Old School: Sean Brady’s Vintage Favorites

In this issue, Sean Brady from Audio Video Choices in Phoenix, Arizona is our guest columnist.  Though Brady has been in the hifi world for quite some time, he’s always understood the value of accepting the customers’ old gear on trade.  As many an audio enthusiast will tell you, “you have to get rid of the old before you can bring in the new.”

For many of us, cherished preowned gear is a great way to enter the hobby – not only from a financial standpoint, but from an ecological standpoint as well.  It’s definitely green thinking to recycle rather than just unbox something new.

Through the years, Brady, like the rest of us, has a few pieces that have become favorites to own, sell and share with the rest of us.  Here’s what an audio vet has to say:

Radio Craftsmen C500/500A

My first choices are two amplifiers that bookend the the production of vintage tube amplifiers. The Radio Craftsmen C500/500A Williamson Triode is a subtly refined Williamson triode amplifier. Using a pair of Mullard KT66 output tubes, 15 watts are available with an ultra-wideband response of +/- 1dB from 10Hz to 50kHz. Tube rectification, octal-based 6SN7 tubes for front end/driver, and high quality transformers are utilized in this classic implementation of the Williamson amplifier circuit.

Radio Craftsmen was founded in Chicago in 1947, around the same the time as  McIntosh, Fisher, Scott, and Harman Kardon. The C500A was designed in 1953 by Sid Smith, the same Sid Smith that went to work for Marantz in 1954 to design their famous tube amps, preamps, tuners, and crossovers. Even by today’s standards, the C500 is clear and sweet with superb musical performance. And the description of its performance in the original brochure reads like something you would find for a modern amplifier.

McIntosh MC-350o Amplifier

Next, the king of amplifiers (for me anyway), is a majestic pair of ultra-rare McIntosh MC-3500 designed by Mile Nestorovic. The MC-3500 is the limited home version of the McIntosh MI-350 industrial amplifier – a true piece of industrial art. Rated at 350 watts per channel, Stereo Review magazine revealed an astonishing 500-watt output at 0.08% distortion on the test bench.

These big Macs are the only vintage tube amplifiers that I have ever heard give a great ride to the demanding Wilson MAXX loudspeakers. (We usually pair the MAXX with solid-state amplifiers possessing major current reserve.) The MC-3500s have tremendous low-frequency extension and control with seemingly unlimited headroom. The effortless dynamics and smooth extended high end are so musically involving, it’s tough to believe these are vintage amplifiers.

For a little perspective, in 1968 a pair of 70-watt Marantz Model 9 amplifiers cost $780 when the McIntosh MC-3500 pair was $2200! To this day, this is the most powerful tube amp McIntosh has built.  At one time the Grateful Dead used fourteen MC-3500 amps in their famous “wall of sound” system, and they were loaned to the Woodstock festival as well.

Marantz Model Twenty FM Stereo Tuner

The exquisite Marantz Model Twenty FM Stereo Tuner, the first solid-state Marantz tuner after the legendary tube 10B, with arguably superior reception and sonics to its predecessor, features an oscilloscope for monitoring center of channel tuning, multipath, and audio output. The scope even has an external audio input. A world class tuner (still) it is preferred by many to the 10B, as it requires less frequent adjustment. This was made by Saul Marantz and company in Woodside, New York.

Electro-Voice Patrician loudspeaker

The Electro-Voice Patrician loudspeaker is one of the largest home systems at 325 pounds! Here is how E-V described it: “Let’s start at the bottom (as much as an octave below most other woofers). Our thirty-inch diameter Model 30W woofer reproduces 15 Hz fundamental at full volume without doubling. Nothing less than a live performance can compete with the sound you hear and feel from this giant speaker.”

Over a decade of engineering refinement has made this E-V Model SP12 woofer unexcelled in mid-bass performance (and it’s also an uncommon value as a full range speaker from 30 to 15,000 Hz.

It takes this sophisticated team of compression driver and patented diffraction horn to fully satisfy the rigorous demands of the treble range. There’s no smoother combination than the E-V T25A compression driver and 8HD horn.

Ruler flat from 3,500 to 23,000 Hz! But extended range is just one of the benefits of the T350 VHF driver. Its exclusive throat and horn design spreads undistorted highs to every corner of your listening area. Delightful!

These unusual components have been combined in the Patrician 800 – often acclaimed as the world’s finest loudspeaker system. $1,095.00 in traditional cherry cabinetry. It’s waiting to be challenged by the most powerful, widest range amplifier you can buy. Listen. The difference you hear is what high fidelity is all about!

Revox A700

Many regard the Revox A700 as a thinly disguised Studer professional analog reel recorder, as this machine is well built with the performance to match. It was very advanced for its time and  remains so today. This $3000 machine has three speeds – 3.75/7.5/15ips – and records two tracks on ¼-inch tape. At 15 ips the frequency response is 30Hz to 22kHz +2/-3 dB with signal to noise at 65 dB or better. High end reel-to-reel has a very natural sound, with no stress or congestion.

McIntosh MPI-4

Yes, we need a bright, shiny object with lights and switches, Let’s not forget the McIntosh MPI-4 is a laboratory-grade instrument. It provides the facility to continuously monitor the quality of the performance of a stereo system. The MPI-4 can sample and display signals from the tuner, preamplifier, and power amplifier without reconnecting cables. Signals are displayed on an oscilloscope screen calibrated with scales for tuning, measurement, and testing.

As a tuning aid, the instrument is a guide to exact FM station selection and precise tuning. The screen displays FM signal strength, modulation percentage, and multipath interference. Audio signals may be viewed for stereo balance, strength, phase, and channel separation. Output power of the power amplifier can be seen at any instant during program performance, or stored to develop a trend over several minutes.

With the addition of test discs, the MPI-4 can show compliance and trackability of a phono cartridge, frequency response of the preamplifier and power amplifier, audio distortion, and stereo speaker balance.

In one of its operational modes, the MPI-4 becomes a dual trace oscilloscope, and when operated thusly, the left and right stereo channels appear simultaneously, yet separately, on the screen for direct comparison. Featuring a  “triggered sweep,” the MPI-4 permits the viewer to choose a single tone and lock it on the screen for careful inspection and measurements.  In the ‘60s no righteous system was without an MPI-4, but this is still a very valuable tool today.

– Sean Brady

Four Favorite Upstarts

In the ten years of TONE’s history, we’ve seen a lot of new products come and go, but a few great ones have stuck.  It’s been fun to watch these four companies grow and mature, but it’s equally fun to wind the clock backwards and take a look at their humble beginnings.

ModWright SWL 9.0

Approx. $1,200

Back when the high performance audio segment of CES was held at the Alexis Park hotel in Las Vegas, I met a nice guy from Portland that had made a name for himself modding CD players named Dan Wright.  He had just started building his own preamplifiers, and had converted the entire basement of his house into a very tidy, organized workshop.  His first product that came into my world was the SWL 9.0 linestage.  It was a tidy box with great sound.  So much so, that I got rid of the Conrad Johnson PV-12 that I had been using in favor of this newcomer.

Shortly after our encounter, Wright moved into his own facility, started hiring employees and expanded his product line considerably.  Now a force at the major hifi shows, ModWright has become a well-established company, but that original 9.0 still stands out as an incredibly good bargain.  Wright still services them, and when you can find an owner willing to part with one, the SWL 9.0 makes for an incredibly good anchor to your hifi system.

Coffman Labs G1-A


Another Portland local, Damon Coffman hails from the medical equipment industry, yet his passion for music and design led him to build his own preamplifier after a life long quest for better sound.

The G1-A combines the best of retro and contemporary design, both inside and out.  Coffman auditions and hand picks what he feels are the best sounding NOS (new old stock) components, combined with contemporary parts, depending on application to create the G1-A.  With an onboard MM/MC phono stage and headphone amplifier, the G1-A is an incredibly versatile performer, like some of the great, full function preamplifiers of audio’s past, from McIntosh, Audio Research and C-J.

A new G2 is in the works, and Coffman has also put his stamp on the Prautes headphone amplifier from Cypher Labs, but this is where it all began.

PrimaLuna ProLogue 1

$1,095 (when new)

I began my hifi writing career at The Absolute Sound, and instead of the boring NAD integrated amplifier I was supposed to review for my first article, Robert Harley called one day (about two weeks after the ProLogue 1 appeared on the cover of Stereophile) and asked if I wouldn’t mind reviewing the ProLogue 1 instead.  Oh boy, would I, I thought.

This little tube integrated amplifier was built like nothing I’d ever seen for just over a grand, and it sounded pretty damn good too.  I got my first byline in the audio world and editor Harley left in, what would be a ubiquitous quote in PrimaLuna’s marketing campaign heard round the world.  “How does it sound? It sounds bitchin!”  11 years later, PrimaLuna amplifiers still sound bitchin, and their product line has grown tremendously.

Audeze LCD-2 Headphones



About seven years ago, when the headphone renaissance was just beginning, Audeze burst on the scene with a planar magnetic headphone that took everyone by surprise.  They not only cracked the ceiling with a $1,000 headphone, they produced a pair of phones with a sound that was, up until now, limited to the likes of electrostats like Stax, which are still nearly impossible to purchase.

They’ve done an update to the basic design, making them even better than ever.  Though the product line has expanded and they’ve gone through some growing pains, Audeze has held the line on the LCD-2s price, making them a best buy and a head to head competitor with OPPOs $995 PM-1, another titan.

– Jeff Dorgay

10 Favorite Headphones from HiFiGuy528

Though Mike Liang is no longer part of our staff, now that he’s gone on to be national sales manager for Woo Audio, he’s still the biggest headphone enthusiast we’ve ever met.  Between his YouTube channel, where he’s always unboxing new phones, and his own personal headphone collection of over 120 pairs, he’s a maniac.  And he’s definitely heard enough cans to have a solid opinion on what he loves.  Here’s his list.

AKG K3003



The AKG K3003 comes in two flavors, with and without Apple iOS 3-button in-line remote.  It is a reference-class 3-way design featuring one dynamic and two balanced-armature drivers in a tiny stainless steel housing.  The interchangeable sound-tuning filters (bass boost, reference sound, high boost) make these IEMs incredibly flexible.  The build quality is top notch and the sound is absolutely stunning.  The K3003 reveals more musical detail than I’ve ever heard in a universal fit IEM.  Pairing it with the Astell&Kern AK120II, I constantly ponder why I really home Hi-Fi system.

Sony MDR-CD900st

About $200


Sony is not a newcomer to the world of high-end headphones, yet often their coolest stuff never makes it here to the States.  The MDR-CD900st is a perfect example.  On the outside it looks a lot like the consumer-grade MDR-v6, but don’t be fooled.  The CD900st is a completely different animal in the sound department and more comfortable than its doppelgänger.   Its sonic signature is relatively neutral.  As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out” – so the better your source, the more you will be impressed.  In fact, this model is a studio monitor “officially” only offered in Japan through Sony Professional Division.  But our Japanese friends on Amazon can get you a pair for around $200 USD.  The MDR-CD900st is a gold nugget in the sand – a gem that is worth digging up.

Sennheiser HD700



Big soundstage, crystal-clear highs, tight bass, fast response, easy to drive, and extremely comfortable are all traits of the Sennheiser HD700.  Many of the design cues and materials used in this second-to-the-top model are derived from the company’s most technologically advanced headphone – HD800 (which will set you back almost twice as much).  For better or worse, the HD700 is more forgiving than HD800, meaning the low-resolution music in your collection will be a lot more enjoyable than listening through the flagship HD800. If you are on the fence about getting into personal audio, give the HD700 a listen on a good quality DAC/amplifier and you’ll see why the hobby is so strong.

RHA T10i



Reid Heath Acoustics is a relatively new headphone company based in Glasgow, Scotland.  My first experience with their products was the MA750i; it was love at first listen, and I felt it should cost more – a lot more.  The new T10i is even more impressive for only $199 – only a slightly higher price than the MA750i.  The T10i is made from injection-moulded stainless steel which is impressive at this price point.  Another impressive feature is the tuning filters that are similar in effect to the ones that the $1499 AKG K3003 uses.  Yes, you can change the sound by changing between reference, bass boost, and treble boost filters.  This functionality makes the RHA T10i an incredible value.

Beats Solo2



The new Beats Solo2 is a completely new design from the ground up. The stereotype that Beats headphones are kids’ overpriced neck candy – with below-average sound quality – no longer applies.  The new Solo2 sounds much more natural and is greatly improved over the model it replaced: the Solo HD.  Gone is the sonic signature that dogged early Beats designs; muffled midrange and boomy bass that overwhelms the rest of the music is a thing of the past.  The Solo2 sounds clean, clear, natural, and has tight punchy bass that sounds great with a wide variety of music genres.  Give the new Beats Solo2 a try before you dismiss it.  Honestly, you may not find a better portable headphone for $199.

Audio Technica ATH-M50x



The M50 has been around for a long time and shares equal popularity with the Sony MDR-7506 among audio professionals.  Audio Technica took a trusted old friend and gave it the modern features users have been demanding with the new M50x.  The ear pads are upgraded for extended comfort; the cable is now detachable and comes with coiled, straight, and a short one for mobile use.  The M50x sounds much like the M50, which is a good thing for those loving the sound of the old, now upgraded with more functionality.

Focal Spirit Professional



Focal is known for their incredible Utopia loudspeakers for the home listening room as well as a full line of studio monitors used by sound engineers around the world.   The Spirit Professional is part of Focal’s family of headphones – Spirit One and Spirit Classic.  Don’t let the low $349 price tag fool you, as the Spirit Pro shares a lot of DNA with Focal’s multi-thousand dollar studio monitors.

B&O H6



Bang & Olufsen practically invented the concept of audio gear featuring high style, so it’s no surprise they’ve contributed heavily to a segment of personal audio often referred to as “fashion headphones.”  The BeoPlay H6 is no stranger to this world, bringing aluminum ear cups, a genuine leather headband and lambskin-covered memory foam earcups together in a sexy and luxurious design.  But the most amazing part of the equation is that the magicians at B&O pulled it off for such a low price.

All would be lost if these were just a pretty pair of phones, but they’ve got the sound quality to make them much more than “just a pretty face. The H6 may have you rethink the fashion headphones segment.

Beyerdynamic T51



The new T51i is a closed-back headphone featuring memory foam pads for extended comfort, blocking out environmental noise while on the go. First and foremost, it’s high quality; audiophile sound comes from the Tesla drivers

that are derived from its much-pricier sibling – T5p.  The “i” signifies Apple “made for iPod/iPhone/iPad,” while MFI certification means you can control your iDevice and take phone calls right from the 3-button in-line remote.  At $299, the Beyerdynamic T51i has Hi-

Fi sound without the Hi-Fi price.

MrSpeakers Alpha Dog



Dan Clark, AKA MrSpeakers, modifies the modest $129 Fostex T50RP to a headphone rivaling some of the best headphones on the market – at only $599.  One of Dan’s modifications is replacing the ear cups with a 3-D printed housing.  MrSpeakers Alpha Dog is the world’s first 3-D printed headphone.   Dan also swaps the stock ear pads for custom lambskin pads that are extra thick and pillow-like comfy.  In fact, the only thing left from the original Fostex are the heavily modified planar magnetic drivers and the headband that holds the headphone together.  Before you spend $1K or more on a headphone, you need to give the Alpha Dog a listen first.  Thank me later by taking me out to dinner with the money you saved.

A few of my favorites:  Jeff Dorgay

While I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a headphone guy, Mike’s enthusiasm is overwhelming, and I can’t help but admit I’ve caught some of his fever.  I don’t have anywhere near the collection he has, but I do have a few of my own favorites as well.

Oppo PM-1



HiFiMan and Audeze are major players in the planar magnetic headphones, but even though Oppo is a bit late to the dance, their contribution is stunning.  Like all other Oppo products, the PM-1 offers world-class performance at a reasonable price, yet no corners are cut.  This is the Oppo magic.  While the PM-1s are obviously tailored to be a perfect match with their own headphone amplifier, the PM-1s sound fab with every amp I’ve plugged them into, and they are also incredibly efficient and easy to drive from an iPhone or iPad, making an external amp an option only for the most maniacal.  A definite plus for someone who is on a plane 40 times a year.

Koss Pro 4aaa

About $50 on the secondary market


Though no longer made, the original Pro 4aaa from the late ’70s is just as cool as hooking up an old pair of Advent or JBL speakers to a vintage receiver.  If you were there the first time around, grab a pair of these on Ebay, put on Dark Side of the Moon, and head back there for half and hour.  You’ll see what I mean.

Beats Solo 2 Special Edition



I agree with Mike’s take on the Solo 2s and share his respect for this brand.  Beats always gets a bum rap by snooty audiophiles, but after listening to more than a few pairs, I’ve become a staunch supporter.  And these feature a Hello Kitty motif.  What could be better, I ask you?

Sennheiser HD650



Sennheiser’s latest HD700 and HD800 phones are definitely more resolving than my workhorse HD650s, but especially when upgraded with a better cable from your favorite headphone aftermarket vendor (I suggest the cable from ALO Audio) about half of the darkness that surrounds this model is gone, and that makes them a hell of a lot more listenable.  They lack the ultimate resolution of the HD700 and HD800, but for long listening sessions are still one of my favorites, being entirely fatigue-free.

Issue 68


Personal Fidelity:

Bowers & WIlkins T7:  The ultimate portable speaker

By Jeff Dorgay


The iPhono mini phonostage

By Richard Mak

Old School:

The Marantz 2215B

By Jeff Dorgay

TONE Style

The Wino:  Four Modern table wines from Portugal
By Monique Meadows

Sony Short Throw 4k Projector

QNap TS569 Pro

Nintendo Pokeball

Chocolate Guitars

Microsoft Surface 3Pro

Luchador Bottle Opener


Current Releases:

2014’s Best Pop and Rock Albums
By Bob Gendron

Jazz & Blues
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

2014’s Best Rock And Multi Disc sets
By Bob Gendron


VPI Classic 2 Turntable

Pass XA160.8 Monoblocks

Dynaudio XEO 4 Wireless Speakers


Benchmark AHB2 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

Simaudio MOON 820S Power Supply
By Jeff Dorgay

MartinLogan Motion 35xt Speakers
By Rob Johnson

Rega DAC-R
By Jeff Dorgay

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

TONEAudio’s 2014 Products of the Year

Franco Serblin Accordo and PMC twenty.26

Two amazing but radically different speakers for about 13 grand

By Jeff Dorgay

Twelve thousand dollars will buy you a really nice used car these days or a really posh weekend at the Monaco Grand Prix.  It will also buy you a great hifi system, so if you’re dropping twelve large on the speakers alone, the expectation is high.

The two speakers observed here more than fit the criteria and go about their business in a completely different way, with different design goals, aesthetics and overall sound.  Both will be equally enticing to their prospective owner, so this is not a “shootout,” as there would be no winner.  Sales 101 says “define the customer,” and there’s no better challenge than selling high dollar hifi.  It’s rarely a case of better or worse, but almost always a case of “what flavor will it be?” If you can put your finger on your priorities, the choice will be crystal clear.

One speaker hails from England, the other from Italy.  Both come from two of the top minds in speaker design.  Recently deceased Franco Serblin was the man behind Sonus faber and Peter Thomas, former BBC loudspeaker designer and principal at PMC both take a high tech as well as a high touch approach to their speakers.  Each rely on a different set of criteria and in their own way remain true to the musical presentation.

The Franco Serblin Accordo

I spent a ton of time on this review, perhaps too much, looking for that magical combination of speakers and amplification that would lead to more of a full range performance experience with the Accordos, to no avail.  The required clarity came during a test drive with the Lotus Elise.  While I wasn’t zooming around corners as fast as I could with a Porsche Boxster S or my own BMW Z4 (both cars having over twice the horsepower than the little Lotus), the communication the Lotus provides is sublime, in a league of its own.  A similar conclusion was drawn driving a new Dodge Challenger, with the big Hemi.  More powerful, yes. More interesting, more engaging, not necessarily.  To my Challenger loving friends, don’t despair, I do love this car.  Stepping out of the Challengers driver seat, with a fresh bouquet of tire smoke at my back the epiphany struck me over the head like a lug wrench – these are a brilliant pair of loudspeakers, but not everyone will get them.

Not everyone will love the Accordo, but much like the legendary Quad 57 or the original Sonus faber Guarneri, if you love what the Accordo excels at; incredible midrange definition, exquisite rendition of texture and a HF register that is smooth, distortion free with a complete absence of grain – nothing else will do.  If you liked the original Guarnari, think of the Accordo as a continuation of this philosophy.

Forget Metallica.  If you want to rock the house, buy something else.  Slipping an early Japanese pressing of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane on the turntable and listening to his discordant piano solo glide between these tiny, almost invisible transducers gave me goose bumps.  Forget a big room too.  These speakers don’t have much deep LF output to begin with, so placing them in a large room makes them work way too hard, and adding a subwoofer takes away from the design ethos. As excellent at the REL and JL Audio subwoofers at my disposal are, they just don’t quite have the delicacy required to augment the Accordos, they always sounded better by themselves, even though I wished they had more bass at times.  (There is always the Sonus faber Stradivari, considered by many to be Serblin’s masterpiece, but that’s another story for another day.)

The Accordos will not be for everyone at $12,995 a pair, but they will be everything for the right person.  Much like a Wavac SET amplifier that only delivers 9 watts per channel and has a $60,000 price tag, it’s about quality.  It’s about an exquisite rendition of sound within a range that you won’t get anywhere else unless you spend a lot more money.  These speakers are truly precious, and the longer you listen to them; the more they unravel the nuances of your recordings in a way that you may have not thought possible.

Next up, the PMC twenty.26….

Jeff Dorgay’s 9 Favorite Amplifiers

While many people argue that speakers are the anchors of an audio system, I will always contest that the power amplifier is just as critical (if not more so) to a system’s overall sound. A great amplifier can make a mediocre pair of speakers come alive, but a great pair of speakers powered by a mediocre amplifier still sound mediocre. In celebration of the power amplifier, I decided to list a few of my favorites from over the years, in no particular order. Hit us up on Facebook with your favorite power amp. We always love to hear from readers.

Audio Research D-79

From $3,250 to $6,000 (for the D-79C mk. II)

Many audiophiles have said that the D-79 is the best amplifier that ARC ever built. With a massive power supply for its modest 75 watts per channel, the D-79 drew 750 watts from the AC line at full output. All four versions of the amp utilize a matched pair of 6550 output tubes with an additional 6550 as a voltage regulator, though each iteration of the amp uses a different input, driver and phase splitter complement of tubes.  Personally (after all, this is a favorites issue), I prefer the additional warmth of the original D-79 with 12AX7 tubes.

These still run about $3,500 for a super-clean version, and unless ARC itself updated the power supply in the last 10 years, it’s going to need an overhaul—and it’s going to be expensive. This remains a wonderful amplifier, with big dynamics, a massive soundstage and tons of sheer grip. Ralph Lauren once said every man should own a 12-cylinder car. I submit that every true audiophile should experience a D-79.


Mark Levinson ML-2 Monoblocks

From $3,000 to $6,000 per pair

Much like the ARC D-79, the ML-2 monoblocks from Mark Levinson were big and beefy. Designed by John Curl and Tom Colangelo, these Class-A monoblocks ran hot. While they were only rated at 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, they did double that into 4- and 2-ohm loads, making them a perfect match for the Magnepan Tympani 1Ds that graced my listening room in the early 1980s.

Since no replacement sheet metal is available, go for the cosmetically cleanest pair you can find. There are still a few people who can work on these, so get yours checked and rebuilt, stat!


Conrad-Johnson MV-50

About $1,000

Not CJ’s first tube power amplifier, the MV-50 was introduced right at the beginning of the ’80s and quickly became a staple of hi-fi stores carrying the brand. It offers 45 watts per channel of tube power and a magical midrange that would define the company for years to come. Using a pair of 6CA7 output tubes per channel, this understated, champagne-colored beauty made music like precious few other amplifiers could.

Those wanting a bit more modern CJ sound can have their MV-50 sent back to the factory to have the power supply rebuilt and premium CJD Teflon capacitors installed in the circuit to bridge the gap between old- and new-school sound. It’s a brilliant piece of gear either way.


Pass Labs Aleph 3 and Aleph 5

About $1,000 and $2,000

Nelson Pass likes to say that he creates amplifiers with “the sound of tubes minus the hassle.” When referring to the early Aleph amplifiers with heat sinks as the entire case, local hi-fi dealer Kurt Doslu likes to say, “Don’t play catch with it.”

All kidding aside, this single-ended, full Class-A design provides 30 watts of tube power with all the midrange magic of my beloved MV-50 but with major bass control and a dead-quiet background. It’s a combination you’ll either love or hate, but it will definitely become an addiction if you are on the love side of the equation. Pass builds everything like a tank, so these babies run forever. And the company can still fix the Aleph 3, so you can send yours back to Pass for a tune up anytime.  Should you want a little more juice, the Aleph 5 produces 60 watts per channel, but slightly less sweet than the lower powered model.


Pass Labs Xs 300 Monoblocks

$88,000 per pair

Moving from past to present, my current reference amplifiers are also from the mind of Nelson Pass. I make no apologies for being a Pass fan, and the last few generations of big Pass Class-A amplifiers have been wonderful; however, there was always that slight bit of delicacy that the Aleph 3 possessed, with its single output device, which was tough to find in the big amplifiers.

Those familiar with the design philosophy of Mr. Pass know that he is a fan of the less-is-more school of thought, but you just can’t achieve high power without a little bit of complication. But the Xs 300s bridge the gap, making big power with no sonic compromises. Drawing 1,000 watts of power for each channel, they will alter your carbon footprint somewhat, but for sound this glorious, isn’t it worth installing some LED lightbulbs as an offset?


Burmester 911 MK3


In issue 32, I called the 911 MK3 “the best solid-state amplifier ever made.” And though a few things have come down the road that exceed the performance of the 911 (you can bridge them together for even more power, which changes the game somewhat), it is still one of the finest solid-state amplifiers I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. While not quite as liquid as the mighty Pass Xs monos, the 911 is probably the most Class-A-sounding Class AB amplifier I’ve experienced; it is only one chassis and draws considerably less AC power.

Much like the Porsche automobile sporting the same name, the Burmester 911 offers a large dose of what the money-is-no-object amplifiers do, but for a lot less—just as the Porsche 911 has similar performance to the much more expensive options from Ferrari and Aston Martin.


Rega Brio-R


Rega’s little amplifier that can is an integrated that pumps out 50 watts per channel into 8 ohms and has an outstanding MM phonostage built in. For those of you who loved the original Naim Nait, here is an amp in a similar vein, but with enough power to drive quite a few more speakers.

The Brio-R, like my favorite Pass amplifiers, features a tonality leaning towards the warm side and while not quite tubey in nature, it will never be mistaken for a harsh, etched solid-state amplifier. The midrange is yummy, but there is still enough extension and slam to get the dynamic contrasts right. If I were on a tight budget and didn’t want to sacrifice sound quality, this is the one I’d choose and would match it up with a pair of MartinLogan Aerius speakers from my favorite used hi-fi store.


Nagra 300p


Okay, so I have expensive taste. But if we’re talking about favorites, I’ve never listened to a Nagra product that I didn’t like. The 300p is especially dear to me, as I had the privilege of seeing the prototypes coming right off the drawing board a few years ago when I visited the factory.

The 300p uses a pair of 300B output tubes per channel in a push-pull configuration, producing about 20 watts of power per channel—much better than the average 9 watts per channel that an SET design with a single output tube can muster. This topology is implemented to great effect, as the 300p is as mellifluous as any SET I’ve experienced and far less affected by speaker load. Topping it off, the 300p is dead quiet and produces way more low-end heft than you would expect from a 20-wpc tube amplifier. It’s kind of costly going in, but this is an amplifier that you will pass on to your grandchildren.


Decware Zen Mystery Amp


I was going to include the Decware Torii amplifier that I’ve been using for some time now as my last favorite on this list, but then a new package arrived from Steve Deckert.  Though it’s not nearly broken in yet, the Zen Mystery amp takes the basic design of the Zen monoblock amplifiers, puts them on one chassis with a slightly lower output (40 watts per channel vs. 60 for the monos) and offers a healthy drop in price to boot.

For those who need a bit more push over the cliff than the 25 watts per channel that the Torii delivers, but can’t afford the $11k pricetag of the monoblocks, the ZMA will be your pot of gold.  Much like the Torii, this is one of the most incredible amplifiers I’ve ever experienced.  With more power, the ZMA has a much wider range of speakers it can work well with.  If you want an amplifier to last the rest of your life, call Decware and get in the queue for one of these.

Mark Marcantonio’s 7 Cheap and Cheerful Favorites

As the guy on the TONE staff who covers some of the more “reasonably” priced gear, I am a big fan of trickle-down technology. Amazing things are happening at the high end of the audio food chain, which means that what was once reference-grade technology is now available in much more affordable and even entry-level components. And so the pool for high-quality but inexpensive gear is growing. I’ve had the opportunity over the last few years to audition and review a lot of amazing examples. What follows are seven of my standout favorites.

Shunyata Venom 3 Power Cord


So, it’s time to replace those stock power cords sticking out the back of your recently upgraded system, but the thought of saving up some serious cash for just one replacement cord at a time makes you ill. Try a different approach. The Venom series power cords from Shunyata Research are designed for budget-conscious yet discriminating listeners, and it was developed as a way for users to affordably upgrade their entire system. For just $125, each the Venom 3 power cord has been widely praised for providing great value.

The company’s president, Caelin Gabriel, has put together all the critical elements: Shunyata-specified CDA 101 12-gauge oxygen-free copper, slow and steady cryogenic treatment, 100-percent aluminum shielding and brass connectors—the same base features found in the company’s excellent Helix series power cords. Don’t believe your ears? Hook one up to you high-definition television and see the improvement in color saturation and black level. My entire system receives its juice via the plum-colored Venom 3.


Magnepan MMG


With so much mystique surrounding panel loudspeakers, there’s no better place to start than with Magenapan’s entry level speaker.  The MMG can only be purchased directly from Magnepan, and thanks to their eliminating the dealer markup, you get a remarkable speaker for a very reasonable price.  While the MMG lacks the treble extension of the ribbon tweeter in the higher priced models, they are much easier to drive, making them a fit with a much wider (and less expensive) range of amplifiers.

The most interesting aspect of these speakers is that they will provide pleasant, room filling sound with a mass market receiver, yet they really come alive with a big, high current solid state amplifier, so they can be the last component you replace as you move down the upgrade path.

Magnepan has recently introduced a “Super MMG,” featuring a center bass panel for $1,200, and while it reveals more music than the original (which is still offered), it takes away from the mega budget ethos of the MMG.  The original MMG is perhaps one of the best buys in all of high end audio, and still the one I suggest to all my friends.

Audioengine D2 24-Bit Wireless DAC System


For those in search of a quality but budget-friendly solution for wirelessly transporting music from their computer/server in one room to their audio system in another, Audioengine offers the two-piece D2 wireless DAC system. It consists of a sender and a receiver unit, with a range of 100 feet. I found clean, quality sound at 70-plus feet and through several walls.

The 24-bit, 192-kHz asynchronous DAC of the receiver unit is controlled via the PCM1792A chip. The D2 does a very good job for a budget DAC at extracting the inner details from various recordings. The system does a particularly good job of resolving female vocals like Kathleen Edwards and mallet-played percussion instruments. And the DAC section is definitely not an afterthought. Users with multiple systems can add as many as three receivers. The D2 system continues Audioengine’s streak of impressive but affordable gear.


Peachtree Audio nova220SE Integrated Amplifier


Musical, powerful, solid and sexy are all words that accurately describe the Class-D nova220SE integrated amplifier. Sporting 21st-century input choices (USB, two optical and a coaxial), along with a very respectable built-in ESS Sabre 24/192 asynchronous DAC, the nova220SE is a digital-music-lover’s dream. Making the amplifier section sound even sweeter is a tube buffer in the preamp section.

At 220 wpc into 8 ohms, the nova220SE has no problems holding a solid grip on the notoriously power-hungry Magnepan 1.6s, even when the loads drop into 2-ohm territory. Skip the worries about careful speaker matching with this chip-based amplifier section; it plays nicely with at least five very different speakers types. And with a built-in DAC, the nova220SE a financial and sonic bargain.


Rega RP1 Turntable with Ortofon OM5 Cartridge


Looking for a turntable to start your vinyl journey? Head straight to the Rega RP1. Take it from someone who was in this mode a few years ago, when I wanted to reacquaint myself with analog but needed to stay on a slim budget (though the stunning Rega P9 at the TONE studio had me thinking of taking a second job). The RP1 has more than satisfied my thirst.

Ridiculously easy to setup and ground-wire free, the RP1 does all the basics right. Later on, one can move up the cartridge ladder from the solidly performing Ortofon OM5. (I’m currently running the Super OM40 with excellent results.) With the RP1, Roy Gandy of Rega has created a turntable that both the vinyl-curious youth and the reminiscing rest of us budget audiophiles can enjoy for years to come.


Lounge Audio Phonostage


Though I’ve only heard it at the TONE studio, the Lounge Audio LCR MKIII phonostage deserves every bit of the praise that publisher Jeff Dorgay wrote in his review. It’s warm, grain-free sound belies its miniscule $300 price tag. Designer Robert Morin nailed the RIAA curve reproduction, which the phonostage does with a wide variety of cartridges. Whether part of Jeff’s budget system or six-figure reference system, the Lounge makes a fine impression with a wide soundstage, excellent pace, and a surprising low-end frequency response.

With this phono pre, you can take the extra $800-plus you would have spent on another option and put it towards a finer cartridge or speakers. This little wood box perfectly illustrates how satisfying budget audio can be.


Golden Ear Technology Triton Seven Speakers

$1,400 per pair

On rare occasions, I can’t stop thinking about a product long after the review is over. The Triton Seven is one such example. No matter what room I placed them in during my review, the speakers managed to make the space their own. With surprisingly full bass response (down to 29 Hz) and terrific imaging, these speakers caught my attention and didn’t let go.
If the whole family is to share one system, the Triton Sevens could very well be the nirvana speakers. Whether hip-hop, metal, acoustic, jazz or symphonic music, these slim towers play each with enthralling gusto. Need them to be a part of a home-theater setup? No problem—they’ll give you enough dynamics, clear vocals, and bass response to have you skipping the purchase of a subwoofer. If I could turn back the clock, I would have bought the review pair and dealt with the wife’s scorn.


– Mark Marcantonio

Rob Johnson’s 7 Long-Term Favorites

I’ve been meaning to update my 20-year old car, but the love of music, and buying the audio gear that reproduces it, keeps getting precedence. Fueled by a life-long passion for audio, my reference system has evolved over the course of many years starting with a Sony boom box at age 12. During all those years many pieces came and went. As with many kindred audiophiles, the very slow process of sonic improvement involves selling the weak link component and buying a better one, whenever saving, horse-trading, or sweat equity makes purchases possible.

With so much great gear out there, it’s exceedingly difficult to skinny-down my own “favorites list” to a scant seven components. However, a few have stopped me in my tracks, arrested my desire to flip them, and elevated the performance of my reference system with a synergistic contribution aligning with my personal sonic preferences. Each of my favorites have taken long-term residence in my home due to their fantastic sound, marvelous build, and exceptional reliability – all equally important. In each case, I’ve purchased those pieces of gear as my budget permitted. Putting my money where my ears are is the greatest compliment I can give to any audio component, and I want to thank the manufacturer of each piece for their dedication, passion, and hard work producing something that brings so much musical joy to my life.

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

The Sonus faber Olympica III floorstanding speakers are beguiling for their astonishing sound as well as their dashing good looks. While they have limited capability for producing the lowest bass frequencies, they won me over with their organic sound, incredible ability to produce a three-dimensional sonic image of any well-recorded performance, and the almost tangible way the drivers re-create instruments and vocals. Sonus faber creates their own drivers in-house, and therefore can wrap them in an ideally mated cabinet design. Listening to Johnny Cash’s American IV album through these speakers still proves revelatory.

Closing my eyes, Olympicas can provide me the momentary illusion that Cash himself is sitting in the living room. In a world of cost-no-object speaker designs, $12,500 is a very fair price for speakers of this quality. While Sonus faber produces even higher-end speakers, the Olympica IIIs demonstrate very little compromise and reveal all the nuance of components upstream – even when those components might be more expensive than the speakers themselves.

Burmester 911 Mk3 Amplifier
Of the amps I’ve enjoyed over the years, the Burmester 911 Mk3 stands strong as a current favorite. First, the Burmester’s outward appearance demonstrates not only gorgeous aesthetics, but incredible attention to every detail. Beautifully crafted heat sinks and an equally elegant ventilated top panel hint at the musical beauty locked within. However, the 911’s voice confirms it immediately. Sound reaches ever so slightly to the warm side, but with detailed reproduction that captures every nuance of a recording. With 350 watts of solid-state power into 4 ohms there’s plenty of juice for virtually any speakers mated with it. Crystalline highs, beguiling mids, and a tight, controlled, musical bass leave no frequencies un-pampered. Along with the delicate sound reproduction comes a soundstage that extends away from the speakers in all directions. Vocalists stand out front, ambient details stretch to the sides of the speakers and though the rear wall behind them. This Burmester is a marvelous amp and certainly one that has proven itself worthy of standing the test of time, in both my system and our publisher’s.

SME Model 10 Turntable and Model 10 tonearm

While SME’s 20 and 30, exceed its capability, the model 10 proves itself a workhorse with sonic reproduction, and a show pony in aesthetics.  Yes, it was love at first sight. The SME model 10 turntable looks like a modern sculpture. Though it’s an entry-level turntable in the SME family, the model 10’s build quality does not reveal any shortcuts. With a unique vibration dampening system beneath the heavy platter, records spin uninhibited. A screw-down record clamp holds vinyl to the platter with a tight grip allowing the tonearm and cartridge to pull each nuance from the record grooves. Mated with a matching SME 10 tonearm and a great cartridge, the ‘table offers a wonderfully organic analog experience. The model 10 also offers an upgrade path for those who seek it. The SME V tonearm takes it to an even higher level of musical reproduction.

Oppo BDP-103 Blu-Ray Player

Price-performance wise, Oppo’s players are a pinnacle of achievement. At $499, the BDP-103’s produces stellar video and audio reproduction. On the video side, rendering of Blu-Ray discs and streamed video content offer a wonderfully crisp and colorful picture. On the audio side, 7.1 surround sound proves equally remarkable. As another plus, the BDP-103 is a very good Redbook CD/SACD player or transport when used solely in an audio capacity. With a wireless or Ethernet internet connection, BDP-103 enables streaming directly from Netflix, Pandora, and other sites as well as music streaming from a NAS. There are more resolving (and more expensive) players including the 103’s brother the Oppo BDP-105. However, for a one-box unit that serves so many purposes in a home audio-visual system, I find myself hard-pressed to suggest another player that does so much, so well, at its price point.

Jena Labs StreamDancer USB cable
$500/5 feet

As with power conditioners and vibration control, speaker and interconnect cables can have a sonic impact on system sound. The more revealing my reference system has become, the more the subtle differences between cables become evident. After experimenting with many to find the best synergy for my own system, my quest led me to a USB cable from Jena Labs. Made of braided, liquid nitrogen immersed, high-quality copper, all the Jena Labs cables are hand-made in Oregon. The cable enables wonderfully natural, rich sound, plus great extension of lows and highs without any harsh etch that can accompany higher frequencies with some cables. I keep several other high quality USB cables on hand for testing, but none get as much dedicated listening time as the Jena Labs USB.

Ultimate Ears UE18 Custom In-Ear Monitors

When traveling on planes, custom in-ear monitors are a best friend. Not only can they seal out the sounds I don’t want to hear, but they allow me to pipe into my head exactly what I do want to hear. With a tight ear seal keeping unwanted sound out, they can enable great sonics at a lower volume, reducing ear strain. I purchased my pair UE18s three years ago, and still use them many times a week at the gym, on walks, riding mass transit, and during all my travels. The fit is perfect, and the sound they produce offers a very detailed, but non-fatiguing quality. With a snug-fitting IEM hugging the ear canal bass is robust and tuneful, with great mids and highs elevating the sense of musical enjoyment. I also enjoy JH Audio JH16 IEMs, but the UEs were my first custom IEM purchase and they have proven durable well beyond my expectations. I love their sound as much today as I did when they first arrived in the mail.

Ultimate Ears Custom Ear Plugs

At the same time I sent my earmolds to Ultimate Ears to make UE18 IEMs, I also had them make for me a matching set of custom ear plugs. I love recorded music, but of course, have a passion for live music too. These provide the perfect way to protect one’s valuable hearing, but not completely muffle the sound of the performance.  UE’s ear plugs are made of a firm but flexible translucent material that seals the ear canal perfectly, just like their IEMs do. Because the ‘plugs are designed to maintain a neutral sound, it’s rather like having a volume knob for your head. No Frankenstein-esque bolts are needed though. To accomplish this feat UE offers each owner a choice of small filter inserts that slide into the earplugs and reduce external volume by 9, 15 or 25dB. Those who need varying levels of hearing protection for different environments can buy all the filters and change them easily on-the-go. I use the -15dB inserts every time I go to a show.

-Rob Johnson

Light Harmonic Geek Out 1000 DAC and Headphone Amplifier

Building on their momentum of successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, Light Harmonic added to their Geek Out line of products: the remarkable Geek Out 1000, designed to drive larger headphones. Those seeking a similar DAC/amp device designed to support in-ear monitors should check out the Geek Out 720 or other products in the Geek Out lineup.

For such a tiny device, Geek 1000 offers substantial prowess for anyone exporting files from his or her computer using a USB 2.0 port. Light Harmonic includes with the Geek Out a 6-inch USB cable – and the computer’s USB port powers the device – so you are ready to rock as soon as you open the box. The sound continues to improve after many hours of break-in.

What makes the Geek Out special? First, the tiny one-watt Class A amplifier nestled within the beautifully anodized aluminum frame puts out plenty of juice to power larger headphones like my Sennheiser HD-650 and Audeze LCD-X. It’s important to heed Light Harmonic’s warning to turn down the volume when starting a listening session. They are not kidding here, as this little gizmo is capable of driving headphones to piercing levels. Given the tiny 2.5” x 1.25” x 0.3” dimensions of the Geek Out, there is only room for 3.5mm output jacks. For cans equipped with ¼” plugs, an adapter is required. Dual jacks offer the ability to load 47 or .47 ohms.

Second, the built-in DAC supports digital audio files across the resolution spectrum, all the way up to 32-bit/384 kHz and DSD 128. Light Harmonic’s philosophy of design does not include up-sampling capability. They feel the best sound comes from the decoding of native digital files. Tiny LED lights on the Geek Out provide an indicator of file resolution. While most of the lights are white, a satisfying blue LED indicates the throughput of a DSD file. As you might expect, the better the file quality, the better the sound – so break loose those high-resolution files and give the Geek the digital bits it deserves.

With the DAC and amplification capabilities working in tandem, sound though the Geek Out proves shockingly good. Immediately after starting the music do I find myself bathed in opulent sound. In headphone listening sessions through both my Mac Mini and Windows-based laptop using iTunes or JRiver Media Center 20, the Geek Out indeed eeks out tuneful detail in bass, mids and highs. The sound is very smooth without the stridency that can sometimes accompany high frequency information. Bass is very deep and punchy, and smooth vocals project forward in the stereo image.

Geek Out 1000’s volume is controlled by up-and-down buttons on the side of the unit. Pushing both of the buttons at the same time puts the Geek Out into what Light Harmonic dubs “3D Awesomification” mode. This setting projects the stereo image forward a bit rather than portraying it in a virtual plane directly between the ears. A second blue LED indicates the activation of this sound mode – and it is fun to experiment with the 3D option.

If you do not listen to headphones all the time, the aforementioned .47ohm output gives the Geek Out ability to connect with your full-sized stereo preamplifer or integrated amp via a 3.5mm to RCA stereo adapter cable. I had to give this a try using the Geek Out’s USB adapter to export from a Mac Mini, and a Jena Labs adapter cable to connect the Geek’s output to my reference system.

Looking at the tiny Geek Out, which is so small and light that connected audio cables leave it suspended in mid-air, its appearance versus my larger and heavier reference components is almost cartoonish. I flash back to childhood images of Popeye’s stick-figured girlfriend, Olive Oyl, suspended in a hammock. Instead of resting though, imagine tiny and delicate Olive Oyl joining a herculean professional football team and scoring a touchdown.

I preset my mental expectations on par with the sonics I’d expect from a $300 DAC and hit the play button. Well, I found my jaw hanging after the first few notes. This little marvel puts out fantastic sound, especially when using native DSD or jRiver Media Center to upsample CD-level files to DSD.

Unfairly comparing Geek to reference DACs many times its price, like Light Harmonic’s own DaVinci DAC, more money does buy a user more refined sound with additional detail, air, and nuance. For a mere $300 though, Geek does an amazing job holding its own among highly resolving components in the audio chain, and it pushes upward the conceptual apex of price-performance.

It’s easy to recommend the Geek Out 1000. Whether you use it to drive larger headphones, or just use it as a DAC, your computer-based audio system may have found a new, budget-conscious best friend.  -Rob Johnson

Light Harmonic Geek Out 1000

MSRP: $299


More thoughts on the “Wife Acceptance Factor”

Motivated by my friend Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney’s article on the same subject that you can read here, I must say I agree with her, but for some different and more wide-ranging reasons.

Having sold hifi years ago, I remember customers getting all excited about a system only to say, “My wife will never go for it.”  Granted, there are a lot more attractive speaker choices these days, but this was always a bullshit line, and my friends that sell automobiles say the same thing.  It’s usually a way to get out of wasting a salespersons time on things you can’t afford – throw your wife or girlfriend under the bus because she’s not there.  This is even more of a bullshit line because if you’ve been paying any attention at all to the person you’re married to or cohabitating with, you should have a really good idea as to what they deem acceptable or not.  And if you don’t, you’ve got way bigger problems than what speakers to try and put in the living room.

I can’t tell you how many people’s homes I’ve visited with massive televisions, and when I ask the fateful question, “how did you ever get that monster past your wife,” the answer is almost unanimous – “she’s the one that wanted it.”  Which leads me to believe that women aren’t the firewall between guys getting cool stuff and not getting cool stuff.

We’ve made fun of the dreaded WAF on more than one occasion, and our first cartoon in issue two of TONEAudio, drawn by world renowned New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly says it all.  Her feminist sensibilities have always helped to make light of our wacky audiophile world.

Ask any Meridian Sooloos dealer how many $15k Sooloos music servers they’ve sold and who the ultimate buyer was – it’s almost always been the gentleman customers’ wife or girlfriend that perked up when she saw how easy to use and engaging the Sooloos is.  It’s the same reason I have used their server since day one and continue to this day, even though there are better sounding choices out there. I really just want to listen to music, and though I’m engulfed in technology all day long, I’m tired of screwing around with it.

We’ve been seeing a similar response to the Devialet; men and women are tired of having that big rack system and loom of cables in their home.  Back when that was the only option, we had to deal with it, but after years of high performance gear that doesn’t look like something stolen from the set of a Mothra vs. Godzilla movie, there are clearly more stylish choices available.

How and why we buy

However, the further ranging issue here is how we shop for things. Having attended a number of hifi shows and events across the world, I tend to gravitate towards the women in the audience because I’m always curious what level they are participating.  They are usually kind partners in crime, hanging out with their significant other because they love gear, reluctant partners that would rather be anywhere else but here or women that own and appreciate fine audio. The first group is always affable and further discussion usually reveals that they love music and more often than not are leaned on heavily during set up because they have more acute hearing than their buddy that’s obsessed over said gear in the first place.  The second group is no fun at all, and the final group is incredibly intriguing to me because my limited experience with female audiophiles reveals an entirely different consumer.

Some broad sweeping generalizations

Granted, my experience with female audiophiles is limited, but much like my female friends that ride motorcycles and love automobiles as much as I do, I’ve noticed a similarity in approach.

The women I’ve chatted with see the hifi system as a means to an end – a way to listen to and enjoy music, and they tend to make a higher initial purchase than most men I’ve talked to.  Where guys more often than not are really caught up on the gear, and the constant upgrading of the system, women tend to actually enjoy their systems more.  One female customer I talked to at an event said, “If I need a $50k system to get the job done, show me why and if it makes sense I’ll write the check.  Don’t sell me a $10k system and then try and get me to keep upgrading it, I’m not interested.”

Talk to the average hifi guy and the first words out of his mouth tend to be bragging about his system, how it’s the best and how it kills, destroys, annihilates (etc. etc.) everything else out there, especially the substandard gear you own.  I’ve never had this conversation with a female audio or auto enthusiast.

My friend Kathleen Thomas, who works for AudioQuest recently said on Facebook, “Is the man cave the room with the shittier hifi?”  And I’d have to agree.  Most so called man caves I’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of visiting were chock full of neon beer signs and a stereo system I wouldn’t give to my neighbors kids.  Now a dedicated listening room, that’s another story, albeit a luxury relatively few people can afford.

In the end, will we see more women interested in hifi?  I certainly hope so, because our industry needs more enthusiasts if it’s going to survive, but the bigger problem (and a great subject for a whole series of articles) is really free time.  Male or female, we live in a more accelerated world from hifi’s humble beginnings back in the late 1950s.

While we are bombarded with more data streams than ever before, perhaps it’s a better reason than ever before to sit back, relax and listen to some of your favorite music without distraction – something that both sexes enjoy.

Oppo HA-1

Listening to the complex timbre of Joni Mitchell’s voice, it’s hard to believe that the $50,000 hifi system I’m listening to is utilizing the OPPO HA-1 headphone amplifier as its front end. Headphone amp you say? It’s more than a headphone amplifier, but if the HA-1 were only a $1,199 headphone amplifier, it would still be a screaming good deal.

As the classic TV guy likes to say, “but wait, there’s more…” A lot more. The HA-1 also includes a fantastic DAC, capable of decoding every kind of file you might have on your computer or music server, including DSD and a full-function, fully balanced line preamplifier. Running a set of Cardas Clear balanced interconnects to the Nagra 300B power amplifier via the Alta Audio speakers that are also reviewed in this issue, I’m floored by how much music this compact, yet powerful, preamplifier lets through.

While I must confess to only being an armchair headphone enthusiast, I love the concept of the HA-1, because it’s the perfect segue to a great in-room system for the advanced headphone enthusiast. Start out with a system built around a pair of premium headphones (like OPPO’s own PM-1), a source for digital music files and add an amp and speakers when the mood strikes you.

Precious little the HA-1 can’t do

The tidy rear panel of the HA-1 contains one single-ended RCA and one balanced XLR input along with one of each for the output, but that’s only part of the story. In addition to the four hardwired digital inputs (Toslink, USB, SPDIF and AES/EBU) the HA-1 can accept signal via Bluetooth as well, taking advantage of the aptX codec, if your device supports it, making the HA-1 a handy streamer. And, for those of you living in Apple world, the front panel USB input is Apple MFi certified, so it will grab the digital bitstream from any iDevice, allowing a first-class combination between the two.

Removing the cover of the HA-1 reveals a tidy layout, densely packed with a massive power supply and a full class-A headphone amplifier built with discrete transistors, while the linestage uses high quality, balanced op amps. The front panel’s LCD readout can be configured in a number of different ways, either displaying inputs, volume level, a spectrum analyzer, or a pair of classic VU meters. Of course, the purists can turn the display off, but why would you want to? The display adds a nice touch of fun to the HA-1, and in homage to the ’70s, I left it in spectrum analyzer mode, always a conversation starter at a party.

As with OPPO’s physical disc players, the HA-1 has an app to control all major functions. While the included remote is sleek and easy to use, controlling the HA-1 via your phone is a no-brainer. Rather than implementing this via Bluetooth, as OPPO has done here, I’d love to see this work via your network, as Devialet has done. This is my only complaint with the HA-1, and it’s minimal, as I suspect most users will use it as a headphone amplifier instead of a control preamplifier, in which case the limited range of Bluetooth is more than adequate. You just can’t adjust the volume of the system when you’re soaking in the bathtub at present.

Let’s put some phones on, shall we?

As awesome as the HA-1 is as a preamplifier and DAC, it really is a headphone amplifier. Again, front panel functionality wins the day here, with an output for balanced and ¼” headphone cables, along with a USB socket, in case you’re listening to some of your favorite tunes via an iDevice.

A firm believer in class-A operation and discrete output stages, the HA-1 delivers great sound from every phone I plug in, from my reference Audeze LCD-3s to OPPO’s own PM-1, which was reviewed in Issue 64. As you might suspect, the HA-1 provides not only perfect synergy for OPPO’s headphone, but it proves equally exciting with everything else in my headphone arsenal. If you have a balanced cable for your favorite phones, there are a few more molecules of music to be revealed via that output, but it’s not a deal breaker either way; it’s more about compatibility. I applaud OPPO for incorporating both outputs neatly on the front panel.

The overall presentation is consistent, regardless of phones used, indicating a robust output stage. Even my old AKG 701s – which are notoriously tough to drive – and the HifiMan HE-1s don’t prove problematic loads to the HA-1. The HA-1 is as close to perfection as it gets for the price asked, with nary a glitch – it’s great across the spectrum, offering a smooth frequency response, excellent transient attack, and a solid, linear response at both extremes of the frequency spectrum.

The solid-state design provides another plus: virtually unmeasurable background noise, critical when listening to headphones. If there were ever a place you didn’t want noise creeping in, it’s here. Those listening to a lot of electronic and rock music might not notice, but classical lovers will really appreciate the dead silence provided by the HA-1.

Easy listening

Again, not being a headphone maniac, the highest compliment I can pay to the HA-1 (or any solid-state amplification product, for that matter) is that it is resolving, yet non-fatiguing.  The sonic signature is much closer to what I am used to with my reference Burmester and Pass Labs reference amplifiers than anything else I’ve auditioned. Where the competitors from Benchmark and Bryston have a slight bit of edge and glare in comparison, the HA-1 is smooth sailing all the way.

Tracking through some of my favorite classical pieces via digital recordings, the absence of background hiss makes this ultimately more pleasurable than switching to analog, even though the highest frequencies are smoother when rendered from an LP.

The HA-1 has more than enough resolution to easily tell the difference between analog and digital signals. Utilizing the Rega RP10 turntable in for review, via the Simaudio LP610 phonostage is particularly stunning. Keeping a bit more in line with what someone might spend on a system built around the HA-1, swapping the Rega/Sim combination for the Lounge Audio LCR phonostage and our Thorens TD-125 (lovingly restored by Vinyl Nirvana) is delectable.

Grooving on some of my favorite headphone records is a total blast with the HA-1. Going for big stereo separation, I can’t resist a ’60s and ’70s marathon of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Hawkwind and a little Cheech and Chong, to make it complete. Cheech and Chong’s classic Big Bambu is funnier than it’s ever been with all the little sound effects floating around the room. The massive three-dimensional soundstage rendered by the HA-1 is completely immersive, giving you that special presentation that you can rarely achieve with even the world’s best speakers.

Much like Porsche’s incredible Cayman S, the OPPO HA-1 offers balance as its highest virtue. Yes, there are a few headphone amplifiers providing more resolution or more bass extension and grip, yet they cost so much more – it’s tough to justify the stretch to any but the most maniacal of headphone listeners.  If you aren’t going to lay down the big bucks for something like the ALO Studio Six, or those massive 300B monoblocks from Woo Audio, I can’t see spending any more than the $1,199 price tag on the OPPO HA-1. It’s that good. OPPO could easily unbundle the HA-1, sell the DAC and pre as standalone components for about $2,000 each, and they would still be class leaders.

OPPO has always stood for solid engineering, great audio performance and smart packaging. The HA-1 headphone amplifier continues this tradition, and if anything, takes OPPO’s version of performance to an even higher standard than they have on their past award-winning components. I can’t suggest this component highly enough.  -Jeff Dorgay

Oppo HA-1

MSRP:  $1,199


Bell Carillon Integrated Amplifer

My over-excitement got the best of me… Discovering this rare treat in a garage, I tried to needle the owner down from the $50 price tag and lost out on the sale. Later, our friend Kurt at Echo Audio let me know exactly what this little jewel is. Made in 1959 with an original price tag of about $200 (in 1959 dollars!) used six 12AX7s, a 5V3 rectifier and four EL34 tubes. It even has a tape head input! Super cool, but we missed it. Kurt at Echo says, “It’s like a PAS 3 and a Stereo 70 rolled into one chassis, but better sounding. Expect to pay as much as $1,200 for one in this condition.” You’ve been warned.

-Jeff Dorgay

Preview: Woo Audio WA234 Monoblocks

Sixteen very large bills for a pair of very large amplifiers that make up a headphone amplification system.  Don’t think of it as crazy money for a headphone amplifier, because the WA234 can drive a pair of efficient speakers when configured with 300B output tubes.  Think of the WA234 of the way to get an SET amplifier that sounds better than a $125,000 pair of Wavac amps for the price of a slightly used VW Golf.  That’s our rationalization.

-Jeff Dorgay

Woo Audio WA234 Monoblocks