The Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless Headphones

I may not be as handsome as the dude in the opening photo, but I really love these headphones. You can get all purist about bluetooth, but I say shut up – being released from a headphone cable is awesome.

I have a busy schedule and a messy desk; fiddling around to try and plug headphones into my Mac is a royal pain in the….  I never realized the reason I always bristled at headphone listening sessions was the cable. This isn’t going to make all the aftermarket cable manufacturers happy, but not having to deal with that thing swinging around is wonderful.

There were plenty of reasons to be a big fan of the P7 when it hit the market a while back; great sound, excellent build quality and great support. I’ve visited the Bowers & Wilkins factory a few times and know the level of dedication their workforce has to quality control. When you buy a B&W product, you know it’s good.

The proof’s in the listening

The opening bass line in Little Villiage’s “Inside Job” is weighty and spacious, and as John Hiatt’s signature lead vocal eases into the presentation, it’s amazing to see just how far bluetooth delivery has come in a short time. You’d never guess these weren’t cabled phones.

Regardless of the source you choose, the P7s are top performers, but It’s worth mentioning that the P7s sound clearer, cleaner and more crisp via PC than Mac. Yep, that’s a little hard for this Mac fanboy to admit, but streaming TIDAL through the new Dell XPS 27 is a wonderful combination. Opposite of years past, pairing the P7s was easier on the Dell too.

For not being a noise cancelling design, the P7s do an excellent job at sealing out the environment once installed on your head. They do feel a bit bulky in your hand, but the balance is so good, that even after hours of listening, there is no listener fatigue due to fit. Taking the P7s on a recent flight, thanks to their fold up design made them an easy travel partner. With 17 hours of battery life, you should be able to fly anywhere without running out of sound. However, should you forget to charge your P7s before a long expedition, just keep the cable packed in that cool carrying case handy for moments like these. In case you’re wondering, the P7s will go about 30-50 feet away from the device you have them paired with, and of course, the less cluttered the path, the better your results will be.

The P7s have a smooth, linear tonal balance, lending themselves to anything you might have in your music collection. Where the recent 802Ds we reviewed are highly resolving and even slightly forward in their presentation (more like sitting in the first five rows of the venue) the P7s push it back about five more rows. Not laid back, any stretch, but very natural. No part of the tonal spectrum is over emphasized, and for this listener that’s a great thing. The P7s are one of the easiest sets of phones to listen to I’ve heard in a long time. According to B&Ws engineers, the driver in the new P7 Wireless is completely redesigned from the previous model.

Beautiful and Practical

Fashionistas will appreciate the clean, uncluttered look of the P7s and who doesn’t like black? Right? The storage case is gorgeous and looks like something you’d find on the shelf at the Coach store. While packaging isn’t everything, this attention to detail is what makes you feel good about purchasing a B&W product. The P7s are tastefully designed, sturdily built and beautifully packaged. Everyone in my orbit that googled the P7s guessed $1,000 when I pulled out that cool, quilted case. Nope. $399. The B&W P7s are the killer audio bargain of the year.

Nerds will appreciate how easy these phones are to use. The human engineering of the P7s is fantastic – they are very intuitive. Once paired to your device, and adjusted to your head, the only thing left to address is volume level, set from the right ear cup. Volume can not be adjusted this way when the phones are used in wired operation. To power up or down, merely slide the power button and hold for a couple seconds. The power LED lights up (green means you have more than 20% charge) and should you forget to turn them off, the P7s will shutdown automatically after 10 min. Once powered back up, they automatically find the primary device you have paired them with. For those with an electronically dense household, up to 8 additional, “secondary” devices can be paired with the P7s.

Music lovers will just dig the sound and call it a day.

Love em!

Considering the modest up-charge (from $349 for standard cabled P7s) for having your P7s un-tethered, is the easiest $49 you’ll ever spend in the pursuit of musical enjoyment. And you can still use them with the supplied cables if you want to. The mix of superior sound quality provided by the P7 Wireless phones, combined with fanatic detail in implementation, right down to the carrying case, more than qualifies them for one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017.

Jay Leno once said that there are two types of car people, “wrench turners and check writers.” I’ve often felt that there are two types of headphone listeners, “headphone collectors and music lovers.” If you’re one of the former, you’ll have to have a pair of P7s just because, but if you just love your music, and want to take it everywhere without being bothered by a pair of headphone cables (and for my money, we have way too many damn cables as it is) you can live happily ever after with a pair of P7s.

You only face one problem with owning a pair of P7s; unless you live in solitude, whoever you co-habitate with will either want yours or steal yours. Just plan on buying two pairs.

If you would like to purchase a pair of P7 wireless headphones directly from the B&W online store, please click here.

The Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless Phones,  $399  (factory site)

R.I.P. Gregg Allman

It’s sad news today to hear of Gregg Allman’s passing. It seems like only yesterday that I saw Allman put on an incredible performance at Portland’s Rose Garden, and we published Jaan Uhelszki’s intriguing interview. That was December of 2010. It is crazy how the time flies.

So, for those intrigued to view a snapshot, we pay homage both to Ms. Uhelszki and Mr. Allman today…

Gregg Allman never planned on becoming one of America’s most recognizable white blues singers. In fact, in the early days of his career, it was his brother Duane who did the singing in the Allman Joys, one of the rst incarnations of the bands that the brothers put together prior to founding the Allman Brothers Band.

“I don’t think I really grew into my voice until I turned 50,” claims the 62-year-old icon, speaking by phone from his home in Savannah, Georgia while preparing to release his first solo album in 14 years. “I’ve always been my worst critic and would tell myself that I sound like a million other people at once. But then one day I woke up and said, ‘Well, by God I do have a style all my own.’”

Of course, many consider Gregg Allman’s most signifcant contribution to rock’s historical record is his role as the lead singer, organist, and principle songwriter for the archetypal Southern band founded by his older brother Duane in 1969. Yet the younger Allman had a parallel career as a solo artist almost from the onset of the Allman Brothers, an outfit that proved its mettle with an organic synthesis of blues, jazz, folk, rock, and country influences—and the exquisite dual guitar interplay between Duane and Dickie Betts, a tandem that got so heated on some nights that a listener couldn’t tell where one musician started and the other left off.

Ironically, it was because of these very strengths that one of the band’s most obvious gifts—Gregg Allman’s languid blues pacing and mournful growl—was often overshadowed. Allman’s solo work gave him the recognition that he sorely deserved. “I started thinking about my solo album long before there even was an Allman Brother Band,” he remembers. “A lot of the songs I’d written just weren’t right for the group. I took one of the songs I wrote to the band and they didn’t care for it. It was ‘Queen of Hearts.’”

That winsome love song to his former wife became the cornerstone of a solo career that produced seven solo albums over the next four decades. Hardly a prolific output, but if Allman is anything, he’s careful with his words. A recurring theme in many of his earlier songs is the thundering sound of silence, and his quiet resolve to communicate in spite of it. “I was so anesthetized for so long. I just wanted to be away from it, but I wanted to still be there. Check in on reality, but to do that, you get loaded. A lot of people have great losses. “I didn’t do the best I think I could’ve done.”

Allman realized he nally had to clean up when, at the Allman Brothers Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Willie Nelson came up to him and asked if he was all right.

“‘No. I am not all right’, I told him,” Allman recalls. “I think it had something to do with the vodka bottle sitting next to me. I was off dope, but I was a mess. I never believed in God until this point, but I asked him to bring me out of this or let me die before all the innings have been played. I just wish we could redo it that night. You know, let me have another crack at that acceptance speech.”

Allman’s life became further complicated when he learned he needed a liver transplant, brought on by the complications of Hepatitis C. The singer received a new liver last July. Before the operation, he recorded his rst album since 1997, Low Country Blues, with Grammy- winning producer T-Bone Burnett. All but one of the songs on the record is a cover. Yet the way Allman inhabits them, you’d think that he wrote every single one.

“I did think about mortality quite a bit when I was recording. It certainly affected my song choice. But oddly enough, I was not worried. I felt protected. Plus, the doctors are such masters at doing this [operation] now, I wasn’t scared.”

Ju: When do you know when it’s time to record a solo album? Do songs keep forcing their way into your psyche, or does pressure just seem to build up?

GA: A lot of these poor slobs have a contract that calls for a certain amount [of albums] every certain amount of years. Of course, those ways are pretty much dying out. But it’s just like you said. All of a sudden, it starts eating at you a little bit and it comes and goes. Then two, three more years pass and you feel, ‘”Hey, boy, it’s time.” Those feelings won’t go away, like unfriendly ghosts. You say to yourself, “What is it that I do, except travel around the freaking world busting my ass playing songs?” Then, on the other hand, you’ll get a bunch of feelings like, “Gosh, I wish we played some new songs.” Then, all of a sudden, you kind of have this epiphany: “Oh, I get it, it’s time to record.”

On Low Country Blues, except for one song you wrote with Warren Haynes, you play all covers. That’s a first. How do you inhabit other people’s songs? How do you know what to cover?

Well, you have a real connection with the song, and of course you have quite a yen for it, and you know immediately what you want to do with it. If you don’t, you shouldn’t cover it. Songwriting is such a vague damn subject. The song’s there and it’s not there, you know? It can go in any given second.

You teamed with T-Bone Burnett, who has thousands of songs stored on his computer. He said he went through them and chose some for you to sort through. Was that an efficient way to work, with T-Bone doing the heavy lifting of whittling down the songs for you?

Heavy lifting? The heavy lifting was trying to make something out of that damn thing that he sent me because there were things like old Billie Holiday songs. You could hear scratches and crackles on the old 78s that I trudged through. Plus, I didn’t know it was coming to me digitally. It was tiring to go through all of that.

You start the record off with “Floating Bridge,” told from the perspective of a man drowning.

That’s a good song. That’s the first one we cut, and I think it was one of the ones we did in just one take. First takes just scare the hell out of me. I went out to LA and had just had met the guys I was going to record with. Well, I already knew a couple of ‘em. But I got out there and I say, “All right guys, let’s run this first one through.”

They had already heard the same tired versions of this song that I had, so I wanted to just rehearse it to see what’s happening with all of us together. As we ran it down I was thinking, “Man, this sounds good.” You can tell right away when the musicians meld and when they don’t. And they really did; it was just uncanny. We got through the song and I asked, “How’s it sound in there, T-Bone?” “Come on in and hear for yourself,” he says. I thought he was kidding, right? So I said, “ Turn on the red light and let’s take one.” “No, you’re nished. You’ve already got it,” T-Bone says. “Wait a minute, man. Half of us don’t even know the son of a bitch yet,” I replied. He’d recorded it, and that’s what you hear on the record.

That’s a Sleepy John Estes tune. For being so young, you and Duane always had sophisticated musical tastes.

There used to be this radio station called WLAC that was in Gallatin, Tennessee that we’d listen to at night—that was the only time you could get it. They would play Howling Wolf and Little Walter and Sleepy John Estes and Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, and Bobby Bland. Everybody that today I just really revel. I was 17 years old, we were on the chitlin’ circuit, playing all these funky little clubs. We had to play Beatles songs just to be able to stay in the clubs. Because if you didn’t play so many Top 40 and so many Beatles songs, they’d say “You can you hit the bricks.” So we did, but then on the side, my brother and I would play the blues. We had so much energy back then. We worked six nights a week and rehearsed in the afternoon. So this album [is about] the songs that I couldn’t play in the clubs back then.

The last producer you worked with was Tom Dowd. After he died, how did you choose somebody to work with? How did you know T-Bone was the right guy?

He listened to WLAC. When Dowd died in 2002, I thought, man, what in the hell are we going to do now? I guess we’ve had it, there’s no way we’re going to record. I thought Michael Barbiero was an okay producer but he didn’t have that “thing,” like he knew what you were thinking. And with the Bone, man, he was just right there. Then, if he’d get hung up on something, I would free him loose, and vice versa.

Your brother’s spirit looms on this album. Do you think history has accurately represented him?

Boy, I really think it has. I think for what he did, and for the length of time he did it, and as genius as it was, he made a big footprint. I would venture to say that had it been me instead of him, there wouldn’t have been too many ripples in the water. No, I mean I think he’s real, real happy with me that I kept on going, and I owe a lot of it to him and I feel a lot of him coming through me. I have this psychic friend that lives near me. She said that when I  first met her I hated her guts because she said, “You know, your brother comes around all the time. He’s always around you, can’t you feel him?” And I was just like, “Who in the fuck do you think you are?” You know, telling me that even after so many years, you know, that I’ve longed for my brother and all that. She said he takes the form of a little bird. He wakes me up every morning. That little bird comes to my window every single morning of my life.”

Digital vs. Analog = TIRED…

I can’t believe that in 2017 audio critics are still whining and complaining about whether analog sounds better than digital. Really?

It just seems like such a tired argument. Sure, I still remember the disappointment back in 1983 when I brought that first compact disc player home from the hifi store. It was kind of flat and brittle sounding, to be sure. But I bought one anyway, because I figured the brainiacs would make it sound better eventually, and it was a cool format. Sure enough, they did.

We’ve listened to so many great DACs lately, here at TONEAudio, I just don’t think digital is a disappointment anymore, no matter what the price point. As much as the used market for really good records has gone so far upscale, bargain analog finds are few and far inbetween these days. Crappy records from the thrift store played on a mediocre turntable that isn’t optimized isn’t the analog magic. Not for me anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I love analog. I’ve got 11 turntables and three world class phono stages. I love listening to records. But I’ve got a couple of incredible digital front ends too, and it’s come to the point that digital just isn’t the redheaded stepchild it once was. Combine that with the convenience of Tidal, Roon and a few other great ways to catalog and play your digital files back, and the inherent fiddliness of analog isn’t always the way I want to roll.

There are still times when the lights are low, the planets line up, the tubes are warm, and there’s a perfect pressing on the table. That’s one of those magic moments where analog still gets the nod in the seduction department. It’s cooler than cool that analog is still alive, going strong and there are more great choices than ever. I listen to everything. And I mean everything. I’ve been known to bust out the 8-track collection now and then, not to mention the pile of minidiscs that are lying about. It’s all good. It’s all music.

I truly don’t understand the logic that listening to a record is so much more meaningful, because you flip through your stack of records and oogle the jacket, pouring over the liner notes. I didn’t do that much of that back in the 70s and 80’s, and I do it a lot more now with Google at my disposal. Or that because music is being played from a hard drive that I don’t or can’t listen to an entire album because digital has made me into this ADD person who can’t focus and only plays single tracks. Much as I used to love making mix tapes on cassette or reel to reel tape (I even made em on 8 track) I spend nearly as much time agonizing over what music to play for an afternoon or evening. And I still listen to albums all the way through, just like I did with records. Actually, I kind of like the seamless quality of digital where I can listen to both (or all four) sides of an album in it’s entirety. It’s not like I didn’t go through a pile of records, playing a track or two of this and a track or two of that back when they were the only way to listen.

If anything, having Tidal at my command has led me to buying more vinyl, and the records I do buy are keepers. But as TONE’s former music editor (and legend) Ben Fong-Torres used to tell me, “you don’t know what everyone is thinking because you don’t know everyone.” So rather than extrapolate and assume that everyone is doing or not doing this or that, I can only speak for myself and a close circle of friends that share my viewpoint and habits. Not to mention a few that are diametrically opposed.

I’m just as engaged with my music no matter what the format. And I truly hope you are too.

Exogal’s Comet Plus DAC

The driving bass line in Paul Weller’s “Peacock Suit” instantly convinces me that the Comet Plus is an excellent DAC. It renders music with cohesion, with a groove that is unmistakable. Best of all you won’t find yourself saying “pretty good for digital.”

There are multiple schools of thought when it comes to listening to any component run in, but if it sucks out of the box, it isn’t going to become magically great after a hundred or a zillion hours of burn in. Outstanding components offer compelling performances straight out of the box, only to improve with a bit of time. The Exogal Comet Plus delivers right from power up; and while they do suggest some burn in time, it opens up considerably after about 24 hours of continuous play and then a little more as you pile hours on the clock.

This DAC is equally beguiling switching to the sultry voice of Amy Winehouse, as she sings “F-Me Pumps.” The Quad/REL combination pumps out bass like nobody’s business; lot’s of weight, growl and sheer push. And Winehouse’s’ raspiness is preserved while offering a lot of body and fullness. No matter what the program, this is an exciting musical component.

Hundreds of albums later, whether listening to high-res digital files (the Comet Plus handles it all from 24/192 PCM files up to mega DSD) I remain fully engaged. Cool as the high res playback is, the Comet’s ability to provide exceptional playback quality with standard CD resolution files is what keeps me excited. You will not be the least bit disappointed with high res playback via the Comet and your favorite form of data transfer. Many DAC’ commanding the Comet Plus’ pricetag ($3,500 as the Plus version with higher capacity power supply) scrimp on one aspect of digital playback in hopes of gathering attention. Not here, this baby is pure American know-how through and through.

Call it what you will

As digital playback continues to improve, it becomes more natural, more organic, more lifelike. While some may say digital is starting to sound more like analog, I submit it just sounds more like music and freer of artifacts, noise, or whatever distortions trigger your brain to think it’s listening to reproduced music versus the real thing.

At first audition, you might even find the Comet Plus slightly warm or romantic. (And I mean slightly.) You might even want to take it apart and hunt for a vacuum tube or two inside, but I mean this in the best possible way. The best tube circuits have magic, a delicacy, that can present music in an easier way that comes across as tonally more inviting than transistors, and only the best solid state can achieve this sense of ease. This is what the Comet Plus provides in all three of my reference system. If it were a phono cartridge, it would be somewhere between the new Grado Statement 2 and the Koetsu Jade Platinum. If it were a preamplifier, it would split the difference between the tonality of the Conrad Johnson GAT 2 and the Audio Research REF 6. All the musical integrity is intact, but there’s something special going on here. If it were a leather jacket, it would be a John Varvatos piece – hip, cool, and looks like it cost a lot more than you paid for it. I hope that’s helping you out a bit, as this can be so tough to define.

Seriously, you should hear this little box, available in silver or black. Hailing from Minneapolis, where people tend to go about their business of getting stuff done without a lot of fanfare, this ethos is reflected in the Comet Plus. It has understated good looks, with a tasteful design and a modest footprint that will make it home in any system. The combination of a cool, roundy shape, top shelf materials, and the fact that you can get it in black too is very fashion forward.

Hooking up

Though other reviewers have either bypassed the analog input of the Comet Plus or groused about its quality and functionality, I found it to be quite good. It’s never wise to assume anything, especially when it comes to your music, system, and habits. Should you be the kind of music and audio lover that is looking for a high-performance digital solution, but then gets pulled into the analog world, you’re going to appreciate that analog input.

Plugging in the now upgraded (with an Ortofon 2M Bronze cartridge) Shinola Runwell turntable makes for a killer system with virtually no footprint, thanks to the Runwell’s built in phonostage. Spinning more of my share of LPs this way was proved a ton of fun. Mated to a Pass Labs XA30.8 power amplifier and the Graham LS5/9 speakers were incredibly musical and involving. Moving the Comet Plus to the new room three system with the PrimaLuna DialogueHP integrated and the Quad 2812/REL S2 combination even better.

And it’s got a nice headphone amp as well, though my experience with the phones at my disposal from Audeze, OPPO and AKG find the Comet a little bit lacking for ultimate punch, but easier to drive phones like the Grados, JBL, and Beats (I know, I know) are just fine. Bottom line, it’s a nice addition, but the Comet won’t be your ultimate headphone amplifier. As little as I listen to phones, this wouldn’t stop me from buying a Comet in the least.

Using the Comet Plus as a digital hub, inputs for USB, Toslink, SPDIF and AES/EBU should have you rocking, no matter what your sources. Most of my listening was done via Mac Book Pro, Mac Mini or the new Dell XPS 27 that we just reviewed. Mac users will have a plug and play experience, and Windows users will more than likely have to download the necessary drivers from the Exogal website. The HDMI EXONET connectors are strictly for use when connecting to other Exogal products, not as a digital input, so don’t expect to use this as an input source.

While many will probably use the Comet Plus with their computer of choice, excellent results were achieved with the dCS, Simaudio, PS Audio, and OPPO transports at my disposal, via USB and AES/EBU inputs. If you’ve got an older transport or are itching for an upgrade, the Comet Plus is a perfect step up that won’t require you abandoning the transport you already have. It proves a particularly engaging combination with the Simaudio MOON CD 260D.

Exogal has provided an excellent app to control the Comet Plus with your favorite smartphone, and they do provide a decent remote. You will need to connect the small antenna to make this all happen; be careful, as it is very small and easy to lose.

Around the block

Having quite a few DACs at our beck and call these days makes for some intriguing comparisons. Unfairly comparing the Comet Plus to the $40k dCS Rossini DAC/Clock, the $30k Gryphon Kalliope DAC and the $18k Simaudio MOON 780D still proves the big boys deliver the goods. There’s a level of refinement with the super mega DACs that isn’t here. But again, this is not a fair comparison. Comparing it to a handful of other DACs slightly more and slightly less expensive is where it really shines. The Comet Plus offers way more sonic refinement than anything I’ve heard anywhere near its price.

What I did come away with after putting the Comet Plus in the context of a $300k reference system and head to head with a few of the world’s finest DACs is that the Comet Plus certainly has the soul of a five-figure DAC. Five minutes of switching back to the Comet Plus, you won’t be looking around to plug the spendy DAC back in, with your ears in a panic. Think of the Comet Plus as an Audi A3 Sport or a new Miata. They offer so much fun and engagement, you don’t think about what lies beyond – and that’s what makes the Comet Plus such an awesome component. Listening to the decay at the beginning of Cheap Trick’s “Mandocello,” from their self-titled debut, the music just flows. Just as it does cruising through a whole pile of Ella Fitzgerald tracks. Yep, this is midrange magic at its best, yet there is plenty of extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum as well. The highest compliment I can pay the Comet Plus is that after the necessary amount of review dissection was complete, I forgot about it. That’s a winner in my book.

Sans preamp

Meant to work in tandem with Exogal’s matching ION powerDAC providing 100 watts per channel, (and we have a review of that on the tail of this review) a pair of balanced XLR outputs and single ended RCA’s assure compatibility with any power amplifier you might have at your disposal.

The digital volume control on board is excellent, lacking nothing in terms of low-level resolution, so when you aren’t rocking the house down, it retains all the sweetness you’ve become accustomed to. Unless you have a mega preamplifier or require all the control functionality, skip buying a linestage entirely. Putting the Comet Plus through its paces with both tube and solid-state power amplifiers proves highly rewarding, and both the balanced and non-balanced outputs had no problems driving 20 feet of interconnects. This makes the Comet Plus stealthy if you don’t want much gear in sight.

A unique destination

With a certain trend in digital pushing more towards opposite ends of the price spectrum, with exciting things going on in the five and six-figure range, as well as the next to nothing column. There isn’t much going on for the music lover that would like to step up from their OPPO but doesn’t want to take a second mortgage on the house or have a modded component. While I’ve had some intriguing experiences with modded components, at the end of the day, they remain Frankensteins. Personally, I’d rather plunk my hard-earned cash down on the original manufacturer.

There’s a lot of brain trust from Wadia at Exogal, and for those of you not familiar, Wadia was a groundbreaking digital company. Consequently, while the Comet Plus has some unique technology under the hood, it is incredibly user-friendly. Combining clean design, robust build quality and above all, fantastic sound makes the Exogal Comet Plus and Exceptional Value Award winner. I suggest spending a few bucks and just getting the Plus model with the bigger power supply because you know your inner tweakasaurus wants it anyway. Highly recommended; and just step up to the plate for the better power supply. It’s worth it and you know you’ll want it anyway.­­­

The Exogal Comet Plus DAC and power supply



Amplification              PrimaLuna HP Premium Integrated (KT 150 model)

Speakers                     Quad 2812 w/REL S2 subwoofer

Cable                           Cardas Clear

The Sonneteer Alabaster Integrated Amplifier

Sonneteer is a new name to many, admittedly including me. In the 1980s, college friends Haider Bahrani and Remo Casadei discovered their shared passion for live music and audio recording. After years envisioning products for their own use, and leaning on their backgrounds in electrical engineering, the two solidified their collaboration in 1994 with the founding of UK-based Sonneteer.

Why name the company Sonneteer you ask? In addition to his design skills, Bahrani enjoyed poetry. The name serves as an homage to those sonnet writers who inspired him. As such, their Alabaster Integrated Amplifier received its moniker from 16th-century poet William Alabaster[1] [2] .


The Alabaster integrated amp sports a traditional and understated appearance. Our review sample with a black anodized aluminum facade does little to hint at the electronic prowess within. The front panel offers a purist complement of controls, with three knobs managing input source selection, adjust volume, and power. That is it. While the Alabaster may not win any beauty awards for modern elegance, the build quality is solid; with controls and switches that feel substantial when operated. For a very reasonable price around $2,400, this integrated earns a high score for price-performance. Looks are always a plus, but of course, that kind of facelift would drive up production cost. I applaud Sonneteer’s tradeoff, focusing on sound quality over flashy looks.

Weighing 26.5lbs. with dimensions of 12” deep x 17” wide x 3.5” high [3] only [4] hints at the hefty transformer coils, steel bracing, and circuitry within. The unit pushes 55 watts into eight ohms, and roughly double that into four ohms. With a new website on the way, the manual will now be downloadable.

With all respect intended to the straightforward design, the Alabaster has one major functional limitation – the lack of a remote control. Those like me who listen to a variety of artists or songs in a single sitting recognize that music is not always rendered at the same volume without software intervention. Depending on your audio setup, and your tolerance for volume swings between songs, this reality can lead to several tedious trips to the volume knob for small adjustments. [5] As the North American importer is quick to point out, “The Alabaster is good for upping the step count on your Fitbit.”[6] [7]

The ins and outs

The rear panel features a utilitarian look similar to the faceplate. Speaker binding posts at the far left and right of the unit body sandwich in between them a series of five single-ended stereo inputs, plus a set of RCA line outputs. Among the line inputs, the Alabaster comes standard with one MM phono input, giving the owner extra flexibility. Those seeking balanced connections are out of luck, but those with a single ended system will find this Sonneteer a perfect companion for the rest of its brethren residing on the audio rack.

The speaker binding posts meet European safety standards, the plastic shield covers each post ensures stray cables cannot connect inadvertently. Safety is a good thing, and these posts make connections to banana terminations or bare wire easy. Connecting spades requires sliding the cable termination into the shield from the underside. Due to the shield, there is no way to thread spades in from the top, so the Alabaster must sit against the back edge of the audio rack so that spade-terminated cables can dangle downward. If your speaker cables prove problematic in this regard, high-quality banana adapters may prove a saving grace.

The Alabaster’s straightforward connection options make setup very easy, and in a matter of a few minutes, this silver-tongued poet finds itself prepared to speak. When powered on, a small blue LED over the input selector comes to life indicating readiness. As a solid-state design, the Alabaster deserves several days of break-in to achieve the musicality it is designed to deliver.


Some characterize a “British” component sound as one that is voiced to prioritize warmth over stark transparency, politeness over detail, and relaxation over speed. Yes, those elements do serve well as broad brushstroke descriptors for the sonic signature this amplifier. Music portrayal is forgiving, perhaps akin to that heard several rows back in an auditorium where cymbal crashes and brass instrument blasts lose their bite as part of the bigger musical picture. At the same time, clinging to those generalizations would not do the Alabaster justice. These audible characteristics do make the Alabaster a joy to settle into for long, fatigue-free listening sessions. However, the sum of its sound is not bound to those overly-simplified descriptors. For example, listening to Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble’s dub-inspired collaboration Radioaxiom, the Alabaster reproduces low bass notes with solidity, musicality and drive which create the illusion of control by a more powerful amplifier. Those 100 watts never pull punches when needed.

Through the Sonneteer, the soundstage is substantial, organizing musical elements accurately from left-to-right across the soundstage. The front-to-back layering of musical elements is good, but when a complex array of vocals and instruments litter the soundstage, the Sonneteer tends to compress that picture a bit in comparison with some high-end gear I have experienced. The nitpick is minor, however, since the Alabaster does so much so well.

The complex harmonics of cymbal crashes or triangle strikes, like those captured on Ben Harper’s Burn to Shine, preserve most of the impact, reverberation and decay a listener should hear. Similarly, vocals offer the emotion of the performance without uncomfortable stridency or sibilance. For instance, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” reveals itself through the Alabaster with the powerful crescendos one wants to experience from her recordings, but without the wince factor that accompanies it on some overly-revealing gear.

While the Alabaster cannot be expected to deliver the sound of separate components many times its price, it certainly offers an incredible amount of musical satisfaction. Higher-end components can exceed the Alabaster’s ability with a broader and better-layered soundstage[8] , a greater sense of realism, and more detailed presentation, especially at the higher end of the frequency spectrum. However, when compared more fairly to components in its price range, the Alabaster’s accomplishments are stellar indeed. The Sonneteer is a component any music lover will be proud to own. The team at Sonneteer deserves some serious accolades for making an amplifier that sounds this good, at a dollar figure accessible to many who prioritize the joy of music in their lives.


Simply put, the Sonneteer Alabaster is a price-performance wonder. For its very reasonable cost under $2,500 USD, it delivers excellent sound. The Alabaster might not unseat single purpose amps and preamps several times its price, may not be ideal for those who prefer a highly-detailed component which exposes every nuance in a recording. However, the Alabaster’s sound is beguiling, and this integrated amp is piece of gear to be enjoyed for many years to come. The warmth of its sonic character will help it mate well with many sources. If a prospective buyer does not require bells and whistles like a built-in DAC, networking connectivity, variable outputs for a subwoofer, or a remote control, this may be the integrated amplifier he or she has been seeking. I recommend it wholeheartedly, and it handily deserves a 2017 TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award.[9]

Sonneteer has a substantial dealer network in Europe, and has a growing number of North American dealers. If the Alabaster piques your interest, be sure to visit your Sonneteer dealer to hear it for yourself. For what it is designed to do, it performs those tasks extremely well. Sonically, it is a flat-out bargain for its modest price tag. Were William Alabaster alive today, I think he would enthusiastically approve of his namesake.

Additional listening: Jeff Dorgay

I couldn’t agree with Rob more that the Alabaster deserves an Exceptional Value Award. This integrated reminds me so much on one level of my reference, the PrimaLuna HP – it’s pure sound quality with basic functionality. With simple yet understated casework, all the value goes into the circuit and for the true music lover, this is a sonic treat.

Where something like the Simaudio ACE offers more functionality, the Alabaster offers a higher level of sonic prowess; if you can get by with 55 watts per channel and have the need for an excellent MM phono stage, it’s one of the best (if not the best) choice you can make.

Staying mostly in the British groove, with a slight detour to France and a trip across the pond to the US, I used the Alabaster with four different sets of speakers. Listening began with the lovely Graham LS5/9s, moved on to the Focal Sopra no.3s in my main system (which cost nearly ten times the Alabaster’s MSRP) and the vintage Klipsch LaScalas written about in this issue before settling back in on the Quad 2812s in room two. All delivered cracking performances.

What I’m the most excited about is the quality of the MM phonostage. Utilizing the new Gold Note Machiavelli high output MC (again, more expensive than the Alabaster) the level of refinement here is astounding, with a level of resolution I wasn’t prepared for.

In the context of some fairly expensive speakers, and using the PS Audio DirectStream DAC and memory player as a source, digital files were just as engaging as analog, and I suspect that a lot of Alabaster users will pair this $2,395 integrated with modest speakers and sources, never really knowing just how damn good this amplifier truly is. If it had thicker, more elaborately machined casework and a fancy remote, they could easliy ask $6k for this baby and you’d still be getting a bargain. So if you are a true music lover that is ever so slightly frugal, the Sonetteer Alabaster is your slice of heaven.

It’s certainly one of my favorites. You must hear one to believe it.

Sonneteer Alabaster Integrated Amplifier

Approximately $2,399 USD

Arcadia Audio Marketing
[email protected]


Digital Sources: Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, dCS Debussy, SimAudio 780D, Oppo Sonica DAC

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

The Gold Note Machiavelli Cartridge

For many, when you ask them to complete the sentence “Italian high performance….” they might say “cars, Ferrari,” or “bikes, Ducati.” Yet after living with a few of their phono cartridges for a while, I suggest adding “audio, Gold Note” to the end of that sentence.

Their just under $400 Vasari MM cartridge is one of the most exciting MM carts we’ve taken for a test drive, and the $1,075 Donatello is even more compelling. The $3,000 Machiavelli high output MC even more so, as we will see.

This is a critical price point, because for many music lovers, about $1,000 is the limit of discretionary income that can usually be spared for a phono cartridge, while still leaving room in the budget for a turntable/tonearm and phonostage. Anyone ponying up this kind of money to play records deserves serious respect in my book, and I suggest the Donatello. But if you are prepared to step up further, I suggest the $3,000 Machiavelli, and for good reason. Though this is a fairly expensive cartridge, you don’t need a more expensive, high gain MC phonostage. That’s what makes it such an incredible find.

High output moving coil cartridges have always been odd ducks, never seeming to provide the speed, smoothness or delicacy of their lower output siblings. And with some pretty worthy competitors on the MM side of the fence approaching this price, high output MC designs are few and far in between.

Spinning the recent remaster of Crowded House’s Woodface, it’s easy crawl right inside the sound of the Machiavelli. Mounted on a highly modified Technics SL-1200mk. 2 with Rega tonearm and TimeStep power supply, this cartridge is simply glorious. The multi-part harmonies of the group are floating between the Quad 2812s, driven by the PrimaLuna Dialog HP Premium amplifier (w/KT150 tubes) and the new McIntosh MP1100 phonostage – also in this issue.

But the Machiavelli shines, even if you don’t have a mega phonostage. Even using the Hagerman Coronet 2 (A steal at $495) the Machiavelli is a winner, and with all things equal, reveals as much detail as any low output cartridge I’ve experienced. Another fantastic MM phonostage that won’t break your budget is the Decware ZP3. At $1,300, it is world class, but it just doesn’t have enough gain to go full MC without a step up device.

Is it worth the extra cash? Definitely, even in a more budget oriented system, the Machiavelli is worth the extra money if you’ve got room on your Visa card. Yet where the Vasari hits a ceiling, performance wise, where improving the phonostage and table only proves valuable to a point, the Machiavelli is capable of resolving enough information, that should you take a few steps up in turntable or phonostage, you will be greatly rewarded with a cartridge that reveals quite a bit more music.

With an output of 1.2mv, the Machiavelli should work well in any MM phono input. Paired with the McIntosh MP1100, with variable gain, the sweet spot seems to be 52db of gain. The 46db setting seems just a touch flat, and 58db is way too much, but 52db proves a perfect match of dynamics, resolution and low noise floor.

Suggested tracking force is 1.8 to 2.2 grams and the perfect balance on the Technics/Rega combination proves very close to the maximum at 2.17 grams. The Machiavelli is easy to set up, utilizing the Smart-Tractor protractor and going for the Uni-Den geometry – it really wakes this cartridge up, as it has for many others I’ve tried. A steady hand, a little patience and you’ll be rocking in about 15 minutes.

For some reason, the full sound and punch of the Machiavelli keeps me in a classic rock groove for longer than many cartridges at this level do. Tracking through the remastered version of Bad Company’s self titled disc is nothing but fun, combining Paul Rogers’ powerful vocals and some solid drumming. This cartridge combines a slightly warm tonal balance with solid transient attack, so it’s not just rounding off the edges of the notes to achieve its effect.

No matter what your choice of music, the Machiavelli really delivers the musical goods. To listen to at least a little something Italian to make the journey complete, tracking all the way through Beat at Cinecitta, a “sensual homage to the most erotic film music from the vaults of 60s and 70s Italian cinema” is wonderfully engaging. Though slightly compressed, the Machiavelli unravels this set of film tracks and brings them to life.

This cartridge is really about fun. It’s like driving my Fiat 500e. Sure, there are faster cars out there, but every time I drive it, I forget about any of those cars. That’s the Machiavelli – it pulls so much life out of the grooves of my records, it’s tough to think about those five and ten thousand dollar cartridges. They just don’t matter. The best part of owning the Machiavelli is that those with a high performance but reasonably priced MM phonostage can have world class sound without the expense, yet if you do have a mega phonostage, you will not be disappointed. As I stepped up the the Audio Research REF Phono 3 and then all the way to the $38,000 Pass Labs XS phono (my reference in system 1) the Machiavelli continues to increase in performance. This could very well be your last cartridge.

The Machiavelli offers a perfect balance and always serves the music. It is dynamic enough to engage, resolving enough to reveal, yet ever so slightly forgiving, so that nearly all of your records sound great. A perfect host for your music collection; what could be better? Gold Note’s Machiavelli succeeds brilliantly at a price point where the competition is fierce. I am happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017.

The Gold Note Machiavelli High Output MC Cartridge

MSRP:  $3,000


Turntables                 VPI Prime, AVID Volvere SP, Technics SL1200mk 2 (modified)

Phonostages              Channel Islands PEQ, McIntosh MP1100, ARC REF 3 Phono

Amplifier                    PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP Premium

Speakers                    Quad 2812 w/REL S/2 subwoofer

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Power                         Core Power Technologies Equi=Core 1800

The Audio Physic Step plus

Only because I’ve heard it three times today (in the airport, at Home Depot and lunch) listening to the Audio Physic Step plus speakers begins with the Squeeze classic “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell). Not terribly audiophile-y by anyone’s standards, but it’s got some great harmonies, and you can dance to it.

But seriously, it’s exciting to see what can be coaxed from a small cabinet these days, and the variation on a theme is equally enticing. We had a lovely time with the Step plus’ larger sibling, the Tempo plus a few months ago, and the Step plus is equally good but in a smaller container. For good reason, as the Step plus shares the same 1.75” HHCT III, Ceramic coated Aluminum Hyper-Holographic Cone Tweeter and 5.9” HHCM II, Ceramic coated Aluminum Hyper-Holographic Cone Midrange from the Tempo, sans the latter’s dual 7” woofers. The new plus versions are the latest re-engineered versions of the Step models that have been a favorite world wide for years.

At $2,595/pair in the standard Walnut or Cherry finish or slightly more ($2,795/pair) in the luscious Ebony finish of our review samples, the Step plus speakers look as elegant as they sound. Black and White high gloss are also upgraded finish options. An extra $200 gets you a pair of tempered glass, and metal matching stands, and they provide a sophisticated visual. Though nowhere near as elegant in appearance, my sand filled Sound Anchor stands offer up more bass reinforcement, so take your pick; performance or good looks. Those pairing the Step plus with a subwoofer will have a wider range of stands, as the last few molecules of bass won’t matter.


These little darlings image like crazy – every silly audiophile cliché you know applies. Small monitors are a shoe in for their ability to disappear into a room, offering close to the proverbial point source for sound and the Step plus does an amazing job. Everyone who experienced them walked away with their adjective glands exhausted when discussing just how big these small speakers can play.

This is due to the amazing amount of technology incorporated into the speakers, something pretty much unheard of at this price point. Starting with the cabinet itself, designed to minimize standing waves and other reflections, the Step plus takes advantage of an open cell ceramic foam bracing system. This labyrinth-like cabinet interior soaks up unwanted reflections much more effectively than the standard stuffing you might see in a competitors’ speaker. The sloped front baffle also makes for better time alignment, while maintaining a sleek visual.

According to AP, nearly everything in the plus version of the speaker has been redesigned or updated from the original. The crossover is all new, internal wiring and even the WBT binding posts all contribute to the overall sound. But the biggest part of the performance increase comes from the new third generation Hyper-Holographic driver technology, which takes advantage of a composite aluminum and plastic basket along with active cone dampening on both drivers.

The result is a more natural, lifelike, engaging presentation. There is a liveliness to these speakers that you might even mistake as coming from an ESL, a delicacy not present in small speakers. Whether it was the gentle bowing of a violin or brushes being stroked across a drumhead, the Step plus gets to the heart of the presentation without being harsh or strident.

Even though the spec sheet claims a sensitivity of 87db with one watt, the Step plus proves easy to drive with any amplifier. With a handful of great amps from Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, Nagra, Pass, PrimaLuna, and Simaudio, the Step plus not only turned in outstanding performances with each one, their high degree of resolution revealed the individual personality of these amplifiers with ease. No small feat for a pair of $2,600 loudspeakers. It’s worth mentioning that matching the Step plus speakers with our Product of the Year winning Simaudio ACE makes for an amazing hi-fi system coming in at just under $6,000.

Going back through the Brian Eno Ambient series proves highly entertaining. Granted, these texturally diverse records won’t tell you a thing about tone or timbre, lesser speakers fail to reveal the minute details and spatial cues going on. Ditto for all of the Jean Michel Jarre albums in my collection. For those of you too young to remember any of these, try the soundtrack from Gone Girl, courtesy of none other than Trent Reznor. This is a hauntingly obtuse recording that feels like it was recorded in some highly processed format like Q Sound. The Step plus rendition of this disc in my 13 x 15-foot listening room has me looking for the Dolby Atmos processor and the other nine speakers; it’s that involving. Paul Weller’s new soundtrack from Jawbone is equally tasty for all the same reasons.

Simple set up

The real key to optimizing the Step plus (as in any good loudspeaker) is to get the tweeters right at ear level. Otherwise, you may feel less than pleased.

If they don’t have you in freak out mode, you don’t have them set up right – it’s that simple. If you don’t start with the AP stands, anything about 24 inches in height will get you somewhere from really close to spot on.

As with any other high-quality mini monitor, the ultimate tradeoff will be the spot that maximizes bass performance and minimizes midrange cloudiness. The closer to the wall you go, the more bass, but there reaches a point where it begins to compromise the exquisite imaging capabilities. Move the speakers up and back a few inches at a time, and you’ll know immediately when you hit it. The magic disappears, and it disappears abruptly. A similar effect happens moving the speakers side to side, go a little too far, and your hard earned coherence vanishes.

The woofer is ported, so keep this in mind, should you even think about bookshelf placement, and take note that the speakers only have single binding posts, so there is no need for bi-wiring.

Fear not, start with the speakers about six or seven feet apart and about four feet from the rear walls, and you’re rocking – they sound great right out of the box. Fiddly audiophiles can coax a bit more imaging performance with a few minutes spent fully optimizing speaker position. These are light speakers, so it’s super easy.

At the end of the day, Fun

Running through every genre of music imaginable, the Step plus does not disappoint. Of course, being a small monitor, you can only crank Zeppelin or your favorite EDM tracks so far. At a certain point, physics works against you, and those little woofers can only move so much air. The quality of bass produced is of high quality, and that’s not what mini monitors are all about in the first place. Going back to Weller’s Jawbone soundtrack for “Jawbone Training” reveals a healthy amount of kick and slam along with the passionate cymbal work provided.

The Audio Physic Step plus is about resolution, and this is delivered. These speakers offer a highly resolving look into the music presented without ever being harsh, strident or fatiguing and that is a tough balance to achieve. It’s obvious that the AP slogan “No Loss of Fine Detail” is delivered on in full.

If you want a highly immersive, three-dimensional music experience in a small to modest room, these are the speakers that should be at the top of your list.

The Audio Physic Step plus Speakers

MSRP: $2,599 – $2,799 (finish dependent) (North American Importer)


Analog Source             Technics SL-1200G w/Grado Statement2 cartridge

Phono Preamplifier     Conrad Johnson TEA 1s2

Digital Source              PS Audio DirectStream memory player and DAC

Amplification              PrimaLuna HP Premium (KT 150s installed), Simaudio NEO Ace

Cable                           Tellurium Q Silver Diamond

Power                          Equi=

Pass Labs XS Preamp

The Dell XPS 27 Computer

Before we get started, I must confess a few biases. I love Apple products. Been using a Mac since the day after the Super Bowl ads ran in 1984. That’s product loyalty.

I’m not crazy about Windows (but liked XP) but OS is not the religion for me that it is for some; I run Word, Photoshop and an internet browser, so those tools work similarly on either platform. Much as I love my Macs, if you took them away tomorrow, I’d go right to work on a Windows box without much grousing. Lastly, we have a pair of MacBook Pros and a pair of 27” iMac 5k Retina boxes running nearly 24/7 here, so I’m thoroughly familiar with the competitor.

Tactile Excellence

Thanks to the iPhone and iPad, I love, love, love touchscreen computing, and feel that its exclusion on the latest Mac is a major fail. The new Dell XPS 27 sitting on my desk tips the scale at $2,499.99 with 16GB of memory, a 2TB hard drive and a 3.4GHz Intel i7 processor. The iMac Retina, at $1,999.99 features 8GB of memory ($200 to get the extra RAM from Apple, with a max capacity of 32MB) and a smaller 1TB hard drive. Equpping the iMac Retina similarly, puts it at $2,499.00 Just as we can argue the “speed” of processors forever, I’m not making the next Star Wars sequel on my desktop. However, I have been working on some clips for our YouTube channel, and the XPS 27 is a breeze running Adobe Premiere Pro – as well as all the other Adobe apps.

But there is one thing the Cupertino candidate does not have; a touch screen. Be as smug as you want to be, once you have a touch screen computer, you’ll never go back. As Tom Wolfe said, in The Right Stuff; “everything else was just left behind.” And this is from a guy that loves Apple machines. I can’t tell you how many times after using an iPad for any length of time, to go back to the desktop machine, I catch myself poking the screen once or twice. Fess up, you know you’ve done it too.

Rules as a Music Server

Let’s cut to the chase right away; Dell has out Apple’d Apple on this machine. While pricing and speed are similar, the touchscreen makes everything way easier – and way more productive. Running the latest version of ROON and Meridian’s Sooloos Touch PC is absolutely lovely. Yes, you can run ROON on an iPad (and it’s not bad on the big 12-inch iPad) but you need a PC to run the Sooloos app with touch screen functionality. Flipping through nearly 15,000 albums with the aid of a touch screen makes the experience more immersive. I’d buy an XPS 27 just to run my Sooloos, which thanks to the USB output of the Dell, sounds cleaner, less grainy and more dynamic than it ever did with dedicated (i.e. expensive) Meridian hardware.

The same benefit is seen, actually heard, running Roon or Tidal on the iMac side by side with identical WireWorld USB cables to the dCS Rossini DAC and clock, in the context of a six figure hifi system. Hands down the Dell has better, more realistic overall sonic capability.

That B-word

All of this is super cool if you are looking for an elegant, touch screen, free standing desktop machine, but using both as desktop computers, the Dell again has a major advantage. Should you not have a desktop audio system, or great pair of powered speakers handy, you’re going to love the XPS 27. With a built-in sound bar, consisting of four full range drivers, a pair of tweeters and a pair of passive radiators, the XPS 27 just saved you $300 – $500 on a pair of powered monitor speakers for your desk.

Hands down, the Dell XPS 27 delivers the best desktop audio performance I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear from any computer manufacturer. It’s so cool to see a computer company offering such a media rich computer, not throwing sound quality to the curb. Whether you use the XPS 27 as a dedicated office machine, or a home machine, it’s room filling sound quality will make you want to give it prime placement. You won’t need a portable, powered USB or Bluetooth speaker system in your kitchen anymore either.

Starting my listening sessions with Lou Reed’s “Vanishing Act,” I’m caught off guard (in a good way) at how transparent the system projects Reed’s voice out through the center of the screen as if he is boring right through my brain. Tracking all the way through Neil Cowley’s “Loud, Louder, Stop,” the smoothness of the cymbals and the delicate rendering of the piano instantly convinces just how lifelike these small speakers and the accompanying amplifier are. The sound produced does not sound like tiny aftermarket speakers at all – this is big, bold, and lifelike sound.

Dell claims solid output to 70hz, which checks out, care of Stereophile’s “Test CD no.1,” but optimizing the desk placement will yield more convincing bass response, thanks to desktop surface gain beefing up the lows. Your favorite prog and EDM tracks will need that sub, but you’ll be surprised at just how far you can crank up the volume cleanly. You’ll never be able to exploit the party potential of the XPS 27 at work until after quitting time. This machine rocks.

Should you want to get all audiophile-y with this, I suggest a small microfiber towel on your desk, just under the soundbar, to minimize the slap effect from the XPS 27 as the sound bounces off the hard surface of your desk. That’s a pretty inexpensive tweek.

The Final Touch

So far, so good. The Dell XPS runs the applications I use a bit snappier than my iMac Retina does, and it has superior sonic abilities. Add in the touch screen and the only thing that wont seal the deal for the most dedicated Apple fans is the inability to run Mac OS. After 30 years, I’m thinking about switching because this machine is that good. The final exclamation point on a phenomenal computer, is the sheer human engineering of this machine beyond the touch screen. As an everyday iMac user, I hate the way you have to struggle every time an SD memory card is inserted. And that power button on the iMac always seems to require fiddling to get it the first time. The XPS 27 puts the power button and SD slot right on the side of the casework, where you can actually use the damn thing. Finally, the articulated base, lends the ability to fold the XPS 27 way down to desk level and let you type or draw on it like a mega iPad. Not sure I’d use this feature, but it suggests possibilities.

We’ve never given a computer one of our Exceptional Value Awards, but the Dell XPS 27 makes so much more sheer sense than an iMac, I’m compelled. Using this machine is pure joy. When was the last time you said that about a computer?

GOLD NOTE’S XT-7: A New Italian Masterpiece

Gold Note – the Italian High-End manufacturer based in Firenze, Italy has just introduced the XT-7, a new full-range, 3 way speaker with anti-turbulence bass reflex and ribbon tweeter available in Black Glossy, White Glossy, Italian Walnut or Grey Maple.

With a distinctive curved design based on a reinforced chassis in wooden multilayer panels to control resonances and sound, XT-7 offers state-of-the-art solutions: high quality crossover boards with Mundorf and Clarity components and custom drivers developed with SEAS in ultra-stiff woven polypropylene.

The separated cabinets for bass and mid/highs enhance perfect tuning: the bass drivers cabinet side is vented while the mid/highs is perfectly sealed to reduce internal reflections.

Weighing about 50kg each, these massive speakers are completed by wooden swallow tailed stands that features adjustable spikes to guarantees stability.

Gold Note has recently poured all the technical knowledge gained in over 20 years of OEM collaborations worldwide into the new lines of speakers, created to marry perfectly appearance and substance and provide a fulfilling audio experience.

Garlo Certini, Head of Acoustics, developed a deluxe crossover with state-of-the-art components provided by Mundorf and Clarity. The passive Crossover Low-High Dual-Slope cuts at 280Hz & 3000Hz and features a resistive design to enable ultra-linear load that support the work of the amplifiers minimising the stress on power supplies even at a nominal impedance of 4Ω.

The boards are made of thick audio-grade and anti-resonance glass fibre with 70uM gold plated conductors and power a sophisticated triple crossover network and a summing midrange multi-slope design to perfectly integrate the drivers of the array. Midranges and Woofers ultra-linear drivers are developed with SEAS and enhanced with proprietary metal chassis produced by MIM [Metal Injection Molding], and refined with radial reinforced low loss rubber surrounds, custom copper phaser and heavy copper rings.

All this technical features are matched by the impeccable finishes and the quality materials used thanks to the skill of one of the most talented Italian carpenters.

Maurizio Aterini, founder of Gold Note, adds: “We believe that high end audio equipment should always be executed flawlessly in order to really satisfy all the senses because music is complete experience. That’s the reason why we put so much attention and care inside and outside our speakers.”

XT-7 is available worldwide through Gold Note dealers at a MSRP of 13.500,00€ (pair)

For more information, please click here:

PS Audio’s DirectStream Memory Player and DAC

The second I pushed the play button on PS Audio’s DirectStream Memory Player, listening to my favorite Art of Noise SACD, it was instantly clear that this is an exciting product.

Dropping in a DVD Audio disc of The Doors’ LA Woman is equally thrilling, with buckets of low level resolution, the stuff that we all got excited about years before HD Tracks came on the scene. There’s some incredibly cool stuff going on at the extreme high end of digital, but it’s gonna cost you about as much as a new Z06 Corvette. Equally exciting things are happening at the entry level of digital too, but groundbreaking as some of it is, it doesn’t pass muster in a mega system. PS Audio’s new combo gives a major helping of cost no object digital for just under $12,000, and they even send someone to your door to unbox it. Now that’s impressive.

Crazy as it might sound, the $5,000 to $15,000 range is somewhat vacant. A few boxes come to mind, but they are mostly DACs. Simaudio’s 780D is exceptional at $15k, but it doesn’t play shiny discs. And some of us still want to play shiny discs; some of us have big collections of shiny discs. Even DVD-a shiny discs. If you are strictly a streaming audiophile these days, you don’t need the DMP – skip to the DAC section of this review. But if you’ve got the urge to spin physical media, read on. The DSMP is a revelation, and if you don’t need a disc spinner, this marvel will only set you back $5,999.

Much like my reference dCS, the DirectStream DAC does not rely on off the shelf DAC chips; instead it is controlled by FPGA (field programmable gate arrays) and all the upsampling, decoding and filter functions are software controlled, which will make this DAC a lot more future proof than one reliant on implementing the latest Sabre chip. Super impressive for just under six grand.

The Disclaimer

Don’t freak out, the DMP is based on an OPPO transport. But before you cry wolf, fraud, or “oh no, not another AYRE debacle,” chill out. The PS people are very forthright about the transport and PS’ Bill Leebens says candidly, “The basic drive mechanism is a Blu-ray unit sourced from Oppo. The mechanical element is all that remains: all video circuitry, which can add noise and distortion to the audio signal, has been removed. All control and processing of both digital and analog signals is done in circuitry designed and built by PS Audio.”

So, you aren’t paying $5,999 for a hot rodded Oppo. There are only so many sources remaining for a transport that can play everything, and even dCS only offers an SACD capable transport for their six-figure Vivaldi 2. The good news is that Oppo sells a lot of boxes, so you can be sure that replacement mechanisms will be readily available because let’s face it, everything that spins will fail at some point. I see this as a very good thing. It’s also worth mentioning here that both the DAC and the transport are hand built in PS Audio’s factory right here in Boulder, Colorado.

The Catch

To achieve full-blown SACD performance, where the DMP is grabbing the DSD bitstream directly from your SACD disks, you need the matching PS Audio DirectStream DAC, also priced at $5,999. We reviewed an early version of this DAC several years ago, and found it to be an excellent performer. The current version is more of the same, utilizing PS Audio’s I2S bus through HDMI. This allows the DAC to directly read the DSD stream. Because of the way the I2S keeps data and clock signals separate, it makes for a more lifelike musical rendition.

It’s common knowledge these days that jitter and timing errors are the major culprits behind digital discs sounding harsh, crunchy and un-musical. Great as the benefits of keeping things on the bus separate in the SACD/DSD realm, the effect is just as powerful when playing standard redbook CDs. And if you’re a lover of the shiny discs, chances are you have a ton of these.

Back to The Music

Playing a notoriously lousy CD from my pile, The Eurythmics We Too Are One is nothing short of a revolution. It’s not like I haven’t heard CD’s sound this good before, I’ve had some of the world’s best digital players in my rack over the last ten years – I’ve never been married to analog. I’ve just never heard CD’s sound this good in a box this approachable. Does it blow my dCS Rossini DAC and clock out of the water? No, but the sound quality is damn close and my $40,000 dCS doesn’t play my SACDs. Am I going to put my Rossini up on Audiogon? Nope, but I’m seriously thinking of buying the PS Audio pair to sit right beside it on my rack. I like the shiny discs.

The DirectStream DAC by itself is equally exciting with digital files. This is a breakthrough product in terms of what it offers in musical truth for the price asked. The difference between good, really good, and great digital is the degree that it gets out of the way of the music. Quick test: if you find yourself thinking or saying “this sounds pretty good for digital,” said component has failed the awesomeness test. The DMP combo passes this test with flying colors – regardless of disc or file type played. Of course, just like with analog, the better quality of the file, the more enticing the result.

I suspect much of this is due to the DirectStream DAC converting whatever you feed into it to DSD and then processing it thusly. Without getting overly technical, moving everything to the DSD world either eliminates much of the digital artifacts that plague the digital process, making it easier and less offensive on the ears when filtered out. I keep harping, but even a brief demo on a few familiar tracks will convince you just how natural sounding this DAC is. A few hifi critics have even gone so far as to say “they would give up their turntable” for this DAC. I won’t go quite this far, as I like the black discs too, however, unless you’ve got a pretty spendy vinyl rig that is meticulously optimized, you’ll be shocked at how much less time you spend fiddling with vinyl; perhaps saving it for the best of the best analog recordings in your collection.

No matter what music you like the best, and what format, it’s easy to get lost in it with the DMP. If you have a spare internet connection for the transport as well as the DAC, the transport loads and displays the album art and metadata on the front panel screen. I like the extra user friendliness this provides, especially from across the room, or when a guest is over that isn’t always familiar with my musical taste.

Rather than going into minute detail about this track or that track, suffice to say that everything is as it should be. Bass is detailed, powerful and defined. Highs are rendered effortlessly, without grain, yet full of extension. And the delicate midrange is lovely. Yet what makes this player so fantastic is the integration of all of it – I never found myself wanting more, nor did I ever (on even the longest listening sessions) start picking things apart. The homogenous manner by which the PS transport and DAC recompile digital music files is effortless in every way. I’m guessing you won’t need more than about three tracks to be convinced just how good they are.

More Stuff You Don’t Need

If you are a digital only audiophile/music lover, the high quality of the Direct Stream DAC’s digital volume control and line level circuitry is so good, you can skip the preamp, making this pair an even better value. With fully balanced circuitry and transformer coupled outputs, we had great luck using the DirectStream DAC in this mode with a wide range of power amplifiers. It drove 20-foot runs of balanced XLR and single ended RCA cables without a hitch.

Thanks to six digital inputs (coax, XLR, optical, USB and two I2S) the DirectStream DAC is the perfect digital hub. An additional $899 gets you PS Audio’s network bridge card, giving you Ethernet access as well. This allows your favorite UPNP or NAS to be connected and accessed directly. We can all log in to our favorite internet forum and argue about which offers the best sound, but I found the PS pair universally good, regardless of input. For those who love it, the PS combo is ROON ready, so you can have all that at your fingertips as well. This is a formidable combination.

Can You Tell, I Really Like the DMP

Cool as the extreme user friendliness of this pair of PS Audio components is, it’s the sound that sets this one apart from its comparably priced competitors. This is one of the world’s finest players at any price, and I’ve heard or owned most of them. There is a level of sheer refinement here that I guarantee will win you over.

Much as I love analog, and think streaming TIDAL is super cool, there are times that I don’t want to be a suspension mechanic or an IT guy. That’s when putting a shiny disc in the drawer and just pressing play is a lovely thing. Unless you’re going to drop six figures on a dCS Vivaldi or an Esoteric Grandioso, I can’t think of a better digital disc player than the PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player and DAC. (Neither of these six figure players will play your DVD-a discs) If I had more than two thumbs to raise I would offer them, it’s that good. The only remaining choice is whether you want silver or black.

The PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player and DAC

MSRP: $5,999 (ea.), Network Bridge – Additional $899 (main factory site)

Gotta have em right now?

To purchase the DAC, Click here:

To purchase the Transport, Click here:


Preamplifier              Pass Labs XS Pre

Amplifier                    Pass Labs XS 300 monos

Speakers                    Focal Sopra no.3

Cable                          Cardas Clear and Tellurium Q Silver Diamond

The New UDP-205 from OPPO…

OPPO’s UDP-205 Audiophile Universal Player:
4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc Player Gets an Audio Performance Boost

OPPO Digital announced that its UDP-205 4K Ultra HD Audiophile Blu-ray Disc player is available for purchase. A step-up version of the recently released UDP-203, the UDP-205 brings top-of-the-line audio performance to a universal player that supports 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and many other digital audio and video formats.

The OPPO UDP-205 carries many of the same features as the UDP-203: playback of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, regular Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, Audio CD and many other formats; High Dynamic Range (HDR10) and firmware upgradable to Dolby Vision; dual HDMI outputs – HDMI 2.0 for UHD and HDMI 1.4 for audio; and an HDMI 2.0 input port for external streaming devices or set-top boxes.

The audio performance of the OPPO UDP-205 is a significant upgrade over the UDP-203 and previous generation players. The UDP-205 provides reference level sound quality through the analog outputs, improves the clock precision of the HDMI audio output, and increases the power of the built-in headphone amplifier. For the analog output stages, the UDP-205 utilizes two ES9038PRO DACs, which are the flagship of the ESS Sabre Pro series, delivering best-in-class audio performance.

Stereo listening accounts for a large part of audiophile usage of a universal player, and that is why the UDP-205 offers a dedicated stereo output in addition to its 7.1-channel analog audio output. The stereo audio output is powered by a dedicated ES9038PRO DAC chip and specially designed buffer and driver stages. It provides both XLR balanced and RCA single-ended connectors. The balanced output features a true differential signal path all the way from the DAC to the 3-pin XLR connector. By transmitting a pair of differential signals, the balanced output provides better common-mode noise rejection and improves signal quality. For a more intimate listening experience, headphones can be connected directly to the UDP-205’s built-in headphone amplifier. The headphone amplifier is connected directly to the ESS SABRE PRO DAC and offers a unique performance advantage over standalone headphone amplifiers. Compared to the built-in headphone amplifier in our previous generation BDP-105/105D players, the new design offers more power and higher performance.

In addition to its playback capabilities, the UDP-205 adds a USB DAC, a coaxial and an optical digital audio input so users can take advantage of the excellent audio performance of the UDP-205 with other sources. The asynchronous USB DAC input supports sample rates up to 768 kHz PCM and DSD 512. By bypassing the low fidelity, poor quality DAC of traditional computer soundcards, the UDP-205 turns any computer into a high performing multi-media source by utilizing the ES9038PRO DAC. For additional convenience and flexibility, the UDP-205 can convert digital signals from cable and satellite boxes, televisions, video game consoles and other digital transports with coaxial and optical digital outputs to analog.

The UDP-205 features a high-stability, high-precision HDMI clock and a special HDMI audio jitter reduction circuit. This unique design significantly reduces jitter and eliminates timing errors, allowing customers to enjoy their music with increased accuracy when they use the audio-only HDMI output port for connecting the audio signal. PCM and DSD signals rely on the HDMI clock directly, so the HDMI audio jitter reduction circuitry can improve the sound quality of PCM and DSD audio. For compressed bitstream audio, it helps to ensure error-free transmission, and may improve the audio performance depending on whether the audio decoder in the A/V processor or receiver uses a synchronous or asynchronous clock scheme.

Advanced engineering, rigorous parts selection, and rock-solid build quality are foundations to the UDP-205’s performance. The UDP-205’s audio circuitry is powered by a massive toroidal power supply, which provides a very clean and robust power source to the audio components. The brushed aluminum front panel and metal chassis continue the tradition of excellent workmanship found in previous generations of OPPO universal players. Four heavy-gauge machined feet provide a stable foundation for the UDP-205, and isolate it from outside vibration. A new double-layered chassis further enhances the rigidness and vibration-canceling capabilities. The internal layout and chassis design promote healthy air flow so critical components can be naturally cooled. Strategically placed heatsinks and ventilation grilles allow the UDP-205 run both cool and quiet without the need for internal or external fans. The high quality construction is designed to impress and to perform.

Drawing from over a decade’s worth of experience in advanced image processing technology and high fidelity audio performance, the OPPO UDP-205 is the perfect choice for discerning enthusiasts. Priced at $1299, the UDP-205 is currently available directly at and soon from specialty retailers and custom installers. For more information, visit *Registered trademarks and trademarks are the properties of their respective owners.

Contact Information