The dCS Vivaldi ONE

dCS has started a new campaign acknowledging some of the world’s greatest recording engineers, appropriately titled their “dCS Legends” series. No disrespect to the world’s most excellent engineers, but I submit the digital players from Data Conversion Systems, have become legends in their own right.

In the beginning, dCS produced high-quality analog to digital and digital to analog converters for military and telecommunications applications, then turning their focus to recording studios and pro audio. 1993 marks the launch of their model 950, the world’s first 24-bit DAC. However, dCS didn’t become a household name (at least in audiophile households) until 1996, with the Elgar DAC. A recent visit with an Elgar in our Old School column reveals the original Elgar still having world-class performance, and a definite lineage intact to current dCS products. 

I’ve also had the privilege to visit the dCS factory a few times, seeing first-hand how much goes into the construction of every single thing they make.

My own journey with dCS now spans a little more than a decade, beginning with the four box Paganini system. Though I had heard some great dCS demos at various HiFi shows, there’s nothing better than hitting the play button in your room, in your system, and being blown away. I sold a Naim CD-555 and one of my cars, with the Paganini stack staying as my digital reference for quite some time.

In nearly ten years since the Paganini review, TONE has also had the pleasure of reviewing the Debussy, which ended up living with staff member Rob Johnson for a few years, the four-box Vivaldi reference system, the two-box Rossini Player (CD only, no SACD capability) and Rossini Clock, as well as the newest model in dCS’ product line, the Bartok, which is the long-awaited replacement for the Debussy. All have been replaced by the Vivaldi One in my reference system, though the Bartok remains in my second system. Just as I have standardized on one set of tools in my photo studio, having dCS gear in both of my listening areas makes it that much easier to have a similar reference framework by which to evaluate components.

Still crazy (good) after all these months

The Vivaldi One arrived just before Christmas last year, sounding fantastic right out of the box. Really fantastic, even after many months of listening to the Rossini with the Rossini Clock, which is no slouch. Within a few days of being powered up around the clock, it completely stabilizes, electrically and thermally,offering a smoother, bigger, more engaging sound in every way.

A great demo at a show or dealer event is a wonderful thing, and the giddiness that nearly always accompanies the review period spent with components at this level, is a fantastic experience. Yet, sitting in the chair every day for a year, and still thinking “damn!” every time you push play, is living in a different universe. This is what the Vivaldi One brings every day.

But you can’t have it

There’s no real point going on and on about the sound of the Vivaldi One because they are now almost sold out, so unless you’re fortunate enough to snag one of the last available units the only way you can get one is to find a trade-in. The full Vivaldi reference system provides even more performance thanks to dedicating each critical function to a separate chassis. Past experience with every other dCS product tells me that adding a Vivaldi Clock for $15,000 is going to take the Vivaldi One a step closer to the four-box unit.

Based on my extensive experience, the Vivaldi One comes incredibly close to the sound of the four-box array, and again I’ll bet even more with the addition of the Vivaldi Clock. With space at a premium around here, a single-box solution with this level of sound quality is incredibly easy decision. The Rossini is a fantastic player, but I still wanted to play SACDs.

Limited availability aside, many in the market to buy one of these players, the individual components of the Vivaldi stack probably make a lot more sense. Those not wanting disc playback can opt for the Vivaldi DAC and buy in at less than half the Vivaldi One’s cost at $36,000. Adding the Vivaldi Upsampler is $22,000, and of course the Vivaldi Clock is $15k- but the modular approach allows you to add a box at a time. Should you want the Vivaldi transport later, they are $42,000, but dCS just introduced a Rossini SACD Transport for almost half that cost, not to mention used Paganini (and Scarlatti) transports (also offering SACD playback) show up for $7-15k once in a blue moon.

In addition to the ability to play CD and SACD discs, the Vivaldi One’s DAC can decode anything in every possible format, including MQA. dCS is the only company that’s actually written their own MQA decode and rendering code, and this custom implementation of the MQA standard, and the results validate their approach. With all the sniping about MQA playback if you happen to be both a Tidal and Qobuz customer, you know that some of your favorite tracks (and albums) are only offered in high resolution via MQA on Tidal. When unfolded and processed on a dCS DAC, audio perfection is achieved. No other DAC I’ve sampled does this great of a job with MQA files.

I don’t know nearly enough to have this argument, but I’d still prefer straight ahead 24/192 than an MQA file- but if that’s where my music lives, I want to hear it decoded to the best level it can be. For me dCS offers this. Fortunately, their players require no compromise playing both MQA and standard hi-res material. Perhaps I’ve glossed over the high level of quality that standard resolution 16/44.1 files offer up via the Vivaldi One. More than one audiophile that has visited, has mistaken 16/44.1 streamed files were high res. A few even thought I was playing vinyl!

Core competencies

The Vivaldi One, like all other dCS DACs, is built around their patented RingDACTM architecture. You can read more about this here at the dCS website and in nearly every other dCS review. Dramatically oversimplifying, this fundamental feature of dCS DACs does not tie them to whatever DAC chip that happens to be in vogue and the compromises made when that chip was designed.

Everything is done in software, and this allows dCS to make upgrades to the performance at regular intervals. This also makes their products more future proof than those relying on a chipset, resulting in a much higher level of consumer confidence when spending this kind of money. This also makes future updates as easy as updating the OS on your smartphone, and keeps dCS products relevant for a much longer period. Again, justifying the investment.

dCS has their own App, called Mosaic, for adjusting the unit settings and playing music, but for most of you, the Vivaldi One’s ability to be a ROON endpoint is the bee’s knees. dCS generally feels a better, cleaner signal can be derived directly from the network for file playback, so they offer an Ethernet input in addition to the traditional inputs seen on other products. It certainly makes for simpler system architecture and eliminates the need for a separate streaming device. Those with legacy devices can exhale, as inputs for USB, S/PDIF via BNC, RCA or Toslink input, and balanced AES-EBU on XLRs can also be handled. 

The Vivaldi One’s digital volume control is of such high quality, those eschewing vinyl for an all-digital playback system, can easily center the Vivaldi One around their favorite power amplifier and call it a day.

The biggest revelation

Stepping up to the Vivaldi range brings digital playback to such a natural level of clarity, ease, and freedom from coloration, that it’s no longer of the tired “It sounds good for digital.” It just sounds good. It sounds really fucking great, actually.

After using the dCS Vivaldi One in my primary reference system for a year, and having it powered up continuously- listening to close to 30,000 tracks in that period- it’s still as exciting to push “play” as it was the evening I unboxed it. Honestly, more exciting, now that I’ve had the time to listen to a vast cross-section of music. The number of revelatory moments I’ve had with it are genuinely off the chart.

The second biggest revelation

Bundled up for a line of executioners bearing flame throwers, I’ll go one step further and claim that disc play still sounds better (i.e., more natural) than files ripped to a NAS. And ripped files still sound better than streamed files via ROON, Qobuz, Tidal, and Spotify, even at the same resolution.

Unfortunately, I do not possess the technical expertise to tell you why this is so. I suspect noise, jitter, and a plethora of other factors that subtly damage the digital bitstream, degrade the sound ever so slightly between these formats. Yet, there is one, albeit thin, veil that is lifted when going to disc playback from NAS (or streaming services with) ROON.

The final revelation

This may not be the case for everyone, but after living with the Vivaldi One for so long, I’m listening to vinyl a lot less. I love analog, love turntables, and everything that goes along with the analog format. Ok, I still don’t enjoy setting turntables up. But when the planets line up, and if you have a fabulous turntable and a perfect pressing, there’s still a few molecules of extra magic in the analog world. But that’s only for those that have original Blue Notes, first stamper British, Japanese, or German this pressing, etc. etc. And if you can afford records like that, you can afford a dCS Vivaldi. Those with a pretty good table/arm/cartridge/phonostage but mediocre pressings aren’t getting close to the level of realism that the Vivaldi One offers.

It’s not that I’m saying vinyl sucks or anything like that, but the Vivaldi One sounds so natural, so engaging, and is so incredibly easy to use that if my record collection was raptured off to vinyl heaven tomorrow, I don’t think I’d replace it. How often do you get convenience and quality in the same sentence? That’s the real magic of the Vivaldi One.

No clichés apply

While I’ve tried not to exhaust my adjective gland on nearly 1000 audio reviews in the last 17 years, it’s tough not to gush over a product this good. Suffice to say that the dCS Vivaldi reference system and Vivaldi One do such an incredible job of decoding digital music files, you don’t think about them at all. That is the ultimate triumph. And that’s what legends are made of.

Tidal Audio and Bugatti Collaborate on New Speakers

In the past, car manufacturers pairing with audio companies for bespoke home products have usually been less than outstanding, with more emphasis put on said manufacturer’s “branding,” than actual audio performance. This time, we see something much more from the design studios of Tidal and Bugatti.

Tidal Audio in Germany (not the streaming company) has always produced products at the top of the high end spectrum, with peerless materials technology, finish, and sound quality. This level of execution has always been expensive, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been called upon to build 30 pairs of bespoke, powered loudspeakers carrying the Bugatti brand. In this case it will be “Bugatti by Tidal,” starting with the “Royale” series of loudspeakers.

The “Royale” features 4 subwoofer drivers in a closed-box configuration with impulse compensation per speaker, along with a 3-way front unit utilizing a midrange-driver and tweeter with diamond diaphragms. The Royale is built based on an active loudspeaker concept with built in amplifiers for each channel. Part of the new launch is a newly developed music controller MC-1 allowing for streaming connectivity and smart control of all standard music and entertainment sources. Those not needing a turntable will have everything they need in this breathtakingly beautiful system.

Just like the four wheeled BUGATTI models, with an almost infinite number of possibilities for customization to create one of a kind vehicles, the options list for the “Royale” is equally as unique. Starting with two body designs, Monocoque and Duotone, customers may choose between piano finishes or avant-garde color and material combinations. The start of the partnership manifests itself in the ‘Edition Noir’ and ‘Edition Blanc’, each limited to initially 15 pairs.

While exact specs have not yet been given, if past Tidal offerings are any indication, these speakers will not lack in any way.  Pricing has not been announced either, but we’d be shocked if a pair of these cost less than a new Porsche GT3.


The Klipsch Cornwall IV Speakers

The sun still burns hot, a U.S. dollar still equals four quarters, and Klipsch still makes Cornwall loudspeakers.

Refreshingly, some things never change. Save for a gap between 1990 and 2005, the company has been building the floorstanders in its Arkansas factory since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term. As for the period during which it disappeared from showrooms? The decision prompted thousands of listeners to begin a letter-writing campaign demanding production resume. Petitioners got their wish. In 2006, Klipsch introduced Cornwall III, although, given the various updates to prior iterations that occurred, the “III” moniker could have easily been an “VIII.”

Originally devised in 1959 by Paul Klipsch to serve as a full-range option between a pair of Klipschorns, Cornwall bowed as the world’s second commercially produced center-channel speaker. Its no-frills name, coined by Mr. Klipsch’s first wife, stems from its ability to be employed in a corner or against a wall. More than six decades later—a time span longer than most audio companies last—it remains distinctive for multiple reasons, not the least of which relates to its commanding 38 x 25.3 x 15.5-inch (HWD) size and 95.76-pound weight.

The Old School Meets the New School

By any standards, Cornwall is big, and boldly announces its presence by way of gorgeous, book- and grain-matched wood cabinets. During manufacturing, Klipsch keeps the veneer leaves in order as they’re sliced from timber and arranged in mirror-image fashion at the splice joint. The consistency pays off in the form of speakers that should charm any admirer of woodworking or old-school craftsmanship. Akin to the eye-catching crown molding in a century-old Victorian or a custom built-in shelving units, Cornwall visually exudes detail, care, pride, and tradition. Crucial to Cornwall and Klipsch’s other Heritage Series models, such convention extends to the sequential serial numbering of every pair.

Much else about Cornwall recently underwent a transformation. Dubbed Cornwall IV, and sold for $6,000 per pair in a choice of three colors, the tower possesses the most significant design changes of any Cornwall in history. A 1.75-inch K-702 midrange compression driver, midrange Tractrix horn with patented Mumps technology, steep-slope crossover network, and Tractrix ports with inner flares are completely new. Ditto the matte-black riser, attractive script-adorned grille, and aluminum bi-amp input panel on the rear. A one-inch K-107 titanium diaphragm tweeter with an all-new wide dispersion phase plug and massive 15-inch K-33 composite-cone woofer round out the innards.

According to Klipsch, the enhancements collectively translate into improved polar response of the mids, minimized electrical degradation, faster transfer, reduced port noise, lessened turbulence, and deeper bass. Cornwall IV also retains an inarguable benefit of its ancestors: Beguiling efficiency, with a rated sensitivity of 102dB. The triple-digit figure allows the user to pair it with a seemingly infinite number of amplifiers—tubes and solid-state alike—without worrying about having to spend a fortune for massive watts-per-channel output.

Instead, with Cornwall IV, or, for that matter, any Heritage Series model, focus your budget on an amp/wire combination that provides clean power and clean signals. Klipsch’s high sensitivity numbers can be a double-edged sword in that the speakers do no mask mediocre power/transmission as blindly as some harder-to-drive models. Plus, auditioning a Klipsch is a smart way to test your current gear/cabling.

Changing the Narrative

It nearly goes without saying that, in many customary circles, “Klipsch” and “audiophile” are disparate. At least one long-established high-end magazine doesn’t acknowledge a single Heritage Series model in its latest, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Buyer’s Guide. In addition, many self-professed audiophiles—whether clinging to measurements, the belief that horns cannot overcome brightness or harshness, or the thought that Klipsch translates to outmoded technology—won’t give the brand a sniff. Under close examination, such thinking appears shortsighted and ironic, particularly in a hobby that places tremendous importance on the supposed sound of live music.

Indeed, somewhere along the way, high-priced entry points, computer-driven metrics, and occasionally sterile, surgically precise sonics gained precedence over emotion, fun, dynamics, and playback that can recreate the concert experience. Today, finding speakers that deliver a professional recording-studio aesthetic and a mixing engineer’s perspective poses far less of a challenge than identifying models that whisk you to a club or hall, and formidably capture the energy associated with the events staged at the venues. Moreover, audiophile-approved speakers that don’t wilt in the face of rock n’ roll, R&B, or hip-hop turned to loud volumes remain few and far between. Even those that sell for the cost of a fresh-off-the-factory-floor Harley-Davidson CVO.

Of course, some listeners prefer perfectionist-oriented imaging. They want to hear a singer’s tongue smack against the top of his or her palate, or the particular gauge of an acoustic-guitar string. All well and good; the inherent appeal is understood. However, returning not only to the sound of live music, but to the ambience, vitality, soulfulness, and presence that coexist with shows—reference points to which, before the pandemic, thousands upon thousands of people related on a weekly basis and happily paid to attain—evokes deep-seated issues the audiophile industry at large prefers to sweep under the rug. In short, the sound of live music, whether generated in an orchestral hall, 800-capacity theater, or hockey arena, varies from that captured in a recording studio.

Mr. Klipsch recognized the distinctions and strove to design products that reproduce live performances in a home setting. Cornwall IV testifies on behalf of his pursuits. And how.

Holy Schnikes

Arranging Cornwall IV in a relatively square 16 x 18-foot room proves relatively hassle-free. Despite its mass, the speaker’s shape allows for ample mobility. The lack of spikes and angular dimensions also proves welcoming. As does Kilpsch’s simple albeit smart packaging, which decreases set-up fuss and echoes Cornwall IV’s get-to-it functionality. As with most speakers, adjusting the positioning of Cornwall IV by an inch here or there nets audible differences. No user’s interior space is the same, but for the purposes of the review, slightly toeing in Cornwall IV with the lead front corner three feet from the back wall, and the tandem placed eight feet apart, produced optimal results.

In quick succession, it becomes evident where Cornwall IV falls a bit short—namely, hyper-deep soundstaging, microscopic accuracy, polite refinement, and pick-the-third-chair-out-of-the-symphony focus. Characteristics that are all often the parlance of studio monitors and several of their tower counterparts. Cornwall IV also tends to reward whoever sits dead-center in the sweet spot. Off-axis listening sacrifices none of the impact but tends to faintly blur details. Klipsch’s Roy Delgado suggests increasing the toe-in to increase the soundstage and image focus. While counterintuitive to what we’d do with a normal pair of floorstanding speakers, this works perfectly, enhancing the on and off-axis experience, with a more stable stereo image, and more stable bass performance.

If you’re accustomed to a two-channel system augmented with a pair of high-end subwoofers, you may also notice a small drop in low-frequency definition. Not to say Cornwall IV doesn’t supply satisfying bass. It does, and without annoying boom and inflated effects. You could add a subwoofer or two, sure, but Cornwall IV goes plenty deep without any help from friends.

Overall, paralleling its physical size, Cornwall IV plays with enormous sound—enormous dynamics, energy, scale, openness, rhythm, and clarity. While many speakers invite you to them, and beckon you toward music that happens between or behind them, Cornwall IV ushers the music to you in absolute effortless fashion. It’s a key distinction. Forget about needing to lean in or meet songs at a halfway point; Cornwall IV aims and directs the action right at you. If you’ve always desired your own concert venue, and can live without laser-sharp imaging and exacting specificity that let you debate the location of the row the mixing engineer intended you to be seated, Cornwall IV will likely cause you to ask, “Where have these been all my life?” Visceral, unapologetic, and the embodiment of engaging, Cornwall IV brings music alive in sensory-invigorating ways.

As for power, presence, and expressiveness? Hold on to your hazy IPA. At every step, Cornwall IV offers you the chance to feel what you’re hearing—just like memorable concerts. TONE Publisher Jeff Dorgay often says “dynamics are the fifth dimension.” For both macro and micro, Cornwall IV slays. It also thrives in the areas of naturalism and transparency, with vocals and instruments coming across with noticeable richness, fluidity, and solidity. The smoothness and detail of its mid and high regions cannot be overstated.

Another welcome revelation? How Cornwall IV performs at low volumes. You don’t need to go crazy with the loudness to savor its spirit. But, if you do turn your amplification up? Holy schnikes. If a speaker could laugh, Cornwall IV would chuckle all the more you challenge and push it with higher decibel levels. It doesn’t flinch, doesn’t distort, doesn’t put a tourniquet around the music. It lets you (and your equipment) decide the limits—a concept foreign to many speakers taxed with well-recorded rock or pop replete with weight, slam, and body.

Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out

Put through its paces, Cornwall IV handles a wide array of music—including numerous audiophile pressings. Cue up “Sad But True” from Metallica’s self-titled album on the MoFi-supervised 45RPM vinyl edition and sit agog at the size, scope, physicality, and tuning of the drums. Spin any of the 7LPs in the must-have Tom Petty Wildflowers & All the Rest box set and marvel at the tones, immediacy, warmth, and producer Rick Rubin’s ear for nuance and texture. Turn to the analog reissues of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My LoveRid of Me, or Dry, and savor the previously unnoticeable subterranean frequencies and singer’s throaty phrasing. Unsheathe an analog standby like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Janos Starker’s 3LP set of Bach’s Cello Concertos on Speakers Corner, and shake your head at how the musicians appear right before you, requiring no grand leap of faith.

Cornwall IV further unveils profound body, depth, and timbre tied to Johnny Cash’s voice on an original pressing of Unchained, particularly when he leans on his chest cavity, as on “Spiritual” and “Southern Accents.” Another vocal standout, Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Dreams and Daggers, demonstrates sublime realism and airiness. Brandi Carlile’s voice resonates with reach-out-and-touch-it tangibility on Give Up the Ghost and intricate By the Way I Forgive You. Ditto Adele’s dark register on her smash 21. As for the current, lilt, and grain of Jimmy Smith’s Hammond B-3 organ on the Tone Poet reissue of his Blue Note platter, Prayer Meetin’: Hallelujah.

Crank up the volume to triple-digit decibel levels, and Cornwall IV lets loose. Drop the needle on AC/DC’s Back in Black or For Those About to Rock, and the Young brothers’ guitar riffs—coupled with the crisp, on-point thwack of Phil Rudd’s drumming—radiates with convincing authority, superior control, lifelike separation, and unmistakable liveliness. Similarly, the insight afforded into the knotty architecture of Guns N’ Roses’ “Coma” on Use Your Illusion I; assertiveness of Kiss’ pouting grooves on “Strutter” and “Do You Love Me” off Double Platinum; conveyance of the all-night vibe of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” on Unapologetic; and bare-bones force projected from Run-DMC’s tag-team rapping from Mobile Fidelity’s SACD of Raising Hell—at last, an audiophile hip-hop reissue—provide one thrill ride after another.

Friends, Cornwall IV will not magically turn average or substandard recordings into gold, but its behavior tilts towards forgiveness. Vide, the latest installment of Grateful Dead Dave’s Picks, Volume 36, touts questionable sonics—an oddity for both the band and series. Through Cornwall IV, you hear the flaws but still appreciate the music while getting a grasp on the moment and what takes place. The latter lingers as one of Cornwall IV’s brute strengths: Replicating the moment—and, importantly, its aura—and translating both into a live-sounding medium.

Speaking of the Dead, a variety of the group’s other archival releases (a handful of selections from the Spring 1990 (The Other One) 23CD box set; the February 18, 1971 show on the American Beauty: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) match like peanut butter to chocolate with Cornwall IV. Everything from the timbre of Phil Lesh’s bass to the tenor of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s percussion—and atmosphere and breadth of the stage itself—personify live Dead. Pass the patchouli oil.

The Mike Campbell of Loudspeakers

Yes, Cornwall IV rocks. But it also feels entirely at home with jazz and laidback fare, be it folk or a solo violin piece. No speaker does everything right (see above). Yet Cornwall IV’s versatility furthers its appeal—and should-be designation as a music lover’s design in the same way Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell reigns as a musician’s musician. Others are flashier, faster, more finessed. Few, however, demonstrate such an innate knack for how to play notes, how to sculpt them and let them fade, how to serve the collective whole, and how to hold an audience’s attention for hours on end.

Addressing tastes of listeners who bought into certain buttoned-down principles promulgated by audio tastemakers who never negotiated the musical sea changes that occurred once the 70s revved into gear, the market overflows with speakers that nail classical, small-scale jazz, low-key Americana, and close-miked vocal music—only to run with their veritable tails between their legs when called to unpack information in dense, complicated recordings. All-rounder designs are rarer. Cornwall IV excels with rock, metal, R&B, rap, electronic, and jazz. Still, the manners in which it handles classical and acoustic-based fare please, and hint at both delicacy and sophistication.

Not to suggest Cornwall IV suits everyone. It certainly does not—and will not suffice for those exclusively bent on critical listening and/or playing the role of recording engineer. But, if you listen to a variety of genres, place a premium on the sound of live music, value engagement over crack precision, possess the requisite space in your room, or, alternatively, want to construct a second system devised for concert-like experiences, you could do far, far worse—and will likely spend thousands more in the process.

Klipsch Cornwall IV (photos courtesy, Klipsch corp.)

MSRP: $6,000/pair


Preamplifier McIntosh C2300

Amplifier McIntosh MC452

Analog Dr. Feickert Woodpecker with Jelco tonearm and Ortofon Cadenze Bronze cartridge

Digital Oppo BDP-105 and Mytek Brooklyn DAC+

Cabling Shunyata Delta interconnects and power cables

Sound Organisation expands to Canada

The Sound Organisation and The Sound Organisation Canada today announced they have been selected to be the new distributors for Spendor Audio in the United States and Canada.

Spendor Audio is the most recent addition to the The Sound Organisation portfolio that includes Chord Electronics, The Chord Company, Fyne Audio, ProAc Loudspeakers, Rega Research and Quadraspire in the U.S., and Chord Electronics and Rega in Canada.

Sussex-based Spendor Audio has been designing and building world-class loudspeakers since the 1960s. Founded by former BBC sound engineer Spencer Hughes and his wife Dorothy, Spendor Audio has been owned by veteran audio designer Phillip Swift for the past 20 years. Under Swift’s direction, Spendor has pushed product development and consolidated their speakers into the mainstream A-Line, higher-end D- Line and the traditional-yet-modern Classic Line.

“The Sound Organisation is a world-class distributor and they have demonstrated their commitment to the brands they represent,” stated Mike Picanza, Spendor’s Head of Sales and Marketing. “Spendor is very excited to work closely with the whole team at The Sound Organisation and we have no doubt they will grow our brand in the United States and Canada.”

“Spendor is a terrific brand that is well-known in the audio industry and beloved by many who hear these great speakers,” Sound Organisation President Stephen Daniels stated. “Led by an outstanding team including Philip and Mike, Spendor is the perfect partner for The Sound Organisation and we look forward to introducing them to more ears across the US and Canada.”

The Sound Organisation will be stocking Spendor Loudspeakers at their warehouse and shipping facility in Arlington, TX. Representatives from The Sound Organisation in both countries will be reaching out to current and prospective Spendor retailers in the coming weeks. For those wishing to learn more or apply to carry Spendor Audio in their locations, please contact [email protected] in the United States or [email protected] in Canada.

We look forward to bringing you some Spendor reviews in the near future…

The Sound Organisation Contact Information

United States:
Organization: The Sound Organisation Company URL: Address: 1009 Oakmead Dr., Arlington, TX 76011 Phone: +1 (972) 234-0182
Phone: [email protected]

Organization: The Sound Organisation Canada
Company URL:
Sales Address: PO Box 13563, Mississauga, ON L5N 8G5
Sales Phone: +1 (972) 234-0182
Sales Email: [email protected]
Support Address: 347 Charles-Marchand, Repentigny, QC J5X 4N8 Support Phone: +1 (514) 736-2004
Support Email: [email protected]

The Naim Supernait 3

Tracking through the silky, smooth harmonies of Shikao Suga’s “Kiseki,” I’m instantly reminded why I’ve always been so fond of the Naim Supernait.

It’s a fantastic, nearly all-in-one solution with solid audiophile credibility. What better way to start listening than with the pair of Focal Kanta 1s that Naim/Focal North America was kind enough to send along with the Supernait.

We’ve been using the Kanta 3s as reference speakers for some time, along with Sopra 3s, so the Kanta 1s are easy to get used to. Music lovers tend to fall into one of two camps when stripping away all the other variables when shopping for a music system: destination people and journey people. If you’re the latter rather than the former, the Supernait 3 will appeal to you because you can upgrade the power supply at a later date, and you can add a DAC/Streamer to access your digital files. (The original Supernait had a great DAC built-in but no phono stage. We’ll get to that later.)

Destination people can have their Naim/Focal dealer set up as much or as little as they need and stop by to pick it all up.

Somewhat of a shift

Naim’s Supernait 3 is a significant exercise in evolution as well as a shift in priorities. Where the original Nait was a small chassis affair producing only 15 watts per channel, (albeit with an incredible MM phono section built in) the current Supernait series has been 80 watts per channel. Naim’s founder, Julian Verker once was quoted saying that they couldn’t give the original Nait more power because “it sounded terrible.” As the Brits are fond of saying, “job done.” Both the Supernait 2 and the Supernait 3 are indeed musical, so this limit has been handily overcome.

Where the Supernait 2 had a built-in DAC, the Supernait 3 returns to its roots with an excellent (and I suspect Stageline derived) MM phono stage. Going straight to this with a Technics SL-1200GAE and Shure M44 cartridge, it was time to rock the house with an extended set of 45 rpm maxi-singles. Starting with Devo, and ending with Prince, this phono section delivers the goods. As Naim always offers a modular approach, and there just happened to be an MC Stageline sitting on the shelf, it was put into use with a second SL-1200/Denon 103 combination. The Stageline has such a small footprint, making it easy to turn your Supernait 3 into a two turntable amplifier, and at a reasonable cost. An extra Stageline will only set you back about $800, and they are lurking on the used market now and then for about $500. Not bad, and you can power it directly from the Supernait 3.

 If you’ve made a modest to somewhat beyond modest investment in a turntable/MM cartridge, the onboard phono section here is not an afterthought, tacked on to appease those with a moderate collection of vinyls (sic). This is a true analog lovers phono stage.

More modularity

In addition to adding an extra phono stage, you can also use your Supernait in the context of a bi-amplified system by just adding another power amplifier, or you can increase its performance with an outboard power supply. Naim has always been a big believer in building massive power supplies – a prime factor in their exceptional ability to reproduce musical pace and timing. Additional power reserves only improve this, and though we did not have an outboard supply available at this time, we did do this with the Supernait 2 in our last review. The improvement was not subtle and worth every penny.

While some criticize this approach, we have always loved this aspect of Naim products because it allows you to grow without discarding your original purchase – a very green solution. And a solid investment. With any non-essential purchase, it’s always nice to know that you can purchase it incrementally. Not to mention having another honeymoon with a component you already love. Adding an external supply creates a new component, allowing you to experience your music collection anew, always fun.

Thirteen years ago, the Supernait 2 was about $4,300, and the current Supernait 3 $4,995. Taking account for inflation, that $4,300 amplifier would be a tick over $7,000 in today’s money, so $4,995 for an even better amplifier is a real bargain. That Naim keeps the price in check is a testament to the production department as much as the accounting department. 

Most people wanting to keep their system all-Naim might pair their Supernait 3 with the ($7,690) NDX 2 DAC/Streamer, but we happened to have their top range ND555/PS555 combination (a click under $40k), and this proves to be a stellar combination. Naim’s unifying architecture makes this all so easy to use.

The one thing unique to Naim is their speaker outputs that look similar to banana jacks. No 5-way binding posts here. Naim suggests using their connectors, though we had no problem getting a solid mechanical interface from Cardas, Nordost, and Tellurium-Q cables. Inputs are connected via Naim 5 pin connectors or RCA jacks. Some of you may even remember when Naim allowed only the use of their proprietary connectors. Bottom line, there are plenty of connections, so you can build a powerful system around your Supernait 3. In addition to the MM phono input, there are four more line-level inputs and a headphone jack on the front.

More listening

The Supernait 3 builds on the strengths of the Supernait 2. Naim says that the power amplifier circuit has been simplified somewhat (“the second gain stage transistors have been optimized, so they no longer need to be shielded by a cascade stage transistor.”) This increases the amplifiers slew rate. While some will argue whether this makes an amplifier more dynamic or not, there’s no question that this is a very fast, dynamic amplifier. Choose a few of your favorite tracks with some intense drumming, or perhaps some rapid acoustic guitar playing, and you’ll hear immediately that the Naim engineers have succeeded brilliantly. Naim has always been famous for producing amplifiers adept at reproducing musical timing, and the Supernait 3 upholds that long tradition.

The high end is smooth and defined, while the lowest of frequencies are well controlled and extended. When paired with the Sopra 3s, it was easy to see what a great job the Supernait 3 does with LF dynamics. Tracking through the entirety of David Gray’s White Ladder, I was constantly impressed with the sheer weight that these tracks were presented.

 As the Naim amplifiers are class B designs, they do not run hot, even when pushed hard. Playing most of the new AC/DC record, Power Up, at a juvenile level still leaves the Supernait 3 barely warm to the touch. The Naim sounds equally good with the volume down low. Aimee Mann’s rendition of the Carpenters tune “Yesterday Once More” (From the Vinyl soundtrack) shows off plenty of tonal delicacy and finesse. This is an amp for all seasons.

What the Naim amplifiers deliver is effortless pace and timing reproduction. They are not quite as vivid as your favorite tube amplifier in terms of creating a huge soundfield in all three dimensions. The Supernait is not a small sounding amplifier, though it is not engulfing the way the (all vacuum tube) VAC i170 is. Definitely a different feel. And in all fairness, the apparent sound of the Supernait’s gets “bigger” when you step up to the external power supply. In the context of a $5,000 integrated with phono, it’s still top of the range. It’s also worth mentioning that even without an external power supply, the Supernait 3 offers a high level of dynamic engagement, even with power-hungry speakers like the Harbeth Compact 7s we have on hand.

The only speakers we would suggest staying away from are a full range ESL. The highly capacitive load that these speakers present did not make for a clean sound. In all fairness to the Naim, The $8,000 Esoteric and a $20k CH Precision integrated that came through our doors fared no better with the Quads – they are the ultimate amplifier torture. The rest of you will be just fine.

Aesthetics and such

You’re either a fan of the stark modernism of Naim components, with their brushed black casework and the backlit green buttons that almost look like M&Ms or Skittles. Personally, I love Naim’s look, and their commitment to making minimal changes in casework design over the years, so you can mix and match multiple generations with ease. Again, this helps to protect your investment – 10, 20 or even 30-year-old Naim components still look great together on your equipment rack. 

The only other manufacturer that has done such a great job of maintaining a consistent design language is McIntosh. It’s no coincidence that Naim gear enjoys the same fierce following that McIntosh does, and their legacy products enjoy a high resale value, should you ever decide to trade up.

However, my experience with Naim over the years is few people trade them in – they just move them to a second or third system and buy more. That’s the ultimate expression of customer loyalty as far as I’m concerned.

The only complaints I have about the Supernait 3 have plagued the amp from the last generation – the volume and balance controls lack any tactile feel. Naim’s engineering driven mentality has chosen the motorized ALPS unit for it’s supreme sonics, and I’m guessing most of you will use the remote anyway. While this is by no means a deal-breaker, as most of you will probably use the remote, the stunningly luxurious feel to the volume control in the thousand dollar Mu-so just makes me wonder why Naim has always chosen not to integrate this here. ED NOTE: Naim has informed me that the MuSo volume control is a digital unit, so this is an apples to oranges comparison – but the MuSo volume control is damn sexy. Last but not least, headphone users will enjoy the Supernait 3. Like the phono section, the headphone amplifier is no afterthought. Auditioning phones from Audeze, Grado, and of course Focal, all delivered great results. This goes further to make the Supernait 3 the perfect partner for those with space at a premium.

At the end of the day, the Supernait 3 is a class leader. Great sound, great aesthetic, and top build quality. Not only do I like this one enough to hand it an Exceptional Value Award for 2020, but I have also purchased the review sample. This is too handy of a system anchor not to have around the studio. 

If you like the Naim approach and don’t really want a big stack of components, the Supernait 3 is for you.

UBISOUND Launches Two New Speakers

Italian Manufacturer UBISOUND launches two new speakers: The Feel, and Velvet series.

We’ve seen and heard past UBISOUND products at the Munich High End show, and they have always provided great sound, and appealing looks.

The new FEEL Series 2021 maintains the four fascinating glossy colors Elegant Black, Pure White, Sport Red and Fashion Yellow available in two versions: FL32 bookshelf or stand (1,990 USD / pair) and FL38 floor standing tower (2,490 USD / pair).

The new VELVET Series 2021 adopts the extraordinary and unique matt satin deep Black color available in two versions: VL42 bookshelf or stand (2,490 USD / pair) and VL48 floor standing tower (2,990 USD / pair).

The Backert Labs Rhumba Preamplifier

In a world where many audio companies try to be all things to all people (or customers), it’s refreshing to stumble upon someone doing one awesome thing.

Backert Labs builds line-stage preamplifiers. That’s it, though they did mention that they have a new phono preamplifier almost ready for prime time. Close enough. And they’ve been doing it for quite a while.

The Backert Labs Rhumba came highly recommended by a few of our readers, and their enthusiasm is more than justified. The Rhumba 1.3 is a fantastic preamplifier – period. That it is only $4,000 is terrific – yet this is a perfect example of extreme focus. Backert Labs also makes a $10k preamplifier, claiming the Rhumba is a more cost-effective version of. They also offer a Rhumba + for $6,500 that kinda splits the difference. After extended listening it continues to engage at a high level. Andy from Backert reveals that they put close to 200 hours on every unit before shipping, so you won’t have to wait to fully enjoy it.

And engage it does

Between the revolutionary power supply and a reasonably simple circuit consisting of a pair of 12AU7 tubes, the Rhumba delivers a mere 10db of gain but that’s more than enough to drive anyone’s power amplifier. Matching it with a wide range of amplifiers on hand, from a near original Dynaco Stereo 70 to a pair of Pass XA200.8s, there were no surprises and no disappointments. In my primary reference system, I could only detect a minute difference between SE and BAL outputs. The balanced outputs sound slightly smoother, and the SE outputs just a touch crisper on the extreme top end. I am splitting thin hairs here. It could also be the difference between SE and BAL inputs on all four of the power amplifiers used too. I feel safe suggesting this preamplifier to mate with any power amp you have at your disposal.

The difference between good, great preamplifiers, and the best money can buy is in the fine details. The world’s premier preamplifiers provide a level of reach out and touch it communication, sometimes even fooling you into believing that you are listening to the real thing. Because a preamplifier doesn’t have to do the work of driving a pair of speakers, and the potential mismatch between the power amp and speaker, it’s usually not as dependent on what it’s connected to. The Rhumba has an output impedance of 75 ohms, which is very low – and it drives a 30-foot pair of Cardas Clear interconnects (XLR or RCA) as easy as it does a 3-foot pair, with no sonic degradation whatsoever.

I’d put the Rhumba solidly between great and best. And for $4k, that’s a steal. If there are any of you listening in the late 80s/early 90s, Audible Illusions came on the scene with a preamplifier (the Modulus) that took a simple, high-quality approach much like the Rhumba does. Back then, the Modulus was the answer for the audiophile that wanted something like a CJ Premier or an ARC SP10, but on a bit tighter budget. The Modulus was $999 when the big boys were about $6k. At least among the $15k – $30k preamplifiers I’ve heard, the Rhumba offers a lot of that experience. And it’s a solid contender among the big name $10k preamplifiers.

After getting enough of a listen in my main system to get a firm grip on the delta between this and my reference components in a familiar environment, the Rhumba comes in the house, placed in a system more in keeping with the way I’d expect it to be used. A pair of Dynaudio’s new Confidence 20 speakers (mated to a six-pack of REL S/510 subs) and the Aqua DAC we recently reviewed, cabled together with Cardas Clear Reflection speaker cables, interconnects and power cords rounded things out nicely.

I had a wide range of power amplifiers at my disposal for these listening sessions. Suffice to say the Rhumba was an excellent match for all of them. The McIntosh MC275 (with EAT KT88 tubes), the BAT VK60SE, PrimaLuna’s EVO400 on the tube side, and a Pass XA30.8 and Nagra Classic on the solid-state side of the equation all make for a great amplification chain.

A solid contender

Most of the listening in this evaluation was done with the EVO400 – I like the price/performance value of this amplifier too, and you can put the Rhumba/EVO400 combination in your rack for well under $10k. Personal bias: this is a very musical pair I could comfortably live with and forget the big dollar stuff. The best of the best is still awesome and deserving of its place, but the Rhumba does so much right, that unless you’ve got everything (and I mean everything) else to go with, it can be a destination preamplifier for 90% of you. Adding your favorite $5k-$10k pair of speakers, an excellent DAC, and an equally good performing analog front end if you spin vinyl will give you a good portion of what the mega gear delivers at an approachable price. You may never want to go any further in your audio journey. More money for records and motorcycles, I say.

Attempting to identify the sonic fingerprint of the Rhumba, I’ll call it ever so slightly on the warm side of natural/neutral. In the last year, I’ve listened carefully to the McIntosh 2600, PrimaLuna’s EVO400 preamplifier, the Simaudio 390, Boulder’s new 1110, Nagra’s Classic, the CJ GAT2, ARC’s LS28 and REF 6 along with a handful of vintage and near vintage pieces, so it’s been in good company.

Tonality is one aspect of preamplifier sound. The most exciting aspect of the Rhumba is the lively, dynamic aspect of its sound – all part of the GreenForce power supply design. Listening to musical selections with wide dynamic swings, and music more in the acoustic vein makes it so easy to hear the complete lack of bloated, cloudy, overhang that some designs possess. The Rhumba still sounds slightly tubey, but just enough to convince you, there are indeed a couple of tubes under the hood. They are easy to get at with a clear window attached magnetically to the top of the case.

Another bias: I absolutely hate tube gear with tubes that just stick out of the top of the case. Too easy to break something. The Rhumba gives you easy access to the tubes, both for service/rolling, and to see a little bit of a glow.

Thanks to designing around the 12AU7/ECC82, instead of the 12AX7/ECC83 makes the cost of pursuing different or NOS tubes much more reasonable – vintage 12AU7s cost considerably less than vintage 12AX7s. As easy as Backert Labs makes it to roll tubes in the Rhumba (and who knows, maybe I’ll cave when they send that phono preamplifier), I avoided going down that path in the context of this review. After years of chasing that rabbit, I choose to give him a wink from afar, and it’s not fair to a manufacturer to say their preamp only sounds great with unobtainium tubes. Not to mention how little fun that is for you, because you thought you were done after you wrote the $4,000 check. But are we as audio enthusiasts ever done? Ha.

Seriously though, the Rhumba delivers such an engaging performance, I never felt the need to try something else, and sacrifice the good work they’ve done merely for different. Tube rollers, you know what I’m saying. If you have lobsters in your pants and can’t wait to swap those tubes out and argue with people on your favorite audio forum – go for it. But I’ll bet you a bottle of your favorite single malt, a year from now, you’ll cave in and go back to the originals.

The Rhumba offers a very natural overall tonal balance that is very dynamic, with a touch of that tonal saturation that seems to only happen with tubes. It never sounds like vintage tube gear, i.e., slow, rolled off, or overly saturated. If this is the sound you’ve been looking for, the Rhumba is what you want. This natural balance makes it easy to voice the rest of your system to taste while leaving the Rhumba as your anchor – again, this is going to be a destination preamp for a lot of people.

The sonic landscape, or to be more precise, the size and scale of the sonic landscape a preamplifier creates is equally important as tonal balance and dynamics. Again, the Rhumba excels, creating a massive soundfield in all three dimensions – it does a fantastic job at getting the Dynaudio’s and two stacks of REL subwoofers to disappear in the listening room. Six weeks after unboxing, I’m still surprised and amazed at how much music this preamplifier reveals. And how many late nights I’m spending listening to “one more record.”

The other stuff

Great as it sounds, the Rhumba is well built from a mechanical standpoint. There are no exposed screws in the casework, the minimal control set feels good, and the remote is simple, effective, and substantial. It feels good when you place it in your equipment rack. The front panel is finished to a high level, but this is not a blingy preamplifier by any means, so you aren’t left feeling that half the cost of the Rhumba was squandered on a fancy case. However, there is only one thing I don’t care for on the Rhumba – those paddle switches.

I can assure you I’ve broken at least one of these on everyone else’s preamplifier. Not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but I caution you to place your Rhumba just inside the shelf enough on your equipment rack so you will not bump it. I guarantee that the slightest bit of torsional stress will break these. You’ve been warned.

The substantial remote is volume only. You’ll either love it or hate it. I say the less remote switching going on, the better for the overall noise floor. Again, the Rhumba is damn quiet. I’d rather put my adult beverage down to manually walk over and switch sources for a few more dB of quiet. Are you with me?

Nothing but joy

I’d like to take a minute to thank our highly interactive Facebook audience for suggesting the Rhumba. I was looking for something new, something that I hadn’t heard before. In a Jeopardy type way, I put it out there – how about new preamps for $5k? A number of our readers responded how much they liked their Rhumba, feeling it was something we should investigate.

The highest compliment I can pay to this preamplifier is that since it’s been installed in my living room, I haven’t thought about it. I’ve just been playing music. I haven’t spent one second pondering whether it does or doesn’t do this or that. The Backert Labs Rhumba is one of those truly rare audio components that takes you on this kind of journey. If you investigate one for yourself, I hope you will enjoy this one as much as I have. It’s a Goldilocks preamp – it’s just right.

The Backert Labs Rhumba 1.3



Analog Source AVID Volvere SP/SME309/Kiseki Purple Heart

Digital Source Aqua Hifi LaScala DAC, Bryston BDP-1 Streamer

Phonostage Pass Labs XP-27

Power Amplifier PrimaLuna EVO400

Speakers Dynaudio Confidence 20 w/6pack of REL S/510 subwoofers

Cable Cardas Clear Reflection

REVIEW: Sonus faber Lumina 1

Wow, a Sonus faber speaker you can pick up with one hand. Cool.

One of the biggest parts of evaluating high end audio gear, is a lot of lifting. A lot of lifting really heavy stuff. It’s ok, just part of the job, but when something arrives at the door in a small box, both the FedEx guy and I both share an exhale. We’ve had the same FedEx guy for about 12 years now, and ironicalliy, he’s an audio lover. Reads us, TAS, Stereophile, HiFi +, everything – so he knows what’s in the boxes.

“Did Sonus faber forget to ship you an accessory box?” Good one. We have a nice, socially distanced conversation about Sonus faber and other things Italian (like Ducatis) and he goes away anxious to hear what we’ve all got to say about the Lumina 1s. “Can’t belive I missed this.” But we can only keep on top of so much. In case you missed it too, the new Lumina series stands for LU-luxury, MI-minimalist, and NA-natural.

Sonus faber’s vertical manufacturing integration is what makes these Italian beauties so awesome at the low price of $899 a pair. The front panels are exquisitely finished, as you would expect from Sonus faber, however the cabinet sides are wrapped in leather – a move saving countless hours of cabinet finishing. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Sonus faber makes the cabinets out of scraps left over from making the big speakers. Though the company is known for their beautiful, rounded cabinets, the more straightforward rectangular box used here is much easier to produce while keeping costs down. And keeping the Luminas made in Italy.

What makes the Lumina 1 a Sonus faber, is the attention to detail and level of finish. This is part of what sets them apart from other like-priced products. The three speakers in the Lumina range all share the same tweeter, giving the small Lumina 1 a distinct advantage. This is really a pair of $900 dollar speakers with the tweeter used in the $2,100/pair Lumina III floorstander – so the degree of smoothness and resolution that you hear in the big ones is still here. They just have less low frequency output.

Thanks to Sonus faber’s slot loaded front/bottom firing port for the 4-inch woofer, you can cheat physics a little bit and place your Lumina 1s pretty close to the wall to pick up on some room gain. I suspect a tiny mid-bass bump, much like that mega famous LS3/5A. So at the end of the day, the Lumina 1s don’t sound as bass shy as the spec sheet suggests.

The driving bass line in Saults “I Just Want to Dance” holds your attention, and when used in this manner, delivers way more bass than you might expect these tiny speakers to deliver. Sonus faber also offers their Gravis line of subwoofers, and I suspect any one of these will blend perfectly with your Lumina 1s to serve up full range performance. Though one was not available for this review, we did have the new REL TZero ($599) extending the performance of the Lumina 1s substantially. Your Sonus faber dealer will easily be able to hook you up with a Gravis sub should the need for more low frequencies be on your agenda. The modular concept certainly allows your music system to grow with your space and wallet. Should you ever move to a Lumina based theater system, you can move your Lumina 1s to the rear channels with ease, and flesh out the system with a Lumina CI center channel ($699) and some Lumina III floorstanders for the front speakers. Or some Palladio’s for in-wall use, but that’s a story for another day.

Using the Lumina 1s in a more traditional “audiophile” setup, they deliver what you expect from the pedigree: open, natural sound. In a 13 x 15 foot room, listening fairly nearfield, via the VAC i170 tube integrated and a dCS Vivaldi One as a source, these little speakers are not only stunning but sound much bigger than their small footprint suggests. I don’t say that lightly, my personal reference speakers are Sonus faber Stradivari Homage. These are Sonus fabers through and through. Not even half way through the review, the phone call was made to purchase these babies – they’re staying as a permanent reference for what can be accomplished in a compact system.

The wild saxophone runs in Ebi Soda’s “Duhrenger” float all about the listening room, and well beyond the speaker boundaries. Fun. These little speakers create a huge sound field in the 13 x 15 foot room they are being auditioned in. They still satisfy moving them to the larger 16 x 26 foot room, but you might prefer a pair of floorstanders or adding that sub in a room this size.

The luminas sound great right out of the box, though the tweeter does smooth out slightly after about 100 hours of play. All of the current small speaker protocols apply. Find high mass speaker stands, use a dab of blu-tack or similar to maximize the mechanical interface between speaker and stand, and pay close attention to setup. The Lumina 1s provide room filling sound with about 20 watts per channel (or more), yet like most mini monitors are even more enjoyable in a smaller room, in a relatively nearfield configuration.

Experimenting with stands suggests a 30” inch stand to get those tweeters up closer to ear level. Initial listening was done with 24” stands, but this produces a somewhat dull sound, no matter what we did for placement. Keep this in mind, should you be placing your Lumina 1s on a bookshelf. If you have more audiophile sensibilities, you’ll probably want them closer to ear level, if not, the tweeter does have a wide dispersion pattern, though you will not get the ultimate detail they are capable of placing them too far off the horizontal access.

Should you pair the Lumina 1s with a bookshelf style system and plan on playing records as part of your musical repertoire, make sure and find a way to either isolate the turntable from said shelf, the speakers from the shelf, or both if possible. Setting the Luminas up on a 48-inch long IKEA shelving unit, (full of books and records) with a ProJect turntable and the PrimaLuna amp without isolation made it fairly easy to excite low frequency related feedback in the system when listening to vinyl. Putting a pair of Iso-Acoustics ISO-130 stands underneath the Luminas eliminates the problem and you can find a pair right here.

Three different integrated amplifiers were used to put the Lumina 1s in perspective. Nearly all of the listening for evaluation was done with the PrimaLuna EVO 100, (30wpc – vacuum tubes) The Luxman L-550AXII (20wpc – class A solid-state), and a vintage Sansui AU 717 (85wpc-solid state).

The Lumina 1s have more than enough resolving power to reveal the characteristics of each amplifier, yet is easy to drive with whatever you have on hand. As many Sonus faber dealers are McIntosh dealers, the MC252 might be a perfect thing to combine a pair of Lumina 1s with to make a compact, premium sound match up.

Regardless of what you choose to power your Lumina 1s, these are a perfect way to start your journey with Sonus faber. As 2020 comes to a close, these are the last product to receive one of our Exceptional Value Awards.

EPILOGUE:  Upon reading this review, Sonus faber’s Livio Cucuzza (the head of their design team) said, “In Italy we say Il Buon vino sta nella botte piccola.” Which means, “In the small barrel, there is good wine.” I think that says it all.

Please click here to visit the Lumina page on the Sonus faber official site…

The Sonus faber Minima Amator II

Breathtaking as they are, not everyone has the room (or the disposable cash) for a pair of Sonus faber Aidas in their environment.

However, if you love the sound and craftsmanship of their beautiful cabinets, with their hand affixed leather front panels, consider the new Minima Amator II. Continuing in the tradition of small but powerful two-way monitors, the new Minimas are exquisite, and use a tweeter derived straight from the $130,000/pair Aida. They offer a lush, spacious sound, that brings the flagship speakers to mind instantly.

Don’t be scared, but these speakers sound flat, flat, flat, out of the box. There’s no bass to speak of and the highs are pretty constricted. Play them fairly loud for a few days, using bass heavy program material and they settle in beautifully. The self titled SBTRKT album does the job here, and after a few days, these speakers show their true voice.

A small speaker with a small woofer can only move so much air, but in our 12 x 18 foot living room, in concert with our reference VAC Sigma i170 vacuum tube integrated amplifier (85 watts per channel) the Minimas make beautiful music, with weight and character to the low end. As with the famous Sonus faber monitors from years past, they nearly defy science, producing such a big powerful sound from a tiny cabinet.

That is part of their magic – the minimal front panel of the Minima, along with that tweeter, creates a sonic perspective that is wide and deep. Their wide dispersion makes for a broad sweet spot that everyone in the room can enjoy. Of course, the best seat is still front and center, but these are easy speakers to set up and participate in.

Much like past small SF speakers, setup is the key. Wimp out on the setup and they will deliver lackluster results. One of the advantages to such a small monitor, is the tight time alignment on the drivers, rake isn’t as important as it is on something like the big, floorstanding SF speakers, but optimizing the tweeter height to your listening position is the difference between mediocrity and magic.

If you can find the patience to spend a long afternoon with the Minimas, you will be rewarded with a broad soundfield well beyond what you would expect from a small speaker. The Minimas deliver dynamics right up to the point where they can be pushed no more. Again, small speakers can only move so much air. Take care and make toe in and placement adjustments with increasingly fine increments, and you will reach the point where the speakers disappear completely. That’s when you know you have it just right. If you’re still hearing even a hint of sound coming from two boxes in the room, you still have work to do. These speakers are deceptively simple – they sound pleasant once broken in, but amazing when optimized.
Kept within their operating range, the level of refinement these speakers offer is out of this world. Tracking through Lee Morgan’s Cornbread, acoustic instruments shine, cymbals shimmer with perfection, and the piano is just right. Ditto for tracks with heavily layered vocals – your listening room opens up and engulfs you with musical details. This is the magic of a fantastic pair of monitors.

Finally, the sheer aesthetic beauty of these speakers is impossible to ignore. Much as I love em, my reference JBL L100 Classics look like a wood shop project in comparison. Just like my reference Sonus faber Stradivari’s, you just want to run the back of your hand across the cabinet and feel the ultimate, luxurious, smoothness of these speakers. The partner acceptance factor of Sonus faber is higher than any other speaker.

What’s not to love in a speaker that is beautiful to listen to and beautiful to behold? Should you need to augment the bottom end of the frequency scale, a small subwoofer will take you the rest of the way there, if you need it. We give these our highest recommendation.

MSRP: $4,000/pair

A Heartfelt “thank you” to Cardas Audio

We’re going on about 10 months of this now…

As we put the finishing touches on our yearly “Awards” issue, and everyone in the audio industry is deciding which great audio products are the best of the best for whatever reason, I’d like to spotlight some genuine human kindness. I’ve had the privilege to get to know a lot of people in the high end, but I admit to a soft spot for the people at Cardas Audio, for a number of reasons.

I really appreciate the consistent positivity of Angela Cardas, and her husband Josh.

The saying goes, that actions speak louder than words, and this certainly applies here. Very early in March, the Cardases sent a bunch of goody boxes out with a big red tag (If you know Angela Cardas, you know that beyond the signature blue that covers nearly all of their cables, her favorite color is bright red) that said in big, bold letters, “Keep calm and carry on.”

Inside the box were assorted snack treats, a great bottle of gin, sourced locally, and some Cardas swag. And why not?

But the thing that I thought was the coolest, especially in a time where there was no hand sanitizer on the store shelves, and you couldn’t get a roll of toilet paper to save your life, they enclosed a small bottle of hand sanitizer that you could attach to your key ring. As someone who constantly loses their keys, wallet and phone on a regular, I’ve taken to wearing the most important keys in my life around my neck. My wife Pam jokes that I should have a “don’t feed sugar, and don’t medicate” tag on that key ring, but that’s another story for another time.

Needless to say, I’ve worn that Cardas hand sanitizer bottle around my neck every day of my life, since the day it arrived, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s been refilled. Though it’s looking a little bit worse for the wear and tear, I can’t help but think perhaps that one small act of kindness may have saved my life this year. I’m 60, had asthma as a kid, and could stand to lose 20 pounds, thanks to the lack of activity over the last year. In short, I’m probably a prime candidate for Covid complications.

As much as I’ve minimized interaction with the outside world in the last 10 months, there have been a number of times that I went to the gas station, or FedEx, or whatever, that I forgot to take a pair of latex gloves. That squirt of hand sanitizer may have been just the thing that’s kept me out of the ER.

Looking back on a recent scare this week, fearing that despite my efforts to self quarantine, I may have contracted this damn virus anyway, my test results came back negative yesterday, and I exhaled a major sigh of relief. So, for now, you’re still stuck with me.

So, I say to all of our readers, and friends in this industry, this is a great time to reflect on everyone that’s gone just a little bit out of their way to make sure we’re all still standing. More than ever, I really look forward to when we can all hang out in person, at a show or a dealer event, have a beer and a few good laughs. Who knows? Maybe we won’t even take some of the arguments so seriously…

Again a big thanks to Angela Cardas for the thoughtful gift.

I still love buying hifi gear!

Note I used the word “buy.”

You might think that even though I do this every day, I’m over the thrill of finding great hifi. Nothing could be further than the truth. In the last week, I’ve put down a deposit on my own pair of Dirty Weekend speakers from ZU Audio, purchased the review pair of Lumina 1 speakers from Sonus faber, (you can read the full review here) and bought a vintage Sansui AU-717 integrated amp.

This is still fun, and it’s still exciting to not only find bargains in high end audio, but to re-discover classic pieces from your history that you miss. (and possibly regret selling)

I’m truly looking forward to the last few weeks of this year. We’ve got issue 105 with awards coming up, and quite a few reviews that we’ve just finished that need to be posted on the TONE website. Issue 106 is already in progress for a Feb.1 launch, and we’ve got our heads down on a new, optimized for mobile, version of TONE.

Crazy as 2020 has been, we are looking forward to the months to come, and hope that maybe by summer or fall, we’ll get to see some of you in person again.

Stay safe, and happy holidays to you and yours.