Decware Zen Mystery Amp

Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out at Night was the first record in my collection, so to say I’m intimately familiar with it would be an understatement. For old times’ sake, it’s the first album I place on the turntable when critical listening begins for the Zen Mystery Amp (ZMA). Wow! Just when you think you’ve heard it all and you know a piece of music inside and out, this amp whacks you upside the head—which is enlightening and it’s what keeps this reviewing game interesting. The first cymbal crash on Radiohead’s “High and Dry” further convinces me that I’m listening to something magical. There’s more air and delicacy everywhere. The ZMA is all about nuance and finding more information lurking in the details.

This is one of the most musical, most natural, most realistic amplifiers I’ve ever had the pleasure to live with—and it’s been with me for the better part of a year now. If you want to call BS, be my guest. (I’ve got my flame-retardant Kevlar suit on, so take your best shot.) After a crazed life of audiophilia and now 12 years of covering high-end audio as my day job, I still haven’t heard an amplifier that sounds more musical than the ZMA. My Pass Xs 300 monoblocks are on the short list, as are the Audio Research GS150 and Conrad-Johnson LP120SA+. Compared to the ZMA’s 40 watts per channel, all three of those amplifiers have more power on tap, making a wider range of speakers in larger rooms a possibility—but the sheer musical purity of the ZMA is tough to ignore, for a number of reasons.

Arf, Arf

Ever meet a small dog with a big soul? A 20-pound critter with more bark than a German Shepard or Saint Bernard? That’s the ZMA. I’ve always felt that you need a big amplifier to get big sound, but the ZMA not only plays damn loud for only having 40 wpc on tap, it has a ton of headroom. When it does clip, it does so in such a gentle manner that you’ll only notice a slight collapse of the soundstage, rather than sounding like you’ve just hit a sonic brick wall.

If you can live within the ZMA’s performance envelope, there is no reason to buy anything else, even for something two or even 10 times the price. The Holy Grail is right here, built proudly in Illinois. It only takes a brief listen to the ZMA to realize that the only mystery is how Steve Deckert can build an amplifier like this for $5,695 and still stay in business. If this piece of audio fine art had a Shindo or Wavac badge on the front, it would easily have another zero on the price tag. Take it from someone who’s owned both: Save the dough and buy American. The ZMA is a better amplifier than either—and it carries a lifetime warranty and tech support (for the original owner).

If the $12,000 Zen monoblocks are out of reach, or you just don’t have room for a pair of amps (albeit compact ones), the ZMA is essentially the same amplifier on one chassis, with a smaller power supply, delivering 40 wpc compared to the 60 wpc that the monos produce. I’ve been using the Decware Torii for the last few years and my only complaint is that I find myself wanting just a little more power. Even though the Torii is the little amp that can, there are times when 26 wpc just isn’t quite enough. In every way, the ZMA brings more to the table than the already excellent Torii, but above all things, it brings finesse.

Details, Details

It’s up to you whether or not God is in the details, but regardless of what you believe (or don’t) in the spiritual department, I submit that musical happiness does indeed lurk in the details. Happiness in the form of musical engagement is, for me, an experience that keeps you riveted to your listening chair, digging one record after the next, searching for those favorite tracks that, once you’ve heard them through the ZMA, have you searching for more. After several months, this still happens every time I fire up the ZMA.

Regardless of the tracks chosen, subtlety abounds with this amp, and it continually offers little surprises on so many records that I’ve been listening to for years. And listening to new music is equally dreamy. Trent Reznor’s soundtrack for the recent movie Gone Girl is so good it’s scary, constantly reminding me of the tension in the film. Reznor is known for his ability to build a dense and ethereal soundscape—and the ZMA, combined with the GamuT RS5 speakers, envelops me in so much more than what I might call a soundstage with another amplifier. The ZMA creates a hyper-real, three-dimensional sound sphere. While a record like this does not provide the picture of musical accuracy that your favorite Blue Note might, it does have many layers of minute detail—and through a less-capable amplifier, those details just don’t come through in the same dreamy sonic picture that the ZMA paints.

Tracking through well-known albums from Brian Eno and Jean-Michel Jarre prove equally ethereal. Jarre’s Zoolook features a track, “Diva,” with what sounds like water droplets behind layers of synthesizers, with Laurie Anderson saying something in reverse over the top. Trippy as this is, each layer breathes in its own space and, through the ZMA, Anderson’s voice sounds as if she’s just been let out of an asylum; it’s scary-movie good.

Sounding this good on surreal music, the ZMA excels when the fare turns to acoustic instruments. All of the texture, attack and decay associated with piano, guitar, drums and other acoustic instruments are revealed with shocking clarity. As a photographer, I can only describe this effect by saying its similar to going from a standard-definition picture to HD, and even to the latest 4K. The ZMA presents more and smoother steps of gradation, resulting in bongo drums sounding like actual bongos. There’s cheese and then there are cheese-like substances (i.e. Velveeta). Once you hear a piano or violin reproduced through the ZMA, it will be tough to go back to what you’d been using. As Bob Stuart at Meridian likes to say, “When you’ve heard it right, you can’t unhear it.”

The upper registers of the ZMA are as close to perfect as can be. Cymbals not only have the required meat, they have proper texture and decay. The same can be said for the lower register, which are even tougher for a tube amplifier to get right. Again, the ZMA succeeds brilliantly, producing low notes with tone and texture but also with the proper amount of speed and damping, without being overly damped. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but five minutes of actually experiencing the ZMA might well be one of the biggest “a-ha” moments I’ve had in high-end audio.

Setup and Further Listening

The ZMA arrives packed in a padded Pelican Case, with the tube complement in another box. Following the well-documented instruction manual will have you up and running in no time. Even after running the amp for a month, I didn’t have to rebias the tubes; and now after more than six months, they’ve required just a tiny adjustment to stay perfectly biased and matched to each other. Unlike with some tube amplifiers, the ZMA allows you to set each KT66 tube individually and does not require matched output tubes. It’s also worth mentioning that Decware encloses a power cord with the ZMA that a lot of other cable guys would nick you an extra thousand bucks for.

While the ZMA has two sets of binding posts, one for 4-ohm speakers and one for 8, Decware does offer an option that can power 8- or 16-ohm speakers—which leads to my only complaint with the ZMA: The high-quality binding posts are too damn close together. It’s tough to tighten them down onto fairly thick spade lugs like mine—but I will say that you can use banana plugs with ease.

Inputs are single-ended RCA jacks, with XLR inputs via Jensen 95khz transformers available as a $600 option. As Deckert points out, “while not a fully differential balanced circuit, it is still a tehnically balanced amplifier – and the transformer is your friend. It gives a beautiful shimmer to the top end and better dimensionality not unlike a great moving coil cartridge.” I must agree. Using equal lengths of Cardas clear via the XLR and RCA inputs, I do prefer the balanced inputs.

Those with only one source component who want to bypass the preamplifier can tick the stepped attenuator box for an additional $150. Should you fall in this category, this is the perfect shortcut to creating a highly resolving system on a tight budget (unless you have a world-class preamplifier—but then you’re probably not on a tight budget).

A bit of research on the Decware forum reveals that its claim of long tube life is no scam. Even after years, many Decware users are still running their original set of tubes! The 6N23P input tubes can be swapped for 6N1Ps or 6922s, but Deckert says the 6N23P is his favorite, and my experience is to follow his lead. While I leave the input and regulator tubes as installed from the factory, the tube swapping goblins do possess me to try a set of NOS Siemens EL34s in place of the KT66 tubes. The sound is just different, with the E34s being a little warmer and a little softer than the KT66s. Those liking a low-end that is a bit softer, flabbier and less controlled may prefer the EL34s, but I happily went back to the KT66s. Neurotic tube-swapping in my Torii led me back to what Deckert suggested in the first place, so from now I just listen to Obi-Wan.

However, I do believe the combination of 0A3 regulator tubes, fast recovery solid-state rectifiers and 4,500 uF of power supply capacitance is a big part of the ZMAs exquisite sound. This is way more power supply than any 40-wpc tube amplifier needs, or is supplied with any other similarly powered tube amplifier I’ve seen pass through our listening rooms. The ZMAs large, well-executed power supply translates into dynamic capability, a low noise floor and the ability to execute wide transient swings with ease.

Deckert has told me that his amplifiers just keep sounding better, as the wire in the output transformers becomes seasoned over the years. My experience with the Torii has been similar. After 100 or so hours of what audiophiles might consider “break-in,” this amplifier just keeps sounding more natural. The same is happening with the ZMA and I’m sure the person who ends up with our review sample will enjoy it even more in five years than I am today.

We mate the ZMA to some insanely expensive speakers: Focal Stella Utopias, Dynaudio Evidence Platinums, KEF Blades and now the GamuT RS5, as well as the Dali Epicon 8. All have a sensitivity rating between 87 and 89 dB and work well at modest to somewhat loud volumes. In my large listening room, I’m able to run the ZMA out of juice when going for fairly loud listening levels, but for most users in a more reasonably sized room, you will have to tax this one to get it to clip.

In my smaller room at more reasonable listening levels, the GamuTs, Egglestonworks Emmas (which were on our cover last issue) and a vintage pair of Acoustat 2+2s prove absolutely heavenly with the ZMA. We use Cardas Clear cable throughout and every speaker we test happens to work best on the output impedance setting that matches the factory rating.

The ZMA sounds great at turn-on, and while it takes longer to fully warm up than other tube amplifiers I’ve used, the transition from cold to warm is more gradual than any other tube amplifier I’ve used. Again, it’s that gradation thing.

This is the point where many reviewers make wry comments about how they will miss said review product dearly, and in regards to the ZMA, I must admit to having similar feelings. However, I’m looking at this more as an au revoir (since I’m saving for a pair of Zen Monos for my retirement.)

The ZMA is more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards. Considering the level of sound quality and build quality it offers, the ZMA is one of the most exceptional values I’ve ever encountered.

Decware Zen Mystery Amp

MSRP: $5,695


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference turntable SP/SME V tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2
Amplification Robert Koda K10       Audio Research GSPre    Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi four-box stack
Speakers Focal Stella Utopias    Dynaudio Evidence Platinums    KEF Blades    GamuT RS5    Dali Epicon 8    Egglestonworks Emma     Acoustat 2+2
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Conrad-Johnson MF 2275 Amplifier – Preview

Wrapped in the same champagne front panel that every CJ component has come since their inception, the MF 2275 is a compact, solid state amplifier. As company founder Lew Johnson assured me at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, “Yes, we make excellent solid-state amplifiers too.”

Rated at 135 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load, the MF 2275 features a no frills approach to delivering great solid-state sound. Those familiar with their other solid-state designs will immediately notice a family resemblance. Newcomers to the world of CJ will immediately be impressed. Rob Johnson’s review coming soon!

Conrad-Johnson MF 2275


Rock Star Soap

You might not look like a rock star, and you might not be a rock star, but now you can bathe like one. Do rock stars bathe? If they did, we suspect that they might use this herbal blend, dark red soap from Lush.

Rock Star Soap


Harman/Kardon HK670 Receiver

I’ve been a fan of vintage Harman/Kardon gear for several years now, so when I heard a local record store had an HK670 receiver for sale I was on the case, immediately. The typical going price for this model in “good working order” (which as most vintage audio buyers know can mean many things) is right around $100-150. Though showing signs of neglect and crying out for some TLC, I was able to get it for $50 due to some distortion in the phono section.

The HK670 twin powered integrated receiver was Harman/Kardon’s top of the line model from about 1979 to 1981 and was its last with an analog tuner. The original retail price was $550, the equivalent to around $1700 today. It has a dual-mono design; however the single transformer makes the designation of twin powered misleading. The 670 is rated at 60 watts per channel and some sources say this rating is conservative. A fan of the aesthetics of older HK gear, this one isn’t as pretty and is a beast in terms of size, yet it still has a certain vintage charm.

After some serious elbow grease and new fuses, it works beautifully. I didn’t know what to expect as mixed reviews for this particular model complain about a flat and lifeless sound.  Pairing it with a set of vintage JBLs and both a Rega Planar 3 and Pro-ject Debut Carbon turntables I auditioned a few quintessential audiophile releases along with Deep Shadows and Brilliant Highlights from the new HIM Vinyl Retrospective box set left me surprised for the better!

– Jaime Lee Fritze

Sansui AU-717 Integrated Amplifier

I remember the day like it was yesterday: I was pestering the guy at Pacific Stereo in the mall, begging to audition the Sansui AU-717 amplifier and a pair of JBL L-100 speakers that I was lusting after—and yes, the speakers had the orange grilles. As I watched those woofers pound in an out, listening to Supertramp’s “Rudy” and driving everyone else out of the store, it was the moment of truth. Time to put up or shut up. The amp was $549 and the speakers were $549 a pair. “How about $900 for the whole thing?” I bargained.

At this point, the audio consultant (as they used to call ’em back then) laughed at me and said, “Kid, I’ll let you have the whole thing for $800 if you’ve got the money.” He and the manager weren’t laughing when I peeled 800 smackers out of my jeans, insisting in my best Eddie Haskell voice that the two gentlemen carry my new system out to my car and throw in the 20 feet of free speaker wire promised by the sign on the front desk.

The most-read Old School column we’ve ever done was back in issue 30 when we featured the JBL L-100 speakers—seems many of the boomers in our audience either had a pair, wanted a pair, or still have a pair of L-100s. Either way, many good stories are always told about these speakers; they’re like a great vintage car in that respect, so I keep them around for posterity. Visitors to the TONE studio always take note of them off in the corner, and they always bring back fond memories. When a cursory 4:00 a.m. eBay search turned up a pristine AU-717, it was time to press the buy it now button.

Some components stick in your mind forever, but it’s tough enough to remember what you heard a week ago most times and some will argue that your auditory memory is fleeting at best. That’s an argument we’ll leave for the nearby audiophile forum, but for now I ask that you humor me when I tell you this damn amplifier even smells familiar.

In 1978, a 40-pound amplifier felt like a monster, but next to my reference Pass Xs 300 monoblocks (with a combined weight of almost a ton, literally), the AU-717 is comparatively gentle on my back. I hook up the JBLs with the necessary zip cord, and it’s time for the trip down memory lane to begin.

Keeping a foot in the 21st century, I stream digital files via Tidal and the dCS Paganini stack—which costs way more than my parents house did when I had this Sansui/JBL system on the first go. Crazy as this seems, the purity of the dCS as a source truly reveals just how good the Sansui really is. And even by today’s standards, this modest setup still easily reveals the differences between the $60K dCS stack, the $30K Gryphon DAC and the $9K Simaudio 650D.

Extended listening to this combo proves musically involving, and revisiting the music I was listening to in 1978 is particularly fun. Mick Fleetwood’s drumming on Rumours is splendid, as is Peter Frampton’s guitar work on Frampton Comes Alive. The combination just works, and while the vintage combo is a bit grungier and foggier than my reference system, the whole experience is welcome and highly palatable. Even after hours, you don’t realize what you’re missing until you go back to the big system.

The AU-717’s moving-magnet phonostage proves equally enticing, using our restored Thorens TD-125, courtesy of Vinyl Nirvana, with an SME 3009 tonearm and Ortofon VMS 20 mk. II cartridge. Later on, swapping the Ortofon MM for the Denon 103 and a step-up transformer takes the magic a step further, producing a degree of warmth and relaxation that makes spinning vinyl on these great components from the ’70s tough to let go of. Seriously, if I quit my job as a hi-fi reviewer tomorrow, I could easily live with this system.

Of course, the AU-717 has a pair of tone controls for bass and treble that can be switched out of the signal path for purists. Those who enjoy using them will appreciate the variable frequency settings of 3 kHz/6 kHz for treble and 200/400 Hz on the low end, making them more useful than standard controls that have no adjustments. These controls seem well suited to the JBLs in my room, allowing me to touch-up the slight brightness in the speakers’ upper registers.

The 85-watt-per-channel Sansui amplifier is rated conservatively, and reviews from Stereo Review and Audio from when the AU-717 was new indicate that it produced around 100 watts into an 8-ohm load; more than enough to drive all but Magnepans to a major level. Connected to a more modern speaker, like the Dali Rubicon 2s, the AU-717 turns in a superb performance. Bass control is excellent, and this amplifier plays loud, with plenty of headroom to spare.

Considering this amplifier now commands a price tag of $400 to $800, it has survived the test of time well. Expect to pay a premium for perfect cosmetics and the accessory-rack handles, which can fetch up to $150 a pair on their own. By now, these amplifiers will probably need most of the capacitors under the hood replaced, so if the seller claims that your AU-717 has been recapped, try and see as much physical proof and documentation as possible before paying top dollar.

A full overhaul done correctly will set you back about $400 to $500 and should include removing the icky glue used at assembly, which has become corrosive over time and will degrade the sound significantly and can also cause other problems. Once properly re-done, the AU-717 is definitely a premium integrated amp that you can enjoy for years to come.

– Jeff Dorgay

AudioQuest Jitterbug

Precious little is known about the latest audio insect, I mean gadget. AudioQuest set the digital world on its ear two years ago with their DragonFly miniature DAC and headphone amplifier bundled into a package barely bigger than a USB stick. It offered incredible performance for the meager price asked and set a new measuring stick for budget DACs.

Two years later they’ve done it again, but this time in a slightly different manner. Their latest creation is the JitterBug, a digital filter for your USB bus. As AQ’s Steve Silberman puts it, “There’s so much noise and parasitic resonance coming from a computer and USB bus we felt there was a real opportunity to clean things up a bit.” The JitterBug takes care of noise flowing from both the power and data portions of the USB interface, and as you might suspect, this might vary from setup to setup, because every manufacturer treats this part of the digital equation differently.

AQ suggests that even better results can be achieved by using two JitterBugs –  on your computer and/or DAC – but in parallel, not series. In some cases they claim excellent results just using it as a noise snubber on unused inputs.

Your results may vary

First, don’t expect this to turn a $400 DAC into a dCS Vivaldi. It won’t, and that’s not a fair thing to expect out of a $50 tweak. However, using the JitterBug with everything from my dCS DAC down to the $500 Arcam R-DAC we reviewed a few issues ago, I did notice a perceptible difference on every system I connected it to using a laptop or phone as a source. Much like the results you get when compressing photos, it’s kind of a garbage in, garbage out kind of thing. The better the source and DAC, the less effect the JitterBug made. But for $50, I still say buy a couple of ’em, just to experiment with.

Per Silberman’s initial email, I tried the JitterBug as a noise snubber on my NAS, and it did have enough of a positive effect to happily leave one in place. Perhaps the biggest improvement was in the car, going from iPhone to the audio system in my BMW Z4, which has a particularly dreadful audio system. The JitterBug’s presence in the car cleans up the presentation dramatically, getting rid of a lot of the brittleness and digital artifacts that the system has. A short road trip with a couple of unsuspecting non-audiophiles got the same response: “What does that black thing do? The music sounds a lot more relaxed.” Exactly.

Taking the JitterBug for a spin in a new Jaguar with a Meridian system and Porsche 911 with a Burmester system yielded equally eye-opening results. The Burmester system, with its prodigious power, becomes another level of magnitude cleaner, revealing considerably more music than without the JitterBug in the system. If you are a Porsche owner, this is the best $50 tweak you will ever make to your car. (Maybe the only $50 tweak you can make to a current model Porsche?)

It’s all good

Even in the context of a very high-end system, the JitterBug works to great effect when using a laptop as a source, as many of us are starting to do. PC or Mac, good DAC or great DAC, the benefit is there. Minimizing noise and jitter on the USB bus results in a cleaner, clearer presentation. The stereo image opens up and the high frequencies are rendered in a much more analog-like way.

Acoustic music and vocals make the comparison a lot easier. The sound quality of cymbals, violin and piano is the most profound example of the JitterBug in action. Vocals become more palpable and realistic, with much more body and dimension. It’s not so much like cleaning a dirty window, but giving one more round of cleanup to a window that still has some streaks after the first round. Every time I thought the JitterBug wasn’t contributing to the sound of my system, it only took removing it for about 30 seconds for the harshness to return.

Whether in the house or on the go, I’ll bet you fifty bucks your system will benefit from a JitterBug, no matter where you decide to install one. As AudioQuest did not have measurements to share with us yet, I’ll be curious to see what John Aktinson at Stereophile has to say about the JitterBug once he’s put it on the test bench.This has to be the coolest accessory I’ve ever used. Hell, go buy a handful of ’em, and give them to your audiophile buddies when they stop by for trick-or-treat this year. Highly recommended.   – Jeff Dorgay

AudioQuest Jitterbug

MSRP: $50

Aurender W20 Server – PREVIEW

We’ve been living with an Aurender S10 for over a year now and it has been fantastic. With world-class sound and build quality, the S10 doesn’t give you much (if anything) to complain about. You can control Aurender servers with your iPad and the interface is similar to those of a lot of other products on the market, with your music easily arranged by artist, genre or album.

A big part of the Aurender’s magic is its solid-state drive buffering the music stored on its internal hard drive, minimizing jitter and other timing errors. The new W20 builds on this success with either a 6- or 12-terabyte onboard hard drive available to store all but the most massive music collections. W20 owners requiring more space need only have NAS available; the W20 enables you to view your entire NAS music collection seamlessly on your iPad.

With the W20, Aurender has taken the world’s best sounding music server a step further, by adding the ability to access an external word clock. This is not a subtle upgrade and those with mega systems will likely welcome it, especially considering that there are only a few other digital players with an extra word clock output available, so integrating the W20 with your system means you only need one additional cable.

Watch for our very enthusiastic review of the W20 coming soon.

Aurender W20 Server

Approx. $17,000

Apple Watch

Do you want an Apple Watch? Of course you do! but what you MUST do before succumbing online, is take advantage of the Apple Store ‘Try On ‘Programme and get one on your wrist. And of course, down in Melbourne, I was able to participate sooner than most others in the world!

As a long time watch collector, I am in awe of how much ‘real watch’ DNA Apple have embedded in this thing. Every element of the design has been thought through, the straps and the watch are beautiful objects which just shriek desirability, more so than many I own in this relatively affordable price category.

Most important to me and will be to everyone, is the wearing experience. How large?, how heavy?, how comfortable?, can I read the screen? and what does it look like on my wrist? Much like any watch really. Here were my main thoughts after heading to my nearest dealer for a sneak peek.

Gold, Steel or Aluminium. I’d rather spend $11,000 on Hi-Fi, so let;s forget Gold. Sport Aluminium is light, the straps are sporty and the cost is less. Stainless Steel ‘Watch’ costs more, looks classier and is heavier. The real choice is the look you like, on YOUR wrist.

Colour. I’ll ignore Gold again for financial reasons, but the Sport comes in plain Silver Aluminum or Space Grey, the latter proving very popular. The Steel comes in Polished Steel with only one expensive model so far in Space Black. Of course, our publisher will have to have one in that bright lime green…

Size. If you wear a classic dress watch, a Patek, Jaeger or anything svelte, the 38mm is a must, smaller, sleeker and less obtrusive in use. If you have big wrists and wear chunky dive watches, then 42mm may be a better bet and of course has a larger screen.

The strap. The various watches are packaged with different straps in varied materials and look completely different across the range. Sport watches have soft silicone straps, which are very comfortable, no choice, but you can buy extra straps later. Stainless Watches have a whole range of deluxe straps, three in leather, one in Milanese mesh and one in steel link. All comes down to personal taste and feel, trying on your watch and strap combo is vital.

– Rob Follis

Apple Watch

MSRP: Starting at $350

iFi Retro 50

Knowing that a quartet of EL-84 tubes lurk under the hood of the iFi Retro 50, I knew it was time to break out the JBLs – and it was good. Just as with the Dynaco SQA-35 and even the Manley Stingrays, there’s just nothing like the sound of a pair of JBL L-100s driven by an EL-84 amplifier. Those little tubes have a soft-spoken magic about them that can’t be duplicated by the EL-34 or even an SET amplifier. And the slightly soft character of this output tube goes miles towards taming the upper register of the L-100s.

Listening to the bongos bounce around the listening room during the opening of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” is delightful, and when his voice folds into the mix, it comes across much larger than life. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the Retro 50 was something that has been in a box for 50 years, the dust just shaken off. It really does groove, with an abundance of musical detail as well – it doesn’t just round all the transient attack off to sound groovy. The sound is just more saturated throughout.

Regular readers of TONEAudio know that we’ve given iFi’s compact DAC and phonostage rave reviews. They pack major performance in a small form factor and keep the price down as well. So far, we’ve seen no downside to any of their products that we’ve sampled. The Retro 50 has both of these and a great headphone amplifier – all on this compact chassis, encased in a bamboo enclosure. Now that’s something you never saw on a vintage receiver from the ’70s!

The Retro 50 comes packaged with a pair of iFi’s Retro 3.5 speakers for $1,995. Unfortunately at this time, you must buy the combo; the Retro 50 is not available by itself.

Investigating those little speakers

iFi calls the speakers accompanying the Retro 50 “Retro 3.5” in homage to the legendary LS3/5A BBC monitors. The similarity to the LS3/5A ends with the form factor. They don’t really suck, but they don’t really rock either. Judicious use of the tone controls and signal processing at your disposal on the front panel of the Retro 50 mitigates this, but they perform much better in a desktop system than out in the listening room. Sold alone, they carry a retail price of $795 – forget about them at this price, but as part of the Retro 50 system, not bad.

Fortunately, the Retro 50 is so undervalued, even if you throw the speakers out, it is still more than worth the $1,995 that’s asked. $1,500 for the Retro 50 alone would be the audio bargain of the 21st century, maybe forever!

Even after a lot of break-in time, the Retro 3.5 speakers still sound small. Discerning use of the tone controls and the 3D sound processor help tremendously, yet using them in a room much larger than 11 x 14 feet for anything more than background fill is not suggested. Nearfield in my small second listening room is pleasurable, but the speakers still sound overly polite, without having the body that a real pair of LS3/5As possesses.

The best place for the Retro 3.5s proves to be on the desktop, flanking a 27-inch computer monitor, with a slight tip-up. A bit of toe-in goes a long way, looking for a balance between soundstage width and bass reinforcement. iFi makes it painless for the audio enthusiast to get down to business with audio, USB and speaker cables included in the box. Obsessed audiophiles will want to upgrade these later, and the Retro 50 responds well to a premium wire upgrade.

No matter how you enjoy music, you’re covered

Whether digital, analog or wireless, the Retro 50 can handle your source components. In addition to a cracking MM/MC phonostage and DAC, there is an antenna to stream digital files via your smart device, too. For the foreseeable future, the Retro 50 is “obsolete-proof.”

The Retro 50 is capable of decoding both DSD and DXD files, and this was the only part of the Retro 50 that I did not explore. With all the rage surrounding this, I just can’t get conned into buying my favorite music again. But for those of you who are new to the game and investing in these files, you are good to go. If the 24/192 performance of the Retro 50 is any indication, you will not be disappointed with DSD reproduction.

The coaxial and optical digital inputs accommodate files up to 24/192, while the USB input goes all the way up to DSD 512. With 24/192 files, it is virtually a dead heat between the inputs in terms of sound quality, so whatever strikes your fancy will work well. The gadget geeks in the audience will appreciate the digital input logo changing color with file resolution, just like AudioQuest’s Dragonfly. iFi’s choice of the aptX codec is a great move, so those using other than Apple iDevices will be very happy. Streaming from a Galaxy phone over Bluetooth is stunningly good with Tidal, and for this writer, all I’d ever need on a desert island are the Retro 50, a pair of JBL L-100s and a Galaxy phone with a Tidal subscription (along with good reception, of course!).

Inputting via analog sources works equally well for those feeling more traditional. The phono section of the Retro 50 is identical to that of the iPhono that Richard Mak reviewed here. It’s worth noting that separate MM and MC inputs with 50 and 62 dB of gain are offered, proving perfect for the AVID Ingenium turntable with two tonearms – one utilizing an Ortofon SPU cartridge and the other a vintage Ortofon VMS20 Mk.II. As Mak found in his review of the iPhono, this phonostage is quiet, dynamic and tonally correct. I also had excellent luck with the Denon 103r, Ortofon 2M Black and Grado Statement cartridges. Unfortunately, the Retro 50’s phonostage does not offer the gain and loading adjustments of the iPhono, but only so much can fit on this small chassis. Regardless, it provides an excellent avenue for your vinyl journey.

Further listening

The Retro 50, regardless of input, is dead quiet. Even with ears placed right against the tweeters, there is no noise or tube rush coming from the speakers. Though the Retro 50 claims 25 watts per channel, considering that most other amplifiers designed around a pair of EL84 tubes produce about 15–17 watts per channel, I’m guessing the numbers here are slightly optimistic.

What is important is the quality of the sound that the Retro 50 does produce. Regardless of speakers used from the $88,000/pair Dynaudio Evidence Platinums all the way down to my JBL L-100s, the extended high end and LF control is surprisingly good. By contrast, a vintage Dynaco SCA-35 (also using a pair of EL84s per channel) sounds extremely soft and much noisier. Because the iFi uses a more modern implementation of the circuit and a beefier power supply than my SCA-35, it sounds louder, even though both hit the same sound pressure level. Remember, volume is the difference between loud and quiet, so while the Retro 50 may not actually produce 25 watts per channel, because it is incredibly quiet, it sure sounds like it puts out that kind of power.

This amplifier is all about quality and delicacy. Regardless of the speakers you choose, the Retro 50 conjures up a soundfield that is both wide and deep. Tracking through Neu! is an amazing exercise in trippiness, with cool sound effects all over the room as if you were nestled in between a six-foot-tall pair of headphones.

The Retro 50 doesn’t so much color the lush midrange as maximize texture and tonal saturation. This amplifier is perfect for listening at low to moderate levels.

Acoustic guitars have an extra dash of ambience and thickness about them. Listening to the snap of the acoustic guitar on the title track of Michael Hedges’s Aerial Boundaries is simply breathtaking. And, of course, solo female vocals are incredibly sexy as well.

Perfect for personal fidelity

Auditioning a small cache of headphones also proves the Retro 50 fabulous. Thanks to its 3D holographic image processor (with three settings) and XBass processor, you can fine tune your headphone experience. The Audeze and OPPO phones sounded the most natural with no processing applied, but with some lower end Grados and a few in-ear phones, the option for extra bass really came in handy. The 3D processor was fun, but it felt more like a slight sampling of an illegal substance rather than realistic. And for some that will be a good thing – sample to taste. Fortunately the Retro 50 gives you plenty of options, along with a very useful bass and treble control.

Whether you find joy in this ability to alter your system’s playback with loudspeakers is up to you, but it is wonderful that iFi has included them, especially at this price. The only thing lacking a bit is the aesthetics. The bamboo casework is a home run, but the front panel, printing and control knobs are slightly cheesy, reminiscent of early Chinese hifi – and not a reflection of the sound quality inside the box. I’d happily pay an extra 100 bucks for an upgraded front panel, but that’s my inner interior designer screaming for order.

Like every other iFi product we’ve used or reviewed, the Retro 50 screams high performance and high value – more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015. Whether you use the speakers or give them to a friend, the Retro 50 is one of the greatest combinations in the audiophile world today. I can’t think of a better place to start your high end audio journey.

iFi Retro 50

MSRP:  $1,995 (with Retro 3.5 speakers)


Analog source AVID Ingenium turntable w/SME 3009 and 309 tonearms    Denon 103   Ortofon SPU     VMS Mk. II cartridges
Digital source OPPO 105 (as transport) MacBook Pro
Speaker JBL-L100    Dali Rubicon 2    Dali Epicon 8    GamuT RS5
Cable Cardas Clear Light

Naim Mu-so – PREVIEW

While Naim’s Mu-so might fool the unfamiliar that it’s a sound bar, it’s anything but. Other than kind of looking like a sound bar, albeit a very cool one with a gigantic volume control and moody underlighting, the rectangular shape is where all comparison ends – this is a full blown, mega, desktop audio system.

With 6 bespoke speakers and 450 watts of power on tap, the Mu-so builds on what Naim learned when developing the audio system for the Bentley, in terms of complexity and creating high performance digital audio in a compact space.

Working wired or wirelessly, there is nothing you can’t connect to the Mu-so. And while you can control it all via your phone and the Naim app, you really want to walk up and interact with the Mu-so in person. It’s main control is the best in the industry. Check out Rob Johnson’s full review in Issue #72! – Jeff Dorgay

Naim Mu-so


Audio Research GSPRE Preamp and GS150 Amp – PREVIEW

The new Galileo series from Audio Research combines over 40 years of amplification know-how with the proficiency in visual design resulting from ARC being part of the Fine Sounds Group and leveraging the Sonus faber design team. The resulting components push the sonic boundaries that ARC is famous for, wrapped in casework deserving of true aficionados.

These are components that you will want to put front and center; gone are the big, black rack handles of yore. And you have to see the new power output meters (which work double-duty to bias the KT150 output tubes) to believe how cool they look in action. The teams in the U.S. and Italy have come up with an amplifier and preamplifier so close to perfection that the only question now is what will they do for an encore?

Expect a full review of both components shortly, and a long-term evaluation next year, after we’ve lived with these two awhile. First impressions don’t come any better than this.

ARC GSPRE Preamplifier and GS150 Power Amplifier

$15,000 and $20,000, respectively

VPI Classic Two Turntable

Back in Issue 46, I was enamored enough with VPI’s Classic One turntable to give it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.  Even more, I purchased the review sample to make it a permanent reference, and after two years, the Classic One is my go to table, when I just want to hang out and listen to records without fuss. I enjoy it so much; it’s the only table in my home system.

Due to increases in raw materials cost, VPI has had to raise the price of the Classic One from $2,695 to $2,995, yet it remains a stunning value – offering build quality and sheer musicality that has few, if any peers at it’s price.  After two years of daily listening, the Classic One, and now the Classic Two feel more like a “greatest hits of analog” product, combining the virtues of a couple of my favorite turntables into one easy to use and easy to set up package. The sheer weight of its presentation reminds me of an idler wheel Garrard or a Thorens TD-124, without the rumble and noise issues. The Classic 2s overall warmth is highly reminiscent of a mid 80s LP-12, without a heavy dose of OCD to keep it running.

The Classic Two’s overall aesthetic is no nonsense. With a simple, basic black plinth surrounded by either a black oak or walnut frame, and perched upon miniature versions of their HRX turntable’s feet, it is devoid of accouterments. The Classic Two eliminates all pretense and gets down to business playing records, with every penny invested in design and build quality. This is a table you will be able to leave your kids without worry.

Inside the box is everything you need to get your Classic Two up and playing records right now. A classic Shure balance beam tracking force gauge and cartridge alignment protractor saves time and money, not to mention gets you about 95% of the way to perfect performance. For most, the enclosed tools will make you more than happy. Maniacal audiophiles willing to invest in a more precise tracking force scale and alignment protractor will be able to take the Classic Two to an even higher level of analog clarity.

An adjustable VTA collar on the tonearm is what makes the Classic Two a Two. The Classic One has a fixed adjustment for setting VTA, while the Two lets you adjust VTA on the fly, like the rest of the tables higher up the VPI range. Though some swear by this, I’m still not one to set VTA on the fly. But what is exceptionally handy is the ability to use the fine vernier adjustment to not only set, but also easily re-set VTA adjustments. Those with multiple tonearm wands can now switch between cartridges with total ease and consistency. That’s the magic of the Classic Two and the reason you want to pony up the extra thousand dollars.

I suggest music lovers that stick with one cartridge until it is spent and don’t fiddle with their turntables settings will be just as well served by the Classic One, and maybe spending that extra on a better cartridge, VPI’s SDS motor controller, or one of their outstanding record cleaning machines, if you don’t already have one. While some claim the Classic One sounds better because of its fixed VTA adjustment (possibly a touch more rigidity in the tonearm tower/bearing assembly) a side-by-side comparison of a Classic One and Classic Two with identical cartridges did not reveal an audible difference.

For a full description of the Classic One’s sound, click here. But to summarize, both the Classic One and Two produce a big, weighty, full-bodied sound. Utilizing VPIs JMW-10.5i tonearm wand with copper internal wiring. Those seeking even more performance should ask their VPI dealer about upgrading the table to the 10.5i armwand with Nordost Valhalla internal wiring.

Small details aside, the VPI Classic Two is one of the finest turntables available for $3,995. As with the Classic One, we are proud to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015.

– Jeff Dorgay

Wax Rax RC-2 Record Cart

Six years ago, I wrote the review below. I remain as enthused about the Wax Rax RC-2 as ever. The price has gone up slightly, due to increased materials cost (from $1,525 in 2015 to $1,825 in 2021) but this product is still worth every penny. The build quality is beyond reproach, and even after heavy, daily use, my RC-2 looks as good as the day it arrived. It remains a cherished possession.

Wax Rax owner, David Stanavich has been doing well, and has expanded his product lineup: the LP-V shelves we hinted at are now a reality in three and four shelf models, and they have a very cool album cover stand, and some interesting 45 r.p.m. adaptors. They even offer a way to put your records up on a pedestal. All things worth perusing for the vinyl lover.

The Wax Rax RC-1—a $4,200 anodized-aluminum, CNC-machined beauty on wheels—is an amazing piece of analog art. Hmm, Eames Lounge chair or record rack? Wax Rax proprietor David Stanavich lost out to Herman Miller on that one, but when the new RC-2 wheeled record cart became available, for a more reasonable price of $1,525, I was ready to roll. (No pun intended.)

If you’re going to snipe at $1,525 for a record rack that only holds 400 LPs, this product is not for you. It’s much more than a record rack; it’s a piece of high-end furniture. You either get that or you don’t. This product is hand built, finished and assembled in Brooklyn, New York. It is not something stamped out like thousands of Ikea Expedit shelves, which I still use to store the bulk of my 7,000-LP collection.

Another argument dissenters might make about the RC-2 is “it only holds 400 records and I’d need to buy 20 of these.” Again, this is somewhat of a non-issue, as you probably don’t want all of your albums floating around your listening room on wheeled carts. Those of you who really dig the aesthetic of the RC-1 and RC-2 and want to go all the way will soon be able to buy Wax Rax LP-V shelves. They’ll be modular and sans wheels; pricing info will soon be available.

Both the RC-1 and RC-2 make it easy to grab a few hundred of your favorite LPs for a few days worth of listening (or reviewing) and wheel them right next to your turntable or listening chair. As a reviewing tool, this portable accessibility is indispensable. Before getting the RC-2, I would keep about 150 of my favorite reference records on the bottom shelves of my equipment rack and then go back to the vault for whatever the listening session requires.

The amount of time saved not having to dig through the vault multiple times throughout each session justifies the cost of the RC-2 in a short time. As a bonus, listening space clutter is way down, and my record collection is finally back in order. The larger your music collection, the more you need one.

For those with more modest collections and in smaller living spaces, the RC-2 is perfect for making your LPs portable. As attractive as the RC-2 is, it’s easily stored in a closet or pantry when not in use; then you can just wheel it out to your listening space when you’re ready to start spinning vinyl. This is also a good solution if you have little ones around your house whose prying fingers and noses you’d prefer to keep away from your LPs.

As far as analog accessories go, this is among our new favorites. The TONEAudio listening area and the guy doing the listening are much better off with the Wax Rax RC-2 around. -Jeff Dorgay

Master & Dynamic MH40 Headphones

It takes the growling bass line of “Bitch, I’m Madonna” just 10 seconds to convince me that the MH40 headphones are winners, but not just because of their sound. Aesthetically, they seem influenced by cars like the Jaguar E-type and the Ferrari 250 GTO—unquestionably two of the most beautiful automobiles ever produced.

The earpads feel just right, with light-brown leather as soft as a Ferrari’s wrapped around a brushed-aluminum frame, and all the high-stress bits made of stainless steel. No detail is ignored. Even the cable has a vintage vibe; it’s covered in braided silk and not coiled. These headphones almost feel like they’re from another era.

With so many mediocre headphones now on the market, it’s nice to see a new contender offering a pair for $399 that seem like they should cost a lot more. Rather than taking an off-the-shelf OEM driver and building a pretty enclosure around it, Master & Dynamic has produced its own 45 mm neodymium drivers with their own signature sound, one that I think most music lovers will enjoy.

Going back to another era myself, the 1980s, I stream the System’s Don’t Disturb this Groove over Tidal via my recently updated Sooloos music server. It’s abundantly apparent that the MH40s have more than enough resolution to expose the differences between Tidal’s crystal-clear 16-bit/44.1-kHz data stream and those of files from Rhapsody or Spotify. These headphones also easily reveal the delta between CD-quality files and higher-resolution 24/96 and 24/192 tracks—not bad for a pair of headphones costing less than $400. (Can I remind you again that they are drop-dead gorgeous?)

Not all headphones are all things to all people, but these are damn close. For this writer, a solid-bass foundation is essential. While Madonna hinted that the MH40s can muster serious bass, Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show leaves no doubt. These phones can deliver substantial low-frequency output without fatigue or overhang, never sounding sloppy on any of my favorite old-school hip-hop tracks. Equally enticing is Aphex Twin’s latest, Syro, on which I’m rewarded with even bigger bass. The ethereal quality of this contemporary electronica album, chock full of slick synthesizer sounds, creates a massive sound ball surrounding my head.

The MH40s have enough weight to stay on my head, but not so much that they cause mechanical fatigue, making them easy to enjoy for hours on end. Unlike the synthetic material used for the ear pads of many phones in this price range, the leather pads of the MH40 offer breathability and don’t make your ears sweat.

Cables either one or two meters long come standard, with an 1/8-inch mini headphone plug on each end; one to plug into the phones, the other into your portable device. (A 1/4-inch adaptor comes in the box.) Having a detachable cable makes it easy to upgrade the cable for improved performance. Both the Cardas Clear and Wireworld’s latest Pulse headphone cables allow even more music to come through—and even though that’s another article, it’s nice to know that these phones don’t have a dead end. Master & Dynamic even offers a headphone stand for $59 that is way more stylish than the banana holders I’ve been using and yet they’re not crazy expensive like some of the ones I’ve seen.

So what’s that other mini jack for on the other ear cup? For $129, you can get yourself a noise-isolating boom microphone that delivers voice with clarity and makes the MH40s the perfect choice for the home-office music lover. Just plug into your smart phone and rock! You’ll never miss a call again when listening to headphones at your desk. And for the overly enthusiastic listener who never wants to take off the MH40s, a mute button is provided on the bottom of the right ear cup, for when you have to blot out the music and interface with other humans. And the vented design lets in enough of the outside world to thank the pizza delivery guy and get back to work designing your next masterpiece.

The Perfect Cocktail

The more time we spend with the MH40s, the more we all enjoy them, on every kind of music. They prove up to task with male and female vocals, providing a natural presentation of both, with a slight hint of upper bass bump that none of us finds unobjectionable. In a very informal comparison, our $500 Sennheiser HD 650s (with ALO cable) sound dark and the Sennheiser HD 700s sound thin, when switching back and forth to the MH40. If anything, the overall tonal balance of the MH40s reminds me more of Vandersteen 1Ci speakers than of something like the KEF LS50s.

Playing an exceptionally wide range of tracks through multiple sources reveals that there is nothing that the MH40s do not play well with. Their 32-ohm impedance makes them easy to drive, and while they will expose more music through a high-quality outboard headphone amplifier, they deliver rewardingly musical performances with both Apple and Samsung Galaxy phones, as well as with a variety of tablets and laptops. This is important, especially for the new headphone enthusiast, because you can get a major taste of what the MH40 can do with your laptop or phone; yet, when the headphone bug bites you deeply, an outboard amplifier will strengthen your enthusiasm.

My reference Simaudio MOON 430HA headphone amp takes the MH40s to an entirely different level than my iPhone 6+—but you can’t take the Sim with you. For the mobile headphone user, OPPOs new HA-2 portable headphone amp, weighing in at about 8 ounces and having an incredibly good onboard DAC, has the sonic fundamentals of a mega headphone amplifier setup, but it fits in your pocket.

The only thing you don’t get with the MH40s is the last bit of top-to-bottom smoothness and transparency that you get from a top pair of planar phones—but all of those have a much higher price tag. The Master & Dynamic website says the MH40s were tuned to complement a diversity of musical tastes, and I have to agree. The company has delivered a first-rate pair of phones in every respect—a home run for a new manufacturer and a testament to how sophisticated personal audio has become.

We are happy to give the Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015.   -Jeff Dorgay

Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones

MSRP: $395

OPPO HA-2 Portable Headphone Amplifier/DAC (PREVIEW)

High-performance portable listening is a phenomenon that continues to grow, with new enthusiasts constantly looking for a way to take their tunes on the go, without having to sacrifice audio quality. For our money, there is no better choice than the OPPO HA-2.

The HA-2 is particularly attractive and compact, and like all other OPPO products, the level of performance for the price is off the chart. Combining a hybrid class AB amplifier design and a 32-bit Sabre ESS DAC chipset into an ultra-slim package, the HA-2 looks more like something Q would build for James Bond to decimate his enemies than a mere headphone amplifier. Maybe there’s a button we haven’t discovered yet. -Jeff Dorgay

OPPO HA-2 Portable Headphone Amplifier/DAC


Astell&Kern AK240

Don’t freak out—the AK240 high-resolution pocket player costs $2,500. Now, before you crucify me for even floating the suggestion that a souped-up iPod costing as much as (if not more than) a monthly mortgage payment is somehow worth it, please let me state my case.

By now, you’ve likely heard of Astell&Kern, a subsidiary of the Korean electronics manufacturer iRiver that focuses on personal audio. Its high-res portable players have gotten a lot of attention since the first one launched in late 2012. The company’s product line has subsequently grown to include cables, ear buds, a pocket-sized DAC, a networked desktop music system, and three portable players. Each unit in the latter category is indeed like an iPod on audiophile steroids, able to play the highest-resolution files available today. The top-tier pocket player is the AK240—and yes, it isn’t cheap. But if I may…

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury

Let me preface this argument by saying that even Astell&Kern’s debut, entry-level mini player, the AK100, isn’t affordable by many people’s standards. However, like the top-of-the-line AK240, the AK100 offers a lot of bang for the buck, according to a number of reviewers—including John Atkinson over at Stereophile. “At $699, it’s reasonably priced for what it offers,” he said of the AK100 in his August 2013 review. (The second-generation AK100 will set you back $900.)

Shortly after coming to market, Astell&Kern pulled out all the stops with the AK240: dual Cirrus Logic 4398 DACs, 32-bit/384 kHz and DSD playback, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, 256 gigabytes onboard storage (plus 128 GB from microSD), USB charging for 10 hours of playback, a sleek carbon-fiber and duralumin chassis, a 3.3-inch OLED touchscreen, and a pretty damn intuitive interface. Basically, the thing kicks ass—you really do have to hear it (and play around with it) to believe it. But no matter which way you slice it, $2,500 is still a lot of scratch for something you can only listen to via a mini headphone jack.

But Wait, There’s More

The AK240 has a second, smaller jack right next to the headphone jack that enables balanced XLR playback through your home stereo. That’s right, you can plug the AK240 directly into your power amp via a pair of XLRs. This means that the little device can play the role of a digital music server, a preamplifier, and a stereo DAC—just add a power amp and speakers. The strange-looking but effective cable that makes this feat possible has a pair of full-size XLR male outputs at one end, and at the other end is a small but sturdy metal-shelled box from which protrudes a mini headphone plug and another smaller plug, which connect in tandem to the AK240.

Of course, in order to utilize this functionality, you have to purchase this compatible cable, which Astell&Kern had build just for its devices and which costs an extra (ahem) $700. But $3,200 for half of a hi-fi system is pretty freakin‘ good when you consider what most audiophiles are willing to pay for a separate player/server, preamp, and DAC.

So How’s It Sound?

In short, it sounds great—amazing even. You’ll be very hard-pressed to find a better high-res pocket player at any price. I’ve been hoarding the demo unit from Astell&Kern for several months now and have listened to it with ear buds from Apple, Grado, and AKG (among others), as well as with my six-driver JH Audio custom-molded in-ear monitors and a borrowed pair of Audeze LCD-3 open planar-magnetic ear cans. And let me tell you that the capabilities of the AK240 are only limited by the headphones you plug into it. Through the in-ear monitors, a 24-bit/192-kHz version of Dark Side of the Moon sounds so eerily detailed that you’re likely to experience acid flashbacks (even if you’ve never dropped acid).

Astell&Kern included a bunch of high-res and DSD files preloaded on the AK240. One such DSD recording of Andrew York’s “Bantu” (by whom I don’t know, as it isn’t specified in the track info) is a standout. The track, which features four acoustic guitars and loads of awesome guitar-body percussion, fills a surprisingly realistic acoustic space around your head, with harmonic guitar plucks and guitar-body hits portrayed with abundant detail, dynamics, and three-dimensionality.

Another preloaded track is a 24/96 version of Willie Nelson’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” which I already know well. Through the AK240 and the Audeze LCD-3 headphones, Willie’s vocals are big and raspy, the standup bass has a spacious but not overbearing boom, the banjo plucks are sharp and detailed, and the fiddle pulls are rich with presence. Most notable to this reviewer is the lifelike airiness of the harmonica, which sways back and forth like a ship upon slow waves in the center of the mix.

Mini Preamp

The AK240 holds its own while serving as a preamp to even premier power amps. I recently visited by pal Jason Lord down at the Source AV in Torrance, Calif., where he set me up with a pair of Sonus faber Olympica III speakers and D’Agostino’s new $45,000 Momentum integrated amp.

I bring out Astell&Kern’s special dual-XLR-to-mini cable, connect the AK240 to the D’Agostino, tap the Balanced Out button on the AK’s touchscreen, and have myself a pretty epic three-piece hi-fi system (four pieces if you count both speakers). Through this setup, 24/176.4 versions of some Bach cello suites from János Starker sound breathtaking—literally, you can hear Starker’s every breath as though he’s standing just a few feet in front of you. The soundstage is perfect and the cello comes through with remarkable depth and clarity across the frequency spectrum.

It isn’t long before I throw on some Zeppelin and quickly expose the low-end limitations of the Sonus faber speakers. Jason at the Source is quick to swap them out for a pair of Focal Aria speakers, which deliver Zeppelin, Metallica, and other hard-hitting music with loads of oomph and grit—and probably more Robert Plant and James Hetfield than you want screaming in your face. Whether or not that’s your thing, the experience is awesome to say the least.

Cutting Cords

Fitting right in with a world where everything seems to be going wireless these days, the AK240 is equipped with Bluetooth functionality for sending music from the player to Bluetooth-enabled speakers and the like. I’m easily able to sync the AK240 with my old Jambox, Sennheiser’s brand-new wireless Momentum headphones, and my Sony home theater receiver—and they all sound as good as any wireless playback I’ve heard.

Additionally, if the AK240’s potential 384 GB of storage isn’t enough for you, the device is able to play music wirelessly from a home network using its built-in Wi-Fi and Astell&Kern’s MQS streaming software, which you can download to both Mac and PC computers from the company’s website.

Of course, during wireless playback, you won’t be able to experience the full gusto of high-resolution files, but it still sounds pretty damn good for wireless. Even if you’re too snobby to listen to music wirelessly, it’s still a cool feature to have—and props to Astell&Kern for implementing it on what is otherwise an entirely audiophile-grade device.

The Verdict

The handheld size of the AK240 belies its enormous capabilities. Just to recap: It’s a high-res pocket player with wired and wireless functionality, and when using the optional cable, it can plug directly into a power amp via XLR—which means that in this application, the AK240 serves as a music server, a preamp, and a stereo DAC. And all of that is really the unit’s secondary purpose. In the AK240’s primary role as a super-powered iPod, I will go so far as to say that it’s second to none.

If $2,500 is still more scratch than you’re willing to pony up, the other two pocket players in Astell&Kern’s current lineup aren’t quite so expensive. And while they don’t offer the same level of resolution retrieval as the AK240, they both have the same balanced output ports for pairing with your home system—special $700 cable sold separately.   -Bailey S. Barnard

Astell&Kern AK240


Dali’s Flagship – The Epicon 8 Speakers

If you happen to peruse any number of reviews concerning speakers in the twenty to thirty thousand dollar price range, which is still a massive amount of money for most people, the review conclusion (some of my own reviews included) goes something like this: “The only thing speaker X gives up to the mega speakers is that last bit of extension, dynamics and low frequency extension.”

Not any more. Judging from external appearance, the Dali Epicon 8s are finished as exquisitely as anything you’ll find in the market with another zero on the price tag. The Danes are famous for beautiful cabinetry and the Epicon 8s do not disappoint, the hand rubbed Ruby Magassar high gloss lacquer finish is simply stunning. Every one of my audiophile buddies that weren’t familiar with these speakers thought they were considerably more expensive, shocked to see this level of fit and finish on a 20 thousand dollar pair of speakers. But there are plenty of gorgeous speakers that you wouldn’t pay this kind of money for. Regardless of finish you choose, the slim, 14-inch wide front baffle of the Epicon 8 should blend into any décor.

If you’ve heard any of Dali’s smaller loudspeakers, you know that this Danish manufacturer packs major performance into a compact package, and always at a much lower price than you might expect. And for good reason – they have a 250,000 square foot facility where they design and build everything from cabinet to crossover and drivers. This large scale of manufacturing and engineering prowess is what enables Dali to make a more engaging speaker than most at a specific price point.

After just reviewing the Rubicon 2, ( and a recent visit to the Dali factory, it’s easy to see why we are so smitten with their speakers. Offering excellent value, excellent sound and understated elegance that the Danes are famous for, the 20 thousand dollar question is what can they accomplish at that price? When you’ve got 20 big ones to spend, the competition gets serious, but after spending a few months with the Epicon 8, I put them at the top of the heap and serious competition for speakers costing $40k – $50k; they’re that good. This is what economies of scale deliver.

Beauty that’s more than skin deep

The Epicon 8s do it all. They disappear in the room just as easily as the Epicon 2s we recently reviewed, yet move a lot of air when big dynamic swings demand it. Starting with Alex DeGrassi’s Southern Exposure on early Windham Hill vinyl, every bit of harmonic structure comes through effortlessly as he picks, with not only the texture of his guitar sounding true to form, but the speakers actually recreating the size of the instrument in the space between the speakers – a tough act to pull off.

If you’ve ever heard your favorite acoustic guitarist play through a pair of Magnepans or MartinLogan speakers, they sometimes can recreate a larger than life presentation. While this is always fun and exciting, (and I write this as a panel lover) those listening to a lot of acoustic faire will be upset by all instruments sounding overblown with their favorite panel speaker. Yet the Epicon 8s allow a guitar to sound like a guitar, a violin like a violin and an oboe like an oboe from not only a tonal perspective, but a spatial one as well.  If you crave realism, the Epicon 8 is for you.

With the power output meters on the Audio Research GS 150 power amplifier buried into the red zone, Focus’ legendary prog track, “Hocus Pocus” never sounded bigger and better. When called upon to really rock, the Epicon 8s do not disappoint and the dual 8” woofers that transition to a 6 1/2’” midrange in a three and a half way configuration. It takes a lot to flatten out the power delivery of the GS150, yet I was able to clip the amplifier before the speakers gave up. They had to be moved to the Pass Labs Xs300 monos to be driven to their limit. At this point, rather than clip harshly, all of the front to back depth flattens out, gently to where rotating the volume control any further clockwise has no further effect. Keep in mind that this occurs at an incredibly high volume level – our SPL meter confirmed 114 db peaks, exceeding the 112db on the Dali spec sheet.

The other area the Epicon 8s exceed their specs is in low frequency extension. While not overly scientific, they are claimed 3db down at 35hz, yet even 25hz test tones are barely diminished in comparison to the 30 and 40hz tones, at least in my test room. Playing music in the real world proves equally compelling; whether you prefer Infected Mushroom or Genesis, the Epicon 8s go deep.

Final Setup Tweeks

In fact, they had a bit too much LF energy to work in reviewer Rob Johnson’s room, so placement is somewhat critical to get the right bass character. Tipping the scales at slightly more than 100 pounds each (48kg) get a friend to help you place the Epicon 8s. Impeccable time domain performance (a major design priority at Dali) and wide dispersion means all you need to do is lock in the bottom end and your rolling; the supplied spikes prove essential to achieving the best room interface.

Replacing the flat metal jumpers with some custom jumpers from the Chord Company takes the Epicon 8s to 11. Because the midrange to extreme high frequency range is so clean, you don’t notice it until you remove them and swap the Chord jumpers in place – you’ll instantly notice the additional smoothness they now offer. Of course, if your speaker cables happen to be terminated for bi-wired operation, just as well.

A Super Pair of Tweeters

Dali makes amazing soft dome tweeters that achieve a magic balance of resolution and natural tonal balance and their implementation of the ribbon tweeter in the Epicon 8 is a perfect example of the Danes doing things a bit differently. Worre again comments, “We use the ribbon as a supertweeter, crossing over at about 15khz, so that it just adds extra ambience to the presentation. Using it this way also avoids any diaphragm breakup from crossing it over at a lower frequency.”

Truer words were never spoken. Much like the depth a system picks up when able to utilize a subwoofer going down below 20hz, the supertweeter adds an ambience that is easily experienced by covering it up. Even a few friends that I know have limited HF hearing could easily perceive the difference between supertweeter engaged and not in a darkened room, and they all described the added depth and sparkle the same way. Cymbals have more shimmer and immediacy and even audience participation has more depth, more palpability, and more realism. The character of the room in Jeff Beck’s classic live album from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in the UK is unmistakable. All I need do is close my eyes and I’m back there. Incredible. It’s like the two tweeters blend effortlessly to become one super duper tweeter – no matter what I played; I could not determine a crossover between them.

Resolution without edge

The better the source material and associated components, the better the Epicon 8s perform. Lowering the stylus on the MoFi pressing of Joe Jackson’s Night And Day instantly reveals the delicacy portrayed by the Epicon 8s. Even starting with my PrimaLuna ProLogue integrated amplifier, producing 35 watts per channel of tube power, these speakers sound incredible.

Thanks to a sophisticated crossover network that doesn’t sap power, as some multi-way, multi-driver speakers do, the Epicon 8s offer up an 89db sensitivity rating. Even 35 or 40 watts per channel will allow them to play fairly loud. We were even able to achieve great results with a 12 watt per channel Pass Labs First Watt amplifier, so whether you are buying the Epicon 8s as an anchor to a system that will be upgraded in the future, or as a final speaker purchase after a line of component upgrades, the Epicon 8s will satisfy.

Steadily going up the ladder, swapping DACs from the excellent, sub-$1,000 Rega DAC all the way to the $100,000 plus dCS Vivaldi, the Dali speakers easily reveal the nuances each DAC brings to the mix. Analog experiences prove equally vivid, moving from my favorite budget cartridge, the Denon DL-103r to the $15,000 Clearaudio Goldfinger. These speakers are a joy to use for any level of involvement and can easily be used as a reviewers tool to judge other components, thanks to their natural tonal balance, lack of distortion and coherence.

As much as there is to like about the Dali Epicon 8 speakers, their balance of all speaker parameters, combined with a high level of resolution that never becomes harsh is their greatest strength. The Dali engineers have not compromised any single aspect of musical reproduction at the expense of overall balance, and that’s what makes these speakers so amazing. Days of long listening sessions deliver zero fatigue, no matter what the listening level, and whether blasting Thriller, or playing Frank Sinatra at conversation level, I am always fully engaged by these speakers, hearing nuances that I thought I needed a $100,000 pair of speakers to realize.

So, DO you need a $100,000 pair of speakers?

Only if you have the money to throw around and need the bragging rights, or you love to play pipe organ music at concert hall levels. For the rest of you, the Dali Epicon 8 can easily be your final loudspeaker purchase. They serve the music faithfully.

While it is often a nebulous yardstick, these speakers really groove, allowing you to enjoy whatever music you happen to love. Those having widely eclectic tastes will never be limited by what their speakers can do tonally or dynamically.

The Dali Epicon 8 Loudspeakers

$19,995/pair (factory) (US Distributor)


Analog Source            AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Clearaudio Goldfinger Ref.

Digital Source                        dCS Vivaldi, Gryphon Kalliope

Phonostage                Simaudio MOON LP810

Preamplifier              ARC GSPre, Robert Koda K-10, Pass Labs Xs Pre

Power Amplifier        ARC GS150, Pass XA160.8, Pass Xs Monos

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Power                         IsoTek Super Titan

Issue 72


Old School:

Perreaux SM2 Preamplifier and PMF1150B Amplifier

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Woo Audio 234 SET Monoblocks

By Jeff Dorgay

995: Sounds That Won’t Break The Bank

VPI Nomad Turntable

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

AudioQuests NightHawk Headphones:
The Ultimate Gaming Experience
By Jeff Dorgay

The Endeavor Belt

Wax Stacks Cubes

Pet Chatz

HiFi Racks LTD

The Classic VU Meter

The Stereo Mug

SNAPSHOT: Bono of U2 in San Jose by Jerome Brunet


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, Chrissie Dickinson, Andrea Domanick and Aaron Cohen

Jazz & Blues: George Freeman & Chico Foreman, The Bad Plus and More!
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

Audiophile Pressings: Next issue!

Gear Previews

Ortofon Cadenza Black Phono Cartridge

BAT VK-6 and VK-6SE Phonostages

AudioQuest SLiP 14/2 Speaker Cable


Naim’s Mu-so Tabletop system
By Rob Johnson

The Nagra Jazz Preamplifier
By Jeff Zaret

Bryston Mini-T Loudspeakers
By Andre Marc

Benchmark DAC2 DX
By Rob Johnson

The Feickert Blackbird Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Ryan R610 Loudspeakers
By Rob Johnson

From the Web

Dali Epicon 8 Speakers

GamuT RS5 Speakers