Issue 96


Old School:

Michael “Muppet” Laurance continues our love affair
with vintage Pioneer gear, this time one of their disc players


Jeff Dorgay spins a lot of CDs with the new Rega Apollo

Journeyman Audiophile:

The MoFi StudioDeck+U Turntable and cartridge

The Audiophile Apartment:

The Audiovector SR1 Avantgarde Arrete Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Shanon Says:

The Gold Note PSU10 Power Supply upgrade
By Shanon Swetlishnoff

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Cryo treated beer

Carbon Fiber wheels

Large floatation devices

Smurf PEZ

and more….


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world

Future Tense

Totem Tribe Speakers

Bryston BP-2 Phono/PS-3 Power Supply

Nagra Tube DAC

and more…

Cover Feature: Luxmania!

Jeff Dorgay takes a long look at Luxman’s finest amplification

The Vitus Audio RI-101 Integrated Amplifier

Vitus Audio is well known around the world for fantastic sound and multiple box amplification chains that weight hundreds of pounds. Even their two-box reference phono stage weighs more than most power amplifiers!

Underneath the massive metalwork lurks enormous power supplies and electronics that are more than overbuilt for the task at hand. Many people that have full Vitus installations have spent well into the six-figure range to get this performance, and if you peruse social media and various hifi forums, you will see Vitus in a number of the world’s finest hifi dens.

However, if you are someone wanting to put together an incredible, yet not crazy money system, the Vitus RI-101 should be at the top of your list, it’s certainly at the top of mine. $15,600 gets you the RI-101 amplifier alone, delivering 300 watts per channel into an 8 – ohm load, which should be more than enough for nearly any speakers you have at your disposal. (yes, it even drove my Magnepans with ease)

From a rack level view, the RI-101 looks exactly like the top Vitus components, But instead of a CNC milled case, the case is standard, albeit heavy duty metal, powder coated black. At this price, it wouldn’t have made sense to go the full heavy metal route and I applaud Mr. Vitus for putting those dollars in the circuitry rather than the casework. With three balanced XLR inputs, two RCA inputs and a pair of balanced outputs (the preamplifier section is fully balanced), there is more than enough flexibility for future expansion. The binding posts on the rear panel are extremely robust and will work well with any audiophile speaker cables you have on hand. All of the connectors are first rate.
Weighing in at just under 85 pounds, the RI-101 is hardly a lightweight. Under the cover a massive power supply lurks, with all the attention to detail that is in Vitus’ top range. Even the volume control is from one of the top models. Again, keeping every bit of investment in the box, Vitus supplies an Apple remote to control volume.

An excellent trend

Add Vitus to the list of manufacturers that have put their resources into a premium integrated amplifier, and put them at the top. My review sample had been played for a bit before arriving, so it sounded great right out of the box, and full song by the next day.

The GamuT Zodiacs were in my living room system, making for a perfect combination. Our sample arrived fully equipped, with the on board DAC/Streamer module, which adds about $5,000 to the price. Closing in on the year 2020, why would you buy a DAC that doesn’t stream? The RI-101 is Roon ready, so you don’t have to waste time trying to make everything in your music collection interface with yet another app. Five minutes after unboxing the RI-101, it’s up and rocking. Roon found it instantly and I was playing music.

Unless you are completely anti-digital, or have a fantastic outboard DAC that is worthy of the RI-101, go for broke and get the DAC/Streamer built in. Considering what power cords and interconnect cables cost these days, and how much less shelf space you’ll need, the RI-101 with DAC/Streamer is an incredible bargain.

The DAC module features Ethernet, Coax, AES/EBU and USB ports, so any device you might have is covered. Much like the other DACs we’ve heard from dCS, Simaudio and a few others, streaming directly from the web or your NAS offers up the best sound, with the USB a very close second. The USB port can accept DSD files, and considering the DAC/Streamer is a module, you can count on Vitus to provide a hardware update should it be necessary.

Digital options

As most of my listening was a combination of 16/44 files from NAS and ROON/Tidal/Qobuz, the RI-101 proves flawless. Considering just how little music is available only in the MQA format, I don’t consider this a deal breaker. Moving on to a vintage SONY CD player and a current dCS Rossini CD player, both used as transports reveal that this is a fantastic combination for anyone wanting to still play shiny discs.

Auditioning the dCS via the XLR and Coax inputs with Nordost Heimall digital cables, it was tough to hear a clearcut difference between the two inputs, though we all felt the XLR input was just a touch more revealing. You’ll have to argue amongst yourselves on this, but suffice to say this aspect of the internal DAC is excellent. Should you be an occasional silver disc listener, Rega’s new Apollo player at $995 makes for an outstanding (and very compact) redbook transport that we really enjoyed.

Putting the internal DAC in context with stand-alone offerings from other manufacturers in the $5,000 – $10,000 range, this is the way to go. The combination of functionality and sound quality can’t be beat. Vitus approach to digital, combining the top ESS DAC chips with meticulous execution on all levels is fantastic.

The level of refinement on the digital side will easily win you over on multiple levels. First the amount of low level resolution present again rivals much more expensive units. Whether listening to Michael Hedges plucky acoustic guitars, or Shostakovich’s violin Concerto no. 1, the speed, tone and texture that this DAC brings to the table is incredible.

Switching the program to more contemporary faire is equally enjoyable. Tracking through Prince’s classic, 1999, layer upon layer is revealed, with a sound field that is both wide and deep. What else could you ask for from digital?

Because the low-level signals of a phono stage are so delicate, Vitus wisely chose to leave the phono section as something you can add in a separate chassis. The level of sonic excellence this amplifier delivers is up to any task, so you could easily spend the cost of the amplifier again on a phonostage.

In the end, the sound

Vitus has packed so much musicality into this single box, you might be tempted to stop your Vitus journey right here. The toughest part of the journey with this amplifier is that it is their entry level product. Should you go further up the line you will, of course, get more power, bigger dynamic swing, and even more resolution and delicacy, but this is the perfect introduction to the brand.

The top Vitus amplifiers are all class-A, so they take on a slightly warmer, more full bodied sound, but the class-AB RI 101 captures much of the flagship amplifiers’ character. Vitus calls this design a “high bias AB amp,” so the first 12 watts per channel are in full Class -A mode. At normal listening levels with moderately sensitive speakers, you’ll probably be listening in Class A on all but the most broad musical peaks. Just like the bigger siblings, the RI-101 is incredibly quiet, with well defined, powerful bass and a grain free high end to match. Vitus is one of the few solid state amplifier manufacturers that will not have you wishing for vacuum tubes.

Every speaker that we made part of the Vitus system was handled perfectly. Thanks to the amount of energy available with it’s well designed power supply, a few speakers that are somewhat power hungry, like the Raidho D1.1 felt almost as if we’d installed a subwoofer when driven by this amplifier. The mighty Focal Stella Utopia EMs with their beryllium tweeters can go horribly wrong when driven by an amplifier that is even the least bit brittle in it’s delivery. The match was perfection, as it was with the Focal Sopra no.3 and Kanta no.3. Honestly, there was no speaker that didn’t work well with this amplifier – a true sign of excellent design.

For anyone wanting a world class system without a rack full of gear, the Vitus Audio RI-101 is an excellent choice, no matter what speakers you currently own.

The Vitus Audio RI-101 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $15,600

DAC/streamer module:  $5,000 additional (factory) (NA distributor)


Analog source Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 w/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Phono Pre Boulder 508

Digital source Rega Apollo(as transport), ROON via network

Speakers Focal Stella Utopia EM, Raidho D1.1, GamuT Zodiac

The Audio by Van Alstine Vision SET 400

Audio By Van Alstine produces line stage preamplifiers, phono stages, DACs, and more, the marvelous AVA Vision 400 SET amplifier we review here represents a culmination of Van Alstine’s knowledge applied to music reproduction.

Frank Van Alstine brings over 50 years of experience to his component designs, developing modifications for classic Hafler and Dynaco gear, and of course, focused on his own line of equipment.

Selling direct from his company website, Van Alstine keeps the price low, making his gear more accessible to budget minded music lovers that prioritize performance. AVA’s components offer solid fit and finish, avoiding the audio jewelry approach to case designs. This utilitarian appearance keeps Van Alstine’s production costs down, passing the savings on to his customers. Keep in mind the adages, “What’s inside counts,” and “Beauty is only skin deep.” AVA makes applaudable tradeoffs or the best sound.

In line with this philosophy, the standard version of the Vision SET 400 comes in a basic, powder-coated black case with a simple rocker switch for $1,999. The updated model you see here, featuring a thick, anodized, aluminum panel and push button for the power switch is an extra $200.

The ins and outs

The Vision SET 400 is audio rack-friendly with dimensions of 7 inches tall, 17 inches wide, and 13 inches deep, weighing 38 pounds. Much of that mass results from the beefy toroidal transformer inside; providing the fuel to push 225 watts per channel into eight-ohm speaker loads, and roughly double that into four ohms. No matter how hard we pushed the amp, it never failed in its firm control over various speakers. Driving my GamuT RS3i speakers, the SET 400 never falters, even at high listening levels. The heat sinks jetting from the rear of the unit peak at a temperature so low they fail as a hand-warmer.

The gold-plated, five-way binding posts accommodate speaker cables with spade, bare-wire, or banana terminations giving the owner a lot of flexibility. The amp also sports a pair of gold-plated RCA inputs for connection with a preamp.

The “SET” in the Vision SET 400 solid-state amplifier’s name refers to its Single-Ended Transistor based circuit design. The Vision amplifiers offer a Class A/B topology. However, the biasing maintains pure Class A power at normal listening levels. When pushed, the amp leans on Class A/B at higher power levels.


The SET 400 needs but a few days to reach full operating potential. As with past AVA designs we’ve used, there’s no lengthy break-in period required. Consider a weekend trip away, with constant music play and you’re ready!

Overall, the SET 400s sonic signature features a lot to love and very little to criticize. Thanks to the amount of reserve power always on tap, Rock and Electronic music is always vivacious, yet there is plenty of nuance to satisfy jazz and vocal tastes.

Indeed, the SET 400 threads the needle with an overall neutrality, yet has a touch of warmth to boot. Never artificially fluffing up the sound, it manages the deft feat of taking harsh recordings and making them far more enjoyable. Even when pushed, the amp seems almost tube-like in its ability to create fatigue-free music which results in long, couch-locked listening sessions. For example, the opening synthesizer notes heard on Portishead’s Roads pour forth with a seemingly-loving embrace. Where some amplifiers portray Beth Gibbons’ voice harshly or stridently, the AVA excels. Van Alstine’s years of designing tube gear presents us with a solid-state amplifier with similar voicing. String instruments maintain their dimension, bass notes carry with appropriate authority, and percussion features a punchy strike combined with fluid decay.

Bass proves another strong suit. The AVA’s high power reserve gets a grip on speaker drivers and refuses to let go. Bass guitar plucks reverberate with realistic tightness, followed by a decay with a palpable presence. The Vision also offers great soundstaging capability. Music emits in all directions beyond the physical speaker bodies, with plenty of separation among musical elements to distinguish each in its own space with little overlap.

One needs a pickaxe and a shovel to dig for criticisms at this price. Comparing the AVA with an amplifier like the Conrad-Johnson ART 150 which is several times the SET 400’s cost, the Vision has a slightly compacted width and depth of the musical performance, resulting in a bit less sense of three-dimensional, organic realism. For instance, the airy spatial cues perceived in a superb recording’s ‘space’ – As heard in Johnny Cash’s cover of “Danny Boy” from American IV: The Man Comes Around– are reduced a bit. However, that’s hardly a fair criticism given the price discrepancy between the two amplifiers. AVA has created something very special with the Vision SET 400.

The combination of the AVA’s sound and power make it an excellent fit for all but the hungriest speakers. Our publisher mentions to all the Magenpan lovers in the audience, that this amplifier did a fantastic job with his Tympani IVs.

Summing up

$2,000 is not chump change for most people. However, in the world of high-end audio, that dollar figure lies at the lower-end of the cost-no-object spectrum. The AVA Vision SET 400 amplifier offers excellent performance and a tremendous value. The AVA never fails to deliver marvelous, forgiving, detailed, and rich sound. Though I remain smitten by my current reference amp, I’m sad to see the AVA depart. While the Vision amp has some small tradeoffs in comparison with amps many times its price, the Vision is one of those few components I could enjoy for many years to come.

After enjoying its voice for a month during our review period, I found myself beguiled by the AVA’s prowess. The amp represents a stellar choice for a budget-responsible system with very few sonic compromises. If you seek an amp in the sub-$2,000 range, the Van Alstine Vision SET 400 sets an extremely high bar and deserves a TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award for 2019.

Van Alstine Vision SET 400 Amplifier

Starting at $1,999


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

Digital Sources Roon Nucleus, Simaudio MOON 780D DAC, Oppo BDP-103, Synology DiskStation 415 Play

Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-B

Speakers GamuT RS3i, JL Audio Dominion Subwoofers

Cables Jena Labs

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

Accessories ASC tube traps, Cathedral Sound Room Dampening Panels, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

ROON Nucleus and Nucleus+

We’ve been using ROON at TONE since the final alpha release, and it’s a powerful solution. None of the other music delivery platforms come close – if you love music and the discovery of more music, it’s the only way to go.

ROON allows you to combine music saved on your computer or NAS with whatever music you stream, seamlessly in an album art oriented browser. It’s like going to the record store and flipping through the largest group of record bins on the planet. Minus the crabby record store person with a dominant attitude behind the counter making fun of your music choices. Want to find everyone your favorite artist has played with or was influenced by? ROON will take you there, leading you down path after path of music exploration.

One of ROON’s strengths has always been the “Roon Radio” function, picking up after your playlist is finished, finding music that is remarkably similar to what you’ve been previously enjoying. That function is improved; the radio function goes beyond your collection, searching whatever streaming services you are accessing. Now, in addition to having the world’s biggest record store at your fingertips, you have the world’s biggest and most diverse radio station to feed you new music.

But capability requires power, and we haven’t even talked about all the other cool stuff ROON does like stream over multiple zones, offer DSP room correction and EQ, as well as a few other goodies. We’ll talk about that in its own article.

The more you ask of ROON, the more it requires from your host computer. ROON actually gives you the specs to build a purpose-built server, but this requires a ton of computing knowledge and that kind of defeats the purpose of such an intuitive platform, at least from my perspective. Even dedicating a Mac Mini strictly to ROON service and stripping it down as much as possible, begins to drag with an extensive music collection and multiple zones.

It’s all about dedication

Thankfully, last year, ROON developed their own box, the Nucleus and Nucleus +. You can read all the techie bits in their white paper here. The ROON crew not only came up with a dedicated box that is dead quiet, compact, and looks super cool, they even wrote their own OS that is optimized for ROON and nothing else.

Both the $1,399 and $2,499 Nucleus and Nucleus+ look precisely the same. The standard machine is meant to handle music collections of “less than 100,000 tracks,” and the Nucleus +, collections larger.

Staffer Rob Johnson went for the standard model, and me with over 12,000 CDs ripped, and quite a few thousand more indexed via Qobuz, and to a lesser extent, Tidal and Spotify went all out for the Nucleus +. I can say without reservation, as much as I love the ROON platform, it finally delivers on the promises 100% with a Nucleus +. When scrolling through a full screen of albums, searching, or when we have all three of our ROON zones going at once, the Nucleus + never hesitates to deliver what we need.

This is even more important to those of you streaming high res files, either via MQA with Tidal or uncompressed via Qobuz. Even when playing 24/192 files in the house, garage, and studio simultaneously, we could not detect any performance gap. You will, of course, need your Nucleus and NAS (if you have one) connected via Ethernet and the fastest router you can put your hands on.


While the Nucleus needs to be hardwired into your network, you can access it wirelessly from your phone, tablet, or laptop anywhere in your listening environment. Simply go into ROON and create whatever “zones” you need. Now that so many streaming DAC’s can be used as ROON endpoints, there’s no need to be a computer-based music listener, tethered to your DAC. Considering what some premium USB cables cost, you can almost buy a standard Nucleus for the same price!

If you aren’t utilizing a NAS for some of your music collection, you can still select a hard drive that is connected to a computer on your network or plug a USB drive directly into the back of the Nucleus. Finally, there is an HDMI output that can be utilized for output, and the sound quality will work in a pinch, but streaming via a ROON ready DAC is still the way to roll for optimum sound quality. Either way, it’s nice that ROON offers the option.

Back to square one

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review – there is no better way to catalog, store and play digital music back than ROON, and taking advantage of the extra horsepower that one of their Nucleus devices is nothing short of perfection. The ROON team has made digital music playback as effortless and glitch-free as it can be made.

Considering what a Mac Mini runs these days, the Nucleus is a bargain in comparison. Get your email on your phone and leave the music serving to ROON. You’ll be glad you did.

Sugden A21SE Signature Edition

Listening to Dexter Gordon’s classic, “GO” through the Sugden A21 (actually the A21SE Signature, but I don’t want to keep writing that) and my Quad 2812s is positively heavenly, with all the tone, texture, and dynamics I’d ever need.

There is something incredibly cool about listening to an amplifier that sounds this emotionally involving that doesn’t have a five-figure price tag. Record after record reveals one a-ha moment after another.

Honestly, it’s even better than that. Music and audio lovers often have a wide range of needs, and at times it’s easy to lose your way obsessing over things you don’t need. I’m not being judgmental, I’m sharing this from an “it takes one to know one” perspective.

I’ll make this easy for you

If you don’t need more than 30 watts per channel, or balanced inputs, buy a Sudgen A21SE Signature. Get off the anxiety train and just dig it. A big part of the magic that this amplifier possesses is because of its class-A operation. But Sugden takes this a step further – this amplifier is single-endedclass-A. If you’ve ever heard one of the early Pass Aleph amplifiers, they use a somewhat similar approach.
Running the output transistors in single ended mode gives this amplifier an added amount of liquidity that even the best class-A amps can’t achieve. Dare I say, they sound tube like. If you love the sound of an SET but need more than a few watts per channel, with some serious bass control to boot, this amplifier is going to quickly become your holy grail.

Bypass the bling

If you ask the fellow that manages Jerry Seinfeld’s fleet of Porsches his thoughts on the best of the breed, he’ll look you in the eye and say “mid 80s Carrera – they are the best mixture of fun, function, and performance, without all those weight adding features.” That’s what the Sugden A21SE Sig is – a perfectly executed 84 Carrera with no options. Pure driving excitement. Ironically, Jonathan Halpern, the Sugden importer drives a mid 80s Carerra. Coincidence?

If you’ve got a turntable and a DAC, do you really need a zillion inputs, all those blinking lights, meters and such? If you do – that’s ok, this amplifier will not make you happy. But if you just love to drive, I mean listen, and all that matters is sheer performance without all the frills, few things will do the job like the A21 does. And every amplifier I know that is this luscious costs a lot more. The A21SE Sig’s meager $3,250 MSRP is the best money you’ll ever spend in high end audio.

This is an amp that even if you move on to a more grandiose system, you should keep. Forever.

As mentioned earlier, the A21SE Sig features five, single ended, RCA inputs. We used the dCS Vivaldi ONE as our digital source and the Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 with Boulder 508 phono (via XLR adapters) for analog duties. This amplifier is not the least bit out of its element with world class sources, and it has more than enough resolution to hear the difference between a gamut of phono stages from $1,000 to $65,000.

Auditioning required

With only 30 watts per channel at your disposal, you have to use them wisely, so you’ll need to get the right speakers, but it’s not like only having 9 watts per channel to work with. John DeVore’s speakers work well with the A21SE Sig; Harbeth, Spendor, and Grahams make great playmates too. Ditto for the Focal Sopra and Kanta range. Those in small rooms can achieve magic with whatever flavor of LS3/5a you enjoy. Perhaps the biggest surprise was connecting the A21SE Sig up to the Focal Stella Utopia Ems. These massive three ways, with their 13” field coil woofers enjoy a sensitivity rating of 94db/1-watt and they thrive on low power, high quality amplification. Again, the A21SE Sig delivers a stunning, three dimensional presentation with these flagship speakers.

The Sugden doesn’t really need any “break in” beyond being powered up for 24 hours, like every other class-A amplifier we’ve used, it does need to warm up. Even though there are no vacuum tubes here, class-A amplifiers usually run fairly warm and it takes about 90 minutes to fully stabilize thermally.

Sound at turn on is fine, but as you’ve had your A21 for a while, and become familiar with it, you’ll notice a slight haze in the presentation when it is ice cold; slowly and gradually clearing over that first 90 minutes it’s on.

Glued to the listening chair

Record after record proves that this is an amplifier completely free of fatigue. There’s a level of inner detail present, that will have you scratching your head (or reaching for the screwdriver to take the top cover off) to find the vacuum tubes inside. While you won’t find them, this is the result of decades of engineering refinement.

Regardless of the music you love, the A21SE Sig allows an incredibly musical experience. Bass is powerful, controlled, and anything but one-note. As the Focals go down to 16hz, the sheer amount of control and texture that this little amplifier delivers might be lost on a listener with a pair of LS3/5as, but through the mighty Focals, it was dramatic and impressive.

Inner detail is equally fantastic. Especially when listening to music with densely packed, similarly voiced harmonies, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Utopia, or Crowded House. Where lesser amplifiers would leave these tunes sounding like a fat, or maybe slightly overdubbed vocal, the A21SE Sig gives each vocalist and individual space within the recording. CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping” is just beautiful to behold. Going back to the 80’s self-titled Utopia, Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox, Kasim Sulton and Roger Powell all go back and forth trading lead vocals on each track, yet because they all have such a similar vocal range, it’s easy (on an lesser resolving amplifier) to think TR is doing all the lead vocals. Again, the A21SE Sig clearly reveals the subtle differences between the group members.

Acoustic music lovers will be equally, if not more enthralled. The sheer amount of texture this amplifier reveals when listening to violins and pianos of different kinds is amazing. Everyone who’s ever claimed that “solid-state doesn’t/can’t sound as good as tubes” needs to hear this amplifier.

I could go on forever

But I don’t want to bore you. Seriously the Sugden A21SE Signature is an amplifier that every audiophile and music lover should own. For some it will be a destination product – it’s certainly good enough in that capacity. For others it will be a bookmark, but either way, this is an amplifier that shouldn’t be missed.

Oh yeah, you can get one in orange too. I like that a lot.

I guarantee that this is an amplifier, that once you hear it, you will never forget it. Very enthusiastically recommended, especially in a world where we mistakenly think that “high end sound” requires a six figure budget.

The Sugden A21SE Signature

MSRP: $3,250 (factory) (US importer)

Analog Source Luxman PD171A w/Kiseki Purple Heart

Digital Source dCS Bartok

Speakers Quad 2818, Harbeth P3SR, JBL L-100 Classic

Cable Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Power PSAudio P15 Power Plant

The Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement

The first time I drove an Aston Martin, it was an otherworldly experience. The sheer opulence of the car was equally matched by the performance, providing a feel in a sporting car like no other. Yes, a geeked out Subaru STi is just as fast, but the sheer beauty of the Aston is unmistakable. You’ll get the same feeling when you unpack an Artisan Fidelity turntable.

Except this is like unwrapping a freshly restored and re-engineered DB5. Yes, it is an excellent record playing machine:  luxurious to behold, I suspect it will always give you pause when playing a record. Old car guys like to say, “It looks fast just standing still,” and that sentiment applies to the Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement Turntable, presented here in its latest version 2 form.

Gently placing the stylus down on Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Aisles, I received an equally out of this world experience. If you’ve spent some time with idler drive turntables, you know they have a loveable, somewhat fat, burly, yet enjoyable tonal character. By comparison, my Thorens TD-124 sounds bloated and lacking in detail, when listening to the same tracks, even with the same phono cartridge. (in this case, a Lyra Delos)

Having an incredible digital front end at my disposal, analog has to be either really good or really different to go through the ritual that accompanies listening to a record. The Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement offers up a degree of tonal saturation, dare I say, a slightly romantic presentation, that I doubt anyone would ever mistake it for anything but incredible analog. There’s nothing like this in the digital world, and every time I listen to this table, I want more.

Artisan Fidelity’s Christopher Thornton has built the ultimate sleeper Garrard 301 turntable. As a vintage based deck, it still lacks the last bit of clarity that a top modern direct drive offers, but that’s not the point here. We’re not talking about ultimate musical accuracy here, we’re talking about flavor. This table is all about the sonic and visual character) It’s like the difference in body that a Les Paul Custom offers over a Stratocaster. Some prefer one over the other, some have both. You know where I’m going with this…

If you’re of the “a Timex tells time as well as a Rolex, so why spend the extra money” school, stop right now. Turn the page. You won’t like what I have to say.

What makes the Artisan Fidelity Garrard so incredible, separating it from the other “pretty plinth for old hardware beneath” Garrards, is the excruciating level of design fanaticismand precision engineering found in every aspect of this table. Considering how many fine watches cost as much or more than the Artisan Fidelity table, if you value what this table has to offer, it’s a steal at around $22,000 with external regulated power supply.  I’ve used turntables that cost three or four times as much that didn’t provide near the experience that this table does.

Breaking in your brain

Arriving in a couple of crates, the AFG (as I’ll refer to it for the rest of the review) is respectfully packaged, and basic assembly takes only minutes. But it takes a while for everything to sink in fully. If you are as much of a qualityphile as you are audiophile and music lover, you may need to put this table on whatever rack you have in mind and just sit back to take it all in. No other turntable I’ve spent time with offers such a sensual nature of operation. This is a product that begs to be used, often.

Every surface on the AFG is sheer perfection, from the clear coating on the upper Copper platter surface to the premium glossy black automotive paint finish on their proprietary solid billet Aluminum alloy chassis. Everything shines and sparkles. It may even prove tough to keep your enthusiasm in check to mount a tonearm or too, but you will be rewarded. The sample in question, for now, sports an Audio Creative GrooveMaster II tonearm in the front position with the Hyper Eminent EX cartridge from My Sonic Lab.

The rear position is occupied by an SME M2-9-R arm, expertly reworked to feature upgraded bearings, Cardas internal tonearm wire, and a hardwired tonearm cable (also Cardas), sporting a Kiseki Purple Heart cartridge, making for an excellent tradeoff. Additionally, we’ve been using the rear position as a test bed for cartridge reviews on our new site ( Both arms have been feeding into the new Pass Labs XP-27 phono stage going forward, but for the purpose of this review, all comparisons were made on our reference Pass Labs XS Phono.

As a confessed mechanical enthusiast that loves anything finely machined, coated and painted, the AFG is as close to sensory overload as it gets. The plinth is only the beginning, and once the massive modular platter, consisting of copper, magnesium alloy, aluminum, acetal and stainless steel is installed, a lot of the beauty is underneath. But the plinth alone is a work of art. You can click here for the full explanation on the Artisan Fidelity site, but here’s the short version.

Details, details, details.

That’s what will have you doing a second, third, fourth, and twentieth double take on this table. If you are used to the shortcomings mentioned above of the idler wheel system, it only takes about five seconds of musical flow to turn your head like a dog in disbelief. All the speed inconsistency and cloudiness you’d expect from an idler table does not exist with the Artisan Fidelity. Every aspect of this decades-old design has been re-thought and re-engineered to 21st-century spec.

There is a staggering amount of person-hours in the assembly of one of these, and I suspect more than any other high-end turntable I’ve used. I highly suggest going for the slightly larger plinth which enables one to add a second tonearm, making the investment even easier to amortize. Not to mention the visual appeal of two tonearms!

From the inverted and modular Sapphire bearing/heavy balanced Copper hybrid main platter unit to the finely machined austenitic stainless steel idler wheel, that has only .003 inch variation in its periphery surface diameter and precision billet aluminum eddy current disk brake, it’s the refinement of every aspect of this classic table’s design, combined with fanatic, individual final assembly and listening tests that distinguishes this from your Grandfathers Garrard. Forget everything you think you know about the idler drive system.

Quick setup

As this table uses a rebuilt version of the stock English AC induction drive motor, which happens to be a 220-volt/50hz configured unit, my sample arrives with an optional Sound Carrier Universal Turntable power supply ($1995) and offers a wide continuously adjustable range of fine voltage and frequency tuning for each 33 1/3, 45, and 78rpm speeds. In practice, this takes about five minutes to set up to perfection completely.

Setting both tonearms up to perfection with Richard Mak’s Analog Magik tool kit and a SmartTractor alignment tool, has me rocking in the free world in about an hour. Not bad for two tonearms. You can now purchase both of these tools directly from Artisan Fidelity, and if you don’t already own them, I highly suggest their purchase with your table, as the investment will pay dividends both in the short and long run.

Returning to the listening chair…

We can talk tech forever, and designer Christopher Thornton is such a passionate individual that he can explain everything he’s done in as granular of a level as you’d like. As exciting as this is, I dare you not to fall in love with this turntable by the time you play the first track.

Where my reference Grand Prix Audio Parabolica lifts so much detail from a record, it’s often hard to believe that so much detail exists in these grooves, the AFG gets nearly as much detail, but adds slightly more weight and fleshes out the midbass just enough to carry you through the average to pretty good records in your collection in the way that the more resolving table can’t.

Your perception of musical reproduction is so personal, there is no best here. Some days you want to drive the Bentley, and some days you want to drive the Porsche GT4, both are awesome, but neither can really deliver the experience of the other. Both will get you to the grocery store and back, and you can live with either at moderate speeds.

Much will depend on where your musical priorities lie. I maintain that to really enjoy analog to the fullest, you need more than one setup, but that may not be practical for everyone. Where the AFG excels is in the sheer size, scale and weight of its presentation. Going back to the Blue Note and Impulse jazz catalogs, listening to a lot of acoustic instruments, this table does an incredible job of reproducing the texture and character of a stand-up bass, the force of a horn, or a quick ride around the drum kit. And Ella’s voice has never sounded more realistic in my system.

Classic rock lovers will feel equally at home. Electric guitars sound massive, and multilayered studio recordings from the 60s to the 80s open up a level of sonic sorcery that might have you double checking to make sure no one put something in your drink. The sound field presented by this table with either cartridge is big, wide, deep, airy and immersive.

An experience like no other

I could gush on and on about the Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement for hours, but we’ve all got to get back to work, eh? The minute you listen to a record on one, it will either captivate you to the point where you can’t live until you find a way to make one yours, or its exuberant nature will not be your cup of tea.  Car talk aside, the only other thing I can really compare the AFG to that might make even more sense is a pair of top range Sonus faber speakers. They are the only other audio product I’ve used with a similar level of finish.  And it is the only other product where my friends’ spouses say, “yes, you can have one of those in the living room.”

Just like every SF speaker we’ve had in for review, the AFG is the only other product that brings a similar level of intrigue with it. Everyone wants to touch it. So much so, that I am thinking about mounting a very inexpensive cartridge to the rear tonearm, so everyone can experience the sheer physicality of operating this turntable.

As one who rarely turns fanboy on products, the AFG is a rare piece of gear that at the end of the review has me losing my ability to remain objective. If you genuinely love analog, you should experience one, whether you write the check or not. However, I suspect if you value the qualities I’ve mentioned here, you will have a very tough time not falling victim to its spell. This one has been here for the better part of a year now, and I pinch myself every time I use it.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This is why it was our Analog Product of the Year for 2018.

The Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement

Single 9″-12″ tonearm compatible plinth configuration, $18,995 (Exotic hardwood and Automotive finishes optional)

Dual 9″ – 12″ tonearm compatible plinth, as above, $19,995

Sound Carrier UTPS Power Supply $1,995 (optional)

The JBL L-100 Classic

In 1982 I wanted three things: A Nikon F2 with motor drive, a BMW 320i and a pair of JBL L-100s. I got two out of three. I needed the Nikon to earn a living, and a new 3-series was about 13k, well equipped. But I did get a pair of L-100s and they rocked.

But then I became an audiophile and I was too cool to have JBLs. I bought a pair of Magnepans and got serious about hifi.

As the years passed, the L-100s kept nagging and a few pairs of vintage L-100s have come and gone. I still have a pair of originals, which have been modded to sound a bit better than I remember. I drag them out once in a while and connect them to my Nakamichi 600 wedge series components, lamenting how far hifi has come in 4 decades.

That all changed at last years Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Harman was showing the new, Classic L-100s in orange! Woo hoo, the signature foam block grilles were back! And the sound was out of this world good.

Today, I use a Nikon D800, and there’s a fairly clean 83 320i in the driveway for old times sake, but it’s more like my vintage L-100s. Not modern transportation anymore.

But these new L-100s rock. The first track played is Joni Mitchell’s “Car on a Hill” and it’s the late 70s again. Awesome.

– And a big thank you to Steve Rowell at Audio Classics for making this happen.