The Audio Research REF 6 Linestage

With a lineage stretching back to 1970 Audio Research, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota has built their reputation on constant, engineering based improvements to their products. Their Reference linestage preamplifier line remains a coveted commodity among ARC enthusiasts, and the Reference 6 linestage preamplifier solidly continues this tradition. Based heavily on what was learned creating the two chassis, Reference 10 flagship, makes for a major jump in performance over the outgoing REF 5/5SE, an award winning linestage in its own right.

More than a pretty face

On the outside, the REF 6 sports some eye-catching changes. ARC’s new chassis design was engineered for two reasons. First, ARC is updating the aesthetic of the Ref line. A clean, modern appearance moves away from the classic, more industrial ARC look. The visual design of the REF 6 comes straight from the desk of Livio Cucuzza and his team, the ones responsible for the trend setting aesthetic of the highly popular G-Series. Tastefully integrating style cues from the past models with a more modern look and better finish work, Audio Research components finally look as good as they sound.

ARC’s team also built in a greater level of structural rigidity intended to “assist in the dissipation of electrical and mechanical interferences.” Immediately evident is the beautifully milled faceplate, available in either an anodized back finish or the natural aluminum finish of our review sample. Substantial handles on the front of the REF 6 pay homage to past models, offering a visual contrast to the otherwise flat front. The handles also offer a practical function when moving and placing the 36.5 lb. (16.6 kg) linestage. With overall dimensions of 19” (48 cm) W x 7.8” (19.8 cm) H x 16.5” (41.9 cm) D, the hefty REF 6 requires a fair amount of real estate on the audio rack.

When placing it, headroom is another important consideration. The tube complement generates a lot of heat and adequate ventilation is necessary for the long-term health of the unit. Under the REF 6’s transparent, vented Lucite hood, the owner can witness the tidy circuitry within. The tube complement consists of six 6H30P dual triodes, plus a single 6550C and a 6H30 regulating the beefy power supply.

Control freak

As part of the newly-adopted aesthetic, an elegant simplicity drives layout of the REF 6 control panel. In addition to the large input selection and volume knobs, six dime-sized buttons manage the rest of the adjustments. Specific buttons control power-up, a choice between mono or stereo playback, phase reversal, and mute. The remaining two buttons, “menu” and “enter” bring to life the REF 6 menu options, and allow the owner to customize his or her preferences for each.

To get the most from the REF 6 tube complement, one menu option allows the user to see the number of hours on the current tubes. According to AR, new 6550WE tubes should serve their owner for about 2,000 hours, and the 6H30 tubes offer roughly twice that life span. When the tubes eventually wear out, ARC offers carefully matched replacement tubes. As there are not a lot of variations on the 6H30 tube, just giving the factory a call is the easiest way to roll. To maximize tube life, owners will delight in another REF 6 feature. The owner can set an automatic preamp shutdown to engage at a one to eight-hour interval. This feature can be disabled if you prefer fully manual control.

The REF 6 also offers the ability to assign a specific input for home theater pass-through in instances where the linestage is part of a larger home theater system. In this scenario, the REF 6’s volume control disengages when that particular source is selected, deferring to the surround sound processor’s volume controls. The ability to assign names to each of the REF 6 inputs also makes it easy to keep inputs straight on more complex systems.

ARC has always offered a very basic, plastic remote. Keeping with the aesthetic of the new design a milled aluminum remote accompanies the REF 6 and REF Phono 3. It’s a nice, but not ostentatious touch that complements the new look, and is roughly the size of the plastic remote of old. Prospective owners should note that the REF 6 sports a 20-amp IEC power socket, so if you are contemplating a power cord upgrade, plan accordingly or find a high quality adaptor, like the one from Shunyata.

Featuring four inputs, each having the option of single ended RCA or balanced XLR connectors makes the REF 6 one of the most versatile linestages going. Two sets of RCA and XLR variable outputs are joined by a fixed level, record out option – handy for those either stepping up to the tape game or digitizing some of their favorite music. 12 volt trigger and RS-232 interfaces are also available for those wanting to tie everything together, or in a custom install situation.

Music to my ears

When the power button is depressed, the REF 6 kicks into a 45-second warm-up mode, bringing the tubes up to temperature slowly, maximizing their lifespan. Mute is engaged automatically during that process, and must be un-muted before music can proceed.

Right out the gate, the REF 6 proves stunning in several ways. The immediately enveloping soundstage has musical elements bursting in all directions, projecting a seemingly limitless picture that defies speaker placement. Airy subtleties reside in the distance above, below, and behind the speakers offering a spooky level of realism, and the REF 6 is one of a very short list of special linestages that renders an incredibly real picture of the recording without crossing the line of being super sized for effect. Listening to Lucinda Williams “Can’t Let Go” places her in my listening room at a correct size, making the presentation that much more believable.

Combined, these characteristics give not only insight into the subtleties engineered into a song, but a sense of the space used to record it. At the same time, the musical picture never seems artificially inflated. Similarly, the organ notes in Johnny Cash’s treatment of “Danny Boy” found on American IV: The Man Comes Around, paint a palpable picture of the cathedral used as the recording location. Cash’s gravelly immediacy, combined with the subtle reverberation in the recording hall has me looking over my shoulder, feeling if I’ve seen a ghost.

In my reference system, the REF 6 provides a very slight degree of warmth to the musical picture alongside its ability to retrieve tiny sonic details from a recording. In my experience enjoying equipment over the years, that balance can be a tenuous one for a product designer to achieve. A convincingly realistic and detailed presentation is desirable, but that sonic goal can sometimes lean toward an overly-lush sound, or be accompanied by etch or stridency. The REF 6 never hints toward either extreme which can detract from the organic sense of the musical presentation. The REF 6 provides a relaxed and natural musical flow emitting from the speakers. It’s easy to get lost in the sanctuary of beloved recordings and forget about everything else.

Bass reproduction represents another strong suit. On tracks like Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days” all the pluck, resonance and rumble the sound engineer captured in the bass guitar track are projected with convincing authority. However, bass in never reproduced in an overly-accentuated, or one-note way. Again, the REF 6 reveals its innate character for organic reproduction. No apparent sonic manipulation colors the window into the music.

Regardless of musical genre, the REF 6 steps up to the challenge. Listening to classical, jazz, rock, electronica, reggae, vocal performances and anything else thrown at the REF 6, it never fails to impress. When speed and agility are demanded by the music, it delivers. Similarly, when delicacy and nuance are dictated by a recording, REF 6 nails that as well. Green Day’s American Idiot projects with all the angst and attitude one could hope from the album. In contrast, chamber music reveals the subtle differences between the various stringed instruments with ease.

Simply put, the REF 6 is among the finest linestages I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in my own listening space – it’s hard to imagine expecting or wanting more from a preamplifier. It would be easy to live with this linestage for the long haul. This caliber of musical prowess doesn’t come cheap, but at $14,000 it’s not crazy money either. Most importantly, the price has only increased $1,000 over that of the outgoing REF 5SE, so that’s major progress.

Additional Listening:  Jeff Dorgay

Being a Midwestern native, I’ve always appreciated the sheer practicality of the folks at Audio Research. Unlike my days of writing about digital cameras, sometimes a year before product is available, ARC rarely puts review gear in to the review stream until they’ve delivered the goods to their loyal customers. Bravo.

Needless to say, TONE staffer Tom Caselli was one of the first guys on the list and had his a few weeks before ours arrived, and he was quick to let us know the good news. “Amazing, way better than the REF 5SE that I traded in.” Other fellow audiophiles I know that are doggedly loyal to the brand echoed the same sentiment, at a higher level of enthusiasm than normal too, so the buzz was building around here.

Having owned the REF 5 and 5SE models and going way back with numerous ARC preamplifiers over the years, the REF 6 is a wider jump up the evolutionary chain than the past few models. As Rob mentions, it draws heavily on what was learned in the development cycle of the REF 10. At some point it may just be time for a head to head comparison…

While many have been asking for said comparison with the GSPre that has been residing here for some time, that’s not a fair fight, as the GSPre includes an excellent phono stage along with a headphone amplifier. Think of the GSPre as offering about 2.5 quarts of what a gallon of the REF 6 does with the other bits thrown in. The REF 6 will more than likely appeal to a different customer a few clicks higher on the audio food chain.

On top of all the sonic improvements, ARC has drastically diminished the time to great sound with their products. They still mention in the owners manual that the REF 6 will take 5-600 hours to sound its best, but unlike past designs, this one sounds fantastic out of the box. Granted, it does improve with time, but the delta is not quite as dramatic as in past models.

Whether you use the REF 6 as a reviewer’s tool or simply to relish your music collection, make no mistake: this is a destination component. There are a few others lurking that have a different sonic flavor, reveal a bit more music, or have a few more bells and whistles, but they will cost a lot more. In terms of sheer musicality, the REF 6 is the one to beat for $13,000.

Whatever they are up to in the lab at ARC is working. The REF 6 retains all the strengths of the outgoing REF 5 series, yet is more extended and dynamic, while adding more soul and musical saturation than the past model. That’s not an easy achievement, and I always wonder how they do it.

Keeping the price at $14,000 is impressive, especially in light of the major sonic and aesthetic improvements. The tough question is “should you trade up?” This depends on you. The REF 5 or 5 SE you currently own is certainly not rubbish by any sense of the word. They are currently fetching about $9,000 on the secondary market, so if you just have to have more juice, you won’t be disappointed. The REF 6 is not an update you have to strain to hear.

These are agonizing questions you ask when staring at the ceiling at 3a.m.. Who would have ever thought 30 years ago that audio engineers in 2016 would be pulling still more performance from triode tubes to increase our musical listening pleasure? That’s pretty cool. For those of you not suffering from trade up anxiety, run don’t walk to your ARC dealer and check it out. This linestage offers so much legacy, performance and long term value, we are happy to give it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2016. Life is short. Buy one.

The Audio Reseach REF 6

MSRP:  $14,000


Digital Sources: Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, dCS Debussy, Synology DiskStation

Amplification: Burmester 911 mk3

Preamplification: Coffman Labs G1-B

Speakers: GamuT RS3, JL Audio Dominion Subwoofers

Cables: Jena Labs

Power: Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose power cords

Accessories: ASC tube traps, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers, AudioQuest Jitterbug, Atomic Audio Labs Mac Mini stand

PS Audio’s DirectStream Memory Player

I go back with PS Audio. Way back. Back to when most of today’s digital/computer audio experts were running around in their underoos while their dads were listening to Led Zeppelin in the living room. That’s when I had one of these: the original PS Audio DAC.

I’ve still got it and it still works. So I guess that settles any thoughts of  “PS Audio reliability issues.” Back in the mid 80s, this baby set me back a cool $1,000. Six months prior, when I bought my Nakamichi CD player, I noticed a jack on the back that simply said, digital output. The salesman gave me a blank stare when I inquired what said jack was for. Now I knew.

A mad dash home to plug it in yielded pretty impressive results. Digital sounded pretty rough then and the PS Audio Digital Link went a long way towards making those shiny discs sound a lot better. First disc in the tray to give the Digital Link a spin? Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Nothin’ Fancy. It rocked, and I still remember my audiophile pals thinking I was out of my mind for dropping a G on that little box. But it was pretty awesome, and stayed a staple of my system for quite a while, replaced by another PS Audio DAC about ten years later.

Fast forwarding to 2017, there aren’t many disc players left, and precious few that play everything. This is one of the things that makes the PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player so intriguing. $5,999 gets you a high resolution transport that plays CDs, DVD audio discs and SACD’s. Multichannel too. Those of you that still like physical media, rejoice. This one’s for you.

The folks at PS Audio were kind enough to send along their companion (also priced at $5,999) DirectStream DAC. This has been on the market for a while now, and has garnered more than it’s share of awards. We reviewed an earlier version of this DAC years ago, and found it to be a top notch performer for the price asked.

What makes this combo so intriguing is it’s ability to extract the DSD layer from your SACD collection and process everything in the DSD domain. Thanks to PS Audio’s I2S bus going from transport to DAC, you aren’t getting PCM conversion when listening to your favorite SACD.

So, I guiltily pulled Skynyrd’s Nothin’ Fancy out (this time on SACD, natch) and pushed the play button. The first impression is outstanding, and we’ve got more listening to do, but so far, this combo not only proves exciting, it’s performing quite well with some other incredibly expensive digital hardware on the rack from a few of the usual players.

Stay tuned!

Issue 82


Old School:

Conrad-Johnson MV 60SE Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay


Gold Note’s Vasari Gold Phono Cartridge
By Jeff Dorgay

Journeyman Audiophile:

G-Lab Block Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

TONE Style

WINO: Malbec

Panono 360 degree camera

Epson Home Projector

ChargeTech Classic Laptop Charger

Dyson V6 Vacuum

Art Of Jay Ward

Anker Lighting Cable

New Wave Ornaments

John Varvatos Morrison Sharpe Boots


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

Jazz & Blues: John Abercrombie, Tania Chen and More!
By Kevin Whitehead and Jim Macnie

Audiophile Pressings: Kruder & Dorfmeister, Run DMC and more!

Gear Previews

Sonus faber Venere S Speakers

Esoteric F-07 Integrated Amplifier

Conrad – Johnson TEA1S2 Phonostage


Viola Labs Sonata Preamp
By Greg Petan

Focal Sopra no.3 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

McIntosh MB50 Streamer
By Greg Petan

Technics SL-1200G Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Audio Physic Tempo plus Speakers
By Rob Johnson

MartinLogan Expression ESL13A Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

The Chartwell Audio LS3/5

How many movies have you seen where the sequel (or any of the subsequent sequels) were better or even equal to the original?

While the legion of LS3/5 owners, with numerous variations on the theme, might grouse at the thought of this, I prefer the new Chartwell LS3/5 to any of the originals I’ve yet experienced. And for what it’s worth, I’ve held the first LS3/5 in my hand, at the now defunct Kingwood Warren branch of the BBC, so you know I adore these little speakers.

For audiophiles not in love with full range ESLs or variations on the Lowther theme, the next option for sonic purity is the two-way monitor, the smaller and simpler the better. Fewer drivers and a simpler crossover network mean less phase and distortion issues. With some great small monitor speakers on the market, and most of them British, it’s impossible to have a conversation about this sub-segment without discussing perhaps the most famous of them all the compact BBC LS3/5 or LS3/5a speaker.

This tiny two-way speaker was originally developed by the BBC as a portable monitor for remote recording sessions, with an emphasis reproducing vocals as accurately as possible. Though they were all built by numerous British manufacturers to the BBC specification (the only way to get the license in the first place) each model has its own unique, signature sound. Consequently, the LS3/5a was the model destined for mobile recording, while the LS3/5 was a different model (though the same physical size) clearly aimed at being a true high-performance small speaker. The initial LS3/5 was never produced, with only about 20 number of prototypes built. You can read a bit more about the LS3/5’s history here, at the Graham site.

Graham Audio, makers of the exceptional LS5/9s we reviewed last year and subsequently purchased as reference speakers enlisted the help of designer extraordinaire Derek Huges, along with some help from Seas and Volt to create a masterpiece that observes the original specification. Cutting to the chase, they have succeeded brilliantly.

Over the next few weeks, we will be finishing our review, based on hundreds of hours of listening, with a wide range of program material and amplification. For those of you too impatient for me to compile the rest of the data, I suggest buying a pair. Right now.

Channel Islands PEQ•1 Mk II

Years ago we reviewed Channel Islands original phono stage and it was a killer value at $295. Today, CI founder and designer Dusty Vawter has a new box up his sleeve, the PEQ•1 Mk II for $995, and he’s done it again.

The small box arrived on Wednesday, and after an incredibly enthusiastic call with Mr. Vawter, we fast tracked the photos and unboxing. For those of you that have never met him, Dusty is a pretty quiet understated guy, who goes about his business making great gear and not tooting his horn that much.

Sporting full dual-mono construction and spiffier casework, the PEQ•1 Mk II raises the bar for what you can expect from a $995. Initial listening is highly impressive, so watch for our review sooner rather than later!  These should be shipping now, for those of you that are wanting one immediately.

The PEQ•1 Mk II offers 40db and 60db gain settings, (with custom options offered) and loading options of 100, 1000, 10k, and 47k ohms with variable capacitance on the MM side.

As this product is NOT on the Channel Islands website yet, please call them at 805.984.8282 or email at [email protected] to get the ball rolling.

More Power From Brinkmann Audio!

I’ve been using the Brinkmann Bardo as a reference table now for the better part of the year, and I’m still as smitten as the day it arrived.

However,  knowing that Brinkmann offers an upgraded power supply, the RoNt, (Approx. $4,200), I knew I had to at least investigate. My tables from AVID, Rega and VPI have all benefitted from an improved power supply, so I had. a hunch on this one.

The short word is “exceptional.” Everything is improved throughout the range. Considering that Brinkmann used to sell the Bardo in the US for almost $14,000 before they streamlined their distribution (It’s now $9,995) the RoNt is an even better bargain.

Best of all, the RoNt works with the full range of Brinkmann tables, so no matter which one you own, you’re in for a substantial performance upgrade. Full review in the works.

Affordable, High Performance Power Conditioning!

A lot of power products have come through the door here over the years, and most of them have been escorted right out the door quickly. Way too many power conditioners shave transient edges off with the noise, unable to differentiate, or they get wacky with the tonal balance, or both.

Most of the few truly exceptional power conditioners I’ve had the pleasure of using are damn expensive and really heavy. As was my experience with the Running Springs and IsoTek products that I love and used for a number of years (and still do) the real benefit of their technology didn’t happen until you purchased their biggest, and baddest model with major current capacity. This is all awesome if you are plugging in a pair of big power amplifiers or a major system, but what if you have a small system, or just want to clean up a solitary component?

With more turntables and phono preamplifiers arriving for review, the need for more outlets constantly arises. Call me wacky, suspicious, or old fashioned, (just don’t call me Shirley) but I like to keep low level analog components and digital components on separate AC power circuits, so I run my linestage, and DAC on one circuit, and the two phonostages, along with all the turntables on separate 15 amp circuits. I don’t know, I sleep better at night. However, with analog, you can always do better, get more resolution, and drop the noise floor further, so the quest for better power conditioning continues.

The Equi-Core 300, from Core Power Technologies was put to an immediate trial by fire, with new phonostages from Audio Research, McIntosh and Conrad-Johnson at the ready. The 300 in the name represents the maximum number of watts that said conditioner can handle, so this means preamp, DAC or maybe a low powered SET. CPT takes an interesting approach, hardwiring their own power cords into each end of the Equi=Core 300. So much for the power cord argument, you take what they give you; fortunately, it works fantastic. $799 buys you 2.5 feet, $849 gets you 5.5 feet, and the $899 model arrives with 8.5 feet of power cord. The review sample was a 5.5 foot model, and the nly complaint is that the longer model would have provided more flexibility. Unless your component is directly in front of an outlet, consider the 8.5 foot model. For a $100 increase over the best model, the extra length will probably serve you better in the long run.

Minutiae aside, this $849 power conditioner is outstanding. It does its job perfectly and quietly, without fuss. Many internet pundits like to wax poetic about how the heavens part with so and so’s power products. Good for them. The Equi=Core 300 is like a great physician – it does no harm. This is a deceptively simple task, so don’t take it lightly.

Paragraphs could be written describing various musical passages that chances are you either haven’t heard, or don’t want to hear again, so I’ll cut to the chase. Plugging the Equi=Core 300 the  Audio Research REF 3 Phono, Conrad-Johnson TEA1 s2 and McIntosh MP1100 phonostages delivered the same result. The noise floor dropped significantly, and these are all very quiet phonostages to begin with, causing an increase in dynamics. Everything sounds much more lively with the Equi=Core 300 in place. Nothing was changed tonally, and that’s a great thing for this reviewer. Everything just got quieter and cleaner sounding. Removing the unit after a  few hours of concentrated listening made me clamor to reinstall it.

Similar results were achieved with the other preamplifiers on hand for evaluation, and if you know your combined output is pretty close to 300 watts, I’d suggest a high quality power strip from Naim, Wireworld or IsoTek to make for a multiple outlet power distribution system. WireWorld and IsoTek provide excellent, reasonably priced products for this task, and total cost for conditioner and power strip still comes in way below what you’d expect to spend on a premium power cord. Another fantastic transformation was the already fantastic Nagra 300p tube amplifier. While Nagra does not list a spec for power consumed, it only produces 20 watts per channel, so it was worth investigating.

Again, the Equi=Core 300 comes through brilliantly, so digging out an old pair of lovely sounding but notoriously noisy Bottlehead 2A3 SET’s make for an incredible experience via this little power conditioner. I would suggest the Equi=Core 300 to anyone with an SET amplifier. Get two if you need one for each channel. You won’t be sorry. The beguiling nature of the SET really comes through with a dropped noise floor and the Bottleheads sound more like Wavac amps with the addition of the Equi=Core 300.

The Equi=Core 300 does an equally good job with solid-state gear, provided you stay within the load requirements. Though it probably defeats the compact purpose, our Naim MuSo QB and B&W Zeppelin responded incredibly well to some line conditioning and their class D amplifiers sounded way less grainy, treated to clean power. A few pieces of vintage gear as well as a couple of DACs on hand also proved highly compatible with the Equi=Core 300 too. Oddly enough, and we’ve had the same results with every great line conditioner we’ve used, the effect of clean power always seems to be slightly more apparent with tube gear than solid state.

The Equi=Core 300 power conditioner is one of the most unobtrusive power conditioners I’ve had the pleasure to use – at any price. I bought the review sample, and will probably buy another. It’s that good. We have a review in the works of one of their larger models, so we’ll keep you posted. For inquiring minds that need to know, these are designed and hand built in CPT’s Colorado factory and the pride of assembly shows. The Equi=Core 300 is equally well executed visually as it is electronically.

It would be a crime not to give this little box one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017. You need to hear (or perhaps more precisely, not hear) what it can do for your hifi system. In an age where power cords cost more than used BMW’s, this is a refreshing approach indeed.

The Equi=Core 300 Power Conditioner

$799-$899 (depending on length of power cord)

The McIntosh MP1100 Phono Preamplifer

Click here for  a quick video of the new MP1100 Phono Preamplifier from McIntosh…

Click here to view all the specs at the McIntosh website…

The Audio Research PH9

Audio Research always has something new under the hood of any new release, but their new Foundation series is a major step up aesthetically as well.

We’ve just received the entire series in for full review, but we’ve started with the PH9 phono stage. At $7,500 it will be an interesting comparison to the REF PHONO 3, also in for review (and destined to stay here after as a reference component) to see what the extra $5,500 buys you beyond a second input and balanced outputs.

Stay tuned!

The Technics SL-1200G

The older we get, the more difficult it is to remember some of life’s firsts.

Once, while chatting with Jerry Seinfeld about his Porsche collection, a big smile came across his face recalling his first 911; a red, early 80s Carrera, and how hard he had to work to get that car. “You never forget stretching for the first one.”

So it goes for me with turntables. A full summer of chores put enough money in my wallet to walk into Pacific Stereo and plunk a shiny new Technics SL-1200 (with Stanton 681EEE cartridge) into the hatch of my Gremlin back in 1976. Ok, I’m not as famous as Mr. S, but I kinda know how he felt. Rushing home at a hurried pace, a quick set up with the enclosed alignment tool, and Frampton Comes Alive was blasting out of my JBL L-100s. I had never even heard the term VTA and my wallet was empty, but I was really, really, happy.

A little more than 40 years later, weaving through Portland’s rush hour traffic, trying to get to FedEx before they close, I feel the same sense of excitement on the way to pick up today’s SL-1200G. Last year, Technics released a limited quantity of the classic table, model SL-1200GAE. They sold out almost instantly, with a retail price of about $4,000. Yeah, that’s a lot more than I paid for mine, but all things considered, $400 back in 1976 is about $2,300 in todays money. So, is the new 1200, $1,700 better than the old one?  We’re about to find out.

Fortunately, between staff member Jerold O’Brien and I, we pretty much keep everything, or we know how to get our hands on it. Mr. O’Brien just happened to have a 1200 lying about from 1980, so that’s close enough. To make this even more interesting, I still have a 1200 mk.II that’s had some modifications courtesy of Sean Casey at Zu Audio, as well as a TimeStep power supply from Sound HiFI in the UK. (you can read that article here), so there will be none of that “well, I can’t really remember what a 1200 sounded like, but blah, blah, blah.” that you hear from the other so called experts. It’s 1200 fest at TONEAudio. We do our homework.

Attention to detail

Seinfeld is fond of mentioning what he calls “density of thought.” Comparing the 1200 mk.II to the current 1200G is much like comparing an 80s Carerra to a current 911. Most of the visual cues you know are still there, right down to that same cartridge alignment tool, but everything is finished to a much higher standard.

Those that like to geek out the older 1200s usually concentrate on a couple of areas first; dampening the platter and the chassis; the former being tougher than the latter, because of balance issues. Along with a greatly improved direct drive mechanism, Technics addresses both of these issues with the 1200G. The new platter is fully balanced, filled with a layer of deadening rubber and has a brass top layer to the platter. Popping the platter from the original 1200 mk.II on the current table quickly reveals the progress made. Images fully rendered on the 1200G shrink dramatically and a level of low level image focus and quality disappears. The delta is like going from a pair of Nordost Odin cables to a pair of Radio Shack interconnects.

The original 1200 benefited tremendously from having the tonearm rewired with premium wire, but thanks to a pair of RCA jacks underneath the table, a-la VPI, swapping the fifty cent interconnect for a pair of Cardas Clear interconnects brought the sound of the 1200G to the head of the class. Last but not least, for the perfectionists in the crowd (and I know you’re out there) replace the standard issue head shell and associated wire. In this case, a wooden Ortofon LH-8000 fills the bill nicely.

While the new G model’s tonearm looks remarkably similar to the one fitted to the original 1200, the bearings and counterweight are machined to a much tighter tolerance, and where the original arm was made from aluminum, the magnesium arm from the limited edition SL-1200 GAE is retained here. Even the dampening feet are greatly improved over the original model.

Just like any other high performance machine, the SL-1200G benefits from numerous small improvements that you can’t see. Better bearings along with refined motor and drive control circuitry all add up to more music revealed.


Considering all the fun I had taking the photos of this table, I kept wondering how it would sound on initial power up. In a word, dark. However, this is not the table’s fault. After the folks at Technics delivered a huge bag of cash to my doorstep via Fed Ex it sounded much better. Just kidding.

However, in all seriousness, setting up the SL-1200G with the tools in the box and a modest cartridge will not get you to audio heaven, but this would be like assembling a 911 engine with a pliers, and an adjustable wrench. That project would go equally poorly. Though the new 1200G looks a lot like it’s distant relative, all the verbiage in the manual is true; this table is a much more precise instrument.

Get your hands on some decent setup tools – now. A precise protractor like the Feickert or the Acoustical Systems SMARTractor, a good test record and a digital stylus force gauge. If you are a master of the Feickert setup software, that won’t hurt either. 30-60 minutes spent fine tuning the new 1200 will pay a world of dividends. Lastly, throw out the stock power cord and fit something a little better while you’re at it just for good measure.

I can’t fault Technics for any of this; they did their homework and built a solid deck. In their defense, the last $5,500 tonearm I purchased from SME resulted in throwing the packaged tonearm cable in the circular file, to be replaced with a $1,200 cable from Furutech. The good news is that you can at least get the 1200G up and running with the tools and cables included; but properly set up, it’s a sweetheart of a table.

Nothing but fun

The SL-1200G is so easy to use, it’s made vinyl playback a blast. Thanks to the three inputs on the Pass Labs XS Phono, and a set of three Rega Elys 2 cartridges, comparing the three variations on the SL-1200 theme is not only a breeze, but enlightening. Queuing up three copies of MoFi’s self-titled Santana (only a few pressing numbers apart, to keep it all as close to identical as possible) quickly shows the progress the Technics engineers have made.

Immediately the new table’s massive stereo image makes itself known. The mk.2 creates a somewhat small sonic landscape that is limited to the space between the speakers; it feels more like VHS. Where the gentle piano at the beginning of “Treat” feels small and uninvolving on the mk.2, moving up to the 1200G brings it alive, the piano now sounding much bigger and livelier. As the guitar is folded in, a similar effect is displayed and even the non-audiophiles in my impromptu listening sessions stood up and took notice.

All three tables exhibit great speed accuracy, but again the new model (and the TimeStep modded version) offer a much lower noise floor, resulting in a greater dynamic range. When tracking through a new, 45 r.p.m. copy of Kruder and Dorfmeister’s The K&D Sessions, the new table shines, with incredible bass weight that the other two can’t match.

Finally where I would never have mounted a premium cartridge to the original 1200, because of its general lack of resolution, this is now a welcome addition to the current model. Upgrading the standard issue Technics head shell with something from Ortofon or another specialty manufacturer, and some better head shell wires (in this case, a set of silver ones from Furutech) takes it all to the next level.

Switching from the $300 Rega MM cartridge to the $6,000 Transfiguration Proteus cartridge brought about quite the “ah-ha” moment, and convinces me that this is a world class table in the $4,000 price category. The Technics SL-1200G has the ability to resolve the difference between cartridges with ease, and thanks to the easily removable head shells, this was not a terribly difficult task. Even if you don’t invest in a $6,000 cartridge for your new 1200G, know it is up to the task.

Should you be of the “get a great table first, add the mega cartridge later” mindset, one budget cartridge that delivers astounding sonics with the 1200G is the $379 Denon DL-103r. It won’t offer the last bit of fine detail that the four figure cartridges will, but it’s level of sheer musicality and bass weight should keep your ears perked up.

I’ve never been a DJ, but…

I do have more than one turntable, and I can’t resist a good 45 r.p.m. maxi single. The well recorded ones offer up a level of dynamics that is usually a cut above a standard album. Radiohead’s “High and Dry” proved a perfect place to start. A mere push of the button is all it takes to get to 45 right now, and it goes without saying, the speed accuracy of the new 1200G is perfect – the red strobe now replaced by a rich blue.

As you might suspect, the rock-solid speed accuracy provided by direct drive makes not only for explosive transients, but sturdy bass response. Zipping through a handful of Prince 45s delivers a special quality, weight and texture to the lower register that I haven’t experienced with tables at this price before.

Yet the 1200Gs sole attribute is not solid bass response as the early mk.2 was. Where the original still provides a rock solid musical foundation, it’s not an audiophile turntable in stock form. The current G model adds the nuance that you’d expect from a great belt drive table. While the 1200G doesn’t have the level of finesse that my reference Brinkmann Bardo possesses, it grooves in that direction.

Switching the program material to solo piano underlines the 1200Gs solidity. It’s like taking the speed stability of a great digital recording and adding the tonal saturation of analog. It’s a compelling combination.

Lastly, I just couldn’t resist the urge to do a little bit of scratching, so the Ortofon CC Scratch came off the shelf and after resetting tracking and anti-skate (Ortofon suggests a 2-gram anti skate setting and 4-gram tracking force “because of the abnormal behavior of the tonearm when backcuing.” Try that on a $100,000 turntable.

Across the board great

As with a great sports car, much is to be said for balance. Those rare cars with an equal amount of stop, go, handling and feel are often much more fun on a curvy road than a high horsepower car that is a monster beyond your capabilities. The Technics SL-1200G is like the new generation Miata. It offers up such a balanced amount of analog performance, that you’ll never notice you aren’t listening to a $30,000 turntable.

If you haven’t considered a direct drive turntable for audiophile duty, I can’t suggest the Technics SL-1200G highly enough. I’m happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017 and not only have I purchased the review sample, I’m thinking of a second one, just because.

The Technics SL-1200G

MSRP: $4,000


Phonostage                Pass XS Phono, Audio Research REF Phono 3

Cartridges                  Rega Elys2, Ortofon Scratch, Denon DL-103r, Sumiko Blackbird, Grado Reference 1, Transfiguration Proteus

Preamplifier              Pass XS Pre

Power Amplifier        Pass XS 300 monoblocks

Cable                          Tellurium Q Silver Diamond and Cardas Clear

Oppo’s latest: Sonica

We’ve just received OPPO’s latest creation, the Sonica DAC.

At $799, this looks to be another killer, offering compatibility with all digital formats, streaming and multi-room audio capabilities. Featuring the latest ESS ES9038PRO chip, and synchronous transfer mode, the high precision clock inside the Sonica DAC drives the audio signal, not relying on the clock quality of the computer. The USB DAC input supports PCM up to 768 kHz 32-bit and DSD up to 22.5792 MHz (DSD512).

The Sonica offers variable, line level outputs, so it can be used as a preamplifier, like their award winning HA-1.

For more information, click here:

The Focal Sopra no.1 Speakers

For a city of barely more than a half million people, Saint-Etienne, France is a pretty cool place. In addition to it’s fantastic cuisine, it’s ranked 19th globally for innovation, a virtual hotspot of technical activity. And it’s home to Focal, an equally innovative speaker manufacturer.

A few years ago when I visited the factory, there was something lurking in the corner of the R&D department that would later become the floorstanding Sopra no.2. Inquiring about the prototype, I was quickly escorted out and politely asked not to mention anything about what I saw. It all became clear at last year’s Munich hifi show and here we are today with three Sopra models. The no.1 is the smallest model, stand mounted, with an MSRP of just under $9,000/pair, including the massive yet stylish stands, leaving nothing to chance. Visually similar to Focal’s Diablo Utopias, costing nearly twice as much, the Sopra no.1 takes advantage of all new technology, developed by Focal to get higher performance from a smaller form factor.

A two-way system, the new woofer and tweeter, not only achieve lower distortion figures than past models, they are very efficient with an 89db sensitivity rating, assuring compatibility with modest powered amplifiers. We had excellent luck pairing the Sopras with both solid-state and vacuum tube amplifiers. For those wanting more info, click here.

Walking around the Focal plant, the level of technical expertise combined with an equally high level of old world, hands-on craftsmanship is stunning. The Sopra line of speakers are built from their innovative drivers up to the finished product completely by hand via the same craftspeople building the $225,000/pair (not a typo) Grande Utopia EM speakers. It shows the minute you slide them out of the box. These speakers are drop-dead gorgeous, and our test pair is coated in a flawless white finish. Beautiful as the walnut veneer is, the Sopra’s sophisticated shape bets for a shiny, solid color. Black, red and orange is also available – all are equally spectacular; your décor will determine which you choose.

Commandeer a bit of help to unpack the Sopras as they weigh just over 40 pounds each with the stands equally massive. Thanks to built-in, easily adjustable spikes, which are easily retractable until you find the best balance between bass punch and midrange clarity, initial setup is a snap. We suggest starting with the Sopras about six feet apart and about three feet from the wall if possible.

Proceed to move them apart until the stereo image falls apart, then move slightly back together. Then move them as a pair (might want to grab a tape measure for this) closer and further away from the wall until you get the best bass response without booming. Grab your favorite bass heavy hip hop or EDM tracks to sort this out quickly.

Once you’ve completed this task, sit back and have an adult beverage, but not too many if you want to fine tune the speakers further. Patience still intact, experiment with toe in and then if you really want a gold star, experiment with tilting the speakers back on their axis slightly. This is where those large adjustment knobs at the base of the stands are worth their weight in gold. When you get this angle just right, the stereo image rendered between your speakers really gets deep. Now you can really get the party started.

Yoko Ono’s vocals on “Yes I’m a Witch” is absolutely creepy. She sounds like she’s everywhere in the room, haunting you wherever you go, thanks to the Sopra’s great dispersion characteristics. Sit on the couch, sit on the floor, walk to the kitchen – she’s still right there. But that’s what you pay the big money for; big sound. Exercising the bass is equally entertaining spinning Mr. Scruff’s Trouser Jazz. The bass energy here keeps you nailed to your seat and tracking through the album, all of my party guests are flabbergasted by just how much air these small speakers can move.

Fun as these audio acrobatics are, the PR copy about Focal’s new driver technology is absolutely true. These speakers are fatigue and distortion free. The only downside is that if you have a lot of amplifier power on tap and live in an apartment building, you may just have a few neighbors knocking at your door, so be prepared for crisis management or party time.

The Focal Sopra no.1 speakers are a premium offering from one of the world’s finest speaker manufacturers and paired with top shelf components will provide you with a world class listening system. They get our highest recommendation.

The Focal Sopra no.1 Speakers

$8,995/pair, with stands

The new Sonus faber Homage Tradition Collection

The question is often posed, “How do we get more people to engage in the world of high end audio.”

Too often this is followed up by a bunch of grumpy old men, sitting in chairs at a hifi show, somewhere between minor arguments over minutiae and falling into sleepy time.

If you’re a 20 or 30 something person casually observing this, I’m guessing you don’t want to be part of this group. I’m 50 something and I don’t want to be part of this group.

Arriving at the beautifully appointed World of McIntosh townhouse in NYC’s SoHo district for the unveiling of Sonus faber’s latest Homage Tradition collection. The tagline is “Everyday Luxury,” and I couldn’t agree with them more. They’ve come up with a range of new speakers between about $16,000 and $30,000 that incorporates everything they’ve learned building their flagship models.

I could go on and on about the technical and mechanical details, but it’s not necessary. When you hear them, you’ll know instantly. And when you see them and touch them for yourselves, the sheer quality is evident.

But I suggest you watch this video:

Sonus faber and the McIntosh group really get what it takes to not only make fine audio cool, but they give it the respect it deserves. Hence the name “Homage tradition.”

I wanna be this guy and you do to. Well, at least we can all have a pair of Sonus faber speakers and dream….