The Java Single Shot Integrated Amplifier

Class-D Perfection

$8,995 -$9,495 (finish dependent)

Spoiler alert. The Java Integrated is a Class D amplifier. Just in case you’re predisposed to a certain idea of how Class D is supposed to sound, you need to abandon it, or stop reading. To be fair to Java’s Martin Bell, I’ve always been Class D adverse, but I keep investigating. I didn’t like coffee until I was 50, and then one day it all clicked. Ironically, this amplifier is called the Java. Weird.

Taking advantage of the latest GaN-FET power amplifier module technology, the Java rewrites the book on whatever degree of harshness you’ve associated with Class D designs. Remember how awful digital audio used to sound? 20 years’ worth of development and it sounded pretty darn good. If you can think of this in the same vein, it makes sense.

Cursory break in with a pair of vintage ESS AMT-1b speakers immediately feels different in an ear perking way. The vintage AMTs are merciless with amplification that is even the slightest bit harsh, so this is a great torture test. Passing this test with ease, moving on to the main system with the new YG Acoustics Cairn speakers in for review is equally interesting – the Cairns are not overly bright in delivery, but highly resolving. Again, any frequency response or tonal anomalies will be instantly revealed. This is a fantastic combination.

Smooth, smooth, smooth. Smooth and tonally correct in a way that if no one told you this was a Class D amplifier, You wouldn’t ask the question. Trying a few more sets of speakers on hand vaporizes any lingering animosity towards this form of amplification. Past experience with Class D always exhibits more speaker sensitivity than normal, much like an SET tube amplifier. The result is usually brilliant or awful. The Java suffers none of these issues.

Working through everything on hand from vintage Acoustat ESLs (which due to their overly capacitive nature are tough to drive for most amplifiers) to the current Peak Consult Sinfonas that are my main reference is a breeze. Where the Peak’s are slightly forgiving in the same way that the outgoing Sonus faber Stradiveris were, the YGs and the Team Fink Kims are both highly resolving yet remain a lovely match. If you love listening way, way into a recording, this is a rewarding combination

A sonic and stylistic decision

I submit we have a lot of people out there wanting a high-performance music system, considerably more involving than a soundbar solution, more than willing to pay for it that don’t want to become audiophiles. That’s not to say that an audiophile can’t love the Java, but being that it is somewhat upgrade adverse and self-contained it may not appeal to those that constantly want to tweak things. Of course you could plug a different phonostage or DAC in, but it defeats the primary purpose.

The onboard MM phonostage delivers excellent results with the Technics SL-1200G (featuring an Ortofon Concorde Silver cartridge) and the Linn LP-12 table (with Adikt cartridge) in for review. Again, just as not all music lovers become audiophiles, not all music lovers that buy a turntable purchase thousands of albums either. We’ve certainly come across numerous end users that have 50-200 albums and are perfectly happy with that. For the random vinyl enthusiast, this will be more than you ever need to enjoy your collection.

Adding the Quadratic MC-1 step-up transformer to the MM input, taking advantage of the recently reviewed Luxman LMC-5 and Rega Apheta 3 MC cartridges proves just how good the onboard phono is, so more obsessed vinylistas can still play in this sandbox without concern. The noise floor is ultra-low, and the sense of space presented large. The onboard phono in the Java is easily the equal of anything you might find in the $800-$1,200 range and remember, no extra cables! Considering what you’d spend on four sets of mains cables and interconnects for a preamp, DAC, phonostage and power amplifier, the Java is almost free.

The onboard 24/192 DAC utilizing a pair of Burr-Brown PCM1794As in mono mode, with DSD being converted to PCM before playback delivers equally enticing results with digital files. Your favorite streamer, or laptop can be connected via USB. Keeping in with the general vibe of this amplifier, the Pro-Ject Stream Box S2 (about $800) makes the Java an effortless Roon endpoint. You can also stream from a tablet or phone via aptX Bluetooth.

Thanks to eight different finishes, the Java will integrate into any décor with ease. The high gloss and satin matt cases are only $8,995, with the five luxury wood veneer options (like our gorgeous review sample) bring the price up to $9,495. The Java you want is only a few clicks away thanks to the online configurator.

Thanks to Class D amplification, the Java only weighs 27 pounds, and offers a compact remote. Everything is CNC machined to perfection, and it feels like a much more expensive product. The input selector and volume controls both feature a backlit display, making them very easy to read.

In addition to the USB digital input, there is the MM phono input mentioned earlier, and two line-level RCA inputs. A variable preamplifier output (also RCA) is available for those wanting to add a powered subwoofer to the mix and a ¼-inch headphone jack on the front panel. Integrating with a REL Carbon Special sub and the YGs was easy as pie to configure.

As it goes with everything else, the headphone amplifier should keep you happy if you’ve got a pair of $200 – $1,000 headphones, but just like that record collection, I suspect the person buying a Java is going to make the same commitment to headphones as they are vinyl. Find a nice pair of $400 – $600 cans and enjoy. Trying a few different things from Audeze, Sendy, and Focal all went without a hitch.

The final frontier

While I haven’t had the ability to hear every Class D amplifier out there, of what I’ve heard, another commonality is their inability to achieve a neutral tonal balance. Voices always sounded somewhat electronic and grainy, as did stringed instruments. Depending on the model of amplifier, this was better or worse, but in the case of the Java, tonal balance, texture and shading is just right.
Whether listening to violins, piano, or acoustic guitar, there is a sense of rightness that allows your brain to disengage from analysis and fall into the music. I’m sure you have your favorite solo vocal tracks to investigate this with, but I lean towards Rickie Lee Jones, Aimee Mann, and Johnny Cash, merely because I’m intimately familiar with them.

Purposely heading for the most difficult tracks I know in terms of musical complexity, pushing the Java, there was never a torture test this amplifier failed. Even tracking through a higher amount of classical music than normal, delivered fantastic (i.e. fatigue-free) results. No matter what kind of music you love, the Java will satisfy you. However, if you really love electronic/techno music, the high power, and rock-solid bass control the Java delivers is very impressive. The opening track in Peace Orchestra’s self-titled album, “The Man, Pt.1” is simply enormous in its delivery through the YGs. There’s so much extension and sheer grip here, these small stand mount speakers sound like floorstanders. Ditto for Theivery Corporation’s The Richest Man in Babylon.  For those of you that love classic rock. Rush’s epic 2112 was highly satisfying through the Java and the big Peak Consult speakers. Admittedly, listening levels did exceed 90dB here!

The Java integrated amplifiers come as a single shot model, with 200 Watts per channel on tap, or the double shot model, with twice as much power. As so much of my listening is done in a 78-90dB environment, and most of my speakers are fairly sensitive, the single shot amplifier was never remotely close to being maxed out. If you have relatively power hungry (like maybe some Magnepans) speakers, you may want to pony up an extra $4,000 for the double shot model.

Sheer brilliance in every way

This amplifier is a massive success on every level. It looks fantastic, sounds fantastic, and has a balanced amount of performance in every aspect. The amplifier is far and away the most natural we’ve heard from this topology, and the functionality is just right. Should you be looking for a great two channel music system anchor, I can’t suggest the Java highly enough. Adding a table, pair of speakers, phones and some equally great cable (we used Tellurium Q Black II interconnects, speaker cables and power cord to excellent effect with this amplifier) and be all in for $15,000 – $25,000.  You can’t even buy a CPO Mini Cooper S for that kind of money.

The Java will win over two main users to be sure. The music lover lacking audiophile ambitions, and the audiophile wanting to get off the upgrade marathon. (or perhaps downsizing) But anyone who hears it will enjoy it tremendously. The Java is an easy candidate for one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2023.

Put this one in the love column.

Our System of the Year for 2023

We’ve decided to do something different this year…

How about giving out an award at the beginning of the year and start out on a happy note? Bam. If you’re looking for a great all in one, turnkey system that will serve up music in every format, we suggest this setup.

Also, just so we’re CLEAR – we do not advocate putting a speaker on the same shelf as a turntable… Just trying to take a pretty picture here. PS: Click here to go to Design Within Reach if you’d like to purchase the Nelson Bench in the photo.

The rest of the system is built around The T+A Caruso R ($4,250) and the XSA Labs Vanguard ($795/pr). We’ve rounded it out with a Technics SL-1200GR table ($1,799 without cartridge) the iFi Zen Phono ($199) and a pair of Tellurium Q Blue II speaker cables ($149 for a 2.5m pair). ($225/pair for the 1M RCA interconnects to the iFi Zen)

The XSA Labs Vanguard – a new paradigm.

In case you’re wondering, XSA stands for “eXtremely Sexy Audio,” and the Vanguard monitors you see here, done up in bamboo are certainly that. Those of you that work with wood on a regular know how hard bamboo is to work with and get it to look right.

Bamboo is the carbon fiber of woods – it’s hardness is much tougher to cut and machine to tolerance – one mistake and you’ve blown it. Careful inspection of the cabinet corners and the cutouts for the drivers is a real work of industrial art. Sexy indeed.

Listening to the rich vocal harmonies in Crowded House’s Woodface brings the capabilities of this great little speaker immediately. They deliver a huge sound field, that is deep and wide. Top to bottom is pretty good for such a small speaker as well. With grilles removed, it’s easy to see the homage to the LS3/5a, but I suggest that this is a different beast. And for $799 a pair, a beast you just might want to welcome into your home.

The Vanguard is about an inch and a half deeper than the LS3/5a cabinet; designer Dr. Viet Nguyen makes this choice to get a bit more bass extension from the 5.25” treated paper cone woofer. Moving from boomer rock to 90s obscurity, with Crash Test Dummies’ “Just Chilin’” reveals where the bass rolloff is – but again, this is an impossible feat for any small speaker. However, in a smaller room the fundamental is still there. Moving back almost a decade to the Dummies’ “Superman’s Song” is where the Vanguards shine. They keep lead singer Brad Robert’s deep voice perfectly blended with the light background vocal of Ellen Reid.

Playing music that doesn’t push the Vanguards out of their sweet spot is a revelation. Winding up this listening session with Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” from the Austin Powers soundtrack is truly groovy baby.

A Bit of back story

The BBC LS3/5a monitor has been a staple of small room audiophilia for decades. This diminutive monitor, in a small-ish room with the right electronics does such a fantastic job achieving a natural sounding midrange, you forget about what it doesn’t do. Because the BBC engineers were using it as a location recording monitor, their goal was to get the voices right. I’ll bet they had no idea their creation would become such a cherished thing. Measurement geeks will complain to the stars about a lack of bass and treble extension, and rolled off highs – yet when you sit in the chair and listen, it’s hard to not come away amazed and smiling.

There have been a number of BBC licensed LS3/5a variations over the years, all with a somewhat different sound. Several manufacturers like Harbeth, have done their own updated variation on the theme, and while not following the design exactly, keep with the spirit. Most of these speakers run in the $2,500 – $3,500 range and are all well-crafted. Just as we can have a heated discussion about which version of the 12AX7 tube is “the best,” the same can be said for the LS3/5a and the speakers it’s inspired.

Back to the future

While it’s always fun to respect the past, drivers and crossover components have improved dramatically over the years, and what used to cost megabucks is now much more approachable. Dr. Nguyen’s hard work came to the attention of Mark Schifter, (an industry vet  who’s influenced a number of great brands over the years) who is not only a main collaborator on this speaker, but the LSA 50, 60, and 80 – another group of speakers offering tremendous performance and value.

If you’d like a little bit more tech perspective on the Vanguards, there’s a lively discussion over at, illuminating more of Dr. Nguyen’s design decisions, and of course, measurements. However, measurements don’t tell the whole story, and they don’t speak to the natural tonality that these speakers deliver. Just as most reasonably priced EL-34 tube amplifiers deliver a slightly warm overall sound with a slight bump in the upper bass/lower midrange (to great effect I might add), all of the LS3/5a speakers I’ve heard are goosed in a similar manner. Some not so much, yet it’s always there if you listen for it.

The Vanguards don’t have this pronounced effect, delivering what is arguably a slightly more transparent midrange. I admit to being biased towards a warmer sound, mating the Vanguards to a tube amplifier is more my cup of than a budget solid-state amp. Where the LS3/5a’s combined with a tube amplifier can be too much of a good thing with certain pairings, the Vanguards are lovely. Of course, you must be the final judge.

A quick peek inside the Vanguard reveals high quality crossover components, and less of them. Where the BBC licensed speakers use 11 components, Dr. Nguyen’s design makes do with 6. Claimed sensitivity is 84.5dB/1-watt, but thanks in part to this reduced parts count, the Vanguard is incredibly easy to drive. 25 Watts per channel will get you rocking.

Running the gamut

You’ve probably seen massive amplifiers powering small speakers at hifi shows to deliver higher than expected performance. You might consider this “cheating,” yet it does reveal just how much a budget speaker can deliver. Taking this approach, listening began with the dCS Vivaldi ONE-Apex, Pass Labs XS Pre and a pair of Pass XA200.8 monoblocks, all connected with Cardas Clear cable.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was pretty awesome, albeit unrealistic. After trying several different amplification choices, the two I settled on for most of this review were both realistic matches. The $1,299 LSA VT-70 (EL-34 powered), and the ($4,100) T+A Caruso R (solid-state, all in one) delivered great performance, and both make great partners for these speakers. While the T+A Caruso R is three times the cost of the LSA amp, it does feature an integrated tuner, DAC, CD player, streamer and MM phono stage. Together with the Technics SL-1200G, we are awarding this combination one of our two system of the year picks for The Audiophile Apartment.

Investigating the vintage path, the Vanguards also work well with the vintage components we have on hand from Sansui, Marantz, and Nakamichi, though keep in mind these speakers resolve enough detail that you will detect a bit more “wooliness” with older gear.


Many audio enthusiasts love mating mini monitors to a small subwoofer to extend total system response. Most listening was done in an 11 x 13-foot room and a 12 x 18-foot room. As you might suspect, the larger room benefitted more from a bit of LF augmentation, though with careful setup, it worked in the small room as well. However, resist the urge to combine the Vanguards with a budget subwoofer. The detail that they do resolve in the lower register will be lost in the lack of transient speed that always comes along with a cheap subwoofer.

That being said, the SVS Micro ($899) and the REL Tzero MKIII ($499) both make an excellent match for these speakers, but that’s another movie. You do not need to have a subwoofer to enjoy these speakers.

In Perspective

In a day where some speaker manufacturers charge more to custom paint a speaker cabinet than Porsche charges to paint your car a unique color, no one at XSA is getting rich building these speakers. Even if these cabinets were made from MDF (and they wouldn’t sound nearly as good) $799 would be an incredible bargain. To keep it a fair fight, because these speakers are only sold factory direct, they should be compared to speakers costing twice as much – yet they still deliver superb performance.

As a reviewer, it’s easy to lose your way, trying to convince the audience that they need to spend more, more, more, and if you don’t, you can’t play. It’s also easy to lose sight that anything beyond a pair of wireless buds for your smart phone is a luxury on one level, because that’s all you really need to be a music lover. Investing more than that in your hifi system is still a luxury, no matter what level you are engaged.

Some of the most passionate audio enthusiasts I’ve encountered over the years have been those that put a $2,000 – $10,000 system together with extreme care, working hard to achieve the maximum value with every component.

Whether you are putting together your first major system, downsizing from a big system, or putting an additional system together in another part of your living space, the Vanguards are a great pair of speakers that are more than worth the price asked. Should you purchase a pair, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do – they are staying.


REVIEW: The LSA Signature 80 Speakers

As mentioned in our TONE/Distilled review, the first track played on the LSA Signature 80s is The Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love.” Immediately, the deep bass groove on this track is in full effect, and this is not a wimpy presentation.

While electronic music doesn’t give a listener an absolute sonic reference the way a track of a string quartet does, this music offers up a massive soundfield, with many sonic tidbits in all three dimensions. A mediocre speaker presents this music in a benign way, lacking an immersive quality. Space and dynamics are the third and fourth dimension of music to me, and the Signature 80s pass the initial “are these cool enough to investigate further” test with ease.

There’s a reason that everything I hear isn’t “mindblowing,” and the new Signature 80 from LSA is the perfect example. Great as their $599/pair Signature 50s are (and they deliver a lot of music for the money) the 80s deliver more. Legitimate products should deliver more performance as you go up the range, and the LSA Signature 80s do not disappoint. There is a twist however – where the Signature 50 uses a soft-dome tweeter and is voiced slightly more on the warm/saturated/lush side of neutral, the Signature 80s are more resolving, more dynamic, and go down deeper. In short for $1,299/pair, you get a speaker that can deliver more musical information than the model beneath it. Bravo.

Retaining the 86dB/1-Watt sensitivity of the Signature 50, the Signature 80 swaps the soft dome tweeter and paper cone woofer for a metal coned woofer and a planar tweeter. Who knows, more resolution or not, you may even prefer the Signature 50. If so, more money for beer, records, or maybe a haircut? Bottom line, LSA has delivered yet another compact speaker (15.75” H x 9.1” W x 12” D) delivering exceptional performance at a relatively modest price.

Easy to set up

Sitting on a pair of sand filled 20” Sound Anchor stands gives the Signature 80s the perfect ear alignment in my listening chair. The relatively small panel area of the planar tweeter demands that you spend a little extra time getting the speaker height and rake angle on the money for best results. Depending on your listening position, you may find the best results with stands between 18 and 24 inches.

Planar drivers offer a level of transparency that many cone and dome drivers do not, but with physics (and ex-wives) everything has a cost. The tweeter in the Signature 80 is very resolving, and offers a high degree of horizontal dispersion, but vertical dispersion is somewhat limited. Once you’ve optimized the Signature 80s in your room for solid bass and a smooth bass to midrange transition, slowly raise and lower your head to find the spot where you hear the most high-frequency extension. That’s the magic spot. Adjust speaker rake angle to maximize this position, and you’re set.

Potential suitors

One of the most interesting changes between the 50 Signature and the 80 Signature is the 10-ohm impedance – making these speakers incredibly tube amp friendly. While we had excellent luck with solid-state and tube amplification, these speakers are particularly engaging with tubes. Don’t be discouraged by a somewhat low sensitivity spec – these speakers are super easy to drive.

After using a wide range of amplifiers in our listening, most was done with LSA’s VT-70 (EL34) tube amp and my Rega Brio. Depending on which sonic signature you prefer either of these amplifiers are very affordable and will make the cornerstone of a high-performance system that is approachable for a wide range of music lovers. Digital source was our OPPO 105, and a Technics SL-1600/Ortofon 2M Red rounded out the analog side. All cabling was Tellurium Q Black II. All in, this made for a system that plays analog and digital for under $5k.

Where LSA’s Signature 50s pay a bit of an homage to the Sonus faber look, with their more organic shape and leather front panel, the Signature 80s are more angular, looking like the shape that Avalon made famous. They come in a beautiful Rosewood, matte lacquer finish. Again, at this price point, not offering a range of finish choices keeps the cost down and the performance up.

Further listening

Thanks to solid bass performance, the Signature 80 feels like a bigger speaker than it is. It’s amazing how far today’s technology has come, allowing speakers this size to deliver this level of sonics.

Rather than bore you with a long list of tracks that you don’t know or don’t like, let’s break it down somewhat. Integrating a planar or ribbon tweeter is always a tough job, yet the team at LSA succeeds brilliantly, resulting in natural midrange. Much of this has to do with careful crossover design, and there is a photo comparing a Signature 80 crossover to that of a big industry favorite, the KEF LS50. As you can see, the LSA crossover is far more robust. There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to this kind of thing. Every additional $20 spent here makes for a substantial jump in the final product.

Tracking through our workhorse cuts from Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Eilish and Johnny Cash is incredibly satisfying. The Signature 80s can deliver more than enough resolution to get a solid sense of presence and body. Highs are smooth and extended without sizzle, or feeling tipped up – cymbals sound as they should, and along with percussion, there is a decent amount of airiness. Bass response is equally impressive. The Signature 80s deliver enough grunt and fundamental low-frequency information to deliver the goods. Whether you are delving full bore into your favorite electronica, rock or hip-hop tracks all but the heaviest bass heads will be happy. And of course you can always add a sub. Pairing the Signature 80s with the $899 SVS SB-3000 mini subwoofer adds a lot of grunt and still keeps the budget reasonable. Again, we’re just exploring reasonably priced possibilities – don’t think you need a sub to enjoy the Signature 80s. The smaller your room is, the less likely you will, however as you go to a smaller room, more careful speaker placement will be required to nail the balance between low-frequency output and midrange/mid-bass smoothness. But you can do it.

Thanks to that planar tweeter we’ve been talking about, these small speakers create a very wide stereo image. Part of this will depend on the quality of your source components, the other part on your setup skills. The Signature 80s sound good just thrown in the room, yet an hour or so spent on careful fine tuning will yield very worthwhile results. As your listening skills improve, you may find that your Signature 80s have still more to give, and that’s a good thing.

Finally, the Signature 80s can play loud without distortion, giving them a more dynamic presentation than several other small speakers we’ve heard. Often, music lovers forget about dynamics as the fourth dimension, and this is why so many small speakers sound so small. Even when connected to our big Pass XA200.8 monoblocks, it is impressive how loud these speakers can play before distortion sets in. This makes for fatigue free listening, and a speaker that you can listen to all day without becoming tired or bored.

Listener friendly, room friendly and wallet friendly

This is the point in the “conclusion” that we’re supposed to tell you that these speakers eclipse anything for ten grand. Sorry, that’s not happening. It’s more important to hear what a big part of the musical spectrum these little speakers get right in a direct comparison to a few speakers on hand in the 10-20k range. Really right.

The $1,000 – $2,500 speaker market is probably one of the most highly competitive segments going. The LSA Signature 80 belongs in the top tier of this group. Rather than concentrating on blowing you away with one optimized aspect of the frequency range, the LSA team brings you a well-balanced speaker, that you can actually live with.

It’s hard for companies like KEF, Elac and such to put as much forward in this area of high-end audio, because everyone needs to get their piece of the pie. For those of you looking for the maximum value, it’s tough to beat a company like LSA, because there is no importer, distributor and dealer in the chain. Comparing the Signature 80 to the KEF LS-50 and the ELAC Uni-Fi, the Signature 80s not only reveal more music, they are much easier to drive.

Highly recommended.

The LSA VT-70 Integrated Amplifier

There’s always something special about an EL-34 based tube amp, with a pair of output tubes per channel, and a pretty simple circuit.

Less to screw up, or as Nelson Pass likes to say, “simple circuits usually sound best.” Honestly, I’ve never heard a bad EL-34 amp, but like Baskin – Robbins, there are a lot of different flavors, from vintage, warm, and syrupy, like a Dynaco Stereo 70 or Marantz 8B to highly refined, like an Octave or VAC amplifier. And plenty of variations on the theme in-between.

For years, the budget yet high-quality entry-level tube amp has been the PrimaLuna ProLogue 1. I started my hifi writing career with this amp and still have the review sample. Nearly 20 years ago it was $1,095 and a killer value. The new EVO 100 is still a great value, and benchmark, but it’s $2,395 now. So, what the audiophile world needs now is a great budget tube amp.

Enter the VT70

Priced at $1,295, we are slightly going outside the parameters of this column, but it’s too good not to share. With 35 watts per channel on tap, it’s got more than enough juice to drive most comparably priced speakers to a reasonable level, and three single ended RCA inputs should be more than enough for a phonostage, DAC/Streamer and maybe even a tape deck.

The VT70 also sports a headphone output as well as a preamp out to drive a powered sub. The remote control is a nicely presented steel remote, not a plastic, kids meal remote, as many other products costing significantly more bring to the table. The VT70 brings a lot of juice to the game.

It’s a classic EL-34 design, with a 12AX7, two 12AU7s and four EL-34s (two per channel). The black chassis has a machined silver aluminum front faceplate sporting a pair of output meters that do double duty for biasing the tubes when needed. If you aren’t familiar with this procedure, just follow the manual. Turn the volume all the way down, switch to “bias” mode and adjust the trim pots on the top face of the amp until the meter reads 100%. Be careful not to go past 100%, or you can burn up the output tubes.

Check the bias when you get your amp out of the box, we had two tubes at 200%, so a quick adjustment had us right back on the money and eliminated a slight hum as well. Pro tip: set bias when you unbox your amp, then check again after a couple of weeks. Fresh tubes usually need re-biasing at about 100 hours, then they stay stable until almost expired. Again, those handy meters make it easy to double check.

The incredible lightness of being tubey

Most budget solid-state amplifiers sound flat and lifeless. While the world’s best tube amplifiers from the major manufacturers take advantage of massive power supplies and custom output transformers to work their magic, a basic EL-34 amplifier can work wonders with the basics, and that’s exactly what the VT70 delivers.

You won’t mistake this amplifier for something from ARC, BAT, or CJ, (and you won’t mistake the price tag either…) but this little amplifier musters good sound, and is miles more engaging, than nearly any comparably priced solid-state amplifier. It’s so much easier to build a good tube amp for this kind of money.

While you can tube roll, and swap tubes forever with the VT70, I submit that this takes away from the approachable ethos. I can’t get behind spending another $500-$800 on boutique tubes for a 1200-dollar amplifier. And the VT70 does arrive with a full complement of PSVANE tubes. Underwood’s Mark Schifter says that PSVANE is supplying them with matched output tubes – another one of those little touches you’ll pay extra for elsewhere.

The setup

We stuck to three speakers with the VT70, a pair of Harbeth Compact 7s, the Audio GE-Teddy speakers (also available from LSA) and our desktop pair of Jern EH-14s. That this amp plays fantastic with speakers 2-4 times its asking price tells you everything you need to know.

Bass is well defined, and the top end is nice and smooth, without rolloff. By comparison, our Dynaco ST-70 has fairly sloppy bass, and the highs roll off pretty quick. Power supply parts have come a long way in 50 years. The key to success with this amplifier is to not push it beyond what it is capable of. Playing at modest levels, not driving it to clipping (which ANY 35Wpc tube amp is going to do) is absolutely lovely.

Matched up with the Teddy’s, which have a sensitivity of 89dB/1-watt is a sweet spot, led me to borrowing staffer Jerold O’Brien’s older pair of Vandersteen 1s, which have a 90dB/1-watt sensitivity as well. I’m sure LSA wants to sell you a pair of Teddy’s, but if you are really on a budget, you can snag a nice used pair of Vandersteens or something similar for about 600 bucks, find a great DAC and you have a rocking system for barely over $2k. This amplifier is a great way to get into the tube experience. Trying to keep it all reasonable, I used my older Naim CD-5i, with fantastic results.

More on the sound

As with other favorite EL-34 amps, the midrange is the strength. This amplifier offers up such a natural midrange, with so much soundstage depth, you’ll forget what isn’t happening. You’ll be spoiled for solid-state. Going back to a recently re-capped Marantz 2270 receiver with the Teddy’s felt like I had asbestos insulation in my ears. And a nice 2270 easily fetches more on the used market than a new VT70. Impressive.

Again, playing to the strength of this amplifier, you’ll find yourself sifting through your favorite acoustic tracks and perhaps even some 60s and 70s classics should you feel so inclined. Cue up some Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills and Nash, or some Greatful Dead and you will freak out. A long playlist of Bowie tracks from Hunky Dory all the way through Blackstar were equally tasty.

The Jerns don’t have a ton of deep bass output, so pulling in our SVS 3000 Micro subwoofer, rounded out the package to provide an incredibly powerful desktop system, which is actually where the VT70 is staying. It’s too much fun to send back, so this one is #toneaudioapproved.

Running through a short list of headphones from the LSA HP3 Novas, a pair of Audeze LCD-2s, and our workhorse Sennheiser 650s (with Cardas cabling) all worked well. Headphone fanatics are probably still going to want an outboard amplifier for the best results, but we’re on the budget tip here. And, this is certainly an engaging enough headphone amp to make you want to grab a set, and see what the excitement in personal audio is all about.

You can’t lose

With internet pundits claiming high end audio is going under on nearly a daily basis, this is precisely the kind of product to get more people interested in a decent music system that might have thought they couldn’t afford it. Honestly, we need a few more benchmarks like this.

The LSA VT70 is the perfect amp at the perfect price, whether you’re investigating high performance audio for the first time, taking your first spin with a tube amplifier, or perhaps looking for a great second system. It’s musical satisfying, aesthetically pleasing, and gets the job done. Highly recommended.


The Penaudio Lumi Speakers

Where so many manufacturers have fallen victim to designing a speaker line around a tweeter first, with each smaller model having progressively less bass as a result, Penaudio’s Sami Penttila does it old school, developing each model to be a unique entity.

The result is a small speaker that is optimized for a smaller room, yet not lacking in resolution or quality. The latest Lumi is a perfect example of his design expertise. At $2,995 per pair, they are an approachable entry to the Penaudio speaker lineup.

Our listening begins as the speaker is intended in a 10 x 13-foot room, yet with high quality electronics – in this case the lovely Pass INT-25 integrated. This 25-watt per channel, class A amplifier has more than enough drive and detail to make the Lumis do their thing. Incidentally, Lumi means snow in the Finnish language, and if you happen to follow Sami on Facebook or Instagram, you know there is plenty of snow where he hails from.

Even if you’ve never been to Finland, if you’ve grown up with snow, you know the quieting effect that fresh snow brings to your environment. It’s an interesting type of quiet, and I maintain that some of the world’s finest speakers come from the Nordic Region because of this quiet. You need to know what quiet sounds like before you can proceed from there.

What better tribute to these speakers born of quiet than something delicate? Having known Penttila for many years, I know he loves to rock, but pulling George Winston’s December out of my record stack, and playing the classic, quiet, first run vinyl, is fantastic. Winston’s piano floats from the small Penaudios, with every note intact. Both attack and decay are just right, with the piano sounding much bigger than you might think a small pair of monitors would be capable of delivering. On one level, that’s why Penaudio speakers, big and small have the dynamics to handle more aggressive music too. This is their strength.

As Winston’s piano is so relaxing and inviting, one more classic is in order – Liz Story’s Solid Colors. This record was originally recorded to two-track tape at 30 i.p.s. with no dolby, and Story’s Steinway is captured at it’s best. Almost 40 years later, this is still a great go to record. No matter what kind of music you love and spend most of your time with, piano and violin are two of the greatest torture tests of any speaker. The complex dynamics and tonal shadings will not hide and you can rest assured if things sound good here, you won’t be disappointed with the rest of your favorite music.


The small 180 x 300 x 325 mm cabinet (about 7 x 12 x 12 inches) only weighs 7.5kg (about 17 pounds) is easy to manouver, and place in your room for excellent effect. With any small, high-performance speaker, heavy stands, with careful attention paid to speaker/stand interface will allow optimum performance. A pair of 24-inch, filled, Sound Anchor stands works perfectly, and to confirm this, a pair of light weight, flimsy stands are tried later. This is not recommended, as bass response and speed will suffer.

You can approach the Lumi two ways, further out in your room, closer to the listening chair for a nearfield effect, or closer into the corners of your room, taking advantage of room gain to achieve a deeper bass response. Both work well, but provide a completely different experience, both of which are engaging. With careful tweaking, you can achieve an excellent balance of bass extension, while keeping most of the imaging capability that the Lumis offer in a corner placement setup.

Further out in the room, with a smaller “listening triangle,” and the speakers about five feet from rear and side walls, while about five feet apart and from the listening position is completely immersive, as if sitting in a giant pair of headphones. Those craving more bass response can of course, add a subwoofer or two. As they were in for review, I tried a pair of REL TZero Mk.III subs with excellent effect. We will talk about that more in a future “Shhhh” column in TONE, but for now, we’ll concentrate on the Lumi’s alone.

Playing with others

Most listening was done with the Pass INT-25, but these speakers were not out of their element with the combination of the Nagra Classic Preamplifier and Classic Amp, which is 100 watts per channel. Much like the Cenya Signatures, Lumi is very tube friendly too. With an 86db/1-watt sensitivity rating, we suggest at least about 50 watts per channel, if you go the tube route. Our Conrad-Johnson CAV-45S2 works incredibly well with the Lumis, and while the Pass amp offers slightly more bass grip and extension, the C-J is the master of creating a huge sonic image.
Fantastic results were also achieved with the Octave V110SE, PrimaLuna EVO400s, the McIntosh MC275 and of course the BAT REX gear we have in for review, though that is probably well outside the scope of what would be used as source components for a pair of Lumis. Yet, sonically they are up to task – this is a highly resolving speaker.

The SEAS connection

Bias admitted, I still prefer the slightly less resolving but more organic feel of a soft dome tweeter, and Penaudio speakers have always taken advantage of some of SEAS’ finest drivers and made them their own. The Lumi is no different. Using one of their newest Excel tweeters, the Lumi combines it with a 5.7 inch (145mm) Excel woofer made to spec for Penaudio. The match is perfect, with the pair offering a lot of musicality.

Playing some bass heavy tracks from Prince, the Lumis can’t quite go all the way down, but the texture and fundamental tonality is there. That small woofer does an excellent job when capturing Rhonda Smith’s quick, plucky bass lines on the Emancipation disc, as well as her stint with Jeff Beck on the Emotion and Commotion record. Again, if you listen to more of this style of music, consider opting for a pair of small subs, or at least corner placement.

Final thoughts

What really makes the Lumis shine is the incredible stereo image they can paint in a small room – always the highlight of a well-designed small monitor. That said, don’t count the Lumi’s out as part of a killer desktop system either. Mounted on a pair of great desktop speaker stands from ISO Acoustics, and powered by the Naim Uniti Atom proves to be a ton of fun, albeit a bit spendy for a desktop system. However, if you edit video, these could be the perfect tool for you.

Regardless of the setup, the Penaudio Lumi speakers are a sheer joy to live with. As someone who’s used Penaudio on and off as a reference speaker for the last 16 years, I had to purchase the Lumis for inclusion in our standing arsenal of compact reference speakers.

Maybe the other word for the Lumis should be rakkaus. #toneaudioapproved.         – Jeff Dorgay


Digital Source T+A 2500R

Analog Source Chord Huei, Technics SL-1200, Denon 103 (with alum. Cap)

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Blue 2

Amplification Conrad-Johnson CAV-45S2, Pass INT-25

The Naim Mu-So 2

Time flies when you’re having fun, the saying goes, and Naim’s Mu-so is an incredibly fun way to enjoy music.

The initial launch of the Mu-so at the Munich High End Show a few years ago raised the bar – dramatically for what can be called a desktop audio system. And a gorgeous one at that. As someone who’s been listening since the Mu-so arrived, this was a mega product to begin with. We’ve been living with the original Mu-so QB since the review. Pam looked at that, and just said “mine.”

And what’s not to love? Both Mu-so’s offer powered speakers, incredible industrial design, massive digital connectivity, and stunning sound. Thanks to their partnership with Focal, the Naim engineering staff has been able to leverage Focal’s expertise to produce a second-generation product offering true high-end sound in a box taking up a smaller form factor than a sound bar. If you’ve been thinking about a top sound bar for your TV, forget about it – buy a Mu-so.

Compact yet majestic

Don’t let the compact (about 12 x 24 inches, and only 5 inches high) form factor fool you. The new Mu-so packs 450 watts of power, into this enclosure, via a pair of DSP controlled, three-way speakers. When the original Mu-so was introduced, this was its most impressive feature – it could play loud, and with authority.

Nothing’s changed. After all of 8 seconds to pair up the Mu-so 2 with my iPhone, I’m rocking out. Robert Plant’s “Little by Little” has a solid bass groove, and about 20 tracks of Robert Plant later, this tabletop system is massively engaging, even using Spotify as a source. Fortunately, this is the lowest quality setting of which the Mu-so 2 is capable of.

With DAC and streaming circuitry derived from the flagship 500 series (which, incidentally, is also our cover story) the Mu-so 2 is able to decode PCM files up to 24/384khz PCM files and DSD 128.

Different, but the same

The new version of the Mu-so looks nearly the same externally, but Naim says (with their typical wacky sense of humor) that the new model is “95% different.” This means nearly everything has been gone over, optimized, and improved. It may look the same, but Naim has taken a class leading product and improved every aspect of it except one (and maybe that’s the 5%) the amazing volume attenuator. This is one of those works of engineering art that should be in museums everywhere. It feels just like the control in Naim’s top of the line Statement preamplifier. And when you power up the Mu-so, the backlit ring around the control dial glows in a circular fashion for about 20 seconds until warm up, revealing the unit’s control panel/main menu. It’s so beautiful to behold, you just might find yourself dimming the lights to see it more than once.

Again, with every aspect of the Mu-so 2s performance upgraded or tweaked, this is a component that is way more than the sum of its individual parts. Thanks to analog, USB, digital, and network inputs (wired and wireless) you can connect anything to the Mu-so 2. We tried everything, because again, Mu-so 2 is so much fun.

Connects to everything

First: old school analog. Thanks to the standard analog input, you can connect a turntable and phono preamplifier to the Mu-so 2. What better than a Technics 1200, fitted with a Denon 103 cartridge and a Naim Stageline phono? Should you hook a turntable up to your Mu-so 2, we suggest not placing the turntable on the same shelf, as the extended bass response of the Mu-so 2 will cause acoustic feedback. If you have no other way to go, investing in some kind of isolation platform or perhaps a wall shelf directly above the Mu-so 2 so you can keep cabling to a minimum. This was our approach, and it was fantastic.

Next: new school analog. As we have Cambridge Audio’s new Alva Bluetooth turntable, this seemed it might make the perfect fit for someone in close quarters, that needs to put their Mu-so 2 one place and a record player all the way across the room or pull it out and put it on a table somewhere for a night of record playing. The two paired effortlessly, and within 60 seconds we were playing records. Even though this is not a Naim piece, it makes a perfect complement for the Mu-so 2.

Streaming: via iOS device (or other). Just like the Alva, the iPhone synched with the Mu-so 2 in a heartbeat and proves easy to control. All of our listening was with Spotify, and because of this relatively low-quality stream, does not show off all that the tabletop Naim is capable of. Compared to CD and high-resolution digital files, there is a lack of resolution, which causes a smaller, less defined soundfield to expand in the room. In all fairness, it’s still pretty damn awesome.

Connecting the Mu-so 2 to our wired ethernet network via a CAT 6 cable and making it a ROON endpoint really shows off what this baby can do. When streaming a combination of 16/44, 24/96. And 24/192 files, the Mu-so 2 disappears in the room like a full blown hifi system. Naim got this right the first time, and it’s only better now. When comparing it to a few premier soundbars, or our Zeppelin wireless – the Naim is miles ahead in terms of dynamic range, and optimization of the DSP. Eyes closed; it really sounds like there are a pair of speakers on stands in the room.

When listening to heavy rock tracks and electronica titles with substantial low bass output, the Mu-so 2 digs in and goes deep. Thanks to a friend that lent us his original Mu-so (and we still have our Mu-so Qb) this is where you really feel the differences. Highs are cleaner, more defined, and have better, more anchored placement. As are the lowest frequencies – the new model goes down deeper and with less effort. Naim’s collaboration with Focal really shows itself to excellent result here.

All of the other major streaming services are compatible with the Mu-so 2, but if you happen to be a ROON user, this is such an exquisite pairing, and almost makes the Naim app useless. However, if you are not streaming with ROON, the Naim app allows you to control nearly every parameter of the Mu-so 2, so take your pick. This also comes in handy if you happen to be streaming your music collection via ripped CDs and a UPNP network. Again, we had great luck linking the Mu-so 2 to our Naim Uniti Core, with 2TB internal drive. Brilliant.

Finally: Television/movie sound. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, don’t even think about buying a so called “soundbar,” when you can have a Mu-so 2. Out in the living room, using a projector to get about a 14-foot image on our main wall, putting the Mu-so 2 on a small table, about 18 inches off the ground, provided room filling sound.

Again, what impressed us the most, especially in this context is the Mu-so 2s sheer ability to play loud musical passages and its ability to handle gun shots, and various other cinema related crashes and booms. Streaming Netflix from a MacBook Pro, going to the Mu-So 2 via the Mac’s USB output was the best way to go here, but again, you have options, as this version also offers an HDMI input.

Fantastic, from beginning to end

As lovely as the Mu-so 2’s packaging is, it really should have confetti spray out when you open it. This is a party in a box, waiting to enjoy. Regardless of how you might engage Naim’s Mu-so 2, it’s up to whatever music related tasks you can give it. We tend to pooh-pooh all in ones, but this one is true to its heritage and worthy of an Exceptional Value Award for 2021.

The Technics OTTAVA-SC-C70MK2

Pushing the play button on the new Technics OTTAVA SC-C70MK2, with a MoFi copy of the Superfly soundtrack fills the room with a big, broad soundfield and a solid bass line. Technics has hit nothing but home runs since they re-entered the high-end audio world with a passion about five or six years ago. Their depth of manufacturing and engineering expertise is without peer, and the products they’ve built have heavily leveraged their heritage, while being fashion forward at the same time. It’s a great combination.

As desktop/tabletop music systems continue to evolve in functionality and performance, the OTTAVA certainly qualifies as a music player that even the most fanatical audiophile will engage. Regardless of how you consume your music, this player can accommodate your needs, whether you strictly want to have an all-in-one component, stream your favorite music, or connect a turntable via the analog input. (or dare we say, a cassette deck!)

Gorgeous from the inside out

The mid-century modern aesthetic of the OTTAVA begs inspection and interaction. This approximately 18 x 9 x 4 -inch enclosure will be a smart addition to wherever you decide to place it in your home, office or other environment. Seriously, I’d pack it in bubble wrap and take it with me on a road trip! Nothing like having great music wherever you go. As the cliché goes, don’t let the good looks fool you, there’s a lot more that doesn’t immediately meet the eye here.

The 2.1 speaker system inside the C70MK2 utilizes a pair of 8cm(3.14 inch) woofers, 2cm (.78 inch) silk dome tweeters and a built-in 12cm(4.7 inch) subwoofer, driven by a 30-watt per channel amplifier on top, and a 40 watt dedicated amplifier for the subwoofer.

There is an analog 3.5mm (1/8th inch) stereo analog, line level input, an optical digital input and a USB-A connection around back, along with a standard ethernet socket, so you don’t have to rely on entirely what’s inside the box. (though you could and be completely happy)

If you take a detour to the Technics website, you can see the major tech that exists inside of the OTTAVA. ( This also lists all the different kinds of files and sources the C70MK2 will stream – which is basically everything. Tidal, Deezer, Spotify, and others are all accessible. The only thing it doesn’t do native, is function as a ROON endpoint, but because it can be setup as a Chromecast node, you can do that too. So, anyone can listen to whatever they’d like via the SC-C70MK2. And listen, we did.

The bad and the good

This is not a brainlessly plug and play device, as many powered speakers and desktop systems are, but if you are willing to be patient for about five minutes, the reward is well worth it. Of course, if you want to just play CD’s or listen to the radio, you can do that right away with the supplied (and very awesome) remote. To be more exact, to get the most the SC-C70MK2 has to offer, you will need to install a couple of apps, and spend a little time fine tuning setup.

If you’ve taken the time to install Google Home and the Technics Audio Center App (which we had to do for their integrated amp anyway), you are rewarded with incredible control flexibility, four levels of DSP adjustment (3 presets and one you measure yourself), and a wide variety of inputs and streaming options.
So, the good news is, this is by far the most capable tabletop/all in one music player we’ve used. With power comes responsibility. You can’t just jump in an airplane cockpit and access all the controls without a little time reading the manual and following the menu prompts. The SC-70MK2 is truly a high-performance machine, inside and out.

Beyond the top facing disc player, the OTTAVA is a high resolution player in every sense of the word, able to decode files from you NAS or USB device. The only thing off the menu is MQA. Like Technics larger SU-G700 amplifier, it also utilizes their LAPC functionality, which optimizes the amplifier circuit for the speakers.


While the OTTAVA comes with three standard DSP settings to optimize the sound for wherever you might place it (free, near the wall, and near the corner) again, you’ll be rewarded by taking a few minutes to run the Space Tune™ app. This works like a full-blown room optimization system, measuring your room and adjusting the output of the OTTAVA accordingly to deliver the best sound.

Experimenting in a few different room locations reveals Space Tune™ outperforming the preset functions every time. Most times, the difference was so dramatic, it felt like we had just moved up a couple of models to a bigger, more resolving player. Good as this is, the most dramatic test of Space Tune™ was our initial listening. Just pulling the OTTAVA out of the box, placing it in the middle of the messy studio tamed a bass heavy, and somewhat hollow sound once Space Tune™ was run. Fantastic. While the preset selections for room corner, tabletop, and open air were excellent, taking the time to take the measurement and apply it to the custom preset, made for a more spacious, more tonally correct top to bottom sound. It’s worth the couple of extra minutes. Hard-core audiophiles will love the ability to save their new measurements.

The SC-70MK2 does an excellent job with midrange clarity, creating a massive soundfield. The level of serious bass produced when playing bass heavy tracks is a testament to just how much air a pair of three-inch woofers and a 5-inch subwoofer can produce with great DSP. On most musical selections, the SC-70MK2 is able to play incredibly loud without distortion, however those that survive on a steady diet of hip hop and electronica will most likely find the limits of the device, when rocking the house.

Again, it’s worth mentioning that taking the time to run the measurements and save a custom DSP preset will be the difference of the SC-C70MK2 having more natural, linear bass and upper midrange response. The presets are fine, but you’ll notice some of the tubbiness from putting it on a countertop disappear with a custom setting – taking this box from good to great.

Everyone exposed to the little Technics player was consistently impressed at how big the sound was, and in a small-ish room, on a table, the ability to feel like an amplifiers and pair of speakers on stands it is.

Taking the party vibe a step further, we made use of the compact Pro-Ject Ultra 500 phono preamplifier here for a recent review to connect our vintage Technics SL-1200 mk.5 and spin some vinyl. This was almost too much fun, and again, the overall aesthetic of the SC-C70MK2 fits perfectly with a Technics turntable, new or old.

It’s all good

This truly is the audiophile’s desktop music player. For $999.99 it’s an excellent combination of sound, features, and versatility. The nearly $1,700 Naim Mu-So 2 we just recently reviewed will play a little louder and go a little deeper, but it costs almost twice as much and there’s no CD Player or the ability to custom tune the DSP. Not to mention positively stunning mechanical design – this one looks and feels like an object with a much higher price tag.

Overall, this one checks all the boxes, and some we didn’t even know needing checking. Audiophiles often talk about desert island records. I’d take a Roon subscription, some streaming music and maybe a pile of my all-time favorite CDs to the desert with me.

If that doesn’t make for an Exceptional Value Award, nothing does. Technics has created a product that appeals to everyone. Entrenched audiophiles will be happy with the sound (and functionality) and music lovers craving simplicity will be amazed at just how much sound $999.99 can buy. I know I want one for on top of my toolbox out in The Audiophile Garage…

Please click here to go to the Technics Website for more info:


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

The Audio GE Teddy Speakers

There are some fun speakers in the $1,000 – $2,000 range, and there are a lot more mistakes.

But there are a few true classics, transcending time, offering sonic value that is out of what you think would be possible for this price. The Audio GE Teddy, at $1,888 a pair delivered, certainly has the potential to join the ranks of the finest.

If you have two thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket to buy a new pair of speakers, you can be overwhelmed by the amount of choices on the market today. When arguing with our publisher about what we’d buy for that money, we always end up pontificating about the great speakers back in our day. We’re getting old. Old guys always like to think the stuff from their era is way better than the current stuff. We do the same thing with our endless arguments about cars – that’s why we both drive mid 70s BMW 2002s.

Yet today, there are better choices than ever. A few of our favorites remain – the Vandersteen 1, and the current entry level Magnepan speakers are still top contenders, nearly 40 years later. The KEF LS-50 is spectacular, along with some great choices from Totem, Paradigm and B&W. Sonus faber’s new Lumina line is brilliant too. It’s a great time to be getting in the game.

Audio GE is a relatively new company from Lithuania. I had a friend in college from Lithuania, he was a smart and witty guy, as I expect Gediminas Racevicus – the managing director and designer at Audio GE is. Anyone can make a great speaker for $200,000. You have to be clever to make an exceptional speaker for $2,000. I wanna meet this guy.

It’s also worth mentioning that for US customers, the Teddy’s are an even bigger deal – because of exchange rates, and the fact that Underwood HiFi has really sharpened the pencil on shipping to get these to you in the CONUS for just under $1,995 shipped, it’s more like getting a $3,000 pair of speakers at this price. They’ve pared it to a single finish option to get you the best deal. Great hifi just got easier.

A shitload of amplifiers

Comedian David Letterman when asked “how many is in a shitload,” replied, “Seven. There are seven in a shitload.” And that’s exactly how many amplifiers were used in evaluating the Teddys. As I had to pick them up from TONE HQ after the photos were taken, this made for a great listening session with a few of the amplifiers in use there. Of course, the Teddy’s sound great with the reference PASS Labs XA200.8 monoblocks, but at that price, these amplifiers are completely irrelevant in the context of a $2,000 pair of speakers. And that’s the oldest hifi store/show trick in the book. Play inexpensive speakers through six figures worth of amplification to reel you in, then when you get them home you get the ultimate metal gift – disappointment. We’ve all been there.

The McIntosh MC1502 is still a bit crazy for these speakers, but again – fantastic. However, at my place, a Mk V version of the classic MC275 provides an incredibly similar vibe, and considering a nice, used MC275 can be had for around $3k, this would make a lovely combination, and stay within a realistic budget. The tubed Mac provides more than enough power (90 watts per channel), and like the PrimaLuna EVO 400 (with EL34 tubes) delivers a slightly mellow, warm overall sound.

The Mac and PrimaLuna amps deliver a more diffuse presentation than some of the other amplifiers in the rotation, however they offer up some of the yummiest midrange and top to bottom cohesiveness. This is where audio can drive you to madness, but it’s good fun. (isn’t it?) It’s worth mentioning again that these are not power-hungry speakers.

How about a PS Audio Sprout II for $599, a Rega IO, or a vintage Marantz 2220B? (Freshly recapped and aligned by our pals at Gig Harbor Audio) The magic is still there. These speakers kick major butt with budget sources, and that’s what entry level music loving audiophiles need to get excited about.

What you get

Browsing the Audio GE website shows off the crossover network, made of premium parts (including capacitors from Jensen and Mundorf), revealing both drivers sourced from Scan-Speak. As someone who’s always enjoyed “that sound,” it makes more sense why I’m drawn to these.

The cabinets are well built, and offered in a number of different finish options, so you should be able to find something that will go with your décor. (or if you cohabitate with someone, something that will go with their décor – ha!) Fortunately, they have a single set of binding posts – another nod to the beginning audiophile, not expecting them to bi-wire.

The only thing you don’t get is a pair of grilles, but hey who really uses them anyway?

Further setup and listening

A nice sized pair of floorstanding speakers with a bottom firing port, that makes for easy placement and setup. Speakers with rear firing ports are tough to get right for those of you that have to have your speakers a little closer to the walls, and front ports can “huff” a bit at low frequencies. There are a lot of five-figure speakers that take advantage of down-firing ports, so once again, Mr. Racevicus is a smart guy.

Personally, I think the downward firing port makes for a smoother transition as the woofer goes up the frequency range. Kind of like a 282 camshaft in a 2002, but again, I’m getting off track. Placed in my 14 x 19 foot listening room, about three feet from the rear walls, and about 8 feet apart proved optimum. As the soft dome tweeter is not edgy at all, feel free to experiment with toe-in. You can dial in more toe in with these speakers not being harsh. It all depends on your preference, as well as the overall voicing of your system.

Thanks to the wide dispersion characteristics of the soft dome tweeter and the general coherence of a two way system to begin with, the Teddy’s broad sweet spot makes for great times hanging out and listening to music. You’ll get a more precise image sitting right there, on the couch, but whether you’re sitting on the floor, or even in the next room, the sound is inviting.

GE Audio claims bass extension to 33hz, so I dug out my Stereophile test disc to investigate. The Teddy’s have seriously solid bass response to 30hz, so this meant a couple of long listening sessions of heavy rock music, just to feel it. Whether I was playing Dark Side of The MoonMade in Japan, or anything inbetween, these speakers really offer a solid foundation underneath any of your music.

The lack of grunge from the crossover network, combined with that soft dome tweeter, makes for comfortable long listening sessions. This is a speaker you’ll be able to easily listen to all day without tiring of. Many speakers in this price range have an accentuated treble response (by design) to feel “detailed,” but they usually aren’t speakers you can listen to, especially with budget electronics.

Regardless of the program material used, the Teddy’s are luscious. Yes, slightly on the warm side, but not murky. Tracking through a long play list of jazz cuts, and the required female vocals reveals some major magic. Though they wouldn’t play terribly loud, shaking the dust from my Bottlehead 2A3 monoblocks was incredibly involving, with a magic only those amps bring to the table.

Ongoing arguments

Both our publisher and I had no disagreement in awarding the GE Teddy speakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2021. This is a pair of speakers that allow a tremendous amount of musical engagement at a price everyone can afford. Thanks to being so amplifier friendly, you can build a wide range of systems around them as well.

A new favorite and future classic. – Jerold O’Brien

Leak’s Stereo 130 Amplifier and CDT Disk Transport

With so many old things being new again, what could be more hifi fun than an update on a British classic?

You might mistake the new Stereo 130 for a vacuum tube amplifier from the late 60s or early 70s; it’s actually modeled after the original Leak Stereo 30, which was, in fact, a solid-state amplifier. Though Leak did make a vacuum tube integrated, the Type 15, in the mid – 1940s. (Maybe they’ll bring that back to life next. We can dream, right?)

Beyond current parts updates, today’s Stereo 130 still offers an onboard MM phono stage. Yet, where the original had an input for a tape head (which wouldn’t be out of place), there are digital inputs. Which is perfect for the matching Leak CDT transport. Or your favorite streamer. At $995 for the amplifier ($1,195 with walnut cabinet) and $695 for the CDT ($895 with cabinet) this is a compact combination that looks great and is reasonably priced. But, how does it sound?

The Stereo 130’s 45-watts per channel is just enough for most smaller spaces and more efficient-ish speakers. Of course, the Wharfedale Linton or Dentons are an excellent match, as are the 90db/1-watt Vandersteen Ones, or perhaps something like the Zu Audio Dirty Weekends. These offer a 97db/1-watt sensitivity and will blow you off your couch, Maxell guy style. Even the current Focal Kanta no.1s in for review (87db/1-watt) turned in an excellent performance with the Stereo 130.

Shiny disc time

The CDT only plays Redbook CDs, with a front, slot-loading transport, but it does a fantastic job. Should you need a CD transport that does not take up a ton of space, this is an excellent choice. However, it is designed to be a bookend to the Stereo 130. That is how we used it for the majority of our listening time. In addition to playing CDs, the CDT also has a USB-A socket on the front for a thumb drive, if you care to play music back in this manner. The controls are the traditional transport controls and a power switch – simple, basic, classic.

Around the back, the CDT offers a coax digital output and an optical output. Playing through the DAC in the Stereo 130, it was challenging to tell the difference between using either output. For the sake of exploration, running optical and coax SPDIF cables through our reference dCS Vivaldi One, the CDT’s coax output did have a slight edge in musicality. The uppermost frequencies were smoother and more fleshed out. But even at this level of digital playback, it wasn’t a staggering difference.

Digitally speaking

Most of our listening was with the CDT transport, yet the Stereo 130 offers several digital inputs for other devices. It’s important to note that the Stereo 130 does not have a built-in network streamer. Yet, streaming Tidal/Qobuz/Roon from a MacBook Pro connected to its USB-B input proves easy and enjoyable no matter which format we played.

The DAC section of the Stereo 130 leverages the ESS Sabre ES9018 chipset, providing the ability to decode files up to 32/384 and DSD256. There is also a wireless connection with Bluetooth aptX support for high-quality streaming. This makes the Stereo 130 perfect for hanging out when you just want to stream some tunes from your mobile device. Or perhaps a friend’s mobile device. Flexibility is the name of the game here.

No slouch in the analog domain

The onboard JFET phono stage does a cracking job with vinyl and your MM cartridge of choice. Staying with the British vibe, breaking out the Rega P3 with Elys 2 cartridge makes sense, as it’s priced reasonably enough to be considered for pairing with the Stereo 130. However, our vintage Technics SL-1200/Shure M44 combination proves equally tasty.

Cueing up a few MoFi vinyl favorites from Supertramp, XTC, and Santana makes this a retro audio lovefest all the way around and shows off the quiet, dynamic character of the Leak’s phono section. In the context of a thousand-dollar amp that has a built-in DAC as well, the performance is excellent and equally matched to the rest of the combination.  It’s resolving enough that you’ll be able to tell the difference in quality and resolution between a budget bin LP and your favorite audiophile pressing.

Don’t forget the phones

The Stereo 130 includes a ¼-inch headphone jack on the front panel. Like its other sections, the headphone out is equally balanced in performance to the rest of the amplifier. Running a gamut of phones in the $100-$400 range from Grado, Audeze, and Sennheiser reveals excellent performance here as well.

The bass and treble controls (yeah, it’s got those too!) really help with budget phones. They even made my hamburger headphones sound better than expected! Though many will scorn the tone controls (you can bypass them with the “direct” button), if you live in a less than an optimum room or have some less than awesome recordings, they do come in handy. There is no specification listed for the tone controls on the Stereo 130. Still, they cut in fairly quickly on both ends of the audio spectrum, so a little goes a long way.

Overall sound and use

The Leak combination offers good bass control with speakers with more low-frequency capability and surprisingly has no problem driving more difficult speakers. Even powering a pair of vintage Acoustat 1+1s (with two of the latest REL Tzero mk.3s in the system) proved engaging at moderate levels. You won’t mistake the Stereo 130 for a tube amplifier, but its Class A/B has more punch than you’d imagine and serves the music well.

The key to the Stereo 130/CDT combination is overall balance. No aspect of its sound or functionality overshadows or shortchanges the rest. We achieved excellent results with several speakers in the $600 – $2,000/pair range, making this a perfect hub for a music lover on a real world budget. You can get great sound without spending five or six figures, and the Leak combo makes for a system to be proud of.

Thanks to their compact form factor (both boxes are almost 13 inches wide, 6 inches tall, and about 11 inches deep), these two should fit anywhere and sit nicely on normal furniture. However, both are pretty substantial, weighing in at around 20 pounds each, so they are somewhat deceptive.

We can tell that Leak obsessed over the details when they decided to bring the brand back to life. Fit and finish is very good and we consider the Walnut real wood veneer cabinets a must.

You’ll either drool over the vintage/mid-century aesthetic, or be turned off and move to the more typical looking gear in this price range. But if you’re in the “love it” category with us, these two components from Leak are a fantastic combination.

Rotel’s CD 11 and A11

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, Japanese hifi manufacturer Rotel was one of the top value proposition audiophile brands. Though not possessing quite the cache of top brands like Mark Levinson and Audio Research, many a budding audiophile brought home a Rotel RA 913 or RA-2030 integrated amplifier to start their journey into the high end. Their products have always offered high build quality, a clean design aesthetic, and most of all, great sound.

Rotel has never left the audio world, but has always had somewhat of a quiet legacy, going about their business building great gear. However, in the last five years or so, they’ve been making a bit more noise so to speak, and their latest products retain all of their key values.

They join us here with two models that celebrate the current rebirth of the integrated amplifier, the standalone CD player, along with the recent passing of audio legend, Ken Ishiwata. Long known for his relationship with Marantz, Mr. Ishiwata was the most well-known of Japanese hifi designers, and always a joy to engage with at hifi shows. He was somewhat of a creative director, taking designs, listening carefully, and making suggestions to improve them further.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ishiwata passed away right before the completion of the Tribute models, but the Rotel team implemented his suggestions in the final designs, a real testament to his legacy. Even a quick listen out of the box shows that these are indeed special components, well within reach of any music lover.

The Rotel A11 and CD11 Tribute models from Rotel are the last two pieces of audio gear to bear his imprint, and like everything else he’s had a hand in, are fantastic. At $699 and $499 respectively, this 50-watt per channel integrated amplifier and compact disc player go about their business in an understated way. If you need a plethora of inputs, outputs and functionality, this may not be the combo for you, but if you want the core for a straight-ahead system that delivers the sonic goods, read on.

More than enough power

Most small to moderate space dwellers should be just fine with 50 watts per channel, and lifting the top on the A11 reveals the necessary ingredients: a hefty power supply with big power transformer, a discrete, class AB power amplifier, complete with heat sinks, and enough control facilities to add a turntable, CD player, and tuner or tape deck.

The A11 has an onboard DAC, featuring a Texas Instruments chipset, it is only a Bluetooth streamer, with no optical or SPDIF inputs. The CD11 CD player provides both an anlog RCA output as well as a coaxial output. This is the only shortcoming of what is an otherwise excellent pair. As good as their performance is, it’s a shame you can’t plug a laptop or budget streamer in to increase the functionality of these two excellent components, but it’s understandable that Rotel drew the line in the sand here.

Half of our listening was done with our reference pair of Sonus faber Lumina 1 speakers, while the rest was split between a pair of Martin Logan Motion 15i’s, the Golden Ear BRX’s, and Totem Sky’s. All excellent choices in the $600 – $1,600/pair range. There were no anomalies with any of these small speakers, and we’d suggest any one of them.

The overall sound of the A11 is natural – neither embellishing, nor subtractive in nature. Thanks to a discrete amplifier section, the tonal saturation present is more engaging than many similarly priced integrateds featuring class-d amplification. Not only is the A11 worthy of both the Rotel name, and the legacy of Mr. Ishiwata, it reminds me of another legendary integrated, the NAD 3020.

Offering great bass control, clear mids, and a smooth high end, this amplifier is destined not only to be a classic, but one that will stay in your family for years. Whether buying your first hifi system, or a second system for somewhere else in your house, the A11 provides engaging sound that you will not tire of.

The shiny disc

Much like the vinyl record, the CD is also enjoying a bit of a resurgence. Used record stores and online shops have a plethora of discs available, and at reasonable prices. For those of you that either aren’t streaming, or just enjoy the physical act of playing a disc, the CD11 does not disappoint.

Good as the A11 is, $499 in 2020 is about $88 in 1983. Those of us that were there at digital audio’s beginning know what rubbish even a thousand-dollar CD player sounded like back then. The A11 goes about its business, just playing CDs. As mentioned, there is no provision for streaming, or even a digital input to connect your laptop, so it serves one purpose only. At this price, even if you no longer have a massive (or any at all) digital disc collection, it’s much like picking up an entry level Pro-Ject or Rega table. A few days of online shopping will put you a pretty diverse collection of 50 to 100 discs in no time.

The overall sound is solid, and smooth. This is a very un-digital sounding player, that compared to a late 80s player (that we won’t name) is amazing. Truly, the only thing the CD11 lacks is a level of resolution that the big bucks digital does. However, in the context of the amplifier, and a like priced pair of speakers, it’s going to be tough to get this level of involvement out of a $499 turntable and bargain records.

Playing MoFi copies of a few Santana favorites (Abraxas, III, and Caravanserai) where the CD11 only captures the 16/44 layer is a joy. Music comes through with a lack of grain, clean top end and great dynamics.

The black disc

The A11 also includes an excellent MM phono stage. As we still had a Pro-Ject Debut with Ortofon 2M Red hanging around, and our long-standing vintage favorite Technics SL-1200mk. 5 with Shure M44, it was time to spin some records. This amplifier turns in a fantastic performance. The phono input is quiet and composed.

Having used a few Ishiwata inspired designs, I can’t help but hope he had a major say in final tweaking of the phono section. Thirty seconds in you can tell this is not an afterthought, but respectfully aimed at providing an engaging experience for the new vinyl enthusiast.

Both cartridges worked great with the A11 – the channel separation is excellent, producing a very wide soundstage, with great delineation of instruments. We even tried the Technics SL-1100/Denon 103 MC combination with a Bob’s Devices step up transformer. Again, the Rotel delivers big sonics. Playing the new Anne Bisson LP, Keys to my Heart, was absolutely dreamy. Ms. Bisson and her crew of vintage jazz cats made for a bold, engaging sound.

The phone

Though you can’t plug a laptop or streamer into either of these components digitally, you can stream your mobile device via Bluetooth to the A11. This is probably the only part of the A11 that feels a bit out of balanced, so I would almost suggest this amplifier and disc player combination to someone favoring physical media. Regardless, at least being able to stream tunes in the background, at dinner or a party via your phone is still acceptable. Again, kudos to the Rotel design team of including such a great amplifier and phono section for this price, having to add a digital input probably would have bumped the MSRP up a hundred bucks or possibly two. And, you can always add a streaming DAC instead of the CD11 if you have no need for digital physical media and still have a formidable combination.


We also need to mention a few last things. Fit and finish of this pair are way beyond par for their respective price points, but Rotel has always done a fantastic job in this department. The simple remote and the user interface are both intuitive and easy to use. It was a breeze to get these two rocking without the need for the manual without issue.

And…the A11 has tone controls. Laugh if you want, and yes, it sounds slightly more transparent with said tone controls disengaged. Apartment dwellers and those not able to put their speakers in the optimum audiophile position will appreciate a little bit of boost and cut – as will those streaming from a mobile device.

In the end, I challenge you to find a better sounding pair of components on which to anchor a good, entry level music system. The Rotel A11 amplifier and CD11 disc player are an honor to their makers. Two very honest components that do a great job at their tasks. It doesn’t get any better.

The Rotel A11 amplifier and CD11 Disc Player

$699 and $499

REVIEW: Sonus faber Lumina 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Focal Chora 806 Speakers

Over the years, the TONEAudio team enjoyed many opportunities to evaluate Focal speakers, including their stunning flagship Grande Utopia Evo, as well as the Stella Evo’s currently here on audition.

While Focal’s cost-no-object speakers offer a revelatory musical experience, most of us will never have the financial means to own a pair. Of course, Focal understands this reality and offers many other price-performance speaker options in their lineup. The Chora 806 bookshelf speakers we review here retail for $990 (plus optional stands, $290), demonstrating Focal’s commitment to offering high-quality and financially-friendly speakers. While these stand-mounters serve well as a stereo pair, those looking for a line of matched speakers for their home theater setup will find the Choras equally at home.

France’s Focal resides among a shortlist of manufacturers who design and build their speaker components in-house. Therefore, the Chora line benefits its listeners with trickle-down technology borrowed from more expensive speakers in Focal’s arsenal.

Like the 806’s floor-standing siblings, the stand-mounted Chora employs a one-inch aluminum-magnesium tweeter above a 6.5 inch (16.5cm) midrange. The driver cone uses Focal’s proprietary “Slatefiber” material combining recycled non-woven carbon fibers and a thermoplastic polymer. While non-conventional, the elements certainly deliver the sonic goods. A front port for bass reinforcement complements the midrange and tweeter. The port placement gives owners more speaker placement flexibility since the 806 can reside closer to a rear wall without bass over-emphasis.

The Chorus 806 is a hefty “bookshelf” speaker at 16.2 pounds (7.35kg). The utilitarian, modestly finished cabinets measure 8.25 inches wide by 10.5 inches deep by 17 inches in height (21x27x43cm). For more detail about the speaker specifications, check out Focal’s 806 spec sheet.

The Chorus line offers black, light wood and dark wood finishes to complement most décor. Prospective owners with young children will also appreciate the Chora line’s removable grille covering the woofer, plus the tweeter’s perforated metal armor to help deter small fingers.


To hone your speaker placement, Focal offers a mathematically-based positioning guide, which you can learn about in their incredibly well produced manual. As always, experiment in your room to determine what sounds best to you.

Once locked into an ideal location, the Choras can do an excellent job of three-dimensional projection. Using Stereophile’s Test CD’s “natural stereo imaging” track, the speakers do a terrific job keeping up with the recorded material – especially for boxes at a sub-$1k price point. As David Chesky circles an omnidirectional microphone in the recording space while beating a drum, sound travels in a similar lap around the listening space and projects to the far sides of the listener, and even behind the listening chair. For more traditional stereo recordings, the Chora 806 also does a great job of separating instruments across the front soundstage giving each element a defined presence.

The 806 employs an unusual binding post. Yes, it does serve to accommodate bare wire, banana, or spade terminated cables. Those using speaker wire with banana ends will need to find a thin bladed screwdriver to gently pry the covered caps off.

Even when driven by a modest classic 35-watt NAD 3020 integrated amplifier, the speakers come to life in remarkable ways. For a critical evaluation of the speakers, though, the usual upstream reference rig with a Conrad-Johnson ART150 amplifier lets the Choras sing to their full potential.

Rewards come to those who wait. Over a 24-hour break-in period, the 806’s sound evolves beneficially and settles into a smooth and well-balanced sonic presentation. The Chora’s voice is just a hint to the warm side of neutral. While they do offer substantial treble reproduction, they also avoid stridency and sibilance, as noted during Zero 7’s song “Distractions” that features Sia Furler’s powerful and beguiling vocals.

The 806’s voicing is a bit akin to being in the 10th row of a concert hall. Some of the front-row details diminish, but the whole musical picture reaching the ears proves highly engaging. “This Mess We’re In” featuring PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke retains its goosebump potential. While the singers’ placements in the mix overlap front-and-center during the chorus, they remain well-articulated and separated perceptually. Instruments including strings, horns, piano, and percussion render with a substantial degree of separation and realism too.

The 806 is also forgiving. Older tracks like “Sugar Man” by Sixto Rogriguez are fun to hear despite the original recording’s limitations. Even the worst-recorded song I love, “Hi Babe” by the Ngozi Family, sings forth with a surprisingly compelling nature.

For those who like to rock, Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” proves revelatory too. Given the small cabinet size, low-frequency roll-off is inevitable. However, the Focals do a great job reproducing and articulating bass notes above 60 Hz or so. That said, expect punch, not slam, from the 806.

The Chora 806’s soundstaging capability, complementing their marvelous sonic reproduction, offers an immersive experience generally associated with speakers costing much more. The Chora 806 speakers provide an open and emotionally-engaging window to the music. Moving up the Focal line gets a prospective owner more detail, increased realism, deeper bass, and much more aesthetically-appealing cabinets. Track after track, though, I remained impressed with the 806’s capability.

Summing up

Focal Chora 806 speakers offer wonderful sound and build quality at a very reasonable price point. If you have a $1,000 budget for speakers, the 806 is an excellent choice. For those who desire heartier and deeper bass reinforcement than a stand-mounted speaker can offer, the floor standing iterations in the Chora line — or the addition of a subwoofer — will help satiate that thirst. Either way, you can’t go wrong. The 806 can easily anchor a budget-friendly system now and rise to the challenge as other upstream components come and go over time.

Additional Listening: Jeff Dorgay

While many grouse about flagship loudspeakers, the Focal Chora is a perfect example of vertical manufacturing done right. There are precious few manufacturers left in the world that make their own cabinets and drivers – Focal is one of the select few. Because they make everything in-house, they can put so much more value into a thousand dollar pair of speakers than a company that has to outsource everything.

This is why the Choras are such a great deal. With Focal’s Stella Utopia Ems playing in my living room, it’s easy to see (hear, actually) just how much Utopia DNA is present in the Choras. Granted these speakers do not have the adjustments, or the sexy, curvy cabinets of the Utopias, but the same people that design, manufacture and assemble the top range Utopia speakers build the Choras with the same materials.

There’s a level of sonic sophistication present in the Choras that is absent in most other speakers at this price point. The Focal “house sound,” if you will, is one of resolving detail without being harsh. Rob’s assessment is spot on, and comparing the $1,000/pair Choras to the $150k/pair Stellas, it’s amazing at how much of that house sound still comes right through, especially when listening to music slightly less dynamic, or a little lacking in super low bass information.

These are incredible speakers for someone just getting into the hifi game, and more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2020.

The JL Audio Fathom In Ceiling Subwoofer System

A well-integrated subwoofer is genuinely a thing of sonic beauty and functionality.

Because subwoofers tend to be somewhat imposing, the toughest part of having one (or more) is where to put them. To complicate the issue, a subwoofer often must fit in a less than optimal place, which can make getting excellent bass response more difficult.

JL Audio has always used subwoofers powered by massive amplifiers along with a highly effective DSP system (D.A.R.O. – Digital Automatic Room Optimization) that goes a long way at eliminating the peaks and valleys in low-frequency response. I’ve used JL subwoofers in a variety of systems over the years, all with excellent results, and often find them the magic bullet when placement options are limited.

One of my favorite JL products has been their Fathom IWS (In-wall subwoofer) because it lets you hide a high-quality subwoofer completely. Whether in the context of a two-channel or multichannel theater system, this can be the difference between having a full-range system and not.

The ICS only uses an 8-inch driver, but it is every bit a Fathom product. The spec sheet says it is down 3dB at 24.6 Hz, but for the intended audience and those listening to main speakers that will probably struggle to go to 40hz, you’ll be amazed at just how capable the ICS is.

One step beyond

Their latest product, the ICS – you guessed it, “in-ceiling subwoofer,” can now hide in your ceiling, between 2 x 6-inch ceiling joists (from 16 to 25 ½ inch centers) and with its tiny grille, hide anywhere. Just like JL Audio’s IWS, the ICS hides perfectly. Using a smaller 8-inch driver and accompanying 300-watt amplifier, you can purchase a single or double pair of ICS woofer enclosures to hide in your ceiling. Where the larger IWS is fairly expensive, the ICS has a modest price of $2,300. Remember, this is the woofer, enclosure, amplifier, crossover, and DSP.

If by chance, you are doing new construction, this couldn’t be any easier. Tell the framers where you want the enclosure(s) to go. Otherwise, you’re going to have to do a bit of surgery, so access to your listening room’s ceiling will determine how difficult this will be. I live in a small mid-century house with a plank ceiling, so for this review, I built a temporary enclosure for living room evaluation, that was fit to the ceiling, yet removable. Both bathrooms in my house have lowered, wallboard ceilings, but I got a hard “no” for installing a bathroom system. Sometimes, the best of plans, eh?

Unless your walls utilize 2 x 6 construction, you must mount the ICS in the ceiling, as the enclosure is 5.13 inches thick. Ironically the final resting place for the ICS here has been in my garage, which does have 2 x 6 wall studs, and my vintage pair of JBL L-100s powered by a stack of Nakamichi 600 components was begging for more bass. Changing a timing belt goes a lot faster when you have great sound. However, JL informs us during the fact check of this review that they also offer an In-Wall version, the IWS-108 for standard 2×4 wall construction. Great news for those of you that can’t fit the Fathom IWS into your room or budget.

Quick setup

Unlike a standard enclosure based JL subwoofer, where you spend a fair amount with static room placement and then attend to the DSP, the majority of the work is installing and finishing the ICS. Once complete, a speaker cable runs from the amplifier to the speaker enclosure, and in this case, I purchased some bulk speaker cable from Cardas Audio. It seemed a shame to use a component of this quality and connect it with lamp cord quality wire. In order to take the measurements you need to fully fine-tune the ICS to your room, you will need to purchase one of JL Audio’s calibrated mics to plug in the front panel. One of these will set you back about $100.

Getting audio to your ICS can be done via single-ended RCA line-level connections from your preamplifier, or high-level inputs from your main speakers. Both work well, and it’s nice that JL has included high-level inputs to offer more system flexibility and integration.

Once connected, running the DSP through its paces with a calibrated microphone (available separately) goes pretty quickly. Be sure to optimize for where you will do the majority of your listening, and you’re ready. It was a little tougher to pick a spot in the garage, because of the concrete floor, but the DSP came through with flying colors. I even did an optimization for hood up listening! And I wouldn’t mind a second one for listening with the garage door open…

Bring on the bass

There’s just no going back once you’ve heard a properly implemented subwoofer, and one that physically disappears along with great integration is fantastic. I never had the feeling bass was coming from a “hole in the ceiling,” so that aspect of the ICS is a major success.

In the house, the ICS was used as part of 2.1 system in our living room with a pair of Dynaudio Special 40s and the new JBL L-100 Classics as the main speakers. Giving it a go in our bedroom system in a 5.1 system with a full complement of Dali Fazon speakers also worked brilliantly.

Starting with the fast, plucky guitar style of Michael Hedges, from his Aerial Boundaries album, the ICS immediately impresses, with its ability to keep up with the main speakers effortlessly. On to a long playlist of hip hop, and electronica tracks confirm the audiophile pedigree that is part of every JL product. A barrage of heavy rock tracks reminds me that JL has also been a dominating force in car/boat audio as well. This sub definitely delivers the goods.

Giving it an easy run through with the recent Jakob Dylan piece on life in Laurel Canyon, the ICS performs as well with movies as it does with music and has the necessary range to capture explosions and such that permeate today’s modern action movies as well.

Quite the limit

The overall performance of the JL ICS is impressive on every level. It provides powerful bass response, great musicality, and can rock the house when necessary. And for those with smaller living quarters, that can’t make the space for a larger JL product; the ICS is the perfect solution.

With this in mind, we gave the JL ICS subwoofer system one of the Audiophile Apartment’s Product of the Year awards for 2019. It wins on multiple levels: value, sound quality, and concept. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The GoldenEar Triton Five Speakers

If you’ve ever experienced a set of GoldenEar speakers, you know that their founder and head concept guru Sandy Gross is a master of great sound without breaking the bank. And for a good reason, he’s a music and hifi guy to the core, with decades of experience.

Where the top speakers in the Triton range include powered woofers, the Triton Five is an entirely passive design, taking advantage of a pair of 6-inch drivers coupled to four side-firing 8-inch passive radiators. As with all Tritons, the Fives have a slender form factor, making them incredibly easy to integrate into your listening space. A 90 db/1-watt sensitivity means that they are equally easy to integrate into whatever gear you might be using.

The GoldenEar site claims that the Triton Fives “deliver exceptional performance with moderately priced receivers while allowing you to appreciate the subtle qualities of the world’s finest audio components.” We’ve been listening to the Fives for some time now, and have had the opportunity to audition them with an extensive range of components from vintage receivers to components costing 100 times the $1099.99 (each) price of these speakers.

The short story? They pass with flying colors.

Utilizing the same HVFR (High-Velocity Folded Ribbon) tweeter as their top speakers, the Fives have much in common with the $10k/pair Triton REF speakers. Because the Triton REF speakers are more prominent, with larger LF drivers, and a built-in powered subwoofers, they move more air and have more dynamic capability. But at less than concert hall levels, the Triton Fives share a core sound with the REFs. The primary voice, transparency, and colossal soundstage you love in the Triton REF is just here to less of a degree. That’s a pretty amazing feat of engineering for slightly over $2k/pair.

The Fives join a concise list of speakers that deliver a vast look at money no object performance at a very agreeable price. These are speakers that you can build an incredible system around without giving up your vacation plans.

Yes, there are a couple of mini-monitors at the 2-3k level that might offer a bit more midrange accuracy or more “pinpoint imaging,” but they are specialist speakers. The Triton Fives are a real full-range speaker that can fill your listening room and be the anchor to your system without a subwoofer.

Begin at the beginning

Knowing Sandy Gross shares my love for vintage audio, my listening begins in earnest with a Dynaco Stereo 70 that was recently restored by our buds at Gig Harbor Audio. This classic amplifier has a soft, inviting sound, and the resolution of the Triton Fives fleshes out this character. The presentation is big, spacious, warm, inviting, and slightly rolled off on top. It’s a ton of fun and a great place to start your hifi journey. A similar sonic experience is offered by the original PrimaLuna ProLogue One, as well as the current EVO 100. 30 watts per channel of tube power is all you need to get into the groove.

Switching to the new Prima Luna EVO 400 monoblocks and the Audio Research REF160Ms is a different story. There’s plenty of extension at both ends of the frequency range here. Sandy was using the big Prima Lunas at Axpona, and if you were there, you know how great that sounded. Putting some significant power behind these speakers shows off their high degree of resolution and imaging ability. With amplification that’s up to the task, the Triton Fives do a remarkable job clarifying and unscrambling slightly compressed recordings that you might have thought unlistenable. That’s the mark of a great speaker at any price, but pretty much unheard of at two grand a pair.

The GoldenEar site says you can enjoy the Fives with a basic receiver, and that’s true. These are some of the most amplifier friendly speakers we’ve spent time with. However, we’d suggest going for quality over quantity. We had incredibly great results with the $2,400 Sugden A21SE integrated, which is about 40 watts per channel. But it’s all power supply and is single-ended class-A.

Tracking through Rick Springfield’s “That’s When I Found You” sounds like a big, unintelligible ball of sound on my LS-50s, yet through the Titan Fives, there’s a wealth of information that wasn’t coming through. Switching to something better recorded, with a much larger soundstage (in this case, The Police’s “Tea in the Sahara”), is expansive, with the speakers vanishing in the room. Again, this is what high-performance audio is all about, and it’s well within your reach. A beginning to end listening of Synchronicity is enlightening, the Fives creating a soundfield that extends well beyond the speaker boundaries, with plenty of height information as well as the other two dimensions. And if you really want to hear some treble clarity, wait for the bell in Queen’s “Bicycle Race.” Awesome – it sounds like there’s a vintage Schwinn right there in your listening room.

Easy to optimize

Thanks to their narrow front baffles, and broad horizontal dispersion, GoldenEar speakers are always easy to set up, even for the uninitiated. Ironically, you don’t have to be a “Golden Ear” to get them 90% of the way, yet an hour or so of fine-tuning, should you be so inclined will offer benefits in imaging and spatial placement.

The Triton Fives didn’t take a ton of time to break in, they sound great out of the box (and fortunately they are not terribly heavy, so one person can set them up) and benefit from about 50-100 hours of play at a moderate level. A little less if you’re playing a lot of bass-heavy program material. At that point, they lose a touch of mid-bass fog and really deliver the goods. You might want to consider doing a rough set up, and then after a week or so, really spending an afternoon making the final adjustment.

I followed Sandy’s lead, placing the Fives about 12 feet apart in my 16 x 25-foot listening room on the long wall. Experimenting with the long and short wall, I preferred the long wall, with them toed in a little bit more than usual. This offered a really spacious sound, and I am biased towards an immersive soundstage. So, if you’ve got the room, spread the Fives out until they separate into two mono speakers, and then pull them back together about 6-12 inches. That should have you in the ballpark.

GoldenEar does it again.

Everyone who’s experienced the GoldenEar Triton Fives is thrilled with them, so add us to the list. This is a high-end speaker with a budget price tag because the designer has made the right choices. The cabinets are functional and only come in one finish – gloss black with a fabric front. One SKU means a massive scale of economy. Looking closer, you see the deceptively simple cabinets have a curved shape with no even surfaces to create cabinet resonances.

Basic black goes with everything and makes for an elegant speaker that has had the budget spent on sound quality. And that earns the Triton Fives a spot on our Product of the Year awards list at The Audiophile Apartment. Great sound, great value, great price.

The McIntosh MTI100 Music System

Not just anyone could build something like this, to the level it’s made.

Who better than McIntosh, a company now in their 70th year of production, with a considerable amount of expertise in vacuum tube, solid-state electronics – both analog and digital, to come up with something like this…

At first contact, the new MTI100 looks like one of any number of turntables that might have an integral phono preamplifier, but it’s much more. Along with a phono preamplifier on board to handle the factory mounted Sumiko MM cartridge, there is a vacuum tube preamplifier (with a pair of 12AX7s in full view) a high-resolution DAC and a 50 watt per channel (into 8-ohms, 80wpc into 4) power amplifier. All on one chassis. Pretty cool. This is where 70 years of manufacturing expertise comes to bear.

You might think something like the MTI100 would be an engineering nightmare, but the McIntosh team has pulled it off perfectly. There is no audible noise in any section of the MTI100. Phono and digital sections are free of playback artifacts, even with highly sensitive speakers.

All this excellence doesn’t come at a budget price. The MTI100 tips the scale at $6,500. This is not an entry-level product. It’s a boutique product. There is plenty of chatter from the crabby audiophiles in the audience for several reasons, but they are all missing the point. This isn’t meant to be a modular, upgradable, rack system, though there is an output for a powered subwoofer. The MTI100 is a very stylish, compact music center.

Just add speakers

You don’t buy an Eames Lounge because you need a chair. There are plenty of those at IKEA. Don’t buy this because you merely want a turntable with a built-in phono preamplifier. You buy the MTI100 because you want to take a different approach – good sound, unencumbered by traditional componentry. And because you want something special, something with a history behind it, you want the security that comes with the McIntosh logo on the front. The McIntosh MTi100 delivers style and performance on all levels.

With 50 watts per channel into 8 ohms, the MTI100 drives most speakers with ease, and it’s enough power to give you a wide range of speaker choices. As fate would have it, we just happened to have a pair of the new Sonus faber Minima Amator speakers ($4,000/pair) on hand, so all that was needed was to grab the supplied power cord, and connect a pair of Cardas Iridium speaker cables. What other high-end audio system can you set up in 90 seconds? And for what it’s worth, we did plug the MTI100 into our reference Sonus faber Stradivari Homage speakers, so you can use them in a very high style system too. If you’d like to see the MTI100 in action, click here for the first of our “Music in Minutes” videos.

Going more “All American,” we take a detour with the new JBL Classic L-100s. (also $4,000/pair) Combining these iconic speakers in the living room of our decidedly mid-century modern house, it’s a system that’s never felt so right across from the Noguchi table. But there’s nothing ancient about the sound this system serves up.

As the MTI100 features Class-D amplification, the overall tonal balance is slightly thin in the upper register, but pairing it up with something ever so slightly on the warm side of things makes for a perfect balance. The JBL L100s, a pair of Vandersteen 1Cs, some Harbeths, or (of course) anything from Sonus faber will be outstanding. Your McIntosh dealer will also be able to make some great suggestions.

Multiple options

Cool as that belt-drive turntable is, making up the majority of the MTI100s form factor, it has three line-level inputs as well as two digital inputs. The onboard DAC processes digital files at up to 32bit/192khz resolution, perfect for music lovers streaming their content from a NAS or one of the more popular streaming services.

If you do feel the need to add more gear, like a tape deck, outboard DAC, or maybe connect your flat screen television to the MTI100 there are three single-ended RCA inputs, so expansion can be in the cards if you would like to go further. Adding the JL Audio’s new in-ceiling subwoofer makes for an incredibly versatile 2.1 music and theater system with a minimal footprint. A large TV adds to the two-channel capability, creating a perfect backdrop for streaming your music collection, even when you’re not watching movies.

It is a breeze to link an iPhone and iPad up via Bluetooth. A quick pairing has us sharing high res files from Qobuz in roughly a minute. This functionality is perfect when friends arrive. The MTI100 is a guaranteed conversation starter, and once your friends plug in via their mobile device, they’ll be begging you to let them spin records.

Spin away

Just like the rest of the McIntosh lineup, the two 12AX7 tubes on the top of the MTI100 glow orange until warmed up, turning green when the operating temperature is reached. Though real estate is at a premium and those tube cages beg to be removed, with their close proximity to the cartridge end of the tonearm, we suggest leaving them in place as the folks at McIntosh intended.

Thanks to that pair of tubes in the phono section, vinyl playback has more romance, both visually and audibly. Those tubes go a long way to remove the slight edge from the overall tonality, and spinning your favorite albums is just so much fun. The Sumiko sourced MM cartridge has a removable stylus, so if there’s a situation, a replacement stylus shouldn’t be much more than $100 – $150. If you entertain a lot with a vinyl friendly crowd, it might not be the worst idea to have a spare on hand. Again, your McIntosh dealer should be able to set you up on this.

Speaking of setup, the turntable section of the MTI100 couldn’t be easier to get rolling. Install the belt, place the platter on top, and install the counterweight. If you want to upgrade the sound of the MTI100, a better MM cart could be installed and aligned, but this does slightly defeat the ease of setup/ease of use ethos that the MTI100 brings.

Don’t forget the phones

For some of you in a really small space, you may want to use your MTI100 as a super cool personal listening station. We ran it through its paces with a number of headphones, from our Audeze LCD-1s, all the way to the AXISS Dianas and Focal Utopias. The on-board headphone amp is more than up to task, and will satisfy the most demanding headphone user. This was definitely not an afterthought.

Know thy customer

Living with the McIntosh MTI100 for a while proves it is worth the price asked. The level of quality, functionality, and audio performance makes it the perfect purchase for anyone wanting a high quality, all-inclusive music system. It is not a substitute for a rack of separate components, but you’d be awfully pressed to find a turntable/arm/cartridge, phono preamplifier, streaming DAC, and amplifier (along with four power cords, four sets of interconnects and a rack) that all work together for this price.

But as mentioned at the MTI100 is so much more than that. This is a piece of sonic artistry, that provides high-end sound from all the sources you can imagine, and looks great doing it. For many, this and a great pair of speakers will be a destination music system. For others, it will be a second or even third system. And I’m guessing there will also be a few die-hard, completist McIntosh collectors that will just have one because…

Much as I hate to profile anyone, I suspect the MTI100 will appeal to what I refer to as the “qualityphile” customer. This customer liking solutions off the beaten path, that are as technologically curious as aesthetically motivated. Gazing into my crystal ball, I expect the MTI100 is going to end up in some very design rich environments, and cherished by its owners.

We’ve decided to make the MTI100 The Audiophile Apartment’s Product of the year for 2019. Click here if you’re curious about what else we’ve picked.

MOON by Simaudio 390

Building on the success of their Neo 380D DAC, Simaudio went back to the drawing board, creating the MOON 390 from the ground up, offering a perfect combination of flexibility and sonic performance that we’ve come to expect from this great Canadian company.

Thanks to an onboard phono stage and a streaming DAC (that is also a ROON endpoint) you are covered, no matter how you like to listen. This perfection starts at $5,300.

The biggest difference here between the 390, the 380D and the popular ACE is that the MOON 390 is a line level component only. You must add your own power amplifier to complete the system, but that is part of the fun!

Those wanting the modern functionality of an AV receiver, but only require a 2 channel environment, the 390 feels right at home and provides the latest HDMI specs with 4 HDMI inputs and one output (video pass-through/switching only. No video processing). The video works flawlessly and produces great sounding stereo for both TV and movies, without needing 5+ channels.

Digital music lovers can enjoy maximum flexibility with two ethernet ports, three USB inputs, TOSLINK, and AES-EBU inputs. unbalanced and balanced inputs and outputs, along with an MM/MC phono stage, an on board headphone amplifier for personal audio enthusiasts, anchored by a very capable preamplifier. It’s nice to see traditional audiophile companies adopting the latest AV functionality to their components, and with the 390 Simaudio has gone “all in.”


With an original 380D on hand for comparison, it is easy to see the progress made in the 390. The 390 sounds similar to the 380 right out of the box, but after about 48 hours of constant play, it comes into its own. The expanded input options allowed enjoying formats previously avoided. One killer feature with the provided HDMI board is the ability to decode a native DSD bitstream from SACD, for those that still have a large collection of SACDs and other disc-based media.

Connecting an Oppo UDP 205 to the 390 via it’s HDMI input, allows the ability to go back to untouched SACDs and DVD-A discs, providing long listening sessions more closely akin to vinyl than digital in both sound and experience. The SACDs of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blueand Chet Baker’s Chetwere so lifelike that it made me wonder why I ever ceased listening to the format. This may mean having to actually walk over to the player and drop in a shiny silver disc, but it’s a forgotten ritual that tends to yield a more focused and enjoyable listening experience than mere streaming.

Moving to the provided built-in phono stage with a Rega P5, I went exploring through some vinyl favorites that have been skipped since selling my external tube phono preamplifier a few months back. The sound of Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo Plays King Oliverwas clean, detailed and dead quiet, somewhere on par with the performance of their 110 LP phono preamplifier. Thanks to the flexibility of the 390 it never limits your format choices and you don’t have to choose between convenience and ritual.

Convenience and sound

Easy as the 390 is to use, it never compromises sound quality for convenience. With TIDAL and Simaudio’s MiND app ready, a world of music is instantly available at your disposal. Through the 390 and MiND, even basic 16/44 CD quality provides a lush soundstage with a natural sound that checks off nearly box one would want from a great DAC. Dense, detailed, warm/musical, and enjoyable at every note. With sound this good in this price range, one might even feel guilty about somehow getting away with the steal of the century. Each successive track compels me to linger a little longer rather than skip around.

With the ease of the 390/MiND combo and TIDAL’s vast collection, there is much more music to be had. The MQA Master of “The Angel of Doubt” from the latest Punch Brothers album All Ashore starts rather subdued, but eventually builds into a bluegrass vocal rap that shows off both the diverse talent of Chris Thile & Co. and just how well the 390 can translate a more subtle track like this. The opening gentle mandolin plucking, whispered vocals, and silent spaces provide the perfect contrast to the more forceful vocal tongue twisting ending. On this track, the 390 provides plenty of low-end authority with the acoustic bass while allowing the vocals to remain clear and separate over the top.

Pushing the 390 a little more, “The Dark” from the latest Thrice album Palms, delivers thundering toms and brooding guitars with enough space to hear how well the 390 can unpack even the most complex modern recordings. There’s plenty of air, detail, as well as bass extension as the track manically swings between the quieter verses and heavy chorus. The overall sound that the 390 produces reminds me again why the previous 380D DAC that the 390 builds on was such an amazing value. (you can read the original 380D TONE review here for additional listening reference: It’s clear that Simaudio has eclipsed the already excellent 380D with their latest release.

While Simaudio continues to improve to their MiND app, it remains a weak point in the complete package. I eventually settled into its methods and quirks, but there’s definitely some room for improvement in overall ease of use and performance. Sound quality is exemplary, but I did experience issues with functionality and firmware upgrades in the context of my system. ROON users will not have this problem.

The Preamplifier

While it’s been a few years since I last auditioned the Moon by Simaudio 350P Preamplifier that the 390 is based on, it sounds every bit as enjoyable as I remember the 350P being. It’s detailed, with dead quiet backgrounds, punchy and controlled bass, speed, neutrality, and transparency… it is all there. It is amazing that Simaudio took the $3,700 Moon Neo 350p Preamplifier, the $6,100 380D DSD DAC, a good phono stage, a decent headphone amp, added modern HDMI connectivity/convenience along with the new MiND 2.0 network streaming unit, and gave it a $5,200 price tag. That’s progress.

Don’t forget the 10-year warranty, either.

With balanced XLR outputs as well as standard RCAs, the 390 is compatible with any power amplifier, new or old. Our publisher goes further into detail with this below, as I only had my Rogue Audio Stereo 100 for this review.

The bottom line

If you already own a previous generation 380D DAC, you’ll be happy to know that your award winning component is still great. However, those wanting a component that can decode analog and digital files, with a preamplifier and headphone amp built in, consider the new MOON 390. Simaudio has put so much of their top level components in to a single chassis, it’s equally worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2019. – Brian Gage

Additional listening

Having had the pleasure of reviewing nearly 30 Simaudio components since we started TONE, owning a few, and visiting the factory a couple of times – I can speak with confidence that I have some seat time with this brand.

Comparing the sound quality to that of Simaudio’s most expensive components, it’s easy to see where the technology has trickled down, and strategically, where costs have been cut to meet a budget target. First, the casework, while still machined in house and of excellent quality, is simpler in execution, but you still get three color choices: silver, black, or silver and black. The remote is stripped down in functionality and plastic instead of the coolio billet one that comes with the 800 series components. All excellent choices to put the money where it will do the most – inside.

Sonically, the MOON 390 feels similar in tonality and general dynamics to the top components. Again, because it lacks the massive power supply from their reference series, the 390 lacks the ultimate dynamic heft and low level resolution of the five-figure Simaudio components.

However, in the context of a number of power amplifiers in the $3,000 – $12,000 range, I never felt that I was missing out on anything. While my personal bias leads to a slightly big warmer side of the tonal scale, I enjoyed the 390 the most with the Pass Labs XA25 class A solid state amplifier and the new PrimaLuna EVO 400 tube power amplifier. The good news is that the MOON 390 is very neutral tonally, so you can achieve whatever overall effect you desire by voicing the rest of your system accordingly.

I’ve never been a big fan of the MiND app, but being a long term ROON user, I’m not a fan of any of the others either. Like so many other third party music server apps, MiND falls down hardest with a large collection. Those not wanting to shell out the coin for a ROON subscription that don’t have huge music collections will probably be just fine.

Running the phonostage through a gamut of moderately priced phono cartridges, utilizing the Luxman PD-171A turntable (which costs more than the 390), I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that a cartridge in the $100 – $1,000 range will be an excellent match for the MM/MC stage that is on board.

In the end, Simaudio has raised the bar incredibly high for this type of component, and while the ACE has served me well for the last few years, I have to step up and purchase the 390 – I love the ability to choose power amplification. Highly recommended. – Jeff Dorgay

Rega’s New Planar 1 Plus Turntable

Many first time turntable buyers have a bit of difficulty with sorting the hardware aspect, agonizing over cartridge, turntable and phono preamplifier can be slightly challenging to those just joining our party. And we won’t even talk about cables!

Rega turntables have always combined fantastic performance with ease of setup. I can’t think of an easier table to set up than a Rega, especially if you use one of their cartridges. Thanks to their three point alignment, using three screws in the cartridge body, instead of two like other cartridges, no fiddling with an alignment jig is required. These days, you can order your table right from your Rega dealer with the Rega cartridge pre-installed, so all that remains is to set the tracking weight, adjust the anti-skate (bias) and you’re ready to play records.

The P1 Plus takes advantage of Rega’s latest technological advances in plinth design, so even their entry level table shares the same lustre as their more expensive tables. Simple elegance has always been the word at Rega. However, to keep costs to the minimum, the P1 Plus is only available in gloss black and gloss white. Total package is only $595.

Now it’s even easier

Awesome as this is, Rega has made improvements to their award winning Planar 1 table and has built-in the phono stage from their MM Fono, saving you the bother of doing the mix/match thing, as well as sweating which interconnect to add. With the tonearm connected directly to the built-in phonostage, this delicate link in the chain is eliminated. Argue about cables all you want, but nothing is better than no cable at all. Now you can use the supplied cable to go directly into your preamplifier, amp, or powered speakers via the high level input. Once you settle in, you can experiment with a bit better interconnect if you feel the need.

The P1 comes with the Rega Carbon MM (moving magnet) cartridge pre installed, so all that needs to be done is remove the counterweight, which looks like a small steel donut, attach to the tonearm and slide it up to the predetermined point. You don’t even have to set tracking force with the P1. This is the epitome of analog ease. I know I sound a bit cranky, but having the phono preamplifier built in means one less annoying wall wart power supply to keep track of and if you’re me, potentially lose. I love the one power supply approach!

Better sound too

Borrowing a friend’s P1/Fono combination for a quick side by side, reveals the all-inclusive Plus having the edge. Of course, these are $600 table/cart/phono pre packages, so the heavens did not part, but there was enough of a jump in overall smoothness, more low level detail and a lower noise floor that it was easy to tell which was which, even in the context of a modest system. (comprised of a pair of Totem Sky Towers and a PS Audio Sprout 2)

So if you are on the fence thinking external phono or just go full on plug and play, I’d suggest the Plus version. Tracking through a few favorite Ella Fitzgerald tunes, the Plus definitely does an outstanding job with her vocals, and the band accompanying her is spread out between the speakers in an impressive way.

Other benefits

Having the phono preamplifier built in, and a line level output has another big benefit; it no longer has to be on top of the equipment rack. The P1 Plus had no problem driving a 20-foot length of Cardas Crosslink interconnects, which makes it easy to put your table in a more convenient, and perhaps more of a central vantage point.

The P1 Plus performed fantastic, regardless of system context or program material chosen. And for those of you that are super geeky, I did use my Analog Magik software suite to check the P1 Plus’ speed. Right on the money, as it has been with the last say, 14 Rega tables we’ve reviewed. Rega’s belt drive system has been refined over four decades now, yet their engineering staff is always trying to make their tables a better value and better performer than the models they replace. Having been to the Rega factory a few times now, the place is a model of efficiency.

Even if you aren’t using a traditional two channel system, with amp or receiver and speakers, the P1 Plus is a great choice for those with powered speakers, or an all in one box like the B&W Zeppelin or Naim MuSo. We just happen to have both on hand here, so merely switching the line level cable for one with standard RCA plugs on one end and a 3.5mm stereo plug on the other, it was easy to add vinyl playback to these systems. Taking things further, we plugged the P1 plus into a pair of powered Klipsch “The Sixes” as well. Again, a fantastic combo that works well for those living in a small living space, yet still wants to enjoy their record collection. Or perhaps start their first one.

As someone who has owned and reviewed nearly every turntable Rega has made for the last 35 years, I remain astounded at how they keep refining this platform. There is no easier record playing platform than Rega’s Planar 1 Plus, and I doubt a better value either. Definitely Exceptional Value Award material!

The Rega Planar 1 Plus  (US distributor)

MSRP: $599

PONTOS 9 Speakers

For many post-Iron Curtain years, whispers swirled in audio circles of a lively audiophile crowd and a quietly dedicated manufacturing community in Eastern Europe. As capitalism grew so has the community. The Warsaw Audio Show has a strong buzz. I myself am a several year owner of the Hungarian built Vista Audio tube amplifier.

For the past few months I’ve been listening to the Czech-made Acoustique Quality (AQ) Pontos 9 stand-mounted speakers. These front-ported, high-gloss piano black (or white) cabinets offer excellent fit and finish. The Pontos 9 employs a 6” Scan Speak fiberglass driver mated with a Ring Radiator tweeter. Two sets of 5-way binding posts are jumped with 12 gauge OFC wire. The grills are attached via embedded magnets to a braced cabinet of layered MDF.

The Pontos 9 is typical of many European speakers in this price range in that bass response is a bit light on punch. With its front port design I found best placement to be only 15 inches out from the GIK acoustic panels and wall. This is about half of the distance for my rear-ported Totem Rainmakers optimum position in my 9×12’ listening space.

After a solid 90 hours of 24/7 break-in, the Pontos 9 were ready. Rickie Lee Jones smooth masterpiece The Magazine was first on the playlist. Immediately noticed was how easy and natural the upper frequencies sounded. This was no surprise as I’ve always been a fan of the Ring tweeter. The airy quality of Jones’ vocals in “Magazine”, carry throughout the room nicely especially as she raises volume. The stick taps on the bell portion of the cymbal are deliciously rendered. The synthesizer middle notes in “It Must Be Love” are spot-on tonally.

Pearl Jam’s ode “Just Breathe” nails the timbre and shares the slight warble of the vocals. Bass notes are a bit shy however, something that became a constant throughout the review. The same hold true for “Against The Waves” where the bass guitar has a simple but strong repeating chord. It didn’t matter which amplifier I placed in the musical chain, whether it be 150wpc of Peachtree or Simaudio, or the sneaky hard punching Adcom 535 and Vista Audio, the Pontos 9 never provided the forward thump. In addition, the front port beams the bass to listening position but doesn’t rise in elevation. These are a sweet-spot specific pair of speakers.

What the Pontos 9 does do well is offer up endless hours of smooth fatigue-free music. A several hour marathon of paper grading went by without a need for sonic retreat. Sade’s magical vocals are intoxicating from the listening position. “No Ordinary Love” effortlessly fills the room. From the bass thru the highest frequencies all notes resolve very evenly. No one frequency zone takes control or dominates, it’s very Harbeth-like.

This balanced quality shows its full glory with orchestral pieces, the oboe in Murray Perahia’s Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 in C, has a natural big hall concert sound. The Pontos 9 faithfully recreates the slightly distant-sounding piano. Strings and woodwinds play without a hint of shrillness, a big plus for a pair of speakers at $1000 price point.

The Pontos 9’s are truly an amplifier-centric speaker. Listening to the same tracks via tube, vintage and current solid-state, and class D amplification creates very different experiences especially with solo piano work. The resonances go from very tight and sharp with class D, to shady on vintage. Tube gear creates the best balance of depth and dynamics. One wonders if the construction techniques and materials of European homes had something to do with the voicing by the AQ design team. The warmth of filament amplification balances well against hard walls and flooring.

Imaging also benefitted from tubes across all genres instrument placement became more three dimensional, placing the strings in front of the speakers. Though soundstage width doesn’t go outside of the speakers for any specific instrument. Instead, the smoothness of the frequencies that make the Pontos 9’s a comfortable listen. It’s the whole presentation rather than individual strong points that make the listener want to stay and relax with a beverage.

For a thousand dollars a pair, the choices are many. For our readers in Europe stop by a dealer and audition them. Here in North America, when you are cruising an audio show, stop by the Well Rounded Sound Room, and give these a listen. – Mark Marcantonio

Further listening: Jeff Dorgay

The Pontos 9s are somewhat better than their pricetag might suggest. And the components used in their manufacture are first rate. However, like other speakers I’ve used from Sonus faber and GamuT relying on a ring radiator tweeter, they require a bit more setup finesse and are slightly more critical when it comes to fine tuning the setup.

But like these other European speakers (with six figure price tags) the $1,000/pair Pontos 9s are much more approachable. Use the most massive stands you can find, and as Mark mentions, these are voiced to be placed closer to the wall, relying on the room gain to get the proper bass response.

Though these are budget speakers from a price standpoint, they are of considerably higher quality than their pricetag suggests, so they will deliver a more engaging musical performance with better than budget amplification. This may be counterintuitive to the intial buyer, but you will be rewarded with more bass energy and a much smoother high end rendering if you can pair them with a better amplifier.

I was able to get amazing results with the PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP amplifier, with a full compliment of EL-34s. Stepping up to about 60 watts per channel with sufficient current drive will really make the Pontios 9s sing.

All in all a fantastic first effort from Acoustique Quality.

White Lightning Speaker Cable by Nordost

Let’s just assume for a minute, you are of the mindset that premium cable makes a significant difference in how your system can sound. For today, if you aren’t with us, just move on. Your day will go easier, and no need to raise your blood pressure over this subject. Still with me?

It can be easy to lose sight of the cable option when bombarded by the cost of some of the mega items. Sure, Nordost’s Odin II speaker cables are crazy, insane money to a lot of us. So is a new Porsche 911GT2 RS. Even if you love the brand, a $300k 911 is probably out of reach. So if you head to your Porsche dealer and plunk down $55k on a new, basic Boxster, you’re still reaping the benefits of this high technology company every time you turn the key.

It’s the same way at Nordost. If you readjust your thinking and look at their top cable as their platform for technological advancement, you won’t freak out. Forget about that for now. And with my Darth Vader helmet/voice synthesizer on, I’m telling you that you probably don’t need a set of Odin 2 speaker cables just yet.

Hit by lightning
White Lightning, that is. About 400 bucks will get you a 2m pair of White Lightning speaker cables that are nice and flat like the Nordost Valhalla cables. These modestly priced speaker cables take full advantage of Nordost’s core technological prowess. The solid core, 4 9s copper conductors are sliver plated and covered with silver plating, utilizing Nordost’s “Mechanically tuned spacing” to keep said conductors at a constant width.  Terminated with any combination of spade or banana, they should work with anything in your system.

Considering the level of resolution these cables bring, I’d love to experience them with solid pin ends to try with a few of the vintage recievers in my collection. However, in the context of our vintage conrad-johnson PV12 and MV50 amplification chain, the Nordost cable performs brilliantly, as it does in the middle of our evaluation of the First Watt SIT-3 power amplifier.

Just as so many audio enthusiasts fall victim of using speakers that are too large for the listening room, and not getting the desired result, this happens all to often with cable. A disproportionate amount of the total system cost is spent on wire, and when the cables don’t transform the system into something it’s not capable of, the only conclusion is that cables suck.

A great place to hang your hat

Working with a few system options ranging from a few thousand dollars all the way up to about $20k, the White Lightning speaker cables perform very well. While they did not take me to a higher plane of existence, they do deliver a wonderfully clean window to the amplifier/speaker interface everywhere I used them. No discernable tonal alterations were present, with dynamics and soundstaging all great. One combination in particular that benefitted the best was the PrimaLuna ProLogue One and Klipsch Forte IIIs, with the Pure Audio Project Trio 15 Horns as alternate speakers.

For those not familiar, both of these speakers are incredibly efficient (101db/1watt, and 96db/1 watt, respectively) and tend to magnify anomalies in the high frequency range. The result with the White Lightning cables was dramatically better than anything else I’ve used that is comparably priced and could live happily ever after with these cables in that system.

Think clear

I’ve never really experienced or understood the claims of many internet pundits as to cables being “tone controls” to anywhere the extent described. What I have experienced is a level of clarity more often than not. A “good” cable to me, reveals more musical information, without damage to the electrical signal, or a disruption of tonal balance.

This is what I experienced with the Nordost White Lightning speaker cables. A marked jump in clarity, without a tipped up high frequency response, and a lack of graininess that often accompanies silver coated copper cables.

Tracking through a number of piano heavy pieces, really proved magical with the White Lightning cables, and a number of times, I thought the lack of resolution in the system was the amplification, it just proved to be the cables. I’d compare it to the difference you hear in good digital vs. mediocre digital. That kind of thing.

A great update

I’ve talked to so many audiophiles across the world that are looking for a modestly priced upgrade to their system. I can’t suggest the Nordost White Lightning speaker cables highly enough. If you’ve been to a Nordost dealer event, or hifi show demo, they put a pretty compelling argument for their cable that’s easy to hear.

And thanks to a wide dealer network, your chances to get your hands on a pair for a quick demo is very high. Test drive if you can, and that should seal the deal. I’m happy to give these one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2018.

The Nordost White Lightning Speaker Cables

$400/pair, 8 foot length, RCA or banana


Analog Source VPI Cliffwood table and Cliffwood Phono

Digital Source OPPO 205

Amplifier PASS INT-60, PSAudio Sprout 100, Conrad-johson PV12/MV50

Speakers Klipsch Forte III, JBL L-100, Focal Sopra no.3, Pure Audio Project Trio 15 Horn

Nordost Purple Flare USB

I’m an implementation junkie. I confess loving products that are well executed.

With so many garage builders entering the cable industry, with shoddily produced goods packaged like they came from a scout troop bake sale or estate sale, Nordost produces cable that feels great in your hands. And thanks to their extensive dealer network, they stand behind their products 110%. Having been in business for decades, should something ever happen to a Nordost product, it will be taken care of.

Cable is about sound, or actually a lack of it. The better the cable, the more the music gets through without harm, distortion or other complication. Other than Ethernet cable, there’s nothing the naysayers like to naysay more than USB cables. Yes, yes, yes, they are just bits. It shouldn’t matter what you use to transmit digital data. An $8 Best Buy cable sounds just as good as a $239 cable from a high-end manufacturer and we’re all just biased or brainwashed.

But it doesn’t

For years I’ve made fun of hifi reviewers mentioning how much their significant others like the sound of a pair of speakers or an amplifier. This time it’s me committing the unmentionable, self-indulgent sin. However, I do present a slightly different spin on this one. My wife, Pamela has jumped into the high end game with her Headphone Artsmagazine, and though a newcomer to the audio world, has spent a tremendous amount of time listening to a variety of different gear. She’s absorbed a lot, and has become fairly opinionated on what she likes and does not like.

Ever the trooper, she recently accompanied me to one of Nordost’s events being held by our friends at Audio/Vision San Francisco. Nordost’s Michael Marko always puts on a great demo and this one was good as ever. He starts with a basic USB DAC setup, and this time we were listening to music through a PrimaLuna HD integrated, an amplifier we are both intimately familiar with and a pair of small YG acoustics speakers.

Serving up tunes via a MacBook Pro running Roon and Tidal, the difference between the generic USB and Purple Flare is dramatic, one you don’t need to strain to hear. When Marko switches again to the equally purple, but $600 Frey 2 USB, an even more dramatic change in clarity occurs.

There have been numerous discussions on the web, as well as at hifi shows, by the worlds top cable designers as to why a well-designed USB presents a more coherent audio signal. It’s not just 1s and 0s. But this is another argument for another day. Leave this one for a long night, Google, and your favorite adult beverage.

Sometimes a cable is the best change

Regardless of what your system consists of, if you’re serving up tunes via laptop or other USB connected device, a premium USB cable between it and your DAC provides a nice, incremental upgrade. There’s nothing like a system refresh.

We tried both – using both a Mac Mini running Tidal and Roon, delivering digital signal to a Gryphon Kalliope DAC and an Aurender D100 server, via its USB audio output. Both benefitted from the Purple Flare, with the same result over a generic USB cable. We both noticed the same effects in three different areas

Background depth/noise level

When auditioning fairly sparse tracks, like the acoustic guitars featured in the jazz classic, Friday Night in San Francisco, you can instantly hear more space between the soloists, along with smoother, more defined decay after their fingers hit the strings. All classical selections ditto – a deeper, more quiet background makes for a greater feel of ambiance. And, you hear the difference more going back to the generic cable after you’ve listened to the good stuff. It’s unmistakable. Even our non audiophile friends that we subject to this kind of madness from time to time couldn’t define the effect in audiophile terms, but all made the same comment that “the music sounded more relaxing” with the Nordost cable in place. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Larger soundstage

This was another area that the non audiophiles picked up right away. The sound field painted by the system swelled in size in all three dimensions with the Purple Flare as the conduit. Stevie Nick’s voice in Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”feels almost buried in the mix with the generic cable, yet with the PF substituted, she now has a space of her own and comes out front and center. Great recordings feel larger and densely packed recordings open up more and are less fatiguing to listen to. Even my favorite live recording (and arguably one of the worst sounding records, ever) KISS-Alive! perks up when delivered via the PF. I wanted the best and I got it.

Grain reduction

Dealing with digital files can lead to a somewhat harsh and grainy experience. Again, going back to acoustic and sparse vocal tracks shows this off more quickly. Tracking through a lot of Blue Note jazz titles, piano and drums are cleaner, and reproduced with much less digital glare. Again, this translates to a more natural, less fatiguing sound. Even when we just used the PS Audio SPROUT 2 as our source, ($599 for those that aren’t familiar with this little marvel) and a pair of vintage JBL speakers, the effect of the PF is still right there.

Take one home and try it

As I’ve mentioned in past Nordost reviews, because they offer a wide sales network, you should be able to go to your Nordost dealer and get a convincing demo pretty quickly. You won’t have to strain to hear the difference with this one. I could ramble on and on, citing track after track. Get in the drivers seat and listen for yourself. The only advice I can give is to not audition the Frey 2, you might find yourself spending even more money on cable. Ha.

The Nordost Purple Flare USB


Acoustic Energy AE100 Speakers

Listening to a 24bit/192khz file of Jeff Beck’s There and Back, the tiny AE100s instantly impress with a massive soundstage and incredibly good dynamic range. Thanks to their wide dispersion, the AE100s sound great, no matter where you’re sitting, making them versatile performers. Paired up with a vintage PrimaLuna ProLogue One and a modest pair of Tellurium Q Black speaker cables (about $20/foot), I’ve built a hell of a core system here.

Initial listening has my little 35-watt per channel PrimaLuna running out of juice before the AE100s do, so switching to their HP Premium integrated (nearly 100 wpc with KT150 tubes) really lights these speakers up in a way that the lower powered amplifier did not. Should you be considering a pair of AE100s, and like to crank it up now and then, don’t be shy with the power. Equally excellent results were had with the new IN-100 integrated from Gold Note.

Small speakers are always a no brainer for a small room, and the AE100s excel in a modest size room, yet they are not at a loss in my 16 x 26-foot main listening room. About ten feet apart on 24-inch stands, the AE100s produce a big sonic picture and perform admirably, holding on to the bass groove in the Pretenders “Waste Not, Want Not.” Letting ROON wander as it’s known to, the next track up is AC/DCs “Evil Walks.” A major twist of the volume control produces incredible results – this relatively dense recording just comes to life and I’m not hunting for a subwoofer. And we’re talking loud. A few friends that managed to experience the AE100s were, shall we say, thunderstruck. Ok, crappy AC/DC puns finished.

Finding the sweet spot

Unlike a panel speaker where the window for good listening is narrow, these speakers wide dispersion eliminates this issue, but you’ll need to find the perfect alignment to achieve stunning bass response. Should you place the AE100s on a stand perpendicular to the floor, they will sound small, flat and thin.

The key is to get a few degrees of upward tilt, so seek out stands with feet allowing for some adjustment. Proceed with care, going a half turn at a time and you’ll catch the sweet spot. You’ll know when you hit it (roughly around 4-5 degrees upward tilt) because it sounds like someone added a subwoofer. You’ll only need a few bass heavy tracks to find it and when you go too far, everything disappears, bass and treble.

More than woof and tweet

Just the frequency extension and dynamic capability of these speakers would be more than enough for them to earn their keep. In addition to a very uncolored midband, the soft dome tweeter is resolving and never harsh. Moving the AE100s to the main system, they render enough fine detail to hear differences in fairly expensive phono cartridges, though not at the minute level that my reference speakers do. Keep in mind this is a test many $1,000 speakers can not pass.

Plugging back in to my Focal Sopra 3/REL 212 reference, I’m instantly reminded of what the AE100s aren’t capable, yet these little speakers nail so much of the fundamentals, you’ll never feel left out of the music. Should you be a newcomer to the world of audio and make the AE100s the anchor of your system, you’ll be spending a lot more on speakers come upgrade time. If and when you do, this is a pair of speakers you should hold on to forever.

Quite the accomplishment

Entry level audiophiles complaining that all the good choices cost megabucks, look no further than the AE100s. These small monitors will only set you back about $495 a pair and deliver stunning performance. Combining a 4-inch paper cone woofer and 1-inch dome tweeter, Acoustic Energy claims these to be “small speakers capable of high output.” They fulfill this promise and more.

It’s easy to get spoiled listening to top line gear every day, and easy to lose track of what things cost. Though we make it a point to seek out sub-$1,000 components in this column offering higher performance than you might expect, the AE100s are more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards. Beyond that, these are the most impressive pair of $495 speakers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, in nearly 100 issues of producing this magazine. The fun factor the AE100s offer is off the chart.


The Acoustic Energy AE100

$495/pair (factory) Distributor)

MartinLogan’s Perfect TV Partner

In my other job in the 2-channel world at TONEAudio magazine, I’ve put the MartinLogan Motion 35XT’s through their paces, and they are fantastic speakers. Taking the concept further, we have the SLM range of speakers you see here.

The X3 is the most expensive of the range at $999, but it uses three of MartinLogan’s Folded Motion transducers and six, 4-inch woofers, squeezing a left, right and center channel in a sound bar that is just a shade over 6 inches high, 48 inches wide and only 2 inches deep. Available in white or black, the SLM X3 should fit into any décor easily.

In addition to the ease of integration, kudos to MartinLogan for offering a pair of small feet that can screw right into the SLM X3, so that in case you live in an apartment that frowns upon you permanently mounting things into a wall, it will just sit right up on a tabletop. Ms. Bubble and I also found this super handy in this mode, transporting the SLM X3 from living room video system to bedroom system. Both have small, powered, wireless Paradigm subs, so this is a breeze, and it’s nice for apartment dwellers on a budget, allowing great sound wherever you are. The rest of you can either buy a second one for the other system and mount via standard anchors to your wall.

It might be an issue for some that the SLM X3s are not powered, but I love the fact that they are not. Considering MartinLogan’s expertise at speaker building (and just like the Motion freestanding speakers) the combination of high-quality drivers and crossover network components inside the cabinet will blow you away with the sound quality – so you’re not limited by the electronics in the box. You can build your audio/video system with simple electronics, and as your system improves, you won’t have to upgrade the speakers.

Borrowing a pair of 35XTs from a friend and using my Paradigm MRX520 surround sound receiver with Anthem Room Correction and a small Paradigm subwoofer makes for a fantastic theater system with little effort. If you haven’t used Anthem’s ARC, it’s a treat and gives great sonic result without agonizing terribly about “where to place the speakers.” With the SLM X3 beneath my 70” LG TV, the 35XT’s back behind the couch as rear speakers and the sub hidden in the room corner, I was rocking in about 30 minutes.

As the SLM X3s only go down to 120hz, you will need a subwoofer. Again, I suggest ML or Paradigm because you can get all the bits from the same dealer, (Gotta love one-stop shopping!) and they will work swimmingly together. Finally, having front, center and rear speakers using the same tweeters gives a more cohesive overall sound.

Though the SLM X3 has a very similar sonic signature to the rest of the Motion range, listening began using the soundbar just as front speakers, with the sub off in the corner. Even if this is all you can muster to begin with, it will dramatically increase your television enjoyment. The monsters in Game of Thrones are much more convincing, and the spacy sound bits in Rick and Morty were a blast. Not to mention gaming is way more fun with big sound.

Remember, MartinLogan cut their teeth decades ago building some of the worlds finest speakers for 2-channel audio enthusiasts, so the SLM X3 delivers the goods in a way that most soundbars don’t. Using just the left and right channel of the SLM X3, on the dresser with subwoofer augmentation makes beautiful music. Stepping up to the Esoteric F-07 integrated we recently reviewed, the SLM X3 does not disappoint. Thanks to the 93db/1-watt sensitivity rating, you’ll be quickly evicted no matter what you are powering the SLM X3 with if you aren’t prudent!

Stereo imaging is big, bold, and wide, regardless of musical choice and these speakers provide luscious tonal capability. Vocal tracks come alive, and thanks to the lightening quick response of those Folded Motion tweeters, drums and percussion are incredibly realistic. Even if you never use the center channel, the SLM X3 and a small subwoofer make for a great, albeit compact stereo music system, which has infinite potential for expansion.

Moving to a full multichannel system is spectacular, and if you don’t want stand mounted speakers behind you, there are two smaller models to the SLM lineup that can be mounted vertically. This would be the way I’d roll if in a compact space, to keep things tidy.

Though priced at the upper end of the soundbar spectrum, the SLM X3 is a premium solution. It’s like three high-performance MartinLogan speakers, tailor-fit into a compact housing. They refer to it as an “Ultra-Slim Folded Motion speaker. This is a premium product from one of audios finest companies. Highly recommended.

The MartinLogan SLM X3 Speaker System


The Triangle LN-01A Powered Speakers

With a plethora of fairly cool powered speakers on the market these days, it can be tough to choose.

Triangle makes it easy with the LN-01As because in addition to being a great pair of powered speakers, priced right at $799/pair, they include an on-board DAC, subwoofer output, and an MM phonostage. The phono input makes the deal for me, because what’s the point of a “compact” system, if you have to add a bunch of other boxes, right?

Spinning records with a recently restored Dual 1229 and Grado Black cartridge is a lot of fun with these little speakers, the built-in phonostage performs well, with decent frequency response and dynamic range. Triangle offers a turntable, produced by Pro-Ject, but any basic table/cartridge combination will work well here. We tried a couple of budget Grado, Shure and Ortofon cartridges with excellent result.

Though it defeats the above mentioned compact ethos, plugging in a recently restored TEAC reel to reel deck makes for a cool new and old combination. Watching the VU meters bounce when playing a few mix tapes is indeed romantic with the Triangles.

Sly and the Family Stone’s classic “If You Want Me to Stay” is rendered faithfully, and that bass control on the remote comes in handy; whether you’re in the party mode wanting more sock, or just need to compensate for room placement, these modest tone controls are highly effective. Take off the audiophile hat and enjoy, I say.

Switching the program material for something more raucous (like Slayer) proves the French pair can rock. “Reigning Blood” had to be turned up to painful levels to get the onboard amplifiers to clip, making the LN-01As capable party guests. Even more so if you add a small subwoofer. Our trusty REL T5 rounded out the lowest notes, giving our favorite hip-hop and EDM tracks more body, especially at party levels. A little sniffing around on eBay can get you something you can live with for a few hundred bucks and keep the total system cost around a thousand. That’s tough to beat.

Very Versatile

Setting up the LN-01As is a simple task. Everything you need to get started, including a 20-foot length of speaker cable to connect the passive left speaker to the right speaker, where the amplifier and related electronics, is included in the box. A small yet capable remote is accompanied by an excellent instruction manual, to guide you through the process.

Coax and optical digital inputs are provided along with a line level analog input and the phono. Music can also be streamed via Bluetooth. A USB is not offered with the LN-01As, but everything included performs at a high level. I’d rather see more performance and less connectivity, but your tastes may differ. A quick comparison, running TIDAL from a MacBook Pro via line level, streamed from an iPhone 8 via Bluetooth and an older Sony CD player’s optical output reveals the digital input a winner in ultimate fidelity by a slight margin over the line level, with the Bluetooth third, though still very good. The key here is flexibility. The LN01As work great on a desktop, bookshelf, or on dedicated stands all the same. They use a rear-firing port, so take care not to place them right up against a wall, or the lowest frequencies will roll off slightly.

Passing judgement

The Triangle Esprit floorstanders we just finished auditioning were incredibly good overall and an incredible value. The same level of sonic excellence and workmanship is here with the LN01A, though both speakers are intended for entirely different audiences. Admirably, the LN01A shares all the audible virtues that the more substantial speakers offer, and share a similar voice. The highest highs and lowest lows are slightly rolled off in comparison to the larger speakers (as expected) but the lovely, natural midrange that we experienced with the Esprit is in full effect with the much smaller LN01A.

The LN01As are comfortably at the top of the class, providing you don’t need to have a USB input. However, we feel that the functionality offered by the on-board MM phono stage and subwoofer output far outweigh the lack of a USB input. The only mystery is the sampling rate of the DAC, but again, what it accomplishes with TIDAL files is outstanding. I can’t imagine that many music lovers with an $800 system going to the expense of downloading high-resolution files.

If there is one suggestion to be made with these speakers, considering how tiny the remote control is, a full function smartphone app might be a useful upgrade to the LN01A. But seriously, I’m thinking of buying the review pair and a Pelican case to have these at the ready for when we take a road trip. Exellent as these speakers are in the house or office, they would make great traveling companions!

The Triangle LN01A powered loudspeakers

$799/pair (white or black)

Focal’s New KANTA no.2 Speakers

Part One: Initial Impressions

Old school auto mechanics have a saying, “If you want ‘em to run hard, break ‘em in hard.” With no connecting rods to send through an engine block, I can’t resist the urge to turn the volume up loud, the minute the photos for this review are finished. A quick playlist of Alice Cooper is queued up and a heavy hand on the volume control has “Hey Stoopid” filling the listening room with authority, my reference orange Focal Sopra no.3s in the shadows and the REL 212SE subwoofers turned off.

Where the Sopras were slightly stiff right out of the shipping cartons, the new Kanta no.2 is smoother and more relaxed, so we’ll see where this goes over the next few hundred hours. Out of the box, these are one of the most pleasing speakers I’ve spent time with – in this case a stunning first impression.

Expecting a pair of yellow Kantas (we love bright colors here at TONEAudio) the glossy Galouise Blue pair that arrived are just as stylish. Pamela gave them an instant thumbs up, mentioning that they nearly match the color of my bright blue Fiat 500e and current iPhone case. Who says guys can’t coordinate colors? Having seen nearly all the color combinations at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, they are all fun, and I applaud Focal delivering a few color combinations more daring than the standard white, black and wood.

The Kanta driver compliment consists of a 6.5” midrange, pair of 6.5” woofers and a new Beryllium dome IAL tweeter. Focal has updated their cone material again, this time using a Flax sandwich cone. They claim that this offers a “warmer, richer tone,” and a quick switch back to the Sopras confirms this. Which will you prefer? Both are excellent, but a trip to your Focal dealer for a listening session will help you decide. A sensitivity rating of 91db/1 watt means they won’t need a ton of power to get the job done.

Doing the audiophile thing, bouncing back and forth with 45 seconds of a wide range of musical material not only wins me over on the $9,995/pair Kantas, it brings two questions to mind: how can Focal keep making better and better speakers for way less than their $200k + pair of Grande Utopia Ems and what will the next Grande Utopias be?

The Kantas combination of technical excellence, sonic purity and sheer beauty, even after a few hours of listening is incredible. In the weeks to come, we will cover a lot more ground, mating the Kantas to a wide range of amplification from SET all the way up to our massive Pass Labs monoblocks.

For now, consider the Focal Kanta no.2 speakers one of the best first dates ever.

More info here:

An Excellent Powered Solution From Triangle

Triangle has just sent us their new, powered ELARA LN-01 speakers and they are a nice twist on the powered monitor thing. We just finished with their floor standing Antal EZ’s over at TONEAudio and were very impressed with the sound, style, and finish.

The $799/pair LN-01s are two-way powered speakers, but much more. With a pair of 50 watt, Class-D amplifier modules in each speaker, they feature wireless, optical and RCA connections for digital music, but wait, there’s more. In addition to a line level AUX input, there’s a built-in MM phono stage too. This makes em a step above the competition. A variable level output for a powered subwoofer also increases the versatility of these little satellites.

Our review is in the works, but these are very exciting. Triangle heats up the powered mini-monitor race!

Those of you in the Bay Area need only stop by our friends at AudioVision SanFrancisco to get a test drive. Tell em we sent you!

The ProAc Tablette Anniversary

In many ways the Brits are the kings and queens of getting great sound out of small speakers.

A typical British listening room is usually in the neighborhood of about 12 x 15 feet (3 x 5 meters), so this suits apartment living well. ProAc calls this diminutive speaker the Tablette and commemorating 30 years of production, calls this model the Tablette Anniversary. Typical British understatement. The Tablettes need about 30 watts per channel to really sing, but should you be a more crazed audiophile, the better your source components are, more giddyup the Tablettes will have. The Simaudio NEO Ace that we currently use as a reference in the Audiophile Apartment, makes for an amazing combination. Music lovers on a budget will do well to consider a Rega Brio  amplifier at $899 (review link here), another favorite around here. If you’re on a really tight budget, spend all your money on the speakers and grab a Harmon Kardon 730 vintage receiver. You can find one on Ebay for $150, get rocking now and find a better amplifier later.

The minute you fire up these tiny (10 5/8” H x 6” W x 9 ¾” D) marvels, you’ll be knocked back like the dude in the Maxell chair. These little speakers rock the house with full range sound that is incredibly disproportionate to their size. And yes darling, they produce real bass. Ok, you won’t be able to blast Skrillex or Deadmau5, but on all other program material they have enough reach in the lower register to enjoy everything else. Auditioning Stereolab’s Dots and Loops proves very palatable indeed, with sounds bouncing all over the room! The next track, “Lift Off” from Mars & Mystre keeps the energy high and we’re all striking poses around the living room like we’re at Fashion Week.

Streaming the title track from the Afghan Whigs Gentleman album via Tidal at high volume, Greg Dulli’s voice reaches right out of the speakers pulling me to attention. These little boxes can play loud, really loud if you need them to. Slowing it down for Elvis Costello’s rendition of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” from The Spy Who Shagged Me brings the vibe back to a more relaxed mode, revealing the character that defines his voice. Just letting my laptop swim through my music library, served up by ROON made this review a ton of fun; there was nothing these little speakers can’t handle.

You can place the Tablettes anywhere in your room. If you place them up on a shelf, try to get them out from the wall as far as possible as their rear port will do wonky things to that glorious bass if you place them right up against the wall. For more critical listening, we suggest some 28” speaker stands so that the tweeter is pretty level with your ears. This will give the most expansive sound, but if you must compromise as many of us apartment dwellers do, you still won’t be disappointed.

$2,200 is a lot of money to spend on speakers, but the ProAc Tablettes are so good, they could be the last pair you buy. And should you ever move out to that big McMansion, you can always add a subwoofer, but that’s another story!

The ProAc Tablette Anniversary

MSRP: $2,200 (US importer) (factory)

The SVS SB16-Ultra Subwoofer

After listening to the SVS SB16-Ultra for some time now, it’s still been tough to put into context, yet a recent test drive of the latest 650 horsepower Z06 Corvette brings the point home clearly.

Sometimes nothing floats your boat like sheer, pavement melting horsepower. Maybe the Z06 lacks some of the finesse of the current offerings from Porsche or Ferrari, but when you put the pedal to the floor and light up the tires, you can’t help but smile. There are a few things the Vette does that it’s more refined European cousins don’t and that’s it’s magic.

For $1,995 you just can’t beat the SB16-Ultra, though if a 3db down point of 16hz still isn’t enough LF extension for you, the even larger PB16-Ultra ($2,499) will take you down to 13hz. I remember hearing a 10hz tone once, and it felt like someone was pounding a nail through my head, so proceed with caution. Cranking up a long playlist of Aphex Twin has me convinced that the SB16-Ultra delivers the goods in a big way. Tracking through my favorite bass heavy cuts from Fink, Infected Mushroom, Snoop Dogg and even Pink Floyd prove tons of fun. 40 years later that heartbeat at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon just rules. The SB16-Ultra pumps it out so hard, you feel it in your stomach, you feel it in your soul.

It’s easy to get used to the SB16-Ultra until you shut it off. Then, the opiate center of your brain that is excited by major bass experiences immediate withdrawals. Much as I enjoyed my time with the SB16-Ultra (and contributor Ken Mercereau bought one as well) I really love it in the context of a theater/gaming system. While many subwoofer experts agree that you should have a pair of subs, a sole SB-16 gets you rocking in a big way, in a hurry. Barely bigger than a dorm fridge, it’s easy to find a spot.

Easy to love

One of the toughest parts of owning a subwoofer is integrating it with your main speakers as seamlessly as possible. SB16-Ultra makes this a breeze, thanks to the best app I’ve ever had the chance to experience. But first, take a bit of time getting the best sound you can from your SB16-Ultra the old-fashioned way; move it around. Don’t let the compact 20-inch cube fool you, unless you are super buff, keep in mind it tips the scale just over 120 pounds, so here’s a suggestion: grab a piano dolly. I like the “Milwaukee” ones from Home Depot.

You’ll have to decide on corner or mid room placement, and this will probably be determined somewhat by what you have to work around and how much flexibility you have in room placement. All things being equal, corner placement offers the most reinforcement from the floors and corner. I’d suggest the corner if you’re SB16-Ultra is being used for movies and games, where you want those cannons to embed you in the couch.  Should your listening be weighted more toward music, you might consider placing a sole SB16-Ultra just off center from your speakers and starting there. We’ll get back to this in a minute. You’ll also need a pair of interconnects to go from your amp or receiver, if you connect the SB16-Ultra via the line level ouputs. RCA or XLRs will work just fine. The SB16-Ultra has right and left inputs, or if you are doing a strictly theater setup, it has a single LFE input as well.

The coolest app ever

Fine tuning a subwoofer is tough, constantly getting up from your listening position, making adjustments and then sitting back down to listen and evaluate. First world problems, I know, but you want it to be awesome, right? SVS makes it easy with the absolute best app I’ve ever seen for this kind of thing. Better yet, the app explains and walks you through all the adjustments, and they do such a great job, even if you’ve never done anything like this, you’ll be rocking in no time.

Should you want to skip the “tune it by hand” part of the setup, the room gain feature of the app utilizes the digital signal processor (DSP) inside the SB16-Ultra, to compensate for being too close or too far away from room walls or corners. This eliminates that boominess that gives subwoofers a bad name. Once all parameters are set to taste, merely save your results as a custom preset. Done.

Getting into it

After spending about 30 minutes making small movements out and back from the wall in room two, with a pair of MartinLogan ESP9 speakers, the app makes it easy and fun to fine tune the system. Starting with the “music” preset, the first adjustment on the list after setting the level is the low pass filter frequency, and as the ESP9s go down past 40hz with ease, setting the sub to 35 hz, selecting a 24db/octave slope to get it out of the way quickly. Working with the Graham Audio LS5/9s, a gentler curve works better. The wide range of adjustment offered makes this easy with a little practice and patience.

Once you get used to going this far, move on to the room gain and parametric EQ settings. Again, SVS lets you vary frequency and “Q.” The Q setting varies how wide the frequency you select has an effect and the app lets you see this in real time. If you want a gentle bump to the bass, you can adjust the Q thusly. If you want a very narrow bump or cut, this can also be accommodated. If new to EQ settings, go at this with broad strokes at first to really get a feel for how the filters and EQ affect the sound.

This is why the SVS app really rocks; whether you are new or experienced, it’s so easy to experiment with all the settings, just to see how they affect your system’s tonal balance. And it’s so easy to back in and recalibrate, the more seat time you have. It makes hifi fun. It’s also worth mentioning that for the MartinLogan owners out there, the curved front metal grill matches the ML aesthetic perfectly.

Off to the movies

Moving the SB16-Ultra into my home theater system, with a set of Dali Fazon speakers (enlisting that dolly again) and an Anthem MRX-520, it is even easier to dial in the sub, letting Anthem’s built in ARC room correction do the heavy lifting. Still, I did a bit of fine tuning and depending on the program material, it was nice to have the app to use more as a tone control. Just like with musical selections, not all movies are mixed equally, and it’s nice to have the option of easily goosing, or cutting back the bottom end a bit to taste.

Even though my Dali’s have fairly small woofers all the way around, the SB16-Ultra does a great job integrating that big 16-inch driver with all these small 4-inch woofers, a testament to its design. Streaming London Has Fallen, I got more than my share of shooting, the minute I tuned into Netflix. Cranking up the volume to nearly movie theater levels and watching a barrage of car chase scenes from the Fast and Furious franchise, everyone came away convinced that the SB16-Ultra adds a sense of realism that you just can’t get without a moving serious air.

On top of that, service

In the event you can’t get your SB16-Ultra performing to what you feel it’s potential is, the SVS staff is there via phone or chat to help you back on the path. I tried the chat feature with excellent result and had my wife give them a call too. Both times, we were rolling in no time and this speaks volumes about the SVS staff. They really go out of their way to lend a hand, and in a day of customer service being nearly non-existent, I give SVS major kudos here.

All SVS products have a 45-day trial period, so if you just don’t like the damn thing, or the roommate you thought you could sneak that subwoofer past gets snarky with you, you can return it at no risk – SVS even covers the shipping. But I doubt you’ll want to part with it.

After living with the SB16-Ultra for some time now and using it in a variety of different hifi systems, I happily report excellent results in all circumstances. Whether you are working with a pair of minimonitors, your favorite panels, or massive floorstanders, the SB16-Ultra delivers stunning bass performance. With 1500 watts of power on tap, you’ll most likely bottom out your main speakers way before you push the sub too far. We certainly couldn’t no matter how loud the cannons blasted, the buildings blew up or the beats dropped.

All this, with major support and a no-risk return policy adds up to an Exceptional Value Award in our book. And, should you jump off the cliff and get a pair, SVS gives you a $200 discount. The holiday season is on the way, treat yourself! Highly recommended.

The SVS SB16-Ultra subwoofer


A High Value Amp and Pre From Emotiva

With record clamps fetching upwards of $3,000 these days, it’s nice to see that someone has some common sense.

The PT-100 preamplifier and A-150 power amplifier from Emotiva offer great performance at a price everyone can enjoy.
Both barely tipping the scales at $299 each, the PT-100 preamplifier also includes a 24/192 DAC, headphone amplifier and a tuner,
all in one box. Oh yeah, it even has a MM/MC phono stage too.

The A-150 amplifier is substantial, with a class AB output stage and a real power supply to match.

Both offer uniform, yet tastefully understated cosmetics, as part of Emotiva’s BAS-X series.

Our review is almost finished, but the short story is you can’t go wrong with these two. Whether you make this pair
the anchor for your first, last, or additional system, the level of sound quality and functionality can’t be beat.

Click here to see the rest of the lineup. (they have some pretty cool sub/sat speakers too!)

B&W’s White Zeppelin

We’ve lived with every generation of B&Ws Zeppelin desktop audio system, and each one is better than the last.

Stay tuned for a full report on the current, wireless model…

MOON by Simaudio’s Neo ACE

A number of well-worn clichés come to mind when attempting to describe the new ACE all in one music player from Simaudio; crescent wrench, Swiss army knife, etc etc. Yet none of them truly encompass how awesome it is.

This Montreal audio company has been building award-winning components for 36 years and is well known for their massive amplifiers, DACs and killer phono preamplifiers; all having five figure price tags. Yet the ACE barely tips the scale at $3,500.

And that’s for an amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, streamer, MM phonostage and headphone amplifier. You’d spend that much on five sets of moderately priced interconnects and power cords, not to mention a rack to hold all that stuff.
What you may not know is that Simaudio has been on fire for the last 3 years, taking the expertise that comes with having all phases of design, manufacturing and even metalwork under one roof and distilling that essence down to incredibly affordable components that do not sacrifice performance. Their award winning Neo 230HAD headphone amplifier and Neo 430HA headphone amplifier, both incorporate DAC’s, function as excellent line stages, but the ACE does everything.

Excellence does trickle down

Having used many of their top components for years over at TONEAudio, Simaudio combines rock solid build quality (all of their components carry a 10-year warranty, and their service department looks like something from a Maytag repairman commercial) with contemporary styling, and intelligent ergonomics. Most importantly, MOON components have always provided best in class sound to match the ergonomics and functionality.

Even their instruction manuals are well written, and for those of you that normally blow off this stage of the installation, you can get up and rolling with the ACE ignoring the manual, but it offers such a depth of features, it will serve you well to spend some time with the manual.

In the 60s and 70s, it was common to go to the hi fi shop and purchase a receiver; incorporating an AM/FM tuner along with a high quality phono stage, so that you only needed to add a pair of speakers and maybe a turntable or a tape deck and roll. Today, with streaming being the way most music lovers roll, the ACE has you covered, with Simaudio’s MiND streamer built in. Just head to the app store, download “Moon MIND controller” and your zooming, with Tidal integration. You can also stream from your favorite mobile device via Bluetooth, so friends can easily share their music when visiting.

Inputs galore

Thanks to a built in DAC with 8 digital inputs that accommodate anything you can throw at it, your laptop, iPod or other digital device easily integrates into your system. Decoding everything from 16/44.1 CD quality files up to DSD is a breeze. Or go old school digital and play CD’s via one of the ACE’s three analog inputs, which I took advantage of thanks to a MOON Neo 260D CD player. Should you incorporate a MOON by Simaudio CD player into your ACE based system, the slender remote included will also control said player; a nice touch towards simplicity.

Rega’s new Planar 3 turntable with Elys 2 cartridge (also in for review) proves a fantastic match for the onboard MM phono stage. Analog playback via LP is equally enjoyable through the ACE and after a couple of tracks, it’s obvious that this was not an afterthought. Stepping up to a VPI Classic Two table and Sumiko Blackbird high output MC cartridge also was a lovely match with the ACE and this all in one is certainly up to the task of connecting an equally expensive turntable.

Rounding out the package, the headphone amplifier is stunning with Sennheiser, ADC, Audeze and OPPO phones, so it should be compatible with whatever you’ve got in your stable. Again, emphasizing convenience, Simaudio thoughtfully includes a 1/8th inch stereo jack on the front panel labeled MP, so that you can plug in a pad, pod or phone from the analog outputs should you so desire.

Magnificent ergonomics

One more small, but significant touch in the ergonomics department, the ACE is the company’s first product featuring an OLED readout, making it easy to read in any ambient light level. Here’s to hoping this display makes it into all future Simaudio components. Another luxurious touch giving this product a much higher feel than its price suggests.

The 50-watt per channel power amplifier is up to the task of driving everything we have on hand for review, including the Quad 2812 electrostats and the somewhat inefficient Rogers LS5/9 speakers. Synergy with the $10,000/pair Focal Sopra no.1 speakers in for review is equally enthralling, but may be more than you want to spend. The point is that the ACE provides a level of sonic refinement way beyond what you’d expect for the price.

The MOON by Simaudio Neo ACE is a component you can live with for a long time, and make multiple source and speaker upgrades before you might even entertain going back to separates again. Major audiophiles in the audience, take note; TONEAudio will be featuring a more in-depth analysis in the weeks to come, running the ACE further through its paces with more analog and digital sources as well as exercising all of the digital options.

However, the short recommendation, should you want a high performance, all in one component, the ACE is for you. This is one of the best values we’ve seen in high performance audio in a long time. And, after purchasing the review sample, it will be a permanent reference component here.

Simaudio Neo ACE


The Focal Sopra no.1 Speakers

For a city of barely more than a half million people, Saint-Etienne, France is a pretty cool place. In addition to it’s fantastic cuisine, it’s ranked 19th globally for innovation, a virtual hotspot of technical activity. And it’s home to Focal, an equally innovative speaker manufacturer.

A few years ago when I visited the factory, there was something lurking in the corner of the R&D department that would later become the floorstanding Sopra no.2. Inquiring about the prototype, I was quickly escorted out and politely asked not to mention anything about what I saw. It all became clear at last year’s Munich hifi show and here we are today with three Sopra models. The no.1 is the smallest model, stand mounted, with an MSRP of just under $9,000/pair, including the massive yet stylish stands, leaving nothing to chance. Visually similar to Focal’s Diablo Utopias, costing nearly twice as much, the Sopra no.1 takes advantage of all new technology, developed by Focal to get higher performance from a smaller form factor.

A two-way system, the new woofer and tweeter, not only achieve lower distortion figures than past models, they are very efficient with an 89db sensitivity rating, assuring compatibility with modest powered amplifiers. We had excellent luck pairing the Sopras with both solid-state and vacuum tube amplifiers. For those wanting more info, click here.

Walking around the Focal plant, the level of technical expertise combined with an equally high level of old world, hands-on craftsmanship is stunning. The Sopra line of speakers are built from their innovative drivers up to the finished product completely by hand via the same craftspeople building the $225,000/pair (not a typo) Grande Utopia EM speakers. It shows the minute you slide them out of the box. These speakers are drop-dead gorgeous, and our test pair is coated in a flawless white finish. Beautiful as the walnut veneer is, the Sopra’s sophisticated shape bets for a shiny, solid color. Black, red and orange is also available – all are equally spectacular; your décor will determine which you choose.

Commandeer a bit of help to unpack the Sopras as they weigh just over 40 pounds each with the stands equally massive. Thanks to built-in, easily adjustable spikes, which are easily retractable until you find the best balance between bass punch and midrange clarity, initial setup is a snap. We suggest starting with the Sopras about six feet apart and about three feet from the wall if possible.

Proceed to move them apart until the stereo image falls apart, then move slightly back together. Then move them as a pair (might want to grab a tape measure for this) closer and further away from the wall until you get the best bass response without booming. Grab your favorite bass heavy hip hop or EDM tracks to sort this out quickly.

Once you’ve completed this task, sit back and have an adult beverage, but not too many if you want to fine tune the speakers further. Patience still intact, experiment with toe in and then if you really want a gold star, experiment with tilting the speakers back on their axis slightly. This is where those large adjustment knobs at the base of the stands are worth their weight in gold. When you get this angle just right, the stereo image rendered between your speakers really gets deep. Now you can really get the party started.

Yoko Ono’s vocals on “Yes I’m a Witch” is absolutely creepy. She sounds like she’s everywhere in the room, haunting you wherever you go, thanks to the Sopra’s great dispersion characteristics. Sit on the couch, sit on the floor, walk to the kitchen – she’s still right there. But that’s what you pay the big money for; big sound. Exercising the bass is equally entertaining spinning Mr. Scruff’s Trouser Jazz. The bass energy here keeps you nailed to your seat and tracking through the album, all of my party guests are flabbergasted by just how much air these small speakers can move.

Fun as these audio acrobatics are, the PR copy about Focal’s new driver technology is absolutely true. These speakers are fatigue and distortion free. The only downside is that if you have a lot of amplifier power on tap and live in an apartment building, you may just have a few neighbors knocking at your door, so be prepared for crisis management or party time.

The Focal Sopra no.1 speakers are a premium offering from one of the world’s finest speaker manufacturers and paired with top shelf components will provide you with a world class listening system. They get our highest recommendation.

The Focal Sopra no.1 Speakers

$8,995/pair, with stands