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

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!

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

New Network Players From Cambridge Audio

Cambridge Audio just announced the release of their AXN10 and (half chassis sized) MNX10 streamers.

Combining an ESS SABRE ES9033Q DAC chipset and Cambridge’s StreamMagic Gen 4 Module, these two streaming DACs let you connect to nearly anything with Chromecast built in, AirPlay 2, and Bluetooth 5, in addition to accessing Spotify Connect, Tidal, and Qobuz. It is also Roon ready, if that’s your streaming infrastructure.

Click here to go to the Cambridge site and get on the waiting list, they will be available for purchase soon, pricing is TBD.

The LSA VT-150 Integrated

With the backlit output meters bouncing to the sound of Massive Attack, cranking up the VT-150s bias to the “high” position and plugging in a set of KT150 tubes proves to be a great move to get that club feeling. Our Team Fink Kim speakers are relatively easy to drive and taking advantage of their variable damping factor technology allows an incredibly good matchup to this tube amplifier, delivering solid bass.

Both Jerold O’Brien and I really enjoy the lower powered VT-70 from LSA. It’s a great entry level tube integrated that ticks all the boxes. Good build quality, great sound, and tubes that are relatively easy to come by. However, if you’re a tube lover, you know a pair of EL34 output tubes can only take you so far – lovely if you can live with 35 Watts per channel, but not the right tool for the job if you have speakers that require more power to do their thing. Or, you really like it LOUD.

Variable output

VSA now gives you a way to get more power, and if you use this amplifier as a monoblock, way more power. And options, you like options, don’t you? While you can drop a set of KT88s in the VT-70 and crank up the bias a bit, it won’t deliver that much more power, but the VT-150 thanks to its larger power supply and more robust output transformers (and more weight…) will deliver 60 Watts per channel in stereo mode at the lower bias setting.

Where PrimaLuna offers this as a switch-controlled function on some of their EVO amplifiers, the higher-powered options on the VT-150 require some manual labor. But this is what gets you a 60-100 Watt per channel integrated for an introductory price of $2,499. If you aren’t constantly tube rolling, this won’t be an issue.

Should you desire 80 Watts per channel, or even 100 Watts per channel with a set of KT150 tubes, the bottom cover can be removed, and jumpers replaced to supply the output tubes with the necessary current to deliver the additional power. Keep in mind, running the KT88s (or KT120s, if you go that route) at the higher bias results in shorter tube life. It’s easy enough to see what you prefer and set your VT-150 that way. If 60 Watts per channel gives you enough juice to light your speakers up, stick with the low bias setting and enjoy longer tube life.

Whether you are new to tubes, or familiar with the breed, biasing the output tubes is very easy – the output meters double as a bias indicator. Take a quick peek at the well written manual and follow the instructions. You’ll be an expert in no time. As with any tube amplifier, re-check the tube bias again after a week or two and then in a month. After that a cursory look should be all you need, the tubes should not shift much after the first 30 days or so. When you can no longer bring them to full bias anymore, it’s time to replace.

Basic configuration

Where the VT-70 offers a basic remote control, the VT-150 is no frills and no remote. Where the VT-70 offers three single-ended RCA inputs, the VT-150 has one RCA input and one XLR. Around back, you’ll see a switch that turns the amplifier into a monoblock, and delivering more power. Instead of having 4 and 8-ohm speaker taps the VT-150 now has 8- and 16-ohm taps. None of the speakers on hand for the review had major impedance drops so there were no issues with this amplifier in stereo mode.

For those seeking the maximum amount of sonic engagement with the least number of superfluous additions, the VT-150 is the way to roll. They’ve eliminated the remote control, no LED light in the volume control, and have kept all functionality to the bare minimum. The front panel is nicely finished, as is the volume control and chassis – an amplifier you’ll be proud to own, no doubt.

However, when producing product at this price point, every ten dollars affects the bottom line. In this case, the frills eliminated have been put into the quality of the output transformers and the components underneath the chassis. A few other tube integrateds offer completely point to point wiring, where the VT-150 has a mixture – they are all way more expensive. Careful listening reveals this amplifier is without sonic compromise, at this price. Considering that the McIntosh LB200 with optional rack mount handles will set you back $2,000 and it’s only a light box, the VT-150 must be one of the most stellar values in high end audio. Another $500 gets you a 80 Wpc integrated amp! Woo hoo.

More about tubes

The VT-150 arrives with a tube cage in place, but if you can avoid using it, few things in audio beat a bunch of glowing tubes. Much attention has been given to the output tube choices at your disposal with this amplifier, but thanks to the input/preamplifier stage using a pair of 6SN7 and 12AU7 tubes, you can tube roll to infinity.

Manufacturers rarely want us to discuss the benefits of tube rolling, especially substituting NOS tubes because this is not a consistent item, and often without repeatable results. Hence, manufacturers tend to design around tubes that are readily available. However, this amplifier circuit is well designed, and should the urge strike to swap tubes, there are sonic rewards to be had. It will depend on how maniacal you choose to be, but let it be said that should you feel like chasing down a few primo 12AU7s and 6SN7s (or maybe have some on hand already) it’s worth your while to experiment.

Ditto for the output tubes. The KT120 is not my favorite output tube, as it tends to sound more etched, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be the perfect match in your system with your speakers. Leave bias jumpers at the lower setting and set bias to the higher end of the range. The KT150s will deliver the most output, however the presentation is a different one than the KT88s produce.

When driving a pair of vintage Acoustat 2+2 speakers, the extra output and high-end snap, along with a pair of Nordost speaker cables brought those old ESLs to life in a way that’s never been done with a modest tube amp. When driving the XSA Vanguard speakers, the KT88s even at the lower bias setting is incredibly engaging. Finally, keep in mind that the amplifier sounds great out of the box. Tube rolling is not a necessity; however, this amplifier responds well to small changes. So to be clear, the VT-150 delivers top performance out of the box with the stock, factory supplied tubes, however those inclined to investigate premium tubes will be rewarded as well. This great for two reasons: it gives you a chance to easily improve your system as your involvement grows, and it shows a circuit that has been designed beyond meeting its immediate price point.

The finer points

Because the VT-150 uses a pair of input transformers to offer balanced inputs, this input will provide a slightly warmer, less dynamic sound than the RCA inputs will. The upside is this amplifiers’ ability to be fine-tuned to your music collection and/or listening habits. These are miniscule differences but make a difference nonetheless when using a balanced source.

Listening to the VT-70 and 150 side by side for some time, it’s important to point out that you are not merely getting more power when stepping up. More refinement awaits you with the VT-150 too, a sign of great designs. The bigger amplifier is more composed on top, more controlled on the bottom, and it resolves a decent share of increased inner detail too.

The VT-150 produces a very clean, fast, detailed look into the window of your favorite recordings. Comparing it to more expensive amplifiers on hand from Audio Research, BAT, Octave, and PrimaLuna, the VT-150 holds its ground. It is not a giant killer. The refinement afforded by the 10-20k amplifiers is still supreme. However, the way this amplifier nails all the musical basics at an equally commanding level will surprise you.

Tracking through a wide variety of different music is a joy with the VT-150. It is dynamic enough to play classical music or heavy rock as loud as you need yet offers great linearity at lower volumes. Even listening to the CSN debut album on MoFi at very low levels with the Dynaudio Confidence 20s is incredibly engaging. Yet cranking the volume way up for some Public Enemy and Slayer proves it delivers the goods.

in addition to having solid, controlled extension on both ends of the frequency scale, this amplifier can generate a large sound field in all three dimensions. There’s a lot of “vacuum tube magic” going on here, to be sure.

And, putting a $2,500-$3,000 amplifier in the context of the $7,500 to $15k system it is more than likely going to end up in will leave you thrilled with the purchase. If you’ve been dreaming of investigating a tube amplifier, I can think of no better place to start your journey. Perhaps at some point, we will commandeer a second one to investigate how these perform as monoblocks. For now, staffer Jerold O’Brien will be using this one on a daily. His daughter took the VT-70, so how can you argue with that?

Highly recommended.

The LSA VT-150

$2,999 (intro price $2,499)


Digital source                          Naim CD-5is, T+A 2500R

Analog source                         Technics SL-1200G/Skyanalog G-1 cartridge

Phono Pre                               BAT VK-12SE

Speakers                                 Dynaudio Confidence 20, Acoustat 2+2, Egglestonworks Nico

Cable                                       Tellurium Q Black II

Our System of the Year for 2023

We’ve decided to do something different this year…

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

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

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

Taking Ethernet Performance Higher

The folks at Network Acoustics have developed their Muon Pro Ethernet Filter and Streaming Cable, claiming to eliminate noise in the network line. Initially developed for the Pro Audio world and handmade in the UK, we will be anxious to hear how this (Approx.) $2,000 bundle cleans up the sound.

Click here to visit the Network Acoustics site.

The Naim CD5 Si CD Player

What, a CD player in 2023? Shut up.

If, like us, you still enjoy the CD format, and why would you not? This modestly priced player from Naim, leverages a lot of tech from decades of producing some of the world’s finest digital players, with and without disc transports.

Priced just under $2,000 ($1,990 actually) the CD5 Si delivers the goods. It doesn’t stream, it doesn’t let you access the (excellent) internal DAC, it just plays CDs. And it does a cracking job. If you are still a CD lover/collector who’s been wanting to replace that 10 or 15 year old player that you know is about to fail, drop what you’re doing and buy a CD5 Si right now. You’ll be glad you did.

As you unbox the CD5 Si, you instantly realize that this feels like a much more expensive component, from the weight of the enclosure, to the immensely tactile feel of the buttons, to the bank vault solid transport drawer. Put your favorite disc in and press play. Regardless of where you are on your digital journey, you’ll be enthused.

We’ve only just begun the full, in-depth review, and we can tell you this one’s going to be one of our first Exceptional Value Award winners for 2023.

Please click here to go to the Naim site for more information.

The REL No. 31 Subwoofer

Tracking through a time-worn favorite, The K&D Sessions, the very definition of the lower bass notes being delivered is stunning, just coming from a six-pack of REL No.25 subwoofers I lived with for two years. I loved em’ but at the end of the day, they were just a bit too large physically for my room. (Though REL’s John Hunter had them set up to perfection in said room).

Yet here we are – a smaller cabinet delivering even better results for $500 less. (the outgoing 25s were $7500 each.) With a Santa Claus-like twinkle in his eye, he says, “you really should hear what we’ve done with the ($10k each) no.32. Merely extrapolating from what I’m experiencing with the 31 and have from the 25s, I’ll bet for someone with an even bigger room, they are amazing. For now, the No.31s head back, as they have dates already scheduled with other reviewers, and I’m doing some remodeling here. If the planets stay aligned, the TONE listening room will increase to 24 feet by 26 feet – which will warrant revisiting the No. 31s in a six-pack configuration next year.

Having the pleasure to meet some of the best minds in high-end audio over the years always leaves me with the same question: how do you keep making products that already deliver a rarefied level of performance better? Yet, they always do.

Keep in mind that engineers and designers live to push the envelope. It’s what they do, what they are trained to do, and what they are paid to do. Much as the grouchasauruses like to think that “it’s just all marketing,” the legitimate manufacturers have a plan. Some (Audio Research comes to mind, bringing a new model out every 2 years or so, then an “SE” model 2 years later.) Others like Nagra and Luxman only make a change now and then – yet they all take the approach that significant change must occur to warrant a new model. 

For another thought on this process, read my blog piece, “What you have isn’t rubbish,” here.

Cursory comparison

Mr. Hunter goes to great lengths explaining all the things that make the new (No.31 and No.32) models a major leap in performance from the old models (No. 25 and G-1MK.II). It only takes the first bass drum stomp from Shelby Lynne’s “Just a Little Lovin” to reveal the increased resolution his new baby produces. Having spent a fair amount of time with the recent Carbon Special, the No.31 takes the advances in driver, cabinet, and crossover made there to another level. And yes, I still have a Carbon Special here to compare. Going back to the Serie S 510s (also here for comparison) shows off a solid lineage, but comparing the S/510 to the Carbon Special or the No.31 is another step down in resolution. That said, a six-pack of S/510s remains formidable because of the spatial qualities only a six-pack provides.

I’ll stick my neck out and say that the Carbon special gets you about 80% of the way there, with a more traditional (i.e., box-shaped) enclosure that is smaller and lighter. The REL website claims that “the No.31 delivers the No. 32’s sound quality, build quality, and thoughtful features with a more compact footprint.” I couldn’t agree more.

Just as a particular breed of automotive enthusiasts thinks a 500hp Porsche GT3 is the way to go until they have to drive through a Starbucks window, some will settle for nothing less than the No.32s. But just as a GT3 can only be truly experienced on a long stretch of road with no law enforcement for miles, or a race track, I submit that unless your room is truly massive, you can live happily ever after with the No. 31. (Or a pair, or better yet, a six-pack) Or a Porsche Cayman GTS 4.0. Just saying.

Judging on its own merits

Forgoing the comparisons picture for a while, the No.31s deliver a prodigious amount of low-frequency output – but many subwoofers can do that. Where this product truly excels (like the other top RELs before it) is the level of definition and texture in the lower registers and the life they breathe into the upper ranges of your hifi system. No other sub I’ve reviewed does this to anywhere near this extent.

The No.31 has a long-throw 12-inch carbon driver, 900-Watt amplifier (this is the same 1000-Watt amplifier used in the No. 32, but limited to 900 Watts because of the No. 31’s 12-inch driver having slightly less ultimate excursion than the 15-inch unit in the No. 32) the majority of low-frequency extension will be provided by a single unit, but that’s not the whole story. Where the Carbon special’s 12-inch driver shares core technology with the 12-inch driver in the No.31, the latter’s driver is much more robust, allowing more output and more extension. Being ADD for a minute and thinking about carbon fiber (something I think about nearly all the time anyway), check out the super zooty carbon fiber REL badge on the top of the cabinet. Woo hoo. And check out the slight edge curvature on the cabinets. Subtle but better.

Going to a pair, as we’ve done in this review, helps to smooth out the bass response in the room, making the single woofer work less at pressurizing the room. Thanks to REL’s dual parametric filter, these subs are easier to tune to your room and main speakers. For those not familiar with RELs approach, they prefer to take the high-level from your amplifier’s speaker outputs via a Speakon cable/connector and run your main speakers’ full range.

Even better, thanks to RELs gorgeous, yet highly functional remote, you can adjust everything from your listening chair, which really helps the setup process. Be sure to move that little “lock” button to the lock position when finished, so prying hands will not undo your hard work. If you’re new to the top REL subs, it’s also worth mentioning, (especially if you have more than one) make use of the LED readout in the upper right corner and take note of all your settings. This will always make going back to your starting point much easier, should you explore different settings at a later date.

This has a couple of advantages. They claim it’s much easier to integrate with your main speakers – and I agree. I’ve set up at least 40 or 50 subs from REL and several others over the last 20 years here, and this still is the easiest way to blend sub and main seamlessly. Are you turning the sub up, down, and sideways from one album to the next? You’ve got the setup wrong, and I’m only saying this as someone from the other side of that same canoe.

Second, by using the output of your amplifier instead of the preamplifier, the low-frequency flavor of your system stays precisely the same. I’ve tried a few RELs via the preamplifier inputs to prove this point, and it’s still pretty good. However, it’s not as good (in every way) as it is when going speaker out. The No. 31 is faster, tighter, and more extended when connected via speaker outs. This also has the benefit of not needing another pair of incredibly long and expensive interconnects.

More listening

Because this isn’t my first rodeo with REL, They are up and going pretty quickly. As the REL mothership in the US is just 600 miles down the I-5 freeway, Mr. Hunter is kind enough to fly in for the day and double-check my work. With some careful fine-tuning on his part, the delta with REL in to REL out is even greater than before, and we run down a handful of familiar tracks we both know well when setting speakers up. (Yeah, that means the horse song.)

Like the No. 25s before, the No. 31s prove a major upset to office productivity. The improvement of our reference Acora SRC-1s is tremendous. These fabulous speakers now go bigger, louder, and deeper. While Ella Fitzgerald is the usual “go-to” for music with relatively little low-frequency content, this time, it’s a Supremes superset. And again, even with relatively sparse LF information, the soundstage swells in size dramatically. Diana Ross’ silky voice has more body than ever before. It’s pretty dreamy, and when the RELs are unplugged, the soundstage collapses.

For those unfamiliar with the Acoras, they are fast, offering near electrostatic-like transients. Like the other top RELs we’ve tried, the No. 31s can easily keep up with your favorite ESL or planar speaker. 

Pumping the bass way up, the jumpy, funky bass line in the Average White Band’s “Cut The Cake” pushes my chest cavity in as the volume control goes up. Hunter was headed home at 5 p.m, but I was up with a long list of bass-heavy tracks from RUN-D.M.C., The System, K.C. & The Sunshine Band, and some Prince until about 2 a.m. In the world of stuff, there are a few things I never get tired of, Porsche manual transmissions, the gentle click of a Leica rangefinder camera, and the way a REL subwoofer improves a system. It’s never less than extraordinary. 

The following day was reserved for more heavy rock and jazz. Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, and Charlie Hayden all sound more similar than different on a lesser sub, but with the No.31, you can easily hear the distinct sound their instruments and playing styles make. Rather than bore you with a long playlist of tracks, the REL No. 31 excels at its function. Even when playing arena rock at brain damage levels, the RELs never run out of excursion.

At $7,500 each, these are not inexpensive subwoofers. However, if you’ve invested $30k to crazy money in a pair of main speakers, will you bring up the bottom with an inexpensive pair of subs? Whether you choose one, two, or six – you will be impressed by the added dimension the REL No.31s can deliver to your system.

And, we’d like to mention that the No. 31 was awarded one of our three Masterpiece awards at the end of 2022.

The REL No. 31 Subwoofer

$7,500 each

Please click here for full specifications


Analog Source REGA P10/Apheta 3

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE, Aqua Audio LaDiva/Formula xHD

Preamplifier Pass Labs XS Pre

Phonostage Pass Labs XP-27 Phono, Backert Labs Phono, Nagra Classic

Power Amplifiers Prima Luna EVO 400 monos, PS Audio BHK 600 Monos

Cable Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Luxman L-507Z Integrated Amplifier

Relaxing with Elvis Costello’s Painted From Memory on the turntable, it’s almost tough to believe that the source is an integrated amplifier, not a $100k rack full of separate components and a $30k loom of mega cables. When music lovers that want high performance yet do not want a rack full of gear, a pile of cables, or the inconvenience of vacuum tubes, ask me what to buy, my answer is always Luxman. There are a few others I’m very fond of, but if you want the phono on board and prefer to keep your DAC as a separate component, Luxman is my personal favorite. And Luxman offers a few incredible digital boxes to keep it all in the family.

I enjoy a few other excellent brands as much, but the combination makes Luxman integrated amplifiers so unique. The combination of every section, performing at an equally high level, to be precise. Coming up on its 100th birthday in a few years, Luxman is a company of constant refinement and engineering excellence. Everything they improve is purposeful, and the new products always outperform the old, leaving you thinking, “how did they do that?”

External beauty

Weighing 25.4kg/60 pounds makes the L-507Z big but not unyielding for a single person to unbox and carry. I suggest some gloves; just because that front panel is finished to such a high standard, you wouldn’t want to scratch it. As with every other Luxman piece that’s been through here, you don’t realize just how lovely this amplifier is until it’s sitting on the shelf/rack of your choice. It’s much like examining a high-resolution photo captured with a high-quality digital camera. The more you zoom in, the more you can see the fine details and level of finish. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but it seems like Luxman has refined their already excellent level of finish on the L-507Z.

This product is beautiful to behold and contributes significantly to the pride of ownership and happiness with writing the check. I’ve only seen this level of fine finish on Burmester and Boulder gear – both cost a lot more than Luxman.

All the usual controls you expect from a Luxman amplifier are here and in the same place they always reside, so the level of familiarity is a great thing. However, a few new features are clearly apparent. In between the output level meters, a seven-segment LED numeric readout resides, letting you know at a glance from across the room how high the volume level is. 

The tone controls are still present; if you’re a complete purist, ignore this paragraph. However, if you’ve longed for a bit of boost or cut at the frequency spectrum extremes, Luxman’s implementation is perfect. The bass and treble controls are gentle in their effect but very handy on a somewhat flat or tinkly record. It’s also convenient for headphone listening – especially if you have a collection of headphones. The tone controls go a long way at adjusting minor differences to make your personal listening that much more enjoyable. There is also a new 4.4mm “Pentaconn” jack on the front panel that Luxman says allows “quasi-balanced” operation because of its separate right and left channel grounds, resulting in better left to right separation. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pair of phones wired this way, so we were unable to fully investigate. Here is some more information about the Pentaconn connector:

However, our usual stable of phones from Audeze, Grado, Sendy, HiFi Man, and Focal all worked well, indicating a substantial amount of current drive from the 507Zs headphone amplifier section.

Around the back, in addition to the analog phono input, there are four RCA, line-level inputs, and two balanced XLR inputs. Luxman allows you to invert the phase of these inputs in case you have an external source (like Burmester and a few others) that doesn’t use the standard pin configuration. For the first time, 12V trigger and control jacks are also available for anyone needing to blend their L-507Z with home automation.

Subtle smoothness

With only one class-A amplifier in the lineup (at least for now), Luxman is further embracing class-AB topologies, no doubt, in an effort to be more green. Yet, the level of smoothness and refinement always associated with their class-A amplifiers is here at a nearly equal level. The class-A Luxman amplifiers, particularly the L-590II, is slightly warmer but also somewhat less dynamic. A fine distinction but one to be aware of.

Connected to a pair of Dynaudio Confidence 20 speakers and a six-pack of REL 510 subwoofers, the combination is stunning. Because the REL subwoofers perform their best when connected to the speaker level connections, the Luxman’s L-507Z’s front panel speaker switch is incredibly handy. Being able to switch the subwoofers in and out like this makes setting them up that much quicker. It also made A/B comparisons here very easy to get on with.

With 110 Watts per channel (into 8 ohms, and 210 per channel into 4 ohms), precious few speakers are off limits. Trying them with everything from the (86dB/1-Watt) Harbeth Monitor 40XDs, to a pair of (96db/1-Watt) Heretic 614s, Magnepans, and vintage Acoustat ESLs was a breeze. Everything on the list was able to be played as loud as I’d ever need to listen to music. Even the notoriously power-hungry Magnepans deliver an excellent performance.

The lower octave, with or without subs, is solid, with texture and finesse. Starting with the Supreme Beings of Leisure’s 11i (which has notoriously floppy, whumpy bass) and transitioning to Kruder & Dorfmeister, finishing up with some Neu! all were engaging and powerful.

Subtle details

Luxman products personify the “greater than the sum of their parts” philosophy. Building on the technologies that have made their components so well known in the first place with a new 88-step LECUA 1000 attenuator circuit (also used in their top separate components), along with improvements to power supply design and even the circuit board layout all adds up to higher performance.

Where most of the technological improvements will be apparent the minute you turn on your L-507Z, most of them are inside, where you can’t see them. The new LIFES (Luxman Integrated Feedback Engine System) replaces the previous ODNF circuitry and cuts the low amount of distortion in half of earlier models. Again, the technology from their separates is converging in the L-507Z – there’s a level of musicality here that you might associate with a much higher price tag.

You don’t notice this quite as much when pushing the power output needles into the red playing Slayer, but it’s instantly obvious when switching the faire to something more subtle like acoustic instruments. A few reasonably long listening sessions comprised of solo piano, violin, and acoustic guitar had me wondering if this was not a class-A amplifier after all. Good as this amplifier is, the level of midrange integration with acoustic instruments is tremendously good.

The most significant difference is in the shadows or the quiet passages. Where the outgoing L-507uX also produced 110 Watts per channel, this amplifier is not only more silent, it has more low-level resolution. Fine details fade more gently into the backgrounds, with a greater sense of the information at your disposal. Whether listening to analog or digital sources, you’ll hear more.

Fantastic phono

Luxman claims an improved phono section in the L-507Z, and again, I can’t help but agree. With a .3mV/100 ohm spec, the Luxman integrateds have always been perfect for a Denon 103R cartridge, as well as the Dynavector 17DX Carat. Both proved to be a great matches. It’s also a perfect match for Luxman’s new LMC-5 MC cartridge. We’ll have a full review shortly. Setting the stylus of the Dynavector down on Al DiMeola’s new Saturday Night in San Francisco is breathtaking. Hearing these three guitar virtuosos come to life in front of me again has me wondering if I’m really listening to an integrated.

Good as past models have been, this is another step up. Again, putting this amplifier in the context of a $20k – $50k (or even maybe a little more) system as its hub, I could easily see pairing this with an excellent $3-10k turntable and calling it a day. 

Always a joy

In nearly 15 years, I never tire of unboxing a Luxman product. The care in the build that extends all the way to the packaging is a wonderful thing, in this age of ambivalence we live in. The balance of cost, features, aesthetics, and performance are top shelf. Just as McIntosh and Naim have feverishly dedicated to the brand supporters, Luxman is no different. If the combination provided by the 507Z ticks all the boxes on your list, there’s no better choice. 

I only have one complaint about the 507Z; it’s both selfish and personal, so it probably won’t apply to most of you. Since Luxman offers an MM and MC phono option, I truly wish they would offer two phono inputs – one MM and one MC. Come on, there are two headphone outputs on the front panel. That would truly make a 99.9% product 100% perfect.

Keep in mind this is the first of the new “Z Series” integrateds from Luxman, so it will be interesting to see how they rollout the rest of the lineup. Based on the past Luxman models we’ve owned and reviewed, I’ll bet they will be equally fantastic. Stay tuned.

Focal’s new Vestia speakers…

Developed and made in France in Focal’s workshops, their new Vestia line – its name inspired by the goddesses of hearth and home, Vesta and Hestia – includes five brand new products. They all feature Focal’s Slatefiber cone, first developed for the Chora line and come in a bookshelf, center, and three floorstanding versions. You can click here to visit the Vestia specific site for more information:

  • Vestia N°1 – the superbly compact bookshelf model
    • $599 each / $769 each CAD
  • Vestia N°2 – the leading 3-way floorstanding model for uncompromising sound quality
    • $1,399 each / $1,799 each CAD
  • Vestia N°3 – the 3-way floorstanding model for balanced and vibrant listening experiences
    • $1,799 each / $2,299 each CAD
  • Vestia N°4 – the 3-way floorstanding model with two 81/4” (21cm) woofers, for deep bass with impact
    • $2,199 each / $2,799 each CAD
  • Vestia Center – the 2-way central model, which enhances the dialogue in your films
    • $699 each / $899 each CAD
  • Stands – $249 (pack of 2) / $319 (pack of 2)
  • Center Stand – $129 each / $169 each CAD

New Classic Separates from Naim…

Naim Audio announces today, the launch of three new products to their “classic” lineup.

The NSC 222 is a Streaming Preamplifier offers a great way to keep a minimal box count, high-performance system. You can stream all of your favorite digital files with support for bitrates up to 32bit/384kHz. Included is the fantastic headphone amplifier section of the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, and a built in MM phonostage.

The aesthetic pays homage to Naim components new and old, allowing control via the front panel, their new Zigbee remote, or the Naim app. All functionality is available via a large 5.5″ full-color screen.

NOTE: The NSC 222 is a CES® 2023 Innovation Awards Nominee

Price is $8,999USD

Next up, (also priced at $8,999) is the NAP 250 Power Amplifier. Now sporting 100 Watts per channel in a very slim profile, this dual mono power amplifier will drive anything at your disposal. The most powerful iteration of the famous NAP250 also features a temperature activated smart fan to keep things cool.

Finally, POWER. Naim enthusiasts know and appreciate Naim’s offering additional, outboard power supplies to take their components to an even higher level of performance. The new NPX 300 is a perfect match for the NSC 222, as well as other Naim components. Price is $8,999

You can find more information at the link below, devoted to the new classic line. We will have these in for review as soon as samples are available.

Issue 115

Cover Story:


The Moscow HiFi Show
-By Misha Kucherenko

Old School: The Mark Levinson No. 26 Linestage
-By Jeff Dorgay

Cartridge Dude: The Luxman LMC-5

Mine: It Should Be Yours


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world

Future Tense

Gear in our immediate future

Issue 114

Cover Story

Cutting Edge Digital:
The latest DAC and Transport from Aqua Audio


Old School: Sony TC-355 Reel to Reel
by Scott M. Frary

1095: SONY SACD player for $159!
by Jerold O’Brien

The Audiophile Apartment: The Luxman’s SQ-N150 Integrated

Journeyman Audiophile: Luxman’s New L-507Z Integrated

Headphone Arts:  Focal Clear mg

Short Take: The Nordost Grounding System
by Lawrence Devoe

Mine: It Should Be Yours
The MOONSWATCH by Ken Kessler

Swill: Kiss Cold Gin
by Jeff Dorgay

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future


the dCS Vivaldi ONE/APEX – By Jeff Dorgay


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world
Jim Macnie lists his 10 favorite Jazz albums

The XSA Labs Vanguard – a new paradigm.

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of back story

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

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

Back to the future

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

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

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

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

Running the gamut

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

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

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


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

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

In Perspective

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

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

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

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


The Carver Black Magic 25

Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to vacuum tubes. There’s always something special about a low-powered tube amp and a pair of fairly sensitive speakers. Bob Carver’s latest, the Black Magic 25 is a perfect example. Sporting a fairly compact chassis size and tube compliment (1-12AU7, 2-12AX7’s, and 4-EL34s) the Black Magic certainly made some great music here, paired with our Zu Dirty Weekends and the Heretic A-1614s.

Build quality is robust, yet sparse, and the amplifier is a cinch to use. There is a handy meter on the front panel that can be used as a tube tester, as well as for setting the output tube bias. Carver claims that their unique circuit means you don’t need matched output tubes, yet our experience with only one bias control for four tubes suggests otherwise.

The amp runs cool, and provides a sound not as romantic as a vintage Mcintosh, Marantz or Dynaco amp, yet still delivers plenty of tubey, midrange magic that you’d expect. And of course, with only three input tubes, you can roll em’ if you’ve got em’ to fine tune and experiment.

Thanks to careful design, this little jewel plays louder than you would expect a 25Wpc amp to play, even with less efficient speakers like a pair of Harbeths, or your favorite LS3/5a variation on the theme.

Definitely a good thing in a small package!

REL Raises The Bar

The new no.31 Reference Subwoofer is a substantial improvement.

If you aren’t paying close attention, you might easily mistake REL’s new no.31 subwoofer for one of their outgoing reference models. Upon close inspection, aside from the new super-coolio carbon fiber badge, the rear facets of the cabinet top are beveled – a further effort to refine the shape and eliminate resonance.

We often discuss break-in time in terms of days and hours, yet the difference between the no.31 and RELs past is immediate. The no.31 is faster, more nimble. If you only think of the low-frequency augmentation provided by a subwoofer as a single sonic shade, be prepared to have your paradigm reset.

Those familiar with the effect of adding one (or more) REL subwoofers to their system, will be equally impressed. John Hunter and his team have pushed the possibility of what a subwoofer can add to a high performance audio system further than ever.

$7,000 ea.

Please click here to visit the REL site, for full specifications. We’ll have a full review shortly.

More Power From LSA!

The New VT-150 rocks…

$2,499 Intro price: $1,999 (Black Friday – 3 days ONLY)

You know we had a great time with LSA’s VT-70, featuring EL-34 power. Jerold O’Brien even
bought the review sample. It’s a pretty incredible little amp for the size and definitely for the

However, 35-40 Watts per channel isn’t always enough for everyone. Bam, they just introduced
the latest VT-150 model, sporting four KT-88 tubes. Following the PrimaLuna and McIntosh
playbook, the tubes are “branded” with the LSA logo. Nice touch.

The newer (and heavier) amplifier now pushes out about 75 Watts per channel, and the bias
can be dialed up to work with the KT-150 tubes for close to 100 Watts per channel. Those of
you not familiar, keep in mind those last 20 Watts are gonna set you back about $600, (for a
set of KT150s) so if you HAVE to have it, that’s the cost of more juice. The rest of you will do
just fine with the KT88s.

Thanks to the careful attention paid to component choice and transformer construction, the
VT-150 is a class leader, just like the VT-70. Slightly less sweet, but more extended at both ends
of the frequency spectrum, as it is with all other amplifiers utilizing this tube.

We’ll have a full review shortly, but our initial impression is VERY favorable!

Aqua Audio LaDiva CD transport and Formula xHD DAC

If you are still committed to the compact disc, Aqua Audio’s LaDiva transport and Formula xHD DAC is the loveliest combination I’ve had the pleasure to listen to. Period.

We currently use their LaScala DAC in system two with excellent results. Good as the LaScala is, this combination is an entirely different movie.

Long before the days of streaming, the Naim CD555/PS555 was our digital reference, and it was fantastic – but it played CDs and nothing else. Fortunately, you can add other digital sources (including Aqua’s excellent LIN Q streamer) to this stack and take care of everything digital but SACDs.

Much like vinyl is an old format refined to the hilt, I submit the same approach for the compact disc. The Aqua combination is liquid, lush, organic, and highly engaging. Where my other digital reference, the dCS Vivaldi ONE, resolves a bit more detail, the analog-like quality the Aqua pair provides feels more like listening to top-notch analog. There’s a little more tonal saturation, and It’s so inviting. If you’re of the maximum detail persuasion, it might not be for you, but this pair will fool you every time into thinking you just might be listening to a record. That’s the highest praise we can offer.

If you have an extensive collection of CDs that you have no intention of getting rid of and you want an end-game player, I can think of nothing finer. (mfr) (NA distributor)

Issue 113

Cover Story

American Muscle:
Two Great Tube Power Amps from BAT and ARC


Old School: McIntosh MC3500 Power Amplifier
by Ken Kessler

1095: LSA 0.5 Phono

The Audiophile Apartment: The Parasound P 6 Preamplifier

Journeyman Audiophile: Luxman’s New L-507Z Integrated

Headphone Arts:  Dekoni Ear Pads

Short Take: Pro-Ject RCM

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future


Audience Front Row Cables – By Kevin Wolff
Pass XP-27 Phonostage – By Laurence Devoe
On With The Show! A quick recap on The Pacific Audio Fest
By Greg Weaver/photos by Greg W and Angela Cardas


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world
Setlist:  Todd Cooperider sees Eric Clapton

The Luxman L-507Z Integrated Amplifier

The Luxman L-507Z integrated amplifier marks the beginning of an entirely new “Z”series of amplifiers.

In typical Luxman fashion, they have borrowed heavily on tech from their flagship separates. Their website says, “The L-507z joins Luxman’s integrated amplifier range with numerous advances and features our newly designed “LIFES1.0” distortion canceling feedback engine. “LIFES” is a significant evolution from “ODNF” circuitry, which has long been a key advantage of Luxman amplifiers since its 2010 introduction in our X-series. The robust L-507z marks the beginning of Z-Series, all being developed to include this latest “LIFES” high-quality amplification system, a core technology also shared with our new flagship M-10x stereo/mono power amplifier.”

Bottom line, this amplifier sounds fantastic, and with 110 Watts per channel (into 8 ohms) can drive nearly any speakers with ease. We’ve got a full review on the way shortly but suffice to say that Luxman excels at delivering the quality of separates in a single box. If you want world class sound without needing a rack full of gear, this is the way to go. In addition to the rest of the amplifier updates, the MM/MC phono section is also improved.

A nod to personal audio enthusiasts, the front panel is now equipped with a standard 6.3mm stereo headphone(s) jack and a new 4.4mm “Pentaconn” type. This stereo 4.4mm connection makes “quasi-balanced”, connection possible, featuring separate left and right channel ground returns.. Even the famous output meters now offer a red, LED readout in the center to indicate volume level. All of these subtle changes make for a major upgrade. The507z is the perfect anchor to a high-quality music system.


LSA HyperDrive 2 – Review

You might laugh at me for beginning my review of the new LSA headphone amplifier with my Pikachu headphones, but it’s somewhat of a torture test.

More often than not, crappy budget headphones have a crazy impedance curve. (Which makes them sound even worse with a phone or laptop) But an amplifier with some serious drive can control them enough to sound better than they are. Bam, the new HyperDrive 2 Preamp/Headphone amplifier passes the first test.

LSA is going to be selling the HyperDrive 2 for $995, but in typical Underwood HiFi Tradition, they give early adopters a deal – for now they will be $799. I’m not a huge headphone listener, but I really love headphone amplifiers that offer the ability to be used as a preamplifier as well – it’s the perfect way to entice a personal listener into a two-channel system as time, budget and space allow, making this an even better value. LSA’s Mark Schifter said that the first 100 units will also have NOS Russian 6N1P tubes. Our experience has been that these are very robust tubes with long life, so this will provide even more value.

Ok, on to real headphones

Getting back to hifi reality, a group of phones including an older pair of Grado SR-60s, Sennheiser 650s (with Cardas cabling) and some original Audeze LCD-1s rounded out the old school, with some Sendy Peackocks, and a pair of Focal Clear Mgs for current cans. Thanks to the adjustable gain switch on the front panel (0dB, 6dB, and 12dB) you should be able to drive anything with ease.

The overall sound of the HyperDrive 2 is large, spacious, headphone-y. When you put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Santana’s Abraxas (whatever version you have, btw) or anything by Frank Zappa, you’ll want to light up a joint. Or feel like you’ve already indulged. Headphone listening is a personal experience, and for many the gateway to high end audio.

Those tubes inject a nice bit of tonal saturation and warmth, to distinguish the HyperDrive 2 from a lot of other inexpensive headphone amplifiers that rely on Op Amps alone. It’s just right and a welcome touch. Highs are fleshed out, mids sound natural – regardless of headphones chosen, and the bottom end is well defined and powerful.

Bonus #1 – It’s an incredible preamplifier

You could buy the HyperDrive 2, never use it for more than a headphone amplifier, and be completely happy forever. Really, it’s that good. Even my $4,000 pair of Focal Utopias sound damn good through the HyperDrive 2.

However, good as the HyperDrive 2 is in this mode, I submit that it’s an even better stereo preamplifier. Now that most people use their DAC as a digital hub, the three single ended RCA inputs are enough for your favorite DAC, a phono stage, and maybe even a tuner or cassette deck.

The level of transparency, musicality, and sheer weight that the HyperDrive 2 delivers reminds me of legacy giant killers from Hafler, NAD, and APT/Holman. Simple, well-designed circuits that achieved synergistic success that was more than the sum of the parts used to construct them. The input stage consists of a pair of ECC88/6DJ8 tubes, so you can tune this to taste with some NOS tubes, and the heaphone amplifier section utilizes the Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 op amps, with the preamp output (line level outputs) using Texas Instruments OPA1656 op amps. I’m normally op amp adverse, but these are well implemented.

Again, keeping the approachable ethos intact, three power amplifiers were used with great success. A recently re-capped Nakamichi 420 power amplifier, scored from a friend for a couple hundred bucks was first up. Second, the LAB 12 Mighty, which provides 10 Wpc of single ended EL34 power, and finally a PrimaLuna EVO 100 power amplifier. (35 Wpc all tube).

Speakers on hand were equally budget minded. A pair of Vandersteen 1Cs, a vintage pair of Acoustat 1+1s (though I had to step the game up to my vintage Nakamichi 620 power amplifier) and a pair of KEF LS-50s. Throw in some entry level Black II cables from Tellurium Q, and we’ve got a rocking system on a reasonable budget.

The LSA used in this manner is incredibly good. Way beyond what is typically offered up at this price – it’s really a level of sonic refinement and resolution that is almost always absent here, usually requiring spending a lot more money. This is the true strength of the HyperDrive 2. Underwood and LSA’s manufacturer direct policy makes it possible. Bonus points for you.

Bonus #2 – You can drive speakers with it – a bit

Well, within reason. LSA claims 2 watts into 32 ohms, so I had to go for it. You won’t be able to drive a pair of Harbeths with this thing, but if you’ve got a pair of Klipsch LaScala’s, some Zu Dirty Weekends, or a pair of the new Heretic speakers with 97dB sensitivity. And Bingo was his name. A quick late night run to Best Buy for an $8 headphone extension cable was all that I needed to hack the system, and my trusty wire stripper. The HyperDrive 2 has a standard ¼” jack on the front panel for your phones, so that’s how we did it.

I’m sure the LSA folks won’t sanction this, but if you have a similar pair of speakers in a small ish room, this little desktop powerhouse is incredibly clean sounding. I couldn’t help but be totally impressed with how well this headphone amplifier drove my Heretic A614s to modest levels. If I were back in college again, in a small listening room, I could really enjoy this kind of setup. LSA claims an output impedance of 13 ohms, so this activity will be hit and miss, depending on your speakers. But always worth exploring!

An outstanding value proposition

In a world populated more and more by stuff barely anyone can afford, it’s refreshing to see a product so dedicated in offering so much performance for the dollar. In my day we had our Hafler, NAD, and a few others to get us into it all. Sure, they didn’t have the same quality of casework as maybe a Levinson or Krell piece, but the sonic fundamentals were there in enough abundance to get us to all abandon our mid fi recievers.

Today, the LSA Hyperdrive will convince you it’s time to step up from a Sonos or powered speaker thing and get a real hifi system. Pair it up with a few carefully chosen components and you’ll be thrilled, whether you approach it as a headphone amplifier first or as a 2-channel preamplifier that’s the cornerstone of your system. Very highly recommended. You’ll be seeing this one again before the end of the year. Pika, pika.

Updated Utopia Phones from Focal

Constantly striving for sonic excellence, Focal has just announced a new, improved version of their top-of-the-line Utopia headphones. Now referred to as the 2022 Edition, the new phones are an evolution of sonic and aesthetic performance.

Here’s what they’ve told us so far, we’ve got a review pair on the way:

A new voice coil was developed for the new Utopia. Former-less Aluminum (material of previous Utopia voice coil) and copper to improve the reliability – approx. 30% of copper and 70% of aluminum (because aluminum is a lighter material).

Sonic upgrade: Focal changed the driver grill, with the ‘M’ shape grill (Pure Beryllium) that they developed with Clear Mg. The new grill perfectly follows the shape of the dome and driver inside, so it reduces the gap between the driver and the grill. Reducing the gap helps in the linearity of the frequency response, mostly for trebles. The M-shaped drivers and M-shaped grills enable even clearer and more accurate musical reproduction.

Design overhaul, so this more clearly looks like the flagship model of Focal’s headphone family, with its distinctive honeycombstyling. This is NOT just about looking good: the honeycomb design enables a more open sound, with greater driver movement.

Lighter design for greater listening comfort – by using forged, recycled carbon yokes.

Handcrafted in France in Focal’s specialist headphone atelier, which has received significant investment since Focal launched the original Utopia.

These are premiering at CanJam this weekend, where you can see them in the Focal Booth – F3/F4/F7/F8.

And if you need a pair right now, you can purchase them here:

For more info, Focal has a new section of their website all about the new 2022 edition. We certainly can’t wait to hear them and compare to our current reference Utopias. Please click here:

The Degritter Record Cleaner

This is more of a long-term review, but in a good way.

After living with the Degritter for some time now and having cleaned a ton of records with it, the out of the box love has grown. At about $3,000, this is the best one going for our money. The reason we say “about $3,000” is because the original price was $3,200, the price of the new soon to be released Mark II version is also $3,200, but there are still a few first gen machines for sale on retailer shelves at a slightly discounted price.

You know I’m not one to throw that B-word around loosely. However, I’ve owned a lot of RCMs over the years. Please notice the use of the word “own.” This journey began in the late 70s with an original Nitty Gritty and started a regimen of vinyl hygiene that’s stayed in place. We went through a few Nitty Gritty’s, a Keith Monks (both on loan and a buy) nearly all of the VPI machines, a ClearAudio RCM, a Loricraft, the Kirmuss, and the Systeme Deck.

The base VPI 16.5 that’s been around since current CEO Mat Weisfeld was only a figment of his father Harry’s imagination is still not a bad way to go for the budget minded record collector. But ultrasonic cleaning is the way to go to get your records super clean. Ten years ago, I might have commented that “you could buy a lot of vinyl for $3,200” but today not as much. Considering what records cost these days – especially if you have a lot of rare items, or an extensive collection of remastered discs, keeping them pristine is the best money you can spend.

If you’ve ever read an article on vinyl in the mainstream press, they love to wax poetic about the classic sound of vinyl, with all the ticks and pops. Forget that – it’s not part of the true vinyl experience and it doesn’t have to be. Especially if you have a Degritter

Hands down the most user-friendly model going

You can take a quick peek at the step by step operation, here at the Degritter website. ( You can also download the well-written manual, which will give you an even better idea of how the Degritter works.

It does its job with distilled water, the ultrasonic process takes care of the rest. If you have really dirty records, they do supply their own cleaning fluid that you can add to the wash tank, which should be changed every 30 records anyway. It’s not the worst idea to save the really dirty ones for a single batch.

Once the water tank is filled, all that needs to be done is load your favorite record, choose the cleaning mode, and push the go button. There are three modes, QUICK – 2 min/15 sec., Medium – 3 min/45 sec and HEAVY, 6 min-45 seconds. As most of my records are either very clean, going beyond medium was never necessary. In the past when using another ultrasonic cleaner, and buying more bargain records prone to filthy surfaces, the VPI 16.5 was used for an initial cleaning, then a pass through the ultrasonic.

A search for some really scummy records at our local used record store put the Degritter’s maximum cleaning ability to the test, and it passed with ease. This leads to the next great thing about the Degritter – it’s the quietest RCM going. While my Degritter is in a separate room where the main turntables in my system reside, behind a closed door, this still is a RCM you could listen to music with while cleaning records and not be annoyed.

It’s ability to perform the cleaning and drying cycle unattended makes cleaning records as painless and unobtrusive as can be. Nothing more boring than sitting above the VPI, scrubbing, and squirting and making a moderate mess. Again, convenience and refinement has a higher price tag. The seasoned record collector will love the ease of operation, and a clean, dry record to drop in a fresh archival sleeve when you’re done. Fantastic.

Odds and ends

The Degritter also allows you to set how high the water/cleaning fluid rises on the record, so that it doesn’t soak the label. They also offer adaptors for 7 and 10-inch records that will let you maintain these records. As I only have a handful of 78s, I did not try to clean them, but will ask the Degritter people if this is possible. Stay tuned.

Finally, this machine really caters to the vinyl enthusiast that is going to clean a LOT of records. Filters and accessories are very inexpensive, and the spare wash tank is a great touch. If you’re going from a big batch of dirty records to not so dirty, or brand new records, you can just pop a new tank in and keep cleaning while you rinse out the first tank.

The lack of sound

Every fluid and vacuum RCM we’ve tried always leaves a tiny bit of residue, even after a second distilled water wash only. It’s not the end of the world as we know it, but if you have a highly resolving system, you might hear a slight bit of swishing noise, almost like a faint hiss from a tape deck with a lot of wow and flutter. The ultrasonic method has none of this.

Even with a brand new record, (which we always suggest you clean anyway) the level of surface noise eliminated by the Degritter is almost like putting a better grade of tubes in your phono preamplifier. That kind of thing.

If you add a Degritter to your vinyl setup, you will never have to reminisce about those “clicks and pops” again. And that’s a wonderful thing. PS: The Degritter was one of our two Product of the Year winners in the accessories category. Highly recommended.

High End by OZ is now distributor for Lansche Audio

Lansche Audio is pleased to announce High End by Oz, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, as its official distributor for North America.

High End by Oz LLC. is a high-end audio distributor covering North America with some of the finest high-end audio products from around the world. The addition of Lansche Audio to the portfolio further expands our state-of-the-art offering in the North American market.

Lansche Audio was founded in 1990. Its production facility is in Konstanz, Germany.  Company co-founder Rudiger Lansche studied electrical engineering. A passionate violinist, he has been involved in the development of loudspeaker systems for over 40 years. He has developed the plasma tweeter (the basis for the Corona ion tweeter) decades ago – this is what lies in the heart of Lansche speaker design.

The launch of Lansche speakers to take place in the upcoming Capital Audio Fest scheduled to take place on 11/11- 11/13 2022 in Rockville, Maryland.

They invite you to experience Lansche Audio speakers through our dealership network in North America.

Totem Kin Play Towers – More of a GREAT thing

I’ve been living with a pair of Totem’s Kin Play monitor speakers for almost two years now. Needless to say I love em.

However, a recent dog related accident, had one of them toppling off the (what I thought was unmoveable) filled, Sound Anchors stands and dinging a corner. This had me re-thinking priorities, but as I mentioned, the sound of the Kin Play speakers was fantastic for our bedroom system, allowing streaming music via AirPlay with the built-in DAC, or 2.1 video sound.

Enter the Kin Play Towers. Bigger sound, more bass, and more power! 200 Wpc to be exact. Now I can crank up the sound level even higher when watching F1. Life is good. And, even though they are made in black, the satin white blends into a small space exquisitely.

We will have a full review in issue 114, but there’s no way these are going back to the Great White North. If you need a compact, yet powerful and highly functional pair of powered tower speakers, the Kin Play Towers tick all the boxes.

$2,250/pair at your Totem dealer. Tell them I sent you.

The Audio Research LS-28SE

Somehow, Audio Research is remembered too often only for their Reference series of components. (i.e. the most expensive), yet the LS series is still incredibly good, always incorporating the benefits of R&D from the REF series.

Time and current parts/shipping issues have pushed the price of the LS preamplifier to an even $10k, where the REF 6SE is now $17,000. Inflation doesn’t tell the whole story – back in 1989 when the original hybrid FET/Tube LS-1 was launched at $1,679 only pencils out to about $4k in today’s currency, seems at first blush that the LS-28SE might be overpriced.

However, the original LS-1 was a single ended line stage, where the LS-28SE is fully balanced, all of the switched controls on the front panel are now replaced by microprocessor driven controls, and most importantly, the sound is much closer to the REF than ever before. So much so, that comparing the LS-28SE to a friends REF 5 (that retailed for about 12k back in 2009) really reveals where the progress has been made. Where the prior LS-27/SE had a pair of 6H30 tubes, the 28SE has four.

For all but those with the biggest ambitions, the LS-28SE is an end of the road preamplifier. We’ve got a full review in the works, and some comparisons with past ARC preamplifiers to put it in better perspective. Regardless, the legacy is intact with the LS-28SE.

Zu Audio Dirty Weekend 6

Zu is back with the latest edition of their Dirty Weekend speakers.

If you’re not in the know, these are like a winery releasing a small batch of some of their best stuff, but not for crazy money.

The catch is you have to get them while they are available. Like a pop up store. We’ve got the last version and they are out of this world good. Highly recommended.

The LSA .5 Phono Preamplifier

One of the best upgrades you can make to an entry level analog front end is a better phono stage.

The biggest problem you face is that nearly everything under a thousand dollars is less than stellar, and if you’ve just jumped in the pond, with a table/arm/cartridge in the $300-$700 range, dropping another G right now probably doesn’t make perfect sense.

You’re digging the vinyl thing, and maybe you’re starting to get enthused and obsessed with how things sound – especially if this is all new. Maybe you just want a second system somewhere, but still want as much fidelity as you can get on a tight budget.

Bam. $249 just took you to audio heaven. LSA’s new .5 phono preamplifier is MM and MC, solid-state, super quiet, and delivers the goods. Plus, no goofy wall wart power supply to keep track of, it uses a standard 15A IEC cord. (hint, hint: once you get used to the buzz the .5 provides, grab your favorite $125 power cord and get a little more juice. Sorry, the habit never ends.) Inside, the .5 is full of components – not air. It sports a healthy toroid power transformer and a tidy circuit board with the main circuitry. There’s also a pair of DIP switches to change from MM to MC mode. MC is a 100 ohm input with 60dB of gain – great for a long list of great performing budget MCs. The casework is solid aluminum, not plastic or stamped metal, creating a product that you’ll be proud to put on your rack.

But the best part is just how musically rewarding the .5 is. We’ve got a full review in the works, but the short story is awesome. The LSA .5 Phono is a great place to spend time playing records. How can you not love it?

Ella’s Latest: A must hear

A couple of years ago it was a German recording. Lost tapes of a 1962 show that caught Ella in some kind of prime (yes, she had several, as committed Fitzgerald fans know) were found and released, and from the crazed swing of “Jersey Bounce” to the sublime diction of “Mr. Paganini,” it was a jewel.

So is this new find, a Bowl/Berlin confluence from the summer of ‘58 that finds the singer’s voice limber, playful, commanding, fiery and thrilling…to say the least. I guess a case could be made that those adjectives could correctly be used during much of the icon’s career, but here listening on the back porch on a 2022 summer night, the blend of craft and esprit she brought to the Hollywood Bowl is euphoric.

Her famed songbook series was on its fourth installment, and it had just earned her a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance. Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” and “Remember” were probably pinging through the heads of ticket-buyers when the First Lady of Song, backed by a contingent of brass, reeds and strings helmed by the album’s conductor Paul Weston, stepped up to the mic to sweep everyone away. “As you listen to the band, don’t cha get a bubble? As you listen to them play, don’t cha get a glow?” The opening of “Let Yourself Go” is a good place to point your ears. Team Weston is taking the advice of the song’s lyrics, bouncing the beat like transcendence could be part of every bar.

Ella grabs the vibe and doubles down through many of these performances. Dash and drive fight it out with zing and zip as she conveys the anticipation of a night on the town in “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.” And the brass section’s brio meshes nicely with the singer’s vocal acrobatics on “Heat Wave.” The occasional indictment that Fitzgerald lacked sufficient dramatic skills to convincingly convey despair is swept to the side here, too. Her quaver sets a forlorn tone on “Russian Lullaby” (a duet with the harpist) and the poignancy is palpable when she speaks from behind a broken heart in “You’re Laughing At Me.” But the ballads are in the minority here. By the time the giddy swag of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” closes the deal, we’ve all been reminded that Ella set the bar high when it came to dispensing exuberance. Artistry abounds on this must-hear find.

Issue 112

Cover Story

A Chat With Al DiMeola:
Saturday Night, The Beatles, and much more!


Old School: Stax SR34

Cartridge Dude: The Skyanalog G-2

1095: The Music Hall Analogue A3

The Audiophile Apartment: Auto return with the Technics SL-1500C

Journeyman Audiophile: The Focal 936K2 Speakers

Short Take: The Naim HiCap DR


The REL T/9X Subwoofer
HiFi Rose RS 150B Streamer/DAC/Preamp
Rega Elicit Mk.5 Integrated Amplifier
LAB12 Melto 2 Phono Preamplifier

On With The Show! A quick recap on Munich Hi End 2022
By Mario Dolinar/photos by Mario D and Angela Cardas


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world
Setlist:  Sean Zloch sees Roger Waters
Jim Macknie on JAZZ

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Future Tense: Gear in our immediate future

New buds from Nura feature Dirac…

We are anxiously awaiting a review sample of these new ear buds from Australian manufacturer Nura. The following is their release info:

The NuraTrue Pro is designed to deliver audiophile-grade sound with the convenience of a wireless earbud, by combining lossless audio with Nura’s award-winning personalized technology for perfectly balanced sound. The Dirac Virtuo spatial audio solution adds a new dimension to the enthusiast-grade sound, turning the high-end headphone audio experience into a speaker-like immersive sound experience that puts listeners in the studio to hear music as artists intended.

“The NuraTrue Pro delivers uncompromised sound fidelity with its cutting edge technologies and innovative design,” said Mats Oberg, Chief Commercial Officer, Dirac. “Dirac Virtuo elevates the experience further with its uncompromised spatialization. We ensure that standard stereo sound is spatialized with high accuracy, bringing out the spatial cues that already exist in stereo recordings. Users enjoy an immersive audiophile-grade sound with standard stereo content, without requiring any specific streaming platform.”

The award-winning Dirac Virtuo solution employs a high-resolution binaural room impulse response technology to restore speaker crosstalk and correct the stereo soundstage. With Dirac Virtuo, sound seemingly comes from a pair of premium stereo speakers in front of the listener, rather than from inside their head – creating a truer, more accurate stereo soundstage than regular headphones can deliver.

“In designing the NuraTrue Pro, we adopted a ‘no compromise’ philosophy that applies to all aspects of the product, from audio performance through to product design and user experience,” said Dr. Luke Campbell, CEO and Co-Founder at Nura. “In keeping with that philosophy, it is natural for us to adopt Dirac Virtuo to deliver the highly demanded spatial audio to our users, crafting a premium experience that ensures nothing gets between you and what matters most, your music.”

Dirac Virtuo is also supported by the headphone industry’s most common chipsets and frameworks, including Qualcomm, BES, and MediaTek. By enabling spatial audio natively in wireless headphones, Dirac ensures manufacturers like Nura can differentiate their offerings in a highly competitive market, and consumers can enjoy immersive, high-quality sound from standard stereo content – for elevated music listening, gaming, and movie watching experiences.

In addition to Dirac Virtuo and lossless audio over Bluetooth, the new NuraTrue Pro wireless earbuds feature Nura’s award-winning Personalized Sound technology which measures a user’s hearing to create an individualized EQ; the new Nura ProEQ for manual EQ fine-tuning within the companion app; four microphones including a bone conduction sensor for crystal clear voice calls; wireless charging through any Qi-compatible charging device; and up to eight hours of playback on a single charge, with an additional 24 hours from the included charging case.

Here’s a link to their early-purchase Kickstarter program: