The Focal Stella Utopia EM

If you’ve experienced Focals’ Grande Utopia Ems in a large room, set up to perfection, it’s easy to see why many consider them one of the (if not the) world’s finest loudspeakers.

But like a hyper sports car, they need a lot of space to give their all. And if you’ve ever heard the Grande’s and not been wowed, they were either set up poorly or in too small of a room. Their well over $200k/pair price and size requirements limit them to a small audience.

The $100,000 less a pair of Stellas cost should be enough to buy a system to go with. Still not for the less than well funded, but the difference between a $500k or closer to $1M system is often a very different customer, with other requirements. As someone once told me, “the difference between me, and my friends with big, big money is the jet. I fly first class, they have their own plane. We stay in the same five-star hotels and golf at Pebble, but they have the plane. Me, I walk to work, but I get it.

So, if you’re on board, and shopping speakers in this price range, there are some exciting choices. Where 10 or 15 years ago, this would be the stratosphere, it is now first class. (at least in terms of price) I submit that those having a somewhat smaller listening environment can achieve nearly the same result with the Stellas. However, the Stellas still need a fair amount of room to sing. Much like the MartinLogan Neoliths, we reviewed a few years back and the Sonus faber Aida, these speakers all taxed the limits of my listening room, which is only 16 x 24 feet. To be fair to Focal, I would suggest that this is the smallest room to achieve greatness with these speakers.

Any less listening space and you would probably be better served with the next speaker down the range, the Maestro Utopia. When we had the Maestros here, they were much easier to optimize to our room, but the Maestro lacks the field coil woofer and the wide range of adjustments making fine-tuning them to the ultimate degree that the Stella possesses. Choices can be tough.

The Stella does share the same field coil technology as the Grande, though in this speaker, the woofer is a 13-inch unit, instead of the 16-inch one in the Grande. Either way, the Stella still goes down to 22 Hz, so there really is no need for a subwoofer. This is a true full range speaker. Long term TONE readers know we like the low frequencies, and whether listening to a full orchestra, or the heaviest beats, the Stellas can rattle your listening room.

You will need Jedi-like patience

First, make sure and have help unboxing your Stellas. They weigh just a bit over 600 pounds each in their sturdy crates, and 374 pounds each, unboxed. Removing them is very straightforward, and in this case, Focal is at the top of their class compared to a few other large speakers we’ve used. Once unboxed, they are temporarily mounted on wheels, so once your assistants have them on the listening floor, the rest of the process is a breeze.

Usually, the long wall in our main listening room is the go-to position, but in this case, placing the Stellas on the short wall, with the tweeters about five feet out from the rear wall proves perfect. There are two sets of adjustments for the low frequencies – the first tips up the bass response at about 50 Hz, in increments from a flat position, and the second increases or decreases the output of the woofer. A single set of jumpers increases midrange level and there are two settings for the tweeters, also adjustable via beefy jumpers, with a chart on the back of the Stellas, accessed by clicking the rear panel behind the tweeter.

This degree of adjustment will either make you super happy or drive you to insanity. We felt it makes a speaker this good, so much easier to implement, and also is part of what makes the Stellas unique in their own right. Focal claims 243 unique adjustments. I probably tried 30 before I got to a level of extreme happiness.

But don’t get too crazy with adjustments just yet. Here’s the only bit of bad news concerning these speakers – they take a long time to break in all the way. Some say it’s close to 1000 hours. They sound flat, forward, and constricted out of the crates, but don’t despair. They start to open up between 100 and 200 hours, really coming into their own at about 400, with marginal improvements in clarity and smoothness going forward. As I recall our reference Sopra no.3s took a few hundred hours to sound their best too. Some of this is the woofer surround, some the beryllium tweeter, and the rest the electronics in the woofer power supply and crossover.

Here’s another Stella tip to save you major disappointment. If you’ve never owned a Focal speaker, their factory in France takes great care to put a tightly adhering, clear plastic wrap on the speakers, so they survive the boat ride. However, in our case, the friendly folks at Focal wrapped over the midrange drivers, so there was almost no output. Everyone was sitting around after unpacking going “damn these speakers have no midrange to speak of,” but it was our fault for not double-checking. Remove the black grills and make sure the drivers are uncovered!! Plan on it taking about a months’ worth of solid listening until your Stellas sound as they should, don’t give up on them!

Incredibly easy to drive

Thanks to the field coil woofer and the rest of the tech inside the Stellas, they have a sensitivity rating of 94db. This sounds good on paper, but some efficient speakers have a lot of crossover network loss, and still need a massive amplifier to really make a lot of sound. Even the 4 watt per channel Whammerdyne 2A3 delivered heavenly results with the Stellas, though that’s probably not quite enough juice in a large room.

Realistically, 30 watts per channel will get the job done, and the emphasis should be on quality here. Working with the Pass XA30.8 (30wpc), our Nagra 300B (25wpc), the VAC Sigma 170i(80wpc) and the new Conrad-Johnson ART 27 (36wpc) all were brilliant choices. For those having more power on tap, you will get even more dynamic swing. Cycling through the Pass XA200.8s, a pair of Nagra Classic Monoblocks, the Audio Research 160Ms and the latest EVO400 monoblocks from PrimaLuna were like going from a 600cc motorcycle to a 1000cc bike, and thanks to the incredibly high resolution that the Stellas offer, each of the dozen amplifiers we auditioned the Stellas with offered a completely different listening experience. So there is plenty of fine-tuning to be done there as well.

But the key to Stella’s superiority is break in and setup. Once you have a rough set performed, plan on spending the better part of a day really fine-tuning your Stellas for best results. As I’ve said many times before, it’s like correctly optimizing VTA on a premium phono cartridge. When you get it just right, these big speakers disappear into your listening space like a pair of LS3/5as – it’s an experience to behold. If they sound harsh or bright, your work is not complete. Pay particularly close attention to the rake angle of these, once you’ve optimized position for the best balance of bass extension and lack of mid-bass bloat. Then make small (I mean tiny) changes on the rake angle to get the tweeter position just right. Consider those controls on the back as your last resort. I didn’t need them in my main listening room, but they were a major blessing in my 14 x 18-foot living room.

Ok let’s go

As your Stellas break-in, you’ll be starting to really get a feel for what they can do. Great as the Sopras are, in comparison, they lack the degree of resolution and clarity that the Stellas offer. Going back and forth between the Stellas, Sopra 3s, and Kanta 3s, the lineage is clear – you would never mistake the other two speakers for anything but Focal, but the sheer ability to move air and swing is what makes the Stellas worth their considerably higher price tag. You just don’t get this in a 20-50k speaker. Think those audiophile clichés of “lifting the veil,” “cleaning the window,” that kind of thing.

If you like the sheer speed of electrostatic speakers, Focal’s beryllium tweeter will not disappoint you. These speakers paint a big canvas, and while I always joke that you need big speakers to make big sound, you just don’t get this level of reach out and touch it with a pair of mini-monitors. Listening to Alan Taylor’s version of “The Tennessee Waltz,” and the banter of the musicians in the studio is scarily lifelike, reproducing every bit of nuance, that you’d expect from a minimalist singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar in a small room. It doesn’t feel like an excellent recreation, it feels like you’re sitting on a stool in the studio, immersed in the performance. When using the big Pass monoblocks, AC/DCs “For Those About to Rock” can be played loud enough without distortion, compression, breakup, or collapse in the soundstage to approach the sheer sonic velocity of a live performance. This is where the 94db/1-watt sensitivity really comes in handy.

Small, single driver, high sensitivity speakers are entertaining, but they don’t play big music in a big way. And this is really the value proposition of the Stellas – they can render everything from the most intimate vocal performance to arena rock. All the while keeping it in perfect scale and perspective. Few speakers can do this, yet the Stellas do it without effort.

An incredible destination, indeed

We could go on and on about all the tech that goes into the Stellas, but you can read about that here…

Focal goes into great depth about their current beryllium tweeter, the latest driver suspension, the EM woofer and their new power flower midrange drivers. The triumph is that it all works well and works together perfectly.

Having visited the Focal factory, and watching the incredibly skilled people that work there build these speakers is a true experience. Everything in the Stellas is designed and built from the ground up. All the drivers, the crossover networks, and the cabinets. I’ve mentioned this in past Focal reviews, but what I found most impressive about the Focal factory is the way they integrate modern and legacy techniques in building their speakers. In one room, you observe someone in a cleanroom wearing a hazmat suit stamping tweeter domes, yet in another, someone is sanding a coat of the cabinet’s final finish manually, stopping to feel the corners with a bare hand.

All of this takes time, patience, and skill. While some will obviously balk at the price of the Stellas, you could pay this kind of money for a timepiece. The Stellas (and the Grandes) are really bespoke loudspeakers, and to me, musical works of art.

I can’t help but comparing the Stellas to a fine automobile again, because when you drive top range sports cars, Ferrari does it one way, Aston Martin another, and Porsche still another. All deliver frighteningly good performance, yet you will respond to one of the three more than another. Mega speakers are the same way.

Yet putting it all in perspective, and that’s kind of a wacky thing for speakers that cost a lot more than most cars, the Focal Stella EMs deliver amazing performance. Take your breath away performance.

The Manley Absolute Headphone Amplifier

If you happen to be a dog person and you’ve ever owned or spent time with a Fox Terrier, you know where I’m going with this.


If you aren’t, Fox Terriers are spunky yet robust little dogs that pack the maximum amount of dog fun into a compact package. Just when you thought I’d be making a car reference, I fooled you. Ha! Come on, how can you resist either of these cuties?

Absolute is an excellent name for this headphone amplifier because it does absolutely everything. If at first blush, you find the shape unconventional, it’s meant to be a headphone stand too! How cool is that? (And pretty thoughtful too.) At $4,495, the Absolute is priced on the low end of premium headphone amplifiers. Seriously, this one is all you need, with outputs for standard ¼” plugs and balanced, the Absolute powers anything you can connect up. Even better, the Absolute can be used as a two-channel linestage, with two line-level inputs, which should be enough for nearly anyone with a DAC and a phonostage to build a mega two-channel system around. Grab a Manley power amp, your favorite speakers, and rock on.

So, you’re either getting an awesome – o headphone stage with a free preamp, or vice versa. The Absolute is worth the asking price as either, offering such high performance and flexibility that I’d suggest buying it as a preamplifier, even if you don’t listen to headphones at all. Besides, you know, once you have the capability, headphone curiosity will get the better of you.

Options, options, options!

Fox Terriers like to go for walks, chase balls, jump around, do whatever looks like fun. They aren’t one-trick dogs, and neither is the Absolute. The level of adjustability is incredible, and this is what makes the Absolute so easy to enjoy whatever headphones you might be using. Those with diverse headphone collections will really appreciate adjustments for feedback, impedance, and tone controls. Before you get all grouchy about tone controls, remember – Manley makes some of the finest studio equalizers in the business, and their expertise is in full effect here.

Considering how much variation there is with all the different phones, you’re going to love the tone controls, once you take them for a drive. The Grado P-2000s are a little bright for me, and the original Audeze LCD-2s benefit from goosing the bottom ever so slightly. Everyone else, you’re out of luck, but with the Absolute, you’ve got a much bigger headphone sandbox to play in.

Honestly, EveAnna Manley does a way better job at explaining all the technical aspects of the Absolute, right here on the Manley website:

This where all the fine print lurks fully describing this engineering masterpiece to the molecular level. And I’ll be darned if that fox terrier EveAnna Manley doesn’t have a couple of great words in the copy that I needed to drag out my dictionary for! Arf!

But seriously, this is no me-too headphone amplifier. Even if you don’t read all the technical stuff that went into this product (and you should), you merely need to touch it. It feels like a ten thousand dollar piece. A ten thousand dollar masterpiece. In silver, copper, and black, with hand-rubbed burl wood accents. It appeals to the qualityphile as well as the audiophile, and we haven’t even started listening yet.

The minute you flip the switch, the cool factor goes through the roof when the tubes come to life. Again, common-sense rules the day with a tube complement (2-12AX7s and 4 6BQ5s) that won’t break the bank when it’s time to retube. Of course, you can roll tubes to your heart’s content, but this time, I just sat back and enjoyed the Absolute with the factory tubes.

And more options

If the OCD baiting options of tube rolling don’t get you, the ability to twiddle the tone controls, change output loading for low, medium, or high Z headphones, and choose single-ended or push-pull class A operation will. Fortunately, with headphones, you don’t have to get up, mosey to the preamp, flip switches and head back to your listening chair to hear the result. I’m guessing that fully exploring the settings the Absolute has to offer will result in a severe loss of productivity on more than one occasion.

The majority of my listening sessions were with the Focal Utopias, an old-school pair of original Audeze LCD-2s, and the current Diana Phi’s. But I’ll come clean – I really love the slightly warm, slightly vintage yet up to date sound of Manley electronics. So does David Crosby. And a gaggle of engineers around the world. There’s a natural, organic feel to the Absolute that I can listen to headphones nearly all day. And I’m not a headphone guy. That’s why I’m making the Manley Absolute my new reference.

Sonic splendor

Rather than go on and on, listing tracks, you neither know nor like, we’ll leave it at this: as mentioned above, the overall balance of the Absolute is one of slight warmth, yet with tons of resolution. It’s a much harder trick to get headphones to disappear on your head than speakers in a room, yet this is the one thing the Absolute does better than nearly every headphone amplifier I’ve had the chance to audition. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay it.

Be careful, you’ll forget you have headphones on and pull your Absolute out of the rack! I’m not kidding. Even my old Koss Pro-4aas that I’ve had since high school worked great with the Absolute, delivering a better performance than a tattered pair of 45-year-old headphones should. Yep, I’m an old dog.

Speaking of speakers

While the Absolute is worth every penny Manley Labs asks for it, it’s the bargain of the year if you use it as a line preamplifier for a two-channel system. This is precisely what I did next, putting it in my living room system, which at the time was sporting a $140,000 pair of Focal Stella Utopias, dCS Bartok DAC, and a PrimaLuna EVO400 power amplifier. Wowowowow.

The Focals, even after over 1000 hours of break-in, are a bit forward in too small of a listening room. Yet with the helpful adjustments that Focal provides, those tone controls on the Absolute allowed me to dial it all in to perfection. Should you use your Absolute in this context, you’ll love the remote that is included. When unboxing the Absolute, before I realized you could use it as a preamplifier, I had a big question mark floating over my head. Like that odd clue that you get reading a Stephen King novel that doesn’t make sense till the end of the book, it all makes sense. And if you don’t use it as a preamp, you can certainly put it to use messing with whoever is using your Absolute.

I told you Fox Terriers were mischievous.

The Focal Utopia Headphones

Having lived with a number of Focal speakers over the last five years, the family resemblance between the Utopia headphones and their floorstanding speakers is unmistakable.


The quick, lively, accurate sound I’ve grown accustomed to is now available for personal listening.
Short story, I love them.

At $3,995, these are top tier premium phones to be sure. Yet unlike some of the other big guns, the Utopias sound incredibly good merely plugged in to my first gen Astell & Kern player or even the Dell desktop that I use to control ROON in my main system. Ditto for the iPad, so these are not like a number of other premium phones that absolutely require a major headphone amplifier to deliver great sound.

Past experience with Focal speakers (and their beryllium tweeters) shows they need a while to break in properly, sounding slightly edgy out of the box. The Utopia headphones are similar, so they stayed plugged into the Dell with music on repeat for a solid week before beginning serious listening. I suggest you do the same, or the brittle sound you start with may scare you off.

Plugging in to a number of different headphone amplifiers, Kevin Deal from Upscale Audio suggests the Feliks Audio Elise. At only $1,649, this makes for an incredible combination, where my Pass HPA-1 is still a touch forward for my personal taste. The Elise transforms the Utopias, mellowing them out that last bit. Passing from my desk to the living room where a pair of Focal Kanta no.3s are playing (via an all tube VAC i170) the sonic signature is wonderfully similar. We’ll have a full report on the Elise very soon.

The Utopia uses a single, full-range beryllium driver, and I firmly believe that this lack of crossover is a big part of the coherent, open sound these phones deliver. Thanks to the low mass of this driver, the Utopias sound remarkably similar to my favorite planar phones.

No matter what kind of music you gravitate towards, the seamless quality of the Utopias will bring it out. Tracking through a long playlist of Blue Note classics shows off how well these phones capture the fine details of acoustic instruments. Horns and piano are full of texture, and thanks to the ultra dynamic nature of the Utopia driver, drums take on a new level of realism, capturing the initial strike of the drum heads with amazing precision.

Listening to Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! reveals what makes the Utopias worth the price. Their ability to disentangle complex recordings is fantastic. Anyone who happens to be a student of Zappa knows how much he packs into any tune. The massive bass riff in the opening of “Who Are The Brain Police?” is kept in balance with all the tinkly percussion bits, surrounded by layer upon layer of vocals – with Zappa staying front, center, right inside your brain as you listen.

The Utopias do and equally enticing job with sparse musical selections. Moving all the way through Twin Peaks (Music From the Limited Event) I’m stopped dead in my tracks on Sharon Van Etten’s “Tarifa.” If you aren’t/weren’t a Twin Peaks fan, at the end of the new episodes (produced around 2017) there is a different band playing in the bar. David Lynch had an incredible sensitivity for the music featured in the original series, and continues this trend here. It’s worth a spin on your favorite streaming service, you might find a few good test tracks!

As you take the Utopias out of their supplied carrying case, you’ll quickly notice the high level of fit and finish these headphones offer – just like a pair of Grande Utopia Ems. Everything is machined to a standard that you might expect from an F1 car or fine wristwatch. With Focal, engineering and craftsmanship always serves the art. Beautiful to behold, yes. But remarkable to listen to.

Well worth the price asked, these belong at the top of the premium headphone mountain.

The Luxman K-05 Cassette Deck

-By Paul DeMara
The 1990s were an interesting time for music formats. CD’s were hot, vinyl was dead, and cassette tapes were the primary way people listened to their tunes while driving.

Fast forward to 2020, and cassettes are cool again. When I visit many of the local music stores in my area, cassettes are proudly displayed next to vinyl and CDs. Type the words “Cassette Decks Vintage” on Facebook, and there are thousands of enthusiasts sharing their stories and photos.

For the passionate audiophile, cassettes may seem like a sub-standard analog format versus reel to reel or vinyl. However, cassettes offer something that vinyl doesn’t – the ability to create analog mix tapes of your favorite tunes. It’s easy to spend a good 3 or 4 hours making a 90-minute mix tape while fussing over the song selection and recording levels. What do you get for this investment in time? Making a mix tape brings me closer to the music in a way that a Spotify playlist does not.


A good friend of mine who designs audio gear is quick to remind me, “Everything is a compromise.” He was absolutely right. Cassettes are a compromise from reel to reel, but going down the R2R path to make analog mix tapes requires a significantly more substantial investment in hardware and software. Perfection in audio doesn’t exist, but a premium deck with premium tape, crafted with care, offers a positive, emotional listening experience. (Interestingly, while writing this article I happen to be listening to a 1997 pre-recorded cassette, Diana Krall – Love Scenes)

Audiophiles, by nature, are often looking for “the best of the best.” The Nakamichi Dragon is a grail to many, and it’s certainly a fantastic deck, but there are other options. I submit the Luxman K-05 is one such option. You don’t get auto-reverse, automatic azimuth adjustment, and several other features with the K-05. What you do get is superbly engineered Luxman electronics, including their proprietary “duo-beta” feedback bass extension technology. Their cast metal tape transport with dual capstans and dual bearings, crystal-controlled user variable transport motor speed control, accurate analog VU meters, automatic electronic tape bias equalizer with manual adjustment, and most importantly, micro aligned tape heads all add up to an industry-leading upper frequency response. Some say the equal or superior to the mighty Dragon.??My K-05

Tape heads naturally magnetize during playback inhibiting treble response, requiring regular tape head demagnetizing using a unique tool. The Luxman engineers took care of this issue, and it is built-in on the K-05, something I didn’t notice until after I purchased mine. Every time you power up the K-05, there’s a few second delay while an A/C signal is sent to the heads to demagnetize them. All you need to do is clean the heads every 10 hours or so.

Specs don’t reveal the “tone” of a piece of audio gear, but they can offer insight into how much effort went into the engineering of a product. Luxman, as they do with all their products, chose to focus on “technical excellence” with the K-05. The better specs that are a result of tighter quality control and construction tend to cost the manufacturer more money to build. And again, everything in engineering is a compromise. For reference, the K-05 has an extended frequency response of 15 Hz to 27,000 Hz (metal tape), with a wow and flutter of 0.022% along with signal to noise ratio of 60 dB with the Dolby noise reduction switched off. The THD is 0.5%. Getting to those specs cost time and money for Luxman. ??Sonics and use

I’m a low to medium volume listener, and at low to medium levels (for me, 90db and under), I’m hard-pressed to hear a difference between source material and something recorded with a good chrome or metal tape. This is easily confirmed using headphones with the source/tape button while using an audiophile-grade source like MoFi vinyl on my turntable. It’s important to note that you can tweak the auto-bias settings with the manual bias control to achieve your version of perfection. Keep in mind less bias (left of center) offers enhanced treble but weaker bass, more bias (right of center) improves bass but decreases treble.

The biggest “gotcha” with cassettes is they tend to have noticeable hiss at higher volume levels. (Hiss effectively defines the noise floor) To minimize hiss, Dolby B and C are available on the K-05. I’m not a big fan of Dolby noise reduction, but the Luxman engineers did it right with the K-05; when you engage Dolby B or C, there is no treble roll-off. This is a common problem with other decks, particularly with Dolby pre-recorded tapes, because not all decks are calibrated accurately. As a result, I tend to listen to pre-recorded cassettes with the Dolby B turned off. The sonic signature and pace of my favorite tracks still comes through to keep my foot tapping.

The K-05 captures more than enough musical nuance to provide serious emotional involvement, where the compromises made with other cassette decks often do not. My background in electronics sends me to the circuit design first. Luxman uses a sophisticated multi transistor tape head amp in this deck where many other manufacturers get by with a simple 2 or 3 transistor design. This circuit offers enhanced dynamic range as well as a lower noise floor along with low-frequency waveform phase integrity. This is the technical stuff that translates to great sound.

Thoughts on the user interface

As shown in the pictures, the Luxman K-05 is champagne gold with black letters, which for my old eyes, is far easier to read than white letters on a black background. The big, well-lit analog  VU meters remind me of an earlier time. The tape transport and automatic bias controls are touch buttons. Slider controls are in place for left, and right recording levels as well as a master control for smooth fade in / fade-outs when making recordings, flanked by a  row of metal knobs below the record level controls allows for various record/playback adjustments. The transport responds quickly and quietly to any request. Two buttons I regularly use are the “auto rewind” & “auto-repeat” buttons. If you don’t feel like getting up to turn over the tape, engaging these buttons cause the deck to reverse at the end of a tape and then play from the beginning.

The variable speed control is another rare feature. Not every cassette out there is aligned to the same speed, and this control allows you to fine-tune pitch. Again, these are the kind of engineering details you generally won’t find on other decks. Finally, the tape head has a special narrow width gap that holds the little pad on the cassette tape behind the tape away from the tape head. This removes some of the tape head scratching that can occur from pad pressure. The dual capstans rotate at slightly different speeds to create the required tension on the tape head, as it is on pro-grade reel to reel decks.

Just as specs don’t tell you much about tone, they don’t tell you anything about the mechanical feel of a component, you can only get this from hands-on experience. The K-05 weighs almost 25 pounds, and all of the controls have a solid, weighty, positive feel. Luxman even included two extra lamps in the box for each meter. As with today’s Luxman components, the K-05 feels like a luxury item that has been meticulously cared for during assembly.

One thing that’s hard to quantify is the “feel” of a piece of audio gear. The K-05 weighs in at 11.5 Kg or ~25 lbs. and pressing the controls or adjusting levels has a smooth solid feel. The Luxman engineers paid close attention to how the analog meters look and included 2 lamps for each meter. (I can imagine everyone now looking at their cassette decks to check how many lamps were included) The deck also sports metal knobs and a 3D look using different materials. “Solid” is probably the most straightforward description.

To conclude, the K-05 is one amazing piece of early 80’s engineering, produced from 1983 to 1985. 35+ years later, this deck still gets kudos from cassette enthusiasts. It doesn’t have the notoriety of the Nakamichi Dragon, but that’s the point. This is a deck that cassette connoisseurs lust after and never sell. The challenge is finding one – clean ones are fetching upwards of $4,000 these days.

Power Two Amplifier from Alluxity

Alexander Vitus-Mogensen (son of Hans-Ole Vitus) has just introduced his latest creation from Alluxity – the Power Two.

Slightly lower in cost, and power, at $7,800 (vs. $10,600) from the Power One, the 200 watt per channel power amplifier (400w/channel into 4 ohms) makes for an attractive and powerful match to their Pre One or Pre Two preamplifiers. The Alluxity product all shares a high performance, yet slim, understated Scandinavian look. They are available in black, white, silver, and titanium orange, with custom colors available on request and at higher cost.

You can find out more at,


Their US Distributor, Monarch Systems LTD.

Tubulus XS Umbilical Cables

Damn, the Bee Gees never sounded this good. If you don’t like reading cable reviews, and you have a Pass Labs XS component (or a few) just buy the Tubulus Argentus XS Umbilical Cables for your system right now. Then come on back to the review after you’ve installed them and see if you agree with us.

In a high-performance audio system, everything matters. And everything has the potential for change, sometimes good, sometimes not. I have a bias against cable and cable reviews. I have found a few things that work well in my three systems and I use them with good result. (Cardas, Nordost and Tellurium Q) I’d rather go get a COVID test than write a cable review, because it’s so tough to quantify, and it seems to make way more people mad than it does happy. So you know we aren’t a cable of the month magazine.

Ok, deep cleansing breath.

Tubulus makes a wide range of cable, but the ones that really struck my fancy are their XS Umbilical cables that go between Pass Labs XS series components. (they also make umbilical cables for the XP series) While I no longer have the XS300 monos in my reference system, I do use the XS Pre and XS Phono, so I’m going to have to get staffer Lawrence Devoe to try a pair in his XS150 monos. I’m going to stick my neck out and be surprised if he isn’t super impressed.

However, in the case of the Argentus umbilical, this has been the easiest cable review I’ve ever done. The XS Pre and XS Phono are never powered down, so it was easy to shut one power supply off, do a quick cable swap and be back up and running. I seriously doubt we lost much thermal stability from being powered down for 90 seconds.

Quiet drama

While some of the online cognoscenti make outrageous claims for and against various cables, some of which cost as much as a nice pre-owned BMW M4, the Tubulus umbilicals offer out of this world value. At about $800 USD, in the context of a $38,000 preamplifier, or a $45,000 phonostage, this is a 2-3% upcharge. Normally I would say the cost is noise, but in this case, it’s the absence of noise that is so exiting.

As the quality meter moved an equal amount with both the XS Phono and the XS Pre, my comments will be global, applying to both boxes. Seriously, if you have both, you need both. If you had the $83,000 bucks to buy these two boxes, I know you’ve got another $1,600 in the cookie jar somewhere.

Both of these components are dead quiet as they come from Pass Labs, and the supplied umbilicals are of high quality. Just as an extremely high-performance sports car delivers a performance envelope that makes it easy to tell the difference between fine suspension settings or tire changes, the Pass XS components provide a similar experiences. Having lived with the XS Phono and XS Pre for a number of years now, I’m comfortable with these two pieces.

No tonal change

I don’t look at premium audio cable as a way to fine tune or voice an audio system. I view cable in a context of revealing more music or less, without affecting top to bottom tonal balance.

The Tubulus cables do not change the tonal balance in my system at all, and I like that. What they do accomplish is to lower the noise floor further and increase resolution. As my XA200.8 power amplifiers are each on dedicated 20 amp circuits, the XS Pre and dCS Vivaldi on their own 15 amp circuit and the XS Phono on another, power isn’t an issue.

Going through about a 30 track playlist of extremely familiar cuts, the “a-ha” moment achieved at power up was merely confirmed after extended listening. Also, the Tubulus cables don’t need much break in. They sounded excellent at plug in, and slightly smoother after a few days.

We probably don’t listen to the same music, so reach for something you know well, that is somewhat layered and densely packed. For me, it’s Crowded House, Utopia, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Crash Test Dummies. Listen closely to a few tracks that have a fairly strong lead vocal, with a subdued backup vocal, like Aimee Mann’s “High On Sunday 51,” or Crash Test Dummies, “Superman’s Song.” Notice how that lurking, distant vocal now has a much clearer, much more defined space. Ditto for any Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young or not) tune. They have such equally powerful voices, it’s easy for their music to sometimes come across as one big overdub. Yet with the Tubulus cables in place, the distinctiveness of each of these singers is clearer than it’s ever been – and I’ve been listening to “Helplessly Hoping” for almost 50 years. You get the picture.


A hallmark of a high-performance audio system is the way loud sounds smoothly and gently transition to quiet ones, and then off to nothing. This is another area I heard dramatic improvement with the Tubulus cables, digital playback sounds more like analog in this context. Everything auditioned has more texture, with more space between the notes than before. It certainly feels like a much bigger (i.e. much more expensive) change than an $1,250 pair of cables.

As the audiophile cliché goes, you can’t un-hear it. Thanks to everything being a little quieter, it always feels like the volume control has been increased by a click or two with the Tubulus cables installed. Remember, volume is about the delta between loud and quiet, so you can either make things louder or quieter to feel different.

Infinity plus one

No matter how good you think your system is, at a certain point, you might ponder if it can be improved. If you’ve built a system around Pass XS components (or at least one of them) you’re a pretty discerning music lover, and the rest of the system is equally excellent.

But…if you’re at 11 and you’ve wanted to go to 12 without upsetting the delicate balance you’ve spent a lot of time getting right, consider the Tubulus umbilicals. I am definitely buying the review pair, and ordering another pair for the XS Phono. That being said, I’m happy to award the Tubulus XS umbilical one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2020. And if you’ve read this to the end, thank you for indulging me.

Additional Listening

As I no longer have the Pass XS, two box monoblocks, contributor Lawrence Devoe acquired a pair of these to give us his impression of how well they perform in this capacity, with his Pass XS150 mono blocks.

As a retired obstetrician I am well aware of how important umbilical cords are for fetal development and survival. Well, it seems that umbilical cords or, in this case, umbilical cables are important for audio components that use this method of linking their power supplies to their control centers. The Pass Labs XS series has taken this approach for their top-of-the-line two-box preamplifiers and monobloc amplifiers. Power supplies ultimately determine the stability of the current governing the signal that goes from an audio component to its intended destination. It follows that the better the power supply, the better the signal generated and the better the sound.

When Pass Labs design-meister Wayne Colburn went all out for the XS series he endowed them with umbilical cables featuring Neutrik PowerCon couplers that can handle high current capacity. While the Pass Labs stock pair of umbilical cables are mighty good, the Tubulus umbilical cables specifically for the Pass XS series components take things a step further, using silver conductors treated with a “special thermo-process” and air insulation for all of their cables. While I can understand the theoretical advantages of this design for audio signal cables, I was skeptical this would benefit the already top-notch connection between power supplies and control chassis on the XS 150 monoblocs.

After replacing the stock umbilical cables with the Tubulus cables between the power supply and control chassis of my amplifiers, extensive listening sessions followed. Any doubts about the sonic advantages afforded by these cables were quickly and completely dispelled. As good as the XS 150s sounded with the Pass Labs stock cables, the Tubulus cables substantially improve the sound of my system that also featuring XS line and phono stages.

Soundstages of good recordings like Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from the 25th Anniversary Graceland CD exploded out of my MartinLogan CLXs going well beyond the speakers in both depth and width. Details of individual instruments—guitar, bass, pump organ and slide guitar—in Norah Jones’s “Lonestar” from her Come Away with Me CD were revealed as I had never heard them before, and I have used this track numerous times in equipment reviews. Bass, the foundation that supports the rest of the sound spectrum, was full and well defined in cuts like “So and So” on Holly Cole’s Don’t Smoke in Bed LP. Voice reproduction, my ultimate criterion for judging playback equipment, was completely natural in Jacintha’s rendition of the Karen Carpenter classic “A Song for You” on the CD A Song for You Karen. The singer’s breathing was palpable as were the studio echoes in between her breaths.

What these air-insulated silver conductor umbilical cables did to virtually every recording that I played was to liberate it from the physical confines of my speakers and project holographic images of voices and instruments in my listening room. As a pair of Pass Labs XS 150 amplifiers retails for $65,000 and a pair of one-meter cables sell for $1249, this company should really rename its umbilical cable line Tubulus Miraculous!! Highest recommendation.

New Preamplifiers from…

We’ve just received news and photos of the latest preamplifiers from, the Dune and the Warp.

Final pricing has not been announced yet, but these units look to be made with incredible attention to detail inside and out. Both feature built in DAC’s based around the SABRE ES9038PRO chips. The borg preamplifiers also feature high quality ADC (analog to digital conversion) on board that can record from analog or digital sources, along with auto track start and end detection, and a ROON ready streamer (with a one year subscription included). An additional homage to analog is present with the front panel level meters, via an AMEOLED display.

The Warp, is essentially a Dune that features their unique control circuitry. We look forward to sampling at least one of these some time next year.

Rotel’s Michi P5 Preamplifier and S5 Power Amplifier

Rotel is a company that’s gone about their business making high performance gear that is reasonably priced, in a relatively understated way. On one level, Rotel products have always been somewhat of a gateway product for some, and a great destination for others.

If you’ve started your hifi journey with NAD, Cambridge, or Music Hall, (or maybe something else along those lines) and would like to step up a few notches, but perhaps not ready to commit to vacuum tubes – Rotel is always a solid choice.

The launch of their new Michi line is something completely different. With the P5 preamplifier at $4,000 and the S5 stereo power amplifier at $7,000 (and there are a pair of monoblocks at $7k each, if you just have to have more power), this pair offers a serious insight into mega high end sound at an approachable price indeed.

Let’s begin at the source

Unboxing the P5 preamp hints at what to expect. It’s heavy. 50 pounds heavy. Power amplifier heavy. Peeking at the internal view on the Rotel website confirms this is not just some fancy casework filled with air. The massive power supply capacitors are flanked by a fully populated circuit board, (with a lot of discrete components) and all the switching relays at the back of the chassis, to minimize noise. It’s as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside.

Speaking of sources, the P5 is a true control center in every sense of the word. It features a DAC with the ability to decode DSD, MQA, and PCM files up to 32/384, so it is more than reasonably future proof. While there is no balanced XLR digital in, there are three optical and three RCA S/Pdif inputs as well as an Ethernet port and a USB input. As a bonus, it also features an aptX/Bluetooth input, so you can stream from your mobile device. (and so can your guests)

Vinyl enthusiasts will appreciate the option of MM or MC cartridge compatibility, selectable from the front panel, though there is only one phono input around back. As versatile as the P5 is, it’s a shame that Rotel did not provide separate MM and MC inputs. Not a deal breaker.

With two more balanced XLR inputs and four more RCA inputs, even those of you with an FM tuner, and a couple of tape decks won’t run out of input jacks. Rotel also includes two pairs of balanced XLR outputs, three RCA outputs and a pair of mono subwoofer outputs. In short, they’ve got you covered.

Around front, it’s clean, crisp and concise. The front panel display is an off white that goes easy on the eyes and is very easy to read. Both controls (selector on left, and volume on right) turn smoothly should you feel the need to engage manually, but the multi-function remote is the way to roll, especially if you have a lot of sources plugged in. Bonus points – there’s a headphone jack just below the volume control, and it worked well with everything we had on hand, from original Koss Pro –AAAs to the latest from Focal. The Utopia phones cost more than the P5, yet this preamplifier does a great job with personal listening duties. The sweet spot here is probably phones in the $200 – $1,000 range, which covers a lot of ground.

Spinning a few records

Another slightly anomalous behavior is the MC phono input, with loading fixed at 100 ohms. We can’t call the engineers at Rotel bad Smurfs, as a few other manufacturers (Luxman comes to mind) does this as well. And there are a number of great MC cartridges you can work with, so this isn’t the end of the world. We did all of our analog listening with the Technics SL-1200GAE and a Denon DL-103r – a nearly perfect combination. However, this is a preamplifier that you will chose a cartridge for, because variable loading is not an option.

That said, working within given parameters, the Technics/Denon combination is a superb match for the P5. While specs don’t tell the whole story, the phono stage is claimed to have a S/N ratio of 80dB, and suffice to say, it is quiet. Putting the P5 to the immediate test and breaking out the classical LPs shows off just how quiet this combination is.

Putting this in context, think of the P5 as a $2,000 linestage, a $1,000 DAC, and a $1,000 phonostage, with a bonus headphone amp thrown in. Not to mention, there are three three extra power cords and sets of interconnects you don’t have to buy. And the satisfaction of knowing it all works together perfectly. That’s value. Comparing the on board phono in the P5 to anything we’ve listened to in the last few years, it’s safe to say it’s as good or better than any outboard phono stage in the $600 – $800 range. Remember, you’re still going to need even a modest pair of interconnects…  The only advantage to an outboard phono is possibly a wider range of MC loading options, but for convenience and high performance all on one chassis, the P5 can’t be beat.

Digital delights

Working with a MacBook Pro, a current Cambridge Audio transport and a vintage SONY CD ES player (via optical output), the P5 handles every file, from MP3/Spotify up to DSD without a glitch.

s with the phono section, putting what the P5 accomplishes in context of comparably priced outboard DAC, it’s fantastic. It resolves more than enough information to tell the difference between source quality in your files, along with a high level of musicality in its class. It does an excellent job with compressed, less than awesome 16/44 material. Zipping through a Kiss playlist, a Monkees playlist and Queen’s Greatest Hits are all decoded with dignity. These tracks all sounded better than they had a right to, with an ample amount of airiness and dynamic range.

Moving on to better quality material, the P5 reveals even better performance. An old standby, Lyle Lovett’s “North Dakota” begins with some very gentle bongos, and they manage to float out in space a bit, and offers enough resolution to distinctly hear Rickie Lee Jones singing backup clearly.
Now for the power

Unless you’re extremely buff, get a friend to help you move the 132 pound S5 power amplifier to your equipment rack. If you don’t have a friend handy, a box of nicotine patches and a good protein shake might get you through. Seriously, get a friend. This is an amplifier that belies its weight. Utilizing a similar design motif as the P5, its rounded corners and gloss black front panel (with super cool power output meters) will look great in your listening room.

With 500 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 800 into 4, there shouldn’t be any speakers on your no fly list. Hint, hint, even if you aren’t going to buy both Michi pieces, this is an excellent amplifier to drive Magnepans with. Staffer Jerold O’Brien and I faced a major dilemma: he helps me moose the S5 out of my listening room and up the 2nd story at his place where the Magnepan 3.7s are, or we rent a UHaul and bring the Maggies to me.

Avoiding as many people as we both can in this age of quarantine, we decided we’d both be exposed to fewer cooties, bringing the S5 to his place. Besides, now that I also have a little orange BMW 2002 stored in his barn, plenty of time to be car geeks after we get done listening.

Most Magnepans need a lot of power to really strut their stuff, and the Michi S5 is one of the nicest combinations for these speakers. 20.1 and 30.1 owners that need even more power, can buy the M8s (1080 watts each, into 8 ohms, 1800 watts into 4 – booyah) which should be enough to power a small outdoor music festival.

Everything from the Maggies, to ESLs from MartinLogan and vintage Acoustats (i.e. all the “really hard to drive” speakers) presented no issues to the Michi. Regardless of what speakers you have, this is an unassuming, yet highly capable and powerful amplifier that merely does the job it’s asked to do without issue. It’s a testament to the amplifiers enormous power reserves and excellent design that it is not particularly sensitive to speaker cables either. It has enough resolving power to hear the difference between brands, but isn’t touchy about cables in a way that some small amplifiers can be.

Power without finesse is nothing though, and again the Michi scores big points. If this amp had no logo on the front panel and you told your audiophile pals that you paid 10k for the S5, they’d probably believe you. Even at low volumes, the effortlessness that the S5 presents adds to the musical presentation. I must admit to being biased towards big amplifiers for this reason.

Overall, the big Michi amp has a neutral tonal rendition. To try and put it in a little bit of perspective, we’ve always held Boulder amplifiers up as the ultimate in “just the facts” amplification, however these are some pretty expensive amplifiers, even at entry level. Comparing to past solid-state designs we’ve listened to, the Michi has more tonal body/saturation that something from Simaudio, Krell, or current Levinson products, but less than our reference Pass amplifiers, or any other great Class A amplifier from Luxman, Sudgen, or the Riviera monos we’ve just reviewed.

You can stay with the Michi preamplifier and keep things extremely accurate, or for those craving a little bit of additional warmth, without sacrificing the control and dynamic power of a solid-state amp, add a tube preamplifier on the front end, to tune to your taste. An amplifier this neutral makes that easy.

A system approach that works

At $11,000 for the pair, the Michi P5 and S5 are a logical step up for the music lover that needs more power than an integrated can provide, and has a lot of flexibility as well. This pair is the perfect anchor for a $20k – $50k system, and only needs a turntable and a pair of speakers to enjoy every format available. Should you be a digital only listener, add your favorite speakers and roll. Should the vinyl bug hit, you’re ready if and when you want to take the plunge.

While you’ll need a stout shelf for the 132 pound P5, a system built around these two components will have a minimal footprint. Thanks to their timeless visual design, they will integrate well into a design conscious environment – a final bonus.

Bowers & Wilkins 702 Signature Loudspeakers

Rocking out with some Slayer, it’s clear that Bowers & Wilkins has produced a winner here. To be honest, I’ve been punishing these speakers for about a solid week now, and it’s clear they have major dynamic ability.

Life isn’t all metal though, (though for some it is) and after seriously breaking these speakers in, an expanded palette of music was in order. Grooving on some Black Devil Disco Club, it’s easy to see that the 702 Signatures have plenty of low frequency ability too.

Bowers & Wilkins has always been a company driven by engineering excellence. I’ve owned a number of B&W speakers since 1980, and they’ve always made fantastic products. Having visited their UK factory a few times now, the level that they implement their engineering vision is second to none. Being a car guy at heart, I’ve always enjoyed the paint shop and the level of finish they are able to achieve. On both of my recent tours to the UK factory in Worthing, my tour guides have always made it a point to say that the B&W factory in China is a mirror image of the UK factory, though it concentrates on the 600 and 700 Series product. 800 Series Diamond product is made in Worthing. These are both huge facilities.

Even a cursory look at the Signature speakers proves that they’ve left nothing on the table, in terms of quality here. Where B&W has somewhat simplified the 700 Series is in the cabinet itself, with a more traditional box shape, instead of the complex, curvy shape of the 800 Series Diamond.

Unpack and setup

If you’re planning on buying a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 702s (Signature or not) read the infographic on the top of the box before you remove your speakers from their packaging. The 702 tweeter is housed in a bullet shaped aluminum enclosure that will be instantly damaged if you just put the box upside down once you’ve opened it. Get a friend to help you unpack your 702s because even though they are not terribly heavy, they are tightly packed and close to impossible to unpack by yourself because their slippery, smooth cabinets are hard to get a grip on. Save the little white rubber thing (that looks a lot like those rubber things they use in a nail salon to keep your toes apart) under the tweeter pod in case you move or ever have to ship your speakers. Trust me on this.

Once unboxed, you’ll also notice a pair of plinths that have been included for safety reasons in certain countries. If you don’t absolutely have to use them, I suggest leaving them in the shipping cartons, as they distract from the sleekness of the 702 Signatures, and B&W says the plinths do not improve the sound.

The last style decision to make is whether to affix the grilles or not. If you have kids, dogs, or a lot of guests, you’ll probably need them, but if you don’t, admiring the 702 Signature sans grilles is quite lovely. High technology doesn’t always look as good as it sounds, but in this case, the 702 Signature succeeds brilliantly. The three woofers, with their subtle chrome rings are just beneath the midrange driver with the big, silver Continuum™ cone, and the tweeter pod at the very top.

And, ooh those cabinets. From the outside, those stepping up to the $6,500/pair Signature series models over the standard $5,000/pair models you get a cool Datuk Gloss finish. I have to say, as a Sonus faber owner, Bowers & Wilkins is right there at the top of the mountain in cabinet finish, offering a level of quality that I’d expect to come from Italy. These speakers are absolutely beautiful to behold. The depth, and smoothness of the finish is outstanding. I’d step up to the Signatures just for the finish.

The Signature models are not just a cosmetic/finish update. Though the spec sheets between the standard 702 S2 and 702 Signature reveal the same numbers – this is the perfect example of specs not telling the whole tale. Thanks to upgraded bypass capacitors in the crossover, the Signatures deliver a more grain free presentation through the mids to the highest highs. The only downside here, albeit temporary, is those upgraded components in the crossovers take a bit more time to be all they can be. Expect a slight edge on top, and a bit of haze and fog through the midband for the first couple hundred hours of use.

To observe this process in action, play the same track every day at the beginning of the day. Make it a track you know intimately. In this case it was Robert Plant’s “Sixes and Sevens,” but I’m sure you have a couple of favorites that you’ll be able to notice the slightest differences. It’s almost as if the 702 Signatures get bigger and smoother sounding as you put hours on the clock.
Sticking with Robert Plant as my go to, shifting forward in time to “All the King’s Horses,” from his Mighty Rearranger album, the backing vocals started out somewhat buried in the mix, yet as the hours went by, I could hear the separation between Plant and the backing vocals much easier and more distinctively.

In our 13 x 18 foot living room, final speaker position ended up with the speakers being about five feet from the rear wall and about two feet away from the side walls. Only a few degrees of toe-in was used, but this and whether to slightly angle the speakers back will depend on seat height and personal listening preferences. Suffice to say that the 702 Signatures were easy to set up and get satisfying sound from quickly. Those needing to place their speakers close to the room walls or corners may want to take advantage of the foam plugs to insert in the rear mounted speaker port.

Other choices

With a sensitivity rating of 90dB/1-watt, the 702 Signatures don’t need a ton of power to be musically involving. Using everything here from the 30 watt per channel PrimaLuna EVO 100 to the mighty Pass Labs XA200.8s, proved a good match. Being that person preferring a more mellow approach, I gravitated more to the combination of the 702 Signatures with the Luxman L-550 Class A (solid state) integrated, the Pass INT25 (also solid state Class A) and our reference VAC Sigma 170i (tubes), but your final sound preferences will determine what you’ll pick. Bottom line, these speakers do not need a ton of power to sound great.

We also made it a point to try the 702 Signatures with a few different sets of speaker cable, from WireWorld, Nordost, Tellurium-Q, and Cardas. Again, all excellent results, how you want to achieve final voicing on your system will determine where you go here. The Cardas Clear cable in our reference system (a touch warm) was more to our taste, but the other three turned in great performances, but are slightly more forward and revealing. My living room is very lightly treated, so this contributes heavily to my leaning more towards a slightly mellow tonal balance.

One small tip, for those purchasing a pair of 702 Signatures: invest in a high-quality pair of jumpers, if you aren’t bi-wiring your speakers. Swapping a pair of Tellurium-Q jumpers in place of the factory issued, flat metal jumpers brought yet another level of clarity in the mid and upper registers.

What’s not to like?

Pretty much nothing really. Your decision will probably be B&W or the other choices, or between the Signature and standard models. However, in terms of what’s available in the $5,000 – $7,000 range that we’ve had the pleasure to audition, the Bowers & Wilkins 702 Signature is a solid player in terms of sound quality, engineering prowess, and aesthetic appeal. Not to mention, as one of the world’s largest speaker manufacturers, you can be sure of a great sales, service, and support network to go with your purchase.

The Bowers & Wilkins 702 Signature
MSRP: $6,500/pair

Please click here to be taken to the Bowers & Wilkins website.

LSA DPH-1 Headphone Amplifier

I love discovering reasonably priced products, squarely aimed at bringing great sound to more people, and new people to our wacky world of audio.

Underwood HiFi scores big time with their new LSA DPH-1 headphone amplifier, which also has an onboard high-res (does DSD too) DAC featuring four inputs. LSA makes use of the AKM 4495 DAC chips and AK-4118 digital input receiver, for those wanting to know…  I say, “implementation,” and in this case, they’ve done a fantastic job.

Right now, in typical Underwood fashion, they are running an introductory special and moving these babies for the holiday season at $799, instead of the $999 they will be asking at some point. Even at $999, this would be a great deal – let’s investigate a little further.

If the DPH-1 were only a headphone amp at $999 it would still be great. The DAC is a true bonus, and it makes the DPH-1 fantastic for personal listening, desk side or bed side. It’s small (14” x 10” x 4”) footprint makes it easy to integrate anywhere.

Ins and outs

Around the back, there are four digital inputs – USB, optical, coax and BNC. Personally, I like the BNC as I have a vintage Wadia transport, which I pulled out of mothballs to give the DPH-1 a spin. Interestingly, you’ll notice a pair of RCA analog outputs marked “Tube” and “Solid-State.” This is really cool and gives you more options, should you decide to use your DPH-1 as a line preamplifier. And if you happen to be a digital only music lover, the DPH-1 is all you need.

The tube output runs the DAC’s output through a tube buffer, featuring a “NOS tube from GE.” Turns out this tube is an ex-military issue item that is very similar to the legendary Western Electric 396A tube. Those of you that aren’t tube geeks: plugging your power amplifier into the tube output will give you a slightly warmer, more tonally saturated presentation. This is super awesome option for those of you running a solid-state or class D amp, and it works miracles on budget amps too!  Consequently, the solid-state outputs add a little extra dynamic slam to your favorite tube amp.

You can even run both the tube and solid-state outputs into your integrated amp or preamp and switch sonic characteristics on the fly. It’s like having two separate DAC’s in one box. Or, as we do with our reference DAC here, if space allows, or you have systems in adjoining rooms, you can run both systems from the same DAC. Very versatile indeed.

That being said, mating the DPH-1 to a vintage (but tastefully rebuilt) Dynaco Stereo 70 and the LSA-10 Signature speakers was absolutely heavenly. Either way, the ability to fine tune your system to taste is cool, especially at this price.

Getting personal

Running through the gaggle of headphones on hand, from the $3,000 Focal Stellia to my Grado SR-60s, the DPH-1 delivers an excellent experience. The amplifier does a great job driving everything, and has particularly good control in the lower registers. Zooming through some vintage Little Feat tracks, particularly “Romance Dance,” from The Last Record Album, reveals the DPH-1s ability to control a pair of headphone drivers and deliver a convincing musical foundation. Next up, the Bell Biv Devoe classic, “Poison.” If I was listening on a 2-channel system, I’d be blowing the doors down with bass – and as it was, I caught myself turning the volume down, because the distortion free playback this amp provides might tempt you to turn it up too loud. So, watch the volume.

After a solid sampling of phones, the bulk of our test listening was done with the Focals, showing off just how good this amp is. Regardless of where you are on your headphone journey, you’ll be able to move up from wherever you are to some pretty premium phones without worry. That’s value.

Bass is not the only dimension at which the DPH-1 excels. Joni Mitchell just released her Archives – Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967), and this set handily shows the inner detail, definition and upper range smoothness this amplifier offers. Joni Mitchell’s voice is a tough one to nail down – almost like a violin, when it’s wrong, it’s harsh and shriek-y, but when it’s right, it’s dreamy. We’ll happily put the DPH-1 in the dreamy category here, and this lead us to some of the tracks on Lyle Mays self-titled debut album. Nailing the tonality of a piano is similar in degree of difficulty, and again the DPH-1 sails through.

There’s a sign on one of my neighbor’s lawns that says “Presidents come and go, but Wu-Tang is forever.” Point taken, so on the way back from my morning coffee, I had to fire up some Wu-Tang. In their honor, I cranked up “Method Man” as the six-shot mocha took hold. Good stuff.

The DAC section of the DPH-1 does its job without fanfare, as it should be. We tried all four inputs, and were pleased each time, using our Wadia transport for the BNC input, an OPPO 105 (yep, still got one) for the coax input, a MacBook Pro for the USB input and our faithful Sony ES changer from the garage system to evaluate the optical input. Suffice to say, whatever you have, the DPH-1 will accommodate it, and the higher resolution capabilities this DAC provides easily illuminates the additional resolution that high res formats have to offer. Good as it is with high res, the DPH-1 does not compromise 16/44 playback in any way.

Putting the DPH-1 in the context of a nice two-channel system makes for a great, compact music system, requiring minimal rack space to rock. Whether you buy a DPH-1 as a headphone amplifier, or as an anchor to a digital two channel system with a pair of speakers – you’ll be happy wherever your journey begins.

Simple elegance

LSA has followed the aesthetic vibe started with their other components, and the DPH-1 is nicely finished, but not overly ostentatious. It feels good when you unbox and pick it up, and it looks great on your rack. Its basic functionality (volume control, input selector, and headphone jack) makes it easy to use. Fortunately, the power supply is built in, so there’s no external power supply to lose or deal with. A big plus.

By using casework like other LSA products, they keep the cost down. When you’re investigating components in this price range, it’s nice to see a manufacturer stick to basics, striking a balance with a product that sounds great, and has the looks to back it up without going overboard.

Add it all up and LSAs DPH-1 is a fantastic DAC/Headphone amp. If I didn’t spin records, I could easily live with it as my main two-channel preamp and build a great system around it featuring speakers. It ticks all the boxes – easy to use, reasonable price, and sounds fantastic. What else do you need?

New turntable from LSA: The LSA-T2

A very special new offering from Underwood Hifi and LSA

We were pretty excited about the LSA-T3 turntable, from Underwood HiFi a few months ago. But they’ve done it again, with their new LSA T-2 that is intro Priced at $799 without cartridge or delivered with a Sumiko Blackbird for $1299.

Underwood’s new LSA T-2 turntable features a low mass Uni-Pivot tonearm which is constructed from carbon fiber and is fitted with a 65-gram stainless counterweight. The output terminates to a pair of RCA sockets with separate ground, giving the user choice over their output cabling – these are located on the underside of the plinth. The elegant 25mm Medite plinth comes in a satin black finish. Machined in Great Britain, the T-2 turntable boasts a 17mm acrylic platter and an aluminum hub which runs on a custom 18mm brass bearing housing with a 5mm white ceramic thrust bearing. The turntable is controlled by a 24V AC synchronous motor which has been positioned to further reduce electromagnetic and mechanical noise. This has required the development of a new bespoke ‘big belter’ drive belt.

They will only have 24 of these available in time for the holidays, so if you’re the kind of person that buys yourself the best presents, perhaps now is the time to indulge!