LSA Signature 50 Speakers

Perhaps my least favorite expression in the world of audio reviews is “wow, just wow.”

What does that really mean anyway? It leads to so many more questions. In all seriousness,
the new Signature 50 speakers from LSA (available only online from Underwood Hifi) offer
tremendous value, performance, and build quality for $599/pair.

Sporting a 6.5″ Paper cone woofer and 1.1″ soft dome tweeter, in substantial cabinets,
the complaint that high performance audio is an elitist pursuit doesn’t apply here. They’ve
done an amazing job. Real wood and leather folks.

We’ll have a full review very soon, but this is an exciting pair of speakers that you can
build a great sounding, modestly priced system around. That is kind of wow when you
think about it.

PS: Underwood is offering these at an introductory price of $499/pair. More wow.

STAX SRS-3100 System

Decades ago, when many music lovers were rocking out to a $50 pair of Koss Pro 4AA phones (or a $299 pair of ESP-9 Electrostatic phones if you had crazy money), Stax of Japan was making killer electrostatic headphones that cost as much as a Honda Civic of the current day. Today, Stax still makes some of the world’s finest, and most expensive headphones.

Now that $5,000/pair headphones are no longer anomalous, Stax has begun producing electrostatic headphones with a very modest price tag attached.

Enter the SRS-3100 system. This includes the SR-L300 Earspeaker and the SRM-2525 driver unit. Retail price is $995.

Watch for a full review very soon, but out of the box, these are impressive. But what would you expect from a company that has been making the world’s finest headphones for decades?

Equi=Core 1800 mk.III

If you’ve been following us for the past few years, you already know that we are HUGE fans of the Core Power EQUI=CORE line conditioners.

If you’re a new reader, Core Power has made a full lineup of line conditioners based on balanced isolation for some time now, and they offer fantastic results at incredibly reasonable prices. But the new 1800 is a completely different animal, because it has enough reserve power to handle an entire system, or a large power amplifier. This puts it in an entirely different league of power products. On initial listen, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from Core Power – great noise rejection/reduction, and we know first hand it will protect your entire system from the effects of a major electrical storm too. More about all of this in the upcoming review. Also, as you can see, 12 outlets. Awesome.

Right now, these are introductory priced at $1,799. Stop by and pick one up ASAP, while Underwood Wally is being this generous.

The Harbeth 40.3 XD Speakers

Enjoying music and audio is almost a spiritual journey. Some will even tell you it is. Your musical taste, hearing, budget, and where you are on your journey will determine how you will voice your system, and what components you will most likely gravitate to.

Past experience with the smaller Harbeth speakers has always played to smaller music. You can’t crank up Led Zeppelin, or Tool on a pair of C7s to the point where it is convincing. As a Harbeth owner, honestly, I’d rather play “The Rain Song” on my JBL L-100 Classics than my C7s, good as they are. Switch it up to Crosby, Stills, & Nash, or Joni Mitchell and the Harbeths prove more engaging. Much more engaging. Choices, choices.

The big Harbeth, the Monitor 40, now the M40.3 XD is an entirely different experience. The top Harbeth speaker has the weight and the depth to play any kind of music, at any volume level you need. You can play Tool loud – and get into it. But these speakers do so much more.

Forget all the audiophile stuff – for a minute

Walter Swanbon owner of Fidelis Distribution, the US distributor for Harbeth tells me the current 40.3 XD “is much more tube friendly,” and we talk about our mutual friend, the late Art Dudley. Hanging up the phone, wacky as it seems, the 40.3 XDs start their audio journey here with a pair of vintage Cary 805 SET monoblocks in the living room system. Maybe I was being possessed by Art for a little while, maybe I was having a wacky free will moment of the most counterintuitive kind. But this is a glorious combination.

Damn, if this doesn’t sound fantastic. The 40.1s were never tube adverse, but it was definitely a more diffuse perspective with a lack of bass control, that wasn’t worrisome, unless listening to someone like Jaco Pastorius or Stanley Clarke who plays a bass guitar as a lead instrument. Yet the new 40.3 XD is a more modern sound, even with these vintage 50 Watt per channel vintage SET monoblocks. Swapping the 300B driver tubes for a set of the new Western Electric 300B (review in process) tightens up the presentation even further – to a point that if you were building a serious chill out system, you’d love the combination for the win. At least at modest  to medium volume levels.

Going further in this direction, our PrimaLuna EVO 400 monoblocks, fitted with KT150s (normally a bit snappy for my liking) are just right with the big Harbeths. These amplifiers turn the 40.3 XDs into serious rock and roll machines, with close to 200 watts per channel of tubey goodness. Going through the classics from Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and some Who tracks is almost too much fun. The combination of tonal accuracy combined with a touch of saturation from the tubes makes the 40.3 XDs feel like they are the size of a Marshall stack.

The fun doesn’t stop there.

Switching to a high-current solid state amplifier made all the difference in the world with this kind of program material. Back when the 40.1s were here, my reference amplifier was the Conrad-Johnson Premier 350, and it really took control of those big woofers, creating a more modern sound. Even with the new found tube friendliness, the 40.3 XD is a different speaker entirely with a high quality solid-state power amplifier.

Unplugging the PrimaLunas and plugging in the Nagra Classic Amp brings a different perspective entirely. Listening to the bass line in the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” is an entirely new groove. Through the tube amplifiers, it’s powerful and pleasant, but it becomes present with the Nagra in the system. Ditto for the Pass and Parasound amps. The extra grip from a large solid-state amplifier gives up about five percent of the midrange saturation, but adds about 200% in texture through the low frequency range.

All of this sonic intoxication leads to a day long binge listen of the Beatles. There’s so much resolution going on in the current XD version, you might just find yourself discovering information you missed previously. The extra punch in Paul’s bass, those Ringo fills you kinda heard before, and those harmonies.

Handle with extreme care

Many manufacturers of fine speakers include soft, cotton gloves to unpack them. Harbeth does not, and for good reason. The ultra-smooth finish on the Monitor 40.3 XDs are tough to get a grip on. They are just large enough (15 x 17 x 29.5 inches) and weigh just enough (84 pounds each) that you really want a pair or rubbery gloves with the grippy texture on the fingers. And a pair for the friend that helps you move them.

Normally, an 84-pound speaker isn’t the end of the world, but these are just large enough in girth, that they are a little awkward to move. Because the Harbeths have such a nice finish, and relatively thin wall cabinets, you need to handle them like a big, British, Faberge egg, that’s kind of square-ish.

Should you use the exceptional TonTräger stands that Fidelis Distribution imports from Germany and retail for this model at $1850/pr and suggests (and I do too), unless you have King Kong sized paws and Kung Fu grip, get a friend to help you unbox these and gently lower them into position on top of the stands. Keep said friend around for positioning them once on the stands too, one false move and they will tumble off the stands. Gravity’s a bitch when you watch your 23-thousand-dollar speakers tumble to the ground. Maybe this is why the 40.1s I received for review back in 2008 were less than pristine by the time I got them. Hmmm.

The Paradox of the Monitor 40.3 XD

These speakers play like massive Compact 7s, with more dynamics, more detail, and much more bass. However, like a C7ES-3 XD, these are still somewhat nearfield speakers. (Like all of the Harbeth speakers, they both feature the unique patented RADIAL2TM cone material in the midrange drivers for low mass and controlled resonance.) But… they sound their best in a large – ish room, so they can have room to breathe on their sides. Sure, you can put the Monitor 40.3 XDs in a small to medium room and they will sound great, but much like a pair of big electrostats, if you can do your best to minimize the side wall boundaries, you’ll enter a completely different world. And what a nice, inviting world it is.

Great as all this is, as hinted at the beginning of this evaluation, the Monitor 40.3 XDs really rock. Alan Shaw will probably spit out his afternoon biscuit at tea when he reads that I’ve been playing AC/DC, Van Halen and Aerosmith at punishing levels, but it’s so much fun. The 40.3 XDs move serious air, yet keep their composure. The big Harbeths not only play loud, they do it with grace, and in a linear fashion. Where some speakers have a sweet spot in terms of volume level, the 40.3 XDs don’t change their overall tonal balance going from whisper soft to brain damage loud. Yet they grab you again at the end of “Janie’s Got a Gun”  as Joe Perry’s backing vocal wafts in and out of the track – did I ever hear that before?

As we said in our awards issue, as great as the smaller Harbeths are, the 40.3 XD is Alan Shaw’s masterpiece. You should hear them.

The Harbeth Monitor 40.3 XD

Cherry – $22,500/pr.

Walnut / Rosewood / Exotic Ash – $24,500/pr.


Analog Source Rega P10/Apheta 3

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Phono Pre VAC Renaissance

Power Amp PrimaLuna EVO 400 Monos

Cardas Clear and Clear Reflection

THE HiFi OG™ part one: I still love streaming

The recent skirmish with Neil Young and his bandmates has brought a new round of discussion about ethics surrounding streaming and streaming services. I’m not interested in re-kindling that argument.

I respect Young, CSN, and Joni Mitchell for all taking a stand. They were some of the original musical protesters, and their songs still ring true today.
However, this is just about the act of streaming. And why I enjoy it so much. If you’ve been reading our pages for a long time, you know we jumped on board with this concept when the original Sooloos music server was a $15k buy in. To stream your own discs and files. Crazy, but the Sooloos, now Roon interface is still the gold standard for my world.

I miss the interaction

As much fun as it used to be spending a day at the record store, combing through all the new and used records, how many times did you go to your favorite record store(s), and not find what you were looking for? Not that you probably didn’t still buy twice as many records as you planned on – way guilty as charged here.

For those of you lucky enough to frequent incredibly friendly and financially viable record stores, you might have gotten turned on to new artists by the staff, or by in-store performances. Sure I miss concerts, but I really miss going to Music Millennium here in Portland and seeing a new band up close do four or five songs right in the store. It’s gonna be a long time before that’s happening again, if ever.

How much is convenience worth?

The fun yet frustrating part of record shopping is being enough in the know to buy records you want to keep. Back when new records were under $10, and used records well below that, a few bad choices were merely absorbed in the ever growing record collection.

I wish I was at a point in time where I could just spend endless hours in the record store crate digging. Nah. I don’t. I’ve always had too much on my plate to spend a whole day to find a couple of albums. I don’t like camping either. And so it goes.

Once ROON came along, and then integrated itself with Qobuz, Tidal, and whatever other streaming service you might use, finding more music became interesting again. ROON remains the key to musical enjoyment, especially if your musical enjoyment is heavily weighted by musical exploration. I don’t care how old or young you are, once a few thousand albums (regardless of format) pile up, it gets harder to keep them all straight.

The video and radio stars are both long dead

Some of us of a certain age discovered new music via FM radio, and still others with MTV. Often, you had to stay up late with either format, but that’s where the treasure was buried. But now with ROON, it’s an absolute blast to select one track, no matter what the genre or artist and let ROON go from there. Their random playback algorithm beats everyone else when it comes to staying close to the original groove you started with. It’s eerie at how the machine reads my mind at times.

You may enjoy music for different reasons than I do – it’s all good. But if you share my love for musical exploration, and reminiscing, you really should consider making ROON, Tidal, and/or Qobuz part of your world. Much like the way the original Sooloos found tracks in your collection that you hadn’t heard in ages, combining this with the entire catalog at Qobuz and Tidal is wonderful. I enjoy nothing more than working away and hearing a track that was off my radar for some time. Which can often lead to digging through the virtual crates and adding another 30 or 50 albums to my library. Some will make it to physical media, others will be like movies – experiencing them once or twice will be enough.

I truly hope vinyl will always be with us. But that’s another movie and a different script. And I can say without question, with the last two years being fairly discouraging of close social interaction, the ability to easily explore a ton of new music has truly saved my sanity.

The PrimaLuna EVO 300/Floyd Design Integrated

The new PrimaLuna EVO 300/Floyd integrated amplifier begins its journey here with a PrimaLuna EVO 400 power amplifier (loaded with KT150 tubes) beside it on the rack. The dCS Vivaldi ONE has a high-quality variable output stage, making for a perfect front-end component to allow easy comparisons, as the EVO 400 is a power amplifier only. Aimee Mann’s “Humpty Dumpty” gets the evaluation off to a start, as it has on every other review I’ve written in the last 17 years.

The MoFi SACD offers a large soundfield in all three dimensions, and Mann’s voice is front, center, large, and breathy. This $7,399 integrated amplifier makes a heck of a first impression. As we’ve had a lot of great integrateds here in the last two years, mainly in the $7,000 – $12,000 range, there is a lot of competition at this price. Some offer onboard phonostages (A high-quality MM phono can be installed in your EVO 300 at the cost of $299, and it’s very good); others concentrate on a built-in DAC. Some have both, others have neither. And they all sound pretty good. There’s a lot of homework to be done. The EVO 300/Floyd leaves the choices to you.

Listening to PrimaLuna’s latest amplifier reminds me of the last time I visited the Louvre. Admiring all the different works of art from such a diverse pool of creativity made me think about amplifiers and how they all sound so different. Measurement geeks that say they all sound the same be damned. Different devices, different topologies all have a different sonic fingerprint. Here, we have something unique.

Your slice of heaven

Possibly one of the most significant discussions we as music lovers have when assembling an audio system is the merits of vacuum tube versus solid-state amplifiers. (And the relative subsets within these categories.) More often than not, tube designs possess an edge when recovering microdynamic information in a recording, and similarly, solid-state amplifiers usually have more current reserve, a higher damping factor, and more control over a speaker’s woofer cone. Hence tighter, more powerful bass response.

Many audiophiles have declared their piece of audio heaven mating a tube preamplifier with a solid-state power amplifier to get the airy delicacy that tubes produce and the extra bass control, dynamics, and current drive of a solid-state power amplifier. While other hybrid designs usually use a pair of tubes as buffer or driver stages to add a bit of warmth, the EVO 300 Floyd brings together a vacuum tube preamplifier and solid-state power amplifier on a single chassis. The result is sheer genius.

Herman van den Dungen, the man behind PrimaLuna, reveals that this hybrid integrated amplifier is designed with a twist. Though it sports a vacuum tube preamplifier section, with six 12AU7 tubes, and a solid-state Mosfet power section, don’t look for a pair of pre-out/power-in jacks on the rear panel. It is not meant to be broken apart into individual sections. On one level, why would you? Both sections have been designed to mate perfectly with the other, and the use of switching or jumpers would only degrade the sound. Tape deck and subwoofer fans fear not, there is a variable output for your sub and a pair of fixed outputs for your reel to reel deck!

As Mosfet devices come the closest to approaching the voice that tubes provide, it’s a natural match, and because there are no output tubes to replace, a re-tube will not be expensive. 12AU7s are plentiful, and even if you feel the urge to roll tubes, NOS 12AU7s aren’t nearly as costly as 12AX7s.

Getting into it

If you’ve never experienced a PrimaLuna amplifier – they are pretty heavy, and well packaged. However, where the EVO 400 all-tube amplifier tips the scale at almost 70 pounds, the EVO 300/Floyd is 55 pounds. Even though the usual massive output transformers are lacking, a dedicated 500VA transformer is on deck for the power amplifier section, and the preamplifier uses a pair of smaller, dedicated power transformers for the tube section.

Removing the bottom cover is a visual feast for the parts geek/aficionado. A cursory look reveals an expensive ALPS volume pot, along with resistors and capacitors from Nichicon, Rubycon, Kemet, Takman, DuRoch, and others. This is the kind of stuff that one usually finds lurking in amplifiers costing 3-5 times as much.

PrimaLuna’s vacuum tube amplifiers are all built with point-to-point wiring (except for the small auto-bias board that eliminates the need to bias the output tubes) and feature a fanatic level of attention to detail. Those arguing point to point wiring can’t compete with the consistency offered by printed circuit boards have never looked inside a PrimaLuna! The EVO 300/Floyd still uses point-to-point wiring, but there are three PCBs now. These boards are 2.4mm thick with 105um gold-plated copper traces, for maximum longevity and highest signal integrity.

Fit and finish elsewhere is equally fantastic. PrimaLuna has always set the standard for execution, using their signature dark blue metallic for the chassis, mated to a thick aluminum front panel with silver or black anodizing. The only thing feeling out of place on recent PrimaLuna products is the control and selector knobs. The rough, pebbly finish does not look as “finished” as the smooth ones used in earlier PL products. This is truly my only complaint with the EVO300/Floyd, but it is something that other PL owners have talked about online. Perhaps offer an upgraded, machined pair of knobs as an add-on?

Around the back, there are five line-level RCA inputs. Unlike the EVO separates, where moving to the 400 series brings balanced capability, the EVO 300 and 300/Floyd only feature RCA inputs. You can only fit so much onto a chassis at some point, and this won’t be a deal-breaker for most.

Finally, PrimaLuna offers a full-function, machined aluminum remote that is again a class leader. You won’t find this level of detail on a nearly $20,000 Audio Research Reference preamplifier. Even better, PrimaLuna’s remote will work with the full range of their components, so if you happen to have an older PL CD player or their EVO DAC (read our review here), you can control everything with one remote. It’s a nice touch that comes with 20 plus years of building components with a human element.

Tomato, tomato?

The EVO 300/Floyd has a rated output of 100 Watts per channel into 8 ohms, and 150 Watts into a 4-ohm load. Early reviews in the UK and European press that are putting it on the test bench reveal closer to 120 Watts into 8 ohms and about 180 into 4 ohms. My EVO 400 reference amplifier delivers 88 Watts per channel and can be switched into triode mode (albeit only producing 50 Watts per channel with KT-150s), offering more flexibility where the ultimate in LF “slam” is not a necessity.

This is more a “different” than a “better” comparison. Listening to both topologies side by side, the lineage is obvious. Thanks to the extra current drive that the hybrid amplifier provides, it will deliver better results with a broader range of speakers. Nothing is off limits with the EVO 300/Floyd. It will even take hold of a pair of Magnepans with ease. HiFi News (and occasional TONE contributor) correspondent Ken Kessler mentions that the EVO 300/Floyd did a great job driving his Wilson Audio DAWs – a speaker that requires a high-quality amplifier.

Carefully listening to tracks with dense mixes and highly layered vocals, such as Todd Rundgren, Crowded House, CSN, and others, shows the hybrid amplifier giving up little quarter to the all-tube EVO yet painting a slightly deeper, more dramatic sound field. Solo acoustic instruments and vocal pieces nod slightly to the tube amp, but heavy rock and large-scale classical pieces favor the Floyd. Again, remember I’m splitting hairs here. This is an incredibly well accomplished product.

Hours of listening underlines what an enjoyable product this is, and at times you might find yourself wanting to lift that top cover to see what’s really in there. We’ve got a pic, so you don’t have to – the EVO 300/Floyd does have a solid-state output stage. PrimaLuna has done a better job combining tubes and transistors on one chassis than anything we’ve come across. This amplifier has not made a single misstep while here. I can’t imagine anyone having buyer’s remorse after taking the plunge. This amplifier has an overall tonality incorporating the inner detail and spaciousness that you would typically associate with an all-tube design.

Feed your head

In addition to adding a MM phonostage, the EVO 300/Floyd sports a ¼” headphone jack on the front panel. You merely need to push the HP/LS switch on the right side to disable the speaker outputs when listening with headphones.

PrimaLuna powers the headphone jack with the full amplifier, so you are not listening to an inexpensive OP amp powered headphone module. Auditioning a wide range of phones on hand from Focal, Grado, and Sennheiser was indeed satisfying. All but the most obsessed headphone listener will not feel the need for an outboard amplifier – further increasing the value proposition or the EVO 300/Floyd.

But why go hybrid?

Telling the story of the EVO300/Floyd on the PrimaLuna home site, van den Dungen (with his usual wry sense of humor) asks the question, “PrimaLuna, what are you doing now?” The answer is complex, but this amplifier is a valuable addition to the PrimaLuna lineup. If you are an audio enthusiast that only wants a vacuum tube setup, PL has you covered. However, if you have a pair of speakers that could use that extra bit of current capability only a solid-state amplifier will deliver, then this amplifier is the perfect solution.

Maybe you’re a tube lover with limited space, or you’re just tired of buying so many tubes. Again, the EVO300/Floyd is the winner. Sonic taste is as wide as the Grand Canyon; you may prefer the hybrid’s voice over anything else. Considering how easy the PrimaLuna amplifiers we’ve owned and reviewed are on tubes, you may never even need to re-tube your EVO300/Floyd. 10,000 hours on a set of 12AU7s in a PrimaLuna or even more wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

As I’ve said many times before in these pages, I love integrated amplifiers because they save you a set of interconnects and a power cord when building a system, making them a supreme value. To that effect, I am thrilled to give the EVO300/Floyd one of our first Exceptional Value Awards of the new year. This is an amplifier you can build a high-performance system around and keep for a long time. Considering that my PrimaLuna ProLogue One is still going strong after 20 years, you can take that one to the bank.


Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE, HiFi Rose 150

Analog Source Technics SL-1200/Denon 103/Pass XP-27

Speakers Sonus faber Stradiveri, Eggleston Nico, Acoustat 2+2

Cable Cardas Clear Relection, Tellurium Q Black II