Pass X150.8 Power Amplifier

If you’ve thought about a big pair of Pass mono block amplifiers, but just don’t quite have the room, consider their X-series amplifiers.

The X150.8 serves up 150 watts per channel on a single chassis measuring only 7.5 inches tall (with the standard 19 inch wide x 21.25 footprint) and weighs 88 pounds. You’ll never mistake it for a class D lightweight, but one person can pick it up.

The new .8 series of class AB power amplifiers are biased further into class A operation than the .5 amplifiers (in this case about 15 watts), so at modest volume levels the X150 rivals the mightiest of XA series amplifiers, yet has plenty of reserve power for musical peaks when required.

Rob Johnson’s review will be up shortly.

Issue 107

Cover Feature

Harbeth C7ES-3 XD

And… Speaker roundup


Old School: Meridian’s 263 DAC

The Audiophile Apartment: The Focal Kanta no.1

Mine: It Should Be Yours

1095: Gear for Just over a G

Mine: It Should Be Yours


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world

Jim Macnie Returns with some great Jazz Choices

Emily Duff’s “Can’t Get it Out of my Head…”

NEW!  Merch Table – cool stuff from music’s past

Pam Griffin reviews the new John Hiatt Record

Future Tense

Gear in our immediate future

The ZuAudio Omen Dirty Weekend

So, it’s time to shop for new speakers.

You set up your wish list of characteristics; Something that can sound great at both high and low volumes, Crystal clear high’s, solid low end, midrange with excellent clarity and accuracy, something that images like crazy, build quality that can last a lifetime, no sun fade, a speaker that can rock out for any party, a speaker that will let high rez files shine through for critical listening and, oh yes, your budget tops out at around $1,000, maybe a little more. Nice wish list. How close can you get these days to a speaker giving you everything you wished for?

Well, you must be quick on the order button and pay attention four days per year. The speaker is the Zu Audio Omen Dirty Weekend. Available to order only four days a year on the first day of each quarter, they sell out fast. Within a day kind of fast. But as I found out, it was worth the wait.

Get out the checkbook

Zu Audio does not provide review samples for the reviewer to request. Get in line with everyone else and wait. After attending numerous after hours events at various audio shows, I was willing to get in line. My choice of upgraded capacitors and Sangria Maple finish meant the final cost would be closer to $1,700 and a three month wait. Keep in mind the base hickory finish and standard caps will run you about $1,100 USD. The Dirty Weekends get about 600 hours of break in at the factory, so when they arrive, the heavy lifting is done. Unboxing and setup are straightforward – installing the footers is an easy task and necessary to provide breathing room for the downward ported main driver. Don’t skip this vital part of setting the Zu’s up.

Build quality on the Dirty Weekends is exemplary. This is furniture grade woodworking and finishing. Sean Casey, Zu Audio’s Founder, indicates they are built for a lifetime of use. You may need to swap out capacitors after a decade or two, but they are indeed built for the long haul. Amazing craftsmanship for $10k, but remember these start at $1,100/pair. Adding them into the system I hooked them up the Audio Research REF160S and REF6SE amp and preamp that were in for review. Source was the PS Audio DirectStream DAC and Memory Player. Vinyl was courtesy of the VPI Prime Signature with Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC cartridge and the Moon 610LP Phono-Pre. Speaker Cables were the Silversmith Audio Fidelium’s. The DW’s are an easy load to drive at 12 Ohms so the Audio Research REF160S at 140 Wpc was way more than necessary to power them. Now you may ask do you need audiophile reference level electronics to pair with these speakers. No, but it was fun to try the combination!

Queueing up Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night on vinyl, the first track, “Big Love,” the first thing I noticed was how crisp and precise the presentation was. Lindsey Buckingham’s finger style guitar work was direct and immediate. Fingers on strings were tight with the pluck of the string being clear with a delicious sense of realism. Mick Fleetwood’s drums had the well-defined attack you expect from a live performance. The song displayed excellent imaging and spatial boundary. It was a beautiful experience that presaged good times ahead with the Omen Dirty Weekends.

Moving to a digital source I chose The Talking Heads Stop Making Sense soundtrack and “Life During Wartime.” This was a specific choice as I had heard the song at one of the after-show parties as well as having heard the song live at Northrup Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus in 1982. That was a great concert and while there I expected the balcony to come down as everyone was jumping during that song. The DW’s rocked the man-cave as I cranked the song and let the live recording loose. The energy was powerful, and the song soared. The jumping afro polyrhythms filled the room with a dynamic syncopation framing David Byrne’s vocal. It was a total blast and revealed the trade secret that Zu Audio brings to your listening room, fun! These speakers are flat out fun. Three cubic feet of party in a box.

So, I was now convinced that the DW’s would not embarrass themselves connected to $75k of gear. I had disconnected my Vandersteen Quatro CT’s to move the DW’s in. I now changed out the reference electronics for something closer to the Zu’s price point. I added in a Luxman CL-38uC tube preamp and MQ-88uC class AB tube amplifier that ran 25 Wpc. At $6k USD each these mid-level Luxman pieces are outstanding, and boy did the Zu’s like them! Staying in the vein of fun, I went to Roon and called up Oingo Boingo’s 1985 song, “Dead Man’s Party”. If this song does not get you dancing around the room at high volume, I don’t know what will.  This song has great guitar and a solid bass line that drives the tune on. It also features a great brass section. I love brass, however, at volume on a stereo they can be harsh and strident with poor quality speakers that are being pushed. The DW’s offered up high volume trumpet and trombone with the clear and correct ring of brass. At no point were the instruments distorted or harsh. Peals of tone were strong and clear. It was a great display of sonic execution that I greatly appreciated.

So, what about vocals? I moved on to Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Luther College. “Deed is Done” has the boys’ guitars working a brilliant tandem while Dave sings. His vocals are clear and immediate as a live album should be. Imaged perfectly not only centered but with a three dimensionality that gave life to the live recording. Guitar strings are plucked and strummed and offered up that live performance feel that separates a studio recording from an event. This is a key point with the Omen Dirty Weekend speakers. If the recording has in it the ability to convey real, the DW’s will bring it. When I first heard “it” (That real sound) during some additional break in time, I did a double take. I have never heard a speaker at this price point nail “Real” the way these do.

Female vocals are also superb. An afternoon listening to Dominique Fils-Aime’s Nameless album proved the Dirty Weekends were more than up to lower volume and nuance.  Critical listener’s will be well served with these astonishing speakers. Everything I tried with them worked. You get the idea from the Zu Audio website, but I spoke to Sean Casey directly about the “entry drug” purpose of the Dirty Weekends. He agreed the hope is after experiencing them you will want to see how far down the Zu Audio rabbit hole you may want to go. Zu Audio will give the buyer a full year full value on trade-in to move up the line. The fact that a company will stand so proudly behind its entry product speaks volumes about what the customer will receive up the line. I encourage anyone in the market for new speakers to take a chance and place an order. At 36” high and 12” square they are easy to place and very forgiving on placement. At 54 lbs they are easy to move and at $1100 they will not break the bank. What is not to like? I recommend getting in line for a pair asap. You will be glad you did.

Additional Listening: Jeff Dorgay

A funny thing happened in the checkout isle. Eric had originally purchased the DWs above, but in the course of his excellent review, decided to make a change in his listening room priorities. We’ve all done it. Being that his pair already had the upgraded finish and caps, I was more than happy to take them off his hands, and back to Washington, the Zu’s flew.

Eric has done a fantastic job describing his experience with the Zu’s and I concur. However, don’t think you need mega gear to enjoy these. While I’m currently using them with the Line Magnetic 805 amplifier we reviewed here, these speakers are one of the most accessible ways to a great system, period, end of story. Going the complete budget route, four highly accessible amplifiers did a cracking job with these speakers. Adding your favorite turntable, DAC, or streamer will have you styling for under $2,500.

Going the vintage receiver route is my first choice. A Pioneer SX-525, Marantz 2215/2220, or Harmon/Kardon 330 will give you 15 or 20 great watts per channel, and that’s all you need to rock with these speakers. Most of these can be picked up for a couple hundred bucks, and re-capped by a pro for a couple hundred bucks more. If you’re a DIY kind of audio enthusiast, way less.

Those wanting a vintage tube sound need look no further than a Dynaco SCA-35 integrated. 18 watts per channel of EL84 power and a decent on-board phono stage (not to mention a tape head preamp) also will provide an incredibly rich musical experience. A nice one, even with a full refresh can still be had for under a thousand bucks.

In the 60s a number of Japanese auto executives came to America to see how we built cars. You know the rest of the story. Perhaps some of the big speaker manufacturers should visit Zu. They do it right. The level of excellence that Zu offers at this price (and I realize that they are making precious little on DWs) is unbelievable. Nothing else I’ve experienced in 40 years of hifi offers up this much music. For many, this is the only speaker you’ll ever need. It’s beyond cool that Zu makes these available four times a year.

A few months later, I’m still totally flabbergasted with these speakers. Big thanks to Bill Griffin, creator of my favorite existential pinhead for conveying my thoughts perfectly!

REVIEW – Dan Clark AEON 2 Headphones

As you read into the Dan Clark website, about their new planar driver, they use the word knurly to their approach to this design. To simplify, (or you can go to their site here), other planar phones have a flat diaphragm that bows more during excursion, the DC V-Planar design looks more like a diaphragm from a ribbon tweeter with a semi-folded surface.

Where it differs from a ribbon driver, the DC driver doesn’t have the deep folds like a ribbon, it looks more like a sawtooth wave on an oscilloscope trace. If you aren’t one to use a scope, it just looks like a string of V’s. Starting my listening with Charlie Sexton’s Under the Wishing Tree, which features a lot of acoustic guitars and deep bass, it’s easy to see how well this works. These are some incredibly natural sounding phones.

Though these will be referred to as “AEON 2” throughout the review, we are talking about the AEON 2-Noire version, which has perforated ear pads, which DCA claims tunes these phones closer to the “harman curve,” gently boosting bass and treble compared to the standard AEON closed. Because headphones are such a personal thing, (pun intended) getting the perfect fit can be a big part of your listening experience. Damn, if these phones don’t fit my ears perfect. It’s like so many things, if it feels right immediately, you know you’re in for a treat.

As you unbox your AEONs, you’ll notice the quality of materials used. We’ve tried a lot of phones in this price range that are way too plastic-y. The headband and baffles are built from a titanium alloy, with aluminum and carbon fiber used throughout. Black is the only color available, but let’s face it, what doesn’t look good in black?

Looking forward, looking back

Comparing them to my ten-year old Auzeze LCD-2s, it’s a quick contrast in how far planar technology has come. Much as I love the old-school (remember headphone years are like dog years times two – this is where stuff is happening!) LCDs, the AEONs are smoother, clearer, and cleaner. Both ends of the frequency spectrum go further, it’s almost like my LCDs feel like an old pair of 80s Acoustat speakers, and the AEONs sound like a new pair of MartinLogans. All the things you like about implementation of a planar phone are in both units, but the new phones are more revealing, without ever being harsh.

It’s also worth mentioning here that the team at Dan Clark Audio had some help creating the V-Planar design from Bruce Thigpen at Eminent Technology. If you aren’t familiar, Mr. Thigpen has developed a unique line of magnetic planar loudspeakers in their own right. (Not to mention, some amazing linear track tonearms) This is all exciting enough to earn the team a patent, so this isn’t just marketing double speak.

Switching to the self-titled debut from Crosby, Stills, and Nash instantly shows off the depth that these phones are capable of. Heading straight for “Helplessly Hoping,” the AEON 2s keep these four voices, all recorded at nearly the same level, separate and distinct. You have to spend a crazy amount of money on speakers to get this. You can have it on your desk for $899. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Getting current, the killer bass line in Holli Dior’s “Gumby” is awesome. This track is infamous for making phones distort like crazy, but the AEON 2s just roll with it. Everyone has their preferences, but I love closed back phones for this reason. They always seem to have a little more grunt on the low end. You may crave something else, but the AEON 2s will impress you with your favorite bass heavy tracks. Roon sent me to DJ Sensui’s “M’s on My Mind Zawrudo’d” and that was trippy AF. Those preferring open back phones can tick the “Open” box and get the AEON 2s in an open back version.

Rather than go on with track after track, suffice to say that the AEON 2 phones have no shortcomings, and in addition to their tonal and dynamic prowess, they have great top to bottom tonal balance. A hallmark of planar speakers and phones. Just like with loudspeakers, I must confess a bias to planar drivers. The AEON 2s make for incredibly immersive listening in a way that nothing else does.

Head friendly

The AEON 2s come nicely packaged, and well built. A quick look at the carbon fiber on the back of the ear cups, the headband, and the firmness with which the cables plug in makes you feel good about the purchase. The box and case are well thought out, and well executed, but not to the point of overkill, where you might get jumpy that too much of the purchase price went to the packaging.

Only weighing 328 grams (11.569 ounces) that’s 100 grams less than a Wendy’s Baconator. Or about as much as a Baconator with three big bites out of it. Save the empty calories and pack a pair of AEON 2s on your next trip. The light weight and durable case will make these easy travel partners.

Amplifier friendly

Most listening was done with our reference Manley Absolute Headphone Amp. (Please click here if you’d like to read that review…) This seventh wonder of the tube world is fantastic, because it offers plenty of adjustment for different impedance phones, along with incredibly useful tone controls. Not to mention it looks incredible and has its own built-in headphone holder. The Absolute really enhances the desktop experience, though not everyone that purchases an $899 set of AEON 2s will spring for a $4,500 headphone amplifier. Though if you do, you will not be disappointed in the least.

So, to be fair, we enlisted the Feliks Audio Elise ($1,949 – also tubes) an old ALO Audio portable, and the output jack of my (very) vintage Nakamichi 600 II cassette deck. Even driving the AEON 2s from an older iPad isn’t hateful, though to be fair, you will lose some dynamics and low frequency grunt. However, if you value traveling light over audio obsession, you can probably live with plugging your AEONs right into your mobile device for short trips. That one’s your call.

Additionally, there are five different cable terminations available – 2.5mm, 3.5mm, 4.4mm, ¼ inch and XLR, in 1.2, 2, or 3mm lengths. There’s even a premium VIVO cable upgrade for $200-$250. So, whatever system you’re rocking, you’ll be able to connect. Thanks to the quick disconnects at the earcups, should your needs change, a cable with different termination is at your fingertips.

Excitable boy

If you aren’t a regular TONE reader, you don’t know that I’m not really a major headphone enthusiast. The Dan Clark AEON 2s are really pulling me back into the fold, and this is what’s so exciting about headphone tech. This is the kind of sound you would have paid quite a bit more to get, five years ago.

The lack of graininess and restriction the AEON 2s possess is spooky good. Thanks in part to their extreme comfort and light weight, with the cumbersome factor lifted, it’s so much easier to enjoy the music and not feel like I have a pair of cans (the tomato soup kind, not the headphone kind) on my head. I suspect that this will go a long way to entice a potential user. Even after hours of sitting in the chair listening while editing, these are lovely headphones.

One of the things I’ve always found incredibly exciting about headphones is their minimal size requirements. It’s easy to have three, five, ten (maybe more) pairs of phones for different moods, types of music, or just because you welcome change. Whether you need a single set of headphones, or just want to add one more pair to your collection, I can’t suggest these highly enough – these are an easy choice for one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2021.

The Stenheim Alumine 2 Speakers

The guy that used to work on my Alfa Romeos in Scottsdale had a sign up behind his desk that said, “We appreciate perfection, as long as it’s real good.” That statement might apply to many things, but it does not apply to the Stenheim Alumine 2 Speakers.

You might say these are “Built to perfection by perfectionists.”

Many people often confuse bigger for better, and they’d rather have a gallon of mediocre instead of a pint of awesome. If that’s your perspective, that’s ok, but you won’t want these speakers. The $11,800 price the Alumine 2s command will also buy many excellent floor standing full-range speakers. Unfortunately, none of them have the level of resolution that the Alumine 2s possess.

Think that’s crazy? Oddly enough, the original Wilson Audio WATT was $5,200 when they introduced them at the 1988 CES show. They had no bass to speak of, had an impedance that dipped below 1-ohm at about 2200hz, and looked like a woodshop project. Guess what $5,200 in 1988 dollars translates into in 2021 dollars? $11,832.75. $5,200 would buy you a nice, used Alfa Spider too, but I digress.

However, what the WATTs did (resolution and soundstaging), they did incredibly well if you had a massive solid-state amplifier that could drive them. And once you heard what they could do, it was tough to un-hear it. Which is just how the Stenheims are, with none of the limitations of those early WATTs. Just under 12 grand for a pair of highly resolving, dynamic monitors that are tube friendly and built like your favorite Swiss watch? Sign me up. Perspective is everything.

The relatively high sensitivity that these speakers have (93db/1-watt) allows a wide range of amplification choices that plays well to the detail these speakers offer. A few amplifiers on hand made for some exciting listening sessions.

This two-way design utilizes a 6.5-inch woofer and a 1-inch fabric dome tweeter in a bass-reflex cabinet. All the pictures that Stenheim shows on their website showcase top-quality components, yet they offer a Special Edition SE version with “ultimate” components. Considering how much detail these speakers can muster, it’s hard to imagine more.

First: Pass Labs/First Watt SIT 2

If you aren’t familiar with the First Watt amplifiers, these “kitchen table creations” of amplifier genius Nelson Pass are the essence of simplicity. Much like an SET, they can produce magic, but they are highly speaker sensitive. The Pass SIT either works brilliantly or not at all, but in this case, the matchup with the Alumine 2s is nearly psychedelic.

Anyone craving pinpoint imaging and a large, three-dimensional ball of sound in a modest-sized room (in this case, 11 x 13 feet) will be rewarded. Moving the comfy chair in a bit towards the speakers in a nearfield configuration truly feels like snuggling up inside a massive pair of headphones. Stenheim talks about the speed and clarity of their speakers on the website, and this amplifier personifies this approach. If you can live with less than thunderous volume levels, this combination offers a fine-grained look into your music’s most intimate details.

Next: Line Magnetic LM-805iA

Somehow, getting an SET into the mix with efficient speakers just begs to be done. Though not quite as delicate as a 300B amplifier, the Line Magnetic amplifier benefits from 48 watts per channel and serious dynamic ability – perhaps the most we’ve ever heard from an SET. Just as a well-executed two-way speaker system has a level of coherence that few speakers can match for all their foibles, SET amplifiers offer a lovely perspective thanks to no crossover notch distortion.

Those loving more intimate recordings will be drawn to this combination. Listening to the new, remastered (and bonus tracks) of the 25th Anniversary of Buena Vista Social Club is full of texture and nuance. Particularly the piano and bongos throughout the album take on a new level of delicacy. While the presentation is not quite as precise as when using the First Watt, the Line Magnetic amplifier adds a certain charm that you’ll either love or not. It’s not unlike the feeling you get when pairing a tube preamplifier with a big, solid-state power amplifier kind of thing. A lot of soul, and a lot of control.

Back to Nelson’s court: Pass Labs INT 25

The Pass Labs INT 25 has about 90% of the fine detail and inner resolution of the First Watt, but with more low-frequency control and more dynamics. There’s something about Class-A operation that feels a lot like an SET without worrying over tubes. In the context of the smaller room, this amplifier’s 25 watts per channel is more than necessary to light up the Alumine 2s.

As these speakers don’t have a lot of extension to begin with, the extra grip provided with this amplifier gives bass-heavy tracks better authority and control. At least the bass fundamentals come through clearly. If you can achieve a perfect setup balance in your room, taking advantage of some of the room gain without overshadowing the mid-bass response, you will be greatly rewarded.

More glowing bottles: McIntosh MC1502 and PrimaLuna EVO400

Still, a different effect is realized with the McIntosh MC1502 and PrimaLuna EVO400 amplifiers. On some levels, it might be the best combination of all worlds. With both of these amplifiers having more power (150wpc for the Mac and about 90wpc for the PL) the Stenheims can rock out a bit more, despite the high sensitivity.

Home court advantage: Nagra Classic Pre and Classic Amp

Honestly, this proved the best combination of everything we tried. Swiss precision from top to bottom. If I were looking for a super high-performance, yet compact system, this would be the hands down choice. (of course, I’d add a Nagra DAC and Classic Phono to the mix) the sheer power, resolution and immersive quality of this system in a small room is the bomb. Considering how much correspondence we receive from quality minded music listeners in cities like London, Tokyo, and NYC – craving the highest of high-end sound but lacking a big room, this is the combo to beat. The Nagra amp and pre give it all – dynamics, tonality, and delicacy.

Notes on setup

As with anything built to precision, attention to details during setup is critical. Just as you wouldn’t take your Porsche GT3RS to any old tire store for a four-wheel alignment, the Alumine 2s can not be placed in your listening room arbitrarily. These need care and probably a solid day of moving them a fraction of an inch to and fro,once you find your sweet spot.

Thanks to room nodes and reflections, I’m guessing your room only has one or two optimum spots. Still, because we are dealing with a speaker offering precise imaging and not an abundance of bass, extra care spent setting up will reward you with a speaker that goes from ok but possibly overpriced to amazing. I’ve heard these speakers give a slightly overpowering presentation that can be mistaken for “too bright,” yet much like my Focals, if they are bright, you’ve set em up wrong.

More than most monitors, get some massive stands (Stenheim offers a set for $1,750/pair, probably a good bet), stick them down, and adjust toe-in with care. Also, depending on your room size, finding the precise spot where no aspect of the frequency spectrum overwhelms the other is critical. It’s like setting VTA on a cartridge with a touchy stylus profile – when it locks into perfection, the heavens part. Once the 2s were fully optimized, I was able to enjoy bass-heavy tracks a lot more.

Stenheim does offer their own subwoofer, should you want more extension or are playing these speakers in a large room. While one was not available at review time, using the Alumine 2s in concert with a six-pack of REL S/510 subs proved interesting. Whether you want a pair of 2s with sub or full range larger pair will be your ultimate choice, but the idea of buying the 2s first and adding a sub later certainly is a nice way to grow with Stenheim, and keep the family sound/look going.

As enticing to look at as to hear

The all-aluminum enclosure is beautiful to behold, and the level of execution is terrific. If you are a qualityphile and an audiophile, you will completely geek out on the absence of fasteners and the perfectly seamless assembly of the enclosure. The textures and finsh on both the front baffle and the rest of the case is equally flawless. Stenheim’s Jean-Pascal Panchard tells me that even though it looks like anodizing, they use a fine-structure powder coating process. This is an incredibly durable way to coat aluminum, assuring that these speakers will look like new 30 years from now.

Stenheim is a worthy competitor to the other “aluminum cabinet premium speakers” in sound and finish. No disrespect to Magico and YG, but Stenheim is playing at their level without question.

If the concept, and all the benefits that come with a high-performance two-way monitor appeal to you, Stenheim’s Alumine 2 speakers are fantastic. They offer excellent sound, meticulous execution, and a density of thought approached by very few similarly priced speakers. Highly recommended.


Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Analog Source AVID Volvere SP/SME 309/HyperEminent EX cart

Preamp Pass Labs XS Preamp/XS Phono Preamp

Power Amp Pass XA200.8 monos (and others in review)

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Black Diamond

REVIEW: Canton Chrono SL586.2DC

Sometimes, I’m not sure what’s worse, products named after the designers child, or an obtuse numbering sequence?

Oh well, look at what Elon Musk named his kid. Weird car names are sure to follow. All kidding aside, these new Canton floorstanders barely tip the scale at $3,495 a pair, and they won’t need a pair of stands.
The last time we had a pair of Canton speakers in, about ten years ago, they were unmistakably bright and forward, but the current Chrono’s you see here have a much more realistic tonal balance. They are slightly forward, but nothing offensive. The evaluation begins with the Bad Brains self-titled debut album, which is compressed and crunchy. If anything will turn you off to a speaker, it’s this record. Even on great speakers, it’s not a sonic masterpiece. One more silly but fun track, Sigue Sigue Sputniks’ “Hey Jane Mansfield Superstar,” is nearly as dreadful in the recording department as the Bad Brains.

You might think it madness and oh, so “un audiophile-y” to listen to naff music when evaluating components, but sometimes how speakers perform with marginal material tells more about them than pristine, audiophile tracks. Patricia Barber and Diana Krall are low hanging fruit. Seriously, even if you can’t stand those two, do you ever recall hearing a demo with those tracks that sounded awful?

Digging right in

The Chronos come out of the gate strong, doing a great job on everything, with a little help from our new reference amp, the McIntosh MC1502 (which is slightly on the warm side, and a nearly perfect match for the Chronos). Switching the program material to something smoother and more meticulous in production, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong doing “It’s a Lovely Day” really shows off these speakers to create a broad soundfield, and a fairly wide dynamic swing.

You can only get so much speaker for four grand a pair, and Canton does a nice job at achieving a high level of balance. There is no particular aspect of their sonic or visual presentation outshining the rest. Made in the Eastern Bloc (Czech Republic) the cabinets offer a few clicks more luxury than the typical Chinese product that is similarly priced. The corners are slightly more complex and finshed to a cleaner standard. The finish is extremely smooth, deep, and orange-peel free. All of the plastics used on the front of the drivers is high quality, and the size of the trim rings is kept to an understated look as well.

Underneath is a solid base/plinth that maintains the proper distance for the bottom firing bass port, eliminating the guess work in setup. Spikes are supplied (and suggested), but should you not be able to use them, you won’t alter the low end characteristics of the speakers. Nice. Giving the Chronos a proper workout, a full electronica playlist starts with Nicole Moudaber’s “Her Dub Material,” and ends with probably too much Massive Attack. At this point, we’ve got the pair of 6.1-inch titanium coned woofers using all of their excursion. They cross over to a similar sized titanium coned midrange driver at 300 Hz, and then on to the 1-inch ceramic dome tweeter at 3,000 Hz. If you like music that is somewhat in the “bass heavy” side of the spectrum, you will not be disappointed with the Chronos.

Quick and easy set up

Canton does not claim a sensitivity spec, but the Chronos are very easy to drive with modest power, tube or solid-state. They even turn in an excellent performance with our recently re-capped Marantz 2220B vintage receiver. This important because anything that sounds good with a budget, low-power vintage receiver is probably going to sound good with any entry level amp you might have on hand, or thinking of purchasing to go with.

That bottom firing bass port not only offers a smoother bass response than a number of rear ported designs we’ve auditioned, it also makes placing the Chronos in your room a lot easier. If your décor dictates that you have to keep your speakers a little closer to the wall than you’d like, you won’t get the weird bass anomalies that a rear facing port can cause. Their footprint is small at 9.1” wide (this is the base width, the speaker itself is only 7.5” wide) 11.8” deep (ditto, only 11 inch by itself) and 39.4” tall. Tasteful black grilles are also supplied, but the dome tweeter is behind a grille, so these are very enviro-friendly speakers.

The rest of the setup process is straight forward. Where previous Cantons were so strong in the high frequency range, they almost had to be placed straight on, the Chronos allows for a bit of toe in, which helps evening out the low frequency to upper bass range. In both our small and large rooms, they were making good music in five minutes, and dialed in fully in about 15 minutes total. The Cantons are very user friendly, and even if you aren’t a speaker setup wizard, you’ll get good sound with minimal effort.

For those that care, the Chronos are bi-wireable, arriving with gold-plated jumpers. We pretty much don’t bother with that aspect of speaker cables anymore, so I can’t tell you if that makes an improvement. What did make a tiny improvement in the upper mid to treble range was swapping out the factory jumpers for some Tellurium Q Black Diamond jumpers. That was an improvement, so if you don’t have speaker cables already terminated for bi-wiring, consider a premium pair of jumpers from your favorite cable manufacturer.

Further listening

Going through a much wider range of program material, I found no shortcomings. The Cantons strike a nice balance (there’s that word again) of resolution, and imaging without harshness or fatigue. This is tougher to achieve at the $4k/pair price point than you might realize. There are a number of speakers at this price that offer up more precise imaging, or go down deeper. But the Cantons really excel at doing everything very well.

There’s no music that will be off limits to the Chronos, and while they will light up the room with 30 watts per channel, if you’ve got 100-200 watts per channel, they play incredibly loud before distortion creeps in.

The sound field these speakers create will depend in part on the quality of the upstream components. Again, a slightly more immersive experience was had with tubes, but switching back to the Boulder or Nagra amplifiers provided more impact. Neither was uninvolving, and it’s realistic to say these speakers are both resolving and chameleon-like to be a real team player in the context of your system.

Should you care to make these part of a larger 2.1 system or a multichannel setup, Canton does offer a full line of Chrono speakers, as well as matching subwoofers. Those that like everything to match visually as well as sonically will be able to execute this aspect of building their system with ease. Kudos to Canton for keeping the choices minimum – gloss white or gloss black. More finish options means higher cost, and you know the dealer will have every finish but the one you want when it’s time to press the go button. Keeping it simple makes it easier for everyone.

At the end of the day, Canton has made a great speaker in the Chrono SL582.DC. The model name won’t roll off the tip of your tongue, but they sound great, and will easily blend into your environment – that’s the most important thing.


Analog Source Luxman PD-171 turntable/Kiseki Purple Heart cartridge

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE, T+A CD2500, Naim ND555/PS555

Phonostage Chord Huei

Amplification Boulder 866, PrimaLuna EVO400, McIntosh 1502, Nagra Classic

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Black Diamond

TOTEM Tribe LCR Speakers

Anyone wanting the dynamic sound of Totem, but wanting to keep it all concealed, now has a new standard with their Tribe Architectural LCRs.

At $2,000 each, these can provide room filling sound in a super stealthy way.

Featuring a pair of 4″ woofers, 5″ passive radiators and 1 1/8″ soft dome tweeters, these compact in-walls come with complete mounting kits from Totem to rock the house.

We’ve got a pair in for review, and as soon as they are installed, will report back!

Judge, Jury, and Executioner

It’s interesting lately that there are a number of people in the hifi industry complaining about what things cost. My experience has always been that those that can’t afford to play usually make a bigger noise by trying to discredit things out of their reach. For some odd reason, this seems to take place more in the hifi industry than any other place.

No one loses their shit over a $500,000 watch, a luxury yacht, or a condo in Monaco. It is what it is, and it costs what it costs. Some people have always wondered why I compare audio equipment to automobiles. There are a number of reasons, but a parallel that I hope makes sense is the price of obsession with details. To a lesser extent, an obsession by some with measured specs.

Just as measurements will tell me how quickly a car will stop from 100 mph to zero, they won’t tell me how the brakes will feel. Do they bite hard initially and then let up? Will pedal pressure applied to braking effort exerted be linear? Will they fade after three hard stops or not at all? At that point, I either need to read comments from a few reviewers I know that have drawn the same conclusions I have, and then take a test drive to verify.

I’m not saying measurements don’t matter, they just don’t tell the whole story, and for the most part, they don’t tell me what I need to know to make a purchase decision. Not with hifi, cars, or a number of other things I enjoy. Measurements for me, are just additional data points. Nothing wrong with that.

I think high performance audio by nature, is an obsessive pursuit, and getting past a certain point of diminishing returns costs exponentially more, because it has an exponentially higher cost to get there. Honda can make reliable 250 hp engines all day long for minimal cost because there is a scale of engineering and manufacturing that makes sense. Getting 8 more horsepower out of Max Verstappen’s 950 hp F1 engine for the next GP might cost millions of dollars – for basically two engines. (His and his teammate’s) Is that worth it?

To the person who an automobile is nothing more than “something to get between point a and point b,” probably not. To the people trying to win a Formula 1 Constructor’s Championship, every one of those 8 horsepower is priceless.

We can even take something as benign as a chair. You can buy a reasonably good knockoff of a $9,000 Knoll Barcelona chair, for about a grand. Can you tell the difference? Can your friends? Will you tell them you bought the less expensive chair if everyone’s together at a party complimenting your good taste? 20 feet apart, it’s tough to tell, but when you get up close, the differences are fairly easy to spot. But again, is it worth the difference to you? Are you a bad Smurf for buying the knockoff if you appreciate the style but just don’t have the dough? No shame in that, nearly all of us have to make compromises in our life, no matter what our income.

And so it goes for high end audio. Do we need beautiful speakers like the top Estelons, Wilsons, Magicos, Sonus fabers, etc, etc, etc.? (And I’m not singling these speakers out for any other reason than they are some of the finest speakers on today’s market that offer an extremely high level of execution)

A number of people have sniped about the $850,000 Wilsons and “why they cost so much money.” Years ago, I had a pair of $179,000 Gamut S9s. They were lovely. Then Gamut principal Lars Goller told me that for the 20 pairs of S9s they would probably sell, they would never recover the amount of time and resources committed to the S9 project. I also used to own a pair of MartinLogan CLX speakers, and again the folks at ML told me that they made over 30 prototypes (that all ended up in the dumpster) before they finalized the CLX, and probably spent as much engineering time on the shipping cartons as they did the speakers. (Anyone who had a pair of ML’s past flagship knows why this is so.)

So the major questions remain? Is this stuff worth it? Is a reviewer – any reviewer really qualified to make that call? It always takes a minute to criticize what’s cost millions of dollars and thousands of hours to build. Just because I can’t afford something, doesn’t make it invalid.

In nearly 20 years of reviewing gear, and over twice that buying the stuff, we’ve found a groove here that pretty much coincides with what we own in our own systems, with the occasional deviation when something mega makes itself available. And we’ve found that most of our readers have systems in the $5,000 to about $200,000 range, so we try to keep it within the reach of our readership, and our level of experience and comfort.

Do I think 500-thousand-dollar turntables are crazy? Sure, in the context of my system, my record collection and my income, without a doubt. However, the people buying 500-thousand-dollar turntables (and they are out there) aren’t worrying about people like me that can’t afford the stuff they can afford to purchase. That customer is obsessed, and maybe that 500-thousand-dollar turntable doesn’t sound all that much better than your favorite $40k turntable. (but I don’t know I haven’t heard one), That’s not the point.

The point is it’s awesome, and someone not only wants that awesomeness (and exclusiveness) and is willing and able to pay for it. That’s why the people that produce those things do what they do. Having met more than my share of people that make incredible hifi over the years, I can say with 100% conviction that they don’t get out of bed thinking “how can I make a valueless thing for crazy money and fleece the public today?”

Can I afford to play at that level? Nope. But I think it’s incredible that people go to work every day figuring out how to make amazing things better. Defining things (and someone else’s hard work) in terms of your limited reality is insulting to everyone. It’s disrespectful to the people that have put their soul into building these things, it’s discouraging to the people that aspire to have these things, and it’s insulting to the people that have purchased them.

And even to answer the question on whether that more expensive thing is worth it, some people enjoy things for the art and execution of it. A geeked out Subaru STi can be tuned to 500 hp fairly easily and inexpensively. If all you want to do is win a stoplight Grand Prix, victory can be yours. Would I rather have a Porsche GT3RSR? You bet. Sometimes, it is about execution and if you can afford it, who am I to tell you it sucks?

Yet, this is a trend I’m seeing in the hifi industry more often than not, and I think it’s disturbing. I just can’t get behind discouraging the pinnacle of anything. There is more great gear at incredibly affordable prices today than ever, so why discourage what’s happening out on the fringe? Some people want more than just getting back and forth from point a to b. Even though I can’t afford a lot of this gear, I will continue to celebrate it.


Listening to Jon Astley’s “Jane’s Getting Serious” (from his Everyone Likes the Pilot album) the Denon 103 fitted to a bone stock, vintage Technics SL-1200 sounds much better than this combination ever has. More body, more bass, more everything. And it only took about 15 minutes to make a major change.

If you’re a fan of the Denon 103 or 103r cartridges, you probably know that it’s one of the best performers out there for reasonable money in MC cartridge land – conditionally. This super lightweight, somewhat low-compliance cartridge needs a moderate to high mass arm to deliver everything it’s capable of. Particularly in the low frequencies. Put a 103 in a low mass arm and it just sounds thin, no matter where you load it. The cheap plastic body isn’t helping anything either. Zu Audio and a few others have re-potted the 103s in a precision aluminum body, but they are expensive and not always available.

A few years ago, a very nice man at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest asked me “what would be a great way to tweak his system” for 100 bucks. I told him to buy a decent bottle of whiskey and enjoy what he had. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. There really aren’t many things that will move the needle (pun intended) for 100 dollars these days. After spending some time with The Cap from, I stand corrected in a major way.

This cap is so perfectly made that your 103 fits with zero play. Actually, insert it with extra care, as the last ¼ inch is really snug – you don’t want to accidentally trash the stylus. Once the cap and your cartridge have merged to form one object, you merely need to remount it to your tonearm, or headshell. The Cap adds 3.5 grams to the 8.5 gram weight of a 103, so it should still work with most tonearms and their standard counterweight. The SL-1200 mk.5’s weight was all the way back, at the end of its travel, so I will probably investigate a few better options and report back.

But for now the improvement this $70 item makes to a modest analog front end is stunning. The Denon 103/103r is an outstanding performer to begin with, but the cap gives it the extra weight, refinement, and smoothness it needs to sound like a much more expensive cartridge. The Cap adds 1.3mm of thickness to the height of the cartridge body, but because the 103 has a 16.5 micron round stylus tip, (spherical) you shouldn’t have to diddle with resetting VTA. This also makes this cartridge with the additional mass of the cap a great fit on a Rega tonearm.

Starting with the Technics table, played through the Pro-Ject Ultra 500 phonostage, the results are very clear, however taking things further, buy swapping out the Pro-Ject phono for the incredible Chord Huei (review to follow very soon) made it even easier to tell the differences between the barefoot 103 and the other one inserted in the cap. I only had one Denon 103r cartridge, so this made for a bit more work, however with a pair of standard issue 103s, and identical Technics headshells, it was simple to swap back and forth without losing much to audiophile memory loss.

Perhaps the biggest difference came from playing the capped version through my reference Pass XS Phono. You might think that the average person yielding a phonostage like this wouldn’t consider a $250 Denon as a daily driver, but as VPI’s Harry Weisfeld taught me long ago a good turntable with a modest, but high performance cartridge makes a great daily driver.

Enter Avid HiFi’s Ingenium turntable, with aluminum platter upgrade. Fortunately, I just happened to have the two Denon cartridges on hand, I had a pair of SME 309 tonearms. This made the back to back comparisons even easier than swapping headshells on the Technics. However, this just confirmed what was initially heard.

Not wanting to bore you with endless track after track analysis, suffice to say, that the lower end tightens up substantially, and has more definition as well. This is the biggest contribution the Cap makes. It is very reminiscent of what we’ve heard from re-potted Denons. The high frequencies are slightly smoother, and maybe I was psyching myself out, but the image width and depth also felt larger. I’ve heard many an audio enthusiast get this excited over a cable or isolation device. Out of the park awesome for $70.

Whether you’re climbing the analog mountain, and looking for a cartridge upgrade, perhaps a second cartridge on a big bucks table, to save wear on your mega cartridge, the “capped” Denon 103 is an outstanding choice indeed.

This would usually be the time we tell you the Cap has one an Exceptional Value award. It is one of the best values we’ve encountered in an accessory, and I can’t think of anything that will help your system to reveal more music for anywhere close to this price. But the Cap deserves more. Consider it the recipient of our first JFB award. (Just F***ing Buy it) You’ll be glad you did.


It’s amazing how much DAC performance is available for $300 these days. Clarus Audio is much better known for their cables and power conditioners, but their first entry into the portable DAC/Headphone amplifier puts them squarely at the head of the class.

For many of you, the product you’re much more familiar with is the AudioQuest Dragonfly. Somewhat long in the tooth, the Dragonfly hasn’t really had a major challenger until now. The Clarus CODA has higher maximum resolution, and the ability to unfold MQA files. If you’re part of the “MQA is just snake oil” mafia, this will be of no consequence to you. We can all argue about that at a distant hifi show if we ever make it all to the same room at the same time.

For now, those of you that are streaming music via Tidal, where MQA files are available, you will probably want to take advantage of this functionality – and the Coda does an excellent job with decoding these. The blue LED on the front of the CODA (indicating 16/44, or standard definition files) will change to green for high resolution files, and turn magenta when MQA files are present.

Jumping right in with Chicago V’s first track “Hit by Varese,” the Coda turns magenta (confirming an unfolded 24/192 file) and when comparing things to a standard, ripped 16/44 file, delivering high resolution playback, with a smoother, airier, more relaxed sound. Using a pair of $200 Grado phones, the difference between high res files, or MQA versus standard CD resolution was not terribly noticeable. However, when stepping up to the Audeze LCD-2s or the Focal Stellias, the ability to resolve extra information is well worthwhile.

Fly swatter

Some quick back and forth comparisons prove the Coda to best the Dragonfly in every aspect of playback, and the better your phones, the more the advantage will fall to Clarus. But like the world of racing, where Mercedes was making horsepower last season, Honda may just surprise us all this year, which took my next listening session to my iPad and the first Grand Prix of 2021, where Max Verstappen’s Honda/Red Bull nearly put the wood to Louis Hamilton’s Mercedes. No doubt, the next round of these little miracles will prove more competitive, but for now Clarus is the one to beat. Listening to the cars zoom in and out of the pit sounds incredibly lifelike with the CODA in the equation.

Checking out a few things on Netflix, found a few of my favorite shows offering up high-resolution sound. Much fun as listening to high res tracks are with the CODA, the level of sound design that goes into today’s shows often shows off what a great pair of headphones combined with the CODA can really achieve. The desolate, atmospheric, tinkly soundscape of DARK proves even more engaging with the CODA, opposed to the straight headphone output of a Mac Book Pro. My apologies for the obvious audiophile cliché, but using the CODA goes a long way to making the headphones feel as if they have disappeared on my head.  This is indeed big sound.

The CODA plugs directly into a USB port, and it is supplied with a USB-C adaptor, which works well with an iPad Pro, but will not plug into current iOS phones. It’s a shame Apple messed with us in this manner. The CODA is such a worthwhile addition, makes me want to switch… There are no batteries to deal with, nor drivers to to install. Mac or Windows it just works, though I did find on the Mac side it was necessary to use the MIDI control panel to access higher resolutions.

Regardless of program material, the CODA is bold and dynamic. While it uses the latest version of ESS Sabre chip, what really sets this mini DAC apart from its competitors is the amplifier and analog section. The true smoothness and lack of grain that the CODA portrays shows just how far digital has come not only from its early days, but even in the last few years.

A great home digital experience

What will really blow you away is using the CODA in the context of a home, 2 channel audio system. Dusting off an older Mac Mini as a ROON core, and the CODA as a preamplifier to drive a recently upgraded Dynaco ST-70 and a pair of Zu Dirty Weekend speakers makes for an incredible, yet reasonably priced audio system. Good as the CODA is driving headphones, if you don’t need analog, or if you’re looking for a great digital front end on a low budget, I submit the CODA is outstanding.

In this context, it was easier to hear and evaluate the sound quality of the CODA. This mighty little DAC produces a massive soundstage, and while we caught a glimpse of it with various headphones, it’s low frequency performance is tremendous when used as a source component. The CODA also does a fantastic job with offering a lifelike performance with acoustic instruments, with an absence of grain. Listening to violin, piano and acoustic guitar pieces is a true treat.

You just might end up buying two

A combination of music, movie, and racing makes the Coda a must have, and for the day when we all start traveling again, this is going to be one accessory you’ll want to have in your suitcase. Yet it makes such a great all – around digital device, you might want two of them.

The Clarus CODA more than qualifies for one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2021. The performance bar has been raised.

MSRP: $300

REVIEW: The LSA T-1 Turntable

If you’re a beginning vinyl enthusiast, there are a lot of great turntables to choose from in the $500-$1,000 range. There really aren’t any bad choices, especially if you’re sticking with the majors. At times, it feels like too much information, with so many reviews clamoring to satisfy your ADD. “no this one is the best.” You know what I’m talking about.

So, how about making it all about you?

Even if you’re not new to the turntable game, setting a turntable up is not always the most fun you can have with your clothes on, is it? Be honest. You want to have fun, and start playing records. Now.

Enter LSA. We’ve reviewed a couple of their other turntables, and they always offer great table/cartridge bundles, and throw the necessary tools in the box. Stylus force gauge, record weight and the cartridge is already mounted. The LSA T-1 you see here comes with a $200 Sumiko Olympia MM cartridge pre-mounted. All you need to do is hook up the drive belt, set the platter on the sub platter, and set the tracking force. You’ve got this. You’re only ten minutes from fun. What’s all this fun going to cost you? $699 shipped in the continental US. These days a single meals worth of Memphis BBQ will set you back $150 and you’re only renting that.

Cartridges and such

We managed to rustle the first review here in North America (and this table is getting rave reviews overseas) but it arrived with an Audio Technica cartridge mounted. No need to send emails telling us we have the wrong cartridge on the table. Fortunately, A Sumiko Olympia just happened to be sitting on the shelf, so a quick swap and alignment got us back in business. Yours will come with the Sumiko already mounted. We’ve reviewed this cartridge family already and they are fantastic. Choosing the Sumiko is also forward thinking on LSA’s part, because the $200 Olympia, $300 Moonstone and $600 Amethyst cartridges all use the same body – the stylus assembly provides the increased performance.

After you’ve had your T-1 for a while and you want a little more performance, bam. Just plug in a better stylus assembly. You won’t even have to adjust the tonearm again. 30 seconds to more fun. Pulling the stylus out of our Amethyst and taking it for a brief test drive, this is a decent upgrade, the table is certainly resolving enough to handle it. Those not wanting to get fiddly with cartridge setup, but craving more sonic information down the road will appreciate this forward thinking.

Resuming playback

Once you’ve unboxed and set your T-1 up, the rest is a breeze. The Moving Magnet (MM) cartridge will work with any standard amplifier or receiver that has a phono input. If not, you may need to purchase one to accommodate the turntable. Staying in the budget ethos of this table, nearly all of the serious listening was done with the Rega Brio integrated amplifier $899), which is small and possesses a great MM phono stage built in. If you just read our review of the Audio GE Teddy speakers ($1,900/pair, and also available from Underwood HiFi) you know how smitten we were with those. If not, and you feel so inclined, please click here. The T-1 was also used with an older Naim Uniti featuring onboard MM, and a few vintage receivers as well. This is a very user friendly table indeed.

In the context of a reasonably priced, yet high performance system, this table not only delivers a lot of sonic pleasure, it’s a great table to look at. The understated design should go well in any décor scheme. In an effort to keep manufacturing costs down, LSA provides a Z-shaped dust cover that merely sits on the platter, going over it and the tonearm. This will keep prying cats away, but if you are in the absence of cats, you probably won’t use it much. And, it’s the only table in its class with a unipivot tonearm.

The Sound

The Sumiko cartridge is an excellent mate for the LSA tonearm, and this combination does a great job tracking fairly gnarly records with ease. Trying a number of known offenders with a high degree of inner groove distortion like Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Restless Daughter, and a few others, reveals the factory setup to be excellent.

Sumiko gives a tracking range of 1.8 – 2.2 grams and found the best balance of trackability and sound to be at 2.1 grams with the supplied scale. Our Clearaudio Weight Watcher digital scale was within .01g of this measurement, so we’ll call it good with the supplied scale.

This table has a lively sound, somewhere in-between what you can expect from similarly priced Rega or Pro-Ject tables, and when you line them up, it’s easy to spot a lot of crossover in the basic engineering. The T-1 offers solid bass fundamentals, and thanks to the mating between cartridge and arm is able to create a big soundfield between your speakers. This table is right at the point where (if your records are nice and clean) you can start to hear a difference between analog and digital.

The Sumiko cartridge delivers great dynamic swing, so regardless of your musical taste, it can handle piano and violin with the same ease as the most demanding drum solos. There’s a coherence going on that makes you want to keep listening to records with the T-1, and that’s what the analog magic is all about. And should you feel like doing that stylus upgrade at some point, it really takes the T-1 to another level.

Used within the context of components offering a similar level of performance and value, the T-1 is very satisfying indeed. What makes the T-1 really stand out from similarly priced competitors is its top of class sonic ability combined with major user friendliness. It doesn’t get much better than box to fun in under ten minutes. These days, we can all use a little more of that.

Editors note (for the pedantic…): In an effort to get the first North American review done of the T-1, it arrived with the green Audio Technica cartridge you see in the photos. Photos were shot here the minute it arrived, and then we found out about the cartridge change. But all listening was done with the Sumiko cartridge mentioned in our review.


REVIEW: Harbeth C7ES-3 XD

Listening to the gentle interplay of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway on their classic track, “Where is the Love?” its panoramic presentation plays to the strength of Harbeth’s latest version of their ever popular Compact 7 monitor.

Having owned the original and the anniversary version, the current “XD” series is the best yet – at least for most of us. If you’re the person that always likes the original version of something, claiming all subsequent versions to not only be rubbish, but not “the real example,” you might be a little put off by the extra resolution served up by this model. As they say in business school – “you’re not the right customer.”

Comparing these speakers to another British favorite, the Quad ESLs, the Harbeths reproduce so much music perfectly through the midband (a testament to owner Alan Shaw’s loyalty to the BBC ethos and the RADIAL2™ technology unique to Harbeth) you forget that they don’t have enough resolution to kill flies at 20 paces, and low frequency extension to loosen your dental work. And that’s just fine. Tracking through the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Just Waiting on a Friend” is absolutely lovely. Jagger and Richards’ voices occupy their own personal space, with the background vocals slightly off in the distance, yet Charlie Watts drumming is anchored solidly, and you can follow every note in the bass line precisely. The Brits call this “pace and timing.” This is what will keep you in the listening chair all day – this lifelike quality that the Harbeths present.

At first glance, $4,890 (in cherry, seen here and $5,190 for walnut or tamo ash) might seem a little spendy for a pair of Brit-Monitors, but the world economy, and shipping costs have been causing havoc for everyone, not just high-end audio manufacturers. These speakers are worth every bit of their price tag. Keep in mind, Harbeth speakers are still designed, and hand built in small batches in their UK factory.

Easy set up and integration

Harbeth’s Alan Shaw is a meticulous designer. I’ve been to the factory, and I’ve seen Shaw’s volumes of notes. These speakers are not merely a result of picking a few drivers, building some cabinets, and off you go. Everything is deliberate, everything is measured, and triple checked. The end result is nothing short of stunning, and a side benefit to this is a house sound in the best way possible. As you move up the range, each speaker is optimized to not only deliver more music, but in increasingly bigger rooms as well. Though I’ve been achieving great results in my larger 15 x 26-foot room (on the short wall), these speakers deliver an incredibly good balance of low frequency extension and upper bass/midrange balance in a room about 13 x 18.

The level of output and articulation the XDs produce will not have many people clamoring for subwoofers. Their rated sensitivity is 86db/2.83v/1m, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. While this suggests a relatively inefficient speaker, Harbeths have always been incredibly easy to drive. They are equally easy to set up. Thanks to their wide dispersion characteristic, they don’t need a lot of toe in to get the sound “right.”

As with every stand mount speaker we’ve used, stand construction, interface between speaker and stand, and stand height is important. But again, there are a few trains of thought here. The C7s work well on low (approximately 18”) medium (24”) or high (28”) stands. Some prefer them with minimal mass stands, while others like the weighted Sound Anchors, or something very similar. Your couch height and presentation preference will determine what your final setup will be. I have heard all three work. Our tests were all performed with 24” filled Sound Anchor stands with blu-tack between the speakers and stands, or the 18” filled stands that came with our Wharfedale Linton speakers. Harbeth suggests bringing tweeters to ear height for best results, and we concur.

While some feel the Harbeth sound is slightly “wooly,” I submit that it’s all about quality in the amplifier department. TONE has auditioned and/or owned all of the past models except the Monitor 30, and that has never been our experience. Connected to a low power, low quality tube amplifier with no control, or current capability, the new Compact 7 will leave you wanting more, but taking the perspective that an excellent monitor will expose the weaknesses up the chain – that’s what needs to be investigated.

The new speaker is even more tube friendly than its predecessor, and when combined with the Octave V110SE, the PrimaLuna EVO400, or the new McIntosh MC1502, the results are nothing short of breathtaking. Of course, our results with Luxman, Pass, Boulder, Parasound, and Nagra on the solid-state side of the fence are equally compelling. However, the little bit extra beauty achieved with the Nagra Classic Preamp and the McIntosh MC1502 is tough to ignore.

Everything makes a difference

This brings us to the improvements on the XD models. While this version of the C7ES makes use of the same driver compliment as the last model, incorporating a lot of what Harbeth learned in terms of cabinet refinement and improved components in the crossover network has allowed these drivers to deliver even more performance. Shaw claims he’s “flattened out the small lumps and bumps in the frequency response by using custom made resistors, coils and capacitors. So the overall sound is better integrated bass/mid/top.”

The current model has all the magic, friendliness, and vocal/midrange accuracy that we’ve always enjoyed from Harbeth in the past, but with increased clarity – all the way through the range. I can’t claim to remember the minute details of the last version, so I borrowed a pair for some real side by side evaluation.

Unless you have canine hearing and photographic memory, enough of the Harbeth sound carries through both new and past generation, that after listening to the new ones for a while, you want to stay there. Yet if you switch back to the old ones, you’ll instantly notice a little less depth, a little less sparkle on top and a bit less slam on the bottom, but after about an hour, the smile returns to your face. The most OCD of you might have to trade up. Yet, for the rest of you the current version will be an excellent choice compared to something else you might have been considering.

Back to the core

These speakers never sound harsh, forward, or fatiguing. Again, so much of whether a pair of these are for you will depend on what music you listen to, and how you listen to it. If you don’t listen to the heaviest of rock music, or the punchiest electronica at punishing levels, you’ll be surprised at just how much the current Harbeths can handle. Even when listening to things like Led Zeppelin, TOOL, or The Foo Fighters at less than brain damage levels is very rewarding. Tracking through an old favorite, Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ not only follows the dynamic swings, but reveals the nuances of Springsteen’s voice and acoustic guitar in a way few speakers can. Again, this is what keeps you in the listening chair for hours on end. Mixing it up for some bass heavy tracks again confirms that there is more than enough of the fundamentals to get a solid musical experience.

Where a smaller monitor like the LS3/5A or Harbeth’s own P3ESR (which we’ve also reviewed) often seems like it just won’t play big enough, in the sense that the sonic image created in anything but the smallest of rooms is smaller than life, the C7 is just right. To counter this, there are times that the Quads produce an image that is overblown, though not to the extent that a pair of Magnepans does.

The C7s, properly set up with a bit of space between them (when the stereo image collapses to two individual mono speakers, you’ve gone too far in your quest) creates a sonic landscape that feels believable. In addition to the vocalists and instruments sounding natural, and realistic, the size and spatial relationships sound right. If you’ve ever heard a solo vocalist or small ensemble perform in a modest sized room, you know what we mean. The same thing goes for acoustic instruments. The more time you spend in the listening chair with Harbeth’s latest, the easier it is to immerse yourself in the music being played.

The current version of the C7 looks like past models, but the new speaker is finished to a higher standard than Harbeth’s past. It’s smoother, less raw. The only complaint to make here, is that the wood used feels a little bit softer than past models, so handle them with the utmost care. But the new, satin-y finish is gorgeous, and maybe I’m psyching myself out, but the level of care used in past models at the joints and such feels even more meticulously executed.

They might just be the grail you’ve been seeking

We can go on and on about this track and that, but these speakers need to be experienced at a deeper level than you might get from a quick dealer demo or a cursory listen at a hifi show. Harbeth always makes a good showing in this context to be sure, but this new, XD version of the C7 begs a long listen – the equivalent of a road trip. The more time you can put in your listening chair with a pair, the more I suspect you will enjoy them.

With the cost to participate in a “high-end” audio system ever increasing, along with the complexity and the myriad choices at your disposal, it’s easy to lose your way. The past versions of Harbeth’s C7 have always been Exceptional Value Award winners. The current speaker is better in every way, and even though the price is higher than when we first heard a pair about 15 years ago, they still represent tremendous value and performance. I’m also purchasing the review pair. These will become my benchmark to review realistically priced components. These are still worthy of our Exceptional Value Award for 2021.

If you happen to be someone that finds your joy in the music a lot more than you do in endless gear swapping and the upgrade path, your journey could end right here. The Harbeth C7ES-3 XD does so much right and nothing wrong. It doesn’t get a lot better than that. (factory) (US Distributor)


Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Analog Source Nagra Classic Phono, AVID Volvere SP, SME 309, Eminent Hyper EX

Preamplifier Nagra Classic Preamp

Amplifier McIntosh MC1502

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Black Diamond

The Focal Kanta no.1 speakers

The horns from the Afro-Peruvian Jazz Orchestra jumped right out of the Kanta no.1s into my modest listening 13 x 15 foot listening room, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that a pair of Kanta no.3s were playing. That’s the sheer beauty of the Focal approach.

All of their speakers are created with a family approach, with each built around an identical tweeter, so they speak in the same voice. Going up or down the range, gives you the ability to play louder, and get more low frequency output, but the overall character remains unchanged, offering the Focal fan a substantial range of possibilities.

Having spent a lot of time with the Kanta, Sopra, and Utopia speakers, each has their strengths. The Kanta lineup doesn’t have the last bit of delination as the Sopra and Utopia do, but Focal’s core virtues of high dynamic range, tonal neutrality, and ultra low distortion are in full effect. If we are talking fine details, the Kantas have always been the slightest bit warmer, or more tonally saturated than the Sopra, which makes them slightly easier to match with a wider range of amplification than the Sopra.

At $6,590 a pair, sans stands, the smallest of the Kanta range is absolutely lovely. Thanks to the natural room gain from a smaller room, unless you’re playing a lot of music with subterranean bass lines, you won’t even notice. And if you need it, Focal does offer their own subwoofer solutions.

The star of the show

Listening begins with the Naim UnitiStar, which is an integrated amplifier, streamer, and high quality CD player all on one chassis. Think of it as a supersized UnitiAtom. Twice the physical size, and a much bigger amplifier. Suffice to say that if you don’t have to spin vinyl (and we won’t dismiss you in the least if you choose not to express yourself this way), add one of these to the shopping cart ($5,990), add some speaker cables and call it a day. While your neurotic audiophile buddies are freaking out about the molecular differences between mains cables (just buy the Naim one), you’ll be sipping mint juleps on the veranda, digging the music. Yep, it’s Roon, and everything else compatible.

What would normally set you back about $14k with some speaker cables is now available as a “bundle” from your favorite Naim/Focal dealer, (complete with Naim speaker cables) for $8,990. This is a killer value. At this price, you could add a Naim Stageline phono, a nice turntable/cartridge combo, and come in under what these two pieces alone would have cost you. Putting a high quality music system together couldn’t be easier. If you know where you’re going to put the Star and the speakers, you should be able to unbox and set the whole system up in under 30 min. Awesome. And you know you always buy yourself the best holiday gifts, right?

I don’t want to dwell too much on the vinyl aspect of the Kanta/Uniti combo, because that’s not the central focus here, but suffice to say, we did use our Stageline MC phonostage, with Technics SL-1200 and Denon 103r cartridge to great result. Tracking through some of the recent Blue Note re-issues clearly illustrates the big soundfield the Kantas can paint in a room. The synergy between the Stageline and the UnitiStar feels like a much more expensive combination (the Stageline is only about $700) and a nice turntable/cart in the $1,000 – $3,000 range will feel just right here.

Focus: Kanta no.1

Thanks to the same basic cabinet design as the Kanta no.2 and no.3,  Focal’s patented IAL3 inverted dome beryllium tweeter, and their Flax cone woofer (they call it a bass – midrange driver here) Kanta no. 1, these are compact speakers that deliver big speaker sonics. As with every stand mount speaker, great stands are essential to get everything they are capable of, especially in the lower bass region. You can of course, just get the matching Focal stands – again, we suggest just walking out of your Naim/Focal dealer with everything so you can get to the listening, but if you have a good pair of high mass stands, you should be ok.

All of our listening was done with a pair of sand filled, 24-inch Sound Anchor stands. This put the tweeters at the proper listening height, and with a few spots of blu-tack between speaker and stand to maximize the interface, we were moving right along. The Focal tweeters have great vertical and horizontal dispersion, so they aren’t super critical to get you to about 90% of what the speakers are capable of delivering. This is where the Focal stands will make your job easier. Based on past experience with the larger Kanta and Sopra models, getting the last 10% or so of performance – maximizing the width and depth of the soundfield will take a little bit of careful adjustment of rake angle (tilt of the speakers) and the Focal stands make this incredibly easy.

Again, the beauty of these speakers, even with modest skills you can get satisfactory results. However, if you take a few hours or two, and make incremental adjustments, the final setup will have you thinking you’ve spent way more on speakers than the modest price of the Kanta no.1. Even if you are new to the audio game, here’s a short cut – if your Kantas sound slightly harsh, bright, or too forward, you have them set up wrong. Follow the instructions in the well written manual as a guide. They will get you very close, though the manual concentrates more on getting good low frequency balance. Once that is achieved, make the adjustments on the rake angle to bring the speakers into focus. At this point the perceived harshness simple disappears.

The tremendous dynamic swing, and ability to reproduce the instant acceleration of drums and percussion instruments that the Kantas provide makes for an exhiliarating experience. Revisiting Peter Gabriel’s Security is an immersive experience through these speakers. They do an excellent job with the big drum sound that pervades the record. Going back to some Blue Note and re-examining bop, only this time streaming high res files via Roon again shows off how convincing these speakers reproduce the immediacy of a big tenor sax blast, or the delicacy of some vibes. Hitting up the Ella Fitzgerald catalog demonstrates the Kantas ability to carefully extract every bit of delicacy and power in her voice. Start with a few of your favorite tracks, you’ll be amazed at how well these small speakers project like large speakers.


If you are only interested in the Kantas, and not the entire bundle, rest assured that the Kanta no.1s (actually the entire Kanta lineup) are easy to match with other amplification choices, tube or solid-state. After hundreds of hours with the UnitiStar, about nine other amplifiers were tried, all with excellent luck. The Kantas are resolving enough, yet easy enough to drive, the characteristics of whatever amplifier you are using will pass straight through.

With issue 105 of TONE being a roundup of integrated amplifiers, we had quite a few different variations on the theme. The UnityStar is a top choice, but those wanting a slightly mellower approach will do well to pair the Kantas with a vacuum tube amplifier. Between the PrimaLuna, Octave, and VAC amplifiers, all were the essence of smooth. For some this will be lacking in pace compared to the Naim electronics, but know that if you are a mix and match audiophile, you can build a great system around them. The Kantas have a nominal impedance close to 4 ohms, so start with the 4 ohm tap on your amplifier and explore from there.

The same can be said for the UnitiStar. It also plays well with others, and after pairing up to everything from a pair of vintage Quad ESLs to the Sopra 3s, this is a great amplifier in its own right. The overall musicality and resolution available from the UnitiStar, combined with the 92db/1 watt sensitivity of the Sopra 3s makes for an incredibly formidable single box solution.

Luxman L-595A Integrated Amplifier

Mega fans of Luxman Class-A amplifiers take note…

For a limited time they will be offering 300 units of their L-595A Integrated Amplifier. This amplifier is 30 watts per channel, yet incorporates a number of improvements over their current flagship, the L-590AXII. While the signature power meters are absent, this amplifier offers an even higher level of refinement. Power remains the same at 30 watts per channel.

MSRP will be $11,995

We have a full review posting shortly.

Core Power Equi=Core 1000

A few weeks ago, we did a very short, sweet “distilled” review of the Equi=Core 1000 power conditioner. If you look back at the reviews section of the site, we’ve reviewed the smaller Equi=Core 600 and the larger 1800.

Everything we’ve written about these two applies here. There are a number of ways to handle removing noise and artifacts from the AC line. And we can argue forever as to which works better – some manufacturers use moderately to extremely elaborate filter networks, some take the large balanced isolation transformer approach, while still others sprinkle pixie dust on things and call it good. PS Audio and a few others regenerate the power and use what is essentially a massive high current power amplifier, to recreate the sine wave. I’ve had great luck with the PS Power Plants over the years, but they are expensive.

Much in the same way some audio enthusiasts swear by a step up transformer for their Moving Coil phono cartridges, after trying nearly everything over the last two decades, there’s no more cost effective way to get better sound from the AC line than with a well designed balanced isolation transformer. This is the approach of the Equi=Core products.

My experience with balanced isolation transformers (and I always suggest going to the biggest transformer you can afford, because you can never have too much current capacity) has always been this is an approach that filters noise without sacrificing fine detail.

As with so many things Underwood has sent us, this product is an extreme value proposition, especially at the current $999 internet direct price. It’s 1000-watt capacity will not be enough for the biggest of power amplifiers, but at $999 each, you can buy one for your amp (seriously, go all the way and get the 1800 for your amp) and a 1000 for your front end components. And if you have to, or remain skeptical, start with your front end components.

The best way to see what this product can do is to listen carefully to a handful of tracks with solo vocals, solo acoustic instruments, or small ensembles. Though obscure (but you can find it on Qobuz) I love the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. These light, plucky tracks will really give you an idea if the audio signal is being harmed or distorted tonally. Add some of your favorite piano tracks (George Winston is always my go to – sappy but have been listening to these records for 40 years now) to evaluate the dynamic aspect of inserting something in the power line.

Five to ten minutes in, you should be able to hear what you need to hear. With the Equi=Core in place, backgrounds become more silent, which equals more dynamics, better low-level resolution, and none of the complex overtones that you’re used to with stringed or wind instruments are corrupted.

That’s all a power product needs to do – clean up the noise and do no harm. And the Equi=Core 1000 does a fantastic job. With 6 outlets on the back side, you should be able to plug everything into it with ease. If you’re using a modest power integrated amplifier, a single 1000 should handle your amp, a phono stage and a turntable. We firmly believe that power cables do make a difference, if you’re on a budget at the beginning of this journey, if you can – invest in one really good power cord from the wall to the EQ1000. That’s where you’ll get the highest performance gain.

Finally, as with the other Equi=Core products, the balanced isolation transformer has an even more noticeable effect with vacuum tube gear. Even our reference Nagra Classic Phono Preamp, which is very silent, is even more silent plugged into the Equi=Core 1000. It goes from hearing a little bit of noise when your head is close to the tweeter, to no noise. Our Line Magnetic LM-805 SET amp is lovely, but slightly noisy with a touch of hum. Again, nearly all of this is gone with the EQ1000.

How will you know you’ve gone too far? If you’ve gone way too far and overtax the current capability, the circuit breaker on the front panel will pop. It’s worth mentioning here that staffer Jerold O’Brien uses an Equi=Core 1800 in his main system, and on a recent lightning strike to the house, only the sacrificial breaker on the front panel was damaged (an easy fix) but his beloved ARC SP-10 mk 2 and D76 power amplifiers were unharmed. So we know for a fact that the Equi=Core stuff will protect your gear. If you don’t push the EQ1000 hard enough to blow the breaker, you will notice a subtle flattening of the soundstage. Should you get to this point, take a quick look at how much power the components you have plugged in draw. You’ll probably only notice it when you’re really playing your system at high level. Remember, think about that 1800 if you have a big amp, and/or really like to crank it up.

Where the 600-watt version of this product will probably be a front end device only, the 1000 has enough capacity to fit a wider range of systems. And they are great for video too – you’ll definitely see blacker blacks, and more dynamic range there as well.

Again, Core Power gets the job done right and without requiring you to cancel your vacation plans. Highly recommended.
$999 (current special internet pricing)


Amplification PrimaLuna EVO400 Integrated, Conrad-Johnson CAV 45mkII, Line Magnetic LM-805iA

Analog Source Luxman PD-171/Kiseki Purple Heart/Chord Huei phonostage

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Speakers Zu Audio OMEN Dirty Weekend, GE Audio Teddy, Harbeth C7ES-3XD

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Great way to get more vinyls…

Amazon has made it even easier to add to your collection of vinyls. Yep, if you are just buying records for this reason, here’s a great way to look cool without doing any of the work:

Just sign up for the new “Vinyl of the Month Club: The Golden Era” from Amazon. You’ll be able to “build the ultimate vinyl collection,” and get “an essential album every month.” But you won’t know what it is or who it’s from.

However, you can rest assured of the awesomeness because it’s “handpicked by the experts at Amazon…”