Rhea Audio Alta

A few years ago, we reviewed the original Alta Audio speakers and came away very impressed at the integration of woofer and ribbon tweeter – a tough engineering feat.

Great as they sounded, the amorphous shape left me a bit cold from an aesthetic perspective. But as a guy that used to drive a bright lime green Saab 99, an off-center shape has never kept me from something that accomplishes its task.

Today, we have the Rhea in a much friendlier, rather unique bell-like shape, finished in rosewood (and custom colors – lime green, even!) only weighing 40 pounds each. This two-way system sports a slightly smaller ribbon tweeter than the flagship speaker, and a seven-inch woofer. Black grilles are supplied, but the Rheas look so attractive without them, I can’t imagine wanting to leave them on.

The deep bass groove in Beck’s “Little One” immediately convinces me of the Rheas room-filing sound. While they work well in my smaller, second room (13 x 15 feet) they require a bit more fiddling to achieve a perfect balance of deep and upper bass, the spacious sound in room one (16 x 25 feet) proves they can fill a room with ease. And the lovely integration of ribbon tweeter and LF/MF driver in Altas larger speakers has not been lost at a $4,495 price point.

Nearly all evaluation was done with the Pass Labs XA200.8 monoblocks, which have way more than enough juice to power the moderately sensitive (87.5db/1-watt) Rheas, but don’t let the specs lead you to a false conclusion – they are easy to drive, even with a modest amplifier. You won’t blow the windows out of your living room with a Rega Brio, or small PrimaLuna amplifier, but you can achieve more than adequate volume levels. Those requiring “turning it up to 11” will need at least 100 watts per channel to inflict ear damage.

One pairing we found that proved excellent and won’t break the bank is the new PS Audio Stellar amplifiers. The $2,995/pair M700s though excellent, was almost too much power for these speakers, but the $1,495 S300 combined with your favorite preamp or DAC will put you in the drivers’ seat for way less than $10k. Even if you spend a few bucks on a tasteful audio rack, some decent cable and a turntable. Not bad. Read Rob Johnson’s review of the Stellar S300 here.

Space and resolution

First impressions rarely lie, and even though speakers need to play for a few hours to reach their ultimate sonics, lousy speakers still sound lousy after 500 hours of “break-in.” Consequently, good speakers sound fine out of the box, becoming more refined with age. The Rheas are in the latter category.

The Rheas resolution and low-level delicacy hits you the minute you fire them up, even if they are not correctly placed – another great sign. Where this speaker will really challenge you is to fine tune the mid-bass tubbiness out of them. Plan on spending a couple of hours to make minute adjustments. If your Rheas feel just a bit constricted and flabby, you haven’t found the spot yet. Stick with it.

Whatever musical generation you happen to love, choosing a playlist full of tunes with elaborate studio craftsmanship will keep you glued to your listening chair. The Rheas construct a highly detailed, focused soundstage – though they are better at left to right than my other ribbon reference, the Raidho X-1s. While it is somewhat apples to oranges, the Raidho is a bit more three dimensional, but the Rhea is more expansive left to right. This stays consistent regardless of amplifier choice, though your favorite tube amp might just offer a little more image depth. The vibes throughout It’s Time For Dave Pike had me freaking out at times they sounded so big. The overall tonality of the Rheas might be goosed just a bit, but it’s in a way that serves the music and certainly not way overblown like a big pair of Magnepans can be at times.

Excellent throughout the range

Balance is the key with the Rheas, and they do not disappoint, regardless of program material. Like every modest sized speaker, there is a spot beyond which the Rhea can be pushed no more and at that point, compression sets in pretty quickly. This is not as noticeable with music having a wide dynamic range as much as popular music with a limited dynamic range. Cranking up UFO’s Lights Out was a little too much for the Rheas, but switching the program material to Elise Legrow’s Playing Chess (with considerably more dynamics) makes for enjoyable listening, even at fairly loud levels.

I’ve always been biased towards full range electrostatics and big panels, valuing top to bottom coherence; that’s my cross to bear. Next on the list is a well-executed two-way. The Rheas do a fantastic job convincing you that you are listening to a single music source, not a woofer crossed over to a tweeter. They disappear into the room handily, and that’s top on my list.

The Rheas also do an excellent job at pulling the small, quiet details out of less than fantastic recordings, and this will endear them to audiophiles on a budget. Rolling through a long playlist of generally lousy recordings, the Rheas still shine. U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind is dreadfully flat throughout, yet it proved engaging through the Rheas, exposing minute details and faint background vocals that are tougher if not impossible to hear on a handful of more expensive speakers we’ve auditioned. This perhaps is their best strength. That smooth ribbon is gonna get you every time. Its complete lack of grain and the subsequent fatigue that accompanies it is lovely.

What’s missing?

Much as I hate the cliché, the Rheas minor sins are those of omission. They don’t play as big, loud and dynamic as Alta’s larger models, but that’s what you write the bigger check for. The level of balance that they do offer has only been matched by a few other speakers in this price category. Where some manufacturers concentrate on bowling you over with a single aspect of music reproduction, the Rheas excel at doing everything to a high standard. And if you miss that last bit of low bass, get a couple of subs – you’ll still be way ahead of the game.

The level of clarity and resolution that the Rheas offer is what really sets the Rheas apart from many of their competitors. If this is your hot button, you’re really going to enjoy these speakers. And don’t forget, they do come in lime green.

The Alta Audio Rhea Speakers



Dynaudio Special Forty Loudspeakers

For their 40th anniversary, Dynaudio endeavored to make something very special. Their team faced a choice: design a new flagship speaker or make a top-shelf bookshelf at a price point accessible to many more music fans. Fortunately for budget-conscious audiophiles worldwide, Dynaudio chose to pursue the latter. At a price of $3,000 for the pair, the Special Forty speaker defies its modest price tag in every way.

Revelations out of the box

Unpacking the speakers is a joy in and of itself. After digging one’s way through the sturdy cardboard and foam packing materials, a white cotton bag represents the last barrier between the speakers and the new owner’s eyes. What lies underneath is breathtaking. While photos of these speakers showcase the beauty of the speaker finish, they have trouble doing it true justice. The gloss-coated grey birch – or the vibrant red birch finish of our review sample – demonstrate just how beautiful speakers can be.

While largely traditional in shape, the cabinets feature a slight taper from the front to the rear of the speaker, rendering the front face about an inch wider than the ported rear panel. A single set of gold-plated binding posts on the back make connections easy for speaker wires with a spade, bare wire, or banana termination.

As a bookshelf speaker, the Dynaudios require stands putting the tweeters at ear-level. Dynaudio does sell matching stands which are designed to complement the inherent beauty of the speaker cabinets and give the speakers a rigid base to optimize their voice. For those with a tight budget though, a more modest and less attractive pair of aftermarket stands can solve the immediate need.

More than the sum of its parts

Beyond their attractive facades, a lot of new technology lies within these two-way speakers. A newly-developed silk dome tweeter dubbed the “Esotar Forty” offers low resonance and increased airflow. Woofer-wise, trickle-down technology from Dynaudio’s higher-end Evidence and Confidence speakers help lower the Forty’s distortion and increase power handling through their proprietary hybrid magnet system. Unlike any other speaker drivers outside the Dynaudio factory, an in-house developed Magnesium Silicate Polymer material offers the tenuous balance of rigidity and dampening which result in a more organic sound.

Accompanying the advanced drivers resides a freshly-designed crossover too. Design goals included better impedance and phase alignment which help ensure only the relevant frequencies get routed appropriately for tweeting or woofing.

The sum of these elements certainly puts the “special” in the Special Forty’s namesake.

Music to our ears

After many hours of break-in time, the speakers reach their full sonic potential. When they do, brace yourself for a wonderful ride. As a cohesive whole, the Special Forty’s drivers and internals truly sing.

Overall, the Special Forties offer a refined and natural sound on the polite edge of neutral. They are by no means overly-romantic in their musical portrayal, just a tad polite. This deliberate voicing choice gives the speaker a chameleon-like ability to mate with many upstream components.

The silk dome tweeters offer a high level of detail but do not overly-accentuate sibilance or stridency inherent in some less-stellar recordings. On tracks like Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” the complex harmonics of cymbals render with an organic-sounding strike, shimmer, and decay. Saxophone retains all the woodiness one expects to hear. Piano notes offer a high degree of realism. Both low and high notes seamlessly transition among the Dynaudio drivers creating a single, very cohesive picture.

The combination of drivers creates a convincing soundstage with immense breadth, height, and depth. The sound seems to emit from everywhere around the speakers, independent of the physical speaker bodies. Enjoying Pink Martini’s “Dansez-Vous” the track features a variety of instruments which accompany multiple vocalists. Percussive elements dance around the room contrasting the solidly-imaged saxophone. “Lilly” also showcases the way the Special Forties place lead vocals front and center layered among piano, trumpet, drums, and more. To my ears, various Dynaudio speakers always do a great job with voice reproduction, putting it up front and center. The Special Forties are no exception. They provide China Forbes’ marvelous voice the range and realism it deserves.

One cannot expect a bookshelf speaker to deliver kidney-rattling, low-end bass notes. However, the small Dynaudios do pack a surprising punch. Down to the low end of their audio frequency specification — around 40Hz — bass remains tight and tuneful. Listening to “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine demonstrates the Dynaudios’ ability to rock. Rendering of Zach de la Rocha’s voice demands attention commensurate with its edged emotion. Bass, guitar, and drums pull no punches. Sound is dynamic and energetic.

Sampling several decades of Funk music, the Special Forty’s voicing gives Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Dance Little Sister,” and “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars a very engaging quality and overall musically-satisfying experience, making it difficult to sit still in the listening seat.

Summing up

These speakers do so much so well at their price point I am hard-pressed to offer major criticisms. Yes, speakers like Dynaudio’s flagships take the sound experience to another level by offering an increased prowess reproducing musical nuance, refinement, detail, depth of soundstage, and deep bass recreation. Of course, those characteristics and enhancements come with a much higher price tag.

The Dynaudio Special Forty speakers are an absolute bargain for their beguiling looks, great sound, and the pedigree of the company’s 40-year history building stellar speakers. If Dynaudio did not handle every aspect of design and production in-house, the speakers would cost significantly more.

If you seek a new set of speakers in this price range, be sure to put the Dynaudio Special Forty on your audition list. I offer sincere kudos to Dynaudio for putting this level of sonic performance, build quality, and beauty within the financial reach of so many who prioritize music in their lives. Given this benchmark of performance, I cannot wait to hear what Dynaudio has up its sleeve to celebrate their golden anniversary a decade from now!

Additional Listening:  Jeff Dorgay

Most Danes are fairly modest people. This was the experience I had when visiting the Dynaudio factory in Skanderborg, Denmark last fall. While there was much excitement about their new wireless products (which were indeed incredible) new in-wall LCR custom install products, and of course their top range Evidence Platinum speakers, when my attention turned to the small 40th anniversary model, the Dynaudio personnel were somewhat coy. “Oh would you like to listen to the 40s?” Would I?

Moving them out into the middle of the main listening room which was about 20 x 30 feet, all in attendance were taken back. Except for less ultimate low bass power, they felt like the $100k/pair Evidence models. When they finally arrived here, I did the same, putting them front and center, squarely in the middle of my 16 x 26 foot listening room, powered by a big stack of Pass Labs gear and the dCS Rossini Player/Clock combo.

Watch for another full review in the Audiophile Apartment section shortly, when I’ve had more time to try them with a few different, more reasonably priced amplifiers. I’ll have plenty of time, I bought the review pair. The Dynaudio Special Forty’s set a new standard for me in the $3,000 price point. They’ve got bass response that fools you into thinking you’ve got a pair of floorstanders. My Confidence C1s did the same thing, but they were nearly $10k/pair.

Combine that with a level of delicacy, tonal accuracy and resolution that you’d expect to pay $10k/pair for and you can see why I’m so excited. And happy to award them one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2018. And, they come in a very cool grey too…

Dynaudio Special Forty Speakers

MSRP: $ 3,000/pair



Analog Source.         SME Model 10 with SME V and Model 10 tonearms. Dynavector 17D3 and Denon DL-103R cartridges

Digital Sources         Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, Simaudio MOON 780D DAC, Oppo BDP-103

Amplification           Conrad-Johnson ART150

Preamplification     Coffman Labs G1-B

Cables                       Jena Labs

Power                       Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose, and Cardas Clear power cords

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

The Brinkmann Audio Nyquist DAC

HiFi reviewers and enthusiasts often talk about “analog magic,” but that term is seldom if ever used when discussing digital gear. Considering the progress made in the digital arena, it’s somewhat puzzling. I submit the Brinkmann Nyquist has magic, in spades.

Joni Mitchell’s voice (and self-backing vocals) in her classic “Car on a Hill” are smooth and scrumptious. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I was listening to vinyl – and that’s the point.

Some of us have been arguing about the validity of digital versus analog for about 35 years now. Granted, those first compact disc players sounded pretty harsh, but things have come a long way since then. Despite the sniping of analog aficionados, digital designers keep improving the breed, and though often fashionable to bash digital, it’s pretty damn good.

On one level, who better to make an incredible digital to analog converter than a man who makes great turntables? Helmut Brinkmann is that man. I’ve been using his Bardo turntable (with optional RoNT power supply) for over a year now and couldn’t be happier with it – deciding to purchase the review sample took all of about 30 seconds worth of listening.

Mr. Brinkmann’s DAC is equally engaging and impressive, even more, when the tubes stabilize thermally – usually about 30 minutes. Prepare to be impressed. Really impressed. The Beatle’s “Penny Lane” begins this magical mystery tour, as it’s a well-worn demo favorite. McCartney’s bass line comes through with an unmistakable strength – the pace is fantastic. The sonic picture presented is so natural, it reminds me of the Bardo/Koetsu Jade Platinum combination, which offers an equally organic experience. The music escapes the speakers with a level of depth, texture and ease not reached by the other digital hardware in my three listening rooms.

Say What?

I’ve been intrigued with mega-digital playback for over a decade now, and as much progress continues to be made in the analog world, I’m equally stunned at what the world’s finest audio engineering minds continue to extract from the 16/44.1 files that we’ve all been told are unacceptable. DSD and high res PCM files are certainly intriguing when the content lives up to the hype, but really, how many albums in DSD format do you own? 50? 100? 3?  Me too. The few hundred albums in high-resolution format reside on my NAS, still compete with about 12 thousand CDs ripped over decades, and thousands more streaming from TIDAL.

The Nyquist unfolds MQA files and is a ROON endpoint, so there is no digital scenario you are unprepared for. There’s nothing worse than a five-figure component requiring excuses. None are necessary with the Brinkmann Nyquist.

The Nyquist does a fantastic job decoding high resolution, audiophile files. If that is your quest, you will not be disappointed in the least, but if you are a music fan wanting maximum musicality out of your legacy digital collection, I suspect you’ll value the Nyquist even more.

The ins and outs

The Nyquist offers inputs for every digital source imaginable: Toslink optical, RCA/SPDIF, XLR-AES/EBU, USB, and Ethernet. With a combination of a Mac Book Pro, OPPO 205, dCS Rossini and even a Sony PlayStation, rest assured the Nyquist works well with anything you can throw at it. After auditioning a number of transport options, the bulk of my listening was done via the Ethernet connection and a 12TB QNAP NAS.

Again, thanks to the Nyquist being Roon compatible, it makes combining the digital files in your library, with anything you’d like to seek out via TIDAL (or whatever music streaming service you happen to use) a seamless experience. Thanks to the Nyquist being a single box solution, a plethora of extra cables aren’t required. Balanced XLR and single-ended RCA outputs are also available and have no issues driving 30 feet of interconnects so that you can place the Nyquist on a rack with the rest of your gear, or in a remote location with ease.

A wide range of inputs and outputs is one thing, but there’s more. The Nyquist is a modular DAC so that it can be easily upgraded as technologies change, and in essence, future proof. This is an excellent thing when you are spending $18,000 on a DAC. For my money, there are too many expensive DACs built around a fixed architechture. The Nyquist’s modular design is field-upgradable, making  it a much safer bet as a long term digital investment.

Finally, the Nyquist has a level control to help match its gain to your other sources, and it acts as a full volume control for the built-in headphone amplifier. More on that later.

The MQA issue

Some will (and have) argue that the Nyquist lacks the final few molecules of resolution that the top dogs from dCS, Gryphon, and MSB offer. That may be true, and again this is a complete matter of personal taste. None of these other DACs are rubbish in any sense, yet the Nyquist has a way of pulling you in just a little bit further, allowing your fussy audiophile gland to shut off that much quicker. It’s almost hard to describe this complete lack of fatigue that the Nyquist offers.

There is a fairly high amount of vitriol in the discussions surrounding MQA these days, so I tip my hat to Mr. Brinkmann for including MQA capability on the Nyquist. Grooving on David Byrne’s latest, (In MQA) American Utopia sounds inviting, though I have no non – MQA file to compare it to. Unlike a few DACs I’ve tried that make audible clicks, or pause when switching between resolutions, the Nyquist fluidly skates between formats effortlessly, with no audible glitches. Personally, I fear that the MQA format is misunderstood, (and that’s all the further I’ll go down this rabbit hole) so as a big TIDAL/Roon user, I’m glad I can stream MQA on the Nyquist. All of the MQA files played sounded fantastic.

Awesome 16/44.1 performance

Thanks to what amounts to a separate DSD decoding section, DSD files are not converted to PCM in the Nyquist. DSD and high-resolution PCM files are handled separately and with equally high fidelity, as you would expect with an $18,000 DAC. But again, cool as that is, the Nyquist does such an incredible job with standard CD-quality digital files, this is what will keep you in the listening chair for days on end.

CD quality files played through the Nyquist offer the same analog-like ease and presence that high-resolution files do. So much so, that it was tough to tell at times what I was listening to. I can’t think of higher praise for a DAC. Taking this approach a step further, streaming performance of low-quality 320kb/sec files sound better than they have a right to. The lack of air, dynamics, and tonal richness inherent in these files is well managed in the Nyquist.

Finishing touches

The Nyquist would stand on its own, even if it were just a premium DAC for $18k, but it’s streaming capabilities make it an incredible value proposition. Mr. Brinkmann takes this further, including a massive granite base to place under the Nyquist as well as a high-quality power cord – the kind you’d probably pay a third-party vendor at least a thousand dollars for. Brinkmann suggests plugging the Nyquist directly into the AC line, eschewing power conditioning. He’s never steered me wrong in the past, so that’s how we played it for this review; directly into the AC line with zero regrets.

Personal audio fans will appreciate that the Nyquist includes a top-notch headphone amplifier as part of the package. We’ve been reviewing a number of top headphone amplifiers; and feel the one built into the Nyquist delivers such a high level of performance you will never need an outboard headphone amplifier.

Finally, this all comes wrapped in a single box solution (other than the outboard power supply) which doesn’t require a loom of cables to go about its business. If you have room for a two-four box design that a few other manufacturers offer, no worries, however, if you want high performance only requiring a single rack space, the efficiency of the Nyquist cannot be ignored. Oh yeah, it has a transparent glass top too, so those of you that appreciate the sheer beauty of the internal design can bask in it, daily.

Keep in mind for your reference; my own bias is for overall system balance to be ever so slightly on the warm/natural/neutral side of straight-up neutral. I like as much detail as I can get without the overall presentation getting harsh, yet I crave as much warmth as possible before things become slow, or sloppy. Tracking through the original Chicago Transit Authority, the enormous sonic landscape painted is tremendous, with a smoothness to the layers of drums and percussion incredible.

So it goes with Brinkmann’s Nyquist; named after the famous digital engineer Harry Nyquist. This elegantly built DAC has a sound, unlike any other DAC I’ve heard – it’s more analog. Using a pair of new old stock Telefunken PCF803 tubes for the output stage, which Brinkmann claims “were built to last ten years in color TV applications,” should last even longer in the Nyquist. A quick search on eBay reveals these tubes to be very inexpensive, so I’d suggest buying a matched set from your Brinkmann dealer so that you are prepared. Long life be damned, we both know you’re going to lose a tube on Friday night, just when you planned on a weekend’s worth of listening. Be a good Eagle Scout, buy a spare set and rest prepared.

If after all these years, digital has still left you slightly cold, I assure you the Brinkmann Nyquist will not. It offers top digital performance for about what you’d pay for one of Mr. Brinkmann’s Bardo turntables with a top phono cartridge. But you never know, a few days listening to the Nyquist and you might not even want to be bothered spinning those black discs! It’s that engaging.

The Brinkmann Audio Nyquist DAC




Preamplifier                Pass Labs XS Pre

Power Amplifier         Pass Labs XA200.8 monoblocks

Speakers                       Focal Sopra no.3 w/(2)REL 212SE Subwoofers

Cable                             Cardas Clear and Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Vibration                     Grand Prix Audio Monaco Racks

HiFi Attic Shows…

Canadian audiophiles from the Kelowna/Vernon side…

HiFi Attic will be hosting a music demo with B&W, AudioQuest and Bluesound this Friday the 13th at their Vernon store from 3:00 – 9:00pm, with lots of music and prizes. They are located at 3108 30th Ave in Vernon. They will have a similar event the following day at their Kelowna store, located at 1292 Ellis Street.

Stop by, take a listen and tell them we sent you!

MartinLogan’s Perfect TV Partner

In my other job in the 2-channel world at TONEAudio magazine, I’ve put the MartinLogan Motion 35XT’s through their paces, and they are fantastic speakers. Taking the concept further, we have the SLM range of speakers you see here.

The X3 is the most expensive of the range at $999, but it uses three of MartinLogan’s Folded Motion transducers and six, 4-inch woofers, squeezing a left, right and center channel in a sound bar that is just a shade over 6 inches high, 48 inches wide and only 2 inches deep. Available in white or black, the SLM X3 should fit into any décor easily.

In addition to the ease of integration, kudos to MartinLogan for offering a pair of small feet that can screw right into the SLM X3, so that in case you live in an apartment that frowns upon you permanently mounting things into a wall, it will just sit right up on a tabletop. Ms. Bubble and I also found this super handy in this mode, transporting the SLM X3 from living room video system to bedroom system. Both have small, powered, wireless Paradigm subs, so this is a breeze, and it’s nice for apartment dwellers on a budget, allowing great sound wherever you are. The rest of you can either buy a second one for the other system and mount via standard anchors to your wall.

It might be an issue for some that the SLM X3s are not powered, but I love the fact that they are not. Considering MartinLogan’s expertise at speaker building (and just like the Motion freestanding speakers) the combination of high-quality drivers and crossover network components inside the cabinet will blow you away with the sound quality – so you’re not limited by the electronics in the box. You can build your audio/video system with simple electronics, and as your system improves, you won’t have to upgrade the speakers.

Borrowing a pair of 35XTs from a friend and using my Paradigm MRX520 surround sound receiver with Anthem Room Correction and a small Paradigm subwoofer makes for a fantastic theater system with little effort. If you haven’t used Anthem’s ARC, it’s a treat and gives great sonic result without agonizing terribly about “where to place the speakers.” With the SLM X3 beneath my 70” LG TV, the 35XT’s back behind the couch as rear speakers and the sub hidden in the room corner, I was rocking in about 30 minutes.

As the SLM X3s only go down to 120hz, you will need a subwoofer. Again, I suggest ML or Paradigm because you can get all the bits from the same dealer, (Gotta love one-stop shopping!) and they will work swimmingly together. Finally, having front, center and rear speakers using the same tweeters gives a more cohesive overall sound.

Though the SLM X3 has a very similar sonic signature to the rest of the Motion range, listening began using the soundbar just as front speakers, with the sub off in the corner. Even if this is all you can muster to begin with, it will dramatically increase your television enjoyment. The monsters in Game of Thrones are much more convincing, and the spacy sound bits in Rick and Morty were a blast. Not to mention gaming is way more fun with big sound.

Remember, MartinLogan cut their teeth decades ago building some of the worlds finest speakers for 2-channel audio enthusiasts, so the SLM X3 delivers the goods in a way that most soundbars don’t. Using just the left and right channel of the SLM X3, on the dresser with subwoofer augmentation makes beautiful music. Stepping up to the Esoteric F-07 integrated we recently reviewed, the SLM X3 does not disappoint. Thanks to the 93db/1-watt sensitivity rating, you’ll be quickly evicted no matter what you are powering the SLM X3 with if you aren’t prudent!

Stereo imaging is big, bold, and wide, regardless of musical choice and these speakers provide luscious tonal capability. Vocal tracks come alive, and thanks to the lightening quick response of those Folded Motion tweeters, drums and percussion are incredibly realistic. Even if you never use the center channel, the SLM X3 and a small subwoofer make for a great, albeit compact stereo music system, which has infinite potential for expansion.

Moving to a full multichannel system is spectacular, and if you don’t want stand mounted speakers behind you, there are two smaller models to the SLM lineup that can be mounted vertically. This would be the way I’d roll if in a compact space, to keep things tidy.

Though priced at the upper end of the soundbar spectrum, the SLM X3 is a premium solution. It’s like three high-performance MartinLogan speakers, tailor-fit into a compact housing. They refer to it as an “Ultra-Slim Folded Motion speaker. This is a premium product from one of audios finest companies. Highly recommended.

The MartinLogan SLM X3 Speaker System



The Audio Research DAC 9

I became an audiophile during the period when digital playback began to make its first attempts to address the shortcomings plaguing the new medium. Despite the BS “Perfect Sound Forever” marketing hype heaped upon the unwitting music consuming public, we all knew something was wrong-really wrong with digital sound. Audiophile inspired components from companies like Wadia, Krell, Mark Levinson and its protege Proceed rallied to address the lack of musicality as defined by the flat, sterile, and edgy sound of the standard one box CD players of the day.

A Rotel CD player would first take up position to feed a Wadia X-32 out-board DAC. Soon after the krell SPB-32X DAC gave it a try. These add on DACs helped clean up the sound a bit but in retrospect they were really incremental improvements rather than the major musical overhaul we all were searching for. After giving these DACs a shot I moved back to all in one players. The  Krell KPS20i was my first really high end player. But it wasn’t till the arrival of the Linn Sondek CD12 which to my ears was the first high end CD player that delivered a sound that even hard-core analog enthusiasts could get behind. I started to get the feeling there was real hope for digital sound after all.

It’s 20 years down the road from my last out board DAC and boy has digital come a long way. Far better DAC chips are available at lower cost and component manufactures have gained much understanding of how to implement these devices. Along with the advancements in Chip technology came an understanding of the importance of power supplies and over all circuit design when creating a musical digital device. Getting the best from digital has also included exploring Up-sampling rates, differing mastering and decoding schemes ranging from the failed DVD Audio, the withering SACD on to the latest entry, MQA. Up till now I have dabbled in all but MQA and always end up in the same place. Well engineered standard 44.1 kHz Redbook can be very good. As can SACD, as could DVD audio, DSD and HD audio etc. It is all so recording and mastering dependent that it becomes a swiftly moving target when trying to pin an absolute conclusion on why any given version of a recording sounds great, or bad for that matter.

Audio Research has been in the digital game since 1995 with the introduction of the CD1.This CD player has gone through several upgrades and its current form the CD6 has done remarkably well in the market place. With the DAC9, Audio Research serves the Audiophile who has streaming, computer audio and/or transport sources at a price that while not inexpensive, undercuts the reference level components out there that can reach well into the tens upon tens of thousands of dollars.

The DAC9 was fed a stream from the McIntosh MB50 Streamer with Spotify and Tidal providing content. The system includes the Dan D’Agostino Momentum preamp, Pass Labs XA200.8 mono amplifiers seated on the lovely Bassocontinuo carbon fibre and leather amp stands.Speakers included  the Sonus Faber Lilium and Lansche Audio 4.1. All cabling was the outstanding MIT Oracle Reference.

In 20 years of reviewing I have never owned or reviewed an Audio Research component. I have heard them dozens of times be it amps and preamps along the way and have always enjoyed them. With a vivid highly resolved sound, music through Audio Research components can in a couple words can be described as “involving” and “vivid”.

The New Audio Research components enjoy a fresh look from the mind and hand of Livio Cucuzzo, Chief Designer for Audio Research and Sonus Faber. With one foot in the past al-la the sculpted rack mount handles on the face plate and one foot in the future via the large display window and seamlessly integrated flush mounted buttons, The DAC9 still projects a form follows function look while managing to feel totally fresh and modern.

My only concern is the thin perforated metal, highly resonant top cage. This approach bumps up against my love of massive over built chassis elements. Based on the sound however, this may not be as much of a concern as I might have thought. But I still wonder what a more rigid structure would yield.

5 digital Inputs include RCA, AES/EBU, BNC, Toslink, USB. Two 6H30 tubes caress the analog circuitry and you can hear it. Below the display is a row of six pushbuttons: Power, Menu, Option, Enter, Input, and Mute.The DAC9 uses the Burr-Brown/Texas Instruments PCM1792A chip in a quad configuration.

Some components need a little time to open up and ripen to find their voice and blossom. The DAC9 impressed me immediately-as in first note immediately. After about a half hour I had a very good handle on what the DAC9 was all about. While it did get better over time, its essential strengths were there from the beginning. I don’t want to give the impression there is any one or two things that stand out in the DAC9’s performance. The sonic performance of the DAC9 is extremely well integrated and broadly balanced. So in no particular order, here we go. Starting with tonality, the timbre of instruments and voices are so right, so natural and un-diminished in any way, it pleads a very strong case that digital is now neck and neck with analog as they streak towards the checkered flag. Compared to digital of even 5 years ago, that older sound might as well be an exhibit in the museum of sonic history. The DAC9 is the embodiment of thoroughly modern high end digital sound. There is a directness and vividness, a hallmark of Audio Research sound, that by its nature shows how any form of past digi-titus has been hunted down and extinguished. Color, texture, bloom all come together in a seamless singularity representing a recreation of a time and place that is totally believable.

Another amazing quality of the DAC9 is the ability to render layered depth. Images are placed with three a dimensional presence that is surrounded by air allowing for great separation and a front to back precision that keeps individual instrumental timbre distinct and untangled. The accuracy of front to back distances or layering goes back, all the way back with stunning clarity. Orchestras are mapped out to the performer. All the modern studio recordings I sampled benefited greatly by the hologram like presence put forth by the DAC9 and holds true to the reputation Audio Research has earned over the years.

Across the frequency spectrum the DAC9 maintains its great neutrality and natural seamless integration creating a single flowing musical garment. As the music expresses the entire frequency spectrum, there are no holes, no missing mid bass information that connects the bass to the midrange, no anomalies in the upper midrange that sticks out mucking up integration with the treble.  There may be more sheer resolution available in the treble via an ultimate reference but it will certainly come at a much higher price. The same could be said of the low bass. Its power and resolution give away little and always presents the music in a totally believable way. Power and impact are soul satisfying. My torture test remains “I’m Home Africa” from Stanley Clarks East River Side Drive. The driving pounding back beat has been rendered by countless devices over the years and the DAC9 keeps up with the very best I’ve heard. Some have presented the bass with a bit more tightness and sheer slam but that was accompanied by a dryness and lack of color and nuance. Any improvement beyond the DAC9 would surely come at a severe premium. I will lay my reputation on the line and say there is very little need to look further if profoundly enjoying music is your goal.

Late in the game I took possession of the Analog Domain Isis integrated amplifier. With the DAC9 in the chain the sound was just glorious. Tactile yet incredibly smooth. We are really on to something with this combination of the McIntosh MB50, the DAC9 and the Analog Domain Isis integrated . Listening to Aaron Nevilles “It Feels Like Rain”, A track I have heard at least a thousand times on a wide variety of gear, the DAC9 continues to provide such a confident, powerful bass giving the music a stable foundation upon which Aaron’s voice simply soars. The whole soundstage comes to life with the background singers subtle contribution taking on greater significance due to a high level of resolution and low noise floor allowing them to bloom in the mix a bit more. Very compelling.

Testing the upsampling feature was a breeze as it can be selected by the DAC9’s fantastic solid  metal remote. My MacBook Air was tethered to the DAC9 via the excellent MIT Matrix USB cable. With the music up sampled on Boston’s “Smokin’”, I found the upsample a bit smoother on top with a bit a bit less glare. Hard wired with the MIT Matrix, I also found the music a bit more vibrant than the wireless streaming mode. The Hardwire approach is the overall better performer. This conclusion played out over many recordings and was especially welcome on inherently brighter mixes. Listening to Tidal MQA recordings sounded just phenomenal at the CD9’s 384kHz upsample rate. John Coltranes Giant Steps was noticeably fuller in tone and more dynamic with greater body and presence. I could pick it every time in comparison to its down sampled version during a blind test conducted by Josh Dellinger Experience Director of the World Of McIntosh Townhouse.

The DAC9 came to the system soon after the Macintosh MB50 steamer that I found so musically satisfying recently. I stand by my conclusion that all on its own, the MB50 delivers a very satisfying musical presentation.

The question is at what price does finding a substantial improvement of the MB50 come? With the Audio Research DAC9, that answer is exactly $7,500. The addition of the DAC9 makes the music closer, becoming more vibrant and tactile, a quality enhanced by its tubed configuration no doubt. The DAC9 lights up the stage and casts a vivid glow around the images creating full rich sound. Ultimately the DAC9 expands the picture in all dimensions in a way that the musical MB50 can’t quite muster on its own. For a shade under 10K, the MB50/DAC9 is an absolutely killer combo of gear. Throw in a Macbook Air and a great USB cable like the MIT Matrix for Hi-rez digital at its best. This is digital the way it was meant to be. Looking back on when perfect sound forever was just a promise made, With the DAC9 It is finally a promise kept.

The Audio Research CD9