Issue 74


Old School:

Vintage Test Records

By Paul DeMara

The Audiophile Apartment:

Cypher Labs Sustain84 Headphone Amp

By Rob Johnson

Personal Fidelity:

MOON by Simaudio 230 HAD Headphone Amp

By Bailey Bernard

Journeyman Audiophile:

The Fern & Roby Integrated Amplifiers

By Jeff Dorgay

995: Sounds That Won’t Break The Bank

AVA Vision Phono Preamplifer

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Meteor M2 Powered Speakers

iPhone 6S Plus

Amazon Same Day

Home Depot Crates

Pure Vinyl Record Soap


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: Dave Douglas, Robert Glasper Trio, Stephan Micus and More!
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

Live Music: Foo Fighters, Cheap Trick, Naked Raygun and Urge Overkill in Chicago.
Van Halen at the Blossom Music Center in Ohio by Annie Zaleski

Gear Previews

Koetsu Onyx Platinum Cartridge

Quad ESL-2812 Speakers

Clear audio Concept Wood Turntable

Nordost Tonearm Cables

Whammerdyne Truth Amplifier


BAT VK-P6 and P6SE Phonostages
By Jeff Dorgay

LONG TERM: The Rega Aria Phonostage
By Jeff Dorgay

ProAc’s Tablette Anniversary Speaker
By Jeff Dorgay

Decware Zp3 Phonostage
By Mark Marcantonio

AMG Giro Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

04 Rob Johnson

Managing editor and reviewer Rob Johnson spent much of his professional career in technology marketing consulting for a Fortune 100 company. After 25 years in the corporate world, Rob followed his passion and joined the TONEAudio team in 2013.

As an audio enthusiast his entire life, Rob’s other past roles included time as a disk jockey and as a concert hall recording engineer. With all those opportunities to be surrounded by fantastic sound, Rob’s several-decade obsession for great home audio gear took root at an early age.

AudioQuest NightHawk Headphones

Staring at all the crappy headphones lined up next to the PlayStation games, I knew I had something cool waiting at home. The AudioQuest NightHawk headphones just arrived and yeah, I could listen to Kind of Blue and tell you how well they capture the texture of Miles Davis’s horn, or to Dark Side of the Moon and tell you that the stereo image they throw is psychedelic. I could just wax poetic about their industrial design and finish, worthy of headphones costing three times as much, but you can read about that in pretty much every other review of the NightHawk because they are not only awesome but an incredible value as far as $599 headphones go. Certainly awesome enough to get one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015.

But do you know how much fun they are to play Grand Theft Auto with? Regular readers of TONE know I love to drive fast, but you may not have known I am a closet gamer. I don’t do it often and am not a big fan of blowing people up, but put me in front of GTA and it’s hypnotizing. I can play for hours. Which is not necessarily fun for everyone else in the house.

Fortunately, everything that makes the NightHawk phones rocking for everyday use makes them a blast to play games on. And everything you probably enjoy about listening to phones in the first place (increased resolution, ease of hearing low level details, bigger stereo image) makes for a highly immersive gaming experience. Those of you who aren’t gamers might not be aware of the mega budgets allotted to most video games – millions were spent on GTA, which achieved a billion dollars in sales after three days. That’s a little more than one-fifth of total music sales for the entire year of 2014. Hmmm.

When you’re zooming down a back alley, it’s much easier to tell the differences between the cars used and you can hear the actual soundtrack of the game, with a defined space of its own, ethereally floating around your head as you shift gears and shoot at things – yes! The solid transient attack of the NightHawk makes all gangster activity that much more realistic as well. Listening on a sound bar or a mediocre HT system just doesn’t show off what’s really going on in your favorite games, but the NightHawk opens up a new world. Those even partially addicted to gaming have yet another reason not to go to the gym.

You can raise this ruckus with your significant other snoozing away peacefully, or for the ultimate cocoon experience, get two pairs of NightHawk phones so you can both immerse yourselves in larger-than-life sound, regardless of the world you want to navigate. Friends that were able to pry the NightHawks off of my head while I was romping through Lego Jurassic World were thrilled by the guttural sounds of the dinosaurs and other assorted monsters in the game. Best of all, the attention paid to the ergonomics of the NightHawk phones makes for a comfortable game-a-thon. After you shoot about eight thugs, you won’t even remember you have headphones on!

The same precision that allows the NightHawk to recreate a three dimensional musical space in and around your head significantly enhances the gaming experience, allowing specific placement and movement to cars and critters. If you’re not careful, you might even freak yourself out when using these phones to play games, but it’s so much fun. As I have a modest home theater system, the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones are my environment of choice for gaming going forward. Watch for a full review and all the techie bits in an upcoming issue of TONEAudio, but for now I’ve got some raptors chasing me! Gotta go.   -Jeff Dorgay

AudioQuest NightHawk Headphones

MSRP: $599

MOON by Simaudio Neo 430HA

Switching from the subtle harmonies embedded in Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin’,” to John Bonham’s massive drum sound via the recent HD remasters of the first two Led Zeppelin albums, I am stunned by how much musical depth, detail and sheer dynamic energy the MOON by Simaudio Neo 430HA reveals, especially in light of its $4,300 price tag. To some, this will come across as steep for a headphone amplifier, but the 430HA is way more than a headphone amplifier. $4,300 gets you a DSD/high res DAC, and a superb linestage, too. Not to mention all the cables (and rack space) you don’t need to connect these three components. Unless you have an amazing DAC, spend the extra $800 and get the 430HA with DAC board installed. Those not needing the DAC can put the 430HA on their favorite shelf without DAC for $3,500.

Having spent a lot of time with Simaudio’s 650D and 750D digital players, as well as with their top-of-the-line 800 series preamplifier, I’m truly floored by just how much of that performance exists inside the case of the 430HA for a fraction of the cost. Only a small group of companies could actually produce a product like the 430HA, and to Simaudio’s credit, this component is designed and built in their Montreal facility from top to bottom, including the metalwork. For those who don’t know, Simaudio has a full metalworking shop in house with their own 5-axis CNC mill.

A quick test drive of some of the world’s finest headphones quickly establishes the 430HA as a top shelf headphone amplifier. Delivering 667mw of power into 600 ohms and 8 watts into 50 ohms, there is nothing it won’t drive, even the notoriously tough to drive HiFiMan HE-6. Headphone enthusiasts with a diverse collection of phones will appreciate the 430HA’s range of connectivity, with 3- and 4-pin XLR jacks along with the standard 1/4” jack. There’s even a 1/8” input jack on the front panel for the line level input of your favorite portable music player. Hiding the headphone outputs behind a sliding door on the front panel is particularly cool.

With one set of variable RCA outputs to drive a power amplifier and a fixed pair of outputs (to drive a tape deck!!) the main difference between the 430HA and the big guns in the Simaudio arsenal is the lack of fully balanced XLR outputs. Keeping with the concept of using the 430HA as a preamplifier and DAC, it can easily be placed near your laptop or other digital source, with long interconnects to a more conveniently placed power amplifier elsewhere. The robust output stage of the 430HA drives 30-foot interconnects with ease.

The biggest difference

Those choosing the DAC option will be equally pleased with the digital input options: a pair of standard SPDIF inputs, Toslink and USB, supporting PCM 16/44.1kHz to 24/192 with the USB input going up to PCM 32/384kHz. The USB input also supports DSD 64, 128 and 256. An analog crossfeed circuit works for those wanting less of a ping-pong effect in their heads and can be engaged or disengaged to your preference. This came in handy with the latest Florence + the Machine album, which has an overly spacey feel.

Yet there are times that this expansive soundstage is a blast. Sun Kil Moon’s “Little Rascals” through the Audeze phones was completely psychedelic. Mark Kozelec’s voice sounds almost as if he’s being water boarded while singing – a textural effect not always conveyed with lesser headphone amplifiers. And of course, early Pink Floyd is fantastic.

However, should you be looking for an all-in-one component to anchor your audio system that happens to have a power amplifier and a pair of speakers, the 430HA is one of the best buys in high-end audio today. Certainly the best I’ve ever experienced, and long-term TONEAudio readers know I do not throw the B-word around loosely.

An honest confession

As much fun as I’ve had with the 430HA over the last nine months, I must confess it’s become the reference preamplifier in my home system, now consisting of a Conrad-Johnson LP-120sa+ power amplifier and a pair of GamuT RS5 speakers. Thanks to the balanced input, I’ve just recently added the Simaudio MOON Evolution LP610 phonostage and an AVID Volvere SP turntable to the mix. To put this in perspective, the $4,300 Simaudio 430HA is the cornerstone of a $70,000 system and I couldn’t be happier.

The 430HA is a rare component offering performance well beyond the asking price. Simaudio has only cut corners in the sense that the casework is of a more spartan design than their legendary Evolution series and the remote less elaborate than the one supplied with their flagship components. But not on the inside. Simaudio’s Lionel Goodfield is quick to point out, “The internal circuitry of the 430HA shares the same level of components as the Evolution series in critical locations, and the M-eVOL2 volume control is the same as the one we use in our much costlier 600i and 700i integrated amplifiers.”

The rest of the technical innovations lurking inside the 430HA are best explained here: But suffice it to say it all works brilliantly, and the minute you give the volume control a hefty clockwise twist you won’t care about any of it – that’s the mark of a great component in my book.

Great components and stellar build quality always count for a lot and it’s tough, if not impossible, to get an amazing performance if these boxes aren’t checked. But after months of extensive listening and comparison, the 430HA is indeed special, musical and effortlessly real.  This component lives in a zone, price-wise, that isn’t mega high end, but is still a substantial investment. However, it offers mega performance – it offers refinement rarely available at this price. As much fun as the 430HA is with first class headphones, you don’t really notice what a phenomenal performer it is until you drop it in a room with great speakers and experience the bass control and upper register separation and cleanliness it delivers.

Like every other Simaudio component I’ve used, it takes a few days of operation, fully powered to sound its best. Eco-minded, take note; the 430HA only draws half a watt when in standby mode, so your carbon footprint will not expand.

Regardless of whether you use it primarily as a headphone amplifier or a 2-channel control center, with power amplifier and speakers, this is a component that you won’t want to move on from – unless you make a five-figure investment. Goodfield sums it up when he says, “It’s not only the ultimate solid-state headphone amplifier, but most likely the ultimate one box solution for computer based audio. That’s what we were trying to accomplish.” I couldn’t agree more.  -Jeff Dorgay

Woo Audio 234 SET Monoblocks

You can look at the Woo Audio SET monoblocks one of two ways:  a dreadfully overpriced $16,000 headphone amplifier, or a $16,000 pair of SET monoblocks that give you output tube flexibility (45, 2A3 or 300B output tubes are accommodated) that eclipse a pair of $125,000 Wavac SET amps with a free headphone amp thrown in. I’m not a big headphone guy, so I choose the latter option.

The Woo 234s are by far the most engaging, most musically revealing headphone amplification system I’ve ever experienced. Nothing makes headphones sing like these monoblocks! As I listen to Brand X’s Livestock, the Audeze LCD-3 phones on my head (or whatever phones I am using) disappear, coming closer to the sound of speakers in a room than anything before or after its time here. Mike Liang from Woo was kind enough to send a pair of the $5,500 Abyss AB-1266 phones with the monos, so I could have the ultimate headphone experience. Who knows? If I had a pair of these, I’d probably listen to headphones more often.

The only time I’m not as convinced I’m listening to speakers is with heavy-duty house/dub/electronica – there’s just no headphone on Earth that really delivers the slam that this kind of music deserves. However, sitting on one of my REL G-2 subwoofers while I’m cranking the 234s comes pretty close.

Dare I say, the 234 MONOs are even more beautiful to look at than they are to listen to, and they were a ton of fun to photograph. The finely machined aluminum chassis, combining black and clear anodizing over its subtle curves, is a work of visual as well as audible fine art. These tubed beauties deserve a place of honor and high visibility in your listening room.

Many personalities

Going beyond what any other headphone amplifier has done in terms of output tube choices, the 234 MONOs feature a Tube Switching Key (TSK) that repurposes the amplifier to use tubes from three different groups: the 45 tube, the 2A3 and the 300B. Each one of these tubes has a distinct sonic signature, along with the variations on the theme with different models from different manufacturers. Try that with your hundred thousand dollar Wavac.

If that weren’t enough, Woo also provides Output Switching Keys (OSK) to configure and optimize the monoblocks for speakers or headphones, with yet another OSK for plate or cathode mode, accommodating high- and low-impedance headphones with ease. If you have a huge headphone collection – and you should if you’re going to spend this much money on a headphone amplifier – rest assured the 234 MONOs would work well with everything.

Under the hood is a full class-A, SET design with a 274 rectifier, and a 6SN7 driving your choice of output tubes. In addition to the output tube choices the 234 MONOs offer, tube rollers will be swapping tubes from here to eternity. Those with prodigious tube collections will be amazed at the gradations of performance that will be able to be coaxed from these amplifiers. A good friend bringing over a few vintage Western Electric 300B and RCA 2A3 tubes opened a universe of sonic possibilities. The rest of us will easily enjoy the 234 MONOs with the tubes they ship with, but those willing to spend a few thousand more dollars on vintage NOS tubes await even more joy.

Again, Liang is quick to point out that they suggest the Sophia Royal 300B and Takatuski 300B for use with lower sensitivity speakers, claiming a higher load capacity and faster recovery. Best of all, these tubes are readily available, but they will not provide a higher power output.

Extended use of the 234 MONOs convinces me that the headphone amplifier is the critical component in the chain. Much like the way a budget phono cartridge on a fantastic turntable always sounds better than a big dollar cartridge on a mediocre turntable, this headphone amplifier will make all of your headphones sound better – much better. The Woo 234 MONOs have so much drive and control, they eliminate a lot of the anomalies that you’ve probably been mistaking for frequency response problems in the past. Think of the 234 MONOs as the anchor to your headphone experience.

After going through my collection of phones from Audeze, Oppo, AKG, Grado and Koss I was shocked at how much better, how much smoother and how much more dynamic every one of these phones that I thought I knew well now sounded. The change was not subtle, with even the $99 Grado SR-60is sounding much more authoritative and much more expensive. It remindes me of running the $95 Shure M97 cartridge on the $30,000 VPI Classic Direct turntable – I’ve never heard that cartridge reveal that much music, but on the VPI it shines. Even the notoriously edgy Grado GS-1000s and Sennheiser SR800s were smooth, extended and much more natural in their tonal perspective when driven with the Woo 234 MONOs.

Just as you would with the output taps on a tube power amplifier, regardless of what your speakers are rated, I suggest experimenting with the OSKs as well. You might just find a combination you prefer to what your intuition tells you. It’s wonderful that Woo provides so many options.

Beguiling with speakers too

The 234 MONOs are a mega headphone amplification system; anyone possessing a high efficiency pair of speakers will be absolutely smitten with these amplifiers used thusly. As amazing as these amplifiers perform with headphones, they provide an otherworldly experience with the right speakers. To clarify, the “right” speakers for a low power SET amplifier means either a single driver system, a high sensitivity horn system, or high sensitivity multiple driver system. It’s worth noting that not all multi driver speaker systems work the same way, even though one may have a higher rated sensitivity than the other. The typically higher output impedance of an SET makes it a little tougher to match perfectly with a speaker system, and the complexity of said speaker system’s crossover network can be problematic for the SET to drive because of the associated impedance swings.

However, if you find a speaker that does not have this issue, you will find yourself in heaven on playback because the SET design accomplishes two things. First, the simple circuit topology means fewer components in the signal path, leading to a purer transfer of information. Secondly, by nature, the signal passes through a single output device, which is on continuously, eliminating the crossover distortion present in a push-pull amplifier. SET amplifiers possess a magic, much like pure class-A amplifiers do, and perhaps even a little more. The 234 MONOs are among the finest SETs I’ve ever heard at any price.

Lining up a few great highly efficient speakers produced fantastic results all around. Whether I was listening to the tiny Blumenstein Audio Orcas, or the Avant Garde Duos, the 234 MONOs are absolutely thrilling to listen to. No matter what my musical choices, there is always an epic amount of inner detail on tap. The acoustic guitar intro on Graham Parker’s “Tough on Clothes” hangs in the air as Parker’s signature gravely voice enters the mix. On a lesser resolving system, Parker can sometimes sound like John Hiatt, but not here.

Again, that SET magic that I keep telling you about comes through in spades when you listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Crowded House, Little Village or Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. All four of these groups have multi-part harmonies with vocalists who blend well together. Yet through the Woo amplifiers (headphones or speakers) each of these vocalists maintain a distinct space, sound and presence. I’m sure you have a few records in your collection where you often thought there was only a layer or two of vocals, yet laid bare with these SET amplifiers is a true revelation.

The same can be said for small ensemble classical music. And of course, those who love vocal recordings will freak out, and if the 234 MONOs are your first experience with an SET and high efficiency speakers, you may just be hooked for life. They reveal musical nuance like few others, and the only large amplifiers I’ve ever heard that could accomplish this level of fine detail are from Boulder and Pass Labs, my current large amplifier references. (Both of which cost 4–5 times the sticker price of the Woo.)

It’s almost as if these amplifiers live and breathe with the music, presenting sound in such an organic fashion, they will fool you into thinking it’s the real thing with the right recording. Like every SET, the Woo does have its limitations, and large scale, overly complex classical or rock music at high volume is where the 234 MONOs fall a little short unless you have super efficient speakers like the Avant Gardes. When you run out of the available power, you feel it instantly with a complete collapse of the soundstage. Keep the 234 MONOs in their comfort zone though, and you will be rewarded with musical nirvana. With the right speakers, you may never want to leave.

For those not completely familiar with the three tube types at your disposal, the 45 tube can produce about a watt or two, while the 2A3s generate 2–3 watts and the 300Bs crank out about 8 watts per channel. Woo provides a chart listing the output power for every possible combination right here:

Thanks to a pair of single-ended RCA inputs and an XLR, you can easily skip the preamplifier, making the Woo an even better value. With top shelf preamplifiers from Pass, ARC, Simaudio and Koda, I felt no need to use them. Pairing the 234 MONOs with the $110k dCS Vivaldi digital playback system proved stunning, regardless of output configuration.

A world-class headphone amp, or…?

I’m hoping by now you know I’m completely smitten with the Woo Audio 234 MONOs. But the question still remains: are they the world’s best headphone amplifier? Until I hear something more amazing, they certainly are to me. $16,000 is absolutely crazy money for a headphone amplifier, but it’s all relative. If you love headphones, have multiple pairs that you cherish and a world-class source or two to provide music, there’s no other way to play the game.

Those living in the high efficiency speaker world who don’t need to have the prestige of a six-figure amplifier and preamplifier will find the Woos to exceed any expectation they might have, and the $16,000 price tag a stellar bargain, with an amazing headphone amplifier thrown in.

So whether you want the world’s finest headphone amplifier, or the world’s best value in a pair of high performance SET monoblocks, the Woo Audio 234 monoblocks should be at the top of your list. Buy a pair now before Jack Woo wises up and starts charging $50k for a pair of these!

-Jeff Dorgay

Woo Audio 234 Monoblocks

MSRP: $15,900/pair