Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

The Coffman Labs G1-A preamplifier is among the most unique-looking pieces of audio equipment we’ve reviewed. It includes custom-made feet that Damon Coffman designed to reduce that unwanted vibrations that reach internal components and vacuum tubes. As a nice piece of trickle-down technology, Coffman found a way to adapt the feet for use under virtually any audio component.

Each type of material employed in the footers has vibration-dampening characteristics. Combining several layers of different materials makes it very difficult for vibrations to travel upward through the footer. Coffman’s design uses four different materials and when all the components are put together, the footer looks a bit like a thick Oreo cookie.

Custom-milled aluminum discs serve as the outer layer; between them—after experimenting with many materials like cork, rubber, carbon fiber, and other metals—Coffman concluded that felt served best sonically as the interior layer.

For the third material, a recessed circle is milled into one flat surface of each aluminum disc, with a dense, rubber-like ring pressed into it. This grippy material contacts the bottom of the component and the shelf it’s resting on, which helps reduce risk of scratches and also keeps the component from sliding, as it sometimes the case with other footers.

The final element holding the entire footer together is a threaded post. Coffman chose a synthetic post instead of a metal one, because it offered a more natural sound in his testing. Also, the post can flex a bit to ensure the footer rests squarely against contact surfaces.

While functional, the O-ring, post and felt don’t do much for aesthetics, but the specially made matte-finish aluminum discs make up for it. They are the bulk of the footer structure and the parts most visible from a distance.

Tightened down, each footer can support 20 pounds maximum. A set of three feet placed in a triangle formation supports a 60-pound component nicely. Coffman Labs suggests a weight limit, because too much weight could bend or strip the nylon post. For speakers or heavier pieces of equipment, additional feet can be purchased to handle the extra weight.

An assembled footer measures 1.5 inches in diameter and about 1.5 inches tall. Each footer can be tightened or loosened slightly by twisting it, changing its height by about 1/8 inch, if you want to make a CD player or a turntable shelf perfectly level, for instance.

Coffman suggests that, when placed under equipment, the footers contribute a slightly smoother, warmer sound while maintaining clarity and solid bass. We concur. A set of three footers costs $115. In the often-expensive world of hi-fi, that’s a very reasonably price to pay for a highly beneficial audio tweak.

Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

$115 per set of three

Reflections on Another Record Store Day

Another Record Store Day has come and gone, with many of my friends and our readers home counting their booty.

And yes, some of this shit has gotten incredibly overpriced to the point where it is starting to look just a bit like exploitation, but all in all, still some good finds were available.

I just wish we didn’t have to wait for more unique content to show up on a solitary day.  I’m also curious as to how many people  actually get turned off by the inability to find the real treasure on RSD and just go back to digital files.  I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

This article from the BBC is interesting, because once again it pigeonholes people buying vinyl records into a cultish group that is mental at worst and naive at best.  Can’t you just enjoy music and happen to buy LP’s?  I guess that’s just not dramatic enough.

For all the born again vinyl evangelists, I’m curious if there are others like me, who just enjoy music and don’t really wig out about what format it’s on.  Don’t get me wrong, I love vinyl just the same and have plenty of them lying about.  I just don’t have to have my music on an LP to get in the mood.

So, for all of you that enjoy music, enjoy vinyl, yet don’t belong to a “tribe,” I salute you.  Carry on.

Sennheiser HDVD 800 Headphone Amp/DAC

For a company to be a market leader or maintain its position as one, it has to be bold and willing to take some risks, challenge its R&D team to go beyond its comfort zone and build a product for a market that didn’t previously exist. That’s exactly what Sennheiser did with its flagship headphones, the HD 800s. When the HD 800s launched in 2008, there were only a handful of headphones on the market that exceeded the $1,000 cost barrier. The design of the HD 800s and the engineering that went into producing them were so far ahead of their time that other manufactures are only now starting to catch up.

On the flip side, jumping into a market before it’s been tested can be a hasty move. Learning from your competitors’ mistakes can save you a ton of money and sometimes brand reputation. This is why Sennheiser waited until recently to enter the headphones amp/DAC market.

Baby got DAC

Sennheiser now produces two desktop headphone amplifiers, both of which are designed and built in Germany—like all Sennheiser products. The $1,599 HDVA 600 is solely a headphone amp, while the $1,999 HDVD 800 adds a DAC for compatibility with digital sources. The latter product, which is the focus here, features an internal 24-bit Burr-Brown DAC that supports sampling rates as high as 192 kHz. Both amplifiers are fully balanced in design, with a foolproof front panel that includes a pair of XLR and a pair of 1/4-inch output jacks, allowing the simultaneous use of as many as four headphones. I enjoy being able to use the XLR and 1/4-inch outputs to compare cable differences on one pair of headphones.

The HDVA 800 combines a sleek design aesthetic with a luxurious feel, and the glass window on the top panel, lit with a bank of blue LEDs, allows a look at the interior workings. The Alps potentiometer has a buttery feel, as do the rest of the controls.

A Versatile Machine

Those wanting to connect a CD player or phonostage have the option of balanced XLR analog inputs, while unbalanced RCA inputs offer compatibility with most of your other components. This makes the HDVD 800 a perfect choice for those building a system around their headphones.

Digital sources can be connected to the HDVD 800 via Toslink optical, coaxial S/PDIF, USB 2.0 or high-end digital AES3/EBU cables. If you are using a computer and you don’t want to use USB for audio, there are a few manufactures that make USB-to-Toslink, coaxial and balanced digital AES converter boxes. Balanced digital AES may yield some improvements over the other inputs, but you should experiment to see what best suits your needs and listening preferences; the HDVD 800 lets you experiment with ease.

Owners of Sennheiser’s high-end headphones (HD 600/650, HD 700 or HD 800) take note: The HDVD 800 was certainly voiced with Sennheiser headphones in mind, but it works well with any phones you might have on hand. We’ll start the listening impressions with the HD 800 and work our way down.

Feeling a little jazzy, I start my evaluation with Natalie Cole’s Still Unforgettable (a CD rip) on my MacBook Pro via the HDVD 800’s USB input. The soundstage delivered by the HDVD 800 is big and open, not getting in the way of the HD 800 headphones giving the listener an immersive experience. Cole’s soothing voice sounds so natural with this combo that it leaves me wondering if high-res files are even necessary.

Although the HDVD 800 is capable of delivering 24-bit/192-kHz files, its ability to transport well-mastered 16-bit/44.1-kHz (CD-quality) files is nothing to sneeze at. This is the case of the marriage between the HDVD 800 and HD 800. Switching over to a more fun album, Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night, shows this combination at its finest. I’m no longer listening to headphones driven by an amp; I am in the audience with the best seat in the house. The raw energy, dynamics and vibe of a live performance are here in spades, even though we’re talking about headphones.

The experience is even more powerful through the HD 700s, due to their greater focus on the lower frequencies and a lighter impedance load on the amp. The HDVD 800 has enough headroom to drive either set of phones beyond my comfort level, but if you need more gain, there is a recessed dial that allows even higher volume levels. We do suggest that, if you take this path, you proceed with caution to prevent ear damage.

As good as the HDVD 800 performs with Sennheiser’s latest headphone creations, those with older models will not be disappointed. Revisiting the older HD 650 headphones, a workhorse for many enthusiasts, also turns in an exceptional performance. Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes, for example, is a recording in heavy rotation with the HD 700s and HD 800s, but the resolution provided by the HDVD 800 closes the gap between new and legacy Sennheiser sound.  -Mike Liang

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I found the HDVD 800 to provide a very resolving, detailed sound. Going through our arsenal of phones, I discover it to be similar to most other headphone amplifiers we’ve auditioned. It is a matter of synergy, however. Here’s a quick rundown:

The most difficult phones I have to drive, the HiFiMAN HE-6s, are the least-compatible choice for the Sennheiser amplifier, proving to be too much of a good thing. The sound is almost hyper detailed and somewhat lacking in dynamics. On the other side of the spectrum, the Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3 both prove an excellent match with the HDVD 800, yielding smooth responses overall, with tight and controlled bass.

Both my Grado PS500 and PS1000 phones are decent matches, as well, with the sonic texture very similar to that presented by the excellent AURALiC Taurus, which we use as one of our reference amplifiers. When matched with the HDVD 800, the Grados offer a neutral and accurate portrayal of music with no embellishment. Those liking the warmer reproduction of a tube amplifier may not prefer this presentation, but those in search of accuracy would do well to seek this one out. Even my vintage Koss and Sennheiser phones work well, and the HDVD 800 has plenty of drive for anything I throw at it—so no matter what phones you have, it should prove up to the task.

Running the DAC through its paces with a wide range of sources from MP3 to 24/192 files is a joy and, if you need a DAC, the HDVD 800 is well worth the $400 increase in price over the HDVD 700. Whether you are looking to build a second system or a primary system that doesn’t take up a lot of space, the Sennheiser HDVD 800 will prove a worthwhile anchor.

Rogue Audio Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

Rogue Audio, out of Brodheadsville, Pa., has been building rugged tube components since the 1990s, and as a result, the company enjoys a fiercely loyal customer base. Under the direction of owner and lead designer Mark O’Brien, Rogue makes great-sounding, reliable, and fairly priced gear. Half a dozen Rogue products have come through this listening room, and none have failed to impress on a sonic level, and they all offer unusually good value.

Sparing its customer base constant product churn (as well as questionable features and hyperbolic marketing), Rogue offers what it calls “Magnum Upgrades” for a variety of products, which allow owners to make incremental investments in better sound. From the entry-level Titan series to the flagship Apollo monoblock amplifiers, Rogue offers a wide spectrum of components.

Recently, the company introduced a series of amplifiers with rather unique topology. The Hydra and Medusa power amplifiers feature a tubed input stage, with a hyper-engineered class-D output stage, which is built specifically for this tube input. Rogue calls the trademarked circuit tubeD. Having spent quite a bit of time with the 100-watt-per-channel Hydra, I am convinced that the Rogue engineers are onto something.

The company has decided to parlay these designs into a pair of integrated amplifiers, the 175-watt Pharoah, and its little sibling, the 100-watt Sphinx, which is priced at $1,295. The supplied Sphinx review unit is black; silver is also available. The amp has a bit of a retro-chic aesthetic—a distinct classic American hi-fi vibe is apparent—with beautifully machined front-panel knobs and a matte finish.

It must be noted that the current market for entry-level integrated amplifiers is crowded. Many of these products are made overseas, with off-the-shelf parts and microprocessor-controlled functions. High-powered products made in the USA, however, are quite rare in this market. Rogue, which builds its gear stateside and uses as many American-sourced parts as possible, manages to deliver products priced less than what some audiophiles pay for power cords. So how does it stack up?

Nuts & Bolts

The Sphinx is equipped with three line inputs, a phono input and a headphone jack. The phono section is a MM/MC type for high-output cartridges. Surprisingly, there is a balance control, which is not often seen in this price range. Rogue employs a matched pair of 12AU7 tubes for the input stage. The amplifier runs cool and quiet, and all connectors appear to be high quality. The circuit features a slow start-up when the power button is engaged, to allow the input tubes time to stabilize. Rogue also offers a solidly built metal remote control, which is an option and lets you to change the volume but not select input.


After breaking in the Sphinx for a week, I am treated to vivid, spacious and engaging sound, regardless of source or genre. The amp has absolutely no problem driving either a pair of KEF LS50s or Genesis G7c monitors to room-overloading levels. The Sphinx keeps its composure, even at high volume, with no graininess creeping in—which is remarkable for an amp at this price point, where speakers as revealing as these typically expose an amp’s shortcomings.

If the Sphinx has a sonic signature, it is not easy to detect. After a few weeks of post-break-in listening, I pick up a slightly forward character—not forward as in tipped up, but in the sense that it brings the listener a few rows closer to the action. The Sphinx provides a lovely sparkle to the midrange, which makes voices and strings float beautifully in space. Performances are imparted with a vivid, lifelike and highly enjoyable quality.

An album I stream repeatedly during the review period is Diego Garcia’s Laura, which showcases the Sphinx’s ability to grab the listener’s attention and direct it through a clean window into the music. Garcia’s lush, romantic ballads, embellished with flamenco guitar flourishes and other exotic touches, sound simply ravishing.

The 2013 remix and remaster of Jethro Tull’s classic album Benefit is a revelation through the Sphinx. Ian Anderson’s voice and flute are startlingly present, especially on the 96-kHz files; the same goes for the excellent SACD remaster of the Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord. The Sphinx reveals the superb quality of the DSD transfer overseen by Justin Hayward, and even the previously lesser-known material, like the long last track, “King and Queen,” sounds terrific.  The Sphinx is capable of subtlety yet can still provide plenty of power when called upon to do so.

As there is currently no turntable set up in my system, I lend the review sample to a trusted audiophile friend who’s a vinyl enthusiast. He reports back very positive results regarding the onboard phonostage, noting that it easily competes with other, highly regarded outboard units, and that it is at the top tier in this price range.

I give the headphone jack a whirl with a pair of Grado SR60s, and discover it to be more than just a convenient add-on. The performance is easily on par with several stand-alone headphone amps I have on hand.

I do manage a quick comparison with my reference integrated amp, the 200-watt McIntosh MA6600 solid-state beast, which is laid back compared to the Sphinx’s more exciting presentation. Transparency and midrange resolution are very, very close, with a slight nod to the far more expensive amp—too close for comfort considering that the McIntosh costs five times as much. This is certainly a case of a welterweight going toe-to-toe with a heavyweight and not finishing on the canvas.

Perhaps the one complaint I can log is that controlling the volume via the remote is inexact. The volume steps are too large to find the precise setting my ears desire, but this only applies when using the remote. The volume knob on the unit provides all the volume sweep necessary. I will note that the balance control is a nice plus, providing very good tracking, and that the unit works without flaw during the review period. It is also good to know that Rogue offers a 3-year warranty.

At a hair under $1,300, the Rogue Sphinx sets new benchmarks at this price point. Its sonics, build and feature set are impressive. And while Rogue essentially takes a somewhat classic approach with the Sphinx—aside from the unique class-D and tube design—the end result trumps circuit topology. Pair the Rogue Sphinx with price-appropriate speakers, a source and cables, and for about $5,000 you have a system that will provide more enjoyment than it should for that much scratch. Hats off to Rogue Audio.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Seeing a phono input on a preamplifier, let alone an integrated amplifier, is catnip to me. As an audio old-timer, I remember fondly when everything had a phono input and everyone had a turntable. It’s great to see Rogue including a phonostage on a product that is this reasonably priced.

I certainly concur with Andre on the overall sonics of this unit, so no need to embellish there.  But in the day of $1,000 dollar phonostages being commonplace (seriously, in the day of $10,000 phonostages being commonplace!!), a great integrated amplifier thrown in with this phonostage is a steal.

Your favorite MM cartridge will make this thing sing. We pair the Sphinx with the MartinLogan Aerius i speakers in room two and a Rega RP6 table, featuring an Exact 2 cartridge, as well as a ProJect Carbon/Ortofon Red combination. Both turn in excellent performances, with a good tonal range, top to bottom, excellent transient response and, best of all, a low noise floor. The Sphinx is in no way outclassed by the nearly $2,000 Rega combination.

There hasn’t been a more versatile entry-level amp to come my way in some time, so I’m happy to award the Rogue one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013. Well played, Rogue.

Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,295


Amplifier McIntosh MA6600
Digital Oppo 105
Speakers KEF LS50    Genesis G7c
Cables Darwin    Transparent    DH Labs
Accessories Sound Anchor stands    Audience aR2p power conditioner

Elvis Costello – King of America

Mobile Fidelity continues their excellent job of remastering the Elvis Costello catalog with his tenth album.  Never charting higher than #39 in the US, this record received more than its share of critical acclaim. Though it was not terribly successful for EC in terms of sales, it joined a string of quirky releases going forward, with only the 1989 Spike showing much chart activity (Spike would be Costello’s last gold record of his career).This record is also pivotal in the sense that it features a bit more of a country groove, something else that he would dabble in going forward, including an interesting and somewhat eclectic rendition of the classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

MoFi is to be commended for taking this imprint much further than my original 1B Columbia pressing.  It features more air and a wider soundstage throughout, with the mix more opened up, though it is still somewhat lacking in front-to-back depth.  The only complaint with this one, especially in light of the fact that it is an “Original Master Recording,” (which means MoFi used the original master tape in its production) is this: while dynamics are improved over the original, as well as overall tonality – especially the acoustic guitars – is that they didn’t split this up into two slabs of vinyl as they did on Get Happy.  – Jeff Dorgay

MoFi, 180g. LP

Neil Young – Live at the Cellar Door

Recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington DC over a three-day period from November 30 to December 2, 1970, the latest in Neil Young’s “archives” series hits the record store shelves in vinyl format, lagging the CD by a few weeks. If you were patient enough to wait, you will be highly rewarded.

Music editor Bob Gendron gave the digital version of this performance a highly insightful review in Issue 59, but we did not have a vinyl copy at that time to comment on. I concur 100% with Gendron’s assessment of the performance, and the sound quality of this vinyl version is outstanding.  Mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman’s studio, it is easily the equal in fidelity of the Live at Massey Hall and Live at The Fillmore albums.

The epitome of sparse production, the tracks all feature Young on guitar or piano, and while a hint of tape hiss creeps in from time to time, his voice is vibrant, dripping with decay and overtones, in the way that only a magnificent analog recording can – warts and all.  Fortunately, the warts are very few, and on one level, kudos to Young for leaving them in.  If this were a Katy Perry album, it would all be pristinely pitch corrected.

Here’s to a great glimpse into the past of such a great artist, and here’s to hoping Mr. Young will pull a few more recent performances out of his vaults in the months to come.  – Jeff Dorgay

Warner Bros, 180g LP

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifier

Seriously, the only thing I don’t like about PrimaLuna gear is lifting it. Recent hours at the gym notwithstanding, PrimaLuna amps keep getting heavier. Continuously improving the breed, the Dutch company keeps improving the quality of it parts, which results in bigger capacitors and beefier transformers. The DiaLogue Premium power amplifier now tips the scale just over 70 pounds. Yikes! But listening to Miles Davis’ classic album Bitches Brew float between the Focal Maestro Utopias (also reviewed in this issue), I’m not worrying about moving these amplifiers anymore. The relaxed yet resolving presentation the DiaLogue Premium amplifiers provide is sufficiently soothing to take my mind off of the manual labor.

For those of you who are unaware, my journey as an audio writer began with PrimaLuna. My review of the ProLogue One integrated amplifier was featured in The Absolute Sound just over 10 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun. I bought that little integrated that could, and a decade later (on only its second set of power tubes), it still can. It’s been passed on to my niece, and she’s still rocking out with it after all these years—a testament to the build quality and longevity of PrimaLuna products. Best of all, the company is building the stuff even better than when I bought that review sample, so your chances of a field failure are slim to none—a great feeling when you’re shelling out close to $10,000 for a preamplifier and a pair of monoblocks. The DiaLogue Premium amplifiers are $3,199 each, and the preamplifier will also set you back $3,199.

They’re not quite the budget components that they were in 2003, but in comparison to your favorites from ARC, CJ, McIntosh and VAC, they’re still an incredible bargain for the price asked. Those nervous about PrimaLuna being a new company back in 2003 can breathe a sigh of relief. There is now no question that the company has been making all the right moves in terms of building an empire.

The DiaLogue Premium amplifiers are especially cool, because you can start with just one and run it in stereo. Should you want or need more power, add a second amplifier, flip the stereo/mono switch on the back panel and you’re rocking. A single amplifier produces 42 watts per channel in ultralinear mode and 25 per channel in triode mode. Switching to monoblocks doubles that, making this amp a nice option for budgeting future system upgrades.

The Magic of the EL34

The enchanting midrange of that first PrimaLuna amplifier always gave me pause, thanks to the EL34 output tubes, but 30 watts per channel isn’t always enough to take care of business. Fortunately, the DiaLogure Premiums give you a choice of 82 watts per channel in ultralinear mode or 50 watts per channel in triode mode, configured as monoblocks.  And there’s just something so scrumptious about using these amplifiers thusly. I suspect you may just seek out slightly more sensitive speakers so that you can always do so.

While 50 watts per channel is enough to adequately drive my 90-dB KEF Blades, the additional 3 dB of sensitivity provided by the Focal Maestro Utopias is just enough to really give the DiaLogue Premiums in mono mode that extra push over the cliff and make them that much more compelling. In the context of a system consisting of a dCS Vivaldi stack, Audio Research REF SE linestage and phonostage, along with a pair of AVID Acutus Reference SP turntables, the DiaLogues are in some pretty exclusive company. And they fit right in.

The delicate acoustic guitar at the beginning of the Verve Pipe’s “Colorful” is projected well beyond the speaker boundaries, but when the driving bass line kicks in, these amplifiers take impressive hold of the Maestros’ woofers. All this from a pair of EL34-powered monoblocks is indeed impressive.

A quick switch back to ultralinear mode delivers tighter bass, but at the expense of less midrange delicacy; the ultimate choice will be yours, but I know what I love and it’s all about the midrange with these amplifiers. Whatever your reason for going ultralinear, should you decide that is your path, go all the way and replace the EL34s with a set of KT120s. Even though the power rating is no higher, a simple flip of the switch on the right side of the amplifier resets the Adaptive Auto Bias to the correct range for this tube, eliminating potential midrange distortion. The KT120 tube has a more authoritative feel, with a deeper, tighter bass response. Overall, the amplifier has more drive and slam, feeling more like an Audio Research REF amp. Running the EL34s in triode mode makes the DiaLogue sound more like an AirTight amplifier.

Listeners who find tube amplifiers too relaxed in their presentation may think these amplifiers in triode mode are even slightly more relaxed. But this sonic characteristic works wonders when listening to recordings that are less than perfect—like my favorite records from the Monkees. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is pretty much rubbish, but the extra sweetness that the DiaLogue Premium brings to the dance really improves recordings like this (especially in digital form), making a much larger percentage of your music collection not only listenable but enjoyable. There’s no such thing as listener fatigue with these amplifiers.

Changes Under the Hood

PrimaLuna has always paid meticulous attention to detail when building its amplifiers, which are reminiscent in quality of the great Marantz and McIntosh tube amplifiers from the 1960s. The point-to-point wiring used throughout is so neatly done that you’d swear robots did it, but this is not the case. The solder joints are all perfection and there is not a hint of untidiness anywhere. These amplifiers are as beautiful underneath their hand-finished chassis as they are above.

In addition to bigger, beefier, more robust power and output transformers, the “premium” designation comes from careful refinement of the circuit, which was executed with top-quality parts—parts you’d expect to see in amplifiers with five-figure price tags. All of the critical wiring is done with Swiss-made silver-clad oxygen-free-copper wire, the input and output connectors are first rate, and there is a plethora of premium capacitors and resistors. No corners have been cut anywhere.

And what fun would a vacuum-tube amplifier be without at least considering a bit of tube rolling? This is a bit tougher with power tubes these days, as vintage EL34s can be difficult to find, and expensive when you do find them. It’s not uncommon to spend $400 to almost $1,000 on an awesome set of NOS output tubes. Rolling in a set of Siemens and GE 6CA7s (a suitable substitution) proves sweet, eliminating grain from the presentation of the upper registers in a way that today’s modern tubes just can’t.

Fortunately, the DiaLogue Premium runs the output tubes very conservatively, and thanks to PrimaLuna’s patented Adaptive Auto Bias, adjusting tube bias is a thing of the past. The benefits are multiple: Tube life is extended, distortion is reduced, and the need for a matched quartet of output tubes is eliminated. It’s as painless as it gets for a vacuum-tube amplifier. There is even a Bad Tube Indicator, a red LED that lights up, should an output tube fail.

However, if you aren’t feeling that adventuresome but still want to get in on the action, consider swapping the small signal input tubes. Past PrimaLuna designs used at least one pair of 12AX7 tubes, which are now becoming scarcer, and consequently more expensive. A single pair of primo vintage 12AX7s can set you back $300 to $400, but this amplifier uses six 12AU7s. And these tubes are reasonable, with cool vintage examples available for $30 to $50. But remember, standard new-edition 12AU7s are only about $20 each. Either I’m getting lazy in my old age, or Kevin Deal is supplying these amplifiers with even better tubes than he was 10 years ago. In any event, I just don’t feel the need to screw around with the tubes here.

True to the PrimaLuna party line, the Adaptive Auto Bias will let you run different tube types in the various output tube sockets, but having lived with PrimaLuna amplifiers for a long time, I know that they just don’t eat tubes, so you’ll probably never need to take advantage of this feature. Sure, it does work, but if you have a tube amplifier of any kind, it’s not a bad idea to have at least a pair of output tubes of the same type on the shelf, just in case something bad does happen.

Once hefted into place and tubes installed, the DiaLogue Premium amplifiers immediately settle into reproducing music. The harp in Lloyd Cole’s “Music in a Foreign Language” floats easily behind the plane of the speakers, sounding almost like it’s in another room, well separated from Cole’s voice and acoustic guitar. Even in the 15 minutes it takes for these amplifiers to warm up, the magic is there. Unlike a few megabuck tube amplifiers we’ve used that take hundreds of hours to sound their best, we only noticed a modest change in sound character after about 50 hours. And had we not had a pair of these, so that one could run for 50 hours while the other one just sat there, we’d never know—the difference is pretty minimal. Bottom line, unbox these beauties and enjoy them.

Grab a Pair

If there’s been a better success story than PrimaLuna in the high-end audio market over the last decade, I haven’t heard it. The Dutch company continues to make top-notch products, while refining its brand and expanding its current offerings.

If you’ve ever felt intimidated by using a vacuum-tube power amplifier, PrimaLuna takes all the hassle and guesswork out of the process. The more adventurous hobbyists can tube roll to their hearts content, and the rest of you can just use the supplied tubes and dig the music.

We are happy to award the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium amplifier our Product of the Year award in the tube-amplifier category. A most excellent amplifier—and I suggest you get two while you are at it.

DiaLogue Premium amplifier

MSRP: $3,199 each (factory) (U.S. distributor)


Speakers KEF LS-50    KEF Blades    Focal Maestro Utopia
Analog source AVID Volvere SP turntable    SME 309 tonearm    Lyra Kleos cartridge
Digital source OPPO 105    dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifier PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium    Robert Koda K-10    Audio Research REF 5SE
Phonostage Simaudio MOON 610LP
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Cardas Clear    Running Springs Dmitri

VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

In audio, like in so many other things, the seed of a great idea often sprouts before the technology of the time is able to fully express the concept. The direct-drive turntable is a perfect example. Many know of the legendary Technics SP-10 broadcast turntable, though few have heard one. Those who have will remember the remarkable pitch stability and the rock-solid bass. Today, they are coveted and being rebuilt around modern tonearms and cartridges possessing much more resolution than what was available back in the 1970s and ’80s, and to good result. However, the cost is high and there are a finite number of spare parts—not to mention precious little support. Great as the SP-10 is, owning one today is much like owning a vintage sports car: It’s a ton of fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but God forbid you need it repaired in a hurry.

Enter Harry Weisfeld

A visit to the VPI factory in New Jersey with company founder Harry Weisfeld reveals a massive collection of turntables. Weisfeld is particularly well versed in direct-drive models, especially the classics. His collection includes, among others, the Denon DP-80 and JVC TT-101, as well as other Technics tables. “I believe direct drive is the way to go when it’s done correctly,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the concept, but you can’t get a belt or a pulley perfect, no matter how hard you try. A belt-drive turntable consists of multiple mistakes and you’re always dealing with multiple tolerance errors. Direct drive eliminates these issues.”

Discussing the cost of the new Classic Direct, which is priced at $30,000, Weisfeld reflects on the SP-10. Because of the manufacturing complexity required to produce the SP-10, he says that, if new examples were being built today, they would be fairly comparable in price, even from a company like Technics.

Weisfeld says that the Kenwood L-O7D and Micro Seiki DDX-1000 were the impetuses for making his own direct-drive table, a process that began in earnest in early 2011. One of the engineers at a firm that produces finely machined parts for VPI, as well as military hardware, and who is a known audiophile, started a major discussion with Weisfeld about the “toughest part of a turntable to manufacture.”

The engineer quickly responded that the motor was the toughest challenge, which led to another series of discussions resulting in the design we see here in the Classic Direct, where the platter is actually the main component in the motor. In this case, the motor in the Classic Direct is an AC motor, which Weisfeld prefers over DC motors. He smiles and says, “An AC motor knows where it is, and a DC motor only knows where it was.”

The secret here is that a three-phase motor is used, eliminating the cogging effect that always plagues direct-drive designs. This uneven power delivery results in a slight unsteadiness to the music at worst and a shrinking soundstage at best. These issues are a thing of the past with the Classic Direct, as my listening quickly reveals.

Fortunately for Weisfeld, building the first Classic Direct was a labor of love for the engineers involved—it was strictly a fun project. Reflecting on the nature of the company building the motor, Weisfeld laughs and says, “The reason I won’t tell you who makes the motor for us is not a security reason; they just don’t want to become a supplier for other manufacturers.” He then proceeds to show me all of the measurement data that went into the design, from prototype to final product. “These guys measure everything, and they are thorough.” Case in point: Noise level on the Classic Direct is lower than minus 100 dB—impressive.

Blacker than Black

Initial playback of the Classic Direct at the New York Audio Show this past May was exciting, but the prototype, made using a Classic 3 chassis, didn’t really work aesthetically with the 12-inch tonearm, which Weisfeld felt was essential to the ultimate sound of the table. “So we had to do one more round of plinth design,” he says. “But the drive system was final at this time.”

The proof is in the listening. Forget all the audiophile clichés about inky-black backgrounds. The Classic Direct has a complete absence of background; it’s eerily quiet, like listening to a high-resolution digital file with the life of analog. We start our listening sessions with some vintage classical test pressings from the Classic label, and I’m immediately transfixed. There’s something dramatically different here.

Music simply emerges from the dimly lit room through Weisfeld’s reference speakers, the JBL DD6600 Everests. With dynamic range like few others, the Everests highlight the Classic Direct’s ability to remove itself from the equation and pass the music from the record groove through the speakers without interruption. The Everests sound surprisingly coherent, more like a pair of electrostatic speakers (of which Weisfeld and I are both big fans). I am spellbound by how natural pianos and violins sound in this system.

I’m so taken aback by the cleanliness of the tone that I don’t notice the cartridge mounted to the 12-inch 3D-printed tonearm, which is standard issue with the Classic Direct. It’s a Shure M97, the same one you can buy from Music Direct for $100. Weisfeld smiles again. “It’s my daily driver,” he says. “When I mounted a JICO stylus on the M97, it changed the sound completely, and it tracks like crazy. It saves wear and tear on my Lyra Atlas.”

Fortunately, the unipivot design of the VPI tonearms, with removable arm wands, makes it easy to swap cartridges—for vinyl aficionados with multiple cartridges in their collection. An additional 12-inch 3D-arm wand can be purchased for $3,000, while a standard one machined from aluminum is only $1,500—a perfect match for cartridges on the less-spendy side of the equation.

Getting in the Driver’s Seat

Once I’m acquainted with the Classic Direct, Weisfeld swaps the Shure for his favorite (and mine), the Lyra Atlas. But first we listen to Dave Brubeck’s classic track “Take Five” on tape. Quickly switching back to the Analogue Productions 45-rpm version reveals precious little loss, only in the ultimate dynamics of the vinyl not being able to stretch on the quickest transients as fast as the tape, but the soul of the music on the Classic Direct is incredibly well represented. Timbre and tonality are perfectly captured, along with the airiness of the cymbals and the rock-solid character of the piano. Weisfeld has clearly met his design goals in this respect.

Then, once we move back to the beginning of the journey with the M97, the core values of the music are still intact. Timbre and drive are especially compelling, but now after hearing the tape and the Atlas, there is cloudiness to the overall presentation. Regardless, the Shure sounds far more exciting than I’ve ever heard it before and light years beyond what it sounds like on my Technics SL-1200.

Auditioning a string of familiar rock recordings reveals the same things: a larger soundstage, wider dynamic range and a new sense of being able to peer deeply into the music—all of which are now available with the Classic Direct. The triangle in Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You” not only has an incredibly well defined space, but the decay is breathtaking, and it just seems to hang in the air forever. The rest of Court and Spark, though I’ve heard it countless times, infatuates me as if hearing it for the first time again. That’s what makes a high-dollar component special—and the Classic Direct delivers the goods in every aspect.

Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” blazes through loud and clear. While the Classic Direct’s speed stability doesn’t reveal itself as much when rendering Jimmy Page’s guitars, it speaks volumes with the sheer attack of John Bonham’s drums. They goes from fantastic to truly explosive, and the rest of this recording goes well beyond speaker boundaries, forming a coherent and convincing musical image.

A quick spin of a 45-rpm maxi single of Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” reveals the inner detail in this multitracked tune, which I’ve never heard as clearly. And while the Classic Direct’s major strength is tonal purity, its incredibly low noise floor uncloaks treasure in even the most highly processed records. In this case, backing vocals, synthesizer and percussion tracks are all more evident, with their own distinct placement in the soundstage, where they have always seemed somewhat vague. You don’t have to limit your musical taste to acoustic music to really hear what the Classic Direct can bring to your system.

Two Years in the Making

After a year and a half, the design of the Classic Direct was final and all that remained was sorting out the ultimate form factor. While so many of today’s mega tables feature an excess of bling, the Classic Direct keeps it simple and straightforward. Much like the aesthetic of the Eames Lounge Chair, this table is a classic in the ultimate sense of the word, rendered in a form factor you will not tire of.

The platter of the Classic Direct is the rotor, eliminating any errors resulting from motor-shaft coupling and taking advantage of VPI’s inverted bearing as the common support for the rotor and platter. Simplicity combined with 21st-century technology wins the day—and the tolerance between the platter and the rest of the motor is only .001 inches.

This assembly is a sealed unit that weighs approximately 40 pounds and is in separate packaging from the base, requiring that the user merely connect power and gently slide it in with the supplied handle. As the saying goes, there are no user-serviceable parts inside. Weisfeld tells me that this motor is built to outlast the owner, because “we don’t want to have to fix them.” (The motor, that is.)

Historians of the direct-drive system may be quick to comment that this approach has been tried unsuccessfully before, but this time it succeeds brilliantly, hence the engineering time and resulting cost of this table. VPI’s proprietary coil technology forgoes the standard wire-wound stator found in most motors, using slotted copper laminations instead. This allows for higher coil density, in turn giving the Classic Direct tremendous torque, even for a direct-drive design. Yet, it was designed to start rotating very slowly, another aspect of successful motor control.

VPI’s familiar outer-ring clamp is the final piece to the puzzle, and if you think you can get by without it, guess again. The clamp firmly anchors the outer edge of the record to the supplied mat, making sure it contacts the platter fully, eliminating the need for one of those fancy record flatteners. It also minimizes vertical stylus excursion, thus maximizing the soundstage. The rest of the table is straightforward, with 33- and 45-rpm speeds controlled by blue illuminated buttons on the left side of the plinth.

Worthy of the Name and the Price Tag

Record after record reveals the same thing: The VPI Classic Direct is one of the world’s finest turntables. If there is a flaw in its presentation, I am not able to expose it, no matter what kind of music is played.

Crazy as it might sound to the uninitiated, $20,000 to $30,000 is really the sweet spot for what I consider a “destination turntable.” I’ve spent more than my fair share of time with six-figure tables, and much like a Ferrari, they offer a level of performance unattainable by any other means, but they are just so far out of reach to all but the most affluent audio enthusiasts that it’s not even a consideration. The ratio of $150k turntable owners to $150k system owners is tipped well in favor of the latter, so for a certain breed of audiophile, a $30k table is not out of the question, especially if you are trading up from something else.

And I must confess that my experience with this range is healthy, having lived with tables from AVID, Clearaudio, Kronos, SME and VPI, just to name a few. As much fun as it always is to proclaim something a game-changer, running down the path of adjective excess, I’ll keep my description of the VPI Classic Direct, well, direct.

It’s solid and quiet in a way I’ve never experienced, even compared to the mighty Continuum, the silly Onedof and the massive Clearaudio. If pitch stability is something you crave, there’s just something about a direct-drive turntable, even a Technics SL-1200, that grabs you instantly. The Classic Direct just has much more of it, and it’s mated to a world-class tonearm to complete the package.

The presentation of the Classic Direct is remarkably close to that of a master tape on a great open-reel deck, which Weisfeld just happens to have next to his equipment rack for his own comparisons. He smiles. “This truly was my inspiration for the Classic Direct,” he says. “Now a piano sounds like a piano.”

I have purchased products from all over the world—and have been doing so for most my life—but I have to confess some American pride here. We in the United States now have a manufacturer building a turntable that not only competes with the best tables that the world has to offer but that also excels beyond many of them.

This is why we bestow our overall Product of the Year award to the VPI Classic Direct turntable.

– Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

Audio by Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

While Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) may be a new name for many, there’s a good chance you are at least peripherally familiar with Frank Van Alstine’s work. Out of his shop in Minnesota, he spent years developing modifications and upgrades for Dynaco and Hafler equipment—and those kits are still available. For customers wishing to get hands-on with their stereo, the upgrade kits are rumored to take an already-great piece of classic equipment to an entirely new level. For those with the skills and time, these kits can provide their owners some fantastic sound at very reasonable price points.

For the fine-motor-skill-challenged folks like myself, a hot soldering iron and a lot of tiny and delicate electrical parts presents a potentially disastrous combination, and so I prefer to purchase my stereo components from the hands of the true experts. Fortunately for me, Mr. Van Alstine recognizes the many audio fans in my circumstance who are seeking great-sounding equipment without requiring a second mortgage to finance it. Building on the knowledge and insight accumulated over the years, AVA came to life, bringing with it amps, preamps and DACs.

AVA offers both solid-state and tube designs. The company’s website has a chart describing the differences between its preamp designs and the sonic signature of each. With four preamps in the current AVA lineup, I welcomed the opportunity to test its flagship, the Fet Valve CF hybrid preamplifier. Each circuit of our test unit features two 12AT7 tubes supplementing the gain stages and two 12AU7 tubes acting as cathode followers—from which this preamp gets its CF designate. According to AVA, this design represents “the very best we can currently do,” and so it is with high expectations that we at TONE anticipate hearing its sonic virtues.


AVA sells directly from its website and builds each product at the time of order. The company offers several options for the Fet Valve CF preamp, depending on the user’s needs and preferences. The entry point is the black faceplate model for $1,899. The same preamp with a silver faceplate starts at $2,099. From there, the owner has several upgrades to choose from. For those planning integration into a home theater setup, a bypass switch for the preamp is available for $50, allowing a surround-sound processor’s volume knob to act as master volume for the system. Vinyl fans will appreciate optional RIAA phono circuits, priced at $249. Inverter/bridge circuits and buffered tape output circuits are available for $199 each. And finally, a high-quality remote control with a mute button adds $299. With all the add-ons, a fully loaded Fet Valve CF runs in the neighborhood of $3,000.

Straightforward Setup

From a usage scenario, the Fet Valve CF could not be simpler. The back panel of our test unit offers a phono input, five line inputs, a tape input and output, plus two sets of main outputs. All connections are single-ended RCA.

On the front panel, from left to right, thee rotary knobs control source selection, volume and balance. Above the source knob, which selects from the six line inputs, are two toggle buttons. One offers a choice of stereo or mono playback; the other allows tape monitoring. Above the volume knob, two additional buttons control filter and low gain. According to AVA, these special settings offer the user more control over aggressive speakers and source material. As icing on the cake, the Fet Valve CF includes a 1/4-inch headphone output.


After several days of burn-in, the Fet Valve CF finally has its chance to sing. Sitting in the listening chair, I reset my mental sonic expectation to where my past experience with $2k preamps has placed it. There’s very good gear in this price range, but much of it requires some sonic tradeoff. The play button starts the music as expected, and surprisingly, it also activates my “mouth ajar” setting. The Fet Valve CF certainly offers a great first impression.

I use the term hybrid for this amp, which refers to both its sonics and its design. While the marvelous, fluid tube midrange is there, some of the downsides associated with older tube designs, like limited bass punch and definition, do not follow suit. In fact, the Fet Valve CF creates bass that’s quite deep and noticeable right out the gate.

While instruments and vocals retain a high degree of realism, there’s also a forgiving nature to the preamp’s sonic signature. Rendered digitally, some female vocal recordings, like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, retain a bit of grain and edge. Through this preamp’s lens, the excitement of the performance remains, while reducing these unwanted artifacts and retaining the underlying emotion of the original recording.

Saxophones and trumpets have an inherent potential for sonic sharpness. Recorded well, the sound captured from these instruments is one of incredible, live detail, but with some lesser-quality jazz recordings, a transparent window to untamed digital harshness can impart the listening experience with some unpleasantness. Striking an interesting balance, the Fet Valve CF places strident instruments in a slightly warmer light—which is not to say that the preamp creates an artificially sugary sound; to my ears, the sound remains generally neutral. Rather, it makes the best of what it’s given. Using the pass and filter toggles described earlier, the listener retains greater sonic control than most hi-fi preamps allow.

Music portrayed through the Fet Valve CF may not have the lush and nuanced refinement I’ve heard with more expensive gear, but this preamp certainly has a way of making lemonade from lemons. In addition to accurately conveying the woodiness of string instruments, the Fet Valve CF also offers a compelling representation of percussive instruments. Cymbals have the expected shimmer after a strike; snares retain the requisite rattle; triangles and tambourines have the ring they should. In general, this preamp retains symphonic music’s high degree of naturalness.

Compared with much more expensive reference gear, the Fet Valve CF creates a leanness to the sound. While it does a very good job reproducing both frequency extremes, it does have a somewhat reduced degree of richness and fullness by comparison. In orchestral pieces, the ambience of the performance hall is diminished. I also find that the width and depth of the stereo image through the Fet Valve CF is truncated. The music does not extend much beyond the left and right speaker limits. This preamp also struggles to project sound into the perceived space behind the speakers, although I will say that vocals never get recessed into the mix.

Despite these limitations, the sonic elements that reveal themselves between the speakers remain well separated and quite convincing. If forced to make a tradeoff, I’d prefer the Fet Valve CF’s large and realistically rendered sonic image—one that’s akin to stepping back several rows in a live performance—to having an artificially bloated image increasing the apparent size of vocalists or instruments. After getting used to the Fet Valve CF’s portrayal, I decide that it doesn’t reduce the enjoyment of the performance; it just puts a different lens on it.

Like the rest of the Fet Valve CF, the phonostage offers a fantastic price-to-performance ratio. While the sonic attributes described earlier remain generally consistent regardless of source, vinyl albums do take on a more relaxed musical presence though this preamp than their digital counterparts do. Considering the phono section is a mere $250 upgrade option, it’s an absolute steal. Even if you don’t have a turntable now, you might later!


Reviewing equipment involves critiquing the nuances of the musical presentation to determine strengths and weaknesses. But when that analysis is complete, it’s equally important to take a step back and listen to the music, not just the equipment. Does that piece of gear allow the listener to get pulled into the sound and forget the hi-fi behind it? With the Fet Valve CF, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

This preamp is one of those pieces of budget gear that excels on many, many levels. While much more expensive preamps residing in my test system may exceed the Fet Valve CF’s capability in various ways, this preamp never fails to provide musical fulfillment that exceeds expectations for its price point. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not saddled with any major compromises.

For those looking to build a home hi-fi system in the $8,000-to-$10,000 range, the AVA Fet Valve CF preamp can serve very well as an anchor component. Depending on the options chosen, $2,000 to 3,000 delivers great sound, leaving the rest of the budget for speakers, amp and sources that complement it. Do yourself a favor and keep this preamp in mind—it might just be the solution you are looking for.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Not quite old enough to have purchased tubed Dynaco gear new, I did spend a fair amount of time growing up with it—and I remember when Van Alstine came on the scene, offering updates that took this modest gear to killer levels. Frank has definitely taken everything further over the years, and he’s done so while keeping the costs in line.

If I had to describe Van Alstine gear in one word, it would be honest. This is well-made gear that delivers honest performance without frills. When I mate the Fet Valve CF to the Van Alstine Ultravalve vacuum tube amplifier, the synergy is fantastic, as you might expect. Using the two together with a handful of speakers, I don’t find the smallish soundstage that Jerold experienced to be an issue; it may have been system synergy. With the Fet Valve CF, everything from AVA’s own amplifier to a few examples from Pass Labs, Simaudio, Octave, and Audio Research all reveal the same big soundstage.

Van Alstine offers a 30-day trial on all of its gear, so you’ve got nothing to lose. I suspect precious few of these get sent back. This preamplifier is a proud addition to my list of Publisher’s Choice Awards for 2013.

Audio by Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

MSRP: Starting at $1,899