The Audolici AVP-01

Vinyl enthusiasts embracing analog well beyond the entry level is becoming more and more common, with many of our readers possessing or contemplating multiple turntables, or at least a turntable with two (or more) tonearms. The more diverse your record collection and shopping habits, the more having more than one cartridge at the ready makes perfect sense.

The further you go down the rabbit hole, the tougher it is to find one cartridge, no matter how expensive, to do justice to a diverse record collection. Often, having a pair of moderately priced, but different sounding cartridges will serve a broad record collection better than a single, mega cartridge. As you add mono records, vintage records and especially the more time you spend in the budget bins, a second cartridge is handy. Enter the AVP-01 from Audolici, handcrafted in Portugal.  Priced at only $4,930, it combines an excellent line level preamplifier and two separate phono inputs – one MM and one MC. The MC has adjustable loading, with settings at 100, 200, 470 and 1000 ohms, which should be enough for nearly everyone.

On the other end of the spectrum, with DAC’s becoming increasingly broad in their functionality, in many cases they have become the digital hub of a system, only requiring the linestage to have one more analog input to accommodate it. For this user, the AVP-01 is perfect. Its single (RCA) analog, line level input allows you to connect your favorite DAC along with two turntables. There’s even a headphone jack on the back panel, bonus!

At the heart of the AVP-01 is a handpicked, Russian military 6H2P tube. US importer Harold Cooper of Sound Consultant Ltd. tells me this tube is equal to a 6SL7, but suggests sticking with the stock Russian tubes supplied as “this is what they voice the preamplifier for.” There are two line-level outputs on the rear panel, one marked “high” and the other “low, referring to the output impedance, (not output level) with high offering 47k and low only 2,000 ohms, bypassing the output buffer.

The AVP-01 takes a novel approach to utilizing the tube inside. Where many hybrid designs put the tube squarely in the gain or buffer stage, Audolici uses the 6H2P as part of the MM gain section, with MC relying on a single, low noise transistor. The output buffer stage is solid state as well, so your high level source will have a slightly different sonic character than the turntable of your choice.

In concert with the Nagra 300p power amplifier, the reference in my office system only about two feet away, via a short Cardas Iridium interconnect, the low impedance output offers more transparency and immediacy, so experiment with your amplifier and setup. If the high frequencies appear rolled off, you’ve got it wrong.

An engaging phonostage

Unable to resist temptation, the tube was installed and I went straight to vinyl. The AVP-01, like any tube component takes about 30-40 minutes to fully warm up and give its best performance. Where some preamplifiers take hundreds of hours to fully burn in, the AVP-01 sounds great out of the box and only improved slightly after a few hundred hours, so this is one you’ll love right away. The new Technics SL-1200G, with removable headshells made it extremely easy to switch between the Gold Note Vasari MM ($385) reviewed in issue 82, an Ortofon 2M Black ($900), Ortofon Cadenza Bronze ($2,700) and the Transfiguration Proteus ($6,000) cartridges with ease.

Taking advantage of both inputs called for the AVID Ingenium turntable with a pair of SME 3009 tonearms. Moving between different cartridge combinations proved oodles of nerdy analog fun. Settling on a Denon DL-103r and the Ortofon 2M Black made for exciting comparisons, with the Denon slightly on the warm side (and requiring the 100 ohm loading) where the Ortofon is more natural, with no embellishment, yet offering more extension.

This pair of cartridges on the Ingenium made for a great analog setup that didn’t cost a fortune and made for a lot of enjoyment, especially tracking through current as well as vintage LPs. Neither the 70s nor todays vinyl has cornered the market on sonic consistency; once you get used to having a pair (or more) of cartridges at your disposal, I suspect you won’t go back. The AVP-01 makes the process effortless.

Dropping the stylus on a 45 r.p.m maxi single of Prince’s “I Hate U,” reveals a delicacy that is definitely not present on the CD. Gone is the typical harshness surrounding Prince digital recordings, with the highs silky smooth, and a soundstage opening up well beyond the speaker boundaries in my nearfield system.

An overall sonic treat

Comparing the AVP-01 to a few other things on hand, from vintage to contemporary, leaves the impression that it’s overall tonal balance is just so slightly tipped towards the warmer, more saturated side of the spectrum, and you’ll never get an argument from this reviewer over that. But choose your sonic preferences accordingly and remember you can always alter the overall balance by the cartridge(s) you choose.

You won’t mistake the AVP-01 for an all solid-state preamplifier, but it doesn’t sound like a vintage tube preamplifier from the 70s either. Transients are quick and zippy, the bass has weight without sounding slow, sloppy, or one-note and of course, the midrange is lush and full of body. Considering what a separate two input phono stage along with a linestage would set you back (and an additional power cord, pair of interconnects, etc. etc.) the AVP-01 is a pretty incredible value.

Running the AVP-01 through a gamut of power amplifiers after initial listening with the Nagra also proved easy. It had no problem driving anything from our vintage Conrad – Johnson MV60SE, SAE 2200 or the Nakamichi 610. Modern day amplifiers proved equally fruitful, with the new VT80 from Audio Research being particularly lovely.

While I suspect you will probably invest in the AVP-01 for its analog capability, it’s worth mentioning that it is no slouch as a straight-ahead linestage either. Bringing the dCS Rossini DAC/Clock combination into play made for equally pleasing digital listening sessions.

The AVP-01’s output buffer must be labeled a success because it did not seem terribly cable dependent. Some tube preamplifiers can be fussy when choosing output cable, but the AVP-01 sailed through. The same can be said for power cords; a bit of improvement was there to be had with a Cardas Clear power cord, but the AVP-01 isn’t lacking plugging it into the wall with the stock item.

Private sessions

Headphone listeners should be excited by the AVP-01’s headphone amplifier, and considering the ease by which it drove the Sennheiser, AKG, Audeze and Oppo phones in my collection, I doubt that you would want to invest in an additional outboard headphone amplifier. It had no trouble driving any of my phones and the sound was indeed robust.

Even the AKG-701s, which are usually tougher to drive, exhibited great bass control and a big, broad soundstage. The planar phones also did very well, and all could be driven well beyond reasonable volume, so watch yourself there!

The perfect solution

If you have two turntables at your disposal, the Audolici AVP-01 preamplifier is going to provide you with ease and enjoyment. If you don’t have a second record player, I suspect you will before you know it. In addition to excellent sonic performance, the understated elegance and modest profile of the AVP-01 will fit into any situation with ease. Our review sample arrived in the silver you see here, but it is also available in black or red. Tempting.

Bottom line, I’ve purchased the review sample to use as a reference component in my office system. The two analog inputs are just what the doctor ordered for evaluating cartridges while editing copy. The performance and flexibility offered for the price asked is way above what you’d expect. So, we are awarding it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017. And, you can expect a long term follow up in about a year. We’ll let you know how the AVP-01 stands up to 12 hour a day duty. Highly recommended.

The Audolici AVP-01 Preamplifier

MSRP:  $4,930 (US Distributor) (Factory)


Turntables                 AVID Ingenium w/SME 3009 tonearms   Rega Planar 3, AVID Volvere SP, Soulines Kubrick

Cartridges                  Ortofon 2M Black, Ortofon Cadenza Black, Denon 103r, Sumiko Blackbird, Gold Note Donatello

Power Amplifiers      Nagra 300p, Conrad Johnson MV-60SE, Audio Research VT80

Speakers                    Graham Chartwell LS3/5, Focal Sopra no.3

Cable                          Cardas Clear

The Technics SL-1200G Turntable

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. -Jeff Dorgay

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

Choosing the Best Subwoofer for Your System

If you’re subwoofer curious, but not sure which way to turn, you’re not alone. We asked the folks at SVS to share some of their tips with us. Here’s their advice on how to choose the best sub for your HT or 2-channel system:


Bass is the sonic foundation of all movies and music, and when you want palpable, room-energizing bass, there’s no substitute for a high performance home subwoofer. The low frequency energy generated by a subwoofer can be incredibly subtle, like the pluck of a bass guitar string, or an all-out, chest-thumping assault on your senses, like an explosion filled car chase in a movie.

On their own, most loudspeakers don’t come close to generating the levels of low frequency extension and bass output as a powered subwoofer, and in many instances, subwoofers are one of the most impactful sonic upgrades you can make to a home theater or audio system.

With all the different subwoofer choices out there including ported and sealed models, different amplifier power ratings, and driver sizes that range from 8-inches up to 20-inches and beyond, it can seem daunting to find the best subwoofer for your room and listening tastes. To make it easier, we’ve listed some key variables to consider.

Décor and Room Integration

Successful integration of audio equipment with home decor is a high priority for many enthusiasts. When thinking about how a subwoofer will fit within your living room, home theater or other area, this is what you need to know:

Overall Size/Footprint: A subwoofer needs to fit into the allocated location without blocking or altering normal foot traffic patterns. For planning purposes, use the ‘real world’ footprint dimensions of the subwoofer, which includes the grille and some extra space for the power cord and signal cable. In locations where floor space is tight, consider a sealed box subwoofer, which tend to be more compact than their ported counterparts.

Finish Options: Most subwoofer manufacturers, SVS included, offer several finish options to complement your loudspeakers and other AV components. Piano gloss lends a high end feel to a home audio system and is perfect for upscale decors. Consider a more durable and scratch resistant black ash/oak or other wood grain finish for high-traffic areas with kids and pets or to match a classic wood look. In dedicated home theaters where the lights are dimmed, lower reflectivity finishes will help minimize light glare.

Room Size and Playback Level

Room size and layout has a major influence on subwoofer performance. Large rooms with open floor plans and vaulted ceilings require a more powerful subwoofer to deliver a convincing bass experience. Another option when feasible is to go with dual subwoofers since two smaller subwoofers generally offer better bass performance across the entire listening area, than a single large sub. You can read about some of the other benefits of having two or more subwoofers here: Why Go Dual.

In addition to room size, your preferred system playback level also has a significant influence. If you like to push your home audio system to loud levels (like an IMAX theater) and want to generate sound pressure levels that let you ‘feel the bass’ from action movies and music, consider a larger subwoofer with a higher amplifier rating and a bigger driver to achieve extreme performance. Conversely, if you listen at more moderate levels, a smaller and less powerful powered subwoofer can deliver a no-compromise experience that enhances all your audio content, and will also be easy to integrate in your room.


Most people don’t have unlimited funds to spend on bass, so budget is an important factor. High performance subwoofers require massive magnets and motor structures as well as powerful internal amplifiers, which makes them heavy. Cheaper lightweight subwoofers simply can generate the same amount of bass and SPLs to the limits of human hearing as larger, heavier models, which almost defeats the purpose of adding a subwoofer. You should be prepared to spend at least $500 for this level of performance in a small to medium sized room and more for larger rooms.

Common Home Audio System Applications

Below are some SVS subwoofer model recommendations for common system applications. While these recommendations are a good starting point, contact SVS for an expert consultation and comprehensive system evaluation to make sure you are choosing the best model.

PC-Based Audio System: Usually situated in an office, bedroom or den, a compact sealed sub like the SB-1000 subwoofer is a natural choice for PC-based audio systems, and it can fit almost anywhere in the room, even behind the PC monitor or under a work desk.

Secondary Home Audio System: Bedroom or Media Room: This increasingly common application typically involves a wall-mounted HDTV, some type of media streaming device, and a sound bar or small satellite speakers. Consider the SB-1000 or the slightly larger and more powerful SB-2000 subwoofer for a great combination of sound quality, performance and compact size.

Primary Media System: Living/Family Room: This popular set-up accommodates the widest possible range of subwoofer models, depending on the room size, playback level and décor integration. The SB-2000, SB13-Ultra, PC-2000 and PB-2000 are all excellent choices in this category for their combination of relative compactness and excellent performance across all genres of movies, music and audio content.

Dedicated Home Theater System: In this application, demanding Blu-ray movies and other high definition content are played at maximum output levels for an IMAX caliber bass experience. Maximum performance and high output (particularly at the deepest frequencies) is a top priority. This is where the larger, reference quality subwoofers come into their own, delivering a visceral and room-shaking audio experience on movie night. Depending on the room size, the following models are all excellent choices: PC-2000 or PB-2000, PC12-Plus or PB12-Plus, SB13-Ultra, PC13-Ultra or PB13-Ultra, SB16-Ultra or PB16-Ultra. The ported cylinder models offer essentially the same performance as their ported box counterparts, but with a smaller footprint, and are a great choice where floor space is tight.

2-Channel Music System: Whereas ported subwoofers shine with extreme low frequency extension and output, sealed box subwoofers are a natural choice for critical music applications because they deliver that tight, fast, detailed and articulate bass without sacrificing slam, which music lovers crave. Depending on the room size and playback level, the SB-1000, SB-2000 and SB13-Ultra will all deliver a fantastic music experience. For the ultimate in 2-channel bass, consider dual subs for true stereo bass and a more balanced soundstage.

Still Unsure About the Best Subwoofer for Your Home Audio System?

Chances are, if you’re in the market for a subwoofer, you already have loudspeakers. To help with the initial first step, SVS developed the Merlin subwoofer and speaker matching tool, which suggests the ideal subwoofer based on your specific speaker models. Merlin takes into account frequency range, output capabilities and other factors to offer an appropriate match, and with over 4,000 loudspeaker models across every brand on the market included, and recommendations generated by acoustic experts, Merlin is an excellent first step towards finding the perfect subwoofer match.

Still have subwoofer questions? We invite you to email the SVS Sound Experts at [email protected].

iFi’s nano iDSD LE is the #1 DAC in Japan!

Industry leader iFi has just announced that their new nano iDSD LE
is the biggest selling DAC in Japan.

Exciting news from this company that produces a wide range of products,
all combining a compact form factor with high performance and reasonable

We expect to review the nano iDSD LE shortly….

The Stereo Pravda SB-7 Headphones

What do in ear monitor (IEM) phones lack? Big bass and dynamics. Am I right?

Much like the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Stereo Pravda SB-7 in ear monitors are bold, dynamic and almost scary – offering bass, dynamics and coherance I’ve always found lacking with other IEM’s. Listening to Stereo Pravda’s founder Misha Kucherenko’s personal portable headphone DAC/Amp at this years Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, it is clear this man has raised the bar for IEM design.

It doesn’t come cheap, a pair of SB-7s will set you back $2,500. Then again, a new Ferrari 488 will set you back about $275,000, if you can find one. And if you want the experience, you pay the money. Sure you can have a Porsche 911 for less than half the price, but it’s not a 488. And so it goes.

I’ve heard a lot of disappointing headphones near this price point, so let’s cut to the chase; the SB-7s are more than worth the asking price. They are a bespoke product, and they deliver a sonic experience you won’t find elsewhere. At any price. These mighty marvels have no less than seven Balanced Armature Drivers per channel. (And you thought phono cartridges were complex!) Kucherenko has also sourced a custom cable from cable guru Chris Sommovigo’s Stereolab atelier to round out the package.

The key to achieving sonic excellence is to thoroughly read the instructions enclosed with the SB-7s. It describes in-depth just how you go about inserting these into your ear canals so they fit perfectly. This is the key to getting the bass and imaging that these phones produce. If you don’t read the directions, think you know better, or just go about your business, I guarantee you will be disappointed in the sound, and this is your fault. However, get a pair of incredibly strong reading glasses, as the type on the tiny instruction sheet is about 2 point. For the rest of you, the instructions, complete with pictures describing the process is on their website. Again, follow this to the letter if you want to be rewarded.

Getting down to business

Ok, you’ve followed the instructions, the SB-7s are snugly in your ear and your ready to rock. With a 1-meter cable, you will want to keep your headphone amplifier close by. An initial test with an iPhone 6 Plus and the big iPad proves ok, but not amazing. If you want the SB-7s to sing, invest in a good headphone amp. No, invest in a great one – the further you take your amplification, the more music they will reveal. The SB-7 will never be the weak link in your system.

Not wanting to feel the least bit limited, most of the listening for this review took place with the Pass HPA-1 headphone amplifier, driven by a dCS Rossini DAC/Clock for digital files and the Audio Research REF 3 Phono, with Brinkmann Bardo turntable and Koestu Jade cartridge for analog. Forget any preconceived notion of what you think an in ear monitor can sound like. Due to the relatively large enclosure of the SB-7, these aren’t ear buds for bopping around the house with a Swiffer, keeping the hardwood floors clean. These are serious headphones to immerse yourself in music with. Curl up on the couch, your favorite chair, or a big pile of pillows on the bed, close your eyes and ease to the sonic experience that the SB-7s provide.

Top to bottom good

Maybe Mr. Kucherenko has some cool piece of Russian military hardware that shrinks things – it feels like he’s stuffed a pair of Grande Utopias in my ears. Hmmmm. A few things present themselves instantly with these phones, confirming what I heard in the Stereo Pravda booth at RMAF, all even better than my initial impression.

Where most IEMs, even premium ones have a slightly to somewhat screechy top end, the SB-7s are smooth, yet highly resolving. Cymbals float through my head listening to a handful of Blue Note reissues with a sparkle that I’ve only heard via some of the world’s finest loudspeakers. The bottom end of the sonic spectrum is equally enticing, having used these in part, for the review of the remastered K&D Sessions. Bass is deep, defined and quick. Don’t move too fast to look around the room, because you’ll upset that delicate ear seal. No matter what the first bass heavy track you pick to audition the SB-7s, you will stay in that groove for a while, wondering how these tiny IEM’s generate all that bottom end. Shrink machine, I’m telling you.

Most headphones do an acceptable job at assembling a cohearant musical presentation inside your head because most headphones only have a single driver inside the cup. The way these seven drivers per integrate is phenomenal. Their ability to homogenize complicated recordings without losing nuance is phenomenal. A long set of Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald and Chrissie Hynde all achieve the same effect. The three dimensional effect presented is not overblown, as it can so often be with over the ear phones, lending an overemphasized ping pong effect. This often triggers listener fatigue, but with the SB-7s you just settle into a groove and forget they are on, until you get up, that is.

Lovely in the middle

Beyond the excitements at both ends of the frequency spectrum is a most enticing midrange. Heading back to Joni Mitchell and Ella Fitzgerald, along with a 45rpm pressing of Anne Bisson’s Blue Mood, the level of texure and nuance delivered is magnetic, drawing you in to the performance like a pair of Lowthers and a great SET does. The consistency is so smooth and gentle, it’s as if you can hear all the way around the woman singing at the microphone.

Add these virtues up and the SB-7s are a natural for acoustic music as well. Hours of Keith Jarrett tracks pass by, and I remain amazed at the sheer level of tonal purity I’m hearing through headphones, much less IEM’s. No matter what the program material, the SB-7s get out of the way and let you concentrate on the music being showcased.

The only danger with these phones is that of playing them too loud for too long. If you have a high quality headphone amplifier, it will be easy to turn the volume up too loud, so that’s the TONEAudio public service announcement. Thanks to major dynamic range, I had to be careful with some of my favorite metal tracks. These are the first IEM’s I’ve auditioned that are up to the tasks of playing Slayer, loud. But remember, I’ve warned you.

Music becomes an excursion through the SB-7s, once you get used to how much they can achieve, they will either become a serious threat to productivity or one of your guiltiest of pleasures. If you spend a lot of time on an airplane (as Mr. Kucherenko does) these will make the time disappear. Reading through the Stereo Pravda website, they talk about being part of a new direction in hifi. I’d say they are at the forefront leading us. Even if you are not an advanced headphone enthusiast yet, I highly suggest giving these a listen at the next Can Jam or Head Fi event near you. I suspect you’ll be rearranging your short term priorities to get a pair.

The Stereo Pravda SB-7

MSRP: $2,500


Headphone Amplifier                         Pass Labs HPA-1, Oppo HA-1

Digital Source                                     dCS Rossini DAC/Clock

Analog Source                                     Audio Research REF Phono 3, Brinkmann Bardo, Koestu Jade Platinum

Interconnects                                      Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Power Cords                                        Cardas Clear

Power                                                  Torus Tot

McIntosh’s Flagship C1100 Tube Preamplifier

Ubiquitous as the silhouette of the V-Twin engine on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, McIntosh Labs’ top products all feature a pair of blue output level meters, joined by a bright green, backlit glow of the controls adorning the thick glass-front panel.

Today that blue and green glow is modulated by LED lighting (instead of the incandescent bulbs of vintage Macs), meticulously adjusted by factory technicians so all of your Mac components glow with equal intensity and color temperature. Sitting down to listen to music in a dimly lit room of McIntosh gear always feels like sitting in a dark stadium, with only the glow of the Marshall amps and effects racks, waiting for the band to take the stage; it’s a visual celebration of audio in action.

Like their outgoing C1000 two-box preamplifier, the C1100 splits control and amplification functions across two chassis, offering higher performance and lower noise as a result of giving the power supply a bit of space from the sensitive gain stages. The C1000 took things further, offering the option of being configured with a solid-state or vacuum tube active stage, along with having the ability to control both! It had a whopping $27,000 price tag to match.

When was the last time you went to buy a new car and the new model offered more performance at a lower price? I thought so. Yet that’s exactly what McIntosh has done with the C1100. Dropping the price dramatically, now $13,000, the casework on the new model is somewhat more straightforward, but there is no mistaking it for anything but a Mac––though less visually embellished than the model it replaces. A chat with my favorite group of McIntosh enthusiasts finds them split right down the middle: half of them are put off by the simpler casework, feeling it doesn’t differentiate the flagship enough from the rest of the herd, and the other half loves the fact that the new C1100 is that much more approachable.

Quick comparisons: new vs. new

Fortunately, the C52 preamplifier, which is the next product down the line from the C1100, just happens to be here for photography with new writer Greg Petan’s review on page 88. A single box unit, the $7,000 C52 has a built-in DAC and eight tone controls along with a phonostage; it is aimed squarely at an entirely different user.

Having both side by side on the rack begs a head-to-head comparison providing an excellent opportunity to see what shakes out sonically for the extra dough. Though the C52 retains the slightly warm, tonally saturated sound that made McIntosh famous, it is all solid-state, so no glowing bottles here. While the C52 offers more functionality than the C1100, thanks to the onboard DAC, it’s no match for the massive soundstage, dynamics and “reach out and touch it”-ness that the C1100 provides.

As with any such choice, you must decide what your budget, system and rack will allow. If massive flexibility is your top priority, save a few bucks and go for the C52. Purists with a “take no prisoners” performance attitude will prefer the C1100 – along with the three-rack spaces it and a separate DAC will require. However, once you hear it, it will be tough to go back.

New vs. old

When the past C1000 arrived configured as a tube preamplifier, it utilized eight 12AX7 tubes: four for the phonostage and four for the linestage. The C1000, like the new C1100 (which uses 6 12AU7 and 6 12AX7 tubes) is a fully balanced design, to drive McIntosh, or anyone else’s balanced power amplifiers in that mode, but there is only one option – all tube. And for good reason – the current C1100 is quieter than even the solid-state version of the C1000. McIntosh’s Ron Cornelius just smiles, saying, “It’s the quietest preamplifier we’ve ever made, period. There just was no need to make two versions of this one.” Damn, this thing is quiet.

A quick call to a couple of my Mcbuds still in possession of C1000s makes for another impromptu shootout. It doesn’t take long for all to agree that the nod has to go to the newer piece in terms of overall sonics. The C1100 is a winner on every level. You’ll have to listen carefully, but on your favorite tracks that are either more sparsely arranged or more acoustic in nature, the C1100 has an ease and freedom from cloudiness that the C1000 can’t quite match. The three C1000 owners were on the fence concerning whether they would trade up, but all were intrigued and impressed with the C1100.

Extended listening

The more time spent with the C1100, the more you realize just how sonically unobtrusive this preamplifier is. Regardless of source and source configuration (RCA or XLR), it goes about its business quietly and confidently.  Where its predecessor is a few molecules warmer tonally, the C1100, much like the current Sonus faber speakers, manages to achieve a similar feat of maintaining the depth and midrange palpability of legacy models, while exhibiting more dynamic impact and extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum.

Weaving through a number of solo male and female vocal tracks, this new preamplifier works its magic, doing better with subtle spatial cues as well, and those wanting to hear every bit of breath at the microphone will be highly impressed. McIntosh has really raised the bar on their gear in the last 5–7 years, steadily refining and improving the range. Thanks to the economy of the manufacturing scale they enjoy, their gear is much more reasonably priced compared to offerings from other manufacturers 30 years ago.

Not only is the linestage easily the equal of what else is available for $8,000–$10,000, the phonostage is also on par with what you’d probably pay $3,000–$5,000 for as well. But McIntosh is not, nor have they ever been, about the minimalist approach – this is a control preamplifier in every sense of the word. If you want HT bypass, have a pair of turntables and numerous line level sources on hand –– the C1100 may be one of the only games in town. With 12 analog inputs, you will never be short an input.

Back in black (vinyl)

Should you be a maniacal vinyl lover with a turntable/tonearm/cartridge combo worth more than the C1100, you will most likely still want an outboard phonostage. However if you are a casual to journeyman analog enthusiast, with a MM or MC cartridge in the $1,000–$3,500 range, you will be more than satisfied with the performance of the C1100’s internal phonostage. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, so resist the urge to press the argumentative email button right now.

Running the C1100 through its paces with a number of cartridges from the $500 Rega Elys 2, all the way up to the Koetsu Jade Platinum, proves highly palatable. The best feature of the C1100’s phonostage (in addition to the 79dB s/n ratio) is the loading options: 25, 50, 100, 200, 400 and 1000 ohms. A number of megabuck outboard phonostages don’t offer this flexibility, and this additional adjustability is where the C1100 really shines, making it a perfect match for cartridges like the Rega Apheta/Apheta 2, which require loading in the 25–50 ohm range to give their best performance.

On that note, the Soulines HDX Kubrick/Rega RB1000/Apheta 2 combination in for review was a perfect mate for the C1100, with the Apheta 2 loaded to 25 ohms, delivering a silky smooth presentation. The additional MM input makes the C1100 perfect for those with two turntables or two tonearms sporting an additional cartridge. The only limiting factor is 60dB of gain, which will eliminate the lowest output MC cartridges. Keep your cartridge’s output above .4mv and everything will be just fine.

Those preferring MM cartridges can also adjust input capacitance from 50 to 800pf in 50pf steps. This is often overlooked, and fine-tuning this aspect of a MM cartridge will deliver stunning results. That cartridge that you thought might have been a little dull or slightly bright can now be adjusted to perfection. These small touches throughout the C1100 are what make it more than a sum of its parts.

Head trip

Those needing to escape to the world of personal audio from time to time will appreciate the care that went into the C1100’s headphone amplifier. With an impedance selector for low (16–40 ohm), medium (40–150 ohm) and high (150–600 ohm) impedance headphones, everything you can think of can be accommodated. Running through about a dozen phones, new and old, confirmed this claim. Whether I was listening to my ancient Koss Pro 4AAs or a pair of the latest planar magnetic from OPPO, the C1100 shines.

If you spend more than a few fleeting moments with headphones on, you’ll appreciate the Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD®), which can slightly blend the right and left channel of the amplifier’s output, minimalizing the “ping pong” effect that comes with some recordings. This one is strictly a “to taste” function, making the headphone delivery sound more like a pair of speakers in front of you, mimicking that imaging pattern.

Listening to the classic headphone favorite Dark Side of the Moon with HXD engaged keeps the soundstage more linear as promised, especially on “Time”; the alarm clocks stay more within a boundary, yet without, they appear to bounce all over the room. Tidy or trippy, that’s the question. Fortunately, experimentation is only a button push away.

Every possible combination

If all of this weren’t enough, perusing the excellent user manual reveals how truly flexible the C1100 is. Need home theater bypass? Got it. Want to trim all of your input sources so the volume level is the same? Got that too. And that’s only scratching the surface of what the C1100 is capable of.

The McIntosh C1100 handily offers sonic and build quality commensurate with the asking price, but what puts it in a category of its own is the convenience that it offers. Those wanting a volume control and power switch only will not be the least bit interested, but those with multiple sources wanting high quality playback for all with easy integration will be in hifi heaven. Don’t forget those blue meters, either.

If you are new to the McIntosh tribe, looking for a step-up from what you currently have, or even looking at $13K (or thereabouts) preamplifiers in other camps, the C1100 is outstanding. The phonostage is incredible, as is the headphone amplifier. You’d be pretty hard-pressed to find a linestage, phonostage, or headphone amplifier along with two additional power cords and interconnects that would match the performance of the C1100, as well as the rack space the rest of this stuff would require for anywhere near $13K.

Factor in reputation, dealer support and all the other things that make a Mac a Mac, and the C1100 is a fantastic preamplifier any way you look at it. Highly recommended if you are a lover of the brand, and if you aren’t, this is the perfect piece to start your journey.

The McIntosh C1100 Preamplifier



Analog source                        Brinkman Bardo/Koetsu Jade Platinum, Soulines Kubrick/Rega Apheta 2, Rega Planar 3/Elys 2

Digital source                         Gryphon Kalliope DAC

Amplification                         ARC GS150, CJ LP125sa+, Pass Xs 300 monoblocks

Speakers                                GamuT RS5i, Quad 2812, MartinLogan Neolith

Cable                                      Tellurium Q Silver Diamond