The Boulder 1161 Power Amplifer

August 31, 2019
I love wristwatches, but I’m kind of a lurker.

I’d love one of those big, chunky, Rolex Submariners, but I can’t quite make the leap to almost $20k for a watch. I wear a much more modest Tudor Bronze Black Bay. In a recent article from John Mayer on the website, he referred to my watch as “a way to get into the serious watch guy game without spending five figures.” Made me feel even better about my purchase.

High-performance audio is a similar thing. We see so many amazing technological triumphs, but some of them are out of our reach. Interacting with our readers for 15 years now, I’m amazed at how many of you have invested 30 to 100 thousand dollars in a music system. While that seems to be a big sweet spot (as are the 5-10k system owners) it’s still a far cry from the “money no object system” owners. No disrespect, it just is what it is. But guess what, that’s what we all want, right? Occasionally, you can cheat the numbers, and a few rare pieces of gear with a moderately high price tag, aren’t so far out of reach that you’ll never even be able to dream of owning one. And because they offer such tremendous long term value, make perfect sense to pull the trigger on.

The Boulder 1161 is precisely that kind of thing

If I received a big lottery payout tomorrow, I’d buy a full Boulder 3000 series system. It’s the most musically revealing gear I’ve heard in my journey as an audio consumer and audio writer. These are all six-figure components and worth every penny. But, they will remain out of my reach unless I have a major windfall. The new 1100 series is spectacular, in its own right. At $22,000 for the amplifier and $21,000 for the matching 1110 preamplifier, you could add your favorite pair of 10-20k pair of speakers a great source to make up a system that is close enough to what the crazy money gear costs, to live with for the rest of your life. And have no regrets.

Much like our discussion in the review of the dCS Bartok recently, you probably aren’t going to walk out the door and buy a $43,000 amp and pre tomorrow, and you probably aren’t going to start your hifi journey here. (Bully for you if that’s your starting point, though!) You work up to components like this, so you probably have something decent to sell or trade as a starting point, so this isn’t as scary as it seems at first blush.

After giving the 1161 an hour to fully stabilize thermally, the first cut to evaluate the mettle of the Boulder is Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Mary Magdalene,” a track combining a lush female voice, a wispy percussion track, and some of the deepest bass grooves going. It feels as if I’ve pushed my speakers and the listening room about 25% further apart. Many audiophile clichés come to mind, but the way this amplifiers’ complete lack of noise and coloration is uncanny, and if you’ve never heard a Boulder amplifier or system, might even freak you out a little. In an excellent way. I’ve never forgotten my first Boulder experience, and listening to the 1161 takes me right back there. The clarity that this amplifier offers is stunning.

What you don’t get

Because the 1161 is conservatively rated at 150 watts per channel (into 8 ohms), it doesn’t require the massive “big blue” 32-amp connector and power cord that Boulder’s bigger amplifiers use – providing considerable cost savings. Using a high quality, 15-amp AC socket means your favorite power cord will work just fine. Most users having speakers with a sensitivity rating of about 86db/1-watt, should be just fine with the 1161, so this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Those requiring more power can step up to the 1160, producing twice as much power, with an MSRP of $28,000.

Because of its power rating, this is a Boulder amplifier that can be easily lifted solo. Hitting the scale at just over 60 pounds, this one is maneuverable. Should you step up to an 1160 (at 135 pounds) assistance will be required. And remember, this is still the 1100 series. 

Boulder is known for casework that is flawlessly executed. This is because Boulder controls every aspect of their chassis building in house, from machining the raw aluminum to the final finish. They look great from a distance, but when you get close and truly inspect any Boulder product, you can see what a fantastic example of metalworking art they are. They are the only manufacturer in the United States that still has this level of control.

Functionality is king at Boulder, and their casework is not self-indulgent – the intricate design of the heat sinks allows higher heat dissipation while saving space over an amplifier with traditional finned heat sinks. The 1161 features the same heatsink design that graces the rest of the line, but the front panel and remaining chassis bits are of a slightly simpler design. The front panel design of the 1100 series is in part homage to the Flagstaff Mountain, which is near their Louisville, Colorado offices.

Finally, you don’t get to use your speaker cables if they have banana ends. The large wing-nut speaker terminals will only accommodate spade lugs because Boulder feels that is the best way to connect speaker cable – bananas loosen with time. So be prepared.

What you do get

Most importantly, you get the sonic virtues that have made Boulder a legend: tonal neutrality and freedom from coloration like nothing else, incredible dynamic range, and high resolution without fatigue or distortion. This fully balanced amplifier runs in class A mode up to 17 watts, (gently transitioning to AB above that) does a better job at disappearing than anything we’ve experienced. It’s so exciting that Boulder has not decreased the quality of their smaller amps, just the amount of raw power on tap.The 1161s 150 watts per channel never max out our Sonus faber Stradivaris (92db/1-watt) or the Focal Stella Utopia Ems (93db/1watt). These flagship loudspeakers deliver incredible performances with the 1161 in the amplification chain, and I couldn’t play them loud enough to detect any kind of clipping. Though the 1161 manual says that the white power indicator will briefly turn red in the presence of clipping, we were not able to make this happen, even playing TOOL at disgustingly (or invitingly, depending on your perspective) loud levels.

Where my reference Pass amplifiers sound slightly tubey in comparison, the Boulder is straight in the middle neutral. We will be revisiting this amplifier again in a month or so when the new 1110 preamplifier joins the system, along with our reference Boulder 508 phonostage for a full Boulder experience. For those curious about the difference, the larger Boulder amplifiers (with larger power supplies and even more output transistors) run further into class A mode, with the top amplifiers running class A all the way to rated power. And that’s what you pay a higher price for.

Many amplification components touted as “neutral,” merely exaggerate detail, overprocessing tonal contrasts in a quest for resolution, but these same products become exhausting to listen to for any length of time. When the Focals were in the system, I felt like I had a miniature version of Boulder’s reference system which features the Focal Grand Utopia EMs and a full complement of 3000 series components. This is an amplifier that you can listen to for days on end, and as you do, discovering new information in your recordings.

Sonically excellent as the 1161 is, most of its other virtue is underneath the top panel. The level of attention to detail rivals what you might expect from the Ferrari Formula One garage. (and, I’ve been to this garage) It’s no surprise that when you visit the Boulder factory, you see their biggest models being wheeled from one department to another on engine stands, in a spotless environment. Boulder’s employees are well trained and have been with the company for years, some for decades. (image courtesy of Boulder Amplifiers)

Nothing I’ve ever had the privilege of lifting the cover on in the audio world is built to this standard. This is what gives Boulder products the highest secondary market value of anything going – if you can even find them used. I’m sure people that trade Boulder in for something else are out there, but every Boulder owner I’ve encountered has only traded up. It’s rarely if ever for sale used, and I’ve never heard of one that has malfunctioned. I don’t even recall seeing a service area when I visited the factory, but I’m sure it’s there somewhere.

Excellence defined

In a world where countless hifi reviews lead to a conclusion where the reviewer says, “Is the XYZ amplifier worth the price asked? I don’t know, I can’t make that decision,” I have no reservation saying the Boulder 1161 is one of the best values in high-end audio today. On their website, Boulder says that the 1161 “has no sonic drawbacks.” For a change, the product exceeds the manufacturers claim.

And that’s what you write the check for. Given the Boulder 1161s sonic performance, build quality, and that it is as obsolescence proof as a component can be, I find it to be a more than worthy candidate for one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2019. If you seek what Boulder offers, there is no better. And if you don’t need the raw power of the 2000 or 3000 series, this amplifier can easily be the last one you ever buy. Unless of course, you get a hankering for a bigger Boulder…

The Boulder 1161
MSRP: $22,000


Analog Source GrandPrix Audio Parabolica/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Speakers Focal Stella Utopia EM, Sonus faber Stradivari

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Reference

The Wharfdale Linton Speakers

For some odd reason, paging through the album artwork in the Roon browser, trying to decide what record to play first on the Wharfdale Lintons in my system, Queen’s News of the World jumps out at me.

Maybe it’s that I haven’t actually listened to this record in ages, or perhaps it was just watching the Family Guy episode where Brian terrorizes Stewie with the album cover, or, maybe it’s just that these reasonably priced speakers from Wharfdale really rock. Yes, they do. Those of you that have had the chance to hear them at recent audio shows know what I mean.

Budget speakers are full of compromise because there’s only so much a designer can give you on a tight budget, yet the Lintons are as close to perfection for $1,200 a pair as anything we’ve ever heard. They are genuine full range “bookshelf” speakers in the best British tradition, and very substantial. You’ll notice how lovely the cabinets are as you unpack these 40-pound three ways. The Lintons look and feel like a $4,000 pair of speakers. Actually, cabinet-wise, they are finished to a higher level of quality than my $4,000/pair JBL Classic L-100s.

Thanks in part to a pair of ports on the rear panel the Lintons offer solid bass down to the 40hz range, negating the need for a subwoofer in nearly all environments. Their ability to deliver claimed peaks of 110db means you can crank these speakers way past the point of prudence. You’ll never get there with a pair of mini-monitors.

System and setup

While you’re at it, consider buying your Lintons as a with their matching stands, bringing the cost to $1,499 a pair. That’s what you’d pay for a pair of KEF LS50s without stands. They are available in walnut, as you see here, or red mahogany. Both are pleasant and easy to integrate with your décor. Another fun aspect of the Wharfdale stands is the small shelf on the bottom that will comfortably hold 20 or so of your favorite records in each. Nice touch.

Finally, the Lintons 90db/1-watt sensitivity makes amplifier choices a breeze, and they are both tube and class-D amplifier friendly, so whatever you have on hand will be a good place to start. I began my break-in period with a stack of vintage Nakamichi 600 components and ran the gamut after that. Everything from the PS Audio Sprout II to the Audio Research REF160Ms plays well with these speakers – nothing should be off-limits.

Final review listening was done in our living room system with the VAC Sigma 170i tube integrated (85wpc) the dCS Bartok DAC and the MoFi StudioDeck +U that we just recently reviewed. Great as the Lintons work with everything, again, there’s just something about these speakers, a great tube amp, and a long playlist of classic rock that is inescapably good.

A day or two of varied program material is all you need to hear the full potential of the Lintons and then do final room tuning. Horizontal and vertical dispersion is excellent, so these speakers are less critical than most to optimize, especially if you are using the Wharfdale stands. This makes the Lintons easy to engage anywhere in your listening environment, not just on the center of the couch. This is also excellent when friends drop by, even those sitting off to the side or corner will get a good helping of the music, making these speakers everyone will enjoy at a get together.

Provided you have enough freedom to place your Lintons, it won’t take very long to achieve a good balance between bass extension and upper bass smoothness. In our 12 x 18-foot living room, they ended up on the short wall about three feet from the back and side walls with a few degrees of toe-in.

The Lintons are not terribly cable sensitive, but Cardas Iridium speaker cable offers up a few more molecules of warmth than our other favorite budget speaker cable, Tellurium Q black. The former offering the best synergy with solid-state and the latter slightly more tube friendly. For those on a super tight budget, cut this Home Depot extension cord ( in half, strip the ends and get down to business. It’s all good.

An excellent gateway to audiophile madness

Nearly all of the competitors in the Lintons price range run out of performance pretty quickly, so when the desire to upgrade your system arrives, the speakers are often the first thing to go. Not so here. After using these speakers with a relatively wide range of source and amplification components, the Lintons deliver highly satisfying musical performance with entry level  electronics, yet have enough resolution to remain keepers when the upgrade bug hits. That’s superior value.

The key to these speakers is genuinely the balance that they’ve achieved at their price – sonically and aesthetically. In the best British tradition, they go about their way of delivering great music without a fuss. Not quite as warm and woolly as a pair of Harbeths, yet not quite as dynamic as similar offerings from Totem and Paradigm, the Lintons are fantastic all-rounders.

Their real strength, beyond being easy to place and drive, is their wide tonal and dynamic range. If there is any sacrifice here (and again, all speakers at this price make some sacrifices), it’s that of pinpoint image placement within the soundstage. My reference $4,000 JBL L-100 Classics have the same issue, and for my money, I’ll take a speaker with a bit more diffuse soundfield that offers bass extension and dynamic ability every time.

They also offer a high degree of tonal accuracy and cleanliness, that is rarely offered at this price, so if you don’t share my love for classic rock, they do an equally good job with acoustic, classical, jazz, anything you have in your collection. This is another bonus for the beginning audiophile that loves to stream their music. Speakers with this kind of capability will invite you to sample more new music because they won’t poop out when you turn the volume up. Hmmm.

Which brings us full circle. That’s what makes the Wharfdale Lintons really rock, and so much fun to build a system around. These are speakers that you can get lost in for hours upon end just listening to music, and that’s what it’s all about. We can go on and on about specs and such, but none of that matters, if ten minutes into the music, you’re distracted by that new face aging app on your phone.

While we don’t offer a TONEAudio Maximum Fun Award, the Lintons would be our first choice. However, they are more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards. They’ve got it all, great sound, great build quality and a heritage that few speakers can match.

The Wharfedale Linton Speakers

$1,198/pair (without stands) $1,498/pair (with stands)


Analog Source MoFi Ultra Deck, AVID Plug and Play

Digital Source Rega Apollo CD player, dCS Bartok DAC

Amplification VAC Sigma 170i

Cable Cardas Iridium, Tellurium Q Black II

Issue 97


Old School:

Jeff Dorgay continues the roll with Pioneer and bags an RT-701 Reel to reel deck


Michael Laurance samples the Bowers&Wilkins 607 speakers

Journeyman Audiophile:

We put the Linn Selekt DSM through its paces with multiple power amplifiers

The Audiophile Apartment:

McIntosh’s new MTI100 is a killer combination

Shanon Says:

Shanon breaks in the Hana ML cartridge
By Shanon Swetlishnoff

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Styling Shades

Snoop Dogg Loafers

Weinermobile AirBnB

Fielder’s Choice Wallet

and more….


ARC REF 160 Monoblocks

Conrad-Johnson ART 27A


Line Magnetic LM-45

VAC Sigma 170i Integrated


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world

Future Tense

AVID Acutus Dark

Anthem MRX 520

Mikek Brooklyn + DAC

and more…

Cover Feature: Tubes

Jeff Dorgay reflects on the Prima Luna EVO400 Amp and Pre

The dCS Bartok DAC

Listening to the delicacy of Allison Miller’s drumming in Boom Tic Boom, in my living room system, it’s easy to see how this DAC can be the end of your digital journey.

Like every other dCS DAC I’ve owned or reviewed, they always manage to hit a perfect tonal balance, combined with wide dynamic range and a natural presentation that never feels digital at all. Good as their last entry-level piece the Debussy was ($11k about 8 years ago), the new Bartok at $13,500 (and $15,000 with a built-in headphone amp) offers quite a bit more. By comparison, many of your favorite automobiles have gone up in price by a much greater percentage.

The Bartok’s sonic signature is similar to the Vivaldi but the Vivaldi is further refined. The Bartok reminds me much more of my former Paganini in terms of the ease it presents. Much like my reference dCS Vivaldi One, the Bartok just sounds like music. There’s no “pretty good for digital” stuff going on here. dCS’ John Quick had this to say about the similarity of the Bartok in their lineup:

“Bartok and Rossini share the same processing and RingDAC analog boards, so overall, they have the same processing capacity. The differences between the units (that affect their cost and ultimately their overall performance) are literally down to the Bartok having half the power supply and the chassis being far less expensive. The Bartok’s construction overall is less complicated, using thinner metal. It uses a folded metal internal chassis wrapped in aluminum side and top panels; and although the front panel seems like a thick hunk of aluminum like everything else, it’s actually a very thin cap that either includes the punch-outs for the headphone outputs or not.”

A long-term investment

It’s been argued elsewhere that components like the dCS Bartok will only be purchased by the wealthy, in reference to its $13,500 price tag. ($1,500 more, if you want the internal headphone amplifier, and I highly suggest that you spend the extra- you won’t regret it)

However, I submit that $13,500 – $15,000 isn’t out of reach for all but the well-heeled (read my article on “motorcycle money” here). Call me crazy, but I’m guessing you probably didn’t wake up today and say “I’m gonna buy a $15,000 DAC today.” Most audio enthusiasts don’t start there. Some do, but most don’t. Most of us work our way up the ladder. More realistically, you’re probably trading in a $3k-$8k DAC and moving up to what might be your last. dCS’ programmable architecture goes a long way towards making an investment as future proof as digital technology can be.

Over the nearly ten years I owned the Paganini stack, numerous upgrades were only an upload away, giving me a new DAC every time. You can read more about dCS’ approach and technological solutions here at their website.

This is an excellent time to make an investment like this because Roon is well implemented, there are several excellent streaming services available (directly via dCS’ own Mosaic App should you not go the Roon route), and all of the dCS players have proprietary fully-implemented MQA. We could have a dodgeball game to the death about MQA, but if you are a fan, rest assured that dCS has done a fantastic job at decoding MQA. I’ll even put the Nomex suit on and go as far as to say they’ve even outdone Meridan on MQA decoding ability – these files though both of the dCS DACs here, sound more lifelike than they have on any other MQA equipped box we’ve heard.

Just grab your favorite phones

Because the Bartok has already started achieving a lot of fanfare in the headphone world, let’s start here. As dCS’ first entry into this world, they’ve built a brilliant product. The Bartok’s full class-A headphone amplifier drives everything from my Koss Pro-4AAs that I’ve had since high school to the new Focal Utopias to perfection. You’d probably spend more than $1,500on a premium interconnect and power cable to add a headphone amplifier of comparable performance to a Bartok based system, so it’s almost like getting a fab headphone amplifier at no extra charge- and you don’t need to find more rack space. How’s that for justification?

After exhausting auditioning with about 20 different pairs of phones in the $50 – $4,000 range, I don’t need a better headphone amplifier than the one built in the Bartok. A couple of the top choices from Luxman ($4,995) and Woo Audio ($16,000) reveal a little bit more music, but nowhere near enough for this moderate headphone user to ever justify the additional cost. The front panel features a standard ¼-inch headphone jack and a 4-pin balanced jack. While this won’t cover every single headphone out there, all of the premium headphones on the market have one of these two options (if not both) available (and most have detachable cables allowing for adapting to either).

Headphone use couldn’t be more straightforward. Plug into the front panel and switch the Bartok’s output from line to headphone, and then use the knob on the front panel as volume, or control from your mobile device or laptop with whatever app you are using for playback.

Even the most fanatical of my headphone pals came away highly impressed with the Bartok’s performance. Those of you living in tight quarters, tight enough that you can’t afford the space for a power amplifier and speakers right now, would do well to grab a Bartok, a Roon subscription, and a few of your favorite streaming services.

This leads to my only complaint with the Bartok- it would be lovely if dCS would add a single analog input, so those needing just one input could use it as a standalone preamplifier, or those going strictly for the headphone experience, could add a phonostage too. If you’re all digital, the Bartok is pretty incredible.


Rather than seeing the Bartok as a $15,000 headphone amp that happens to be a remarkable DAC, I see it as a destination DAC that’s a steal at $13,500 and even more so with the addition of the headphone amp. Perspective is everything.

After coming off a year with the Rossini and now nearly a year with the Vivaldi ONE, the only thing the Bartok doesn’t offer that the other two larger and more expensive players in the lineup offer are scale and some ultimate top-end refinement. Some of this refinement can be achieved by adding a dCS external clock.

The sense of scale comes from bigger power supplies, isolation of functions to individual chassis and the added electrical and mechanical isolation that comes with taking core functions to separate chassis. The progress dCS has made here is astounding. Again, Mr. Quick chimes in, offering some more insight:  “We are getting better at trickling down more of the sound of our flagship in our current offerings, and Bartok is really special in that regard. Considering it has 6-7 years of R&D ahead of it from Vivaldi and Rossini – far ahead of anything else we’ve done- versus the 2.5-3 years that separated Scarlatti and Debussy… that definitely made a big difference. Beyond that, where we’ve taken the RingDAC in the latest series is also a primary contributor. We could not have made nearly the same overall improvement in changing the mapping algorithm (as we did in Vivaldi and Rossini v1 versus v2) in the older generation products.”

It’s all about resolution

Having the unique ability to compare the Bartok side by side as the anchor to a very nice $50k system (which is where I suspect most Bartoks will end up) and my reference system, worth nearly ten times this much, illuminates the differences clearly.

In my primary reference system, that has a much broader dynamic capability, more low-level resolution, and a magnificent soundstage, the Bartok makes a great showing. For many analog crazed audiophiles I know that are primarily analog, but would still like digital, this could be an excellent choice.

Regardless of choosing delicate, small ensemble choral music, or the most raucous rock, starting with the Bartok feels just fine. But then switching up to the Vivaldi One shows precisely where the limits of the Bartok lie. Yet going back to the system in my living room, which is unable to resolve as much musical information, the delta between the two is not nearly as vast.

The point here is that the core musicality of the Bartok is highly similar to the bigger boxes in the dCS range, and that’s what I appreciate. Some manufacturers are not nearly as good at delivering a linear increase in performance as you go up the range. The Bartok is at the top of its class for the price asked, as are the Rossini, Vivaldi ONE and full-blown, four box Vivaldi – as it should be. There’s no law of diminishing returns if you have a system capable of resolving the difference.

Versatility defined

The Bartok can accommodate any digital source you’d like to connect, via its RCA, Coax, or optical SPDIF inputs, single or dual AES inputs, USB or network inputs. That’s right, it’s got a fully capable streamer built in that will access your UPnP network and bring files in from your NAS or straight from your network.

The Bartok has a fully balanced, class-A output stage in addition to the headphone amplifier, and there are balanced XLR and standard RCA outputs, that are both variable. More about that in a bit.

Our experience with the Vivaldi ONE, the Rossini, and Bartok is that the best results are streaming music files right from the network. Those not wanting to pony up for a ROON subscription can use dCS’ own app, which works well and sounds excellent, though lacks the ultimate functionality of ROON. It’s also incredibly handy that you can chain another network device through the Bartok. I use a Naim Uniti Core for CD ripping and offline storage in addition to my NAS, so this is a perfect way to keep the Uniti Core close by.

Excellent luck was also had with a variety of different CD players as transports. Those who want to keep it all dCS might consider a used dCS transport for their disc needs, and if you use a Paganini transport with the dual AES connection, native SACD playback is possible. There are no limitations to digital playback with the Bartok. You can even connect to it as an Airplay zone!

Pre or not to pre

The ultimate question for some will be whether to use the Bartok as a standalone preamplifier, forgoing a linestage/preamplifier, or putting one in the system. Conventional wisdom suggests that less is more, but digital volume controls are always a touchy thing. At extremely low listening levels, they tend to lose resolution. Where the Vivaldi One can, in fact, be used without a line stage, if you are only concerned with digital playback, the Bartok is pretty good.

Ultimately, this is the other area where the entry-level Bartok is bested by the top dCS player. In my living room system when playing the Bartok directly into the BAT VK 56SE power amplifier and Focal Kanta no.3s, adding a preamplifier made a slight difference, offering up a little bit more spaciousness and definitely a smidge more warmth at very low-level playback. It was easier to notice the minute level of flatness there at the lowest level after going back to having a tip-top preamplifier in the system, but it will depend on your needs.

However, switching from the Kanta no.3s to the much larger and more resolving Focal Stella Utopia Ems, the jump in performance added by our Nagra Classic Preamplifier was unmistakable, especially in the area of tonal contrast and saturation. And of course, low-level playback is warmer and more full-bodied.

It’s about music

As I’ve said before, the dCS DACs have always deliver supreme musicality, and I have hung my hat on their products, using them as a reference tool for over a decade. However, what I love about dCS is the way they serve the music and not the other way around. This is a player than I can listen to for 12-16 hours a day (and have on many occasions) with zero fatigue.

dCS does an outstanding job at presenting music with a tonality that is dead center in the middle of the scale. Their products (and the Bartok is no exception) are neither warm and romantic nor overly bright, bleached or harsh. Hitting the tonality bullseye is tougher than it sounds, but they manage to pull it off every time.

Every other musical parameter is equally well represented. Rather than go on at length with tracks you may or may not know or like, the best way to see what I mean is to go to your dCS dealer and give the Bartok a listen.

Is it for you?

Returning to our original conversation, you don’t have to be an aristocrat to have a dCS Bartok of your very own. If you love music, and you want a top-quality digital front end that will offer enough performance to stay put, the Bartok is a winner. The performance that it provides more than justifies the price asked. dCS has put a considerable helping of their top technology in a package that outperforms many far more expensive boutique DACs.

Best of all, the customer service and ongoing support that comes with a dCS product assures that this is a digital player you will enjoy for years to come. Highly recommended. And yes, spring for the headphone amp!

The dCS Bartok

$13,500. ($16,250 with headphone amplifier)


Preamplifier Nagra Classic Preamplifier

Amplifier Nagra Classic Amplifier

Speakers Focal Kanta no.3 and Focal Stella Utopia EM

Cable Cardas Clear

What the hell is “high end audio” anyway?

After 40 years of being an audio enthusiast, consumer (and someone covering this world for the last 17 of those years) I think we have a fundamental confusion in what we’re talking about.

To me, “high end audio” means something condescending, something unapproachable, something you can’t have. It means the secret handshake, the elite club.

I’d rather it not be that way.

In the world of cars, you have cars that get you from point a to point b reliably, like a Toyota RAV 4 or a Kia Soul, that are perfectly good cars (I’ve owned both of em) and they get the job done with no fuss. And for probably 99 percent of the population that’s just fine. If you think I’m nuts, how many of your friends, male and female, have said at one point or another, “cars don’t mean anything to me, I just need one to get from a to b and back.”

There’s no shame in that at all. Most people don’t give a shit about cars.

I’ve got news for you, most people don’t give a shit about audio either. But almost everyone loves, or at least likes music. But for so many, it’s something in the background, it’s something to listen to on the subway, or when friends are over. Or sing along with.

It’s something to get from point a to b.

But high performance audio is something completely different. High performance audio, like high performance cars, motorcycles, bicycles, cameras, concentrates on delivering more experience, no matter what the approach. It doesn’t always have to be expensive, and it doesn’t always have to be brand new. $30,000 will buy you a well-appointed Toyota camry, or it will buy you a really nice, used Audi S4. Think about it. If you love the way a car feels going around a corner, or stopping hard, you’d probably rather drive the Audi.

But even if you take the new approach, high performance audio does not have to break the bank. Many of the manufacturers that we might consider “high end,” and perhaps even out of our reach, make great products, that are very affordable. And they are all a great place to start your journey.

A perfect example of this is Vandersteen Audio. Their flagship 7s cost upwards of $60k/pair, but the current version of their model 1 is just under $1,500/pair. If that’s still crazy money in your book, look at the Paradigm Atoms. $299/pair. Both of these speakers are designed and built by the same people that build the flagship models with plenty of TLC.

I can cite plenty of examples in the realm of amplifiers, preamplifiers, DACs and turntables, but I’m guessing you know most of the players.

You can spend a little bit of money or a lot of money. That is up to you and those are your personal priorities.

But stop worrying if your system is “high end,” and where that line begins. Think “high performance,” or even “performance oriented.” Then we can all play, and we can all get on with it. Best of all, we can all get back to enjoying music, to a greater degree than what a mass market solution offers.

Who’s with me? If you’re enjoying music, and you’re having fun doing it, you’re in. It’s really that easy.

The TUK speakers from Kanto Audio

My apologies for the title. To be absolutely correct, the TUKs are all you need if you don’t want to listen to records. Music lovers sourcing their tunes digitally, have everything they need inside the small (but well packed) box that the TUKs arrive in. And for $799 a pair, these speakers offer an incredible amount of sound for the price.

Much as I hate listening to the Eagles, their first album is well recorded and offers some great harmonies, most that get lost on so called, budget speakers. The integration between the TUKs 5 ¼” woofer and AMT tweeter is flawless, and they offer distinct separation of these voices, doing an excellent job keeping the tracks’ pace locked down. Whether listening to layered harmonies, densely recorded metal tracks, or acoustic tunes, the TUKs are a pleasure to listen to, for hours on end.

This, along with the first week of listening was done strictly with the Bluetooth input from my phone, via Roon and Qobuz. I suspect that a lot of the potential audience for these speakers (or any compact, powered speaker for that matter) is more of an “on the go” listener, so if this happens to be you, you will not be disappointed using the TUKs this way.

Moving up

Should you have further audiophile aspirations, the TUKs have you covered with a built in 24/96 DAC, accessible via the rear panel USB port, RCA/SPDIF port, or an optical input. Sampling each, with an old SONY CD changer and Mac Book Pro, versus streaming 24/96 files from Qobuz and CDs is a major step up, with the TUKs offering a much higher level of performance from the already impressive Bluetooth input.

Listening to a number of the same tracks from the initial audition period, is a completely different experience utilizing the on-board DAC. Clarity makes a major jump forward, and if you have the opportunity to truly place the TUKs for optimum sound, a much bigger and deeper sound field awaits you as well. In typical fashion, Kanto puts the amplifier and DAC in one speaker, tethering to the other with a speaker cable. The powered speaker is designated left and the passive right, but should you need to place the powered speaker on the left due to proximity of your AC outlet, it takes a mere push of the button on the remote control to re-orient the speakers, so that left is left again.

Subtleties make the difference

This is a very nice touch, and something I haven’t seen on other powered speakers. The TUKs are full of nice touches, from their satin finish to the aforementioned remote. Fit and finish is high quality, and if there were no badges on these speakers, you’d believe me if I told you that these were built in the same factory that the $4,500 pair of Bowers & Wilkins Duo’s we reviewed recently.

Attention to detail is more than skin deep with the TUKs. In addition to the high-quality DAC and 130 watts per channel on tap, the TUKs also offer an on board phono stage, which we took advantage of with a few budget turntables from Rega and Pro-Ject, utilizing moving magnet cartridges, as well as a vintage Technics with a new Pro-Ject MM cartridge. On one level, this might be the most impressive feature of the TUK – these speakers have a damn good phono stage built in! If you already have a turntable, or are thinking of starting to spin records, the TUKs are a perfect place to start.

Put em anywhere

The small 8.5”W x 10.9”H x 7”D footprint makes the TUKs easy to place for maximum fun. Thanks to the TUKs wide dispersion, they offer great sound no matter where you have to place them. However, if you do want a more traditional audiophile setup, a good pair of stands with the speakers about 6-9 feet apart delivers the goods. Work with the room, best you can to achieve the best balance of upper bass smoothness and lower bass extension. Kanto claims a low frequency limit of 50hz, and this seems reasonable as long as you don’t push the TUKs too hard with tracks having a lot of sub bass information.

For the rest of you, a subwoofer is easily added. Thanks to an 80hz internal crossover, you can add one of Kanto’s subs, or anything else that has a high-level input. As I didn’t have a Kanto sub on hand, my REL T7 (which used to sell for about $349) worked well, and its white finish goes with the current aesthetic. Much as I love the TUKs, adding the sub really makes for a more full-range system, especially if you like music with a lot of low frequencies. With sub in place, tracking through hip hop and EDM faves is a breeze, and crossing over the TUKs, relieving them of amplifying the lowest frequency gives them even more dynamic range.

The small footprint makes the TUKs easy to bring music along wherever you might happen to be. They were as at home in my garage for a weekend worth of car maintenance as they were at an impromptu gathering, and on my back porch, by the fireplace. Actually, they work exceptionally well as a go everywhere party speaker. You might even call the TUKs the perfect road trip companion.

Thanks to all the inputs and small size, they also work incredibly well as powered desktop monitors. Those of you that spend a lot of time in front of a screen will enjoy these as conduits for your favorite tunes, or even to use editing video. Editing a few upcoming YouTube pieces was a snap through the TUKs.

Sonic superstars

Cool as everything else about the TUKs are, their sonic performance is well above everything else we’ve heard in this price range. They not only reveal a high level of musical detail, they have a level of refinement that is absent in this price category. Oh yeah, they even have a built-in headphone amp too. And It’s really good.

With or without a subwoofer, we can’t think of a better way to spend $799 on a hifi system. And remember, this isn’t just a pair of powered speakers, the Kanto TUKs are a complete hifi system. Everything you need to listen to music is in the box. Well, except for a turntable!

And we are pleased to award the Kanto TUKs the Audiophile Apartment’s first Product of the Year award. Whether you are just starting your journey, or need another system elsewhere in your environment, a pair of these will provide you with a lot of listening pleasure.