Why we refuse to predict the future!!

I write very few actual rants in this space or in TONEAudio‘s publishers letter for good reason:  I want this to be fun.  I’ve always felt that the minute we bring our personal baggage into the editorial, it really stops being fun.  I don’t care if audio writers from across the pond disagree on how to set up a turntable or how to rip digital audio files.  Really, I don’t. And I care way less about it when they make it a personal bitchfest.  BORING.  I’d much rather talk about anything but audio at that point.

But the one tired subject that does push me over the edge is the constant waste of bandwidth on articles dealing with the future of the hifi industry. I’ve spent a lot of time on an airplane over the last ten years, going to trade shows, visiting factories and talking to both dealers and end users about this stuff, tirelessly.  Music and hifi has been the major obsession in my life since about age 13, so you’d think I’ve got at least a bit of a handle on it, right?  Well, kind of.

However, as much as those of us in the audio press would like to think we are all so plugged in, we really aren’t and here’s why:  our filter is too small.  Way too small.  It’s simple math.  There are 317 million people in the United States alone, and as of the other day, TONEAudio is read in 129 countries, so how can we possibly know what everyone is thinking, doing, or purchasing.  Really?

I get it.  It makes for great Google numbers to print “the sky is falling” editorial copy about how the industry is dying, or no one listens to music anymore, or there is no good music, etc., etc., etc. This ends up being terribly inaccurate at best and self-serving at the worst.

First thing I remember from news writing 101, was “never assume anything.”  Considering that many of us know 50 – 100 people and maybe have a peripheral reach of a thousand people, how can we possibly make these broad, grandiose speeches, declaring the rise or fall of anything?  I know I can’t, and I won’t.  My data is way too skewed.

Most of my friends are music and hifi fanatics (like minds, eh?) so any data I would cull from them would be useless to the readership at large.  I can’t believe how many people I know that own six figure hifi systems and own thousands, if not tens of thousands of albums, so it would be equally easy to think it’s all ducky going forward from where I sit.

Having visited more than my share of manufacturers that are somehow, in spite of all this death-speak, managing to ship every box they can build, I’ve reached the conclusion that someone has to be buying this stuff.  And with new manufacturers like Sonos, Peachtree and others having similar success stories, I fail to accept that the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. But then, that’s not terribly compelling copy, is it?

My challenge to my colleagues for 2014?  How about some insightful commentary, instead of just going for the low hanging fruit.  Remember, almost all of you were right there proclaiming (with equal certainty) the death of analog twenty years ago.

Issue 60


Old School:
Dynaco PAT-5

By Jerold O’Brien

Journeyman Audiophile

Ortofon TA_110 Tonearm

By Jeff Dorgay

Dealers That Mean Business

We Visit HiFi Hawaii

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Audeze LCD-X Headphones

By Rob Johnson

Sennheiser HDVD 800 Amp/DAC

By Mike Liang

TONE Style

The Wino
Post Holiday Picks

By Monique Meadows

Nikon Df Camera body

Sens “Smart” Umbrella

By Rob Johnson

Women On Men

The Fine Art of Kristin Bauer

Hello Kitty Bluetooth Speaker


Current Releases:

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

Audiophile Pressings

Jazz & Blues
By Jim Macnie & Aaron Cohen

Bob Gendron’s 25 Top Rock and Pop Albums for 2013

20 Music Treasures to Savor
By Bob Gendron


Thorens TD 206 Turntable

Yamaha A-S3000 Amplifier and CD-S3000 disc player

Benchmark ABH2 Power Amplifier

VPI Nomad turntable

Anthem MRX 510 Receiver

From the Web

Naim DAC – V1 and NAP 100 Amplifier

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Preamplifier


PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

Rogue Audio Sphinx Integrated
By Andre Marc

VPI Classic Direct Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Preamplifier
By Jerold O’Brien

Focal Maestro Utopia Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Updated Phono Pre From Parasound

Parasound’s new Halo JC 3+ adds independent load adjustment for moving coil cartridges, as well as enhancements to the dual-mono phono module circuit boards, and increased power supply capabilities. The JC 3+ circuit comes from the designer of the legendary Vendetta phono preamp, John Curl.

We reviewed the JC 3 about two years ago, very favorably.  You can read that review here.

The new JC 3+ promises to be a great evolutionary step, we should have one for review soon.


Brinkmann USA now in motion!

Brinkmann Audio of Germany announces the launch of Brinkmann USA as its direct-to-dealer sales arm in the United States for the company’s award-winning line of turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges and analog products. Andrea Brinkmann will be Brinkmann USA’s principal and Head of Sales, effective immediately. Shane Buettner, most recently AudioQuest’s Vice President of Communication, will assume Marketing and Business Development duties and also assist Andrea with sales and dealer education. He will be the direct contact for sales and tech support forBrinkmann USA’s dealer network.

Brinkmann USA’s analog product line is vertically integrated, offering “turnkey” systems (turntable/tonearm/cartridge) of unsurpassed transparency and refinement in which all the components are tuned closely to one another. The Brinkmann USA analog line today includes two direct-drive turntables, Bardo and Oasis, plus the flagship Balance, which is very recently updated with the brand-new Sinus motor design and available in single- and dual-tonearm configurations. The drive/motor mechanism employed on all three tables is completely custom-designed and built in-house by Brinkmann. Solid-state power supplies for each ‘table are standard, with the redesigned RöNT II vacuum-tube power supply available as a formidable upgrade option. Tonearms are the 10.0, 10.5 and 12.1, and the Pi and EMT-ti moving coil cartridges.

Brinkmann USA is supremely confident that its complete analog playback systems will thrill and delight music lovers, but the transparency, neutrality and flexibility of its designs also ensure that mixing and matching with other top-level analog components is simple and also certain to yield excellent, musically satisfying results. Brinkmann’s ingenious tonearm bases for all three turntable models are designed for precise, physically rigid quick release, making adjustments and arm swapping a “plug and play” operation.

Behind Brinkmann Audio the company stands Helmut Brinkmann, the company’s Founder and Chief Designer. Helmut’s brother was a musician, and Helmut’s 35-year journey in audio engineering started in those early years, modifying and fixing the amps and electronics his brother used playing Germany’s clubs and discos. Brinkmann Audio began in 1985, and the company represents Helmut’s never-ending search for the “perfect illusion” that is truly magical music playback. Brinkmann’s designs are not “cost-optimized,” aimed instead at pursuing the best performance with the most meticulous precision. Because every single part, large or small, influences a component’s sound, even the tiniest screws are examined and only the best-sounding parts are used throughout Brinkmann’s products. Brinkmann Audio is based in Germany.

Andrea Brinkmann has always loved music like we all do, and she came to the audio industry honestly, by marrying Helmut Brinkmann. Smart and highly capable, Andrea’s role(s) and influence at Brinkmann Audio continue to grow as evidenced by the number of different hats she wears on any given day when she comes to work. She is responsible for all sales and communication for Brinkmann Audio in addition to managing production and performing back-office duties as needed. In recent years she devised a complete re-organization and streamlining of production to increase manufacturing efficiencies which has allowed the company to maintain its steady growth trajectory. In addition to her native German, Andrea is strikingly fluent in conversational English.

Shane Buettner has spent over a dozen years in the high-end electronics industry cultivating the skills and experience he brings to Brinkmann USA. He was a featured writer and editor at influential enthusiast publications as The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision and Audio Perfectionist Journal before serving as Editor-In-Chief of Stereophile’s sister publication, Home Theater magazine. Buettner spent the last three years as a member of the executive team at AudioQuest. As Director of Education and then Vice President of Communication Buettner played a key role in crafting that company’s array of advertisements, education and marketing materials, and all corporate-level communications.


Gary Numan – 78/79 Box Set

A relative newcomer to the reissue scene, British-based Vinyl 180 is concentrating on a small stable of artists from the 80s and 90s that are thankfully anything but traditional audiophile fare. We’re talking albums by Gary Numan, The Cult, and Dead Can Dance, to name a few.

Limited to 500 copies, this four-LP Numan box set includes his first three albums, Tubeway Army, Replicas, and The Pleasure Principle, along with The Plan, the latter a 1984 release that features demo material from Tubeway Army, recorded in 1978. While the box set is tough to find in the U.S., Vinyl 180 is planning to release these albums individually in the near future.

In comparing these pressings to the U.S. originals, the new releases are clear winners. While a decibel or two louder than that on the earlier versions, the dynamic range does not seem to be compromised, though there is a slight “smile” to the EQ curve that emphasizes the deep bass and the very highest treble. Loaded with synthesizers and drum machines, the U.S. originals are fairly murky, with Numan’s vocals buried behind a wall of keyboards and cool, obscure electronic sounds.

With the additional information on tap, Numan’s genius is more evident. All but those with the most forward/revealing systems should welcome the additional resolution.  -Jeff Dorgay

Vinyl 180, 180g LP Box Set

Faust – Faust So Far, Faust IV

No discussion of Krautrock would be complete without Faust, the legendary band started in 1970 and produced by Uwe Nettelbeck. The devotion of collectors and fans becomes clear the moment you log in to eBay and try to purchase original copies of the group’s early works. Most times, the bidding starts at around $100 per LP.

Alas, the lowdown on these reissues is mediocre. Though both are done on different labels, it’s unfortunate that a few of the dollars spent on the excellent cover-art reproductions weren’t diverted to recording and pressing quality. Neither of these LPs sound like they were pressed from anything close to the analog master tapes, and while the bearded guys did a little bit better job of taming the glare, the imprint’s pressing is so noisy, it doesn’t really matter.

For now, if you’re just discovering the joys of Faust, head to your local record store or take your chances on eBay. Thumbs down on this pair.  -Jeff Dorgay

4 Men with Beards (Faust), Capitol (Faust IV), 180g LP

NEU! – NEU!, NEU 2, NEU 75, NEU 86

Fresh from seeing NEU! founder Michael Rother at this year’s ATP festival, revisiting the studio remasters from this pivotal German duo that first worked together in Kraftwerk (his creative partner, Klaus Dinger, passed away in 2008) was a true pleasure, particularly considering how many bands NEU! inspired.

Those just after the essence of the NEU! sound will probably be happy with the four individual albums at $36.99 each, but the hardcore fan should invest the extra $50 and purchase the limited-edition box set, which also includes a t-shirt, a stencil, and extra goodies. (Bob Gendron will have a full review of said import box in Issue 33.)

The sound quality of all four records is incredible, echoing founder Rother’s comment about achieving “the best musical result.” The discs are pin-drop quiet, (essential to the NEU! experience), with long, airy pauses and gentle synthesizer riffs over NEU!’s signature 4/4 beat. Rother explains on his website ( HYPERLINK “http://www.neu2010.com” www.neu2010.com) that the copy of the previously unreleased NEU! ’86 was produced from the original masters and multitrack tapes. The care and precision he took producing these records is evident the second you lower the stylus.  -Jeff Dorgay

Groenland Records, 180g LP

Foreigner – Foreigner

The good news is that this is by far the best that Foreigner’s self-titled album will ever sound. Digital lovers interested in the SACD and analog enthusiasts after the vinyl are in for a sonic treat. The bad news is, it’s Foreigner. But far be it from me, a guy who still loves KISS ALIVE!, to criticize anyone’s music taste. (Now there’s a record MoFi should remaster, but I digress.)

Rob LoVerde has done his usual meticulous job of getting the maximum amount of detail from the master tape without compromise. If you grew up listening to this band on the radio in the 70s, you will be amazed at the amount of musicianship presented here.  This pressing reveals layer upon layer of vocals, guitars, and, of course, the Roland Space Echo intro on “Starrider” didn’t even sound this good when you were really baked.

Normally, I’d say friends don’t let friends listen to Foreigner. But if you must, this is the version you want.  -Jeff Dorgay

MoFi, 180g LP and SACD

Kate Bush – Hounds of Love

Audio Fidelity’s recent release of Kate Bush’s biggest record is a definite audiophile triumph. These days, while everyone is listening to Eva Cassidy, Patricia Barber, and the like, it’s easy to forget about one of contemporary pop’s most innovative female vocalists. Originally released in 1985, Hounds of Love has sold three million copies worldwide, and its big hit, “Running Up That Hill,” was in constant MTV rotation.

Audio Fidelity principal Marshall Blonstein indicated that the label will release The Sensual World and received the green light to produce more of Bush’s catalog. “We’re in on Kate Bush,” Blonstein recently told me, also underscoring that this LP was produced from the original master tape provided courtesy of Abbey Road.

The pressing has plenty of the analog magic. While I only had a garden-variety U.S. pressing available for comparison, the AF release offered a tremendous step up in every aspect. Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman did a fantastic job at keeping the air on this recording intact. Bush’s breathy vocals are no longer buried in the mix as they are on domestic LP pressing and CD, and the overall sound field is quite larger. Best of all, this disc is exceptionally quiet, which ideally suits the music.

For those unfamiliar with the recording, the first side is labeled “Hounds of Love,” almost entirely comprised of hit singles, and distinctly flavored with pop arrangements. The flip side is labeled “The Ninth Wave” and is much more ethereal and experimental. These tracks feature more vocal processing and electronic effects, not unlike what you might expect from Peter Gabriel or Thomas Dolby.

To celebrate the trippiness of the record, AF pressed it on light violet vinyl and gave it a tie-dye coloring. So, whether you’re a long time fan or need to break out of the same-old female vocal doldrums, Audio Fidelity’s pressing of Hounds of Love is a great place to start.  -Jeff Dorgay

Audio Fidelity, 180g. LP

Grateful Dead – The Warner Brothers Studio Albums

If you are even a casual Grateful Dead fan, you should click on the album cover shown here and immediately buy this box set. Mastered at Bernie Grundman Mastering by Chris Bellman, the fellow responsible for the outstanding Neil Young box set released earlier this year (and too many other great audiophile pressings to count), this collection of the Dead’s first five studio albums is a must.

The Dead may well have been the first audiophile rock stars, always picky about every facet of the sound quality of their music, even down to using McIntosh amplifiers for their PA system. Reflecting such meticulous detail, this set is housed in a pop-art orange box containing updated liner notes that include some great era photos of the band members as well as some of the charts used to record the various tracks, both features offering further insight into the group’s creative genius/madness.

If you are searching for originals, our resident collector says the group’s self-titled debut was available on the Warner GOLD label in both stereo and mono versions; average prices for near-mint versions are $75 and $150, respectively. First pressings of Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa on the Green Warner 7 Arts label are the only ones to use the same original mix as the pressings in the box set. A quick listen to any of the CD versions reveal almost two different albums. Workingman’s Dead is a very rare find on said label and can command $100. American Beauty is also on this imprint, yet more common to find, with a mint version only fetching $30.

These records were played and enjoyed, so $27 each for this level of quality is truly a bargain, especially with pristine artwork. Music Editor Bob Gendron will have an in-depth review in Issue 33, but if you just need a snapshot of the sonics, the answer is a big YES. These five records finally do justice to the underrated studio recordings of the Grateful Dead.  -Jeff Dorgay

WB/Rhino 5LP box set

Audio Research REF Phono 2

In the past two years since the Sooloos music server has entered my life, I must admit that the music-lover side of my personality has been dominating my audiophile side.  I’ve always loved vinyl, but having 7000 CD’s that you can mix and match to your hearts content has gotten, well, addictive.  Add two world-class digital front ends to the mix (the Naim CD555 and now the dCS Paganini) and it gets tougher to stay on the analog bus every day.  Who really wants to screw around with VTA anyhow?  Let’s play some more Slayer.

Analysis paralysis is equally virulent to the avid audiophile as well as the reviewer; it’s easy to sample too many wares and get lost somewhere along the journey.  And this has happened to me more than once.  A number of combinations have brought me close to analog bliss, which I thought would last forever. But in the end, the convenience of the Sooloos/dCS had me saying, “I’ll clean that pile of records tomorrow…”  Then another change, and that fleeting happiness was lost again.

I was lost but now I’m found

Joe Harley from Music Matters was the man that saved me.  At last year’s CES, he and his partner Ron Rambach said, almost in unison, “Get the new ARC REF and stop screwing around.”  Shortly thereafter, I had a chance to hear the REF in Harley’s system and I was pretty overwhelmed (in a great way) while listening to quite a few of his test pressings from the current Blue Note catalog as well as some of his past efforts on AudioQuest records.  This was truly the analog magic I’d been seeking.

Everything I heard that evening left me feeling like I was listening to a great surround-sound mix, except it was coming from two speakers, not six or eight.  Best of all, the second I closed my eyes, those speakers were gone and I was swimming in a gigantic fish bowl of sound.

About two years ago when we reviewed the PH7 phono preamplifier, I asked ARC’s Dave Gordon if they would ever produce another REF phono stage. “Not at present,” he replied, “but we haven’t ruled out the idea of another REF if there is enough demand.” And here we are, two years later with the REF 2.  I must extent my heartfelt thanks to all of you who kept the pressure on ARC to produce the REF 2.

Past vs. Present

The original REF Phono had a massive compliment of tubes, using 11 6922’s in various locations, a 5AR4 rectifier tube and a 6550 along with another 6922 to perform voltage-regulator duties, as they have done in some of their other designs.   The new REF Phono 2 utilizes four 6H30 tubes along with a FET input stage, as they have in the PH5, 6 and 7.  Gordon said, “Using tubes at the input is just too noisy; the input FET’s are the only way to get that low-level signal to emerge from a black background.”  The REF 2 Phono also uses solid-state rectifiers but retains the 6550 as a voltage regulator, this time in conjunction with another 6H30 tube.

The original REF Phono had a pricetag of $6,995 and the current REF Phono 2 costs $11,995. This is a substantial increase in price, but the new version offers quite a bit more under the hood as well as on the front panel, which is available in silver or black finish.

ARC has made an interesting style change with the REF Phono 2, the top panel is now a grey smoked acrylic, allowing full view of the tube complement.  Those wanting the traditional metal top panel can order their preamp this way at no additional charge.

While the original REF Phono for all practical purposes had one input, you could switch between a low-gain and a high-gain input via a rear panel switch, so using two turntables was not terribly convenient.  The new version has been designed from the ground up to be a two-input phono preamplifier, using microprocessor controls to switch between inputs.  ARC has incorporated the large vacuum-fluorescent display from their other components to excellent use here.  You can view input, gain, loading and equalization at a glance from across the room.  The remote control will also allow you to see how many hours have elapsed on the tubes, and those who are driven crazy by lights in their “deep listening” sessions can dim or completely darken the display.

Another big change in circuitry is the REF Phono 2’s fully balanced design.  Though its two phono inputs are single-ended, the preamplifier is balanced throughout and offers single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs.  For those doing any recording of their vinyl via tape or digital means, it’s worth noting that I was able to drive a recorder from the single-ended outputs and send the balanced outputs to my Burmester preamplifier with no degradation in performance.  The resulting captured files were fantastic, being fed straight from the REF into my Nagra LB digital recorder or Technics RS-1500 open reel deck.

Interestingly, even though the REF Phono 2 only draws a maximum of 140 watts from the AC line, it has a square 20A IEC power socket.  I’m assuming that this helps to make a more solid connection to the power cord, also showing that no detail was left unexamined in the creation of ARC’s flagship phono stage.

Needs a little time to cook

Like every other component I’ve auditioned with a large compliment of Teflon capacitors, the REF is going to take 500 hours to sound its best, and ARC even suggests 600 hours in the owner’s manual.  For the naysayers in the audience who feel break-in is pure poppycock, I had a unique situation with the REF that verifies this concept beyond doubt.  My initial review sample had made a few stops before it got here, so I was able to sidestep the break-in process and begin evaluating it immediately. The REF sounds OK  directly out of the box but there is substantial improvement after 100-200 hours.  It really comes out of the fog right around 350 hours, getting even better until the 500-hour mark.  Fortunately, ARC includes a timer linked to the display on the front panel to help you keep track.  It’s critical to note that you have to pass a signal through the unit during these hours; just keeping the unit on is not enough.

As the REF I was using was the one from ARC’s demo room, when I decided to purchase the review sample, Gordon insisted that they send me a brand new unit from production and that I return the review sample. This, of course, caused some anxiety as I did not want to go through the break-in process with a component that I use daily.  Fortunately, I was able to keep the review unit for a couple of weeks while my new REF racked up hours.  It did provide a unique opportunity to compare a fresh unit to one with almost 1,000 hours on the clock, and the difference was staggering.  The fresh, out-of-the-carton sample sounded flat and lifeless when compared with the fully broken-in unit, with everything else being the same.

If you aren’t enthused about running up 500 hours on your exotic (and expensive) phono cartridge just for break in purposes, I suggest the Hagerman IRIAA.  Unlike so-called “cookers,” this is a passive device that attenuates the signal from a high-level input and applies an inverse-RIAA curve so that your CD player now presents a signal that mimics what comes from your phono cartridge.  Unless you are completely OC, I’d suggest getting one of these handy little devices and let the REF rack up at least a couple hundred hours before listening, if you can bear it. You can buy one as a kit for $29 or a fully assembled one for $49 here: http://www.hagtech.com/iriaa2.html I can’t suggest this device highly enough.  Remember: 300 hours equals about 450 albums.  Do you have that kind of patience to hear what your REF is really capable of?  I know I don’t.

Adjustable and compatible

While I’ve heard many great phono preamplifiers over the years, ease of adjustability makes or breaks the sale for me because I’m always auditioning phono cartridges. If you are a set it and forget it person, this may not be as big of a deal.  I’m guessing that most analog devotees willing to spend a dozen big ones on a phono stage have more than one turntable and a few different cartridges around to listen to mono recordings, perhaps some 78’s, early Deccas, or they would just like to have an a cartridge with a completely different tonality at their disposal.   With two inputs, each can be configured as high (68db) or low (54db, check both of these) gain, adjustable loading (50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 47k and custom) and switchable EQ (RIAA, Columbia and Decca) all from the remote. That’s as good as it gets.  If you have a plethora of cartridges in your collection, the REF Phono 2 is a dream come true. Now you can geek out with ease.

All this talk of multiple turntables brings me to my two minor complaints about the REF Phono 2: the single ground post is a pain and I wish it had three inputs.  Honestly, I wish it had four inputs, but I don’t expect anyone else to share my madness.  Every cartridge I used with the REF sounded so good that I just didn’t want to go back to any of the other phono preamps on my rack.  Even my modest Rega P25 with Shelter 501 II revealed so much more music through the REF than it ever had before, I just didn’t want to take a step backward.

Dynamics, Tone, Texture

The debate on live versus real sound seems to be a hot topic these days, with one faction claiming their HiFi system is more real than real, while the others shake their heads in denial saying that any attempt at reproducing sound in inherently flawed.  I submit that with the right music (especially music that is more sparse than complex) and the right system, it can get scarily close to sounding like the real thing.

Dynamics are a big part of the equation. You need a system that can go from 0-200 in a heartbeat without distortion or overhang.  Those who feel that you have an inadequate “audio vocabulary” need not worry; when it’s wrong you know it.  When a system or component lacks the necessary horsepower to deliver full-spectrum dynamic contrast, your ears and brain object instantly.  The REF passes this test with ease, offering up a large dose of weight and grip that is apparent the minute you play your favorite record.  I went through some of my favorite classic rock warhorses (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Genesis, etc.) and was instantly taken aback by how much more raw power these discs now possessed.

Classical-music lovers will also appreciate the combination of dynamics and low-end grunt, coming a step or two closer to convincing you that you are there after all…  Regardless of what might be on your top 10 list, the REF Phono 2’s ability to completely get out of the way of the music and present acoustic instruments in such an incredibly accurate way will astonish you record after record.

In comparing a few other top phono stages from Aesthetix, Boulder and Burmester, they all offer up their own take on musical reproduction, from warm and romantic to analytical.  The perfect one for you will be that which bests suits your musical taste and achieves the best synergy with your system.  I must say the REF Phono 2 was a perfect match for my reference system, offering up just that drop of tube warmth that I really enjoy without sacrificing any resolution that a few of the other contenders also possess.  If you want a phono stage more on the warm, gooey and romantic side of the tonal scale, consider the IO or the Zanden.  Conversely, if you’d like a somewhat more analytical presentation, the two solid-state options from Boulder might be your cup of tea.  Having listened to them all extensively in the past year, the REF 2 Phono was the one that gave me the biggest dose of everything. And it has a relatively small tube complement that is easy to source.  As the 6H30 really doesn’t offer a lot of options for tube rolling, I suggest just calling ARC when you are ready for new tubes, which they claim last about  5,000 hours.

Much like a power amplifier with a massive power supply, the REF Phono 2 has an uncanny ability to keep low-level details intact.  I’m sure this was due in part to its incredibly silent background as well as its hybrid design.  This is where the all-tube phono stages really fall down; they just can’t achieve this kind of silence.  Again, classical- and acoustic-music lovers will pick up on this instantly.  If your source material is of high enough quality, it adds to the sense of realism, with instruments coming right out at you in space as they would in real life.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the REF 2 Phono, though, is its uncanny ability to delineate texture, again giving the nod to acoustic-music lovers.  Granted, it’s always nice to hear more electric-guitar growl on your favorite rock record, but the REF 2 Phono always allowed me to hear further into my favorite recordings, electric or acoustic.

Finally, that gigantic soundstage I heard at Joe Harley’s house was always present in my system as well.  When playing Cream’s live recordings from their 2005 Royal Albert Hall performances, my speakers disappeared completely. and thanks to the additional dynamic range of adding a second Burmester 911 mk. 3 power amplifier to my system, I felt that this was as close as I would ever get to having Eric Clapton in my listening room.  A good friend who has a multichannel version of this recording said that he doesn’t get this much depth on his 5.1 setup!  I rest my case.

I’m back and I’m diggin it

The ARC REF Phono 2 has renewed my love for analog, plain and simple.  It has all of the qualities that I value in a phono preamp: a stunningly low noise floor, massive dynamics and tonal realism in spades.  And it is extremely easy to change gain and loading, making it an excellent tool for evaluating cartridges, as well as being a complete blast to listen to.  A great side benefit of having the REF in my system is that the 24/192 digital captures I’ve been producing have been better than ever, so this phono preamplifier has had a positive impact on the digital side of my system as well.

If you are shopping for a statement phono preamplifier, I can’t think of a better choice than the ARC REF Phono. Considering some of the other choices in the $15,000 – $25,00 range, it’s actually quite a value, which is why we’ve given it our Product of the Year award in the analog category.  I’m truly happy to be this excited about analog again.  -Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research REF Phono 2 Phono preamplifier

MSRP:  $11,995  (available in silver or black)



Turntables Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar VII    Rega P9     TW Acustic Raven Two w/SME 309
Phono Cartridges Lyra Skala    Clearaudio DaVinci    Grado Statement 1    Dynavector XV-1s     Shelter Harmony and 501II
Preamplifier Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Power Amplifiers Burmester 911 mk. 3    McIntosh MC1.2kw’s
Speakers GamuT S-9    YG Acoustics Anat II Studio    MartinLogan CLX w/Gotham subwoofer
Cable Shunyata Aurora Interconnects    Shunyata Stratos SP Speaker Cable    Cardas Clear Interconnects and Speaker Cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners      Running Springs Mongoose and Shunyata Python CX power cords
Accessories Shunyata Dark Field Cable Elevators    Furutech DeMag    Loricraft PRC-3 record cleaning machine    MoFi Record Cleaning Products

Rega DAC

Analog audio is similar to analog photography in the sense that there haven’t been many game-changing technological advances in the past 20 years.  Most of the improvements have been the result of refining existing technology, upgrading materials and paying careful attention to the smallest details in assembly. The big, high-dollar turntables still spin a platter with a motor (often with a belt between the two) and that’s about it.  Granted, the world’s best turntable manufacturers are masters at refining this process, and even in the year 2010, continue to produce better turntables. But in order to get $20,000 turntable performance, you still have to spend $20,000.

Digital audio is a completely different ballgame.  Just like your favorite personal computer, much of processing a digital signal is about computing horsepower and is directly related to the chipset under the hood. There are a few manufacturers such as Wadia and dCS that take care of decoding and filtration in software, but for the most part, it’s the DAC chips and whatever tweaks in the analog circuitry combined with the power supply that determine the sound.

As with high-dollar turntables, the world’s best digital sound is still expensive because of the amount of parts and labor required.  However, the $1,000 DAC category is improving by leaps and bounds – Rega’s $995 DAC is a perfect example of this.

A quick overview

Like every other Rega product, the Rega DAC is simple, functional and offers high performance in its price category.  Rega principal Roy Gandy is not a man to jump on the latest trend.  True to his engineering background, he studies a product and builds it the way he thinks it should be done.  Rega’s website proudly mentions that they are “the last hifi manufacturer to produce a CD player,” and they could very well be the last high-end company to produce a DAC as well.  But it is a damn good one.

Rega uses a straightforward approach with no upsampling. Terry Bateman, Rega’s digital designer, said, “I wanted to keep the signal path to a minimum.  We didn’t use upsampling with the Saturn or the ISIS, and I wanted to follow the same spirit of these units.  Those users with a high-quality sound card can upsample there if they prefer.  The Wolfson WM8805 and WM8742 chips running at the incoming sample rates do a great job on their own, along with a nice drop of  “old school audio mojo.” The Rega DAC also shares its buffer circuitry with the Rega CD players, which has been one of the aspects of their design that has been overbuilt from the beginning. Rega’s CD players have a much larger buffering capacity than most, adding to the natural sound.

Around back, there is just a simple three-prong IEC socket due to a lack of space for a standard IEC.  There is a high-quality power cord supplied, but an audiophile who wants  an upgraded power cord can purchase an adaptor from Music Direct.

This will allow you to use the aftermarket cord of your choice, and should you desire keeping your DAC all Rega, the power cord that is standard issue on their flagship Isis CD player is available from Rega dealers for an additional $175.

Following the trend of a few other manufacturers, Rega has chosen to ignore a high-resolution USB input, sticking with 16/48 as the maximum data rate their DAC will process. Bateman mentions that when they first started development on the DAC about two years ago, their vision for it was as more of an audiophile component, and they felt that the computer user was looking more for convenience. With computer audio gaining a lot of ground recently, this may be a deal breaker for some. But before you freak out, how many high-res files do you have on your computer?

Another unique feature of the Rega DAC is the choice between five filter characteristics for each of the sample frequencies.  Bateman mentioned that he considers the “standard” settings to be position No.1 for 32/44.1/48k sample rates and position No. 3 for the higher sample rates.  For those wanting a highly in-depth explanation of the filter characteristics,  the Wolfson site offers a downloadable PDF.

Spectacular sound

At turn on, the Rega DAC sounded a bit grainy and somewhat thin in the lower register, but after being powered for 48 hours, this deficit was gone.  None of the Rega components I’ve used over the past 10 years have ever required an extended break-in time, and though this unit arrived with some hours on the clock, I don’t suspect the DAC is any different than any of Rega’s other hardware.  After it’s been on for two days, the Rega DAC really grabs you – in a good way.

I tried the Rega DAC with a number of digital sources.  First, for the customer with an older CD player just looking for a better DAC, I took advantage of my stock Denon 3910.  A Mac Mini running iTunes was thrown into the mix for the average computer listener’s perspective, and on the high end, I ran a digital cable from the SPDIF output of the dCS Paganini PTT transport.  A fair amount of music was played through the SPDIF output of the Sooloos Control 10 as well.

The Rega DAC really excels at tone and timbre.  Acoustic instruments sound natural and quite honestly, way better than even a digital snob such as myself ever expected a $1,000 DAC to sound.  The recent HD Tracks 24/96 download of Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert, revealed a healthy dose of texture and hall ambience, with plenty of Mr. Jarrett’s signature groaning in the background.  One of my favorite 24/96 warhorses is that ’70s classic from Chicago, Chicago V. The cymbals at the beginning of “Hit by Varese” had a healthy decay. When switching back and forth between the 24/96 file ripped from DVD-a and the standard 16/44 file, it was instantly apparent that the high-res file had considerably more air between the notes.

Most of the 24/192 files on the Naim HDX music server have been digitized from LPs in my collection and a handful originated on the Rega P9/Shelter 501II combination through the Audio Research REF Phono 2. So it was interesting to compare playback at the DAC’s highest resolution.   Again, I was amazed at how much of the essence of what was essentially a $20k analog front end could be reproduced without serious compromise.  The Rega DAC is an excellent choice for anyone thinking about archiving vinyl, provided you have an excellent-quality analog setup with which to capture it.

Playing high-resolution files is not limited to the RCA inputs, but according to Bateman, “24/192 is pushing the limit of the Toslink interface.  A high-quality cable will be required.”  That in mind, I had no problem playing 24/96 files from my Power Book Pro, with a four-meter Monster optical cable. (About $50 at Radio Shack)

Though the Rega DAC did an excellent job with high-resolution files and provides a compelling reason for downloading them, I still couldn’t help thinking that this DAC was   something special with standard 16/44 files, whether played from USB or SPDIF.  If you are an audiophile who has merely ripped your CD’s to a computer and doesn’t see high-res files in your immediate future, the USB performance is very good at 16/44.

A few comparisons

With the internet boards abuzz about whether the Rega DAC “sounds better or worse” than the bloggers’ existing CD players, I don’t think it is really a fair comparison because the DAC offers the ability to play high-resolution files. I suspect that the CD player will appeal to one type of customer and the DAC will appeal more to the computer/music server audiophile. So comparing the two directly is a moot point.

On many levels, I found the sound of the Rega DAC more akin to that of their flagship turntable, the P9 (which has been a long-term component in my reference system).  It shares the P9’s quick and open presentation with a healthy dose of pace and timing.  If this is the kind of sound that appeals to you, I think you will enjoy auditioning this DAC.

My theory on the rapid advancement of digital technology was confirmed when I compared the sound of the Rega DAC to my original Meridian 808, purchased about four years ago.  When using the 808’s digital SPDIF input, the difference between what was a $15,000 player four years ago was minimal.  Of course, Meridian is up to the 808.3 now, but it is amazing to see this ramp up in performance for the dollar.  I guarantee that there are no $1,000 turntables today that sound like a $15,000 turntable from four years ago.

Forget about the “bits is bits” theory; there are still plenty of ways to handle filtering, digital processing, power supply design and the output stage. DAC’s are just like phono cartridges: each has its own unique sound.  Where the Benchmark and Ayre DAC’s tend to be slightly on the analytical side of neutral and the Neko Audio DAC ($1,195, and no USB input) is slightly on the romantic side of neutral, the Rega is very close to dead center.  Interestingly enough, the Rega is one of my favorite budget DAC’s, much like the Simaudio DAC300 that also forgoes a high-resolution USB port to maximize the audio performance on the SPDIF side.

In the end, digital can drive you just as crazy as analog if you let it.  However, the Rega DAC’s strengths far outweigh the lack of a high-res USB input for most users.

Musical to the core

While there are definitely some other DAC’s at this price point that offer more functionality, the Rega’s strength is offering truly great sound from its SPDIF input, regardless of resolution.  Personally, I’d still rather have outstanding 16/44 through the SPDIF input than multiple input options with mediocre performance.  If this is your philosophy as well, I think the Rega DAC would find a very good home on your equipment rack.

And digital audio is much like the weather here in the Pacific Northwest; if you don’t like it, it will change shortly.  Though the digital game is one that is constantly improving, the Rega DAC is certainly a great place to hang your hat for now and just enjoy your music collection.

The Rega DAC

MSRP:  $995


www.soundorg.com (US)


Digital Sources Denon 3910    Mac Mini    Naim HDX    Sooloos Control 10    dCS Paganini PTT
Preamplifier McIntosh C500
Power Amplifier McIntosh MC1.2KW’s
Speakers B&W 805D with JL Audio Gotham
Cable AudioQuest Wild Blue Yonder interconnects and speaker cables
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim    RSA Mongoose and Shunyata Python CX power cords

PMC DB1i Loudspeakers

Having listened to large electrostatic speakers for the past 20 years (Acoustat 2+2’s and now MartinLogan Summits), it was a new challenge to evaluate a pair of mini monitors; I had to recalibrate my thinking.  Unpacking the PMC DBi’s, my heart sank a bit when I saw these pint-sized speakers.  They are the smallest speakers in the PMC line and carry an MSRP of $1,995.

Somewhat atypical for an audio engineer, I use my home reference system (with MartinLogan Summits) for final mixing and mastering my recordings.  The full-range capability of the Summits really comes in handy, yet they are still enjoyable speakers to use for personal listening.  With my current list of projects out of the way, I installed these tiny speakers and prepared for some extended listening sessions, putting my biases to the side.


The DB1i’s have substantial binding posts, so the jumpers on my current speaker cable had to be spread slightly with pliers to fit properly.  Unfortunately, these larger binding posts are spaced closely together, so it took a bit of fiddling to tighten them down adequately.  I did not use the PMC Tube 104 stands, which have a height of 41 inches, but the stands I had at my disposal were barely an inch taller, so the DB1i’s stayed close to the factory-suggested height.

PMC’s well-written instruction manual got me up and running quickly, along with a bit of the company’s history and a short list of some of the albums produced with their speakers. They suggest at least 15 hours of break-in time so that the speaker surrounds can “reach their optimum compliance,” and I found this to be accurate.  During the first few days of casual listening, I experienced the stereo image getting wider and deeper as the hours piled up.

Background and construction

Before we talk about the results of listening, let’s look at the speakers themselves.  PMC is a well-established brand offering a full line of speakers for both recording-studio monitoring and audiophile listening.  Their list of users is like a who’s who of performers, professionals and studios.  Just a few examples are Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, Tony Bennett, the BBC, Sony, the NFL and EMI.

The line encompasses active and passive designs, sizes range from six-foot tall floor-standing models to smaller bookshelf models, center and surround speakers, and subwoofers.  Models generally use soft domes for high and mid frequencies and cones, pistons or “Radial™” drivers for low frequencies.  To enhance bass response, most of the full-range speakers include PMC’s ATL (Advance Transmission Line) technology.

The woofer is at one end of a “tunnel” that wraps up and down within the cabinet. It is heavily damped to absorb high and mid frequencies, while leaving the lowest bass frequencies in phase able to exit the cabinet through a large vent, acting as a second low-frequency driver.  In my early days as an audiophile, I used a pair of ESS AMT-1 monitor speakers that utilized a similar transmission-line concept.

The DB1i is no exception.  This transmission-line box has a 140 mm (5.5 inch) doped cone with a cast-magnesium chassis low-frequency driver and a 27 mm (one-inch) Sonolex™ domed fabric soft-dome tweeter and is ferro-fluid cooled.  The ATL is four sections (effective length of five feet) and exits on the upper rear of the cabinet.  Frequency response is 50Hz to 25KHz (with no + or – limits specified.)  The crossover is at 2KHz.  The speakers weigh a hair under 10 pounds each and are 11.4 inches high, 6.1 inches wide and 9.2 inches deep, plus grille.  Impedance is 8 ohms and sensitivity is 87dB, one watt at one meter.

The cabinets have four wood-veneer finishes available:  oak, walnut, black ash or cherry.  Grilles are black fabric and removable.  The speakers also offer four bolts on the back to which optional mounting brackets may be attached.

Listening results

I immersed myself in the DB1i’s for about 10 days.  They became my only source of playback and I came away highly impressed.  It was easy to forget about their diminutive size when I closed my eyes and listened.  With eyes opened, my mind kept trying to convince me that there were bigger woofers hidden somewhere in the room.

The first thing I noticed was that the rhythm section in any recording was just so clear and clean.  The small woofers combined with the transmission line design really made the electric bass pop, too.  The bass had a very rich quality, and in most instances, I didn’t miss the extra bottom octave or so that my Summits are capable of reproducing.  The bass drums were crisp and quick, yet all retained their characteristic sounds.  Snare drum and cymbals were extremely fast, but not harsh or edgy.

Most importantly, these speakers sound good at low levels, they really sing at mid volume, yet they can play LOUD when called upon to do so.  There was no listener fatigue when I pushed the DB1i’s to the extreme. If you are a drummer, bass player or just love the sound of a good, tight backbone in your listening and don’t have room for big speakers or a lot of cash, the DB1i’s could definitely satisfy you.

In general, I noticed that vocals were solid and centered, and the DB1i’s had a neutral character of a great studio monitor, never edgy or clinical.  The stereo image was wide and deep; I loved hearing the ambience and reverb on a wide variety of program material and often heard instruments three-to-four feet outside the speaker boundaries.  Trumpets and brass in general felt as if they were in the room with me.

All the strengths of a great monitor

One of my favorite John Mayer tracks, “Neon” from his Room for Squares album, adds guitar layers to each verse.  This effect was easily heard, with the side-panned tracks staying in place, while Mayer’s lead vocal was solidly center stage.  Again, the tiny PMC’s sounded much bigger than I expected.

Elvis Costello is always a “go to” when I want to hear how a male vocal sounds.  This was a perfect opportunity to listen to the new MoFi release of Armed Forces.  Track after track, the vocals were incredibly detailed, very focused but not edgy.  Listening to the Painted from Memory CD by Elvis and Burt Bacharach, the dryer vocal was haunting, very up front but lacking any of the harshness that I have heard on some other speakers.  The drums were recorded dry but again, they just jumped out on these little speakers.  Brass was sweet and high strings were smooth, with low strings being very revealing in tone and texture.

One of my new favorites, Jamie Cullum’s The Pursuit, has an almost endless pallet of cool sounds, including Jamie playing every part of the piano in every possible way and a slew of different spaces and ambiences.  On “We Run Things,” the loops and synth programming offered a very wide, three-dimensional image. But I did miss the low synth bass on this one.  I wouldn’t have known it, though, if I hadn’t heard it a bunch of times on the Summits.

The snapping sounds of the electronic percussion had incredible transient response that was almost startling.  Tom fills were “in your face” as I believe they were intended.  On “Not While I’m Around,” the bass drum and associated ambience were clear and tight.  I rarely missed the absent deep bass unless things went subsonic, but the quality of what was present was always top notch.

Continuing my musical journey with the DB1i’s, I spun some Alison Krauss and even revisited the Beach Boy’s classic, Pet Sounds. PMC’s emphasis on their monitors accurately reproducing vocals was always apparent; no matter what type of music I listened to, the vocals were very natural – one of my hot buttons as an engineer.

Taking the opposite ends of the musical spectrum, going all the way from Van Halen’s first album to some of my favorite classical pieces, I remained impressed with the dynamic abilities of these speakers.  Whenever I stopped listening critically, I kept forgetting just how big the soundfield was from these small speakers.

Small but powerful

After a wide range of test tracks, my conclusion is that the PMC DB1i’s are diminutive power houses that work well with any type of program material.  They are equally at home as part of a high-quality two-channel system as they are sitting on top of the monitoring console. Should you want to make these part of a compact multichannel surround system (PMC’s are very popular in the movie soundtrack studios as well), PMC also makes a horizontally oriented DB1i center channel speaker with magnetic shielding.  And of course, PMC makes a full range of subwoofers, from small to large.

If you enjoy a wide range of musical tastes, and don’t want to give up dynamic ability in a modestly priced system, the PMC DB1i is a major contender.  While this is the point in the review where the reviewer often comments on buying the speakers, I did exactly that, but for my recording studio!

The PMC DB1i speakers

MSRP:  $1,995 per pair


McIntosh C500 Control Center

McIntosh has always built preamplifiers that define the term “input flexibility,” which is why I always refer to them as control centers.  With nine inputs and six variable outputs (two XLR and four RCA) in addition to a processor loop, it’s safe to say this preamplifier should be able to accommodate every source in your system.  It also features a MC and MM phono stage that can be configured from the front panel or your remote control, so no stone is left unturned.  MSRP for the C500 is $12,000 in either the solid-state or tube version.  You can buy all three boxes for $18,000, but the C500 controller can only access one preamplifier at a time.

A two-box design, the C500 has an interesting twist for those having the age-old debate about the validity of solid state versus vacuum tubes; you can configure your C500 either way.  It’s actually two preamplifiers, the C500P (solid state) or C500T (tube).  The flagship C1000 controller offers the same choices and allows you to drive both preamplifier modules simultaneously, but with the C500, you have to draw a line in the sand and pick one.  For those on the fence, your McIntosh dealer should be able to audition both.

While McIntosh does an excellent job at voicing their gear similarly, there is still an elusive magic to the tube sound that is tough to ignore, and while a vacuum-tube preamplifier means that you will have to change tubes from time to time, it’s nice to have the option.  The end user is the winner thanks to this unprecedented ability to fine-tune your system, even to the all-McIntosh customer.  And both two-box designs feature a set of big, blue output-level meters.

A fully balanced design from input to output, the C500 uses eight 12AX7 tubes: four in the high level circuit and four more in the phono preamplifier.  The phono preamplifier circuit is all tube if you are using the moving magnet (MM) stage. If you have a lower-output moving-coil (MC) phono cartridge, the MC stage uses McIntosh’s own solid-state phono step-up modules instead of an input transformer.   Four of the 12AX7’s are visible from the front panel, back lit in green, while the other four are beneath the top cover.


The controller section of the C500 has no tubes inside and generates almost no heat, but the preamplifier section does get a little bit warm with eight tubes inside, so make sure to give it some ventilation room.  Once both boxes are unpacked, you will notice a pair of umbilical cords that look like parallel-interface printer cables from the earlier days of PC-based computing.  According to Ron Cornelius, McIntosh’s Sales Manager, there are only control voltages running through these cables; “There are no audio signals here.”  So for the tweekophiles in the audience, put your fears aside.

The single IEC power socket is located on the controller chassis, which also houses the dual power supplies for each channel, making the C500 a true dual-mono design.  For those new to the McIntosh fold, these power transformers are wound in-house, as they always have been.

Once power is attached, the C500 stays in standby mode and on power up, displays a “tube warmup” message on the LCD front panel, with the outputs muted.  Worth noting is that the C500 does not produce a harsh transient, should you forget and shut the preamplifier off before your power amp.  A nice touch, especially should you be using an amplifier with significant power output.

If you are incorporating the C500 into an all-McIntosh system, there are seven individual data ports so you can link your other components to the C500 and control them all from the one remote – very cool if you have come to the point where you are considering hiring a feng shui consultant to keep your remotes in order!  The C500 also features 12V trigger ports, so you can turn everything on with the single power switch.  A great feature with other amplifiers but very impressive on a large McIntosh system when you see all of those blue and green faceplates light up at once.

Most of my listening for the review period was conducted with the MC275 vacuum-tube power amplifier and the MC1.2 KW solid-state monoblocks, and with a variety of speakers.  The system was cabled entirely with Cardas Clear and utilized the balanced connections on all but one input (The dCS Paganini).  After the initial listening was complete, I swapped the standard-issue power cord for a Python CX from Shunyata, as I use on my reference Burmester preamplifier.

How about that input flexibility?

It doesn’t stop with the number of inputs.  The C500 allows you to trim the outputs of each program source +/- 6db and you can do it from the comfort of your listening chair, making it easy to fine tune the system so there are no surprises when going from CD to tuner, etc.  Seeing that McIntosh has put so much effort into the display programming, it would be nice to see this taken a step further to let the user fully customize the input readout (a-la BAT or Simaudio). It would be great for those with multiple turntables and digital players to be able to have the display say “Rega P9” instead of “Phono MM.”

However, you can rename the inputs to the preset CD 2, Aux 2, etc. and you can shut off the display on the inputs that are not in use. So if you have only three inputs, you will only be switching between the active ones to avoid confusion.  The display has seven steps of brightness from which to choose, and the meters can be switched off for those who like to listen in total darkness. But the question begs to be asked: why would you ever want to switch off the meters on a McIntosh?

The MM phono stage has adjustments for capacitive loading from 50pf to 750pf in 50pf increments.  As there are a number of high-quality MM cartridges on the market, this allows to perfectly optimize your MM cartridge playback.    The MC phono stage allows the input resistive loading to be set at 25, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 ohms.  This should cover the bulk of MM cartridges that are available, but for the hard-core turntable enthusiast, it would be nice to see a “custom” setting that can be set by a competent technician.

Should you still own a high-performance tape deck or other recording device, the record and listen processor loops will come in handy.  I found this to be indispensable using the Manley Massive Passive studio EQ, when capturing digital files from my favorite LP’s for music-server use.  Thanks to the C500’s playback loop, I could sneak the Manley into the system to use with troublesome CD’s for playback as well.  While this is a feature that few will use, those with multiple sources will appreciate it.

Definitely sounds like a McIntosh

Almost all McIntosh gear has a full-bodied sound that leans slightly to the warm side of neutral, but I can’t ever think of an instance where it isn’t welcome.  I’ve heard other preamplifiers with more resolution, but the C500 offers a great balance between the lush, overly tubey sound of the ’60s and a modern high-resolution sound.  While a few of your most pristine, perfectly recorded discs (analog or digital) may not have the last bit of slam and dynamics as they might on a more resolving preamplifier, I’ll bet that at least half of the records in your record collection will benefit from that extra tonal richness that the C500 offers.  This is one of the main reasons for the fierce loyalty of McIntosh owners.

But don’t think the C500 doesn’t hold its own against the competition.  When listening to the GamuT S9, the YG Acoustics Anat Studio II, the MartinLogan CLX and recently the Estelon XA (all very high-resolution speakers in the $30,000 – $140,000 range), I never felt the preamplifier was holding the system back.

When comparing to my reference Burmester amp and preamp, the tubes had a definite warmth, but it was always inviting.  Male and female vocals came alive in a way that they only seem to do with tubes – there was just more of a third dimension available.  Listening to Neil Young’s voice on the 24/96 version of Harvest was easily discernable from the standard 16/44 copies.

The soundstage of the C500 was always BIG.  This seems to be so much easier to accomplish with vacuum tubes, and if you listen to a lot of rock and contemporary jazz that is created in a studio with a somewhat artificial soundstage to begin with, the C500 will win you over on this aspect alone.  Listening to “Woman in Chains” from the Tears For Fears album, The Seeds of Love, the triangle played during the opening of the song appears to float about 10 feet beyond the speaker boundary.  It’s not real, of course, but it is cool.  If you love classic rock, you will be in heaven with the C500.

Solid-State or Tubes?

By far, the most intriguing feature of the C500 is it’s ability to work with a vacuum-tube output stage or a solid-state one.  As I suspected, the solid-state version had a bit more punch and the tube stage was slightly mellower.  The solid-state preamp section also had slightly more weight in the lower registers.  When listening to some bass-heavy tracks from Tosca, utilizing the JL Audio Gotham subwoofer, the tube section had a slightly looser feel, whereas the solid-state version offered a bass perspective that would more punch you in the chest.  If you have a system capable of going down deep (the Gotham is only down -3db at 16hz) and perhaps listen to a lot of electronica, the solid-state version might be for you.

While I could happily live with either configuration, I did gravitate more towards the all-tube preamplifier with the MC 1.2KW solid-state monoblocks and the Octave MRE tube monoblocks (which are somewhat “un-tubey” sounding), while the solid-state output stage was more to my liking with the MC275 vacuum-tube power amplifier and my Conrad Johnson MV-50C1, which each have a fairly warm overall tonal balance.
Though definitely a great subject for a month-long internet forum argument, deciding which one of these two is right for you is immaterial.  The good news is that you have the option.  Should your needs change, you can go to your McIntosh dealer and purchase the alternative.  Upon reconnecting all of your other components and the umbilical cord, a simple reset on the front panel and the C500 will make the necessary change.

Spinning records

C500 owners who have just one turntable and perhaps don’t swap cartridges often won’t be able to take advantage of one of this preamplifier’s best features: the ability to set loading from your listening position.  Cartridge swaps are a weekly occurrence here, and many audiophiles will have removable headshells or tonearm wands that use a specific cartridge for different purposes or as the mood strikes.  The more-involved vinyl junkie will be right at home with the C500.

I managed to try almost a dozen different phono cartridges from the Shure M97xe all the way to the Clearaudio DaVinci, all with excellent luck.  The only cartridge for which I could not get the perfect match was the SoundSmith Sussaro, which is a moving-iron cartridge that sounds its best at about 2,500 ohms.  There are a few moving-magnet cartridges that also perform a bit better slightly above or below the standard 47k loading, but these are the exception rather than the rule for 99.9 percent of analog users.  Most MC cartridges should easily work between 100 and 1,000 ohms (though the 25 ohm setting is a fantastic match for the Rega Apheta MC).

Thanks to the solid-state modules in the MC section, the C500 is quieter than an all-tube phono stage and has a healthy dose of dynamic punch as well.  A tiny bit of background noise creeps in to the C500’s phono stage, but you have to put your ear right up to the tweeter to hear it.  The solid-state modules in the MC section aren’t just switched into the MM signal path.  According to the engineers at McIntosh, there are two separate phono stages under the hood of the C500.

While listening to Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast, (the recent ORG pressing), I found there was a wonderful midrange bloom to the presentation that made Mitchell’s voice take over the soundstage in a very enjoyable manner.  I had similar results with any other strong vocalists in my record collection.  Playing Marquise Knox’ Man Child on LP was a chilling experience, revealing enough of his vocal character that you just might be fooled into thinking that you are back at Chad Kassem’s Crossroads Blues Festival.

Comparing the phono stage in the C500 with some of the outboard phono stages we’ve had the opportunity to live with during the past few years, it offers a level of performance that would cost you $2,000 – $3,000 in an outboard phono stage. A separate MM and MC stage is pretty much non-existent at this price, plus you probably would want to buy an upgraded power cord along with a pair of decent interconnects going from phono stage to linestage.

Don’t forget the phones

McIntosh doesn’t ignore the headphone users on any of their preamplifiers, and the C500 is no exception.  While not the last word in headphone performance, you would have to spend somewhere between $500- $1,000 to get an outboard headphone amp (and remember, more cables….) to put this one in the weeds.  Running the gamut of the AKG 701’s, Grado GS-1’s, Sennheiser 650’s and my new favorites, the Audeze LCD-2’s, I came away impressed with the C500’s performance.

The headphone stage sounded identical on both output sections, leading me to believe that the phono board is identical in each. Though it would only benefit a small number of customers, it would be cool to run the tube output stage direct through the phones.  If you are like me and enjoy headphone use from time to time but don’t feel the need to invest in a multi-thousand-dollar headphone setup, the C500 should serve your needs just fine.

Looks great, sounds great

McIntosh has stayed true to its look and feel, so the big, backlit glass front panel and blue meters will either speak to you or they won’t.  The C500 is rock solid.  It’s been playing here for about the past six months, 12 hours a day without so much as a burp, and I suspect that it will continue to do so just as so many McIntosh preamplifiers do out there in the world.

The best reason for buying this preamplifier is its combination of performance and flexibility. Whether you ultimately make one the cornerstone of your system depends on whether you can make use of what it offers.  There are a few $12,000 linestages out there that will extract more music from your recordings, but none of them have a built-in MM and MC phono stage, or a built-in headphone amp. So the C500 ends up being a little spendy if you don’t need the phono stage and a killer bargain if you do.  It’s also nice to know that should your amplification needs change, you can fine tune the C500 with some tube rolling or even change the output stage to solid state.  -Jeff Dorgay

McIntosh C500 Control Preamplifier

MSRP:  $12,000 – $18,000



Analog Sources Rega P9/RB 1000 and Shelter 501II cartridge    Oracle Delphi V/SME 309    Grado Statement cartridge
Digital Sources dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Music Server    Naim HDX
Power Amplifiers McIntosh MC275    McIntosh MC1.2kw monoblocks    Octave MRE 130 monoblocks    Burmester 911 mk.3    Pass Labs First watt F2    Conrad Johnson MV-50C1
Cable Cardas Clear speaker cable and interconnects
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners    RSA and Shuynata power cords
Speakers GamuT S9    MartinLogan CLX    YG Acoustics Anat II Professional   Estelon XA     B&W 805D w/JL Audio Gotham subwoofer

Cary Xciter DAC

At first glance, the Cary Xciter doesn’t seem so exciting. It’s a simple, silver or black, 3.5 x 11 x 13 inch box weighing 12 pounds. It has a single round dial in the middle of the front panel with a handful of LED indicators for power, input source and digital resolution.  This polished dial is nicely weighted with a smooth, notchless feel and functions as the input selector. Analog outputs are single-ended RCA only.  But a quick listen reveals that there is definitely some excitement under the hood.

The true excitement is how far digital has come in almost 30 years.  It seems like only yesterday, I was waiting to get into the Consumer Electronics Show, intent on seeing Sony’s latest development that was going to make my turntable obsolete – the Compact Disc.  This was Sony’s first generation CDP-101 player, which carried an MSRP of $1,000 at its introduction. According to one of the “inflation calculators” found on the internet, this is equivalent to $2,125 in 2010.  The Xciter DAC has an MSRP of $1,499.

While CD players were single-box components in the beginning, as digital technology ramped up in the ’90s, the transport and DAC became separate components; much like the way the phono preamplifier and line stage had become individual parts of your system.  Around 2000 or so, many high-end CD players started to become single-box components once again, but with the advent of so many people using their computers as a source, the standalone DAC has come full circle.

Enter the Cary Xciter

Part of Cary’s new compact Xciter series of components, consisting of an integrated amplifier (vacuum-tube powered, of course) and a music server, these components are geared towards the desktop user.  Though small in size, the Xciter DAC is a full-featured DAC with RCA and BNC SPDIF inputs, a TOSLINK optical input and a USB input.

All inputs, regardless of resolution, are upsampled to 32bit/192khz and passed on to the new AKM 4399 32-bit DAC chips along with new output devices from National Semiconductor that were designed specifically for Cary. As a photographer, I view the oversampling process as akin to taking an old black-and-white photo, scanning it, processing it in Photoshop, and printing out a copy that is better than the original.

System integration and comparison

The Xciter spent time in my main reference system, consisting of a McIntosh C2200 preamplifier, MC 275 power amplifier and a pair of MartinLogan CLS speakers.  The entire system features various cables from MIT.

I wanted to investigate the Xciter both as a potential upgrade for someone with an existing CD player and the audiophile starting to enter the world of music server or computer playback.  Initially, I used my vintage Krell KPS 20i player and the more current OPPO BDP-83 player, utilizing the SPDIF outputs of both.

I started my listening comparisons with some of my original issue 1987 Beatles’ CDs, and with a firm picture of both the OPPO and the Krell, brought the Xciter into play.  Using the Cary DAC reminded me of the difference between movies that have been shot digitally versus filmed. The harshness and compression present on the players by themselves was palatable, but not as good as when played through the Xciter, and the new, remastered CDs were even better.  The Cary presentation always sounded more lifelike, and while this DAC would not overcompensate for mediocre-sounding recordings, it did pull more detail and depth than I was getting from either of my other players.

Compared to my reference DAC, the PS Audio Perfect Wave, the Cary is somewhat on the warmer side of neutral, which seems to be a characteristic, albeit a pleasant one, of all their gear.  Again, this helped when listening to less-than-perfect digital files.  At times, my PS Audio DAC feels like an LCD TV that has the contrast and saturation cranked up; upon first glance it’s tremendous, but after a while it sinks in that it is not accurate.  But as most audiophiles know, “accuracy” is a relative term indeed.

Be aware though, that while the warmth in the Cary Xciter’s presentation can be a plus on certain recordings, it can be detrimental with others, especially in a system like mine that is already a touch on the warm side.  I found many of my favorite jazz female vocalists to sound slightly huskier and at times too deep.  This was an area that the Perfect Wave excels in my system.

I did appreciate the touch of warmth with most of the classical music in my collection, however. Symphonies with large string sections tend to sound strident and massed together in poor recordings or systems.  The Cary Xciter was able to separate the individual violins and give them a rich tone that was more akin to what I’ve experienced in a live performance.

Investigating HD playback

As a recent convert to high-resolution audio files, I was pleased to see that the Xciter had so many inputs and would work with 24/96 files through its USB input.  With more and more high-res music becoming available all the time, 24/96 seems to be emerging as the standard, at least for now.  I’ve been streaming some of my high-res files through the Squeezebox Touch, so I began my listening sessions with the SB’s analog outputs for a baseline comparison.

A quick trip to the HD Tracks music store added a few favorites from John Coltrane and Diana Krall, and I was ready to roll.  Again, the difference going from the analog outputs of the Squeezebox versus using its digital output to drive the Xciter was a big step up in fidelity.  While listening to Krall’s Quiet Nights disc, her breathing and tonal inflection were reproduced with much more realism.  The standard 16/44 tracks now sounded flat by comparison.  I had the same experience with Coltrane, his sax taking on a much more three-dimensional perspective in my listening space.  Even at this level of hardware, the difference between standard and high-res playback was clear.

I could easily notice another jump up in resolution and fidelity upon returning to my reference PS Audio DAC, but it costs twice as much as the Cary.


As music moves further away from disc-based physical media and to downloadable, hard-drive-based media, the DAC will continue to become the heart of your audio system. The Cary Xciter stands as a great option to dramatically improve any of these sources while allowing you the convenience of accessing your entire music library on a digital network.

For $1,500, the Cary Xciter offers solid value and performance. It will breathe life into an older CD player and point you in the right direction to start enjoying HD file playback. The Cary Xciter DAC is a component that is allowing CD digital media to finally realize and live up to its full potential that was touted in the ’80s – and that’s exciting.

Cary Xciter DAC

MSRP $1,499


First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

The First Watt J2 is an absolute honey of an amp. Hooked up to my Zu Essence speakers, the sound isn’t merely spectacular; it regularly keeps me up long after I should have gone to bed. The J2 is sublime, but I don’t think this point can be made often enough: when a reviewer says an amp is “great,” what he’s really saying is that it’s great with the speaker (or speakers) he’s auditioned it with. The same logic could be applied to speaker reviews because you can’t listen to speakers without listening through an amp. So it’s really the combination of the two – speaker and amp – that we hear. Sure, the rest of the system, namely the preamp, sources and cables, all play their parts. But the interactions between amp and speakers can make or break the sound – and with the high efficiency Zu’s it’s a winner.

The First Watt J2 and Zu Essence are both made in the United States. Zu is a new wave, youthful audiophile company. First Watt is a Nelson Pass enterprise, and he’s the founder and CEO of Pass Laboratories. In the 1970s, his first venture, Threshold, broke new ground in solid-state designs, and he’s still advancing the state-of-the-art. First Watt exists because Pass wants to explore a variety of amplifier-design strategies in what he thinks of as “neglected areas:” amplifiers that might not fit into the mainstream and are probably not appropriate for Pass Labs.

The J2 is a stereo power amplifier rated at 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and 13 watts into 4 ohms. The clean, compact design measures 17 by 5.5 by 16 inches, and it weighs about 25 pounds. It has a two-stage circuit and operates in pure single-ended Class A mode, with signal JFET devices forming the input stage and power JFET devices for the output stage. What’s that, a JFET output stage? That’s special. Every solid-state amp you or I have ever heard used bipolar or MOSFET transistors in the output stage. The J2 sports JFETs, and that’s way cool.

Yes, I recall that Sony and Yamaha made JFET amps ages ago, but then power JFETs were MIA. Now they’re back. Pass heard that SemiSouth Corporation of Missouri had started making new power JFET transistors with high voltage, current and power capabilities – as high as 1,200 volts, 30 amps, and 273 watts. These new JFETs were designed for very fast switching in solar-power and electric-car applications. Pass bought a few of these JFETs and found they had a very low distortion characteristic. Compared with MOSFET-type power transistors, JFETs can achieve 10 to 20 dB improvements in distortion performance. So a JFET doesn’t need as much feedback to keep distortion low. It’s low from the get go.

Pass aims to design what he calls “simple circuits” because, as he once so eloquently put it, “Complexity tends to be the nemesis of musicality…” As he refines a design, he listens to how individual parts – capacitors, resistors, semiconductors, etc – change not only what he can measure but how they put their “signatures” on the sound.

Low-power, singled-ended tube amps have been popular with some audiophiles, especially those with highly efficient speakers, so you might assume Pass was trying to build a solid-state amp that would appeal to that crowd. But that’s not the J2’s mission. It doesn’t sound like tubes; it’s not warm, mellow, romantic or lush.

The J2 is all about purity and exceptional transparency. It’s a colorless device. Low-level resolution of recording-room sound or added reverberation are reproduced with startling fidelity. If you want romance, look elsewhere. Play a nasty-sounding recording, such as  Arcade Fire’s recent The Suburbs CD, and it will sound hard, grainy  and ferociously compressed. Gorgeous recordings, such as Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass’ Sophisticated Lady CD, will be a feast for the ears. Ella’s voice, from a whisper to a full-on wail, takes center stage, and Pass’ fleet-fingered fretwork is not too shabby! The feel of the sound is tangibly live, and the anything-can-happen excitement of the 1983 Tokyo concert was perfectly resurrected by the amp and speaker. Sophisticated is my favorite Fitzgerald album, precisely because it gets me closer to the live event than anything else.

The J2/Essence combination is dynamically consistent from bass to treble, so the sound feels right. There is a definite tunefullness, a toe-tapping, engaging quality that brings music to life. Bass is quick and nimble, but it won’t bowl you over with room-shaking, pants-flapping low-end. If you want that, get a subwoofer.

After an hour or so, the J2’s heat sinks and the entire chassis get pretty warm, so you wouldn’t want to rest your hand on it for more than a few seconds. The power switch is on the amp’s rear panel, which might be a tad inconvenient if you want to put the J2 in a rack or cabinet. Then again, considering how much heat this amp generates, proper ventilation is a must. I put the J2 out on the floor between the Essences, so it was easy to reach around to the power switch. The warranty runs three years, but Pass claims that in more than eleven years, he’s never had a single First Watt product returned for a warranty claim.

Comparing the J2 with my Pass Labs XA100.5 100-watt monoblocks was a study in contrast. The big amps’ power advantage was obvious, and that manifested itself in sheer gravitas and a richer, fleshier tonal balance. The XA100.5 soundstage was deeper and broader, but the J2 was just as transparent. Low-level resolution and transient speed were on par the XA100.5. And the big amp is four times as expensive as the J2.

The little amp’s 25 watts uncorked the full measure of Booker T & the MGs prodigious funk. Healthy doses of the band’s Time Is Tight three-box CD set proved the amp has what it takes. Duck Dunn’s supple bass lines made all the right moves, and Steve Cropper’s tasty guitar tricks were finger-lickin’ good. Then again, Booker T’s Hammond-organ grooves are the music’s bedrock, and he was always adding just the right flavor to the mix.

The live tracks from Cream’s Goodbye LP may not have had the same sort of unstoppable mojo as the Booker T sides, but played at a satisfyingly loud level, Jack Bruce’s fat bass riffing off Eric Clapton’s stinging guitar leads were beautifully rendered. Ginger Baker’s heavyweight drumming had tremendous impact, so any concern that the little amp’s 25 watts per would inhibit my style were soon forgotten.

The Cream record isn’t by any stretch an audiophile recording, but I loved the way the J2 decoded the texture of Bruce’s bass and Baker’s drum kit. They were more dimensionally present than I ever recall hearing from the Mobile Fidelity Goodbye gold CD. Same could be said about Still Life, a live Rolling Stones LP from their 1981 tour. I’ve never really liked this LP, but it clicked over the J2, and it made me think about how much better the Stones were when bassist Bill Wyman was still in the band. “Start Me Up” was a highlight; the band still had a bit of their youthful power, but that was almost 30 years ago!

I also put the J2 through its paces with Anthony Gallo Acoustics’ new and improved Reference 3.5 speakers. It’s not a super-efficient design (only a moderate 88 dB/1 watt), but the impedance stays around 8 ohms before it drops like a stone around 20 kHz. I really love this new Gallo for its remarkably open quality and its transient speed. Soundstage depth and low-level resolution are superb, and the J2 handily exploited all of those strengths. But power was an issue, so if you like to listen loud, the J2/Reference 3.5 combo won’t float your boat.

The Hifiman HE-6 planar-magnetic headphones (similar operating principal as Magnepan speakers) can be hooked directly to any power amp, so I couldn’t help but try the headphones with the J2. Wow, the sound was oh-so transparent, definitely on par with Stax electrostatic headphones. But the J2/HE-6 combination was vastly more dynamic and the bass kicked harder than any ‘stat phones I’ve ever tried. The HE-6 is one of the most open-sounding headphones around, and the J2 only seemed to enhance that quality. Soundstage width and depth on Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea CD were truly expansive. My only reservation was the bass. Other amps generated gutsier drive and more low-end oomph than the J2 did with the HE-6.

The J2 doesn’t sound like a tube amp, but its musicality with my Essence speakers was spectacular. So if you have a Zu, horn or any high-efficiency speaker, the J2 could do the same for you.

Additional Listening:

More Power!

By Jeff Dorgay

Should the J2 not be quite enough juice for your speakers, consider the First Watt M2.  Rated at an equivalent 25 watts per channel, the

M2 is a push-pull design whereas the J2 is single-ended Class A. The M2 produces 40 watts per channel into a 4 ohm load, where the J2 produces only 13 watts per channel.

Bottom line, the M2 amplifier should be able to drive most speakers to adequate sound-pressure levels.  I’ve been a fan of Nelson’s Class A designs all the way back to the Threshold 4000A, but everything that Steve has described in the J2 is available with slightly more power in the M2 model. The M2 is slightly less expensive, at $3,600.

Removing the $60,000 pair of Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks in my reference system, the M2 held its own, with even slightly more inner detail than the German monster amps.  This amplifier was able to take hold of the GamuT S9’s with enough control that a few casual visitors didn’t even know the Burmester amplifiers were no longer in the system!

Watch for a full review shortly when I have time to peel the smile off of my face.  Nelson Pass has done it again.

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

MSRP: $4,000



Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition Blu-ray player
Electronics Parasound JC 1 preamp    JC 2 power amp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp   First Watt J2 power amp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp
Speakers Zu Essence    Zu Soul Superfly    Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan MG 3.6/R
Headphones Hifiman HE-6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    Audioquest Sky interconnect    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    XLO Signature-3 power cords

Issue 59


Old School:
Luxman MB-3045 Monoblocks

By Jeff Dorgay

995: Sounds that Won’t Break the Bank
U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Turntable

By Jerold O’Brien

Journeyman Audiophile

Auralic Vega Digital Audio Processor

By Rob Johnson

Personal Fidelity:

Astell & Kern AK 10

By John Darko


By Mike Liang

TONE Style

Range Rover Sport with Meridian Audio

By Jeff Dorgay

iPad Air

Shinola Watches

By Rob Johnson

Bond No.9 “Success”

Power Squid

Galaxy Gear

Tito’s Handmade Vodka


Current Releases:

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

Audiophile Pressings

Jazz & Blues
By Jim Macnie & Aaron Cohen

Live Music:

Neil Young’s 27th annual Bridge School Concert

Article By Jaan Uhelszki, Photos By Jay Blakesberg

2013 Christmas Music Wrap Up
By Todd Martens

M on Classical
By Madelaine Cofffman


Simaudio MOON Evolution 610LP Phonostage

Nordost Frey Norse 2 Interconnects

Audeze LCD-XC Headphones

Rogue Audio Sphinx Integrated Amp

From the Web

Nagra Jazz Preamplifier

Channel Islands Transient DAC MKII


Plinius SAREF Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

Gato Audio DIA-250 DAC/Integrated
By Jeff Dorgay

PS Audio Nu Wave DAC
By Rob Johnson

Phasemation PP-1000 Cartridge
By Richard Mak

BelCanto C7r DAC/Integrated Amp
By Rob Johnson

All that Jazz

Nagra tends to make revisions to their product mix slowly, yet when they do it’s usually pretty major.  Their new Jazz preamplifier is the perfect example.

New From Channel Islands…

Channels Islands Audio, headed by industry veteran Dusty Vawter, has been making cutting edge products since 1997.

The company is known to many as early purveyors of Class D amplifiers, upgradeable DACs, headphone amps, add on outboard power supplies, and passive linestages. The CIAudio VDA-2 DAC is a staff favorite. CIAudio provides quality products at sane prices, and they are built in the U.S.A. to boot.  The company sells direct and through hand chosen catalogers and retailers.

In for review is one of CIAudio’s newest products, the $699 Transient MkII USB to S/PDIF converter and DAC. Essentially it takes the USB audio from your Mac or Windows PC, and converts it to 75 Ohm BNC (supplied with an RCA adaptor), S/PDIF for use with legacy DACs without a suitable USB input. But that is not the end of the story. The Transient MkII is an interesting take on USB to S/PDIF interfaces. It also features two I2S outputs for connection to compatible gear, like those made by Wyred4Sound and PS Audio. A pair of RCA analog outputs completes the picture  so it can be used as a stand alone USB DAC with no conversion.  Topping that off is a built in volume control, with volume level attenuated via arrow shaped buttons on the front panel.

The Transient MkII uses an XMOS based USB solution, high precision clocks, and a Wolfson chip. Channel Islands says highest quality parts are used throughout: Nichicon Muse & 2% tolerance polypropylene power supply capacitors, Takman resistors and WIMA polypropylene capacitors for signal circuits, and Canare BNC connector. The shielded anti-resonant chassis is 1/8 thick T6061 aluminum with 3/16” thick front panel, and all hardware is non-magnetic stainless steel.”

The appearance and build quality of the Transient MkII is first rate. When examined closely it inspires confidence. Installation is a snap. Source components in the review system are connected via a DH Labs USB cable to a Windows 7 laptop running Jriver Media Center 19, and a Logitech Squeezebox with the Enhanced Digital Output applet installed. The DAC is hub powered, via the host device.

All that is required for use with a Windows computer is to download and install the driver from the CIAudio.website.  By the way, Vawter suggests selecting the“CIAudio ASIO” output in the Jriver options menu. MAC users, it must be noted, require no drivers.  Also of note is that Dusty Vawter mentioned that no up-sampling is performed by the Transient MkII, so one can experiment with doing so in the software domain.

The Transient MkII immediately shows itself  to be a superb USB to S/PDIF converter into a Bryston BDA-1 DAC, via a DH Labs BNC cable.  The BDA-1 does not have a high fidelity, “asynchronous” USB input, so the Transient MkII is a shoe in solution when using a computer. Compared to other converters used in house, the Transient MkII is as neutral, engaging, and transparent as we have heard.

The 2011 debut album from U.K. singer songwriter Ben Howard, Every Kingdom, is wonderfully recorded and is filled with great folky tunes. The Transient Mkii as a converter is impressively dimensional and dynamic on this record. An even handed tonality rules the day. Howard’s voice and guitar playing are rendered with great focus and clarity. Especially notable is the deep soundstage.

Using the Transient MKII as a stand alone DAC, via it’s analog outputs is equally rewarding, and maybe even more so.  Compared to the Bryston BDA-1, the Transient MkII offers up a view one or two rows back, yet just as resolving.  The CIAudio draws you into the music, in the best possible way, in the similar manner that really good analog does.  Perhaps the best way to describe the Transient MKII’s sonic personality is that is in no rush, and lets the music flow gracefully.

During the evaluation as a stand alone DAC, a wide variety of music is streamed, across  many genres. The Transient MKII never trips up, or seems to favor one type of recording over another. From classic 60’s rock like Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks right on up to brand new high resolution jazz recordings from Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano, and Joshua Redman, the Transient MkII is never stumbles.  There is excellent grip on the bass, and nicely fleshed out midrange.

Using the Transient MkII with the Squeezebox Touch via USB brought the diminutive streamer to a new level of performance in my experience. This may be because it allows one to by pass the S/PDIF outputs completely, with the clocking being handled by the DAC. Calling up the Eagles studio discography in 192 Khz reveals new layers of transparency and precision.  Bernie Grundman’s mastering is first rate, and classic tracks like “Take It Easy” and “Desperado” take on new life.

The Transient MKII’s built in volume control proves to be well engineered. Using it directly connected to a  power amp yields very good results.  Connected to the Audio Research VS55 or or Burson Timekeeper, a preamp is not missed. The only caveat here is there is no volume level indicator, so careful attention to level is recommended.  When using with a preamp or integrated amp, line level is set at max. The Transient MkII successfully locks onto every sample rate from 44.1 to 192 Khz. The sample rate indicator lights on the front are most welcomed by those with digital music collections in various resolutions, and it is a feature rarely seen at this price point.


Time spent with the Channel Islands Audio Transient MKII USB converter and DAC is time spent enjoying music. As a converter, it is beyond reproach. As a stand alone DAC, it easily dazzles and defies expectations, and especially so considering its affordability. The fact that is is made in California is a nice bonus, and it is compatible with virtually any platform.

The Transient MkII also has a secret weapon up its sleeve. It is upgradeable with the CIAudio’s own $329 VDC-5 MKII High Current Power Supply, as it enhances its performance by taking it off hub power. Prior experiences with C.I.A’s power supplies in our system with various components like the Squeezebox Touch are very positive. To be clear, during the review period, hub power was used exclusively.

As a nice bonus, the Transient MKII is a risk free purchase, with Channel Islands Audio offering generous in home trials. Dusty Vawter welcomes customer inquiries, and is great about providing advice based on your system’s parameters.  The Transient MKII, and the other Channel Islands Audio products we have spent time with have proved themselves to be exceptionally high value, and sonically first rate.  Good engineering, solid build, and great prices rule the day. The Transient MKII is highly recommended for those with legacy DACs, or for those looking to jump into computer audio with a stand alone DAC.

The CI Audio Transient MK II

MSRP:  $699



Sources: HP Windows 7 laptop w/ Jriver 19, Squeezebox Touch

Amplifiers: Audio Research VS55, Burson Timekeeper, McIntosh MA6600

DAC: Bryston BDA-1

Speakers: Thiel CS2.4, Harbeth Compact 7ES3

Cables: Transparent, DH Labs, Kimber, Furutech: