Issue 81


Old School:

VPI HW-19 Mk 3 Turntable
By Jerold O’Brien


Venture Electronics Monk Plus IEM’s
By Kyle Dusing

Journeyman Audiophile:

Rotel A14 Integrated and CD14 CD Player
By Andre Marc

TONE Style

Podium XL from HiFi Racks

The Bubble Sofa by Roche Bobois

Snap Power Light Outlet

Orvis WW1 Wooden Propeller

WireSkin Wine Bottle Carrier

42mm Timex + Red Wing Chronograph

Jackson Pollack Puzzle


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: Eric Hofbauer Quartet, Steve Slagel, and More!
By Kevin Whitehead and Jim Macnie

Bob Gendron’s Rock Reissues You Shouldn’t Miss

Gear Previews

GamuT Zodiac Speakers

MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A Speakers

Exogal Comet DAC


GamuT Di150 Limited Edition Integrated Amplifier
By Jerold O’Brien

SVS SB-2000 Subwoofer
By Jeff Dorgay

Esoteric E-03 Phonostage
By Greg Petan

Franco Serblin Lignea Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Plinius Hiato Integrated Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

VPI Prime Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Atoll’s HD120 and MA100 Amp and Pre
By Jeff Dorgay

The Eden Acoustics Tomei System

New experiences and overcoming past prejudices are always one of the most fun parts of my job evaluating hifi components. While I’ve never been a fan of open baffle speakers in the past, Eden Acoustics importer Larry Borden has convinced me that the Tomei system is not only compelling but exceptional in every way.

Taking into account that he and I both share an equal enthusiasm for electrostatic speakers, along with the unique German Physiks speakers (which he also imports), I can see why he is so enthusiastic about this product. He’s quick to point out that this is “the perfect music system for the enthusiast wanting to exit the upgrade treadmill.”

Dealers often generate a fair share of margin from selling ancillary items, such as cables. While many audiophiles love agonizing over component choices as much as a good sommelier does over pairing the right wine with a meal, it’s up to you to decide if the Tomei system delivers you from the agony of endless choices, or deprives you of the same. As a music lover foremost, I’ll take the former.

Eden goes a step further in their approach, claiming their speakers are of a baffle-less design. The artfully designed shape of the Tomei is so small, thanks to the Lucite cutouts, there is no baffle to speak of. It’s almost as if the 6-inch (150mm) woofer and 1-inch (29mm) soft dome tweeter float in mid air. This intriguing design begs to have spotlights blast through them to cast interesting shadows on your listening room walls.

These lovely satellites with integral stands combine with a 13-inch, (340mm) open baffle woofer, DSP processor and five discrete channels of amplification, perfectly matched to said drivers as part of a control unit that also features a built-in, high-performance DAC. You only need to hook it all up and start listening via a USB Class 2 or SPDIF input.  Those preferring to stream wirelessly can do so via Apple’s Air Play or Google’s Chromecast.

Analog enthusiasts are not left out in the cold, with one pair of RCA and one pair of balanced XLR line-level inputs available. However, these inputs are upsampled to 32 bit/768khz signals via an on-board AK5397 ADC, so they are not actual line level analog inputs. Though this might annoy the fussiest vinyl junkies, most analog lovers will not even notice the difference. I had a similar experience with the Devialet integrated amplifiers that we’ve reviewed. With so many listeners turning to streaming audio, whether from their own NAS or a variety of on demand services, I doubt this will be a point of major contention.

Those wanting the complete technical details on the system can click here:

Eden Acoustics even includes all the necessary cables to connect the speakers and subwoofer to the amplifier/Control Unit, terminated with Neutrik connectors. High-performance audio doesn’t get any easier than the Tomei system. All you will need to purchase is your favorite high quality power cord and a USB cable. Easy.

Total cost is $18,000 but you’d be hard pressed to find this much hardware elsewhere for less. And, you’d spend a ton of time getting it all to integrate this splendidly, if at all. There are no compromises in the Tomei system; it looks fantastic, it sounds fantastic, it occupies a minimum amount of space in your environment, and it’s easy to set up. The components all come packed in well-lined and reinforced crates to assure safe transport. Once unboxed, you are about 15 minutes to music. What’s not to love?

The proof is in the listening

We begin listening via the onboard DAC, controlled by an iPad, with a Mac Mini as digital liaison. Working with Roon and TIDAL, it’s easy to navigate through selections of CD and high resolution, with the Tomei’s hardware providing more than enough resolution to easily discern between the two sources. I get the picture as soon as the classic Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald tune “Cheek to Cheek” starts.

The Eden website claims that the Tomei system presents “a big, open, airy sound.” I’d call it an understatement. These speakers disappear in the room better than nearly anything I’ve experienced, and while Borden’s Sanders ESLs are slightly more refined, the Tomei’s just vanish like the best panels you’ve probably experienced. They have way more sock than a panel system. He suggests an equilateral triangle arrangement, and a measuring tape confirms that we have the speakers 112 inches apart, as well as from tweeter to our nose. Borden assures me that the baffle-less design makes these speakers easy to set up in smaller rooms too.

Eliminating Mr. Armstrong from the presentation, Ms. Fitzgerald’s solo performance on “Miss Otis Regrets” is beyond description in typical audiophile clichés. Thanks to Borden’s room (measuring about 22 x 30 feet), listening to the Eden system in the nearfield presents Fitzgerald realistically, both sonically and spatially. It only feels like there is someone standing in front of a microphone in his room. An equally realistic portrait is painted, switching to the dark side, listening to Johnny Cash sing “Delia’s Gone.” Every bit of grit and agony in Cash’s voice cuts right through.

We all know that an excellent performance with a duo or solo vocalist is low hanging fruit, but the Eden system proves equally capable of every type of music directed its way. Classical music comes across as broad, spacious, and uncluttered, with the necessary amount of diffusion to give a convincing sense of an orchestra. Again, while these speakers will perform well in a compact space, a larger room (and in this case, one that is well treated) does help to create the illusion of size.

Good as the Tomei system is, taking the analogue signal from the EMM Labs DAC2x/Merrill Audio Christine linestage, driven by an Aurender music server, through the Control Unit’s A-to-D converter, and back through the amplification chain does provide a step up in sonic performance, so the hard core audiophile with a need for speed can still wring more performance from this already fantastic combination. 95% of those buying the Tomei system will be more than thrilled, but the system made it easy to discern the sound quality available by adding an outboard DAC that is nearly as expensive as the entire system to the mix. Revisiting all of the selections listened to earlier, the EMM DAC offers more refinement, a slightly smoother rendition of high frequencies, and an even larger soundfield in all three dimensions.

Adding an outboard DAC of this caliber nearly doubles the system cost, and while not terribly relevant in the context of the system, it does prove that there is still more performance to be had by these components, should you do want to get crazy with your platinum card.

Superior integration

Sub/sat systems often struggle with woofer integration. The satellites often can’t go down quite far enough, or the woofer can’t quite reach high enough, quickly enough to eliminate the music rendered as coming from three separate boxes. The Eden system offers up the most transparent combination I’ve ever experienced. The dipole woofer lacks an inappreciable amount of ultimate dynamic slam that my JL Audio Fathom possesses, but this is a worthwhile trade for the sheer quality of low-frequency energy produced. Borden points out that a dipole woofer produces fewer room nodes than other types of configurations, due to cancellation in the plane of the woofer. Again, the proof is in the listening.

With amplification tailored to each driver, the crossover points and slopes controlled by the integral DSP, and 1,250 watts of power at your disposal, the Tomei system provides plenty of dynamic range as well. At first glance, you might never glance that these small speakers can play incredibly loud with the ease that they do.

A DSP crossover can be tailored in a much more sophisticated fashion than a standard network consisting of capacitors and coils, making integrating the drivers easier from an acoustic standpoint, as well as an electrical one. With no capacitors and such in the signal path from the amplifiers, the electrical lag and associated phase issues of those components are eliminated as well. The opening bass drum whump in Shelby Lynne’s “Just a Little Lovin’” hints at the sheer jump factor of which these speakers are capable. The big bass drum in St. Vincent’s “Who” leaves no doubt. Aside from the level of bass energy that the Tomei’s woofer can produce, the quality, texture and sheer resolution of the bass produced are wonderfully lifelike.

Moving out of the audiophile realm, Tosca’s “Me and Yoko Ono” offers equally engaging reproduction of synth bass. Though there is nothing to compare this to regarding real instruments, this track proves that the Tomei system can not only move a lot of air effortlessly, it does a fantastic job at unwinding a densely mixed tune that might be confused as overly compressed on a less revealing system. Gliding through some of Eno’s Ambient series illustrates what a massive sonic field this system can generate. Again, less capable systems tend to reproduce much of this music as flat and two-dimensional, where the Tomei system easily displays all three axes’ for your enjoyment.

This ESL-like acceleration is available at all levels, working just as well at low volume as at brain damaging sound pressure levels. This freedom from electronic clutter makes for a music system that is not only easy to listen to at low to modest volume, but equally immersive. This level of clarity is a feat that some of the world’s finest speakers can’t accomplish to this extent.

Vanquishing more biases

I’ve never been a huge fan of digital amplification, DSP crossovers, or a system that converts everything into a digital signal to process. The Eden system works flawlessly, and if you weren’t aware of what you were listening to, you might not even be able to tell. For me, that’s the ultimate success – the sonic residue that used to be part of listening to digital amplification is not present here, so the Tomei system succeeds on all levels. The Tomei system is something I could live with forever if I stopped reviewing hifi gear and just had to pick a resting place. This is why it received one of my Publisher’s Choice Awards in issue 80.

If you’re a traditional audiophile who loves the chase of mixing and matching components, with a penchant for occasional, if not often change, the Eden Tomei system will probably not hold your interest. But if you truly love music, and would like to stop agonizing over your next move, I can’t suggest this system highly enough no matter what stage of the journey you are on. While I would never recommend you purchase any audio component on sheer aesthetics, those living in more of a design conscious environment will appreciate that exquisite sound and visual style can coexist so well.

The Eden Acoustics Tomei System

MSRP: $18,000 (mfr.) (US Distributor)

Just in, From Stereo Pravda!

All the rage at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the Stereo Pravda SB-7 IEMs are here and our review is almost finished.

What makes these $2,500 in ear monitors so incredible? Quite a lot actually. The sheer level of resolution is beyond anything I’ve experienced in an IEM, but for this writer, the big diff is the BASS. What’s always missing in an IEM? Big Bass.

Not here. If you love IEM’s, the SPearphone SB-7 should be at the top of your list. Full review shortly!

For now, you can find out more information and see the rest of the Stereo Pravda line at

The Naim Mu-So Qb

Firing up Kings of Leon’s “Walls,” it’s tough to believe that so much sound is coming out of this diminutive cube, barely bigger than a large stack of waffles. Unlike many of the compact music systems we’ve tried, Naim’s Mu-so Qb actually throws a large, defined and deep soundstage. And it plays loud. Really loud.

We loved Naim’s original Mu-so when it was introduced, offering form, function and Naim build quality in a do-it-all enclosure. It was reasonably priced for the level of performance offered, but because of the fairly large size, couldn’t fit everywhere. Somehow, Naim’s clever staff of engineers have managed to squeeze nearly all of the performance of the big Mu-so into the diminutive 8-inch (8.3 x 8.3 x 8.6 inches to be exact) cube.  They’ve also squeezed the price down to $995 – impressive.

Before listening could begin in earnest, the photos needed to be taken and during this time the argument ensued as to where the ultimate resting place of the Qb would be. It only took a few minutes of initial listening to decide this would be a keeper, so on one level, this review is stilted a bit towards that of a giddy fan. Cool as the original Mu-so is, we couldn’t find a place for it at chez Dorgay. So back to our friends in Salisbury it went. But this little cube is too cute to ignore – and it packs a wallop.

Luxury throughout

When was the last time you had a major experience just turning a component on? You might think I’m crazy, but I highly suggest turning on your Qb in the dark the first time you power it up. Naim’s app makes it easy to control from your smart phone, but you’ll want to give that big, weighted volume control a spin. You’ll want to get up, walk across the room and interact with the Qb, it’s that cool.

Peel off the gorgeous, sculpted, three-panel grille (available in black, red, blue and the awesome orange you see here) and you see serious hardware inside and out. The front panel features a pair of soft dome tweeters and a pair of midrange drivers, both angled to achieve maximum stereo separation – each driven by its own 50-watt amplifier. The front-firing bass driver is given both a 100-watt amplifier and a pair of passive radiators on the side panels – that’s 300 watts total. This is where the low frequency grunt comes from.

The hardware is precisely screwed down to the aluminum frame with the same level of quality found in Naim’s flagship components. The 32-bit DSP engine lurking inside is derived from what the company has learned supplying Bentley with their sound system, again underlining the quality that oozes from the tiny cube.

Any way you want it

All of this makes for great nerd fodder, which you won’t care about the minute you play some music on the damn thing. And it won’t take you long. Earlier Naim server products took a while to wade through the setup procedure, but the Mu-so is quick and easy. Download the app for whatever smart device you own and a quick menu walks you through things. With the iPhone, once you enter the color of the blinking indicator and your network password, it’s rocking. The only setting you need to pay attention to carefully is the EQ setting – close to wall or out in room. Get this wrong and your Qb will either sound thin or boomy. Should your overenthusiasm get the best of you, and it sounds naff, go back and double-check your work. Bluetooth is equally easy to pair; you’re about 30 seconds away from using that mode to connect.

The Qb offers crazy connectivity. WiFi, Bluetooth/aptX, TIDAL, and Spotify Connect are just the beginning. A standard Ethernet port is also provided, and if you have a large collection of music on a NAS drive (especially if some of it is in high resolution), it’s a good idea to cable the Qb to your network, as it does offer 24bit/192kHz capabilities.

If all that wireless connectivity weren’t enough, an 1/8” analog jack is right there, begging for you to plug a turntable in. I dare you. Unable to resist the challenge, we spun some LPs via the new Rega Planar 3 we just reviewed, coupled via the Lehmann Black Cube and a WireWorld interconnect. Granted, adding a turntable and a phonostage to the mix goes somewhat against the grain of the compact vibe the Qb presents, but if this is your main music system, it works brilliantly. I can’t imagine someone who is space challenged coming up with a better choice than this to take advantage of their vinyl collection and their favorite digital tracks. Placed beneath a flat screen TV, it also makes for way better sound than those dreadful standard issue TV speakers too, making a Qb even easier to justify.

Rocking the casbah

Dialing up Lindsey Stirling’s latest, Brave Enough, and turning the Qb up to 11 rattles my bathroom walls. Yeah, that’s where it ended up so you-know-who could jam out during her morning ritual. But turnabout is fair play and just as that certain someone thought they were in for a peaceful morning bath, taking over the TIDAL app and swapping the current musical program for the alarm clocks in Dark Side of the Moon proved interesting to say the least. Should you purchase a Qb and wish to keep shenanigans to a minimum, log in with your own TIDAL account.

While the Qb nearly blew the windows out of our bathroom, it proves equally capable in a larger room. Sitting on top of a five-figure pile of mega gear, between the Sopra no.1 speakers that make up The Audiophile Apartment’s reference system, the Qb throws a huge soundstage in all directions. Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe fills the room with all the trippiness you expect from this disc. The extra LF power and definition gives it the extra oomph to make it feel like you are listening to a much bigger system.

Regardless of program material and volume level, this tiny cube floored everyone who visited. It was beyond amusing to have the Qb sitting on top of my DAC and have a guest say, “what’s that little orange box for?” only to answer “that’s what you’re listening to.” Keep in mind the Bose Wave Radio II has an MSRP of $100 more than the Naim Mu-so Qb, and it’s all plastic. It’s heresy to think that you might buy the former. If you have, unfriend me on Facebook right now, I don’t want to know you anymore.

It’s love at first and subsequent listens

With high-end audio being so daunting to so many, I can’t think of a better way to buy a great music system than the Naim Mu-so Qb. The price is right, the performance is off-the-chart good and you can connect it to just about anything. Best of all, you can move it around the house or office as you need it.

Should you be part of the audiophile world and need a second system, or if you are a current Naim owner wondering if the Qb passes muster, the answer is “without question.” Best of all, it will sync up with your existing Naim Net system if you have one, so you can hear music everywhere in perfect sync.

Compact audio is enjoying some major success these days, with incredible offerings from a number of manufacturers, but the Naim Mu-so Qb is something special. Should you wander to your Naim dealer for a demo, I hope you enjoy this one as much as I do.

The Naim Mu-so Qb

MSRP:  $995 (factory) (North American Distributor)

The Brinkmann Audio Bardo Turntable

Closing the door on a Porsche 911, clicking the shutter on a titanium bodied Leica camera, that’s German engineering excellence, baby!

If you love that level of precision to go along with whatever high-performance product that suits your fancy, you’ll freak out just watching the 10.0 tonearm on the new Bardo lower ever so gently onto a waiting LP. This is such a precise, delicate action, the stylus cantilever on the Koetsu Onyx Platinum barely deflects at all. Those of you wanting to install a mega cartridge on your Bardo can rest assured it is up to the task.

As Adrian Belew’s trippy, reverse tracked, overdubbed vocals in “Big Electric Cat” go all the way from the edges of my speakers, out about seven more feet to the walls of my listening room, with detail galore, it’s easy to fall in love with this table. The Koetsu Onyx Platinum cartridge that costs as much as the Bardo puts forth a more engaging performance than it has here in any of my other reference turntables. Here, here for synergy. During the review period, everything from a Shure M97 to the Koetsu has been taken for a test drive, but the Japanese masterpiece wins the day. Everything on hand works exceptionally well with the Bardo. However, this table is fully up to the task of a $10k premium cartridge. It’s that good.

Living with Brinkmann’s direct drive Bardo for the last few months has been nothing but joy. This table is incredibly easy to set up, stays set up and is equally easy to use. With direct drive coming back in vogue these days, there are a few other DD tables on the market, but they are both considerably more expensive than the Bardo. Thanks to a change in their distribution scheme, and a Brinkmann USA office in place, the German manufacturer is now able to be much more price competitive, and that’s a great thing for analog lovers. The Bardo table/10.0 arm was still a fantastic deal at $13,500, but at $9,900, this is a straight out bargain for those wanting a world class, destination analog deck.

Should you want the benefits of Brinkmann’s direct drive expertise, but already have your favorite tonearm on hand, Brinkmann can supply whatever arm board you need. Ordering a Bardo sans tonearm will only set you back $7,000. Considering what a great job they do with their tonearm, which Helmut Brinkmann refers to as a hybrid unipivot design (and you can read more here both mechanically and visually, it seems pointless to use another arm. But you can if you want to. To clarify the “hybrid” moniker, Helmut Brinkmann tells us that “his proprietary design uses Swiss-made gimbal bearings in the vertical plane and a bespoke unipivot in the horizontal.”

Multiple connectivity options make this beautiful table even easier to integrate into your system. Our review sample arrives with standard RCA connections going from table to phono preamplifier, but you can also opt for balanced XLR connections (this will take a little longer for delivery, as the RCA’s are standard issue), or a 5-pin DIN socket. Modifying an existing Brinkmann arm to a Din connector will set you back an additional $180. Handy if you already have a premium tonearm cable in your arsenal.

A further performance upgrade is available with the optional RoNt vacuum tube power supply ($4,190) for those wanting still more performance. A few Brinkmann owners have commented that this is not a subtle improvement, so look forward to a follow-up review sometime next year.

More music

The easier a turntable is to use, the more likely it is to get used. The Bardo takes up a small footprint and being a non-suspended table, you may want to install one of the better isolation bases, like the ones from SRA; it all depends on your room and taste. My floor is relatively inert and thanks to an SRA Scuttle rack, I felt no need to improve on the Bardo’s placement in my room.

Going way back to the obscure bin, an old favorite, Tim Curry’s Fearless is an album full of slick late 70s production, with some of rock’s favorite sidemen backing up Dr. Frank-n-Furter in his alternate career as a serious musician. The bass line in this record has always sounded somewhat vague, yet when portrayed by the Bardo, it’s rock solid. Actually, everything played on the Bardo has an uncanny sense of pace to it. The nearly $40k AVID Acutus REF SP and SME V has a little more weight in the lows and delicacy in the highs, but the Bardo is unbeatable at its price point.

Direct drive is not a dirty phrase

It goes without saying that a lot of the resolution the Bardo offers comes from meticulous build quality and attention to detail. Much of the major pace and timing accuracy this table delivers comes from the direct drive system. Utilizing Feickert’s iPhone app to check speed accuracy reveals most belt drive turntables to be relatively close to spinning at 33.33 r.p.m., but there is a fair amount of variation on the theme.

Watching the real-time speed graph for the Bardo, it’s near flat across the board. The phrase “rock solid” definitely applies here. Because Brinkmann implements direct drive the opposite way that the legendary Technics tables did, the result is much more to the liking of a modern audiophile.

Technics DD tables, initially designed for the broadcast world, used a high torque motor, hammered into speed accuracy by a quartz lock control mechanism, resulting a lot of motor “cogging.” This is what happens in the small spaces in the 360-degree rotation of the motor that don’t always have power applied. Unfortunately, this aggressive speed control did exactly the opposite of what was intended. Pulling out my SL-1200, with the excellent TimeStep power supply and a stock SL-1200, tracks played on the Brinkmann get progressively flatter in terms of three dimensionality, going back to the TimeStep equipped 1200 and then a stock one. It’s easy to see how the early direct drive tables got pooh-poohed, and I can see how easy it was to be seduced by the Oracle back in the early 80s.

Mr. Brinkman’s low torque approach, coupled to a heavy platter and world class bearing makes for smooth sailing. It takes about 8-10 rotations to get up to full speed, which is about the amount of time that it takes for the tonearm to set, and once you shut the power off, it rotates for a long time before coming to full stop. Brinkmann’s research led him to the current lead crystal platter insert in the aluminum platter, making for a major increase in resolution over one strictly machined from aluminum. Brinkmann spends a tremendous amount of time on materials research alone, and on his website, he claims this goes all the way down to the fasteners used to hold things together! The proof is in the listening; this is a very refined design.

Controlled ease

The presentation of the Bardo is indeed unique. Record after record has an ease and freedom from fatigue, again because of the excellent speed accuracy this table offers. Friends with canine hearing claiming perfect pitch that can hear a plethora of speed issues on every table I’ve ever reviewed were not only dead silent listening to the Bardo but they were also outright complimentary. Violins take on a magical realism with this table because of that speed accuracy.

You’ll probably key in immediately to how great your rock records sound, should you be a fan of this genre. The Bardo does a great job in the bass performance, but if you live on a strict diet of Zeppelin, you might not notice the subtleties of this table quite as much as the classical listener preferring soloists and small ensemble music. Sampling this fair gives the Bardo a near reel to reel tape like transparency.

Our choice for Analog POY

Here’s why the Brinkmann Bardo is our choice for 2016 Analog Product of the Year; it offers tremendous value, build quality, sound quality and ease of use. I’ve listened to my fair share of $100,000 plus turntables and have always walked away unimpressed. You can buy a pretty major hi-fi system for $100k, and I suggest if you take that path, you put the Bardo on top of your rack. Seriously, other than a few audio reviewers and a couple of hedge fund managers that got a screaming deal, who owns a $100,000 turntable anyway?

Wacky as it might sound, the $10,000 – $20,000 category is the hottest category for “destination” turntables. There are a handful of great tables costing 2-3 times this much (like the SME 30, the AVID Acutus REF SP and a few others), and they do reveal more music for sure. But again, the Brinkmann Bardo presents so much music, especially with your choice of awesome $5,000 – $10,000 cartridge, I’ll stick my neck out and say that most of us could live happily ever after right here.

If you’re currently using a table in the $3,000 – $5,000 category, you will be floored at just how much more musical information and nuance that the Bardo can shed light on, that if you have the purchasing power, this won’t be a difficult decision.

I’ve purchased the review sample and plan on spinning a lot more records on the Bardo. It’s simple, elegant, yet high-performance design has captured my enthusiasm. Should you be planning on buying a table in this price range, I not only recommend the Bardo, I sincerely hope you will audition one, and see if you enjoy it as much as I do.

The Brinkmann Bardo Turntable

MSRP:  $9,900 with Brinkmann 10.1 tonearm ($260 savings, purchasing the bundle)


Phono Cartridge                    Koetsu Onyx Platinum, Ortofon Cadenza Black

Phonostage                            Pass XS Phono

Preamp                                  Pass XS Pre

Power Amps                          Pass XS 300 monoblocks

Speakers                                GamuT RS5i, MartinLogan Neolith, Quad 2812

Cable                                      Tellurium Q Black Diamond speaker and interconnect,

Power cords                           Cardas Clear

The Okki Nokki Record Cleaner

Vinyl lovers spend a lot of money on tonearms, cartridges, and phono stages in the effort to pull the most sound from the record grooves. However, none of these audio components can deliver their maximum performance if the record itself is a limiting factor.

Minute particles in the grooves of dirty records can diminish sonic quality, adding unwanted pops, snaps, and surface noise to the music. Even new, seemingly clean records are hampered by debris left over from the pressing process. Yes, simple record cleaning brushes can help this problem, but if the brush itself is not completely clean, it can introduce new debris – or worse – grind it back into the delicate record grooves. But nothing beats a good wet cleaning for the best possible result.

Based in The Netherlands, and imported by VANA Ltd in the USA, the team at Okki Nokki addresses this ongoing problem with their newly updated RCM-II record cleaning machine. Designed to loosen and suck out any grime present on the record surface, rather than simply re-distributing it, the Okki Nokki simplifies the cleaning process as much as possible.

The Okki Nokki package contains everything needed to start cleaning records within minutes. The main cleaning unit, which holds the platter and vacuum motor, a bottle of cleaning fluid concentrate, vacuum wand, and a cleaning brush. The team at Okki Nokki also includes an instruction booklet and links to an online video to demonstrate proper usage. The recommended clear acrylic dustcover is available separately for $50.00

The 50ml of cleaning concentrate is formulated for dilution into a liter (roughly a quart) of water. I find a pair of narrow-tipped, refillable mustard or ketchup squeeze bottles – like those you might see in a diner — serve very well for fluid dispensing and storage. If you chose to go this route; make sure to label the bottles. I don’t think this solution would be appetizing on French fries.

With fresh cleaning solution at the ready, place a record onto the Okki Nokki platter, clamping it down with the included aluminum record clamp. After flicking on the switch for clockwise rotation, about a tablespoon of cleaning solution should be dribbled onto the record. Applying the record brush against the vinyl surface evenly distributes the cleaning solution, starting the process simultaneously. After about five rotations, switch into counterclockwise motion for a few rotations, offering extra thoroughness in loosening any stray particles.

With the scrubbing process done, it’s time to remove the debris-filled solution from the vinyl surface. Merely switch the record cleaner back into clockwise motion, and turn on the vacuum motor switch. Pushing down lightly onto the vacuum wand, it rotates itself into position against the record surface for maximum effectiveness. Once the wand sucks itself into place, there’s quite a good seal against the record surface and no physical intervention is required – just let the record spin a few times. The combination of the vacuum, and the soft cleaning band on the underside of the wand, remove any loosened particles and leave the record surface completely dry. When turned off, the vacuum motor whir subsides, and the spring-loaded vacuum arm pops up off the record, swinging out of the way on its own.

For those vinyl fans who enjoy buying pre-owned records, or who have a lot of old records in their collection, it’s a good idea to purchase a second Okki Nokki vacuum arm. The wands are easy to swap, plus there’s no sense in rubbing old dirt into new vinyl. Save the “clean” arm for your new records, and keep the “dirtier” arm handy for the big jobs.

If a lot of records are shined up in one sitting, the dirty fluid reservoir inside the Okki Nokki may get full. There’s a tube on the rear of the cleaner that facilitates draining should it become necessary. With occasional record cleaner usage, most of the residual fluid will evaporate on its own.

Listening to records before and after cleaning, I find there’s a reduction in unwanted hiss, snaps, and pops, plus some improvement to the overall musical presentation. The Okki Nokki certainly lives up to its design goals.

At a price of $499, the Okki Nokki isn’t cheap, but considering its robust build quality, and features, it represents a very worthy investment for the vinyl enthusiast. The Okki Nokki can help preserve your record collection, get the best sound from it, and also save some wear and tear on your precious cartridge. After such a great experience with the Okki Nokki, I purchased the sample unit. I have a lot of records to clean!

The Audio Research GS 150 Power Amplifier

I probably should listen to more classical music at comfortable volume levels.

Back in 1990, when I finally got my hands on an Audio Research D-79 after wearing down a good friend to part with it, he called to inform me that I should “let it warm up slowly with some nice string quartet music.” No way. The first track played was Alice Cooper’s “Hey Stoopid,” and after a few minutes to warm up, I pushed those big meters all the way into the caution zone. Having grown up with polite little EL-34 tube amplifiers, this was a revelation. I had never heard a tube amplifier that had the drive of a big solid-state amplifier before. It was equally revelatory to my next door neighbor, who was pounding on my front door before the first chorus.

I have not grown up one bit 25 years later. At first listen, it seems like the Audio Research GS 150 that has just arrived for review has defective power output level meters.  UFO’s “Lights Out” is playing at much higher than normal conversation levels, but the needles aren’t budging. Volume indicator on the GSPre is set to 42 and we’re all thinking that at least a few watts per channel are being delivered to the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers we use as a reference, but to no avail – still no movement. Raising the level to 60 finally makes for some meter movement, and the sound level is indeed rambunctious! Yet the GS150 can play much, much louder.

Going for broke, pushing the meters to swing past the 150-watt mark towards the caution level during Michael Schenker’s blistering solo, with no trace of distortion, convinces me this is indeed a very special amplifier. Call me nostalgic, but I haven’t had this much fun with an Audio Research power amplifier since the days of my D79. Whether you listen to chamber music or metal, the level of involvement that the GS150 brings to the table is precious.

ARC’s REF amplifiers are wonderful, and I’ve even owned a few of them over the years, but this new GS series of Audio Research components is unique in the sense that it blends a tiny bit of the vintage ARC sound with everything they’ve learned in 40 plus years of amplifier design. Add the super stylish Italian casework and this is the amplifier that’s going in my coffin.

Last year we bestowed an extremely complimentary review on the Audio Research GSPre, enjoying its combination of Italian style with a return to the glorious all-in-one preamplifiers of the past, featuring a full-function phono stage (and a headphone amplifier) all on one chassis. The matching GS 150 power amplifier is equally beautiful and equally capable. Perhaps even more.

A special sound, indeed

When it comes to splitting hairs, the GSPre renders music with slightly more body and slightly less resolution than the REF 5SE and REF Phono 2SE combination, albeit at a much lower price. (The REF 5SE/Phono 2SE pair will set you back close to $30k, the GSPre has a $15k price tag) The delta between the two isn’t so much less than different. Even though a BMW M4 will get you around the racetrack a little faster than a fully equipped 435i with sport suspension, the latter is a more reasonably priced car to live with every day if you can’t take advantage of its maximum performance on a regular basis. The same holds true for the GSPre.

However, the GS150 is a different animal indeed. Possessing a similar sonic signature to the GSPre, it offers all the detail and resolution that the REF power amplifiers are known for, yet that pinch of tubeyness is there and not in an overwhelming way to ever sound slow, rounded off or overly euphonic.

At $20k the GS150 is a step above the REF 150 in ARC’s product lineup and in a side-by-side comparison provides a different sound. Though the spec sheets look almost identical, these two amplifiers are different beasts indeed. They do share a fully balanced configuration, and like the REF amplifiers, the GS150 must be used with a balanced preamplifier; it will not work with a single-ended preamplifier and balanced adaptors, so take this into account before purchase.

Vivacious violins, piano perfection

The blistering, bluesy guitar of Gary Clark Jr. on his latest album Sonny Boy Slim is sublime. The texture revealed on Clark’s guitar is staggering, awash in reverb, decay and distortion along with a true sense of scale, giving the impression of a live performance. This additional dimensionality not provided by lesser amplifiers doesn’t take the illusion as far.

Listening to a wide range of music for months now reveals no limitation to the GS150’s ability, whether driving Magnepans, the new Quad 2218 ESLs or major floorstanders from ProAc, Dali, GamuT, Dynaudio and Focal. Even the diminutive ProAc Tablette Signatures deliver an otherworldly performance driven by the GS150. Regardless of speaker or cable choices, the GS150 remains perfectly stable, unaffected less than many of the other tube amplifiers we’ve used – some highly particular by the cables used.

Good as this amplifier is, you may notice its capability even more when listening to solo vocals or acoustic instruments. The tonal richness that the GS150 reveals will keep you riveted to your chair for hours on end — always the mark of a great component. Pay particular attention to the way this amplifier accelerates and stops cleanly on a piano key strike or a guitar pluck without overhang or smear, yet retaining a high amount of saturation.

Where some components, especially those with vacuum tubes under the hood, can paint a sonic picture that is a lot larger than life in all three dimensions (And lets face it, that’s why we love tubes in the first place) the GS150 always expands and contracts with the music and the production, never just giving an overblown rendition of everything. Cool as it might be a piano shouldn’t sound like it is ten feet tall. This is another way that the GS150 conveys a realistic portrayal of music.

Chock full of tubes

Where the D-79 uses between 14 and 18 tubes depending on iteration, (there were three models; A, B, and C) to produce 75 watts per channel, the GS 150 uses 4 6H30 driver tubes and four matched pairs of KT150 output tubes to produce 155 watts per channel. As you can see from our photo shoot, at the 11th hour we have acquired a D-79 for some comparison photos, but alas this warhorse is in desperate need of a power supply refresh, so we can’t give you a side-by-side comparison of the sound.  Once it returns from the shop, we will feature it in the Old School column next year and run the classic and the newest model side by side for your and our enjoyment. For now, it’s a wonderful memory to have these two in the same room together!

Let’s not forget the package

Audio Research has always made great sounding gear, but the wives of most of my friends have always seen those big boxes and said “not in my house.” But now with the Italian influence that Fine Sounds brings to the table, this amplifier is gorgeous, as is the matching preamplifier.

Looking at the chassis closely, you can see how much hand work has gone into every facet of this amplifier, from the finish on the front panel; to the delicately lettered power meters and the hand-welded chassis.

Again in the tradition of the D-79 and D-150, the GS150s front panel features three meters: the right and left meter for power output and tube biasing, with the center meter keeping track of incoming AC power. The bias adjustments are on the right and left hand side of the chassis.

Nice as the casework is on the GS150, the same level of attention has been paid to the package inside the familiar, dual box Audio Research packing that long-term aficionados have come to love. To say the tubes are well-protected is an understatement; now they are presented to the owner as a fine wine or cheese. It’s a nice touch, especially at this price level and it’s worth mentioning that the instruction manual is fantastic too. Straightforward, well illustrated and easy to read.

Product of the year, hell yeah

Is this the best power amplifier Audio Research has ever built? For me it is, but that’s being selfish. Discussing the technical features with ARC’s Dave Gordon, I jokingly said that the GS150 is like they built a bespoke amplifier for me, exactly as I would have it look and sound. In the way that Google always seems to know what you are thinking, maybe Audio Research has been probing my thoughts too. To be fair to everyone else, I can safely that the GS150 is my favorite vacuum tube power amplifier.

Buying a great power amplifier is a highly subjective undertaking, especially when a five-figure price tag is attached. If the GS150 weren’t our Product of the Year, it would certainly garner an Exceptional Value Award. If you don’t need 300 plus watts per channel and you enjoy the sheer sound that ARC’s engineers have achieved with the GS150, you’ll never need more amplifier than this. Just like fine cameras, watches or sports cars, there are a number of great vacuum tube power amplifiers available today, yet they all have somewhat different sonic personalities.

If you are an obsessed music lover, I’m guessing you have been on a quest for that “I’ll know it when I hear it” sound, perhaps for a long time. Perhaps longer than I have. If the GS150 touches the nerve that excites that center in your brain, this is an amplifier that you can enjoy for the rest of your life. It is meticulously built — inside and out — by a company with 40-plus years’ experience, execution and support behind them. Should your obsession take you elsewhere at some point, ARC products enjoy high resale prices on the secondary market, and that’s another big part of what makes this amplifier worth the price.  I am thrilled to award the GS150 power amplifier and the companion GSPre our Product of the Year award for 2015. I’m sure 30 years from now it will be held in as high esteem as it is today.

The Audio Research GS150 Amplifier

MSRP: $20,000


Analog Source            AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Lyra Atlas

Digital Source             dCS Rossini DAC, Roon player

Phonostage                  ARC REF Phono 2SE, Simaudio LP810, Pass XP-25

Preamplifier                 ARC GSPre

Speakers                      GamuT RS5, Quad 2218

Power                          IsoTek Super Titan

Cable                           Cardas Clear

The SVS SB-2000 Subwoofer

If you haven’t considered adding a subwoofer (or a pair of subwoofers) to your hi-fi system, it might be time to reconsider your logic. Reasonably priced subwoofers used to be one note boom boxes at best; barely able to keep up with your main speakers and subjected to the cannon shots in your theater system. The game has changed, considerably for the better.

Just as small displacement, four cylinder cars outperform the mighty V-8s of a decade ago, it’s the same story with subwoofers. Thanks to computer-aided driver design, careful attention to enclosures and the proliferation of high-quality class-d amplifiers, you can get a great sub for under a G these days. In the case of the SVS SB-2000, well under a G.

With so many excellent small monitor speakers available today, the only thing that’s missing is that last octave of low-frequency extension that keeps you from becoming immersed in the music. Fun as a lot of those speakers are you tend to restrict your musical palette to fit the system – we’ve all been there. The realism that low-frequency extension adds to your musical experience, even at modest volume levels is tough to ignore once you’ve experienced it.

Infected Mushroom just doesn’t infect you the way it should without the driving bass line that the SB-2000 provides. $699.99 puts a black ash SB-2000 in your listening room (gloss black is an extra hundred bucks) right now. And you can set it up in less time than it takes to drive to Walgreens and get a flu shot. Even quicker, if you take five minutes to read through the incredibly comprehensive manual that SVS provides. You can click here to read it online right now. See what I mean? These guys know their stuff.

The SB-2000 stuffs a 12” woofer and 500-watt amplifier into a compact package, weighing just under 40 pounds and measuring about 15 inches on all three sides so that it will fit just about anywhere. With that in mind, I’d suggest considering a pair of SB-2000s, to get more even bass output in your room. Those sharing my line of thinking will be rewarded at check out; SVS offers a $100 each discount if you want a pair. Why would you not?

The setup

For this review, we worked with a single SB-2000 and a handful of speakers in the $1,200 – $2,000 range, in two rooms. My living room is approximately 11 x 17 feet and the main listening room in the TONE studio, 16 x 25 feet. Over at The Audiophile Apartment, the SB-2000 was used in multichannel mode with an Anthem MRX-520 and five Dali Fazon speakers to excellent result. You can read that review here.

But we’re two-channel enthusiasts here, so the SB-2000 was mated to our Product of the Year winning Simaudio NEO Ace integrated amplifier. Speakers consisted of a pair of Magnepan MMGs, a pair of Vandersteen 1Cis, and a pair of ProAc Tablette Anniversary mini monitors; all audiophile classics in their own right and all in need of a little more grunt. We also used the Ace with SVS’ Prime Bookshelf speakers, that lightly tip the scale at a few pennies under $500 a pair, and this threesome is rapidly becoming our $1,200 choice for audiophiles on a tight budget that demand great sound.

System configuration is straightforward, running a pair of long Cardas RCA cables from the variable output of the ACE to the left and right input of the SB-2000. Multichannel users will probably opt for the LFE input, and again, follow the settings in the manual to get the proper amount of bass management from your system.

A fixed, 12db/octave crossover, with a cutoff frequency adjustable between 50-160hz, along with level and phase controls makes the SB2000 relatively easy to integrate into your main speakers. The smaller living room worked best with the SB-2000 slightly out from the corner of the room, yet in the larger room, it provides the best integration on all but the small ProAcs slightly off the corner on the opposing wall, as the Quick Start guide suggests for “best bass accuracy.” The Tablettes integrated best with the SB-2000 on the same wall, about a foot back from the speaker plane.

If you haven’t used a subwoofer before, try and resist the urge to crank up the bass too far. Or revel in the weight your system now has, crank it up and sit on your SB-2000 when you’re blasting your favorite tracks just to bask in the bass. I won’t call you an evil Smurf. However, when you come to your senses, ease back into your listening chair, and if you can summon the help of a friend, massage the controls a bit until the SB-2000 disappears from the system and you don’t notice it’s gone until you shut it off. Personally, I suggest going a little lower with the crossover frequency and a little higher with the gain than might be intuitive, but that usually proves to offer the best amount of cohesiveness with the main speakers.

Sit back and relax

While the most power hungry of the bunch, the little Magnepan MMGs wake up with some low frequency reinforcement. Surprisingly, the SB-2000 was able to go up high enough and clean enough, also mating wonderfully with the ProAcs. The Vandersteen 1Cis were the easiest of the lot and made for the most majestic combination, as they go down pretty solidly to just under 40hz, so in this system, the SB-2000 is truly acting as a sub-woofer.

When you get a sticky set of tires for your sports car, the first thing you want to do is head for the curvy roads to test the limits. And so it goes with a great subwoofer, bust out the bass heavy tracks to see what you’ve been missing. The SB-2000 does not disappoint and while it does add considerable low-frequency extension, the quality of the bass produced is also excellent.

I was particularly taken back by an old audiophile classic, The Three, featuring Joe Sample on piano, Shelly Manne on drums and Ray Brown on bass. The texture and articulation offered by the SB-2000 felt great as Brown’s fingers ran up and down the neck of the acoustic bass. Running through some tracks featuring Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke were equally enticing, yet when called upon to bomb the bass, the SB2000 proves it can deliver prodigious output as well.

An afternoon of old school hip hop from Public Enemy, Run DMC and KRS-1 kept everyone entertained and breathed much more life into the small-ish speakers used. This kind of music just begs for bass, and if your musical taste leans in this direction, I suspect a pair of SB-2000s just might get you in trouble with the neighbors or at best make you some new friends.

No matter what the choice of program material, the SB-2000 does not run out of power or dynamic range. A few other budget subs we’ve tried poop out when asked to rock, but not the SVS. Both the 50 watt per channel Sim and the nearly 100 watt per channel PrimaLuna HP integrated ran out of power before the SB-2000 did and within the context of these amplifiers, we could not get the SB-2000 to clip or bottom out the woofer cone. A very impressive performance.

You can’t go wrong

Whether you choose from SVS’ wide range of retail options, or just purchase from them direct, you can’t beat the terms they offer. If you don’t love it, you have 45 days to send it back. With speakers being such a subjective component to begin with, this is an excellent way to give the SB-2000 a test drive in your environment and get it optimized for your system. Once you do, I suspect the only call you’ll be making is to order a second one. And with that, we award the SVS SB-2000 subwoofer our last Exceptional Value Award for the year of 2016.

The SVS SB-2000 Subwoofer

$699.99 – $799.99 (ash or gloss finish)


Amplification             Simaudio NEO Ace integrated, PrimaLuna HP integrated

Analog Source            Rega Planar 3, Elys 2 cartridge

Digital Source            Elac RB-101 Server

Speakers                    Vandersteen 1Ci, ProAc Anniversary Tablette, Magnepan MMC

Cable                          Cardas Clear Light

The McIntosh C52 Preamplifier

McIntosh has been in the audio game since 1949. You read that right-1949. It would be fair to say they have forgotten more about running an audio manufacturing business than most companies will ever know, yet over the past few decades, McIntosh had seemed to fall out of favor with hardcore audiophiles, and for a while, they were no longer considered the darlings of the audio press that they were in the 1960s. Mac was looked at by many as your father and grandfathers first choice in audio gear.

About a decade ago as Charlie Randall took over as CEO, the products quietly, all became much better regarding performance and consistency, keeping them in front of enthusiastic music lovers the world over. Today, they have returned to favor among many audiophiles, and are now a go-to brand with custom installers across the globe.

Sitting by the pool

You need to look no further than my backyard in New York’s SOHO neighborhood, where the World of McIntosh Townhouse is located. With five floors of stunning décor featuring McIntosh, Audio Research, Sumiko, Sonus faber and Wadia products, music, comfort, and style integrate perfectly at every turn. Even the indoor pool (one of only 18 private indoor pools in NYC) has an over the top, dedicated Mac system to entertain clients and guests.

When given the tour of the townhouse by long time Mac consultant Kenneth Zelin, my first impression was,”This is the way to do it! It’s the way to immerse someone into the high-end experience”. The domestic setting is disarming and relaxing, allowing the listener to relax and get lost in the music. Alternatively, the WOM townhouse is a unique event space available to rent for large corporate parties and activities. Despite its broader commercial aspirations, WOM shows a huge commitment to its brands, a grand gesture that shoulders its featured lines to the head of the pack. Based on what I hear with the MC301 Quad Balanced mono amps And C52 preamp in for review, the commitment is more than skin deep or some show of bravura. The MC301 and C52 are terrific products, not just for the money but for the music and customer they serve.


The C52 preamp offers four single ended and three balanced inputs, with three sets of balanced and singled ended outputs, offering outstanding flexibility. There is also a highly capable MC /MM phono preamp, more on that later. The 8-band equalizer spread across the front fascia, offering 12 dB of gain or cut from 25hz to 10khz is anti-audiophile but music friendly. With this capability, there is not a poor recording out there that can stump the C52. I settled on a couple of dB cut at 2.5 kHz and a slight boost at 100 Hz.

The MC301 mono amplifiers included for the review are housed in a lower profile chassis compared to the standard McIntosh chassis yet produce 300 watts each into 2, 4, or 8 ohms. Build quality and fit and finish are first rate, as you would expect from McIntosh and delivered flawless service throughout the review period. The amps feature a soft clipping circuit allowing maximum volume without damaging the amplifier while offering the speaker a fighting chance at survival. Another example of McIntosh human engineering. The abuse that products endure during the review process can be a bit brutal. Plugging and unplugging interconnects and power cords while left un-muted can test a components mettle, despite my ham-fisted approach to these things.

Outside looking in

Having reviewed many amplifiers and preamplifiers over the years, a macro view of tonal balance is always my starting point; is the presentation warm or cool in tone? Does it welcome you in or put you at arm’s length? This tonality is the greatest strength of the McIntosh trio; they are equal to a shot of audio narcotic. So warm and inviting, the balance is the antithesis of cold, hard or biting sounding. The C52/MC 301 combo wraps its cozy little arms around you and welcomes you into the musical experience. Smooth? You bet. Realistic timbre? Check. Instruments and voices sound staggeringly realistic with no edge or glare whatsoever? Got it. These are traits that many music lovers adore. Music can be enjoyed endlessly with no aggravating edge, grit or grain.

This trio is not lacking in transparency, and this improvement is precisely where McIntosh has made tremendous strides in the last ten years. Disparate instruments and musical lines are exceptionally well rendered populating a broad soundstage. Perhaps not the widest I have had in my room, yet its way with depth is uncanny, particularly with analog is enticing. Background vocals and spatial definition are outstanding as well, allowing the front wall of my listening room to vanish completely. Listening to Sarah Vaughn “Just Friends” from Send in the Clowns is sublime. Front to back, left to right, the musical picture is stable and unwavering. Bringing up the volume a bit helps widen the stage while fleshing out images. The M301 and C52 are so smooth and distortion free, cranking the volume always feels right!

Detail retrieval is splendid but the focus on truth in timbre, instrumental color, and separation of instrumental lines is an even stronger trait. Like great tube gear, today’s finest solid state has gotten very close to getting the tube thing down. The tube heritage of McIntosh is not at all lost on the trio as they get to the heart of the signal and they reveal music with more bloom rather than rigid outlines and flat images. You might not be overwhelmed with a ton of information in the way the Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks and XP-20 preamp offers, but at 1/2 the price the McIntosh trio provides a ton of musical satisfaction.

Where the Pass gear paints a somewhat larger picture with wider dynamic swings, and both the Pass and D’Agostino amplifiers produce slightly more prodigious, deep bass, the MC301s are no slouch. After listening to the great pace and drive presented tracking through Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” I remain breathless.

I am a bass freak. I played bass in a band for ten years, and to this day, I listen to the bass line first on any new song auditioned. Over the last couple decades, I have learned the difference between boomy distorted bass and fundamental, clean extended low frequencies. Once presented with accurate, clean bass, there is no going back. It is amazing how many varying shapes and textures different bass recordings can render. The MC301 and C52 offer texture, color, and lack of any boxiness or excessive thickening in the lower registers.

The lack of distortion leaves just straight pure tone. Stand-up bass sounds spot on “Dolphin Dance” from Brian Bromberg’s Wood. The song has it all; depth, control, beautiful tonal colors, and transient snap with a big in-the-room presence. Electric bass such as that from Joe Satriani’s’ “Summer Song” sounds clean and clear through the MC301s, making it easy to follow each note throughout the track. Despite the articulation and resolution, the slight lack of slam does detract a bit from the ultimate live experience.


To this point, we’ve been listening to a trio. Evaluating the C52 on its own merit, the aforementioned Pass XA200.5 amplifiers were substituted for the McIntosh components to get a handle on things and to perform an apples to apples comparison in my reference system. As a solo performer, the C52 preamplifier is resplendent through the solid state Pass amplifiers. This is a preamplifier with real musical soul.

The presentation is liquid with a wide open and detailed mid band that kept my ears peeled. The sound stayed open and defined through the upper mid-range, with no added glare or edge when broader dynamic swings dominate. Listening to the title track from Spyro Gyra’s Morning Dance on vinyl, as I have with every other component I’ve owned, the sax through the C52 has never sounded so glare and blare free. This track is a torture test too many components fail miserably.

The MC phono preamp in the C52 is not just good; it is amazing. Organized, rhythmic, dynamic, super quiet and colorful, I could live with this sound forever. “Funeral For A Friend” from Elton John’s masterpiece, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road naturally blossoms with air and nuance allowing the background vocals and synth parts to open up. The value added with this phono stage makes the $7K asking price for the C52 seems like a flat out steal. Kudos on not skimping on the phono stage McIntosh.

Adding further to the value is the onboard headphone amplifier. I am by no means a headphone guru but my Pryma (a Sonus faber design) headphones in carbon fiber sound nothing short of thrilling through the C52.

I am really pleased with the level of authenticity McIntosh products bring to the musical experience. With the M301 amp and C52 preamp, the sound is never less than engaging and immersive. Isolating the preamp proves just how deep the musical heritage goes in the engineering and performance of McIntosh products. Add the eight- band equalizer, stunning MC/MM phono stage, DAC, and headphone amplifier to the mix and $7K gets you a preamplifier you may never have to upgrade. The McIntosh C52 offers a significant helping of high-end audio experience, earning one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2016.

The McIntosh C52 Preamplifier

MSRP: $7,000   (MC301 monoblocks, $5,000 ea)

Custom Cardas!

If you have cable requirements that are slightly off the beaten path, and don’t like the idea of keeping (or losing) multiple adaptors on a regular basis, call the folks at Cardas Audio and get some custom cables made, pronto!

Josh Meredith at Cardas Audio and the team just sent me a pair of Clear Light interconnects to go from XLR to RCA, so that I have a wider range of connectivity with the PrimaLuna HP Integrated that I use as a reference component on my Audiophile Apartment site, and it only took a short while. It’s always better to have a completely positive connection and this is the way to roll. Even those of you with Burmester gear, or others using a non standard pinout, it’s easy to call Team Cardas and get exactly what you need.

Cardas welcomes the opportunity to build custom cables and as Meredith told me, “We definitely want to promote that we can do custom cables. As a general rule, if the connectors exist, we can probably make a cable with them.”

I’ve been using Cardas Cables in my personal and reference systems for over 15 years now with excellent result. Here’s another great reason to purchase their products.

The Pro Ac Tablette 10

Following the driving bass line in Robin Trower’s “Too Rolling Stoned,” it’s tough to believe this much bass is coming from such tiny cabinets. Harder still to believe that said small monitors are flanking the couch, up against the rear wall of my listening room.

ProAc has been making the Tablette since 1979, and it is one of the world’s most popular mini monitors as well as one of high-end audio’s best values. The Tablette has won countless awards from hifi magazines the world over, mine included.

However, the Tablette has always been a ported design, so extracting the maximum performance has always required getting them out in the room somewhat, so the rear firing port doesn’t load up and put a nasty hump in the lower bass response. We were amazed at how much more low-end grunt was available from the recent Anniversary Edition, and remain equally amazed at how well the new Tab 10s non – ported design works.

These speakers are as easy on your billfold as they are to move around. Black ash, cherry, and mahogany is standard at the cost of $1,900 a pair, with ebony and rosewood (particularly striking) slightly more at $2,200 per pair. As with every mini monitor, we suggest as much mass as you can pack into the stands you choose. Weighty stands dramatically enhances the quantity and quality of the bass response delivered, and you will be astonished at how much more these speakers reveal on a high mass pair of stands.

Making excellent use of a thin walled, heavy damped, infinite baffle enclosure design similar to the BBC LS3/5a, the Tab 10 utilizes the same 1-inch silk dome tweeter from the Anniversary model and a few other ProAc models. New for the Tab 10 is a 5-inch woofer using a Mica based, ceramic coating that makes the woofer cone stiffer. The woofer in the Anniversary model has a 5 7/8 – inch, impregnated Kevlar cone, so these are indeed two different animals. The crossover in the Tab 10 is also optimized for the nonported cabinet to offer correct bass response.

One of the only things making music longer than the Tablettes is the Rolling Stones, so it seems more than appropriate to spin the LP of their latest, Blue and Lonesome. This tribute to the band’s favorite blues tunes is a vital record with explosive playing from Jagger, Richards, and Watts. The Tab 10s fill the room with sound, preserving the raw sound of this recording, with each musician intact, possessing their own space; a tough task to accomplish, considering the dynamic interplay between these musicians.

Easy and versatile

Where the Anniversary Tablettes will not work against the wall due to their rear-firing port, it’s smooth sailing with the Tab 10, yet they still deliver an excellent performance out in the room too. Apartment dwellers and those forced to make the living room do double duty as the listening room will appreciate the extra options for placement.

As with past Tablette models, the Tab 10 has a somewhat low sensitivity of 86db, yet it is incredibly easy to drive, so a ton of power is not required to enjoy them, and with a nominal impedance of 10 ohms, they are extremely tube amplifier friendly. Much of my test listening was done with both of our products of the year, the 50 watt per channel, solid-state Simaudio Neo Ace integrated, and the PrimaLuna HP Premium integrated amplifier, configured with EL-34 tubes for 70 watts per channel. These amplifiers all had more than enough power to achieve high listening levels in both my 11 x 18 foot living room and 10 x 11 foot dedicated “small speaker” listening room.

The Tab 10s have more than enough resolution to unveil the subtleties of these amplifiers, and a few other combinations tried, as well as the differences between the $32,000 Gryphon Kalliope DAC and a few budget DACs on hand. Impressive as they perform with mega components, the Tab 10s still turn in an outstanding performance with a recently restored Marantz 2245 receiver, making them a system anchor that you can grow with as your audio upgrade budget increases.

It’s always about balance

The overall tonal balance in the Tab 10 is just slightly warm, with a healthy dose of tonal saturation, as I like it personally, and I must confess that while the Tab 10s deliver a command performance with whatever high-quality amplifier you connect them to, I just love em with tubes. While the PrimaLuna/EL-34 combo was the go-to choice, getting crazy and moving in the Audio Research REF 6 pre, REF Phono 3 and GS150 power amplifier was a ton of fun, reminiscent of the very first time I heard the Tablettes driven by the legendary ARC SP-10 Mk. II and a D-79 power amplifier. Now as much as then, I couldn’t believe how much music came out of these tiny speakers driven by such major electronics.

Where the Tab 10, like the Anniversary Tab surprises you, is just how loud they can play. Going straight from the delicate, flamenco style of Eddie Van Halen on “Spanish Fly” straight into “Eruption” (Thank you TIDAL) to Slayer’s “Angel of Death” and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” (with the ARC’s power meters bouncing healthily) you’d expect smoke and major carnage. In the best British fashion, the Tab 10s soldier on without bother.

As much fun as it is to find the limits of their performance envelope, the Tab 10s shine in everyday duty. The tonality has a relaxed ease combined with enough resolution to stay exciting, regardless of program material. These are speakers that you can get lost in, with long listening sessions a breeze. This has always been a hallmark of the Tablette, yet even better with current models.

Mini monitor magic

Some small speaker manufacturers make the mistake of trying to be everything to everyone, offering a goosed bottom end, giving the impression of more bass, throwing overall tonal balance under the bus. The Tablette does not make this mistake, and while at first blush, they might seem as if they are a little lacking, the more music you listen to, it sinks in at the amount of quality and articulation offered with the bass that they do produce.

Two drivers and a simple crossover network done right means a high degree of coherence, again creating that enticing illusion of reality and pinpoint imaging that the Tab 10s provide. Like the Anniversary model, when placed in my living room in front of the Quad 2812’s, on a lot of acoustic music, it was tough to tell them apart. Auditioning Keith Jarrett’s famous The Koln Concert proves irresistible; his piano delicately floats between the speakers with a sumptuous decay that has to be experienced. It’s still tough to believe that this level of resolution and sheer tonality is accomplished with a $1,900 pair of speakers.

Vocal recordings fascinate with an equal amount of engagement. Chrissie Hynde’s “Never Be Together,” from her latest album hovers out in front of the sparse lead guitar and drums on the track. Going way old school and spinning “Private Life” from her 1978 debut feels just as fresh as the first time I heard the album on the original Tablettes.

Still great after all these years

It has been great fun to watch and listen to the Tablette’s progress over almost 40 years. Every version is more refined and reveals more music than the last. However, the Tablette 10 is a thoughtful and exciting sidestep from the Anniversary model for those of you that have to get the speakers closer to the rear wall.

Whether you’re experiencing the sound of ProAc for the first time, or are a long standing fan, this is a pair of speakers you can easily fall in love with. Warmly recommended.

The ProAc Tablette 10

$1,900 (standard finish) $2,200 (premium finish) (Factory) (North American Distributor)


Analog Source             AVID Volvere SP/SME V/Ortofon Cadenza Bronze

Phonostage                  Audio Research REF Phono 3

Digital Source              Gryphon Kalliope DAC,  ELAC DS-101 server

Amplifiers                   PrimaLuna HP integrated, Simaudio NEO Ace integrated

Cable                           Cardas Clear

Power                          Torus TOT

The Questyle CMA600i Headphone Amp/DAC

One of the most exciting things to come out of the headphone revolution is the plethora of desktop headphone amplifiers that either include a high-performance DAC, or a phonostage yet can also be used as a line level preamplifier. These are the coolest boxes in hifi right now, because they are a great bridge to both worlds.

Bruce Ball’s Questyle brand has been lighting up the internet, and the hifi shows now for some time with good reason; their creations sound fantastic, look stunning, are built to an incredibly high standard and won’t break the bank. The CMA600i featured here is a full resolution DAC that can handle anything up to 24/192 PCM files and offer True DSD conversion to DSD 256 as well. That spells future proof in our book.

Great as the high-res capabilities are, the CMA600i’s ability to provide breathtaking sound with standard 16/44.1 files is what makes this small but mighty headphone amplifier an incredible value. Listening to Al DiMeola’s Flesh on Flesh, streamed via TIDAL, all of the nuances of this guitar great come straight through. Though known for his ability to shred like no other on an electric guitar, his light touch on the acoustic guitar on this album is lovely rendered by the CMA600i, played back through my Conrad Johnson MV60SE tube amplifier and a pair of new Quad 2812’s in my living room. This review began using the CMA600i as a linestage/DAC combo first, and it kills everything I throw at it.

Super sleek style

Built in the Foxconn factory (the same people that manufacture iPhones), the CMA600i feels like a much more expensive component than its $1,295 price would suggest. Picking it up for the first time is deceptive, as it looks like it should weigh a lot less. Thanks to top quality parts inside from Wima, Dale, Alps and a big power supply transformer from Plitron, the CMA600i is beefy.

It doesn’t contribute to the sound, but the space gray finish, combined with the carefully machined corners on the casework make for an incredibly fashion forward visual design too. It looks more like something you’d expect from Nagra and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay it. With the power supply in the casework, there is no annoying wall wart to lose or degrade the sound. Again, way more than you’d expect for $1,295.

The layout and operation are straightforward, and from a human engineering standpoint, the CMA600i is highly intuitive and easy to use, even without consulting the manual. Ball has concentrated on bringing you everything you need with nothing you don’t. Around back are USB, coax, and optical digital inputs and they all sound great, plus they give you the option of switching between three digital sources. Great stuff, but adding a solitary analog input so you can plug a turntable in, is sheer genius. Running a pair of interconnects from the $15,000 Audio Research REF 3 Phono again shows just how resolving the CMA600i is. Switching between the Soulines Kubrick DCX (reviewed in issue 80) and the Rega Planar 3, the CMA600i has more than enough capability to illustrate both of these turntables.

If you’re staying in the preamplifier groove, the CMA600i features both RCA and fully balanced XLR outputs, allowing any amplifier to be used. Driving a 20-foot pair of balanced Cardas Clear interconnects to my Pass Xs 300 monoblocks was a breeze. Comparing the 20 foot run to a 3-foot pair showed zero degradation in sound quality, a testament to how robustly this preamplifier is built.

Ok, ok, how about plugging in some cans?

It was so much fun using the CMA600i as a preamplifier, it took a while to get around to headphone listening, but again, there was no disappointment. The current mode amplification does it’s thing and moving from planar phones from Oppo, Audeze and my torture test favorites, the HiFi Man HE-6s, everything I could throw at the CMA600i proves to be effortless.

Listening to the acoustic version of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Stop Lookin Back” the high resolving capability of this headphone amplifier. The attack and decay on the acoustic guitar have plenty of texture, feel and transient attack. Staying in boomer rock mode, the marimbas in Frank Zappa’s “Central Scrutinizer” bounce around my head in a highly psychedelic manner, with Zappa growling in the background, somewhere deep in my cranial cavity. As the late, great Mr. Zappa used to say, “Isn’t this what it’s all about?” The answer is an unquestionable yes.

The sheer current drive (Thanks to the Class A Current Mode Amplifier) of the CMA600i keeps even the most difficult to drive phones in line. There is no wimping out dynamically or at the frequency extremes as can happen with headphone amplifiers that don’t have the power supply to back them up.

Tonally, the CMA600i is very neutral and again is not affected by phones connected. Where something like the Benchmark DAC 1 family tends to be slightly dry, and some of our favorite tube headphone amplifiers can embellish with a bit of extra tonal saturation, the CMA600i plays it straight. Those wanting the more lush sound of a tube amp might be turned off, but again, after extended listening with about 20 different pairs of phones, the neutrality of the CMA600i is a plus. I suspect headphonistas with a broad collection of cans will love it as much as I do.

Those liking strong bass response will not be disappointed, tracking through some EDM and hip hop favorites is convincing. Going way back, Koop’s Sons of Koop through the LCD-2s is stunning.  Even my Koss Pro 4aa’s that I’ve had since college sound phenomenal through the CMA600i – I’ve never heard them handle the lower frequencies with this kind of authority, and I’ve been listening to these babies for a long time. The ability to connect via either of the two ¼-inch, front panel jacks or the 4-pin balanced input, means everyone can join the party.

Digital versatility

A handy switch on the front panel lets you toggle through digital inputs with ease, making it easy to use whatever sources at your disposal. Giving things a go with a Mac Book Pro and the Aurender W10 server both provide excellent results. Listening to nothing but high res tracks via the Aurender quickly validate the additional resolution, switching back and forth between TIDAL and high res versions of the same tracks. The only aspect of the CMA600i I wasn’t able to fully explore was its ability to decode DSD files, as I have a very limited selection of tracks on my server. Suffice to say what I heard was excellent; however, I did spend quite a lot of time with 24/96 and 24/192 files.

Unlike a great number of DAC’s that use the Sabre chip family, Questyle walks to a different beat, taking advantage of the AKM4490 and its “velvet sound” architecture. While we can wax poetic all day long about the nerdy details, it is well implemented in the CMA600i. The Questyle website mentions that it is powered with a +/- 7-volt high voltage power regulator, to ensure high dynamic range. Listening to a wide variety of classical pieces makes it easy to see how well this works in practice. It is also worth mentioning that the CMA600i is fatigue free – long listening sessions are a breeze and digital artifacts, the enemy of hours in the listening chair, just do not exist here.

Whether listening through the phones, or speakers, I was never less than thrilled with just how much music the CMA600i reveals, especially in the company of some much more expensive hardware. Each component of the CMA600i is worth the $1,295 asking price on its own, if not more. Considering it takes up so little rack space, and you’ll save 2-3 times what the CMA600i costs on not needing power and interconnect cables for a DAC, preamp and headphone amplifier makes it one of the best values in high-end audio today. That’s why it has received one of my Publishers Choice Awards in issue 80. The CMA600i is certainly a teacher’s pet, and I’ve purchased the review sample to keep as part of the fleet.

A top performer

In the end, you can find a DAC or preamplifier that reveals more music than the CMA600i, but you’re going to have to spend a lot more money, whether you are making it the cornerstone of a high-performance headphone only system, or using it as the anchor for an incredibly good two channel system. This option makes it just as future proof as the ability to play all the high res formats in my book.

The Questyle CMA600i succeeds brilliantly on every level. It sounds great, is incredibly versatile and is visually elegant to boot. This is as good as it gets, and should you build a system around it; I suspect you will pass this one down to a family member. Well done Mr. Ball!

The Questyle CMA600i Headphone Amplifier/DAC/Preamplifier

MSRP:  $1,299

Issue 80


Old School:

McIntosh MC 225: A Revered Classic
By Jerome Wanono


Record Doctor V Record Cleaner

By Andre Marc

Journeyman Audiophile:

Peachtree Audio’s Nova 150:
Everything in one box!

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

BMW’s new i3

Stache’ Labbit

LSR Apple Watch Silicon Strap

Cooking With Sammy Hagar

Tile Slim

Versa Watch Winder

Omaker W4 Pocket Speaker


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: Keith Jarrett, Kris Davis and more!
By Jim Macnie and Kevin Whitehead

Gear Previews

Audio Research GS75i Integrated Amplifier

Graham Audio Chartwell LS3/5 Speakers

Web Reviews

Merrill Audio Jens Phono and Christine Preamplifier

Rega Planar 3 Turntable


Sonus faber  Lilium Speakers
By Greg Petan

Coincident Statement Lifestage
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad-Johnson GAT Series 2 Linestage
By Jeff Dorgay

Pass Xs Phono
By Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research REF 6
By Rob Johnson


TONEAudio’s Products of the Year

Publisher’s Choice Awards

Exceptional Value Awards

The Audio Research GSPre Preamplifier

Reinventing a classic usually fails miserably or succeeds brilliantly. Ford’s attempt at bringing back the Thunderbird, not so much, VW’s remake of the Beetle, fantastic.

Ask any fan of the Audio Research marque which pieces they feel are legendary and the original SP-1 preamplifier (as well as the SP-10) and the D-79 power amplifier will more than likely be at the top of their list.

ARC has always concentrated on performance, with an understated look, bringing them a legion of followers over the years. But the GSPre is different, oozing with aesthetic touches wherever you look. Designer Livio Cucuzza pays just the right amount of respect to ARC’s heritage, while expressing himself brilliantly. For those not familiar with Mr. Cucuzza, he is the talent behind Wadia’s Intuition and the current crop of Sonus faber speakers, including the brilliant Aida that was our Product of the Year in 2012.

Control functions are displayed in the same green shade that has been a staple of current ARC components, yet the control knobs, ever so slightly updated, look straight from the SP-1. When the GSPre was introduced in Munich last year, Cucuzza was certain to mention how important these design cues were, drawing upon pristine examples of classic components from ARCs own collection to listen to and observe during the design process.

A quick look behind the luxurious front panel reveals the tube tunnel of the SP-1, now covered with drilled Plexiglas, yet the simply bent corners on the first ARC preamplifier are now hand welded in the GSPre. The new preamplifier exudes quality, with evidence of hand finishing everywhere you look. ARCs Dave Gordon makes it a point to bring this all to my attention, saying, “This is where some of the additional cost in the GSPre comes from. This level of hand work isn’t inexpensive.” This is why you buy a Ducati motorcycle instead of a Yamaha, and so it goes with the GSPre. It is as lovely to look at as it is to listen to.

The front panel has a thinner, more sculpted feel and the familiar handles that are front and center on every other ARC component are now tucked tastefully off to the side of the chassis, just behind the front panel. The rear panel reveals a full complement of balanced XLR and RCA inputs and outputs with a 15A IEC socket, with the headphone input located on the right side of the chassis. If you are a headphone user, be sure to leave a proper amount of space to access the standard ¼ inch jack.

I confess, I love it

As much as I am supposed to be a conduit to the gear we review, it’s tough to contain my enthusiasm for ARC’s latest GSPre and GS150 power amplifier (You can read that review here) after living with them for some time now. Having owned the SP-1, SP-3, SP-10 and SP-11, along with a few contemporary ARC preamplifiers, I find the GSPre to be a very special component. Listening to Neil Young’s classic “Old Man” (the recent Chris Bellman LP remaster of Harvest) is mesmerizing; the detail present is amazing, the vocal and instrumental texture equally so. Switching LPs, listening to the reverb trail off at the beginning of CSN’s “Wooden Ships” seems to go wider and deeper through the Quad 2812s than I’ve ever heard. Few components I have heard at any price are this compelling.

It is wonderful, convenient and synergistic to have a high quality phonostage on the same chassis as a great linestage, which is why so many SP-10 and SP-11 owners doggedly hang on to their 30-year-old preamplifiers. I enthusiastically submit the GSPre as a more than worthy replacement.

Carrying an MSRP of $15,000, it is slightly more than the $13,000 REF 5SE, which in some ways sonically bests the GSPre. But the GSPre must be put in proper perspective; where the REF 5SE is strictly a linestage, the GSPre is a full-function preamplifier in the best ARC tradition, with an outstanding phonostage and headphone amplifier built in. Having reviewed all the past ARC phonostages over the last five years, I find that the performance of the GSPre’s onboard phono is in the neighborhood of the PH7 and PH8.

Those of you wanting it all on one chassis will not be disappointed with the GSPre, unless you are sporting a $10,000 phono cartridge on your turntable. Atlas and Goldfinger owners will still want to step up to ARC’s REF Phono 2SE to get the maximum performance, or those with extremely low output cartridges, as the GSPre only features 55dB of gain in the phonostage. Personally, I love minimizing the number of cables needed in a great hifi system – another excellent reason for choosing the GSPre. And it goes without saying that you’ll need less rack space, though the GSPre is so gorgeous, you might not want to tuck it away on the shelf of a rack. I suggest placing it on a big, Italian column front and center with dramatic lighting for accent, but I digress.

It’s more about different

Elitist audiophiles only concerned with ultimate performance may prefer the REF 5SE to the GSPre, but I submit the GSPre is more about different, than a mere better or worse comparison. The REF 5SE does have a bit finer resolution in the highest of highs and slightly more dynamic punch, but the GSPre offers a different voice, a different flavor. Though the team in Minneapolis still designs the circuitry, listening to a violin or acoustic guitar through the GSPre makes me wonder just how much time the ARC people have spent listening to Sonus faber speakers, now that they are part of the Fine Sounds group.

Think of the difference in rendition between the REF 5SE and the GSPre as the former being more like a pair of Wilson Audio Maxx 3s and the GSPre a pair of Sonus faber Aidas. Both excellent, but which will you prefer? If like me, you prefer that touch of tonal saturation and body, the GSPre will be your ultimate choice. It’s as if the GSPre is a sonic blend of 80% REF 5SE and 20% legendary SP-10, with no drawbacks whatsoever.

The GSPre is a contemporary design though, utilizing ARC’s FET/Vacuum Tube hybrid design that they pioneered with the SP-11, refining constantly. With a FET input driving two pairs of 6H30 tubes in the linestage and a single pair in the phonostage, all the tube magic is retained, yet the result is extremely quiet. The GSPre possesses incredible low level detail resolution and the spatial abilities usually associated with an all-tube preamplifier, though having none of the negative aspects. The 6H30 is an incredibly robust tube, and though ARC suggests replacement at 5000 hours, it is not uncommon for these tubes to last much longer. The power supply is all solid state, with seven stages of regulation.

Phono fun

As with the current crop of ARC phonostages, 100, 200, 500, 1000 and 47k input loading is easily switched from the comfort of your listening chair. The ability to do this via remote is particularly helpful not only from the reviewer’s chair, but when you are trying to get that last bit of performance from your system.

A wide range of cartridges was used for this review, from the $379 Denon DL-103 up to the $9,500 Lyra Atlas. Phono performance is dynamic and quiet, though as mentioned earlier, extremely low output cartridges will not have enough drive for the GSPre. The .25mv Denon and the .3mv Dynavector 17D3 were acceptable at lower levels, but at modest to high volume lacked slightly in dynamics. All the cartridges at my disposal from Ortofon, Lyra and Koetsu with .5mv output were a fantastic match and again being able to switch between 100, 200 and 500 ohms from the couch made optimization a snap.

Vinyl experiences with the GSPre and the Feickert Blackbird/Ortofon Cadenza Black MC were incredibly good, and this is an arm/cartridge/table combination I would highly suggest to a potential GSPre owner who was stepping up their vinyl game. Another lovely combination is the VPI Classic Two table and the Grado Reference 1 moving iron cartridge. ARC phonostages have always had an incredibly synergy with the Reference and Reference 1, and the GSPre continues this tradition. Its .6mv output does require 47k loading, something not all MC phonostages can accommodate.

While the GSPre can rock out with the best of them, vocals, small ensembles and solo acoustic instruments shine. This preamplifier does so well with retrieving ambient cues and gentle texture, it underscores what the vacuum tube experience should be without ever over-embellishing, as some vintage tube components can be prone to. For this reviewer, the balance is absolute perfection.

Bass extension and control are very good, but this is one area where the ultimate nod goes to the REF 5SE/ REF Phono 2SE pair, both with their larger, dual mono, vacuum tube regulated power supplies.

Getting personal

It only takes a few minutes with your favorite phones to realize to realize the on-board headphone amplifier is not a last minute afterthought. Much like the approach taken to the phonostage, the GSPre is not the last word in headphone amplification for the most obsessed headphone listeners, but so good that most will not feel the need to invest in a separate, outboard headphone amplifier. ARC claims compatibility with phones in the 30–300 ohm range and it proved a great match for the Sennheiser, Grado, OPPO and Audeze phones in my collection. I can’t think of a better way to explore personal listening for the first time than with the GSPre.

The same voice of the GSPre through your favorite speakers comes quickly through your favorite phones, no matter which ones you own. It paints a large sonic landscape, with excellent dynamics and control. Donning a pair of headphones will really convince you just how quiet the GSPre truly is, with transducers right against your head – a real plus for classical listeners!

A brilliant combination

The word that keeps coming to mind with the GSPre is balance. It does everything so well, with no weaknesses, I can’t imagine wanting another preamplifier. After extensive listening to the GSPre and companion GS150 power amplifier, it’s tough to be non-partisan, especially after having owned numerous ARC components over the years.

Mating the GSPre to the GS150 power amplifier is sonic and aesthetic perfection. However, should you have a different ARC power amplifier, or one from another manufacturer, it’s all good. Whether using the balanced or RCA outputs, the GSPre drives long cable runs with ease, and mating it with a plethora of amplifiers from Conrad-Johnson, Nagra, Pass, Simaudio and McIntosh, it delivers a stellar performance either way.

The GSPre feels as if ARC has read my mind and produced a bespoke preamplifier to perfectly suit my visual and sonic requirements. The GSPre combines the design sensibilities of ARC’s Italian partners, while leveraging 40 years of award winning vacuum tube component design. To say the result succeeds brilliantly is the understatement of the year. If this sounds like fun to you, I suggest heading straight to your nearest ARC dealer and be ready to write the check. This may or may not be your first ARC component, but I suspect after you live with the GSPre, it may be your last preamplifier. I know I could live with this one forever.

Audio Research GSPre Preamplifier