First look: Cypher Labs Prautes Headphone Amp

As the headphone craze continues to gain momentum, there are a rash of new and varied headphone amplifiers available, with budget to sky’s-the-limit pricetags.

At the upper end of the scale, Cypher Labs new Prautes hits the market at $3,900, catering to the mega enthusiast. Nope, this probably won’t be your first headphone amplifier, but chances are it could certainly be your last.

We managed to get our hands on one for a few days right before the Munich High End Show, and ran it through its paces with a handful of headphones, including the HiFi Man HE-6, the Audeze LCD-3 and the new OPPO PM-1s – some of the hottest high end phones going.  Hard core headphone enthusiasts know how tough the HE-6 can be to drive, so this was the first test combination. The Prautes passed with flying colors, providing more than enough drive to make your ears bleed.  Everything else was gravy, and the OPPO PM-1s, the easiest of the lot to drive, being the most efficient of the group.

The highly textured beginning of Matthew Sweet’s “You Don’t Love Me,” puts Sweets vocal way out in front of the soundfield, feeling as if it’s almost coming from the speakers in my listening room, instead of the cans on my head.  A similar effect is had with Elvis Costello on the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack.  Spinning the Burt Bacherach classic, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,”  this amplifier is a master of rendering musical texture and inner detail.  That’s what separates the thousand dollar headphone amplifiers from the four thousand dollar ones.

What’s in a name?

Many manufacturers name their products after their wives, girlfriends, and kids (ugh).  We’re not far off here, going to the ancient Greeks for a word that means “a character where strength and gentleness are perfectly combined.”  For those of you that feel less whimsical about your amplification, suffice to say that being an all vacuum tube design, the Prautes serves up a tremendous amount of resolution without ever being harsh.

Designed by Damon Coffman of Coffman Labs, the Prautes has a similar sonic character of their G1-A preamplifier, which is still a reference component here at TONEAudio.  Utilizing 50L6 (vintage NOS RCA) and 12AU7 (vintage NOS Sylvania) tubes, along with a combination of new and old stock capacitors and resistors, the end result is nuanced, like the world’s finest tube gear, yet never slow and veiled as some vintage gear can come across.  And to his credit, the Prautes won’t be expensive to re-tube when the day comes. Damon Coffman always manages to hit a perfect balance between the two realms and he succeeds brilliantly again with the Prautes.

What makes it cool?

You’ll either love the styling of the custom casework, built in Coffman’s home town of Portland, Oregon.  This writer is in the love category and the new, updated (from the G1-A) tube shields are a masterpiece of modern industrial design, yet totally functional.

But for almost four grand, you want more than just aesthetic purity, and the Prautes delivers in spades.  Much of this is in it’s ability to be fine tuned to your headphones.  With impedance settings for low, medium and high impedance designs, allowing perfect power transfer between the amplifier and your phones.  A good impedance match also makes for the best possible frequency response too.  Going through the gamut of planar phones, on to dynamic phones from Sennheiser, Grado and AKG, the Prautes continues to impress, via standard and balanced connections.  If the impedance selector wasn’t enough, there is a “bass boost” switch, with six positions, that slightly shelves up the LF response.  The best thing about this control is the subtlety at which it works.  Most of the time, you’ll probably need it, but when listening to a notoriously thin recording like Todd Rundgren’s Something, Anything, it really comes in handy. Worked pretty well fleshing out the bottom end of KISS, Alive! too.

If you happen to be a high efficiency speaker fan, the Prautes incorporates a pair of speaker output posts on the rear panel, and works well with high efficiency speakers, or even modestly efficient speakers in a desktop situation.  Combining them with the awesome little Blumenstein Audio Orcas on my desktop was a wonderful combination when you crave a bigger auditory space than just a pair of headphones. On one level, the Prautes/Orca marriage felt like having a superhuman pair of headphones on. The single driver Orcas reveal so much information, they are a perfect match for the Prautes on your desktop.

Equally exciting results were obtained with a pair of Zu Audio Soul speakers, which have a sensitivity of over 100db/1 watt.  Even when cranking some of the new Zeppelin remasters, the power of the Prautes had enough juice to keep the pace in a modest size room.

If that’s not enough
The Prautes features a pair of line outputs, so you can use it as a preamplifier.  Compared to a few other things we’ve heard in this price range, the Prautes is good enough to stand its ground with any $4,000 linestage you might come across, and the headphone amp is a bonus. While you’ll probably buy it as a top of the line headphone amplifier, it’s nice to know that you can press it into service should your system requirements expand in the future.

Pairing it up with power amplifiers from Pass, Simaudio and Burmester all provided highly convincing results, even using adaptors to interface with the balanced inputs on the Burmester 911 mk.3 ($32,000). Driving a system consisting of the dCS Vivaldi (reviewed in issue #63) and the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers ($85,000/pair, reviewed in issue #64) the Prautes holds its own, working the same magic in my reference system as it does with a pair of headphones on.

Do you need one?

In my opinion, if you’re going to do something, do it all the way.  If you love personal audio and you want everything your phones are capable of delivering, put the Prautes on your must have list.   We’ll be doing a little more in-depth listening in the months to come and report back, but for now, it’s a provisional winner.  And worth every penny.

US Premier! PMC’s new twenty.26 loudspeakers

For those of you that didn’t get a chance to see PMC’s new twenty.26 floor standing loudspeakers at the Munich HiFi Show, they are making a trip across the United States, with some help from PMC’s Mike Picanza and David Carr of The Sound Organisation – PMC’s US importer.

Their journey began in California, and I managed to catch up with the guys and the speakers here in Oregon at Chelsea Audio/Video, where the twenty.26s were expertly set up in a room approximately the size of my own reference room (approx. 16 x 24 feet) with a full complement of McIntosh gear.

A variation on the Fact series, the twenty.26 is the top of the twenty range, utilizing the same engineering concepts and voicing from their legendary studio monitors.  Picanza points out “the twenty series is designed specifically for the home environment, without a matching speaker in the studio monitor series.”

A quick listen reveals wide dispersion, coherence rivaling that of an electrostatic, and thanks to PMCs transmission line bass system, provides powerful, punchy bass response in a compact cabinet, available in four different finishes that should be at home in any listening room. PMCs hand made soft dome tweeter and midrange drivers make for crystal clear vocals and high frequency response.  The twenty.26s disappeared in the room, letting the music flow effortlessly.

Once this pair has made its rounds, TSO promises a pair for further evaluation.  But for now, this $11,000 pair of speakers is very impressive. Stay tuned. (US importer) (Factory)

Musical Fidelity V90-AMP and V90-DAC

When it comes to achieving big sound, small components can usually only get you so far. But in a world where smartphones have become entrenched in our daily lives, big things are expected nonetheless. For many non-audiophiles, something that takes up one square foot is better than something that takes up 20 (not including cables). With that in mind, the new V90 series of mini-components from Musical Fidelity offers the opportunity to enjoy music in a limited amount of space while achieving quality commensurate with that of a primary audio system.

When assigned the new V90-AMP and V90-DAC from Musical Fidelity, I immediately grabbed the keys to my truck, assuming they were going to come in big packages. Instead, I was handed two white cardboard boxes no bigger than high school textbooks. In addition to the amp and DAC models ($300 each), V90 lineup includes the similarly sized V90-LPS phonostage, V90-HPA headphone amp, and V90-BLU Bluetooth receiver. (We will be featuring the phonostage in the next issue.)

The V90 products, which are assembled in Taiwan, feature custom casework with rounded corners and brushed aluminum faceplates. Their heft is noticeably more substantial than that of similar products from companies such as Lepai. And even when paired with full-size power cords, interconnects, and speaker wires, the V90 products won’t tip over backwards when plugged in.


Opening the box for the V90-AMP, I’m immediately struck by the sight of an actual power cord instead of a power adapter. The Musical Fidelity design team has somehow managed to squeeze an actual power supply into a case no bigger than a paperback novel that also contains an integrated amplifier. This is huge with us at TONE, as wall warts are akin to a deep-space satellite dishes when it comes to electrical interference. (And our publisher also has a tendency to lose them.)

The silver-colored faceplate of the V90-AMP is reminiscent of full-size Musical Fidelity integrated amplifiers but with just two LED lights, for power and status, on either side of the click-step volume knob. The one omission is the power button, but as the V90-AMP’s Tripath chips use so little energy at idle, it can remain on all the time without ruining your carbon footprint.

The back panel is a model of efficiency; from left to right it features an asynchronous USB input, an on/off volume control switch, a combo optical/mini headphone input (a mini-to-RCA converter is included), right/left speaker cable ports, and the three-way power cord socket. Chances are, the V90-AMP is going to be used on a bookshelf or similar surface with 16-gauge speaker wire or thinner, so its spring-loaded speaker connections make perfect sense.

The Tripath chipset puts out 20 watts per channel at 8 ohms, with speakers having a nominal 6-ohm load being recommended. I spent the first half of the review period listening to the amp via the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 speakers. Granted, this isn’t a realistic pairing due to their 85db sensitivity rating, but they give me solid insight into the capabilities of these two V90 products. The latter half of my listening is done through Totem Acoustic Rainmakers. Prior to engaging the DAC, the V90-AMP performs best through its analog headphone input, playing lossless files from either my MacBook using iTunes with Pure Music or my iPod Classic. In my experience, the amp’s USB input struggles with higher distortion, no matter what cable I use, though other listeners should test to see which inputs achieve the best experience, as results can vary.

Taking a listen to Blind Pilot’s “We Are The Tide,” I find that the Musical Fidelity signature of palpable bass exists with this amp, though at 20 wpc it offers just a taste rather than being truly impactful. Typical of Tripath-chip output, the initial punch is fast and tight. With the volume cranked, the V90-AMP stays solid and clean until the mid-90-dB range, when the soundstage collapses, but getting to that level is pretty impressive for a $300 mini-amplifier.

When delivering something with more of a rock vibe, the V90-AMP maintains the distinct, edgy electric guitar in Sahara Smith’s “The Real Thing.” In a home office, the V90-AMP has no problem sending enough energy to move air. It will never let you forget the impact that its mighty brother, the M6 integrated, can create, but it does offer a high level of contentment with appropriately sensitive speakers.


As nifty as the V90-AMP is on its own, adding the matching V90-DAC takes the listening experience to a new level. Even the crunchiest recordings sound a magnitude or two better with the V90-DAC, which is able to upsample to a resolution of 32 bits/192 kHz. A Linn HD download of the Eagles’ “Desperado,” performed by singer Susan Wong, exudes a level of emotional ache I’ve never felt before via a budget DAC. A live recording of Amos Lee’s “Shout Out Loud” at just 16 bits/44 kHz recreates the intimacy of the small recording space.

The front panel of the V90-DAC, with its two small toggle switches, is a reminder of the 1980’s classic Apt Holman preamplifier. The left switch is for power and the right one offers the input choices of USB, coax/optical 1, and optical 2. The rear panel is divided between the RCA output jacks, the asynchronous USB, coax, optical 1, optical 2, and DC output. Unlike the matching amp, the V90-DAC uses a wall wart.

At the center of the V90-DAC’s design is the Burr-Brown 1795 chipset. The component immediately recognizes the bit-level differences between various files and adjusts without delay. Musical Fidelity claims that the V90-DAC’s jitter rate is just 15 pulses per second, with a distortion rate of 0.0003 percent. Money is spent where it matters with this product. Listening to live recordings reveals how well the V90-DAC resolves such sharp sounds as the tambourine in the Feeling’s “Sewn” that there are no fuzzy remnants to distort where the hand impact takes place.

The pleading, emotional vocals of Bruce Cockburn’s anti-war anthem “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” resonate with the V90-DAC in such a way that playing the laptop directly into the V90-AMP just can’t duplicate. Near the end of the live recording, the DAC picks up Cockburn’s deep but subtle breath, which the amp misses on its own, justifying spending the extra cash for the outboard DAC if you can make the stretch.

Sultry soprano Kathleen Edwards’ “Change the Sheets” sounds surprisingly smooth for this price point. In comparison to my reference $1,300 Simaudio 300D, the V90-DAC doesn’t have such lush detail, but for 25 percent of the cost, the V90-DAC justifies its $300 price tag just fine, thank you. The V90-DAC does what it does well, instead of reaching beyond its capabilities and weakening the overall presentation.

For those of you demanding a speedy transient attack, listening to Mumford and Sons’ “Holland Road” provides ample proof that the V90-DAC can handle quick sonic movements without a hiccup. The reproduced banjo sounds rich and resolved. Steve Martin’s impressive banjo fingering in “The Crow” confirms how well this unit handles quick transient attack.

Switching gears to complex symphonic music, I find that the Linn HD recording of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s rendition of Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor” presents a few challenges to budget DACs: a beautiful high soprano and violins, followed by the intense impact of the full orchestra, which can easily become harsh and clouded, due to the timbrel complexity. The V90-DAC passes with flying colors, keeping both voices and instruments well sorted.

Final Score

Finding musical satisfaction away from one’s main system is a hit-and-miss proposition. The combination of Musical Fidelity’s V90-AMP and V90-DAC makes that time more pleasant. The V90-AMP, with its modest 20 wpc when paired with reasonably efficient speakers, creates an emotional connection to the music. It also offers a significant helping of the Musical Fidelity sound that is found in the company’s larger amplifiers: solid, well-controlled bass performance, and a natural tonality across the frequency spectrum without ever sounding harsh.

Fleshing out details otherwise missed is what any worthy budget DAC does best, and the V90-DAC performs this admirably. With this DAC, Musical Fidelity chose to focus on musical fundamentals, thus avoiding the budget trap of doing one thing great at the expense of others, and creating an excellent balance. Upper frequencies are particularly well resolved, even with the most difficult musical presentations. The V90-DAC’s performance makes it a piece of gear worthy of serious consideration, regardless of budget. Don’t let the diminutive size fool you!

Overall, these components make for an excellent, practical, and small-footprint solution for the home office, or for those with serious space constraints.  — Mark Marcantonio

Hall and Oates – Voices

Hall and Oates’ ninth album is brought to life like never before on this Mobile Fidelity pressing.  The group’s first self-produced work, Voices presents the duo embracing a more commercial sound defined by the addition of slightly more pop and funk interacting with the harmonies that made the pair famous.

Moving straight to side two and cueing up “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” reveals how desolate the original RCA pressing sounds. Bereft of dynamics, the old LP sounds like an mp3 file.  This new version is awash with depth and nuance, and the comparison makes it easy to hear the truly great musicianship Hall and Oates brought to the songs.

The piano on “Kiss On My List,” nearly gone on the original, now occupies plenty of space just to the left of center, right behind Hall’s lead vocal. Throughout, you can noticeably hear the vocal banter between Hall and Oates, with the latter having more presence than before.  Here’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane, especially with the sonics returned to what they should have been all along.  — Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g LP

Carole King – Tapestry

Here’s an interesting pressing of a major classic.  Of course, books have been written about Carole King, her genius, why this record is a landmark, so there’s no need to blather on about those topics here.

Bottom line: Mobile Fidelity hits upon an excellent compromise with this version by putting it all on one slab of vinyl. Remarkable dynamics remain, even though they aren’t quite as abundant as on the out-of-print Classic Records reissue.  However: This LP provides an open, natural top end that no other Tapestry offers to such an extent, save the recent ORG pressing, which was limited to 2000 copies and is getting tougher to find.  All the other copies of this record I’ve heard possess a slightly to moderately rolled-off treble.  For this reviewer, bringing this quality back makes the album, and makes this Mobile Fidelity reissue the version to own if you don’t want to go the 45 route.  — Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g LP

Billy Joel – The Stranger

I’d give Mobile Fidelity a swab of my DNA if the label would work its magic on Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenade, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. So we’ll need to settle for the Grammy-winning The Stranger. Part of the imprint’s ongoing Joel reissue campaign, this 45RPM edition of The Stranger sounds incredible.  If this record—ranked by Rolling Stone among the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time—is your jam, call Music Direct right now.  Dragging out the Columbia original from my archives instantly reminds me how dreadful the original sounds: two-dimensional, lifeless,  flat.

A two record set, this version of Joel’s biggest-selling record (it was available on 8-track, back in 1977!) lords over the original. The 45RPM platters really make transients jump.  Where the original is congested, Mobile Fidelity’s edition does justice to Joel’s piano playing by giving it more of its own space and texture. In addition, his band is much better represented. Now, it’s easier to give Joel and producer Phil Ramone credit for the arrangements.

By record’s end, it becomes clear MoFi ticked all the boxes. Big, big sound. Super-quiet surfaces. Excellent artwork.  Another boomer favorite reborn.  –– Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones

Three times a charm for Rickie Lee Jones. Back in the 1980s, Mobile Fidelity released the eponymous album as one of its earliest productions. While the original Warner Bros. pressing is pretty damn good, the reissue quickly became the record that many audiophiles dragged into their favorite high-end audio shop. Between radio stations playing the hell out of “Chuck E’s In Love” and customers at the local hi-fi store that signed my paycheck, I came to dread anyone I saw walking in the door with the record under their arm.

But like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, time heals all wounds.  A 25-year hiatus has made this debut record listenable for me again, and last year, Mobile Fidelity produced a single-LP remaster.  Remarkably similar to the original Mobile Fidelity version, albeit slightly noisier, the recent LP offers a bit more dynamic range. However, because the grooves now go almost all the way to the label, increased inner-groove distortion arises on the last track of each side.

This new 45RPM version takes care of the problem and boasts a more solid foundation, with a solid bass groove that doesn’t exist on the other MoFi pressings or WB original.  No substitute for sheer groove volume, this copy really swings, with significantly more drive and a more expansive soundstage, to boot.

While a tad noisier than the original, the delicacy by which the acoustic bass gets reproduced on “Easy Money” should surprise those who have heard this record countless times. The percussion floats in with a gentleness that comes damn close to the experience provided by tape.  All the acoustic instruments tout more space and shape. Yes, this is analog done to perfection.

For those wondering, “Chuck E’s In Love” still gives me an anxiety attack, but it sounds better than ever.  If you love this record, you will not be disappointed.  – Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP box set

Plinius Tiki Network Audio Player

New Zealand firm Plinius has a long history of producing excellent sounding components that also please the eye. Founded in the mid-1980s, it has a legacy of cutting edge products with exotic names. The brand is now distributed in 35 countries, and it continues to bring new products to market. In every previous encounter with Plinius electronics, these ears have come away no less than highly impressed.  The brand today enjoys dedicated North American support and a solid dealer network.

With digital audio moving away from optical disc playback, nearly every company in the high end is scrambling to offer up solutions of every flavor. Those solutions range from USB DACs, music servers with onboard storage, network media players, and file players, as well as hybrids of all these approaches.   The task of standing out is a difficult one for digital source component designers due to the lack of any consensus as to the best approach, the myriad of variables, and the constantly changing landscape.

Enter the Tiki:

Plinius has entered the fray with its own spin on things.  It has introduced the Tiki network player, priced at $4775, in a purist approach.  It has decided to eliminate all unnecessary parts and so-called features that have the potential to harm sonics. This means there is no WiFi and no display. This is commonly known as a “headless” approach, with control exclusively via smart device.

On the back panel there is an Ethernet jack, a pair of RCA and XLR outputs, an IEC inlet, and a ground switch. That is it. No digital inputs or outputs. One could call this a “closed” approach. Admittedly, one can also be forgiven for being a bit skeptical at this design, but as you will see, based on performance of the Tiki, Plinius clearly is on to something.

The Tiki handles PCM up to 192 Khz, 24 bits and is compatible with FLAC, AIFF, WAV, and MP3. The unit is DLNA compliant and can be used with a variety of server software.  One can use a number of free and paid controller apps for Android, iPad, or iPhone. Plinius offers its own unique app called Arataki, which is available for sale at the iTunes store. More on that later.

The Tiki is ruggedly built, with clean lines and a beautiful half-inch thick curved front and side panel. The top panel is ventilated, so the unit still runs cool if left on 24/7. The Plinius logo is engraved on the front, and there is a single blue LED power indicator.  The Tiki is available in black or silver. The review sample was finished in a chic matte black.

Plug ’n’…Play:

The Tiki takes all of five minutes to install. It is truly plug-and-play. Attach an Ethernet cable, analog interconnects, power up, and one is ready to stream music. I  have terabytes of music in FLAC format on drives attached to a 2011 Mac Mini. With MiniMServer and Twonky software installed, the well-organized library is accessible within seconds. A variety of apps is used with the Tiki for the review, including mConnect, Kinksy, and Plinius’s own Arataki. Tap the artist folder you desire, then the album, and the file plays. The Tiki works with a NAS attached anywhere on your network running DLNA software as well.

To get right to the big question, the Tiki offers superb sound and may be one of the best digital source components auditioned in the reference system. It offers truly remarkable transparency and unveils new layers even on very familiar recordings. It is astonishing to hear more depth and recorded detail on classic Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span albums, all well recorded.  Jacqui McShee’s voice on Pentangle’s classic Soloman’s Seal was silken, and and Bert Janch’s acoustic guitar was all wood and steel.

The Tiki provides wonderful soundstage width and depth, with a tonal balance that is as natural as we have experienced from even more expensive digital players. The Sun Dogs, the debut album by progressive revivalists Rose Windows on the Sub Pop label sounded epic. Their stunning blend of acoustic instruments, electric guitar, and orchestral sweep was well served by the Tiki. Bass was deep and taut, and dynamics were standard setting.

The Tiki shows its true potential with high resolution material. The 192 Khz, 24 bit files of various classic Blue Note jazz titles proved a revelation. Beautifully recorded and well-mastered albums from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Lee Morgan are a joy to experience via the Tiki, and the natural timbres of the horns, piano, drums, and acoustic bass were stunning. The Tiki managed to stay out of the way, and just let the natural flow and rhythm of the music take center stage.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 192 Khz studio discography of Texas blues rock legends ZZ Top positively explodes out of the speakers. The fuzzed out guitars, sleazy grooves, and funky bass lines are rendered with aplomb and show the Tiki is no one-trick pony. If the ultimate purpose of a source component is to connect the listener to the music, the Tiki hit the mark without a doubt.

Using the Arataki app to control the Tiki is snap. It is one of the more elegant control apps I have used, and the graphical interface is attractive. However, it is a work in progress.  With engineers still trying to keep with iOS updates and market demands, it is difficult to keep up. The Arataki will prove frustrating for those with large libraries as currently the only way to select music is by tapping an album cover. Other apps offer a folder structure which allows for quick, pinpoint access to particular albums or songs. As noted the Tiki can be controlled by a number of other apps.

The dead quiet backgrounds, flawless operation, quick file access, and headache-free set up make enjoying music priority one. The Tiki is firmware upgradeable, and that provides peace of mind to the purchaser in a changing digital landscape. The Tiki may just be an anti-tweaker’s paradise.


Plinius is banking on potential customers who are sophisticated enough to set up a home network, but who also have little patience for computer audio and its endless variables. Simply plugging in an Ethernet cable gets you halfway there. Of course, there will be audiophiles confused by the lack physical interface with the Tiki, but this is its strength. With no display, and no noise-generating WiFi and digital inputs to spoil things, the sonics shine brilliantly.

Plinius thinks the network approach is best since there is total isolation between the computer or NAS and the DAC, and it provides for multi-room capabilities with one library. No need to have a bank of hard drives and a laptop in your HiFi rack. The Tiki works exactly as advertised and sounds superb. If a “set it and forget it” digital source component floats your boat, your ship has has come in.

Plinius Tiki

MSRP: $4775


Speakers Thiel CS2.4    Genesis G7c
Amplifier Audio Research VS 55    Rogue ST 100    Hans Audio 300B SE
Preamplifier Channel Islands Audio PLC-1  Mk ii
DAC Bryston BDA-1   Simaudio Neo 380D
SACD Player Marantz SA-14S1
Cables Kimber    Transparent    DH Labs    KingRex    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Audience adeptResponse    Shakti Stone    Symposium

Simaudio Neo 380D DAC

Simaudio is one of the elite companies in the high end audio industry today with over three decades of history. The Canadian company’s MOON brand products are among those that continually impress Tone reviewing staff. Simaudio’s MOON gear is hand-crafted in Quebec, Canada, and a recent factory tour by Tone made obvious the company’s obsessive attention to detail and the pride they take in every product that gets shipped. A ten year warranty on MOON components shows a level of confidence in their design and execution.

MOON is known for it’s powerhouse amplifiers, transparent preamplifiers, and their unique and rather stunning industrial design. They recently have been getting accolades for their cutting edge digital products, including disc players with digital inputs, DAC’s, and network streamers. In for review is the MOON Neo 380D Digital to Analog Convertor. The 380D is a unique product with a dizzying array of features and enough technology to make your head spin.

It would be impossible to cover all the techie notes about the Neo 380D, but we will try to summarize. First, the unit uses the ESS Technology SABRE32 Ultra DAC / Digital Filter (ES9016) “working in 32-bit Hyperstream™”.  Simaudio goes out of their way to stress their efforts to reduce jitter with what they call their “Dual Jitter Control System” that they say is responsible for producing a “virtually jitter-free digital signal below 1 picosecond for ultra-low distortion, and ensuring compatibility with virtually any connected digital device.”

There is an array of eight digital inputs including AES/EBU, USB, Coaxial, and TosLink.  The Neo 380D handles PCM signals up to 192 Khz. Interestingly there is also digital output and a digital monitor loop. There are separate digital and analog power supplies,  The design is fully balanced, and there is a pair of XLR and RCA outputs.  Care is taken in regards to chassis resonance. The Neo 380D is available in silver, black, and two tone, by the way.  A remote control is supplied to control virtually every function.  The front panel display is large and easy to read from the listening position, displaying input selection and sampling rate.

The review sample is supplied in black, which makes for a beautiful contrast with the silver function buttons and red LED readout on the front panel.  There is much more. The Neo 380D came equipped “fully loaded” with the optional volume control, and the MIND (MOON Intelligent Network Device) module which allows for network streaming. The volume control is the same circuit found in the reference level Evolution Series, knowns as M-eVOL.  The basic Neo 380D retails for $4400, with volume control costing $600, and the streaming module adding $1200.  The total cost of the review unit is $6200. The MIND module is also available as a stand alone purchase in it is own chassis.  It should be noted the 380D is firmware upgradeable via the network. A firmware upgrade did take place during the review period, and it was seamless.

The Neo 380D is tested in my system first with fixed outputs into a passive controller, then for the majority of the review period, driving a power amplifier directly using the variable outputs.  To get things started  Simaudio’s MiND iPad app is installed, with MiniMServer and Twonky server software running on my Mac Mini, where attached drives house the music library. Plugging in an Ethernet cable into unit and selecting the Network input gets you streamed music from a remote networked computer or NAS in seconds. There is also WiFi capability as well, however the unit defaults to Ethernet on startup if a network cable is attached.

From the first few albums streamed over the network, it is obvious the Neo 380D is an exceptional  digital source component.  Recordings are rendered with an ultra natural presentation with body and a sense of natural flow. The 380D seems to extract the maximum from great recordings but does not flatter less than stellar sounding albums. The 96 Khz, 24 bit remaster of the Velvet Underground’s seminal White Light/White Heat is raw, rough, and primitive in the best possible way. The 380D lets you hear how well mastering engineer Kevin Reaves preserved what was on the original master tapes. You can practically see the tape spinning.

Another catalog getting proper remastering is the Black Sabbath 1970’s output. The Neo 380D  unleashed the mayhem found on such classic albums as Paranoid, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Vol. 4.  The 96 Khz digital transfers are superb, and again the SIM creates more texture and immediacy than one would have thought possible on these thirty five year old recordings.

On more nuanced material, such as CD remaster of Miles Davis’ Seven Steps To Heaven, the 380D shines bright, presenting Davis’s horn, and the superb accompaniment from Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and others in a glorious light. The piano, bass, and drums fill the room with life like dimensionality one experiences rarely in a home system.

On large scale orchestral pieces, like the amazing Telarc CD of Stravinksy’s Rite Of Spring, the 380D creates an enormous soundstage and plumbs the depths. For fetishists who enjoy hearing the “recording space”, it was there is spades, with Telarc’s minimalist, natural recording technique paying dividends.

As a stand alone with other digital sources, the Neo 380D is beyond reproach.  Connecting my Squeezebox Touch optically yields excellent results.  The 380D also worked with the Squeezebox via USB (with Triode Applet installed).  A Jriver 19 loaded laptop also connected via USB sounds superb as well. To cover all bases,  I connected several disc transports via AES/EBU and coax and the 380D shows that all of it’s digital inputs are of a very high standard.

The Neo 380’s volume control proves to be the ace in the hole. It is utterly transparent to these ears with an excellent usable volume range and fine gradations in 1 dB steps.  This option is highly recommended if the 380D will be the only digital source in the system and you connect directly to a power amp, as is the case with our reference system.  The optional MIND module and SIM app were flawless, never failing to connect to the network. Browsing the library is a pleasure, especially one with properly tagged and with an organized folder structure.

Perhaps the only place to nit pick is the smallish, cluttered layout on the supplied remote control unit. It would be nice to have the volume control buttons somewhat enlarged. Aside from this minor complaint the Neo 380D integrated into the system without flaw, and provided endless hours of hassle free operation.

Simaudio has a real winner with the Neo 380D, especially in the “fully loaded” edition, with streamer and volume control on board. As a stand alone DAC it easily attains reference status. The 380D will remain a Tone staff reference for some time to come, and sets a benchmark at this price point. Highly, highly recommended.

Additional Listening

With so much excitement in the stratosphere of digital design, it’s easy to lose track of some of the more real world products that have benefited highly from recent technological advances.  Some might squeal that $4,400 is still a ton of money for a DAC, but in the realm of my $110,000 dCS Vivaldi, it is not.

Yes, there are a lot of great DACs in the $1,000 – $1,500 range, and they are getting better all the time, but there still is nothing we’ve heard for a grand that makes us want to forget about spinning records.  Simaudios Neo 380D, when placed in the context of a nice $20,000 system is so well implemented that all but the most hard core analog enthusiast just might want to think twice about all the vinyl bother.  If nothing else, when listening to well mastered files, you won’t be facing quiet desperation when you switch from analog to digital.  This one, like the AURALiC Vega that we’ve recently reviewed, raise the bar for musical reproduction at this price.  And they raise the bar pretty damn high.

Though I didn’t concentrate a ton on the MiND setup, I did stream a lot of files from my Sooloos Control 15 and Aurender S10 servers, with fantastic results.  While so much emphasis is put on the reproduction of high-resolution files (with good reason), what impressed me the most about the 380D is the stunning job it does with well recorded 16/44.1 files.  Let’s face it, if you have a massive music collection, I’m guessing that the majority of it is ripped at CD resolution.  And while tip-top high res performance is important, 16/44.1 performance is paramount, and this Simaudio DAC does not disappoint.  As a matter of fact, it delights.

One of the worst CDs I own has to be The Monkee’s Here and Now, The Best of the Monkees. Yet, through the Neo 380D, “Daydream Believer” makes a believer out of me.  Moving along to KISS Alive!, the same thing happens, I’m drawn into the music and my Japanese pressing of this rock classic sounds pretty damn good.  While the worst files in my collection sound great, the great ones sound sublime, and that’s what really turns my crank about the Simaudio Neo 380D.  Adding the MiND on board, just makes it so much easier to integrate your digital files into the mix, not having to add a digital cable, power cord, or take up more valuable shelf space.

This mix of sound, function and style, backed by a manufacturer known for high build quality means exceptional value, and we have awarded Sim thusly, with one of our 2014 Exceptional Value Awards.  -Jeff Dorgay

Simaudio Neo 380D

MSRP: $4400,  $6200 as tested.


Amplifier Audio Research VS55
Preamplifier Audio Research SP16L    CIAudio PLC-1 MkII
DAC/Streamer Marantz NA-11S1    Squeezebox Touch
Speakers Thiel CS2.4    KEF R700
Cables Stager Silver Solids    Darwin    Transparent    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Audience aDeptResponse ar6    Shakti Stone    Symposium Acoustics   Rollerblock Jr.

Rogers PA-1A Phono Preamplifier

Last year, we had a ton of fun listening to the Rogers EHF-200 MK2 integrated amplifier, which combines high-tech design, tubey goodness, and old-school American build quality. And it comes at a price commensurate with its components and performance.

Roger Gibboni’s newest creation is a phonostage that takes his design ethos a step further. While it’s no small feat to produce a great amplifier, the minute signal that a phonostage has to work with is a challenge for any designer. And the Rogers PA-1A exceeds all of my expectations in terms of sound quality and the absence of noise.

Immediately Great

The PA-1A has me pinned to the listening chair from the first track of MoFi’s recent remaster of Los Lobos’ Kiko. Insert your favorite adjective here, and maybe add very in front of it. In short, if you don’t need more than one MC phono input, your search ends here. It’s that good—and it’s only $7,400.

Having lived with the $65,000 Indigo Qualia and the $55,000 Vitus phonostages, I admit that you don’t need to spend anywhere near that much money to achieve analog nirvana.  We’ve been through a pile of excellent phonostages from Audio Research, Pass, Simaudio, Naim and Burmester, to name a few. As great as these all have been (and the Burmester, Pass and ARC all offer two inputs, a definite advantage for those with multiple tables or tonearms), the Rogers raises the game for what is possible without taking a second mortgage on your house.

To look at it another way, for the $60K that one of those top-of-the-mountain phonostages will set you back, you can pick your favorite $30K turntable/tonearm combination, a great $10K cartridge and the Rogers for $7,400.  That still leaves a lot of cash left over to add some great records to your collection.

Of course, $7,400 is not pocket change, but for someone taking a run at a state-of-the-art analog front end, this is incredibly reasonable. It’s like getting a tricked-out Porsche GT3 for the price of a Boxster. I knew I was in for something good when discussing the Rogers with Harry Weisfeld of VPI; we share a similar aural aesthetic and Harry knows great analog when he hears it. Plus, we both have a similar amount of respect for the Lyra Atlas cartridge, which we both use as a reference transducer. Bottom line, when Harry is excited about something, my ears perk up.

I was not disappointed in the least when firing up the PA-1A for the first time. The review sample had been burned in for a while at the factory, so I did not notice much of a change in its sonic character during the review period.

Wow, Wow and More Wow

What puts the PA-1A in the world-class neighborhood is the ease with which it paints the sonic landscape. Spinning the new MoFi 45 RPM two-record set of the self-titled Rickie Lee Jones album is spectacular. While a certain amount of kudos go to MoFi for producing the quintessential copy of this classic, playback comes alive through the Rogers and in the space between the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers—themselves masters of pinpoint-imaging performance. This is the quality I noticed most with the Vitus and Qualia stages: the way they allow the music to swell and diminish with such seamless tonal gradation, and the Rogers does the same. It’s analog at its finest.

Moving up tempo to Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, I find the level of micro detail revealed to be amazing. The little percussion and synthesizer bits that are slightly obscured via my Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE now float around the speakers, whereas they all lined up on one flat plane before. Anderson’s voice has more body and her quirky vocal inflections are now more pronounced than before, while at the same time the main synthesizer line is firmly locked in place. Fans of pace, rhythm and timing will freak out at the massive picture painted.

Again, the word ease just keeps popping into my consciousness. If you’ve ever had the chance to drive the Z06 and standard versions of Chevrolet’s Corvette, you know what I’m talking about. Both cars effortlessly cruise along at 100 mph and lunge with nearly equal enthusiasm when you put the pedal down, but that extra horsepower offered by the Z06 makes the experience of speed surreal, where the standard car is still working a bit to go from 100 to 150 mph.

No matter how much great tribute bands try to cover Led Zeppelin, they just can’t recreate the nuance, sonic complexity, or the sheer texture with which Jimmy Page plays, even though the correct notes are often hit. This is the final piece of the analog puzzle that the Rogers unequivocally nails. The reverse tracks on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour are sublime, almost dilating in the way they separate from the rest of the mix. The bell in “Penny Lane” is not only correct in terms of timbre, but the width and height information is so stunningly reproduced that it feels like there’s an actual fire truck in the room ringing its bell.

Three Flavors

The PA-A1 uses three tubes per channel, a 6GH8, a 12AX7 and the final gain stage uses either a 12AX7 or 12AU7. Rogers supplies both so you can adjust the gain to your taste. With the 12AU7, the PA-A1 has 58 dB of gain, which will be more than enough for MC cartridges having an output of around 0.5 mV. The 12AX7 provides about 10 dB more gain, but it’s slightly noisier, so it is a tradeoff.

Don’t hang too much on the ultimate gain figures, though; take total system gain into consideration before dismissing 58 dB as “not enough gain.” When using the Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier and the ARC REF 5 SE—which both feature 6 dB gain via the single-ended inputs (the PA-1A is a single-ended design)—I find myself cranking the volume a bit higher than I would normally with the ARC REF Phono 2 SE, but both of these linestages have a very low noise floor. The Burmester and CJ linestages at my disposal have 18 and 21 dB of gain, respectively, so the PA-1A’s 58 dB is enough even with low-output MC cartridges.

However, there is a Goldilocks solution. That second tube can be substituted for the NOS 12AV7, which offers a bit more gain than the 12AU7 and a lower noise floor. “The 12AV7 is a great tube,” says Gibboni, “but I didn’t want to build a product around tubes that are not readily available. I can sell you a pair of 12AV7s for about $90 while my supply lasts.”

All three variations sound good, so those leaning more towards the OCD side of the fence will probably be driven to madness trying to decide on the ultimate choice for that third tube. The 12AU7 proves excellent as a daily driver, and the 12AV7 is very intriguing in my system, offering a touch more top-end extension. The Clearaudio Goldfinger is a perfect partner for the 12AV7, while I prefer the stock 12AU7 with the Lyra Atlas. The slightly forward Lyra Titan i pairs well with the 12AX7’s warmer sound, especially when swapped for a pair of NOS Telefunkens. Crazy good fun I say, but it is nice that analog aficionados can really fine-tune the sound exactly to their liking. Gibboni says you can probably expect that the tubes will last 5,000 to 10,000 hours with this phonostage, so try and settle on something you like, and buy a second set!

Good with MM too

While the PA-1A technically has one input, if you were using a second table with a moving-magnet cartridge, you could plug two tables into the PA-1A—which is exactly what I do. Going vintage with the Thorens TD-124 turntable, SME 3009 tonearm and Ortofon 2M Black provides an excellent alternative to my reference table.

Thanks to front-panel loading and capacitance adjustments, it’s a snap to dial your favorite MM cartridge to your liking. The heavier presentation of the vintage Thorens is a natural for the tubey goodness of the PA-1A. Tracking through a number of the current Blue Note remasters from Music Matters Jazz is wonderful.

Though the Atlas provides a clearer picture, the Thorens/Ortofon combination is warmer, with perhaps even a bit more jump on these jazz classics. Horns have a little more attack and cymbals linger a bit more and have more smokiness—not necessarily correct, but a ton of fun. It’s a great option to have, whether you decide to use that second table as a tone control, or just an option to save wear and tear on your megabucks cartridge.

Very Enthusiastically Suggested

We’re keeping the PA-1A here as a permanent reference component to run through its paces even further. We’ll report back in a year, with a long-term follow-up once we’ve had time to do a little more tube rolling and try some additional cartridges. It should be a great journey.

As high-end audio continues to get higher priced, it is refreshing to find a company that is offering world-class sonics and state-of-the-art build quality at a reasonable price. Every Rogers component is built by hand, lovingly packaged, and even includes a nice card from the person who built it. The Rogers PA-1A is a great reminder that quality manufacturing is not dead in America.  –Jeff Dorgay

Rogers PA-1A Phonostage

MSRP: $7,400


Turntables AVID Acutus REF SP    TriPlanar arm    Thorens TD-124    SME 3009 arm   SME 10   SME V arm
Cartridges Clearaudio Goldfinger    Lyra Atlas    Lyra Titan i    Lyra Kleos    Ortofon SPU   Ortofon 2M Black    Dynavector 17D3    Grado Statement 1
Preamplifiers Burmester 011    ARC REF 5 SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze

Spinning Anya Garbarek’s Smiling and Waving on staffer Earle Blanton’s system, I’m blown away by how neutral, clean and airy Garbarek’s voice flows through his towering Magnepan 20.1s.  Why a remote review, you ask?   After purchasing[1] the cartridge for reference duty at TONE, Blanton took a real liking to the cart, and it never returned to the mothership.   But it’s a system I’m well familiar with:  Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2, McCormack DNA-750s, an AVID Volvere SP and the luscious Mangnepans, beefed up on the bottom end with a pair of JL Audio 112 subwoofers.  It’s a killer system in a big room, making for a soundstage that’s slightly exaggerated, but oh so inviting.

Overall tonal balance on the system is smooth, fast and extended, so the Bronze is a perfect fit, mirroring the same characteristics.  The electronic effects on the Garbarek record float distinctly a few feet in front of the speakers, feeling much like something from a David Lynch movie, almost eerie in their effect, with Garbarek gently cooing in the background.

Next up, the MoFi copy of Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space. Again, this favorite puts Mann slightly left of center, but much larger than life, the massive 20.1s disappearing completely, and again, the fun ethereal background sounds now zooming past my head, feeling like I’m listening to a surround mix – but I’m not.  The distorted guitar at the beginning of “Guys Like Me” has just the right amount of texture and bite as multiple layers of Mann’s voice enter the mix.

The Cadenza Bronze excels at throwing a very deep, three-dimensional soundstage, with a generous helping of decay to further create the illusion that Ms. Mann is right here in the room with us.  Female vocals, check.

Moving on to some classic rock, the self-titled Santana gives the Cadenza Bronze a bit more of an obstacle course, mixing in Santana’s complex guitar work with a wide range of acoustic instruments and percussion.  Thanks to the extreme speed of this cartridge and its ability to start and stop cleanly and precisely, bongos sound like bongos, and the drums are locked solidly down.   As the drums pan back and forth during the intro to “Evil Ways,” all of the overdubbed vocals are easy to pick out of the mix, while the Hammond organ is well out on the periphery.  Often a great track to play while listening to headphones (especially if one is slightly herbally challenged) a similar, spacey, otherworldly experience is within your grasp with the Cadenza Bronze.

However, the parlor tricks are meaningless without accurate rendering of tone and timbre – another area in which the Cadenza Bronze excels.  The cymbals in the same Santana recording come across as neutral and correct, yet fade into nothing with an extremely fine tonal gradation.  This is the analog magic at its best, my friends.  This recording also demonstrates the Cadenza Bronze’s ability to unravel a dense studio recording, revealing all of the buried treasure within, something that does not come easy to all MC cartridges.  The Cadenza Bronze can deliver the goods on heavy rock recordings.  A similar experience is achieved with this cartridge mounted on the SME 10/SME V tonearm combination; the Bronze is able to extract minute details at both loud and soft levels without the soundstage collapsing.  Impressive.

While many rely on female vocals to judge a component’s mettle, I submit that the male voice is often tougher to reproduce accurately because of the additional weight and increased range at times.  Sinatra’s reissues on MoFi provide an excellent obstacle course here, especially apparent when one observes the difference in recording quality between the title track on his Nice and Easy album and the second track, “That Old Feeling” – with the second track having more depth and body, Sinatra’s voice smoother than ever.

The piano and strings on this album are reproduced exquisitely. Swapping through a range of phonostages from the Monk Audio, all the way up to the $65k Qualia Indigo, (which the Ortofon mates with quite spectacularly, though perhaps a bit overkill) the sonic signature of the Cadenza Bronze remains constant.

Perhaps the only aspect of this cartridge that may be off-putting to some audiophiles is its lack of embellishment, one direction or the other.  It does not offer a lush midrange like the Grado Statement 1 (or Ortofon’s own SPU cartridge), nor does it render an overly detailed presentation like my Lyra Titan i.  The Cadenza Bronze is really a “just the facts, ma’am” transducer.  It neither romanticizes the presentation nor adds an artificially goosed high end, suggesting a false sense of resolution.  As one who sees the cartridge in an analog system as the ultimate tone control, the Cadenza Bronze will probably be more at home in a system somewhere between a neutral tonal balance and one that leans slightly to the warm, romantic side.

With a .4mv output, the Cadenza Bronze works well with any phonostage you might have on hand with about 60 – 65db of gain.  Of course it is a perfect match with my ARC REF Phono 2SE and the Simaudio MOON 810LP, yet we achieve equally good results with the Monk phonostage and even the Lehmann Black Cube currently under review.

The range of tracking force is 2.2 – 2.7 grams, with Ortofon suggesting 2.5 as optimal.  This proves perfect in the SME tonearms at my disposal, however 2.6 gram is the ticket in the Rega RP8.  As always, we suggest making small adjustments up and down from 2.5 grams to achieve the best balance of high frequency response and trackability.

Which leads to the final aspect of the Cadenza Bronze: in the true tradition of Ortofon MM cartridges, the MC Cadenza Bronze is a fantastic tracker, showing no signs of inner groove distortion, or an inability to handle highly complex musical passages.  This should be a delight to classical and heavy rock music users alike.

For $2,199, the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze is tough to beat.  Most other cartridges offering this level of performance, revealing this much music in such an unobtrusive way, tend to cost at least a thousand dollars more – hence our willingness to bestow one of our Exceptional Value Awards.   While not offering as much resolution as a few of our favorite cartridges with a five-figure price tag, the Cadenza Bronze gives you more than a peek into what the mega cartridges offer without an insane price tag.  I suggest an audition.  –-Jeff Dorgay

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze


Vandersteen 1Ci Loudspeakers

Listening to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” I’m thinking that you also need a great hi-fi system. (And a cool car, but I digress.) Fortunately, a pair of Vandersteen 1Ci speakers and some decent electronics can be had for a reasonable cost, putting a great system in reach of just about anyone: $1,149 for a pair of full-range floorstanding speakers is a steal in today’s hi-fi world, where you could pay 10 times that for a pair of interconnects.

Vandersteen’s higher-priced Model 2 speaker is quite possibly high-end audio’s all-time most popular speaker, with almost 100,000 pairs sold. That’s a major achievement in the context of some of today’s speaker manufacturers, many of which haven’t even sold 1,000 pairs. And if the Model 2 isn’t the most popular, it certainly has the most longevity, having been produced since the late 1970s – now at 2CE Signature II status.

While the 2 has gotten much of the spotlight, I submit that the Model 1—now the 1Ci—is the way to roll for so many reasons, the main one being its 90-dB sensitivity. Sure, the 2’s three-way design delivers deeper bass, but the simplicity of a two-way speaker has always been highly appealing to me. And that extra 3 dB of efficiency makes a much wider range of amplification choices possible. Unlike another great American speaker, the Magnepan, the Vandersteen 1Ci comes alive with 25 to 35 watts of clean power, making it the perfect choice for the music lover on a modest budget.

What the 1Ci offers perhaps better than any other speaker at its price point is balance. Everyone at TONEAudio is convinced of the brilliance of the KEF LS50, and while that speaker delivers more holographic imaging and ultimately more resolution than the 1Ci can muster, it lacks on the bottom-end, and requires a fairly powerful amplifier to deliver its best performance. For someone listening in a smaller room, or a closer field situation, the diminutive Brit speaker is still the one to beat on a tight budget, but if you have a larger room or prefer a fuller-spectrum frequency response, the 1Ci is the ticket.

Best of all, the 1Ci is resolving enough to make it easy to discern amplifier differences, so if you fall in love with a pair early in your system’s history, they will probably be the last component you upgrade. I know more than one audiophile who has progressed from the Model 1 all the way up to Model 5, as well as a few using 1C’s with some fairly expensive electronics.

Cliché but True

If there was ever a speaker that fit the definition of “greater than the sum of its parts,” the Vandersteen 1Ci is it. Richard Vandersteen has always believed in putting the money into high-quality drivers and crossover components rather than the cabinetry. Back in the late ’70s when Vandersteen hit the scene, his approach was revolutionary. Where so many of the major manufacturers were putting so much money into speaker cabinets, Vandersteen took a performance-first approach with the Model 1 and 2, concentrating on the internals, with a first-order crossover, minimum front baffle, and time-aligned design.

The results are stunning, and while other speakers have come in and out of fashion, Vandersteen audio keeps making solid, musically accurate speakers that don’t break the bank. The 1Ci features improvements to the dome tweeter and crossover network, along with eliminating the banana jacks on the rear panel, now using the same screw terminals as those featured on the Model 2. Interestingly, these terminals connect directly to the crossover network, eliminating the need to use premium wire—again, simplicity rules the day. While a tweeter contour (level) control is provided, the speakers perform best in the middle position in all three of my listening rooms. Should you need to slightly modify the tweeter output level, the control offers a 2-dB boost or cut, which is highly effective.

The Rake is the Key

To the company’s credit, Vandersteen provides one of the best instruction manuals in the industry. It takes even a complete novice through the finer points of speaker setup. Starting with the “thirds” method that has always served me well with Vandersteens over the years, I have the 1Ci speakers singing in my 11-by-13-foot room in no time at all, with just a few fine adjustments.

Vandersteen speakers have occasionally received a bad rap on various Internet forums for being “slow and dark” sounding. If this has been your experience with any Vandersteen speakers, it’s because they were improperly set up. Because of the speakers’ time alignment, getting the proper rake angle is critical. Every pair of MartinLogan speakers I’ve owned requires the same care. Get it right, and the speakers disappear in the room. Get it wrong and everything sounds a bit muffled—much like when you finally nail proper VTA with your phono cartridge.

Again, the manual gives you the perfect method to optimize this, and Vandersteen has done the work for you. Follow the guidelines in the manual, starting with its suggestions, and then alter the rake ever so slightly to fine tune. (and I’m talking less than an inch here) Having a friend help you will make the process go much quicker, and it is critical that you match the angle as closely as you can on each speaker. Five extra minutes spent here will reward you with a larger stereo image and an airier, more extended treble.

Richard Vandersteen is quick to point out that with some other speakers, adjusting the rake angle will tame a hot tweeter, but it is critical with his speakers to follow the setup parameters as the listening height and distance from speaker to listener coalesce for flat frequency response, at the specified point.

How Do You Want to Play?

These speakers totally rock, providing a high level of musical involvement. Regardless of the amplifier you choose, the 1Ci speakers throw a big and well-defined soundstage into the listening room. Thanks to the speakers’ natural character, your choice of amplification will let you easily tailor the sound to your liking.

I use four different amplification setups during of this review: A new old-stock Sansui 771 vintage solid-state receiver ($299); the Rega Brio-R solid-state integrated amplifier ($995, our 2010 Product of the Year); a factory-refurbished Conrad-Johnson MV50 vacuum tube power amplifier and matching PV-12 vacuum tube preamplifer (about $2,500 the pair); and the Devialet 110 DAC/streamer/integrated ($6,400).

The 1Ci speakers not only work flawlessly with each combination, they also easily resolve the nuances between each amplification type. If you prefer things more on the warm and romantic side, the easy load that these speakers present is a perfect match for your favorite tube amplifier. Even my 25-watt 845 SET monoblocks drive the Vandersteens with ease, offering an enveloping sound that, while the least accurate of anything else in my arsenal, proves highly seductive.

Spinning some vintage and remastered Blue Note selections is pure heaven. Drums explode from the 1Ci speakers, with a soundstage that not only feels beyond the speaker boundaries, but also beyond the boundaries of my modest listening room. Listening to acoustic instruments and, of course, solo vocals through vacuum-tube electronics and the 1Ci speakers easily convinces non-audiophile and audiophile alike that these speakers are indeed something special.

With 110 watts per channel of hybrid power, the Devialet 110 offers presentation that is 180-degrees different from those of the SET monoblocks. While the Devialet renders a more accurate presentation, the sheer grip of its Class-A/Class-D hybrid design provides a major low-frequency extension and control that the vacuum tubes cannot. Mickey Hart’s “The Eliminators” is full and deep, with forceful bass notes that punch you in the stomach—and the 1Ci speakers capture this wonderfully with the Devialet. Kraftwerk’s classic “Autobahn” also brings a big thumbs up from an informal listening panel, who are all amazed what could be accomplished with such a modestly priced yet well-executed speaker system.

No Wrong Moves

Stereophile once said about the Model 2 that “the only sins this speaker commits are ones of omission,” and 20-plus years later, the same description applies to the 1Ci. It offers a highly neutral tonal balance, wide dynamic range and a full frequency response—for $1,200 a pair! They nail the musical fundamentals better than some speakers I’ve heard that cost 20 times as much.

After living with the 1Ci speakers for a couple of months, I’m buying them—they are a fantastic reference for what can be accomplished on a tight budget. And they’re great speakers to use as a building block when auditioning ancillary components in the $1,000-to-$3,000 range.

We are very pleased to award the Vandersteen 1Ci one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014. These speakers are so enjoyable that, if your high-end journey stopped right here, you’d be a pretty happy human being. Even if you are a highly experienced audiophile and you haven’t heard these, you owe it to yourself to check them out. I guarantee you’ll be very surprised for the better. They redefine what is possible for a modest price.

The Vandersteen 1Ci speaker



Digital source Meridian MS200    AURALiC Vega DAC
Analog source AVID Ingenium TT    SME 309 arm    Lyra Delos cartridge
Phono stage ARC PH8
Cable Cardas Clear

Threshold CAS 2 Power Amplifier

Nelson Pass has never been one to hang his hat on just one type of amplifier topology.  During his time at Threshold, Pass Labs and First Watt, he always pushes the envelope in what can be achieved in solid state amplification.  He was one of the first to popularize Class A amplifiers in the 1970s when most manufacturers were striving for massive power output, and the Threshold 400A and 800A were landmark designs.  The Stasis amplifiers that followed, sought to satisfy those wanting higher power output while retaining the musical qualities of Class A.  I have many a fond memory of listening to Stasis amplifiers on the high end speakers of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Pass continued his quest for better and better solid state sound when he formed Pass Labs.  The early Aleph models with their odd but functional cosmetics have stood the test of time well with their glorious sound quality – and they are still highly coveted.  At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show Pass pushed further with the introduction of a pair of extremely limited edition Vfet amps which were shown in the SONY suite.  I’m not the only one who remembers how impressive SONY and Yamaha Vfet amps sounded when they were first introduced and these were glorious.

The subject of this article is one of Nelson’s lesser-known models, the CAS 2.  This amp was manufactured along side some of the Threshold Class A and STASIS models from 1979 to 1981.  It came to be manufactured as the result of a white paper that Pass wrote about cascode circuit design. This design seeks to offer similar results to pure Class A operation but without the high cost of such designs. In essence it seeks to achieve a lack of signal compression by eliminating nonlinearities in the power transistors due to voltage changes in the circuit.  The result gives one very low distortion and very wide bandwidth. I guess one could refer to this circuit topology as a “proto” Stasis design.  In its day, this was the amp to buy if you couldn’t afford a 400A.

The technical highlights of the CAS 2 are as follows:  full dual mono design, twelve high-speed output devices per channel, stout power supply and high current capability.  It delivers 125 watts per channel and rated distortion is a mere 0.03%. Weighing in at a hefty 28 pounds, the CAS 2 is relatively compact and it features the double row of LED power output indicators, which you will either love or hate.  Our publisher and I have been arguing this over many a pint since the day these amplifiers were introduced – he loves em, I hate em.

Jay Leno says “you don’t find the cars, the cars find you.”  And so it goes with vintage hifi equipment. I came by this example almost by accident and for a very low price. It was a bit rough around the edges and obviously had never been cleaned or serviced.  Nevertheless, I put it into the system to find out what I had stumbled upon. After a requisite warm-up I soon got what the fuss is about. It produces a big sound stage with a fair degree of transparency.  I did detect a bit of haze in the treble region and a some roughness in the bass region but my suspicions were that after thirty plus years since being manufactured, some parts were probably past their prime. Excited with the first listen, I immediately shipped it to Jon Soderberg of Vintage Amp Repair in Citrus Heights, CA.  Soderberg has a reputation for working wonders on old Threshold amps,  and indeed he worked wonders on this one. In addition to the usual replacement of all capacitors and output devices, we did a bit of tweaking and upgrading in the form of Cardas billet copper speaker binding posts, Cardas rca connectors and Audience pcocc internal wiring. While he had the hood up I all but the 0dB and above LEDs which now only indicate the onset of clipping. In addition, I did some chassis and casework damping.  Our publisher gave out a heavy sigh when I told him of this during the photo session.

I was pleasantly surprised returning the CAS 2 back into the system. The soundstage and transparency that I mentioned earlier were enhanced even further, the treble haze was gone, replaced by a pristine even-handed quality. The lower register was equally satisfying: the roughness in the bass region had been replaced by detail and grip.  I let it burn in for a week before I did any critical listening.

As I did listen, it became increasingly obvious that this amplifier is something special. No matter what I threw at it, it never put a foot wrong nor was it completely overshadowed by some serious competition on hand. My reference Coda S-100 and the Burmester 911 on loan from the mother ship provided different sonic flavors and bettered the CAS 2 in some areas. The Coda exhibits a sweeter mid treble and has a slight edge in the air around instruments. The Burmester is warmer in overall character and has more control in the mid bass area. However, while listening to the Threshold, I never felt compelled to substitute one of the other amps, I merely appreciated it for what it could do.

Since the soundstage was so big, I tried a lot of big music. First up was Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings).  The massed string sounds were sinewy and muscular while horn sections were presented with authority.  Similarly, Mephisto & Co. (Same conductor orchestra and label) with its multiple crescendos provided that orchestral wallop which can cause some amps to fall apart. Not so the Threshold even though I managed to light the clipping indicators a few times. The CAS 2 never sounded strained or out of control.

Moving on to a pop vein, I tried Prince’s N.E.W.S (NPG). The punishing horn inflected funk on fourteen minutes of “South” gave the CAS 2 a workout but it plumbed the bottom with forceful abandon.  This managed to get the CAS 2 fairly warm, but never hot, a testament to its fundamental design.  And while we were getting funky, Liquid Soul’s “Sure Fire One” from the album Here’s The Deal (Shanadie) with its polyrhythmic blend of rock, soul, rap and funk made my whole household want to get up and party.

Jazz recordings sounded equally fine with the Threshold in the system.  On McCoy Tyner’s  “Three Flowers” from the album Today And Tomorrow (Impulse!)

Tyner’s piano sounded crisp and clean while the cymbal work of Elvin Jones either shimmered with delicacy or splashed with force.  On “Root Down ( and Get It )” from Jimmy Smith’s Jimmy Smith Live! Root Down the Hammond B3 sound is unmistakable and the attack of Buck Clarke’s conga set is fast, meaty and percussive.

I feel lucky at having acquired this amp.  I didn’t know what to expect from it but now that it’s in fine fettle, I’m keeping it. For the mere $1,200 invested, it can stand in at a moment’s notice when I want to hear something a bit different from the system. Moreover, the basic design is such that it’ll probably last another thirty years or so.  In an era of near class D preeminence, good old fashioned heavy metal amps certainly have their place, especially ones with ground breaking design parameters. This model along with the CAS 1 (featuring 75 w/ch ) are out there but a bit hard to find.  If you’re looking for innovation from the past, look no further.  Now to find a Pass-designed preamp to go with it.  — Jerold O’Brien


Blumenstein Audio Orcas and Dungeness

I’ve got a soft spot for single driver speakers.  While they don’t do everything right, the level of coherence and midrange purity exhibited by a great single driver speaker system is intoxicating.  The Orcas from Blumenstein Audio, combined with their Dungeness subwoofer are even more so, because now this setup has some serious bass, so I guess it’s not really a single driver system.

No, they still don’t play AC/DC like my Focal Maestro Utopias, but the Orcas/Dungeness combo will only set you back about $900, and that’s pretty cool.  Again, everything has its strengths and weaknesses.  The $1,500/pair KEF LS-50s are imaging masters, the $1,149/pair Vandersteen 1Cs (reviewed this issue) are incredibly musical all-rounders, and the Orcas are masters of tone – and isn’t that just fitting?

As with any great single driver speaker, the Orcas have an extremely wide dispersion characteristic, so they are not as position critical, from either speaker or listening chair placement, to get a full-bodied sound with a big soundstage.  And thanks to the combination of a wooden port and strategically braced cabinet with no sound deadening material, the Orcas don’t waste mechanical energy converting the signal to music.

Though a fairly young guy, designer Clark Blumenstein brings serious chops to the table. Formerly working with Cain and Cain loudspeakers, he has also spent time in Japan, apprenticing with Hal Teramoto, master driver maker at Feastrex in the summer of 2008.  One listen to the Orcas and you know he’s absorbed a lot from this experience.

Not just for the desktop

While these speakers are absolutely sublime as the anchors to a spellbinding desktop system, they can fill a decently sized room with sound, as Clark and Molly Blumenstein found out when they delivered the Orcas right after the Consumer Electronics Show early this January.

As they have an 89dB sensitivity rating, and possessing no crossover, you might be thinking “perfect candidates for a great SET amplifier.”  And you might be right.  We’ve had great results with our 845 monoblocks, and even though they are not SET, the 20wpc push-pull 300B amplifier from Nagra.

No one was more surprised than yours truly, when we heard a major difference going from the 20 watt tube amplifiers to the enormous Pass Xs300 monoblocks.  Yes, we were crazy, hooking up an $84,000 pair of solid state monoblocks to the diminutive Orcas, barely bigger than the power meters on the Xs300s, yet it worked.  Not only did the soundstage explode in all three directions, these little speakers distinctively revealed the differences in amplification handily.  Pretty damn impressive for a $500 pair of speakers.

Yet as cool as the Orcas are, they still sound a little, well, small without the matching subwoofer.  And for the extra $400, it is a must-purchase, taking these speakers from intriguing to serious.  Its six-inch driver in a small ported cabinet is small but very mighty, reminiscent of the powered woofer that Spica used to make.  Featuring adjustments for crossover frequency and output level, the Dungeness can be connected via line level outputs or directly to the speaker outputs, in a similar manner to REL subwoofers.  We used speaker level for two reasons – it was easy and with many people using these speakers in a modest system, and possibly not having access to an extra pair of variable outputs, this will most likely be the more common way these speakers will be used.  Five minutes’ worth of tweaking and the sub/sat balance was set perfectly.  Bottom line – these are incredibly easy speakers to set up, another bonus.

In the main listening room, alongside the mighty Focals, these little wonders proved intriguing, filling the room with aplomb. Recordings more towards the sparse side really make these speakers come alive.  Paul Weller’s self-titled album proved particularly groovy. With no crossover to introduce distortion or time/phase errors, the vocal purity is tough to beat.  And while these small speakers can only move so much air, at modest volumes they are eerily realistic.

Moving the Orcas out of my 16 x 25 foot main listening room into the 10 x 13 foot room in my house is much better.  Putting the sub close to the corner of the room for maximum bass reinforcement and bringing the speakers about four feet out in the room (much like I would with a pair of Rogers LS3/5As)  provides as nearly an immersive experience as listening on the desktop.  These speakers are absolutely wonderful in a small room.

However, the desktop is pretty cool

With the Orcas on the desktop between a computer monitor and the Dungeness tucked well under the desk, out of sight, it’s easy to forget that there is even a sub in the system, it integrates so well.  Listening to these little speakers extremely near field, the soundstage is encapsulating – sorry, headphones just don’t do this.

Playing to their strengths, I run through a medley of vocal-heavy tracks.  CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping” is magnificent, with all three vocalists clearly delineated, floating in front of my head – totally trippy.  Crowded House’s “Whispers and Moans” is equally lush, with the speakers disappearing in a three-dimensional presentation that is totally stealthy.

Though large scale rock is not the Orcas’ true strength, they handle AC/DC well at modest volume, close up.  “For Those About to Rock” comes through loud and clear, with good distinction between Angus Young on lead guitar and brother Malcolm on rhythm guitar, providing the necessary bite and texture. Lee Ving’s “Wife Is Calling” has the necessary grit, but pushing this too far reveals the limitations of these diminutive speakers – the point is reached where the soundstage just collapses and becomes one-dimensional.  Back off just a tad from this point and it’s all good.

A great combination

While there are a number of choices in this price range, this combination from Blumenstein Audio is fantastic, doing so many things incredibly well.  If you’re looking for a small speaker system that not only plays way bigger than its size suggests, but one that truly captures the tonal richness locked away in your favorite recordings, you need to give these a listen.  And if you’re a tube/SET listener, all the better.

Paradigm Monitor 9 Home Theater Speakers + Anthem MRX 510 A/V Receiver

Paradigm and Anthem both produce quality audio equipment at reasonable prices—Anthem on the component side and Paradigm on the speaker side. The two sister companies (to which MartinLogan is also a sister company) are based in Ontario, Canada, and their complementary product lines allow buyers to piece together a home-theater system with speakers and componentry that pair well together.

Paradigm’s Monitor speaker series are the company’s entry-level models, but they are far from “low end.” The 5.1-channel system in for review includes Monitor 9 floorstanding front speakers ($599 each), Monitor Surround 3 ($399 each) and Center 3 ($599), and a Monitor SUB 10 subwoofer ($849). The floorstanders feature a 1-inch fluid-cooled tweeter, a 5.5-inch midrange driver, and two 5.5-inch woofers. They measure a modest 40 inches tall, nearly 7 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep, and they weigh 42 pounds apiece. They are available with black or cherry finishes.

The Monitor Surround 3 and Center 3 pair sonically and visually with the main speakers. On the Center 3, which weighs 28.5, a 6.5-inch woofer flanks either side of the stacked tweeter and 4.5-inch midrange. The surround speakers feature a bi-directional driver configuration, with the drivers facing about 90 degrees apart for maximum sound dispersion. With one speaker in each rear corner of the room, sound envelops the listener. Finally, we have Paradigm’s SUB 10 powered sub. Somehow, “point one” is not an adequate descriptor given the sonic heft of this unit, even though its physical dimensions are deceptively small: roughly 13 x 11 x 13 inches, with a reasonable weight of 30 pounds.

A Beautiful Friendship

Anthem’s MRX 510 receiver proves an ideal match for the Paradigms. While we don’t use its 7.1-channel capability, we certainly make full use of its 100 watts per channel of power for the 5.1-channel system. The MRX 510, which weighs 30 pounds and comes in a subdued black, can be configured for bi-amplification to give more juice to the front speakers if desired. With seven HDMI inputs (plus one on the front), the receiver will allow simultaneous connectivity of just about as many digital sources you can round up. The two HDMI video outputs render a wonderful picture. Other connection options include composite and component video inputs, two coaxial and three optical audio inputs, and five standard RCA audio outputs—but definitely use the HDMI inputs and outputs wherever possible for the best results. The sound and picture will benefit significantly.

The Anthem’s remote is straightforward for movie watching. Combined with the on-screen interface, it’s also quite helpful during the setup process. If you have a little experience, you’ll find the system easy enough to set up without the manual. If this is your first home-theater setup, the manual and step-by-step instructions will be your best friend for the afternoon.

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

One of my favorite features of the system is the wireless subwoofer. Older systems require a long wire connecting the digital processor to the sub that is an eyesore at best and a stumbling hazard at worst. It’s nice having the option of placing the sub behind the sofa where it’s out of sight, and where it also offers a tangible rumble to the listening seat.

The receiver also offers built-in room correcting for sound. It comes with a microphone kit so the system can make automatic corrections for the best sound in the listening room, and it comes with a software CD for Windows. But as my Windows 8.1 PC doesn’t have a disc drive, I have to borrow a computer and transfer the software and drivers to a thumb drive. (Or you can just download everything from the Anthem website.) Connecting the microphone to its stand and then to the PC (via the included USB cable) is easy, and a wired connection to the receiver is not necessary if you first connect the receiver to your local network. The setup wizard guides you through the process and, after several microphone placements, the system gets a good picture of room acoustics and optimizes the sound to our 18-foot-deep, 11-foot-wide listening space.

On with the Show

The opening scenes of James Bond films always dazzle the viewer with action sequences, and Quantum of Solace on Blu-ray does not disappoint. The sounds of car chases, machine guns, and explosions complement the visuals wonderfully. The shattering of a windshield during a particularly nasty car collision surprises me with the subtle tinkle of glass raining down on metal and concrete. It’s a level of detail and delicacy that I hadn’t been expecting.

The Talking Heads’ concert video of Stop Making Sense begins with punch despite the striped-down opening track featuring David Byrne’s acoustic-guitar rendition of “Psycho Killer.” While the guitar strums have a high degree of authenticity, it’s the drum machine that makes the biggest impression through this system. Especially with the subwoofer behind the sofa, the synthetic punches are tight, tuneful, and deep—even the sofa cushions resonate with the music. This setup’s bass will never be accused of shyness, but of course, users can adjust the bass response to their liking. During the band’s performance of “Slippery People,” the integration of guitars, percussion, electric bass, background vocals, and synthesized notes never leaves the listener wanting.

When listening to music through the system, you can choose a simpler stereo portrayal or let the Anthem process the two-channel sound into a 5.1 configuration. While non-5.1-mastered source material doesn’t gain a surround effect, a few settings allow the simulation of a concert venue. The full-room feel of music is great for a party. The event host can reduce the volume of music to facilitate conversation among guests, yet make the music audible in all corners of the room. In stereo mode, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Blues at Sunrise retain solid sonic imaging across the width of the perceived stage, with layering in the distance.

While more expensive stereo or home-theater equipment may offer greater realism and detail, the price-to-performance ratio of this whole system is exceptional. The Anthem proves a great complement to the Paradigms, providing plenty of punch and sonic synergy so that no particular frequency range stands out in the mix. The speakers present music well, with good high-frequency extension and without any strident sting, making it easy to settle in for a long listening session.

“Go ahead, make my day.”

While $5,000 is certainly not chump change, in the world of hi-fi that investment often only gets you one stereo component. Alternately, that same money can provide a complete home-theater setup that offers great quality, performance, and value. For those seeking the ultimate in resolution and transparency, a different solution may fit the bill, but it will cost significantly more. For those seeking a single home audio/video solution, this Anthem/Paradigm combo gets you the best of both worlds: a solid two-channel setup and a 5.1 surround-sound system—just add audio and video sources. Plus, with unobtrusive looks and the ability to hide the subwoofer, you’ll forget the system is even in the room so you can get lost in the depths of a movie.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Though I’m not a home-theater aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, the winters here in the Pacific Northwest make for a lot of movie time, so I’ve been wanting to investigate a more turnkey situation for our readers, some of whom keep asking the same question: “I’ve got about five grand to spend for everything. Can I get a killer home-theater system for that much?”

Yes you can. At the numerous tradeshows I’ve attended around the world, Paradigm and Anthem always have the most impressive displays with systems offering performance on a level I’d expect from gear with much, much bigger price tags. The system you see here is no exception. I’d pay $1,600 just for the room-correction portion of the MRX 510, and you get seven channels of amplification and a video processor thrown in! My living room has dreadful sonic properties: hardwood floors, wood-plank ceiling, and a leather couch and chair, along with a big glass coffee table. But 20 minutes of measurements with the ARC (Anthem Room Correction) technology has the whole system rocking with movies and music. Fantastic!

The Paradigm speakers are easy to place, and thanks to the ARC, you don’t have to be quite as fussy as you would without it. And did I mention that this setup moves some major air? Explosions and car chases are awesome, with plenty of heft. But even when watching my favorite episodes of Ren and Stimpy, the little bits of classical music playing in the background still float delicately around the listening space.

As a home-theater neophyte, I appreciate Anthem’s great manual and ease of setup. You probably won’t have to hire the geek squad to hook this baby up, and all of the on-screen menus are very logical, as well. In short, this is the perfect setup for someone wanting great sound on a modest budget. Best of all, because Anthem and Paradigm are sister companies, so you know everything will work well together.

Anthem MRX 510 A/V receiver


Paradigm Monitor 9 floorstanding speakers

$599 each

Monitor Surround 3 S.7 speakers

$399 each

Monitor Center 3 S.7 speakers


Monitor SUB 10 subwoofer


AURALiC Merak Monoblock Amplifiers

China’s AURALiC, a relative newcomer to the hi-fi industry, has stepped into this crowded scene with some quality products, and the company sets a high bar for itself with each new release. Seeing AURALiC’s new MERAK monoblocks (priced at $5,000 per pair) freshly out of their packaging is a bit like seeing a great tuxedo-wearing magician backstage before a much-anticipated performance. It’s easy to admire the polished outward appearance, but as anticipation begin to grow, it becomes clear that something interesting will happen when the curtain rises, leaving one to wonder if the performance will live up to expectations.

Smoke and Mirrors?

In every way, these amps offer substantial build quality and beautiful fit and finish. The sleek, brushed metal exteriors of my test pair sport a matte-silver finish—but the modest exterior does not reveal what’s hidden beneath the handkerchief. These mono monsters offer 400 watts of juice into 4 ohms and half of that into 8 ohms. According to AURALiC, the MERAKS’ capacitors hold enough energy to deliver 16 amps of peak current and 900 watts of power. By comparison, my reference amp—a Mark Levinson 335 stereo amp—pushes 500 watts into 4 ohms. From a power perspective, I never feel that my power-hungry Piega P10 speakers are limited with the Meraks in the chain.

Not a full Class D design, AURALiC refers to the MERAK as a hybrid design using Class-A signal amplification, switching output stage and linear power supply, sounding surprisingly like another very exciting amplifier that graced our cover a couple of years ago. In daily use, these monos never get hot, even when they are powered up for a couple weeks continuously. In addition to the stellar energy efficiency of the MERAKs, their design allows the user to stack them in an audio shelf without worry of overheating. Each amp measures 11 inches wide, 11 inches deep, and 2.75 inches high, so even in a two-tier configuration the amps’ physical footprint remains modest.

By sharp contrast, moving my Mark Levinson 335 stereo amp (which should have come with a coupon for a hernia operation) requires a friend, or a couple post-move aspirin. The MERAKs, which weigh 18.7 pound apiece, are extremely easy to carry by comparison. In fact, I’m able to carry one amp under each arm and still have a spring in my step.

Sleight of Hand

Connecting the amps is as simple as expected. I must give AURALiC kudos for including Cardas CE binding posts with the amps. Clamping a single knob down onto a tough plastic bracket holds my speaker cable’s spade terminations against the posts. And it’s so easy to get a good finger hold on the knob that I don’t need a post wrench (or a kung-fu grip) to get a tight cable connection. I should note that this knob-bracket combo does not accommodate banana cable terminations.

The MERAK s offer only balanced XLR inputs, and so given my single-ended preamp, I choose to enlist the help of some adapters. After contacting AURALiC to see if they have any specific recommendations for or against that approach, I get the thumbs-up for adapters, which do the trick. After testing them with my Levinson to ensue they don’t color or cloud the sound to any significant degree, the adaptors are easy enough to drop in place. Once flicking the rear switch to activate the amp, pressing a small button on the front puts them in and out of standby mode, which a small LED indicates.

Firing up the MERAKs without source material playing, I’m amazed by their silence. If it weren’t for the LED indicator, I’d wonder if they were powered up at all. With the rest of my audio chain shut down, only the ribbon tweeter of my Piegas can reveal any audible hiss—and only when I put my ear against it. I leave the amps on for two weeks straight for both burn-in and stress testing and I never experience anything from my listening position except great music. That’s a disappearing act indeed!

Rabbit from a Hat

Switching designs inherently bring a lot of positive merits. First, their power-to-weight ratio offers very good value for the dollar. They also sip energy (rather than gulping it), which makes them the more environmentally friendly option. These amplifiers have come a long way in the last few years, but I generally find them lacking some of the subtle detail, frequency extension, and sonic emotion I’m accustomed to with class-A or AB designs. But contrary to my assumed impressions, the MERAKs provide some very welcome surprises that challenge my past views in meaningful ways.

During my first listening session, covering about 20 tracks of various music types, several characteristics stand out immediately. The MERAKs do not romanticize the sound, nor do they leave it overly stark and cold. They strike the right balance. They also do a very nice job of creating the ambience and reverberation around the musicians.

Also impressive is the soundstage they throw, which is both wide and tall. There are no perceived boundaries and the sound extends well beyond the speakers. Additionally, they do a very good job of layering instruments in depth. Music reveals itself both in front of and behind the plane of the speakers. Vocals stand out front and the other instruments fall into their proper alignment behind the vocalist. This characteristic is one of the MERAKs strengths and it’s very engaging with all types of music. Few tracks illustrate this better than Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live on vinyl. When delivering the track “Roads,” the MERAKs pull Beth Gibbons’ voice out front such that the illusion of the singer extends into the room and creates an appropriately upfront but unaggressive presentation. There’s no stridency, and vocals retain the engagement they should command. The MERAKs also place the sound of the crowd clapping along well into the background.

Enya’s album Watermark does present two noticeable downsides that my Levinson does not. First, with all the juice that the MERAKs bring, they most definitely take control of the speakers and maintain a tight command, which results in the bass losing a bit of low-frequency punch and definition and the highs losing a bit of sparkle. Secondly (and more subjectively), there’s a reduction in the underlying emotion of the song.

It’s hard to put a finger on this at first, but after listening to several tracks on various albums—both digital and vinyl—I notice a consistent signature to the MERAKs. There’s a slight veil, which results in the reduction of the nuanced detail and delicacy that gives increased realism to good recordings. Of course, this quibble is in comparison to an amplifier priced around $8,000, yet the Meraks run for only $5,000 a pair. At that price difference, I’d expect the Levinson’s performance to exceed the MERAKs’ by a significant margin.


Delivering the disco-y tunes Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, proves to be a joy, with a very nice integration of instrumentation, and the perceived pacing of the music brings a captivating energy to the recording. A remastered Royal Edition recording of Mozart’s symphony No. 36 performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic also illustrates the MERAKs’ prowess with wide dynamic swings.

Pink Martini’s “Omide Zendegani,” and other tracks from Get Happy, similarly reveals an ability to pristinely render more intimate songs with a small combination of vocals and instruments. But, where necessary, the amps are also able to decipher a complex array of instruments across the soundstage.

Take a Bow

As with a great magician, it’s hard not to be impressed with MERAKs’ capabilities and finesse. Of the class-D designs I have experienced so far, these top my list sonically – I’m sure the hybrid design contributes to this sense of ease in a big way. Compared to my favorite class-A and class-AB amps, the MERAKs have only a few tradeoffs, as noted above. At the same time, there is a lot to love—and kudos again to AURALiC for taking switching amplifier design further toward an elusive sonic pinnacle than my past experiences. Even when mated with very revealing and power-hungry speakers, the MERAKs never take the sound into the realm of stridency, and considering their other merits, it’s easy to settle in for a long listening session of great music.

While $5,000 is a significant financial commitment for most people, what you get with these amps represents great value in terms of watt-per-dollar ratio. There are many good amps in this price range, so the MERAKs face some stiff competition—but with oodles of power and very good sonics, these amps are certainly worth your consideration.

Additional Listening

The folks at AURALiC are on a roll.  We’ve had the pleasure of listening to almost their full line now, and they all share an equal level of sonic excellence, build quality and elegant visual understatement.  Best of all, the gear is reasonably priced, over delivering for the prices asked.  This just might be the next big brand in world of hifi, no small achievement.

I concur with Rob on all of his observations, and feel that the MERAKs strike a fantastic balance of timbral and tonal accuracy, major dynamic slam and a complete lack of fatigue.  Putting them through their paces with the KEF Blades, the Focal Maestro Utopias and the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers proved the $5,000 pair of AURALiC amplifiers were not out of place in a six figure system.

However, like every other switching amplifier I’ve had in the listening room, the MERAKs benefit from careful attention to what’s coming from the AC line.  While they offer great sonics just plugged into the wall, a top notch power line conditioner will take them to an even further level of clarity.  And, should you need a bit of warmth in the mix, you can always pair these amplifiers with your favorite vacuum tube preamplifier.

In short, the AURALiC MERAK amplifiers offer tremendous sound for a very reasonable price.  We look forward to see what they will come up with next.  Maybe a 250 watt per channel stereo amplifier in one box?  Hmmm.

MERAK monoblock amplifiers

MSRP: $5,000 per pair


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    HP 2.5 GHz Quad Core running Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19.0.32
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner    Cardas Golden and Golden Reference/Mongoose power cords
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Coffman Labs equipment footers