers?  Yes, they are.  But what are they doing creating something like this slick little package?  According to chief designer Steve Deckert, they wanted to make a great-sounding small headphone amplifier that had the same kind of voicing as their tube amps.  Sounds hard to believe that you could do that for a mere $350 (factory-direct price) and offer a lifetime warranty to the original owner.

It may be innocuous-looking, but there’s a lot lurking within the shielded and machined aluminum chassis that makes this little box sing. The latest Burr Brown op amps are employed along with polypropylene caps, precision resistors, high-quality switches and a very linear audiophile-grade precision volume pot. What’s more, the amp is powered by a single nine-volt battery contained within a damped enclosure for super-quiet operation. The battery will provide up to 50 hours of listening.  That’s a lot of goodness packed into a pocket-size wonder.

Operation couldn’t be simpler.  The front-panel layout is really simple with the source input on the left and headphone output on the right flanking the volume pot, a green led power indicator and on/off switch.

There are user-adjustable switches on the circuit board, one for normal/high gain operation and one for cross-feed on/off.  I left the gain setting at normal and the Cross-feed on. With Cross-feed engaged, I heard a more-stable presentation throughout my listening sessions.

Listening to music on headphones creates an issue: headphones are directional all the way down to the bass frequencies due to their direct coupling into the hearing canal. Therefore, the listening experience is different fromwhat was originally intended and what the user is accustomed to hearing with loudspeakers, which become less directional as you go down in frequency. Cross-feed sends a little bit of left-channel information to the right channel and a little bit of right-channel information to the left channel.

So how did it perform?  Wonderfully, to say the least.  As a source, I used an iPod Classic with either lossless files or full wav files.  I also used the supplied 12-inch,  3.5mm patch cord to connect the iPod to the Zen Head.  In keeping with everything being compact, I first tried a pair of Shure SE310 in-ear headphones for my evaluation.  Wow, for those accustomed to ear buds being directly driven by compact music devices, the quality of sound coming from the Zen will be a total revelation.  There is absolutely no glare or strained quality to the sound, bass is extremely detailed and powerful, and the “image” in your head is just right, not exaggerated or out of proportion.  Most importantly, the treble quality was really sweet and almost tube-like in presentation, which is not surprising if you consider the whole aim of this product.

Whether I listened to a jazz trio, a rock group or a classical orchestra, the Zen provided excellent-quality music reproduction and never missed a beat. As the basis for a compact traveling system or as the centerpiece for late-night musical entertainment, the Zen Head is all gain and no pain.

Upping the ante a bit, I next tried two different pairs of over-the-ear phones made by Phiaton. This is a relatively new name in the headphone universe, but you’ll be hearing a lot more from them in the future. Phiaton’s parent company, Cresyn, is an OEM manufacturer of headphone parts, speaker parts and various headsets for home and commercial use.

The first model I tried was the MS-400, which is probably the coolest-looking set of headphones ever made. Probably the most prominent feature of these phones is the rigid carbon fiber enclosures, which greatly reduces resonance. Couple that with the ear cushions and head-band cushion, which are really soft and comfortable and bright red in color, and you get an impressive high-tech twist on a rather familiar form. So impressive, in fact, that these won the prestigious International Design Award last year for their category. But do these design flourishes make for a product that is all show and no go?  Hardly; they sound as good as they look.

Handily, the connector is a two-piece affair that gives you the option of using either a 3.5 mm mini plug or a traditional quarter-inch phone plug.  I plugged the mini into the Zen Head and fired up the iPod.  Those not familiar with headphones of this quality will be immediately struck by an eerie absence –  an absence of shrieking treble, an absence of midrange distortion and an absence of bass bloat.  Instead, what you’ll find is a neutral and linear sonic presentation. No portion of the music is exaggerated at the expense of another.

This kind of presentation makes for extended and non-fatiguing listening sessions.  Add the fact that the MS 400s weigh only 6.5 ounces, and the listener can enjoy them for hours on end without any kind of strain.  In addition, the earpieces fold flat, making them more compact for storing or traveling purposes.

The MS 400s enabled me to hear once again the strength of the Zen Head. And unlike using the in-ear Shures, I could hear further into the recording and pick out small details that had been slightly masked before. On acoustic bass, the roundness and resonance that one expects are present and accounted for; male vocals are accurate and non-chesty; and you can hear the recording engineer’s small tricks and cues plain as day.  This is probably the result of the Cross-feed circuit doing its thing.

For another $50 ($299),  you can step up in the Phiaton line to the PS 500.

This model is part of the “Primal Series,” but the only primal aspect I could find here was the covering of the enclosures, which was a mock crocodile-skin finish. The driver diaphragms are the same 40mm size as the MS 400s, but they are in a larger enclosure which gets the listener 4 dB more sensitivity (102 vs. 98) and greater power-handling (2000mW vs. 1000mW).   In addition, they are coated in vaporized titanium, which makes them very light and very stiff.  The only downside to the PS 500 might be that it  weighs 2.6 ounces more than the MS 400. I honestly never noticed the additional weight during my evaluation process.

The sound of the PS 500 is at once more-detailed and more-refined than that of the MS 400. It was also more extended at both ends.  The detail does not come at the expense of irritation or annoying tizziness; there’s just more to hear in terms of the shimmer and decay of cymbals, the ringing of guitar strings and the overtones of a violin.  The midrange was more open, which was especially noticeable on live recordings of small jazz ensembles.  Finally, the bass dug deeper with more detail and punch.  Low-register slap bass sounded powerful and quick, and bass drum had a more detailed impact.

On a lark, I decided to try the PS 500 with a Musical Fidelity X-Can V8 tube headphone amplifier. What I heard was a more-open soundstage and more separation of instruments.  But it didn’t have the clarity of the Zen Head in the bass region.  Nor is it at all portable. The beauty of the Zen is that you can enjoy its attributes just about anywhere.

The Decware Zen Head and the Phiaton headphones are welcome new products for headphone lovers. The Zen Head’s portability and super high-quality sound put it in some (if you’ll excuse the pun) heady company, and the Phiaton products’ great sound, unique cosmetics and good build quality make them another great choice for satisfying private listening.  — Richard Colburn

Decware Zen Head headphone amplifier and Phiaton MS400 headphones

Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition earbuds

Monster Cable, believe it or not, lies at the forefront of power in the earbud industry, and the 31-year-old manufacturer based just south of San Francisco refers to its models as “in-ear speakers” for good reason. The dynamic drivers employed in its range of earbuds models, especially the top-of-the-line Turbine Pro Copper Edition, deliver a powerful response throughout all frequency ranges, though listeners will be most impressed by the punch on the low-end. This is likely due to the fact that Monster’s 2009 foray into the earbud market sprung out of its partnership with rapper and music industry magnate Dr. Dre, who undoubtedly encouraged the company’s engineers to develop its earbud models to have a staunch low-end output able to accurately reproduce bass-heavy rap and hip-hop tracks.

Taking full advantage of such a wide-bandwidth driver requires delivering a pure signal, which Monster has done by employing its expertise in cable and connector production. The 24-karat gold corrosion-resistant contacts ensure the purity of the signal transfer from the source, while Monster’s patented Magnetic FluxTube cabling, the same technology implemented throughout the brand’s lines of speaker cables, delivers the signal to the drivers at maximum strength.

The durability of the Turbine Pro Copper Editions are best exemplified in its all-metal driver housings—made of copper, of course—which give the buds a very sturdy feel and serve to minimize internal resonance. This sense of stability, however, is also the Turbine Pros greatest downfall. These earbuds tip the scales at 20.5 grams, making them monstrous in terms of weight and, thus, they may not provide the on-the-go comfort that the majority of earbud wearers seek.

Monster does compensate for this by offering a variety of ear tips, including what the brand calls SuperTips, which are composed of a silicon composite material that creates a superb seal to deliver a very high-level of noise isolation. Monster also includes a pair of convenient cases for its Turbine earbuds—one with a nifty snap-open mouth for extra ear tips and Monster’s weighty quarter-inch converter, the other a durable pouch with a magnetic-button-clad flap for the earbuds themselves.

Monster obviously went the extra mile and spared no expense to create the Turbine Pro Copper Editions, and while they certainly produce sound appropriate to Monster’s labeling of them as in-ear speakers, most users are looking for earbuds that don’t feel like loudspeakers in their ears. –– Bailey S. Barnard

Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition

MSRP: $399

Klipsch Image X10 earbuds

Klipsch also offers these models with a mini-microphone and three-button remote incorporated into the cable design so that wearers can adjust volume levels and, if their media device also doubles as a cell phone, take calls while wearing the  buds. Klipsch has indeed created the X10s to be the ultimate in terms of comfort, but truly discerning listeners may detect a slight abatement of audio reproduction quality.

This is most perceptible on the low-ends and in the overall sound stage; tracks exploring the full frequency spectrum will sound a bit washed with the X10s. These shortcomings, however, are minor and buyers seeking lightweight earbuds should not be discouraged. Klipsch took advantage of its 64 years of experience engineering speakers and drivers to create the X10s, which, considering their extraordinarily svelte design, deliver remarkable quality.

This is thanks to Klipsch’s full-range KG 926 armature drive component, which is among the most powerful drivers on the market for its size. Klipsch placed this armature in an aluminum chassis that is literally pencil thin and further contributes to the lack of obtrusion in the ears of the wearer. Klipsch includes with the X10s a simple desktop box for accessories and for storing the phones when not on the go, as well as a small travel-convenient faux-leather box with a magnetically sealing flap.

The X10s are versatile in design and, though perhaps lacking a bit in the power department, they still reproduce audio with precision and clarity that will not disappoint listeners. –Bailey S. Barnard

Klipsch Image X10

MSRP: $349

B&W P5 Headphones

Curiosity got the best of me when the assignment came to listen to B&W’s new headphones.  As far as I knew, Bowers and Wilkins was not a name I had previously associated with headphones.  The P5 is their first headphone and is part of a new group that B&W calls Mobile Hi-Fi.  And you can put a strong emphasis on fidelity because these phones sound great.

Retailing for $299.95, these relatively compact on-ear phones are exquisitely finished in brushed aluminum, black leather and chrome steel.  They’re beautifully packaged as well. The overall presentation is like that of expensive jewelry, not affordable consumer-electronics gear. The P5s also come with a high-quality quilted magnetically latched carrying pouch containing two different cords.  One features a microphone and volume control for use with the iPhone and the other without, as well as a mini-to-quarter-inch stereo phone-plug adaptor for use with more traditional audio gear. One slick feature is that the left earpiece is magnetically attached to the outer shell and can be easily removed. Once you’ve done that, you can attach the proper cord for your listening device of choice. What’s more, the P5s are “Made for iPod,” meaning that they have been certified by Apple to meet compatibility standards required by recent-generation iPods.

B & W claims that the same amount of intense acoustic engineering that they use in their speaker manufacturing went into the P5 so that you can listen to them for long periods of time without suffering listener fatigue.  After a few of my own extended listening sessions, it’s clear that they have achieved their goals. There are no screaming high frequencies, shouting midrange or bloated bass here. What you will find is a finely engineered set of transducers that faithfully produce music in a very neutral and linear fashion. Hmmm, kind of like B & W speakers. Great sound can be compromised without a comfortable fit, and the P5 hits the mark again. The soft leather head band and ear pieces are light and fit tightly, and they provide good but not complete isolation without any undue pressure.

My evaluation began with the Musical Fidelity X-Can V8 headphone amp, evaluating both uncompressed music stored on my hard drive as well as CD’s played via my computer’s optical drive. What is immediately obvious is that the P5s present a spacious concert hall right in the middle of your head. Listening to the latest from Moe, Smash Hits, Volume One, the vocals were natural and lacking any kind of artificial push. Guitars were well-rendered and the overtones preserved, while the bass drum and guitar had the requisite “thwack” with no overhang, a characteristic of good speakers but not many sets of headphones.

As I ran through dozens of pieces from all genres, I was struck by just how non-fatiguing the sound really was. For those of you accustomed only to ear bud-type phones, you will probably be in for a shock at how great your music can sound, even from an iPod. It’s not small, tiny and tinny. It’s really meaty, beaty big and bouncy, to borrow a phrase from the Who. Classical-music fans will be happy that the string tone on the P5s has a lot of body and never becomes shrill.

Next I moved to my iPod Classic, using a mixture of .wav and lossless files.  Considering that this is still the audiophile approach, I sampled the P5 with MP3 files toward the end of my listening sessions to see if these phones made sense as an upgrade for the average listener.  No matter what type of music I tried, the P5s came through with great results. The reggae bass line on “Chop ‘Em Down” from Matisyahu’s Live At Stubbs was forceful and full sounding but well-controlled, while they also conveyed a good sense of space in the club.  Moving on to “Miami Gato” from Medeski, Martin & Woods’ End Of World Party, the propulsive nature of Billy Martin’s drumming was captured faithfully and keeps the feet moving.  Finally, the skull ripping “Come On” from Stanley Clarke’s The Toys Of Men was served up with full impact by the P5s.

As a final test, I tried a few low-res tracks that were downloaded from iTunes. First up was “Don’t You Forget About Me” by New Found Glory, where I expected the vocals to sound really compressed; surprisingly, they weren’t. Next, the upbeat “Lump” by The Presidents Of The United States Of America sounded pretty dynamic where usually it would sound squashed with typical ear bud-type headphones.  It’s a tribute to the engineering behind the P5s that MP3s sounded entirely tolerable albeit not nearly as good as uncompressed music.  Regardless of your level of audio-equipment enthusiasm, the P5s are a worthwhile upgrade even for the MP3/iPod user.

The P5s have no negatives and a lot of positives: stylish looks, comfortable fit, good isolation and most of all, superb sound quality.  The B &W engineers have done a brilliant job on their entry into the highly competitive headphone world. Whether you are in the market for a reasonably compact set of headphones as a welcome relief to ear-bud fatigue or are simply looking for a great pair of headphones for home audio use, look no further that the P5s.  –Richard Colburn

B&W P5 Headphones

MSRP: $299.95

Grado GR8 Earbuds

Grado Labs introduced its GR8 models for listeners seeking both power and comfort, and hats off to Grado’s engineers for producing these remarkable earbuds. The GR8s are extremely lightweight at 12.5 grams (Grado’s website claims that they weigh just 9 grams) and the design is very conducive to a seamless fit. Virtually oxygen-free copper wiring paired with a gold-coated brass mini-plug connector will deliver a pure signal, and Grado provides three silicon-rubber composite ear-tip options to provide comfort to a variety of ear shapes. For additional convenience, Grado has placed a raised dot on the left bud so that users can be sure that they’re wearing the correct bud in the correct ear even in the dark.

While Grado is better known for its large circumaural headphones, the GR8’s provide true top-notch performance, and like its over-ear phones, these earbuds deliver the same warm, full-bodied tones that enthusiasts have come to expect from this brand.

The GR8s give sensational clarity to vocals and present even the very highest register frequencies with precision and plenty of headroom. Per typical Grado fidelity, rock, pop, and soul tracks are rich with expressiveness and emotion, and even classical tracks radiate through the frequency spectrum.

The GR8s are indeed a very well-rounded pair of earbuds, providing a very high level of comfort and power.  –Bailey S. Barnard

Grado GR8

MSRP: $299

Simaudio MOON 810LP Dual-Mono Phono Preamplifier

Some audio components aspire to wow you right out of the box.  They deliver thumping bass with frightening ease and highs so crystalline you wonder what details your previous piece of equipment masked.  Initially, this effect can seem transcendent.  But sometimes it inspires a nagging doubt about whether the gear truly offers the goods or if it has merely duped you with overemphasized frequency responses or other anomalies that have mysteriously captured your attention, only to become distracting or overbearing in the long run.

Other components impress in a different, subtler way—with a certain quiet authority that doesn’t attempt to raise its voice or shout and rant.  Such performance is implicit and doesn’t require the boisterous pomp and circumstance of equipment that has to slap you in the face in order to get your attention.

The Simaudio MOON 810LP Dual-Mono Phono Preamplifier falls into the latter camp.  It’s not just quiet; it’s dead silent, even tomb-like.  It’s also amazingly simple to operate.  Just plug in the power cord, push the lone button on the faceplate, adjust a few loading features and you’re ready to go in less than five minutes.  But that’s not the whole story.  After all, hi-fi isn’t about convenience.

Still, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I received the unit.  What would distinguish the MOON 810LP, I wondered?  A number of nifty phonostages have passed through my system over the past year, including the Pass Labs XP-25, and each has had its own set of virtues.  But, of the solid-state units I’ve reviewed, the MOON 810LP possesses an absence of noise that is most enticing.

Entering the Silent Void

The technical prowess exhibited by Sim with this preamp did not surprise me:  The company is on a roll, having produced a series of new products that offer exceptional performance at reasonable prices.  Sure, anyone can achieve superior performance by pumping endless R&D dollars and cost-is-no-object componentry into a piece of equipment.  But is it really worth it?  In the case of the MOON 810LP, Sim has gone to great lengths to create a product that can go head-to-head with those from the likes of Boulder and other manufacturers producing stratospherically priced solid-state units.

Part of the MOON Evolution series, the 810LP boasts switchable capacitance and impedance load settings, which makes fine-tuning the MM or MC cartridge paired with the unit a bit easier.  This preamp also allows users to set the load level at any of 16 steps, from 40 dB up to a whopping 70 dB.  Users mandate these settings by flicking the various small switches located underneath the unit.  For this review, I used the Lyra Atlas cartridge, so I ended up setting the 810LP’s gain at 66 dB, a healthy level by any measure.

The adjustability of these settings, however, is not what accounts for the low noise of the unit, which measures -150 dB at 1 volt of input power, according to Sim.  A portion of the 810LP’s quiet operation can be attributed to its formidable power supply, which offers some 40,000 uF of capacitance and is located within the main chassis but housed in an isolated enclosure made out of satin-coated 14-gauge steel.  Sim mounts the audio circuit board on a five-point gel-based floating suspension.  While the phonostage has balanced circuitry, it can also be run single-ended.  By and large, balanced operation will run quieter than single-ended, but single-ended sometimes can be perceived as possessing a little more punch.

With some preamps, it takes a little time to figure out their sonic trademarks.  There was no such problem with the Sim, once powered up for 24 hours.  As soon as the needle is dropped, it becomes quite apparent that the Sim likes to boogie.  For example, on the recently issued Acoustic Sounds LP of Shelby Lynne’s album Just A Little Lovin’, the dynamism and jet-black backgrounds prove overwhelming.  Was I stacking the deck a little by choosing this album?  Sure.  The production values are awesome—a tribute to Chad Kassem’s indefatigable zeal to produce the best when it comes to LPs.  But the Sim brings a sense of placidity to the table, an unruffled evenness, with each note unhurried, as Lynne’s voice trails off into the ether—and the decays seem to reverberate almost endlessly.  The brush and cymbal work, too, were pellucid. And I, as a result, was transfixed.

Lest TONEAudio readers think I only spun fancy new pressings for this review, please rest assured that I also listened to an old warhorse: Debussy’s “Iberia” captured on a Living Stereo pressing with legendary conductor Fritz Reiner, whose fanatic precision and attention to detail come across beautifully on the LP.  Once again, the MOON 810LP stands out.  This time I was most impressed with the way the low noise floor exposed the inner detail of the orchestra, which would have been submerged when played through a lesser phonostage.

It was as though the aperture of a camera had been adjusted—suddenly there was new clarity.  In a sense, it became easier to listen to the music. The listener needn’t exert such effort, as the music was simply present, without struggling to emerge through a faint haze.  The fog had lifted, as a dealer put it to me years ago when I was listening to an upgraded Linn LP-12 versus an older version.  With the MOON 810LP, there is a lot of fog lifting.

Similarly, on a superb recording of Stephane Grappelli and Barney Kessel from Black Lion Records, the interplay between the violin and guitar is as vivid as I’ve heard it.  The absence of noise helps close the noise-floor gap between CDs and LPs.  Say what you want about digital sound—and I think it’s nuts to dismiss it—one of its strengths is that there is, essentially, no audible noise during playback, which helps endow the musical reproduction with a true sense of realism.  Sure, when you attend a live classical concert, you hear the screeching of chairs, the neighbor next to you reaching for a lozenge, or the snoring of a bored patron—or, at a rock concert, a shouting crowd.  But the one thing you don’t hear is distortion.  When listening to live music, there’s no barrier between you and the sound being produced, just air vibrations traveling toward your ear canal.  Now that ain’t happening in your listening room, no matter how festooned with dampening foam it might be.  The whole shebang—power chords, amplifiers and preamplifiers, cables, loudspeakers—amounts to a barrier between you and the real thing.  But one of the goals of audio reproduction is to move one step further toward the real thing—to reproduce it, if you will—which is what the MOON 810LP does with the utmost simplicity and clarity.

The Benefits of Being a Little Too Quiet

Now, you may ask, what doesn’t the MOON 810LP do?  A comparison with the Ypsilon VPS 100, a transformer-coupled tube-driven phonostage hailing from Greece, proved instructive.  After listening to André Previn’s incredibly pristine 1974 recording of Lieutenant Kijé on an EMI pressing, I switched the input on my Ypsilon preamplifier to the Sim, which revealed a completely different world.  The MOON 810LP acquits itself so admirably that its great strengths are immediately apparent: low noise and a matter-of-fact sense of control.  It has a certain clarity that is difficult to surpass.  On the other hand, it does not offer as much detail, dynamics or ambience as the much pricier Ypsilon.  With the Sim, there simply was not as much air around the instruments, such that the size of the hall in which the recording was taken seemed to shrink.  But the comparison is not really a fair one.  With its separate step-up transformer, the Ypsilon clocks in at around $32,000.  And a solid-state preamplifier, almost by definition, is going to have different sonic traits than one filled with vacuum tubes.

Regardless, at its price of $12,000—which is not inconsiderable, but not at the nosebleed level, either—the Sim offers sensational performance, which proves that that true fidelity can be enjoyed at prices that are steep but not prohibitive.  Already, even before packing it up, I’m feeling a little wistful at the very the thought of parting with the Sim. And, unfortunately, I can’t really justify purchasing another phonostage.  When it’s gone I’ll undoubtedly long for the Sim’s fundamental ability to efface noise, rendering the music in real-time and thus coming closer to the sound of a master tape.

This phonostage will not allow you to take a walk on the wild side. Its mantra is control. It never loses its composure, never becomes shrill, never allows a hint of noise to emerge. It subordinates everything to fidelity to the LP.  My guess is that it measures ruler flat.  I also suspect that, given the care that went into manufacturing the 810LP, it will prove very reliable, which is no small matter.  If you’re looking for a preamp that will impart the music with that eerily magical glow or bump up the mid-bass response, then search elsewhere.  But if you’re searching for a top-notch solid-state unit that is true to the music, then auditioning the Sim is a must.

Additional listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having put the MOON 810LP through its paces before sending it to Jacob, I was highly impressed with this purist design.  Being a car guy, it reminded me of the original Lotus Elise Type 25 Special Editions that were sent to the US intended for club-racing purposes only and that were 500 pounds lighter than the current Elise. In essence, the Type 25 SE eliminated everything that took away from the car’s performance.  The MOON 810LP takes a similar approach to audio reproduction:  It offers only one input, minimal switching (all out of the circuit path) and no remote or fluorescent display to introduce noise or distortion.  While I must admit to enjoying the performance of my ARC REF Phono 2, which also has these features—and found that having to jostle the Sim around to change gain and loading slightly inconvenient—most people aren’t swapping cartridges as often as I do.  Audiophiles that zero in on a single cartridge and table combination will only have to do this on rare occasion when using the Sim.

Many have asked me to make the obvious yet unfair comparison between the $12,000 MOON 810LP and the $60,000 Vitus MPP-201, the latter of which has been one of my reference components for the better part of the year.  Much like Jacob’s experience with the Ypsilon, the Vitus offers extreme levels of performance, with slightly more dynamic slam and even further insight into a recording than the MOON 810LP.

However, the line of diminishing returns is definitely crossed here.  The MOON 810LP got me so close to the MPP with enough money left over to buy a nice pre-owned Lotus Elise that I can’t see why anyone not possessing unlimited funds would go the extra mile for the Vitus.  (It should be noted that I don’t possess unlimited funds; I’m just a little nuts, which helps explains why I drive a Fiat instead of a Lotus.)  Comparing the MOON 810LP with similarly priced phonostages is more realistic and more revealing.  Comparing 24 bit/192khz samples of tracks captured from the Boulder 1008 or the ASR Basis (both roughly $12,000) to those captured from ARC’s REF Phono 2 and Phono 2SE proves that the folks at Simaudio in Montreal have indeed done their homework.

Winning the Quiet Game

There is no clear cut “winner,” if you will, because each of the aforementioned units offers excellent performance and each caters to a different user.  The ARC offers a bit more reach-out-and-touch-it midrange, as you might expect from tubes.  And its two inputs (each user-assignable via remote) lend themselves more to the vinyl enthusiast with more than one turntable and cartridge at his or her disposal.  The Boulder also has two inputs, but it is the least easily adjustable of the group, requiring users to dig out the soldering iron to make changes.  But the Boulder has perhaps the most bass slam of the group, though it is a bit drier through the mid-band than the others.  Keep in mind that much of this can be minimized by choice of cartridge, phono cable and overall system balance.

The MOON 810LP, being the most neutral, will fit in the widest range of systems.  And, as much as I love vacuum tubes, I hate replacing them, especially when this can often bring unexpected results.  The MOON 810LP will sit quietly on your equipment rack and offer analog enjoyment for decades.

It also delivers tonal accuracy as well as tonal contrast, no doubt a result of its nonexistent noise floor.  While we don’t perform measurements here, when comparing the MOON 810LP to the MPP with identical turntable/arm/cartridge setups, our listening panel felt the MOON 810LP was the equal of the Vitus, if not a bit quieter.  There’s an additional socket on the rear panel of the Sim marked “DC Power,” which suggests that Simaudio may have an external power supply in the works.  I can only imagine the jump in performance that would give this preamp.

And, if you are a music lover that does not suffer the need for constant change and is loyal to a single cartridge, the MOON 810LP should be at the top of your list.  It offers class-leading performance and solid build quality.

Simaudio MOON 810LP Dual-Mono Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $12,000

Sonos Play3

I love music and make my living off of that love, in print and on the air. But when it comes to audio quality, I’m tuned out. In the family room, I’m just fine with Boston Acoustic A60s in the bookshelves above the stereo—just two of them. 5.1 is 3.1 more than we need. And in my office, I make do with a pair of Bose Companions. Beyond what I hear from the computer, all I need, for both fun and work (my radio column in the San Francisco Chronicle) are my Delphi satellite tuner, a Logitech Internet tuner, and a Radiosophy HD, which serves as my AM/FM radio.

Back upstairs, Dianne and I did opt for speakers in the kitchen ceiling and in the living room—just a pair of smaller Bostons flanking a raised fireplace. But bedrooms, bathrooms and other areas had to make do with radios—or nothing at all. It wasn’t exactly the sounds of silence, but close.

And that was fine by us. We don’t need our iTunes and CD library wherever we go. So, when Thomas Meyer and Eric Nielsen, who work at Sonos, came calling, offering to let me try out a Play:3 system, I put them off. Sure, it sounded enticing: a wireless system “to bring almost all the music you could ever want – from every corner of the planet – to every room of your home,” as Meyer put it. But I thought it’d be a headache setting up an around-the-house system. Nielsen  assured me that it’d be painless. I hemmed and hawed some more (I’m on deadline for a book on Little Feat), and finally agreed to check it out for a possible item in my radio column.

I have, and here’s the item. It’s not a review—I’m hardly qualified to evaluate audio equipment—but a report on what it’s like to expand the sound of music to…everywhere.

Back in the day—which is to say, when I was much  younger—when I wanted to hear the radio or hi fi in different rooms around the house, I had to wire up speakers in each room—or, in fact, hire someone to do it for me. If I paid extra, I could get separate volume controls for each pair of speakers. Otherwise, the amp or tuner controlled everything.  Now, of course, everything’s wireless, and it can be as cheap as a Windows Media Player sending programming to computer speakers around the house—or as sophisticated as a Bose, Lync or Crestron whole-house system, running from $2,000 to $5,000 and up – way up.

Sitting comfortably below those numbers is the Sonos Play:3, which, basically, sends audio from online sources (Pandora, Stitcher, Spotify, Rhapsody, etc.), including thousands of Internet radio stations around the world,  to wherever you place the Play:3, a speaker containing a pair of drivers and a tweeter.  As a controller for what music goes to which room, you can use your smartphone, iPad or computer. An optional “Connect” device links Sonos to your sound system, so your original speakers don’t go to waste. (Sonos has also introduced the “Sub,” which the company says boosts audio to supersonic levels.)

Not being an audiophile, I don’t know about that.  And, not being handy, I’m not in sync with the many reviewers who’ve lauded Sonos’ easy set-up. But, with help from my tech guy, Kevin Miller, I got my Play:3 system running. As it played, Miller exclaimed, “This is the kind of thing you used to have to pay $6,000 for.”

So, what do you have to pay these days? About $350 for the Play:3 and a bridge to connect to a router. Add $100 for a heftier Play:5 speaker, and $350 for “Connect.” Sonos has lots of options. It’s best you go to its site ( I’m here to say that for radio fans who want both terrestrial and Internet radio, plus their own music collection, to be available beyond where the computer or stereo system is, this is pretty cool. I especially enjoyed exploring TuneIn Radio and its instant access to some 60,000 stations around the world, from local faves to, say, a classical station in Greenland.  (“Klassisk.”)

I’m on the great New Orleans station, WWOZ, right now, enjoying “The Kitchen Sink” and a segue from Taj Mahal to Kris Kristofferson. Upstairs, we have a San Salvador station (Laser Ingles) playing American hits. I can go to Sirius/XM and, later, my Little Feat channel on Pandora, or dig up any of 15 million tunes from MOG or RDIO, or a rare live cut on Wolfgang’s Vault. I can play a radio aircheck I have stashed on iTunes. With the brand new app, I can record any of thousands of AM/FM (and BBC) shows and play them back on demand. And on Songza, I can find channels to match any mood or activity. Crazy.

Through an audio input in “Connect,” you can even transmit music from your CD player, turntable or new-fangled digital music player to the Play:3. And it all sounds good. As an actual audio authority, Terrence O’Brien of engadget, noted, “The Play:3 is more than adequate for casual listening. It’s clear, loud, and punchy enough to start up a small dance party if need be.”

Even without guests bouncing around a parquet floor, you’ll appreciate Sonos.  It’s not all about high-end audio. It’s about being able to hear just about anything you might want, whenever and wherever you want. When Thomas Meyer, at Sonos, first invited me to check out a system, he claimed that “our customers listen to twice as much music after they buy, and are borderline fanatical about their experience.”  That didn’t sound right to me, but time with Sonos has proven him right. I’m well over the borderline. And it’s a good place to be.

Sonos Play3

MSRP: $299

REL Gibraltar G-2 Sub-Bass System

A recurring theme in country music and, perhaps, in life is that you never realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.  Truer words were never spoken in the world of audiophilia when it comes to reproducing bass.  However, a subwoofer can drive you to madness, much like a high-maintenance romantic interest.  When it’s right, you’re giddy with delight and things couldn’t be better, but when it’s wrong, all you do is focus on said partner’s shortcomings—and, eventually, you both go your separate ways.

Having spent the last 20 years on and off the bus with a wide variety of subwoofers, I can highly recommend the REL G-2 for any number of reasons.  Perhaps this subwoofer’s greatest selling point, however, is that it comes with a remote.  My enthusiasm regarding this feature doesn’t (necessarily) speak to my inability to escape my listening chair’s gravitational pull; it is more to comment that having this wireless device in my hand satiates the nagging voice at the back of my mind that is always just slightly dissatisfied with the subwoofer settings.  The REL G-2 eliminates that stress completely by providing just the right amount of low-frequency (or LF) reinforcement right at your fingertips.

The G-2 is also easy to set up—that is, it’s as easy to set up as a 90-pound anything can be.  Thus, I suggest that even our more-muscular readers enlist help when moving the G-2, because it’s just big and awkwardly shaped enough to be a little tough for one person to lift.  Many users may even decide that incorporating a few of these subs into their system is necessary.  In this case, you should enlist the aid of an installer or, at the very least, a handful of burly buddies.

Sumiko Audio, the importer of REF subwoofers in Berkeley, CA, has a sizeable showcase of three G-1s flanking either side of Sonus faber’s celebrated flagship loudspeakers (dubbed simply “The Sonus faber”).  The audio experience this system provides is understandably impressive.  The LF performance is effortless, all encompassing and seamlessly integrated with the main speakers.  The bass swells up from the performance with an ease that suggests a major paradigm shift in how the lowest musical notes should be handled.

Priced at $3,495, the G-2 is slightly smaller in stature and reach than the larger G-1, priced at $4,495.  The G-2 uses a long-throw 10-inch woofer with a carbon-fiber cone and a 450-watt onboard amplifier, whereas the G-1 uses a 600-watt amplifier to drive its 12-inch woofer.  Down only 6 dB at 18 Hz, the G-2 should provide enough bass grunt for most users, either by itself or as a pair, but it can also be stacked and used as part of an array.

Major Differences

REL manages the lower frequencies differently than other manufacturers—and does so with excellent result.  While the company offers line-level RCA inputs, these should be used only as a last resort.  The supplied Neutrik speakON connector utilizes a high-level connection that goes directly to your power amplifier’s speaker outputs.  The sub’s high impedance does not affect loading of the main speakers, thus allowing the character of your amplifier’s sound to carry forward into the subwoofer.  Consulting the instruction manual and using my preamplifier’s outputs to drive the G-2 still results in decent sound.  When switching power amplifiers, from the Audio Research REF 150 to the Burmester 911 to the Pass Labs Aleph 3, a slight disconnect between main speakers and subwoofer exists.  However, during all of this, the bass reproduction does not change in character, even with these three very different amplifiers via the RCAs.  Moving to the provided speakON input reveals the variations between amplifiers more easily, with a more seamless blend between the main speakers.

Those wanting to use the G-2, or multiple G-2s, in a multichannel system will be happy to find that the sub can accommodate the .1/LFE signal from your processor of choice.  It also has a unique grounding circuit to work with class-D amplifiers or monoblock power amps.  All of this is clearly outlined in the well-written manual.

Though it adds cost and complexity, the G-1 and G-2 both use MOSFET class-AB amplifiers with massive power supplies instead of the class-D amplifiers found in many other subwoofers.  REL claims that its subs to have the fastest crossover filter networks, with a rise time of only 4 milliseconds.  I’m firmly convinced that these features, along with an additional filter with a gentle slope that removes content above 250 Hz, contribute to the level of fine detail that the G-2 offers.

REL prefers corner loading for the G-2, and that’s where I’ve had the best luck with the company’s subs in the past—so why mess with good results?  And this is where that nifty little remote control comes in handy.  As I said, fine-tuning a subwoofer, no matter what brand and by what method you choose, can make your hair fall out.  Like me, I’m sure you have your favorite tracks with deep-bass information that you use to audition any speaker, regardless of whether it has a subwoofer or not.

Now, as much as I dislike Jennifer Warnes’ “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” I’ve always seen various Sumiko employees use this track to optimize speakers to great success, so when in Rome… While this track certainly impressed, even Romans like to party, so I moved on to something with a little more oomph for my review of the G-2.  With the best balance of weight and speed achieved, “Kill Everybody” from electronica master Skrillex blew me out of my listening chair—just like the guy in the Maxell ad from the 1980s.  The G-2 gives new meaning to the term “room lock.” Should Jennifer Warnes or a real-time analyzer not be your cup of tea, a series of test tones (like those from the early Stereophile test discs) simplify the process.  As you go down the frequency range, the transition from main speakers should appear at the same level.  It should also be difficult, if not impossible, to discern the location of the subwoofer when using just your ears.

Controlling this from your listening position dramatically reduces setup time, allowing you to remain planted in the same spot while making quick, small changes without having to psyche yourself out with aural memory tricks.  But best of all, the remote allows you to fine-tune on the fly.  No matter how great the G-2 sounds with your favorite bass track, it needs to be bumped up a touch up for Skynryd’s album Nuthin’ Fancy, and then way back down for the latest Cat Power release, Sun.  The LED indicator at the bottom of the G-2 lets you know the sub’s level, frequency and phase (0 or 180 degrees).  This makes up for the tiny though stylish type on the remote.  If you have kids or inquisitive friends, be sure to use the settings lock feature.

Fortunately, you’re usually never more than a click or two away on the level control and, depending on your main speakers, the crossover frequency can even benefit from a nudge now and then.  This takes the G-2 from merely great to awesome, and the more time you spend with the G-2, you’ll notice a more immersive experience at all listening levels.

Carry That Weight

The G-2 performs well with a wide range of speaker systems; but, in keeping with the REL philosophy of a sub-bass system with the sub augmenting the deepest frequencies, it is not intended to be part of a sub/sat system.  However, it still performs incredibly well throwing said suggestion to the wind, dialing the crossover frequency up to the 50-to-60-Hz range and using it with stand-mount monitors, or even ESLs.

Crossed over at 30 Hz or below, it’s virtually impossible to place the location of G-2 in the room, but it does start to lose a bit of its stealthiness when crossed over at a significantly higher point.  I suggest a pair of G-2’s if you need to operate your system this way for best results.  Fortunately, the G-2 has more than enough speed to keep up with any speaker you pair it with.

As good as the G-2 works with small speakers or panels, a full-range speaker system allows the G-2 to reach its full potential.  Crossover frequency now lowered to 27 Hz (adjustable in 1-Hz increments) the $3,495 G-2 brings the $22,900 Elipsa SE speakers eerily close in sound to that of the $45,000 Sonus faber Stradivaris.  Even my reference GamuT S9s, which are only down 3 dB at 18 Hz, open up with the G-2—and I now find myself dreaming of six of these!

Midrange Augmentation

Properly installed, the G-2 feels practically invisible, as it should, adding low-frequency reinforcement to the main speakers.  And there remains an equal benefit through the mid-band, which REL likes to refer to as “The REL effect.”  You’ll know you have the G-2 set just right when turning it on makes the side walls in your listening room disappear and when even musical selections with minimal low-bass content spread out across the soundstage with a bigger and broader effect than before.

Using the sub in this mode, only bringing up the deepest frequencies, helps convey spatial cues present in the recording space.  Even string quartets or acoustic music with no apparent major LF content open up and breathe, with my listening room feeling much bigger than it is.  I think the fourth dimension is deep bass, and the REL G-2 does it right.

Sampling familiar tunes, the wood block in Tom Petty’s “A Face in the Crowd” is now four feet in front of my face, where it was back in line with the speakers when the G-2 level is set back to zero.  Annie Lennox’s background vocals in “No More I Love You’s” appear way off center and down almost at floor level.  One-note bass is a thing of the past with the G-2.  Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass line in Joni Mitchell’s “Jericho,” from her album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, comes through with the healthy dose of speed and overtones that made him famous.  Regardless of musical program, having the G-2 in the system is always a benefit.

Don’t Abuse the Power

The REL G-2 works equally well in both of my listening rooms—my main room is 16 feet by 25 feet; my second room is 13 feet by 16 feet—but, like any addictive substance, one has to resist the urge to overindulge.  For the first few days, it was fun to play a lot of Deadmau5, Skrillex and, of course, the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg (who now calls himself Snoop Lion).  Finding new weak spots in my walls, I got used to the G-2 and prudence became more the rule than the exception.

Having auditioned many subwoofers over the years, the REL G-2 is now at the top of my overachievers list and is featured as a TOP TONE component in issue 48.  If you’d like to unlock your system’s full potential, you should audition one—or maybe six!

The REL G-2 Sub-Bass System

MSRP:  $3,495 (Factory) (US importer)


Analog source AMG V-12 turntable    Lyra Kleos cartridge
Digital source dCS Paganini system    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk.II
Phonostage Zesto Andros
Speakers Acoustat 1+1    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable AudioQuest Sky IC   AudioQuest
Power Audience aR6-Tss
Accessories GIK room treatments    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    Furutech DeMag and DeStat

Sieveking Omega Headphone Stand

Perhaps the world’s most beautiful headphone stand is also the most expensive. 

But for those of you with primo phones, what better way to show them off on the Omega stands?  Available in five colors from fairly dark, to the light maple featured here, this stand is slightly smaller than the average head, so that very little pressure is put on the headband assembly.  We haven’t found a set of phones that don’t look great on the Omega stand, and they also feature a soft flannel pouch that will cover both the stand and phones to avoid dust buildup.  But what’s the point of that? – Jeff Dorgay

Sieveking Omega Headphone Stand

MSRP: $179

Scooba Design Cable Stable Rollup Kit

Always losing USB cables, in-ear phones and those new small chargers that come with the iPod and iPhone?  The Scooba Design Cable Stable Rollup Kit barely takes up any space in your purse, briefcase or suitcase and holds four such items.  Perfect for your next trip, photoshoot, or off world endeavour. – Jeff Dorgay

Scooba Design Cable Stable Rollup Kit


Solidsteel WS-5 Turntable Shelf

Whether you are having issues with a wiggly floor or would like to accommodate another turntable in your listening room, the Solidsteel WS-5 is a great way to get the job done. Its 19.5 x 16.25 inch shelf will work with all but the most humugous turntables and it has a claimed weight capacity of 130 pounds.  Remember to try and get at least one solid bolt into a wall stud and use heavy duty (100 pound) anchors on the other two.  Allen screws combined with tiny cones under the shelf allow for fine tuning shelf height so that your table is perfectly level. -Jeff Dorgay

Solidsteel WS-5 Turntable Shelf

MSRP: $399

Vienna Acoustics Mozart SE

Vienna Acoustics takes pride in doing things somewhat differently than the rest of the pack.  Most manufacturers refer to their SE models as “special editions,” yet the new Mozart is a “Symphony Edition.”  A nice touch.  Also, whereas many speakers utilize a ring radiator or metallic dome of some sort, Vienna chooses a 1.1-inch silk dome tweeter, produced to the company’s specs in the Scan-Speak factory.

“We kept the front faceplate from a standard Scan-Speak tweeter to keep cost down,” says Kevin Wolff, Vienna Acoustics’ International Sales Director.  “But inside, it’s all different.  We pushed for a handful of design changes to make this tweeter really special.”  And special it is.  The tweeter is the same one used in the $6,500-per-pair Beethoven Concert Grand speakers and, like those pricier models, the $3,500 Mozart SEs redefine “sweet spot.”

A visit from Wolff underlines just how good these speakers are and how critical it is to fine-tune speaker placement.  The Mozarts sound great right out of the box, but 20 minutes of careful fine-tuning takes them from great to sublime.  Think, for a minute, how your car’s ride is affected with one tire underinflated.  The crisp steering response you’re used to is diminished, but a quick trip to the air pump makes a substantial difference, making things right again.  It’s the same with speaker placement.  Once the Mozart’s are right, they disappear in the room like a great pair of mini monitors, but with a much more robust LF response.

Satisfied that things are performing properly, we audition a number of different tracks.  At the end of our listening session, the MoFi LP of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On makes its way to the turntable and Wolff smiles.  The Mozarts definitely have the juju, revealing the magic of the Lyra Atlas cartridge—quite impressive for any speaker, but even more so considering their reasonable price.

Comfortable Playing Everything

The ultra-wide stereo effect of Lou Donaldson’s LD+3 immediately captivates, accentuating the improved sound of the Audio Wave remaster, as well as the timbral accuracy that the Mozart SEs bring to the presentation.  While we can blather on about crossover slopes and the like, suffice it to say that everything works together brilliantly—in seconds you forget such tedious technical details and concentrate on the music.  Gene Harris’ piano sounds wonderful and Donaldson’s sax commands the soundstage.  The Mozart’s simply let the music shine through, leaving you to just enjoy rather than analyze.

Students of PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) will be instantly smitten with the Mozart SEs.  Changing the pace from classic Blue Note jazz to the title track of Frank Zappa’s Jazz From Hell is equally fascinating.  The Mozart SEs do not miss a lick of Zappa’s rapid time changes and dissonant textures.  Donald Fagen’s new release, Sunken Condos, provides a calm middle ground.  The highly textured and stylized studio recording illustrates how well the Mozart SEs effortlessly keep everything sorted.

Don Henley’s “Not Enough Love in the World,” from his album Building the Perfect Beast, is similarly rendered.  This slightly compressed, over-processed and totally ’80s classic divulges new treasures.  Henley’s voice has major depth, combined with layer upon layer of synthesizers—you can almost feel someone bending the pitch wheel on that Yamaha DX7.  Leaving this ’80s genre for some heavier tunes proves an important point about the Mozarts:  They give a riveting performance of less-than-primo recordings, an important consideration for those of us living in the real world.

U2’s Rattle and Hum has to be one of the most poorly recorded live albums in history.  But, when cranking up “All Along the Watchtower” to what has to be the Mozarts’ breaking point (the meters on the ARC REF 250’s pushing close to the “caution” zone), the speakers handle it effortlessly, proving that these are not speakers limited to only a handful of audiophile-approved pressings.  In the midst of this gigantic ball of midrange, you can distinctly pick out the Edge’s backup vocals over the distorted guitars and throttling bass line.  The Mozarts are clearly just as comfortable playing it casual or formal.

The review wouldn’t be complete without playing a bit of the music for which these speakers are named—and Kathleen Battle performing “Motet; Exsultate, Jubilate, K.165” (from Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart) adequately fits the bill.  Battle’s pure soprano gently fills the soundstage, going rapidly up and down the scale.  Here, speakers lacking the Mozarts’ transient speed would blur horribly.  Again, the Mozarts maintain the pace perfectly with complex fare, even at low volumes.  The speakers realistically reproduce the violins while still giving more than enough weight to the orchestra.

Moving into a heavier and more-modern realm of musical selections, I was impressed with the level of bass output of the two 6.5-inch drivers.  A long playlist of electronica and hip-hop tracks proves that these speakers are only limited by the accompanying amplifiers’ power reserve.  Deadmau5’ “Right This Second” from the 4×4=12 album goes down very deep, forcing the Mozart SEs to move a serious amount of air, which they handle impeccably.  Before bouncing back to Daft Punk, a quick interlude of Pink Floyd, Genesis and Mickey Hart confirms the speakers’ major bass output.

Labeled a 2.5-way system, the speakers are equipped with two woofers, which handle the deepest bass tones and combine the speed of smaller drivers but have the output of a single larger one.  The lower driver gently rolls off as frequencies rise, offering the pinpoint imaging and low upper-bass coloration of a mini monitor.

Beautiful Inside and Out

Relying on gentle crossover slopes and wideband drivers, the Mozart SEs achieve a 90-dB sensitivity rating and are tremendously easy to drive.  Crossover capacitors are matched to 1% tolerance and the inductors to .7%.  You’d expect this kind of fanaticism in a $20,000 pair of speakers, but it’s unheard of in a $3,500 pair.  “We only know how to build a speaker one way,” Wolff says with a smile, as way of explanation.

The cabinets of these beauties are equally sumptuous yet understated.  The radius on the front baffle is hand-finished—the piano-black finish puts the paint job of an S-Class Mercedes to shame.  The binding posts are unique to Vienna Acoustics, and they’re not those dreadful plastic-coated binding items that so many manufacturers have adopted.  Even the front grille takes a different approach:  The crease down the middle helps to channel tweeter energy, in “all but the most critical listening situations,” according to the company.

The drivers are VA’s own design, assembled at the Scan-Speak factory, and it’s worth noting that the woofers show an equal level of obsession on behalf of the manufacturer.  The company utilizes its own X3P composite, which can vary in consistency to the intended application, so these are far from being off-the-shelf polypropylene cones.  The transparent cone used for the Mozarts has become a VA design cue, blending visually into the design of the black speakers.

This extreme attention to detail reminds me of when Porsche introduced the first water-cooled 911.  Comedian and freelance Porsche spokesperson Jerry Seinfeld commented on the “density of thought” that goes into the manufacturing of Porsche automobiles. Similarly, in sea of mass-produced speaker systems, the Mozart SEs exude quality, regardless of how far you dissect them.

Sure, the bigger VA speakers play louder and go deeper, but the sonic quality of these speakers is tremendous for $3,500.  The Mozarts prove a phenomenal match for the new Primare I22 integrated DAC/amplifier that Wolff happens to have on hand.  (A full review of that piece of gear is in the works.)  At $2,499, the Primare is an awesome match to the Mozarts, as are the various other reasonably priced amplifiers we have at our disposal.  Yet, when connected to a full complement of ARC reference components, the speakers deliver even greater performance, well beyond what you’d expect for $3,500 a pair.

Pick Your Finish

You can get your own pair of Mozart SEs in Rosewood, Maple, Cherry or the Piano Black that our review sample arrived in.  For an additional charge, a stunning Piano White is also available.  The beautiful finishes of these speakers serve to remind that, in a world where a $20,000 price tag is more common than not, it’s refreshing to find a pair of $3,500 speakers that are built with the same level of care and attention to detail as those with a five-figure price tag.

The Vienna Acoustics Mozart SEs combine musical accuracy with dynamic ability in a compact and stylish package.  They are not only worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012, they are one of the best speaker values this writer has encountered in a long time.

Vienna Acoustics Mozart SE loudspeakers

MSRP:  $3,500/pair (cherry and piano black)  $3,850 (rosewood and piano white)


Analog Source VPI Classic 1    Lyra Kleos
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Phonostage  ARC REF Phono 2SE
Power Amplifier ARC REF 250 monoblocks    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks  Pass Aleph 3    Prima Luna Dialogue 6 monoblocks    Carver VTM20, Primare I22 (integrated)
Digital Source  dCS Paganini    Wadia 121    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10   Wadia 171 w/iPod Touch
Cable Cardas Clear

Wadia 121 Decoding Computer

With a number of stratospherically priced DACs on the market, it’s exciting to see DACs priced between $1,000 and $1,500 offering so much performance.  Reminiscent of the horsepower wars of the 1960s, it seems that every time a new standard of DAC performance is reached the bar is raised even higher.  This time, Wadia—a company known for decades for its innovations in the realm of digital audio and, more recently, for its game-changing 170i iPod dock—delivers world-class sound at a very affordable price tag with its new 121 Decoding Computer.

Much like phonostages, you can purchase an outboard DAC for a couple hundred dollars and it’s a great way to embrace computer audio.  Outboard DACs can also serve as an upgrade to a budget CD transport.  Jumping to the $500 level brings more musicality and the ability to play high-res files, but going to the next level (the aforementioned $1,000-to-$1,500 range) is very exciting and, in the opinion of this reviewer, where the game gets seriously intriguing.  Combining a computer source and a great $1,500 DAC with your choice of high-performance playback software (like Pure Music, Amarra or one of the other current favorites) puts you in close proximity to what would have cost $10,000 two years ago.

Having used Wadia gear as a personal reference for years, I was excited to hear the company’s new S7i digital player during a recent visit to Sumiko’s sound room in Berkeley, California.  Immersed in the sound of the $200,000-per-pair Sonus faber flagship speakers and two towers of REL G-1 subwoofers, driven by Pass Labs monoblocks, I felt in familiar territory.  Yet, when I commented on how great the S7i sounded, I was instantly corrected.  “That’s the new 121,” a Sumiko representative informed me.  So, in the context of a major six-figure system, the 121 playing 16-bit/44.1-kHz files via a computer sounded damn good.

Imagine an S7i with no disc drawer, shrunk down to Barbie-Dream-House size.  That’s the 121—in general.  It does use an external wall-wart supply, but that’s the only place Wadia really scrimped on the design.  I’m sure making a super-high-zoot external supply would wring more performance out of the 121, but then it would probably cost twice as much.  (Mod-crazed audiophiles take note:  Sumiko’s John Paul Lizars made it very clear to me that the series 1 Wadia products would not be receiving upgraded external power supplies.)

Expensive power supply or not, the 121 is a serious DAC—or, as Wadia calls it, a digital decoding computer—which quickly becomes apparent when perusing its front and back panels.  Rather than work with the same chipsets used in many other DACs, the 121 uses Wadia’s patented DigiMaster circuitry to upsample the incoming digital data to a 32-bit, 1.40-MHz bitstream.  All inputs accommodate up to 24-bit/192-kHz data and the USB input is asynchronous.

Wadia also built a headphone amplifier into the 121, with a 1/4-inch jack on the front panel.  Running the gamut of headphones at my disposal from Grado, AKG, Sennheiser and Audeze proved enjoyable.  The 121 easily passes muster as a first-rate headphone amplifier.  It also makes a perfect system for playing music from portable devices when paired with Wadia’s 170i or 171i iPod dock.  The 121’s small footprint makes it an easy fit on a desktop next to your computer or on a nightstand for after hours listening.

But what really separates the 121 from the rest of the comparably priced herd is its 32-bit digital volume control, making this a true digital preamplifier, not just a DAC with an attenuator slapped on the end of the output stage.  Wadia includes a full-function remote to complete the package.

The 121 is a perfect example of the dividends reaped when a company building top-shelf products applies its expertise to something at this level.  “We incorporated as much functionality as we could into the 121,” notes Wadia CEO John Schaffer.  “We didn’t want to just put a few DAC chips on the board and slap a Wadia badge on the front.”

Back at the Mothership

It’s tough to argue with the performance heard at Sumiko, as the system was one of the best I’ve heard, but it’s always good to audition gear in familiar surroundings.  Plugged into my main reference system, comparing it directly to the Wadia 381i that I’ve owned for some time now, reveals the difference between the big box and the 121.

While it is unfair to compare the 121 to the $10K 381i, it’s fascinating to witness how much performance Wadia has been able to squeeze into this diminutive box, which is the exact same size as the 170i and 171i iPod docks.  When listening closely to the finger snaps in Giant Giant Sand’s “Ready or Not” (from the Tucson album) it is clear that the 381i delivers greater amounts of air and a longer-lasting decay, but the 121 handles the tonality amazingly well, while also presenting a big soundstage.  When listening casually to less-than-stellar program material, and not directly in the sweet spot, it’s easy to confuse the 121 for something much more expensive.

The 121 validates itself instantly when listening to how it delivers classical or acoustic music.  Spinning Itzhak Perlman’s Live in the Fiddler’s House instantly reveals this DAC’s ability to convincingly render the violin.  You can hear Perlman gently fingering the violin, with way more texture than you would expect at this price point and with ample air and decay.  It’s easy to forget what you are missing until switching to the 381i.  Yet, once switching back from the big-bucks DAC, the 121 continues to satisfy.  And this is in the context of a six-figure system, made up of all Audio Research reference components.

Placing the 121 in a system comprised of appropriately priced components—a PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated amplifier and a pair of Vienna Acoustics Mozart speakers—is the right move.  High-resolution digital files via a MacBook Air and Amarra software meet or exceed the musicality delivered by a Rega RP3 turntable with Exact cartridge.

Blasting through a series of Blue Note XRCDs uncovers the same level of tonality:  Drums have the proper amount of attack and the standup bass is weighty as well as defined.  Wynton Kelly’s piano on Hank Mobley’s Soul Station floats in between the speakers, defined in it’s own space.  It’s not so much the jump between the $10K DAC and the 121 that’s tough to swallow; it’s going back to a budget DAC after listening to the 121 that proves there’s just no music in the inexpensive stuff—no life, no air, etc.

Compare and Contrast

The fairest comparisons for the 121 are the amazing Rega DAC for $995 and the Benchmark DAC1 USB at $1,195, especially given that the Benchmark can be used as a preamplifier.  It features a volume control (albeit an analog volume control, where the 121’s volume control operates in the digital domain) and headphone output.  All three DACs can handle 24-bit/192-kHz files.  Although neither DAC adds romance or sterility to the sound, the Rega has a slightly warmer, more romantic sound, while the Benchmark is straight-up—it’s a great “just the facts, ma’am” kind of DAC.

The 121 is closer to the Benchmark in tonality than the Rega, and each will appeal to a certain listener, but the Wadia’s edge is three-fold:  It has the widest dynamic range, more low-level-detail retrieval and more weight in the LF spectrum than the other two—again, very similar to my 381i.  Having lived with Wadia digital players for many years, I can tell you that the big, dynamic, weighty feel that Wadia DACs produce is easily recognizable—which is also the case with the 121.

In terms of connectivity, the TOSLINK input provided a slightly less-resolving presentation than the others, though it was still impressive and handy, should you have an older CD player that you would like to perk up.  A vintage Sony ES player, only having a TOSLINK output, showed a marked improvement via the digital output and the 121.  Comparing USB, SPDIF and the AES/EBU connections via 24/192 tracks, courtesy of the Aurender S10 server, revealed no anomalies between connections.  This plethora of inputs makes it easy to switch between a transport, music server and digital files on an iPod/iPhone via a Wadia dock—which makes the 121 perfect for the digital music lover with multiple sources.

All You Need

As great as the 121 performs in DAC mode, it’s the perfect hub for your music system.  The DigiMaster volume control is effective and sonically transparent, all the way down to the lowest range.  If there was some degradation of the original signal, we weren’t hearing it when I assembled the troops for a listening session.

Thanks to TOSLINK, BNC, RCA, AES/EBU and an asynchronous USB input, there are no limitations to what the 121 can use as a source.  We achieved excellent results using a Mac mini and MacBook Air, both running the latest version of Amarra; Wadia’s own 171i dock with an iPhone 4S; and an old Pioneer CD player as a transport.  The only thing keeping the 121 from appealing universally is its lack of a single analog input, which Benchmark incorporated into its highest-end version of the DAC1 PRE.  Including a single analog input gives someone wanting to integrate analog into their system the option to use the 121 as a full-function preamplifier.  For now, the 121 performs this task perfectly in an all-digital system.

The 121 does have fully balanced analog outputs that handle long cable lengths admirably.  The 121 has no problem with a 20-foot length of AVID SCT cable running from the rack to a bevy of awaiting power amplifiers.  Even terminating the amplifier end of the cable, with a Cardas balanced-to-RCA adaptor ,was no problem.

We paired the 121 with at least a dozen amplifiers, including tube, solid-state and class-D, and they all work equally well in terms of frequency range and drive.  However, this tube-lover favors the 121 with a number of low-power vacuum-tube amplifiers when using it strictly as a preamplifier.  Personal bias admitted, a touch of tubeyness goes a long way with digital sources.

Paired with the 121, the updated Conrad-Johnson MV50 tube power amplifier and Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers make for a fantastic, all-digital system, with more than enough resolution to easily discern between Red Book and high-resolution digital files, and compare various Amarra settings.  The 121 was no slouch driving the mighty Burmester 911 power amplifier directly; though, at this level, I did prefer having an active preamplifier in the signal path.  The bottom line:  With the 121, we have a $1,295 DAC that can hang with some pretty expensive company.

This is why we’ve determined that the Wadia 121 is more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.  Whether seeking a high performance DAC or a fully functioning digital preamplifier to build your system around, your search is over.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Wadia 121

MSRP: $1,295


Speakers GamuT S9    Magico S5    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II    Vienna Acoustics Mozart SE
Preamplifiers ARC REF 5SE    Burmester 011    Conrad Johnson PV-12C1
Power Amplifiers ARC REF 250 monoblocks    Burmester 911    Conrad Johnson MV-50C1   Pass Aleph 3
Integrated Amplifiers Primare I22     PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium
Digital Sources MacBook Air (w/ Amarra)     Sooloos Control 15     Aurender S10

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

For those of you unfamiliar with Opera Loudspeakers, let us enlighten you.  Opera is the “other guy” making high-quality speakers in Italy.  The Seconda is the middle model in the company’s Classica line of reasonably priced speakers.  Compared to $4,995 for Opera’s Callas speakers and $9,995 for its Grand Callas—and considering the quality of the Seconda speakers—$3,995 is indeed a reasonable price to pay for this level of quality.

The Classica line features a leatherette covering rather than the real thing to help shave a few bucks off the price point.  Opera, like a number of luxury carmakers, is able to pull this off so tastefully that the fit and finish will fool all but the fussiest connoisseur.  Our review pair of Secondas arrived finished in a striking high-gloss white lacquer, which is becoming increasingly popular in Europe and making a comeback here in the U.S. The sides are made from real wood, with the front and rear baffles, MDF.

These speakers are no lightweights:  They tip the scales at an even 100 pounds apiece.  They offer nicely finished binding posts that allow for easy bi-wiring, and the company provides spikes for the bottom front of the speaker, as well as a spiked outrigger arrangement at the bottom rear to add stability and make it easier to set the rake angle.

An Unconventional Approach

Two 7-inch aluminum cone woofers and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter sourced from Scan-Speak lurk behind the black grilles, which are easily removed.  If you have no prying paws around, I suggest enjoying the beauty of the Secondas sans grille.  While most competing products opt for a ported design, the Seconda has a sealed enclosure, which makes for a gentler impedance curve—a definite plus when used in conjunction with a tube amplifier.  (Opera’s sister company, Unison Research, just so happens to excel at producing tube amplifiers.)

The crossover point of the Seconda is a commendably low 2,200 Hz, with a second-order slope.  It also maintains good off-axis performance and high overall levels of coherence.  Eschewing the ubiquitous curved side panel for a baffle that is curved and angled, the Seconda minimizes unwanted cabinet reflections, which helps lessen interference with the front baffle.

Wait For It

Slightly tight and bright out of the box, the Seconda reveals its charms after about 200 hours—and the effort is well worth the wait.  I would suggest letting them play every day when you go to work and, after a week, you will be rewarded with a pleasant surprise.  Once broken in, the Seconda exhibits a clear, open and lively character in the midrange, with a high-frequency range that is extended and smooth at the same time.  Those familiar with traditional Italian speakers might expect a kind of laid-back and mellow presentation, but this is not the case with the Seconda.

The sealed-box design yields a very even, gradual and protracted bass response, free from the usual impedance hiccup that can plague the tuning frequency of a standard vented enclosure.  This proves to be a wonderful counterbalance to the high-frequency extension of the tweeter.  The dual aluminum midrange drivers offer quick responses, which helps eliminate any inclination of a slow or bloated low end.

Everything about this speaker’s design bodes well for the music lover.  It possesses a sensitivity of 89 dB and a 4-ohm nominal impedance, which means you only really need 35 to 50 watts of juice to adequately drive each channel.  Pairing the Secondas with the Unison Research S6 integrated amp borrowed from our publisher for this review made for an excellent combination that was the definition of musicality.  I equally enjoyed the speakers when driving them with 100 watts per channel of solid-state power from my Class A Coda amplifier.

At Ease with Any Material

Dynamic classic-rock titles like Led Zeppelin II, Taste’s recently remastered On the Boards and Jefferson Airplane’s Bless Its Pointed Little Head all favored the big solid-state sound, especially at high volumes.  The speaker’s sealed cabinets yield a visceral presentation:  Drums come alive and the electric bass has a convincing wallop, with no loss of texture.

But the Seconda isn’t only about getting down with classic rock.  Teeing up some great CD recordings from the recent past tells a lot about this speaker’s ability to accurately portray large classical ensembles and intimate jazz groups in realistic scale.

During a listening session of drummer Peter Erskine’s jazz trio on Live At Rocco, the Seconda captures the wide-open ambiance of the venue.  You can easily discern all of the audience noises, such as clinking glasses and soft whispers.  Soft brush strokes on cymbals have the appropriate shimmer and decay, while the upright bass’s sinewy plucked strings resonate with strength.  Another great live recording, Tonic from Medeski, Martin & Wood, treats the listener to that same wide-open room sound.  On the track “Buster Rides Again” Billy Martin hammers away vigorously with his funky timekeeping, which the Secondas put right in the middle of the soundstage.

As for the bass prowess of these speakers, Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack to the film Todo Sobre Mi Madre—a beautiful score, full of deep-bass lines—accentuates the Secondas’ ability to handle the lowest notes with ease.  The score’s short track “Le Faltaba la Mitad,” a mix of massed strings and haunting bass, feels as if it migrated from a Dead Can Dance album.  Here, the Secondas easily keep the pace solid, even at high levels, without distortion or soundtrack collapse.  At the same time, the sparse percussion gently dances throughout the soundfield unaffected—a very impressive feat for speakers at this price point.

Reference Recordings’ Mephisto & Co. showcases the Minnesota Orchestra in full song.  On this recording, the classic Mussorgsky piece “Night on Bald Mountain” perfectly illustrates the ability of these speakers to go instantly from loud to soft.  Playing perhaps louder than is prudent, with my Coda amp delivering the goods, the piece builds to crescendo, all the while maintaining the orchestra’s three-dimensional space.  The Seconda portrays the big stuff faithfully and then backs off beautifully to capture the softer passages featuring flute and piccolo.  Reference Recordings’ Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninoff reveals the speaker’s ability to render size and scale, at the same time casting a spotlight on how well the dual 7-inch woofers are able to start and stop without any overhang or fatigue.

Just as I was ready to wind up the review and begin packing the Secondas to send to their next appointment, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits from Audio Fidelity arrived.  Again, I was reminded of the wonderful midrange that these speakers offer.  Dylan’s voice is eerily realistic and squarely in the room on “Blowin’ in The Wind,” on which I found the decay of both his voice and harp utterly captivating.  The speakers also handle male and female vocals with equal ease, so those partaking more of the latter will be equally smitten.  A quick spin of Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’ (courtesy of the Acoustic Sounds’ remaster) is incredibly vibrant and realistic.

I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with the Opera Secondas.  While these may not be the first name on the tip of your tongue when searching for your next pair of speakers, they are worth seeking out and even more worthy of an extended audition.  They bring a number of design elements together: a large sealed enclosure, quality drivers, elegant cosmetics and outstanding in-room performance.  And, at a relatively affordable $3,995 a pair, they offer incredible value, ranking highly on the wife-acceptance factor and also delivering great performance for the price.  If you’re looking for something other than the usual fare, and in the mood for something different, these Italian wonders are certainly worth a listen.

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

MSRP: $3,995

Available in the U.S. through Colleen Cardas Imports:

GoldenEar Aon 3 Bookshelf Monitors

Small speakers and small rooms usually mean not much bass.  A well-thought-out subwoofer will usually add LF content, but it also lightens your wallet.  If you’re looking to outfit a small listening space with a pair of compact speakers that combine the imaging of a mini monitor with bass you’d expect from a floorstander, try the Aon 3s from Maryland’s GoldenEar.

The opening bass riff of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It” immediately confirms that these speakers rock.  The weight, texture and sheer growl of what is arguably one of the best-known bass lines in rock and roll forces you to take notice and, perhaps, search for the subwoofer in the room.  But there isn’t one.  Taking advantage of room gain in room two (13 feet by 16 feet), the Aon 3s easily dip down to the upper 30-Hz range, with the ribbon tweeter offering a level of transparency that, along with the massive bass response, is something rarely heard—and even less rarely heard from a pair of speakers priced just under $1,000.

Easy to Drive

Tom Waits’ “Don’t Go Into That Barn” (from his Real Gone album) further confirms that these speakers have plenty of heft, as they easily handle the chorus of low-pitched grunts that linger in the background behind Waits’ wailing.  Keeping the mood heavy and dark, with Tool’s Undertow album conveys just how much punishment these little speakers can take and still deliver the goods.  The 20-watt-per-channel Carver Black Beauty was able to push the Aon 3s further than I expected.  But, not wanting to blow a tweeter, I switched to my BAT VK-60 monoblocks and twisted the volume knob a lot further.   Make no mistake:  These speakers can rock with the best of them.  The Aon 3s never miss a beat when Tool goes from slow motion into overdrive.

An 89-dB sensitivity rating and nominal 8-ohm impedance means the Aon3s work well with amplifiers great and small.  The Conrad-Johnson MV-50C1 (recently updated at the factory with CJD Teflon caps throughout) with EL34 output tubes proves magnificent, providing just the right balance between midrange magic and dynamics, and offering up the most musical combination of the review sessions.

It’s not that I didn’t have great luck pairing the Aon 3s with solid-state electronics—amplifiers from Pass Labs, McIntosh and Channel Islands were all good matches—but my first experience with the GoldenEar speakers was with tube power in the living room of GoldenEar founder Sandy Gross.  The experience, needless to say, really stuck with me.  Even with a low-powered tube amplifier at a modest listening level, these speakers fill the room with a highly engaging sound.

Tripping through Hawkwind’s “L.S.D.” feels so psychedelic and dimensional that a black light was in order.  For those of you not familiar, the massive ball of sound on this track extends way beyond the speaker boundaries, with layer upon layer of synthesizers, sound effects and equally driving bass and drums occasionally infused with somewhat guttural vocal chantings.  A little time spent with Can’s The Lost Tapes: 1968-1975 was equally mind-expanding, with multiple levels of distorted guitars that would blend together on a lesser speaker, but that are each easily discerned when played through the Aon 3s.

Further Explorations

While wacky electronic music doesn’t reveal much about a speaker’s ability to accurately reproduce music, it does disclose the speaker’s presentation, dynamics and soundstage.  Some speakers just sound small, but the Aon 3s do not fall victim to this.  I make no bones about having the “big-speaker sound” as one of my hot buttons, and the Aon3s deliver.

Going up the audiophile hierarchy of needs (your order may be different)—knowing the Aon 3s can produce a soundstage much larger than their small size would suggest, along with sufficient weight and dynamics—the last mountain to scale is tonality.  Not only do these speakers sound remarkably neutral for their modest price tag, they do a great job with male and female vocals, each of which presents a unique challenge.

The subtlety of female vocals can expose a speaker’s inability to recreate micro dynamics.  Patti Smith’s recent album Banga creates a dreamy, surf-like, (dare I say happy) mood, closing with Smith taking on Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”  The end of the track has a chorus of young girls accompanying Smith as they sing “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century.”  The Aon 3s keep the vocalists separate while brilliantly maintaining the pace of the track.

Rachel MacFarlane’s Hayley Sings provides more traditional yet sultry tunes.  Her performance of “Makin’ Whoopee!” slides out of the speakers in a highly convincing manner, so those having a taste for more traditional female vocals will be very satisfied with the GoldenEar speakers.  However, the female voice doesn’t tell the whole story.  Typically, if there are problems with the crossover point or the drivers don’t meld properly, the additional body of male vocals fails to come through, so that vocalists like Tom Jones, Johnny Cash or Brad Roberts appear to lack bulk.  Again, the Aon 3s do not suffer from this problem.  The speakers splendidly reproduce Robert’s vocal on the Crash Test Dummies’ album Give Yourself a Hand, as he goes from his trademark baritone to a newfound falsetto on this record.

Back to the Lab

Perusing the spec sheet for the Aon 3s shows that these little speakers mean business.  GoldenEar designed these puppies with a 7-inch woofer and a pair of side-firing passive radiators, allowing the Aon 3’s to move serious amounts of air.

The Aon 3s are a snap to set up.  Listening to them in room two, with the Aon 3s about 7 feet from my listening chair and about 4 feet from the side and rear walls, provides the best balance of bass reinforcement and midrange clarity.  Getting the tweeters as close to ear height as possible will provide the maximum soundstage in both dimensions.  As with any small but high-quality speaker, the Aon 3s have the maximum room interface if you place them on a high-quality, high-density speaker stand and use some Blu Tack or similar compound to couple the speakers to the stands.  Minor tweaks like this will pay huge dividends.

Thanks to the wide dispersion of the Aon 3s’ High-Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter (and a GIK diffuser installed at the room’s first reflection point), no toe-in is needed, as these speakers have a naturally wide sweet spot.  Unlike my favorite pair of panel speakers, the Aon 3s also have wide vertical dispersion, with the image suffering very little falloff when you rise from the listening chair, making these great speakers for listening to music with a lot of friends.

This is the same tweeter used in GoldenEar’s top-of-the-range Triton speakers, which provides multiple benefits.  The obvious quality aspect of getting the flagship tweeter in a small package is great for those with smaller rooms and smaller budgets, but it also makes for a beautifully integrated sound, should you decide to incorporate a pair of Aon speakers into a multichannel system with Tritons as front speakers.

While GoldenEar has taken advantage of overseas assembly, it’s still garbage-in, garbage-out if you can’t design a great speaker.  The secret sauce here is between the ears of Sandy Gross himself, who was one of the original partners in Polk Audio and Definitive Technology, so the amount of time he spent in the designer chair can’t be dismissed.  Knowing where to pound the nail is the key, and the Aon 3s certainly benefit from Gross’ decades of speaker design and manufacturing experience.

The Aon 3s have a “truncated-pyramid” shape that improves sound quality by having no parallel cabinet walls, which provides a midrange and upper-bass response unfettered by cabinet resonance or reflections.  Taking the high-value concept further, GoldenEar makes the cabinets from MDF and covers them on four sides with a tight-weave grille fabric, leaving the top and bottom surfaces bare except for the finish.  Less money spent on the cabinet means more money for drivers and crossover components—yet another advantage for the GoldenEar speakers.

I’ve heard a lot of uninvolving loudspeakers in the $1,000 range, but I’m happy to report that the GoldenEar Aon 3s are anything but.  Construction is first-rate and the amount of music that these speakers reveal is nothing short of a miracle considering their size and price.  Those looking to assemble a high-quality, high-value system should make a GoldenEar dealer their next destination.  – Jeff Dorgay

The Golden Ear AON3 Speakers

MSRP: $499 each

Yaz – Upstairs at Eric’s

It was tough to turn on MTV in the fall of 1982 for more than 20 minutes and not see the video for Yaz’s “Don’t Go.” The shoulder pads were big, with big hair to match, and Brit synth-pop ruled the airwaves. Yaz members Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke would go their separate ways a year later, but they were two of the major architects of a sound that would influence many others.

Guilty pleasures confessed, an original copy of this record still lurks in my record collection, and the Mobile Fidelity reissue is superior in every way.  First released on Mute Records, the original is downright harsh and trebly.  What would you expect from a bunch of keyboards and drum machines?
The MoFi crew does an excellent job at giving this dancefloor classic a bit of air and extension, as well an actual soundstage, spread across the speakers with much more substantial bass energy that matches the dynamics of the group’s 45RPM maxi-singles. (yeah, guilty again). These characteristics are particularly evident on “I Before E, Except After C,” on which Moyet’s bubbly giggling fills the room with presence. It’s anemic on the original pressing.
Most importantly, we tip our hats to Mobile Fidelity for continuing to release fun records. If this era was part of the soundtrack of your life, this one’s a must.  -Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity Silver Series, LP

Tears For Fears – The Seeds of Love & Songs From the Big Chair

The Seeds of Love may not be Tears For Fears biggest commercial success, but it’s the most meticulously crafted album produced by the duo comprised of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith. As well as it should be, having been made on a budget of one million pounds.  Combining a wide range of musical styles, The Seeds of Love has a slower, more deliberate pace than its predecessor, Songs From The Big Chair.

The gold standard is the UK Fontana pressing, but the US version is not far behind in terms of clarity and bass slam. The extra low-level information captured on the former version shows off the delicate layers of the compositional elements in a most exquisite fashion. Of course, this comes at a premium, with pristine UK copies fetching up to $75, and good-condition copies selling for about half that. The elusive Japanese vinyl appears on EBay and the like occasionally, and demands $100 and up. The US version is equally tough to find in record stores, but can usually be located on various auction sites for $15-$40. Caveat emptor.

Mobile Fidelity performed commendably on this new edition, bringing the classic to market in perfect shape for $22.95. The bottom end is well sorted and the hallmark MoFi quality is here in spades. Our test sample is flat, quiet, and centered, and features excellent reproduction of the original artwork.

As this is a Silver Label title, the original master is not guaranteed (as it is in the Original Master series), and the records are pressed on 140g vinyl. Direct comparison to UK and US originals reveal more smoothness in the upper registers, suggesting it was cut either from a high-resolution digital copy or perhaps a safety master.  This trait is most evident in the quietest passages, such as the beginning of “Swords and Knives” and “Famous Last Words.” The original vinyl sounds bigger, with more sparkle and clarity. Tunes with less dynamic range make it tougher to distinguish between the original and the remaster. So, unless you can be assured a perfect original, the Silver Label LP is the way to go. Grading these on a numerical scale, with a mint UK original at 100 and an immaculate US original 95, the Silver Label ranks 91. Pretty damn good.

Songs From the Big Chair equates to more of a toss-up. Utilizing a low-numbered US pressing for comparison, the Silver Label easily comes out on top in terms of a smoother high end, but the original has more low-frequency energy with bigger, punchier dynamics. The former sounds smoother, yet it’s a bit veiled. I still prefers the original. As it’s Tears for Fears’ biggest-selling record, you can get a clean one for about six bucks if you look hard. -Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity Silver Series LP

Quadraspire Q4 EVO Equipment Rack

For many audiophiles, the equipment rack is the last thing in the chain to address for any number of reasons.  Many of us are too busy acquiring the next cool piece of hardware, while others just refuse to spend money on something that doesn’t necessarily contribute to the overall sound of the system.

But a good rack will offer a better overall presentation, and it always adds to the visual presentation.  Once you get use to the tidiness that a rack (or multiple racks) provides, it’s tough to do without.  The four-shelf Quadraspire EVO rack is reasonably priced at $700, available in black as well as a number of attractive wood finishes.  Additional shelves are $175 each and can be easily attached.  The Q4 EVO rack has a 19¼-inch opening for components, and it’s 15½ inches deep. Those with massive components can order the Sunoko Vent rack, which is an additional three inches deep.  This is Quadraspire’s top product and has a cost of $395 per shelf.

Built with care in the lovely town of Bath

The racks are meticulously made in the town of Bath in the UK. Quadraspire has a state-of-the-art facility, with the latest in CNC machining for the raw shelf components and an automotive spray facility to apply all of their finishes.  Everything is done in house at their shop. I was impressed with the level of care put into all of their racks when I visited the factory last summer.  You can get a mini tour from the Quadraspire website here:

To help in the development of their products, Quadraspire maintains a good demo room  so that they can compare products in various stages.  They had some top-line Naim gear with some floor-standing Tannoys that had a highly musical sound.  Owner Eddie Spruit showed us the difference between their past products and the new EVO shelves, which have some precise grooves cut in the bottom face to reduce resonance.

The difference was instantly apparent, with the EVO shelved gear taking on a more open and focused presentation.  It was enough of an obvious difference that can be easily heard even with a modestly priced system.  While my current use for the Q4 EVO is a $60,000  dCS Paganini stack, I noticed a substantial jump in image focus with my Naim Uniti and Rega P3-24 turntable on the EVO rack, compared to one of my DIY racks that pays no attention to vibration control.

The Q4 EVO arrives well-packed, with high-density foam bumpers to protect all of the edges, and it can be assembled in about 15 minutes.  It is worth noting that the enclosed instructions are excellent.  I found that a fairly large pliers used with a thick piece of rubber (to protect the hardware from damage) was the best way to tighten the rack enough so it was not wobbly.  The caps that attach to the top of the rack have holes that can be adjusted with the supplied tool.  I did notice that after a few weeks, the rack required additional tightening, but it remained stable after that.

While some equipment-rack manufacturers take the high-mass approach to eliminating vibration, Quadraspire goes the exact opposite, going in a low-mass direction.

An excellent addition to your system

Only so much can be said about an equipment rack, but the Quadraspire is at the top of my list for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, it makes an audible difference in the system.  Second, it is tastefully designed and should fit well into any decor scheme. Finally, it is well-built by skilled craftsmen, which assures that it will last for a long time.

If you are in need of a new rack for your HiFi system, I can’t recommend the Q4 EVO highly enough.

Quadraspire Q4 EVO

MSRP: Starting at $700

Apple iPad Mini

Though an iPad mini with a Retina display is probably be right around the corner, the current version, with its 7.9-inch display (versus 9.7 inches for the standard iPad), does remarkably well at delivering the iPad experience in a smaller, more-compact package. Best of all, Apple has trimmed the price:  The mini starts at $329 for a 16-GB, Wi-Fi-only model.

Feeling lighter than its 11-ounce weight, the mini delivers all the features you’re used to in the full-sized pad: front and rear cameras, FaceTime capability and a similar range of memory, from 16 to 64 GB.

Utilizing the same dual-core A5 processor as the iPad 2, the mini feels a bit sluggish in comparison to the current iPad, which has the A6X unit under the hood, when playing video games or surfing the web.  The mini still does admirably well with a fast Wi-Fi connection.

Much like Amazon’s Kindle Fire, or some earlier Android tablets, the mini seems to be a better Kindle than magazine reader.  But it’s a mega remote control for any of your music servers or other devices so equipped—and iTunes is also a blast to use on the mini via AirPlay, if you have a B&W Zeppelin or other AirPlay-enabled music player.  The additional screen real estate of the mini a blessing for those used to an iPod.

If you consider the current iPod touch a baby iPad, the family is now seamless, with offering in kid’s meals, regular and large sizes.  Should you be a multiple iDevice family, the mini shares the same power connector/charger as the iPhone 5.  Audiophiles will be disappointed to know that this means it is not compatible with the Wadia 170i or 171i docks.

Apple iPad Mini

MSRP: $329 – $659 (depending on configuration)

In The Groove

If you’d like to get a bit more fashion-forward than that comparatively bland Discwasher you’ve been using since the ’70s, consider this:  Designed by a surgeon, based on a tool used for cleaning debris from operating-room instruments, the sticky surface of the In The Groove record cleaner is perfect for removing idle dust and dirt from your records.

While it is no replacement for a vacuum RCM, this nifty roller is incredibly handy to use before play.  Best of all, the sticky surface is easily renewed by rinsing in the sink.  You can towel dry, but air-drying leaves it pristine for the next use.

In The Groove

MSRP: $19.95

SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

Is it a futuristic beer keg?  A spare droid from Star Wars?  A water conditioner?  While it does look futuristic, this curious device is available today from your local SoundCast dealer—and it’s one of the most interesting portable music systems we’ve seen.

The OutCast is a single 26-inch tall cylinder with a slight taper in the midsection.  The control panel is located on the top of the device.  It lets users operate an iPod or iPhone, as well as iTunes, Pandora, and Rhapsody.  The easy-grip handle, also on the top, has plenty of room for those with large hands, while the sealed function buttons should be impervious to prying hands and intoxicated neighbors.

Within the casing are four sections.  The uppermost section holds the receiver unit and a 100-watt Class-D amplifier.  The middle section contains four 3-inch drivers aligned in a right-left-right-left pattern that creates a 360-degree stereo output.  The bottom section features a sealed chamber holding the 8-inch IMPP woofer, which, with its down-firing placement, allows for even bass dispersion.  The bottom section has ports for the woofer and ambient blue lights, and also serves as a sturdy base.  The OutCast’s heavy-duty design and external material limits exposure to the elements, while still letting the music be heard.

Setting up the OutCast and installing its rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery takes about five minutes, if you take the 90 seconds required to read the manual.  Both the audio-input jack for non-iPod MP3 players and the power-cord socket are covered by a flexible but tight-sealing rubber gasket.  The OutCast offers three 2.4-gHz channels, which are manually switchable, to prevent interference with other wireless devices.

A Perfect Partner

Placement of the OutCast is key to its performance.  Getting the unit away from anything within at least five or six feet is critical for stereo performance.  Then, once you’ve charged it overnight, you’re ready to rock.

Combining the iCast dock/transmitter (a $100 option) with an iPod Classic, the Outcast fills most backyards with quality-sounding music.  Sell that boom box at your next yard sale, because the Outcast has serious low-end grunt.  Its midrange punchiness combined with omnidirectional ambience redefines outdoor hi-fi.  Blasting Adele’s 21, the OutCast easily carries her vocals to the end of my backyard, yet it wasn’t so loud as to send the neighbors into fits of rage.

The conveniently placed handle makes light work of carrying the 25-pound OutCast around the yard or to a neighbor’s house.  And it’s equally at home indoors as it is outdoors.

Better than a Rock

Unlike those outdoor speakers that look like rocks (but do not rock when called upon), both the OutCast and smaller OutCast Jr. (which starts at $600) deliver the goods, no matter what the volume.  This is an all-purpose portable player with serious capability.  Whether I was playing John Mellencamp or AC/DC, the sound was full and clear.  At a recent outing, a few guests complimented the sound quality and wondered where the wires were—one of the OutCast’s most-noticeable perks.

The device claims a 300-foot range between it and the iCast wireless dock.  It was still playing solidly at the edge of my 200-foot yard, but does drop off somewhat around corners.  For best results, you’ll want to keep it within line of sight.  Like a tuner car from The Fast and the Furious, the OutCast features blue mood lighting to increase its sci-fi feel.

Don’t be surprised if taking the OutCast or Outcast Jr. to your next party makes you the hit of the neighborhood.

SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

MSRP: Starting at $900

Audio Research REF 250 Monoblocks

Power output meters are just cool. Back in the late 80s when the legendary Audio Research D-79 amplifier stood as my system’s cornerstone, watching the meters bounce into the red “caution” area—as the SPL got somewhat out of hand—made me feel like a mad scientist in a Mothra movie, waiting for sparks to fly. Fortunately, they never did, and my D-79 never missed a beat.

Today, my hair is as gray as the front panel on my ARC REF 150 power amplifier, which has served me equally well. But with a pair of speakers possessing an 88dB sensitivity rating, there are times when I find myself itching for a bit more power. And as awesome as a pair of REF 750s sound, the idea of replacing 36 KT120 power tubes on a semi-regular basis scares me. Perhaps if I could buy them by the palette at Costco…

For every one that’s lusted after a Ferrari and bought a Porsche 911 because it just made more sense on a daily basis, I submit the ARC REF 250 monoblocks. At $26,500 per pair, they are not an impulse purchase. Yet for those with an ARC amplifier (or amplifiers) already in their system, trading up isn’t a stretch. ARC’s Dave Gordon likes to say that the company’s best entry-level product “is a good, clean piece of used ARC gear.” Sounds like it’s time to pass that pair of REF 110s or VT100 on to another happy owner, and roll up to the bar for a pair of REF 250s. Then again, I can justify anything related to audio.

Quite the Trip

I have one main requirement for five-figure hi-fi: It has to take you on a trip, giving you an immersive experience that allows you to forget about the system and groove on the music. Forget about specs, measurements, tube, or transistor. Once the REF 250s have about 45 minutes on the clock, they take you there.

What better place to start than with the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour in stereo? Argue mono versus stereo all day long, but the latter version is extremely trippy, and as wide as a stretch of US 40, driving through Kansas on a clear, sunny day. Lennon is all the way out in Missouri, McCartney is over in Colorado, Ringo drums g somewhere in Nebraska, and George Harrison sits in the seat right next to you. Who needs drugs when music sounds this good? The mix tightens up on Revolver, with more dynamics. Harrison’s guitar blazes out in front of the speakers, buzzing in my head during the chorus on “Taxman.”

Next up, AC/DC. Taking advantage of an all-ARC amplification chain, this time using the REF Phono 2, AVID Acutus Reference SP, and Lyra Atlas cartridge (mounted on the TriPlanar arm), the 45RPM single of “Let’s Get it Up” (from For Those About to Rock) sends the power meters dancing at the edge of the caution zone. It’s like old times, but better. Much, much, better. Move over Rover, the new REF series is where it’s at. Not stopping there, I dial up the 24/96 release of Kiss’ Destroyer from HD Tracks. Aural madness ensues.

The sheer dynamic punch the REF 250s possess is simply unbelievable—the soundstage never collapses, even at near concert-hall levels. I haven’t listened to music this loud in my listening room in a long time. Yet the REF 250s handle it so effortlessly, it’s easy to keep goosing the volume control further and further, waiting for a hint of compression or distortion. It never arrives. With all due respect to the ARC dealer network, unless a bunch of listeners have fearfully inefficient loudspeakers, I don’t know why they’d need the REF 750s.

Moving the cables back to the REF 150, the amplifiers sound relatively similar, especially at modest levels. Still, the full mono chassis and bigger power supplies make for a wider, deeper soundstage and more solid foundation to the bass lines, no matter what kind of music pours out of the speakers. Yes, the REF 250s are double the cost, but offer a commensurate increase in performance.

Catch the Buzz

A quick beverage break reveals I’m listening way too loud. My ears now have a slight tingle, so the volume comes down from 81 on the REF 5SE to a more prudent 30. Coasting through Aimee Mann’s new Charmer album provides an audio sorbet that calms and cleanses the palette before I peruse recent Music Matters Blue Note reissues. The REF 250s’ extra power and separate power supplies expand Blue Note’s super stereo feel beyond the norm, excelling in texture retrieval.

Forget The Sheffield Drum Record. Art Blakey’s Free For All is an amazing example of the maximum amount of drum sound a vinyl groove can hold. The REF 250s take the music beyond conceivable limits. I continue to push the volume, but my system never runs out of juice. This is the closest I’ve come to actually hearing a real drum kit in my room. Cymbal tone and texture are spot on, but Blakey’s explosive drumming doesn’t flatten out for lack of amplifier reserve.

Even with a fairly compressed track like U2s “Beautiful Day,” soundstage depth impresses. The Edge’s backing vocals, often lost in the mix, occupy their own private space, well off to the left speaker boundary, yet unmistakable nonetheless. Given how well they reproduce average recordings, the REF 250s seem borderline miraculous.

Slowing the groove for Mickey Hart’s audiophile classic Dafos makes for a welcome reunion. The delicate percussion in “The Subterranean Caves of Kronos” gets rendered with sublime smoothness, putting me at rest for almost three minutes until the monstrous drums of “The Gates of Dafos” sledgehammer my body into the listening chair and place me in the middle of a tribal mating ritual. Once again, the REF 250s strike an ideal balance between control, finesse, and impact. Herein lies the magic: massive power, yet the REF gear starts and stops on a dime, allowing for an incredibly fatigue-free experience.

Easy Implementation

The REF 250s prove at ease with every speaker we have at our disposal: GamuT S9, Sonus Faber Ellipsa SE, B&W 802D (notoriously difficult to drive), and even the Magnepan 1.7.  Thanks to multiple taps at 16, 8, and 4 ohms, you should be able to find the winning combination for your speakers.

Setup is also a snap, and at 73 pounds each, the REF 250s are not too dificult to move. As with any tube amplifier, they require adequate ventilation. The REF 250s are fan-cooled and extremely silent in operation. They use the same 20-amp IEC connector as other ARC gear, so keep this in mind if you are thinking of upgrading power cords. ARC claims power usage as 700 watts at 250-watt output, and 1000 watts “maximum.”  While you can use both on a 15-amp circuit, listeners pumping up the volume at high levels will benefit from a 20-amp dedicated circuit for the amplifiers.


Along with doubling the power supply from the REF 210 it replaces, the REF 250 utilizes a design very similar to the REF 150, with eight KT120 power tubes per channel (instead of four) being driven by another pair of KT120s and the 6H30 that seems to be universal in current ARC amplifiers. A 6550C is employed as a voltage regulator. In a nod to past ARC designs, a traditional analog meter replaces the fluorescent display.

The KT120 tube proves excellent across the range. In addition to the increased power dissipation (which translates into increased power output), the KT120-based ARC amplifiers have more aural ease than earlier amplifiers using the 6550. Depth and air are more abundant, with speakers disappearing in the room more convincingly. And nobody’s going to complain about that.

Audio Research REF 250 Monoblocks

MSRP: $26,500/pair


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP    TriPlanar    Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Speakers GamuT S9    Magico S5    Sonus faber Ellipsa SE    B&W 802D
Power RSA Maxim and Dmitri
Cable Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk System RCM    GIK acoustic panels and Tri Traps

Peachtree Audio novaPre and Peachtree220

Peachtree Audio burst on the scene in 2007 with its Decco integrated amplifier with built-in DAC and onboard USB input, which was somewhat of a novelty at the time but has since become ubiquitous.  It also has another fun feature: a vacuum tube in the preamplifier section that is visible through a glass window on the front panel, which breaks up an otherwise plain-looking case and combines design elements from audio’s past and present.  The success of the reasonably priced Decco—Peachtree sells refurbished versions of the original Decco for $499—led to a broader product line and contributed highly to the viability of a new renaissance of integrated amplifiers with built-in DACs.  Here, Peachtree was clearly a trendsetter.

Peachtree’s products combine stateside engineering and design talent with overseas manufacturing efficiencies.  It has grown its initial dealer-direct model to include an extensive dealer network to help support the company’s expanding product line.  Two of the newest additions to the lineup are the $999 novaPre and the $1,399 Peachtree220 power amplifier reviewed here.  The company has also moved further upmarket with its Grand series, which thus far comprises an integrated amplifier and a preamplifier.  We’ll explore these at a future date.

A Quick Tour

The novaPre features four digital inputs and an analog input, so those wishing to incorporate an analog source are not left out in the cold.  There are two single-ended RCA outputs, both with variable peak levels so that a powered subwoofer can be used, which is particularly useful for those employing a sat/sub system.  The Peachtree220 is a powerful Class-D amplifier, with 220 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load that almost doubles to 400 watts per channel when going into a 4-ohm load.  The review samples arrived with a beautiful rosewood finish.  (They are also available in high-gloss-black and cherry-wood finishes. Cherry is standard, rosewood and black a $100 upcharge.)

Fit and finish is impressive and build quality is at the top of the chart, with perhaps the only inconvenience being that the RCA jacks are a bit close together, which limits your choice of interconnect cables to ones with svelte connectors.  My reference cables from Kimber and Transparent just made it, but some others with large plugs may not.  Setting up the Peachtree combo has a low degree of difficulty.  Eschewing the stock power cords for a pair of Shunyata Venom cords adds a cost-effective bump in sound quality.

The novaPre’s digital inputs feed an ESS Sabre DAC capable of handling 24-bit/192-kHz data.  One of the digital inputs is the ubiquitous asynchronous USB, along with S/PDIF coaxial and TosLink inputs.  The novaPre’s optical input is limited to 24-bit/96-kHz data, while those from most others handle 24-bit/192-kHz data.  In addition to the variable line-level outputs, there is a headphone jack on the front panel.  The tube in the window remains, but now a 6N1P replaces the 6922 of the original Nova, and can be included in or out of the circuit with the flip of a switch.  In this case, it acts as a buffer stage—handy when a bit of tube warmth is really needed.  The 6N1P is a very reliable tube, but does not encourage tube rolling, as there are few variations on this one.  Oddly, the novaPre only features single-ended RCA outputs, while the companion power amplifier has a pair of balanced XLR inputs.

Good First Impressions

The Peachtree gear breathes life into familiar reference tracks as well as new favorites.  Marc Johnson’s latest ECM collaborative album with pianist Elaine Elias, called Swept Away, is a perfect example.  The natural elegance of the arrangements is reminiscent of Bill Evans—full of tonal color and richness.  Piano and acoustic bass are always tough to reproduce convincingly, especially on an amp and preamp with a lower MSRP than a pair of premium interconnects.  Particularly impressive was the Peachtree combo’s ability to control the lower frequencies, rendering the full-bodied, woody texture of Johnson’s bass lines, with no overhang into the midrange.  This only improves as the gear racks up listening hours.

Staying in the ECM groove, next up is Anouar Brahem, the Tunisian master of the oud, which is a Middle-Eastern variation on the lute.  Brahem’s recordings vary in texture, with accompaniment including saxophone, accordion and flute.  The Peachtree pair exhibited an overall smoothness and pace in capturing these exotic melodies and rhythms, which became simply hypnotic the longer I listened.  When mixed in with the other exotic instruments, the oud provides a true test of resolution that the Peachtree gear easily passed.

While I was drawn to recorded acoustic music, I also wanted to give the Peachtree gear a chance to rock out.  Texas singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham just released his fourth album, Tomorrowland, which is a more straight-ahead rock effort.  His previous outings were laced with Southwestern flavors, country and blues.  Bingham lets loose on this new self-produced and self-released recording.  He is pissed off and he wants you to know it.  The politically charged lyrics are perfectly underscored by the Stones-esque hard-charging backing.  The Peachtree duo did not falter in any way, providing plenty of the necessary drive and energy.

I Believe by the great ’90s band Spain was the last disc that crystallized what the Peachtree combo is all about: nuance.  The band’s music is filled with deep emotional content, played at downbeat tempos, and finely textured.  The Peachtree gear allowed all the emotion in these beautifully layered compositions to shine through brilliantly, especially on tracks like “She Haunts My Dreams” and “Born To Love Her.”

Moving on, now using the novaPre as straight preamplifier, with a Marantz CD player connected to the Peachtree’s analog inputs, I heard much of what I heard with sources connected to the digital inputs.  I found the novaPre to be rather straight up, with bad recordings not at all flattered.  Mumford & Sons new album Babel is somewhat brittle sounding, which is exactly what comes through the novaPre.  On the other hand, U2’s classic track “Please,” from the band’s Pop album, is big and bold, with plenty of drama and a warmer overall sound that the novePre rendered with equal fairness.  Regardless of musical choice, the novaPre neither embellished nor detracted from familiar music.

This writer preferred keeping the tube in the signal path, so I kept it engaged most of the time. The difference is subtle but obvious.  Engaging the tube adds an organic ease and additional harmonic complexity to the presentation.  Of course, your preferences will vary depending on your taste and the rest of the system, but it’s nice to have the option.

Born for Each Other

Both units worked flawlessly in my system during the review period.  My only complaint is a minor one:  I wish the volume steps at the lower settings were more nuanced via the remote control.  One tap brought it from conversation level to total silence.  It would have been nice to have a wider gradation, as with the volume control on the front panel.

The integrated amplifier with onboard DAC is a category that continues to become more popular as more music lovers turn to their computer as a source component—and the novaPre is a prime example.  Mating it to the companion Peachtree220 power amp makes for easy one-stop shopping.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

With an admitted bias against Class-D amplifiers, I was smitten with the Peachtree220 when I first heard it early this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, where the Peachtree folks were using a pair of Aerial 7T speakers to showcase their latest products.  For those unfamiliar with the Montis, this is not a particularly easy speaker to drive, as it presents relatively low impedance at high frequencies, which more often than not throws both tube and Class-D amplifiers a curve.

The Peachtree combo proved a formidable partner for the Montis, and I would have easily believed Peacthree front man David Solomon if he had he told me that these two boxes cost twice as much.  They gripped the Logans with aplomb, casting a huge soundstage combined with a smooth high end—impressive.

Before sending these two pieces to Andre for review, I made it a point to try both the 220 amp and novaPRE here with the variety of different speakers that I have at my disposal—and they passed all tests with flying colors.  Even a couple of the more difficult speakers in my arsenal (the B&W 802D and the Magnepan 1.7) were no problem, so whatever you might be using, rest assured, the Peachtree220 will be up to task.

The novaPre proved equally flexible, whether using the Sooloos music server, Mac mini or an old Denon CD player as a digital source, with everything from MP3s to the latest offerings from HDtracks.

Two words sum up this combination: value and refinement.  In a world full of five- and even six-figure components, these separates from Peachtree offer mega performance at a modest price, allowing the creation of great music system on a tight budget.  I am happy to award them both one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.

Peachtree novaPre and Peachtree220 power amplifier

MSRP:  $999 (novaPRE); $1,399 (Peachtree220)


Streamer Squeezebox Touch
DAC Musical Fidelity V-DAC II
CD Player Marantz CD5003
Speakers Boston Acoustics M25
Integrated Amplifier McIntosh MA6600
Cables Transparent MM2 Plus    Kimber Hero Ag    QED Genesis Silver Spiral   Shunyata Venom

Furutech f-TP615 AC Power Filter/Distributor and Alpha PS-950 Power Cords

Clean power is always at a premium in a hi-fi system, and Furutech is one of the leaders in the field. Its f-TP615 works overtime in my system, where I never seem to have enough outlets. Performing in concert with Furutech’s top PowerFlux power cords, the f-TP615 provides an excellent way to keep gear supplied with the high-quality power it requires to be its best.

If you are a student of the “last wire” school of thought, and claim that the journey of power from the generating station to your system travels through junk wire—and that adding five feet of premium wire and connectors won’t change things—I won’t try to convert you. However, if you believe, like me, that AC power in the wall is more like a gigantic well, full of murky water into which one taps to power a system, read on. Remember, your hi-fi system essentially modulates the AC power coming into the box with audio signals that go to your speakers. The cleaner the source, the cleaner the result.

While I have tried the f-TP615 in several different systems, all yielding excellent results, it best proves its mettle supplying power to my digital front end, the four-box dCS Paganini stack.

Digital Enhancement

Swapping all four stock power cords with PowerFlux and f-TP615 instantly improves the dCS’ performance in two areas: Lowering the noise floor and removing hash/grain from the presentation.  All too often, we mistake the harshness of digital playback for grunge in the AC line.

Spinning David Byrne’s live performance with Caetano Veloso at Carnegie Hall illustrates the aforementioned effects. The sparse yet dynamic recording, featuring the two artists playing acoustic guitar, sounds fine when utilizing stock cords. But a quick switch to the Furutech components reveals more air around the guitar strings, a richer tone, and more body to the audience’s applause. It doesn’t hurt to have the Sonus Faber Aida speakers helping convey the very nuances the Furutech products bring to the dance.

Extended listening makes it easy to get used to the newfound liquidity, and it only takes a quick exchange back to the original setup to hear the soundstage collapse on itself. Everything sounds smaller, less focused, and as if I’ve moved my system to a smaller room.

Next Step, Analog

Anxious from noticing the improvements to the digital side of my system, I was curious to see how my analog front end would fare. Combining the distributor and cords with the ARC REF Phono 2SE, Simaudio 810LP, and Pass Labs XP-25 phonostages that supply my four turntables with amplification, I witness the same effect.

Interestingly, the Furutech components net a more pronounced impact on vacuum-tube gear, wiping away more “veil” than with the digital components at my disposal. Considering the miniscule signal voltages at work, this really is money well spent. Auditioning the latest release from Music Matters, Joe Henderson’s In and Out, cymbals spring to life with more vigor than before. There’s also a definite increase in bass texture.

Such improvements in analog resolution also mean that it’s easier to hear the positives of the Furutech DeMag/DeStat combination—two essential accessories in my analog tool kit.

In the Box

The f-TP615 is built to Formula One car standards. All parts and conductors are treated with Furutech’s Alpha cryogenic and demagnetizing process.  The outlets and receptacles are industrial works of art, which is why many other manufacturers turn to Furutech for plugs and receptacles. Twelve-gauge Alpha -22 wire is used throughout, and the aluminum chassis is covered in a proprietary coating, then combined with ceramic and nano-carbon damping spikes. Each detail ensures the power flowing to your components is as pure as possible. And it all works brilliantly.

While these Furutech designs qualify as premium power products, they will not turn a $500 CD player into a dCS stack. Exhaustive listening comparisons reveal a combination of the f-TP615s and PowerFlux power cords offers the greatest gains in the lowest level of a system’s resolution. Used in concert with top-shelf electronics, they allow components to attain maximum performance. In this context, I enthusiastically recommend the Furutech f-TP615 and array of PowerFlux power cords.

Furutech f-TP615 Power Distributor

MSRP:  $1,650

Alpha PS-950-18 Power Cords

MSRP:  $1,800 ea. (1.8m length)

Dynaudio Confidence C1 II

Blasting Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” (the 12-inch version), I once again forget that the Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers are small in stature, because these stand-mount speakers move serious air.  With a claimed LF spec of 45 Hz, they practically defy physics for a speaker this size.  The Burmester 911 mk. 3 amplifier in room two produces 350 watts per channel into four ohms and proves a perfect match for the C1s, which have a sensitivity of 85 dB/1 watt.  Powered thusly, the speakers never run out of headroom, making for an enormous soundstage in my second sound room (13 by 16 feet).

I keep the volume level high as Bowie’s “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” tests the speakers’ ability to deliver a coherent rendition of this dense mix, which combines a deep, driving synth-bass line with dissonant keyboard lines and layer upon layer of sound, while Bowie’s lead vocals remain anchored well out in front of a gigantic ball of sound.  This track is tough for $50,000 floorstanding speakers to handle at this volume, but the C1s ace yet another torture test.  Now it’s time for some Iggy Pop.

While the woofer and tweeter of the C1 look identical to the components used in the floorstanding C4, Michael Manousselis at Dynaudio makes it clear that “the Confidence models all feature the Esotar2 driver platform, but each model has its own unique drivers with optimized parameters.  While very similar overall, each speaker is indeed different.”  The C1 is the perfect speaker for the audiophile wanting extremely high performance in a compact space, but it also carries itself well in a big room:  A visit to Simaudio in Montreal earlier this year reveals the C1s playing in Sim’s main sound room (almost 22 by 30 feet) and filling it nicely, with LF output that had me looking for a subwoofer.

A True Destination Speaker

The C1s are easier to drive than their 85-dB sensitivity spec suggests.  Even the 10-watt per-channel First Watt SIT-2 power amp drives them without trouble.  This is also great news for vacuum-tube lovers.  The C1s are tube friendly, and I must admit to being in sonic heaven when coupling the C1s to the KR Audio Kronzilla dual monoblock tube amplifier.  This 50-watt SET amplifier has incredible bass heft with the delicacy of a 300B amplifier, but that extra 40 watts per channel makes for spectacular dynamic swings impossible to accomplish with a low-power SET.

This is an excellent long-term speaker to build a system around, and it only gets better as you upgrade the rest of your source components.  The C1s deliver good sound with modest amplification and cost-is-no-object components, or anything in between.  Their level of resolution makes it easy to distinguish nuances between five-figure amplifiers, but they still sound fine connected to a vintage Harman/Kardon Citation amplifier.

See-Through Sound

The top hallmarks of a two-way speaker and its associated simplicity are transparency and freedom from driver interaction.  Taking advantage of a gentle, 6dB/octave crossover slope, the C1 achieves a level of coherence reminding me of the Quad 57s sitting here for comparison.

The C1s disappear instantly, painting an enormous wall of sound that belies their size.  Cueing up Patti Smith’s “Space Monkey,” the Farfisa organ pulses in and out of the track, almost breathing in the room as if you can hear the speaker cabinet rocking back and forth about to tip over on stage.  A similar rendition of depth is achieved at the beginning of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song.”  The harmonica at the beginning of the tune sounds miles in the distance, with Lynott’s voice staying anchored as the lead vocals take center stage and the rest of the song builds.

Putting the pedal down with Genghis Tron’s album Board Up The House proves these speakers can play loud, provided you have enough clean power behind them.  Romping through a playlist heavily populated by Slayer, Mastodon and Van Halen underscores the ability of the C1 to play heavy tracks without overhang or fatigue.  This is a speaker that can keep up with whatever you throw at it.  But the low-level resolution is what makes the C1 so special—this speaker is dynamic in a way that no panel ever could be.  During the first guitar break in Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” you can hear the slight hum of Jimmy Page’s amplifier stack right before he goes back to maximum volume.  Twenty minutes rocking out with these and you’ll drop your Magnepans off at the nearest Goodwill on your lunch hour.

The crossover point between woofer and tweeter is 1,800 Hz, but the drivers are so well integrated that there are no anomalies in the critical vocal range.  Male and female vocals are both reproduced with ease.  Johnny Cash’s voice has the right amount of weight and grit to sound convincing, and the C1s equally represent the subtle nuances of the female voice.  Listening to the eponymous album from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway via 24-bit/192-kHz download is an exquisite experience—the C1s keep both vocalists properly sorted.  And Ella is just heavenly.

Multiple Personalities

While the C1s will perform admirably with small amplifiers, prepare for a completely different experience if you have a large, high-current power amplifier at your disposal.  The character of these speakers changes, now having more reach and control in the last octave.  Concentrating on music with a lot of LF output, I never really felt like these speakers needed augmentation at the low end of the frequency spectrum.  The famous heartbeat that opens Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon rumbles the room with authority.

Even when delivering large-scale orchestral music, the small Dynaudios thoroughly convince, especially with the Simaudio 880M monoblocks that just arrived for review. Again, power goes a long way with these speakers.

Behind (and Beneath) the Grille

The C1s have an interesting shape.  The main enclosure—a slim design only 6 inches wide, 14 inches deep and 15 inches high—is bonded to a front panel extending beyond the enclosure boundaries.  Removing the grille reveals the 6.6-inch woofer mounted just over the 1.1-inch Esotar2 soft-dome tweeter.  Using the speakers sans grill also reveals optimum performance.  The grille does not hamper things much, but the nuanced imaging suffers slightly with the grilles on.  Besides, these speakers look much more like sculpture with the grilles removed, so why leave them on?

My review pair came with the $450-per-pair Stand4 stands, which simply bolt into the bottom of the speaker cabinets.  This removes all the guesswork that can surround selecting the appropriate stand—the provided ones minimize stand interference and provide ideal playback height.  Stylish and massive, the stands work well, though I am informed that Dynaudio will soon replace them with the new Stand6 models, which come with a slight price increase to $500 per pair.  Because of the slim form factor of the speakers, I suggest using the Dynaudio stands and leaving it at that.  They are elegant, they complement the speakers perfectly and they have sufficient mass to do their job properly.

In terms of the speakers’ aesthetic, the standard maple finish just seems more Danish to me (and suits my personal preferences), but standard finishes also includes rosewood, cherry wood and black ash.  Black or white gloss and clear gloss lacquer are also available for an additional $800 per pair.

The Signature version of these speakers, at $8,500 per pair, is slightly more expensive than the standard edition.  With the Signature speakers, upgraded finishes come standard and include two extra choices that are exclusive to the Signature model:  Bird’s-eye maple, stained in either a dark-brown Mocca or dark-red Bordeaux finish with clear-gloss lacquer.  An additional bonus to the Signature model is a 10-year warranty, where the standard version has a 5-year warranty.

The Standard and Signature models share exactly the same drivers and crossover components, so they do sound the same.

I’m Keeping ’Em!

The official listening sessions end as they began, playing heavy music louder than I should.  (i.e. Grinderman’s “Evil” at equally wicked volumes.)  The combination of the C1s and the Burmester 911 is too much fun to keep the volume or choice of music at civil levels.  As I repeatedly push these compact speakers to the edge of their performance envelope, they continue to take everything I can throw at them with ease—so I happily wrote Dynaudio a check for the Confidence C1 IIs, which will be the reference speaker in room two going forward.  Their combination of wide-frequency response, natural tonality and high resolution makes them a perfect fit for a top-quality audio system.

The Dynaudio Confidence C1 II

MSRP:  $7,700 – $8,500 (stands additional)


Analog Source AMG V-12 turntable    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk. 3
Phonostage Simaudio Moon 810LP
Cable Audioquest Sky
Power Audience AR6Tss
Accessories Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    GIK room treatments

The Beatles – The Beatles Stereo Box Set

The Web has been abuzz for more than a year about EMI’s latest attempt to extract more oil from a well that we keep thinking will eventually run dry: the Beatles catalog. Yet the label manages to surprise us again, with a newly remastered set of vinyl.

Most retailers are discounting the new box to somewhere in the neighborhood of $350-$375, breaking the cost down to about $27 per title; single albums are forthcoming. Not crazy money in audiophile terms. These record sound much better than anything you’ll ever buy from Friday Music.

Unfortunately, Beatles lovers and audiophile collectors got thrown under the bus in one aspect, as the powers that be chose 24-bit/44.1kHz files for mastering instead of the high-resolution 24-bit/192kHz files used for editing. When the box sets reached the buying public last week, and seemingly everyone who was anyone–and a lot of those who aren’t–promptly declared it rubbish.

Of course, once completist collectors are removed from the equation, as many of them won’t take the damn things out of shrink wrap anyway, who is the real audience for these records? If you are lucky enough to have mint, low-stamper UK, German, or Japanese pressings of these classics, you already have the grail. Even if EMI had produced these new records from 24/192 masters, they would have still sucked in comparison.

Sure enough, when evaluating a few tracks from Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour on my $100,000 analog front end, the new records fall short. This, however, is akin to comparing a New Beetle to a vintage ’67 VW Bug with 1,500 miles that’s either been lovingly restored to perfection or, better yet, is completely original and NOS. It’s a pointless argument.

Even my favorite go-to set of Beatle albums, the blue BC-13 box, now fetches a thousand bucks in mint condition–if you can find one. When judged against these, the new records still lose a bit in top-end air and ultimate bass punch. Say what you will, but I like the stereo mixes.

Taking to the streets, I scoured a few of my local record stores (we’ve got quite a few here in Portland) and found used Beatles albums in horribly disfigured condition, with tattered covers and vinyl surfaces that I wouldn’t play on a Close and Play. Average cost? About $15, some as high as $30. Most were American Capitol pressings. A rubbish situation, and you won’t do much better on eBay.

Changing it up from my megabuck system to something more real world (a Rega RP6/Exact combination, playing through the vintage Nakamichi receiver and JBL speakers we used in our room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest), the new records sound pretty damn good.

The physical presentation of the box also qualifies as very good. Again, we are dealing with copies of copies, and the amount of money required to print these at a level commensurate with fine art is prohibitive. Contrast is picked up and some tonal scale lost, but again, when comparing to my mint BC-13 box or a scuffed American copy in the used bin, the new box comes out ahead. The jewel is the 252-page book, offering an engaging overview of the Beatles history. The records themselves sport a mixture of Parlophone label, Capitol label, and Apple label IDs–a fun touch for those new to Beatlemania. Not historically correct, but informative.

Early purchasers have mentioned sporadic pressing problems, but the set we received for review (purchased from is free of defect. Hopefully, issues remain limited to the first out of the chute. A gentle hand is required to remove the tightly fit outer slipcover, but I’m guessing that if you can’t remove it without damage, you’re not much of a hit with ladies, either.

Seasoned audiophiles, record collectors, and music lovers often forget that new people discover the Beatles and vinyl, every day. A majority of them could care less about first-stamper this or German pressing that. If you have rare, original pressings of these records, relish the fact that you own a precious part of music history. You will never be happy with these pressings.

Those of you beginning your vinyl journey, whether music lover, budding audiophile, or both, the current Beatles box will prove a great addition to your collection. Who knows, they may lead you to get caught up in all this madness to seek out a few mint originals for your collection someday.  -Jeff Dorgay

EMI, 16LP Box Set

Audioengine D2 Premium 24-bit Wireless DAC

Audioengine’s new D2 Wireless DAC provides an elegant solution for those wanting a higher-quality streaming solution than just a wireless transmitter, which the Hong Kong–based manufacturer offers with its highly successful W1 and W2 wireless analog transmitters.  The new W2 digital transmitter, priced at $599 for the set, is integrated with a two-piece DAC system that comprises separate sender and receiver units.  The system is capable of processing 24-bit/192-kHz music files, with the ability to stream 24-bit/96-kHz files.

The sender unit is connected (and powered, if desired) via USB connection, with an optical input also available.  The sender then transmits the digital signal to the receiver via a walled wireless 802.11g network.  The system removes output-level distortion from the equation with a separate signal.  The D2 system can work with up to three receiver units in different listening systems.

Highly versatile, the D2 DAC can be used as more than a standard computer-based wireless DAC:  It is equally at home acting as a PCM-to-home-stereo link and as a wireless USB-to-S/PDIF convertor.  The latter proves handy with my reference SimAudio 300D DAC, which features a USB limited input for 16-bit/44.1-kHz files.

Nuts and Bolts

The D2 DAC presents a clean and compact design aesthetic consisting of dark-grey brushed aluminum casework with thick plastic end caps.  The sender and receiver units each measure 4.75 inches wide, 5.5 inches deep, and 1 inch high—each unit is barely larger than three CD cases stacked on top of each other.

The faceplate of each unit has two grayish LED buttons—one for power and one for pair-sync status.  The sender has a silver output volume control knob, optical and USB inputs and a jack for the wall-wart power supply. The receiver has RCA output jacks occupying the same space as the knob and USB port on the sender.  An optical output and power jack receptacle finish off the receiver’s front.  The back panels of both units hold only the dual antennas.  A few may grumble about front-facing jacks, but small-stature equipment does require compromise on occasion.

Up and Running

Setting up both the D2 units to pair with either an Apple MacBook or Windows Vista desktop and main audio system took less time than unpacking and reading the brief but informative manual.  For Macintosh owners, simply open up the sound control in your computer’s system preferences and select “Audioengine D2”.  Windows users verify connection in the sound application of your control panel menu.  In either case, make sure to start with the sender unit’s output turned all the way up.  Typical of all Audioengine products, the D2 system comes with a full assortment of cables, so running to RadioShack won’t be necessary.

For owners of larger homes or those broadcasting to or from a studio or garage, the D2 transmission range easily exceeds 100 feet, according to Audioengine, and will transmit through one exterior and one interior wall without signal degradation.  I tested the transmission through an exterior wall and five interior walls at a distance of some 70 feet and the D2 yielded equally good results.

At just $599 with full wireless functionality, one might bet that the D2’s DAC section would be the weak link.  Here, the PCM1792A chip serves the DAC well.  Consistency across the spectrum with all components is a big thing with us here at TONEAudio, and the D2 DAC performed above expectations across the board.

Peak Performer

Listening to the D2 DAC, the one word that keeps coming to mind is “smooth.”  The D2 is a budget DAC that successfully avoids the dreaded listener fatigue.  When using the D2, bass guitar definition has a solid punch in The Burned’s toe-tapping “Hard Lesson,” along with a pleasant richness and depth.  On the top end of the frequency spectrum, the D2 delivers Kathleen Edwards’ clear vocals in “Change the Sheets” without the grain or irritation that plague most DACs at this price point.  The soul of music lives in the midrange and the xylophone in Steely Dan’s classic “Aja,” which comes across with the sweet warmth that many budget DACs miss.

The Audioengine D2 DAC offers convenience and high performance in a compact package that is reasonably priced.  Computer audiophiles take note.

Audioengine D2 Premium 24-bit Wireless DAC

MSRP: $599

Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf Speakers

Aperion Audio in Portland has a well-deserved reputation selling speakers directly to the end user through its website, offering speakers with solid designs and fine cabinetry.  The quality of its products paired with terrific customer service has earned the company a loyal following.

Its latest Verus Grand series speaker (priced at $598 per pair) is the bookshelf version of the company’s Verus Grand Tower speaker.  The compact speaker features a fresh design, beginning with a tapered cabinet and full-face front flange.  Its all-new ASR soft dome tweeter looks a bit funky, with its vertical bar, but it is a smooth performer.  Aperion pairs the tweeter with a 5.25-inch woven-Kevlar driver.  The braced fiberboard cabinet, available in cherry or gloss piano black veneers, is 13 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide and 9 inches deep, and has a port at the rear.  The front grilles are held in place by magnets, making for a clean front face that looks just as good with the grilles removed.

Setup is quick and easy:  Simply place the speakers 6 feet apart, 2 feet from the back wall and about 9 feet from the listening chair.  They are slightly stiff out of the box, but after a few days of nonstop play at modest level, the speakers reveal their true sound.  Eschewing toe-in placement, the Verus Grands work perfectly well positioned straight on.

Smooth Operators

Exploring Rita Wilson’s (yes, Tom Hanks’ wife) cover of  “Wichita Lineman,” the Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers represent the piano with a slightly mellow tone that exhibits a hint of sparkle.  The speakers convincingly reproduced the decay of each note during the last 30 seconds of the traffic, with Wilson’s voice never becoming shrill—high performance indeed for speakers at this price point.

These small speakers easily create a large soundstage, placing the keyboard in the opening track of Bonnie Raitt’s latest album, Slipstream, outside the left speaker, while Raitt’s lead guitar stays anchored low and inside the right speaker.  Tonal balance is the key, with Raitt’s sultry vocals never being overshadowed by the solid bass response these speakers provide, exceeding what you might expect of a LF spec of 59 Hz.  The hint of breathiness shown on “Take My Love With You,” a highly pleasing and an unexpected treat, reveals more resolution than the norm for a $600 pair of speakers.

An Easy Test-Drive

The Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers work well with tube, solid state or Class-D amplification; however, combining them with an EL34-based tube amplifier adds a bit of extra jump when listening to tracks like Brian Setzer’s “Dirty Boogie.”  His big-band orchestra fills the listening room with plenty of front-to-back depth.

Bill Frisell’s classic album Good Dog, Happy Man shows off the ability of these speakers to reproduce midrange and upper bass texture, with the various cello arrangements readily present here.  On the other hand, the signature baritone vocals of Crash Test Dummies’ front man Brad Roberts fall a bit short on “Superman” and “Mmmmm.”  But to Aperion’s credit, the company makes quality the priority with these speakers, rather than inducing a mid-bass hump to give the false impression of bass.  As a result, the critical mid-band is much clearer.

For those also using these speakers in a home theater setup, Aperion includes mounting brackets, which get the speakers up and out of the way.  Watching the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the dialogue and city noise stay separated from the music in the sound track, with the music clear and enveloping.  It’s easy to take an Aperion system from a two-channel setup up to a full 5.1-channel system—simply add another pair of Verus Grands for surrounds, a Verus Forte center-channel speaker ($350 each) and one of Aperion’s Bravus powered subwoofers (priced from $349 to $899 apiece).

Aperion backs all of its speakers with a 10-year warranty, 30-day trial, and free shipping both ways, making the Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers an easy choice for an in-home audition.

Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf Speakers

MSRP: $598 per pair

Audeze LCD-2 Headphones

I hate to admit this, but after about six years of serious headphone listening, they still leave me cold.  I’ve heard some great phones, and the Head-Fi crowd is by far one of the most passionate group of audiophiles I’ve ever met, but…   I miss the big, transparent, walk-through sound that I get from a big pair of floorstanding speakers.  Not that it’s stopped me from collecting a plethora of headphones and amplifiers over the years.  But  headphones are never my first choice and after about an hour, I’ve usually had enough.

I don’t hate to admit that I’ve had a paradigm shift.  Earlier this year, Ken Ball, owner of ALO Audio, brought over the Audeze phones to show off some of his new cable designs, and I was very intrigued. Somehow, though, I forgot about them until the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.  After another listen, I was hooked.  Finally, a pair of phones that sounded like putting a pair of MartinLogans on your head!  (And yes, I’ve owned Stax phones in the past.  Close, but still not my thing) Actually, the Audeze phones are more like putting a pair of Magnepans on your head, as they are a magnetic planar driver.

The Audeze LCD-2 phones arrive packaged in a substantial wooden box, along with a plug-in cable of decent quality.  If you are a serious headphone enthusiast, it’s almost a given that upgrading the cable is not a matter of if but when, and of course Ken Ball at ALO Audio has just the thing for you.  Stock issue from the factory, the LCD-2’s have an MSRP of $945, but you can buy them from ALO with his latest cable creation for $1,500 with the cable included.   The bad news is that everyone is on to how awesome these headphones are; there’s a month-long waiting list.

The LCD-2’s look somewhat large at first glance, but they are not terribly heavy at just over a pound (17 oz without cable).  The big, black, squishy ear cushions fit perfectly and stay comfortable even after 3-4 hour listening sessions, of which I had many.  Everyone that gave them a test drive commented on how unobtrusive they were.  Unlike my Sennheiser 650’s and AKG 701’s, which feel truly massive in comparison.

Burn in and cable swap

The ALO Cable’s performance was consistent with those I’ve used to replace of every other stock phone cable. The most dramatic improvement is the lowering of overall grain in the presentation.  No matter how good the headphones, swapping out that stock cable for an ALO always feels as if I had a severe head cold that has just gone away.  In a word, clarity!  Of course, there was a bit more low-level information available and thanks to the high resolution of the Audeze phones, the difference between stock and upgraded cable was even more apparent.  The level of workmanship is always a bonus; the new cable looks better than stock, important when shelling out $1,500 for a pair of headphones.

Not only was I highly impressed with the sound of the Audeze headphones, they were much better right out of the box than many broken-in headphones I’ve used.  A few phones are notorious for long break ins, but the LCD-2’s are not on that list.  Just 50-100 hours of playing is about all it takes.  Leave your CD player on while you’re at work and within a week, they will be at their best.

Natural is the key word

After weeks of listening, I’m still blown away by how natural these phones sound.  Until my new Woo Audio 300B headphone amp arrives, I’ve been listening with the headphone amp built into my Burmester 011 preamplifier, and it’s quite good.  Solid state with plenty of current drive and a touch of warmth overall makes for a great headphone experience.  Driven by the Spiral Groove SG-2/Triplanar/Grado Statement 1 through the Audio Research REF 2 Phono stage made for some outstanding vinyl listening.  Digital was handled by the dCS Paganini stack.

Instead of starting with female vocals, my first experience with these phones came from listening to the nine-disc set of Bob Dylan’s The Original Mono Recordings.Dylan’s harmonica on “Don’t Think Twice” was amazing – there is so much texture available on this recording to begin with that if you close your eyes, it sounds like Dylan is standing in front of you.  And the mono recordings have such an abundance of depth; they feel like stereo. It’s crazy.   Changing the program and moving on to the Greek Goth goddess, Diamanda Galas, the introduction to “You’re Mine” from her album, The Sporting Life just had buckets of reverb and depth.  Her unique vocal style is spread all over the stereo image, so this becomes more of a treat on headphones.  No matter who your favorite vocalists are, this is a test that the LCD-2’s can ace.

The bottom and the top

Most phones fall down the worst when trying to reproduce lower frequencies.  It can be any number of factors, dependent on the drivers as well as the cavity and seal of the ear cups.  Again, the LCD-2’s strike the perfect balance, offering bass that is solid and full of texture.  While so many other phones I’ve heard have a one-note bass effect, there was a great deal of texture present with these.  Nothing shows this off better than acoustic bass. As I was evaluating a few of the latest Blue Note test pressings from Music Matters, I was constantly impressed at how well these phones could capture the necessary texture and resonance of an acoustic bass at a level of detail that I’ve never experienced with headphones.

The lack of harshness and grain in the upper registers not only cuts down on fatigue but allowed me to listen at an even lower volume than I normally do.  It’s easy to get carried away with the volume control with headphones, which subsequently puts your ears at risk.  You don’t have to crank the LCD-2’s to get great sound, especially if you have a high-quality headphone amplifier.  The brushwork on Ry Cooder’s “Drume Negrita” from his Mambo Sinuendo album was absolutely dreamy; you can just feel that brush slide across the drumhead!

A Champion of low-level detail

One of the greatest pleasures when listening to headphones is the way a great pair can capture low-level detail.  At the beginning of “Fly on the Windshield” from Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tiny percussive effects just float all around your head – very trippy indeed.  The elevator effect at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” from Wishing you Were Here is also fantastic.  Another aural treat was working on the review of Brian Eno’s latest release, Small Craft on a Milk Sea. This is a fantastic demo on speakers, but the sonic landscape presented is tremendous through these phones, throwing a soundfield that went way beyond the headphone boundaries.

Should you be a vinyl aficionado, these phones will really take you to another world.  Again, their high-resolution yet non-fatiguing sound was fantastic for evaluating phono cartridges and the differences between them.  Because the sound of the LCD-2’s comes so close to my reference system, it was easy to use with the Manley Massive Passive Studio Equalizer to “adjust” a handful of LP’s when I was not happy with their final sound.  Thanks to the phones, I could do the necessary EQ moves with my combined Manely/Nagra workstation and be confident enough monitoring with the headphones to get great results when going back to the speakers for final playback.

You need these phones

Everyone who took the Audeze LCD-2 phones for a test drive arrived at the same conclusion – need was always the word used in the conversation.  While headphone users are very opinionated and easily polarized, I’ll stick my neck out and say that these are the most enjoyable headphones I’ve ever experienced.  I have zero complaints with them and I will be using them as my main reference standard by which I judge all other headphones.  At least until something more amazing comes along… – Jeff Dorgay

Audeze LCD-2  Headphones

Bryston BHA-1 Headphone Amplifier

Bryston has always been known for making high-quality, high-value electronics.  The company has now addressed the continuing growth in the personal audio (i.e. headphone) world, with its new BHA-1 headphone amplifier.  It’s instantly apparent that Bryston has done its homework on this one.  In addition to coming with Bryston’s industry-leading 20-year warranty, the BHA-1 feels like a product you’d want to keep forever the minute you take it out of the box.

For many, the term “headphone amplifier” might conjure up a vision of something small and lightweight.  While the BHA-1 is indeed compact, only taking about 3 inches of rack height, it’s densely packed and feels heavier than it’s claimed 8-pound weight.  The inside is full of goodies, including a big torodial transformer, major power supply, Noble volume control and all discrete circuitry throughout.  If you’re thinking that the BHA-1 looks more like a linestage, you’re half right.  The BHA-1 can be used as a two-input (one balanced and one single-ended) linestage, with balanced outputs—which makes this a perfect unit for the headphone enthusiast looking to expand to a speaker-based hi-fi system (but I’ll talk more about that later).

The front panel of the BHA-1 features individual balanced outputs, a stereo balanced output and a traditional ¼-inch stereo jack, so no matter what kind of phones are in your collection, you will be able to plug them in.

Playing the Field

The BHA-1 integrates perfectly into room two, with the Thorens TD-124 turntable, SME 3009 tonearm, Ortofon VMS 20 Mk II cartridge and Lounge MM phono preamplifier providing the analog signal; the balanced output of the new Oppo BDP-105 universal player handles digital duties.

Listening begins with the most difficult phones to drive in my collection, the HiFiMAN HE-6s.  While the BHA-1 has more than enough current drive to handle the HE-6s, this is not my favorite combination, with the top end sounding crunchy and slightly compressed—but this is an extreme torture test.  I’ve never found these phones to sound stellar on anything but HiFiMAN’s own amplifier, which is purpose-built for these cans.

Tracking through Richard Thompson’s latest LP, Electric, with my faithful Sennheiser HD 650s (recabled by ALO Audio) proves much easier on the ears—a smoother high-frequency balance and a more dynamic presentation.  The Grado GS500s and a highly modded pair of SR60s from ALO Audio also prove easy to drive, both of them exhibiting a good tonal balance.  It’s amazing how addictive a modest analog setup can be through headphones!

However, my favorite mate for the BHA-1 is the Audeze LCD-2.  The dead quiet presentation of the BHA-1 and the lightning-fast transient response of the LCD-2s make it feel as if I’m wearing a pair of Magnepan speakers.  The sound rendered is airy, transparent and big.

I move on to the latest MoFi release of Duke Ellington’s Ellington at Newport, which underscores the dynamic ability of this headphone amplifier.  With the interplay of the musicians and the horns blasting about the soundstage, this mono recording has so much depth that it sounds like stereo—even more so through phones.

Regardless of the phones you choose, the BHA-1 will impress you with its ability to throw a soundstage that is both wide and deep.  Dark Side of the Moon is still bitchin’ with headphones on, and just to take a trip in the way-back machine, I try the album out with my original set of Koss Pro4AA headphones, which I’ve had since high school.  They sound amazing playing this rock classic through the BHA-1.  What fun!

Vocalists and acoustic instruments are rendered with ease and accuracy.  I won’t bore you with the list of male and female vocalists auditioned, but suffice it to say that the BHA-1 provides a high level of midrange clarity and transparency.

Thanks to its big power supply, the BHA-1 not only provides fantastic bass response, but also a low noise floor.  Build quality is robust throughout, with a solid chassis and top-quality connectors, which are a must when one is constantly plugging and unplugging headphones.

Double Duty

Used strictly as a headphone amplifier, the BHA-1 is well worth the $1,395 MSRP on the basis of its sonic performance and flexibility.  However, those wanting to make it part of a traditional linestage/power, amplifier/speakers type of audio system just got a free linestage thrown in with the deal.

Setup thusly in room two, with a handful of tube and solid-state power amplifiers from Van Alstine, PrimaLuna, Pass Labs and Simaudio, the BHA-1 is an excellent linestage, offering the same characteristics described in headphone mode.  It has no problems driving a 20-foot pair of interconnects and its compact profile will integrate easily into your décor or rack setup.

The overall sound is very much like that of the Bryston BP1.5 phonostage we reviewed in 2012: clean, dynamic, neutral and to-the-point.  The BHA-1 does not embellish or color the sound delivered.  Mating the BHA-1 to the KEF LS50 speakers and the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium power amplifier makes for a wonderful combination within the financial reach of most audiophiles.  Even at high volume, the BHA-1 (especially in the context of a system utilizing a tube power amplifier) contributes no noise of its own.

The two inputs should be all that most people need to incorporate a digital and an analog source into the system.  I’m sure some have suggested that Bryston add remote control, a motorized volume control, etc., and while I’m sure the company’s engineering team did ponder these questions, the addition of this functionality would bump the sticker price up considerably.

At $1,395, this has to be one of the best audio buys going.  The tonal quality, versatility as a headphone amplifier and the fact that it makes a killer preamplifier are three great reasons why the Bryston BHA-1 deserves one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013. -Jeff Dorgay

The Bryston BHA-1 Headphone Amplifier

MSRP: $1,395

Denon AH-D340 Headphones

For 2013, Denon has added a smaller, more-affordable model to its Music Maniac collection of headphones.  Visually, the $300 D340 looks similar to its more-expensive big brother, the AH-D600, and features equally attractive styling, which means you won’t be mistaken for a DJ with these phones on.  The D340 feels feather light on the head, even lighter than its roughly half-pound weight suggests.

Like the rest of the Music Maniac line, the D340 features Denon’s patent-pending pentagon-shaped ear pads, which are made of memory-foam cushioning.  Intended to be fully portable, the phones include a removable 3-foot cable with 3.5-mm plug, as well as an inline Apple-device-compatible remote and microphone.  (The cable plugs into the right side of the phones, which is a bit awkward for lefties like me.)  An oversized zippered pouch allows you to tuck the D340 in without unplugging the cable, which makes traveling with the phones easy.

Audio purists can easily source a longer aftermarket cable without the remote for use with your hi-fi system.  One of our favorites from ALO Audio works well and produces an increase in performance.  Plugging into the Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp (which we review in this issue) quickly provides better bass response and a cleaner, less-grainy top end when sampling some jazz tracks consisting primarily of acoustic instruments.

The D340 ignores the current trend of portable headphones—overly lush midrange response, heavy bass and rolled-off highs at the expense of musical accuracy.  While these are still not the last word in tonal accuracy, they do exhibit a very transparent midrange and more punchy, dynamic bass response, with a smooth high end.

I threw everything at these Denons: Earth Wind & Fire, Cyndi Lauper, Tiësto, Eminem, Kelly Clarkson, and even some André Rieu.  The D340 allows me to concentrate on the music and escape the analytical mode.  It leaves very little to be desired for a pair of portable headphones.  Denon has done a phenomenal job tuning them to a higher level than most at this price point.

While I usually have a portable headphone amplifier with me on the go, I find the AH-D340 easy to drive.  They work well straight from a phone or iDevice, so unless on a long plane trip, you can probably leave the headphone amp at home and not take much of a hit in sound quality.

Since the launch of the first two Music Maniac headphones last year, Denon has faced a rather tough transition period, with fans of their older headphones criticizing the company’s latest efforts.  While the D340’s design is a far departure from the mahogany ear cups of the past, it is an outstanding performer and worthy of the Denon name.

Denon AH-D340 Headphones

MSRP: $300

Ferrari Cavallino T350 Headphones

Ferrari is well known around the world as a premium automaker.  Its iconic prancing horse logo is as recognizable as the silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle.  Owners and admirers of the car consume Ferrari-branded merchandise (T-shirts, caps, mugs, etc.) with equal enthusiasm, but most audiophiles cringe at the thought of automobile-branded audio products; the mediocre reception to the Ferrari-branded Art.Engine floorstanding loudspeaker introduced a few years ago is a perfect example.

Understandably, the famed Italian carmaker does not put its name on standard, off-the-shelf products, so it sought out Logic3 (which is now 36 years old), and the two companies worked closely together to design and build a complete line of headphones and music docks.  The Cavallino collection draws its inspiration from Ferrari’s GT road cars, while the Scuderia collection reflects the company’s F1 racing team.

The $399 T350 is the top-of-the-range headphone in the Cavallino collection, and its attractive tan-colored leather skin wrapped around its aluminum body is an instant head turner.  Those feeling more incognito can choose the all-black model.  But when you are wearing something from Ferrari, why not attract a little attention?

While the T350s are considered full-size headphones, they are not circumaural (around-the-ear).  Instead, they feature ear cushions that rest on the ear (and are thus called supra-aural).  For this reason, their passive noise isolation is quite good.  The headphones also employ rather impressive active noise cancelation (ANC) for even better ambient noise rejection—maybe not as good ANC as some models from Bose, but it’s better than most ANC models I’ve experienced.  But, as with all ANC headphones, do expect some hiss when the circuit is engaged.

The T350 requires a pair of AAA batteries to operate, because a passive mode is not present.  Luckily, the T350 sports a ridiculously long battery life.  I use the included alkaline batteries for a couple of hours before bed nightly for over two weeks before the battery light turns amber, indicating that the juice is low.  Those using rechargeable batteries should consider that the charge stamina will suffer slightly if you do.

Like most modern headphones, the T350 is Apple-device friendly, thanks to its removable audio cable with 3.5-mm plug and integrated microphone and remote—but the designers didn’t stop there.  The T350 also comes with cables that will work with your Windows, Android and BlackBerry devices for phone calls and music playback, making them truly platform independent.  And everything can be stored neatly in the included faux-carbon-fiber travel case.

I use the latest-generation 160-gigabyte iPod classic for most of this review.  Listening to Rodríguez’ Searching For Sugar Man soundtrack via the Cavallino T350 is a pleasant experience, with his vocals nicely separated from the acoustic guitar and percussion throughout.  These are a closed-back set of phones with a very spacious sound—the echo in the track “Cause” feels as if it extends way beyond the boundaries of my head.

The headphones’ overall tonal balance is fairly linear through the mids to the upper highs, and they possess excellent sibilance-free extension, with the vocals sounding organic rather than processed.  Pink Martini’s Smypathique is a go-to album that offers audiophile sound quality while remaining perky.  With these phones, there is plenty of air around the vocals in “Song of the Black Lizard,” but switching the program material to some classic hip-hop tracks reveals the only shortcoming:  The lower bass is somewhat lacking, but part of this is the result of using the iPod directly.  These phones will need a proper amp to get the full-bodied bass they are capable of.  Plugging into the Red Wine Audio Isabellina DAC/amp, for example, brings Snoop Dogg back to life.  Comparing these to a few other recently reviewed phones, like the Logitech UE9000s, also shows the Logic3 phones to be slightly grainy.

Either way, this is a superb collaboration out of the chute.  Ferrari by Logic3 has created a competent, stylish and musical pair of headphones worthy of the prancing horse.  The big question is whether these will appeal equally to the Ferrari tifosi(Italian for fans) and the audiophiles.  Regardless, I’m looking forward to Logic3’s next effort, with or without the prancing horse badge.  -Jeff Dorgay

Ferrari Cavallino T350 Headphones

MSRP: $399

Motorheadphone Headphones

“By rockers for rockers.” The slogan behind Motorhead’s new headphones (and earphones) cuts to the chase in the same way the band’s no-frills rock n’ roll blares through stacks of Marshall amplifiers and hits fans squarely in the chest at its concerts. Promoted as lifestyle devices, Motorheadphones claim to deliver rumbling bass without sacrificing midrange and high-frequency dynamics. While legalities prevent the literature and ads from naming names, it’s obvious the line seeks to go head-to-head with Dr. Dre’s Beats ‘phones, which give up plenty of bass but lack in other sonic areas.

Motorhead, whose records fall short of audiophile standards, isn’t the first artist that springs to mind in terms of launching personal audio gear. Yet, in terms of branding, the trio’s long history, international fame, umlaut-accented logo, and, most importantly, uncompromising live-hard attitude make it the hard-rock equivalent of Harley-Davidson. Vocalist/bassist Lemmy Kilmister and company exemplify independence, nonconformity, and defiance—characteristics associated with rock n’ roll.
As such, neither the Bomber, Iron Fist, nor Motorizer (named after Motorhead albums) over-ear model seeks to appeal to hip-hop or classical tastes; the black, heavy-duty construction and silver-embossed logos scream leather-and-studs cool and whiskey-drinking raucousness. Amazingly, audiophile manufacturers still haven’t caught up to the fact that most listeners don’t simply want good sound and portability. They demand fashionable looks that reflect and project their interests; ‘phones are all about making a statement. From this angle, Motorheadphones already have a leg up on the competition. And they’re tied to a band unafraid to literally piss on anybody that gets in its way. Look out below.
Motorheadphones’ lifestyle imaging is reinforced in the clever packaging, intended to mimic a road case. With Motorheadphones, you’re not only buying a product—you’re buying into a free-spirited belief system, aggressive symbolism, and the group’s hallmark “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” motto. For the privilege, prepare to spend $120-$130, which, in the case of the top-of-the-line Motorizer, gets you a pair of ‘phones, two cables (a 2.5m version for home listening, and a 1m edition complete with a microphone/controller dubbed “Controlizer” for smartphones), a gold-plated stereo mini-jack adapter, and carrying bag. Cigarettes and Jack Daniels aren’t included.

To their credit, Motorizers tolerate high-decibel volumes without caving into distortion or smearing. If, like Lemmy and his crew, loudness is your primary criteria, they won’t likely disappoint. As promised, bass is full and smooth, and the percussion healthy and upfront.  Midrange suffers not an iota. However, Motorizers sound rather trebly, with vocals and guitars receiving more attention than they should. It’s an intentional bias, but one that on discs such as Iron Maiden’s metal-breathing Live Over Hammersmith and Jamey Johnson’s country-appointed The Lonesome Song results in annoying brightness and occasional tizziness. The imbalance is to be expected: Beats ‘phones amplify the low end; Motorheadphones aim for the opposite by way of restoring the midrange and highs.

Motorizers, which utilize 40mm neodymium speakers, perform fairly well in the areas of instrumental separation and noise-canceling immersion—particularly given the price. However, critical listeners and music lovers preferring a more detailed, warm presentation—as well as a wider, deeper soundstage and realistic acoustic equilibrium—will be better served by other models. Then again, they won’t know the fist-in-the-air pleasures of pumping Motorhead tunes like “Killed By Death” through ‘phones tailored for such tension-releasing escapes.

Motorheadphone Headphones

MSRP: $129

Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amplifier

With some prognosticators saying 2012 will be the end of the world, do you want to chance spending the last year of your life unable to really crank up your stereo? Musical Fidelity is known for making “super integrated” amplifiers; its the new M6 500i represents another benchmark in this field.

The British company’s M6 500i is tough to resist. Especially when I don a Darth Vader mask and convince you the force is strong in this dark, monolithic machine. Can you feel it? You’ve had the urge to upgrade your current little integrated. Now focus. Forget about those telling you power isn’t important. It is, and the M6 500i delivers 500 glorious, window-rattling, tweeter-melting watts per channel that will take you from the back of the arena to the front row. Sense your desire for more power getting stronger? Let anger consume you as you contemplate ditching your current amplifier. Good.

With the M6 5001, listeners equipped with inefficient speakers will no longer be doomed to experience Metallica or Shostakovich at inferior volume levels. Remember, lifelike dynamic swings are just as important to musical accuracy as tonal accuracy. Even Shania Twain sounds better with oodles of power behind her. And the M6 500i’s tremendous bass control keeps speaker woofers pulsating.

Power and Connectivity

The M6 500i features four RCA line-level inputs (one of which is switchable between AUX or HT pass-through) and one balanced XLR input. Compatibility with most systems should be simple. I’d love to see another balanced input, but for $6,995, you can’t have everything. The M6 500i also includes tape out jacks and a variable level (RCA jack) output for those who might want to add a powered subwoofer or two.

This unit isn’t merely a high-powered brute. You won’t mistake it for that of a Burmester, but the metalwork is top-shelf. Finish quality is highly uniform, the front panel convincingly massive, and the volume control substantial. Buttons are tastefully small, and a nice remote is included. Fonts are stylish and understated. No giant logos, either—another mark that bridges the gap between a top-line component and a budget sibling.

Repeat after me: Exceptional Value Award. The M6 500i comes in silver, too, but as the late-night spy Archer would say, “Why would you?” Black suits its powerful nature just right.


Once you drive a Dodge Challenger with a Hemi under the hood, the wimpy six-cylinder model at the National rental counter always sucks—no matter how much Patrick Stewart tries to convince you otherwise. And so it goes with a well-designed, high-power amplifier. Adding the 3,000-watt JL Audio Gotham subwoofer to the system and spinning Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power Live: In The Hands Of The Fans, the M6 500i becomes both Death Star and time machine. Giving the volume control a forceful spin and closing my eyes puts me right back at that legendary September 2010 show, where editor Bob Gendron and I saw Pop passed right through the crowd. That’s realism.

But remember, power corrupts. If you aren’t careful, you might damage your hearing—or speakers—with the M6 500i. Case in point: A few bottles of Maudite placed TONEAudio contributor Jerold O’Brien and I in full-on Beavis and Butthead mode as we proceeded to liquefy a pair of AR3a speakers just like we did when we were younger. And while a small amplifier driven to clipping handily destroys a tweeter, a big amplifier driven to clipping scorches woofers, and usually involves minor pyrotechnics. That’s exactly what happened.

Feeling like the wise old owl in the Tootsie Pop commercial, we wanted to see how many minutes of Sepultura it would take to completely destroy the AR3as. The answer? Two minutes and fifteen seconds of “Stronger Than Hate” from Beneath the Remains, and the speakers were lifeless carcasses. We ended the festivities, as the M6 500i ‘s force kept growing stronger. We momentarily considered vaporizing O’Brien’s Vandersteen 1Cs.

The next morning, as we headed out to Denny’s for a Grand Slam breakfast (don’t let friends drive home drunk, especially when they are hopped up with the thrill of destruction), we pondered if it was all just a dream. Nope. The smell of burned electric components still filled the listening room. Heavenly.

Playing Nice

Mixing synergies with the Verity Audio Amadis, Magnepan 1.7s, Peak Consult Kepheus, and a handful of other speakers proves highly enjoyable, regardless of program material.  The M6 500i makes for a great system anchor as it opens the door to whatever speakers you have or might want in the future. Even the Magnepans, which need power in the manner a neurotic girlfriend needs attention, lit up with the M6 500i.

Lest you think we are all headbanging maniacs at TONEAudio, rest assured the M6 500i features a high level of refinement and tonal finesse that suits all types of music.  While this high-powered solid-state amplifier won’t fool you into thinking you are listening to a pair of tubed monoblocks, it is never harsh or strident.

Evaluating current Audio Wave XRCDs illustrates such traits. Walter Bishop’s piano on Jackie McLean’s Swing, Swang, Swingin’ just glides through the background of the tune, never dropping off the beat. Cymbals are crisp, awash with lingering decay.  When McLean enters, his sax is chock full of texture, bouncing from simmer to boil, and then overflows outside the speaker boundaries as the tempo increases.

Is there anything the M6 5001 cannot do? Not really. Sure, a couple of the higher-priced integrateds possess more midrange sweetness, and more resolution, but they cost two-to-four times as much. You get what you pay for with the megabuck amps, yet you get tremendous performance and value with the M6 500i. Separates aren’t the answer, either. You’ll be hard pressed to find a 500-watt-per-channel power amplifier that delivers the goods for $7k—and you’ll still need a preamp and pair of interconnects. And Darth Vader’s got no use for such extra troubles when galaxy-conquering power can be had from one box.

Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $6,995 (Factory – UK)    US Distributor


Analog Source AVID Volvere SP    Funk Firm FX•R    Denon DL 103R
Digital Source dCS Debussy    Sooloos Control 15    Mac Mini
Speakers AR3a (deceased)     Vandersteen 2Ce Signature    Magnepan 1.7    Verity Audio Rienzi    B&W 802 Diamond    MartinLogan Montis
Cable Cardas Clear Light
Power PS Audio P10

Symbol Audio Modern Record Console

What happens when a group of music-loving, fine-furniture designers put their heads together?  They create the Modern Record Console.  With the Console, Symbol Audio pays homage to the classic designs of Herman Miller and Knoll from the ’50s and ’60s.  A true masterpiece, the Console combines a tube amplifier, built-in subwoofer and a turntable.

This isn’t your dad’s Magnavox, folks.  And for the hardcore audiophiles in the crowd who are ready to send us nastygrams explaining that they can buy a better rack full of separate components for half this price, this is not for you either.

Harkening back to the day of all-in-one consoles, Symbol’s version is a prize for the music lover living in a design-conscious environment who does not want a rack full of gear and is willing to pay for bespoke quality.  We visited the Symbol factory, and must admit that this thing sounds pretty damn good.  And while we were there, fashion icon and music aficionado John Varvatos was in the Symbol studio giving the Console the thumbs up.

With EL84 tubes, big transformers and Omega single-driver speakers, the Console has some serious audiophile cred under the hood, which, as you can see from the photo, can be neatly tucked away.  Sales of the Console have been brisk so far, so if this tickles your fancy, you might want to pick one up sooner rather than later.

The Modern Record Console


Robert Koda Takumi K-10 Preamplifier

My favorite way to initially experience any audio component is to listen to a record I’ve heard hundreds of times, regardless of fidelity. A recording you intimately know serves you well when trying to get a read on the sound of something new.

Until the K-10 arrived, my system hadn’t undergone any changes for nearly a year. When my chosen LP, an early mono copy of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, hit the turntable, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of sensory input delivered to the auditory part of my brain. It’s similar to going from excellent digital to the most sublime analog experience. Or perhaps, moving from a standard violin to a Stradivarius.

In Japanese, the word “takumi” has a few translations. The one corresponding to the Kanji character imprinted on the preamp’s front panel means “artisan.” I can’t think of a component I’ve reviewed more worthy of the title. More than just richness, or an increase in tonal saturation, the K-10 provides an almost infinite upsurge in resolution. Think of it as such: When increasing the magnification of a photographic image on your computer screen, a point is reached wherein everything is reduced to pixels and falls apart because of the maximum capacity of the screen’s resolution. However, with the K-10, even after months of critical listening, there seems to be no limit as to how far you can peek into a recording.

Similar effects occur with a Japanese pressing of Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, & The E-Street Shuffle. The horns and vocals breathe with life, with new surprises everywhere on a record to which I’ve been listening for nearly 40 years. Much like the Sonus faber Aidas reviewed this issue, the K-10 takes you somewhere you’ve never been—and that’s exciting.

Simple, Yet Simply Amazing

The cost of this experience? $31,000. Plus the price of a remote. The K-10 does not include one. A purist design, this solid-state preamplifier achieves greatness via extreme refinement, not so-called proprietary this or that. No part of the K-10 receives less than punctilious attention to detail. And although it’s solid-state, nearly everything is wired point to point, with only two tiny internal PCBs. Koda says the latter feature gold placed over thick copper tracks, and one enjoys point-to-point silver wiring.

The audio circuit and power supply are not only separated from each other, they are each built into their own sub-enclosures inside the chassis. The choke power supply is encased in a magnetic vault comprised of 2mm-thick soft iron; the preamplifier circuit is inside a mu-metal case, within a copper compartment and again the whole preamplifier is again encased in a copper chassis. To minimize switching noise, the model only uses two diodes and a zero-feedback discreet voltage regulator.

The attenuator uses exotic, precision carbon composition resistors specifically designed for audio use (Koda stresses that these parts are only used in audio applications). An L-Pad design means there are never more than two resistors in the circuit at any given time. This, compared to that of a ladder design with multiple resistors and solder joints.

Interestingly, the K-10 doesn’t respond to additional tweaks or attempts to further control vibration. It is built like a bank vault. Its robust power supply makes it one of the only components we’ve reviewed that does not really react to upgrades in the power path. (The other is the Naim CD-555.) Swapping power cords proves fruitless, and the K-10 doesn’t sound much different when plugged directly into the wall or a variety of expensive power line conditioners.

Such perfection is not easy to achieve. Every aspect of the K-10 is hand-assembled. Each unit takes about a week to assemble. At almost 60 pounds, it weighs as much as many of the power amplifiers we’ve reviewed. My ARC REF 5SE and Burmester 011 feel lightweight in comparison!

Relax and Listen

Going without a remote control forces you to sit and listen, and realize the benefits of your favorite music. The K-10’s Zen-like tranquility sneaks up slowly, and after becoming fully acclimated to its presentation, I find myself programming sessions by album sides and whole albums—how I used to listen before becoming spoiled with remotes. I love it.

Initial listening—described at the beginning of this review—was conducted via my Linn LP-12 and a Shure V15vmxr. Yeah, the experience was that compelling. I wasn’t ready for how much more information the AVID Acutus Reference/Lyra Atlas/Indigo Qualia brought to the system. It’s like driving a high-powered 12-cylinder car for the first time. The staggering resolution is initially intoxicating and over-stimulating. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo put it best in the inner sleeve of Duty Now For The Future: “Add a third dimension to your 2D world.”

Yet it’s even more.  Everything played through the K-10 possesses extra dimension and resolution; it’s as if music now possesses a fourth dimension. Much as I love great digital reproduction, the K-10 reproduces things in a continuous tone manner, like rotogravure printing or high-speed open-reel tape. The flow of musical notes and space between them bring you even closer to the illusion of feeling you’ve brought performers into your listening room.

Aimee Mann’s voice gently floats between my speakers when listening to “Invisible Ink.” Major space between her vocal pauses and guitar accompany bass that rises up from the floor, folding into the mix. Miniscule environmental sounds on the title track to Lost In Space float like fireflies, buzzing past your head.

If You Need to Rock

Make no mistake, the K-10 has a rock-solid foundation and plays highly dynamic selections with equal ease. Jimi Hendrix’s classic Are You Experienced? comes through in a thunderous manner, his groundbreaking distortion effects more exciting because of the additional resolution. And Van Halen II never sounded better. Yes, distorted rock recordings can even achieve exalted status on a high-performance system.

The ultra-low noise floor always feels like it plays a few db louder, another bonus when playing acoustic music. Guitars, drums, and percussion explode in a way that hasn’t happened before in my system, regardless of amplifier model or type employed. Leading and trailing transients occur with immediacy, possessing no overhang on either end, and abolishing listener fatigue in the process. Music lovers that appreciate string quartets and small-ensemble music will be shocked by the realism.

Really? No Tubes?

Out of respect to Mr. Koda, I did not pop the inner covers to photograph the K-10’s insides. While a few audio buddies insist it’s a vacuum tube preamplifier, this component is in a category by itself. The combination of the K-10 and Burmester 911 mk. 3 or Pass XA200.5 monoblocks is eerily quiet. With the volume control up to the fullest degree, nothing emanates from the speakers, even with my ear solidly against the tweeter.

All this translates into an anchor that extracts the maximum amount of music from your sources and does so inclusively. The K-10 underscores the ideal that a truly fantastic music system sounds wonderful, regardless of the music in your collection. Granted, the most pristine pressings have offer more, but even the most mediocre records on my shelves sound enticing played through a system based around the K-10. There is so much information to discover, you will want to listen to all of your music again.

I have one complaint: a wish for finer gradation in the steps of the attenuator. Every amplifier I tried had a point at the upper range of the control that always felt as if it could use an intermediate step between settings. However, as I adjusted to not having a remote control, I quickly adopted to any gradation shortcomings, which were much easier to deal with on the digital side since the dCS Paganini allowed fine-tuning via its excellent digital volume control.

Ins and Outs

Thanks to more than 10v of maximum output and an extremely low output impedance, (75 ohm balanced, 37 ohm x 2 single-ended RCA), the K-10 works well with every power amplifier at my disposal and has no trouble driving 20-foot interconnects via single-ended or balanced outputs.

Three RCA inputs, and one XLR input are neatly arranged on the rear panel. Two sets of RCA and a true balanced XLR output is also available. I noticed no difference in sound quality between inputs or outputs. Mr. Koda notes that in order for the XLR output to be a true balanced output, this option must be selected with the rear panel switch.

A circuit breaker-protected power switch also resides on the back, and is not lit, again emphasizing the design’s utter simplicity. The owner’s manual suggests the preamplifier not be powered on for extended periods of time. Unlike many other solid-state preamplifiers I have used, it stabilizes from being cold in virtually no time.

What an Experience

The individual parts, the resistors, capacitors, and switches comprising an amplifier, preamplifier, or other component all affect the final sound. And often, active components—primarily solid-state or vacuum tubes—feature a characteristic sound. Reviewers and consumers usually refer to transistors as having a more analytical sound, while tubes are generally characterized as having a warmer, more organic sound.

Rare, however, are components that have so little coloration and lack of a “sound.”  The Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier is the finest example of this trait I’ve experienced. If you can’t bear to live without a remote control, the K-10 is not the best choice for you. If you are prepared to let go of convention and immerse yourself in pure sound, I suspect you will love the K-10 as much as I do.

To be sure I’m not dreaming, Mr. Koda has agreed to grant me a long-term loan on the K-10. I will produce a follow-up review at end of 2013, after the preamp has been used as a reference component with a wider variety of power amplifier and source combinations.

Robert Koda Takumi K-10

MSRP: $31,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP    TriPlanar arm    Lyra Atlas Cartridge   AMG V12    AMG arm    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Aurender S10 music server
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE    Pass XP-25    Indigo Qualia
Power Amplifier Burmester 911mk.3    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    Sonus faber Aida

VPI Traveler Turntable

My analog journey has encountered numerous VPI turntables through the years, and they have always provided satisfying sounds and steadfast mechanical reliability, beginning with the HW-19, now out of production.  The company’s current Classic-series turntables are enjoying rave reviews around the world—our publisher is certainly enjoying his.  After I spent some time with the Traveler at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), it became clear that VPI has not merely created an entry-level table with a VPI badge; the Cliffwood, N.J.–based manufacturer has built a reasonably priced table with the same solid engineering and build quality that goes into the rest of its lineup.

With the resurgence of vinyl underway, there are more and more turntables being offered in the entry-level arena.  But to be honest, I have not been that impressed with many of the sub-$1,500 offerings.  Maybe it’s just the audio dinosaur in me, but many of them seem a bit spindly.  Sure, I’ve gotten them to make nice music, but I always seem to find myself left with an incomplete feeling telling me all is not right in Recordsville.

The VPI Traveler hits a different chord at this price point.  Unpacking its heavy shipping container tells you there’s more than a toy packed within.  And packed well it is.  I can’t foresee even the most ham-fisted shipper damaging the Traveler during shipping.

Parts unpackaged, the assembly process goes off without a hitch.  Those experienced with turntable setup will find Traveler’s setup a breeze.  In less than forty-five minutes, this turntable was making great sound in my listening room, with no need to tweak things further.  Beginners will find the instruction manual clear and detailed.  A little focus and Jedi patience will have you spinning your favorite LPs in no time.

High Points

This table’s level of fit and finish is of a very high order.  Machined-metal parts are smooth and polished, the paint on the plinth’s top plate is high grade and the platter feels like it’s machined from billet.  In fact, it’s made from aluminum damped by stainless steel, a great way to break up any resonances that may occur.  Spinning the platter reveals a high-quality spindle-to-bearing interface, indicating top-notch machine work.  It seems to continue spinning forever when you shut the power off.  The non-removable platter mat is made of neoprene rubber and provides additional damping.

This philosophy continues with the plinth, which is an aluminum top plate bonded to a thick acrylic base—impressive compared to the usual machined MDF or plastic that is typically used for plinths in this price category.  A set of rubber tipped cones allow for leveling the Traveler.  Combined with the solid plinth is a 10-inch tonearm instead of the ubiquitous 9-incher on most other tables, which gives the Traveler a leg up by minimizing tracking angle distortion.

The next thing one notices is the Traveler’s gimbaled design, a departure from the VPI norm, as the company usually makes unipivot tonearms.  However, VPI claims that the Traveler’s friction levels are nearly as low as the brand’s more expensive unipivot designs.  The Traveler’s arm moves smoothly and freely in both the lateral and vertical directions.  The counterweight and tracking-force adjustment is another finely machined affair and easy to operate during setup.  The tonearm is equipped with a VTA on-the-fly adjustment that works beautifully and without fuss.  Finally, the signal goes from the arm through a proprietary connector feeding a pair of RCA jacks fitted to the rear of the plinth.

VPI does not supply a dedicated tonearm cable with the Traveler, so users are free to experiment with cabling options between the turntable and phonostage.  I advise caution here, because the wrong type of cable can seriously compromise the sonic results.  If possible, try one of the current tonearm cables on the market available with RCA jacks on both ends; these cables usually make an extra effort to minimize cable capacitance, resulting in better transference of the delicate phono signal.

Taking Care of Business

Sticking with the winning formula in TONEAudio’s RMAF room, listening began with the $599 Ortofon Rondo Red low-output MC cartridge, which brings the combination of turntable and cartridge to $1,900—not exactly spare beer money, but a fine investment nevertheless.  I tried two different interconnect cables with excellent results: the AudioQuest King Cobra ($249/pair) and, for the more budget-minded, the KAB Jazz ($33/pair).  In the end, I preferred the AQ cable on most material, but the KAB is a well-made product, providing great shielding from RF and decent audio performance.

First up was Stravinsky’s The Firebird (Mercury Living Presence, London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati conducting).  The Traveler/Rondo Red combination provides a convincing sense of hall ambiance, while simultaneously placing the sections of the orchestra firmly in place.  Once the music reaches full gallop, the Traveler delivers the music’s swell and crescendo with the requisite delicacy and impact, with the woodwinds sounding exceptionally natural.

Next up, in a more delicate vein, is Trio Galanterie’s Eighteenth-Century Music For Lute and Strings on AudioQuest records.  The Traveler captures the interplay of the cello, lute and violin on this recording with complete intimacy, like a concert for one.  The Traveler presents the fundamentals and overtones in a harmonically rich fashion, with strummed, plucked and bowed instruments—not an easy task, but one that is performed exceptionally well here.

Changing genres, the latest Charlie Hunter recording, Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead, is a self-released limited-edition album featuring Hunter on seven-string guitar and Scott Amendola on drums.  This live-in-the-studio outing will challenge any arm-cartridge combination with its dynamic close-miked drum sound, biting guitar and punchy, resonant bass.  Again, the Traveler/Rondo combination turns in an ace performance.

Ralph Towner’s “Piscean Dance,” from his Solstice album, is another studio jam/duel possessing great dynamic swings.  The crystalline but completely natural sound of cymbals and snare drum, while Towner’s signature twelve-string guitar weaves in and out of Christensen’s rhythmic patterns, underlines how well this modestly priced table handles complex music without losing its soul.

Both Eric Bibb’s Friends and John Mayall’s The Turning Point underscore the Traveler’s ability to combine bass weight with fundamental midrange body and tonality.  The Traveler’s rock-solid pace gives a sense of presence rarely accomplished by an analog front end at this price.

Past Meets Present

Fully impressed with the Traveler so far, I decide it’s time to try something off the beaten path.  A NOS Acutex 412 STR cartridge would put any tonearm to task, as this high-compliance cartridge usually works best with ultra-low-mass tonearms.

Set to 1.5 grams, the combination sailed through the most-difficult passages at my disposal, proving what great all-around performance the Traveler offers:  It should be just right for most MM or MC cartridges.

So Take a Trip to Your VPI Dealer!

Combining robust construction, a high level of fit and finish and an excellent sonic presentation, the VPI Traveler establishes a new benchmark for its price.  VPI left no stone unturned, from getting the basic record-playing ability right to employing clever engineering.  And you can order it in a variety of colors (for an extra hundred bucks).  Whether you are just getting into the world of vinyl, adding a second turntable to the stable or are replacing a turntable that has left you wondering if there’s more to be had for your money, I highly recommend the Traveler.  Have a few less lattes per month, or perhaps even skimp on record purchases for a few months, to make the very reasonable leap for this remarkable table.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I was equally curious to see how much of the essence of VPI’s more-expensive Classic One could be incorporated into the Traveler.  The Classic One is a linear step up in the VPI range and its roots are readily apparent.  The Traveler resembles the Classic much more so than it does the Scout/Scoutmaster series.  Using both tables side by side through the Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE, with matching Dynavector DV-20X2L cartridges ($850), the main differences between the two are in bass weight and low-level detail retrieval.

Listening to the biting guitars on the anniversary remaster of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reveals more punch from the Classic, but the Traveler is no slouch for the price.  Comparing the Traveler to my late-1980s LP12 is like getting out of a Triumph TR6 and getting into a Porsche Boxster:  Everything feels much crisper and more defined overall.

The overall tonality of the Traveler is remarkably similar to the Classic, and when not playing records with ultra-wide dynamic swings, one might be easily fooled.  The DV-20X2L is an excellent match for this table, for those looking to take their analog experience a step further.  I had equally good results with the Sumiko Blackbird high-output MC, another favorite of mine in the $800-to-$1,200 range, proving that this table is not embarrassed in the least by a cartridge costing almost as much as the table.  This level of performance makes the Traveler an excellent long-term turntable choice.

We not only recommend the Traveler highly, we have purchased the review sample.  It will become a reference component in gear editor Bailey Barnard’s new system, so we can indoctrinate him in the ways of the LP.  -Jerold O’Brien

The VPI Traveler Turntable

MSRP: $1,299


Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Aleph 3
Speakers Harbeth Monitor 40.1
Cable  Audience Au24
Power Audience

Totem Acoustic Mani-2 Signature Speakers

If you believe that it’s possible for good things to come in small packages, then mini-monitors are right up your alley.  These little fellas warm the hearts and ears of space-constrained audiophiles everywhere.  Besides having room-friendly sizes, mini-monitors simply disappear once you toss in decent amplifiers, cables and stands.  Montreal’s Totem Acoustics has been building great compact loudspeakers for two decades.  CEO Vince Bruzzese seems to have applied Native American spirits, or some such supernatural force, to his speakers, which should not come as a surprise to the Totem true believers who have always known that Bruzzese and company were on to something.  I bought my first-edition Mani-2s in 1996 and they have graced my smaller listening room ever since.  More than a decade later, Totem has completely rethought this speaker, with the new Signature version.

House Spirits

The exteriors of the Sigs resemble those of their predecessors, but these speakers are all new on the inside, from internal bracing to crossovers and drivers.  There are two new distinctive aesthetic features: a little blue dot above the tweeter and a plaque on the rear.  Similar to the original Mani-2s, these are 4-ohm speakers that measure 16.4 inches tall, 8.5 inches wide and 12 inches deep, and they weigh 23 pounds apiece.

Each speaker features a 1-inch aluminum tweeter and two 6.5-inch woofers in an Isobarik formation—meaning that one driver faces into the cabinet and the other faces the outside world.  Each rear panel is ported and has two sets of terminals for bi-wiring.  Totem offers an optional grille, but the company openly prefers that you listen to the Sigs in their birthday suits.

After easing the Blu Tack off of my Mani-2 originals, I place the new speakers on the same lead-filled Target stands.  My room dimensions being on the small side (15 by 10 by 8 feet), I locate the speakers 3 feet from the short wall and 2 feet from the sidewalls, with 5 feet of space between each speaker.  My listening distance was 8 feet.  As the sensitivity of the Sigs is relatively low (85 dB), Totem recommends amplifiers for them that can crank out at least 40 watts per channel.  Advice notwithstanding, I have zero trouble driving them to satisfactorily clean listening levels with two different integrated amps, rated at 30 and 35 watts.

Man, Oh Mani-2

Totem suggests a minimum 200-hour break-in period and I willingly comply.  Two relatively low-powered integrated amplifiers, the PrimaLuna Premium Prologue (35 wpc) and the Pass Labs INT-30A (30 wpc) provide the juice.  A PS Audio PerfectWave Transport with MKII DAC and a Logitech Squeezebox Touch, armed with a USB drive, serve up the music.  Since extended low bass was an original Mani-2 “calling card,” I go straight to Patricia Barber’s “Constantinople” from Modern Cool (Premonition Records).  Midway through this jam session, Michael Arnopol cuts loose on his acoustic bass in jazzy yet articulate fashion.  The Sigs give a true-to-form account of this solo, right down to the resonances of the bass’s soundboard.  Continuing the low-frequency session, I go to the Pipes Rhode Island CD (Riago) for Stephen Martorella’s masterful handling of the Widor Adagio.  The low pedals on this piece prove little problem for the Sigs, whose little woofers move considerable air in my listening room.

From my perspective, voice reproduction separates loudspeaker contenders from pretenders, so I toss the Sigs Tony Bennett, in an XRCD2 remastering of The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album (JVC).  Bennett’s slightly raspy voice has a remarkable way of drawing you into each song.  One listen to “Some Other Time” reassures me that the Sigs can really do vocals.  To add more fuel to this fire, I play Isaac Freeman and the Blueblood’s “Beautiful Stars” (Lost Highway Records).  Freeman’s deep-bass vocals resonate like the voice of God, a quality captured by the Sigs, minus the mid-range coloration often found from small speakers.

Ultimately, speakers get their cardio workouts from large-scale orchestral works.  I administer this last treadmill test with a 24-bit/96-kHz download of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite turned in by Japanese conductor Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra (Reference Recordings).  This piece’s no-holds-barred finale has all the forces wailing away at fortissimo levels.  The next best thing to the players actually leading a frontal assault into my room is having the Sigs give me a good wallop, and they do so without a hint of strain.

The Ancestral Voices Have Spoken

In the past decade and a half following the arrival of my original pair of Mani-2s, there have been three Washington administrations, two foreign wars, and, in case you missed it, a massive market tanking.  Surprisingly, the high-end audio industry has managed to rock on.  Some companies, like Totem Acoustic, have actually flourished and expanded their loudspeaker lines.  Each generation of Totem speakers has drawn from the wisdom of its ancestors.  This makes the company’s decision to issue a second Mani-2 generation an interesting one, since many of the newer Totem speakers have been larger floorstanders.

Comparing the Sigs to their forebears shows how much the Totem design team has invested in product reinvention.  The sonic strengths of the originals, such as good imaging and bass extension, have been further improved.  The soundstage is noticeably broader, deeper and taller.  The bass is better articulated, while highs sound more natural, courtesy of the new tweeter.  Most importantly, midrange clarity, not a strength of the original Mani-2s, is dramatically better.

Midway through my review, I noted that Totem offers an accessory that, for obvious visual reasons, is called the “Beak.”  This is a custom-milled 2-inch-high aluminum cone with “micro-ribs.”  According to the product literature, Beaks are meant to “control parasitic vibrations that occur on top of a speaker cabinet.”  Totem further suggests that Beaks help produce better imaging and high-frequency performance.  They can be placed atop each enclosure, either singly or in pairs.

While I am not a big-time tweaker, I did experiment with these curious devices.  Having the Beaks on and diagonally aligned from front to back produced smoother highs and a more coherent soundstage—maybe not to a shattering degree, since the Sigs are already so good, but the result was certainly noticeable and could be reproduced on repeated listenings.

Conclusions: Is the Mani-2 for you?

So what does $5,295 (plus an additional $300 to $400 for high-quality speaker stands) get you?  It won’t get you the huge soundstage of large panels or the subterranean bass of a separate subwoofer.  It will get you compact speakers that fit easily into most listening rooms.  It will get you intensely musical sound from all the sources at your disposal.  As a bonus, you will not need monster amps to drive these guys.  In a modest-sized listening room with two integrated amps, each rated at less than 40 watts per side, I got great sound aplenty from the Sigs, although their bass response seemed slightly plumper with the Pass than the PrimaLuna.

The jungle of $5,000-plus speakers is the natural habitat for many species of widely differing designs.  Most speakers in this price range will provide pleasurable listening if mated with proper electronics, cables and, most critically, a room with the appropriate dimensions.  When it comes to getting the most sound in a modest-sized room, the Mani-2 Sigs will give you just about as much as you can hope for in terms of imaging, smooth highs, clear mids and extended bass that has to be heard to be believed.  If this is not enough to sell you, you should note that my 15-year-old Mani-2s, while clearly bettered by the Sigs, still sound pretty darn good (i.e. I’m not throwing them away), which is a testimony to the build quality of Totem speakers.

Totem Acoustic Mani-2 Signature Speaker

MSRP: $5,295 (USD)


Digital Source Logitech Squeezebox Touch    PS Audio PerfectWave Transport and DAC MKII
Integrated Amplifier Pass Labs INT-30A    PrimaLuna Prologue Premium
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Elgar\
Cables Nordost Valhalla and Frey
Power Cords Nordost Valhalla, Brahma and Vishnu

McIntosh McAire

As I unbox the new McAire wireless music system, from that other apple of my eye—the one in Binghamton, N.Y.—the similarities between it and something from the Apple of Cupertino, Calif., are uncanny.  Mixing old styles with new styles, the McAire’s outer packaging and quick-start guide look suspiciously West Coast, but I’ve opened enough McIntosh hi-fi gear to recognize the owner’s manual instantly—and this one is pure McIntosh Labs.

A few years ago, with its F80, British manufacturer Meridian broke the price barrier for a high-performance compact audio system.  Now a serious American brand offers an alternative to the Bose Wave radio, and the McAire is equally as intriguing as the F80, both in terms of performance and aesthetics.

McIntosh’s Ron Cornelius says, “It’s expensive for a dock, but it’s a really affordable McIntosh system. The McAire retails for $3,000

It’s Heavy and It Rocks

While the McAire is an amazing wireless player for your iPhone, iPod or iPad, it’s so much more than that.  This 31-pound one-piece system features the same titanium tweeters and inverted-dome midrange drivers with NRT magnet structures found in the brand’s flagship XRT speakers.  In the McAire, McIntosh couples these to a pair of 5-inch slot-loaded woofers that produce formidable bass.  The system features Class-D amplification, but McIntosh doesn’t list a specification for power output.  Suffice it to say the McAire really rocks.

I begin the audition with “Who,” the lead track from the new David Byrne & St. Vincent album Love This Giant, which instantly establishes the bass response of the McAire.  The tabletop quakes, as the big, blue McIntosh meters swing merrily to the beat.  This thing fills the room with sound!

Next up: “Hail Bop,” from the self-titled Django Django album.  With so much spacey, synthesizer sounds, twangy guitars and ethereal harmonies, this track shows the McAire’s ability to set a gigantic soundfield—doing so on our art director’s desktop.  The sound is so big that she takes control of the remote to slow the pace down a bit, switching to some classic Michael Hedges.  The McAire proves equally adept with acoustic guitar, before we take a walk on the wild side with Marc Ribot’s Silent Movies, a record full of empty space, feedback and distortion.  I end the first of many listening duals with AC/DC’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation,” leaving everyone in the office impressed with the McAire.

Well Connected

The McAire is Apple-certified, so you can connect any iDevice via USB cable or wirelessly via AirPlay.  The initial setup is straightforward, requiring just your device and the small supplied remote.  The Ikea-like quick-start guide walks you through the process in a few minutes.  Those not wanting to have their device floating around on the tabletop, or in their pocket, can take advantage of the McIntosh ST-1 stand (sold separately; $50), which fits any of Apple’s portable devices.

You can stream music to the McAire using your home’s Wi-Fi network and iTunes on your Mac or PC—but why bother when you can utilize the McIntosh app for your iPhone or iPad?  Using the app gives you similar functionality to iTunes, but turns the screen of your device into yet another McIntosh blue meter!  What could be cooler than that?

An auxiliary audio input on the back panel lets you get really wacky if you want, by connecting a turntable or other source unit to your McAire system.  We didn’t take things that far, but we did plug in a vintage McIntosh MR-71 FM tuner.  This requires a bit more shelf space, but the tube tuner is a nice addition to the system, if you’re listening to FM radio.

For seasoned McIntosh aficionados, or those discovering the brand for the first time, the McAire compact system is an excellent idea for adding high-performance audio to any room in the house.

McIntosh McAire


Audio Technica AT-OC9/III Phono Cartridge

Audio Technica celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and part of its new-product lineup includes the brand’s reimagined flagship phono cartridge, the AT-OC9/III.  Audio Technica, founded in 1962, initially designed and produced phono cartridges for direct supply to original audio-equipment manufacturers within Japan.  Since then, Audio Technica has expanded its product line to include turntables, microphones, headphones and, as its website states, “other problem-solving audio devices.”  The first-generation AT-OC9 was launched in 1987.  Audio-Technica’s website lists the current retail price for the newest iteration as $1,129; however, a quick web search reveals street pricing around $799.

This cartridge arrives nicely packaged, but recipients should resist the temptation to just tear into the box, because the protective stylus guard is not in place during shipping.  The cartridge could be easily damaged if you aren’t careful.

Your MC Journey Begins

The OC9/III is the perfect cartridge with which to enter the world of moving coils, if you’ve got the interest and wherewithal to begin your journey by dropping nearly $1,200 on a cartridge.  It has a slightly low output (.4 mV) and will require a step-up device capable of around 60 dB to achieve the best balance of dynamics and low background noise.

Installation and mounting on the VPI Classic 3 proves very easy, with minimal time to optimize tracking parameters.  Audio Technica suggests a range of 1.8 to 2.2 grams and a minimum load impedance of 100 ohms.  Varying the tracking force in small increments reveals that 2.0 grams is the optimum balance on my table.  The handy remote on my Aesthetix Rhea phonostage also makes it easy to examine various loading and gain options, settling here on 250 ohms and 60 dB of gain.

The OC9 sounds good out of the box, but does open up slightly after about 30 to 50 hours are on the clock.  As with any cartridge, it’s an excellent idea to double check VTA and tracking-force settings as the suspension settles after the initial break-in process.  The Classic 3’s easily adjustable VTA has me back to perfection in no time, with only a slight touch up required.  If the cartridge sounds slightly dull from the outset, check this adjustment first.

Spin the Black Discs

The new Beatles Stereo Box Set on vinyl arrived shortly after the OC9, so plumbing the depths of Fab Four’s catalog with this new cartridge seemed a perfect place to start.  Beginning with Sgt. Pepper proves the new pressing to be a winner compared to the Capitol and Parlophone discs in my collection.  The OC9 immediately renders great bass dynamics and overall presence.  Controversy aside, switching back to my reference cartridge, the Lyra Atlas, confirms that the new pressings are excellent overall.

It also confirms that the OC9 has a tonal balance that is slightly on the warmer, more forgiving side of neutral, much like the AT33EV reviewed last year in TONEAudio.  The OC9 is not a bad idea for those collecting a lot of used records or listening to music produced in the mid ’90s and beyond, much of which is sourced from digital masters anyway.  In essence, the OC9 is an excellent daily driver, with a great balance of dynamics and detail retrieval.  If this cartridge is lacking anywhere, it might be in ultimate bass tautness and control, but this is more a personal preference than an overall judgment.

After most of the Beatles Stereo Box Set, Ryan Adams 2011 release Ashes and Fire clearly illustrates the performance of this cartridge with more modern material.  It is one of my favorite purchases from that year, more reminiscent of Whiskeytown and his first solo release, Heartbreakers, which is a more raw, gritty record.

The opening “Argument With David Rawlings Concerning Morrissey,” is a fun track, showing off how well the OC9 does with solo vocals in a BBC kind of way.  The first track on side B, “Invisible Riverside,” is a slow pop-rock tune that opens with guitar and is followed quickly by bass and drums—a perfect place to catch an emotional response when the stars line up.

This fleeting moment is captured quite well with the OC9, reproducing the essence without being too loose or overly analytical either.  This studio recording is also an excellent imaging demo and the OC9 has great focus, though the image portrayed does not extend well beyond the speakers, with the speakers themselves disappearing with a more refined cartridge.  But the OC9 takes good care of the fundamentals and is a great step up from the graininess usually present in the average MM cartridge in the $400-to-$600 range

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Auditioning the OC9 on an identical VPI Classic and the VPI Traveler showed that this cartridge is perhaps best suited to rock and jazz.  I concur with Mr. Moyers that it is ever so slightly on the soft side, particularly with leading transient edges.  Piano and violins are pleasant with the OC9, but lack a little bit in terms of ultimate texture.

However, this is just what the doctor ordered when rocking out—be it Metallica, Slayer or Hendrix—making many of these recordings sound better than you remember them, especially for those utilizing the OC9 in a table like the Traveler, an RP6, a Pro-Ject or something similar.

Comparing 24-bit/192-kHz digital captures of the AT33EV I reviewed last year to captures made with the OC9 reveals the top AT cart having a similar natural tonality, but with more extension on both ends of the frequency spectrum.  There is definitely a “family sound” going on here.  Much like with the AT33EV, I found that the OC9 is a bit better suited to any one of the excellent solid-state phonostages in the $1,000 range, like the Lehmannaudio Black Cube or the AVID Pellar.  The slight softness of the AT cartridge is a perfect balance to these phonostages, which can sound a little etched with the wrong front end.   -Tim Moyers

AT-OC9/III Moving Coil Cartridge

MSRP:  $1,129


Turntable VPI Classic 3
Cartridge Lyra Atlas    Lyra Dorian
Phonostage Aesthetix Rhea Signature
Preamp Aesthetix Calypso Signature
Power Amplifier Ayre MXR monoblocks
Speakers Vandersteen 5A
Cable AudioQuest WEL Sig    Wild Blue i/c    WEL Sig Power
Power Furman Reference
Accessories VPI SDS    VPI HW17 SRA Isolation bases    Billy Bags Rack

Sonus faber Aida Loudspeaker

How many times have you heard a fellow audiophile or music lover say, “For that kind of money, those speakers should wash your car” or, “They should be better than sex”—or something to that effect? A pair of Sonus faber Aida loudspeakers cost $120,000 and are better than sex. Spend a few minutes immersed in a serious listening session, and you won’t care if your luxury car is dirty. Play a few more tunes, and you might not even notice your significant other beckoning you to the bedroom for some intimate time. They are that good. Indeed, the Aida is as close to perfection as I’ve experienced, and I’ve spent a lot of time listening to the world’s finest speakers. These, however, do nothing wrong.

Steve Martin once said, “First, get a million dollars.” Perfection doesn’t come cheap, and that’s the only bad news concerning the Aida. This speaker caters to an exclusive club, yet sales are steady, especially now that the $200,000 “Sonus faber” is no longer on the market. And while these gems flawlessly perform no matter what they’re connected to, the better your source components, the better the end result.

Listening to an old favorite, 10cc’s Bloody Tourists, the heavens align, as they do every time I listen to the Aidas (pronounced Eye –ee-dah). Regardless of the recording material or recording quality, I’m hearing more music than I’ve ever experienced on familiar recordings—and my reference GamuT S9 speakers aren’t exactly slouches. Passages decay more than they did before. There’s an extra guitar overdub here I hadn’t noticed, and an extra layer of vocals. If you audition the Aida, prepare to invest in coffee. You’ll be shutting off the lights at 2 a.m. just because you have to hear just one more record.

These rewarding experiences, my friends, are what the pinnacle of high-end audio is about. Sound so good, so real, you can just reach out and touch it. If you like smooth vocalists like Diana Krall, the Aidas offer you the opportunity to have a sonic lap dance. If you want to rock, and have enough amplifier power, the Aidas put Slash and a wall of Marshall cabinets in your room. And if you like electronica, the Aidas deliver Deadmau5 to your door, mouse mask and all. Acoustic music lovers are in for the biggest treat. The Aidas present a tonal accuracy and contrast that, by far, are the most natural and convincing I’ve ever witnessed.

When covering a Deadmau5 show with Music Editor Bob Gendron last year, he remarked, “Your system can’t do that…” Yet, on a recent visit to the TONE studio, he had recalibrated his perspective. Playing “Raise Your Weapon” from 4×4=12, and twisting the level control on the ARC REF5SE up to 80, a monstrous grin came over his face.  Switching the program to the Slayer Vinyl Conflict box set, he admitted, “These speakers play at concert-hall levels with none of the distortion and fatigue you get at a live performance. I’ve never heard a stereo system sound like this.” Another convert.

Posh Treatment

Every pair of Aidas comes with a visit from Sonus faber to make sure the speakers are optimized for maximum performance. If you live in North America, chances are high that Sumiko’s Bill Peugh will make the journey. Having heard Peugh work his magic at countless dealers and audio shows, it was a pleasure to have him take the time to set up the Aidas here.

For a speaker that weighs 365 pounds each, the Aida is a svelte tango partner. Thanks to the enclosed collapsible trolley, they are easily moved about. And the job can be done with one person, making it easy to place the speakers in a listening room. Another example of how no stone has been left unturned by Sonus faber.

After a brief listen to a single speaker in the room so we could get a handle on bass response, we introduced the second speaker into the system and found the pair beginning to optimize. The Aida uses a rear-firing midrange and tweeter, each having their own controls on the rear panel. The “Sonus faber” introduced this concept, and it’s used to great success here. For now, the Aida is the only other speaker in the Sonus faber range with this function.

Having set up the speakers for the best combination of imaging, frequency smoothness, and bass response, we turned to fine-tuning the rear firing drivers. It’s an illuminating process: The level coming from the drivers isn’t terribly high, yet when adjusted, it causes a profound difference to the overall sound. Setting the level too high destroys the Aidas’ precise imaging performance by way of brightness. Not enough, and the speakers lose some airiness and coherence. Much like fine-tuning VTA, the speakers disappear when a perfect balance is obtained. No small feat for six-foot-tall models.

How quickly the Aidas settle into a groove. We are listening in earnest by the end of the first afternoon. My review models boast very few hours of prior listening time, so they are—for all practical purposes—a fresh pair. Like those on any speaker, the drivers require a certain amount of physical break-in to open up and achieve full body. The Aida is no different, although in retrospect, it merely sounds smaller and less extended after the initial uncrating. Bass is not completely fleshed out, and coherence between drivers is not as good as it is with a couple hundred hours on the clock. By the next day, after 24 hours of continuous play, they begin to relax.

Sumiko’s John Paul Lizars assures me the speakers change character during the break-in period, but it must have happened while I was sleeping. To be clear, I left them playing 24 hours a day during the review period; they had to be back in time for the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.

As tests evolved, all I noticed was a slight fog, which progressively dissipated.  Leaving the Pass XA200.5s Class-A monoblocks powered-up for nearly a month had consequences on my electric bill; I used three times more electricity as the average house in my neighborhood. Yikes. I’ve had a few paranoid delusions of the DEA showing up at my house with a SWAT team wanting to know where I’m growing the marijuana crop, only to give them a tour of my studio. “Sorry officers, no drugs in here, just these big amplifiers.” If I’m not at CES in January, you’ll know why.

I spent the bulk of my listening time utilizing the Pass monoblocks and Octave Jubilee monoblocks, which offer 250 watts per channel of vacuum tube power.

Under Pressure

The Aidas are polite company at low to modest listening levels. But as the volume goes up, they do an even better job at disappearing in the room. Sumiko representatives often discuss the concept of “pressurizing the room,” and I’ve never heard it better illustrated than with these speakers. Interestingly, I found myself (and guests) listening to the Aidas at higher levels than normal. Once the volume hits a certain point, the aforementioned effect becomes hypnotic, drawing you further into the presentation than you might have thought possible.

Fatigue that accompanies twisting the volume control to the upper regions? It’s just not there with the Aidas. Instead, it feels as if you can just keep turning up the volume forever, or at least until your amplifiers run out of power.

Tied to a chair and given truth serum, I’ll confess my love of the sound of a great electrostatic speaker like the Quad 57 or the MartinLogan CLX. Coherency is my hot button. It’s not so much midrange magic, but midrange correctly rendered. With no crossover in the path, the associated distortions, by design, do not exist. And distortions are a big part of what convinces your brain that you’re listening to a stereo system instead of the real thing.

Again, the Aidas do the seemingly impossible, providing a seamless soundstage that never sounds like a woofer, tweeter, and midrange in a cabinet (even though their complement of drivers has crossover points at 55, 180, 250, and 3,000Hz). There’s so much new technology incorporated in this speaker, it would take a whole book to cover depth. And that’s precisely what’s included with the Aida— a 200-page tome, illustrating every facet of the speaker’s philosophy, design, and construction. Not to mention a massive collection of great photos, beautifully printed.

The Aida’s downward-firing 13-inch woofer produces bass with incredible texture and grip. I also suspect it heavily plays into its ease. The bass isn’t as aggressive, gut-punching, or pants-flapping as that of a few favorite audiophile darlings, but it possesses a presence that provides a true musical foundation, as it should. Just like when you listen to a musician playing a stand-up bass in a club.

Vide, the acoustic bass line in Stanley Clarke’s In the Jazz Garden is rich with decay, texture, and pace. Clarke’s instrument does more than maintain a separate space from piano and drums; it projects a three-dimensional effect that bass rarely manages in a recording. When changing the program to Dan Deacon’s America, the growling synth bass line shakes my room. These speakers move serious air when required.

The high-frequency spectrum is equally well represented. Older Sonus faber speakers, while providing highly pleasing sound, are often criticized for a midrange glow that borders on coloration. The Aida retains a high degree of utter tonality and soul, and provides a high degree of resolution and the ability to render musical detail without harshness, distortion, or fatigue. It yields a greater degree of loud-to-soft gradation than anything I’ve heard shy of the world’s finest horn systems.

Moving away from the ring radiator design of the former flagship, the Stradivari, a new, 29mm “arrow point” tweeter gets incorporated in the Aida. The intriguing albeit delicate bar is a very specific wave guide. Nothing in the Aida is without function. Peugh states the soft dome allows for a more natural response as well as more even and natural room dispersion. Experiencing the Aida is remarkably similar no matter where you sit in the listening environment, contributing to the notion of musicians playing in another room when listening from afar.

While the Aidas have a sensitivity spec of 92db with one watt, they give more with tons of clean power on tap. A sampling of lower-powered amplifiers in the 25- to 50-watt-per-channel range proves acceptable. Still, small amplifiers run out of juice when called upon to really rock. And I can’t imagine an Aida owner not wanting to take advantage of as wide a range of music as possible.

Ooh, the Cabinet

Much of the Aida’s sound can be traced to the cabinet and Sonus faber’s approach. A visual tour de force, these speakers arouse and impress, coated with layer upon layer of hand-applied and hand-polished lacquer. The metal bits receive the same amount of attention to fine detail, right down to the exact formulation of the bath used to apply the anodized coatings. Words and photos do not do justice to these audible works of art.  The booklet states the processes used in the speakers’ construction is “like that in an Italian supercar,” and it isn’t kidding.

Many current speaker manufacturers live and die by the sword of completely eliminating any resonance from the enclosure. However, Sonus faber looks at speaker design like an instrument manufacturer would, working with resonances and fine-tuning to achieve a more musical result. If you like the Wilson/Magico/YG Acoustics approach, I doubt you will love the Aida—just as I wouldn’t expect an automobile enthusiast that loves the Aston Martin DBS to be equally excited about the Porsche 911 GT3. High performance, different approach.

As for the emotional connection the Aidas engender? A non-audiophile friend, who is a cabinet maker by trade, was in awe of the enclosures that take nearly three weeks to complete. Before I put Mobile Fidelity’s recent 45RM remaster of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on the turntable, he was explaining “no one listens to vinyl anymore.” Then, when the needle dropped, he teared up. “I used to go to the Village and see Dylan all the time. This puts him right in the room.” We switched back to the same album on CD, even played through the fantastic dCS Paganini, and the magic diminished. How can you ask for a better, more emotionally engaging experience?

Listen to Get the Rest of the Story

If you were hoping for a treatise on specs, measurements, and speaker configuration, that’s not what matters here. And none of it will matter to you after you’ve spent 60 seconds listening to one of your favorite pieces of music through the Aidas. I can’t think of a more sublime example of high technology serving fine art.

Should a $120k pair of speakers not be on your short list, try and experience the Aida anyway. And have your Sonus faber dealer demonstrate the new $2,498 Venere 2.5 speakers. A staggering amount of technology trickled down to the company’s entry-level speakers, and is only be made possible by an enterprise that has the resources to build an Aida.

Just as Verdi’s Aida took his art to its highest level, Sonus faber’s Aida takes the aesthetic and acoustic art of speaker-building to an equally lofty level. While it can be tough to justify the value with products so expensive, having spent plenty of time with most of the top models in the six-figure bracket and a considerable number of great speakers in the $20k- $50k range, I can say with absolute certainty that Aidas offer sound and build quality commensurate with price. They have provided one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my career.

Sonus faber Aida

MSRP:  $120,000/pair (Manufacturer)


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge   AMG V-12 turntable    AMG arm    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital source dCS Paganini stack    Aurender S10 music server
Preamplifier ARC REF5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Burmester 911 mk.3    Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear
Power cords Furutech PowerFlux
Power conditioning  Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim
Accessories GIK room treatments    Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme record cleaner    SRA Scuttle rack

Blue Aura v30 Blackline Integrated Tube-Amplifier System

With the burgeoning number of adults working from home, the office-audio category has become an industry bright spot.  Filling this space is Blue Aura’s $549 v30 Blackline music system, which satisfies the craving for vacuum tubes and matching speakers, and does so in a space-conscious package.

The handsome, three-piece system looks sharp wherever I place it in my office—I tried both my bookshelf and credenza—but the system’s striking aesthetics never dominate the décor.  Los Angeles–based Blue Aura wraps the speakers and the body of the amp in black faux-leather, and accents the amp with chrome trimmings.

The amp is 10 inches wide, 7.5 inches deep and 5.5 inches tall, and the plated handles on either side of it double nicely as bookends.  Adorning the front panel is a pair of matching chrome knobs—one for adjusting the volume and one for selecting from the three inputs (USB, LINE, and AUX).  Two 6N1 tubes flank the taller 6e2 tube, with its decorative but unnecessary green glowing light filter.  A four-post tube guard with a plexiglass-and-chrome top shelf protects the tubes from inadvertent fingers or the common office mishap.  On the back panel, from left to right, are three inputs (RCA, mini-headphone, and mini-USB B), followed by a mini-headphone output jack, four brass speaker jacks, the power-cord socket and power switch.

The 5.5-inch tall speakers look similar to the Audioengine A2s, with forward-facing slits towards the bottom of each speaker serving as bass ports.  The 3/4-inch tweeter and 3.5-inch paper driver surprised me from the outset with some obvious low-frequency grunt and detail.  With the speakers set on their over-sized-hockey-puck stands and with the bookcase as an additional cabinet, the sexy, sultry vocals of Sade fill my 11-by-10-foot office.  Changing out the included 18-gauge speaker wire for some 12-gauge wire further defineds the speaker’s impressive resolution.

Dishing It Out

Forget the typical tinny computer sound and irritating fake subwoofer output—the v30 avoids that pitfall.  This is a setup I find enjoyable listening to for several hours, which helps me grade papers without becoming restless.  When playing rounded sharp-edged recordings, such as Donald Fagan’s Kamakiriad, the v30 settles down nicely.  I then play some lossless recordings, with my laptop and Audioengine D2 wireless DAC system on my desk and the v30 on the bookcase, and intoxicating sound fills the office.  Even with the speakers just 30 inches apart, the system offers impressive instrument placement.

It’s obvious that the Blue Aura engineers understood that the typical home-office setup limits how far apart speakers can be placed.  The result is a nice, expansive soundstage and subsequent enjoyable listening experience.  Even stepping down to my MacBook’s analog output and running a wire to the v30 yields worthwhile results.

The system excels at reproducing jazz music, and quickly makes Vince Guaraldi’s classic Charlie Brown Christmas a playlist favorite.  The v30’s ability to recreate the individual bass notes in “O Tannenbaum” bests the budget bookshelf speakers that normally occupy my office—and those are more than three times the size of the v30’s speakers.  Guaraldi’s piano matches the glow that the three tubes adds to the keystrokes.  The slight loss in absolute detail is easily made up by the system’s warmth and rich decay.

As the days pass, the v30 becomes the reason to listen to music, the goal being to see what it can handle musically.  While blasting Slayer at house-party levels isn’t realistic, the unit has no problem getting into the 90-plus-dB range before hitting its sonic wall.  It delivers more complex rock with ease.  John Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee, with its multitude of instruments, sounds open and uncongested—a neat trick for such a diminutive setup.

As expected, the v30’s three glowing tubes make the midrange beguiling.  Female vocals and instruments are lush and warm, and void of the syrupy slow quality that creeps into many budget tube systems.  In this price range, the v30 is downright first-rate, especially in the level of clarity it brings to Pink Martini’s “Mar Desconocido,” with its tempo-leading bongos, and to the plucked guitar and xylophone in the next track, “Taya Tan.”

Just For Fun

One Sunday afternoon, I pair the 20-wpc integrated amplifier with the 92-dB-efficient Verity Audio Finns.  The v30 does itself proud here, powering the Finns with confidence.  Though the amplifier section won’t make one forget PrimaLuna’s resolution, particularly in the higher register, it does move some serious air, representing the basics of tone and balance remarkably well.

Even in larger spaces, such as my 13-by-19-foot family room, the v30 delivers open sound.  With the amp and speakers on the rock fireplace hearth with the angled puck speaker stands tilted upward, the room fills with warm holiday sounds.  Even with the sliding door to the kitchen closed, I was still able to enjoy the details emanating from the system.

For those that desire tunes but need focus on work in their office, the musicality of the v30 Blackline make it a top-tier choice for the home office.  Looking to add a source wirelessly? Just add Blue Aura’s WSTxR wireless transmitter/receiver kit for $149.