A First Look At Tidal’s Music Streaming Service

Along with all the wacky things that happened in the world today, TidalHiFi launched their music streaming service.  So the quote goes, “who needs another rock and roll band,” and it might be said with equal weight, “who needs another music streaming service?”

But we do.

Unlike all the other streaming services, Tidal is serving up their music at 16/44.1 resolution.  For those not so techie, this is pure CD quality resolution, not the dumbed down mp3 files that everyone else is offering.  And the difference to anyone that cares is huge. Yes, yes, I love analog and my vinyl, but I’m totally tired with the thought of moving 12,000 CDs and 6,500 albums this May when Pamela and I move into Portland’s Pearl district and an 800 square foot apartment.  Millions of tracks, served up on my iPod, through the digital output to my dCS DAC?  Sign me up.

I love music, that’s the reason I bought my first decent stereo system in the first place when I was about 17 years old.  38 years later my enthusiasm hasn’t waned, but lugging around physical media has.  If you had been sitting next to me in high school (like our web editor, Ellen Green was) and whispered in my ear, saying “dude, someday you’ll have 20,000 albums,” I would have never believed you.  But it’s 2014 and I do.

If you’re the rabid music collector that has ten or twenty pressings of everything, the idea of streaming CD quality music probably doesn’t sound like anything that impressive.  But if like me, you’re a music lover, who even after purchasing almost 20,000 albums, cringes when the person behind the counter at the music store says, “find everything you need?” This is your lucky day.  Of course I found everything I fucking needed, I just couldn’t afford to bring 1,500 albums home today.  Duh.

Even with todays music servers, you still have to rip all those darn CD’s that you no longer want and then, depending on the size of your music collection, you might just have to become a part time IT guy as well.  Who needs it?  Not me.  The Tidal service sets you free and allows you to discover and enjoy music without any of the headaches.

So, how does it work?

Unlike the logjam that is Spotify, you’ll be up and listening to music in about 90 seconds with Tidal.  Give em a user ID, password and credit card number.  Download the app – bingo!

Like most other systems, there is an artist, album and track layout, with others favorites, etc etc. You can stream on your iPhone or iPad instantly through headphones, and if your phones are up to the task, you’ll immediately notice the increased fidelity that streaming 16/44 makes.  But we’ll argue about that more later.

Using my iPhone 5 as the physical streamer proved decent, but the larger screen of the iPhone 6+ definitely makes this all more readable for those of us 50 and over.  Interestingly, the Bluetooth connection between the Apple TV and the iPhone 6 makes for a much better musical interface, with a much bigger and more fleshed out sound, the 5 sounding like mp3 by comparison.  An hour into the demo, it’s getting a lot more interesting.  Yeah, they’ve got 12 Tommy Bolin albums in the queue.  Hmmm.  Keith Richards, check.  The new Annie Lennox album, double check.  No Tim Curry yet though, or the Beatles, but they expect to flesh the catalog out sooner rather than later. Do I really want to move all that vinyl in May?  I’m thinkin EBay.

How does it sound?

With so many audiophiles peeing themselves about DSD downloads, seriously, I could care less.  I’ve got a couple of great DAC’s in the house and for the most part, this vinyl lover can live happily every after with 16/44.  And who knows, maybe Tidal will start streaming high res files one of these days.  Until I know for sure, I’m not giving the guys at HD Tracks another penny, and neither should you.

While the sound quality via Bluetooth is excellent, hardwiring the connection from the iPhone, going via USB is much, much better. A quick listen of Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave instantly reveals how much more musical nuance is brought to the party – particularly in the upper registers.  Now, the Bluetooth connection sounds like early CD, with a bit of graniness. However, the Iphone does not use the latest, greatest Bluetooth protocol, so there’s probably more performance to be had here.

Tidal does not mention what master is used for any of these tracks, but a side by side comparison of the Laurie Anderson stream from Tidal and the original CD reveals no discernable difference between sources, via the dCS Paganini stack.  So the rest of you should be ace.

The bad with the good

As awesome as all this is, there are still a few things to be addressed, but for a 1.0 release, Tidal is pulling all A’s.  First, they don’t have everything, so you can’t dump your whole music collection just yet.  But there is a lot to listen to, and I was truly amazed at the catalog depth they’ve pulled off out of the chute. Bluetooth playback is still slightly glitch, but it is with every other Bluetooth device I’ve used, so we’ll call this a neutral.

However, that’s about 3% neutral to bad, 97% awesome.  Sound quality when Bluetooth is on point is excellent, and hardwiring your iDevice to your DAC sounds as good as any transport or streamer.  Tidal is promising Sonos and other streamer compatibility in the near future, so you can count on this getting better too.

The ability to make and save favorites and playlists is also quite good, but being wishful, if Meridan licensed the Sooloos interface to Tidal, the combination would be untouchable.

All nitpicking aside, Tidal offers a way to ditch all or most of your physical media, and have the music you love whenever and wherever you want it, all for $20 a month.  If this isn’t worth an Exceptional Value Award for 2014, I don’t know what is.  I can’t think of a better way to enjoy music!  Now you can be the guy with the major music collection without lugging all those boxes of albums around.  And, they are streaming music videos too…


Tidal Music Launches Today!

TIDAL, the first high fidelity lossless music streaming service with HD music videos and curated editorial, today announced the launch and availability of its service in the UK and US.

The ideal service for those who care about quality, TIDAL welcomes music lovers to enjoy its extensive library of 25 million-plus tracks, 75,000 music videos and curated editorial articles, features and interviews written by experts.  Ad free and available now for a monthly subscription of £19.99 / $19.99, visit www.tidalhifi.com or download the app from iTunes App Store or Google Play.

TIDAL has spent considerable time building up its extensive catalogue of lossless HiFi quality music and music videos. With distribution agreements signed with all of the major labels, including Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, TIDAL has also been working with many independent labels to offer a comprehensive catalogue that includes a wide range of genres to suit all musical tastes. TIDAL has also signed agreements with licensing organisations PRS for Music for UK and ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and Harry Fox Agency for U.S.

Available across iOS, Android, network players, and PC/Macs, TIDAL offers high fidelity lossless sound quality, a prerequisite to enjoying music the way it was intended by the artists.  Streaming at more than four times the bit rate of competitive services, users are able to enjoy TIDAL on a wide range of the world’s finest home and portable audio products.  Possibly the most eagerly anticipated music streaming service by the audio industry, partnership and integration agreements have already been made with 34 of the world’s most respected audio brands, including: Anthem, Airable by Tune In Media, Astell & Kern, Audeze, Audiovector, AudioQuest, Auralic, Aurender, Bel Canto, Bluesound & NAD, Dan D’Agostino, Definitive Technology, Denon HEOS, DTS Play-Fi, Dynaudio, Electrocompaniet, Harman Omni, HiFiAkademie, ickStream, JH Audio, Linn, McIntosh, Meridian, MartinLogan, Paradigm, Polk, Pro-ject, PS Audio, Raumfeld, Simple Audio, Sonos, Steinway Lyngdorf, Wren Sound Systems with more to come.

More than just a music service, TIDAL users also have access to unique editorial created by music journalists and industry insiders.  Ideal for those wishing to find out more about their favourite artists or for those looking to find new music, TIDAL’s expertly curated editorial includes album spotlights and daily updated features, including artist interviews, daily news articles, playlists and close-ups on artists, labels, sub-genres and historical eras. Weekly playlists also present highlights from the week’s new releases and top recommended tracks.

“We are delighted that TIDAL has launched and that music lovers can now appreciate music the way it is meant to sound,” said TIDAL CEO Andy Chen.  “But the music is just one part of the service. The expert editorial educates, entertains and enriches the music experience whilst the music videos complement the music perfectly.  We are sure that TIDAL will quickly become the music streaming service of choice for all who appreciate high quality at every level.”

As an advertisement-free, lossless, CD-quality music and music video streaming service with extensive curated editorial expertise, TIDAL is available now in the UK and the U.S. for a monthly subscription of £19.99 / $19.99. To experience high fidelity streaming, visit the TIDAL website at www.tidalhifi.comTIDAL is initially tailored for the US and UK markets.

TIDAL also has three videos that explain the service – please click the links below:
TIDAL Brand Video
TIDAL Product Video
TIDAL How Good Can Music Sound Video

Visiting Light Harmonic

Light Harmonic’s business continues to advance, and with that growth comes the need for a bigger production facility. Managing editor Rob Johnson had a chance to visit their new offices near Sacramento, California.The space may be under construction still, but that doesn’t slow their team down. Here’s an inside look at the process behind production.

Many are familiar with Light Harmonic’s flagship DaVinci DAC, which we reviewed here. It’s a true labor of love. Here’s a quick look at the upper case of a new DaVinci before assembly.

The photo below showcases one channel of the DaVinci output stage. Despite the diminutive size of the components on the board, each piece is soldered by hand.

Though very successful Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns, LH has nurtured quite a following for their Geek series portable DACs and headphone amps. Here, Gavin Fish the Director of Sales and Marketing, poses with many of the Geek products ready for a new home.

You might notice the IEM 100 shelf looks a little, um, bare. Here, Marty Murphy has his hands full refilling that shelf. As you might guess from the name, the IEM 100 amp and DAC is optimized for in-ear monitors.

Taking a step up in size, the Geek Pulse S combines a high-definition DAC and headphone amplifier in an enclosure designed for use in a desktop system.  Here, Gavin holds a Geek Pulse S circuit board. As you can see from the fine detail, each is created with the same level of care as the DaVinci DAC boards.

Adding to their product lineup is the Geek Pulse X with a highly user-friendly rear panel. Geek Pulse X is a balanced version of Geek Pulse.

Last, but not least, here’s a finished Geek Out portable headphone amp and DAC ready for shipment. It’s a very tiny package with a lot of capability. Geek Out offers the ability to handle digital files up to 32/384 kHz and DSD 128. An internal amplifier generating a full watt of output is made to power full-sized headphones. A test system including Audeze LCD-XC headphones, sounded full and fantastic.

While still in the prototype stage, here’s an in-process look at LH’s upcoming amplifier. Eric Carrasco is fine tuning the unit. For now, the internals are placed in a Krell amp case for testing.

While we heard a preview of the amp at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014, we’re excited to hear the final version when it becomes available!

Balanced Audio Technology VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

The VK-3000SE from Delaware’s Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) is a vacuum-tube linestage and a solid-state amplifier rolled into one. The latter offers 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms and twice that into 4 ohms. For the preamp section, BAT utilizes a pair of Russian 6H30 valves, which are concealed inside the unit. Some refer to these military-grade tubes as “super tubes” for their longevity and durability; they’re also alleged to have a whopping 10,000-hour lifespan. In the unlikely event of a bad tube, BAT stands behind them with a one-year warranty. (The VK-3000SE itself comes with five-year warranty.) The unit weighs in at 50 pounds and the chassis measures 19 by 5.75 by 15.5 inches. It’s priced at $7,995, which is pretty reasonable considering the amp’s broad capabilities.

As you might guess by the company’s name, the VK-3000SE’s internal circuit topology accommodates a fully balanced signal. The back panel offers a combination of three single-ended RCA inputs, two balanced inputs and an RCA tape out. Metal speaker binding posts accommodate many connection options. Keep in mind that the posts are quite close together, so large speaker cables with spade connections like mine require some finagling.

In addition to the standard linestage capability of the preamp section, BAT offers a pre-installed MM/MC phonostage with the associated outboard inputs as a $1,000 upgrade option. Users have an option of a 48 or 55 dB gain, the latter being the default. Load-wise, the phono card is factory set at 47,000 ohms, but it can be adapted for other cartridges as needed. Users can make these changes themselves by removing the unit’s cover and following BAT’s instructions. The standard load works quite well with my cartridge, a Dynavector 17D3, so I didn’t make further adjustments.

Clean Design

The VK-3000SE offers a clean, elegant external design. Our sample unit sports an anodized black finish, but silver is also an option. The hefty, metal remote control has a similar finish. The chassis’ subtle curves give the amp a sleek, modern appearance. To help keep the unit cool, which is especially important given the hot tubes within, BAT utilizes a top panel with small ventilation slits at the outer edges and holes down the center in an hourglass shape.

Once powered up, the amp’s front-panel vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) shows the input choice and volume level. The font is large, blue, and very visible—it’s easy to read from my listening seat 9 feet away. For those who prefer darkness, the remote’s display button will variably dim or turn off the VFD.

A minimal number of small controls on the front panel disguise the versatility within. The visible buttons include power, mute, input, phase, mono and function, the latter of which allows access to an on-screen menu. And of course, there’s a beefy volume knob that goes from 0 to 140. According to Geoff Poore, BAT’s sales manager, the numbering scale represents a 70 db range, in half db increments. He goes on to mention “There are two other volume “scales” that can be used in the 3000SE: “DBM” and  “DBU”.  The unit comes with a more understandable (for consumers) “CNTS” (counts) scale.  Broadcast and recording facilities are more likely to use “DBM” (-70 to 0) or “DBU” (-50 to +20).  One may preset any of these different scales in the set-up with the “function” button while cycling through.  We are very proud of the sophistication and accuracy of the volume control in the 3000.”

When toggling through the input options, you’ll see that the VFD has them listed as CD, tape, aux and so on, though the owner can modify the labels. Relabeling the third input as “iPod” proves very easy. Once programmed in, the amp stores these labels in its memory and remembers them even if it’s powered down and unplugged.

The function button is similarly flexible; pressing it reveals several user-selectable options for the selected input. Users can adjust balance, phase, mono/stereo and display mode, and select fixed, relative and maximum volume to equalize input sources and to avoid an inadvertent sound blast. To exit the menu, just hold the function button for two seconds. Most of this functionality is also accessible via the remote.

Up and Running

Setup for the single-box unit is very straightforward—just connect sources and speakers and you are ready to rock. Pressing the power button puts the VK-3000SE into a muted tube-warm-up mode; after a minute or so, a quiet click indicates the amp is ready. Pressing the button again puts the unit into a low-power standby mode, with the tubes remaining engaged. Holding down the power button for a couple seconds shuts down the unit completely.

Testing both the single-ended and balanced connections with my DAC, I find that they sound similar but have some subtle differences. The XLR connections do offer a bit quieter background, providing a little more sonic detail and nuance, and the presentation is a little more up-front. If you have the option of balanced connections, they are the way to go.

Across the frequency spectrum, VK-3000SE leans a bit to the warmer side of neutral in my system. Pitch Black’s album Rude Mechanicals provides a helpful test. The bass presentation is more relaxed than punchy and the amp has no trouble making very low frequencies known, but they never overwhelm the mix.

Extremely revealing components have a tendency to make the listener wince when playing some female vocal recordings; pleasantly, the VK-3000SE does not. Throughout Sia’s cover of “I Go to Sleep,” vocal crescendos project little stridency, despite their power. Also, as I notice in the cymbal shimmers on other tracks, the amp has a slight tradeoff of sonic realism for a touch of veil, but a degree of euphony in some circumstances is welcome. Balanced connections prove more revealing, so users should experiment with interconnects to find the sonic balance that works best in their system.

The amp’s ability to portray both a vertical and horizontal soundstage is fantastic, regardless of source material. Music extends beyond the speakers to the extreme left and right and from floor to ceiling, though front-to-back layering is not a strong point. The VK-3000SE does make it easy to pick out individual elements of a song, but it’s not a fully convincing reproduction of a live performance when band members are scattered across the front and back of the stage.

Putting the phonostage through its paces, I soon find that there’s a lot to enjoy. Analog and digital sources have similar sonic signatures through this amp, but the phonostage offers a greater sense of ease and naturalness. Vocals, like those on Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush,” move forward in the soundstage, enhancing the VK-3000SE’s front-to-back presentation. Some of that benefit, of course, is due to the analog source, but the quality of the analog reproduction is strong evidence of the effort and quality that BAT put into the unit’s phono card. It would be a challenge to find a single-box phonostage of this quality for the amp’s $1,500 phono add-on. The VK-3000SE demonstrates the synergistic value of an integrated audio solution.

Final Score

While $8,000 is a substantial investment for any piece of audio gear, it’s important to frame this product in the context of what you get for that price. You could spend a lot more money for individual components that deliver greater sonic nuance, layering, and air around each musical element, as well as a more realistic-sounding reproduction of a live concert. Of course, with added components, an owner also needs to consider the cost of extra interconnects and power cords.

The VK-3000SE is both a great preamp and a great power amp, and with the optional (and fantastic) phonostage, it’s a versatile, compact, and great-sounding piece of gear. If each of its elements were sold as individual components, the combined price would certainly be higher than the cost of the single unit, and it would be tricky to find separates that complement each other this well.

Having plenty of power and multiple input options, the VK-3000SE offers a turnkey solution that will mate well with many sources and speaker types. With a five-year warranty backing it, this is a component you’re likely to enjoy for a long time, even as the other gear in your audio arsenal evolves around it.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having been such a big fan of BAT gear over the years, I had to hand the main review over to Rob—partly to share the excitement of the brand (with which he’s had no experience) and to deliver a more impartial review. Firing up the VK-3000SE to perform break-in duties is like putting the keys in a Porsche 911, in the sense that everything is where I remember it and, regardless of vintage, the overall ride is similar—just as the dynamic sound of BAT is like taking an old friend for a test drive.

While BAT has made a name for itself based mostly on the reputation of its fine vacuum-tube gear, the company has always made great solid-state power amplifiers, which have not always received their fair share of (well-deserved) praise. I have always loved the combination of a solid-state power amplifier and a valve preamplifier, so the VK-3000SE is right up my alley.

As much fun as modestly powered tube amplifiers are, 35 watts per channel limits your speaker choices too much, in my opinion. But 150 wpc is just right for all but the most inefficient speakers. Everything at my disposal—from the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blades to the 84-dB-per-watt Harbeth Compact 7s—proves a good match for this amplifier, with nothing running out of steam until I crank the volume to beyond brain-damage levels.

A side-by-side comparison to another favorite, the Simaudio MOON 600i, is enlightening. Both amplifiers are similarly priced (though the MOON does not include an onboard phonostage option), yet the MOON is all solid state. Those preferring a slightly more neutral, even a touch punchier sound and who don’t care about the phono might prefer the MOON. Personally, the VK-3000SE has that combination of solid-state grunt and a touch of tubey warmth in an ever-so-slight way that is not veiled, colored or slow.

The 6H30 is a very dynamic and powerful tube, sounding nothing like, say, a 12AX7. And BAT built its reputation around this tube, and the company implements it like no other. Whether you’re blasting AC/DC, Coltrane or Coldplay, this amplifier offers a lot of inner detail and timbral purity in spades.

As good as the onboard phonostage is, choosing it will ultimately be the limiting factor for the hardcore vinyl enthusiast. But again, it’s damn good for a thousand bucks. If you are primarily digital and just dabbling with LPs, it’s fine; grab your favorite $2,500 table/arm/cartridge combo and call it a day. However, if you’re more of an analog lover or plan on serious analog upgrades in the future, order your VK-3000SE without the phonostage and go for BAT’s awesome VK-P6 instead. (We will have that review shortly). You’ll be glad you spent the extra dough. The VK-P5 was a class leader and the P6 promises even more performance for around $3,500.

High-performance integrated amps continue to be popular for the audio and music lover who wants world-class performance without buying a rack full of components. The VK-3000SE is an excellent choice, should that be your cup of tea. This is certainly one I could retire with happily ever after.

VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $7,995 (plus $1,000 for the optional phono section)

Balanced Audio Technology



Digital Sources HP desktop computer with Windows 7    JRiver Media Center 19    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    Audio Research CD3 Mk2
Analog Source SME 10 turntable with Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Speakers Piega P-10    Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose and Golden power cords   Shunyata Python Alpha power cord
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

Epic trade in program for Peachtree owners…

Peachtree Audio is proud to announce that for a limited time current Peachtree integrated amp owners can easily Trade Up from their old Nova or Decco series integrated amp to a new and improved novaSE model. Customers will receive a generous credit for their current Peachtree integrated when they trade it in towards a new nova125SE or nova220SE – without the hassles of selling their old amp.

This past summer Peachtree launched the novaSE series, the latest evolution in the popular line of integrated amplifiers with built-in high-performance USB DACs. The novaSE family ushers in trickle-down preamplifier design from Peachtree’s critically acclaimed $4,500 Grand Integrated X-1. This upgraded circuitry provides exceptional sound quality from digital and analog sources at more affordable prices. The two most powerful novaSE models, the 125 watt-per-channel nova125SE and the 220 watt-per-channel nova220SE are available as part of this promotion.

“We wanted to provide an easy and affordable way for our customers to move up to our latest generation of integrated amplifiers,” Peachtree Audio president Andrew Clark stated. “Over the years, we have refined and improved every aspect of our integrated amplifiers from the DAC through the power amplifier with the most recent improvements realized in the preamplifier section,” continued Clark. “The novaSE family represents a significant audible improvement from everything that came before them, especially our earliest models,” concluded Clark.

The trade up promotion runs through Friday November 14th. Eligible trade-in models include the Decco, Decco2, iDecco, decco65, Nova, iNova and nova125. Some restrictions apply. The promotion is available at participating retailers and through www.peachtreeaudio.com/tradeup

McIntosh MHA100 Integrated Headphone Amplifier

I can’t believe what I’m hearing from my little pair of Energy satellite speakers, which I think I paid $150 for about a decade ago. Dr. Dre’s 2001 should not be thumping like this through these speakers. The cause of this magic trick? McIntosh Lab’s new MHA100, which delivers 50 potent watts into 8 ohms for speakers.

The bass on “Forgot About Dre” is surprisingly deep and crisp through the Energy speakers’ tiny drivers. I didn’t think they were capable of such low-frequency response—but, of course, I can only turn the volume knob on the amp so far, to where the iconic blue decibel meters just barely start swinging, before I have to stop for fear that the Energys will explode.

The big, clean power that this little solid-state amp delivers to speakers is truly astounding—especially considering that it was designed as a headphone amplifier. As most TONE readers know, McIntosh doesn’t really do anything small or halfway. As such, the MHA100 is no mere desktop audio accessory. With a set of sturdy speaker terminals on the back panel, along with a wealth of inputs, this is a pretty serious integrated amplifier. Inputs include USB, coax, and AES/EBU on the digital side—the onboard DAC can facilitate digital files up to 24 bit/192 kHz—and balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA for analog (plus an RCA preamp output), so this amp can take pretty much any source you throw at it.

This also isn’t exactly something you’d want on your desktop: It’s about a foot wide, a foot and a half deep, and 6 inches tall, and it weighs more than 26 pounds. The cost for this not-so-little wonder is also in line with what our readers likely expect from McIntosh: $4,500, which is probably more than most people are willing to spend for a headphone amp—but considering that this really is an integrated amp (and a very capable one at that), the price tag isn’t entirely unreasonable.

The MHA100 also does a solid job with the floorstanding ELAC FS249s—which, at $8,000 a pair and with a recommended power input of 30 to 400 watts per channel, are in another world than my little Energy speakers. Through the ELACs, the MHA100 delivers Jason Isbell’s outstanding album Southeastern will all the finesses and soul that it requires, but on hard-hitting rock and pop from the likes of Vampire Weekend, Jack White, and Led Zeppelin, the McIntosh amp has no problem throwing down.

Of course, I would be remiss not to discuss the MHA100’s greatest capability, its headphone section, which is among the best I’ve heard. Perhaps its most noteworthy feature is the ability to select from three headphone impedance ranges—8 to 40 ohms, 40 to 150 ohms, and 150 to 600 ohms—all powered by a version of McIntosh’s famous output Autoformer, adapted for headphone use. These selections cater to a variety of headphones—everything from ear buds to ear cans. (Headphone impedance, input/output, volume, and limited bass adjustments can all be controlled using the two dual-level knobs on the front panel or with the small supplied remote.)

A 24/192 version of Dark Side of the Moon sounds downright eerie through the MHA100 and a pair of 600-ohm Beyerdynamic T1 headphones. The auxiliary sounds at the beginning of “Money” are so real and detailed that they almost induce hallucinations. Similarly, Songs of Leonard Cohen on vinyl through these headphones gives one the creepy impression that Cohen’s lips are right next to your ear and he’s whispering to you. The MHA100 reveals details on that record—such as distant backup vocals and various instrumental nuances—that are not present though most systems. The Mac amp illuminates them in the mix, bringing the listener deeper into the music.

The soundstage this amp presents through headphones is big and lifelike, and its accuracy and clarity across the frequency spectrum are reference-level good. McIntosh has done a phenomenal job adapting its trademark amplifier sound for the headphone user.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful the headphone section is—but at $4,500, the MHA100 isn’t for everybody. Those who take the plunge will have a component that they can base a reasonably sized system around. Unless you’re looking to drive gigantic or overly power-hungry speakers and run multiple analog and digital sources, the MHA100 will give you everything you need with all the power, finesse, and quality for which McIntosh is known. Oh yeah, and it’s a kick-ass headphone amp.  Bailey S. Barnard

McIntosh MHA100 Integrated Headphone Amplifier

MSRP: $4,500


Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier

Though famous for his tube designs, Frank Van Alstine is no slouch with solid state either.  With passive EQ and no coupling capacitors, this American made phonostage offers no frills high performance.  And MC owners take note, AVA can customize the Vision to the loading requirements for your cartridge.  We are currently using this with the legendary Denon 103 and it offers mega performance.

-Jeff Dorgay

Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier



Simaudio MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage

Bouncing between St. Vincent’s current and last album, I can’t help but be in awe of the staying power of the vinyl record.  Thanks to the many manufacturers, like Simaudio, who have not only kept the faith, but continue to innovate and refine their designs, spinning records is better than ever in the year 2014 than it ever was.  Who knew?  Even better much of the technology in flagship designs is making its way down the food chain to more affordable designs like the MOON 610LP here.

We’ve been using the Simaudio MOON 810LP phonostage as a reference component for some time now, but at $13,000 is out of reach for a certain group of analog enthusiasts.  The $7,500 MOON 610LP, though not inexpensive, opens another door.   Comparing the 810LP and 610LP side by side reveals subtle yet profound differences and while the 810LP ultimately reveals more music than the 610LP; some may actually prefer the presentation of the 610LP.

A unified voice

First and foremost the 610LP has a similar, yet slightly softer voicing than the 810LP.   The more expensive MOON offers up more resolution on leading and trailing transients in a take no prisoners system, but some of your preference may come down to overall system tuning and associated components.  Going back and forth with the Lyra Titan i, I actually preferred the 610LP in my reference system, which is a few clicks to the warm side of neutral.  Those wanting every last molecule of resolution will prefer the 810LP, but the 610LP is no slouch.  Dare I say it, but the 610LP almost sounds a touch more “tube-like” in the same vein of my favorite solid-state preamps from Pass, Burmester, Robert Koda and Luxman.  Never slow or veiled, just a bit lusher than the 810LP, which struck us as one of the most neutral phonstages we’ve had the pleasure to audition.

Tracking through the recent Blue Note remasters and the recent Miles Davis discs from Mobile Fidelity are a perfect example of the 610LP at its finest. This phonostage creates a soundfield that is both extremely deep and wide, going well beyond the boundaries of my Dynaudio Eminence Platinum speakers, but the magic doesn’t stop here.  Where the 610LP mirrors the performance of it’s more expensive sibling is in it’s ability to render acoustic instruments naturally.

Switching from the Titan i to the more tonally neutral Atlas, it’s tough to tell these two phonostages apart through the critical midrange, especially with modest dynamic swings.  The cymbals at the beginning of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Blue Collar” float in the air in front of my listening chair, feeling right spatially as well as feeling as if the drum kit is of a realistic size.  The 610LP does not exaggerate perspective, which can be fun for a short period of time wears on you after long listening sessions.

Quiet, quiet, quiet

Though the 610LP has a claimed signal to noise ratio of 93db, while the spec on the 810LP  is 95db, you’d be tough to tell them apart.  This phonostage is dead quiet.  Even the most delicate pieces of classical music, the noise floor is always in the recording, with tape hiss from the master coming through, not the electronics.  Personally, this is one of the true benefits of a great solid-state phonostage – the absence of noise.  While a number of tubed units can add a touch of palpability (wanted or unwanted) that the solid state units can’t match, they always seem to impart a bit of sporadic tube noise.

Depending on your system, this can go from barely audible to somewhat annoying.  Even more annoying is trying to rustle up a matching set of tubes for your phonostage that you love, only to find the tonality changed when it’s time to re-tube.  Another awesome reason to go solid-state; turn the 610LP on, leave it on and forget about it forever, unless you change cartridges and need to adjust gain and loading.  Personally, as much fun as tube rolling is, I enjoy the consistency of transistors – your mileage may vary.

If you haven’t sampled a top solid-state amplification component in a while, you will be surprised at how lifelike and natural the 610LP renders music without needing vacuum tubes.  The gap has been closing for years and Simaudio is one of the rare few that produces solid-state electronics that have no “sound” of their own.  If you desire the tonal flavor that comes with a vintage vacuum tube sound, that’s another story.

Mega adjustable

With 64 steps for resistive loading from 12.1 ohms to 47k, 16 steps for capacitive loading from 0pf to 470pf and 16 steps of gain adjustment from 40db to 70db, I can’t imagine a cartridge that the 610LP can’t handle.  I certainly had no issues with the cartridges at my disposal and appreciated the wide range of adjustability down at the lower end of the scale – critical with some of the Koetsus and especially the Rega Apheta, which mates incredibly well with the 610LP.  Ultra OCD analog lovers will appreciate the fine adjustments available, and again, the more resolving your system, the easier it will be to hear those fine adjustments.

As with the 810LP, all of the adjustments are via DIP switches on the underside of the unit, so this is not a phonostage for casual adjustment.  After living with both of these units for some time, I suggest putting your 610LP on a shelf with plenty of height, so you can prop it up and not have to disconnect it or remove it from the rack when making loading settings.

It’s worth mentioning that the 610LP makes an incredible moving magnet phonostage.  Though I’m guessing that most analog enthusiasts at this level will have probably graduated beyond the top MM carts (all in the $800 – $1,200 range), if you start your assault on top notch analog, you can start with the 610LP as an anchor and go up the scale on cartridges as your budget allows.  The 47k setting is a wonderful match for the Grado moving iron cartridges, which have a low output of .6mv, yet still require 47k loading.   For those in the audience with the Grado Statement and Statement 1, the 610LP is a perfect match for these cartridges.

The 610LP also offers balanced inputs as well as outputs. If you have a balanced tonearm cable for your turntable, take advantage of the fully balanced, differential circuit design of the 610LP.  Using identical Cardas clear tonearm cables, my impromptu listening panel always picked the balanced option as more open and dynamic.  We’re not talking a major delta here, but noticeable enough that even untrained listeners could pick it out, and again, the more resolving your system, the bigger difference it will make, especially if you have a fully balanced system.

Rounding out the package

For those not familiar with Simaudio, all engineering, design and assembly is done at their factory in Montreal, and like Boulder, they do all their chassis metalwork in house as well. The MOON 610LP is a member of their Evolution series, robustly built-both mechanically and electronically, as you would expect from a flagship component.

Lifting the lid reveals a massive power supply that Simaudio claims has more reserve power, is faster and quieter than an equivalent battery supply.  Going topless also reveals first-rate components throughout, and having been to the Sim factory (see issue 32) the care taken in machining chassis parts and physical assembly is some of the best our industry has to offer.  This is why Simaudio offers a ten year warranty on their products – very few of them ever go back home to the mother ship.

More power

You’ll notice a socket on the rear panel of the 610LP marked “power supply,” allowing you the option to take advantage of Simaudio’s 820S external power supply.  We have a review of the 820S in the works and while this massive power supply does extend the range of the 610LP in a mega system, most of you either don’t need it or would be better off stepping up to the 810.

However, because the ($8,000) 820S has outputs marked “analog power” and “digital power,” Those having either the 740P preamplifier, the 650D or 750D DAC/Transport would be well served to split the duty of the 820S between phonostage and one of these other components.

Simaudio’s MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage is a fantastic addition to an analog system, offering an incredibly high price to performance ratio for the analog enthusiast that wants a cost no object phonostage in a single turntable system without refinancing their home.

For all but the most obsessed, this will be the last phonostage you need to buy.  Very enthusiastically recommended.  -Jeff Dorgay

Simaudio MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage

MSRP: $7,500



Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF5SE    Burmester 011
Turntable AVID Acutus Reference SP/Tri-Planar/Lyra Atlas    Rega RP10/Apheta
Cartridges Lyra Titan i    Lyra Kleos    Ortofon Cadenza Bronze    Ortofon SPU    Ortofon 2M Black    Grado Statement 1    Dynavector XV-1S
Power Amplifier Pass Xs300 monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Preamplifier

PrimaLuna and I go way back; back before TONEAudio was even a twinkle in my eye back.  The first audio review I wrote for The Absolute Sound happened to be the original EL-34 based ProLogue 1, and was way more exciting than the boring NAD integrated amplifier that Robert Harley was going to have me cover for my first assignment.  I bought that review sample not only because it sounded great, but it was so much fun; reminding me of all the great EL-34 amps I’d owned over the years.  11 years later it’s still in my family, going strong, with merely one set of replacement tubes – a testament to PrimaLuna quality.

It’s been fun watching TONE and PrimaLuna grow over the years, diversifying our products, but keeping the same ethos of offering high performance at a reasonable price, never giving quality a back seat.  PrimaLuna now has a range of four vacuum tube preamplifiers; with the DiaLogue being the top of the range at $3,199.

Where a number of past PrimaLuna preamplifiers relied on the 12AX7 tube, the DiaLogue Premium takes advantage of the 12AU7, six of them – and this has two big benefits.  For those not familiar with the brand, PrimaLuna gear has always been super easy on tubes, so investing in a good set of premium NOS (New Old Stock) tubes has always been solid thinking.  Fortunately, where the best 12AX7s are now pushing $200 – $350 each, equally good 12AU7s will only set you back about $75 each.  And PrimaLuna’s US importer Kevin Deal can hook you up.

You don’t need to invest in NOS tubes if you don’t feel inclined.  The DiaLogue Premium sounds great out of the box.  Tube rolling is only for those who are part curious, part OCD, and can yield different results for those wanting to chase the rabbit.  Most of you will just unbox your DiaLogue Premium and enjoy.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

The biggest advantage of the 12AU7 though, is it’s lower gain.  With so many of todays sources having a four volt output, the 22 -28db of gain that most contemporary line stages provide is just not needed.  You end up with the volume control always being used in the 7:00 to 9:00 position and not only having precious little range of control, but noise can be an issue because the preamp is not running in it’s sweet (and lowest noise) spot.

Less gain, less pain

The DiaLogue Premium, having 10db of gain, gives you plenty of volume control range and is dead quiet throughout.  Using it with my Zu speakers (101db sensitivity) and a pair of 845 SET amplifiers, I had the silky smooth silent treatment, even with my ear right up against the ribbon tweeter.  When substituting the DiaLogue Premium, for the Nagra Jazz preamplifier in an all Nagra system, thanks to the low gain, the PrimaLuna was quieter than the mighty Nagra, costing three times more.

A dual mono design with five inputs and two variable outputs, the DiaLogue Premium should be able to handle anything you can throw at it, except balanced sources. (You can use an adapter if need be)  As a tape enthusiast, I really appreciated the additional, fixed level, buffered tape output to make mix tapes on my trusty Revox.  A home theater pass through is also incorporated, for those needing to make the DiaLogue part of a home theater system.

Running the DiaLogue Premium in our main reference system, displacing the $13,000 ARC REF 5SE preamplifier and the $32,000 Robert Koda K-10 was highly insightful.  While the big bucks preamplifiers revealed more music and more dynamic slam at the extremes, the mighty PrimaLuna was never embarrassed.  Kind of like comparing a Porsche Cayman S to a GT3.

Trying the DiaLogue Premium with about ten different power amplifiers from Simaudio to Burmester again underscored it’s versatility.  Only the Burmester 911 Mk. 3 really needed the volume control cranked all the way to get full output.  (no doubt because we were using balanced adaptors here, all of the other balanced power amplifiers tried had separate, single ended RCA inputs. That lower gain was a real blessing when using vintage power amplifiers like the Conrad Johnson MV-50, which only need about .6 volts to be driven to full output.  FYI, combining this preamplifier with my MV-50 that has had all of the caps upgraded to CJD Teflon was absolutely heavenly, mated with my Quad 57s.

I’ve always found PrimaLuna gear to be a wonderful combination of old and new school design and sonics, yet as you go up the line, the top components in the PrimaLuna line sound more like current vacuum tube electronics, i.e. more linear and neutral, where the entry level pieces sound slightly more vintage.  Much of this is due to the beefy power transformers used, combined with premium Takman resistors, SCR foil capacitors and Swiss sourced, silver plated oxygen free copper wiring throughout.

It’s also worth mentioning that the DiaLogue Premium has no problem driving long runs of interconnect cables.  Comparing the sound between a 20 foot run of AudioQuest (find cable here) and a one meter pair revealed no difference, and no rolling off of the high frequencies, so those that like having their power amplifier down on the floor close to the speakers, with the rest of their components further away on a rack will be pleased.  I had similar luck with cable from Cardas and ALO Audio.

Love that tube

Personally, there is always something special to me about the sound of a preamplifier built around the 12AX7 or 12AU7 tube, they just always seem to paint the sonic picture with a little bit more air and gradation than the 6DJ8/6922 designs do, and feature more sonic gradation between heavy and soft tones than a preamplifier utilitizing the 6H30 tube.  Neither is better or worse, just different.  A Lotus Elise gets around the curves with a little less effort than a Corvette or a Viper.

I noticed this the most when listening to acoustic music of any kind.  Spinning the XRCD of Lee Morgan’s Tom Cat, it was easy to discern the differences in rendition between my vintage ARC SP-11 (6922 design), current REF 5SE (6H30 design) and the Koda K-10. (best solid state I’ve ever encountered)  Morgan’s trumpet has more “blat” and slightly more contrast with the REF 5SE, but the cymbals are dreamier, more palpable, and smoother through the DiaLogue Premium.

Going back to some of George Winston’s solo piano records on the Windham Hill label, the pianos decay is equally enticing through the DiaLogue Premium.  This is a totally musical preamplifier, always getting out of the way of the presentation, so that you don’t focus on the gear.  Not all preamplifiers can do this regardless of price, so this is a home run for the PrimaLuna – and amazing for $3,199.

Each preamplifier brought its own palette to the reproduction, yet the DiaLogue offers an excellent balance, and cohesion to the musical presentation, almost like listening to a full range ESL, rather than a speaker made of woofer, tweeter and midrange.  The DiaLogue provides fatigue free listening at its finest, and made for many 12-hour listening sessions without wanting to ever turn the music down.

While the DiaLogue Premium turns in good performance at the frequency extremes, offering solid, defined and tuneful bass response, combined with extended highs that are never screechy, it’s this coherence and ability to nail instrumental tone and texture that makes it so compelling.

The DiaLogue Premium does what tubes do best, providing a dreamy, three dimensional sense of ambiance, giving the listener a healthy dose of “you are there” realism. Eschewing female vocals, I spent a lot of time listening to Johnny Cash, Elvis and Tom Waits through the DiaLogue Premium and I always came back impressed.  The soundstage painted is huge, in all three dimensions, making my Dynaudio Eminence Platinum speakers disappear in the room, no small feat.

Rounding the bases

The DiaLogue Premium preamplifier offers incredible sound and value for $3,199. If I were building a system in the $20 – $50k range, I can’t imagine needing to spend more than this for a linestage, provided you didn’t absolutely have to have balanced outputs.  The ability to tube roll with ease and modest cost is another big bonus with this preamplifier, allowing the ability to either fine tune the sound, or just play with a different feel.

Best of all in over a decade now, PrimaLuna has not compromised a molecule on build quality.  They are still making gear that feels bank vault solid, encased in a dark blue, high gloss metallic finish that would do an Aston Martin proud. (and a set of cotton gloves to keep fingerprints off of said finish)  Even the shipping cartons are the best in the business, with three layers of heavy cardboard to make sure your purchase arrives without blemish.

Combining all of these small touches and world class sonics, makes for gear that owners don’t want to part with.  Perusing Audiogon or EBay rarely reveals used PrimaLuna gear, and when it does go for sale, it fetches top dollar.  Another home run from PrimaLuna!

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Preamplifier

MSRP:  $3,199




Digital Source dCS Vivaldi Stack
Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/TriPlanar/Lyra Atlas
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Power Amplifiers PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifiers    Burmester 911 mk. 3   Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    Nagra 300B    Pass Xs300    Pass Aleph 5
Cable Cardas Clear
Speakers Dynaudio Eminence Platinum,    Acoustat 2+2, KEF Blade

Devialet 120

Everything we loved about the Devialet 110 is here in spades with the new 120, but the addition of a crucial feature makes the 120 more than a simple upgrade.  Devialet’s new SAM (Speaker Active Matching) technology, in a nutshell, provides a more synergistic coupling between amplifier and loudspeaker, thanks to their engineers harnessing more power of the on board DSPs.  Visually, the 120 looks identical to the 110, with the same compliment of inputs and outputs.

SAM is an optimized program for your individual speaker (Devialet is constantly adding new SAM profiles to their website) that claims full phase alignment over the entire frequency spectrum and extended low frequency response down to 25Hz.  While we have no way of measuring this, the results with the Penaudio Cenya speakers, the KEF LS-50s and the KEF Blades was nothing short of stunning.  We are currently working on a full review of the Devialet Ensemble system, utilizing a pair of Devialet designed Ahtom GT1 speakers.

This is not a subtle upgrade.  While the KEF Blades are no slouch in the bass department, it was easy to hear more extreme bass extension on bass heavy tracks from Pink Floyd and Daft Punk.  Not only was there more detail in the low bass as you would get with a top notch subwoofer, there was more punch, more weight.  The heartbeat in the classic Floyd track “Speak to Me: Breathe” now feels heavier, more ominous than without SAM.  For the Thomas’s doubting SAM, the Devialet remote allows you to dial up how much SAM processing you’d like in the system, making it easier to see the results first hand.

In my smaller listening room, this proved very useful with the LS-50 and the Cenyas, as there was just a bit too much bass with SAM set at 100.  Both work best with SAM set in the 60-70 range.  With SAM engaged I was able to shut the subwoofer off with both of these speakers, it was no longer needed.

The new functionality that SAM brings to the picture, along with the additional 10 watts per channel that the 120 offers is only a firmware upgrade away for existing Devialet 110 owners. Fantastic sound and drop dead gorgeous casework aside, this is the best thing about owning a Devialet product is that they are future proof.  It was awesome to view the 120 at the Munich hifi show and be told, “You only need to download the new firmware and you have a 120.”  That’s music to my ears.

Devialet 120



Peachtree nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

The idea of an integrated amplifier has always appealed to me. Combining the amplifier and preamplifier sections in a properly isolated design makes economic sense—just sit back and enjoy the music without the bleed-through of a tuner.

Last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing Peachtree’s nova125 integrated and, while I enjoyed both its form and function, I wondered what impact nearly doubling its power would have on the notoriously power-hungry Magnepan 1.6 speakers. Well, I now know—and it’s been worth the wait. The nova220SE possesses tremendous grip, never letting the Magnepans beat it into submission.

Delving into orchestral music with Beethoven’s 9th by the North German Radio Symphony conducted by Günter Wand, I experience the symphony’s beautiful, complex inner movements and quick pace changes, which prove a great test for the nova. Where lesser-quality amplifiers struggle to keep instrument separation, the nova performs exceedingly well. Even under the intensity of the Magnepan’s 2-ohm load drops and volume levels crossing 100 dB, the amp stays in control. It revels in being driven hard; this isn’t an integrated for those who enjoy listening to music at whisper levels.

Nuts and Bolts

The nova continues Peachtree’s distinctive and curvaceous design. The various stained-wood cases have been replaced by black lacquer, and the front panel is brushed aluminum, with a similar gray color to that of Kyocera equipment from the 1980s.

The nova’s front panel is clean, though I do wish the selector buttons were identified with a slightly larger font, as the contrast on the panel is minimal. The power button is located in the lower left, with the five source buttons—USB, coax, opt 1, opt 2, and analog—encircled by blue LEDs. Following the Peachtree tradition, a blue LED-lit oval window displays the nova’s Russian-made 6N1P tube. A large, smoothly rotating volume knob completes the front panel. The back panel is nearly as clean: wired remote and source inputs, jacks for pre-out and RCA, right and left speaker binding posts, power cord receptacle, and master power switch. The amp is 14.8 inches wide, 5.2 inches tall, and 11.5 inches deep, and it weighs just over 19 pounds.

The matching anodized-aluminum front remote is also straightforward, with two groupings of buttons; the upper for controlling volume and tube buffer and selecting the USB input, and the lower for selecting the other four inputs.

As I go through my various test tracks, the toms on the drum kit really stand out. The nova makes the various hits pop with intensity. Whether reproducing the attacks of the Who’s wild man Keith Moon or the magic of Buddy Rich, the exact placement of the drumsticks on the toms is distinct and easily discernable. Chalk that up to the class-A preamp section and the 220/350 watts per channel (into 8 and 4 ohms, respectively) of the class-D power section. The clarity between the left and right hits on Dan Fogelberg’s “Higher Ground” has me replaying the track several times over.

Until recently, praising class-D power amplifiers came with a warning that proper speaker matching is crucial. Just like Peachtree’s nova125, the nova220SE needs no such disclaimer. With speakers from Harbeth, Totem, ACI, Golden Ear, and Magnepan, this integrated amplifier shows no weaknesses—though the combination with the Golden Ear Triton Sevens is a particularly good match, both sonically and financially. Just one listen to “Still… You Turn Me On” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer convinces me to keep the amp-speaker combo together for a week.

A Lot to Love

To the team at Peachtree, the word integrated means including a built-in DAC that utilizes the asynchronous ESS Sabre Hyperstream 9022 chip, USB and coax inputs that can handle resolutions ranging from 16 bits/44 kHz all the way to 24/192, and two optical inputs (which are limited to 24/92). Using my MacBook running iTunes/Pure Music and a Wadia i170 iPod dock, I’m able to test all the configurations. The DAC section is a fine performer—definitely not a gimmick. I find it bettering the Audioengine D2 DAC by pulling out greater inner detail, which is especially noticeable in the guitar and piano of William Ackerman’s “Climbing in Geometry.” On the same song through my reference Simaudio 300D DAC, the edges of the highest frequencies come out a hair shriller than through the nova, and the acoustic guitar is a bit drier—but overall the nova puts forth an impressive effort.

Since my wife works from home, I spend a great deal of time using the nova’s headphone output, which offers 1,170 mW into 32 ohms and really brings a pair of Sennheiser HD800s to life. Bonnie Raitt’s mellow masterpiece “Nick of Time” holds the same acoustic properties as when running through speakers, signaling that the headphone section wasn’t an afterthought but a well-thought-out part of the nova220SE. For those readers who wonder if the headphone output gets the tube buffer treatment, the answer is yes and it offers the same tubey goodness as the amplifier does.

When listening to the nova through speakers, I keep the tube buffer engaged for the most part, as I’m a fan of the harmonic pleasure that vacuum tubes provide. But at times it’s hard to tell when the 6N1P tube is in the auditory loop, which I attribute to the superb class-A preamplifier section. Consider the tube buffer as a tone control for the 21st century.

When nothing but heavy metal will suffice, the nova, like a Detroit muscle car, is ready to go balls to the walls at anytime. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions alternates between stoplight blues and accelerating guitar riffs. The sheer grunt to put the listener back in his or her seat is the nova220SE’s specialty. Get comfortable and enjoy the sonic ride.

Obvious differences between the $1,999 nova220SE and my reference $8,000 Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated are subtle but prevalent. The little things are missing from the nova’s resolution. For example, the xylophone notes at the beginning of Steely Dan’s classic “Aja” don’t take on the three-dimensionality that I’m used to hearing. Steve Martin’s exceptional banjo picking through the nova occasionally sounds a bit flat when measured against the i-7. But beyond that, the nova is a very worthy competitor.

For the digital junkie, the nova’s myriad inputs enable CD playback, mass storage, and streaming from multiple sources without swapping wires—just push a button and jump from a hard drive to AirPlay or Sonos. Vinyl lovers only need to plug their favorite phono preamp into the nova’s auxiliary input to enjoy their favorite records. For those with budgetary concerns, the low energy usage of the nova’s class-D power section and its versatile preamp section, along with Peachtree’s two-year warranty, make it a wallet-friendly investment.

Final Tally

As smitten as I was with the nova125 last year, I’m totally impressed with the nova220SE. With nearly twice the power and an improved preamp design trickled down from Peachtree’s top-of-the-line X-1 integrated, it makes terrific music with every speaker combo I have on hand. Right now, if I were forced to change integrated amplifiers, the nova220SE would be my choice. The sheer value of its capabilities as an integrated amp, DAC, and headphone amplifier makes the nova220SE a no-brainer. The only thing keeping it from being perfect is its lack of a built-in phono preamp. Perhaps Peachtree will incorporate one into the next iteration.

nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,999



Amplifiers SimAudio Moon i7 integrated amplifier    Vista Audio i35 integrated tube amplifier   Virtue Audio Sensation M451 Tripath/hybrid integrated amplifier
Phonostage Simaudio Moon LP5.3
Sources Rega RP1 turntable with Ortofon Super OM40 cartridge    MacBook iTunes/PureMusic    Wadia i170 w/iPod 160 Classic
Digital Processor SimAudio Moon 300D
Speakers ACI Emerald XL    Harbeth Compact 7ES3    Golden Ear Triton Seven   Magnepan 1.6 with Skiing Ninja crossovers Totem Acoustic Rainmakers
Cables Shunyata Venom 3 power cord    AudioArt IC-3 interconnects    AudioArt SC-5 speaker cables

Roksan Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

British hi-fi buffs know Roksan Audio as a company that offers extraordinary value and sonics that challenge far pricier competitors. The company, located just northwest of London, takes a complete-system approach, with analog and digital sources, amplification, speakers, cables, and power supplies among its product lineup—and it is currently making a push into the North American market.

Roksan has several lines that cater to different needs: The Oxygene line strips away everything to the basics, with modern design and functionality; the Kandy line offers higher performance; and the Caspian line is the top of the hill. All Roksan products have a simple but appealing aesthetic and are known for high reliability.

The subject of this review—and the first Roksan component that has been in my system—is the Kandy K2 BT integrated amplifier, which retails for $1,900. The K2 BT is one of the more feature-rich integrated amplifiers that we have reviewed, equipped with a phonostage, five line-level inputs, a tape loop, remote control, and Bluetooth connectivity—the latter of which is what the BT designation represents. (The standard, non-Bluetooth K2 retails for $1,700.) The unit’s power output is 120 watts per channel into 8 ohms.

Roksan says it uses the highest-grade parts available and that the K2’s output stage is based on that employed in the Caspian series. The company pays special attention to circuit layout and especially power supply, with the sonics coming first. The result is a product that makes for a sound investment, which has helped build Roksan’s reputation since its founding in 1985.

The Basics

The casework on the K2 BT, while not extravagant, is solid, nicely put together, and commensurate with the price point. In terms of appearance, the unit is available with either a black case and silver faceplate or the reverse.

Installing the K2 is straightforward, with connections made and sound emanating from speakers within minutes of unpacking. The amp easily drives a pair of Gallo A’Diva Se satellite speakers with a Gallo TR-3D subwoofer, and it makes light work of the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s sans sub. (See end of article for additional full list of peripherals.)

The review sample has decent mileage on it, so only a few days are needed to get it up to optimal performance—and it does not take long for the K2’s personality to shine. It flows music to the speakers in a velvety smooth, seductive, and effortless manner, even with the relatively inefficient Harbeths. The amplifier never breaks a sweat, delivering gorgeous, dare I say, tube-like tone and imaging that is wide, deep, and always involving.

Down to Business

Nick Cave’s 2013 recording Push the Sky Away is transportative through the K2. The open, spacious mix and Cave’s superbly recorded voice are perfect for the amp to show off its way with nuance, instrumental timbres, and timing. Cave always imparts some sort of drama and tension in his songs, and on this collection he does so with more subtlety than usual. Here, the K2 lets the tension build and ebb so as to spotlight the performance, with all things “hi-fi” taking a back seat. This is truly a music lover’s amplifier.

On a lighter note, streaming a variety of recordings by lounge-pop revivalists Pink Martini is great fun, with the K2 keeping pace with the free spirit of the band’s whimsical, intoxicating sound. Such albums as Sympathique, Hang On Little Tomato, Splendor in the Grass, and Get Happy are a gas—and the Kandy is up to the task. Whether cycling through jazzy standards, French lullabies, tangos, Chinese folk songs, or Turkish pop, this amp keeps the party going, never missing a beat.

With higher-resolution digital files, the K2 pays big dividends. The 96-kHz download of Chicago’s album II is excellent, and the Kandy brings back the summer of 1972, showcasing the quality of the legendary band’s interplay and songwriting. It makes tracks like “Poem for the People” and “In the Country” sound vibrant and fresh.

The K2 not only unravels complex music but also lays out simple pleasures, like Chuck Berry’s monumental 1950s Chess recordings, with ease. Trying to resist tracks like “Little Queenie” or “Back In The U.S.A” proves futile, as the Roksan takes these mono recordings and renders them with natural authority; and the pacing is sublime. I am continually reminded that this amplifier effortlessly gets out of the way, always drawing attention to the music and not to itself.

The K2 clearly has a wonderful way with digital sources, regardless of program material or sampling rate. I put it through its paces further with a little analog via some pre-recorded, commercially released 7.5-ips reel tapes played back on my vintage Sony deck. The results are stunning, with the Kandy providing a clean, quiet background and excellent detail retrieval. It ups the ante on the musical involvement that tape lovers find so intoxicating.

Final Score

Ergonomically, the K2 is a dream. It offers plenty of volume steps, even with the remote, which can be a sticking point on amplifiers in the $2,000 price range. The front panel is easy to navigate and the amp is dead quiet, running cool as a cucumber. All this adds up to maximum enjoyment and flexibility.

After spending an extended period of time with the K2, listening to it with a wide variety of music and gear, I become curious about a complete Roksan system. Perhaps we’ll see a full-system review in the future.

The only area where I find that the K2 comes up short is its Bluetooth capability. The sound quality is excellent, but the connection in my system proves a bit unreliable with both an iPad Air and and iPhone 5. When the Bluetooth works, it is fun as heck, but it’s annoying when the connection is marginal. (Our publisher doesn’t experience issues with the Bluetooth. See Further Listening below.)

Roksan has rightly earned a reputation across the pond as a music-lover’s manufacturer. The K2 BT is a special component. Paired with multiple sets of speakers, sources, and cables, it never disappoints sonically. Aside from the shaky Bluetooth connection I experienced, there is nothing to quibble about. You get the complete package here, including good looks. At just under $2,000, this is an easy recommendation for those who want a full-function integrated amp that works equally well with both analog and digital sources. The Roksan Kandy K2 BT is clearly a benchmark for its price point.

Further Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Andre sums up the essence of the Kandy K2 BT perfectly—though, lacking a turntable, he wasn’t able to comment on the phono section, which I find to be excellent, especially for a $1,900 integrated. As vinyl continues to enthrall new users, and with so many people dipping their toes in the water, a high-performance phonostage is a wonderful addition to an integrated amp, allowing maximum system flexibility.

Most people purchasing an amplifier and speakers at this level will probably be using a turntable in the $100-to-$1,000 range, and they will not be disappointed. The Kandy’s phonostage is easily on par with any outboard phonostage we’ve auditioned costing $300 to $500, so for price matching most of my listening is with the $95 Shure M97 cartridge and the $295 Rega Elys 2—both MM designs. Just to push the envelope, I use the $700 Ortofon 2M Black and have good results. This is definitely an integrated amp that an analog owner can grow with.

Where most budget solid-state phonostages are flat, two-dimensional, and relatively sterile, the Kandy’s phono section performs admirably, giving up more height and depth than is usually associated with a relatively inexpensive onboard unit. Playing the MoFi remaster of Los Lobos’ Kiko, the Roksan renders this rock classic with an extra-large sonic image, especially with the Ortofon 2M Black. Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea proves highly involving, with the subtle environmental textures not fading too far into black.

Interestingly, I had zero issues with the Bluetooth receiver in the Kandy, so those who may be using it in an area with a lot of wireless connectivity in the vicinity should consider a test drive to see if this part of the gear is right for you. I can see where this would be a deal-breaker if it doesn’t work properly in your environment.

I can easily proclaim that the Kandy is an incredible bargain for under $2,000, but it’s even a better deal when you take the phonostage into account. Anyone looking for a great system anchor should give this baby a test drive. We are happy to award the Roksan Kandy K2 BT one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.

Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,900

www.roksan.co.uk (manufacturer)

www.rutherfordaudio.com (North American distributor)


Speakers Harbeth Compact 7ES-3    Anthony Gallo A’Diva SE satellites    Thiel CS.24 floorstanders
DAC Bryston BDA-1    Denon DA-300USB
Sources Simaudio MiND 180D Streamer    Sony TC-350 reel-to-reel tape deck
Cables Transparent Wave speaker cables    Darwin    Kimber Kable    Stager    DH Labs interconnects

Issue 66


Personal Fidelity:

The OPPO HA-1  Headphone Amplifier!

By Jeff Dorgay


Lounge Audio’s Mk. III Phonostage

By Jerold O’Brien

Getting Personal:

A Conversation with Pianist Matthew Shipp

By Aaron Cohen

TONE Style

Burmester 3D Mobile Hifi System and the Mercedes S550
By Jeff Dorgay

EGO’s Awesome Leaf Blower

Apple’s iPhone 6

Janis Joplin Stamps

Four Adventurous Picks From the Wino
By Monique Meadows


Current Releases:

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

Jazz & Blues
By Jim Macnie & Aaron Cohen

Snapshot: Derek Trucks
By Jerome Brunet


Pass Xs Preamplifier

VPI Classic Two Turntable

MartinLogan Motion 35XT Speakers

Eggleston Works Emma Speakers

Woo Audio WA234 Monoblocks


Sonus faber Olympica III
By Rob Johnson

Rega RP10 Turntable and Rega Factory Visit
By Jeff Dorgay

Primary Control Tonearm
By Richard Mak

Alta Audio FRM-2 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Blumenstein Audio Thrashers Speakers

One of the signs of a mature audiophile is whether they have a true garage system—not the wife’s old Lloyd’s faux-wood tuner/record player/cassette, but an actual receiver, disc player and speakers. Chances are the electronics are at least 20 years old, but the true pride is often in the speakers. Placement usually either involves a couple of L-brackets or, for the more adventurous, eyehooks and some length of chain. It can be problematic when the speakers are needed for an outdoor event away from the garage/workspace. I would not recommend taking your home speakers to the park gazebo.

Out of this madness comes Blumenstein Audio with what may be the most useful, multi-purpose and durable solution, the aptly named Thrashers. Blumenstein generously calls the finished look “industrial design.” In truth, the speakers look like something straight out of a Jeff Foxworthy special.

The review pair comes with an oriented-strandboard (aka chipboard) cabinet. Two cabinet upgrades are available: a fir plywood front or a complete fir plywood cabinet. Each cabinet measures 17 by 13 by 12 inches. The port and speaker jacks are mounted in the front panel below the 1-inch super tweeter, which is crossed over at about 10 kHz; an 8-inch Pioneer Bofu driver is also mounted in the front panel. With everything on just one side, there is less to worry about when inebriated friends decide to help move them about.

To make the review as real world as possible, I power the Thrashers with my 1980 Harman/Kardon 680i receiver, Magnavox DVD/CD player and 16-gauge speaker wire. I place the speakers on a shelf in my garage 6 feet apart and 5 feet off the floor. Much of the listening time transpires while I work on a home project, with plenty of contemplation and hopped adult beverages, and with the TV on mute during the World Cup. With their 92 dB rating, the Thrashers take precious little effort to play loud and clear, and they are designed to be manhandled, both physically and sonically.

The Thrashers sound like a quality budget set of nearly full-size speakers. Vocalists, whether Tom Petty, Melissa Etheridge, Roger Daltrey, or Rihanna, sound far more lifelike than if they were reproduced by the well-cared-for rack systems of yore. The crunchiness of vocals comes from the limitations of the recordings, not the Thrashers. Robert Plant’s eviscerating vocals during “Stairway to Heaven” are scary realistic. The front port helps deliver ample bass down to 45 Hz, even when placed against a wall.

One afternoon out of boredom, the teen neighbors bring over a mixed disc of hip-hop, rap and popular music. They listen to the first song and turn up the volume a couple of times. During the second track, they begin texting. Next thing I know, a car pulls up with three of their friends. The girls begin dancing to Rihanna, while the boys punch one another and act like bloodhounds. The spontaneous listening ends only when the neighbors are called to go to a ball game. The Thrashers are like the ultra nerds in high school who everybody ignores until test time and then everyone needs to sit near them in order to pass the class.

Upping the game with a Vista Audio i34 integrated tube amplifier makes the overall sound more sultry and sweet, and an SET amplifier would probably take it further, but why bother? Whatever the combination of factors, the Thrashers sound better than any $229 dollar speakers have a right to, hands down. For those few rare audio souls who have come across and rescued a tube amp awaiting the garbage truck, the Thrashers are the mates.

As luck would have it toward the end of the review period, I’m invited to a large picnic at a nearby park. Seizing the opportunity, I toss (well, not quite) the Thrashers and receiver in the back of my pickup and head for the park. Discovering the area doesn’t have any electrical outlets, I plug the Thrashers into my pickup with the speakers sitting on the tailgate, and soon the park is filled with music. Cranking up Frampton Comes Alive! brings out the air-guitar enthusiasts, and several people compliment me on the great sound system.

Sure, you could go to Goodwill and maybe find a pair of speakers that don’t suck for $50—but the odds of that happening are somewhat slim. Or you could get out the power tools, make a few trips to Home Depot and build your own pair. Hats off to you if you’ve got the fortitude for that exercise. I say send the folks at Blumenstein Audio a couple hundred bucks and break out the beer. Carry the Thrashers, slide them, dent them—it’s all about the sound and carefree portability, which these speakers offer in spades. Just a hint: Keep a pair of work gloves handy, as the Thrashers do shed splinters on occasion.


Publisher’s note: After auditioning the Thrashers with everything from an $88,000 pair of Pass Xs300s to my Sansui 771, I decided that I need them. Per Mr. Marcantonio’s suggestion, they are my new garage speakers. Rock on. —Jeff Dorgay

The Smart Car Electric Drive

Here at TONEAudio, we’ve been green from day one, eschewing chopping down trees for a consumer magazine, which has just never felt right to us—even when we lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., instead of tree-loving Portland, Ore. So, other than our massive pair of Pass Labs Xs300 amplifiers, we try to keep our carbon footprint small.

Most of the autos with premium sound systems that we review in these pages are anything but miserly on fuel (though the current Porsche 911 will hit 30 mpg at about 70 mph on the motorway, if you’re gingerly with the gas pedal.) And considering all the great luck we’ve had with battery-powered audio from Red Wine Audio, ASR and a few others, we figured why not try a battery-powered car?

Of course, the Tesla comes to mind, but with a “business lease” on the current Model S breaking the bank at around $1,000 per month and with Tesla’s long-term future remaining potentially murky, we chose a much simpler solution: the Electric Drive from Smart. For those of you who don’t know, Smart is a Mercedes-Benz product and its cars are distributed by Mercedes dealerships.

This is actually a full-blown car review, as the stereo system in the Smart either sucks (the “multimedia system” upgrade basically just adds a pair of door-mounted tweeters and a wimpy subwoofer) or really sucks (the standard system has only a pair of 5.75-inch speakers in the lower part of the door panels). However, considering that the car is battery powered, range is everything, so forgoing a high-powered audio system is actually a good thing—which is too bad, because the Electric Drive is really quiet inside. It would be the perfect place for a killer system. Maybe we can get Vinnie Rossi from Red Wine to do a signature Smart system with a couple of his really low-powered class-D amps. Stay tuned for that.

Charge Now

Having lived with the Electric Drive for a few months now, I’d like to reiterate that range really is everything. A “charge now” indicator comes up on the dashboard every time you shut off the Electric Drive, reminding you that the car can cover a very finite distance on a single charge. Smart claims that it has a range of 59 miles for strictly freeway driving, 76 miles of all city driving, or 68 combined. We seem to reach just about 70 miles in the car no matter what, with a few caveats.

Driving the car spiritedly but not maniacally still keeps the range close to 70 miles, but strong headwinds, constantly mashing the accelerator pedal to the floor (which is totally fun, due to the car’s instant torque) or using the air conditioning heavily will drop the range to about 58 miles. And this leads us to the only complaint with the Electric Drive: This little car that could would really be the little car that can if it could go 100 miles on a charge. Maybe the next generation will.
The Electric Drive comes with a 120-volt charger installed in the rear tailgate. This is great to get you started using the car, but it will take 16 hours to charge it from a 20 percent charge, which severely limits the car’s usefulness. What you want is a 240-volt charger to replace the sexy Smart charger, which will set you back $2,500. Amazon has a Bosch charger (which we featured in last month’s Style section) for $479; it will have you rocking in about four hours. Combine that with visiting your favorite stores—like IKEA, which feature EV chargers on site, some even at no cost—and you can really extend the range of your excursions.

Reality Doesn’t Bite

In the Electric Drive, day-to-day, moderate-distance hops couldn’t be more enjoyable.  The car is comfortable and way roomer than its diminutive size suggests. The passenger cabin feels very similar spatially to that of the Fiat Abarth but without the rear seat. The Electric Drive’s cargo space will hold about eight bags of groceries or a few large bags of dog food and, with the front passenger seat folded flat, it can easily accommodate a substantial pair of speakers or a large piece of furniture from IKEA.

The car’s most underrated specs are its 0-to-60 mph time and its top speed: 11.5 seconds and 74 mph, respectively, according to Smart. Our test vehicle easily sprints to 60 mph in just under 10 seconds and can hit 85 mph on level ground. And unlike your average econobox that wheezes heavily at 70 mph on the open road, the Electric Drive shoots from 70 to maximum speed with ease. Driving it like a rally car in downtown Portland is amazing; this four-wheeled midget will show its rear bumper to just about anything off the stop light to about 35 mph. It’s a ton of fun to holeshot punks in Subaru WRXs with a car that doesn’t even use gas.

Thanks to a short wheelbase and rear-wheel drive, the Electric Drive handles crisply. It is an absolute blast to drive and everyone who has had a chance to take it for a spin comes back with a huge grin on his or her face. Best of all, you can lease one from your Mercedes dealer for about $150 a month. (The car starts at $12,490 after U.S. federal tax credit.) Considering that all my cars average about 22 mpg on premium gas, driving the Electric Drive about 1,300 miles a month means I save about $250 a month on gas. It’s like having a free car!

I don’t know how long Mercedes will keep offering the Smart Electric Drive for this low of a price, but if you do a lot of short-trip driving and can get over the American point of view that you have to have a massive car to feel safe, the Smart Electric Drive just might be one of the most enjoyable automobiles you’ve ever driven.  -Jeff Dorgay


The Beats Pill

On one level, Beats has become the new Bose, in that everyone loves to slag Beats. But like the legendary Bose 901 speaker, which we reviewed a few years ago, most of the Beats stuff is pretty damn good and not worthy of the aggression thrown its way. I’ve got a Beats audio system in my Fiat Abarth and it sounds better than any other $900 car-stereo upgrade I’ve heard. Plus, it plays loud enough to overpower the growl of the Abarth’s turbo motor—no small feat.

…which leads us to the little red guy you see here, the Beats Pill, complete with a matching Beats Character. My only real complaint is that it doesn’t bend like a Gumby—now that would be super awesome. But it does sound awesome. Yes, you heard right: The Beats Pill sounds awesome.

It feature aux, USB and Bluetooth inputs—and, as you might expect, it sounds best hardwired via the aux jack, but this compromises mobility and coolness. All things considered, Bluetooth playback is not all bad, especially playing Apple lossless files via my iPhone 5.

Specs Aren’t Everything

Actually, there are no specs for the Beats Pill on the company’s website, but the device does have an internal DAC and amp of some kind. The website does mention that the Pill has three volume settings: loud, turnt up, and (my favorite) call the cops. Well, it doesn’t really play that loud, but the four little speakers that seem about 2 inches in diameter do move some serious air for their size. As cute as the Beats Character is, it elevates the Pill off of the table enough to diminish the surface bass response, and for many, that’s what Beats is all about.

Listening to the latest Daft Punk release demonstrates the table-gain phenomenon quite clearly. If you want a bit more boom in your low end, take the Pill out of the Character and place it midway back on the table. This will give the maximum bass reinforcement.  However, if you’d like a bit more of a balanced response, putting the Pill back in the Character helps achieve this. The vocals on Chrissie Hynde’s “Dark Sunglasses” have a throatier quality when directly on the table sans Character; yet, Johnny Cash’s voice in “Delia” has too much. Male vocal tracks seem to be more natural with the Pill up off the table.

A Joy to Live With

Much like my Smart Electric Drive, the Beats Pill has to be one of the most fun, user-friendly pieces of gear I’ve ever played with. Everyone wants to touch it, experience it and interactive with it. Almost unanimously, the first comment is always, “Wow, it’s so cute,” followed by, “This thing sounds great.” No one bats an eyelash when I mention the $249 price tag (with character; $199 without). Most guys seem to like the black one and, of course, most women liked the pink one with the cute eyebrows. I find myself wishing Beats would make a lime green one…

In addition to no specs, there are almost no instructions either. In keeping with the Apple ethos, precious little instructions are required—just push the Bluetooth button on the back, pair it with your computer or smartphone and you’re rocking. The miniscule LED on the back blinks until you pair the Pill and then goes to solid white once the connection is made. Should you run the Pill out of power (a full charge is claimed to last 7 hours, but we routinely got 8) or shut it off, it will look for the last device it was paired to upon power-up. You can charge it with a wall adaptor or via USB from your laptop.

A Double Dose

As cool as the Pill is, it’s even better in stereo. You can link two of them via the output cable on the rear, and then stream to the duo with one as the left channel and the other as the right channel. I can’t think of a more fun way to boost your laptop or desktop sound—well, maybe if they offered a wireless Beats subwoofer.

Spreading them about a foot from each side of my MacBook Pro makes for the best stereo image without collapse. Listening to the Flaming Lips version of Dark Side of the Moon with this configuration proves incredibly trippy. The width of the Pills flanking my laptop makes it feel like I have a miniature pair of Quad 57s on my desk—these babies create an image like crazy. Somehow, this pair of Beats speakers has me thinking about electronica, so I go old school, listening to a lot of Kraftwerk, Eno and Art of Noise tracks with great results.

Fun, Fun, Fun

At the end of the day, the Beats Pill, whether you order it alone or with a character, is the most fun desk accessory you’ll ever buy. I suggest you get a pair of them.  -Jeff Dorgay


Visiting Rega

Here, you can see a line of Rega RP10 turntables, nearing final assembly at their plant in Essex.  All Rega turntables are 100% built in the UK by a highly skilled workforce.

Visiting Dynaudio in Denmark

The Dynaudio factory in Denmark is equally impressive.  They too, make all of their own drivers in house to go with every one of their home, pro and auto speakers.  In addition to hearing the latest in the XEO series of wireless speakers, we were treated to the auto sound partnership between Dynaudio and Volkswagen.  Expect a review on this awesome mobile system soon!

In Denmark with Dali

Touring Dali’s 200,000 square foot facility in Denmark, we get a glimpse at a huge run of speaker baffles ready to move down the assembly line to be mated with drivers and cabinets. Dali too, produces everything in house and manufactures all of their own drivers as well. And watch for a review of a very cool desktop product from Dali!  We got to sample the final prototypes while there and it is stunning.  Understated Danish design and top notch sound!