Help Audio Vision SF move!

The guys at Audio Vision San Francisco have lost their lease after years in their location on the corner of Pine and Van Ness streets in downtown San Francisco.

They’ve only got a few months to find new digs, so now’s the time to get a great deal on some of their sample, demo and used gear so they don’t have so much to move!  You’ll get a great deal and help keep hifi alive in the Bay Area.

Or click on the graphic to donate to their kickstarter campaign.

Thank you for the continued support!

Dynaco PAT-5 Preamplifer

Back when our publisher and I were Bart Simpson–like teenagers disrupting our high school electronics class, we still wanted a great system but had no dinero.  The few things we had breadboarded together hummed like a swarm of bees when a turntable was brought into play, and we scratched our heads.  The doofus who was our electronics teacher wasn’t much help, so we turned to the world of kits, figuring someone had built it right once, right?  So we had to be able to make this work.

A hundred bucks back in 1976 was almost a month’s worth of flipping burgers. Fortunately gas was only about 40 cents a gallon, so our publisher scraped together the dough to buy the PAT-5 kit, which would be replaced the following year by the PAT-5 bi-FET version, which swapped the op amps for ones with FET transistors in the input stage.  Yes, audiophilia began at a very early age.

The preamplifier was straightforward to assemble, and the press of the day gave it rave reviews, claiming it a “major improvement” over the PAT-4 preamplifier, introduced in 1967, which used bipolar transistors.  FETs were all the rage in the mid to late ’70s, with most manufacturers spouting that FETs would be the logical replacement for vacuum tubes.  And being nerdtrons at the forefront of science, we certainly didn’t want vacuum tubes in our stereo system.  Hah.

The clean example you see here was purchased on eBay for 40 dollars, (with free shipping) and miraculously fired right up on arrival.  Its gold faceplate is in excellent shape, and a “kit” sticker on the chassis underside indicates that someone actually built this thing.  The job is a tidy one, which probably accounts for the quiet phono stage – but I digress.

There are plenty of old electrolytic capacitors that could be replaced, but a few more beers sound like a lot more fun.  Perhaps during one of these rainy winters in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll talk our publisher into helping me.  Just like the old days.

Back to the future, I mean present

Today the humble PAT-5s have been eclipsed, but you can find them in the used bins for about 60 dollars.  Not bad depreciation for almost forty years.  And speaking of audiophilila, Frank Van Alstine, the man behind Audio by Van Alstine, was just beginning to make a name for himself providing updates for Dynaco components – one of the first modders to be sure.  He’s still at it, offering his Insight update for the PAT-5, with virtually all of the internals upgraded, to provide a smashing preamplifier for only $799.  We’ll be examining that in the near future, so stay tuned.

But for the tight-budgeted music lover who craves good sound, a PAT-5 is still a great way to begin your audiophile journey, especially if you’re trying to add a turntable to the mix.  The MM stage in the PAT-5 is way better than anything you’re going to find for 150 bucks at retail.

Tone controls?

That’s right, tone controls.  Fortunately, they are switched out of the circuit by default and the old carbon potentiometers add a fair amount of darkness to the overall sound, so unless you have really shabby speakers, just forget about these.

But what the PAT-5 lacks in neutrality, it more than redeems itself with major control flexibility.  You can plug in two turntables and four high-level sources with dual tape monitoring functionality.  There is even a high-level speaker selector, so you could run two pairs of speakers from your power amplifier via the PAT-5.  Pretty cool for those running a garage or retro man-cave system.  Now you can switch between your JBL L-100s and Pioneer HPM-100s with ease.  All that’s missing is a neon Bud sign.

Our readers who are more inclined towards personal listening, i.e., with headphones, will be pleasantly surprised by the onboard headphone amplifier lurking under the hood of the PAT-5.  Again, way better than anything you’re going to find for 60 bucks new.

Jewel in the rough

Add your favorite inexpensive power amplifier, some cool vintage speakers and you’re rocking the casbah.  This particular PAT-5 is annoying my neighbors happily via a pair of JBL L-166s and an SAE 2200 power amplifier, with a total system cost of around 500 bucks, including the cost of the Technics SL-1200 table I picked up at a garage sale.

Looking to start a hifi journey on a happy-meal budget?  I highly suggest grabbing a PAT-5.  They are cheap and plentiful.  Not a bad way to start your audiophile journey, or learning the ropes on modding hifi gear.  Who knows, you might just become the next Frank Van Alstine.    -Jerold O’Brien

Focal Maestro Utopia Loudspeakers

The second I queue up the Afghan Whigs’ album Gentlemen, I know these speakers are special. The reproduced soundstage on this record is massive, with the wind in the background of the opening track, “If I Were Going,” sounding much more expansive than I’ve ever heard it, save perhaps what I experienced at the Boulder factory last year via the Grande Utopia EM speakers and the prodigious Boulder 3050 monoblocks—the most compelling audio system I’ve yet experienced.

Yet slumming it back at my place, with the Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks and the Maestro Utopias, a bargain at $60,000 per pair, I’m getting in the ballpark. As soon as the drumbeats hit hard on the title track, we are indeed getting serious slam. These speakers move major air without fatigue, distortion or coloration. They are marvelous. Sure, the Grandes are even more amazing, but you need the room to let them breathe and the rest of the system has to be equally astounding to really allow the speakers to reach their full potential.

I won’t apologize for telling you to get a pair of $60k speakers, and I don’t want to hear all the tired arguments about how you can build a pair of these yourself for a lot less money. You can’t. Sure you could buy a nicely appointed 5-series BMW for the price of the Maestro Utopias, but the hi-fi system inside is rubbish. The arguments about diminishing returns are also moot—you won’t get this level of musical involvement for $10k, $20k or even $30k. You’ll have to pay if you want to play, but the good news is that the Maestros will reward you in a way that few speakers can.

What makes the Maestros so compelling is that you can build an amazing system around them for little more than the cost of a pair of Grande Utopias. And while a $150k-to-$250k stereo system is somewhat obsessive, the $500k-plus that it’s going to take to make the Grande’s sing is a completely different realm, hence these speakers will appeal to a completely different buyer. So, if you’ve drooled over the sound of the Focal Grande Utopias, and either don’t quite have the budget or the room to take advantage of them (or maybe you’re just a bit more frugal), the Maestros do not disappoint.

Spinning AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” I’m again reminded of how well the Maestros can create the sheer sound pressure of a live rock concert without compression or fatigue. Even at brain-damage levels, the meters on the Xs 300s are barely moving from the center position, indicating that they are working in full class-A mode throughout my listening session.

And installing the Maestros is a breeze. Though just more than 250 pounds each, the Maestros are easy to remove from their shipping cartons. Thanks to the wheels on the cartons, you can move them to your listening area by yourself, though you will probably need a friend to help you to remove the speakers, which also have wheels, and get them into a rough position.

Focal’s manual is thorough in describing setup and, depending on your room, you should be able to get the Maestros fairly close to fine-tuned while still on their wheels. Once satisfied that you’ve optimized the bass response for smoothness and weight, remove the wheels and experiment with the spikes to adjust the speaker rake angle to perfection.

The jumpers at the speaker’s base provide ultra-fine-tuning, allowing a modest adjustment of bass, midrange and treble energy. Fortunately in my listening room, I do not have to deviate from the factory settings, and trying them does show their effectiveness. The additional bass boost works well with the Pass First Watt amplifier and an 845-based SET amplifier, both of which are a little shy in the low-frequency department.

Sensitivity Makes All the Difference

Thanks to a 93-dB sensitivity rating, the Maestros work well with a 60-watt-per-channel tube amplifier, and we achieve amazing synergy with the 60-watt PrimaLuna DiaLogue monoblocks in for review (you can read the review here), but this gives the Maestros a different character. They lack some of the pulverizing dynamics that they do with a big solid-state amplifier, yet even hardcore hip-hop tracks, like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Your Neck,” still hit with plenty of clarity at all but club levels.

The Maestros, like the Stella and Diablo Utopias that we’ve spent plenty of time with, are equally tube friendly, so don’t shy away from these speakers if you’re a tube user. The Audio Research REF 250 monoblocks, Octave’s Jubilee monoblocks and even the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium monoblocks all work brilliantly with these speakers, thanks to their exceedingly tube-friendly crossover network.

As phenomenal as the Maestros are with big solid-state amps, I must confess my own personal bias and admit how smitten I am with these speakers when pairing them with vacuum-tube amplification. For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I prefer my personal system to be a few molecules on the warm, romantic side of neutral, yet not lacking in cloudiness, detail or resolution—a tall order indeed.

Tubey Goodness

Yet this is exactly what the Maestros provide when paired with a great tube amplifier. The beryllium tweeter is as fast and transparent as any electrostatic speaker I’ve owned (and I’ve owned almost all of ’em), and a little bit of tube warmth makes them feel like a pair of giant Sound Labs ESLs but with major dynamics and punch. Put a fork in me, I’m done!

Sonny Rollins’ classic album Tenor Madness just leaps out of the speakers, with the Maestros painting a vivid picture of this quartet in my listening room. Bass is solidly anchored, with everything lovers of pace and timing will ever need to be ecstatic. No matter how complicated the program material, the Maestros never fail to keep up with the music, regardless of listening level.

The piano is reproduced with all the necessary timbre and attack to sound great, but what pushes it over the top is the scale. In a good-sized room with plenty of amplifier power (solid state or tubes), the Maestros reproduce scale in a way few other speakers can. This is what separates great speakers from truly exceptional ones for this reviewer, and you can put the Maestros solidly in that rare latter category.

These speakers have an uncanny ability to expand and contract with the music, no matter what the material. Where the large Magnepans reproduce everything with an expansive sound field, which is somewhat unnatural but pleasing nonetheless, a solitary guitarist playing in a church is rendered thusly through the Maestros. A group of jazz musicians playing acoustic instruments in close quarters feels as if they are right in my listening room. And Nine Inch Nails sounds like a giant wall of sound slapping me down with maximum force, as it should, but it does so without fatigue—another highly important aspect of mega-loudspeaker design.

Should you have major amplification, you will need to be watchful with the Maestros, as they can achieve such high sound-pressure levels without distortion that you could easily exceed safe levels. They pressurize the room so well and play without a hint of fatigue, that it’s always tempting to turn them up beyond a level that is prudent. Honestly, this is a ton of fun, especially with my favorite rock recordings.

Playing in the Sand

Going through the gamut of high-powered solid-state amplifiers is equally rewarding and revealing. Switching back to solid state provides a fascinating but different experience. The Maestros are such efficient conduits of relaying music, never sounding harsh, forward or over detailed. All of the amplifiers in my collection turn in stunning performances with the Maestros. The speakers’ high degree of resolution easily identifies the differences in tonal qualities between my references, the Burmester 911 MK3 and the Pass Xs 300s, when compared to the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier and the Simaudio Moon 880Ms, which have recently passed through for review.

However, one of the more interesting performances turned in by the Maestros is not with a high-powered amplifier, but with the 10-watt-per-channel First Watt SIT-2 amplifier—a single-ended, class-A design featuring a single gain stage. This amplifier has always combined the virtues of a great 300B SET vacuum-tube amplifier with the low noise and control of the best solid-state amplifiers. But it still only produces 10 watts per channel. Lacking a bit of the ultimate bass slam that the big amplifiers possess, this amp lays bare the inner detail from only a single transistor in the gain path, which proves to be a revelation at modest volume levels.

Special Indeed

The guitar and banjo work on Neil Young’s Harvest demonstrates the potency of these speakers. The sheer speed of the Maestros expresses acoustic instruments in a very lifelike manner, without coloration. At the same time, the decay present in a great analog recording seems to carry on forever, with a fine gradation that doesn’t exist with a lesser speaker.

After countless hours with the Maestros, swapping amplifiers and other speakers for comparison, we come back to the initial question: $60k for a pair of speakers? And the answer is still a resplendent yes, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the level of music that the Maestros reveal is considerably beyond that of the lesser speakers we’ve reviewed.

In terms of construction, Focal put innumerable hours of research, design, testing and prototyping into the Maestros, which goes hand in hand with the bespoke nature of all the company’s speakers. This level of passion is comparable to what goes into a Formula 1 car—every aspect, regardless of how minute, is scrutinized mercilessly by the Focal team. There is truly an integration of art and science taking place here. This is not another audio company installing drivers in a box. Nothing in the Focal Maestro is off the shelf, and none of the drivers, except the beryllium tweeter, is shared with the rest of the range.

The 3.5-way system uses two 11-inch woofers, one as a woofer and one as a subwoofer. The lower woofer vents through a downward-firing laminar port that eliminates any port noise or dynamic compression effects, and features a 2-inch voice coil, where the upper woofer has a 1.5-inch coil. The 6-inch midrange driver, though looking similar to the other 6-inch drivers in the rest of the Utopia lineup, is designed and optimized specifically for the Maestro. Both the midrange and woofers utilize the third-generation of Focal’s “W” composite-sandwich-cone technology, providing exceptional strength while minimizing weight. It’s safe to say that this is a major factor in achieving the low coloration that the Utopia range exhibits.

Lastly, the fit and finish: The mechanical construction of these speakers is sheer perfection. The gently curved cabinets have a timeless design aesthetic, and while available in a number of standard colors (black, white and red), custom colors can be ordered at a slightly additional cost. The finish applied is on the same level as the world’s finest luxury cars, and the enclosures are flawless. While these are speakers worthy of the price asked based on performance, they also exude build quality that will satisfy the most sophisticated owner, and will meld into any environment with ease.

And this is what you write the big check for—which is precisely why the Focal Maestro Utopia is our choice for Product of the Year in the speaker category.

Maestro Utopia

MSRP: $60,000 per pair (factory) (North American distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus SP Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital source dCS Vivaldi stack     Aurender S10 server    Meridian C15
Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks
Cables Nordost Norse 2

Issue 62


Old School:
Threshold CAS-2 Amplifier

By Jerold O’Brien

Journeyman Audiophile

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze Cartridge

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

The Blumenstein Audio Orcas

By Jeff Dorgay

TONE Style

The Wino
Four From Spain!!

By Monique Meadows

The New Shape of Macintosh

By Chris Petrauskas

Keyport Slide 2.0

By Rob Johnson

Brian Eno Visual Music

By Chris Petrauskas

The BMW i3


Current Releases:

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

Audiophile Pressings

Jazz & Blues
By Jim Macnie & Aaron Cohen

Snapshot: Pinetop Perkins
By Jerome Brunet


Franco Serblin Accordo Speakers

Conrad-Johnson MF2550 Power Amplifier

Musical Fidelity V-90 LPS Phonostage

From the Web

Rega Aria Phonostage

Coffman Labs Equipment Footers


Auralic Merak Mono Amplifiers
By Rob Johnson

Simaudio NEO 380D DAC
By Andre Marc

Vandersteen 1Ci Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Rogers PA-1A Phonostage
By Jeff Dorgay

Plinius Tike Network Audio Player
By Andre Marc

Anthem MRX 510 AV Receiver and Paradigm
Monitor 7 Speakers
By Rob Johnson

New Floorstanders From PMC

The Sound Organisation, North American importer and distributor of European Audio products, is pleased to announce a new addition to the well-established PMC twenty series of loudspeakers, the twenty.26.

The twenty.26 is the first three-way speaker in the series featuring a refined version of PMC’s Advanced Transmission Line (ATL™) bass loadingtechnology. As the pinnacle of the series, the twenty.26 features the same traits as its siblings – finesse, delicacy and musicality – but with an added ability to convey huge dynamic impact and the sheer scale of a musical performance.

Setting the twenty.26 apart is PMC’s newly developed 2” soft dome midrange drive unit, nestled between the existing tweeter and a bespoke bass driver. This driver is designed to produce an extremely natural and wide dispersion characteristic while integrating seamlessly with its other drivers.

The new 7” bass driver, designed specifically for the twenty.26, is a low mass, natural fiber cone designed by PMC to produce very low coloration and excellent transient response. Mounted within a cast alloy chassis, the new drive unit is excursion controlled by the suspension design, limiting only at maximum excursion.

As with all PMC’s passive speaker designs, the crossover is military grade circuit board with ultra-thick copper tracks and gold though plating ensures non-inhibited current flow and greater reliability. Careful component selection, precision matching and optimized positioning provide low component interaction and low coloration from the sophisticated 24dB per octave crossover.

86dB efficiency and a true 8 ohm design enable the twenty.26 to be partnered with a vast array of amplifiers from the recommended 50W to 300W with tri-amp and tri-wire terminals. Frequency response is a smooth 28Hz to 27kHz.

The cabinet features 18-25mm thick Medite™ walls and extensive bracing, particularly at the high-pressure areas on the top panel, to dramatically reduce cabinet induced coloration. The now familiar decoupled plinth, for better bass definition and HF focus, is carried over to the twenty.26, but with 30% increase in mass for improved stability.

The twenty.26 will ship in 6-8 weeks (mid-late April) in a selection of finishes including Oak, Walnut, Amarone and high gloss Diamond Black. All available exclusively through The Sound Organizations’ US network of specialty audio retailers at an MSRP USD $10,250.00 Pr.  Watch for a full review to follow shortly after introduction…

Vandersteen’s new Treo and Treo CT Speakers

The Vandersteen Audio speaker lineup continues to evolve as a result of the research & development efforts that delivered the patented carbon-fiber Perfect-Piston™ drivers used in the flagship Model 7.Vandersteen’s Treo loudspeaker is now available in an optional Treo CT version (Carbon Tweeter), which is a $1,500 upgrade that features the superb Carbon Tweeter from the renowned Model 5A Carbon.  The Treo has an MSRP of $6,490 per pair and the CT version, $7,995 per pair.

Carbon driver cones offer the pistonic linearity of metal drivers without the unnatural sonic colorations inherent in metal drivers. While the Perfect-Piston Tweeter used in the flagship Model 7 is the fully embodied ideal of high-frequency purity and resolution, the Treo CT delivers a surprising amount of the air, space and natural purity previously heard only in Vandersteen’s top speaker models: the Quatro Wood CT, Model 5A Carbon and the Model 7.

The Treo is essentially a passive version of the Quatro Wood CT, sharing the same driver complement sans the powered-bass system. It too is offered in an array of wood finishes in a strikingly attractive form factor.  Like the legendary Model 2, the Treo is a paragon of cost-effective performance that’s made in the USA, but in an elegant outer package.

The Treo is a time- and phase-correct full-range loudspeaker. Because such great demands are placed on the drivers in Vandersteen’s first-order speaker designs, the Treo’s drivers are the kind of highly advanced transducers typically found in cost-no-object designs. The proprietary transmission-line loaded tweeter and Vandersteen’s proprietary Reflection-Free 4.5” midrange driver break up energy from behind these drivers before they can pass directly back into the room and to the listener’s ears. The 6.5” Tri-Woven woofer offers superior transient response and definition in the crucial lower-midrange/midbass frequencies, with the bass foundation supplied by the ported, carbon-loaded 8” woofer with an ultra-long motor assembly.

The impedance-compensated crossovers are ultra high-performance designs featuring extreme-quality parts, and individually tuned in an anechoic chamber. Vandersteen’s Minimum Baffle enclosures ensure maximum rigidity, free of time-smearing reflections and diffraction. All of this technology allows the Treos to offer the kind of exceptional resolution, imaging and natural musicality Vandersteens are known for.


  • Frequency Response: 36Hz – 30kHz +/- 3dB
  • Sensitivity: 85 dB, 1 meter/2.83 volt input
  • Impedance: 6 ohms +/- 3 ohms
  • Crossovers: First order/6dB per octave, 80Hz, 900Hz, 5kHz
  • Input Terminals: Barrier strips, 7/16″ max width
  • Dimensions (WHD): 10” x 43” x 15”
  • Weight: 80 lbs. Net
  • Made in the USA

About Vandersteen Audio

Vandersteen Audio designs and manufactures time- and phase-correct loudspeakers and superb electronics.  Every Vandersteen loudspeaker is designed to be as true and accurate to the signal received from the amplifier as possible, but with unsurpassed natural musicality and “Dimensional Purity.” All Vandersteen products are proudly designed and manufactured in the USA, in Hanford, CA.

Audeze LCD-X Headphones

Audeze pronounces their name “Odd-eh-zee.” Now when seeing the same, I find it hard not to reflect back on my high school English classes and studying stories from ancient Greek mythology. Other than Homer’s Iliad, the Odyssey may be the best-known story which chronicles the perilous journey of Odysseus and his efforts to return home after the Trojan War. (Yes, the Trojan Horse was his idea.) I’ve read that Odysseus means “trouble” in Greek.  How ironic. Every time I hear a pair of Audeze headphones I find myself in trouble, wanting to reach into my wallet to buy a pair.

After releasing the highly successful LCD-2 and LCD-3 open-back headphones, Audeze refuses to rest on its laurels. Their latest headphone incarnations, the LCD-X series, include both an open-back and a closed-back design dubbed the LCD-X and the LCD-XC respectively. We enjoyed the chance to hear the LCD-X, and with their other open-back models on hand, it’s a delight to hear them head-to-head – literally.

Setting Sail

On arrival, the LCD-X comes in a black, foam-lined Pelican case, ready for travel and abuse while protecting the precious cargo within. For versatility, Audeze also includes two sets of 8′ (2.5m) headphone cables. One set is a balanced 4-pin to 2×4-pin mini XLR. The other cable is a single-ended version with 4 pins on the headphone end and a standard ¼” termination on the other.  Finally, a ¼” to mini-jack adapter leaves the listener wired for sound with any headphone amplifier on hand.

At 1.3 pounds (600 grams) the X is hefty indeed and there’s no mistaking the weight on one’s head. After an hour or two of listening, I’m generally ready to free my head from the velvet vise for a short break, but that’s a small tradeoff for its great sound. The wide headband and large, comfy earcups distribute that weight well and when you have them on, physical heft certainly yields to the delicate sonics.

Scylla and Charybdis

Audeze’s headphone designs are dangerously attractive indeed. Like the famous hazards Odysseus attempted to navigate, it’s difficult to avoid their pull. Although there is a generally similar appearance to the earlier headphone models, the LCD-X takes a departure from the familiar wood-laden earcups. The Xs offer anodized aluminum enclosures, with a choice of either black or grey rings around the ’cups. There’s also a choice of padding: either a black lambskin leather, or a non-leather microsuede. In either case, as with earlier headphone designs, the foam underneath gives the earcups a slight slope, canting them forward when worn and projecting the sonic image forward a bit. Throughout listening sessions, the ear pads proved generally comfortable.  I find the leather cups do get a little warm and tacky against the skin, so the microsuede may be the preference of some.  I realized also that trying to wear glasses at the same time as the LCD-Xs is an uncomfortable pairing, so these aren’t the best ’phones for those far-sighted folks like me who enjoy music while working on the computer.

Not fixing what’s not broken, LCD-X retains familiar design elements of planar magnetic transducers and Neodymium magnets as with the past headphone versions. The LCD-X headphones differ from their siblings through the use of a new transducer, though, made of a lighter and thinner material plus what Audeze dubs “Fazor” technology. The company claims these alternations manage the flow of sound through the headphone facilitating better imaging, a smoother frequency response, and greater frequency extension. Listening to the new cans, I see that Audeze doesn’t exaggerate. They also claim the capability of frequency response exceeding the 20Hz–20kHz range of normal human hearing, dropping down to 5Hz and with information transfer up to 50kHz. Without an elephant and a porpoise on hand, I’m not able to verify the extremes, but what does reside within my audible range proves magnificent.

Song of the Sirens

As with the other LCDs, bass is a strong attribute. I have not heard another open-back design that offers the depth, weight and punch that Audezes do. Percussion is portrayed marvelously, and these headphones can rock. I’m surprised by the level of heft these open backs produce. Only with custom IEMs have I heard the level of tangibility of drums interacting with my eardrums. Bass, snare, toms, tambourines and cymbals all have an extremely convincing level of impact, resonance and decay. In addition to jazz tracks, I tossed Electric Six’s “Fire” into the mix for fun. The song’s heft though the LCD-Xs is an absolute joy and completely immersive experience.  Green Day’s “St. Jimmy,” another favorite rock track, startled me to the point of a physical lurch when the first notes burst forth from silence. Nice!

These headphones are capable of great delicacy as well. Vocals sound incredible through the X. They strike the right balance between capturing every nuance while avoiding stridency and sibilance that often accompanies them. As with Shivaree’s “Who’s Got Trouble” the LCD-Xs reveal the sound and palpability of Ambrosia Parsley’s breath in anticipation of vocal passages. When the first note rings forth with clarity and refinement there’s certainly no disappointment.

With the LCD-2s the soundstage is well rendered, but as with the LCD-3, the LCD-X improves on this somewhat with better ability to project outward those recorded instruments panned to the far left and right. Sounds at the far edges of the soundstage wrap out and slightly behind the center plane of my head. Instruments are layered well in the X’s presentation and it’s easy to pick them out in the mix. Similarly, naturally (and artificially) created reverberation is quite evident as it reveals a sense of the original recording space.  Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Luther College provides a good sense of the live performance, especially the applause, shouts and song requests from the audience as the stage mics capture them. Compared with my reference hifi system, the LCD-X makes the concert sound more like an intimate club setting rather than a larger concert space, but it’s no less convincing or enjoyable.

Suitors for the Ears

So how does the LCD-X compare with its siblings? In most meaningful ways, the LCD-X exceeds the very good LCD-2’s capability. The battle for the open-back Audeze kingdom rests with the LCD-3 and the LCD-X. Things get tricky comparing these two, because they are both wonderful and there’s far more similarity than difference.

Ultimately, it’s a slight, nuanced “flavor” change rather than one headphone being superior to the other.  Rather than go into a lot of detail about the LCD-3 which Jeff Dorgay reviewed here, [1] I’ll just focus on the small differences I hear between the two sets of cans.

In most of my test recordings, the LCD-X gives a slightly increased sense of palpability. Bass feels a touch more punchy too. Perhaps this is the result of their new Fazor technology. On the upside, there’s a great degree of connection to the music and a “live,” nimble sense to it. On some recordings it can be a little intense. The LCD-3s also give the listener an exciting, engaging musical experience with extended bass, but the tangible intensity is taken down one notch, and it’s easier to relax into the sound.

In parallel with the above characteristic, the X is slightly more revealing of recordings in general. Especially listening to digital recordings, that can imply both upsides and downsides depending on the quality of the recording. Those who prefer to have every musical detail revealed – or those like recording engineers who need to hear every detail – will love the X’s prowess.  By comparison, the 3s are a touch more forgiving and lean just slightly to the side of warmth. I find this most evident in female vocal passages or in some recordings of horns.

The last subtle difference is hard to describe and best offered as an analogy. Imagine that the music heard though each set of LCDs is filtered through a set of sunglasses. The X has a very neutral grey lens, and the 3 has a slightly rose-colored lens. Each LCD has its own way of portraying – and enhancing – all that comes through it. There’s no right answer. Depending on a listener’s musical selections, associated amplification, sources, and personal preferences, either headphone could find itself welcome in an existing system.

If Marooned…

On the very slim chance I’m shipwrecked and stranded like Odysseus, there are a few things I’d hate to be without. After chap stick, the top of that list is music, and a means with which to hear it. While my first love is the sonic experience from a full-sized stereo system, the sound and presentation of music with the Audeze LCD-X headphones is beguiling enough that it could serve as a worthy substitute. It’s a marvelous addition to their headphone lineup.

Pricing for the LCD-Xs is $1,699 placing it between its other open-back siblings, the LCD-2 and -3 costing $1,145 and $1,945 respectively. That’s certainly not cheap, but considering the X’s build quality and sonic value in comparison with a big iron system, think about it in the cost-context of a good set of speakers. You will need a good amplifier to get the most out of these headphones, so that should be factored into your budget at some point. With that and your favorite source, you have a very musically satisfying personal sound system.

If you are considering headphones in this price range, the LCD-3 and the LCD-X are enthusiastically recommended, and currently my favorite open backs. After many hours comparing the two, the X won over my ears with their punchy, highly resolving and neutral nature. The LCD-X sonics, for me, left little to be desired. I purchased the review sample as my open-back reference headphone and that’s the best compliment I can give.  –Rob Johnson

Additional Listening

It’s tough to pick a favorite between the LCD-3 and the LCD-X.  Both are incredibly compelling, and while I’d give the nod to the LCD-3 in ultimate smoothness, without sacrificing resolution, the LCD-X might be a better choice for those making their first foray into high dollar headphones.

We can argue to infinity about which presentation is more desirable, however these two fantastic phones are a lot like the Lyra Titan-i and the Atlas phono cartridges, or if you’re an old school analog photographer, Kodachrome and Ektachrome.  The LCD-X has a little more contrast, a little more edge sharpness if you will and the other one has a touch more ultimate resolution.

The ultimate decision will be determined by your listening taste and of course, your headphone amplifier.  Personally, I prefer the LCD-3 with solid state amplification and the LCD-X with my ALO Audio Studio Six.  But the bigger story, is that the LCD-X is more easily driven by a laptop, smartphone or iPad than either the LCD-2 or LCD-3, making it the perfect place to start assembling a mega quality personal audio system.  Grab a pair of LCD-X’s for now and add a big daddy headphone amp later as your enthusiasm and budget allows.

We are happy to make the LCD-X our choice for Product of the Year in the Personal Audio category.  It’s been exciting to watch Audeze grow and continue to expand their repertoire.

–Jeff Dorgay

Audeze LCD-X Headphones

MSRP: $1,699


Sources Audio Research CD3 Mk2    Light Harmonic DaVinci    PC with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 15    iPod Classic Gen 7    Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo    Marantz TT-15
Amplification Coffman Labs G1-A    ALO Audio Rx Mk 2    Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Hybrid
Headphones Sennheiser HD-650     Audeze LCD-2 & -3    JH Audio JH16    Ultimate Ears UE18
Cables Jena Labs interconnects    Cardas Clear USB
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA Mongoose and Cardas Golden Power cords

Krell PAM-5 Preamplifier

I must be honest with you, this is the only component I have ever purchased sight unseen at full retail price.  That’s right.

Spin the clock back to 1986, when I was still living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and making regular pilgrimages to Quintessence Audio in Naperville, Illinois to audition hifi gear.  My buddy Frank at Quintessence called me when the newer, more “affordable” Krell preamp came in, telling me to “buy one now, before there was a waiting list.”

No self-control

Of course I went for it, and when my PAM-5 arrived a couple of weeks later I dashed right out of work to make the three-hour drive to Naperville in the middle of the day.  Something to do with food poisoning, I recall. By about 10pm, I was back home and the PAM-5 was rocking the house, driving a Threshold 4000A and a pair of Acoustat 2+2’s.  Good memories indeed.  My experience with Quintessence was so pleasant, that ten years later, when I called Frank to buy another Krell preamplifier, I bought a Kerry Blue Terrier from him instead!

In June when a mint PAM-5 came up on EBay for six hundred bucks, I had to take a stroll down memory lane.  Fortunately, it was mint and worked like a champ.  The PAM-5 sold for about 2000 dollars back in 1986 and I was blown away by the weight and dynamics.  It gave my 2+2 based system just what they needed.

Remember, this was just before the dawn of preamplifiers having remote controls, so the PAM-5 is all manual.  I’m sure this has contributed in a minor way to its long-term reliability, less to break and all.

Somewhat understated and less massive than the Flagship PAM-1, (and lacking the balanced outputs of later Krell designs) the PAM-5 still had a separate, outboard power supply, which was a bit rare back in the mid 80’ and seldom seen on much other than Mark Levinson components.  The PAM-5 also featured a great moving coil cartridge phono stage that was incredibly quiet and much more dynamic than the Ortofon MC transformer I had been using with my Dynavector 23R cartridge.

Sometimes the past is even better than you remember

In my current semi vintage system, which consists of the Conrad Johnson MV-75 from our last issue and a pair of Sterling Broadcast LS3/5a’s, I am still very impressed with the sound of the PAM-5.  When Krell first hit the hifi scene, they became famous for having bigger than life dynamics, and extremely powerful and well-defined bass.

This preamplifier holds up the legacy quite well, with an extremely modern sound.  Eyes closed, you would swear you are listening to a preamplifier in the 2-5000 dollar range.  Not only does it possess all of the dynamics I remember, but the tonality is excellent and the upper registers are clean and tidy, not grainy or sterile.

Well Krell was a bit better known back then for the sheer slam of their amplifiers, their preamplifiers were undiscovered jewels to many.  The PAM-1 and PAM-3 were better known, but the PAM-5 was more reasonably priced and even used a special “phase correction circuit” in the CD player input.

I pulled the 20 year-old Pioneer CD player out of my garage and sure enough, this did take some of the harsh, grungy sound out of CD playback.  I remember in 1986, this was a lifesaver for my NAD player.  The difference between good LP playback and CD was huge, but this took some of the digital edge down in a very good way.

The Krell PAM-5 is a welcome blast from the past.  It has stellar build quality and top-notch sound.  You could still make one of these the cornerstone of a very good hifi system today and be quite pleased.  Unfortunately, Frank is no longer with us and Harry is getting pretty old, but you can still contact the current owner, Mick Survance at Quintessence Audio.  He’s having the best year in their 32-year history, providing the great customer service I received 22 years ago.

PS Audio Digital Link

In 1989 I purchased a Nakamichi CD player that had a digital output jack on the rear panel.  I scratched my head and thought “what’s that for?”  It didn’t take long.  A few months later a good friend had just purchased this tiny box from PS Audio called The Digital Link, that took the digital output from your CD player and did outboard digital conversion, with an external power supply similar to a phono preamplifier. Oh yeah, that little box was a thousand bucks.

If you remember what CD’s sounded like back then, you would have paid a million bucks if you had it to get rid of early digititis. Man, those players sounded screechy back in the day.

Of course, I ran out and bought one right away and it still works just fine, almost thirty years later. When PS Audio’s Digital Link III came in for review, it jogged my memory and I realized that it was still up on a shelf somewhere.  Serial number 1351.  How old is that?  So old that the folks at PS Audio only have a schematic for it, but that’s all they remember.

Next step, pop the top and see what’s inside.

As you can see from the picture, this was a well thought out and nicely built piece of gear.  Using a pair of what was then Burr Brown’s newest 18-Bit DAC chip, the PCM 61P, the Digital Link was a real hotrod in 1990.  I still remember the day I brought it home and hooked this one up.  My audiophile buddies thought I had gone completely insane, thinking that CD’s could actually sound good, but the Digital Link was great.

Years later I stepped up to a PS Audio UltraLink II, as my local audio dealer was abandoning their support for PS Audio for $400.  While I kept that DAC for about eight years, something told me to hang on to the original.  Recently, I borrowed that old Nakamichi OMS-3 CD player from staff writer Jerold O’Brien and we were both surprised at how well these two still sounded together.

While the Digital Link is not anywhere near as resolving as today’s hardware, it is still a very musical device. Back in 1990, it was a big breath of fresh air and was responsible for my CD collection growing to where it is today.  – Jeff Dorgay

Martin Logan CLS

I’ve spent the last couple of years immersed in MartinLogan speakers.  I started with the Vantage, moved up to the Summit, made a sidestep to the new Spire and now have their flagship, the CLX, in my listening room.  But my enthusiasm for MartinLogan started many years ago with their other famous flagship, the CLS.  It began in a shopping mall in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a girlfriend who wanted to go shoe shopping.  As I still complained while being dragged into the targeted shoe shop, I spied a HiFi store in the corner of my field of vision and my viewpoint suddenly changed. “Take as much time as you need, babe…”

I can’t remember the name of the store, but I remember those speakers.  In the upstairs loft where they kept the good stuff, were a complete Levinson system with an Oracle turntable.  They were having a slow day and the salesman took pity after my narrow escape from shoe shopping. “My girlfriend goes in there and I’m done, man!”  he said as we traded evil girlfriend stories. He dropped Synchronicity on the Oracle, and about five seconds into “Tea in the Sahara,” I was under their spell. An Acoustat 2+2 owner at the time, I was blown away by how open these speakers were compared with mine.  Shortly after returning home, I had a pair of CLS’s of my own.  But I had an advanced case of audiophile nervosa and after about a year, I sold them to move on to a giant pair of ProAcs.  After all, I could always get another pair, right?


For whatever reason, my local dealer never seemed to have a pair in stock and everyone who had a pair of CLS’s held on to them for dear life or wanted about double what retail used to be. So I went back to my dealer and picked up a pair of ML’s newest speaker, the Aerius.  “I told you not to get rid of the CLS,” the salesman said as I peeled off the hundred-dollar bills.  The ML’s were great speakers, but the CLS was something special. After the Aeriuses went away, my non-evil girlfriend (now my wife) would quip as I agonized over the latest speaker du jour, “I really liked the sound of those MartinLogans. Why don’t we get another pair of those?”  And by this time, I didn’t even have a great room for panel speakers.

I used to rationalize my lack of insight by saying such things as “They weren’t that great.”  Or, “They didn’t have enough bass.” Or, “I can’t play Zeppelin on them really loud.”  You’ve been there.  But you know what it’s like to let that one special thing get away; it always gnaws at you.

All good things come back around, eventually.

The Vantage rekindled my interest in MartinLogan speakers and after moving up the line to the Summit and a little sideways to the Spire, I knew the CLX was also going to be just as special.  As you will see from my review on page xx, these are indeed phenomenal speakers. However, out of respect for MartinLogan and the CLS, I had to go back and revisit the former classic.  Going back to something you once really loved can be a mixed bag. It’s like going to your high school reunion to see if your old girlfriend is still hot.  Chances are high that you will end up disappointed. This time it would be a good meeting, though.

Thanks to Rich Kent from the MartinLogan Owners forum, a pristine pair of CLS’s were only a couple of hours north on the I-5.  Rich let me have a Sunday to listen to his system and get reacquainted with these old friends.

They still won’t play Zeppelin super loud, but neither will my LS3/5a’s.  That’s not the point.  Rich has his mated with a MartinLogan Depth sub and it is a sweet combination.  After some serious listening, I knew they were everything I remembered and then some.  That signature transparency and upper bass clarity that comes from a full range panel is there in spades, and the CLS throws a very wide and deep soundstage.  The CLS was not quite the one-person speaker as I once thought (chalk some of this up to Rich’s setup abilities), but you still would never mistake them for cone speakers.

These days if you can find a pair of CLS’s for sale, they are right around $2,000 for a pair.  As Rich said, “Hey, I bought these for 1,500 bucks and got a new pair of panels from MartinLogan for another $900.  Where are you going to get sound like this for $2,400?” I couldn’t agree with him more. The one comparison I would draw between the CLS and the CLX is that the CLS feels as if you were about 15 rows from the stage and the CLX is much more immediate and dynamic, as if you were in row 3.  But the virtues of a big, transparent sound are still there with the CLS, and this is a speaker that I could live with very easily.  You would never guess that this design is 25 years old.

CLS’s are rare on the used-speaker market, partially because this speaker was so far ahead of its time and because MartinLogan still supports the CLS, so again, no one wants to get rid of them.  That’s right, you can still buy replacement panels for a pair of CLS’s.  Try that with your favorite speaker from a boutique builder.

The CLS started out in production in 1984, with a number of product changes from the II, to the II a, finishing with the IIz that ran until late 2002.  There were a number of incremental changes along the way, but the majority of them were aimed at making the speaker easier to drive, as the first ones had an impedance perilously close to one ohm.  Personally, I think reports of amplifiers going up in flames were overblown; I used a Krell KSA-50 with mine and had excellent luck. MSRP went from $2,995 for the first models to $4,595 for the final CLS IIz Anniversary Editions that went out the door.

When you find a decent pair that someone wants to get rid of, they usually are going for somewhere between $1,500 and $2,500.  The electrostatic panel had a life of about 10 years, so should your panels need replacement, they are available and cost about $1,000 with shipping.  If you have an amplifier that is up to the task, these are still quite amazing speakers.