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.


https://www.naimaudio.com/product/range/new-classic

Issue 115

Cover Story:

Awards!

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

Music

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

Features

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

Reviews

the dCS Vivaldi ONE/APEX – By Jeff Dorgay

Music

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 Superbestaudiofriends.org, 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.

Substitutions

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.

$799/pair

www.xsa-labs.com






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!

https://www.bobcarvercorp.com/black-magic-25

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
price.

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!

www.underwoodhifi.com



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.

www.aquahifi.com (mfr)

https://www.facebook.com/arcadiaaudiomarketing (NA distributor)

Issue 113

Cover Story

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

Features

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

Reviews

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

Music

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.

$8,995
Luxmanamerica.com

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.

www.underwoodhifi.com

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:

headphones.com/products/focal-utopia

https://www.moon-audio.com/focal-utopia-2022-headphones.html

https://www.crutchfield.com/p_091UTP2022/Focal-Utopia-2022.html

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:

https://www.focal.com/en/headphones-0/headphones/for-home/utopia-2022

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. (https://degritter.com/products/mark-1/). 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.

www.degritter.com

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.

www.highendbyoz.com

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.

www.totemacoustic.com

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.

www.audioresearch.com

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.

https://www.zuaudio.com/loudspeakers/dw6

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?

www.underwoodhifi.com

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!


Features

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

Reviews

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

Music

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:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nura/nuratrue-pro-lossless-audio-earbuds-with-personalised-sound

REVIEW: The LSA Signature 80 Speakers

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

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

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

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

Easy to set up

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

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

Potential suitors

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

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

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

Further listening

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

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

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

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

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

Listener friendly, room friendly and wallet friendly

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

www.underwoodhifi.com

Acora SRC-1 Speakers

Acora’s Scott Sefton opened the door with their stand mount SRB speakers a while back, delivering a lovely experience. Even their stand mount speakers generate a lot of low-frequency energy from a compact enclosure.

Like a well tuned, high-performance car, it’s not just one aspect of the speaker that excites the senses. Still, a system that all parameters have been carefully optimized from driver choice to crossover components to their inert cabinets – made entirely of granite.

Valerio Cora, the man who designs the Acora speakers, chooses different driver combinations for each of their three loudspeakers for best effect. A casual look makes it seem like he’s merely added a larger woofer and then two in the bigger SRC-2 model. This is not the case.

Where the SRB uses a beryllium tweeter, the SRC-1 features a soft dome tweeter. This accounts for the SRC-1 sounding slightly less forward than the SRB. It’s not a huge difference, much like moving back about five seats in a good hall. The largest speaker in their range offers more bass extension and dynamic ability as well. In this respect, the Acora speakers remind me of a Magnepan or the old Acoustat ESL speakers in that you choose the speaker for the size room you intend to place it in.

All three speakers share a family sound delivering a relatively similar performance when used in the correct sized room. Other a little bit of ultimate bass extension, the SRB in a small room at modest to loud levels sounds remarkably similar to the bigger Acora models in progressively larger rooms. This is no small engineering feat.

Rather than make you wait to the end, here’s the money quote: the SRC-1 is the most neutral speaker I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. We are keeping these to become part of my living room reference setup because they are such a great place to start when reviewing other components. They are that good. Will they be the speaker for you? Read on and see if this approach makes sense. I’ll do my best.

Lack of coloration

Everyone perceives sound differently (just as we do color), and everyone has different goals for their HiFi system. If your priorities lean towards tonal accuracy, it’s easy to get too much of a good thing, ending up with strident speakers that wear on you after extended periods in the listening chair. At times, that extra dose of resolution that catches your ear at a HiFi show or in a dealer showroom is too much in your room after a few long days. Hyper detail can be a cruel and painful addiction.

The SRC-1s do not suffer from this issue in the slightest. The closest comparison that comes to mind is the 3000 series Boulder monoblock amplifiers. They are highly resolving yet not fatiguing, imposing no sonic signature of their own. You can listen to them all day without the slightest bit of fatigue or boredom. They offer an unmatched clarity that is unfortunately out of reach for most music lovers at just over $300k per pair. You can’t get that much money for both of your kidneys. At $28,000/pair, the SRC-1s are not out of reach. Easter’s coming; sedate a family member after dinner, snatch a kidney, bam. They won’t miss it.

After 17 years of publishing TONE, we’ve talked to many of our readers via various channels, and you’ve been telling us that a lot of you possess systems in the $50k – $100k range. If you’ve been planning on building a system around this kind of sound, I highly suggest the SRC-1 for many reasons.

Season to taste

Because music is so personal, most of us usually prefer “a sound.” The Acoras let you play it straight, go for a bit more resolution, or a bit more romance simply by switching the components. The Boulder 866 integrated the T+A 2500 and the combination of the Audio Research REF 80S/LS-28SE all provided a more neutral voice during extended listening sessions. The ARC combo is the most resolving of the group, creating a soundfield that is deep, deep, deep. Nagra’s Classic Pre and Amp offered just a touch more dynamic drive than the ARC pair, with slightly more presence in the lower registers but still closer to what we’d consider natural/neutral.

My reference Pass XS Pre/XS Phono/XA 200.8 monoblock combination delivers a warmer tonal balance. Still, the extra current drive helps the SRC-1s produce an even larger sonic landscape than the previous components. Even warmer still, the PrimaLuna EVO 400 Monoblocks (with KT-150 tubes) shrink the sonic space slightly but add tons of personality, embellishing the midrange as a classic tube amplifier is wont to do.

Acora’s 90.5dB/1-watt sensitivity rating only tells part of the story. These speakers are very easy to drive with anything. Should you be an audio enthusiast that loves single-ended triodes, again, the SRC-1s provide a lovely presentation. Bringing the CARY 805 monos front and center produces a very colored but oh-so-magical SET vibe to the party. Going through a long playlist of vocal and acoustic tracks proves immersive and beguiling. If your musical taste is heavily weighted in this direction, you could happily live here.

It will be tricky to find electronics that will out resolve the SRC-1s unless you have Ferrari money at your disposal. The good news is, whether you purchase a pair of SRC-1s as the endcap on your audio system or use them to explore a wide range of components, cables, and recordings, they are incredibly versatile.

Further listening

The Acora speakers will bring a lot of “wow, I didn’t hear that before” or “I didn’t hear it like that before” moments. Rather than bore you with what seems like an endless barrage of record reviews, forcing my questionable musical taste upon you, suffice to say, these speakers will keep you riveted to your listening chair for hours.

The more time spent listening to these speakers the more challenging it is to describe the lack of sound and voice they possess. Treble is extended but not harsh, tizzy, or tipped up, and bass is equally extended, with a high level of resolution. All but the most hard-core electronica listeners should find the lower registers of these speakers more than adequate.

Interestingly, Acora suggests no toe-in for setup, and while this seemed a little counterintuitive at first, it works wonders. Bringing the speakers a little closer in (we ended up about 6 feet apart in the small room and 8 feet apart in the big room) and eliminating toe-in dramatically increases horizontal image size and image precision. At 246 pounds each, get a friend to help you to place the SRC-1s before you install the spikes, or you could damage something. You might jump to the conclusion from my pictures that I have the speakers “set up wrong,” because the screw adjusters are showing. What I’ve done here, and I suggest for anyone with hardwood floors, is to use the black cups that normally would screw on top here, (and finely finished they are) to use OVER the spikes, acting like pucks. As I have an older home and wasn’t quite sure just how much weight per square inch would work, I decided to be safe rather than sorry.

At the beginning of the review, there was a passing reference to planar and electrostatic speakers. I have always had an admitted bias towards coherence over almost anything else, and in this aspect, the Acoras excel. They feel like a single-driver speaker, but with extension and dynamics. Combined with the inert cabinet, these speakers disappear in the room like few others.

And, those cabinets

Now that I have a wily pair of Bull Terriers zooming around my house, pet-friendly speakers have become more of a priority. Lucy and Ricki’s massive teeth can’t touch that granite enclosure, and at almost 300 pounds each, they can not tag-team them to the floor either. I’m guessing the same amount of non-destructibility applies to those of you with toddlers as well.

The granite also makes for an incredibly inert way to mount drivers – making for an enclosure that simply lets the drivers do their thing. While companies like Sonus faber, Harbeth, and others “tune” the cabinet to work with their drivers, once you hear the purity of Acora’s approach, you’ll always hear the cabinets elsewhere, at least to some extent. (And I say this as a Harbeth and Sonus faber owner.)

Practicality aside, the SRC-1s are beautiful. Not entirely as black as the Spinal Tap album cover, they still have some detail in the black, looking absolutely beautiful when light hits them. They are austere enough that they should work within any décor, though they probably lend themselves to a more modern room. As does everything black. The amount of time and precision to cut granite to this level of accuracy should not be overlooked either. The cabinet joints and driver cutouts are perfectly executed.

Are they your cup of?

The toughest part of writing about products like this (i.e., ones you really like) is not sounding like a fanperson. But, I genuinely hope that if the description of the SRC-1s sounds intriguing, you’ll seek out a pair to listen to. These really have been a favorite. Very few speakers can serve double duty as a reviewing tool yet provide hours of musical enjoyment when not in gear evaluation mode.

Having a speaker with such a natural presentation on its own makes for a $28,000 pair of speakers you can keep around for a very long time – maybe forever. When you consider the expense of buying and selling multiple pairs of $10k speakers (and losing a few thousand bucks every single time) putting the SRC-1 in your system and getting your sonic moods satisfied by merely changing electronics is a pretty good value at the end of the day. Actually an Exceptional Value Award.

www.acoraacoustics.com

A Box of NOTHING from McIntosh: The LB200

The first hifi system I experienced was comprised of McIntosh components, so I’ve been a fan for about 50 years. I’ve owned my fair share of Mc gear over the years, and love my MC275.

I kept my mouth shut when the McIntosh people published press photos with turntables on the same shelves as speakers. “We’re just doing it to look photogenic,” they said. I kept my mouth shut earlier this year when they released $7,500 worth of wood slabs, passing them off as vibration control devices. “They are made by a very prestigious, environmentally conscious furniture manufacturer,” they said. I even kept my mouth shut when they released that rubbish $500 wifi thing – which I actually bought so we could get one in for review sooner than later. BTW, you can’t even read the logo on it – guess you have to pay four figures now at Mc to get a legible logo.

Today I got the press release for the new LB200 Light Box that retails for $1,500. And guess what’s inside? NOTHING. No really. NOTHING. This is fucked up. Really fucked up.  “Have you spent a lot of time creating a beautiful McIntosh system ONLY TO HAVE IT TARNISHED BY A NON PREMIUM COMPONENT?” Are you kidding me? Now if this were $199, or better yet a GIVE AWAY with Mc systems, hell yeah. I know how Mc lovers love big racks full of stuff with the logo and the meters. The more the merrier at that point.

But $1,500 for this thing, really? I could see if they brought back the neon McIntosh clock that used to hang in dealers for say, $300 – $500. That would have been cool. This thing doesn’t even tell the time. It just has the McIntosh logo on it. That’s it. “Handcrafted in the USA with US AND IMPORTED PARTS.” So basically, they are buying the front face plate with the LED assembly for three dollars in China, and taking the casework they already are building for standard sized Mc components.

I have never said anything overly negative about the industry I love, a brand I grew up with (and respected until today) and love but this is just too much. I can never own a piece of McIntosh gear again. I don’t care if it’s a mint pair of MC30s at a reasonable price. This is so wrong on so many levels. And it’s a major slap in the face to other companies that actually make decent (yet NON-PREMIUM) components that actually have something in the fucking box for $1,500.

I don’t EVER want to hear another comment about this product or that product “not being worth the money,” as long as the McIntosh LB200 exists. The good news is that the value of everything made in high end audio that actually has COMPONENTS inside is now worth double. Cables aren’t worth the money? Shut up.

This is the best that the new owners of McIntosh can come up with? Really?

As William Shatner and Henry Rollins once said: “I can’t get behind that.”

PS:  Really not pulling your legs here. NOTHING inside:

The LSA VT-70 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Enter the VT70

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

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

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

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

The incredible lightness of being tubey

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

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

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

The setup

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

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

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

More on the sound

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

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

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

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

You can’t lose

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

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

www.underwoodhifi

LSA Signature 80 Reference Monitor

It just took the first bass riff in The Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” to convince me that the new LSA 80s deliver some major bass. These dig deep. In a moderate sized room, you won’t need a subwoofer with these – that’s a plus. Especially for entry level audiophiles on a tight budget.

But bass isn’t everything. These speakers have done an incredible job of blending the tweeter and midrange for a seamless audio experience. They produce a big, big sound that is tough to beat for small monitors, especially at their introductory price o $1,299/pair. Much as we enjoyed the LSA 50s, like Spinal Tap says, “well, these are one better…”

The cabinets are well finished, and the execution is equally great. Not too fancy, but really good for what they are. Easy to drive, we’ve had excellent result with everything from our 10 Watt per channel LAB 12 Mighty to the Pass XA 200.8 monoblocks. By the way – these lovely little speakers are available direct from Underwood HiFi, and their VT-70 tube integrated at $1,195 makes a killer combination.

So, what’s not to love?

Just click here to go to the Underwood site.

Manley Labs Chinook Special Edition mk.II Phono

Many a vinyl enthusiast has envisioned owning a Manley Steelhead phono preamplifer.

It’s a killer phono stage, with tons of adjustments, and inputs for three turntables. How cool is that? It also features a volume control, and a single line input, so you could use it as your system’s front end. Just add your favorite DAC, power amp and roll.

Not everyone needs three inputs, or has close to $10k for the current Steelhead. EveAnna Manley and Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio are two of the coolest cats in hifi, and have they got a deal for you. $2,899 gets you an “Upscale Audio Edition” Chinook.

This single input, single chassis, MM/MC wonder has a lot (a lot, a lot) of Steelhead DNA inside. Most $3k phono preamps weigh about as much as an iPad these days, and are big on empty space when you open the case. The Steelhead is built just like all the other pro gear Manley is famous for (i.e. reliable…) and Mr. Deal hand picks the tubes. Just look at the inside of this beauty!

Should you be a PrimaLuna owner, you know that they don’t make a matching phono preamplifier, and cool as the regular Manley Chinook is, it only comes in Manley purple. (not that I don’t love purple, but if you’re trying to be all matchy-matchy, it doesn’t work) So, Kevin and EveAnna made a series of these in black or silver to match your PrimaLunas, or whatever gear you happen to have in black or silver, in case you can’t wrap your brain around purple.

We’ve got a full review in the works, but the short story is: Big, dynamic, quiet, and three-dimensional. It’s way beyond wow for the price asked.

You can go right here to purchase one. Tell them we sent you. Highly recommended.

New Focal Powered by Naim Spaces in Barrie and Winnipeg

The Vervent Group, that unites Naim and Focal has opened two more “Focal Powered by Naim” stores in Canada. Winnipeg and Barrie to be precise. This is an incredible way to experience the full depth of these brands, along with their personal audio products. It’s a big win for new and seasoned audio enthusiasts.

Focal Powered by Naim Barrie takes place in the EQ Audio Video store, led by Edward O’Herlihy, an expert in audio solutions for more than thirty years. Focal Powered by Naim Winnipeg moves to Creative Audio in St. Boniface’s French Quarter, a store run by audio enthusiast Jeff Kowerchuk.

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Through their global network of stores and shop-in-shops, Focal and Naim put their customer at the center of their attention and offer them an authentic experience. Discovery of complete systems and high-end products, sound advice and listening experiences. They allow you to fully grasp the quality of Focal and Naim sound and to project yourself at home with a hi-fi or Home Cinema solution.

FOCAL POWERED BY NAIM BARRIE

Close to the Barrie Molson Center, this shop-in-shop invites you to discover the World of Focal and Naim and test products via the four demonstration rooms of the luxurious EQ Audio Video store and a headphone bar with Focal’s headphones for a unique listening experience.

Highlighting the space will be the exclusive Focal Naim 10th Anniversary Edition system. It includes Focal Sopra N°2, Naim NDX 2 – NAC 282 – HICAP DR and NAPSC – NAP 250 DR for $48,000 USD and $62,400 CAD. The system includes all the connections you need, including a pair of Naim’s top-range Super Lumina speaker cables.

Focal Powered by Naim Barrie

130 Saunders Road, Units 5,6,7

Barrie, Ontario, L4N 9A8

Email: [email protected]

Website: https://www.focal.com/en/focal-powered-by-naim-barrie

Located in the Creative Audio store, Winnipeg’s Focal and Naim shop-in-shop offers immersive listening in its two demonstration rooms, as well as more intimate listening at its Focal headphone bar. Designed around sharing, the space presents hi-fi and home cinema products of excellence but also unique finishes, such as the Focal Sopra N°2 speaker available in its Electric Orange finish.

Focal Powered by Naim Winnipeg

7-353 Provencher Boulevard Winnipeg, Manitoba R2H 0G8

Email: [email protected]

Website: https://www.focal.com/en/focal-powered-by-naim-winnipeg-0

Lab 12 Mighty Power Amplifier

Don’t let the small footprint of this 10 Watt per channel fool you.

Even though it has a modest output, this single ended Class-A amplifier can be used in ultralinear or triode mode. It ships with a pair of EL34s, but can also be used with 6550 or KT88 output tubes. We tried them all and it’s more of a different, than better sound. (of course, our personal favorite is the EL34) A pair of 6NP1 dual-triodes round out the tube compliment. Simple.

From the coolio power output meters to the glowing tubes, this amplifier is a dream come true for anyone using efficient, high-sensitivity speakers. Thanks to The Heretic Speaker Company’s A614s, there’s an incredibly musical system playing in room 2 these days.

Though we did cheat a bit, using the Pass XS Pre and dCS Vivaldi ONE digital player to establish the Mighty’s performance envelope, moving to a more reasonably priced front end (the Naim Uniti Headphone Amplifier used as a DAC/PRE) is just as enjoyable. Even with less sensitive speakers (the Eggleston Nico EVOs, with an 87db/1Watt rating), the Mighty still delivers great, low volume listening.

With a single pair of RCA inputs, it’s easy to put in your system, and the sound is robust. The epitome of tubey-ness, the Mighty is a wonderful blend of new and old, providing a massive soundfield, well controlled bass, and a luscious top end. This is one you can listen to all day.

$2,190

www.lab12.gr (factory)
www.fidelisdistribution (US Distributor)

The Sendy Audio Peacock Headphones

A few strums into Al DiMeola’s new live recording, Saturday Night in San Francisco is all it takes to reveal the delicacy these new phones from Sendy Audio possess. It wasn’t that long ago, there were a few mega-expensive electrostatic phones, and Audeze. Times have changed. While not having the last 5% of sheer speed and transparency that the best ESL phones have, the Peackocks are extremely musical and inviting overall. There’s a slightly warm tonality going on here that will keep them on your head for a long time.

Build quality is high, and the packaging lovely, but not overdone – and not overdone to the point where you might worry that too much effort went into the packaging. A quick look at the Sendy website shows how much thought and engineering prowess has gone into the drivers in these phones.

Switching from DiMeola to some classic Soul II Soul shows these phones can produce some major bass. If your musical taste leans towards house, hip hop, and electronica – the Peacocks might just be your new favorite musical tool.

But don’t think the Peacocks are Beats reincarnated. Regardless of genre, they deliver a high level of musical satisfaction. Their pleasing rendition and utter lack of distortion makes whatever music you love accessible. The midrange is clean, and the top end transparent.

They ship from the factory with a mini headphone plug, but Sendy includes ¼-inch and balanced adaptors. Putting these phones through their paces with everything from an older iPhone to our Manley reference headphone amplifier shows the Peacocks incredibly easy to drive. That’s great news no matter where you are on your personal listening journey.

Full review soon – highly recommended.

$1,499/pair

www.underwoodhifi.com

Lyle Lovett’s latest

If you’re in the mood for some musical comfort food, consider Lyle Lovett’s recent release – 12th of June.

If you’re a fan of his 1989 release, Lyle Lovett And His Large Band, and the 1992 follow up, Joshua Judges Ruth, this record picks up the same groove those records put down. Much like the opening of Large Band, Lovett begins this record with a short, snappy, uptempo instrumental that gets your ears warmed up for the rest of the journey. It feels as if this could have easily been release six months later.

Lovett is a musical chef that combines blues, country, Americana, and a little bit of jazz on the side to create a musical dish that’s mmm, mmm good. The title is a tribute to his twins born on June 12, how can you not love this guy?

The songs are great, with titles like “Pants is Overrated” (about his twins and their diapers), and “Pig Meat Man.” “Bring it to me on a great big platter – I’m a pig meat man, I like bacon and ham (with toast and jam).” You just want to call him up and go to Denny’s for a Grand Slam.

The record is fleshed out stylistically and texturally a lot like the Large Band record, and that’s a good thing. Featuring longtime collaborator Francine Reed, (who incidentally has just announced her retirement) the record flies by, perhaps too soon. This record is exquisitely recorded, and the musicianship first rate. Lovett’s voice doesn’t sound like its aged a day, even though a decade has flown by since we last heard from him. Let’s hope it doesn’t take this long for the next one.

12th of June is out on all formats, but if you need to live with it a bit before you buy a vinyl copy, it is also streaming with all the majors.

The FYNE 500SP

Small speakers can rarely energize a good-sized room with full-range sound. This is always the magic that is FYNE.

Featuring the coherence that usually only comes with electrostatic speakers, the time-aligned, coaxial driver of the FYNE speakers delivers a seamlessness that you might expect from a pair of vintage Quads, with a serious dynamic punch as well. Without the inherent graininess that plagues the other small speaker darlings – i.e., KEF and ELAC. (I say that with all respect, as a former Blade and LS50 owner) And it comes in an enclosure that isn’t even a cubic foot. At $1,995 a pair, these speakers are a mega value. The FYNE speakers are in a league of their own.

Tracking through Aphex Twin’s Syro album, the 500SPs generate a vast sound field in all three dimensions in our 15 x 26-foot main listening room. Only about 6 feet apart and 4 feet from the rear walls (with about 10 feet to each side), the small FYNEs open up, rendering layer upon layer of musical detail. Perhaps this isn’t the absolute sound, but music with a dense, atmospheric vibe needs this kind of presentation to engage you thoroughly.

Similarly trippy records from Yes, Art of Noise, and Steven Wilson are just as compelling. If you are a music lover who craves a spacious, dynamic sound at this price point and form factor, the FYNE 500SP should be at the top of your list. The toy piano in Gruppo Sportivo’s “Blah Blah Magazines” jumps way out in front of the speakers, showing how immersive the 500SPs are.

Superb standards

Switching it up, The Ginger Baker Trio’s Going Back Home reveals more insight into the level of nuance the SP500s deliver. Combining Baker’s powerful yet airy drumming, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Charlie Haden on bass, these speakers prove their prowess with acoustic instruments. There’s so much texture here in Baker’s drumming, and Haden’s runs up and down the neck of the acoustic bass, you’ll swear you’re listening to a much larger (and much more expensive) set of speakers. The extension and resolution of the lower frequencies are stunning with the SP500s.

Female vocal lovers will be equally delighted with the resolution the SP500s deliver. A long playlist of current and classic vocalists reveals the FYNE speakers are equally competent here. Though audiophiles have a tendency to lean on female vocals to judge speaker character, switching to male vocals is where many speakers fail to deliver. Johnny Cash’s “Delia,” from his original American Recordings, is always a go-to track because of his husky vocal delivery. Speakers lacking low-end reinforcement make Cash sound like a busboy with a lightweight character. The 500SPs allow this character to be the menacing executioner that the song portrays.

Again, our favorites fall to just about anything by Tom Waits or Buddy Guy. I’m sure you have your favorite demo tracks to see how well these speakers work in this context.

Finally, the 500SPs can play loud when the mood strikes. Watching the meter needles on the 100 Wpc Nagra Classic Amp hit 0dB on peaks made a thunderous presentation indeed when listening to Mott The Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” FYNE suggests amplifiers in the 30 – 120 Watt per channel (60 Watts, continuous), and we agree.

In a moderately sized space, you may never explore the upper reaches of these speakers’ dynamic capabilities. Your only limitation will be with bass-heavy material. The big drums in Peter Gabriel’s “The Rhythm of the Heat” are able to bottom the woofers at high volume, and this kind of punishment will probably be frowned upon should you return your damaged speakers to FYNE for repair.

This is the double-edged sword of the 500SP. In addition to their impressive tonal characteristics, this is a very low-distortion speaker as well. It makes for fatigue-free listening, but approach high sound pressure levels slowly at first, so you can find the overload point for your system and your ears. You will be surprised at the high sound pressure level the 500SPs can produce.

Choose your voice

Overall, the SP500s are a touch forward in their presentation but not harsh or strident. Thanks to a 90db/1-Watt sensitivity, they don’t need a massive power amplifier to make music at adequate listening levels. A well-designed crossover network, with a first-order slope going up from the 1.7kHz crossover frequency and a second-order slope going downwards, is a massive contributor to the smooth vocal character and lack of artifacts in the crossover region. However, their high level of resolving power allows them to shine with higher quality components. This leaves the music lover a wide range of options. You may find yourself pairing the FYNE speakers with more expensive components than you initially thought practical.

Rega’s Brio-R remains one of our favorite high-quality integrated amplifiers for just under $1,000 and is our starting point for this review after the initial break-in. A Prima Luna ProLogue 1 and the Luxman N-150 Neo Classic rounded out the picture for vacuum tube amplification choices. The T+A Caruso R and Cyrus Cast ONE both feature Class-D amplification, though the digital amplifiers start to become too much of a good thing.

The 500SPs resolving ability makes them less than perfect for older vintage solid-state amplifiers and receivers only because they tend to expose the flaws in the components upstream. Giving them a go with a re-capped Marantz 2270 feels a little dull, though putting them in a system with a set of freshly rebuilt Nakamichi 600 components (a distinct step up back in the day) made for a charming overall effect.

However, we all like something different. But, if you have a digital amplifier, you’ve been warned. The 500SPs relative neutrality gives you a wider range of options than most speakers at this price level to fine-tune the voice of your system, a definite plus.

Because of their wide dispersion and a downward-firing port between the cabinet base and bottom, these are incredibly easy speakers to place in your room. They are top performers in an environment where the speakers can’t always go in the optimum spot for perfect sound. If you don’t opt for the FYNE stands, go for the most massive, rigid ones that make sense for your wallet and décor. Flimsy stands will compromise bass extension and quality.

One thing unique to the FYNE speakers is their fifth ground lug on the back of the speakers. FYNE claims it will “ground the driver chassis and eliminate amp or cable born RF interference.” While the TONE studio is a big, metal building (essentially a Faraday cage), we don’t usually have this problem. However, in the house’s unshielded environment, taking advantage of this did make a slightly noticeable – and positive effect. A nice touch, indeed.

While the review set arrived in gloss black, gloss white, and gloss walnut is also available. The finish quality is exquisite. The 500SPs are designed and built in the UK. It shows. If you’ve spent any time at all with modestly priced speakers that hail from China, you’ll notice that the fine details are not executed as well as they are here.

Should you put a pair of 500SPs in your system, the only thing you might consider after you’re used to the speakers is a pair of high-quality jumpers to connect the woofer and tweeter, if you aren’t using bi-wired speaker cables. Jumpers from Tellurium Q and Cardas both added another margin of HF smoothness that is worth exploring.

It’s easy to give the FYNE 500SPs one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2022. Every aspect of these speakers is flawlessly executed within the price point.

www.soundorg.com (US distributor)

www.fyneaudio.com (Manufacturer)

Joni Mitchell: Live at Carnegie Hall – 1969

When I was a little kid, I remember listening to albums from my parent’s collection that that have stuck with me throughout the ups and downs of life.

Throughout her career as a songwriter, painter and musician, Joni Mitchell has never made any excuses about being a strong Canadian woman, expressing herself in her art and music. Perhaps those memories of Clouds on that 60’s record player help me enjoy and appreciate The Hissing of Summer Lawns even more today. Mitchell’s Blue and Ladies of the Canyon are two of my favorite late night headphone listening albums – I’ll never shy away from that emotional journey. Her unique voice, distinct guitar sound are never far from my turntable.

The 3 album box set of Joni Mitchell’s career-changing debut at Carnegie Hall saw its first-ever release late in 2021 and I was fortunate enough to land the 180-gram, three LP, snow white vinyl version. This jewel is a must have for dedicated Joni fans.

From the first time you hold the beautiful but heavy jacket, to immersion in the music, Live at Carnegie Hall’ captures a time and place in history. When a 25-year-old Joni Mitchell stepped on stage in her long vintage skirt on February 1, 1969 in front of a packed house, it was her first major concert.  Her partner at the time, Graham Nash sat in the audience along with her parents and Bob Dylan. Her debut album, Song to a Seagull had been released less than a year prior, produced by David Crosby. This Canadian was new to California, but familiar with performing at coffee houses and nightclubs. But this was big.

The black and white photo on the cover features Mitchell, pin-straight hair down her back, sitting at a Steinway, 3 mic stands, and her trademark Martin D-28 Dreadnought laying on an otherwise empty stage. If a picture could tell a story, this one certainly sets the tone for what a treasure that jacket holds, captured on vinyl. Joel Bernstein’s candid photographs, Mitchell’s handwritten changes to the set list and lyrics to Blue Boy offer a glimpse into that night in New York.

For first play, this gorgeous white vinyl went onto my reference Acoustic Solid Vintage Exclusive with a low-output Dynavector DV-20X2 cartridge. The album begins with an appreciative crowd and Mitchell opening the 19 song concert with “Chelsea Morning. According to the notes written by Graham Nash, she had started the song, but had to stop.The crowd, in support of the important event they were witnessing, gave her a Valentine which she held up, smiling on stage. You can hear the nervousness in her voice as she acknowledges this kind gesture, but the initial hesitancy melts away when she settles into “Cactus Tree.”  From that moment on, she sounds relaxed, confident and in her element both in her voice and instruments as she bares her heart and soul on that famous stage. She is almost apologetic for her piano playing but nails it on “Blue Boy.”  Her lighthearted banter in between tracks sounds more like a conversation she is having with a small intimate crowd instead of addressing the 3,600 seats in front of her. On side 2, (my personal favorite track) the stellar a Capella rendition of “The Fiddle and The Drum” follows her explanation of what it was like to be a Canadian living in America during this incredibly important time in history.

The second set starts with “Marcie”, a song for a friend. The initial nerves are a distant memory, and her voice confidently holds the listener’s attention. Immersed in the music, Mitchell continues her musical storytelling. Dedicating “Morning Morgantown” to her parents, there is a realization that this young woman, alone on stage, has her friends and family there to support her during her first big show, not a seasoned professional who was accustomed to performing to large crowds. The second set ends with a medley of “The Circle Game, and Little Green.” There is a poignant edge to her description of the latter track as being “about a little girl.”  At that time in her career, not much was known about her personal struggle after surrendering her daughter for adoption in 1965. Perhaps only a few people in this crowd knew Mitchell’s longing and heartbreak. As she fluidly shifts between the 2 songs, the emotional connection to her story deepens, drawing your focus to the fusion.

The fifth side contains her encore, starting with “Michael From Mountains,” closing the show with “Urge For Going,” after she retunes her guitar and acknowledges how far it is from Saskatoon to Carnegie Hall. Her delightful fingerpicking on the final track draws the listener in as her voice delicately lifts and swells, describing a Sasketchewan winter.

The vibrato in her voice, the sound of fingers plucking steel strings and the voices of the crowd singing with her on Get Together are clearly heard, even when in the background, reflecting the talent of Bernie Grundman’s mastering. Overall, this live recording is dynamic and well balanced without taking away from the artist alone on stage. The exquisite layers and passion behind the music are attained in this album. From the first play, this peek into music history has quickly become a frequent flyer on my TT.

Live at Carnegie hall, 1969 is a gift from a place in history that needs to be remembered as a time of change and uncertainty. This album not only pulls the listener back to late 60’s free spirit hippy culture that embraced my parents, but draws you in with honest vulnerability and creativity. The special place I have for Joni Mitchell and her music throughout my life, in my collection and in Canadian music history, just grew by leaps and bounds. Two very enthusiastic Canadian thumbs up.

www.jonimitchell.com

Issue 111

Cover Story:

We pay tribute to the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin:
A product that defined a market segment

Features

Old School: The ESS AMT-1b
-By Jeff Dorgay

Cartridge Dude: The BENZ LP-S

1095: Gear for Just over a G
The LSA LS 50 Signatures

Merch Table: Relics From Rock’s Past

Mine: It Should Be Yours

Music

Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world
LIVE!  Emily Duff covers Aimee Mann
Jim Macknie on JAZZ

Future Tense

Gear in our immediate future

The Heretic A614 Speakers

Warning, these speakers tend to keep you cemented in your listening chair. The Heretics are “album side” speakers if that makes sense.

Spinning Nightmares on Wax’s In A Space Outta Sound, the dub heavy, trippy vibe is intoxicating. Next up, Propellerheads Decksanddrumsandrockandroll. Again, the whole album goes by without the slightest urge to make a playlist. The bass line in “Oh Yeah?” is so much fun. The 12” coaxial driver combined with the ported cabinet adds up to a very organic, tuneful (yet not overdamped) bottom end.

If you’ve looked at Heretic’s website (www.thehereticspeaker.com) you’ll notice the famous shot of EMI studios, with the Beatles in the control room. They are listening to what looks like the larger Heretic A612, but these are actually Altec drivers in the cabinets. Robert Gaboury, the man behind the Heretic has taken this 12” coax and the Altec cabinet design and brought it into the modern age, to produce a speaker that is really a pleasure to listen to.

Powered by the Lab12 Mighty amplifier, which only produces 10 watts per channel, these speakers sporting a 97db/1-Watt sensitivity rating barely make the cool, circular VU meters move from rest. Seriously, how often do most of you listen to music at a 97db level? It’s unbelievable that this pair of speakers, combined with a $2,400 power amplifier can create such an expansive and immersive musical experience. But it does. Pricing is TBA right now, but they will be under $8k/pair for the smaller 614s, reviewed here.

Quick, adjective barrage

All of those audiophile cliches we’ve heard a million times over truly do apply to the Heretic A614s, but they are one of those rare speakers that provide instant fun. If you’re a persnickity audiophile, you’ll find things to nitpick, but then you will no matter what you’re listening to. These won’t be the speakers for you.

You can look at these speakers one of two ways – you can be fussy and point out the small things they don’t do (as you would with every single other speaker made) or you can sink into the vibe and just enjoy them. To give you a reference point of where I’m coming from (because saying a speaker is “fun,” really doesn’t give you much to go on…) my short list of fun, under $10k/pair speakers are in no order, The Vandersteen 1C, The JBL L-100 Century Classic, The Magnepan SMG, A nice used pair of MartinLogan CLS’s, The Harbeth C7s, The Zu Dirty Weekends.

Speakers that are not necessarily the last word in audiophile speakers, but ones that you can sit around all evening listening to music with, have a great time, and not have to engage the audiophile part of your consciousness that feels the need to dissect everything.

Quick setup

Thanks to their relatively light weight – about 40 pounds each, with a profile of 19” wide, 15” deep, and about 26” tall, you can move the Heretics around and set them up easily by yourself.
Having used these in small (10 x 13 foot), medium (11 x 18 foot) and large (15 x 26 foot) the Heretics deliver great results anywhere, though you will get a little bit more bass loading in an extremely small room, that may or may not work to your advantage.

While these speakers come with feet attached for use on the floor, I had the best results getting them about 13” off the floor. Custom stands are on the way, but for now a pair of heavy Sound Anchors stands with 1.25 thick butcher block boards work splendidly. A little blu tack between the boards and the stands really helps too. Getting that tweeter up a little higher than ground level makes for a lot less mid-bass bloom/roundness and gives up nothing on the bottom end. This also helps the Heretics to create a larger soundstage, eliminating a lot of reflection right from the floor.

Because the originals have that EMI heritage, the push for some Beatle’s was just too much to resist, and considering it’s that time of the year here in America again, Revolvers’ “Taxman” was perfect. These speakers do such a great job at holding the bass line rock solid, the drums in place and a clear view of all the harmonies – it’s incredible. And incredibly enjoyable. Whether you prefer the stereo or mono Beatles, this is a treat. Switching it up for Cheap Trick’s “Taxman, Mr. Thief” is equally rewarding. And this is not an awesome recording by any stretch. Yet the slightly round bottom end of these speakers gives a little bit of help to the average recordings in your collection. Again, that fun thing.

For those of you that haven’t been following my ongoing narrative, one of my biggest hot buttons is coherence. Thanks to the coaxial tweeter, these speakers sound like a big single driver speaker with extension. The crossovers are well designed, as the transition from woofer to tweeter is as good as it gets – seamless and free of grain. Regardless of what kind of music you enjoy, these speakers do a fantastic job rendering it.

Vocals are transcendent with the Heretics, both in terms of tonality and the way they can decode layered harmonies. The Heretics are highly natural in their presentation, and again thanks to the high sensitivity, nothing is ever working hard to produce sound – resulting in low distortion and fatigue. These are speakers you can listen to all day without becoming the least bit tired.

Amplification

Don’t let the sensitivity rating fool you, even though these speakers don’t need a tremendous amount of power to play really loud, it’s a quality thing. A few obvious choices (the Cary 805 SET monos, the Line Magnetic 815) didn’t provide killer results, yet the 4 watt per channel Finale is out of this world good. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Lab12s Mighty (10 watts per channel) is also fantastic. Our Pass First Watt SIT-3 was also a stunner. This amplifier is very speaker sensitive, but in this case, the match is perfection. This single ended solid-state amplifier delivers about 92% of the texture and depth of the best tube combinations, with a bigger image, and a lot more slam on the low end. So, again – big fun with these speakers. And there’s still about five or six amplifiers to try.

Perhaps we were cheating a bit at first, using the Pass XS Pre, XS Phono and dCS Vivaldi One with Vivaldi Clock, but even when bringing the associated components downstream in keeping with you’d probably expect to be in a system with a pair of speakers in this price range, the results are still excellent. The only thing tried that was less than awesome was our vintage Marantz 2270. This just sounded flat.

The rest of the story

Looking at the Heretic site, you’ll see there are several other finishes available, and you can order the speakers with or without grilles. If you have munchkins or pets, seriously consider the grilles. Our review pair came in the natural finish.

Gaboury says that the cabinets are made from 12mm Canadian ultra-premium birch plywood. The website says, “Because of tone. Tone comes from rigidity, lightness, and compliance, but not too much.” Rather than go on and on, if there is any way you can give these speakers a listen, if you share some of my listening priorities, I think you will really enjoy the Heretics. Should you have a larger room, or need more bass extension, they also make the A612, which is the same driver in a cabinet with more volume.

Sensitivity remains the same, but there is an additional half octave of bass extension. When Mr. Gaboury catches up with orders, he’s promising to send us a pair. For now, provisionally, I am purchasing the review pair, but I may hold the checkbook close to the vest until I hear the bigger model. I’ve got the room. Either way, these speakers have provided some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time just hanging out and listening to music for its own sake. You’ll only need one or two of your favorite tracks to decide if they are the droids you want.

For now, highly recommended, and #toneaudioapproved.

www.thehereticspeaker.com. (manufacturer)

www.fidelisdistribution.com. (importer/distributor)

But wait, there’s more

At the end of this review, designer Robert Gaboury had a bit of spare time in the middle of getting ready for Axpona, to fill me in on the fine details of how these great speakers came to be. Here’s what he has to share:

First thing, the ductless design.  Thiele/Small parameters are used to predict and accurately simulate low frequency behavior of transducers in closed and vented box. These days, all designers (including me) use software simulation in the development of loudspeaker enclosures.

However, T/S parameters were derived in the 1970s, meaning that Altec designers, when designing the 614 and 612 (1940 something) « utility cabinets » , which are ported, used another method to calculate vent area relative to enclosure volume. I found this fascinating, and decided 3 years ago to investigate, out of curiosity, what was happening.

Nowadays, we all want the best possible low frequency extension in the smallest air volume and most contemporary speakers use vented boxes with transducers designed especially for this. This is usually a tube in a box, and by adjusting area and length (along with enclosure volumes and transducer’s T/S parameters), the box is tuned to « load » the transducer at the lowest possible frequency. Loading happens when the air in the box opposes the cone motion, and at this point (the tuning frequency), the cone motion is nil and vent output is maximal. Below that frequency, the driver is unloaded, moves a lot, yet produces no sound, because the air pressure just escapes the port, out of phase with the driver, creating an acoustic short-circuit.

In recent years, passive transducers have been used when we want to tune a box to a lower frequency that would be practical with a tube (i-e, the tube is too long to fit in the box). This means that modern drivers are made to work in small boxes and generate ample LF. And accuracy in the mid-band is often sacrificed (I’d say always) a consequence of the quest for LF, because in order to allow a small transducer to resonate at – very – low frequency, the cone must be heavy. I simplify a bit, but think of a 1973 Buick Electra hitting potholes, versus a Lotus formula car… The Buick will resonate at very low frequency – and take a long time to settle, but won’t handle as well as the Lotus. As you can guess, the Lotus is a lot stiffer.

Back to the enclosure: a vent tube is always tuned to a specific frequency, say 42 Hz.  I found out, using simulation, that a ductless vent (such as the old Altec) is not precisely tuned. In fact, it is tuned to a much broader frequency band, which is highly desirable:  no « one-note » bass.

Also, a super stiff suspension is very desirable for medium (vocal range) definition. Think Lotus. So, if you accept the notion of a big transducer, a big box and ductless designs, something interesting is possible: musicality. That is Heretic.

Second thing: co-ax design, re-invented. Older professional coax drivers such as Altec 604 (and others) use a compression driver mounted in the woofer voice coil. The downside is the compression driver, which has a large dome (usually 3 to 4 inches). In the Heretic, the dome is quite small, almost as small as a modern tweeter, yet, it is horn loaded by a short aluminum horn, itself loaded with the woofer’s membrane, acting as a waveguide. Smaller dome means smaller mass, means higher resonant frequency (think Lotus), means very good extension – much better than older Altec 604 for example.

Third thing: serial crossover network. This alone is, for the designer, guaranteed headache. Because the woofer and tweeter are connected in series, the network logic is inverted. If you want to fix something in the high frequencies, you must act on the LF section. It like writing with your left hand in front of a mirror. Yet, when (and if) you get it right, it has a level of coherency not possible to achieve with normal parrallel networks used in 99% of all loudspeakers.

For me, designing Heretic was something extraordinary because it opened up a box of ideas that was shut and sealed somewhere in the 1970s, when acoustic suspensiuon was the « in » thing. For me, performance and musicality are two sides of a same token. Along with low mass and tight handling. That’s heretic.

Bob Carver at Axpona with their newest…

Stop by the Carver room at Axpona to see their latest.

As you may or may not know, Bob Carver is back, with a great team of engineers and craftspeople to implement his latest visions. Company director of operations, Jim Clark, will be in room 1410 at this week’s Axpona, answering questions and showing off the new goodies.

Need questions answered right now?

Call Jim Clark at (815) 323-0898

[email protected]

Silent Angel’s New Power Supply

Audio and network components that use small, switching power supplies can be very detrimental to your system’s sound. Silent Angel has a great solution that is compact, and offers 12V/1A, 12V/3A, 5V/1A, and 5V/3A outlets for those devices.

This is a great way to get those noisy wall warts out of your system. Cost is $1,599.

We’ve got one on the way, so we’ll keep you posted ASAP.

www.silentangel.com

Pro-Ject Audio Adds Balanced Options

We really loved the Pro-Ject DS2 phonostage. All solid state, multiple gain and loading options. Great sound, killer price. Now it’s better.

Pro-Ject has just announced their new DS3B, for balanced. With all the circuitry re-designed, and a fully balanced circuit, this award winning phonostage is even better. A fully balanced output stage makes it that much easier to have the turntable on the other side of the room, closer to your record collection, and further away from the speakers. That’s a win all the way. And…The DS3B features full discrete circuitry, no op amps!

Intro price is 599 Euros, so probably about $699 US. Check your Pro-Ject dealer for final pricing. Silver and Black front face plates available, along with three choices for end caps: black, cherry, and walnut.

Look for a review in the very near future.

www.project-audio.com

Pro-Ject Audio Adds Balanced Option…

We really loved the Pro-Ject DS2 phonostage. All solid state, multiple gain and loading options. Great sound, killer price. Now it’s better.

Pro-Ject has just announced their new DS3B, for balanced. With all the circuitry re-designed, and a fully balanced circuit, this award winning phonostage is even better. A fully balanced output stage makes it that much easier to have the turntable on the other side of the room, closer to your record collection, and further away from the speakers. That’s a win all the way. And…The DS3B features full discrete circuitry, no op amps!

Intro price is 599 Euros, so probably about $699 US. Check your Pro-Ject dealer for final pricing. Silver and Black front face plates available, along with three choices for end caps: black, cherry, and walnut.

Look for a review in the very near future.

www.project-audio.com

Luxman’s First Cartridge in 40 Years!

Luxman’s new LMC-5 MC cartridge is their first cartridge in 40 years.

Luxman USA’s Jeff Sigmund says that this new reference is “the result of two years, taking every aspect of cartridge design into account.”
The generator features a cross mounted iron core with symmetrical windings for superior separation. It features a nude, square shank diamond with Shibata profile, mounted to a .5mm aluminum cantilever.

The LMC-5 delivers 0.4mv output, and has a suggested loading impedance of greater than 40 ohms. Recommended tracking force is 2.1 to 2.3 grams.

We’ve got one in house, and it’s sounding fab. We’ll have a full report shortly.

Should you be attending AXPONA next week, stop by the Luxman exhibit in the Prosperity room.

www.luxmanamerica.com

Change in Carver Biz Model

Just announced today:

In order to stay competitive, Bob Carver Corp. will now be selling direct only. Back orders will be filled in the next 30 days, and new things are on the horizon very soon. Changes in business climate and associated supply chain issues are dictating this change.

If you have questions on existing orders, etc., please contact Jim Clark.

[email protected]

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood on Vinyl…

Light In The Attic announces the definitive, first ever reissue of Nancy & Lee, the iconic 1968 duet from Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood.

The latest installment from LITA’s Nancy Sinatra Archival Series, Nancy & Lee is available to pre-order now on vinyl, cassette tape, CD, 8-track, and digital formats and is set for release on May 20th.

Album features timeless hits “Some Velvet Morning,” “Sand,” and “Summer Wine,”plus two bonus tracks, including “Love Is Strange,” available now on all digital platforms.

LP and CD editions offer a new interview with Sinatra, plus never-before-seen photos.

Limited-edition merchandise capsule, including autographed items, now available for pre-order exclusively at Nancy’s Bootique at NancySinatra.com

An Easier Way to Buy HiFi From Naim and Focal

Sometimes, one of the most challenging parts of assembling an audio system is sifting through all the choices.

Right before COVID hit us, Naim and Focal had been putting together several Naim/Focal boutiques. Their goal is to establish a range of stores worldwide, where you can view, and most importantly listen to, a number of systems featuring both brands. Including their award-winning line of headphones. As we are pulling out of this global pandemic, they are picking up the pace again.

This is critical, because there are so many choices today. While many of us enjoy the audiophile as contact sport aspect of the hobby, an equal number, if not more music lovers would just like to purchase a great music system and get on with it. Regardless of where you sit in the crowd, the Naim/Focal oases are beautiful to behold, and will give you a lot of concentrated seat time with the brand.

As part of this scenario, they’ve put together this “10th Anniversary Edition” system, to celebrate the 10 years these brands have been together. The total cost is $48,000. Should you choose to go with Naim’s Fraim system to house everything, the total cost will be about $5,500 more, but there is no more elegant way to display Naim components than the Fraim system. It provides stability, isolation, and modularity. (So, it’s easy to add a turntable and keep it all tidy.)

The entire system is anchored by a special pair of Focal Sopra No.2 Speakers that come with concrete sidewalls, and a front baffle that looks like tin. Having visited the Focal factory, and seeing the level of detail that they provide for custom orders, these are sure to be very unique. The only way to get a pair of Sopra No.2s in this finish is to buy the anniversary system.

The system is powered by Naim’s NAC 282 Preamplifier, NAP 250 Power Amplifier, with matching NAPSC and HiCap DR power supplies. Naim’s award winning NDX 2 music server/DAC takes care of source materials. Those wanting to add a turntable, will have to provide their own, but the NAC 282 has five Naim connectors, as well as two RCA analog inputs. Naim fans that haven’t heard the 282 will be surprised at how much of the 500 series DNA is present here.

Even though it doesn’t affect the sound quality, it’s of major interest that to match the special finish of the Sopras, Naim has produced the components for the Anniversary Edition in a new medium grey finish. Naim has never produced anything but the standard black face, so this is incredibly cool. And, all the required cables are needed.

While I haven’t heard the anniversary system per se, I have heard these components in standard black finish with the Sopra No.2 in standard finish, and this is a top-notch system indeed. We have also spent a lot of time with the entire Sopra No.2s here as well.

Granted, nearly $50k might be more than your current budget – all the more reason to stop by one of the Naim/Focal shops and give a listen to the full product lineup. Who knows, you might only need a pair of headphones, or you might be enticed by one of the big Utopias? You never know. What’s so exciting about this concept, is the idea of being able to experience so much of it and truly make an informed purchase.

Though mail order hifi has become the de rigueur way to buy, there’s nothing like going to a hifi salon to peruse their wares. And the Naim/Focal stores have been tip-top. It really helps take the guesswork out of the process, and now you have the opportunity to purchase something that looks as unique as it sounds. Here’s to hoping Naim and Focal produce more of these special edition products.

It’s been great to watch these two industry leaders forge such a great partnership over the last decade. From the MuSo products, to their new headphones, and all of the current electronics and speakers, the synergy is there for all to see, and hear.

www.focal-naim.com

The LSA Signature 50 Speakers

In just over four decades of evaluating speakers, the most memorable ones always pull you in with an ease that may not always be as visceral and exciting as some of the flashier “best” speakers out there, but they’ve got staying power.

These are speakers that you want to sit on the couch and listen to for hours, perhaps for days. The Vandersteen 1, the Magnepan .7, and the ProAc Tablettes, come to mind. Anyone truly loving music can’t turn their backs on any of these. I’m sure we all have a few others on that list.

However, these legendary speakers have all crossed the $1,000/pair line some time ago. People stepping out of Sonos world, ready for an audiophile adventure, usually want something delivering more sonically, but not necessarily breaking the bank. Enter Underwood HiFi and LSA.

Speakers that are only sold factory-direct are not an entirely fair comparison, so let’s level the playing field and compare a new pair of LSA 50 Signatures to a used pair of the three speakers mentioned above. You can find a pair of either of these on any given day at Audiogon, SkyFi, or The Music Room. You might even have a friend with a pair they want to unload or a great local dealer with a pair on the floor. You should be able to pick either of these three speakers up for about $700 – $1,000 pair. About double that for a new, in-box pair.

Removing the dealer markup aspect from the speakers mentioned above, most used models trade for about half of their original retail price. The LSA 50 Signatures still stand up, compared to the well-known speakers at this level. This is an excellent pair of small speakers that you can build a serious yet reasonably priced music system around. One that will sound like a massive jump up from a Sonos, Zeppelin, or whatever other single box system is your current fave.

We traditionally stand behind brick-and-mortar retailers at TONE. However, when you are trying to get in the game watching every penny – going used, or in this case, a manufacturer direct product is going to give you the most sound for your hard-earned currency unit. If you don’t get excited about audio in the first place, you might never buy a $30k pair of speakers someday. Right?

We hate to impose rules on hifi. It’s different for everyone, but you need to go no further than any internet forum or Facebook page. Some know it all is blathering that you need to spend a fixed percentage of your budget on speakers and only so much on an amplifier, blah, blah, blah. It’s music. It’s individual, and it’s your journey.

However, I have never observed an awful speaker become a great speaker after 2,000 hours of break-in. Putting that in perspective, if you listen to your system 10 hours a week, it’s going to take four years for your speakers to sound good. I don’t have that kind of patience, and I’m guessing you don’t either. So, forget the “needs 1000 hours of break-in” rule, especially at this price point.

Much as you love a pair of panel speakers, they might not work in your environment. Your room might be too large for a pair of mini-monitors to generate any serious low-frequency energy. If you share your living space with one or more people, aesthetic concerns might also affect your choice. I suggest finding speakers you enjoy first, only because speakers are the most interactive component of your system, visually and physically.

Once you settle on speakers, it’s much easier to find an amplifier that will work, rather than the other way around. That’s the closest I can get to impose my will on you. Though the Signatures claim an 86db/1-Watt sensitivity, they are easy to drive. LSA’s Mark Schifter mentions how much work went into the crossovers, and this is truly where that work is realized. Even the 10-Watt per channel Luxman D-150 drives the Signatures to a more than reasonable volume level. There were no anomalies after auditioning these speakers with a wide range of amplification from low power to high and modest cost to expensive.

That ease

The LSA 50s sound is inviting right out of the box. While Underwood HiFi suggests they will take 100 hours or so to sound their absolute best, you won’t grimace when you hit play or lower the tonearm on the first track. These speakers are slightly warm tonally, with solid bass response. Remember, keepers. Stay on the couch for a long time.

As the new Tears for Fears record, The Tipping Point, just dropped while unboxing the LSA 50 Signatures, it felt like the perfect time to revisit The Seeds of Love. Perhaps one of the best bookends of the 1980s, this ethereal, finely crafted record is full of great bass lines, layered vocals, and can define pinpoint imaging when played on decent speakers.

Using the audio show trick of plugging a $600 pair of speakers into a six-figure system, the Signatures sound stunning, plugged into the Pass XA200.8 monoblocks, Pass XS Pre preamplifier, driven by the dCS Vivaldi ONE digital player. In addition to some incredible bass drive, they produce a big window into the sound. But that’s not how anyone will listen to them at home.

More good news. They still sound damn good plugged into a vintage Sansui AU-717 integrated, with the $199 SONY SACD player we have in for review, and that’s their magic. If you’re starting out, you’re probably going to cobble together whatever you can. That’s what makes these speakers so cool. Granted, they do not resolve as much musical detail as with the more expensive hardware; their core character remains fully intact. That’s the sign of a well-designed speaker. Too many “budget” speakers on the market sound fab with a big, high-powered amp but fall flat in your system. That’s what drives people away from high-end audio.

Moving right along

After a solid week of playing 24 hours a day, the lowest bass notes dig a little deeper and a little faster, the top end becomes slightly more extended, and the mids offer up a greater degree of transparency. All told, the needle has probably moved 5%, maybe a little more – but now we’re getting all audiophile-y on you, and that’s not what these speakers are about.

Set up is a breeze. After break-in out in the big listening room, the Signatures were moved into our 13 x 18-foot living room on the supplied ($179 extra) LSA Stands. This rear-ported design delivers serious low-end grunt, so position them for a smooth low to mid-bass transition in your room first, and then go for a bit of toe-in to suit how lively or dead your room is. If you have an overstuffed room with rugs, couches, etc., you might need a bit extra toe-in to get the sparkle you’d like. If your space is more on the lively side like mine, minimal to no toe-in will probably suit you just fine.

Keeping with the Signatures’ high performance/low-cost ethos, some of the living room listening was done with a PrimaLuna ProLogue 1 integrated amplifier (34 Watts per channel), with a fresh set of tubes, an older one OPPO streaming DAC, connected with Tellurium-Qs Blue II cables. The bulk was done with the LSA 70 integrated amplifier that we reviewed here. It’s a killer match. Total system cost: well under $3k.

The Signatures are a well-implemented two-way design, sporting a 6.5″ woofer and a 1.1″ soft dome tweeter. Thanks to some solid cabinets, they tip the scales at 26 pounds each. A quick rap against the surface of the cabinet feels substantial. In addition to the wood cabinets, the top and rear faces are covered in black leather. Execution is well above what is usually featured anywhere near this price.

Final assembly

It’s worth mentioning a few things about the LSA stands here, for those of you that take this path. First, ignore the instructions and do not use a powered screwdriver to put them together. The mild steel, threaded columns will surely strip the threads with too much force applied. Do it by hand with a big Phillips head screwdriver and only go slightly past snug when securing the columns.

If you do fill them with sand (and that’s a great idea), consider getting some black RTV/Silicone sealant and running a fine bead around the bottom of the columns once attached. That way, you won’t have small sand puddles after filling.

LSA does include some small brass pucks to put the rounded speaker stand’s spikes in. If you are on wood or tile, they will come in handy. The round, ball-like ends on the tips should not punch through your carpet, so consider not using the pucks there it may lead to instability.

That groove

Heading full circle, back to Tears for Fears, the opening bass line in “Woman in Chains” feels substantial. Ditto for the bass line in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The drums in A-ha’s “Take on Me” are right there. These speakers do an excellent job of keeping the pace locked down. The critical midrange is equally well rendered. Those leaning towards more vocal music will enjoy the slightly warm perspective these present. Whether you like Ella or Eilish, they deliver the goods.

Again, the bass response is equally enticing. Running through a long list of hip hop, heavy rock, and electronica tracks, The Signatures dish up enough bass that you won’t be clamoring for a subwoofer. The quality of the bass delivered is plenty resolving. Going back and forth between Jaco Pastorius’ electric playing and Alice In Chains Unplugged illustrates the detail in the lower registers these speakers provide. They are not one-note wonders.

Because the Signatures accomplish so much, it’s truly tough to find fault – remember this is a $600 pair of speakers. In 40 years, only the Magnepan SMG and Vandersteen 1 (back when they were only about $900 a pair) have offered this much sheer musical enjoyment for such a modest investment. Putting the LSA 50 Signatures in the same sentence with these two classic speakers is the highest compliment I can give them.

If you share the viewpoint that overall balance is the crucial factor in choosing a pair of speakers, we hope that those of you auditioning the LSA 50 signatures will enjoy them as much as we did. In a world where speakers costing nearly a million dollars a pair get a disproportionate amount of attention, these are truly exciting. Because everyone can play.

Yes, a few modestly priced speakers (to be clear, we define that as $500 – $1,500/pair) do specific things better than the LSA 50 Signature. The precious few speakers that offer this level of coherency, useful bass response, midrange clarity, and enough resolution that you can hear the difference between amplifiers and source components all cost more.

The $150 question

There’s a cost to play because Underwood HiFi isn’t Amazon, Best Buy, or Nordstrom. If you don’t like the Signatures enough to keep them, there’s a 15% restocking fee. And you’ll have to pay to ship 50 pounds back. But remember, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, and everyone has to keep the lights on.

If the description of the LSA 50 Signatures ticks your boxes, you probably won’t want to send them back. That said, these are worth rolling the dice for. Should your system grow beyond the roots you plant with the LSA 50 Signatures, you’ll probably keep them for a second system or to pass on to your kids or a friend about to start their audio journey. They are that good.

The LSA 50 Signature speakers truly define the concept of our Exceptional Value Award.

https://www.underwoodhifi.com/products/lsa-speakers

The Core Power EQUI=CORE 1800 MKIII

No matter how clean you think your power is, it isn’t. And there’s still the lightening storm now and then to play havoc with your gear.

Staffer Jerold O’Brien has the older version of the 1800 and was faced with just this problem recently. When the power went down, all of the components plugged in to the EQUI-CORE were fine. The circuit breaker in the unit had to be replaced, which we did over a coffee. Easy. Anyone can do it.

Opening the top reveals a massive toroidal transformer with 1800 watts of maximum capacity, hence the name. All the EQUI=CORE power products are named for the maximum amount of power they can pass through. The EQUI=CORE 1800 is fully balanced, to remove all the noise from your power line. You can see our reviews on the other EQUI=CORE products on the site. While we have a full review of this device in progress, it’s overall sound and functionality is even better than the smaller units we’ve tested. This one has more capacity, and more outlets. A total of 12, actually. Fortunately, Jerold has his mk.II (which can be upgraded) on hand, so we’ll do a proper comparison for the full review.

Those of you not using enormous monoblock power amplifiers can probably get away with one of these to power your entire system. Our experience has always been more of the quieting effect with tube gear than solid state, but regardless of what you use, you will notice a quieter background, and more resolution from the mids to the highest highs.

At the $1,799 intro price, this is tough to beat. If you thought you had to pull equity out of your house to buy a line conditioner, try this one and go on a vacation. It’s #toneaudioapproved.  Yep, we use em too.

https://www.underwoodhifi.com/products/core-power-technologies-av

The Aqua Audio LaScala MKII Optologic DAC

If you are a music lover wanting to upgrade your digital front end, but don’t necessarily want to spend $20k – $100k, consider the Aqua LaScala.

This one ticks all the boxes. Beautiful build quality and execution in every way. A dreamy tube/MOSFET analog stage. High performance FGPA digital decoding (without digital filter) so it won’t become obsolete. The list goes on, and you can read our review here, or you can click here to go to the Aqua site for the fine details.

This one has been on the rack for some time now, and its been going head to head with some pretty expensive challengers – all costing a lot more. This one gets our vote for the DAC that is right on the tail of six figure DAC performance for about $8,500 (check your dealer for exact price with all the wackiness going on in the world right now)

A bevy of inputs and outputs, as well as an 12S bus, means you can connect anything. There are a pair of RCA outputs as well as a transformer coupled pair of XLR balanced outputs. If you have both inputs on your amplifier or preamp, try them both. The RCAs are slightly crisper, and the transformer coupled balanced outputs just slightly warmer. You’ll prefer one over the other, but you won’t know till you plug them in!

The Aqua was our Digital Product of the year two years ago, and it still stands its ground. We’ve used it with everything from a $100 garage sale CD player up to a dCS Vivaldi transport with equally great results. Not to mention, Aqua offers a great CD transport, as well as their LinQ streamer.

You’ll never say “this sounds really good for digital” again. It just sounds fantastic and musical.

The Harbeth C7ES-3 XD

In years past, the “British sound,” especially in terms of loudspeakers, more often than not, was referring to the monitors from the BBC era.

A huge part of the design brief was to get the voices right, and the rest would follow along. This has always made for a musical speaker, that in some cases was not always dynamic enough to rock the house. Today, things are a bit more modern.

The Harbeth Compact 7, now in its third generation – the XD stands for Extended Definition is a winner. The previous generations have always been one of the most musically engaging, compact speakers going. The new model builds on the strengths of the old, adding more punch and resolution, without throwing the lovely midrange they are famous for under the bus.

Regardless of what you listen to, these 6-ohm speakers use Harbeths’ patented RADIAL2™ bass/midrange unit and their own dome tweeter. Weighing just over two stones, they are easy to move around, and with a great pair of stands offer a very full-range experience indeed.

Rated at a 6-ohm nominal impedance, the C7ES-3XD is easy to drive, whether you have tubes, transistors, or a vintage variation on the theme. 25 watts or so will have you up and running, a little extra doesn’t hurt if you have a larger room, or like higher volume levels.

They are available in cherry, walnut, and tamo ash (extra spiffy)

Standard cherry finish is $4,890/pair, while the two upgraded finishes are $5,190/pair

Our full review is here.

Fidelis Distribution is your connection in the US, please click here.

And, here is a link to the official Harbeth site.

The JBL L-100 Classic

There’s nothing in audiophile world that compares to the JBL L-100. They’ve probably sold more of these than every other speaker manufacturer combined. A true classic.

Show just about anyone a picture of a pair of L-100s (especially with orange grilles) and you’ll probably get an enthusiastic “yeah, I had a pair of those” from a wide range of people from a certain age group.

And they are still out there, popular as any muscle car of the same vintage. Some are really rough and a good pair will set you back $1,000 – $1,500 these days. Fortunately, we had a pair of clean originals to compare to the new Classic 100. No other audio reviewer bothered to make this comparison. But, we always do our homework. If you’d like the in-depth comparison, please click here.

If you just want to rock, get on down to your favorite audio dealer that offers JBL and buy a set. If you’re on the east coast, try Audio Classics, the Midwest, give Music Direct a call, and if you’re out west (the home of the L100) call Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio. All three of these dealers are TONE approved and will take great care of you.

So many classic things from years past often get reborn lacking the character of the originals. In the case of JBL’s Classic 100, the speaker has been improved in every way, and is one of the most fun rock & roll speakers going. Indulge yourself.

The Naim SuperNait 3

Nearly every audio manufacturer make a few products that take advantage of all their core competencies, and offer so much value, they become legendary. Naim’s Nait integrated amplifier now the SuperNait 3 is the perfect example of this philosophy.

At $5,699 this amplifier delivers 80 Watts per channel, and borrows heavily from Naim’s expertise in their flagship line, costing much more. Even though there has been a recent price hike from $4,995 when we reviewed it a year ago, to $5,699 now, this amplifier is still one of the best values going.

With an integrated MM phono section, this is the perfect amplifier for anyone craving a system with high performance, yet low box count. Add a turntable, streaming DAC, and your favorite speakers to make it a party. The MM phono is more than competent enough for vinyl enthusiasts with a table/cartridge combo in the $500 – $3,000 range.

The amplifier offers RCA and Naim connector specific inputs, the ability to biamp with another power amplifier, and offers an input for an external power supply. This is truly the key to the SuperNait 3. We’ve owned and reviewed every version, and while they are all fantastic performers out of the box, the performance jump from an external supply is not subtle. Especially if you have current hungry speakers, or really like the volume level up high.

The sleek, spartan, green and black Naim look is a modern take on the aesthetic that goes to the company’s beginning. A rack full of current and vintage Naim always goes together swimmingly.

There’s an in-depth review here, if you are so inclined, but if you’re just doing some quick recon, put this one on your list. We bought the review sample, and gave it an Exceptional Value Award for 2021. If you don’t have a great set of speakers yet, most Naim dealers can hook you up with a great pair of Focal speakers to go with. We had fantastic luck with the Sopra no.1s and the Kanta no.2 and no.3

naimaudio.com

The LSA Signature 50 Speakers

Think the words “great sound,” and affordable don’t belong in the same sentence?

Think again. The folks at LSA have just given you a great Scooby snack. The new LSA Signature 50 standmount speakers, are a great pair of compact, two-way speakers that might just change your perspective on approachable performance.

A big part of the credit goes to Underwood HiFi’s direct to you business model. When selling $850k/pair speakers, there’s enough pie for everyone to have at least a few slices. Not so much when you’re trying to bring awesomeness to market at $599 a pair. (Stands $179 extra, if purchased with speakers – highly suggested.) And, in Underwood tradition, the speakers have an intro price of $499 a pair.

Pee Wee Herman once said, “Everyone’s got a big but…” But in the context of a $1,000 pair of speakers (remember, these are $499) no compromises have been made. These two ways sport a 6.5” paper cone woofer and a 1.1” soft dome tweeter. The simple crossover is well executed, and the cabinets are substantial. These leather covered, hardwood beauties weigh just over 25 pounds each. Nice.

Saving the best for last, the sound is stunning. These speakers go a little beyond “nailing the basics,” with an expansive soundstage, great dynamics, and serious bass extension for such a small cabinet. A more in-depth review is on the way, but the LSA Signature 50s are not only Exceptional Value Award worthy, they’re deserving of your hard earned cash. Bark bark.

We will have an in-depth review shortly.

For now:
https://www.underwoodhifi.com/products/lsa-speakers