Vera-Fi’s Main Stream is anything but…

Mark Schifter and Vera-Fi have been on a roll lately, introducing some great products offering high performance at reasonable prices. This is a great way for everyone to get into the game. If there’s anything you don’t want to skimp on, it’s power cords and power conditioners. Cheap power conditioners don’t have enough current bandwidth to prevent compression of the audio signal or, even worse, altering tonality.

Main Stream’s passive nature prevents this from happening to your system. Its underlying tech, which we will explore in the full review, makes it easy to install and doesn’t require buying another power cord to make it work. Not much bigger than a standard prescription bottle, its triangle shape is machined from billet aluminum and plugs right into the wall.

My reference system uses two separate 15A and three separate 20A circuits. Initial listening begins with the 15A circuit powering the Pass XS preamplifier, Pass XP-27 phono stage, and dCS Lina DAC/clock/headphone amplifier. The extended review will explore plugging into systems large and small, and perhaps we can even talk Vera-Fi out of a couple more of these.

The $299 question is always (for me, anyway): Does said component or accessory reveal more music proportional to the price asked? Certainly, in my main system, using the highly revealing Clarisys Audio Auditorium Plus speakers, the answer is yes immediately.

Starting with relatively average-sounding digital tracks makes it easiest to hear the Main Stream effect instantly. Streaming Robert Plant’s Sixes and Sevens is full of drum machine antics that are now made more palpable with the Main Stream present. Running through a varied playlist, from solitary female vocals to piano and other acoustic instruments, all deliver the same results. The Main Stream is more than worth the price asked, and the results are consistent across music genres.

The clarity of the overall presentation the Main Stream delivers feels more profound after 24 hours, and whether that is due to break-in or familiarity requires more investigation; however, removing it from the wall after 24 hours makes a significant difference with less resolution and smoothness (from having it out of the system) now easy to discern.

The speakers and amplification for your hi-fi system usually deliver the largest gains for cash spent, with cables and accessories a bit less. It’s still important to look at everything else you change as less dramatic but no less significant. Just like fine-tuning your speakers for optimum placement and turntable setup if you are an analog enthusiast, the Main Stream will make a similar contribution to your system.

We’ll have a wider-ranging analysis soon, but this one gets a solid “buy” from me. I’ve spent more on turntable mats, clamps, and even fuses that delivered far less (if any) real improvement. This is a solid upgrade and, even at this point, worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards.


intro priced at $235…  


Cover Story

Now in Black:
Pass Labs XA60.8 Monoblocks


Old School: SONY’s SCD-1
by Jeff Dorgay

1095: JBL L52 by Rob Lawrence

The Audiophile Apartment: Jerold O’Brien’s final review,
a new power strip from ISOTEK!

Journeyman Audiophile: Back next issue

Headphone Arts:  The Spectacular Top Phones from Meze!

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future


Killer Analog from Luxman: The PD-191A
You can’t resist the Borg Episode 2 from FinkTeam
MonAcoustics stunning Platimon Monitors
Great power cords for entry level gear from Wireworld

The REL Classic 99 – It’s more than more!

While this may sound like one of those AI-generated comments, if you’ve seen, heard, or read about REL’s recent addition, the Classic 98, you know that this is something different than the standard bill of fare from REL. The Classic 98 takes the punchy, linear, extended, and tuneful sound that REL is famous for, but tunes the vibe more to that of a vintage, or perhaps even (dare we say it) classic British sound.

Before REL, subwoofers often had a tough time keeping up with the main speakers in terms of musical pace. Some would refer this to speed, as in the woofer wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the mains, delivering an over extended, often bloated, one note bass – leading so many to proudly exclaim they would never use a subwoofer. Duly noted and often correct, because a subwoofer that does not integrate seamlessly with the main speakers often feels like that person in the marching band playing way too loud for the rest of the musicians. When the sub is too fast and articulate for the main speakers, a similar effect occurs – but now the mains sound foggy and bloated.

As mentioned in the Classic 98 review, John Hunter, the designing force behind REL has a love for vintage speakers, just as many of you do, and if you’ve tried a modern sub with them, sometimes it doesn’t sound quite right. With the Classic 98s slightly mellower sound, connecting a pair of Vintage JBLs, a pair of Harbeths, or my favorite – a vintage pair of Acoustat 2+2 Electrostatics is just right.

The Classic 98 features a 10” down-firing woofer and will set you back $1,399. 

The all-new Classic 99 has a 12” down-firing woofer and is $1,899. With that bigger driver comes a 500-watt amplifier (limited to 450 watts in this application) vs. 300 for the 98. PRO TIP: if you bought a Classic 98 and still feel you need just a little more juice, the Classic 99  looks exactly the same, even though the cabinet is over 45% bigger. If you live with someone who is slightly gear adverse, just sneak home on your lunch hour, swap ‘em out and no one will know. I did this to my ex-wife once when I went from Vandersteen 1s to 2s. Works like a charm.

The walnut cabinet stays tastefully in the vintage/mid-century vibe and is built robustly, like every other REL we’ve used, with the same functionality on the rear panel. This means connecting it to your system via the REL Speakon connection at the speaker outputs of your amplifier, via RCAs from your preamplifier, or wirelessly with REL’s adaptors. I’ve always had the best result with the high-level speaker outputs, because that feeds your REL what’s coming right out of the power amplifier and going to the speakers, but you may need other options.Because of that REL supplies a single channel of Low Level via RCA (uses the same filter as the High Level uses) plus a dedicated theater LFE input, also RCA but this one has its own dedicated Level control.

A more in-depth review is on the near horizon, but for now, the Classic 99 delivers another scoop of what you love about the 98. The bigger woofer, bigger cabinet feels even more effortless than the 98, and will probably suit itself more to bigger rooms than the 98, but again, we’re going to compare the two closely in three different room sizes for the final review.

Using the Classic 99 in a 24 x 36 foot room with the Acoustats about 12 feet apart on the 24 foot wall with the 99 in the right corner works incredibly well, but a second one is probably in the cards. With the crossover set relatively low (my guess about 40hz) the blend with the Acoustatsis perfect. Fortunately, having set up a number of RELs in the past and getting a lot of tips from Mr. Hunter has me in sonic bliss very quickly.

Running through some familiar 60s, 70s, and 80s tracks is absolutely lovely. Those ‘stats still sound as good as they did years ago, but with the extra foundation that the Classic 99 provides, so much more inviting.

At higher listening levels (right before the ESL panels bottom) the presentation is much more dynamic, yet at low to medium levels, the soundstage expands in all directions and it’s easier to be involved thanks to the additional low frequency energy now present. While it’s easy to look to a subwoofer for “more bass, dude,” what REL always brings to the table, is an increase in midrange resolution and a much bigger sound field as a result. 

Tracks that don’t have as much low frequency information impress just as much as the ones that do. That’s the magic of the REL Classic 99. Perfect for those of you who love the Classic 98 but feel you needed significantly more due to either using larger speakers or having a bigger room than the 98 could handle. The Classic 99 reminds me a lot of the old Stentor II of the late 90’s, though that old heavyweight weighed in at around 100 pounds and cost $6,000 back then. Highly Recommended.

Voodoo For You…

Oddly enough, this product is backed up by quite a bit of science, but I love the name. I’ve known Jan Geschke for a while now, and between our love for Porsche automobiles and fine audio, I agreed to give these a try. Yep, cable elevators.

As you may or may not know, we’ve covered precious few tweaks in 20 years of TONE. Talk about expectation bias, I have a reverse expectation bias when it comes to things like this. I EXPECT it not to work, but in the spirit of fairness, need to call it out when it does. The Furutech DE-Mag is like that. Everyone I’ve exposed it to, audiophile or not can hear the difference it makes, and they all describe it the same way – including a few industry people who’s hearing I really trust.

While I fully expected to send a note to Jan, saying “sorry mate, this is BS,” I notice an exciting increase in system clarity in the main system (with Cardas Clear cable) so I examine it with Nordost, Audience and Tellurium Q cables. Same result.

Knowing Chris Harr is even more skeptical than I am, I hand them over at the bar while we are having a beer and it looks like a drug deal in plain sight. A couple days later, he confirms what I’m hearing too. We’ll have a longer review soon, but for now, this is an exciting product. The Voodoo site will explain the physics and the tech way better than I can ( and how to purchase.

The ones you see here are produced under license for Audionet, but Voodoo has their own product as well using the same technology, materials, construction process.

A set of six will run you about $3,500. Yes, that’s expensive, but again if you have a fairly resolving system, I’m confident you’ll experience enough of a delta to want a set. Remember, McIntosh is charging $1,500 for a lighted box with a logo on it and NOTHING inside.

Should you be attending the Munich High End show this week, stop by the Audionet/Voodoolabs room and say hello. Tell Jan we sent you, and he’ll point you to the other rooms where his products (he makes cables too) are being demonstrated. #toneaudioapproved. We both got a set!

We Visit The Music Room

We spent some time with The Music Room and saw how much they’ve grown since our last visit! The best place to buy and sell used gear with total confidence. And a super helpful crew too!

Please click here to watch the video.

REL Tzero MKIII Subwoofer

All REL!

We’ve put a lot of emphasis on REL’s larger sub bass systems, but their smallest offering is affordable, approachable, and easy to use.

The new TZero MKIII is the current iteration of their 6.5″ sub, featuring a 100 watt class-D amplifier, in a cabinet that is only 8.5 x 9.5 x 10.5 inches. The perfect size for smaller spaces and smaller speakers. And they just might be the perfect thing to add a little life to your favorite pair of vintage electrostats – we’ve used these with our Acoustat 1+1 ESLs to great effect, and a number of sub-$1000/pair mini monitors.

Of course they don’t have the sheer output or extension of the mighty no.31 or no.32, but the way they capture detail and nuance proves they are a REL through and through.

A fantastic choice for a compact, high performance system where space is at a premium. Available in gloss black or gloss white.

Please click here to go to the REL site for full specifications…

The Wireworld Stratus™ and Electra™Shielded Mini Power Conditioning cords

You Can’t Unhear em!

Wireworld founder David Salz makes some of the world’s finest cables, used by audiophiles and endorsed by recording engineers the world over. He’s a big thinker, and this time he’s solved a problem that a lot of us didn’t know we had – mini power cords. Applying their Fluxfield™ technology, he’s developed the world’s only two conductor fully shielded (others only have the shield connected at one end) power cords.

A long time ago, I plugged my Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin into the wall with a 3-prong to mini adaptor, using a fairly expensive power cord and did notice a difference in sound quality, but the adaptor kept falling out because of the power cord’s weight. Besides, who’s going to plug a $1,000 power cord into a $795 Zeppelin anyway? (ok, I know some of you might)

However as more components are being released with mini power sockets instead of standard IECs, the Stratus and Electra, at just under $100 and $250 respectively, make a lot of sense. The constantly rising price of vintage gear using these plugs also makes a $100 -$250 power cord of high quality a great addition to your system. TVs too.

One of the most annoying arguments against high performance power cords and power conditioning products is “The power comes miles to my house, why would I need a power cord that filters the power?” Many audio enthusiasts compare AC power to water, which isn’t the worst comparison you can make, but again, if the water came miles to your house, why would the last few feet matter?

Because the water (or in this case the AC power) is full of dirt, noise, and artifacts. Zillions of people install water purification systems, or at least a PUR water filter on the end of their water line. More than a few of my crazed car buddies have spent thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars on water purification systems to make sure their cars are squeaky clean. So why not do the same with the power coming out of your wall? That’s why the last 6 feet does matter.

Enter Stratus and Electra

The first two devices I tried the power cords with were the as mentioned Zeppelin and our Naim MuSo QB. Both get heavy useage around here, so I’m very familiar with their sound. When evaluating wire products, I’m of the mind that you should hear a fairly succinct difference at first, perhaps improving more as the cable has had current flowing through it. Both Wireworld cables pass this test easily. My test cables are each 2M and because of the filtering effect, Wireworld suggests the longer will have more effect. (you can get 1M and 1.5M versions)

Please click here to go to the Wireworld site for more tech information.

A killer desktop solution

Interestingly, the MuSo QB responded better to the beefier and more expensive Electra. Our MuSo is out in the living room and is almost always playing classical music. It keeps my English Bull Terriers calm. Both cords made a difference in the size of the image presented, and the stringed instruments of the orchestra sound more relaxed, natural and less electronic. Think of the Stratus as delivering about a pint of this effect and the Electra a quart.

Moving on to some bass heavy music from Massive Attack, Kruder and Dorfmeister and RUN-DMC, an even bigger jump in performance is realized in the low frequencies – and again the Electra is well worth the step up in price. Bass is more controlled and hits harder. As with the orchestral selections, the electronica tracks, with a lot of spatial information feels bigger in the room. The MuSo QB already does an incredibly convincing job at almost imaging like a pair of stereo speakers, but this is a big jump! If you have a MuSo (large or QB) I suggest the Electra is must have accessory.

The Zeppelin, while sounding better in much the same way, did not show as much of a delta between the two cords, so I’d suggest sticking with a Stratus. Again, damn good for a $70 item. Congrats to Wireworld for being to offer so much in such a reasonably priced cord.

Don’t forget vintage

Finally, and perhaps the biggest surprise came when plugging the Electra into my vintage Revox A-77 reel to reel deck with the enclosed adaptor. Not only does the deck sound quieter with existing tapes, but I could definitely hear a similar difference when moving the recorded selections made with Electra in versus out on playback. Same for my TEAC A-3300.

A few years ago when these decks were only fetching a couple hundred bucks on Ebay, I doubt many would consider this option, but now with decks like this easily fetching $1,000 – $2,000, a $240 power cord moves the performance needle enough to make sense. Being a crazed audiophile, I would have still bought one, but it’s an easier decision now. Here’s to hoping Mr. Salz will find enough interest in the tape community to produce these with that rectangular end for the rest of us.

Won’t get fooled

Here’s the final blow to the cable naysaysers. I know what you’re thinking. Audio memory, listening position, blah blah. There can’t be a discernable difference, it’s expectation bias. I told you Mr. Salz was pretty clever, didn’t I?  He included his own “Power Cord A/B Switch” featuring a mini cord male stub on the end of the box with two outlets. One for your stock cable and one for the WW cable. Or any other mini power cord. With a little help from Pam at the switchbox end, it was easy to stay in exactly the same position and move between the cables.

Three sets of listening confirmed what I heard initially. Stock power vs. Stratus, stock power vs. Electra, and Electra vs. Stratus. On all devices. I also enlisted a couple non audiophile friends with good ears to see if they could hear anything, without telling them what was going on. Again, everyone picked out the differences readily and repeatedly.

I’ve been using Wirewold cables in various systems and configurations since I started reviewing gear at The Absolute Sound over 20 years ago. The Stratus and Electra power cords are yet another product from a legacy hifi company that incorporates solid design principles at an approachable price. Which is why we gave them our Product of the Year award in the cable segment for 2023. And I know I’ll be buying a few for around here, so they get the #toneaudioapproved award (only given to products we own) as well.

Very highly recommended. – Jeff Dorgay

$60 – $90 Stratus™

$160 – $240 Electra™

(price dependent on length, both cables)

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The Formula xHD DAC (rev.2) and La Diva Transport

It seems appropriate to begin listening to the Aqua combination with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Still, You Turn Me On..” Even though the compact disc format was less than immersive when introduced back
in the early 80s, it has been transformed over the years.

Personally, I abandoned the “digital sucks”posture around 1990, and things have only gotten better and better to the point where digital audio is just fine. After all these years, I enjoy the compact disc more than ever, because I submit it’s the easiest format to listen to an album.

You might be squealing like a pig hearing those words, but consider this – a great CD player needs no setup. Depending on the table, arm, cartridge, and phonostage at your disposal, you could be driven to madness getting your analog front end set up to your satisfaction. Best of all, for most albums (by that, I mean a single record album) one only needs to push the play button, relax and enjoy it. For all the talk of “hearing the performance in the sequence the artist intended,” what’s better than hearing it all the way through, without getting up to flip the record over? That’s what I’m talking about.

Here’s another thought to ponder. Most CDs don’t always have as many variations on the mastering theme as vinyl records do. Hard core vinylistas know there can be a massive difference in sound quality between an A1 first stamper this or that and an average pressing. More often than not, said pressings can be incredibly expensive. Best of the best CD’s still don’t bring the cost premium that records do. Considering that a lot of unobtanium pressings run $300 – $1,000 these days, and people are still paying $2,500 for a MoFi One Step copy of Santana’s Abraxas, $9,600 for the LaDiva and $17,500 for the Formula xHD is by no means crazy money. With all eyes on vinyl these days, there’s some great deals in crate digging for CDs today.

Another aspect of the Aqua pair’s awesomeness is that now you don’t have to choose between a great analog or a great digital front end – from a cost or a sonic standpoint. I know this doesn’t address everyone, but if you are building a $100k – $200k system with great analog and digital sources, this makes perfect sense. 

A DAC with a unique approach

Where so many DACs utilize whatever chipset is popular these days, Aqua takes the path of a very select few manufacturers that use an FPGA (field programmable gate array) and a resistor ladder to decode the digital signals. This requires a lot more attention to detail, because the resistor ladders need to be trimmed to tight tolerance, and the decoding is done in software.

The upside is twofold: arguably better, more natural sound, and a longer product lifespan because when improvements are made, a firmware update is all that’s needed. It’s nice to know when you’re spending close to 20 thousand dollars on a DAC, that you can expect a long service life with a solid upgrade path.

Where the LaScala DAC uses vacuum tubes in the circuit, the Formula xHD is all solid-state. The voicing between the two units is more similar than not. It only took about 24 hours of continuous play to feel the big Aqua DAC to go from about 90% to 100%, so this isn’t a DAC you’ll need to spend hundreds of hours “breaking in.”

Ins and outs

The Formula has a pair of single ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs on the rear panel. The balanced outputs are transformer coupled, and when comparing back and forth with the Pass XS Pre, there is a slight but noticeable difference between the two. As you might expect, the balanced outs have a bit more tonal saturation and warmth. I’ve had the same experience with other sources that deliver a balanced output with transformers. When using the CJ GAT 2 preamplifier, that only has RCA connections, this was a welcome addition, making the Formula compatible with a wider range of systems.

With six digital inputs, the Formula is the perfect hub for all things digital. It features an ABS/EBU port, and two S/PDIF inputs – one for coax RCA cables and the other for BNC. A galvanically isolated USB is perfect for those streaming via computer, and an I2S input, should you be using Aqua’s LaDiva transport or their LinQ server. Aqua offers their own AQlink-Pro cable for $510, which they supplied for this review to link the two boxes together.

The fourth input of the six is labeled “modular,” and in this case is an additional I2S input. However, you can have this configured for any kind of digital input (including Toslink) to further accommodate your needs. You never know, someone might come up with a new digital connector! Combining this with the ability to update the FPGA and this makes for a DAC you can live with for a long time.

Just music

We’ve had a number of great DACs over the last 20 years, both as review pieces and as personal references. Going back and forth between the AQUA pair and the dCS Vivaldi is incredibly interesting. We don’t typically do “shootout” reviews, and we won’t start, however, with digital, it’s a lot easier to compare back and forth between two components because it’s easier to keep things perfectly equal. Comparing different turntables requires both tables having the same cartridge, exact duplicates of the same record, and both tables set up not only to perfection, but to each other. Anything less isn’t fair to the comparison.

To put things in proper perspective, I own the $9,000 AQUA LaScala DAC and the $95,000 dCS Vivaldi ONE/Apex. My Vivaldi is back at dCS being updated, but we did have the Apex version here while the Formula xHD was here. It was a ton of fun to compare the Aqua, the Formula xHD, the Vivaldi ONE and the Apex version on a wide range of source material. This is by no means an apples to apples comparison, because the dCS does play SACD (though I maybe have 100 SACD’s in my collection, so it’s not a deal breaker) It’s truly not a “better than” thing. The Aqua sounds more analog-y and the dCS more analytical. Which phono cartridge do you like better, a Lyra Etna or a Koetsu Jade? If you are more towards the Koetsu, I think you’d prefer the Aqua combination. Would you rather have a pair of Focal Grande Utopia EMs, or a pair of Sonus Faber Aidas? If you’d rather have the Focals, you might like the dCS better. Also, I’m sure you will have to consider the overall tonal balance of your current system.

However, the Aqua gives no quarter to the big dCS in terms of detail retrieval from CD and streaming files. The only thing it does not offer is an input for an external word clock. Again no deal breaker – and adding this to the dCS puts it in six-figure territory. Not a fair comparison. It was a pleasure to listen to so much truly engaging digital hardware, and for the price asked, there’s nothing I’ve heard that is near as musically engaging as the Aqua Formula xHD/La Diva combination for playing CDs.

The Aqua pair reminds me so much of my Naim CD555/PS555 combination, and that was $33,000 over a decade ago. There are some noted similarities – this is optimized for CD playback only, features major electrical and physical separation of the various analog and digital sections, with superb attention paid to power supply implementation. Where the CD555 used a chipset for digital decoding and the Aqua a FPGA, they both agreed on no upsampling to achieve results. I have to think that in this case, great minds think somewhat alike.

And again, to be transparent, I prefer an overall tonality that is just slightly to the warm/romantic/saturated side of neutral. So, if that’s your cup of, this pair will be tremendously satisfying.

It’s also worth mentioning, that when comparing the two Aqua DACs, they have enough sonic similarity, that you know they are both designed in the same house, the Formula delivers substantially more dynamic impact, subtle detail retrieval, and extension on both ends of the frequency range. Spending nearly twice as much brings a lot more music. Think of it as the difference between a basic 911 Carrera and a heavily optioned 911 GTS. The Formula is not a case of diminishing returns.

Spinning disc or streaming bits?

The Aqua delivers digital sound so truthfully, it’s hard to believe you aren’t listening to analog and that’s the highest compliment I can pay. During the Formulas time here, a number of audio enthusiast friends and even a few manufacturers came away highly enthused with the presentation of the Aqua pair.

And exactly like the players we’ve used from dCS, Esoteric, and PS Audio, I still prefer the sound of a disc or file ripped from an original CD to that of a file streamed from Tidal or Qobuz – even when they are 24/192 files. At the level of resolution, the Aqua DAC delivers, graininess and a more digital sound creeps into the presentation when comparing the disc to streamed audio. If you listen carefully, it’s not subtle.

Because the LaDiva M2 transport plays only CDs, you might think there isn’t much to discuss, other than the fact it does its job incredibly well. Like a Formula 1 car, everything has been optimized to deliver as much as the CD is capable of delivering. Those who ignore the redbook CD, do so at their own peril – when you hear CD’s rendered by the Aqua transport, it’s a completely different movie. And the deeper you dig, you see nothing has been left to chance here with this transport.

Aqua’s founder, Cristian Anelli says “The reading mechanism used is designed and optimized solely for reading CDs and nothing else. The modified StreamUnlimited CD Pro-8S transport implements the latest and most advanced Philips CD decoding circuit – with digital servo control – to our proprietary Aqua electronics.” That’s not the whole story. Aqua has disabled the internal master clock of the transport, managing it with another FPGA. Everything that can be optimized has been.

Thanks to the top loading design (with a billet machined sliding door) you’ll never need to worry about a drawer mechanism jamming, or malfunctioning. Merely put the CD in, install the weight/stabilizer, shut the door and push play. Fantastic. If you don’t think a transport makes a difference, and “bits are bits,” plug your favorite $500 CD player into the back of the Aqua DAC and compare. Prepare to be floored. Just like in analog, everything matters.

A quick peek at the back panel shows outputs for their own AQlink (I2S) bus, which I’ve never seen with a CD transport, along with toslink(AT&T ST Fiber) coax and BNC SPDIF, and AES/EBU. So even if you don’t have an Aqua DAC, you might consider stepping up to the LaDiva 2 to use with whatever DAC you currently own.

A deserving winner

In the end, Aqua’s top DAC and new transport offer a fantastic combination of digital playback. If you already have a streamer, merely plug it in, or use Aqua’s excellent LinQ. Should you only desire disc playback, these two are all you need. I certainly feel like a lucky man having the opportunity to sample these, and I’m budgeting for a La Diva M2 of my own next year to go along with the La Scala MK II in system two.

If you don’t need SACD, Blu-Ray, or DVD-a playback, this combination is one of the world’s finest offerings. All of the Aqua pieces are built to a fanatical standard and offer a top-level aesthetic as well. And you thought Italy just produced cool cars and motorbikes! Highly recommended.

originally reviewed in Dec 2022, the Aqua combo was our digital product of the year. -ed.


Preamplifier Pass Labs XS Pre

Power Amplifiers Pass Labs XA200.8 monoblocks

Speakers Sonus faber Stradiveri’s, six REL no.25 subwoofers

Cable Cardas Clear


Last year at Axpona, Abey Fonn and Nick Getz introduced their collaboration in the form of an Impex Records Limited Edition (7500 numbered pressings) in the One Step Getz/Gilberto album, originally released in 1964. Mastered from the original 2-track stereo production master analog tapes by Bernie Grundman, the album is resurrected for the first and only pressing that is an authentic collaboration with the Getz Family. Now that it has officially arrived, there is a lot of excitement amongst music lovers.
Impex beautifully packages this double 180 gm 12” 45 set, complete with a peek into the past. The booklet takes you on a journey with classic photographs, some from the Getz Family collection. The bossanova back story includes the true reason for Astrud Gilberto’s unexpected rise to fame. The insert explains why Impex kept the quirky right/left channel reversal and sonic flaws from the original master.

The bonus tracks more than make up for this, resulting in a high quality pressing. Impex captures the lively bossonova sound from 1963 with fine background details, crisp forward vocals, and energetic percussion. The emotional impact engages warmly with the listener right from the first track. 

Got an original Verve pressing that may not be in the best condition? This One Step could be the solution.

-words and photos by Shanon McKellar

Welcome to Distilled!

Hello and welcome to our new section – Distilled.

We are not abandoning our standard reviews, but for those of you that would like a little more than the canned press releases everyone else is posting, but not sure if you want to make the time investment in a full review, we present the distilled column.

A quick overview of components that will be 200-300 words. No space for blather, pontification, or a lot of “I, Me, Mine” stuff.

We’ll do our best to present a couple of good pics, a link to the full review (if it’s done and you’re so intrigued) and a link to the manufacturer. On occasion, we will even post a purchase link if it makes sense. Please NOTE: we are doing this for your convenience, and these are not sponsored or affiliate links.

Thank you for reading!

Audio Research I-50 Integrated Amplifier

$6,500 – $8,500 (config. Dependent)

Generating as much excitement as a new In-N-Out Burger restaurant, ARC’s I-50 integrated amplifier has taken about two years for supply to start to catch up with demand, and a review sample is finally available. In Midwestern fashion, let’s cut the pleasantries – this is a fantastic product in every way. It’s solidly built, functionally efficient, sonically excellent, and fashion forward. ARC returns to a tube compliment of 6922s and 6550s for an amplifier that sounds slightly less resolving than some of the current REF product, but arguably more musical.  And a lot easier on the pocket book, considering what 6H30s and KT150s cost these days. Think the GS series in a compact chassis.

The gap in pricing is due to the ability to purchase an integrated only, or with your choice of an MM phono stage built in and/or a BT streaming DAC with coax, optical and USB inputs. Both can be added later if you so choose, at a slightly higher cost. Thanks to the glowing tubes and ARCs Nixie display (updated for the 21st century), this an amplifier you’ll be proud to show off in your environment. And the sound is updated ARC classic – which is damn good. Whether you want to get off the upgrade merry go round, or just build an excellent system with a minimal box content, the I-50 is as good as it gets, and it comes in a wide range of cool colors too. What’s not to love?

Hard core audiophiles will snipe about being tied in to one phono stage or DAC, blah, blah, blah. Ignore them, and go for the Double Double Animal style. Buy it loaded, add a decent turntable and speakers and forget about it. The I-50 is the perfect music lovers’ product for someone who doesn’t want to be burdened by constant upgrades.

The PlatiMon Virtual Coaxial One Speakers

Listening to the gentle guitar and drum work in J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia” instantly reveals the level of resolution that the PlatiMon Virtual Coaxial One speakers can serve up. Driven by the BAT REX tube power amplifier, this is a lovely match – delivering speed, tonal saturation and a huge soundfield in all three dimensions. (Photo courtesy of MON Acoustic)

Don’t be thrown off by the pair of 5-inch woofers, these small-ish speakers, with their dual ports around back generate serious bass energy. The pair of small drivers makes for quick, detailed and resolute bass that is more than quick enough to keep up with the AMT style tweeter in the middle of the two drivers.

Switching it up to the more blistering rendition of “Magnolia” by Pat Travers and giving the volume control a firm twist confirms that these speakers rock. They deliver more than enough sound pressure (in a 24 x 36 foot room) with ease to satisfy all but the most brutal metalheads. Thanks to their 91dB/1-watt sensitivity, you won’t need a ton of power to play music as loud as you need. They do a fantastic job at filling this substantial room volume, though I’d probably suggest a pair of subs, if you’re living on a constant diet of techno, hip hop, and prog music with a lot of low frequency content way down deep. Claimed frequency response is 44Hz to 30,000Hz.

Good news – MON has a pair of bass cabinets (much like the Watt/Puppy) on the way called the VC Two, and we will have a pair to review as soon as they are available. While designer Jun Hyeog Seo travels his own path, it’s clear there are a few design influences at work with the PlatiMon speakers. (Mr. Seo has been inspired by the best examples of the speaker art.) For now, to get a feel for what that might sound like, I tried them with a pair of REL S/510 subwoofers with excellent result. So, we anxiously await the bass cabinets, which will eliminate the need for the stands as well.

Unbox and setup

Everything is straightforward. You’ll instantly notice upon unpacking how much care has gone into the construction of these speakers. The metalwork and evenness of the anodizing is as good as it gets. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that these speakers came from YG or Magico.

Starting with the speakers about ten feet from the room’s side walls and about six feet from the rear wall gives a clearer picture of the overall sound, albeit less bass reinforcement. Again, the Platimons have an ESL-like transparency with a massive sound extending well beyond the speaker boundaries. Listening to David Sylvian’s spacy Gone to Earth and Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth feels more like going for a swim than merely listening to music.

Because of the bass extension that these speakers provide, when moving them inside to the 12 x 18-foot living room environment, they were placed a little further in than normal on both axis. If you are living in a small to medium sized room, you should be able to make good use of room gain to get solid bass output in the sub-40hZ range with ease. In my smallest 11 x 14-foot room, the Platimon’s in a nearfield configuration had me questioning if I really need a separate headphone rig!

Unique stands

The speakers themselves are machined from aluminum, with enclosures in silver or black anodized as you see in our review samples. Matching stands of the same material are included so you achieve the optimum tweeter to floor height, and leaving nothing to chance. Byun takes speaker to stand interface a step further in that the speaker and stands each have an inverted dimple so you can use the supplied ball bearings to float the speakers on their stands, or use another material to achieve a different tonality.

Your level of audiophile inquisitiveness will determine how far you take this. (Wait for it…) Yes, I couldn’t stand it, so I tried several different things between the speakers and stands with varied properties. I even tried a set of small Super Balls from Amazon. Incidentally, this was my second favorite option.

Like all the filter choices on my dCS Vivaldi, I always end up going back to the factory settings, and the same can be said for the PlatiMon speakers. The supplied ball bearings still offered the best all-around combination of tight bass, excellent lower to mid bass transition and overall speed. Mind you, these are subtle changes, not OMG, there’s a UFO landing in the backyard changes. Those of you that love to fine tune will be in your element. This makes the fun aspect of the PlatiMons high, because the ability to fine tune is so easy.

More listening

Going through a wide range of program material is a joyous experience. All of the choices that have gone into the final design of the PlatiMon speakers combine to offer a highly seamless musical experience. Coupling an AMT tweeter to other drivers is always a tough task, and very few manufacturers pull it off to the extent that is achieved here. Not saying this lightly, during the review these speakers were compared to the Borg 2 and Kim from FinkTeam, two pairs of MartinLogan Motion speakers and even a pair of original ESS AMT-1b speakers in my garage system.

Female vocal lovers will appreciate the smoothness of the tweeter, yet listening to male vocals gives a better example of the crossover’s ability to blend HF and LF. Johnny Cash, or Bob Dylan’s voice are a great way to hear plenty of musical output from both drivers, and if the timing is off, or there’s a huge discrepancy in power response, their voices will not have the huskiness, body, and weight they are known for. I’m sure you probably have a few of your own favorites to try this with.

The PlatiMons deliver an excellent sense of timing and musical pace. When at Chris’ house the other night listening to his setup of the new Skyanalog REF cartridge, the same thing was going on with his reference system when we listened to Kind of Blue. All of the instruments were blended as they should be, yet all occupied their own space without being buried under one another. It’s one of those deceptively simple aspects of musical reproduction that sometimes you don’t even notice until it’s wrong.

These speakers always present a lack of blur in musical transients and high frequency decay. Cymbals and percussion sound natural, along with stringed instruments. Some of the metal cabinet speakers auditioned here have exhibited a great sense of dynamic energy yet impart their own sense of tonality to the music being presented. The PlatiMon speakers do not fall victim to this. Listening to them for days on end is an exceptionally pleasant experience. So much so, that I did purchase the review samples to use as an ongoing reference.

Final thoughts

Listening started with the BAT REX power amplifier, but a number of different solid-state and tube amplifiers were auditioned in the weeks leading up to this review. With such a neutral tonal balance on tap, the PlatiMons will take you in the tonal direction of your amplification – you won’t have to worry about getting a bit too much of a good thing, regardless of what amplification you have on hand.

They also prove easy to drive, even with lower powered amplifiers. The BAT is big and dynamic, yet our reference ampsandsound Bryce monoblocks delivered the most delicate listening experience, with layer upon layer of inner detail. Should you purchase a pair of these, you will be surprised at how far you can keep upgrading equipment and still hear more musical information – these speakers are that good. The recently reviewed Enleum AMP-23R is a very close second place.

The highest compliment I can give the PlatiMon Virtual Coaxial One speakers (besides purchasing them) is that they make no missteps at all. How many products can you say that about? When listening, I never have that awful audiophile dialog running in my head, thinking “if only they did more of this,” or “if only they didn’t do that.”

My true hope for these speakers is that they can help introduce a wider range of music enthusiasts to high performance audio, unencumbered by the reputation of some of the long standing speaker companies that have completely lost their way in terms of pricing products that almost no one can afford.

They meet every requirement for one of our Exceptional Value Awards. Very enthusiastically recommended, and #toneaudioapproved as well. These are staying as a permanent reference speaker.

$6,000/pair without stands
*8,000/pair with stands included

NOTE: Because of a mishap with UPS, we received a pair of Sanctus F1 Signature speaker cables, instead of the beginning. As MON uses this wire inside the Virtual Coaxial One, they are a perfect match. The results of adding them to the system will be in issue 122 of TONE, included with this review and more photos!

The Totem Element V2 Series Fire Speakers

If you’ve ever had the chance to listen to Totem speakers, or perhaps you already own a pair, you know they pack a major punch. This Canadian company has a knack for making speakers with class-leading performance, and understated physical designs in enclosures that don’t dominate your listening environment. They always deliver more low frequency extension than you’d expect from a compact cabinet. Because this name is long, they will be referred to as the V2s going forward.

The V2s continue this tradition of excellence. The new V2 we have on hand has Totem’s latest Torrent drivers installed, consisting of a 7-inch woofer and 1-inch titanium dome tweeter. They weigh slightly more than 37 pounds each sport relatively small cabinets. 8.81” x 16.6” x 11.7” to be exact. You can read the full specification list here:

It is worth noting that while sensitivity is listed at 88db/1-watt, Totem claims an “easy 8-ohm impedance,” which lead to dragging a pair of Bottlehead 300B amplifiers out of the closet, along with my R&B skeletons. Going straight for the bass heavy tracks to get these babies breaking in, (Totem suggests about 200 hours) Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra gets the nod, with his World of Funk album that you can find on your favorite streaming service with ease.


Using the bass line in Jennifer Warne’s “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” to lock in the bass and the bass to mid transition, takes the V2s from great to exceptional. Most of my listening for the context of this review comes from the borrowed (from our publisher) PrimaLuna EVO400 tube amplifier and the Pass INT-25 solid state amplifier. Both are equally impressive yet show off different aspects of the speaker – with the Pass amp slightly grippier, and the PrimaLuna somewhat more swimming in midrange magic. I could live happily ever after with either.

Because the V2s go deep (claimed down to 30hz) avoid tight corner placement if you can. Better yet if you can get the Totems about two feet from the back wall and about twice that away from the side walls, I think you will be really excited at just how large a sound field these speakers can produce.

Much like the Focal speakers with metal dome tweeters, careful fine adjustment of the rake angle removes the last bit of edge from the highest frequencies, without losing any of the resolution the speakers provide.

When you have it wrong, the V2s sound harsh, when you dial them in just right, they sound smooth and resolving. A solid hour or two with the help of a friend will get you there. Double that if you must ­do all the work yourself. While you’re at it, get stands that are as massive as you can deal with, somewhere between 20 and 24 inches tall, depending on your listening position. My main room is about 18 x 24 feet and while the Totems will deliver great sound either way, if you can access the wider wall, you will be rewarded with maximum image width and depth.

Bigger bottom

If you’re one of those people that always needs more bass (I’m saying this from an “it takes one to know one” perspective) Totem makes several great subwoofers that will mate perfectly with your Fires. Serendipitously, our publisher happens to have the Totem Tribe Solution in for review, so borrowing it for a long weekend was incredibly easy.

Available in satin black or white, this compact subwoofer is only 13” x 24” x 4.5” allowing it to fit nearly anywhere. Hence the name. As a single guy, I can enjoy having a Marshall stack on one end of my living room and a lot of gear everywhere. But for those of you with a smaller room, and a partner that you might have to convince the additional bulk of a sub is ok, the Tribe Solution is perfect. Even if you don’t stand it upright in the middle of the room and enjoy it’s pair of 8” woofer cones pulsating to the music at hand.

Commendable as the V2s are, an extra 500 watts on tap rocks even harder. With my favorite 90s electronica tracks, the ability to crank it up even further (than is reasonable and prudent) is always welcome. To be clear, the Fires are not small speakers with no bass, (Tune Tots, cough, cough) and you don’t need a sub to enjoy them. However, it is nice to know Totem makes a solution that’s a perfect fit should you want to increase your system’s capability. Personally, I like products that go together easily. Watch for our review on this one.  

Bigger everywhere

One of my least favorite audiophile cliches is “the XXX speaker defies the laws of physics.” Nothing defies the laws of physics. However, what Totem does do, is carefully optimize mechanical and electrical parameters, to give their products exceptional performance. I’ll take science over magic any day. Their crossovers are carefully constructed, delivering speakers that are easy to drive. The amount of signal that gets from the binding posts (and in this case, the V2s have exquisite binding posts) to the drivers can get lost in a complex crossover. One thing you might do to get just a little bit more upper midrange clarity from the V2s is to swap the factory jumpers for jumpers made from whatever speaker cable you currently use. This is not a Totem specific thing, we do this with every speaker we use that has jumpers. It’s not a “this one goes to 11” improvement, but a 10.7 to 11. It just depends on how OCD you are!

These speakers use a 2-way design with the woofer running full range, and no high or low pass filter in the circuit, resulting in an 88db/1-watt speaker that you can drive with anything. That’s part of that punchiness that Totems are famous for. While the cabinet looks deceptively simple, there are no parallel surfaces in it’s design. That’s about ten times harder (and more expensive to build) than a standard design. This attention to detail results in a compact speaker delivering a wonderful, open midrange and upper bass free of cloudiness.

It all adds up to a small speaker that sounds like a big speaker, and a speaker that delivers excellent performance no matter what you drive it with. Running the V2s in with a perennial favorite, the vintage Marantz 2215 (a sweet sounding 15 wpc solid-state receiver) is enough to bring serious insight to what the Totems are capable of, yet hooking them up to the PrimaLuna EVO 400 amp and a vintage Levinson preamplifier (with a Technics SP-10 table bringing up the analog) feels like watching a movie in Technicolor on one of those big, wide, curved screens from back in the day.

From the smallest acoustic music, to griding metal, the V2s can play as loud as the situation demands, yet they are very engaging at low volumes as well. Again, this is another example of great crossover design and driver optimization. It’s way tougher for a speaker that can wrap you up in the experience at low levels than one that can just play loud. (I’m coughing some more)

Another winner

Our publisher agrees the Totem Element Fire V2s are more than worth one of our Exceptional Value awards. On top of delivering so much sound for the price, they are built to an exacting level, and will deliver maximum performance with anything you connect them to. You’ll have to buy some pretty spendy gear before you consider trading your speaker in, and that’s what makes them worth every penny.


The Vanguard Scout Speakers – From VeraFi

The new, compact Scout speakers are a triumph of engineering and good taste at $299 a pair.

Considering Vera Fi uses a manufacturer direct model eliminating distributor and dealer mark up, they really compete with something from the likes of KEF or B&W at the $1,000 price point. Yet they exceed both of these industry titans by concentrating on what matters most – sheer musicality.

Designing a $299 pair of speakers requires a tremendous amount of insight, discipline, and execution, because every 50 cents affects the bottom line. It’s easy to lose your way, and this is why so many budget speakers either outright suuuuuck, or concentrate too much on one aspect of the musical spectrum.

These small bass reflex speakers feature a robust cabinet, a 5.25-inch treated paper woofer and a 25mm silk dome speaker, with much higher quality crossover components than you will ever see in a thousand dollar pair of mini monitors elsewhere. You can read more about the crossover design here, on the VeraFi site:

To get the most out of the Scouts, procure stands that allow you to fill with sand to achieve maximum mass and couple with a bit of blu-tack or other suitably sticky stuff. This will give you the most bass extension you can get – and every couple of Hz count with small speakers! Their wide dispersion makes them easy to set up in your room, and if you do have a small-ish room, capitalize on room gain for even better bass.

They provide an easy load to drive with solid-state or tube amplifiers, and will surprise you in a good way, even connected to fairly fancy electronics. The Scouts sacrifice a bit of extension on top and exaggerated bass on the bottom to deliver a speaker that nails the musical fundamentals. This will leave you satisfied no matter what kind of music you enjoy most, yet it is worth emphasizing how natural they sound with vocals and acoustic instruments. They also manage to play pretty loud without distortion.

Whether you are looking for an additional pair of speakers to build another system with, or a new enthusiast at the beginning of the journey, the Vanguard Scout speakers present excellent value and will hold your interest for a long time. Highly recommended. Should you be interested, there is a more in-depth review here….


2024 Products of the Year

Say, who says we have to hand out awards at the end of the year? We’ve always tried to be a little bit different so here goes. The Audiophile Apartment section of our magazine and site has always tried to concentrate on audio gear with a smaller form factor that doesn’t give anything up in performance. While some audio enthusiasts are downsizing, others are just starting out in their first place, and need suggestions for a less dominant audio system.

Here are our favorites from the past year.

OVERALL – SVS Prime Wireless Pro


Sometimes you don’t have any room for an amplifier, or any other components, but you still want great sound from your TV and streamer (or phone). And we all know how much soundbars suuuuuck.

For less than a soundbar, you can have real audiophile sound with the Prime Wireless Pros. Thanks to each speaker having a pair of 50-watt amplifiers, digital crossover networks, a 24/192 DAC and connectivity to all things wired and wireless, you’ve got an unbeatable combination. Now all you need to decide is white or black.  The sound quality is out of this world good, and the Prime Wireless Pro’s fit anywhere.  When you’ve got more space and a few extra bucks, add a killer SVS sub for more oomph.

The Rest:

Vera-Fi’s Vanguard Scout Speakers

These days a couple of albumswill set you back more than three hundred bucks, and nearly all the speakers at the mass market stores, or online are really awful. The Vanguards come packed in a very nice cabinet with real drivers and some serious engineering chops behind them.

Whether you need a small system for an office, or extra room, or starting from scratch, you won’t find better sound anywhere for $299/pair. To make these speakers more incredible, add Vera-Fi’s Vera-Link wireless amplifiers. They Velcro on the back and link right to your tablet or mobile phone’s Bluetooth connection. Great sound was never so accessible.

Iso-Tek V5 Corus (w/Initium C13 power cord) Power Conditioner


Even smaller rooms need clean power, and if you happen to be in an apartment or condo complex, chances are your power is even worse. Not to mention, extra outlets are always a great thing.

The Corvus utilizes a lot of technology from Iso-Tek’s larger products, so if you don’t have a huge system with massive current demands, this will do a great job at making your system sound better.

Totem Acoustics Bison Monitor

Totem is famous for making small speakers that sound like much bigger speakers, and they’ve outdone themselves with the Bisons. Their 5.25-inch woofers have a 3-inch voice coil, so they deliver fantastic bass, and will play loud enough to have your lease shredded. They play great with any kind of amplification, and are not terribly critical of room placement, though they deliver enough resolution to reward you further if you can fuss over placement.

They are available in three colors (White Oak, Black Ash, and Satin White) to match every décor, and can be paired with a TOTEM subwoofer if you need more low frequency output. We suggest their TRIBE Solution Sub.

Dynaudio Focus 10 Speakers


The Dynaudios are the most expensive thing on our list, but they also offer the highest performance. We’ve used several Dynaudio speakers over the years, and our publisher currently uses a pair of (wired) Dynaudio Confidence 20s as one of his reference speakers. Dynaudio’s last set of Focus speakers were very good, but the new Focus series is amazing. These are the first wireless speakers we’ve used that don’t sound like “wireless” speakers.

Just to mess with a few of our know it all audiophile friends, when the Focus 10s were on stands next to the Confidence 20s, they were all amazed at how close these small monitors with a 5.5-inch Esotec+ woofer driven by its own 280 watt amplifier, and a 1.1-inch Cerotar tweeter, powered by a 110 watt amplifier. They can be optimized to your room with three built in settings, or Dirac Live, whatever you choose.

Needless to say, these small Danish marvels provide room-filling sound, even in a substantial room. You’ll be able to take these babies out to the burbs when you move out of an apartment.

PrimaLuna EVO100 Tube Integrated Amp

If the idea of the romantic glow of a tube amplifier appeals to you, the EVO 100 is the perfect place to start your journey. Should you take it a step further and want to add a turntable for even more analog-y goodness, an extra $200 gets you a damn good built in MM phono stage.

We’ve been using PrimaLuna components since the day they hit the market, and can vouch for their build quality, and reliability. Removing the bottom cover reveals execution unrivaled at any price and a bevy of top quality parts.

And the sound? Bitchin’.  It’s an inside joke, but if you know, you know. One of our all time favorites. Upscale is even offering a mega discount on a spare set of power tubes. It doesn’t get any better!

Wireworld Electra and Stratus Shielded Mini Power Conditioning cords

$60 – $90 Stratus™

$160 – $240 Electra™

(price dependent on length, both cables)

With so many power cords costing more than a new car these days, it’s refreshing to see a manufacturer bring a lot of their tech to reasonably priced cables, and for gear that almost no one else even offers an updated cable for.

And, with more entry level gear going to those two pronged power cords, these really are one of the best values in audio today. I love em!

Team Fink Borg Episode 2

After listening to Team Fink’s Kim speakers for two years now, and purchasing the review pair, it’s provided the ability to get very familiar with their sound. The quick, spacious, and tonally accurate sound of these 2-ways with their AMT/Heil based tweeter have become a favorite, leaving a number of more expensive speakers collecting dust.

In the midst of waiting for a shot at the larger Borg model, Mr. Karl-Heinz Fink has made updates to the cabinet, crossover, and a slight change to the tweeter, but the woofer remains the same. Not having the chance to hear the originals, a total comparison is not possible, but this speaker is fantastic on so many levels.

With a 10 ohm average (6.5 ohm nominal) impedance, the Borg 2s work equally well with tubes or transistors, and like the Kims, have controls on the rear panel to adjust the extreme low and high frequencies to taste. The LF control is more of a damping control to optimize for tube or solid state amplification which is incredibly handy.

There are six standard cabinet finishes, and our review pair has arrived in the white matte and Nextel steel grey. They all look great and the level of execution is outstanding.

Fink mentions the design challenge of using a 10.25 inch mid/bass driver, crossed over to their AMT tweeter at 1600 Hz, but says the bigger driver is “difficult to forget.” He’s not kidding. These speakers have a tonal body and saturation that offers a unique, musical, and very involving sound. Straight out of the crates they sound fantastic. We’ll have a lot more to report in the April issue, where the Borg 2s will be our cover feature. However, if you’re on the fence, don’t wait for our review. They are worth every bit of the $36,490 asking price. Tell them I sent you.       (US Distributor)   (Manufacturer)

Meze Elite Aluminum Headphones

Unboxing the Meze Elite Aluminum headphones while reading all of the design and technical information on their website felt more like I was going over the design brief for this year’s F1 engine package.

No other segment of the audio industry has advanced at the pace of the world’s finest headphone manufacturers. The level of materials selection, machining, and electronics expertise incorporated is beyond incredible, and these top Meze phones are as beautiful to look at as they are to listen to, but by all means go straight for one of your favorite tracks and you’ll be in love.

We’ll have a full review in issue 121, but between the two cables offered (silver and copper) and two different styles of ear cushions (Alcantara or a hybrid Alcantara and leather version) you’ve got four different ways to custom tune the final result. Thanks to their dual coil array, they sound like no other planar headphone. The level of sheer transparency and natural tonality might even have you re-thinking whether you even want speakers anymore. Bass is extended, defined and has just the right amount of damping and control to sound real. Everything from the mids on up to the highest highs is crystal clear, with a stereo image that feels more like your sitting about 10 feet from a pair of huge speakers, than that bowl-like feeling often accompanying the headphone experience.

Finally, the patent-pending suspension wings support system distributes the weight of the Elite phones so well, you can wear them all day with no discomfort. These are definitely one of, if not the most comfortable high-performance phones to come our way. After about an hour, be careful when you get up – it’s so easy to forget you have headphones on, I don’t want you to pull the cord!

There’s so much more we need to tell you about these exciting headphones, but if you just can’t wait – buy a pair. Right now. And be ready for an experience you might not have thought possible with a pair of headphones. (Though we must give some credit to our reference dCS LINA stack.)

A true triumph of technology and aestheticism.


FOCAL Launches the refreshed Aria EVO X Series

Focal presents Aria Evo X, a line of high-fidelity loudspeakers for the home to follow in the footsteps of the Aria 900 range, which has enjoyed a decade of success. With revamped technologies and a brand-new finish, the Aria Evo X loudspeakers step it up another notch in terms of both sound and design. The French brand has developed this new range as a continuation of the Aria philosophy: to deliver a pure listening experience by providing the best loudspeakers in their category.


Aria Evo X pays homage to traditional hi-fi with its collection of five products: one compact bookshelf model (Aria Evo X N°1); three slender floorstanding loudspeakers (N°2, N°3, N°4) and one additional model for an impressive soundstage in a Home Cinema configuration (Aria Evo X Center). Much like the Aria 900 loudspeaker line launched in 2013, Aria Evo X exists to provide high-fidelity audio that is expressive while accessible in relation to the performance it delivers. The line promises sensational listening pleasure, with the brand’s signature immersive experience.


With the benefit of Focal’s sound know-how, the loudspeakers boast outstanding technological innovations that are exclusive to the brand. The ‘M’-shaped inverted dome TAM tweeter, successor of the TNF tweeter. This innovative feature reproduces the treble more faithfully by going further into the high and low ends of the spectrum. The surround on the midrange is equipped with TMD® (Tuned Mass Damper) technology to stabilize how the surround behaves, reducing distortion and delivering perfectly balanced dynamics. The ‘M’ shape of the dome is another Focal innovation, capable of reproducing high frequencies up to 30kHz. In the woofers, meanwhile, the magnet has been revamped to deliver more impact in the bass. Focal’s engineers have also reworked the crossovers with better components to improve loudspeaker balance. Innovation is never just about the technology at Focal. The brand is also offering a new finish: Moss Green High Gloss. With its deep green shade and high gloss varnish, it lends a bright and modern appearance to the loudspeakers. It is joined by the Black High Gloss and Prime Walnut finishes, in all their timeless elegance. Each finish is combined with leather-effect front panels.


The Aria Evo X opens a new chapter for a signature Aria feature, with the iconic flax cone appearing in the line’s midrange and bass speaker drivers. An innovation Focal first unveiled with the Aria 900 line in 2013, this cone made from French flax fiber is used to produce a very natural sound, free of coloration while boasting rich midrange reproduction and clear bass strokes. Manufactured in the Focal workshops, it offers an immersive and dynamic listening experience, reproducing vocals with exquisite clarity and definition. This technology is recognized every year for its remarkable qualities in terms of sound reproduction, and is now a feature in many Focal products, from integrated loudspeakers to car audio kits, and even monitors for sound professionals.


Aria Evo X pricing below with availability February 2024.

  • Aria Evo X N°1 – $2,398 pair
  • Aria Evo X N°2 – $4,798 pair
  • Aria Evo X N°3 – $5,198 pair
  • Aria Evo X N°4 – $5,998 pair
  • Aria Evo X Center – $999

For more information, visit:

Roon Labs and Harman Unveil Nucleus Titan

A bigger, better, faster, cooler (albeit more expensive) Nucleus. I want one.

Nucleus Titan is Roon’s new flagship server. It fuses precision manufacturing and hardware customization with unsurpassed design. Customers choose from three customizable shell material options – metal, stone, and wood – to create a one-of-a-kind server/streamer statement piece perfectly matched to their tastes and listening space. Nucleus Titan, starting at $3,699.00 (U.S.), is the only choice for those seeking a premium Roon server that promises a superlative Roon experience paired with breathtaking visual appeal.

Nucleus Titan features include:

○ Precision-machined billet aluminum enclosure crafted from a solid block of premium metal.

○ Stunning aesthetics, designed for display and admiration.

○ Available in three elemental shell finishes: metal, stone* (composite), and wood.

○ Elegant self-cooling design with silent, fan-less operation.

○ Customizable internal solid state storage: 2, 4, or 8 TB options. 

○ Upgraded connectivity: two USB-C, two USB-A, and two audio-only HDMI ports.

○ Accommodates the most voluminous music libraries and multi-zone audio configurations.

○ Exterior design echoes Roon’s music discovery features and the eclectic nature of music collections. 

○ Nucleus Titan is the only premium server/streamer designed specifically for Roon by the team that created Roon.

“Nucleus Titan continues our long-standing goal of providing customers with Roon server options that correspond with their specific needs and desires. CPU and SSD technology has evolved significantly since we first released Nucleus, and we’ve taken advantage of those innovations. With Titan, we’ve created a high-performance device that fuses precision manufacturing with aesthetics that evoke the interwoven nature of our music collections and Roon’s finesse for music exploration. We’re very excited with the results and our ability to provide our customers with the ultimate Roon software platform,” said Enno Vandermeer, Roon CEO & Co-Founder. 

Issue 120


MoFi Distribution introduces the MoFi Electronics MasterDeck Turntable

MoFi Distribution proudly introduces the new MoFi Electronics MasterDeckturntable, a reference grade product designed by master turntable maker Allen Perkins. Created by vinyl lovers for those with the desire to accurately reveal and experience the true music embedded deep in the groves of their vinyl LP collection. The MasterDeck turntable will be manufactured in small batches in the USA at MoFi Electronics’ factory located in Ann Arbor, Michigan to ensure the very highest level of quality control.
A compelling feature of the MasterDeck is an “all new” Dual-pivot carbon-fiber 10 inch tonearm that offers the best balance of precision, control and friction-free tracking. This tonearm uses a removable headshell and allows for the optimization of virtually any cartridge by facilitating  adjustable horizontal angle (azimuth), vertical tracking angle (VTA), overhang and anti-skate. As well, all internal tonearm wiring is provided by Cardas Audio.
The MasterDeck achieves precision playback in part with an optically regulated speed controller using a three-phase brushless DC drive motor, housed in an isolated container. Fine speed adjustments are available for 33, 45 and 78 RPM and are displayed on a four-digit display. The 1.75 inch thick platter is a high mass hybrid material constructed exclusively from Aluminum and Delrin. This platter sits atop an ultra-high quality Encapsulated Spiral Groove inverted bearing. Isolation from both environmental noise and feedback is accomplished by effectively floating the MasterDeck using custom Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS) Isolation Feet. Finally, with respect to “functional” cosmetics, a solid wood frame, in either Walnut or Black Ash finish, is wrapped around a constrained-layer body of wood and aluminum to eliminate all resonances.

MoFi Electronics MasterDeck Significant Design Features:

  • 33.33 / 45 / 78 RPM belt drive turntable
  • Unique and highly adjustable 10-inch hybrid tonearm design  1.75-inch aluminium and Delrin platter
  • Four-digit display shows fine speed adjustment
  • Cardas Audio internal arm wiring
  • Solid wood frame available in black ash or walnut finish
  • Custom Anti-Vibration feet designed by HRS
  • Black constrained layer damped aluminum top
  • Dimensions (w x d x h): 20 x 14 x 8” / 50.8 x 35.6 x 20.3 cm.
  • Weight: 43 lbs. / 19.5 Kg.

The MoFi Electronics MasterDeck will be available in November, 2023 with an MSRP of $5,995.00 USD


The Vera-Fi Vanguard Scout Speakers


Listening to The Knack’s “Africa,” I tried a trick that I’ve seen at more than one hifi show – I hooked this $300 pair of speakers to about $200k worth of gear. Wacky as this seems, it illustrates two things: the ultimate performance envelope of said speakers, and how easy (or not) they are to drive with less than mega components. How many times have you listened to that totally affordable pair of speakers, only to bring them home and find out they sucked?

Guilty as charged, more than once. A high-power amplifier with the ability to deliver a lot of output current can take charge of a mediocre speaker and deliver results that your budget receiver can’t. So, the next step was to bring my vintage Pioneer SX-424 in from the bedroom closet. In case you’re too young to remember this one, it was a 12 watt per channel solid-state model at the bottom of the Pioneer lineup in the 70s. Back when a lot of early solid-state gear sounded dreadful, this low powered receiver was incredibly musical.

Swapping the Pioneer in place still makes for an excellent music experience. This is good news for those of you putting together one of your first system. If you don’t take advantage of Vera-Fi’s holiday special with their Vera-Link portable wireless mono amplifiers that will Velcro on the back of your Vanguard Scouts, you can rest assured they will work well with any budget amplification you can pair them up with. Regardless of amplifier and source choice, you should be able to assemble a really nice music system for $1,000 – $1,500 with the Scouts to anchor things.

The Vanguard Scouts combine a robust cabinet with a 5 ¼” paper cone woofer and a 1” soft dome tweeter. Vera-Fi’s Mark Schifter sent me some pictures of the crossover network, and there’s way more expensive components in this box than you’d ever expect out of a $299 pair of speakers. All good stuff.


I suggest setting the Vanguard Scouts up about 2-3 feet from the rear wall, and found that with the 24” Sound Anchors stands the tweeters were just about ear height. The Vanguard Scouts sound pretty good if you just “throw them in the room,” or put them on a couple of bookshelves. If you put them on top of a bookshelf or table, I highly suggest the ISO Acoustics desktop speaker stands for best results. Just click here to buy a set at Amazon. Again, we are NOT part of the Amazon affiliate program. This is for your convenience. These are the best small stands I’ve used with small speakers, offering a lot of adjustability and isolation.

Getting back to room placement, a good hour carefully fine-tuning room placement will amaze you. If you can start with the Scouts about 6 feet apart and the front baffle 24” from the rear wall and then nudge them about 6-8 inches up and back, you’ll hear the mid bass clean up and the lower bass get stronger. Make smaller adjustments from there, and when you nail the perfect balance, make note. Ditto for distance between the speakers. Move them apart about 6-12 inches at a time until the stereo image just falls apart and it sounds like two separate speakers, and then back till the image forms again. Tweak the toe in for maximum high frequency transparency and you’re done!  You’ll be amazed at how much more music these small monitors can deliver.

The Vanguard Scouts have a listed sensitivity of 84.5db/1-watt and work equally well with modest tube or solid-state power. Equally good results are achieved with the 50wpc T+A Caruso R and the PrimaLuna EVO100 tube integrated, so there’s no limitations there. Tellurium Q Blue II speaker cables make for a great pairing and is an incredible bargain. Your preference will dictate what works best for you. If your musical tastes lean more towards jazz, acoustic music and female vocals, you might dig a tube amp a little more, while those of you more on the rock, hip-hop and techno side of the fence will enjoy the additional bass grip from a solid-state amplifier.

As with any highly resolving small monitor, try to use stands with the most mass you can get and be sure to use blu-tack, or something similar to optimize the interface between stand and cabinet. With speakers this size, every little bit of setup finesse makes a difference.

Further listening

Most listening was done in my main room which is 24 x 36 feet, and these little speakers really put on a great show in a room this size. (Vera-Fi does have a small sub on the way, so stay tuned) Obviously, with room gain, they work incredibly well in a smaller room, and listening in our back bedroom which is 11 x 14 feet was perfection. The quality of the bass delivered might even make you think twice about bothering in a smaller room.

Going off on a prog rock bender, Roon sent me to a great early 70s French band, Ange. Think Yes, King Crimson, and early Roxy Music all in one. Playing dense music fairly loud reveals how well the Vanguard Scouts keep their composure at this level instead of flattening out – you’ll have to push them pretty hard for that, and they give ample warning.

Thanks to a gentle transition between drivers, vocal and acoustic music sounds incredibly natural through these speakers. A wide range of tracks from Aimee Mann to Diamanda Galas all sound convincing. Tone, texture, and timing are also way beyond what you might expect at this price.

Just like the handful of classic small speakers that many of us have enjoyed for decades, the Vanguard Scouts sacrifice extreme frequency extension on the top and bottom of the range, for excellence at what it does handle. I suspect this will keep you happier with said speakers for a lot longer time than something that just grabs you on a quick demo.

In the end…

Much of the internet buzz on these speakers already is in comparison to a few great small speakers like the original Realistic Minimus-7, (and I’ve got a pair of those headed my way on EBay, so we’ll have a video on that soon, as well as a comparison to my vintage A/D/S 400i’s) but the speaker that really came to mind was the Spica TC-50 if you happen to remember those. Of course we still have a pair, but they rarely get played because the tweeters are no longer available and they were very easy to blow.

Thanks to modern drivers, the Scouts seem very robust, and they possess a lot of the soul that this great American mini speaker produced. A tremendous midrange, smooth highs, and mid bass accuracy instead of muddy mid bass, compromised to goose the low end. It’s hard to believe these are only $299/pair. Back when gasoline was $6/gallon, it cost more than this to fill up a Dodge RAM truck! Going further back, the Spica TC-50s were $450/pair.

It’s worth mentioning that a big part of the success of these speakers is the manufacturer direct model. If we were looking at a $20k preamplifier, I’d tell you to stick with something from one of the majors because of a service, support, and resale perspective. But when you’re looking at a $300 pair of speakers from one of the majors, the big manufacturers just can’t do it this inexpensively. By the time dealer and distributor markup is factored in, I’d be shocked if the least expensive B&Ws have more than 20 bucks invested in the drivers and crossover network. It is what it is.

The Vera-Fi Vanguard Scout speakers are a true triumph for music lovers on a tight budget. And with that, I’m going back to the Knack and blasting “Good Girls Don’t.” Highly recommended.  

For those feeling in the stocking stuffer mood, here’s a direct purchase link to the Vera-Fi Vanguard Scouts. And check out the bundle price with a pair of Vera-Link amplifiers! REVIEW HERE.


The Focal Vestia no.1 Speakers

After spending an afternoon with staffer Earle’s Focal Sopra 3s, just before firing up their new Vestia no.1 at my place, the level of sonic excellence they bring to a $1,198 pair of speakers seems amazing. Listening to the same handful of tracks that I shuffled through at Earle’s house, not too much sonic memory was lost in the 25-minute drive on the I-5 to my place.

Playing the Vestia no.1s through the main reference system truly shows off what they can do, but it’s not really a fair comparison, so my Naim Uniti Atom ($3,599 and available from your Naim/Focal dealer) makes for a perfect match. However, like all the other Focal speakers we’ve used, they are just as easy to drive with your favorite tube amplifier as well. Swapping the Uniti Atom for the PrimaLuna ProLogue One and the Naim CD5is in for review is equally enticing.

Queuing up a MoFi copy of Santana’s Caravanserai is lovely and room filling. Placed on 24” Sound Anchor stands about 10 feet apart on the 24-foot wall in my listening room (couch about 10 feet back) the small Focals produce a large soundstage, but in a large room, their horizontal dispersion, especially from the top is slightly limited. The cure for this is stands that allow the tweeters to be close to ear height as possible, or the ability to tip them back slightly. The more stylish dedicated stands from Focal do just this, and are reasonably priced, at $249 a pair. Thanks to their front ports, you can achieve nearly the same effect on a bookshelf. The Vestia no. 1 is definitely user friendly.

All in the family

The Vestias take advantage of some new and existing Focal technology. You can read the full story on the Focal website here; suffice to say Focal puts a lot of expertise into their entry level speakers. The only thing that is really compromised between the Vestias and the higher range Focals, is the simplicity of the cabinets. The finish and shape is a more simple box shape, lacking the complex finish of Sopras and Kantas. Yet what is delivered is of top quality. Compare the Vestias to some of the competitors made in China, and you can see the Focal difference. A quick rap on the cabinet reveals solid construction and lack of resonance. Impressive for this price point.

A two-way design, the compact cabinet only measures 8 5/8 x10 1/4×15 1/4″ (21.9x26x38.7cm) and weighs only 15.4 pounds, so they are easy to unbox and install. They utilize a 1-inch inverted dome tweeter with Focal’s TAM material. (aluminum and magnesium composite) The 6 1/2- inch woofer is made from recycled carbon fiber, allowing added stiffness at a lower cost than standard, woven carbon fiber – a very unique approach. The Vestias are available in light wood like our review samples, dark wood and a black high gloss finish. All feature a “leather effect” front panel.

Further listening

Moving on to Lloyd Cole’s new album, On Pain (as well as a few LC classic tracks) reveals the clean, natural midrange the Vestias deliver, which ironically hits me near the middle of the third track, “I Can Hear Everything.” Sometimes the soundtrack of your life is synergistic. Going through the gamut of favorite vocal tracks confirms the initial excitement. The Undertones’ “More Songs About Chocolate and Girls” demonstrates the Vestias ability to pull detail from dense, compressed recordings. This is a terrible sounding (but fun) track, showing you can have high end speakers that play everything with ease.

When you’re starting to build a system, every bit of performance you can get for the dollar is key and this is what makes the Vestias such a great value. If you could see what goes on every day at the Focal factory in France, it’s easy to see how they do it. Focal performs every aspect of design and manufacturing in-house; cabinets, crossovers, and drivers. The level of engineering talent is incredible, equally so with execution. Focal definitely takes the high road on the Vestia no.1 in terms of overall balance. Many speakers in this price range hinge their reputation on a single feature, where the Vestias sacrifice an over exaggerated frequency response to deliver smooth and resolving sound.

Changing program material to bass heavy tracks from Thievery Corporation, Massive Attack, and Tosca reveal that the Vestias manage to go down fairly low, and the bass that is delivered is of high tonal quality. Moving them back into a more appropriate sized room (12 x 18 feet, and 10 x 12 feet respectively) and taking care to place them so they can take advantage of a bit of room gain provides tremendous sonic rewards. It’s easy to hear the lineage all the way up to the Utopia series here.

Different partners

Swapping the Naim Atom for the T+A Caruso R, and PrimaLuna amplifier is fun, and again proves that these little speakers have more than enough resolution to discern distinct differences between amplification and program sources.

The no.1s are a great way to start building a system, and like some of the other Focal speakers, they offer a full range of floorstanding speakers, and a center channel option so you can build a multichannel system having the same voice.

Focal claims a sensitivity of 89dB/1-Watt, and they proved easy to drive even with our 12 Watt per channel Lab 12 Mighty (vacuum tubes) amplifier, so they should work well with whatever you have on hand. Around back is a single pair of 5-way binding posts to make connection to your speaker cables equally easy.

At present, Focal does not offer a subwoofer in the Vestia lineup, but they do suggest their SUB600P, for those wanting to keep it all Focal.­ To get a better chance of what they can do in a 2.1 system, they were mated to an SVS 3000 Micro ($899) subwoofer and alternately with a REL T5/x ($699). Thanks to the solid bass foundation that the Vestias deliver, adding a sub makes for a great full range system should you so desire to take this direction.

Constant innovation, tremendous value While some of the names might be a little confusing at times, Focal continues to innovate and apply new technologies and construction techniques on every speaker in their range. That their commitment to excellence is just as serious with the Vestias as it is with their top range Utopia speakers is great news for the beginning audiophile. We are happy to give these one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2023. This is a great pair of speakers to build a system with.

Issue 119

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Cover Story

Digital and Analog parity:
The Tambaqui DAC and Lupe Phono from Mola-Mola


Old School: Going down the Revox Rabbit Hole
by Jeff Dorgay

1095: Vera-Fi’s awesome Vera Link. Now you have sound anywhere!

The Audiophile Apartment: The REL Classic 98 subwoofer

Journeyman Audiophile: Tannoy Autograph Mini speakers

Headphone Arts:  FOCALS latest Bathys phones with a surprise

Shanon Says: Our Canadian connection lets us know what she’s listening to

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future


YG’s Hailey 3 Speakers – the first of an all new breed
Black Ravioli Record Ground – It’s not a clamp!
The Enleum AMP-23R – Massive sound, minimum footprint
Totem Solution Sub – When you think you don’t have room for a sub
Naim CD5si – A worthy disc player


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world
Merch Table:  ZZ Top. Awwww!!
Jim on Jazz

YG Acoustics Hailey 3

One of the most compelling things about the world’s finest products, be it speakers, watches, cameras, you name it – is the ease of enjoying them in a fashion that you no longer think about the object in use.

There’s no more longing for additional performance, or an aspect of use that annoys you. A Rolex Submariner, a Leica M6 (if you’re a film person) or M10 (if you aren’t), the Eames Lounge Chair (a real one), or a late 80s 3.2 Porsche Carrera. I’m sure you have your own list, but this is where I place the Baileys. The level of performance they deliver is something I doubt you will ever tire of.

This was a more difficult review to write than most, only because the Haileys deliver such an immersive experience that hours pass between paragraphs. Some high performance loudspeakers make for dynamic demos, and that’s great for the 30 seconds you catch of Nils Lofgren’s plucky guitar opening to “Keith Don’t Go,” but then lose their luster during extended listening. The Haileys sail through all the prerequisite audiophile test tracks, but at the end of the day are incredibly musical in a way that you do not want to leave the listening chair for anything more than to change the record.

Thanks to all the new technology implemented at YG over the last few years, much of this effortlessness comes from the low distortion and careful attention to maximizing phase coherence in the recent models. YG claims no more than + /- 5 degrees of phase shift, which is tight indeed. Many studies backup the idea that the human ear is more sensitive to phase anomalies than anything else. Again, this is a major contributor to the effortless presentation these speakers deliver.

Even though the new speakers look very similar to the originals from an aesthetic perspective, every aspect has been re-examined, reconfigured, and redesigned. Even the printed circuit board used for the crossover network is CNC machined in the YG factory. The new models use 3.lmm-thick electrically non-reactive sheets of a secret material mated to pure copper – twice as much copper as in previous YG crossovers and four times the industry standard – and they machine out the copper they don’t use.

No one pays this close attention to fine detail. YG’s Duncan Taylor smiles as he says “that’s our biggest marketing challenge, to let potential customers know how much of an improvement the new speakers truly are.” Yet if you are familiar with the original YG speakers, you’ll hear it immediately.

Top of the list

Listening to Trey Gunn and Tu-ners newest release T-1 Contact Information is a prog excursion full of atmospheric sounds, blazing riffs, and of course killer bass lines. The Hailey 3s do an amazing job creating a massive soundfield with incredible coherence feeling more like a great surround setup, or perhaps the enormous 9-foot-tall Sound Labs ESLs. (But with way more transient ability) One of the Hailey’s main strengths is the integration of the drivers feeling like one big full range speaker. That’s only part of the story.

Taylor explains to me that this speaker is one of the latest models that is filled with “new tech and engineering, with few remnants of the original YG products.” Where the initial YG speakers were incredibly resolving, they required perfection in room treatment and music quality, and to some they brought a fatigue with them that made for short listening sessions. Today at YG, those traits are a thing of the past. Forget everything you think you know about these speakers – though they have similar physical shapes these all new models are a pinnacle of loudspeaker design.

If you are looking for a pair of speakers offering high resolution and low distortion (make that extremely low distortion) without ever feeling harsh, and you value tonal accuracy – YG should be at the top of your list.

The 200-pound (each) Hailey 3 speakers are a three-way passive speaker, taking up a small footprint, relatively speaking, at 13 inches wide and 21 inches deep at the bottom, gently tapering up to 8 inches wide and 16 inches deep at the top. Silver and black anodized aluminum are the standard finishes, but customization is something YG is testing and plans to eventually offer. While visiting the YG factory earlier thisyear, there were some custom-finish speakers on their way to a client that were absolutely stunning.

The surface of a YG speaker surpasses even what I’ve seen in the world’s finest automobiles. Yep, they are that good. These speakers define understated elegance, and more than one friend that has always been “metal speaker” adverse, loved the look, feel, and finish of the Hailey 3s. They will look at home in any decor.

The precision metalwork doesn’t end there. YG painstakingly machines the rigid, well damped cones of their drivers in their facility too. It’s one thing to see the YG’s being made, and quite another to run your hands across the surface of a YG speaker. As a crazed car guy fascinated by machining excellence I have a major appreciation for things built like this.

YG uses a soft-dome tweeter, placing a structure under the dome that they call “the lattice,” which machined from solid aluminum just like the cones of the midrange and woofers. Duncan tells me that nearly 99% solid block is machined away from the individual billet to produce them. Those of you concerned about the environmental aspect of this process, fear not. Every speck of unwanted material is recycled at the YG factory. These cones are a work of art.

Simple setup

For speakers weighing over 200 pounds each, the Hailey’s can actually be set up by one person. While the review pair arrived in road cases, YG sends their speakers in a bespoke crate, so you can bring the container to your listening room, tip it up, and slide the Hailey’s out. These are one of the easiest pairs of large speakers to unpack that I’ve encountered, underlining the thought process behind every aspect of the YG’s design. The spiked feet come with stainless spike cups, so you can adapt them to any flooring situation.

Even with random placement in the 24 x 36-foot listening room (on the short wall) about 12 feet apart and about five feet from the rear wall, the Haileys paint an enormous soundstage. Fortunately, Duncan was kind enough to stop by for the day and fine-tune them to perfection. For stacking those who the see this as the manufacturer stacking the deck in their favor, I always prefer this. Especially with a speaker that I have precious little review experience with. It’s always helpful to the review process when a manufacturer can either tweak the final setup or reassure you that all is well. That way the evaluation can start on an easy note. 30 minutes later, the Haileys are placed to perfection by moving them a bit wider apart and serious listening can begin.

The highly revealing nature of the Haileys 3s is further emphasized during the setup process, when it was time to attach the jumpers between the three sets of binding posts on the rear of the speakers. (As a side note, my demo pair was tri-amp-capable, something YG now offers in addition to the standard single binding post arrangement, though they suspect most customers will probably go with the single set of binding posts.) For this review, Cardas Audio provided a custom set of jumpers from Cardas Clear cable, because I use Clear in my main system. I suggest this with any speaker that you choose to use jumpers with – I have always achieved the best results combining jumpers made from the same cable as the main speaker cables. Taylor tells me that internally, YGs are wired with the exact same Cardas wire, so this makes perfect sense. I’ve never heard a speaker affected by six inches of wire as much as I did with the Hailey 3s.

The speakers arrived a day before the jumpers, so during the initial listening, some zip cord was pressed into use. Not good. At first, it was suspected that the speakers needed more run the in time, but the following day when the Cardas jumpers arrived, this became an entirely different movie indeed.

Articulate bass

Being used to a six-pack of REL subwoofers makes it easy to become spoiled for low­frequency response that is accurate, powerful, and defined. There are many large speakers that can reproduce tones down to 30 or even 25Hz, but the level of low-frequency resolution actually delivered (as with a number of subwoofers, too) is questionable. Moving air is one dimension, but being able to hear Jaco Pastorius’ fingers pluck the strings, with the resulting harmonic structure intact is quite another.

Even though the Haileys can’t move as much air as a six pack of REL’s they do achieve a level of low-frequency resolution and detail that is on the same level and this is indeed rare. We all have different goals concerning low frequency response. My personal bias here is resolution over sheer weight, yours may be different. In addition the YGs bring a wide dynamic range to the listening experience and the ability to deliver high resolution at low listening levels. This is a true display of high performance.

Swapping the Pass XA200.8 monoblocks, for the 15 watt per channel ampsandsound Bryce monoblocks is equally enticing. Even at a one-watt level, these speakers are able to deliver deep, rich, and detailed low frequencies. It’s worth mentioning the Bryce amplifiers deliver tremendous bass response, but that’s a subject of another review. The way these speakers can capture leading and trailing transients on drums and bass guitar is so realistic, you might beshocked hearing it for the first time. In a good way of course.

At least eight or nine different amplifiers from the 3 watt Coincident SETs to the 600 watt per channel PS Audio BHK 600 Monos (tube and solid-state) were used while evaluating the Hailey3s. The common thread here is quality. Because of the resolving nature of the YGs, they will reveal every source component, cable, and vibration control device in your system – though not mercilessly. To get the most these speakers can deliver, I do suggest the best cables and components that you can pair them with.

While some are quick to tell you to spend this much on cable, no more than this on amplifiers or speakers, the YGs are certainly a speaker you can splurge on now as your anchor, and make the other upgrades as time and budget allow. I can’t imagine the YGs would ever be the weak link in your system.


Way too many high-performance speakers, especially those with the ability to play very loud,don’t always integrate the low, mid, and high frequencies in a way that feels natural and convincing. Precious few of the world’s top speakers are able to do this, and nearly all the ones I’ve heard are considerably more expensive than the Haileys. This is the result of a number of things, all equally important.

YG prides themselves on their extensive research in the area of design depth and computer modeling to implement their crossovers. They even build their own printed circuit boards from scratch, with no 90-degree corners in the PC board traces. They are CNC machined in-house from raw board blanks that are made specifically for YG. Components are selected and tolerances meticulously matched before extensive listening tests verify what’s been done on the design table.

The crossover is one part of the equation, yet having custom drivers that work in as close to perfect harmony as possible is the other part. Some manufacturers choose to take a different approach, employing more complex crossover networks to achieve their goals with lower quality drivers. Taking the latter approach does not always make for the ultimate in a smooth transition between drivers, and that last bit of clarity that only the finest loudspeakers can deliver. The YG Haileys are more than deserving of being in that exclusive realm.

That seamless clarity that the Haileys deliver offers a musical experience that is not only realistic, but non fatiguing. These are speakers that you can listen to all day at any volume level and never tire of. That’s the highest compliment I can pay them.

The rest of the range

Great as everything else is, these speakers are equally smooth throughout the frequency spectrum. Those of you that enjoy this aspect of single driver or panel speakers will appreciate how well the three drivers in the Hailey’s work together. No matter how loud or soft the Haleys are played, they deliver the electrical impulses presented to them with one voice.

If you really want to blast the system, you will need more than 15 watts per channel, and though the Haileys reveal a lot at low volume, they are glorious when being played loud. Whether you’re listening to Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, The 1812 Overture, or grooving on some Slowdive, these speakers will take you anywhere you want to go.

Ironically when YG hit the market 21 years ago, under their original ownership they claimed to be the “world’s greatest loudspeaker.” While I can’t make that claim about any one loudspeaker, I’d certainly say that today, YG is in that small top tier of the world’s finest speakers without hesitation.



PHONO STAGE Pass XP-27 Phono
ANALOG SOURCE SME 20 w/SME IV.VI tonearm, Hana Umami Red Cartridge
CABLES Cardas Clear

Teenage Engineering OB-4

Portable music for those on-the-go

By Rob Johnson

I still remember my first stereo, a 1981 Sony Boom box, which served as a loyal companion from middle school through college. It finally failed after a decade of use. However, my nostalgia for the old-school portable form factor persists. So, I’m thrilled to see Teenage Engineering, a Sweden-based company, bring back the classic handle-topped design in a smaller and lighter package with sleek aesthetics and modern technology under the hood. While the company’s name might conjure an image of whimsical product designers, make no mistake. The OB-4 is a sturdy and very capable audio companion.

The Teenage Engineering (TE) OB-4 measures a compact 9.2 x 11.2 x 2.3 inches (233 x 284 x 58 mm) and weighs in at a scant 3.75 lbs (1.7 kg). It contains a rechargeable battery that makes it easy to take your tunes anywhere you go. Driven at high volume via a Bluetooth connection a listener can expect about eight hours of playback. However, low radio volumes will provide a couple days of music before a needed re-charge. Rotated backward, the OB-4’s handle can support it in a reclined position making it equally at home on a countertop, the floor, a driveway, or on a stump next to a camping tent. TE even offers a customized OB-4 backpack with a mesh front, sold separately.

Fun Features

OB-4 offers a choice of three input sources: a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack, a built-in FM radio, and a Bluetooth connection. On the top panel, the OB-4 has a very streamlined user interface with a minimal number of buttons and dials. Depending on the source, control buttons serve different purposes. An owner can also download a basic “Ortho” remote control app for Apple and Android devices. Those who want a dedicated, hands-on remote can purchase the cool-looking, circular “Ortho” remote from TE’s website.

For FM listeners using the OB-4’s buttons, picking a station is easy. Simply push the “play” button to scan for available stations until a tiny LED screen confirms the correct destination. Holding down the “input” button and tapping the “play” reverses the scanning direction. The TE’s handle comes equipped with a built-in antenna. However, to assist in reception-challenged locations, a secondary, removable antenna proves handy. One end of that coiled antenna has a hook to facilitate connecting it to a window blind or even a nearby tree branch for better reception. That supplemental antenna can store neatly in the OB-4’s handle or removed entirely when not needed.

Those wanting to hear device-streamed or stored music will enjoy the simplicity of the Bluetooth source option. Once connected to the OB-4, the phone’s volume buttons control the TE’s volume knob. The OB-4 sounds marvelous with any music thrown at it. However, a user cannot stream high-resolution music that exceeds Bluetooth’s capability. Some might prefer using the OB-4’s 3.5mm stereo input.

The OB-4 offers another music source option that requires some explaining. While the unit does not feature line-outs for external recording, it does have a fun, partial workaround built in. As music plays, it’s captured by a two-hour, constantly-rolling digital “tape” recording. After two hours, “old” music starts to disappear, replaced by new. A tiny wheel on the OB-4’s top edge physically spins while the recording process takes place. It’s both humorous and beguiling to watch the process in action. Anytime a listener wants to revisit the past, spin the wheel counterclockwise to hear previously enjoyed music. The opposite action moves a listener forward until they catch up with real-time sources. It’s irresistible to play with the controller, even if it’s just a quick spin now and then. While a user twists the wheel, there’s an old-school DJ “record-scratching” sound. When the wheel stops moving, cached music resumes playback from that point.

The OB-4 has other quirky features, too. The OB-4 has a built-in metronome, a Yoga Mantra setting, and some ambient sounds which – as I’ve discovered – do a great job of encouraging sleep. Be sure to check out the OB-4 manual for more details on ways to loop music and more.

Super sonics

The OB-4 may be small, but the TE team managed to squeeze in two tiny tweeters, a pair of 2.5-inch midrange drivers, a bass port on the lower left side, and a 38-watt-per-channel amplifier. The midrange cones’ position, one-third the way down the OB-4’s front, makes them look like giant owl eyes. It’s endearing, but don’t underestimate those little things! They manage to push forth a surprisingly loud, clear, and detailed sound.

Unlike the tweeters, the midranges do not have protective grilles over them. While they recess slightly into the OB-4’s body, the potential vulnerability is still a little anxiety-provoking. The OB-4 is designed for portability, but there’s a very real possibility of a dented cone if the owner gets overly cavalier and tosses the OB-4 into a car trunk or bag.

The OB-4’s specifications suggest low-frequency reproduction in the 52Hz range. There’s a caveat to the TE’s bass prowess, though. As with large stereo speakers at home, placement is critical. If positioned too close to a rear wall bass boominess can result. If too far from the wall, the bass can disappear. As a portable stereo, it’s easy to position the OB-4 anywhere needed to find the perfect Goldilocks zone. When in a room’s corner or near a rear wall, natural bass loading kicks in. So, in a way, the TE offers an ultra-manual tone control. Find the sonic balance that works best for you.

Nobody should expect the OB-4 to exceed the high-resolution sonics or stereo imaging capability of a good component system because it is not designed to. But despite the inherent limitations of a boom box form factor, the OB-4 does a great job of delivering the musical goods. Sound-wise, it strikes an excellent tonal balance with slightly warm, stridency-free playback even at high volumes.

Summing up

Three close friends own and use their OB-4s regularly. The boxes move around the house to deliver music anywhere it’s needed. When we rent a vacation house together, there’s always an OB-4 playing non-stop. An OB-4 also joined our trip overseas and enhanced our downtime with music wherever we went. While other small, single-purpose Bluetooth speakers may be less expensive and easier to carry around, I’ve encountered few that approach the OB-4’s musical presence.

At $649, Teenage Engineering’s mini stereo isn’t cheap, but it does not sound or feel cheap either. The OB-4 is a durable and creatively purpose-built device that reimagines the classic boom box style with a modern twist and unique features. Those who enjoy sound on-the-go will find their OB-4 a marvelous complement to their home audio system — or even as a one-box primary listening device. It’s a worthwhile investment for those who enjoy great sound anywhere.

Teenage Engineering also produces several other products including electronic musical instruments and even a tiny turntable kit that lets its owner cut their own one-song records. Check ‘em out here.

Teenage Engineering OB-4

$649 in matte black, $699 in gloss red

REVIEW: The Emerald Physics 600.2 SE Amplifier

Driving a pair of vintage Acoustat 2+2 full range electrostatics to panel rattling volume while listening to the new Stones album, the yellow circular power output meters on the 600.2SE power amplifier are barely bouncing mid-way up the scale. Staying in the 80s groove with a couple of tracks from Cameo (“Word Up” and “Single Life”) push the power meters go all the way up, but the stats are in serious damage of being blown up. Swapping speakers for the current Martin Logan ESL9s in for review, with their dynamic woofers take full advantage of 600 watts per channel.

You heard right, 600 watts per channel in a nice compact chassis that is about 17 inches wide, 14 deep, and just over 4 inches high, weighing about 15 pounds. The matte black finish is punctuated by a power switch, those power output meters, and a tube/solid-state switch for the buffer stage. It’s the essence of simplicity, and bravo to the EP team for not making the logo as big as the box.

Plenty of power on tap means no speakers are off limits. Auditioning the 600.2SE with about a dozen pair of speakers from the inefficient Acoustats, a pair of Magnepan 1.7s, some Harbeth speakers (easy to drive but relatively inefficient) as well as the YG Acoustics Hailey 3s ($63,800/pair) and Peak Consult Sinfonias ($55,000/pair) it was easy to find the performance envelope. Ultimately, most of the critical listening was done with the Martin/Logan ESL 9s, a vintage Levinson no.36 preamplifier, and the Naim CD5si disc player. Some streaming was done with the dCS LINA, for Qobuz and Tidal tracks.

Super simple setup

The 600.2SE arrives with a pair of ECC88 tubes already installed, which are used as a buffer stage. That switch on the front panel gives you the option of using a solid-state buffer, featuring a pair of high-quality Texas Instruments OPA 1637 fully balanced driver op amps. These or the ECC88s in tube mode deliver a fully balanced signal to the 1200SA2 ICE power amps. Designer Dr. Viet Nguyen makes it clear “that no transformers are used to achieve balanced operation, this is a full balanced amplifier.”

He also goes on to mention that though the RCA and XLR inputs are switched automatically by an internal relay, the amplifier favors XLR, and will switch to XLRs when installed. This also protects the amplifier from both sets of inputs being active at once.

The ability to switch gain internally between 0dB, 6dB, 14dB, and 20dB. Set at 6dB from the factory, this combines with the 22dB gain of the ICE modules for 28dB overall. As my Levinson preamplifier has substantial gain, removing the top and resetting to 0dB keeps the no.36 in its sweet spot longer. It also allows for a longer range of volume control. Should any of you be using a passive linestage/attenuator, you may even take advantage of the higher gain settings, especially if you have inefficient speakers. EP gets an A+ on this level of versatility.

The 600.2SE sounds excellent out of the box, requiring no more than 24 hours of constant play to being all it can be. As with any component, decent cables will add a bit more to the presentation, but you don’t have to go nuts. With some Audience StudioTwo cables in for review, this makes a perfect combination, offering high performance, and doesn’t break the piggy bank.

The sound

As mentioned, Class-D amplifiers are continually improving, but specs aren’t everything. This amplifier delivers a high level of musical involvement, not just high power. On many levels, Class D is turning into a “best of nearly everything” way to deliver the goods, because dynamic range is just as important as the other factors that music lovers and audiophiles enjoy. Recently I’ve had the chance to listen to a couple of incredible amplifiers that only deliver 25 watts per channel, and sometimes you just need the power.

Yet when listening to acoustic music, the 600.2SE still offers plenty of delicacy – especially when compared to a lot of other amplifiers that are similarly (or higher) priced. Tracking through the usual favorites reveals an amplifier that does an excellent job rendering acoustic guitars, female vocals and percussion instruments, which leads us to that switch on the front.

Much like my PrimaLuna EVO 400 tube amplifier, that offers triode and ultralinear mode, switching between the tube and solid-state buffer stages gives the 600.2SE two distinct personalities. Think of the solid-state section as “just the facts,” and the tube section as a kinder, gentler presentation. You might prefer one overall, or perhaps use the tube section when listening at lower volumes in a more acoustic/female vocal mode. It’s plenty of fun to experiment with, and you might even want to jump off the cliff and get a great pair of vintage NOS ECC88s to go further down that path.

If Class D amplifiers excel at anything, it’s bass extension and grip. Most subwoofer companies use massive Class D amplifiers, so that’s a clue. Listening to a long playlist of bass heavy tracks instantly showcases this aspect of the 600.2SE.  If you love house, hip-hop, electronica and the like, this is an amplifier to raise the roof with. Even with the panels, the level of control and extension this amplifier provides is indeed impressive.

Similarly speaking, the one area of musicality that Class D amplifiers fall down on a bit, is the ability to provide a massive soundstage in all three dimensions. But again, A: we’re talking about a $2,500 power amplifier (and nobody’s $2,500 amp produces a massive 3D soundstage) and B: you have 600 watts per channel. Dynamics are the fourth dimension, so what the 600.2SE lacks in soundstaging abilities, it more than gives back in dynamic contrast. If you really want to cheat this, put your paws on a nice, vintage, all-tube preamplifier. Switching the 600.2SE back to all solid-state and swapping the Levinson for the PrimaLuna EVO 100 preamplifier, or a vintage ARC SP-3 gives a lot of that back. Remember, audio is a journey.

A definite winner

Class D amplifiers keep improving across the board, and you ignore them at your own peril, especially if you’re trying to create a powerful system on a tight budget. The Emerald Physics 600.2SE is the perfect example. Taking advantage of a small company profile, efficient manufacturing overseas, and going dealer direct, makes for high value and high performance for $2,500. In typical Underwood HiFi fashion, they are “introductory pricing” the 600.2SE at $1,999 until they don’t feel like it anymore, so perhaps buy yourself an early holiday present and take advantage of the savings?

As the anchor of a high performance, reasonably priced system, the Emerald Physics 600.2SE has nothing but check marks in the positive column. And is more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2023. You might even say really exceptional value. Tell them we sent you! Please click here to go directly to the Underwood site.

FULL REVIEW: Enleum AMP-23R Amplifier

If you happen to be an audio enthusiast that is only impressed with large racks of gear, and convinced this is the only way to go, skip this review. You won’t want the Enleum AMP-23R. It’s small. Tiny, actually. Like 9 inches square and a little over 3 inches tall with super cool feet attached. I’ve seen bigger apple pies than this.

In all seriousness, it has about the same footprint as a Nagra Classic component and is half the height. Listening to the Chemical Brothers “Live Again,” the amount of bass at my command is staggering, controlled, and well defined – as listening to the Chemical Brothers should be. The rest of the frequency spectrum is equally well rendered.

For the rest of you, this amplifier is so special, there’s no real cliché to describe it. Often, as you go up the range of the world’s finest components, they reveal more music – more resolution, less noise, more dynamics, more of their core voice. What if you could have a modest helping (i.e. 25 watts worth) of “as good as it gets” sound for $6,250? That’s the Enleum AMP-23R. After a lot of listening comparisons, it stacks up with the finest gear.

At first, the thought of adding another great, low-powered amplifier to work with some of the high sensitivity speakers we’ve been reviewing, and keeping the hours low on my 300Bs was appealing. However, the minute the AMP-23R was connected up to the Peak Consult Sinfonias ($55k/pair) in place of the C-J ART88/PS Audio BHK600 monos powering them for some initial run in, the AMP-23R is non stop excitement. Running through track after track of music that’s been our review staples for 20 years, the AMP-23R turns in an incredible performance.

So intrigued with this, moving the AMP-23R over to the YG Hailey 3s ($67,000/pair) with a similar sensitivity, but different tonality than the Peaks, and even slightly more resolving, this little amplifier delivers an equally engaging performance. In both instances the source component is the dCS Vivaldi ONE. This is the point in the review, where excuses are made that the review component, only a fraction of the cost of the mega gear in said reference system really doesn’t measure up. Nope. Not here. Of course, the Enleum amplifier will not drive the Peaks or the Haileys to the same level as the big Pass or big PS monoblocks.

The sheer quality of musical experience delivered by the AMP-23R at reasonable volume levels is as good as it gets. (with modest efficiency speakers.)

The only reason I mention the cost of the first two speakers used with the AMP-23R is to illustrate the level of resolution it is capable of – and that it does not sound out of context in a 200k system. Hiding it in the rack when a few friends visited made it a lot of fun to play tricks with them. No one could believe this small amplifier could deliver such an exciting performance!

A fantastic partner for high sensitivity speakers

Installing a pair of efficient speakers is an even more amazing experience. If you’ve always liked horns, or other high sensitivity speakers, but still hold a bit of trepidation about SET amplifiers, the AMP-23R will surprise you in a very good way.

The relatively high impedance of most SET amplifiers makes them slightly more speaker sensitive than other amplifiers, and it’s usually the bass response that takes a hit, combined with their low damping factor, there aren’t many SETs with true bass grip. (Though we have had excellent results with Nagra, ampsandsound, and WAVAC, but these are all much more expensive than the Enleum)

Swapping speakers for the Heretic AD612s (98dB/1-watt), and the new Zu Audio DWXs (95dB/1-watt) both make the AMP-23Rs 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms (45 watts into 4 ohms) seem like way more power than you’d ever need. Even with the higher impedance Zu and Heretics, the AMP-23R never runs out of power.

More listening

Every bit of music selected was a wonderful experience through the AMP-23R. No matter what you enjoy, I think you will be fulfilled. The amplifier possesses a prodigious level of pace and timing. When listening to the usual Blue Note favorites, every player is locked down and does not waver. Tracking through Herbie Hancock’s Main Title theme to Blow Up, the drums are planted at the rear of the soundstage, as Freddie Hubbard’s horn comes in over Hancock’s piano.

Female vocal lovers just might think they are listening to an SET, because of the sheer delicacy this amplifier portrays the human voice. Whether I was listening to Chrissie Hynde, Christine Mc Vie, or Christina Aguilera, every subtle nuance of their voices came through with spectacular feel.

Transient response is also excellent, with no sense of fog, cloudiness, or overhang. Drum heavy music (take your pick) is refreshingly open and punchy. This contributes heavily to a complete lack of fatigue when listening for hours on end. Finally, the sound field created is immense in all three directions, yet the AMP-23R allows music to scale up and down with ease, and it sounds fantastic at very low volume levels as well. Zero complaints here.

A few comparisons

With a couple of great single ended and low powered tube amplifiers on hand to drive the Zu and Heretic speakers, it made sense to undertake some A/B comparisons. To be fair, the $24k pair of ampsandsound Bryce monoblocks deliver slightly more midrange magic and a bit larger overall soundstage. The Pass First Watt SIT-3 offers a bit more organic, warmer presentation, and the Pass INT-25 even warmer still. The Coincident Frankenstein amplifier with WE 300Bs also gives a bit more bloom, but it is in a fun, saturated way.

Except for the Pass INT-25, all of these are more expensive, power amplifiers only, and delivered the performance they did with the $38,000 Pass XS Preamplifier driving them. And tubes are tubes. Sometimes more glorious, but always needing replacement. The Pass INT-25 is more expensive, much larger, and much heavier, with a different tonality.

The point here is not to show any disrespect for the other players, but to again underline just how good the AMP-23R is. 

The Enleum difference

There have been a handful of great phono preamplifiers that operate in current mode, providing a tremendously transparent view of the music. The AMP-23R works this way as well, and the volume control varies the amplifier’s gain, instead of merely attenuating the input. Peaking inside, reveals a pair of Ensense gain modules and a single pair of output transistors bolted to the chassis as a heat sink. Please note, the Ensense modules use all discrete transistors, and no negative feedback. Taking the circuit further, Enleum’s JET2 Bias circuit works in real time to constantly monitor (and correct as needed) each pair of EXICON MOSFETS that make up the output stage.

The stark, yet highly fashionable casework takes the same approach as the circuit design. Ergonomics are top notch, and the machining quality is both tasteful and superb. Even the carefully designed trio of vibration controlling feet work with the mechanical design to keep a minimum of mechanical noise from entering the circuit board.

Around back is a pair of analog RCA inputs marked “Voltage.” These are traditional analog inputs, and the pair of BNC inputs in between them are marked “Enlink,” which are reserved for future Enleum products to work in current mode. (hopefully, a phono stage and matching DAC?) Finally, a small but efficient remote takes care of controlling things from your listening position.

A winning combination

The AMP-23R does everything right. No make that perfectly. In the couple of months that it’s been here, it’s literally a freak out every time we use it. And it’s been so much fun to have audiophile buddies visit with the AMP-23R playing on top of a rack full of massive gear and walk up to turn the level up on this tiny box. Surprise all around, and that’s a great thing.

I’d suggest a 90db/1-watt pair of speakers if you really need serious volume levels, but with the level of musical information that the Enleum 23R reveals, there isn’t a set of speakers under $100k a pair I wouldn’t connect it to. And it’s a killer headphone amplifier too. A quick email to Enleum reveals that the headphone jack is connected directly to the output stage, so it takes full advantage of the circuit, unlike so many integrated amplifiers that tack on a simple op-amp circuit as an afterthought.

Using the Focal Utopia 2022s for reference listening again shows off just how musical and resolving the AMP-23R is. Theoretically, you could buy this amplifier for headphone use only and still feel like you got a good deal.


They say that a true master knows where to pound the nail. I submit the founder of Enleum, Soo In Chae, is in the league of the true masters. The final measure of a top-quality product is the way every aspect of said product is realized. In addition to class A+ sound, this amplifier is wonderfully crafted, and finished to perfection. It is as much a joy to physically interact with and use as it is to listen to.

This amplifier more than deserves to sit on the same shelf with the world’s finest gear. I’ve purchased the review sample, and it will be doing just that here for years to come. I anxiously await what Enleum will bring to market next.

AMG V12 Turntable

Being an enthusiast of great industrial and mechanical design, I hold objects that perform as well as they look in the highest esteem.  I confess to becoming an admirer of the AMG V12 the second I saw pictures of it.  When I saw the V12 in person, had I been sitting on an analysts couch, performing a word-association drill, Leica would have been the first word that came to mind.  Imagine, those of you who own or have owned a Leica (or an older 500-series mechanical Hasselblad), that the camera maker decided to enter the turntable business and bring its level of machining expertise to turntable design.

But craftsmanship from a brand like Leica goes so far beyond simple aesthetics.  How would a turntable manufacturer translate the damped feel of a Leica focusing mechanism, or the positive engagement of a Ferrari gearshift, or the vault-like sound that a Rolls Royce door makes to the language of turntable design?  Germany’s AMG (for Analog Manufaktur Germany; no relation to the Mercedes-Benz design branch by the same initials) puts the same level of artistry into its V12 turntable.  Its design allows users to operate the capacitance-controlled power and speed switches and feel the effortlessness of the tonearm, while the uniformity of its machined and anodized surfaces provide a visual package as stunning as the turntable’s performance,

At $16,500, a cost which includes the wooden base and 12-inch AMG tonearm, the V12 achieves price parity with its peers from AVID, Clearaudio, SME and others.  During a conversation with AMG designer and principal Werner Röschlau at the Munich High-End back in May, I learned of the high level of refinement that the V12 offers and that this is not really his first attempt at building a turntable.  Röschlau, who is an engineer by trade, did high-precision machine work for a few top turntable manufacturers for over a decade.  Along with his own design expertise, Röschlau applied what he learned working for those manufacturers to the V12.

This turntable is the epitome of simplicity in look and operation.  Röschlau tells me that every aspect of the tables’ design revolves around simplicity, functionality and longevity.  “I truly hope that these turntables outlive me,” he says with a smile.

Sharpen Your Skills

The V12 offers an amazing combination of weight, stability and delicacy.  The SME arms that I use on a number of tables feel thick and clunky compared to the V12 arm (though the former are easier to adjust at first).  Again, the comparison to a Leica comes to mind with the V12, as I reflect on the turntable’s small, lightweight, minimalist controls that make perfect sense once you get used to them.

It’s often said that people who are masters of their craft make things look deceptively easy.  Sitting at home watching Sebastian Vettel win the F1 championship, you think, “How hard can it be? I can drive a car.”  I was thinking the same thing, as Garth Leerer, the US importer for Musical Surroundings, fine-tuned this table.

But this tonearm does not invite constant fiddling like a Tri-Planar does; the V12 arm is perfect for someone who sees turntable setup as something you do once, rather than for someone who sees it as an ongoing sport.  AMG includes a full set of allen-head screwdrivers for every one of the V12’s adjustments, though the instruction manual falls woefully short in terms of helping the uninitiated—there are no pictures.  If you haven’t set up your fair share of tonearms, this may not be the best place to begin your analog-setup journey.

The manual does warn you to use a light touch when making all adjustments.  The screws are all tiny: .65-, 1.5- and 2-mm allen-head screws that disappear into the casework, further contributing to the ultra-clean design.  But excess torque will destroy the subtle handiwork, so proceed with extreme care.

Another tip for those of you adding the V12 to your system:  Level the plinth before you attach the platter, as one of the three-adjustment screws is under the platter and cannot be accessed once you’ve fully assembled the table.  You should also be sure that the V12 is on a very solid surface, as the weight of this table will sink into any wooden rack shelves you might have.

Adding the optional HRS platform made specifically for the V12 boosts performance even further, with better low-level detail and transient slam, but the upgraded platform is not necessary—the V12 is enjoyable delivered from the factory as is.  But Leerer mentions that he feels the sound of any turntable can be improved by better isolation, such as that offered by the HRS platform, which offers a similar performance increase when I pair it with my fully suspended AVID Volvere SP turntable.  The HRS platform is a $2,500 upgrade that is well worth the investment.

Though the V12 requires a steady and patient hand to optimize it, the end result is more than worth the effort.  And if you subscribe to the philosophy of form following function, there may be no better example of record-spinning art than the V12.  Even the belt-drive mechanism is handily hidden beneath the platter—the mechanism slips on easily if you use the enclosed spiked wooden tool according to the manual.  (The turntable manual is much better than the tonearm manual, and it’s well illustrated.).  Röschlau makes it a point to mention that even this step, while appearing a style move, “Keeps the belt out of the environment and free of dust and UV rays.”

Recalibrate Your Senses

The V12 sounds as good as it looks, perhaps even better.  Immediately upon power up, the V12 feels solid and elegant—this is a serious record-playing machine.  The glowing red speed buttons turn to green with a mere touch.  And the V12 can accommodate 78RPM playback, for those with legacy collections.

We can argue about the merits and shortcomings of a 12-inch tonearm versus a shorter tonearm, but the main argument for a longer arm is minimized tracing distortion.  Here, the V12 succeeds brilliantly by utilizing an incredibly stiff yet lightweight tonearm wand that has an effective mass of only 12.9 grams.

A non-suspended design, the V12 table utilizes a massive CNC-machined plinth and an adjustable, high-mass aluminum “pod” pre-drilled for the tonearm mounting.  This removable pod uses a bayonet mount and is geared towards the analog enthusiast wishing to explore multiple tonearm and cartridge options. The finely gradated scale, where the base of the pod meets the plinth, makes it easy to perform the necessary adjustments for other tonearms with slightly different spindle-to-pivot distances.

Listening begins with a well-broken-in Lyra Kleos that has spent enough time on the AVID Volvere SP/SME V and the VPI Classic tables to be a familiar starting point for my review of the V12.  The AMG is considerably more expensive than the VPI and still almost a third more than the AVID/SME combination, and the presentation is markedly different.  Immediately, there is an increase in resolution from top to bottom, as well as a decrease in distortion.  A handful of albums from the “chronic-inner-groove-distortion” bin track through much easier than before.

Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie just happens to be at the top of this list.  A record that has always felt fairly grainy and etched on top plays now tracks clean.  The inner cut on side one, “Light From a Cake,” used to have a more gravely feel to the vocals, usually causing me to prematurely end the side, but now it sounds smooth, with the drums greatly improved and the violin fluid, where this experience used to be torturous.

Investigating other problematic tracks reveals the same thing: an overall continuity and sonic integrity, with no sign of drawbacks.  Thanks to the Furutech’s incredibly handy disc flattener, there are no more warped records in my collection, so I can’t comment on the longer tonearm’s ability to track highly warped records.

Time Flies

Now that I’m comfortable with the sound of the V12, exploring different cartridges is in order.  Next stop is the Sumiko Palo Santos, which has been favorably reviewed here, and offers a similar tonal balance to the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum.  Slightly rich tonally, this combination provides excellent extension and a somewhat warm rendition of the lower frequencies.

The AMG tonearm transforms the Palo Santos cartridge.  Sounding almost too warm and a little tubby with the SME 312 tonearm (also 12 inches), the Palo Santos snaps to life on the AMG, now with more definition in the lower registers.  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Street Survivors, via the recent MoFi Silver Label release, proves enlightening, with the multiple layers of guitars now having more bite than before; yet, the overall presentation retains the smoothness that is the signature of the V12.

The more time I spend with the V12, the more the palette it paints feels like open reel tape.  Herbie Hancock’s masterpiece, Empyrean Isles, unfolds just as it did when I heard the master tape during the Music Matters remastering session, with the presence of each of the four virtuosos retaining distinctly separate spaces and with the musicians’ complex improvisations intact.  The V12 delivers percussion and cymbals that are rich with attack and decay, but that strike a perfect balance of timbre and tone.

Diva Approved

Of course, the female voice is the litmus test for so many audiophiles, so a thorough exploration again reveals the extremely low distortion this configuration is capable of.  Now, having moved to the Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge, the bar is raised considerably.  Anyone doubting that this table can carry what is arguably one of the world’s finest (and, at $15,000, most expensive) cartridges is selling the AMG table short.

Marianne Faithfull’s take on the Rolling Stones’ classic “As Tears Go By,” from her 1987 record Strange Weather, is sublime, with the V12 extracting every bit of her addiction-scarred voice, and with Bill Frisell’s guitar hiding in the background, wandering in and out of the mix.  Faithfull’s voice is tough to capture, but the V12 gets every bit of grit out of the vinyl, highlighting the differences between the original pressing and the ORG 45RPM remaster.

Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez’s rendition of Aria from ‘La Wally’ illustrates how well the AMG/Goldfinger combination paints the striking sustain of the solo voice in an operatic setting.  Much like being called on to reproduce the violin, the combination demands tonal purity and a wide dynamic range, or else the illusion is lost.  Fernandez’s voice feels as if it is floating in front of me, even on the most dramatic passages.  For those unfamiliar with this piece, it is featured on the soundtrack of the ’80s cult-classic film, Diva.

Let’s Review

After living with the AMG V12 since mid June, I’m as smitten with it as the day I first unboxed it—not always an easy feat in the wacky and rapidly evolving world of high-end audio.  It’s often too easy for the charm that captures you in a dealer or hi-fi show demo to fade all too quickly after the excitement of the purchase wears off.  A cursory look at the online buying-and-selling community Audiogon will reveal this to be the case with so much gear.

I’m happy to say that this has not happened with the V12—hence I’ve purchased the review sample to make it a permanent part of our reference system.   There is still more information to be culled from your LP collection, but it’s going to take a lot more money to get there, especially if you’ve paired your V12 with a flagship cartridge like the Clearaudio Goldfinger, Lyra Atlas or something comparable.

The AMG V12 is such an excellent value, in terms of performance for the price, meticulous build quality and timeless style, that we award it our Analog Product of the Year award.  -Jeff Dorgay

The AMG V12 Turntable

MSRP: $16,500 (includes wooden base and 12-inch AMG tonearm)

Please click here for the AMG Factory site

Please click here for Sierra Sound, the US Distributor of AMG


Phono Cartridge Lyra Kleos    Sumiko Palo Santos    Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE    Simaudio Moon 810LP
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    Sonus faber Aida
Cable Cardas Clear

REL Classic 98 Subwoofer

REL has achieved a well-deserved reputation for making some of the (if not the) world’s highest performing subwoofers. Whether you have a single, pair or a six-pack, you can count on REL to deliver solid, defined bass response with prodigious output, mating invisibly with the main speakers. Considering how much speakers have evolved over the years, few can even make this claim, yet deliver the performance to back it up. Bass response is like any other aspect of audio – we all have our preferences.

Whether you want to use a subwoofer with a vintage pair of speakers, or just prefer your sub to deliver a bit more tonal saturation in the upper mid bass, the fastest, most transparent subwoofer may not make for the combination you desire. Putting a set of Michelin Cup 2’s on your vintage sports car will yield the same results – that much grip is not always the best thing. Enter the Classic 98. With its down firing 10-inch woofer in the tradition of earlier REL subs and walnut finish, it is the perfect sonic as well as aesthetic companion for your favorite classic speakers, British mini monitors, or even a set of high-sensitivity single (or coaxial) driver speakers. I did some serious listening with a number of different speakers to confirm this. And a big thanks to Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio for sending a PrimaLuna EVO 100 integrated amp and a pair of Tannoys to round out the picture.

REL’s John Hunter shares my love of slightly vintage/current classic audio, and we both have way too much of this gear in our respective collections, which have only grown over the last few years of semi-confinement. However, when it comes to older speakers like his KEF Ref 101s or original Wilson Watts, my Acoustats and original JBL-L100s, the fast, tight bass of a modern subwoofer doesn’t quite integrate as it should. Enter the Classic 98.

Tasteful modifications and improvements

While high performance rubber may upset the balance of your semi vintage car or motorcycle, there is always a level of tasteful, subtle modifications that can yield a vehicle outperforming the original enough to be more engaging, yet does not defy the character of the initial design brief, or upset the balance so much that you spend a ton of money and lose your way. Ask me how I know this.

Hunter tells me that they laid down the initial priorities to build a “new old stock REL of his dreams, that is just vintage enough in sound and styling – a little softer and more romantic (but still with the room filling bass you expect from REL) than current models.” Though he still has a REL Strata III on hand for reference, it didn’t quite keep pace with his memories. When placed into a semi vintage system, the Strata III was a bit too warm.

REL has adapted the look of their first subwoofers, with a luxurious satin walnut finish to a contemporary size. If you recall, the original Stratas were big boxes. The Classic 98 uses a hot pressed paper coned, 10-inch driver with a cotton center cap. It looks very vintage when you flip the Classic 98 over, but Hunter is quick to mention, “We know a lot more about paper than we did 25 years ago. The result is purer and more refined, retaining some of the rounder, gentler qualities of that era, yet steers clear of being dark and muddy.”

As you unpack the Classic 98, its build quality is instantly apparent. The cabinets are finished in a lovely matte finish and compliment the Tannoy’s perfectly. Good as all the combinations were, these tiny Tannoys and the Classic 98 are as good as it gets together. 40 watts per channel of tube power is all you need to enjoy this system.

When you find the optimum position for your Classic 98 and have the initial settings where you want them, have a friend dial the level control all the way down, play your favorite bass heavy track, and slowly bring the level up. Go back and forth, over and under the sweet spot until you have it where the subwoofer is no longer feeling like a separate speaker element. Experiment with the crossover frequency set slightly lower than you might think, with the gain slightly higher, and repeat the process to perfection. Then sit back and rock on.

When it’s right, you get more low frequency energy, but the sub calls no attention to itself. Try the opening of Rickie Lee Jones’ “Easy Money,” (from her self-titled album) and the opening of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Not Fragile” (from Not Fragile).

The players

Five speakers were auditioned with the Classic 98, all with fantastic results. The Heretic A612, Tannoy Prestige Autograph Minis and Harbeth Compact 7 were excellent modern speakers with a more vintage feel. A pair of original, mint JBL L-100s, Acoustat 2+2s were the vintage contingent. All five of these speakers have a slightly soft, warm bass response. Think more like the sound of a Dynaco Stereo 70 instead of an Audio Research REF 80S. Inviting and pleasant, even if not the last word in resolution.

Power was provided by the PrimaLuna EVO 100 integrated amplifier (40 wpc/EL-34 tubes) for most of the listening, with the First Watt SIT-3 (20 wpc/solid-state) an alternate choice. The dCS Vivaldi ONE provided music to the test setup, with the Pass Labs XS PRE combined with the First Watt as it is a power amplifier only.  All cable for this system was the latest Studio ONE from Audience.

To stay in the period groove, I didn’t listen to any of the usual techno or hip hop tracks I usually listen to when evaluating modern subwoofers. It was 60s, 70s and early 80s rock all the way. The completely groovy bass line in the Cowsills “The Rain, The Park, And Other Things” takes on a new dimension, filling in with the extra weight that the vintage speakers always needed. Next up, Dark Side of The Moon. Smiley face EQ-d MoFi vinyl no less. Get over it, it is fantastic.

All of the speakers in the test lineup required different settings, easily adjusted. Like all RELs, the Classic 98 has rear mounted controls for level, crossover, and LFE (should you have them in a surround setup but ignored here) connected by a speakon connector to your amplifiers speaker outputs. Of course, you can use line-level preamplifier outputs, but the results will not be quite as good, especially in terms of subwoofer to main speaker integration.

With a pair of vintage, or vintage-ish speakers as mains, adding the Classic 98 gives them the extra grunt they all need, without calling any attention to itself. I took Hunters’ advice, poured a bit of whisky, leaned back in the Eames Lounge, and played records all night. Even though my main speakers were right there, dormant with the REL six pack they are connected to, I never really had the urge to fire up the big system. This combination made for a great evening, and the total system cost was well below $10k. Even with more current music. With the Classic 98, you can create a magical, musically engaging system that’s so much fun, you might even forgo something more resolving. This is audio comfort food at its absolute best.

You didn’t know you need it but you do

The REL Classic 98 might just be the ultimate audiophile guilty pleasure. At $1,398 it embodies the same high level of quality that every other REL I’ve owned or used is famous for. Much as I’d like to tell you I bought the review sample, I couldn’t – they don’t have inventory yet! However, by the time this review is live you and I should be able to put our hands on one of these. Run don’t walk. I often suggest getting a pair of RELs (or a six pack), and the same applies here, but you can certainly have fun with a single Classic 98 to start. The downward facing driver makes for a bit more omnidirectional delivery, less critical of placement, and fits in with the tasteful presentation.

Aside from this being a product that completely hits the mark, I really enjoy that this was a labor of love project for John Hunter. It’s perfectly executed, yet affordable and approachable. This is something the high end needs more of. Hunter closes our conversation stating, “The Classic 98 is a chance to revisit REL’s rich heritage. We strove to remain true to Richard Lord’s basic principles and styling. We restrained ourselves from simply building a modern REL in a walnut cabinet.”

To his point, they have succeeded – to perfection.

Please click here to visit the REL site.

The REL Classic 98 Subwoofer

It may look retro, but rest assured the new Classic 98 from REL delivers the goods. This is a unique sonic tool, geared more towards listeners that enjoy vintage/classic speakers, with a slightly warmer low-frequency response, or perhaps a British monitor, with some of the same. Ever hear Harbeth owners complain that you can’t mate a sub with them? Now you can.

But let’s stay in the vintage groove for now. We’ll release the full review later today, but suffice to say that if you’ve got a pair of speakers from the 60s to the early 90s that you are really fond of, but would enjoy a bit more extended bass response while keeping in character, this is the droid you want. With a downward-firing, paper coned 10-inch driver and 300 watt amplifier, it’s still a REL, but subtly tuned for the application.

REL’s John Hunter has created a masterpiece that is voiced to be ever so slightly more tonal saturated and robust in the mid-bass, and a bit softer on the bottom of the LF register, but not soggy and slow like the subwoofers of that era were. It’s a perfect fit for a lot of classic speakers, and one we recommend highly.

YG Acoustics Cairn Speakers

Listening to the expansive sound field created by the tiny YG Cairns, with a pair of 8-foot tall electrostatic speakers in the background is really impressive, but not surprising.

The opening of Tears For Fears “Woman in Chains” is big and broad – paying homage to some of the best studio craft the 80s had to offer, with stuff panning around everywhere. Switching to Lou Reed’s “Vanishing Act” is equally exciting, with his voice and solo piano sounding larger than life. It’s almost hard to belive that all this music is coming from a pair of diminutive (14.6 x 7.6 x 10.3″) monitors on 24” tall stands.

I had the good fortune to visit the YG factory in Colorado at the beginning of April, to experience the entire Peaks line of speakers. In their purpose-built room, everything on display not only sounded incredible, but clearly illustrated where the increases in performance occur between the entry level Cairn and the top of the range Summit at $25,000/pair.

Duncan Taylor and Steve Huntley were even kind enough to put up with my quirky musical tastes, but that made it very easy to get a quick read on what their speakers can accomplish. If you only remember YG for their exquisitely machined aluminum enclosures, the new Peaks have wooden cabinets, that retain the thick, inert aluminum front face. Though the precision machined waveguide for the tweeter in the Peaks series is quite different than the reference series, the look makes them instantly recognizable as a YG.

Taking care of business

Listening to the Cairns in my 24 x 36-foot room, which is at least similar in volume, provides equally engaging results. While Taylor is a master set up person, even just plopping them in my room for an initial listen is still excellent. The wave guide giving the patented YG ForgeCore tweeter a wide dispersion pattern, not only helps to make these speakers easy to set up, they provide a large enough sweet spot that everyone can enjoy the music. As with any great hifi speaker, the best seat will always be right in the middle, but the Cairns deliver an expansive enough experience that they sound great off axis, and even sitting on the floor as a casual observer/listener.

In the big room, final placement ends up being about ten feet apart and about four feet out from the rear wall, with about 7 feet on each side. This makes for an incredibly open sound, and even in this size room, the amount of LF energy these small (6”) woofers can generate is truly impressive.

Speaking of stands, the machined 24” tall aluminum stands that will put the Cairn tweeters at the perfect height will set you back another $1,500 – but they are worth every cent. Machined at the same level of the rest of the YG lineup, they include small dimples on the speaker platforms, so you never need worry about a perfect speaker/stand interface. And you never need to worry about bumping them out of alignment. This is the only quandary with the Cairn, do you spend $10k for speaker and stand, or go all out and invest $14,200 in a pair of Talus floorstanders, taking up about the same amount of space? Great as the Cairns are, someone with little ones might just want to get the floorstanders.  

(Lack of) sonic signature

The original YG speakers were billed as the “world’s greatest speakers,” and to be fair, they were indeed very good, but a bit on the overly analytical/harsh/fatiguing side. We enjoyed their stay, but they were only lovely on your best recordings. Everything else felt over-caffinated. (or something a little less legal, if you know what I mean) So much time and effort have been put into all of the current YG speakers, forget everything you remember about the past.

The result is a speaker that is both highly resolving, yet not fatiguing. Tonally, they are extremely natural, so you can leave the final system voicing to your taste. While the Cairns sound different with tube amplifiers than they do with solid-state, both are pleasing, and it’s up to you to decide the ultimate flavor of your audible experience. You don’t notice immediately just how uncolored these speakers are until you go back to something else. And then it hits you.

YG does not mention the Cairns crossover frequency, but the sheer seamlessness between the woofer and tweeter is pure success. There’s no beaming, cutoff, or the sense that you are listening to a separate woofer and tweeter. Tracking through numerous female and male vocalists is enjoyable, without anomalies of any kind. Stringed instruments sound correct – as well as violins and pianos, my favorite torture tests.

Final voice is up to you

Trying the Cairns with everything from a 8-Watt/channel SET amplifier (The ampsandsound Black Pearl, with WE 300B tubes) up to the mighty Pass XA200.8 monoblocks is a fruitful endeavor. Thanks to an unobtrusive crossover network, these 86db/1-Watt speakers sound absolutely engaging, even with the 8 Watts per channel the Black Pearl has to offer. At least to a certain volume level.

While 8 Watts per channel is somewhat shy, 30-50 will serve you well in all but the largest rooms. The PrimaLuna EVO 400 power amplifier in stereo mode with EL34s delivers a warm, yet resolving groove. Substituting KT150s offers more mid to top end snap. The versatility that the YGs offer is so much sheer fun, you might get lost in the experimentation! And isn’t hifi supposed to be fun? Even with warmer tube amplifiers, the sheer resolution that the Cairns provide allow you to re-examine your music collection. The only danger with the big Pass amplifiers was watching the volume control when listening to music of a more electronic or hip-hop groove. A six-inch woofer can only move in and out so far. And the Cairn exhibits so much raw ability, it’s tempting to keep twisting the volume control.(and damage the woofers)

YG has promised to send us their Descent subwoofer from the Peaks lineup for a second listen with the Cairn, but for now, bringing a REL Carbon Special into the mix, confirms how much a topnotch subwoofer can flesh out the sound of these incredible speakers. Thanks to the dynamic, punchy nature of the Cairns, the last bit of LF reinforcement from a sub expands their already large soundfield.

Editors note: since we originally published this review, YG has sent us their matching Descent subwoofer and it’s the perfect match. We’ll have a full review very soon.

The details

From a performance standpoint, the YG Cairn speakers are a true bargain. Closer examination reveals an attention to detail usually reserved for Formula 1 cars. The sophistication of their machine shop where the aluminum cabinet parts, the woofer cones and other parts are an exercise in top level design and implementation.

The YG team doesn’t miss a single thing. Even the binding posts are shipped with threaded protectors to keep the posts from being snapped off in shipping. Ask me how many times this has happened over the 20 years of TONE reviews? What a considerate thing to do.

As an admitted technology geek, I pretty much freaked out at how attentive YG is to every single aspect of their design and manufacturing. Company principal Dr. Matthew Webster is a Stephen Hawking smart kind of guy and told me about how much time and money they spent on Amazon’s supercomputing network to not only optimize speaker design, but modeling how their speakers would work in every possible environment with different components. This level of engineering just isn’t done in audio. It’s a wonderful thing when the technology serves the music like this.

Raw tech just for tech’s sake isn’t worth diddly if it doesn’t work. The YG speakers succeed on every level and are one of the easiest to set up and integrate into a wide range of cables and components I’ve yet experienced. That’s worth a lot, especially to those entering the realm of high-end audio, as their capability for some of the fussiness that seasoned audiophiles take for granted hasn’t developed yet.

The YG Cairns offer an exceptional amount of performance for the most demanding music enthusiast, and so we are more than happy to award them an Exceptional Value Award for 2023. These speakers are the most thought-out product I’ve had the chance of using, ever.

Please click here for more info on the YG site…


Preamplifier Pass XS Pre

Phono Stage                            Pass XP-27, Nagra Classic, Backert Labs Rhumba 1.1

Analog Source                        SME 20 w/Hana Umami Red

Digital Source                         dCS Vivaldi ONE

Cable                                       Cardas Clear

The Peak Consult Sinfonia Speakers

Listening to Kraftwerk’s “Boing Boom Tschak” through the Peak Consult Sinfonias has so much information in all three dimensions, it’s almost psychedelic. Tracking all the way through the Techno Pop album is almost too much fun. The sonic field created by these speakers is so enormous, you might think you were listening to a pair of big Sound Lab ESLs or MartinLogan CLX’s. However, the punchy bass convinces you these are no panels. Peak Consult has always had a way with sound.

The picture you see above is interesting because about 15 years ago we reviewed the Peak Consult Princess speakers and loved the engaging sound of these compact floor standing speakers. At the time, they had an MSRP of about $15,000/pair and were worth every penny. If you’ve ever seen a pair of Peak Consult speakers, you know that the build quality is incredible and even the small Princesses weighed over 100 pounds each. To say that these artisan-built cabinets are inert is an understatement. The Sinfonias you see here are $55,000/pair, and weigh 165lb. (75kg) each.

In my forgetful way, I neglected to send the accessory package back, containing a cleaning cloth, some cleaner for the leather surfaces, and a bottle of oil for the wood surfaces. When I called the late Chris Sommovigo, who at that time was the Peak importer, he said, “Just keep it, we’ll be sending you another pair for review shortly.” As fate would have it, that did not happen, and the Sinfonias were a welcome site, their large crates arriving practically the day I decided to tear all the walls down in my listening room. So, they stayed hidden in the garage, with my Mini pushed back to within a few millimeters of the crates as a bit of extra “security.”  

Fortunately, all went smoothly, the walls came down, and the Sinfonias are now strutting their stuff in a 24 x 36-foot room. Initial setup attempts where past speakers sounded good yielded a slight upper bass bump, so after several different placements, they worked magnificently about three more feet into the room than before (which would not have been possible in the old room) and also on the long wall, with nearly 12 feet on each side of the speakers. While I realize not everyone will have this option, it is glorious.

Taking care of business

Because the Sinfonias have substantial low bass output, these are not speakers that can be casually placed in the room, and because they also deliver high resolution, it is to your advantage to take the time to carefully place them. First setting up for proper bass optimization and coupling to the room is key. Then, a bit of experimentation with rake and toe-in to get just the right amount of high-end sparkle takes them the rest of the way. These 172-pound (each) speakers are remarkably easy to remove from their shipping crates and thanks to some Teflon pucks on hand, easy to move into place singlehandedly.

Peak’s soft dome tweeter is smooth, yet resolving (I admit a bias for the sound of soft dome tweeters, so take that for what it’s worth) and the level of coherence provided is definitely reminiscent of a full range design. This is a true testament to the meticulous crossover network inside, which crosses to the midrange driver at 3,100 Hz and then again to the woofer at 450 Hz. This rear ported design claims to be 3dB down at 25 Hz on the bottom and 30 kHz up on top. While we don’t do specific measurements, playing a series of test tones reveals only slightly diminished output going from 30 to 25 Hz, but then dropping substantially from 25 to 20 Hz. But that’s what REL six packs are for…

Even the most dedicated bassheads will be more than happy with the low frequency performance of the Sinfonia. The biggest difference between these and my last reference speakers, the Sonus faber Stradivari’s’ is the quality of the LF output and an equally natural, yet more resolving midband. Listening to a wide range of tracks with serious energy in the lowest part of the frequency spectrum is very rewarding.

The opening track of Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Restless Daughter features some incredibly low bass notes played by Jaco Pastorius, that are tough to capture on vinyl, but absolutely growl when played back from a 24/192 digital file. It starts at 1:45 in, and these riffs punctuate the track. While the single woofers in each Sinfonia cabinet can not produce the sheer output of my six pack of REL no.25 subwoofers, what’s most important is that the definition and quality provided is incredibly close. Precious few speakers at any price can deliver this.

It’s about the cabinet

So much has been carefully optimized in terms of driver and crossover design, yet the cabinet is a huge part of the equation. Chatting with Wilfried Ehrenholz, the principal at Peak Consult, he makes it a point to discuss the complexity of the Sinfonia’s enclosure, which features a 45mm thick (almost 2-inches) front baffle and a cabinet made up of multiple materials, bound together with a special flexible adhesive. These layers work together to absorb the unwanted resonant energy instead of clouding the sonic presentation. “Like in two different restaurants, using the same ingredients, one meal is fantastic, and one is average. The design team on the Sinfonia has a combined experience of nearly 80 years in the speaker business – that makes the difference.”

He goes on further about the cabinets to emphasize that they are made entirely in-house. “You can not go to a cabinet supplier to get all the crazy custom work we have done to these cabinets. It must be done in-house.”

For those of you not familiar, Ehrenholz is the former CEO of Dynaudio, recently out of retirement to work with Peak Consult. Karl-Heinz Fink (of Fink Team) has been enlisted to work on the crossover design and perform all the measurements. Ehrenholz goes on to comment, “we are very efficient in our design process. Karl-Heinz has very sophisticated measuring equipment and knows exactly what he’s doing, so before we start, he’s measuring drivers. By the time we start listening, we’re already about 70% of the way there.”

In addition to the cabinet, the Sinfonias (like all PC speakers are coupled to the floor by “Serenity bars.” These stainless steel footers at the bottom of the enclosure have screw in steel pods with high quality ceramic balls, supporting the entire weight of the speaker, with less than 1 square millimeter actually coming between the ground and the speaker. This not only decouples the speaker, but eliminates the need for potentially damaging spikes. Beautiful, precise, and unique.

This is only part of the story. Quality mavens will be excited over every inch of the Sinfonias, from their gorgeous wood cabinets to the lovely leather front and rear faces. The quality of execution is every bit as good if not better as what comes from Sonus faber in Italy. These are speakers you will be excited to have in your environment.

A quiet calm

If you bought a Bentley Continental as your first luxury car, you probably wouldn’t appreciate just how special it is, and so it goes with speakers. I gently suggest that the more you’ve heard, the more you will appreciate these speakers. Their lack of tonal coloration makes every kind of music welcome, and their high level of resolution will bring numerous “a-ha” moments to the time spent in front of them.

Like the Bentley they do everything at such a high level of quality, you almost forget how much work went in behind the scenes to make it all seem so easy. Swapping components in and out instantly reveals the changes made, so while being incredibly musical the Sinfonias are incredibly useful as a reference speaker as well. Whether you are a music lover, gear geek, or any combination thereof, you’ll be equally enthralled with the Sinfonias.

Specs aren’t the whole picture

One more aspect of the Sinfonia’s design that Ehrenholz is particularly proud of is the crossover design. Thanks to their Peak linear impedance control (PLIC), they claim the impedance only varies +/- 1 ohm with a nominal impedance of 5 ohms. The Sinfonias also have a claimed sensitivity of 89dB/1 Watt.

In addition to the seamless blend of the drivers, the PLIC is a low-loss crossover network. Not all speakers with the same sensitivity measurements are equally easy to drive. Thanks to this design, even driving the Peak’s with the 15-watt per channel ampsandsound tube monoblocks is a success. Some crossover designs that are more complex tend to lose the first few watts in the network – no big deal if you have 200-Watt monoblocks. To make a long story short, the Peaks are incredibly tube friendly.

All things considered, anything above about 40 Watts per channel will drive the Sinfonias, but how loud you need to go will determine how much more power you’ll need. Much as I love my reference Pass XA200.8/Pass XS Pre combo, the absolute magical combination has turned out to be the new PS Audio BHK 600 Monos, driven by the incredible ART88 preamplifier from conrad-johnson.

The PS amps deliver slightly better bass control at higher levels, and the CJ preamplifier images like nothing I’ve ever experienced – again proving how resolving the Peak speakers are. Every change, no matter how minute is easily discerned. This will allow you to fine tune the result exactly to your liking with ease. That being said, there wasn’t a combination I didn’t like.

More listening

Because the Sinfonias are so engaging, I listened to even more music than normal, both in dedicated listening, and just for background music while doing other things. No matter what music was playing, it was all enjoyable. Nothing caught me off guard, whether listening to solo piano or guitar, to larger scale orchestral works, or the heaviest rock music. Having heard the last version of their top-of-the-line Dragon at contributor Richard Mak’s house, the only thing the Sinfonia does not deliver, is that last half octave of low bass, and the ability to play louder. But I don’t listen as loud as Mr. Mak does, so for me the Sinfonias are just fine. All of the Peak Consult speakers share a similar voice, which again speaks to the excellence of the design team.

In closing I ask Ehrenholz when he and his team know when to stop the design process and go forward with the final build. “When I have no further ideas on how to improve, then we stop.” The proof is in the listening. While I am no speaker engineer, I have certainly listened to a lot of them over the past 40 years, and I must agree, there is nothing I would ask the Peak Consult team to improve in the Sinfonia. These are by far one of the most musically satisfying speakers I’ve had the pleasure to spend time with. I feel they have certainly met their goals. In my room with my system, they are absolutely heavenly.

Please click here for more information at the PC site:

Vera-Link: The most fun you can have for $199!

Some of you may remember Mark Schifter for all the fun products he came up with during his tenure at Audio Alchemy. They made some incredible products that had cutting edge performance, in tiny enclosures, with tiny price tags to match.

Many an audiophile started their journey with one or more Audio Alchemy components. Well, you can’t take the fun out of the boy, and his latest product, the Vera-Link is a 50 watt-per-channel class D amplifier and streamer, built into a box about the size of a deck of playing cards. While this may not sound super “audiophile-y,” because you can only get so much for 200 bucks, but the Vera-Link does sound pretty damn good for what it is. Certainly, better than a $300-$500 vintage 70s receiver that needs to have all the caps refreshed, that still needs a streamer. And, you can control up to five zones from your phone, so put those surplus speakers to work!

Substitute the word audiophile for fun

Now you’ve got it. I’ll bet you’ve got a great pair of older vintage speakers lying about that you’d love to press into service, or perhaps make more mobile – i.e. take em’ out on the porch/patio when you’re grilling, maybe even throw in the back of your truck for a trip to your favorite camping spot. But how to power them? If you’ve got any kind of inverter, you can run the Vera-Links that way. To try a mobile battery solution I used the two supplied wall warts with a 1400W Yeti battery supply with excellent results. All that’s left is to pair the amps with your Bluetooth streaming device. Vera-Fi even provides the Velcro to attach these babies to the back of your speakers. After the better part of an afternoon, the Yeti went from 100% capacity to 96%, so the current drain from these is minimal.


While I tried the Vera-Link with a couple of speakers that are way more expensive than what you’d choose to pair them with, it does reveal the engineering prowess at work. Even connected to the Eggleston Nicos that were on the cover of issue 102, listening to the strings at work with Al DiMeola, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stanley Clarke’s Live at Montreux 1994, is highly enjoyable. No, it’s not a pair of Pass Class-A monoblocks enjoyable, but it’s way better than my neighbor’s crappy $800 Alexa speaker.

To make things more equitable for the little amplifiers, the next choice is a pair of vintage A/D/S L400 speakers. Thanks to the magic of Velcro, an older pair of Cerwin-Vega speakers are brought into play as well as a really old pair of Dynaco speakers. (Remember those?) Think thrift store fun here. Upping the budget a bit, the XSA Vanguards were also brought out for a test drive with excellent results making for a great portable system as well. However, I’m just so enamored with the simplicity and low-budget ethos of the Vera-Link, I like the lower priced speakers. An iPhone 14 was used as a source, and files streamed to the Vera-Link with Roon (16/44) and Spotify (320kb/sec).

The Vera-Link certainly has enough resolution to hear the difference between CD quality and 320kb files, but it’s not enough to discourage you from using your favorite $100-$200 pair of speakers and not being able to enjoy music. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of these tiny, non-distinct amplifiers is how far Class-D amplification has come. The A/D/S are my favorite budget/vintage speaker, with great midrange and smooth highs. They make a wonderful match with the Vera-Fi’s. And while we don’t do measurements, they certainly can play loud with these amplifiers, easily as loud as my vintage Marantz 2275.

When listening to heavier rock selections, as well as some of my favorite fusion tracks (lots of Stanley Clarke and Herbie Hancock) the Vera-Link’s ability to play complex music really shines through. Go back to that Montreux album and listen to Stanley Clarke’s bass solo. Yow. These amplifiers not only deliver robust bass extension, but good bass control.

Short and sweet

Other than the fact that these amplifiers are very musical, play loud without distortion, and have much less grunge than you would ever expect from a $200 pair of monoblocks (albeit Barbie Dream House sized monoblocks) there’s not much more to tell. They sound great, are unobtrusive, and offer no-fuss, no muss setup. If the audiophile bug still won’t let you go, plug the Vera-Fi’s into a linear power supply for even better sound – but you lose some of the portability.

Seriously, I’m buying a pair for my tool box. Why wouldn’t I? You never know when that vintage receiver is going to take a dump, or a friend in need has the same problem. They are going to go right next to my battery jump box. These would make great stocking stuffers, or even a great way to get your favorite budding audiophile one step further down the path. As I mentioned earlier, these are also a great way to have portable high-end sound anywhere. This is such a cool product, I think everyone should have a pair of these.

Here is the website for more info.

Should you be so excited that you need one RIGHT NOW, here’s a direct purchase link:

PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT a paid, “affiliate” link. We reserve NO compensation for you purchasing this product via the TONE site. Just trying to make your shopping easier, and save you a few minutes in your busy day. :)

Keeping the discs spinning – Naim’s CD5si

What’s more intriguing in 2023? That vinyl’s upsurge refuses to subside, or that some music lovers still love their CD collections? Crazy as it may seem, CDs are still being pressed, and used CDs languishing on music store shelves are one of the best bargains going.

Naim has always made fantastic CD players, and the CD5si is the sole survivor. And for about $1,600 it’s a killer value. The build quality is much like their old flagship, the CD555. Thanks to Naim’s own semi-circular, manual drawer, this is a robust drive mechanism indeed. All the bits you can’t see (clock, power supplies and the latest Burr Brown PCM 1793) contribute to a highly musical player at a budget price.

We’ll have a full review very soon, but if you’re looking for that last, reasonably priced, yet high performance CD player, we can’t suggest the CD5si highly enough. Note, this player does not have DAC or streaming inputs. The CD5si does one thing – play CDs with RCA (and Naim) analog outputs, and it does it incredibly well.

Please click here for the CD5si page on the Naim site.

Issue 118

Cover Story

Raising the bar:
The new ART88 Preamp from C-J


The TONE Toon returns! : by Lorie Ransom

Old School: Audio Research CA50

1095: Great new Table from TEAC!

The Audiophile Apartment: Focal Vestia no.1 Speakers

Journeyman Audiophile: BelCanto’s Black EX Integrated

Cartridge Dude: Jeff and Chris listen to the PrimaLuna EVO100 Phono

Headphone Arts:  Back next issue!

Shanon Says! :  AXPONA 2023

Short Take: Tellurium Q Signature Digital Cables

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future


Peak Consult Sinfonia Speakers
PS Audio BHK 600 Monoblocks
Perreaux 200ix Integrated


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world
Jim Macnie on Jazz
Audrey Medina – Merch tent/The T-shirt guy

The PrimaLuna EVO100 Phono

Listening to PrimaLuna’s new tube phonostage begins with an audiophile cut for a change. If you haven’t had a chance to hear Earth & Wood on Yarlung Records, this is an incredible piece of music exquisitely captured. The tone and dynamics are out of this world good. Seeing the EVO 100 Phono has a 50-ohm setting for MC loading, Rega’s Apheta 2 mounted to a Rega P9 is the toughest cartridge to drive on hand. The Apheta cartridges often get a bad rap at being thin and strident sounding, but nearly all the time they are loaded at too high of an impedance setting. 25-50 ohms is the key to unlocking the speed and transparency that this cartridge offers, and the EVO is a perfect match.

Next up, the SME 20 with a Lyra Helikon reworked by Ana Mighty Sound delivers a completely different voice. Not quite as contrasty from top to bottom, the Lyra has considerably more inner detail and front to back depth. Tracking through a handful of Blue Note remasters delivers a luxurious, texture filled presentation, that brings these classics to life.

Going off on a different tangent, the Technics 1200GR with Luxman LMC-5 is the last choice, again, we’re talking about different and subtlety, rather than hit you over the head differences, but you should know that the EVO 100 possesses more than enough resolution to let all of these different cartridges shine.

A long time in the making

PrimaLuna fans have been asking Herman van den Dungen at PrimaLuna when they would make a killer phono stage offering a level of performance and value to match their award winning amplification products for some time now. They’ve produced a CD player and recently a DAC – both upholding the PrimaLuna traditions of value, performance, and execution. (Staffer Sean Zloch owns the DAC and loves it, btw.) You have to hand it to Mr. van den Dungen for keeping a poker face, he’s never even hinted that they were actually doing this project.

Well, it’s here and it’s fantastic. Though it’s commonplace today to spout superlatives at every turn in the audio reviewing world, the EVO 100 Phono gets highest praise, as I own a handful of great $10k-ish phonostages from ARC, Backert Labs, BAT, Pass Labs, and VAC. The 20k-ish Nagra Classic Phono is also here for listening, so when I say that the EVO is one of the best deals going in a $3,700 phono and delivers performance you’d expect to pay more for, it’s not empty praise. It’s been compared to several great phono stages, with a wide variety of cartridges.

PrimaLuna has been around for 20 years now, and their components stand the test of time. Check your favorite internet forum, EBay, or Audiogon. There’s rarely many used PrimaLuna components for sale. People tend to keep em. For those of you that haven’t heard me say this often, I still have my ProLogue One integrated that I reviewed for The Absolute Sound 20 years ago. Just over 2,500 components have come through the door as TONE approaches its 19th birthday, and this one’s still delivering the goods. So, this is a product you can buy with total confidence.

Break it down again

The EVO 100 Phono uses a half-sized chassis, like the original PrimaLuna integrated amplifiers, the current EVO DAC and the EVO 100 series products. The physical design and styling match all PrimaLuna products, with the familiar dark blue metallic chassis, black or silver matte front panel, and the Coney Island Hot Dog warmer tube cage. It also comes triple boxed to make sure it is not damaged in transit, and a pair of gloves so you don’t smudge it when installing. If this is your first go around with PrimaLuna, you’ll be impressed with how well their products are packaged.

Though the EVO 100 Phono offers MM and MC capability, there is only one phono input on the rear panel. This is the only real complaint I have with it, and it’s unfortunate that they couldn’t have at least gone the route of having a separate MM and MC input, allowing you to use two turntables, or even using an external step-up transformer with the MM input. A single pair of RCA outputs are also supplied for output to your preamplifier or integrated of choice. With a pair of 6922 tubes for the MC stage, the main gain and MM stage each use a pair of 12AX7 tubes. And all the gain tubes have those vintage coolio metal cans to keep noise down.

Space the final frontier

Even though people are still arguing about analog versus digital, the spaciousness that analog brings to the listening experience is always exciting. Side one of Earth & Wood features Lou Harrison’s 1940s “Canticle No. 3.” Performed by the Smoke and Mirrors percussion ensemble, this track features a steel guitar and a number of vintage percussion instruments. The closest comparison would be to some of the Mickey Hart Drumming at the Edge work. The spaciousness of this recording through the recently installed Peak Consult Sinfonia speakers is massive.

Moving back to more familiar territory, Paul Weller’s first solo album proves equally engaging. Though this record feels digitally mastered, that feeling of a nearly endless soundstage is incredibly cool, revealing fine details not as easily discernable in the Japanese CD version. Isn’t that what vinyl is all about? Uh huh, oh yeah.

The vinyl version of Kruder & Dorfmeister’s The K&D Sessions is perfectly suited to this turtable/cartridge setup, and the tonal saturation that the PrimaLuna adds to the Rega makes for a Technicolor/Superscope presentation. The bass hits hard, and the tinkly bits float around the room. This all-tube design is a master of rendering three dimensional space, precisely the thing I gravitate towards tubes for.

MM and MC

While Chris did not achieve incredible synergy with the EVO 100 and the MM cartridges he had on hand, the Technics 1200G and Concorde Silver (basically a higher performance Ortofon OM40 in a Concorde body) used here was perfection, as well as our other MM reference, the Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood. Both delivered the dynamics you associate with taking the MM path. My least favorite matchup with the EVO 100 on the MM side, was the Linn LP-12 Basik, sporting their Adikt II cartridge. Sometimes it’s just how the planets line up, but this combination is already somewhat on the romantic side, so this might just be a bit too much of a good thing. And remember, I’m the guy on the staff that leans to the warmer side of things.

An interesting aspect of the EVO 100 Phono is the all-tube design – no step up transformers, Op amps, or solid-state gain stage anywhere. A pair of hand-picked 6922s are hidden around back, in a sub enclosure (behind a little door) with the circuit board suspended from the main chassis. You simply remove a small pair of posts to remove the door for tube access. This only delivers 60dB of maximum MC gain, but also adds a level of circuit purity and tonal saturation that others do not. The medium and low gain settings are 56dB and 52dB, handy if you have a high(er) output MC that ranges from .9mV to 2.5mV.

It’s slightly on the low side for something in the .25 – .30mV range, like a Denon 103 if you have a preamplifier/linestage with low to moderate gain. However, when feeding the Pass XS Pre and the conrad-johnson ART88 (in for review) we had no problems with lower output cartridges. And it’s a perfect match for an all PrimaLuna system. If you have a MC cartridge in the .4mV – .6mV range, you will be fine regardless. The EVO offers loading at 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000 ohms for MC and two capacitance settings of 47pF, and 100pF for MM.

Many different system configurations were tried, however most listening was done with the Pass gear and Peak Consult speakers. While the EVO 100 lacks the ultimate level of resolution of the $10-$20k phonostages on hand here, (as it should) to coin an old audiophile cliché, they are only sins of omission. Yet dynamically, the EVO leaves precious little on the table compared to some of the industry’s finest thanks to the enormous power supply with tube rectification handled by a pair of 5AR4s and regulation from a pair of EL34s. It’s like getting out of a Carrera GTS and getting into a standard model 911. After about half an hour, you don’t really miss that extra 50 horsepower all that much.

I have to confess to not being much of a tube roller, but considering the luck I have had with PrimaLuna pre and power amplifiers, I’m guessing those of you that want to invest in some premium NOS tubes for this phonostage can probably wring even more performance from it. This is not to say it is necessary to enjoy the EVO 100, but the most fanatic among you can probably take it a click or two further, should you choose to experiment.

There was a time that almost four grand was crazy money for a phonostage. Today not so much, but for many analog enthusiasts this is still a major commitment of resources. To that effect, the EVO Phono is more than worthy of an Exceptional Value Award for 2023. I know I could live with one of these forever – and with shopping season around the corner, i still may purchase one. Highly recommended.

To get a better handle on how it stacks up to something much more in the same price neighborhood, I sent it over to Chris’ house for a while as he has been listening to the Modwright 9.0 SE (now with X mods) for some time. Here’s his take on the two.

Additional listening; Chris Harr

For several months, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying ModWright’s PH 9.0 phono stage ($3,500). So much so, I recently returned the unit to ModWright for the “X” upgrades (+$1.250). While the “X” mods are entirely positive, they don’t transform the PH 9.0 into an entirely different phono stage. For that reason, it seemed obvious to compare it to the $3,695 PrimaLuna Evo 100 Tube Phonostage.

For initial listening, the PrimaLuna Evo 100 Phonostage is paired with an Avid Volvere SP with a Kuzma 4 Point 9 tonearm. The phono cartridge selected is an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze modified by Andy Kim at the Needle Clinic with a boron cantilever and micro ridge stylus.  Listening to the Evo 100 phono stage, I’m quickly struck by a smooth, liquid and well-layered midrange while listening to Clementine on Halsey’s (Ashley Nicollet Fragipane) Manic album. Make no mistake, Halsey is a pop singer/songwriter of a special quality. Her voice carries a textured emotional depth and the PrimaLuna allows that nuance to be clearly heard. Contrasting overdubbed vocals emerge from a space behind the main vocal rather than blending with the primary vocal. The effect is haunting, in a good way, as though we’re hearing a bit of raw emotional desperation.

Later, listening to “Little Death” from The Beths’ debut album Future Me Hates Me, I’m greeted with the expected crystalline triangle-type sound at the beginning of the track followed by a rapid, light cymbal tap before the song transitions into wall of electric guitars over the top of galloping drums. The Evo 100 keeps the dense instrumentation well-separated and clearly placed in the soundstage.

Next, a ProJect X8 with a Nagaoka MP-200 cartridge (4mV MM) and Cardas Cygnus phono cable is plugged in to assess the PrimaLuna’s MM input. I found the overall combination to be excessively weighted toward the bottom octaves and relatively dark sounding overall. This same configuration is warm through the ModWright also, but very satisfying especially with recordings which tend toward being “hot” in the upper midrange and treble.

Finally, a Rega RP6 with a Dynavector 20x2H (2.8mV HOMC)is substituted. The sound is clear and well balanced, if not as intense as I was accustomed to through the PH 9.0. Overall, I am left with the impression that the Evo 100’s MM stage is best paired with livelier, brighter sounding MM cartridges. I’m sure some of this could be changed by a little tube rolling in the MM section.

My evening concluded by switching back to the Avid and listening to Phantogram’s Eyelid Movies. Phantogram recordings fall into a special category of electronic rock/dream pop with sequenced beats. They’re intense, fun albums but are far from being “audiophile” quality recordings. Despite the average recording quality, I was again struck by the smooth, textured clarity of vocals through the Evo 100.

While the majority of Phantogram’s songs are sung by Sarah Barthel, the occasional track is sung by guitarist and producer Josh Carter. His voice often falls back into the mix, lacking nuance. Through the PrimaLuna, he emerges in a convincing, textured manner not experienced before. Very impressive.

A major difference between the ModWright to the PrimaLuna is how differently they present dynamics. The Evo 100 builds from the bottom-up, whereas the ModWright builds top-down from a higher average intensity level. High frequency dynamic details emerge from the Primaluna, as though someone were turning up a dimmer switch in a darkened room. From the ModWright, the ambient light level is higher, and the color temperature changes instead.

The ModWright PH 9.0X presents dense rock and pop recordings in a stable, lively manner with tighter, punchier bass and equally extended low frequencies. Paired with the Focal Scala Utopia Evo’s powered by a Parasound JC5, The lower octaves and overall tonal balance are more satisfying through the ModWright with rock, pop and electronic recordings, the types of music I listen to most often.

To my ear, The PrimaLuna Evo 100 Phonostage is the warmer, more organic sounding phono stage, excelling at presenting a comparatively more layered midband, remaining unflustered when complex passes occur and remaining sweet in the top octaves.

An audition of the PrimaLuna would be easy to recommend, especially to vinyl enthusiasts who gravitate toward acoustic and vocal based recordings.


Bel Canto Black EX Integrated

Sonic and Stylistic Excellence

We’re just winding up our full review of the Bel Canto Black EX integrated, and it’s been a great time. We’ve been listening to some fantastic integrateds lately, and this one’s at the top of our list. With 250 Watts per channel on tap (8-ohms, double into 4) you should be able to listen as loud as you ever need.

The Black EX is unique in the sense that even the analog inputs (MM and MC phono) are converted to high resolution digital and everything happens in the digital domain. This includes a tilt control, bass control and a high pass filter to fully optimize powered subwoofers.

Good as it sounds, the EX is compact and beautifully executed. The black finish and the quality of enclosure machining will look fantastic no matter what your décor. With everything on a single chassis, you can kiss that big rack of gear goodbye.

Please click HERE to visit the Bel Canto site and get the rest of the specs. The Black EX integrated has an MSRP of $15,500.

Issue 117

Cover Story

Redefining the 300B Sound:
ampsandsound’s Black Pearl


Old School: Direct Drive Nak: The MR-1
by Jeff Dorgay

1095: The SVS 3000 Micro Subwoofer

The Audiophile Apartment: The Teenage Engineering OB-4
by Rob Johnson

Journeyman Audiophile: YG-Acoustics Cairn Speakers

Headphone Arts:  The Sendy Acoustics Peacock

Short Take: Swiss Digital’s Fuse Box

Short Take: Great analog tools from Hummin Guru

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future


Heretic AD612
Pass Labs INT-25 Integrated
Java HiFi Single Shot
Totem Fire Element V2


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world

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.

Power to the people – with Fuse Box!

With audiophile fuses all the rage these days, Swiss Digital has an alternative. A fuse replacement.

Taking advantage of microprocessor technology, the Fuse Box monitors how much current your component is using and then shuts it down if the parameters are exceeded. And this tech has picked up some ground lately, with a few other manufacturers following their lead.

For now, we’ve only had a chance to try it with our LSA VT-150 integrated (you have to have it configured to your individual components) with excellent results. We’ll have a full review in issue 117, but suffice to say that this is an interesting upgrade, and a methodology that we wouldn’t be surprised to see being an OEM product at some point. Let’s face it, wire fuses are pretty old tech.

Please click here for more info and pricing.

A Single Shot of Awesome From Java HiFI

You know you want this. I want this.

For every audio enthusiast that has had to listen to a friend, partner, or roommate complain about the overly industrial look of the gear we love – bam. Here’s your answer. The Java integrated you see here is the “single-shot” version with 200 Watts per channel of power. (the “double-shot” has, you guessed it, twice as much power)

For $9,495, you get a magnificent looking product that will look great in any environment, that sounds great thanks to careful design and utilization of the latest technologies. We’ll have the full review done shortly, but suffice to say it’s a winner. Also included is an excellent MM phono stage, and a USB/Bluetooth DAC.

Pair it up with your favorite speakers, as power will not be a limitation, and place it in your room where it will get a lot of attention. And it will. Bonus points: Java lets you customize the look to your preference, just go to the configurator section of their site. Just click here.

YG Acoustics Cairn

In case you hadn’t noticed, the new range of speakers from YG Acoustics (the Peaks series) offer wood cabinets instead of the aluminum you’re used to from this high performance manufacturer. This small two-way, stand mounted system carries an $8,500/pair price tag (stands optional – $1,500/pr.) and deliver big speaker performance. Here in our 24 x 36 foot listening room, they offer an immersive, three dimensional sound stage that will pull you in like your favorite panel speakers. But they have big dynamics too!

Of course, a pair of small woofers can only move so much air, but what’s here is good. Really good. Tracking through a major set of 80s classics, chock full of deep, synth-bass, the Cairn’s deliver a stunning performance. And, YG offers a matching subwoofer, which we’ll have in for review soon. With a rated sensitivity of 86dB/1-Watt, they prove incredibly easy to drive. In combination with our favorite little tube amp, the Mighty from Lab 12, the Cairn’s still really rock the joint.

You might think YG has cut corners to produce a wood cabinet, but after a recent visit to the factory to observe their manufacturing process (which feels a lot more like a Formula 1 parts supplier than a speaker manufacturer) they point out that because wood is a bit more of a variable than aluminum, it’s actually more work to make their thick aluminum front panel fit up to the cabinet. No compromises have been made whatsoever.

In the end, it all serves the music. Having had a chance to hear the entire Peaks range, YG has masterfully combined everything they’ve learned up until now, and incorporated some new tech to build an entire line of speakers that are approachable in price and implementation. They work equally well in the context of a tube or solid-state system.

Stay tuned for our full review.

You can click here to visit the YG site.

The Heretic AD612 Speakers

If you read our review of the Heretic AD614s, you know how much I love these speakers. Always on a hunt for a great pair of high efficiency speakers, the Heretics succeed brilliantly. The only major difference between the 614s (which actually use the same 12″ coaxial driver) and the AD612s you see here, is cabinet volume.

The increased cabinet volume allows the 12″ ported driver that pays homage to the Altec cabinets used back in the EMI/Beatles days to go a bit deeper. 35hZ, vs. 40 for the 614s. Fortunately, they can be placed fairly close to the wall, so you can pick up a little bit of room gain. Wall voicing is a great thing for the Heretics – speakers up against the wall looks super cool, and that extends the useful frequency response down to about 32hZ.

Available in a few different finishes, these speakers are gorgeous no matter how you configure them. Our full review will be live in issue 117, but thanks to their 97dB/1-watt sensitivity rating, the Heretics are perfect for low powered tube amps. The Pass Labs First Watt amplifiers also make for an excellent, highly musical pairing.

The Heretic AD612s are incredibly amplifier friendly, and will deliver good results with nearly anything, much like my other favorite speaker, the legendary Quad 57, the absolute right amplifier takes them to a completely more engaging presentation. So the AD612s may just send you on an amplifier hunt!

Very enthusiastically recommended and #toneaudioapproved. You’ll be seeing a lot more of these in the years to come.

Please click here to visit the Heretic site.

Please click here to visit the US Distributor, Fidelis Distribution.

Focal Announces Theva Speaker Lineup

Always on the move, improving their products, Naim has announced today that they have replaced the very popular Chora Line with their new Theva speakers. This is a full lineup, with products for 2-channel and theater users. Here’s what they have to say about all the changes incorporated into the Thevas. It’s pretty extensive.

Focal listened and with consumer feedback is excited to present Theva, a new line of Hi-Fi loudspeakers comprising six products that deliver uncompromising performance and design.

Made in France in Focal workshops, all the speaker drivers in the Theva line are born of Focal’s unique know-how. They incorporate its Slatefiber technology, a cone made from recycled non-woven carbon fibers and thermoplastic polymers from discarded aeronautical and automotive parts. It delivers excellent performance, reproducing a dynamic, rich and balanced sound.

First seen in the Chora line, this cone has proven its worth across numerous products and several divisions, since our engineers have used it to develop the Alpha Evo studio monitors and even the Slatefiber in-car kits.

Also made in France, the Aluminum/Magnesium TNF tweeter – already present in the Chora loudspeakers – offers a mellow, clear treble. With its outstanding performance, it was the obvious choice for Theva loudspeakers.

The finishes for the Theva loudspeakers are inherited from the Chora line, with considerable improvements. They are more modern, to blend even more seamlessly into any interior. The pure, elegant look of the Black, Dark Wood and Light Wood finishes enhances any room, as well as offering an even closer coherence with our other loudspeaker ranges. Each Focal line has its own aesthetic, while together they form a harmonious catalogue and unique signature.

After Chora, every detail was reviewed and redesigned to create loudspeakers that are robust and refined from every angle.

Here are the key areas Focal concentrated on with Theva:

An additional front panel, for the perfect finish and no risk of detachment on the front.

An increased perceived value with a metallic, screen-printed Focal ring around each speaker driver. It also ensures Theva is coherent with all our other lines.

A vent now placed on the rear of the loudspeaker, for a sleeker finish on the front. This also reduces the size of the enclosures, particularly the one housing the Theva N°1 bookshelf loudspeaker, which is much more compact in comparison with Chora N°1.

A fold in the vinyl at the back of the loudspeaker to avoid any detachment.

The addition of a slimmer loudspeaker to the range, Theva N°2, perfectly suited for smaller settings, with an even more attractive profile.

A light base for the Light Wood versions for even more sophisticated products. Likewise for the grills, designed to coordinate with the finishes: a beige grill for the loudspeakers with a light finish.

A tweeter minus its grill and surrounded by a chrome ring for an understated front piece.

The Focal flame beneath the speaker drivers on all the loudspeakers in the Theva range.

Issue 116


Old School: We go Gaming! 8-Bit Style

1095: Parasound SPhono XRM

The Audiophile Apartment: Hegel 390 Integrated
By Sean Zloch

Journeyman Audiophile: ATC20M Monitors

Headphone Arts:  Focal Bathys

Short Take: AlsyVox Bottecelli X Speakers

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future


Audience Front Row Cables – By Jeff Dorgay and Earle Blanton
Roon Nucleus v.2 – By Laurence Devoe
Gear Fab D.BOB
Neat Majistra Speakers
ARC LS28SE Linestage – By Jeff Dorgay and Chris Harr


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world
Jim Macnie on Jazz
Emily Duff – Can’t get it out of my Head

The Puron Power Filter

One of the most important things in your audio system is the quality of the power you are feeding it. Before spending a ton of your hard-earned cash on exotic audio accessories, consider sorting out the power first. The more artifacts you have in the power line, the more noise creeps into the audio signal.

The Puron is a small device that is not a “pass-through” device like a standard line conditioner, and it can be used in tandem with whatever current power conditioning you might be using. It looks somewhat like an old metal encased rectifier tube (for those of you old enough to remember that kind of thing) and is meant to be plugged into the same circuit as the components you are using, whether you have a line conditioner or not.

We are in process of trying this in a number of different environments and systems to give you a full report, but for now, the Puron proves successful.

The first trial in our main listening room, only yielded a small, but definite result on a system consisting of the T+A Caruso R all in one, and a pair of vintage ESS AMT1-b speakers, with Tellurium Q Black power and speaker cables. This was chosen because this system has a bit of a high frequency edge to it. The Puron definitely took some of the glare out of the presentation, and actually had more effect the following day after being in the system for about 30 hours. (Which incidentally is what Vera-Fi says needs to happen for optimum result.)

To put things in proper perspective, the TONE studio is a metal clad building (kind of a natural faraday cage), with it’s own dedicated power, attention paid to grounding, and Cardas outlets installed where gear plugs in. There is no wi-fi in my office – even the iPad is hardwired, and there are no wall wart or switching power supplies. Finally, there are no light dimmers of any kind. So, it’s fairly grunge free out here.

The house is a different story. Multiple appliances, wall warts a plenty, Hue light dimmers, and wifi everywhere. All in the context of a 60-year old house. The bedroom system consists of an LG 80” TV and a pair of Totem Kin Play Tower speakers. Nothing fancy, by any means. This was an immediate change for the better. Just watching the last two episodes of Picard shows less pixelation and noise in the blacks. Seriously, I’d buy one just for this. However, it really did clean up the sound coming through the Kin Plays by an order of magnitude.

We’d really like to try this in a few more configurations. But for now at $250, I can’t suggest this one highly enough. – Jeff Dorgay


New Wyred 4 Sound Power Conditioner

We all know how good quality power delivery is to your audio system.

The new ProPowerStream from Wyred 4 U/Wyred 4 Sound comes in at an introductory price of $699 with one of their power cords included – A nice touch. With a 1000 Watt capacity (max. 1500) this is a great addition to line level components and smaller integrated amplifiers.

In addition to the line conditioning circuitry, the PPS also incorporates a DC snubber, which can eliminate harmful DC from getting into your system. Even a little DC floating around on your mains can wreak havoc with your system, and some very expensive conditioners don’t address this.

We’ve got a full review under way, but initial use in our headphone system and system three (which consists of a Naim Atom Headphone amplifier, Technics 1200 table and Parasound phono pre) instantly reveal a lower noise floor and more clarity up on top. But more listening is needed to give you a more in-depth report.

However, in a world where first impressions are everything, this is an excellent product and worthy of your attention. (and credit card, hahahaha)

Please click here to go to the Wyred site, and get the rest of the tech data.

RAW Power – 50th Anniv. Legacy Edition

Listening to the 50th anniversary edition of this punk classic raises a few questions: How did I get this old? How did Iggy make it this long? But the one question I can answer definitively is how does this record stand up half a century later?

It still rules. With multiple alternate takes, mixes, and outtakes, Raw Power is still a blast, that sounds best when you blast it. The additional live tracks, recorded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1973 convey the live Iggy experience of the period, and flesh out the perspective of this record nicely. This is an original DIY production to be sure.

Bruce Dickinson joins Iggy for engineering and producing credits, and it’s clear they took as much care as you can take on a punk record to make sure this iconic pressing is preserved for all time. Everyone else needs to write Iggy Pop a check.

-Jeff Dorgay