Issue 69

TONEAudio Issue 69

TONEAudio’s Music Annual

By The TONE Staff

A complete list of our record reviews for the past year along with a comprehensive
overview of our concert coverage and artist interviews, with an issue by issue listing
at the end. A perfect recap for your record purchases this year! Keep this one on
your tablet or smartphone to jog your memory.

And this year as a special bonus, we include an interview with Slack Key Guitar legend, Makana!

Cover by Jeff Dorgay

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

New Zealand’s Plinius Audio has a track record of delivering products that offer great sound for the dollar—and its Inspire 980 certainly offers a lot, especially for $4,450. In addition the power and preamp capabilities of a standard integrated, it also features an onboard MM phonostage and an internal DAC. With all those elements built in, this beauty can serve as a fantastic system hub—just add speakers and sources.

As with other Plinius products, the 980 features simplistic aesthetics, despite a wealth of internal capabilities. The smooth, bead-blasted aluminum faceplate is interrupted only by a volume knob and two buttons to toggle source selection. The 980 comes with a remote, but the $7.99 Plinius Arataki app (available on the iTunes store) makes controlling the unit from your listening chair even easier.

The unit’s dimensions are modest—about 18 inches wide, 14 inches deep and 3 inches tall—though the slender frame is somewhat deceptive when lifting the unit. It weighs in at a surprising 22 pounds, a result of its burly transformer and the breadth of electronics its versatile capabilities require. The unit’s Class A/B amplification section delivers 80 watts per channel into 8 ohms and roughly 100 watts into 4 ohms. While I’m used to a reference amplifier offering much more juice, the 980 has no trouble holding its own. It maintains command of the Sonus faber Olympica III speakers and leaves me not wanting for extra power.

Setup? What Setup?

As one would expect from this four-in-one integrated, the setup process is quick. Just plug in sources and speakers and start listening. Its back panel accommodates a turntable, two optical inputs and two single-ended line-level sources. There’s also a set of XLR inputs for a CD player, plus an Ethernet port and a USB input for networking from computer-based audio sources and DLNA-capable devices. As a nice bonus, the 980 also offers a wireless connection option.

I will note that the RCA inputs for the line-level sources are bit close together, making large-diameter interconnects a tight squeeze. My only other complaint is that my spade-terminated speakers wires present a challenge with these biding posts. The spades I use are actually soldered to the rest of the speaker wire, so they aren’t exactly flexible and so they must be inserted from underneath, as the binding posts are at the very base of the unit’s short frame and have very little clearance. I have to place the 980 at the rear edge of my rack so the cables can dangle downward instead of kinking. Of course, using bare wire or non-soldered banana terminations would not present this problem.

Sonic Notes

After the break-in period, the Plinius sounds neutrally voiced, with little glare, grain, or stridency. Regardless of source or the quality of the recording, I find the sound extremely easy to live with. It does not romanticize music or lean towards euphony. There’s just a slightly forgiving and relaxed quality to the sound, which strikes a delicate balance between warmth and stark realism.

With its internal 24-bit/192-kHz DAC employed, the 980 remains very tuneful. Compared unfairly against more expensive dedicated DACs, it offers a little less ambient detail and refinement; however, it does manage to render even poor recordings in a musical and enjoyable way. To my ears, Norah Jones’s vocals on “Don’t Know Why” were recorded a little hot, meaning that crescendos sometimes have an ear-tingling singe. During CD-quality digital playback, this stridency is somewhat diminished, giving the song a greater sense of musicality.

The 980 has no noticeable roll-off among high frequencies. On Hélène Grimaud’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s “Piano Sonata No. 2,” key strikes in the upper region have the requisite plink, ring, and ambient decay. With complementary bass prowess, the 980’s portrayal is deep and punchy with a solid grip on speaker drivers, especially on rock tracks like Electric Six’s “Dance Commander.” The Plinius delivers the full energy of this song with little (if any) compromises.

The soundstage portrayed—front-to-back layering, perceived width, and extension beyond the speakers—also proves excellent. Though I listen to Chris Isaak’s “Go Walking Down There” in regular rotation, I find myself startled by the 980’s portrayal of the cymbals panned to the far left and right of the recording; in my listening space, the sound bursts into the room. While the crash, shimmer and decay of the cymbal strikes may not have all the nuanced resolution of a more expensive and dedicated DAC (like the dCS Debussy, for example), what’s there is nicely rendered.

The phonostage section proves to be another really nice addition, given the price tag of the 980. While it’s limited to MM cartridges and has a fixed loading and gain, it is a wonderful feature to have incorporated in such a compact package. With all the experience Plinius has building great phonostages, like its marvelous Koru, there is undoubtedly some trickle-down technology lending the 980 solid analog playback. (See “Additional Listening” for notes on the phonostage performance.)

A Lot to Love

The Inspire 980 costs $4,450, which is not chump change. But given the quality of all the elements within—amp, preamp, DAC and phonostage—it’s actually something of a value-oriented purchase. Yes, you can get greater realism and refinement from more expensive standalone equipment, like Plinius’s own reference-level products. But from a price-performance standpoint, the 980 is a great option. For those who don’t need wired or wireless home networking capability for music retrieval from a networked drive, the Inspire’s little brother, the 880, offers the same functionality and sonics as the 980, but for $3,650.

If you have limited space to dedicate to your hi-fi system or if you simply want to scale down the number of components in you audio arsenal, this all-in-one component offers a lot to love. The 980 is also well suited as a launching point for prospective buyers who might be looking to upgrade to a larger system down the road. Given all of its capability and versatility, I can easily recommend this component—and I’d even put it on my own short list.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Every Plinius product we’ve auditioned has been fantastic, and the 980 continues that tradition.  As Rob is a MC-only guy, I wanted to spend some time listening to the 980 with the Ortofon 2M Black MM cartridge, which is currently mounted to the refurbished Thorens TD-125 table (courtesy of Vinyl Nirvana) and revitalized SME 3009 tonearm (courtesy of

As a listener who loves analog as much as digital and as someone about to move to a small space, I will say that the Plinius 980 is a fantastic solution for those wanting to keep sound quality way up and the footprint way down. Streaming music from the Meridian MS200, which is barely the size of a glasses case, and using my turntable makes this a true desktop situation. A 15-foot run of Cardas Clear speaker cable (admittedly worth more than the amplifier) and the Franco Serblin Accordo speakers round out an amazing system in my 11-by-13-foot living room.

Don’t sell yourself short on the MM thing; there are quite a few $600 to $1,000 MM cartridges that, if you aren’t going to drop thousands of bucks on a table, will fit the bill very nicely. I’m partial to the 2M Black, which mates flawlessly with the Plinius. Having spent a lot of time with the massive Plinius Class-A monoblocks, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with the 980. The Accordos perform their best with a lot of current and the 980 delivers the control necessary to really rock these small but mighty speakers.

But most importantly, the phonostage is dead quiet and, like the rest of the amplifier, it does not exaggerate or embellish. The Ortofon 2M has a similar sound, so if that’s your fancy, I can’t suggest this cartridge highly enough. Those wanting a bit more mellow/warm/euphonic sound should consider the Grado Reference Master 1 Moving Iron cartridge. With a 5-mV output and requiring 47K loading, the Grado will add a bit of warmth to your system’s tonality, which is especially useful if your record collection consists of mostly jazz and classic rock.

Whatever your taste, the Plinius Inspire 980 is a fantastic bargain, especially for those utilizing both digital and analog sources. An external DAC and phonostage of this caliber would easily set you back $1,000 each, so it’s like getting an 80-wpc integrated amp thrown in for $2,450—not to mention all that cable you won’t need. Enthusiastically suggested!

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $4,450


Digital Source Mac mini     dCS Debussy
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm
Amplifier Burmester 911 MK3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

Benchmark AHB2 Power Amplifier

The first thing you notice about the new Benchmark AHB2 is its diminutive size. Even with feet and binding posts, it’s only about 11 inches wide, 4 inches tall and 9 inches deep. And the heat-sink fins account for about a third of that width, making it even more incredible that Benchmark was able to jam so much oomph into such a small body. Regularly lifting amps that leave my back barking for Tylenol, I chuckle with relief when carrying the 12.5-pound AHB2 to my audio rack.

At about $3,000, the Benchmark AHB2 is a substantial investment, and it certainly demonstrates many musical characteristics one would expect at this price point. But the amp’s size makes it appealing when shelf space is limited or when you simply want to minimize your gear real estate. If more power is desired, you can buy a second AHB2 and configure them as monoblocks.

Benchmark offers the unit with a black or silver anodized faceplate and black heat-sink fins. A studio version is also available, with a wider front plate to fit equipment racks. Other than its tiny power button, the front of the amp has no other controls, just a few LEDs to indicate aspects of operation. Each channel has three LEDs to indicate clip, temperature and mute. In the event of an amp overload (which happened once during my testing), the amp shuts itself down and the LEDs indicate the nature of the problem. Powering the unit off, waiting a few seconds and pressing the power button puts the amp back into operational mode.

Setting the Benchmark

As Benchmark products are used regularly in recording studios, all of the AHB2’s connections are balanced. A couple audio designers have explained to me that balanced XLR connections usually prove superior to single-ended RCAs, since XLRs offer inherent noise canceling and they won’t come loose once clicked into place. If the rest of you’re system doesn’t offer XLR connections, Benchmark also makes cables and adapters.

Setup is fairly straightforward: Connect a preamp and speakers, ensure the stereo/mono toggle is set to the desired position, and then set the three-position sensitivity switch to match the signal levels from your preamplifier; the sensitivity switch also optimizes the amplifier’s gain for controlling volume from your preamplifier. Because of the amp’s size, its back panel can get crowed, making connections a little tricky—especially with my speaker cables, which have soldered spade connections that don’t bend. As such, I have to place the amp at the back edge of my audio shelf so the cables can hang below the amp (though I’ve had this same problem with other amps I’ve tested).
The AHB2 also offers twist-lock NL4 ports for speaker connection. Benchmark says NL4s provide lower resistance and higher current handling than connection via binding posts, as well as a more secure connection. As most speakers don’t have an NL4 connection option, Benchmark makes speaker cables with NL4 connectors for the amp side and standard connections for the speaker side.

Once everything is connected, simply push the power button on the front panel to activate the start-up sequence. When configured as a stereo amp, the AHB2 pushes out 100 watts into 8 ohms and double that into 4 ohms. For those wanting a 12-volt trigger for remote power-up, the AHB2 has you covered.

The AHB2 features a Class-AB/Class-H design (hence its name), which facilitates bridging a pair of the amps to use as monoblocks, pushing 380 watts into 8 ohms. This scenario is very useful if your speakers need some extra juice and you want to provide a dedicated amp for each, or if you want to drive a center-channel speaker in a home-theater setup. When using this setup method, consult the manual to ensure the proper connections and settings.

Meeting the Benchmark

Among Benchmark’s design goals for the amp were extremely low distortion and quiet operation. From the get-go, the amp lives up to its design specs by providing a very clean presentation. The Benchmark does a good job of layering vocals and instruments in all dimensions, with each element supported by a solid and convincing image. The amp’s designer, John Siau, is quick to mention that the third goal was to achieve a ruler-flat high-frequency response—and the AHB2 is completely flat all the way up to 200 kHz. Siau says these qualities are vitally important in delivering high-resolution performance.

As desired in a studio setting, the sonics from the AHB2 are neutral, and in my home setup, there is no observable emphasis in any particular frequency range. I would not characterize the AHB2 sound as warm or romantic, though it’s not stark or emotionless either. Between these two ends of the spectrum, the amp leans toward the latter but with a sweeter top end. Those seeking an amp that emphasizes fullness and richness that will augment slightly thin sound from your preamp or source might consider other amp options. But if accurate portrayal is a listener’s goal, this Benchmark does the trick.

When reproducing poor-quality recordings, the AHB2 does a nice job of limiting digital glare. Lucinda Williams’s album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road demonstrates the AHB2’s ability to offer edge-free portrayal of vocals with a very fluid midrange. Her voice resides upfront in the soundstage and it is well separated from the instruments accompanying her.

Regardless of music type, bass through the Benchmark offers a taught presentation with the snap and punch one expects from percussion. Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” is engaging through the AHB2, with all the subtle synthesized sounds popping into position in the soundstage. This makes me curious about running a pair of the amps as monoblocks—which still wouldn’t take up the rack space of a single traditional amplifier.

The Benchmark brings to life the voice of the Martin Logan Motion XT35 bookshelf speakers. Considering its recording-studio applications, it makes a lot of sense that this amp pairs well with smaller stereo monitors. Combined with the speakers I have on hand for testing, the AHB2’s sound flavor profile remains consistent.

In the case of the AHB2, system synergy is an important factor to consider, since no amp is universally perfect for all speakers. For large and demanding speakers, a prospective AHB2 owner may need more power. In the case of the AHB2, you can add another unit and configure the two amps as monoblocks.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I was curious to hear how Benchmark’s design ethos of compact products would translate into designing a power amp. A couple years ago, the Devialet shattered my bias that amplifiers had to be massive to sound good, and so today I find myself much more open-minded to smaller amps like the Benchmark.

My initial exposure to the AHB2 was at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where Benchmark was playing the amp in an all-Benchmark system that included its new mini-monitor speakers. Back in my own listening rooms, the AHB2 did a fantastic job driving the KEF Blades, Dynaudio Evidence Platinums and even my Acoustat 2+2s, which are notoriously tough to drive, though a pair of AHB2s would have been even better for the 2+2s.

As both my reference systems are balanced, I actually prefer the XLR connections of the AHB2. If you’re working with single-ended RCAs connections, the Cardas adaptors are my favorite. I agree with Rob’s conclusions on tonality, etc., and will add that the AHB2 definitely has the bass drive necessary to achieve convincing full-range performance, even from big speakers.

In the end, the Benchmark AHB2 can become a great anchor to your system, offering high performance in a compact box. With an extremely neutral tonal balance, you can use it straight, or warm it up with a tube preamplifier, should that be your preference. Either way, the AHB2 is a stellar performer from a company known for excellence.

Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


Digital Sources Mac mini, dCS Debussy DAC    JRiver Media Center 20    Tidal music service
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm and Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Amplifier Burmester 911 MK3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III, Martin Logan Motion XT35
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner    RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

Justin Townes Earle

Loneliness—and the fears that accompany the threadbare emotion—has long served as the inspiration for innumerable pop songs. The subject also provided the jumping-off point for many classics in the traditional country canon, with singers such as Hank Williams, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings making careers out of the sound of being despondent and continuing their erring ways en route to less-than-ideal circumstances.

Yet as many artists discover the hard way, it’s one thing to sing about forsakenness and another to truly understand what it means to be on a first-name basis with the feeling. The profound sadness tied to solitary existence and lingering heartsickness cannot easily be faked. The late contemporary singer-songwriter Jason Molina, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 39 from alcohol-induced organ failure, knew such deep-seated ache, sorrow, and isolation all too well. You can hear it on many of the remarkable records he made under the banners of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. Molina’s is a haunting beauty, a torment that reaches deep into listeners’ souls and doesn’t let go.

Justin Townes Earle can relate to such sentiments. Abandoned by his musician/actor father, Steve, when he was just two, he became addicted to hard drugs at a time when most of his peers were still busy worrying about their Little League stats. Multiple rehabilitation stints, at least one high-publicity arrest, and several near-death experiences later, the 33-year-old appears to finally be finding inner peace, having kicked chemical substances and gotten married within the past 18 months.

The release of Absent Fathers—the bookend to the equally strong Single Mothers, issued in October—goes further to suggest the foggy gloom long surrounding the younger Earle’s world is lifting. Spare, relaxed, and moody, the ten-track set primarily clings to downbeat hues and understated rhythms. Songs such as the crawling, stare-at-the-clock lament “When the One You Love Loses Faith” and stripped-to-the-bones “Day and Night” rightly focus on Earle’s low-key voice, a pliable instrument teeming with weariness and anguish yet too stubborn and invested to give up.

Rather than wallow in the melancholy of troubled thoughts, busted relationships, and abused freedoms, Earle’s weary deliveries convey a relatable compassion and unmistakable authenticity made even clearer by unfussy production. On the strolling “Least I Got the Blues” and languid “Slow Monday”—where the sluggish passing of time only serves to cause Earle to damn himself for acting a fool—country-laced pedal-steel guitar lines stretch across big-sky horizons and accentuate the singer’s unsettled state of mind. Picking up the pace on “Someone Will Pay” and R&B-etched “Call Ya Momma,” he ditches whiskey-nursing deliberation in favor of something approximating moving on.

“Why do you always think the worst of me, babe?” Earle asks during “Why” as a full band supplies a steady beat and honky-tonk accents. Like most of the record, the concise tune finds Earle mired in despair of one sort or another. But it also witnesses the singer considering other perspectives and contemplating better possibilities, the heartache a necessary stopover on the way to the hopeful catharsis intimated throughout the outlines of the subtly powerful Absent Fathers. —Bob Gendron

To purchase this album on vinyl from music direct, click here

If you’d like to stream it on Tidal first, click here

2014 Product of the Year – Personal Fidelity

The OPPO amp and phones get our overall award this year because they offer unbeatable performance for the dollar, but the Woo Audio headphone amplifier gets the nod because it’s so over the top.  It’s the most amazing headphone amplifier period, end of story – and it should be for $16,000.  And with a pair of 300B tubes it produces enough power to drive a pair of high efficiency speakers to glory.  So don’t think of it as a $16,000 headphone amp.  Think of it as a $125k pair of Wavac amps that you stole for 16 grand that just happen to drive headphones too.

Woo Audio WA234

2014 Product of the Year – Amplifier

Steve Deckert has been building some of the world’s finest tube amplifiers forever, and he’s still one of the best-kept secrets in high end audio.  Until you talk to someone who owns one of his amplifiers, that is.  Just try and pry it from their cold, dead hands.

His Zen Monoblocks put out 60 watts per channel, cost a cool $12k a pair, and are worth every penny. The Zen Mystery Amplifier, is a single channel design producing 40 watts per channel and has a lower price tag of only $5,695.  Decware amplifiers all carry a lifetime warranty, but the odds of your ever needing to take advantage of it are very slim.  These amplifiers are hand built and tested 110%.

As for the sound, there’s nothing like a Zen amplifier.  If you can live with 40 watts per channel, these are the most glorious 40 watts you will ever hear.

Decware Zen Mystery Amplifier

2014 Product of the Year – Accessory

While we’ve all been arguing about whether to align our phono cartridge to Loefgren A, B or Baerwald spec, Acoustical Systems has gone back to the drawing board, looking at the problem from a new light: updating phono cartridge alignment from the perspective of modern designs, materials and stylus profiles.

The result is their UNIDEN alignment geometry, implemented with their SMARTractor.  Nope, you won’t find this profile for free on your favorite internet forum; you’re gonna have to buy it.  Granted, $795 is a little spendy for a user with one table and one tonearm, but we guarantee you will never hear a more profound improvement to your analog system than this provides for anywhere near this price.

The reduced distortion provided by the UNIDEN alignment is a revelation, a quantum leap beyond what you’ve been using.  Before you buy some wacky-priced piece of wire, buy a SMARTractor.  You won’t regret it.

Acoustical Systems SMARTractor

2014 Product of the Year – Preamplifer

A companion to their Xs power amplifiers, the Xs preamplifier is a tour de force in every aspect.  And like the Xs amplifiers, the Xs preamplifier has that slight bit of warmth, magic, and tonal saturation you might expect from a “cost is no object” vacuum tube linestage, but there are no tubes inside!

Kiss your tube-related problems goodbye forever, and say hello to incredible flexibility and the ability to drive any power amplifier with ease.  If the Xs is like every other Nelson Pass product we’ve owned or reviewed over the last 30 years, chances are it will never leave your equipment rack to visit the Pass mothership.

This should be the last preamp you ever buy.

Pass Xs Preamplifier

2014 Product of the Year – Speaker

I’m proud to say that Dynaudio’s flagship Evidence Platinum speaker has also been my reference for this year and looks like it will continue to be so for some time to come.  For $85,000 a pair, said speakers should be without compromise, and the Evidence Platinums deliver the goods.  They feature full-range frequency response, massive dynamic range, natural tonality and are easy to drive with anything from 15wpc on up.

And of course, being Danish, the Evidence Platinums are a visual work of art as well as an auditory one.  You’ll need a fairly good-sized room for them to fully work their magic, but you will be rewarded with a musical destination that you never need to leave.  There’s no reason to spend over twice as much on a pair of Wilsons, once you hear the Evidence Platinum.  And you’ll have a much easier time convincing your wife to put them in the living room, too.

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum

2014 Product of the Year – Budget Component

It shouldn’t be possible to make something this good, this inexpensively, but Lounge Audio is a small but mighty California company that is building a great reputation with this killer phonostage for analog lovers on a tight budget.

At some point, as they grow and take on more operating expenses, these babies will ultimately get more expensive, so grab one now while they are priced at $300.  Whether you have a basic or mega system, you owe it to yourself to hear what can be accomplished when sound quality is the only goal.  And when Lounge Audio becomes a household word, remember, you saw it here first!

Lounge LCR Phonostage

Grand Opening Part Two at AVSF

Hey San Francisco music and audio lovers:

On January 15th 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Audio Vision San Francisco will be having a continuation of our Grand Opening Party featuring MOON by SimaudioAudio Physic GmbH loudspeakers, Woo Audio Headphone Amps, Abyss Headphones , MrSpeakers Headphones, Nordost Cables Power and Signal, DEQX Speaker/Room Correction Processors and PONO Music Players. It’s a free event featuring libations and prizes!!

Count on major demos and they will be featuring one Special Room dedicated to just headphone listening! BRING YOUR MUSIC!

For more info, go to

The Latest High Resolution Format From Meridian Audio

Wave of Industry Support for Meridian’s MQA at CES Signals Change in Music Quality for All

Meridian Audio announces rising industry support for its revolutionary MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) technology, launched last month at The Shard.

After the spectacular launch the music industry, hardware providers and content distribution companies are aligning with MQA and its assurance of supreme sound for music fans.

Following 7digital’s announcement of support in December, other companies already in advanced discussions include: Imagination Technologies and its Caskeid wireless multi-room audio IP platform; Onkyo, the Japanese electronics giant; Arcam, the British hi-fi manufacturer; and TIDAL, the high fidelity music streaming service from the Aspiro Group, currently available in US, UK and Canada. TIDAL will also be integral to the MQA demonstrations at CES, streaming MQA music files through the updated Meridian Sooloos digital media system.

Commenting on this wave of support for MQA, Bob Stuart, Meridian Audio co-founder and pioneer behind the new technology said, “We are delighted to be in discussions with such highly respected brands. We are also progressing our work with the music labels, who continue to drive forward MQA content discussions, and we expect them to make announcements in early 2015.”

Callers to the MQA by Meridian suite can experience MQA-encoded music in action, as well as meet the audio design experts behind this revolutionary music format.

TONEAudio’s Products of the Year 2014

Another year has zoomed by and we’ve had the privilege of listening to a lot of great gear to report on.  Choosing a Product of the Year always carries the dilemma as to whether we bestow the title on something relatively unobtainable, or something modestly priced that we feel offers such over-the-top performance that it can’t be beat by a long shot.  Over the years, we’ve done both, and this year we’re taking the latter approach with the OPPO HA-1 headphone amplifier and their PM-1 phones.

We like to keep the trophies to a minimum in the hope that they remain meaningful, and we’ve actually handed out fewer than last year, with only five items in the Publisher’s Choice column.  As we’ve said in the past, we are always on a quest to help you find the most intriguing products for your short list, so on one level, everything we’ve taken the time to review is award worthy.

Check out the Oppos and other TONEAudio Products of the Year in our Spotlight section!


Jeff Dorgay

2014 Product of the Year – Digital

After years of screwing around with iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, etc., we’re still left with the agony of choosing convenience over quality.  Now, with Tidal, we get a major song catalog that’s constantly evolving, as well as an incredible catalog of music videos delivered at 16/44.1 resolution.  For 99% of us, this is incredibly cool, and while no one at Tidal is ’fessing up, I’ll bet that they will be offering high resolution downloads at some point in the future.

For all but the most dedicated music collectors, this is the way to finally free yourself from physical media.  There will always be those who want to thumb through album covers romantically, and you can still do that.  But now the music lovers who would like access to a ton of music with audiophile quality can have their cake and eat it too.

This is the best twenty dollars a month you will ever spend.  And Tidal is only in its infancy.

Tidal Music Streaming

2014 Product of the Year – Analog

Roger Gibboni builds great stuff, and at $8,500, his PA-1 takes on the world’s finest.  An all-vacuum tube design gives you the option to modify the gain (and overall tonality) by a bit of tube swapping, and the controls are all on the front panel to keep the hardcore analog enthusiast happy.

Proudly crafted by hand in the USA, the PA-1 is as much of a work of art underneath the chassis as it is on the outside.  With an input for MM and MC, the PA-1 could be used as a two-input phonostage, if you were so inclined.  But in the end, it’s the sound that will win you over.  Gibboni has achieved the perfect balance, incorporating the tonal saturation that tubes are famous for (without overdoing it), a dead quiet background and dynamic swing that will knock your socks off.

Its only limitations are RCA-only outputs and essentially one input, but if you only have one table, the PA-1 renders sound quality that you’d expect from a $30k phonostage.  And that’s why it’s our analog product of the year.

Rogers PA-1 Phonostage

2014 Product of the Year – Overall

OPPO has been producing award-winning disc players for years now, producing components that not only sound the part, but look, feel and are packaged like components costing a lot more.  If the HA-1 headphone amplifier had a McIntosh or a Meridan badge on the front panel, you wouldn’t even blink at an $8,500 price tag.  It’s an absolute steal at $1,195, including a DAC, streamer and line level preamplifier –– with a headphone amplifier that, by itself, is worth more than the $1,195 asking price.

Coupled with the $1,095 PM-1 planar magnetic headphones that give the competitors a major run for their money, these two components not only give you a world class personal audio system for a tick over two grand, they give you the foundation for a fantastic two-channel hifi system as well – just add your favorite power amplifier and speakers.  With fully balanced XLR outputs as well as RCAs, the HA-1 is compatible with everything. And it’s so good, we’d even suggest the HA-1 as a system anchor even if you aren’t a headphone enthusiast.  There’s no better building block for a reasonably priced, high performance audio system than the OPPO HA-1.

OPPO HA-1 Headphone Amplifier and PM-1 Headphones

AURALiC adds DSD 256 capability to the Aries

AURALiC’s award winning ARIES High-Resolution Wireless Bridge now offers streaming DSD256 [Quad-Rate DSD], putting the streamer on the bleeding edge of technology.

AURALIC North America Inc. and its parent company, AURALIC LIMITED, are pleased to be the first to offer DSD256 [Quad-Rate DSD] music streaming over Wi-Fi. This technology, though not available yet commercially, is four times the rate of DSD and doubles the resolution of DSD128 (Double-Rate DSD). It’s also the most cutting-edge high-resolution recording format.

The upgrade, available via firmware, is the latest in a series of ongoing improvements to AURALiC’s Lightning DS Control Software, introduced at last year’s CES, and its ARIES Hi-Res Steaming Bridge, which connects to a consumer’s DAC via USB and continues to be the industry’s only system able to stream DSD, Double-Rate DSD and DXD wirelessly.

The addition of DSD256 capability follows AURALiC’s recent integration of TIDAL full-resolution music streaming to ARIES, thereby eliminating the need for a computer connection to access the service. USB playback is another function recently added to AURALiC’s streaming platform.

AURALiC will continue to support its customers by adding more functionality to the ARIES Wireless Bridge in the future.

Click here to go directly to the AURALiC site….