Decware Zen Mystery Amp

Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out at Night was the first record in my collection, so to say I’m intimately familiar with it would be an understatement. For old times’ sake, it’s the first album I place on the turntable when critical listening begins for the Zen Mystery Amp (ZMA). Wow! Just when you think you’ve heard it all and you know a piece of music inside and out, this amp whacks you upside the head—which is enlightening and it’s what keeps this reviewing game interesting. The first cymbal crash on Radiohead’s “High and Dry” further convinces me that I’m listening to something magical. There’s more air and delicacy everywhere. The ZMA is all about nuance and finding more information lurking in the details.

This is one of the most musical, most natural, most realistic amplifiers I’ve ever had the pleasure to live with—and it’s been with me for the better part of a year now. If you want to call BS, be my guest. (I’ve got my flame-retardant Kevlar suit on, so take your best shot.) After a crazed life of audiophilia and now 12 years of covering high-end audio as my day job, I still haven’t heard an amplifier that sounds more musical than the ZMA. My Pass Xs 300 monoblocks are on the short list, as are the Audio Research GS150 and Conrad-Johnson LP120SA+. Compared to the ZMA’s 40 watts per channel, all three of those amplifiers have more power on tap, making a wider range of speakers in larger rooms a possibility—but the sheer musical purity of the ZMA is tough to ignore, for a number of reasons.

Arf, Arf

Ever meet a small dog with a big soul? A 20-pound critter with more bark than a German Shepard or Saint Bernard? That’s the ZMA. I’ve always felt that you need a big amplifier to get big sound, but the ZMA not only plays damn loud for only having 40 wpc on tap, it has a ton of headroom. When it does clip, it does so in such a gentle manner that you’ll only notice a slight collapse of the soundstage, rather than sounding like you’ve just hit a sonic brick wall.

If you can live within the ZMA’s performance envelope, there is no reason to buy anything else, even for something two or even 10 times the price. The Holy Grail is right here, built proudly in Illinois. It only takes a brief listen to the ZMA to realize that the only mystery is how Steve Deckert can build an amplifier like this for $5,695 and still stay in business. If this piece of audio fine art had a Shindo or Wavac badge on the front, it would easily have another zero on the price tag. Take it from someone who’s owned both: Save the dough and buy American. The ZMA is a better amplifier than either—and it carries a lifetime warranty and tech support (for the original owner).

If the $12,000 Zen monoblocks are out of reach, or you just don’t have room for a pair of amps (albeit compact ones), the ZMA is essentially the same amplifier on one chassis, with a smaller power supply, delivering 40 wpc compared to the 60 wpc that the monos produce. I’ve been using the Decware Torii for the last few years and my only complaint is that I find myself wanting just a little more power. Even though the Torii is the little amp that can, there are times when 26 wpc just isn’t quite enough. In every way, the ZMA brings more to the table than the already excellent Torii, but above all things, it brings finesse.

Details, Details

It’s up to you whether or not God is in the details, but regardless of what you believe (or don’t) in the spiritual department, I submit that musical happiness does indeed lurk in the details. Happiness in the form of musical engagement is, for me, an experience that keeps you riveted to your listening chair, digging one record after the next, searching for those favorite tracks that, once you’ve heard them through the ZMA, have you searching for more. After several months, this still happens every time I fire up the ZMA.

Regardless of the tracks chosen, subtlety abounds with this amp, and it continually offers little surprises on so many records that I’ve been listening to for years. And listening to new music is equally dreamy. Trent Reznor’s soundtrack for the recent movie Gone Girl is so good it’s scary, constantly reminding me of the tension in the film. Reznor is known for his ability to build a dense and ethereal soundscape—and the ZMA, combined with the GamuT RS5 speakers, envelops me in so much more than what I might call a soundstage with another amplifier. The ZMA creates a hyper-real, three-dimensional sound sphere. While a record like this does not provide the picture of musical accuracy that your favorite Blue Note might, it does have many layers of minute detail—and through a less-capable amplifier, those details just don’t come through in the same dreamy sonic picture that the ZMA paints.

Tracking through well-known albums from Brian Eno and Jean-Michel Jarre prove equally ethereal. Jarre’s Zoolook features a track, “Diva,” with what sounds like water droplets behind layers of synthesizers, with Laurie Anderson saying something in reverse over the top. Trippy as this is, each layer breathes in its own space and, through the ZMA, Anderson’s voice sounds as if she’s just been let out of an asylum; it’s scary-movie good.

Sounding this good on surreal music, the ZMA excels when the fare turns to acoustic instruments. All of the texture, attack and decay associated with piano, guitar, drums and other acoustic instruments are revealed with shocking clarity. As a photographer, I can only describe this effect by saying its similar to going from a standard-definition picture to HD, and even to the latest 4K. The ZMA presents more and smoother steps of gradation, resulting in bongo drums sounding like actual bongos. There’s cheese and then there are cheese-like substances (i.e. Velveeta). Once you hear a piano or violin reproduced through the ZMA, it will be tough to go back to what you’d been using. As Bob Stuart at Meridian likes to say, “When you’ve heard it right, you can’t unhear it.”

The upper registers of the ZMA are as close to perfect as can be. Cymbals not only have the required meat, they have proper texture and decay. The same can be said for the lower register, which are even tougher for a tube amplifier to get right. Again, the ZMA succeeds brilliantly, producing low notes with tone and texture but also with the proper amount of speed and damping, without being overly damped. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but five minutes of actually experiencing the ZMA might well be one of the biggest “a-ha” moments I’ve had in high-end audio.

Setup and Further Listening

The ZMA arrives packed in a padded Pelican Case, with the tube complement in another box. Following the well-documented instruction manual will have you up and running in no time. Even after running the amp for a month, I didn’t have to rebias the tubes; and now after more than six months, they’ve required just a tiny adjustment to stay perfectly biased and matched to each other. Unlike with some tube amplifiers, the ZMA allows you to set each KT66 tube individually and does not require matched output tubes. It’s also worth mentioning that Decware encloses a power cord with the ZMA that a lot of other cable guys would nick you an extra thousand bucks for.

While the ZMA has two sets of binding posts, one for 4-ohm speakers and one for 8, Decware does offer an option that can power 8- or 16-ohm speakers—which leads to my only complaint with the ZMA: The high-quality binding posts are too damn close together. It’s tough to tighten them down onto fairly thick spade lugs like mine—but I will say that you can use banana plugs with ease.

Inputs are single-ended RCA jacks, with XLR inputs via Jensen 95khz transformers available as a $600 option. As Deckert points out, “while not a fully differential balanced circuit, it is still a tehnically balanced amplifier – and the transformer is your friend. It gives a beautiful shimmer to the top end and better dimensionality not unlike a great moving coil cartridge.” I must agree. Using equal lengths of Cardas clear via the XLR and RCA inputs, I do prefer the balanced inputs.

Those with only one source component who want to bypass the preamplifier can tick the stepped attenuator box for an additional $150. Should you fall in this category, this is the perfect shortcut to creating a highly resolving system on a tight budget (unless you have a world-class preamplifier—but then you’re probably not on a tight budget).

A bit of research on the Decware forum reveals that its claim of long tube life is no scam. Even after years, many Decware users are still running their original set of tubes! The 6N23P input tubes can be swapped for 6N1Ps or 6922s, but Deckert says the 6N23P is his favorite, and my experience is to follow his lead. While I leave the input and regulator tubes as installed from the factory, the tube swapping goblins do possess me to try a set of NOS Siemens EL34s in place of the KT66 tubes. The sound is just different, with the E34s being a little warmer and a little softer than the KT66s. Those liking a low-end that is a bit softer, flabbier and less controlled may prefer the EL34s, but I happily went back to the KT66s. Neurotic tube-swapping in my Torii led me back to what Deckert suggested in the first place, so from now I just listen to Obi-Wan.

However, I do believe the combination of 0A3 regulator tubes, fast recovery solid-state rectifiers and 4,500 uF of power supply capacitance is a big part of the ZMAs exquisite sound. This is way more power supply than any 40-wpc tube amplifier needs, or is supplied with any other similarly powered tube amplifier I’ve seen pass through our listening rooms. The ZMAs large, well-executed power supply translates into dynamic capability, a low noise floor and the ability to execute wide transient swings with ease.

Deckert has told me that his amplifiers just keep sounding better, as the wire in the output transformers becomes seasoned over the years. My experience with the Torii has been similar. After 100 or so hours of what audiophiles might consider “break-in,” this amplifier just keeps sounding more natural. The same is happening with the ZMA and I’m sure the person who ends up with our review sample will enjoy it even more in five years than I am today.

We mate the ZMA to some insanely expensive speakers: Focal Stella Utopias, Dynaudio Evidence Platinums, KEF Blades and now the GamuT RS5, as well as the Dali Epicon 8. All have a sensitivity rating between 87 and 89 dB and work well at modest to somewhat loud volumes. In my large listening room, I’m able to run the ZMA out of juice when going for fairly loud listening levels, but for most users in a more reasonably sized room, you will have to tax this one to get it to clip.

In my smaller room at more reasonable listening levels, the GamuTs, Egglestonworks Emmas (which were on our cover last issue) and a vintage pair of Acoustat 2+2s prove absolutely heavenly with the ZMA. We use Cardas Clear cable throughout and every speaker we test happens to work best on the output impedance setting that matches the factory rating.

The ZMA sounds great at turn-on, and while it takes longer to fully warm up than other tube amplifiers I’ve used, the transition from cold to warm is more gradual than any other tube amplifier I’ve used. Again, it’s that gradation thing.

This is the point where many reviewers make wry comments about how they will miss said review product dearly, and in regards to the ZMA, I must admit to having similar feelings. However, I’m looking at this more as an au revoir (since I’m saving for a pair of Zen Monos for my retirement.)

The ZMA is more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards. Considering the level of sound quality and build quality it offers, the ZMA is one of the most exceptional values I’ve ever encountered.

Decware Zen Mystery Amp

MSRP: $5,695


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference turntable SP/SME V tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2
Amplification Robert Koda K10       Audio Research GSPre    Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi four-box stack
Speakers Focal Stella Utopias    Dynaudio Evidence Platinums    KEF Blades    GamuT RS5    Dali Epicon 8    Egglestonworks Emma     Acoustat 2+2
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Conrad-Johnson MF 2275 Amplifier – Preview

Wrapped in the same champagne front panel that every CJ component has come since their inception, the MF 2275 is a compact, solid state amplifier. As company founder Lew Johnson assured me at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, “Yes, we make excellent solid-state amplifiers too.”

Rated at 135 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load, the MF 2275 features a no frills approach to delivering great solid-state sound. Those familiar with their other solid-state designs will immediately notice a family resemblance. Newcomers to the world of CJ will immediately be impressed. Rob Johnson’s review coming soon!

Conrad-Johnson MF 2275


Pass Labs XA160.8 Monoblocks

It’s no secret our publisher is incredibly enthusiastic about Pass amplifiers.  While the company’s flagship Xs300 monoblocks have been serving dual duty as his reference amplifiers and the furnace for the TONEAudio studio for some time now, his relationship with Nelson Pass is more than a mere bromance. It goes all the way back to the early 1980s, when we lived on Milwaukee’s East Side and he talked me into helping him carry his new Threshold 4000A power amplifier up a few flights of stairs.

I’m a tube guy; I’ve always been a tube guy – the tubey-er, the better. Back in 1980-something, that Threshold was a mind-bender because this massive solid-state amplifier made the room warmer than any tube amplifier I had ever experienced, sounded as musical as anything with glowing bottles, yet had killer bass output and control. It even sported an awesome set of red LED power output meters! The 4000A stayed in my system for a long time after our publisher’s terrier-like nose for all things audiophile led him sniffing down other paths and, as with one of my prized BMW 2002s, I still regret selling it.

It’s all about control

Don’t let Nelson Pass’s easy demeanor fool you; he wants control. At least control of your speakers’ cones. The major benefit to the massive power supplies and output stages in the two-chassis Xs amplifiers is the amount of control they enforce on your loudspeakers. Not letting the drivers act in a willy-nilly manner keeps distortion and non-linearity at bay, resulting in a cleaner, clearer, less fatiguing sound. Pass is fond of saying that he likes the sound of tubes without the hassle, and the Xs300s deliver this in abundance. But at almost $90K per pair they are not within the reach of every audio enthusiast.

Enter the XA160.8 monoblocks at $29,000/pair. Building on the success of the .5 series (you can read our review of the XA160.5 monoblocks here[1] and the XA200.5 monoblocks here[2] ) the .8 series of Pass amplifiers takes these designs a major step further. Larger power supplies and a more refined circuit allow these new amplifiers to be biased further into class-A territory. The changes draw more power from your wall, and generate more heat – something we put to good use here in the Pacific Northwest. The results put the 160.8 closer in sound to the massive, two-chassis Xs amplifiers than before. The price tag is still not pocket change, but a far cry from what the four-chassis, big boys will set you back.

Pass makes it a point to let you know that these are not cookie-cutter amplifiers, with each version sharing an input stage followed by progressively larger output stages. Every model in the .8 series is individually designed from the ground up with all nine amplifiers in the range using different input and driver circuitry optimized for progressively larger output stages. A peek inside the case reveals a prodigious bank of power supply capacitors flanked by equally huge heat sinks, each with “more output transistors than necessary.”

With balanced XLR inputs (the XA160.8 is a fully balanced design) and RCA inputs, this amplifier works well with any preamplifier. My ARC REF 5 proves a perfect match for the XA160.8, but after spending a bit of time with the top-of-the-line Xs Pre, I’m guessing it’s upgrade time again.  Even my standby CJ PV-12 turns in an amazing performance with these amplifiers and reminds me of when I used the Threshold 4000A with a CJ PV-2a preamplifier. Time does fly when you’re having fun. Watch for our review of that piece very soon. Suffice it to say that the XA160.8 will never be the weak link in your hifi system!

Taking care of business

Vicariously sampling the last four or five Pass amplifiers that have been in for review, it’s time to put the latest models front and center in my reference system and flog them. Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” does the trick, as the intro kick drum beats and bass riffs occupy separate spots in the soundstage, neither losing their focus as I turn the volume up, up, up – pushing my head back against the couch. Yet near the end of the track as the pace settles to light cymbal work, the delicacy and texture rendered stops me dead. It’s so quiet and precise, everything appears to settle into nothing.

Sporting the big, blue circular meters that adorn the face of all the Pass power amplifiers, the 125 pound (each) XA160.8s are a breeze to move after the Xs300s. However, they’re probably a stretch for one person lifting, so you should consider getting some help to keep your back in order. For those not familiar with Pass amplifiers, the meter needle stays centered, indicating that the amplifier is operating fully in class-A mode, which for the 160.8, is 328 peak watts. So when that needle starts to bounce, these amplifiers are indeed producing major power.

Driving my Vandersteen 5As with the XA160.8s is absolutely peachy and the synergy with the Audio Research REF5SE is near perfection as well. I have spent some time with the Pass Xs Pre that is here for review, and that’s even more revealing. It goes without saying that you won’t go wrong with an all-Pass system, and as Mr. Pass says, you’ll never have to look for tubes again.

Break-in has been the same experience we’ve had with all other Pass amplifiers; they sound great straight out of the box and improve linearly over about 300 hours, with a minimal increase in clarity after that. Though solid state, they take as long as, if not longer than, a vacuum tube amplifier to fully “warm up.” Due to the power draw (550 watts per monoblock) and heat generated, most owners will not want to leave them on all the time. The XA160.8s take about 90 minutes to come out of the gentle mist exhibited at initial power up that dissipates after they reach full operating temperature. You’ll notice it in the smoothness of the upper register and the depth of the soundfield portrayed – getting deeper and deeper, drawing you further in to the presentation as they stabilize.

The 160.8s are consistent at low, medium and high volume. They never run out of steam when cranking AC/DC to near-concert levels, yet when listening to solo vocals or piano at levels barely above a whisper, maintain depth and a tonal richness that you’d expect from a flea watt SET amplifier. To say these amplifiers are incredibly linear and dynamic is an understatement.

In the end

We’re all worm food. But for now, if you find yourself asking the venerable question, “tubes or transistors,” this tube guy says buy the XA160.8 from Pass Labs. Unless you can afford the Xs monos, then of course you know what you must do.

Additional Listening: Jeff Dorgay

Selfishly, it’s always wonderful when someone else shares my enthusiasm for a piece of audio gear, and in this case, it’s been an ongoing argument between myself and Mr. O’Brien for a couple of decades now. While I agree with his analysis, because of the nature of the Vandersteen 5As only needing to be powered from about 80hz up, (because of their internally powered woofers) these speakers don’t give the full scale of the XA160.8s’ performance. And, of course, we like to perform amplifier reviews with as wide of a range of speaker systems as possible to see if there are any rocks in the road. I assure you there are none.

As with all the other Pass amplifiers we’ve auditioned, the XA160.8 continues the tradition of being able to drive any load effortlessly. I began my listening with the toughest speakers in my collection, the Magnepan 1.7s and the Acoustat 2+2s. Both passed with flying colors, and it was an interesting comparison to play the 2+2s with both the XA160.8s and a recently restored Threshold 400A that I used to use with my 2+2s in the ’80s. The more powerful, heavier, 4000A only stayed in my system briefly, but the 400A stayed for quite some time and was always a favorite.

Thanks to so much current on tap, the 2+2s now sound like there is a subwoofer in the room, but more importantly, these speakers, known for their somewhat loose and flabby lower registers are exhibiting taut, tuneful bass in a way they never have. Thomas Dolby’s “Pulp Culture” shakes the listening room with authority. An even tougher test is acoustic bass, and again the vintage ESL’s dance through all of my favorite Stanley Clarke tunes.

Moving through the gaggle of great speakers we currently have here from Dali, Dynaudio, GamuT, Eggleston and a few others, the XA160.8s have no limitations. To get them to (softly) clip requires ear shattering volume, or perhaps a pair of horribly inefficient speakers. In that case, there are always the XA200.8s and the Xs amplifiers.

No matter what music is served, the XA160.8s perform effortlessly and get out of the way for your enjoyment of it. The biggest delight, aside from knowing you’ll never have to hunt down matched quartets of power tubes again, is just how much of the flagship Xs300s capability is locked up inside these two boxes at one third of the price. Mind you in a “cost no object” system, the difference between the XS160.8 and the Xs300 will still be easily apparent, but it’s like the difference between an $85,000 Carrera and a $175,000 GT3RS – it’s easy to see, feel and hear the lineage,  and for those who don’t want to go all the way, will still find the lower-priced sibling still highly enjoyable.

I’ve hinted that the Pass XA160.8s have the slightest bit of warmth in their overall character, which they do. However, this additional richness and palpability is not at the expense of softness, or compromise in transient attack. If you want a strictly “nothing but the facts” the Pass sound may not be for you, but if you’ve always loved a touch of the glow that the world’s best vacuum tube amplifiers possess without having to chase the glass bottles, you must audition the XA160.8 I guarantee you will be highly impressed.

The Pass XA160.8



Analog Source SME 20/SME V arm     Koetsu Urushi Blue
Digital Source Simaudio MOON 650D    MacBook Pro
Amplification ARC REF 5     Pass Xs Pre
Speakers Vandersteen 5A
Cable Cardas Clear

GamuT M250i Mono Power Amplifiers

It’s my turn to get in on all the GamuT fun. Our publisher has been using GamuT speakers for years now and managing editor Rob Johnson is smitten with the D3i preamplifier.

Of the few manufacturers that build a full complement of electronics and speakers, they voice things differently. Burmester, for example, produces speakers that are somewhat forward, punchy and a little tipped up on the bottom and the top, yet the electronics are very warm sounding, almost tube-like, though fully solid-state.

GamuT however, is somewhat different. The speakers have an incredibly natural voice, and the electronics even more so. Even though their electronics and speakers produce perfect synergy, as you might expect because their components are much more neutral, tonally speaking, you do not have to have an all-GamuT system to achieve great results. Though you just might want to for simplicity’s sake.

Like the average Dane, the M250i is slim. 84 pounds (38kg) is substantial, but not what you’d expect a 250-watt per channel (into an 8 ohm load) that doubles into 4 ohms and still produces 900 watts into 2 ohms. Lifting the cover with the GamuT logo, it’s easy to see why; the power supply is huge! Unlike some solid-state amplifiers that require a huge bank of output devices to produce high power, GamuT uses two really big MOSFET transistors per channel, capable of passing 400 peak amperes of current each. Naim also takes this approach with their 500 series amplifier and the result is very special. Two transistors means no device matching is necessary, with none of the associated problems. Less is more.

While on that subject, the M250i has an interesting bit of simplicity or complexity, depending on how you look at it. On the rear panel, there are two sets of speaker outputs that you might mistake to use to bi-wire a pair of speakers. Don’t do it. One has a traditional resistor and coil output filter, as many solid state amplifiers do, more suited to ESL speakers and those with more difficult impedance loads, while the other outputs (the ones closer to the heatsinks) are direct coupled outputs. GamuT claims that either way, you can’t hurt these amplifiers, but I did follow their lead when using my pair of Quad 63s.

Inputs are via RCA or balanced XLR, and this is a fully balanced amplifier, so that mode will provide the best results. It’s worth mentioning that it is tough to tell the difference in sound using the ARC REF5 preamplifier, which sounds equally good through it’s balanced, and RCA outputs––and I have equally impressive results with my CJ Act Two preamplifier, which is RCA only.

Danes are usually somewhat reserved, but the GamuT manual is not only well written but also pretty amusing to read. They make great points about setup, cables and gain, mentioning that “at 4 ohms, full output power is more than 151,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than the input noise power.” A cursory listen confirms that these monoblocks are indeed quiet.

Not only does this provide a fatigue-free sound, but I’m sure this simple design contributes to another wonderful aspect of the M250i: it sounds incredible at low volume. Amplifier genius and mad scientist Nelson Pass likes to say that if the first watt isn’t great, the rest don’t matter. The M250i exemplifies this philosophy. Make no mistake, when you want to crank AC/DC or Skrillex, the M250i is fully capable. The cannon shots at the end of “For Those About to Rock” are awesome and have the necessary “crack” upon ignition without blur.

Mated to my Vandersteen 5A speakers, which are just slightly warm tonally, the M250i proves a perfect match for the rest of my system, utilizing an Audio Research REF 5 preamplifier. For decades I’ve been a fan of a great tube preamplifier mated to a powerful solid-state power amplifier to reap the rewards of both. The M250i does not disappoint in any way.

Never edgy or strident, the M250i’s feel a little foggy when powered up from ice cold. They only draw 50 watts in standby mode, so unless your energy habits have you immersed in guilt, I say leave them plugged in all the time. Otherwise, expect about 30 minutes before they reach full capability.

Unless you have the world’s most inefficient speakers, your ears will run out of headroom before the M250is will. Even listening at brain damage levels, these amplifiers do not run overly hot, so you will not be able to heat your listening room with them. Even after exhausting my record collection, I find it impossible to overdrive or overheat the GamuT amplifiers. I am most impressed at how they fail to draw any attention to themselves – they merely let the music flow.

What I do notice is the way these amplifiers render the finest of detail without ever sounding harsh, strident, or particularly solid-state in character. Well-worn recordings feel brand new again. A TONE favorite, the Crash Test Dummies’ Give Yourself a Hand, is full of sonic surprises. With extra overdubs and little vocal anomalies floating all around my listening area, it is almost like consuming something illegal. The only thing I didn’t really get to explore was the depth of the M250i’s bass response, as my Vandersteens only need the main power amplifier to go down to 80hz. But our publisher put them to the full test.

Spending way too much time with the entire Neu! catalog offers up the same results with jangly guitars and driving rythym in full force. Not happy to stop there, a couple of evening’s worth of Eno’s Ambient series, finishing up with the classic Ambient 1: Music For Airports is marvelous. Eno’s gentle touch on the keyboard is even more delicate than I remember, with decay that seems to go on forever. Even this vacuum tube lover finds plenty to love here, and it really has me considering a pair for myself, especially in light of just having bought 16 KT120 tubes!

The GamuT amplifiers are a statement product, and for all but the most insane audiophile, should easily be the last power amplifiers you’ll need to buy. They offer musical delight with no negatives whatsoever. Enthusiastically recommended.

Additional listening – Going all GamuT

After discussing the performance of the GamuT M250i amplifiers with Rob and Jerold, we all agree that they stand on their own as world-class power amplifiers. In the context of tube and solid-state systems, they integrate easily into whatever components you happen to be using. Thanks to their high current capability, they drive any speaker with ease. Though class AB in design, their lack of grain reminds me of a class-A amplifier, or the Burmester 911.

The M250is join a very elite group of solid-state amplifiers that just reveal music, not really sounding like transistor amplifiers or vacuum tubes. As one of the few manufacturers that can successfully build electronics and speakers with equal prowess, a complete GamuT system is wonderful. And for someone wanting an incredibly high performance audio system without the anxiety of trying to choose the right amp, preamp, speakers and digital player, I suggest an all-GamuT system. Complete the system with a set of their power cords, interconnects and speaker cables – one stop shopping!

Mated with their preamplifier and the recently reviewed RS5 speakers provides a highly compelling and dynamic system that can play anything you can throw at it with ease. Mixing it up with different amplification proves more different than better or worse. The Audio Research GSPre and GS150 offer up a bit more holographic, three dimensional presentation, while the mighty Pass Xs Pre and Xs300 monoblocks present a slightly warmer tonal balance and a little more slam. Keep in mind that these are hairsplitting differences; you won’t go wrong either way.

Of course the M250is sound lovely with my reference GamuT RS5 and S9 speakers. I’ve heard the M250is at a number of trade shows, and the match with GamuT speakers is as close to perfection as it gets. Just as these monoblocks work well in tandem with other preamplifiers and source components, they should be able to drive anything. Torturing them with Quad, MartinLogan and Acoustat ESLs is a breeze, and they work equally well with the Epicon 8s from Dali we recently had in for review as well as the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers. I even lugged them to a friend’s house with a pair of old Apogee Divas! Nothing presents a problem to these high current powerhouses.

Because Mr. O’Brien’s Vandersteen 5A’s are passively crossed over at 80Hz, I spent quite a bit of time examining the bass character of the M250is. Whether I was enjoying “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Bitch Better Have My Money,” these amplifiers provide weight, control and fine detail. A perfect balance is struck in texture, never under nor overdamped, something that is easy to notice with speakers like the GamuTs, which reproduce ultra low bass with ease, and often a hallmark of massive solid-state amplifiers.

Great as the M250is are with GamuT speakers, they are particularly good with the current Quad 2815s too. These speakers are mercilessly revealing and finicky to get good sound from, yet the GamuT amplifiers deliver a presentation that is smooth and dynamic, along with being controlled and forceful in the lower register––something not easy to achieve with the Quads. The thundering bass line in Bowie’s classic “Fashion” was wonderful to experience, yet in the middle of the dissonant piano solo in “Aladdin Sane,” the bass line is well articulated, holding its own space brilliantly between the keyboard and Bowie’s vocal. These are indeed special amplifiers, no matter what speakers you own and whatever your musical choices might be.

-Jeff Dorgay

The GamuT M250i Monoblock Amplifiers



Analog Source             SME20 turntable/SMEV Tonearm, Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge

Digital Source Simaudio MOON 750D

Phonostage                  Audio Research REF Phono 2

Preamplifier                Audio Research REF 5

Cable                           Nordost Frey

Speakers                      Vandersteen 5A

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

New Zealand’s Plinius Audio has a track record of delivering products that offer great sound for the dollar—and its Inspire 980 certainly offers a lot, especially for $4,450. In addition the power and preamp capabilities of a standard integrated, it also features an onboard MM phonostage and an internal DAC. With all those elements built in, this beauty can serve as a fantastic system hub—just add speakers and sources.

As with other Plinius products, the 980 features simplistic aesthetics, despite a wealth of internal capabilities. The smooth, bead-blasted aluminum faceplate is interrupted only by a volume knob and two buttons to toggle source selection. The 980 comes with a remote, but the $7.99 Plinius Arataki app (available on the iTunes store) makes controlling the unit from your listening chair even easier.

The unit’s dimensions are modest—about 18 inches wide, 14 inches deep and 3 inches tall—though the slender frame is somewhat deceptive when lifting the unit. It weighs in at a surprising 22 pounds, a result of its burly transformer and the breadth of electronics its versatile capabilities require. The unit’s Class A/B amplification section delivers 80 watts per channel into 8 ohms and roughly 100 watts into 4 ohms. While I’m used to a reference amplifier offering much more juice, the 980 has no trouble holding its own. It maintains command of the Sonus faber Olympica III speakers and leaves me not wanting for extra power.

Setup? What Setup?

As one would expect from this four-in-one integrated, the setup process is quick. Just plug in sources and speakers and start listening. Its back panel accommodates a turntable, two optical inputs and two single-ended line-level sources. There’s also a set of XLR inputs for a CD player, plus an Ethernet port and a USB input for networking from computer-based audio sources and DLNA-capable devices. As a nice bonus, the 980 also offers a wireless connection option.

I will note that the RCA inputs for the line-level sources are bit close together, making large-diameter interconnects a tight squeeze. My only other complaint is that my spade-terminated speakers wires present a challenge with these biding posts. The spades I use are actually soldered to the rest of the speaker wire, so they aren’t exactly flexible and so they must be inserted from underneath, as the binding posts are at the very base of the unit’s short frame and have very little clearance. I have to place the 980 at the rear edge of my rack so the cables can dangle downward instead of kinking. Of course, using bare wire or non-soldered banana terminations would not present this problem.

Sonic Notes

After the break-in period, the Plinius sounds neutrally voiced, with little glare, grain, or stridency. Regardless of source or the quality of the recording, I find the sound extremely easy to live with. It does not romanticize music or lean towards euphony. There’s just a slightly forgiving and relaxed quality to the sound, which strikes a delicate balance between warmth and stark realism.

With its internal 24-bit/192-kHz DAC employed, the 980 remains very tuneful. Compared unfairly against more expensive dedicated DACs, it offers a little less ambient detail and refinement; however, it does manage to render even poor recordings in a musical and enjoyable way. To my ears, Norah Jones’s vocals on “Don’t Know Why” were recorded a little hot, meaning that crescendos sometimes have an ear-tingling singe. During CD-quality digital playback, this stridency is somewhat diminished, giving the song a greater sense of musicality.

The 980 has no noticeable roll-off among high frequencies. On Hélène Grimaud’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s “Piano Sonata No. 2,” key strikes in the upper region have the requisite plink, ring, and ambient decay. With complementary bass prowess, the 980’s portrayal is deep and punchy with a solid grip on speaker drivers, especially on rock tracks like Electric Six’s “Dance Commander.” The Plinius delivers the full energy of this song with little (if any) compromises.

The soundstage portrayed—front-to-back layering, perceived width, and extension beyond the speakers—also proves excellent. Though I listen to Chris Isaak’s “Go Walking Down There” in regular rotation, I find myself startled by the 980’s portrayal of the cymbals panned to the far left and right of the recording; in my listening space, the sound bursts into the room. While the crash, shimmer and decay of the cymbal strikes may not have all the nuanced resolution of a more expensive and dedicated DAC (like the dCS Debussy, for example), what’s there is nicely rendered.

The phonostage section proves to be another really nice addition, given the price tag of the 980. While it’s limited to MM cartridges and has a fixed loading and gain, it is a wonderful feature to have incorporated in such a compact package. With all the experience Plinius has building great phonostages, like its marvelous Koru, there is undoubtedly some trickle-down technology lending the 980 solid analog playback. (See “Additional Listening” for notes on the phonostage performance.)

A Lot to Love

The Inspire 980 costs $4,450, which is not chump change. But given the quality of all the elements within—amp, preamp, DAC and phonostage—it’s actually something of a value-oriented purchase. Yes, you can get greater realism and refinement from more expensive standalone equipment, like Plinius’s own reference-level products. But from a price-performance standpoint, the 980 is a great option. For those who don’t need wired or wireless home networking capability for music retrieval from a networked drive, the Inspire’s little brother, the 880, offers the same functionality and sonics as the 980, but for $3,650.

If you have limited space to dedicate to your hi-fi system or if you simply want to scale down the number of components in you audio arsenal, this all-in-one component offers a lot to love. The 980 is also well suited as a launching point for prospective buyers who might be looking to upgrade to a larger system down the road. Given all of its capability and versatility, I can easily recommend this component—and I’d even put it on my own short list.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Every Plinius product we’ve auditioned has been fantastic, and the 980 continues that tradition.  As Rob is a MC-only guy, I wanted to spend some time listening to the 980 with the Ortofon 2M Black MM cartridge, which is currently mounted to the refurbished Thorens TD-125 table (courtesy of Vinyl Nirvana) and revitalized SME 3009 tonearm (courtesy of

As a listener who loves analog as much as digital and as someone about to move to a small space, I will say that the Plinius 980 is a fantastic solution for those wanting to keep sound quality way up and the footprint way down. Streaming music from the Meridian MS200, which is barely the size of a glasses case, and using my turntable makes this a true desktop situation. A 15-foot run of Cardas Clear speaker cable (admittedly worth more than the amplifier) and the Franco Serblin Accordo speakers round out an amazing system in my 11-by-13-foot living room.

Don’t sell yourself short on the MM thing; there are quite a few $600 to $1,000 MM cartridges that, if you aren’t going to drop thousands of bucks on a table, will fit the bill very nicely. I’m partial to the 2M Black, which mates flawlessly with the Plinius. Having spent a lot of time with the massive Plinius Class-A monoblocks, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with the 980. The Accordos perform their best with a lot of current and the 980 delivers the control necessary to really rock these small but mighty speakers.

But most importantly, the phonostage is dead quiet and, like the rest of the amplifier, it does not exaggerate or embellish. The Ortofon 2M has a similar sound, so if that’s your fancy, I can’t suggest this cartridge highly enough. Those wanting a bit more mellow/warm/euphonic sound should consider the Grado Reference Master 1 Moving Iron cartridge. With a 5-mV output and requiring 47K loading, the Grado will add a bit of warmth to your system’s tonality, which is especially useful if your record collection consists of mostly jazz and classic rock.

Whatever your taste, the Plinius Inspire 980 is a fantastic bargain, especially for those utilizing both digital and analog sources. An external DAC and phonostage of this caliber would easily set you back $1,000 each, so it’s like getting an 80-wpc integrated amp thrown in for $2,450—not to mention all that cable you won’t need. Enthusiastically suggested!

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $4,450


Digital Source Mac mini     dCS Debussy
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm
Amplifier Burmester 911 MK3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

Benchmark AHB2 Power Amplifier

The first thing you notice about the new Benchmark AHB2 is its diminutive size. Even with feet and binding posts, it’s only about 11 inches wide, 4 inches tall and 9 inches deep. And the heat-sink fins account for about a third of that width, making it even more incredible that Benchmark was able to jam so much oomph into such a small body. Regularly lifting amps that leave my back barking for Tylenol, I chuckle with relief when carrying the 12.5-pound AHB2 to my audio rack.

At about $3,000, the Benchmark AHB2 is a substantial investment, and it certainly demonstrates many musical characteristics one would expect at this price point. But the amp’s size makes it appealing when shelf space is limited or when you simply want to minimize your gear real estate. If more power is desired, you can buy a second AHB2 and configure them as monoblocks.

Benchmark offers the unit with a black or silver anodized faceplate and black heat-sink fins. A studio version is also available, with a wider front plate to fit equipment racks. Other than its tiny power button, the front of the amp has no other controls, just a few LEDs to indicate aspects of operation. Each channel has three LEDs to indicate clip, temperature and mute. In the event of an amp overload (which happened once during my testing), the amp shuts itself down and the LEDs indicate the nature of the problem. Powering the unit off, waiting a few seconds and pressing the power button puts the amp back into operational mode.

Setting the Benchmark

As Benchmark products are used regularly in recording studios, all of the AHB2’s connections are balanced. A couple audio designers have explained to me that balanced XLR connections usually prove superior to single-ended RCAs, since XLRs offer inherent noise canceling and they won’t come loose once clicked into place. If the rest of you’re system doesn’t offer XLR connections, Benchmark also makes cables and adapters.

Setup is fairly straightforward: Connect a preamp and speakers, ensure the stereo/mono toggle is set to the desired position, and then set the three-position sensitivity switch to match the signal levels from your preamplifier; the sensitivity switch also optimizes the amplifier’s gain for controlling volume from your preamplifier. Because of the amp’s size, its back panel can get crowed, making connections a little tricky—especially with my speaker cables, which have soldered spade connections that don’t bend. As such, I have to place the amp at the back edge of my audio shelf so the cables can hang below the amp (though I’ve had this same problem with other amps I’ve tested).
The AHB2 also offers twist-lock NL4 ports for speaker connection. Benchmark says NL4s provide lower resistance and higher current handling than connection via binding posts, as well as a more secure connection. As most speakers don’t have an NL4 connection option, Benchmark makes speaker cables with NL4 connectors for the amp side and standard connections for the speaker side.

Once everything is connected, simply push the power button on the front panel to activate the start-up sequence. When configured as a stereo amp, the AHB2 pushes out 100 watts into 8 ohms and double that into 4 ohms. For those wanting a 12-volt trigger for remote power-up, the AHB2 has you covered.

The AHB2 features a Class-AB/Class-H design (hence its name), which facilitates bridging a pair of the amps to use as monoblocks, pushing 380 watts into 8 ohms. This scenario is very useful if your speakers need some extra juice and you want to provide a dedicated amp for each, or if you want to drive a center-channel speaker in a home-theater setup. When using this setup method, consult the manual to ensure the proper connections and settings.

Meeting the Benchmark

Among Benchmark’s design goals for the amp were extremely low distortion and quiet operation. From the get-go, the amp lives up to its design specs by providing a very clean presentation. The Benchmark does a good job of layering vocals and instruments in all dimensions, with each element supported by a solid and convincing image. The amp’s designer, John Siau, is quick to mention that the third goal was to achieve a ruler-flat high-frequency response—and the AHB2 is completely flat all the way up to 200 kHz. Siau says these qualities are vitally important in delivering high-resolution performance.

As desired in a studio setting, the sonics from the AHB2 are neutral, and in my home setup, there is no observable emphasis in any particular frequency range. I would not characterize the AHB2 sound as warm or romantic, though it’s not stark or emotionless either. Between these two ends of the spectrum, the amp leans toward the latter but with a sweeter top end. Those seeking an amp that emphasizes fullness and richness that will augment slightly thin sound from your preamp or source might consider other amp options. But if accurate portrayal is a listener’s goal, this Benchmark does the trick.

When reproducing poor-quality recordings, the AHB2 does a nice job of limiting digital glare. Lucinda Williams’s album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road demonstrates the AHB2’s ability to offer edge-free portrayal of vocals with a very fluid midrange. Her voice resides upfront in the soundstage and it is well separated from the instruments accompanying her.

Regardless of music type, bass through the Benchmark offers a taught presentation with the snap and punch one expects from percussion. Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” is engaging through the AHB2, with all the subtle synthesized sounds popping into position in the soundstage. This makes me curious about running a pair of the amps as monoblocks—which still wouldn’t take up the rack space of a single traditional amplifier.

The Benchmark brings to life the voice of the Martin Logan Motion XT35 bookshelf speakers. Considering its recording-studio applications, it makes a lot of sense that this amp pairs well with smaller stereo monitors. Combined with the speakers I have on hand for testing, the AHB2’s sound flavor profile remains consistent.

In the case of the AHB2, system synergy is an important factor to consider, since no amp is universally perfect for all speakers. For large and demanding speakers, a prospective AHB2 owner may need more power. In the case of the AHB2, you can add another unit and configure the two amps as monoblocks.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I was curious to hear how Benchmark’s design ethos of compact products would translate into designing a power amp. A couple years ago, the Devialet shattered my bias that amplifiers had to be massive to sound good, and so today I find myself much more open-minded to smaller amps like the Benchmark.

My initial exposure to the AHB2 was at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where Benchmark was playing the amp in an all-Benchmark system that included its new mini-monitor speakers. Back in my own listening rooms, the AHB2 did a fantastic job driving the KEF Blades, Dynaudio Evidence Platinums and even my Acoustat 2+2s, which are notoriously tough to drive, though a pair of AHB2s would have been even better for the 2+2s.

As both my reference systems are balanced, I actually prefer the XLR connections of the AHB2. If you’re working with single-ended RCAs connections, the Cardas adaptors are my favorite. I agree with Rob’s conclusions on tonality, etc., and will add that the AHB2 definitely has the bass drive necessary to achieve convincing full-range performance, even from big speakers.

In the end, the Benchmark AHB2 can become a great anchor to your system, offering high performance in a compact box. With an extremely neutral tonal balance, you can use it straight, or warm it up with a tube preamplifier, should that be your preference. Either way, the AHB2 is a stellar performer from a company known for excellence.

Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


Digital Sources Mac mini, dCS Debussy DAC    JRiver Media Center 20    Tidal music service
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm and Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Amplifier Burmester 911 MK3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III, Martin Logan Motion XT35
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner    RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

Balanced Audio Technology VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

The VK-3000SE from Delaware’s Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) is a vacuum-tube linestage and a solid-state amplifier rolled into one. The latter offers 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms and twice that into 4 ohms. For the preamp section, BAT utilizes a pair of Russian 6H30 valves, which are concealed inside the unit. Some refer to these military-grade tubes as “super tubes” for their longevity and durability; they’re also alleged to have a whopping 10,000-hour lifespan. In the unlikely event of a bad tube, BAT stands behind them with a one-year warranty. (The VK-3000SE itself comes with five-year warranty.) The unit weighs in at 50 pounds and the chassis measures 19 by 5.75 by 15.5 inches. It’s priced at $7,995, which is pretty reasonable considering the amp’s broad capabilities.

As you might guess by the company’s name, the VK-3000SE’s internal circuit topology accommodates a fully balanced signal. The back panel offers a combination of three single-ended RCA inputs, two balanced inputs and an RCA tape out. Metal speaker binding posts accommodate many connection options. Keep in mind that the posts are quite close together, so large speaker cables with spade connections like mine require some finagling.

In addition to the standard linestage capability of the preamp section, BAT offers a pre-installed MM/MC phonostage with the associated outboard inputs as a $1,000 upgrade option. Users have an option of a 48 or 55 dB gain, the latter being the default. Load-wise, the phono card is factory set at 47,000 ohms, but it can be adapted for other cartridges as needed. Users can make these changes themselves by removing the unit’s cover and following BAT’s instructions. The standard load works quite well with my cartridge, a Dynavector 17D3, so I didn’t make further adjustments.

Clean Design

The VK-3000SE offers a clean, elegant external design. Our sample unit sports an anodized black finish, but silver is also an option. The hefty, metal remote control has a similar finish. The chassis’ subtle curves give the amp a sleek, modern appearance. To help keep the unit cool, which is especially important given the hot tubes within, BAT utilizes a top panel with small ventilation slits at the outer edges and holes down the center in an hourglass shape.

Once powered up, the amp’s front-panel vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) shows the input choice and volume level. The font is large, blue, and very visible—it’s easy to read from my listening seat 9 feet away. For those who prefer darkness, the remote’s display button will variably dim or turn off the VFD.

A minimal number of small controls on the front panel disguise the versatility within. The visible buttons include power, mute, input, phase, mono and function, the latter of which allows access to an on-screen menu. And of course, there’s a beefy volume knob that goes from 0 to 140. According to Geoff Poore, BAT’s sales manager, the numbering scale represents a 70 db range, in half db increments. He goes on to mention “There are two other volume “scales” that can be used in the 3000SE: “DBM” and  “DBU”.  The unit comes with a more understandable (for consumers) “CNTS” (counts) scale.  Broadcast and recording facilities are more likely to use “DBM” (-70 to 0) or “DBU” (-50 to +20).  One may preset any of these different scales in the set-up with the “function” button while cycling through.  We are very proud of the sophistication and accuracy of the volume control in the 3000.”

When toggling through the input options, you’ll see that the VFD has them listed as CD, tape, aux and so on, though the owner can modify the labels. Relabeling the third input as “iPod” proves very easy. Once programmed in, the amp stores these labels in its memory and remembers them even if it’s powered down and unplugged.

The function button is similarly flexible; pressing it reveals several user-selectable options for the selected input. Users can adjust balance, phase, mono/stereo and display mode, and select fixed, relative and maximum volume to equalize input sources and to avoid an inadvertent sound blast. To exit the menu, just hold the function button for two seconds. Most of this functionality is also accessible via the remote.

Up and Running

Setup for the single-box unit is very straightforward—just connect sources and speakers and you are ready to rock. Pressing the power button puts the VK-3000SE into a muted tube-warm-up mode; after a minute or so, a quiet click indicates the amp is ready. Pressing the button again puts the unit into a low-power standby mode, with the tubes remaining engaged. Holding down the power button for a couple seconds shuts down the unit completely.

Testing both the single-ended and balanced connections with my DAC, I find that they sound similar but have some subtle differences. The XLR connections do offer a bit quieter background, providing a little more sonic detail and nuance, and the presentation is a little more up-front. If you have the option of balanced connections, they are the way to go.

Across the frequency spectrum, VK-3000SE leans a bit to the warmer side of neutral in my system. Pitch Black’s album Rude Mechanicals provides a helpful test. The bass presentation is more relaxed than punchy and the amp has no trouble making very low frequencies known, but they never overwhelm the mix.

Extremely revealing components have a tendency to make the listener wince when playing some female vocal recordings; pleasantly, the VK-3000SE does not. Throughout Sia’s cover of “I Go to Sleep,” vocal crescendos project little stridency, despite their power. Also, as I notice in the cymbal shimmers on other tracks, the amp has a slight tradeoff of sonic realism for a touch of veil, but a degree of euphony in some circumstances is welcome. Balanced connections prove more revealing, so users should experiment with interconnects to find the sonic balance that works best in their system.

The amp’s ability to portray both a vertical and horizontal soundstage is fantastic, regardless of source material. Music extends beyond the speakers to the extreme left and right and from floor to ceiling, though front-to-back layering is not a strong point. The VK-3000SE does make it easy to pick out individual elements of a song, but it’s not a fully convincing reproduction of a live performance when band members are scattered across the front and back of the stage.

Putting the phonostage through its paces, I soon find that there’s a lot to enjoy. Analog and digital sources have similar sonic signatures through this amp, but the phonostage offers a greater sense of ease and naturalness. Vocals, like those on Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush,” move forward in the soundstage, enhancing the VK-3000SE’s front-to-back presentation. Some of that benefit, of course, is due to the analog source, but the quality of the analog reproduction is strong evidence of the effort and quality that BAT put into the unit’s phono card. It would be a challenge to find a single-box phonostage of this quality for the amp’s $1,500 phono add-on. The VK-3000SE demonstrates the synergistic value of an integrated audio solution.

Final Score

While $8,000 is a substantial investment for any piece of audio gear, it’s important to frame this product in the context of what you get for that price. You could spend a lot more money for individual components that deliver greater sonic nuance, layering, and air around each musical element, as well as a more realistic-sounding reproduction of a live concert. Of course, with added components, an owner also needs to consider the cost of extra interconnects and power cords.

The VK-3000SE is both a great preamp and a great power amp, and with the optional (and fantastic) phonostage, it’s a versatile, compact, and great-sounding piece of gear. If each of its elements were sold as individual components, the combined price would certainly be higher than the cost of the single unit, and it would be tricky to find separates that complement each other this well.

Having plenty of power and multiple input options, the VK-3000SE offers a turnkey solution that will mate well with many sources and speaker types. With a five-year warranty backing it, this is a component you’re likely to enjoy for a long time, even as the other gear in your audio arsenal evolves around it.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having been such a big fan of BAT gear over the years, I had to hand the main review over to Rob—partly to share the excitement of the brand (with which he’s had no experience) and to deliver a more impartial review. Firing up the VK-3000SE to perform break-in duties is like putting the keys in a Porsche 911, in the sense that everything is where I remember it and, regardless of vintage, the overall ride is similar—just as the dynamic sound of BAT is like taking an old friend for a test drive.

While BAT has made a name for itself based mostly on the reputation of its fine vacuum-tube gear, the company has always made great solid-state power amplifiers, which have not always received their fair share of (well-deserved) praise. I have always loved the combination of a solid-state power amplifier and a valve preamplifier, so the VK-3000SE is right up my alley.

As much fun as modestly powered tube amplifiers are, 35 watts per channel limits your speaker choices too much, in my opinion. But 150 wpc is just right for all but the most inefficient speakers. Everything at my disposal—from the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blades to the 84-dB-per-watt Harbeth Compact 7s—proves a good match for this amplifier, with nothing running out of steam until I crank the volume to beyond brain-damage levels.

A side-by-side comparison to another favorite, the Simaudio MOON 600i, is enlightening. Both amplifiers are similarly priced (though the MOON does not include an onboard phonostage option), yet the MOON is all solid state. Those preferring a slightly more neutral, even a touch punchier sound and who don’t care about the phono might prefer the MOON. Personally, the VK-3000SE has that combination of solid-state grunt and a touch of tubey warmth in an ever-so-slight way that is not veiled, colored or slow.

The 6H30 is a very dynamic and powerful tube, sounding nothing like, say, a 12AX7. And BAT built its reputation around this tube, and the company implements it like no other. Whether you’re blasting AC/DC, Coltrane or Coldplay, this amplifier offers a lot of inner detail and timbral purity in spades.

As good as the onboard phonostage is, choosing it will ultimately be the limiting factor for the hardcore vinyl enthusiast. But again, it’s damn good for a thousand bucks. If you are primarily digital and just dabbling with LPs, it’s fine; grab your favorite $2,500 table/arm/cartridge combo and call it a day. However, if you’re more of an analog lover or plan on serious analog upgrades in the future, order your VK-3000SE without the phonostage and go for BAT’s awesome VK-P6 instead. (We will have that review shortly). You’ll be glad you spent the extra dough. The VK-P5 was a class leader and the P6 promises even more performance for around $3,500.

High-performance integrated amps continue to be popular for the audio and music lover who wants world-class performance without buying a rack full of components. The VK-3000SE is an excellent choice, should that be your cup of tea. This is certainly one I could retire with happily ever after.

VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $7,995 (plus $1,000 for the optional phono section)

Balanced Audio Technology


Digital Sources HP desktop computer with Windows 7    JRiver Media Center 19    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    Audio Research CD3 Mk2
Analog Source SME 10 turntable with Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Speakers Piega P-10    Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose and Golden power cords   Shunyata Python Alpha power cord
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

Peachtree nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

The idea of an integrated amplifier has always appealed to me. Combining the amplifier and preamplifier sections in a properly isolated design makes economic sense—just sit back and enjoy the music without the bleed-through of a tuner.

Last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing Peachtree’s nova125 integrated and, while I enjoyed both its form and function, I wondered what impact nearly doubling its power would have on the notoriously power-hungry Magnepan 1.6 speakers. Well, I now know—and it’s been worth the wait. The nova220SE possesses tremendous grip, never letting the Magnepans beat it into submission.

Delving into orchestral music with Beethoven’s 9th by the North German Radio Symphony conducted by Günter Wand, I experience the symphony’s beautiful, complex inner movements and quick pace changes, which prove a great test for the nova. Where lesser-quality amplifiers struggle to keep instrument separation, the nova performs exceedingly well. Even under the intensity of the Magnepan’s 2-ohm load drops and volume levels crossing 100 dB, the amp stays in control. It revels in being driven hard; this isn’t an integrated for those who enjoy listening to music at whisper levels.

Nuts and Bolts

The nova continues Peachtree’s distinctive and curvaceous design. The various stained-wood cases have been replaced by black lacquer, and the front panel is brushed aluminum, with a similar gray color to that of Kyocera equipment from the 1980s.

The nova’s front panel is clean, though I do wish the selector buttons were identified with a slightly larger font, as the contrast on the panel is minimal. The power button is located in the lower left, with the five source buttons—USB, coax, opt 1, opt 2, and analog—encircled by blue LEDs. Following the Peachtree tradition, a blue LED-lit oval window displays the nova’s Russian-made 6N1P tube. A large, smoothly rotating volume knob completes the front panel. The back panel is nearly as clean: wired remote and source inputs, jacks for pre-out and RCA, right and left speaker binding posts, power cord receptacle, and master power switch. The amp is 14.8 inches wide, 5.2 inches tall, and 11.5 inches deep, and it weighs just over 19 pounds.

The matching anodized-aluminum front remote is also straightforward, with two groupings of buttons; the upper for controlling volume and tube buffer and selecting the USB input, and the lower for selecting the other four inputs.

As I go through my various test tracks, the toms on the drum kit really stand out. The nova makes the various hits pop with intensity. Whether reproducing the attacks of the Who’s wild man Keith Moon or the magic of Buddy Rich, the exact placement of the drumsticks on the toms is distinct and easily discernable. Chalk that up to the class-A preamp section and the 220/350 watts per channel (into 8 and 4 ohms, respectively) of the class-D power section. The clarity between the left and right hits on Dan Fogelberg’s “Higher Ground” has me replaying the track several times over.

Until recently, praising class-D power amplifiers came with a warning that proper speaker matching is crucial. Just like Peachtree’s nova125, the nova220SE needs no such disclaimer. With speakers from Harbeth, Totem, ACI, Golden Ear, and Magnepan, this integrated amplifier shows no weaknesses—though the combination with the Golden Ear Triton Sevens is a particularly good match, both sonically and financially. Just one listen to “Still… You Turn Me On” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer convinces me to keep the amp-speaker combo together for a week.

A Lot to Love

To the team at Peachtree, the word integrated means including a built-in DAC that utilizes the asynchronous ESS Sabre Hyperstream 9022 chip, USB and coax inputs that can handle resolutions ranging from 16 bits/44 kHz all the way to 24/192, and two optical inputs (which are limited to 24/92). Using my MacBook running iTunes/Pure Music and a Wadia i170 iPod dock, I’m able to test all the configurations. The DAC section is a fine performer—definitely not a gimmick. I find it bettering the Audioengine D2 DAC by pulling out greater inner detail, which is especially noticeable in the guitar and piano of William Ackerman’s “Climbing in Geometry.” On the same song through my reference Simaudio 300D DAC, the edges of the highest frequencies come out a hair shriller than through the nova, and the acoustic guitar is a bit drier—but overall the nova puts forth an impressive effort.

Since my wife works from home, I spend a great deal of time using the nova’s headphone output, which offers 1,170 mW into 32 ohms and really brings a pair of Sennheiser HD800s to life. Bonnie Raitt’s mellow masterpiece “Nick of Time” holds the same acoustic properties as when running through speakers, signaling that the headphone section wasn’t an afterthought but a well-thought-out part of the nova220SE. For those readers who wonder if the headphone output gets the tube buffer treatment, the answer is yes and it offers the same tubey goodness as the amplifier does.

When listening to the nova through speakers, I keep the tube buffer engaged for the most part, as I’m a fan of the harmonic pleasure that vacuum tubes provide. But at times it’s hard to tell when the 6N1P tube is in the auditory loop, which I attribute to the superb class-A preamplifier section. Consider the tube buffer as a tone control for the 21st century.

When nothing but heavy metal will suffice, the nova, like a Detroit muscle car, is ready to go balls to the walls at anytime. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions alternates between stoplight blues and accelerating guitar riffs. The sheer grunt to put the listener back in his or her seat is the nova220SE’s specialty. Get comfortable and enjoy the sonic ride.

Obvious differences between the $1,999 nova220SE and my reference $8,000 Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated are subtle but prevalent. The little things are missing from the nova’s resolution. For example, the xylophone notes at the beginning of Steely Dan’s classic “Aja” don’t take on the three-dimensionality that I’m used to hearing. Steve Martin’s exceptional banjo picking through the nova occasionally sounds a bit flat when measured against the i-7. But beyond that, the nova is a very worthy competitor.

For the digital junkie, the nova’s myriad inputs enable CD playback, mass storage, and streaming from multiple sources without swapping wires—just push a button and jump from a hard drive to AirPlay or Sonos. Vinyl lovers only need to plug their favorite phono preamp into the nova’s auxiliary input to enjoy their favorite records. For those with budgetary concerns, the low energy usage of the nova’s class-D power section and its versatile preamp section, along with Peachtree’s two-year warranty, make it a wallet-friendly investment.

Final Tally

As smitten as I was with the nova125 last year, I’m totally impressed with the nova220SE. With nearly twice the power and an improved preamp design trickled down from Peachtree’s top-of-the-line X-1 integrated, it makes terrific music with every speaker combo I have on hand. Right now, if I were forced to change integrated amplifiers, the nova220SE would be my choice. The sheer value of its capabilities as an integrated amp, DAC, and headphone amplifier makes the nova220SE a no-brainer. The only thing keeping it from being perfect is its lack of a built-in phono preamp. Perhaps Peachtree will incorporate one into the next iteration.

nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,999


Amplifiers SimAudio Moon i7 integrated amplifier    Vista Audio i35 integrated tube amplifier   Virtue Audio Sensation M451 Tripath/hybrid integrated amplifier
Phonostage Simaudio Moon LP5.3
Sources Rega RP1 turntable with Ortofon Super OM40 cartridge    MacBook iTunes/PureMusic    Wadia i170 w/iPod 160 Classic
Digital Processor SimAudio Moon 300D
Speakers ACI Emerald XL    Harbeth Compact 7ES3    Golden Ear Triton Seven   Magnepan 1.6 with Skiing Ninja crossovers Totem Acoustic Rainmakers
Cables Shunyata Venom 3 power cord    AudioArt IC-3 interconnects    AudioArt SC-5 speaker cables

Roksan Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

British hi-fi buffs know Roksan Audio as a company that offers extraordinary value and sonics that challenge far pricier competitors. The company, located just northwest of London, takes a complete-system approach, with analog and digital sources, amplification, speakers, cables, and power supplies among its product lineup—and it is currently making a push into the North American market.

Roksan has several lines that cater to different needs: The Oxygene line strips away everything to the basics, with modern design and functionality; the Kandy line offers higher performance; and the Caspian line is the top of the hill. All Roksan products have a simple but appealing aesthetic and are known for high reliability.

The subject of this review—and the first Roksan component that has been in my system—is the Kandy K2 BT integrated amplifier, which retails for $1,900. The K2 BT is one of the more feature-rich integrated amplifiers that we have reviewed, equipped with a phonostage, five line-level inputs, a tape loop, remote control, and Bluetooth connectivity—the latter of which is what the BT designation represents. (The standard, non-Bluetooth K2 retails for $1,700.) The unit’s power output is 120 watts per channel into 8 ohms.

Roksan says it uses the highest-grade parts available and that the K2’s output stage is based on that employed in the Caspian series. The company pays special attention to circuit layout and especially power supply, with the sonics coming first. The result is a product that makes for a sound investment, which has helped build Roksan’s reputation since its founding in 1985.

The Basics

The casework on the K2 BT, while not extravagant, is solid, nicely put together, and commensurate with the price point. In terms of appearance, the unit is available with either a black case and silver faceplate or the reverse.

Installing the K2 is straightforward, with connections made and sound emanating from speakers within minutes of unpacking. The amp easily drives a pair of Gallo A’Diva Se satellite speakers with a Gallo TR-3D subwoofer, and it makes light work of the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s sans sub. (See end of article for additional full list of peripherals.)

The review sample has decent mileage on it, so only a few days are needed to get it up to optimal performance—and it does not take long for the K2’s personality to shine. It flows music to the speakers in a velvety smooth, seductive, and effortless manner, even with the relatively inefficient Harbeths. The amplifier never breaks a sweat, delivering gorgeous, dare I say, tube-like tone and imaging that is wide, deep, and always involving.

Down to Business

Nick Cave’s 2013 recording Push the Sky Away is transportative through the K2. The open, spacious mix and Cave’s superbly recorded voice are perfect for the amp to show off its way with nuance, instrumental timbres, and timing. Cave always imparts some sort of drama and tension in his songs, and on this collection he does so with more subtlety than usual. Here, the K2 lets the tension build and ebb so as to spotlight the performance, with all things “hi-fi” taking a back seat. This is truly a music lover’s amplifier.

On a lighter note, streaming a variety of recordings by lounge-pop revivalists Pink Martini is great fun, with the K2 keeping pace with the free spirit of the band’s whimsical, intoxicating sound. Such albums as Sympathique, Hang On Little Tomato, Splendor in the Grass, and Get Happy are a gas—and the Kandy is up to the task. Whether cycling through jazzy standards, French lullabies, tangos, Chinese folk songs, or Turkish pop, this amp keeps the party going, never missing a beat.

With higher-resolution digital files, the K2 pays big dividends. The 96-kHz download of Chicago’s album II is excellent, and the Kandy brings back the summer of 1972, showcasing the quality of the legendary band’s interplay and songwriting. It makes tracks like “Poem for the People” and “In the Country” sound vibrant and fresh.

The K2 not only unravels complex music but also lays out simple pleasures, like Chuck Berry’s monumental 1950s Chess recordings, with ease. Trying to resist tracks like “Little Queenie” or “Back In The U.S.A” proves futile, as the Roksan takes these mono recordings and renders them with natural authority; and the pacing is sublime. I am continually reminded that this amplifier effortlessly gets out of the way, always drawing attention to the music and not to itself.

The K2 clearly has a wonderful way with digital sources, regardless of program material or sampling rate. I put it through its paces further with a little analog via some pre-recorded, commercially released 7.5-ips reel tapes played back on my vintage Sony deck. The results are stunning, with the Kandy providing a clean, quiet background and excellent detail retrieval. It ups the ante on the musical involvement that tape lovers find so intoxicating.

Final Score

Ergonomically, the K2 is a dream. It offers plenty of volume steps, even with the remote, which can be a sticking point on amplifiers in the $2,000 price range. The front panel is easy to navigate and the amp is dead quiet, running cool as a cucumber. All this adds up to maximum enjoyment and flexibility.

After spending an extended period of time with the K2, listening to it with a wide variety of music and gear, I become curious about a complete Roksan system. Perhaps we’ll see a full-system review in the future.

The only area where I find that the K2 comes up short is its Bluetooth capability. The sound quality is excellent, but the connection in my system proves a bit unreliable with both an iPad Air and and iPhone 5. When the Bluetooth works, it is fun as heck, but it’s annoying when the connection is marginal. (Our publisher doesn’t experience issues with the Bluetooth. See Further Listening below.)

Roksan has rightly earned a reputation across the pond as a music-lover’s manufacturer. The K2 BT is a special component. Paired with multiple sets of speakers, sources, and cables, it never disappoints sonically. Aside from the shaky Bluetooth connection I experienced, there is nothing to quibble about. You get the complete package here, including good looks. At just under $2,000, this is an easy recommendation for those who want a full-function integrated amp that works equally well with both analog and digital sources. The Roksan Kandy K2 BT is clearly a benchmark for its price point.

Further Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Andre sums up the essence of the Kandy K2 BT perfectly—though, lacking a turntable, he wasn’t able to comment on the phono section, which I find to be excellent, especially for a $1,900 integrated. As vinyl continues to enthrall new users, and with so many people dipping their toes in the water, a high-performance phonostage is a wonderful addition to an integrated amp, allowing maximum system flexibility.

Most people purchasing an amplifier and speakers at this level will probably be using a turntable in the $100-to-$1,000 range, and they will not be disappointed. The Kandy’s phonostage is easily on par with any outboard phonostage we’ve auditioned costing $300 to $500, so for price matching most of my listening is with the $95 Shure M97 cartridge and the $295 Rega Elys 2—both MM designs. Just to push the envelope, I use the $700 Ortofon 2M Black and have good results. This is definitely an integrated amp that an analog owner can grow with.

Where most budget solid-state phonostages are flat, two-dimensional, and relatively sterile, the Kandy’s phono section performs admirably, giving up more height and depth than is usually associated with a relatively inexpensive onboard unit. Playing the MoFi remaster of Los Lobos’ Kiko, the Roksan renders this rock classic with an extra-large sonic image, especially with the Ortofon 2M Black. Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea proves highly involving, with the subtle environmental textures not fading too far into black.

Interestingly, I had zero issues with the Bluetooth receiver in the Kandy, so those who may be using it in an area with a lot of wireless connectivity in the vicinity should consider a test drive to see if this part of the gear is right for you. I can see where this would be a deal-breaker if it doesn’t work properly in your environment.

I can easily proclaim that the Kandy is an incredible bargain for under $2,000, but it’s even a better deal when you take the phonostage into account. Anyone looking for a great system anchor should give this baby a test drive. We are happy to award the Roksan Kandy K2 BT one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.

Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,900 (manufacturer) (North American distributor)


Speakers Harbeth Compact 7ES-3    Anthony Gallo A’Diva SE satellites    Thiel CS.24 floorstanders
DAC Bryston BDA-1    Denon DA-300USB
Sources Simaudio MiND 180D Streamer    Sony TC-350 reel-to-reel tape deck
Cables Transparent Wave speaker cables    Darwin    Kimber Kable    Stager    DH Labs interconnects

Digital Amplifier Company Cherry Maraschino Monoblocks

The Digital Amplifier Company—founded in 1996 and located in Allentown, Penn.—solely produces hyper-engineered, audiophile-grade Class-D amplifiers. Its products output plenty of power from manageably sized and attractive packages. The company’s Cherry line comprises stereo and monoblock variants, which are available in standard or higher-output Ultra configurations.

The company says it does not use prefabricated modules and that it designs all vital components in-house, with everything built in the Unites States. Every amplifier comes built to user specifications, allowing customers to choose standard or Ultra configurations and the amp’s color. The company sells direct to end users.

The $4,000-per-pair Cherry Maraschino monoblock model is the newest brainchild of company designer Tommy O’Brien. The Maraschinos are mighty mites, with published output power of 250 watts into 4 ohms. The parts employed are very high quality and include Dayton binding posts, Neutrik XLR inputs, and high-tolerance metal oxide resistors.

The amps feature true balanced input and external power supplies with IEC receptacles. These power supplies are upgradeable, with an available power increase of up to 800 watts. The chassis sits on a granite block, with Sorbothane feet for resonance control. The Maraschinos are produced with a brilliant, high-quality red finish (which is fitting considering the amp’s name).

Setting up the Maraschinos is pretty straightforward, with some twists. The accompanying documentation asks that the user plug in the power supplies last, after all other connections are made, and with low-level music playing through the system. There is no power switch, as the amps automatically detect a signal and come out of standby mode; when no signal is present for a period of time, they return to standby. The amplifier sensitivity is on the high side, at 2.2 volts, but that should be no issue with most preamps and sources.

The Maraschinos accept only XLR inputs, but very nice RCA-to-XLR adaptors are supplied. The adaptors are put to good use, as a passive preamp is what we put ahead of the amps, driving a pair of Harbeth Compact 7 ES3s. Sources include a variety of DACs and disc players. Cabling comes courtesy of Transparent, Shunyata, and Stager Sound.

The amplifiers very much make their identity known from the get-go, with their wonderfully open, clear, transparent, and precise sound. There are no mechanical artifacts or spotlighting of any kind. There is a top-to-bottom, even keeled balance that becomes very quickly addicting such that even familiar recordings come alive with a fresh perspective. This may be due to the Maraschinos’ incredibly quiet background. Music seems to appear out of the ether. Recordings that seemed previously homogenized now appear spacious and wide.

The amps render the Punch Brothers’ Antifogmatic with startling dynamics, precise imaging, and stop-on-a-dime timing. Chris Thile’s well-recorded vocals and virtuoso mandolin playing take on very human qualities, and the groups clever arrangement of Radiohead’s “Kid A” through the Marachinos is worth the price of admission alone.

Peter Gabriel’s New Blood, featuring new interpretations of some of his classic songs, is a hair-raising showpiece through the Maraschinos. The recording is amazingly dynamic; the use of a live orchestra in lieu of rock instrumentation allows the amps to showcase their sound-staging chops. One listen to the new version of “San Jacinto” brings you as close to the recording as you could hope for.

The recent 96 kHz remaster of Nick Drake’s three sublime albums are ravishing through the Maraschinos. Having heard these albums in every format and through countless amplifiers, I find it rather impressive that they still sound fresh, with the amps unexpectedly lifting even more detail from the recordings. If you have a collection of high-resolution music, the Maraschinos will serve you well, as they reproduce what the mastering engineers intended.

After cycling through more genres of music, I discover that the Maraschinos greatest strength is coherence. Bass notes are deep and punchy yet speedy and nimble, with high frequencies sounding extended and smooth. Certainly, system matching is going to be important here. If your speakers edge toward the speedy side of things, that may be too much of a good thing with the Maraschinos. These amps will expose lean-sounding speakers and sources. If listening preferences trend toward mellow and rosy, there will be other amps to look at. However, if clarity, brilliance, and agility are your thing, then the Maraschinos will serve you well. A balanced tube preamplifier ahead of the Maraschinos may indeed provide a perfect balance of both worlds. Neutral, open-sounding cables will also pay dividends.

Perhaps the only quirk to nitpick is that one of the amps is slightly less sensitive than the other, so it takes a few extra seconds to come out of standby. This is not a deal breaker; just a minor annoyance. The fact that the amps save watts while still being ready for optimum performance when awakened is worth the trade-off. They also run cool as a cucumber—a very nice contrast to some of the space heaters usually in for review.

The Digital Amplifier Company has wonderful success on its hands with the Cherry Maraschino monoblocks. By the way, the company’s name does not reflect its design mission: It does not make digital amplifiers. These are analog amps all the way. They are amazingly refined with low distortion. Those accustomed to bogus mid-bass warmth may think the Maraschinos are a bit vivid, but in reality they provide a clean window and they have speed to spare.

If your system needs a kick in the pants, the Maraschinos will deliver. They make our reference system come alive. It is like cleaning a dirty windshield to get a better view of the road. At $4,000 per pair, the Maraschinos are not entry-level amps. They deliver all the real-world power you need, and they’re upgradeable, efficient, great looking, and terrific sounding. These amps give listeners a good look at what the very best amps do well, for a fraction of the cost. Pair them with high-quality sources and speakers and they will deliver the sonic goods.

Cherry Maraschino Monoblocks

MSRP: $4,000 per pair

Digital Amplifier Company


Speakers Harbeth Compact 7 ES3
Preamp Channel Islands Audio PLC-1  MKII
CD transport Musical Fidelity M1 CDT
DAC Denon DA-USB300    CLONES Audio Sheva
Music server Squeezebox Touch
Cables Transparent    Shunyata    Stager    DH Labs

Clones Audio 25i Integrated Amplifier

What started as a one-off unit intended as a family birthday gift has blossomed into a full-fledged audio equipment manufacturer. Hong Kong’s Clones Audio now counts monoblocks and a DAC among its product roster, but its 25i amplifier ($865/€629) is what jump-started the boutique manufacturer. The 25i, which is a 25 watts-per-channel integrated amplifier, was inspired by a 47 Labs’ circuit design that later landed in the public domain for the DIY crowd. After all, not everyone would see the $3,000-plus asking price of the 47 Labs’ Gaincard amp without wincing—and some might double over in pain upon seeing its internal part count.

This shoebox amplifier’s genetic connection to the circuit design from 47 Labs’ founder Kimura-San makes the 25i a proper Gainclone. Little wonder then that Clones founder Funjoe went with a brand name that connotes body doubling. His integrated amp mirrors the Gaincard’s short-as-possible signal paths and broader emphasis on circuit simplicity. None of the 30 dB gain comes from the pre-stage; it is only present for input selection, of which there are three. At the business end of the 25i is an in-house-designed board that houses Texas Instruments LM3875 amplifier on a chip.

Funjoe describes his clone as using “no protection print oil to enhance clarity of sound image and musicality.” That’s funny because clarity is also the first descriptor that comes to mind when trying to encapsulate the sound of the 25i. The other word that keeps surfacing is fruity. The 25i offers solid punch, dynamics and tonal color. It’s possibly not quite as zippy as Peter Daniel’s similarly Gaincloned Patek integrated amp, but the 25i fleshes out more acoustic mass to keep the trade-off seesaw perfectly balanced.


First up: the REDGUM RGi60, which is made in Melbourne and is somewhat of a reference at Darko HQ Down Under. The 25i trades in some acoustic mass for upper-midrange zip and caffeination, which lends it that sports-car vibe: a speedy ride with the top down. The REDGUM is warmer, more majestic and better suited to source material like the valium-drenched sound of Lampchop’s Nixon. Conversely, Morrissey’s Your Arsenal really benefits from the Clones’ keener energy with transients that, via the REDGUM, come across as softer and more rounded.

The 25i looks down its nose at the NAD D 3020. The little Gaincloner is an altogether more refined and nuanced listen that those with more luxurious transducers are likely to appreciate. This by no means negates the NAD’s far more impressive feature-driven bang for buck, but the NAD gets found out long before we call time on the Clones.

Playing week in and week out with Wadia’s 151PowerDAC Mini calls for intervention from of one of neatest budget thumb-DACs currently doing the rounds, one that won’t physically crowd out the 25i itself and keeps the DAC-amplifier combination costs within range of Wadia’s all-in-one unit. I lassoed Resonessence Labs’ Herus to the Clones integrated with a ZuAudio breakout cable. The Wadia and Clones/Herus pairing shares similar high-relief edge definition, but the latter steps forward with the larger soundstage. Similarly, the Clones plates up more body, but (crucially) it does so without bringing with it the fuzzier definition that could be attributed to the likes of Rega’s excellent Brio-R.

Loudspeaker Matches

With the French Atohm GT1.0 ($3,440/€2,500), things can get a little too bitey up top when less-than-stellar recordings are running higher SPLs. Thankfully, the Atohm has adjustable tweeter gain on the rear for such occasions. With the top end dialed back, this co-habitation proves to be one I could happily live with long term. I’m not saying the Clones is bright per se; that B word is too blunt an instrument and one that fails to connote this shoebox’s ebullient handling of subtlety. The abundance of micro-dynamic flair might not suit everyone, especially those whose systems are already strong on lower-treble caffeination.

As such, I’d peg the Clones integrated as ideally suited to lusher loudspeakers. Harbeth’s C7ES3 immediately springs to mind. And don’t think for a moment that a $1,000 integrated has no place driving loudspeakers four times its sticker—Funjoe’s shoebox is a genuine over-achiever.

Don’t have Harbeth money? Don’t fret. Wharfedale’s limited-edition Denton loudspeaker is one that channels a vintage vibe in both looks and, to a lesser extent, sound. They definitely lean towards a warmer, thicker-aired presentation and the 25i is just the (dream) ticket; it’s a match that’ll keep your total system cost under $2K. This Gainclone is the hot blade to slice through the Denton’s butter, keeping tight control on the mid-bass so that things don’t get too rich. With the electronic-infused world music of Banco De Gaia’s Maya, bass notes are tight but abundant with texture.

I like this amplifier a lot. It’s no powerhouse and perhaps that’s the reason why I found loudspeaker matching to be more crucial than usual during my three-month audition time. However, find the right dance partner and the Clones 25i brings the goods: acoustic mass, illumination and tonal color, all in one tidy solution. Like the sound of this but need more power? Clones’ 55pm monoblocks might be the answer.

Don’t be fooled by the budget pricing, though. Know that the Clones’ integrated is a bona fide high/er-end wolf dressed in entry-level sheep’s clothing.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Everyone I know who’s had the good fortune to hear this little Clones 25i has really jumped up and down about it, so after the photos were taken I proceeded to really put this little jewel through its paces in the context of a $200K system. Yep, that’s no misprint. Running the dCS Vivaldi stack directly into input one and the output to the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers proves interesting.

While this is clearly insane with a source and speakers of this caliber, it’s pretty obvious exactly what the amplifier in question can and can’t do.  No, it won’t be replacing my $84,000 pair of Pass Xs300 monoblocks anytime soon, but this little amp makes a very impressive showing. It drives the Dynaudios not only with ease but great control. Bass is tight and tuneful, with the high end being smooth and extended.

What you don’t get here is the level of nuance and refinement that the big-dollar stuff offers, but the overall tonality is very neutral. When I swap the dCS and Dynaudio combination for the awesome OPPO 105 disc player and my 90-dB Vandersteen 1Ci speakers, this little amp really blows my mind. The level of clarity for under a thousand bucks is nothing short of amazing, and comparing it to my other favorite benchmark in the class, the Rega Brio-R, I concur with Mr. Darko 100 percent.

Whether you are a budding audiophile or looking for a cool yet compact second system, I highly suggest the Clones 25i. It’s got the right stuff.

Boulder’s 865 Integrated Amplifier

Following Steve Martin’s vocal musings on “Late For School,” it becomes immediately apparent how well this integrated amplifier, Boulder’s entry-level piece, keeps track of pace and timing.

Martin’s voice meanders around the soundstage thrown between my KEF Blades, with banjos, bass and percussion all firmly anchored in place, with a hint of animal sounds for good measure.  Though this is the most affordable piece in the Boulder lineup, “entry level” doesn’t do it any more justice than calling a Cayman an “entry level” Porsche.

The 865 is truly a product only a company like Boulder can build, taking advantage of their design, build and production facilities – one of the very few North American companies that performs every speck of construction in house.  Their completely vertical process allows them the luxury to use much higher quality everything than you might expect in a $13,000 integrated, right down to one of their cool, machined remote controls.  Every detail is attended to perfection as it is in their $200,000 3050 monoblocks.  Should your audio journey take you no further than the 865, this is an amplifier you’ll be proud to hand down to one of your family members.  It lacks nothing in terms of sound or build quality in comparison to the Boulder flagship products.

The XRCD version of Jackie McLean’s Swing, Swang, Swingin’ proves equally illuminating.  Like every other Boulder product I’ve experienced, the 865 follows the family tradition by neither adding nor subtracting to the sound.  While this may bring slightly less to the presentation on poor quality recordings, that can benefit from a bit of warmth, what it does for stellar recordings is well worth the tradeoff.  Just like the 3050 monoblocks that we reviewed last year, the 865 is a wonderful conduit for music, never throwing the focus on itself; it’s always in the service of the music.

Even my worst recordings come to life when the 865 is part of the system.  Records lacking in tonal and dynamic range (like KISS Alive! or Then And Now…The Best of the Monkees) reveal layers of detail that never comes to life on a lesser amplifier, not to mention the tremendous dynamic slam on tap – the same experience I had with the 3050s.

Utilizing the same stepped volume control from the 800 series preamplifier, originally developed for the 2010 preamplifier, the 865 maintains perfect (within .5db) channel balance throughout the range, and all of the buttons and controls retaining the same feel you’ve come to expect in the top of their range. Even though the case work has been streamlined a bit, the feel is still there in spades.

All Boulder

If you’re wondering what you don’t get for the $13k pricetag, and why this amplifier is so compact compared to the larger Boulder models – the answer is simple.  Boulder founder Jeff Nelson likes to talk about watts being relative and that the bigger amplifiers, with their bigger power supplies are more about control than what their wattage ratings suggest.

Where the larger Boulder amplifiers are full class-A designs, the 865 is biased in class A mode for the first 17 watts per channel, then it gently transitions into class AB mode to its full power rating of 150 watts per channel.  But make no mistake, the 865 gives up precious little in ultimate fidelity and control.  Boulder has done a brilliant job of incorporating the maximum amount their essence into this compact, by comparison product.  The 865 is the heart of the 810 preamplifier and 860 power amplifier (which is half of the 1000 series amplifier) squeezed into a single chassis weighing just under 50 pounds.

The drum solo in Little Feat’s Day or Night, is rendered superbly, with plenty of attack, decay and texture.  If there is anything that I could characterize as the Boulder sound (or lack of it) is the way their amplifiers have an effortless transient response, and present a more realistic rendition of drums and percussion than any other amplifier I’ve experienced – and the 865 is no slouch.

As with every Boulder amplifier, the 865 uses a fully balanced topography, so those with single ended ancilliary components will need to use adaptors to interface.  Though Boulder feels that balanced is the ultimate way to experience their components, we did have excellent luck with the single ended components at our disposal, mainly the Zesto and CJ phono preamplifiers in for review.  The 865 does not feature an integrated phonostage, so vinyl lovers will either have to choose one of theirs, and I highly suggest the awesome 1008 phonostage, or go to a third party.

Top notch throughout

While most listening was done via an analog front end consisting of the ARC REF Phono 2SE phonostage (balanced), AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable, SME V tonearm and Clearaudio Goldfinger v.2 cartridge, along with the dCS Vivaldi performing digital duties, the 865 was never the weak link in the chain, holding its own in the context of a six figure reference system.

Switching between the KEF Blades, the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers and the GamuT S9, the 865 did its job-playing music effortlessly.  Moving it to room two with the Dynaudio Confidence C1s and the Sonus faber Guareri Evolution speakers, both extremely high performance, yet small speakers made an incredible case for stopping the audio journey right here and just enjoying the music.  The 865 reveals so much that if you don’t need to blow the windows out of your listening room and you just want to revel in quality – this is your amplifier.

Good as my digital front end is, the difference between great analog and great digital made itself known immediately as I queued up a 45 rpm copy of Peter Gabriel’s self titled album (known to others as the Security album) and played “Lay Your Hands On Me” at maximum volume.  At the beginning of the track, where the synthesizer comes in, sounding like something out of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, it holds steady inside the soundstage about four feet high, locked in as the rest of the track unfolds again – and then the explosive drumming is right there behind Gabriel’s voice.  Simply stunning.

In the end, fantastic

So if you’ve always lusted for Boulder amplification and thought it was out of reach, consider the 865 as either the Boulder for you, or your stepping stone into the Boulder range.  Either way you can’t lose.

The 865 took precious little time to truly warm up or burn in.  Approximately 48 hours after it was first turned on, it settled into its spacious, accurate sound; probably more a result of thermal stabilization than any kind of component “burn in.”  Because it’s not fully class-A throughout, you can leave it on all the time without feeling guilty.

With four balanced XLR inputs and a pair of balanced XLR outputs, the 865 will merge into any system with ease, allowing bi amplification or a powered subwoofer.  And the beefy speaker binding posts are not only user friendly, and accommodating of any audiophile cable you might choose to use with this amplifier.

It’s also worth mentioning that the 865 is one of the few amplifiers we’ve auditioned that didn’t really benefit from any kind of line conditioning, a further testament to it’s robust design.

While 13 thousand dollars is no pittance to spend on an amplifier, Boulder’s 865 represents the pinnacle of what a high quality component should offer, first rate sound and build.  For this reason, we are happy to give it one of our Exceptional Value Awards.  Well done.


Analog Source            Avid Acutus Ref SP/Tri Planar/Lyra Atlas

Phonostage                ARC REF 5SE

Digital Source                        dCS Vivaldi Stack

Speakers                    KEF Blade, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, GamuT S9

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Conrad-Johnson MF2550 SE Amplifier

The generally accepted wisdom is that tube amps display a warm sound while solid-state amps offer more punch and control. But those lines are blurring, with great designs in both camps that defy past assumptions—and this is where Conrad-Johnson comes to mind. Compared to the company’s legendary valve-based gear, its MF2550 power amp takes a different approach—namely the fact that it’s solid state. The amp is available as a standard or special-edition (SE) version, the latter of which is priced at $7,800 and includes CJD Teflon hybrid capacitors and precision foil resistors. We did not have the opportunity to test these two versions side by side, but considering the outstanding performance of the SE version, it’s likely that the standard version is no slouch.

The MF2550 is rather nondescript and traditional in its appearance. The black metal chassis, which measures 16.25 inches deep, 19 inches wide, and 6.125 inches tall, features a faceplate made of thick aluminum with gold anodizing and a brushed-matte finish. Among my other black and silver audio components, the amp’s gold color—a signature of CJ—certainly stands out. The only feature interrupting the smooth faceplate is a power button the size of a quarter on the lower right corner. A gentle yellow LED halo illuminates the button when pressed. The only thing distinguishing the special-edition amp from the standard version is a small plate on the back of the unit that notes the serial number and the SE designation.

Connecting the amp could not be easier, with a set of RCA inputs and the requisite speaker binding posts; it takes only two minutes and a little finger strength to get the amp up and running. I appreciate the amp’s five-way metal binding posts, which effortlessly handle a post wrench. The posts easily accommodate two-banana adapters and offer plenty of space to connect spades and even bare-ended wire.

Pushing the gold-colored button to reveal the sonic prowess within, I first wonder if the amp is on, since it is silent. Even the ribbon tweeters in my Piega P-10 speakers do no hiss at the visiting power source.

Hidden Treasure

Much of the amp’s 52-pound weight comes from the hefty power supply fueling 250 watts into 8 ohms, or 500 watts into 4 ohms. On paper, the MF2550’s power output is a dead-ringer for my Mark Levinson reference amp, so it’s exciting to swap in the CJ. There are indeed many similarities between the two amps, as well as a few key differences.

Three-dimensional presentation is a dramatic strength of this amp. Music appears independent of the speakers and audible in all directions. Left-to-right imaging extends the music well beyond the speaker boundaries, with a very convincing central image. The amp also pinpoints other musical elements across the soundstage. Front-to-back layering leaves the vocalist up front, while allowing ambient background sounds to extend beyond the rear wall of my listening space. There’s no perceived vertical limitation either, as the music extends from floor to ceiling. On Lyle Lovett’s song “Church,” from his Joshua Judges Ruth album, the background vocalists are rendered well behind Lovett, who appears front and center. While my reference amp is quite good in its ability to layer musical elements, the CJ exceeds it.

The MF2550 takes command of my speakers with deep, rich and robust bass. Compared with my reference amp, the MF2550’s bass response is not quite as tight and punchy. Rage Against the Machine remains one of my guilty pleasures. The band’s song “Bombtrack” provides a good reference point for bass. Through the CJ, the bass portrayal is not loose or lacking depth, though there’s just a touch less immediacy and excitement compared to my Levinson.

Throughout my listening experience, there’s a very slightly warm tendency to this solid-state amp, which I wasn’t expecting. To be clear, the CJ does not overly romanticize the sound; it’s just a bit more forgiving than I’m used to. There’s a slight gentleness when listening to recordings that usually prove overly revealing. I’m able to turn the volume up higher for an immersive music experience without any hard-edged notes piercing my eardrums. At first, I wonder if some higher frequencies are rolled off, but after testing several frequency sweep tracks, all the highs are there. The CJ’s design just manages to somehow take most sting and vocal sibilance out.

Some live instruments can have an inherent bite. During live performances, it’s never pleasant to be in the blast zone of a trumpet, saxophone, snare drum, or cymbal crash. Nevertheless, that experience is the reality of the music. Through the CJ’s portrayal of music in my own system, while subtle, there’s just a touch less detail and realism. For instance, the sonic decay of the cymbal on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” subsides more quickly than I’m used to. At the same time, the Civil Wars’ “Dust to Dust” on vinyl proves an utterly opulent experience. Minute sonic details aside, it’s easy to find oneself immersed in the emotion and beauty of the song.

I would not call this amp euphonic, but it leans to the side of forgiving musicality, as opposed to pure realism. Is this a bad thing? No. On a sunny day, many folks prefer to tame the glare with sunglasses, right? Similarly, if your system is a bit bright for your taste, or if you just prefer a portrayal that’s a tad relaxed, the MF2550 may provide the balance you’ve been looking for.

The Golden Ticket?

I thoroughly enjoyed the month I spent with the MF2550 SE in my system, as did several of my friends who regularly come over to listen. The MF2550 SE is something I could enjoy happily for a long time. On vocally driven performances, jazz and orchestral pieces, the CJ leaves little to desire. For those who prefer rock music with all its inherent aggression and vigor, the CJ stands more toward the polite end of the spectrum. In all cases, though, the musicality of the performance shines though.

With plenty of power and a non-fatiguing presence, this amp will likely pair well with many speakers and components. It certainly plays nicely with all my test equipment. Given its $7,800 retail price, the amp represents a long-term investment for many audio fans, but many rewards come with it.

Combining great sound with substantial build quality and a three-year warranty on parts and labor, the MF2550 SE could be something that you find at the end of your quest for sonic treasure. If these benefits sound compelling to you, definitely make a run to your local Conrad-Johnson dealer and hear for yourself what this amp can do.  

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

While so many audio enthusiasts think of Conrad-Johnson as a strictly vacuum-tube company, the brand has made some very impressive solid-state amplifiers over the years. The benchmark that comes to my mind is its Premier 350, which served as my reference amplifier for years. So when Lew Johnson told me about the MF2550 SE, this was the immediate comparison floating around in my head. But Johnson was quick to point out that the MF2550 SE is a “completely different amplifier” that would really surprise me.

And surprise it does. Thanks to a bevy of CJD Teflon capacitors, the ones that have been highly influential in the sound of CJ for the last 10 years or so, the MF2550 SE has a thoroughly modern sound. Bringing back my Premier 350, along with CJ’s ACT2 Series 2 preamplifier, makes it easy to compare and contrast the two amps.

Overall, the MF2550 SE has a very dynamic, extended sound. Those of you who remember the company’s early solid-state amplifiers and who did not experience the Premier 350 will be stunned at just how spectacular this new amplifier sounds, especially considering how well CJ is known for vacuum-tube amplifiers. The overall tonality is highly natural, with barely a hint of warmness. It’s not quite as neutral as, say, the top-of-the-line Simaudio Moon amplifiers that we’ve listened to or the Premier 350, but it’s not as warm as my Burmester 911 MK3 or the Pass XA series amplifiers.

Running the MF2550 SE through its paces with a wide range of speakers, including the Focal Maestro Utopia, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, and even my old Acoustat 2+2s, reveals that this amplifier will drive any speakers comfortably, with power to spare. Whether rocking out with AC/DC, or relaxing with a string quartet, this amplifier presents a wide, deep soundstage and a level of nuance and control usually associated with a much more expensive amplifier.

As with the Premier 350, Conrad-Johnson’s MF2550 SE’s simple, elegant, and understated design delivers breathtaking musical performance in a compact package. And, as someone who has owned quite a few CJ products over the last 35 years, I will say that the Champagne-colored faceplate is just fine by me.

MF2550 SE amplifier

MSRP: $7,800


Digital source JRiver Media Center 19    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    Audio Research CD3 MK2
Analog source SME 10 turntable     Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Power amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Cables Jena Labs interconnects and Twin 15 speaker cable
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

AURALiC Merak Monoblock Amplifiers

China’s AURALiC, a relative newcomer to the hi-fi industry, has stepped into this crowded scene with some quality products, and the company sets a high bar for itself with each new release. Seeing AURALiC’s new MERAK monoblocks (priced at $5,000 per pair) freshly out of their packaging is a bit like seeing a great tuxedo-wearing magician backstage before a much-anticipated performance. It’s easy to admire the polished outward appearance, but as anticipation begin to grow, it becomes clear that something interesting will happen when the curtain rises, leaving one to wonder if the performance will live up to expectations.

Smoke and Mirrors?

In every way, these amps offer substantial build quality and beautiful fit and finish. The sleek, brushed metal exteriors of my test pair sport a matte-silver finish—but the modest exterior does not reveal what’s hidden beneath the handkerchief. These mono monsters offer 400 watts of juice into 4 ohms and half of that into 8 ohms. According to AURALiC, the MERAKS’ capacitors hold enough energy to deliver 16 amps of peak current and 900 watts of power. By comparison, my reference amp—a Mark Levinson 335 stereo amp—pushes 500 watts into 4 ohms. From a power perspective, I never feel that my power-hungry Piega P10 speakers are limited with the Meraks in the chain.

Not a full Class D design, AURALiC refers to the MERAK as a hybrid design using Class-A signal amplification, switching output stage and linear power supply, sounding surprisingly like another very exciting amplifier that graced our cover a couple of years ago. In daily use, these monos never get hot, even when they are powered up for a couple weeks continuously. In addition to the stellar energy efficiency of the MERAKs, their design allows the user to stack them in an audio shelf without worry of overheating. Each amp measures 11 inches wide, 11 inches deep, and 2.75 inches high, so even in a two-tier configuration the amps’ physical footprint remains modest.

By sharp contrast, moving my Mark Levinson 335 stereo amp (which should have come with a coupon for a hernia operation) requires a friend, or a couple post-move aspirin. The MERAKs, which weigh 18.7 pound apiece, are extremely easy to carry by comparison. In fact, I’m able to carry one amp under each arm and still have a spring in my step.

Sleight of Hand

Connecting the amps is as simple as expected. I must give AURALiC kudos for including Cardas CE binding posts with the amps. Clamping a single knob down onto a tough plastic bracket holds my speaker cable’s spade terminations against the posts. And it’s so easy to get a good finger hold on the knob that I don’t need a post wrench (or a kung-fu grip) to get a tight cable connection. I should note that this knob-bracket combo does not accommodate banana cable terminations.

The MERAK s offer only balanced XLR inputs, and so given my single-ended preamp, I choose to enlist the help of some adapters. After contacting AURALiC to see if they have any specific recommendations for or against that approach, I get the thumbs-up for adapters, which do the trick. After testing them with my Levinson to ensue they don’t color or cloud the sound to any significant degree, the adaptors are easy enough to drop in place. Once flicking the rear switch to activate the amp, pressing a small button on the front puts them in and out of standby mode, which a small LED indicates.

Firing up the MERAKs without source material playing, I’m amazed by their silence. If it weren’t for the LED indicator, I’d wonder if they were powered up at all. With the rest of my audio chain shut down, only the ribbon tweeter of my Piegas can reveal any audible hiss—and only when I put my ear against it. I leave the amps on for two weeks straight for both burn-in and stress testing and I never experience anything from my listening position except great music. That’s a disappearing act indeed!

Rabbit from a Hat

Switching designs inherently bring a lot of positive merits. First, their power-to-weight ratio offers very good value for the dollar. They also sip energy (rather than gulping it), which makes them the more environmentally friendly option. These amplifiers have come a long way in the last few years, but I generally find them lacking some of the subtle detail, frequency extension, and sonic emotion I’m accustomed to with class-A or AB designs. But contrary to my assumed impressions, the MERAKs provide some very welcome surprises that challenge my past views in meaningful ways.

During my first listening session, covering about 20 tracks of various music types, several characteristics stand out immediately. The MERAKs do not romanticize the sound, nor do they leave it overly stark and cold. They strike the right balance. They also do a very nice job of creating the ambience and reverberation around the musicians.

Also impressive is the soundstage they throw, which is both wide and tall. There are no perceived boundaries and the sound extends well beyond the speakers. Additionally, they do a very good job of layering instruments in depth. Music reveals itself both in front of and behind the plane of the speakers. Vocals stand out front and the other instruments fall into their proper alignment behind the vocalist. This characteristic is one of the MERAKs strengths and it’s very engaging with all types of music. Few tracks illustrate this better than Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live on vinyl. When delivering the track “Roads,” the MERAKs pull Beth Gibbons’ voice out front such that the illusion of the singer extends into the room and creates an appropriately upfront but unaggressive presentation. There’s no stridency, and vocals retain the engagement they should command. The MERAKs also place the sound of the crowd clapping along well into the background.

Enya’s album Watermark does present two noticeable downsides that my Levinson does not. First, with all the juice that the MERAKs bring, they most definitely take control of the speakers and maintain a tight command, which results in the bass losing a bit of low-frequency punch and definition and the highs losing a bit of sparkle. Secondly (and more subjectively), there’s a reduction in the underlying emotion of the song.

It’s hard to put a finger on this at first, but after listening to several tracks on various albums—both digital and vinyl—I notice a consistent signature to the MERAKs. There’s a slight veil, which results in the reduction of the nuanced detail and delicacy that gives increased realism to good recordings. Of course, this quibble is in comparison to an amplifier priced around $8,000, yet the Meraks run for only $5,000 a pair. At that price difference, I’d expect the Levinson’s performance to exceed the MERAKs’ by a significant margin.


Delivering the disco-y tunes Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, proves to be a joy, with a very nice integration of instrumentation, and the perceived pacing of the music brings a captivating energy to the recording. A remastered Royal Edition recording of Mozart’s symphony No. 36 performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic also illustrates the MERAKs’ prowess with wide dynamic swings.

Pink Martini’s “Omide Zendegani,” and other tracks from Get Happy, similarly reveals an ability to pristinely render more intimate songs with a small combination of vocals and instruments. But, where necessary, the amps are also able to decipher a complex array of instruments across the soundstage.

Take a Bow

As with a great magician, it’s hard not to be impressed with MERAKs’ capabilities and finesse. Of the class-D designs I have experienced so far, these top my list sonically – I’m sure the hybrid design contributes to this sense of ease in a big way. Compared to my favorite class-A and class-AB amps, the MERAKs have only a few tradeoffs, as noted above. At the same time, there is a lot to love—and kudos again to AURALiC for taking switching amplifier design further toward an elusive sonic pinnacle than my past experiences. Even when mated with very revealing and power-hungry speakers, the MERAKs never take the sound into the realm of stridency, and considering their other merits, it’s easy to settle in for a long listening session of great music.

While $5,000 is a significant financial commitment for most people, what you get with these amps represents great value in terms of watt-per-dollar ratio. There are many good amps in this price range, so the MERAKs face some stiff competition—but with oodles of power and very good sonics, these amps are certainly worth your consideration.

Additional Listening

The folks at AURALiC are on a roll.  We’ve had the pleasure of listening to almost their full line now, and they all share an equal level of sonic excellence, build quality and elegant visual understatement.  Best of all, the gear is reasonably priced, over delivering for the prices asked.  This just might be the next big brand in world of hifi, no small achievement.

I concur with Rob on all of his observations, and feel that the MERAKs strike a fantastic balance of timbral and tonal accuracy, major dynamic slam and a complete lack of fatigue.  Putting them through their paces with the KEF Blades, the Focal Maestro Utopias and the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers proved the $5,000 pair of AURALiC amplifiers were not out of place in a six figure system.

However, like every other switching amplifier I’ve had in the listening room, the MERAKs benefit from careful attention to what’s coming from the AC line.  While they offer great sonics just plugged into the wall, a top notch power line conditioner will take them to an even further level of clarity.  And, should you need a bit of warmth in the mix, you can always pair these amplifiers with your favorite vacuum tube preamplifier.

In short, the AURALiC MERAK amplifiers offer tremendous sound for a very reasonable price.  We look forward to see what they will come up with next.  Maybe a 250 watt per channel stereo amplifier in one box?  Hmmm.

MERAK monoblock amplifiers

MSRP: $5,000 per pair


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    HP 2.5 GHz Quad Core running Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19.0.32
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner    Cardas Golden and Golden Reference/Mongoose power cords
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Coffman Labs equipment footers

Rogue Audio Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

Rogue Audio, out of Brodheadsville, Pa., has been building rugged tube components since the 1990s, and as a result, the company enjoys a fiercely loyal customer base. Under the direction of owner and lead designer Mark O’Brien, Rogue makes great-sounding, reliable, and fairly priced gear. Half a dozen Rogue products have come through this listening room, and none have failed to impress on a sonic level, and they all offer unusually good value.

Sparing its customer base constant product churn (as well as questionable features and hyperbolic marketing), Rogue offers what it calls “Magnum Upgrades” for a variety of products, which allow owners to make incremental investments in better sound. From the entry-level Titan series to the flagship Apollo monoblock amplifiers, Rogue offers a wide spectrum of components.

Recently, the company introduced a series of amplifiers with rather unique topology. The Hydra and Medusa power amplifiers feature a tubed input stage, with a hyper-engineered class-D output stage, which is built specifically for this tube input. Rogue calls the trademarked circuit tubeD. Having spent quite a bit of time with the 100-watt-per-channel Hydra, I am convinced that the Rogue engineers are onto something.

The company has decided to parlay these designs into a pair of integrated amplifiers, the 175-watt Pharoah, and its little sibling, the 100-watt Sphinx, which is priced at $1,295. The supplied Sphinx review unit is black; silver is also available. The amp has a bit of a retro-chic aesthetic—a distinct classic American hi-fi vibe is apparent—with beautifully machined front-panel knobs and a matte finish.

It must be noted that the current market for entry-level integrated amplifiers is crowded. Many of these products are made overseas, with off-the-shelf parts and microprocessor-controlled functions. High-powered products made in the USA, however, are quite rare in this market. Rogue, which builds its gear stateside and uses as many American-sourced parts as possible, manages to deliver products priced less than what some audiophiles pay for power cords. So how does it stack up?

Nuts & Bolts

The Sphinx is equipped with three line inputs, a phono input and a headphone jack. The phono section is a MM/MC type for high-output cartridges. Surprisingly, there is a balance control, which is not often seen in this price range. Rogue employs a matched pair of 12AU7 tubes for the input stage. The amplifier runs cool and quiet, and all connectors appear to be high quality. The circuit features a slow start-up when the power button is engaged, to allow the input tubes time to stabilize. Rogue also offers a solidly built metal remote control, which is an option and lets you to change the volume but not select input.


After breaking in the Sphinx for a week, I am treated to vivid, spacious and engaging sound, regardless of source or genre. The amp has absolutely no problem driving either a pair of KEF LS50s or Genesis G7c monitors to room-overloading levels. The Sphinx keeps its composure, even at high volume, with no graininess creeping in—which is remarkable for an amp at this price point, where speakers as revealing as these typically expose an amp’s shortcomings.

If the Sphinx has a sonic signature, it is not easy to detect. After a few weeks of post-break-in listening, I pick up a slightly forward character—not forward as in tipped up, but in the sense that it brings the listener a few rows closer to the action. The Sphinx provides a lovely sparkle to the midrange, which makes voices and strings float beautifully in space. Performances are imparted with a vivid, lifelike and highly enjoyable quality.

An album I stream repeatedly during the review period is Diego Garcia’s Laura, which showcases the Sphinx’s ability to grab the listener’s attention and direct it through a clean window into the music. Garcia’s lush, romantic ballads, embellished with flamenco guitar flourishes and other exotic touches, sound simply ravishing.

The 2013 remix and remaster of Jethro Tull’s classic album Benefit is a revelation through the Sphinx. Ian Anderson’s voice and flute are startlingly present, especially on the 96-kHz files; the same goes for the excellent SACD remaster of the Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord. The Sphinx reveals the superb quality of the DSD transfer overseen by Justin Hayward, and even the previously lesser-known material, like the long last track, “King and Queen,” sounds terrific.  The Sphinx is capable of subtlety yet can still provide plenty of power when called upon to do so.

As there is currently no turntable set up in my system, I lend the review sample to a trusted audiophile friend who’s a vinyl enthusiast. He reports back very positive results regarding the onboard phonostage, noting that it easily competes with other, highly regarded outboard units, and that it is at the top tier in this price range.

I give the headphone jack a whirl with a pair of Grado SR60s, and discover it to be more than just a convenient add-on. The performance is easily on par with several stand-alone headphone amps I have on hand.

I do manage a quick comparison with my reference integrated amp, the 200-watt McIntosh MA6600 solid-state beast, which is laid back compared to the Sphinx’s more exciting presentation. Transparency and midrange resolution are very, very close, with a slight nod to the far more expensive amp—too close for comfort considering that the McIntosh costs five times as much. This is certainly a case of a welterweight going toe-to-toe with a heavyweight and not finishing on the canvas.

Perhaps the one complaint I can log is that controlling the volume via the remote is inexact. The volume steps are too large to find the precise setting my ears desire, but this only applies when using the remote. The volume knob on the unit provides all the volume sweep necessary. I will note that the balance control is a nice plus, providing very good tracking, and that the unit works without flaw during the review period. It is also good to know that Rogue offers a 3-year warranty.

At a hair under $1,300, the Rogue Sphinx sets new benchmarks at this price point. Its sonics, build and feature set are impressive. And while Rogue essentially takes a somewhat classic approach with the Sphinx—aside from the unique class-D and tube design—the end result trumps circuit topology. Pair the Rogue Sphinx with price-appropriate speakers, a source and cables, and for about $5,000 you have a system that will provide more enjoyment than it should for that much scratch. Hats off to Rogue Audio.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Seeing a phono input on a preamplifier, let alone an integrated amplifier, is catnip to me. As an audio old-timer, I remember fondly when everything had a phono input and everyone had a turntable. It’s great to see Rogue including a phonostage on a product that is this reasonably priced.

I certainly concur with Andre on the overall sonics of this unit, so no need to embellish there.  But in the day of $1,000 dollar phonostages being commonplace (seriously, in the day of $10,000 phonostages being commonplace!!), a great integrated amplifier thrown in with this phonostage is a steal.

Your favorite MM cartridge will make this thing sing. We pair the Sphinx with the MartinLogan Aerius i speakers in room two and a Rega RP6 table, featuring an Exact 2 cartridge, as well as a ProJect Carbon/Ortofon Red combination. Both turn in excellent performances, with a good tonal range, top to bottom, excellent transient response and, best of all, a low noise floor. The Sphinx is in no way outclassed by the nearly $2,000 Rega combination.

There hasn’t been a more versatile entry-level amp to come my way in some time, so I’m happy to award the Rogue one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013. Well played, Rogue.

Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,295


Amplifier McIntosh MA6600
Digital Oppo 105
Speakers KEF LS50    Genesis G7c
Cables Darwin    Transparent    DH Labs
Accessories Sound Anchor stands    Audience aR2p power conditioner

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifier

Seriously, the only thing I don’t like about PrimaLuna gear is lifting it. Recent hours at the gym notwithstanding, PrimaLuna amps keep getting heavier. Continuously improving the breed, the Dutch company keeps improving the quality of it parts, which results in bigger capacitors and beefier transformers. The DiaLogue Premium power amplifier now tips the scale just over 70 pounds. Yikes! But listening to Miles Davis’ classic album Bitches Brew float between the Focal Maestro Utopias (also reviewed in this issue), I’m not worrying about moving these amplifiers anymore. The relaxed yet resolving presentation the DiaLogue Premium amplifiers provide is sufficiently soothing to take my mind off of the manual labor.

For those of you who are unaware, my journey as an audio writer began with PrimaLuna. My review of the ProLogue One integrated amplifier was featured in The Absolute Sound just over 10 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun. I bought that little integrated that could, and a decade later (on only its second set of power tubes), it still can. It’s been passed on to my niece, and she’s still rocking out with it after all these years—a testament to the build quality and longevity of PrimaLuna products. Best of all, the company is building the stuff even better than when I bought that review sample, so your chances of a field failure are slim to none—a great feeling when you’re shelling out close to $10,000 for a preamplifier and a pair of monoblocks. The DiaLogue Premium amplifiers are $3,199 each, and the preamplifier will also set you back $3,199.

They’re not quite the budget components that they were in 2003, but in comparison to your favorites from ARC, CJ, McIntosh and VAC, they’re still an incredible bargain for the price asked. Those nervous about PrimaLuna being a new company back in 2003 can breathe a sigh of relief. There is now no question that the company has been making all the right moves in terms of building an empire.

The DiaLogue Premium amplifiers are especially cool, because you can start with just one and run it in stereo. Should you want or need more power, add a second amplifier, flip the stereo/mono switch on the back panel and you’re rocking. A single amplifier produces 42 watts per channel in ultralinear mode and 25 per channel in triode mode. Switching to monoblocks doubles that, making this amp a nice option for budgeting future system upgrades.

The Magic of the EL34

The enchanting midrange of that first PrimaLuna amplifier always gave me pause, thanks to the EL34 output tubes, but 30 watts per channel isn’t always enough to take care of business. Fortunately, the DiaLogure Premiums give you a choice of 82 watts per channel in ultralinear mode or 50 watts per channel in triode mode, configured as monoblocks.  And there’s just something so scrumptious about using these amplifiers thusly. I suspect you may just seek out slightly more sensitive speakers so that you can always do so.

While 50 watts per channel is enough to adequately drive my 90-dB KEF Blades, the additional 3 dB of sensitivity provided by the Focal Maestro Utopias is just enough to really give the DiaLogue Premiums in mono mode that extra push over the cliff and make them that much more compelling. In the context of a system consisting of a dCS Vivaldi stack, Audio Research REF SE linestage and phonostage, along with a pair of AVID Acutus Reference SP turntables, the DiaLogues are in some pretty exclusive company. And they fit right in.

The delicate acoustic guitar at the beginning of the Verve Pipe’s “Colorful” is projected well beyond the speaker boundaries, but when the driving bass line kicks in, these amplifiers take impressive hold of the Maestros’ woofers. All this from a pair of EL34-powered monoblocks is indeed impressive.

A quick switch back to ultralinear mode delivers tighter bass, but at the expense of less midrange delicacy; the ultimate choice will be yours, but I know what I love and it’s all about the midrange with these amplifiers. Whatever your reason for going ultralinear, should you decide that is your path, go all the way and replace the EL34s with a set of KT120s. Even though the power rating is no higher, a simple flip of the switch on the right side of the amplifier resets the Adaptive Auto Bias to the correct range for this tube, eliminating potential midrange distortion. The KT120 tube has a more authoritative feel, with a deeper, tighter bass response. Overall, the amplifier has more drive and slam, feeling more like an Audio Research REF amp. Running the EL34s in triode mode makes the DiaLogue sound more like an AirTight amplifier.

Listeners who find tube amplifiers too relaxed in their presentation may think these amplifiers in triode mode are even slightly more relaxed. But this sonic characteristic works wonders when listening to recordings that are less than perfect—like my favorite records from the Monkees. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is pretty much rubbish, but the extra sweetness that the DiaLogue Premium brings to the dance really improves recordings like this (especially in digital form), making a much larger percentage of your music collection not only listenable but enjoyable. There’s no such thing as listener fatigue with these amplifiers.

Changes Under the Hood

PrimaLuna has always paid meticulous attention to detail when building its amplifiers, which are reminiscent in quality of the great Marantz and McIntosh tube amplifiers from the 1960s. The point-to-point wiring used throughout is so neatly done that you’d swear robots did it, but this is not the case. The solder joints are all perfection and there is not a hint of untidiness anywhere. These amplifiers are as beautiful underneath their hand-finished chassis as they are above.

In addition to bigger, beefier, more robust power and output transformers, the “premium” designation comes from careful refinement of the circuit, which was executed with top-quality parts—parts you’d expect to see in amplifiers with five-figure price tags. All of the critical wiring is done with Swiss-made silver-clad oxygen-free-copper wire, the input and output connectors are first rate, and there is a plethora of premium capacitors and resistors. No corners have been cut anywhere.

And what fun would a vacuum-tube amplifier be without at least considering a bit of tube rolling? This is a bit tougher with power tubes these days, as vintage EL34s can be difficult to find, and expensive when you do find them. It’s not uncommon to spend $400 to almost $1,000 on an awesome set of NOS output tubes. Rolling in a set of Siemens and GE 6CA7s (a suitable substitution) proves sweet, eliminating grain from the presentation of the upper registers in a way that today’s modern tubes just can’t.

Fortunately, the DiaLogue Premium runs the output tubes very conservatively, and thanks to PrimaLuna’s patented Adaptive Auto Bias, adjusting tube bias is a thing of the past. The benefits are multiple: Tube life is extended, distortion is reduced, and the need for a matched quartet of output tubes is eliminated. It’s as painless as it gets for a vacuum-tube amplifier. There is even a Bad Tube Indicator, a red LED that lights up, should an output tube fail.

However, if you aren’t feeling that adventuresome but still want to get in on the action, consider swapping the small signal input tubes. Past PrimaLuna designs used at least one pair of 12AX7 tubes, which are now becoming scarcer, and consequently more expensive. A single pair of primo vintage 12AX7s can set you back $300 to $400, but this amplifier uses six 12AU7s. And these tubes are reasonable, with cool vintage examples available for $30 to $50. But remember, standard new-edition 12AU7s are only about $20 each. Either I’m getting lazy in my old age, or Kevin Deal is supplying these amplifiers with even better tubes than he was 10 years ago. In any event, I just don’t feel the need to screw around with the tubes here.

True to the PrimaLuna party line, the Adaptive Auto Bias will let you run different tube types in the various output tube sockets, but having lived with PrimaLuna amplifiers for a long time, I know that they just don’t eat tubes, so you’ll probably never need to take advantage of this feature. Sure, it does work, but if you have a tube amplifier of any kind, it’s not a bad idea to have at least a pair of output tubes of the same type on the shelf, just in case something bad does happen.

Once hefted into place and tubes installed, the DiaLogue Premium amplifiers immediately settle into reproducing music. The harp in Lloyd Cole’s “Music in a Foreign Language” floats easily behind the plane of the speakers, sounding almost like it’s in another room, well separated from Cole’s voice and acoustic guitar. Even in the 15 minutes it takes for these amplifiers to warm up, the magic is there. Unlike a few megabuck tube amplifiers we’ve used that take hundreds of hours to sound their best, we only noticed a modest change in sound character after about 50 hours. And had we not had a pair of these, so that one could run for 50 hours while the other one just sat there, we’d never know—the difference is pretty minimal. Bottom line, unbox these beauties and enjoy them.

Grab a Pair

If there’s been a better success story than PrimaLuna in the high-end audio market over the last decade, I haven’t heard it. The Dutch company continues to make top-notch products, while refining its brand and expanding its current offerings.

If you’ve ever felt intimidated by using a vacuum-tube power amplifier, PrimaLuna takes all the hassle and guesswork out of the process. The more adventurous hobbyists can tube roll to their hearts content, and the rest of you can just use the supplied tubes and dig the music.

We are happy to award the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium amplifier our Product of the Year award in the tube-amplifier category. A most excellent amplifier—and I suggest you get two while you are at it.

DiaLogue Premium amplifier

MSRP: $3,199 each (factory) (U.S. distributor)


Speakers KEF LS-50    KEF Blades    Focal Maestro Utopia
Analog source AVID Volvere SP turntable    SME 309 tonearm    Lyra Kleos cartridge
Digital source OPPO 105    dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifier PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium    Robert Koda K-10    Audio Research REF 5SE
Phonostage Simaudio MOON 610LP
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Cardas Clear    Running Springs Dmitri

Nagra 300p Amplifier

A visit to Nagra is a very special thing indeed. The factory is cleaner than a hospital, with highly organized workstations populated by happy and highly skilled workers calmly assembling some of the world’s finest audio gear. There’s almost a reverence about the place, and with the Montreux Jazz Festival nearby, there’s always plenty of access to fantastic live performances as an absolute reference.

On my last visit a few years ago, Nagra had something special in progress. The company’s engineers were just finishing the final prototype of a new vacuum-tube power amplifier—a push-pull design featuring a pair of 300B output tubes and producing 20 watts per channel.

“With the wideband output transformers designed for the 300p, [the amp] has incredible control for a 300B design,” explains Nagra’s Matthieu Latour. “And it will surprise you with the wide range of speakers it will drive.”

Surprise Indeed

Magic is more like it. Toward the end of the title track of Pat Metheny’s Offramp, as Naná Vasconcelos’ gentle, twinkly percussion bits intertwine with Dan Gottlieb’s delicate brush work, it’s clear that this amplifier is able to capture the essence of what fans of the 300B SET sound clamor for, while exhibiting plenty of substance and control. From the top to the bottom of the frequency spectrum, especially the lower end, it’s instantly obvious that this amplifier has none of the shortcomings that plague even the best SET designs.

Steve Rodby’s signature acoustic bass has major weight and texture through this amp; you can almost feel his hand run up the fretless neck as the notes glide out into the soundstage. This is even more spectacular when you consider that the 300p is not driving a high-efficiency set of horn or single-driver speakers, but my reference KEF Blades. Though fairly efficient, with a 90-dB-per-watt sensitivity rating, the Blades require an amplifier with current reserve and low-end grip—something the 300p provides with ease.

Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma,” with its deep, slippery beats, underlines how well the 300p can take control of the Blade duos eight total woofers, moving some serious air without the presentation becoming weak or smeared. An equally enjoyable performance is rendered with selected tracks from Deadmau5, Skrillex and Tosca. This compact amplifier delivers potent bass response.

Beyond Bass

Ellen Reid, the female vocalist behind the Crash Test Dummies, produced a solo album in 2001 called Cinderellen. Reid stretches out a bit further as a lead vocalist here and most of the tracks are grittier than typical CTD fare. On “Defense of the Wicked Queen,” the 300p achieves a perfect balance between her complex voice and the accompanying piano. The 300p is a master of pace and timing, allowing the Blades to disappear effortlessly into room.

Much of this is the result of the attention to detail that Nagra paid when producing the amp’s output transformers, which are wound in house at Nagra. The rest comes from the prodigious power supply that is the foundation for the 300p, which has a nearly 11-by-11-inch footprint and weighs 31 pounds. Fortunately, Nagra ships it with the output transformer modules packed separately to avoid damaging the amplifier during shipping. As is the case with every other Nagra product we’ve had the pleasure to own or review, no detail, no matter how small, goes unnoticed.

At $16,900, the Nagra 300p is not inexpensive. Those thinking in terms of watts per dollar are missing the gestalt of this masterpiece. In the context of products from, say, Shindo or Audio Note, the Nagra is an absolute bargain—and is produced by a company with 60 years of experience and a comprehensive support staff, ensuring your Nagra products will always be in top shape.

As Ella Fitzgerald coos “April in Paris,” the luscious midrange depth of the 300p rivets your attention to the musical performance, and when Louis Armstrong joins her on the latter half of the track, awash in texture and tonal richness, it’s so easy to forget about the gear completely and just dig this classic tune. And that is the essence of the 300p: It always gets out of the way and celebrates the music.

Nuts and Bolts

As mentioned earlier, the 10.9-by-10.8-inch chassis has the same form factor as many of the other Nagra components, such as the PL-L preamplifier, PL-P phonostage and the new Jazz preamplifier, which we are now reviewing. It’s a basic, classic look that never goes out of style and pays homage to the famous Nagra field recorders of years past. I’ll stick my neck out and postulate that you will either gravitate to the Nagra design ethos or you won’t. If you fall into the latter camp, preferring massive boxes with enormous rack handles, the 300p is not for you.

Those of you who do appreciate the compact elegance and performance that is Nagra will revel in the sound of this petite music machine, and I suspect that you’ll do so for some time. This is not an amplifier to purchase casually, only to sell on Audiogon three months later. Like a fine watch or a Leica camera, the Nagra 300p is a treasure—something to be handed down to the next generation. Viewed in the light of permanence, the purchase price becomes somewhat irrelevant.

The front panel of the 300p features a slightly modified version of Nagra’s famous modulometer, which displays power output, allows biasing of the output tubes and assists with setting the load factor to optimize the amplifier for the speaker load being driven.  All of this is quite handy and helps the owner get the most performance from the amplifier. The rear panel is equally Spartan, with user-selectable RCA or XLR inputs and output taps, suitable for driving 4-, 8-, or 16-ohm speakers.

Particularly interesting is the hybrid design of the 300p, with its solid-state input stage and power supply that work harmoniously, offering a wide bandwidth and incredibly low noise. Past pure-tube 300B designs we’ve auditioned have been on the noisy side compared to a push-pull EL34 amplifier, but the 300p is nearly dead silent when I press my ear up against the tweeter of the Blades—highly impressive.

Stepping up to the Focal Maestro Utopia speakers that have just arrived for review, with their 93-dB sensitivity rating, makes the 300p seem almost supercharged, with twice as much headroom on tap. But the amp really comes into its own with the 100-dB ZU Audio Soul Superfly speakers, which are able to coax near-stadium-level volume and dynamics out of the 300p’s 20 watts per channel. The ZU’s 16-ohm impedance provides a benign load, transferring power easily from amplifier to speaker.

Surprisingly, the 300p can still drive the 85-dB Harbeth Compact 7s to a very reasonable level without breakup in a small to medium sized room. The Nagra now seems worlds apart from my 9-watt-per-channel Wavac amplifier.

Quality First

In the end, it’s about tonal purity and richness. Just like the small dog with a big heart that acts like it’s a Labrador, the Nagra 300p feels like a big amplifier until it is pushed to its absolute limit, which will ultimately be determined by your room and speakers.

I’m able to fool more than one guest into thinking that my 300-watt-per-channel Pass Xs 300 monoblocks are playing, when in fact the Nagra amplifier is what’s behind the music. The inner detail that this amplifier is able to reveal continues to impress, even after a couple of months of listening. Acoustic guitars have much more heft and resonance, with quicker attack and longer, more gradated decay.

Tube rollers will find intrigue with the 300p; however, the hand-matched JJs that are supplied provide an excellent balance of tonal purity, dynamics and extension at the frequency extremes. Should you have a few extra thousand dollars lying around and feel inclined, a recent vintage set of Western Electric 300Bs or EAT 300Bs, though expensive and tough to find, will take the 300p even further, providing even more inner detail.

Those wanting to simplify even further can purchase this amplifier as an integrated—called the 300i—for $21,250, eliminating the need for a linestage. Both units come supplied with Nagra’s VFS (Vibration Free System) platform to minimize interaction with the room environment. As with all other Nagra components we’ve used, the VFS is highly worthwhile, offering slightly quieter backgrounds and a more open soundstage, allowing you to peek even further into the musical picture. Perhaps it’s the large filament structure on the 300B tubes, but the VFS seems to make a greater improvement on Nagra preamplifiers than it does on others, so make sure and use it with your 300i/300p.

Regardless of which power tubes you settle on, if you have a pair of speakers with the necessary sensitivity for the Nagra 300p to offer enough dynamic range, this can certainly be your destination amplifier—and become the heirloom that the Nagra engineers intended.

Nagra 300p amplifier

MSRP: $16,900 ($21,250 for the 300i integrated version)


Analog Source AVID Acutus REF SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital source dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifiers Nagra Jazz    Audio Research REF 5SP    Robert Koda K-10
Speakers KEF Blade    Focal Maestro Utopia    Zu Soul Superfly
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Devialet 110 Amplifier

Two years ago, Devialet defined the high-style/high-performance audio category with its D-Premier amplifier, which provides high power and functionality in a single sleek and sexy package—proving that a component worthy of display in the Louvre can also deliver music to appease the most sophisticated of audiophiles. We had one of the world’s first review units of the D-Premier, which we reviewed back in issue 35, and we came away highly impressed, as did every other reviewer that had the privilege of living with this French masterpiece. The initial demo at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show was a knockout, and the D-Premier is one of those rare components that is so visually stunning that it grabs your attention from across the room.

And it does not disappoint when unpackaged. The D-Premier proved it could drive any load with ease, never losing its composure. With 350 watts per channel on tap and with the ability to be bridged for mono configuration and used with multiple units for even more power, it is endlessly scalable.

While we saw the $16,000 purchase price as an incredible bargain, considering that the D-Premier includes a full-function preamplifier, DAC, streamer and MM/MC phonostage in one compact chassis, this is still out of the reach of some audiophiles with more modest needs.

Enter Devialet’s 240, 170 and 110 models, each with less power and capability, for those wanting high-quality sound in Devialet’s distinctive form factor. John Bevier, director of sales for Audio Plus Services (the North American importer of Devialet), notes that all four Devialet models utilize the same amplification circuitry and that they sound identical, with the difference between the models one of more power, so even the entry-level 110 does not sacrifice anything in terms of quality.

Focusing here on the 110, which is priced at a comparatively reasonable $6,500, I feel that it is an excellent place to begin your journey with Devialet, and a great destination for all but the most power-hungry music lover. For an additional $1,200, you can add the Devialet Air streaming board, adding full wi-fi access to and control of the 110 via your iPhone or Android phone.

Again, keep in mind that you are getting a full-function preamplifier, with tone controls (more about that later), a 110-watt-per-channel power amplifier, a 24-bit/192-kHz DAC, and a MM phonostage built in—not to mention all the cables you don’t have to buy or the rack space you’ll save. The 110 is easily mounted on wall with an accessory wall bracket that works somewhat like the ones used to mount a flat-screen TV.

Spinning LPs

The Devialet configurator, found on the company’s website, allows you to optimize the 110 to your needs. One of the two analog inputs can be configured as a phonostage and, while the flagship D-Premier is prepared for moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges, the 110 is limited to MM duty, which should be more than adequate for most users, especially in light of how many great MM cartridges are available these days.

A cursory run-through of MM carts on hand reveals excellent compatibility with the Ortofon 2M Black and Bronze, as well as the NOS Ortofon VMS Mk. II cartridges. The higher-output Grado Master 1 cartridge also proves highly compatible, with an excellent balance of dynamics and high-frequency extension. The only MM cartridge in my stable that is not immediately compatible is the Rega Exact II, mounted to the Rega RP6 turntable. Because maximum phono level can be adjusted down to 1 mV, the Devialet 110 works particularly well with Grado’s .5 mV output moving-iron cartridges, as they have a 47k impedance.

Settling in with the Ortofon 2M Black, mounted on the VPI Classic 1 turntable, is a ton of fun. Spinning XTC’s classic song “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” proves enlightening, with a wonderfully lush three-dimensional soundstage. Even though the Devialet works in the digital domain, upsampling everything to 24/192 first and then applying the RIAA equalization in the digital domain, there is no sacrifice in the analog magic—perhaps this is the future after all?

Cycling through a wide range of musical fare proves as enticing as it is on my all analog systems, and great results are achieved with a MC step-up transformer, with the phono gain set to maximum, this time utilizing a .5 mV Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge and the SME 10 turntable. Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks (courtesy of the latest remaster from Mobile Fidelity) is glorious. The acoustic guitar on the intro of “Simple Twist of Fate” has plenty of air and texture, with Dylan’s voice gently wafting into the mix—underlining the fact that you can use a turntable costing more than the Devialet 110 and be very, very satisfied with the results.

Controlling Tone

Fortunately, the tone controls in the Devialet 110 are also configurable, and act more like a two-band parametric EQ than just standard bass and treble controls, which is perfect for slightly bumping up a rolled-off phono cartridge or taming a slightly bright or boomy speaker. The bass control can be set from 20 Hz to 500 Hz, and the treble control can be set from 1 kHz to 20 kHz, which works well at taming the slight mid-bass bump that the KEF LS-50s have in my 10-foot-by-13-foot home listening room (aka room three). Room treatments would just not fix this issue, but a slight decrease in the 90 Hz level cleans things up nicely, letting the system play much cleaner than it could before.

The combination of modest room treatments and a slight tonal correction makes the Devialet 110 incredibly adaptable to a wide variety of environments. These are the most effective tone controls I’ve ever used this side of a Cello Audio Palette, and they add tremendous value to the Devialet 110. Once you become accustomed to using these controls, you will be forever spoiled.

Master of the Digital Domain

In addition to offering a USB and two optical inputs, the Devialet 110 features a pair of line-level inputs that can be configured as analog inputs, a phono input or a pair of S/PDIF inputs, along with the two straight digital inputs, making the Devialet 110 incredibly flexible. Digital files can also be streamed via Ethernet or wirelessly, if the streaming board is installed, as it is in our review sample.

Every option works flawlessly. Streaming files from the Meridian Digital Music Server (formerly Sooloos), via MS200 network bridge and optical connection, passes 16-bit/44.1-kHz files and 24/96 files with notable ability. The Aurender S10 serves up 24/192 files, which sound fantastic through this amp.

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s duet “Where is the Love?” clearly illustrates the Devialet’s ability to resolve fine detail, while not crossing the line into overly analytic or fatiguing digital, keeping these two delicate voices in distinct spaces throughout the recording. Discs played through the MSB digital transport reveal an even greater sense of ease, suggesting to this writer that there’s still some life in those shiny discs after all.

Ample Amplification

The 110 watts per channel, rated into 6 ohms, prove up to the task of driving all of the speakers here, and the Devialet even does an acceptable job with the Magnepan 1.7s, though they do give a more grandiose performance with the more powerful D-Premier. All the other speakers, with sensitivity ratings ranging from 85 dB per watt to 92 dB per watt, sound marvelous.

KEF’s small but amazing LS-50 speakers are an incredibly synergistic match for the Devialet 110 in listening room three. This combination, in concert with some modest room treatments from GIK, delivers a huge soundstage that on some music lacking the lowest of bass notes or massive dynamic swings goes a long way toward fooling me that someone snuck the Blades into this small listening room!

A perfect example of this is Seu Jorge’s version of David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” from the Life Aquatic soundtrack. This gentle vocal rendition, along with acoustic guitar and a bit of surf rolled in the back of the mix, sounds open and spacious, feeling so much bigger than the system suggests.

Thanks to the Devialet’s ADH amplifier topology, which uses a Class A stage to set the amplifier’s voice in tandem with a Class D stage to do the heavy-duty amplification, results in an extremely neutral character with no embellishment. The 110 always feels natural and dynamic, no matter what the program source, and on the rare occasion that I am able to drive it to clipping, the effect is gentle.

Best of all, you can set the maximum power level of the Devialet 110, so that when you’re away, your kids can’t destroy your tweeters, even if they choose to have a house party. A quick trip back to the configurator and it’s handled.

A Brilliant Success

The Devialet 110 succeeds on every level. Aesthetically stunning yet understated, it will easily integrate into any décor scheme, though its beautiful black finish begs to be displayed. The equally attractive remote can be used anywhere in the immediate listening area and is a joy to use, yet the app for Android and iPhone/iPad operating systems makes it easy to control anywhere—perfect for when you’d like to lounge somewhere else in the home and have background music going.

The only disadvantage to using the app is that it is limited to input control, volume level and mute. It would be nice to see an upgrade so that balance and tone controls could be accessed from your phone.

For the music lover that doesn’t want to sacrifice sound quality for aesthetics, I can think of no finer choice than the Devialet 110, except maybe one of the higher-powered units, should your speakers require it. The journey doesn’t end here, either. The 110 will be easily upgradable via software as the Devialet engineers develop new functionality, so this is an investment you can live with for the long haul. Lifestyle is no longer a dirty word when it comes to hi-fi.

Devialet 110 Amplifier

MSRP: $6,500

D’Agostino Momentum Stereo Amplifier

Flanked by the wall of monstrous amplifiers here for evaluation, the compact D’Agostino Momentum stereo power amplifier stands out from the pack. As the Hammond organ solo in Mighty Sam McClain’s “Too Proud” crescendos from the softest touch to full force and back, the sound, awash in texture and decay, takes me to that magical place where I’m truly convinced that I’m not just listening to a hi-fi system; this is real music unfolding in front of me.

Even at high listening levels, when pairing the Momentum with my reference KEF Blades, the dual indicator needles of the amp’s sexy lime-green power meter barely come off of their rest stops—and I pause, wondering if perhaps they are defective. This amplifier seems to have an endless reserve of power on tap, along with thunderous but controlled and defined bass response. Remember, this amp is from the same man that gave us Krell amplifiers in the 1980s—amplifiers that redefined what solid-state amplification could achieve.

Luckily, I still have an original Krell KSA-50 on hand for comparison (covered in the Old School column in issue 53), and I enjoy jumping in the time machine to revisit the inception of this mighty amplifier. All of the Momentum’s core attributes are here in the KSA-50. While Krell amplifiers always received much fanfare for their prodigious bass response, the KSA-50 also has a smooth, grain-free top end, with a wealth of inner detail to boot. Comparing these two amps is a lot like comparing an early Porsche 911 to a current model; driving them back to back brings home the level of refinement that’s taken place over the years.

He’s Done It Again

The D’Agostino monoblocks, released about two years ago, caused quite a stir in the industry. Even at $55,000 a pair, they made believers out of everyone who heard them. The Momentum Stereo, priced at $30,000, makes this performance available to a more prudent and space-conscious audience. Best of all, should you decide that the extra juice of the monoblocks is necessary, you can send your stereo amp back to the factory and have it converted to a monoblock. Then just add the second monoblock, which makes for and easy and cost-effective upgrade from the single-amp solution.

At the risk of deterring you from spending more money with Mr. D’Agostino (unless you have terribly inefficient speakers), I will say that you may never need to go with the monoblocks. All of the speakers at my disposal are in a sensitivity range of 86 dB to 90 dB per watt, and no matter how far I crank the volume, I never hear even the slightest hint of compression or clipping. And I do listen to my music fairly loud on occasion.

Going back to the recent LP remaster of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, I do just that—and as great as the massive drums and guitars sound through the Momentum, the telltale bit comes at the end of the track, when Gibbons’ guitar gently fades over a bed of wind chimes tinkling in the air. Wow! The incredibly detailed three-dimensional perspective again fools me into thinking I’m listening to an actual musical object floating in space. But the real test comes when I play “Sam the Wonder Dog,” from the first Stereophile test CD, which has the neighbors’ dogs howling away!

We could go on and on about all the technology that makes the Momentum so special—from the unique design of its heat sinks to its two big banks of 69-MHz output transistors—but you can read all of that on the D’Agostino website here.

I should note that our review sample spent time at a few trade shows, so it arrived fully broken in and ready to go, so I can’t comment on how long a fresh amplifier takes to sound like the review sample.

A Sight to Behold

Don’t let the diminutive form factor of the Momentum fool you. This slender amp is all business, weighing nearly 100 pounds. We normally don’t hesitate to pop the top off of most amplifiers, but the Momentum’s case has no exposed screws, so rather than risk a highly embarrassing call to D’Agostino, I decide to settle for pictures of the amp’s gorgeous exterior.

And gorgeous it is. The entire chassis, save for the side-mounted heat sinks (machined from copper billet), is all CNC machined from solid aluminum. Chances are high that you will be spellbound by the refined-steampunk look of the Momentum.

Rocking SBTRKT’s self-titled album brings the listening room alive with major beats that punch you in the stomach, yet the finesse of the Momentum creates a massive ball of sound that feels like multi-channel audio emanating from only two speakers. With the music approaching club volumes, the Momentum’s needles now move in earnest, inching halfway up each side of the power meter—but there’s still plenty of juice on reserve. Again, the KEF Blades crank out heavy, controlled bass that you feel as much as you hear.

Highly Sophisticated

Much like the sports cars of the early 1980s, most power amplifiers were one-trick ponies that don’t offer anywhere near the same amount of finesse as today’s best designs. What makes the Momentum amplifier so dandy is that it offers no compromise in any aspect of sound reproduction or even day-to-day use. Thanks to some new power-management circuitry from Mr. D’Agostino, the Momentum only draws one watt when in idle mode—which is less than an iPhone charger!

D’Agostino doesn’t list a spec on power draw at full output, but being a Class AB design (a radical departure in itself for Mr. D’Agostino), this amplifier probably only draws about 500 to 700 watts from the AC line, which means that it doesn’t require anything out of the ordinary in terms of power. After hours of play at relatively high volumes, the copper heatsinks get warm to the touch, but nothing like any of the Class A amplifiers at my immediate disposal.

But again, all the technology under the hood of the Momentum stereo amplifier is lost on this writer the minute that the music begins to play. After months of listening to the Momentum with a plethora of ancillaries, I find it completely without fault of any kind, on any level.

Listening to the hardest rock or the subtlest solo vocalist, this amplifier delivers power, punch and nuance, all with equal aplomb. The best amplification components I’ve experienced make it impossible to identify them with your eyes closed. The Momentum is one of these rare amplifiers that will leave you scratching your head, with a non-existent sound signature that resembles neither tubes nor transistors. The Momentum is in very rare territory indeed.

Grooving on “Twisting with James,” from the Dr. No soundtrack, the drumming stays right in the pocket, while the full-on surf guitar and sax easily occupy their own private space in the soundstage. Cranking both sides of Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengance on LP usually leaves me desperate for some earplugs, but the Momentum reproduces the layers of driving lead guitars so effortlessly, keeping the voicing of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing’s guitar distinctly different. This is something that many amplifiers cannot achieve, especially at high volumes. It’s metal at its finest.

Spinning a pile of Motown records, settling on some Supremes, I find it intriguing to hear how much detail lurks in these classic tunes. The Supremes’ collaboration with the Temptations, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” is fantastic; it not only reveals the vocal stylings of these legendary artists, but it also puts some meat on the bones of the presentation. This tune now has a solid bass line that was not apparent before.

The percussive sounds at the beginning of Tom Waits’ “Town With No Cheer” hang in the air effortlessly, as the bagpipes fade to Waits’ young, vibrant voice, which keeps a subtle distance from the harp and accordion playing in the background. This sense of space is what separates the Momentum from lesser amplifiers, this delicacy again making it so easy for the amplifier to just disappear and become a conduit for whatever music is being played.

Geeky Bits

While the Momentum definitely benefits from adding premium cable, as does any great amplifier, it is not overly cable sensitive when it comes to power or signal cables. However, its highly resolving nature allows the differences between various cables to come through loud and clear. The Momentum does not prove highly sensitive to the various power-line conditioners on hand, either—a testament to the high integrity of its power supply’s design. The Momentum does experience a slight increase in high-frequency smoothness and liquidity when plugged into either the Running Springs Maxim or the IsoTek Super Titan conditioners (both via a dedicated 20-amp circuit), but this effect is nowhere near the dramatic difference experienced with some even more expensive amplifiers.

Perhaps the only piddly complaint with the Momentum is that, because it’s such a compact amplifier, the rear panel reveals a sparse complement of connectors: 12-volt triggers, a pair of XLR inputs and a pair of copper binding posts that do not allow for banana plugs. It’s all tucked in fairly tight quarters, so those with massive speaker cables may need to rethink their termination. I would highly suggest adding the stylish aluminum base that D’Agostino developed for the amplifier. The base will assist in cooling and get the amplifier up off the floor or shelf, providing much easier access to the speaker terminals.

Around front, the power switch hides underneath the crown jewel of the Momentum, the magnificent power meter, which is backlit in bright green. If there were ever a place that the term “audio jewelry” applied, it’s here. I suspect that this amplifier will be as compelling to look at years from now as it is the day you remove it from its padded flight case.

The day of $30,000 amplifiers is here to stay. While some will whinge about the price, the question remains: Does this amplifier provide performance and build quality in keeping with the price asked?

To that ultimate question, the answer is unquestionably yes. We’ll even stick our necks out and say that the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier is possibly one of the best amplifiers available at any price. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you take one for a test listen.

Momentum stereo amplifier

MSRP: $29,000 (silver); $31,500 (black)


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Digital source dCS Vivaldi stack
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10
Speakers GamuT S9    KEF Blade    Dynaudio Evidence Platinum    Focal Maestro Utopia  Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Power IsoTek Super Titan
Cable Cardas Clear

Plinius SA-Reference Power Amplifier

Located in New Zealand, Plinius has been making great components for years, and the brand has a loyal customer base that sings the Plinius praises on most of the audio forums. And with good reason. Every Plinius product we’ve had the privilege to audition at TONEAudio has always exceeded expectation.

The company’s top-of-the-line power amplifier, the SA-Reference, is no different. Plinius has always stood for great value and high performance, but this amplifier is in an entirely different league. Tipping the scale at 125 pounds and costing $20,900—both reasonable figures compared to some of its competitors—this is truly a destination product. Every SA-Ref is hand built and tested in the New Zealand factory. These massive amplifiers are available in a finish that Plinius refers to as “linishing,” and is offered in a black or silver anodized color as the one you see here. With large and conveniently placed handles on both the front and rear of the amp make it easy enough for those who aren’t Olympic deadlifters to move the amp into place.

Flanked with distinctive heat sinks on both sides, this Class-A masterpiece lives up to its nature by producing a lot of heat. But, in comparison to my reference Pass Xs 300 monoblocks, the heat is manageable. For those feeling a bit greener, there is a switch on the front panel that allows the amplifier to be run in Class-AB mode, which drops the idle power consumption down from 1,100 watts to 184 watts. During the course of this review, I leave the amplifier on in AB mode all the time, switching to Class A at the beginning of the day. This shortens the time to thermal stabilization and dramatically cuts power consumption. Operated thusly, the SA-Ref takes about 30 minutes to come out of the fog and do its thing.

At first blush, the difference in sound quality going from A to AB doesn’t seem as great, but extended listening validates burning the extra electricity. Again drawing the comparison to the Pass amplifiers, the SA-Ref goes from great to sublime in Class-A mode. I say drive a few less miles or keep the lights low if you’re feeling guilty about the power consumption. Your ears will thank you.

Major Microdynamics

Even with a musical selection that is relatively lacking in dynamics, like the Zombies’ “Tell Her No,” the wealth of texture that the SA-Ref provides will have you immediately under its spell. A similar effect is achieved with Neil Young’s classic bootleg Time Fades Away. This recording has lackluster quality at best, yet when delivered via an amplifier that can extract so much musical detail, the music feels closer than ever without sounding etched. On the title track, the piano in the background is usually almost indecipherable, but the combination of the SA-Ref and the $85,000-per-pair Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers gives this flat recording some depth, helping those small, fun details rise to the surface.

Let’s face it—we all have records in our collection that we love, even though they might live up to audiophile standards. The SA-Ref goes a long way towards making a wider range of your music collection more enjoyable—and that’s a great thing.

Going upscale with source material reaps even bigger rewards. Tracking through a 24-bit/192-kHz version of Neil Young’s Harvest reveals precious levels of detail and ambience, which bring new life and renewed clarity to this brilliant recording. The grungy, distorted guitar at the beginning of “Alabama” blasts off the walls of my listening room. I can almost hear the grill cloth on Young’s guitar amplifier move—fantastic. It’s this wealth of nuance that makes the SA-Ref a world-class component.

Admittedly, this reviewer is a huge fan of Class-A solid-state amplifiers; the additional tonal warmth (over most Class-AB amps), combined with the tremendous bass grip of properly designed amps, makes you wonder if the glass bottles are really necessary. The SA-Ref is one of these rare amplifiers indeed.

Plenty of Punch

The SACD of the Art of Noise’s Daft features a lot of trippy, spatial effects, with organic and synthesizer sounds floating around all three axis of the soundstage via the dCS Vivaldi digital player. The track “Who’s Afraid (of the Art of Noise)” is perhaps the biggest sounding of the bunch, with playful female vocals thrown in the mix far left and far right, with plenty of giggling and heavy breathing punctuated by the occasional “boo, boo” added for good measure. No, this amp won’t necessarily reveal the tonality of a Stradivarius violin, but it is big fun—and through an amplifier that can’t throw a massive soundstage, this recording sounds incredibly dead. The SA-Ref passes this test easily, with the big Dynaudios disappearing in the listening room like a pair of minimonitors.

On Elvis Costello’s duet with Burt Bacharach, “What’s Her Name Today?” the piano floats slightly in front of the imaginary line between the tweeters, with the strings just behind Costello’s voice, which takes on a height that makes it feel like he’s standing in the room singing. Every breath of his delicate falsetto, which grows to a major bellow at the end, is reproduced with just the right amount of dynamics and effort, again suggesting the real thing.
When I switch the program to heavy rock, the SA-Ref delivers the goods. And what better way to prove it than with the Audio Fidelity 24 Karat Gold CD of Judas Priest’s Hell Bent For Leather? Cranking the ARC REF 5SE preamplifier up to 70 (forget about 11) drives the KEF Blades, which are now back in the system at bone-crushing levels. While I find myself looking for a lighter to hold up, the SA-Ref motors through.

After about an hour of listening at levels well beyond reasonable and prudent, sifting through Black Sabbath, the Black Keys and Black Country Communion, I turn down the volume to reflect. My ears have given up, but the SA-Ref simply cannot be pushed to clipping when driving a pair of speakers with 88 dB or 90 dB sensitivity ratings. And so—while they are unsuitable matches for an amplifier of this quality—I bring out the power-hungry Magnepan 1.7s, just to probe how far the SA-Ref can be pushed.

Should you manage to push this amplifier to clipping, it does so softly and gently, with only a slight reduction in the overall soundfield. Fortunately, if you require this much power, the SA-Ref can be converted to mono operation with the flip of a switch on the rear panel. It is now capable of delivering 1,000 watts into an 8-ohm load and 1,800 watts into 4 ohms. The SA-Ref is a model of simplicity, allowing balanced XLR or standard RCA inputs, and it proves compatible with all of the preamplifiers at my disposal, from Audio Research, Burmester, Conrad-Johnson, Nagra, Robert Koda and Simaudio.

The Art of Relaxation

As days roll by with the SA-Ref in the system, it is clear that this is one of the few solid-state amplifiers that combines a freedom from distortion with effortless dynamics, and that it can just get out of the way of the music and quickly get you into the relaxation zone. And isn’t that the ultimate pleasure a premium hi-fi system should provide?

Pressurizing the sound room can be captivating for many listeners, but those subscribing to the “first watt” philosophy of sound will not be disappointed either. Even at low volume, the SA-Ref has plenty of finesse and acquits itself like a low-parts-count, low-power amplifier, providing a richness of tonal contrast that will make you want to pop the top to see if there really aren’t some tubes lurking inside. I briefly return to the Black Keys and discover that the guitar on the gentle intro of “Lies” just floats between the speakers while dripping with echo and decay.

Easing back into the couch with Arnold Bax’s Symphony No. 4 is even more soothing. That extra power on tap, combined with a very neutral tonality, makes this amplifier a delight when delivering large-scale orchestral pieces. It paints a big soundscape with both width and depth, and it is able to keep the smallest details rendered while easily and adequately capturing the scale of even the loudest passages.

A Little Comparison Shopping

How does the SA-Ref stack up to some of its similarily priced competitors? Quite well, in fact. The Pass Xs300s are a bit unfair, as they break the bank at $84,000—and, in all honesty, when I switch back and forth, the Pass amps take the lead in terms of resolution and a more dreamy, more realistic presentation. The SA-Ref sounds slightly etched and small in this unfair comparison.

However, when I go back to a couple of comparably priced competitors—the Burmester 911 MK3 ($29,900), the D’Agostino Momentum Stereo ($29,000) and the Audio Research REF 250s ($25,000 per pair)—the SA-Ref holds its own to the point of simply differing from these other amps. It would be like comparing the Audi S4, BMW M3 and Mercedez AMG C Class, which are all high-performance machines, to be sure, but each has its own take on how said performance should be delivered.

When paired with all the speakers at my disposal—KEF Blade, GamuT S9, Dynaudio Platinum and Focal Maestro Utopia, which are all reference speakers in their own right—the SA-Ref provides a sound slightly warmer than the tubed ARC monos can, yet not quite as warm as that of the Burmester. The D’Agostino is probably the most neutral of the four, but these are very, very fine hairs we are splitting here. Considering that the SA-Ref will set you back a comparatively less expansive $22,000, it really is a bargain for the sticker price.

In the End…

…We’re all dead, but while you’re still living and possessing decent hearing and cash flow, I highly suggest considering the Plinius SA-Ref amplifier. If you want a destination amplifier that can convert to monoblock (should you need more power at some point) and if you love the concept of a Class-A solid-state amplifier that will never need tubes replaced, this just might be your baby.

SA-Reference Power Amplifier

MSRP: $20,900


Analog Source AVID Acutus REF SP turntable    Lyra Atlas cartridge    TriPlanar tonearm
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifiers Audio Research REF 5 SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10
Speakers GamuT S9    Dynaudio Evidence Platinum    KEF Blade
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

For audio fans who believe sonic reproduction should be heard but not seen, a large-scale component system just isn’t practical.  Many component systems require significant space and can be obtrusive in a main living area or in a small room. For those individuals, Bel Canto’s e.One series just may be your entrance ticket. The e.One series makes available components of substantial capability but petite form factor.

We had the opportunity to test the C7R. It’s a bit challenging to categorize this unit given its versatile combination of features and functionality. While Bel Canto’s website labels it a “DAC Integrated Amplifier,” the nomenclature proves understated since the unit offers quite a bit more functionality than the name summarizes. If “under-promise and over-deliver” represents the goal of the product name, Bel Canto has set itself up well to exceed user expectations.

Under the big top?

Well, perhaps a better descriptor for the C7R is the “small top.” Unboxing, examining, and reading the manual for this Bel Canto leaves a user with a degree of amazement. Like a multitude of circus clowns cascading forth from a Volkswagen Beetle, the capabilities of the C7R just keep emerging. How could such a small box host such an array of functionality?

The C7R measures a placement-friendly 8.5” (216mm) wide, 12” (305mm) deep, and 3.5” (88mm) high. The entire package weighs in at a mere 13 lbs (6.5 kg).  Inside, the Bel Canto’s amplifier offers 60 watts at 8 ohms, and double that into 4 ohms.

The C7R’s back panel is a marvel of space usage and planning, enabling a generous number of input options. For the digital realm, this Bel Canto packs five digital inputs into the back panel including two SPDIF and two TOSLINK connections supporting 24/192 resolution. Complementing those is a USB input enabling 24/96. All of these signals are converted with its built-in DAC.  An AES/EBU digital input option would be a welcome addition, but it’s not available on the C7R. Perhaps there just wasn’t space for it!

Analog fans will also appreciate how the Bel Canto delivers. The expected RCA input is flanked by an MM phono input. While an MC input is not included as part of the package, it’s still hard to fault the C7R too much considering all the versatility it does offer.  On top of this, somehow, the team at Bel Canto managed to squeeze in an FM tuner with 10 user-chosen presets.

In addition to the rear panel speaker outputs, the Bel Canto features an RCA line output which can be configured to enable home theater bypass capability. As a really nice bonus, C7R includes a quarter-inch headphone output on the front panel.

Three rings? No, just one!

Controls on the unit body are minimalistic. After power is connected, a short boot-up process leaves the C7R ready for action. A single wheel on the right side of the front panel, with a handy indentation for one-finger speed-spinning ease, controls both volume and input selection. An inward push on the wheel center brightens the left-side input selection display, and the subsequent wheel movement glides through the input options making selection a breeze. Another push of the wheel switches to the volume control, and that transition is acknowledged with a brightening of the digital volume readout. For such a small unit I applaud Bel Canto for making the display large enough to read from across the room.

The digital display assigns each input a default abbreviation for easy identification as a user toggles among them, but the C7R does allow the user to create personalized four-letter words – well, perhaps I should say ”abbreviations.”

The need for a large display becomes clear once the user examines and uses the remote control. Like the back panel of the C7R the remote has a well-executed layout which makes many options adjustable from a favorite listening chair. In addition to volume, mute, input selection, phase selection, and digital source controls, there’s an option of FM station scanning and a few extra buttons enabling balance adjustment.

Taming those lions

With so much functionality to choose from, it’s easy to assume the setup process for such an animal bears some sharp claws and pointy teeth. Therein lies the irony of the C7R.  The experience is mostly plug-and-play with intuitive labeling on the back panel.

Connecting a USB computer music server, a digital coax input from a CD player, a line-in from a Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC, and a Marantz TT-15 turntable with a Clearaudio Virtuoso MM cartridge, the back gets mighty crowded. With the addition of large, braided Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables, the C7R‘s rear panel transforms in appearance from a few-vined garden to something resembling wild shrubbery.

Impressively, unlike many DACs I’ve experienced, the Bel Canto’s DAC requires no special drivers to install. Once the USB connection is made from the computer to the C7R, Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center recognize it immediately. Once the C7R is selected in JRiver’s playback, music starts without delay.

It took some assistance from the user manual to become familiar with all the setup features and to get everything working. All things considered, though, the learning curve never feels steep. The trickiest elements are saving FM radio presets and custom labeling inputs. Once completed, though, the user isn’t likely to make too many changes. Consider it a tiny amount of pain resulting in a lot of pleasure.

The flying trapeze

Once hooked up and configured the Bel Canto is ready to swing. Starting with the analog output of Light Harmonic DAC connected to the C7R, in my initial impressions of the Bel Canto I noted its smooth, non-fatiguing and refined sonic signature. It would be a mistake to classify it as laid-back, though. The sonic portrayal is one of energy and drive when the music dictates. Even when pushed to maximum volume, C7R shows little strain or stridency.

Pink Martini’s song “Una Notte a Napoli” begins minimally with piano and spoken vocals, later exploding in crescendo adding more vocals, harp, horns, guitar and percussion. The Bel Canto allows all instruments to sing out from the mix, while keeping vocals very present and out front. China Forbes’s vocals render beautifully, preserving the recording’s detail and delicacy.  Compared with my reference, the soundstage width and depth truncated somewhat, and some detail like cymbal decay, or the subtle sound imparted by the recording space, are reduced. But then again the C7R is one-fifth the cost of my amp and preamp combination, demonstrating Bel Canto’s extremely good price–performance ratio.

My Piega P-10s are normally fed 500 watts into 4 ohms, so I reduced my expectations of bass punch, heft, and control with the C7R’s 120 watts swapped in. Even in this system’s context the Bel Canto performs admirably with deep, tuneful, and defined bass. With less power-hungry speakers like NHT Super One bookshelf model on hand the C7R offers quite a bit of punch. Albeit in this case, the Bel Canto reveals all the NHT speakers’ shortcomings. Clearly, the C7R can encourage and enable great sound from high quality loudspeakers and deserves to be paired with them.

Using the Bel Canto’s built-in DAC, the sound remains quite impressive. While 16/44.1 material piped in from a CD player’s coax output portrays some digital glare, better quality digital sources reward the listener. USB sound though the C7R emerges detailed, with a rich and pronounced presence.

When I listen to radio stations at home, it’s usually a digital stream from the computer and not a native FM broadcast. So it’s a lot of fun to fire up the Bel Canto’s tuner and listen to Portland’s KGON and KNRK as a radio station was first intended to be heard. With the included antenna, the C7R has no problems getting a solid lock on FM signals and filling the living room with opulent sound.

As Queen’s “We Will Rock You” started pouring forth from the radio, I ran for the Sennheiser HD-650s to give the C7R headphone output a test drive. The Bel Canto’s sound is very engaging and one I could listen to for many hours with minimal ear fatigue. It’s a fantastic bonus to the C7R’s great all-around package.

Spinning plates

The MM phono stage is another welcome surprise.  Listening to Eric Clapton Unplugged, or Beck’s Sea Change MoFi pressing, the Bel Canto demonstrates its ability to expand the soundstage beyond the speakers. Music retains a non-fatiguing quality with the preservation of detail. The C7R’s sonic rendering provides very good bass and highs, and a very satisfying overall musical experience. Green Day’s “Holiday” shows that the C7R can get up and go when pushed, transmitting the energy of the performers.

In absolute terms, compared with my reference phono stage, the Bel Canto has a few limitations. The overall sound is slightly veiled, and instruments are not separated as well across the soundstage. It just doesn’t sound as close to a live music experience. I need to keep reminding myself that the Bel Canto – of which the phono stage is just one facet – costs $2,995 in total. Especially if you listen to digital sources primarily, the included phono stage is a big bonus for those with a vinyl collection or those about to start one.

You pay for the whole seat, but need only the edge.

Mated with the right set of speakers and a good source, the Bel Canto is a stellar performer, especially from a price–performance point of view. For $2,995 the C7R gets you a high quality amp, linestage, DAC, FM tuner, MM phonostage, and a headphone amp. It’s a phenomenal value. The task of finding all those components, near this quality, for under that price tag would prove exceedingly difficult – if not impossible. On top of that, the C7R wraps everything in an attractive, compact, and user-friendly package. Given all its versatility and fantastic sound, for the price the Bel Canto C7R is easy to recommend.

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


Speakers Piega P10    NHT Super One
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier/Phonostage Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 Turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso MM Cartridge
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Professional Mk 3
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Headphones Sennheiser HD-650
Headphone Amplifiers ALO Rx Mk 2   Coffman Labs G1-A
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley    Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose Power Cords
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Gato Audio DIA-250 Integrated Amp/DAC

Part of the mission here at TONEAudio has always been to remain on the lookout for magnificent hi-fi gear that not only performs well but is also a piece of visual art able to blend into any décor. Gato’s amplifiers caught my eye at this year’s Munich show, where I met importer Michael Kelly (of Aerial Acoustics), who was very proud of Gato’s latest creations. And lovely they are.

Hailing from Denmark, the DIA-250 features a small form that is remarkably able to contain a 250-watt-per-channel Class D amplifier and a 24-bit/192-kHz DAC, doing so at a very reasonable price of $4,500. Those requiring more power can step up to the DIA-400, which offers 400 wpc and has an MSRP of $6,000.

With ease and precision, the DIA-250 implements Class D amplification and upsampling signal conversion—two technologies that are big personal preferences of mine. It also provides major input and output flexibility to allow your system to grow, should the need arise. With a pair of balanced and XLR analog inputs to go along with USB, TOSLINK and S/PDIF digital inputs, the DIA-250 is a fantastic system hub. It also includes balanced and RCA variable outputs for those requiring an additional power amplifier or amplified subwoofer. HT bypass is also included for those needing to make the DIA-250 part of a multichannel setup, a feature sometimes overlooked.

Its gentle, curved shape—which combines brushed aluminum extrusions and a highly polished wooden top panel—is stunning, with one main control in the center to adjust volume level and two tastefully small buttons to select inputs and switch the amplifier into standby mode. The slightly blue-tinted display is easy to read from across the room, and it can be dimmed via an adjustment on the rear panel, or set to switch off completely after a few seconds. For those unhappy with the font choice, I submit (perhaps from a 50-something’s perspective, guilty as charged) that this feature is handy beyond belief, especially when living with a component for a long time. Those tiny readouts on other components might look a bit more stylish at first, but if you can’t read them, then what’s the point?

Setup, Sources, Speakers

I utilize a plethora of digital sources to evaluate the DIA-250, from a modest OPPO BDP-103, all the way up to the $36,000 dCS Vivaldi transport, with a few music servers and a MacBook Pro thrown in for good measure. All sources perform flawlessly, regardless of the chosen input.

With all of the digital sources being upsampled to 24/192 and then decoded by the DIA-250’s Burr-Brown PCM1794 converters, the sound is decidedly old school—and, for these ears, it is highly musical. My former digital reference, the Naim CD555, uses this setup brilliantly, proving that it’s all about implementation when it comes to the digital world.

Along with a variety of digital sources, the latest vacuum-tube phonostage from Van Alstine ($1,295), combined with a Rega RP3 turntable and Exact MM cartridge, proves an excellent match, giving analog and digital sources an equal voice during playback. The smooth character of the DIA-250 proves a perfect fit when spinning the latest releases from Music Matters Jazz, which I find enthralling. Lee Morgan’s trumpet on The Gigolo solidifies the fact that analog remains king, even on a journeyman rig like this. As much as I enjoy the digital section of the DIA-250 and its convenience, I would still highly suggest adding an analog front end to a system built around it.

The only area that the DIA-250 falls slightly short of its higher priced, Class-A or vacuum-tube competitors is in the area of image depth, but this is still endemic of the breed to some extent. And the DIA-250 is delivering music to the $85,000 Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers, which are not likely what this amp would be paired with—though you could with good result. For its $4,500 price tag, this is indeed a rocking little amplifier with integral DAC. Pair it up with your favorite speakers in the $3,000-to-$10,000 range and your music server of choice and you’ve got all the ingredients of an incredible system on a relatively reasonable budget.

Moving a bit downstream with the $8,500-per-pair Paradigm Signature S8 speakers also proves highly synergistic. The DIA-250 controls these tower speakers with aplomb, providing a rock-solid bass response and smooth highs. Combined with the S8s 92-dB sensitivity, the DIA-250 never feels the least bit strained, even at concert-hall levels.

Those using a sat/sub system will appreciate the additional flexibility of the variable outputs. The DIA-250 handles the JL Audio Fathom in-wall subwoofer mated to a pair of KEF LS50s with ease, so any powered subwoofer on your wish list should match equally well. And those of you using a REL subwoofer will have no problems connecting through the speaker outputs.

Getting Better All the Time

Class D continues to not only get more natural in its ability to reproduce sound but also in its ability to drive complex speaker loads. Just a few years ago, many Class D amplifiers were as finicky as any SET amp, but they have since come a long way. Full-range ESL and Magnepans are equally easy to drive with the DIA-250, though if you really like to push your Maggies, I suggest spending a few extra bucks and going for the DIA-400 to have the extra headroom at your disposal.

Regardless of which Gato amplifier you choose, Magnepan owners will be impressed at the amount of grip and drive these amplifiers provide. All too often the Class D/Magnepan combination comes across with a lack of timbral engagement, sounding somewhat flat—but that is not the case here.

Spinning the Volume Control

When I crank Metallica’s classic self-titled black album in a 24/96 format, it becomes instantly apparent that the Paradigm/Gato combination can satisfy those craving high sound-pressure levels. The first drum thwacks in “Wherever I May Roam” are highly convincing, pushing me back in my listening chair like the Maxell man. Bowie’s Scary Monsters keeps the classic-rock groove rolling and exposes yet another facet of the DIA-250: its ability to effortlessly uncloak inner detail. Robert Fripp’s guitar work on “Teenage Wildlife” is reproduced brilliantly, easily occupying its own space in the far left of the soundstage, while Bowie is anchored dead center in the mix.

Leaning heavily on an old audiophile classic, Dave Grusin’s “Sun Song,” from the recently remastered XRCD, reveals just how smooth this Class D amplifier and DAC combination can be. The opening triangle clangs float in the air, gently filling the room with sound. It’s amazing how far this amplifier technology has come in the last few years—saying Class D and DAC in the same sentence is no longer an audiophile faux pas. The delicate brushwork on Dave Holland’s “Overtime” is equally enthralling, and the extremely low noise floor of the DIA-250 enhances this effect.

The Bottom Line

The Gato Audio DIA-250 ticks all the boxes: It’s compact and gorgeous, and it sounds great—and, best of all, it’s priced right. With a comparison review in process between the DIA-250 and its companion, the higher-powered DIA-400, we look forward to hearing more of what Gato Audio has to offer. Whatever your power needs, both of these amps are highly recommended.

DIA-250 Integrated Amp/DAC

MSRP:  $4,500 (factory) (US Importer)


Digital sources Meridian Control 15 server    Aurender S10 server    dCS Vivaldi transport    Oppo BDP-103    MacBook Pro
Analog source Rega RP3    Exact cartridge    AVA Phonostage
Speakers KEF LS-50    Magnepan 1.7    Paradigm S8 Signature    KEF Blade   Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Cables Cardas Clear

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

The First Watt J2 is an absolute honey of an amp. Hooked up to my Zu Essence speakers, the sound isn’t merely spectacular; it regularly keeps me up long after I should have gone to bed. The J2 is sublime, but I don’t think this point can be made often enough: when a reviewer says an amp is “great,” what he’s really saying is that it’s great with the speaker (or speakers) he’s auditioned it with. The same logic could be applied to speaker reviews because you can’t listen to speakers without listening through an amp. So it’s really the combination of the two – speaker and amp – that we hear. Sure, the rest of the system, namely the preamp, sources and cables, all play their parts. But the interactions between amp and speakers can make or break the sound – and with the high efficiency Zu’s it’s a winner.

The First Watt J2 and Zu Essence are both made in the United States. Zu is a new wave, youthful audiophile company. First Watt is a Nelson Pass enterprise, and he’s the founder and CEO of Pass Laboratories. In the 1970s, his first venture, Threshold, broke new ground in solid-state designs, and he’s still advancing the state-of-the-art. First Watt exists because Pass wants to explore a variety of amplifier-design strategies in what he thinks of as “neglected areas:” amplifiers that might not fit into the mainstream and are probably not appropriate for Pass Labs.

The J2 is a stereo power amplifier rated at 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and 13 watts into 4 ohms. The clean, compact design measures 17 by 5.5 by 16 inches, and it weighs about 25 pounds. It has a two-stage circuit and operates in pure single-ended Class A mode, with signal JFET devices forming the input stage and power JFET devices for the output stage. What’s that, a JFET output stage? That’s special. Every solid-state amp you or I have ever heard used bipolar or MOSFET transistors in the output stage. The J2 sports JFETs, and that’s way cool.

Yes, I recall that Sony and Yamaha made JFET amps ages ago, but then power JFETs were MIA. Now they’re back. Pass heard that SemiSouth Corporation of Missouri had started making new power JFET transistors with high voltage, current and power capabilities – as high as 1,200 volts, 30 amps, and 273 watts. These new JFETs were designed for very fast switching in solar-power and electric-car applications. Pass bought a few of these JFETs and found they had a very low distortion characteristic. Compared with MOSFET-type power transistors, JFETs can achieve 10 to 20 dB improvements in distortion performance. So a JFET doesn’t need as much feedback to keep distortion low. It’s low from the get go.

Pass aims to design what he calls “simple circuits” because, as he once so eloquently put it, “Complexity tends to be the nemesis of musicality…” As he refines a design, he listens to how individual parts – capacitors, resistors, semiconductors, etc – change not only what he can measure but how they put their “signatures” on the sound.

Low-power, singled-ended tube amps have been popular with some audiophiles, especially those with highly efficient speakers, so you might assume Pass was trying to build a solid-state amp that would appeal to that crowd. But that’s not the J2’s mission. It doesn’t sound like tubes; it’s not warm, mellow, romantic or lush.

The J2 is all about purity and exceptional transparency. It’s a colorless device. Low-level resolution of recording-room sound or added reverberation are reproduced with startling fidelity. If you want romance, look elsewhere. Play a nasty-sounding recording, such as  Arcade Fire’s recent The Suburbs CD, and it will sound hard, grainy  and ferociously compressed. Gorgeous recordings, such as Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass’ Sophisticated Lady CD, will be a feast for the ears. Ella’s voice, from a whisper to a full-on wail, takes center stage, and Pass’ fleet-fingered fretwork is not too shabby! The feel of the sound is tangibly live, and the anything-can-happen excitement of the 1983 Tokyo concert was perfectly resurrected by the amp and speaker. Sophisticated is my favorite Fitzgerald album, precisely because it gets me closer to the live event than anything else.

The J2/Essence combination is dynamically consistent from bass to treble, so the sound feels right. There is a definite tunefullness, a toe-tapping, engaging quality that brings music to life. Bass is quick and nimble, but it won’t bowl you over with room-shaking, pants-flapping low-end. If you want that, get a subwoofer.

After an hour or so, the J2’s heat sinks and the entire chassis get pretty warm, so you wouldn’t want to rest your hand on it for more than a few seconds. The power switch is on the amp’s rear panel, which might be a tad inconvenient if you want to put the J2 in a rack or cabinet. Then again, considering how much heat this amp generates, proper ventilation is a must. I put the J2 out on the floor between the Essences, so it was easy to reach around to the power switch. The warranty runs three years, but Pass claims that in more than eleven years, he’s never had a single First Watt product returned for a warranty claim.

Comparing the J2 with my Pass Labs XA100.5 100-watt monoblocks was a study in contrast. The big amps’ power advantage was obvious, and that manifested itself in sheer gravitas and a richer, fleshier tonal balance. The XA100.5 soundstage was deeper and broader, but the J2 was just as transparent. Low-level resolution and transient speed were on par the XA100.5. And the big amp is four times as expensive as the J2.

The little amp’s 25 watts uncorked the full measure of Booker T & the MGs prodigious funk. Healthy doses of the band’s Time Is Tight three-box CD set proved the amp has what it takes. Duck Dunn’s supple bass lines made all the right moves, and Steve Cropper’s tasty guitar tricks were finger-lickin’ good. Then again, Booker T’s Hammond-organ grooves are the music’s bedrock, and he was always adding just the right flavor to the mix.

The live tracks from Cream’s Goodbye LP may not have had the same sort of unstoppable mojo as the Booker T sides, but played at a satisfyingly loud level, Jack Bruce’s fat bass riffing off Eric Clapton’s stinging guitar leads were beautifully rendered. Ginger Baker’s heavyweight drumming had tremendous impact, so any concern that the little amp’s 25 watts per would inhibit my style were soon forgotten.

The Cream record isn’t by any stretch an audiophile recording, but I loved the way the J2 decoded the texture of Bruce’s bass and Baker’s drum kit. They were more dimensionally present than I ever recall hearing from the Mobile Fidelity Goodbye gold CD. Same could be said about Still Life, a live Rolling Stones LP from their 1981 tour. I’ve never really liked this LP, but it clicked over the J2, and it made me think about how much better the Stones were when bassist Bill Wyman was still in the band. “Start Me Up” was a highlight; the band still had a bit of their youthful power, but that was almost 30 years ago!

I also put the J2 through its paces with Anthony Gallo Acoustics’ new and improved Reference 3.5 speakers. It’s not a super-efficient design (only a moderate 88 dB/1 watt), but the impedance stays around 8 ohms before it drops like a stone around 20 kHz. I really love this new Gallo for its remarkably open quality and its transient speed. Soundstage depth and low-level resolution are superb, and the J2 handily exploited all of those strengths. But power was an issue, so if you like to listen loud, the J2/Reference 3.5 combo won’t float your boat.

The Hifiman HE-6 planar-magnetic headphones (similar operating principal as Magnepan speakers) can be hooked directly to any power amp, so I couldn’t help but try the headphones with the J2. Wow, the sound was oh-so transparent, definitely on par with Stax electrostatic headphones. But the J2/HE-6 combination was vastly more dynamic and the bass kicked harder than any ‘stat phones I’ve ever tried. The HE-6 is one of the most open-sounding headphones around, and the J2 only seemed to enhance that quality. Soundstage width and depth on Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea CD were truly expansive. My only reservation was the bass. Other amps generated gutsier drive and more low-end oomph than the J2 did with the HE-6.

The J2 doesn’t sound like a tube amp, but its musicality with my Essence speakers was spectacular. So if you have a Zu, horn or any high-efficiency speaker, the J2 could do the same for you.

Additional Listening:

More Power!

By Jeff Dorgay

Should the J2 not be quite enough juice for your speakers, consider the First Watt M2.  Rated at an equivalent 25 watts per channel, the

M2 is a push-pull design whereas the J2 is single-ended Class A. The M2 produces 40 watts per channel into a 4 ohm load, where the J2 produces only 13 watts per channel.

Bottom line, the M2 amplifier should be able to drive most speakers to adequate sound-pressure levels.  I’ve been a fan of Nelson’s Class A designs all the way back to the Threshold 4000A, but everything that Steve has described in the J2 is available with slightly more power in the M2 model. The M2 is slightly less expensive, at $3,600.

Removing the $60,000 pair of Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks in my reference system, the M2 held its own, with even slightly more inner detail than the German monster amps.  This amplifier was able to take hold of the GamuT S9’s with enough control that a few casual visitors didn’t even know the Burmester amplifiers were no longer in the system!

Watch for a full review shortly when I have time to peel the smile off of my face.  Nelson Pass has done it again.

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

MSRP: $4,000


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition Blu-ray player
Electronics Parasound JC 1 preamp    JC 2 power amp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp   First Watt J2 power amp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp
Speakers Zu Essence    Zu Soul Superfly    Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan MG 3.6/R
Headphones Hifiman HE-6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    Audioquest Sky interconnect    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    XLO Signature-3 power cords

Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amplifier

With some prognosticators saying 2012 will be the end of the world, do you want to chance spending the last year of your life unable to really crank up your stereo? Musical Fidelity is known for making “super integrated” amplifiers; its the new M6 500i represents another benchmark in this field.

The British company’s M6 500i is tough to resist. Especially when I don a Darth Vader mask and convince you the force is strong in this dark, monolithic machine. Can you feel it? You’ve had the urge to upgrade your current little integrated. Now focus. Forget about those telling you power isn’t important. It is, and the M6 500i delivers 500 glorious, window-rattling, tweeter-melting watts per channel that will take you from the back of the arena to the front row. Sense your desire for more power getting stronger? Let anger consume you as you contemplate ditching your current amplifier. Good.

With the M6 5001, listeners equipped with inefficient speakers will no longer be doomed to experience Metallica or Shostakovich at inferior volume levels. Remember, lifelike dynamic swings are just as important to musical accuracy as tonal accuracy. Even Shania Twain sounds better with oodles of power behind her. And the M6 500i’s tremendous bass control keeps speaker woofers pulsating.

Power and Connectivity

The M6 500i features four RCA line-level inputs (one of which is switchable between AUX or HT pass-through) and one balanced XLR input. Compatibility with most systems should be simple. I’d love to see another balanced input, but for $6,995, you can’t have everything. The M6 500i also includes tape out jacks and a variable level (RCA jack) output for those who might want to add a powered subwoofer or two.

This unit isn’t merely a high-powered brute. You won’t mistake it for that of a Burmester, but the metalwork is top-shelf. Finish quality is highly uniform, the front panel convincingly massive, and the volume control substantial. Buttons are tastefully small, and a nice remote is included. Fonts are stylish and understated. No giant logos, either—another mark that bridges the gap between a top-line component and a budget sibling.

Repeat after me: Exceptional Value Award. The M6 500i comes in silver, too, but as the late-night spy Archer would say, “Why would you?” Black suits its powerful nature just right.


Once you drive a Dodge Challenger with a Hemi under the hood, the wimpy six-cylinder model at the National rental counter always sucks—no matter how much Patrick Stewart tries to convince you otherwise. And so it goes with a well-designed, high-power amplifier. Adding the 3,000-watt JL Audio Gotham subwoofer to the system and spinning Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power Live: In The Hands Of The Fans, the M6 500i becomes both Death Star and time machine. Giving the volume control a forceful spin and closing my eyes puts me right back at that legendary September 2010 show, where editor Bob Gendron and I saw Pop passed right through the crowd. That’s realism.

But remember, power corrupts. If you aren’t careful, you might damage your hearing—or speakers—with the M6 500i. Case in point: A few bottles of Maudite placed TONEAudio contributor Jerold O’Brien and I in full-on Beavis and Butthead mode as we proceeded to liquefy a pair of AR3a speakers just like we did when we were younger. And while a small amplifier driven to clipping handily destroys a tweeter, a big amplifier driven to clipping scorches woofers, and usually involves minor pyrotechnics. That’s exactly what happened.

Feeling like the wise old owl in the Tootsie Pop commercial, we wanted to see how many minutes of Sepultura it would take to completely destroy the AR3as. The answer? Two minutes and fifteen seconds of “Stronger Than Hate” from Beneath the Remains, and the speakers were lifeless carcasses. We ended the festivities, as the M6 500i ‘s force kept growing stronger. We momentarily considered vaporizing O’Brien’s Vandersteen 1Cs.

The next morning, as we headed out to Denny’s for a Grand Slam breakfast (don’t let friends drive home drunk, especially when they are hopped up with the thrill of destruction), we pondered if it was all just a dream. Nope. The smell of burned electric components still filled the listening room. Heavenly.

Playing Nice

Mixing synergies with the Verity Audio Amadis, Magnepan 1.7s, Peak Consult Kepheus, and a handful of other speakers proves highly enjoyable, regardless of program material.  The M6 500i makes for a great system anchor as it opens the door to whatever speakers you have or might want in the future. Even the Magnepans, which need power in the manner a neurotic girlfriend needs attention, lit up with the M6 500i.

Lest you think we are all headbanging maniacs at TONEAudio, rest assured the M6 500i features a high level of refinement and tonal finesse that suits all types of music.  While this high-powered solid-state amplifier won’t fool you into thinking you are listening to a pair of tubed monoblocks, it is never harsh or strident.

Evaluating current Audio Wave XRCDs illustrates such traits. Walter Bishop’s piano on Jackie McLean’s Swing, Swang, Swingin’ just glides through the background of the tune, never dropping off the beat. Cymbals are crisp, awash with lingering decay.  When McLean enters, his sax is chock full of texture, bouncing from simmer to boil, and then overflows outside the speaker boundaries as the tempo increases.

Is there anything the M6 5001 cannot do? Not really. Sure, a couple of the higher-priced integrateds possess more midrange sweetness, and more resolution, but they cost two-to-four times as much. You get what you pay for with the megabuck amps, yet you get tremendous performance and value with the M6 500i. Separates aren’t the answer, either. You’ll be hard pressed to find a 500-watt-per-channel power amplifier that delivers the goods for $7k—and you’ll still need a preamp and pair of interconnects. And Darth Vader’s got no use for such extra troubles when galaxy-conquering power can be had from one box.

Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $6,995 (Factory – UK)    US Distributor


Analog Source AVID Volvere SP    Funk Firm FX•R    Denon DL 103R
Digital Source dCS Debussy    Sooloos Control 15    Mac Mini
Speakers AR3a (deceased)     Vandersteen 2Ce Signature    Magnepan 1.7    Verity Audio Rienzi    B&W 802 Diamond    MartinLogan Montis
Cable Cardas Clear Light
Power PS Audio P10

Blue Aura v30 Blackline Integrated Tube-Amplifier System

With the burgeoning number of adults working from home, the office-audio category has become an industry bright spot.  Filling this space is Blue Aura’s $549 v30 Blackline music system, which satisfies the craving for vacuum tubes and matching speakers, and does so in a space-conscious package.

The handsome, three-piece system looks sharp wherever I place it in my office—I tried both my bookshelf and credenza—but the system’s striking aesthetics never dominate the décor.  Los Angeles–based Blue Aura wraps the speakers and the body of the amp in black faux-leather, and accents the amp with chrome trimmings.

The amp is 10 inches wide, 7.5 inches deep and 5.5 inches tall, and the plated handles on either side of it double nicely as bookends.  Adorning the front panel is a pair of matching chrome knobs—one for adjusting the volume and one for selecting from the three inputs (USB, LINE, and AUX).  Two 6N1 tubes flank the taller 6e2 tube, with its decorative but unnecessary green glowing light filter.  A four-post tube guard with a plexiglass-and-chrome top shelf protects the tubes from inadvertent fingers or the common office mishap.  On the back panel, from left to right, are three inputs (RCA, mini-headphone, and mini-USB B), followed by a mini-headphone output jack, four brass speaker jacks, the power-cord socket and power switch.

The 5.5-inch tall speakers look similar to the Audioengine A2s, with forward-facing slits towards the bottom of each speaker serving as bass ports.  The 3/4-inch tweeter and 3.5-inch paper driver surprised me from the outset with some obvious low-frequency grunt and detail.  With the speakers set on their over-sized-hockey-puck stands and with the bookcase as an additional cabinet, the sexy, sultry vocals of Sade fill my 11-by-10-foot office.  Changing out the included 18-gauge speaker wire for some 12-gauge wire further defineds the speaker’s impressive resolution.

Dishing It Out

Forget the typical tinny computer sound and irritating fake subwoofer output—the v30 avoids that pitfall.  This is a setup I find enjoyable listening to for several hours, which helps me grade papers without becoming restless.  When playing rounded sharp-edged recordings, such as Donald Fagan’s Kamakiriad, the v30 settles down nicely.  I then play some lossless recordings, with my laptop and Audioengine D2 wireless DAC system on my desk and the v30 on the bookcase, and intoxicating sound fills the office.  Even with the speakers just 30 inches apart, the system offers impressive instrument placement.

It’s obvious that the Blue Aura engineers understood that the typical home-office setup limits how far apart speakers can be placed.  The result is a nice, expansive soundstage and subsequent enjoyable listening experience.  Even stepping down to my MacBook’s analog output and running a wire to the v30 yields worthwhile results.

The system excels at reproducing jazz music, and quickly makes Vince Guaraldi’s classic Charlie Brown Christmas a playlist favorite.  The v30’s ability to recreate the individual bass notes in “O Tannenbaum” bests the budget bookshelf speakers that normally occupy my office—and those are more than three times the size of the v30’s speakers.  Guaraldi’s piano matches the glow that the three tubes adds to the keystrokes.  The slight loss in absolute detail is easily made up by the system’s warmth and rich decay.

As the days pass, the v30 becomes the reason to listen to music, the goal being to see what it can handle musically.  While blasting Slayer at house-party levels isn’t realistic, the unit has no problem getting into the 90-plus-dB range before hitting its sonic wall.  It delivers more complex rock with ease.  John Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee, with its multitude of instruments, sounds open and uncongested—a neat trick for such a diminutive setup.

As expected, the v30’s three glowing tubes make the midrange beguiling.  Female vocals and instruments are lush and warm, and void of the syrupy slow quality that creeps into many budget tube systems.  In this price range, the v30 is downright first-rate, especially in the level of clarity it brings to Pink Martini’s “Mar Desconocido,” with its tempo-leading bongos, and to the plucked guitar and xylophone in the next track, “Taya Tan.”

Just For Fun

One Sunday afternoon, I pair the 20-wpc integrated amplifier with the 92-dB-efficient Verity Audio Finns.  The v30 does itself proud here, powering the Finns with confidence.  Though the amplifier section won’t make one forget PrimaLuna’s resolution, particularly in the higher register, it does move some serious air, representing the basics of tone and balance remarkably well.

Even in larger spaces, such as my 13-by-19-foot family room, the v30 delivers open sound.  With the amp and speakers on the rock fireplace hearth with the angled puck speaker stands tilted upward, the room fills with warm holiday sounds.  Even with the sliding door to the kitchen closed, I was still able to enjoy the details emanating from the system.

For those that desire tunes but need focus on work in their office, the musicality of the v30 Blackline make it a top-tier choice for the home office.  Looking to add a source wirelessly? Just add Blue Aura’s WSTxR wireless transmitter/receiver kit for $149.

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Stereo Power Amplifier

So what exactly makes this a premium PrimaLuna product?  Like all products from the Dutch brand, the ProLogue Premium Premium Stereo Power Amplifier has a certain aesthetic appeal: a gunmetal-colored finish, which wouldn’t be out of place on an AMG Mercedes, set off by an anodized-aluminum faceplate (available in silver or black).  Also like the rest of the company’s lineup, the ProLogue Premium stereo amp offers serious levels of performance—this is where the amp’s premium designate becomes apparent.

Popping off the bottom cover reveals ceramic tube sockets and Nichicon and Solen capacitors flanked by premium resistors, along with newly designed output and power transformers.  Wiring is all point-to point and meticulously done by hand, which is one of the reasons PrimaLuna amps have earned such a high reputation for their reliability.  All this precision comes wrapped in a somewhat compact package that weighs nearly 50 pounds, and has an MSRP of $2,299.

Hassle-Free Tube Power

PrimaLuna amplifiers have long been known for their Adaptive AutoBias circuitry, a PrimaLuna trademark that makes traditional tube biasing a thing of the past.  This design allows a wide range of tubes to be used in the output sockets:  KT88 or EL34 tubes work equally well—every ProLogue Premium Series amplifier comes with either set of tubes installed.  (The KT88s produce 36 watts per channel; the EL34s produce 35 watts per channel.)  The new premium version of the amp adds a switch on the side of the chassis, allowing you to optimize the amplifier to your choice of tubes, in order to achieve the lowest possible levels of noise and distortion.

I’m immediately struck by the lively sonic response that the ProLogue provides, with a quick, organic and natural sound that spans all frequency ranges.  This amplifier always feels ready and able to take on whatever you can throw at it—which is exactly what I did.  The ProLogue Premium eliminates the hassle of owning a vacuum-tube-powered amplifier.  It even has a PTP circuit (for Power Transformer Protection) that will protect the amp’s output transformers, should you have an accidental, catastrophic tube failure, which can happen with today’s tubes.

PrimaLuna has updated the front-end circuitry for this amp, which now uses 12AU7 tubes instead of the 12AX7s in the company’s earlier amplifiers.  The inveterate tweak-geek in me could not resist fooling with those 12AU7s, even though the amp sounds great with stock tubes.  New old stock GE tubes render a smoother top-end response, but offer a different listening perspective, as if I had moved back about five rows in the orchestra.  Next, a set of RCA clear tops (with side getters, for the tubeophiles in the audience) provides a big jump in frequency extension, as well as more transparency and a more palpable midrange.  Best of all, Kevin Deal, the owner of Upscale Audio (and the PrimaLuna importer) has a massive cache of these tubes in stock, so you can experiment at will; the 12AU7s aren’t nearly the cost of the 12AX7s. When asked, Deal said that he has “over 10,000 rare and NOS 12AU7s.”

Be aware, I achieved these results with my system; so don’t take them as an absolute, as results will vary on other systems.  But that’s the fun of an amplifier like this:  You can experiment as much or as little as you want—and we haven’t even talked about swapping output tubes.  Don’t forget to save those stock tubes just in case you find yourself lost in the vacuum-tube jungle.

Love at First Listen

Brian Bromberg’s closely miked contrabass in “The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers,” from his Wood album, instantly confirms the level of full-bodied bass definition the ProLogue Premium provides.  In addition to the solid low-end response, you can clearly hear the creaking and groaning of the instrument, as well as the strings being plucked and slapped on the fretboard.  I’ve never heard this kind of resolution from a vintage Dynaco Stereo 70 (or modded variation on the theme).

Muddy Waters’ album Folk Singer proves a perfect midrange showcase for this amp, which places Waters’ voice firmly at center stage, while simultaneously revealing the ambience in the recording studio present on this intimate performance.  Perhaps the best showcase of any tube amplifier is its ability to convey the sultriness of the female voice, which is another test that the ProLogue Premium passes handily.  I listen to the entire disc of Renée Fleming’s Haunted Heart without pause.  The track “When Did You Leave Heaven?” gives Fleming and the accompanying guitar, courtesy of Bill Frisell, plenty of space without missing a lick of subtlety.

And Secondly

It’s usually a given that vacuum-tube amplifiers excel at revealing low-level detail and vocal tonality, but the ProLogue Premium performs equally well with larger-scale music.  Nelson Riddle’s Nice ‘n’ Easy: The Music of Nelson Riddle is a classic big-band record full of massed horns, which the ProLogue Premium sails through, keeping the horns sorted without becoming harsh or buried in the mix—impressive.

The acid test comes via the Minutemen’s “One Reporter’s Opinion,” from the Double Nickels on the Dime disc.  D. Boon’s AK-47-style guitar playing is present in all its force, Mike Watt’s fluid bass is easy to follow and drummer George Hurley’s seems to punch a hole in my forehead—the PrimaLuna delivers all of this while giving the track the precision and grit on the scale it deserves.  No matter how complex the musical selections, this amplifier does an excellent job keeping pace.

I’m a Fan!

I’m taken with this little but heavy amplifier, and can see why our publisher has been an advocate of PrimaLuna since day one.  This amp takes everything I throw at it in stride—always musical, always eager and always evenly balanced in overall presentation.  As with the other PrimaLuna products, the Premium stereo amp represents good value.  This is the perfect power amp for a music lover wanting to assemble a high performance system on a tight budget.  The ProLogue Premium is worth every penny.

I will say that one must be realistic when pairing the Premium with his or her speakers and listening environment.  Although the volume levels I’m able to achieve with this amp in my largish room are quite satisfying, 35 watts only go so far—even great watts such as these.  The amp does clip slightly when I get lead-footed with the volume.  To its credit, when the amp does clip, it does so with gentle compression instead of just falling apart.  To this point, speakers that are in the 90-plus-dB category will make for optimum system synergy in most rooms.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

As Jerold mentioned, I’ve been listening to PrimaLuna amplifiers since the company introduced the original ProLogue One almost 10 years ago.  It’s almost like TONEAudio and PrimaLuna have grown up together.  That original amplifier is still in my family and, with a replacement set of power tubes, it keeps playing music on a daily basis without bother.

It’s been fun watching the PrimaLuna products evolve over the years into a more fleshed out line, with each model revealing more music than the one before.  Putting the ProLogue Premium stereo power amp through its paces is a joy, with the matching preamplifier and a few other examples I have on hand.  If you don’t need a built-in phonostage (and like your garanimals to match), the $2,199 ProLogue Premium Preamplifier makes for killer a setup with the Premium power amp.  The preamp is perfectly matched to the power amp electrically and stylistically, and pairing the two together will easily fool you and your friends into thinking you spent a lot more scratch on your system.  Many of my old-school buddies were having visions of vintage McIntosh in their heads, when I had this PrimaLuna combo connected to a mint pair of JBL L100 speakers.

Cranking up Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance (on the matching PrimaLuna CD player we reviewed a few months ago) is a little slice of heavy-metal heaven—for a minute I was worried I might just blow up those JBLs, like I did back in the day.  The smooth sound of this PrimaLuna front-end package does not disappoint.
Another, more modern speaker that is a spectacular match with 35 watts per channel of tube power is Vienna Acoustics’ Mozart Grand.  The speakers have a 90-dB-sensitivity rating and a very gentle first-order crossover, but the ProLogue never runs out of gas when powering them.  And at about $3,500 a pair, the Mozart speakers won’t put you in the poorhouse.  Those on a tighter budget, consider a pair of Vandersteen 1Cs, which have the same high sensitivity, but are only $1,200 a pair.

Back when Kevin Deal and I sold mid-fi gear in stereo shops reminiscent of the one in the movie Ruthless People (1986), we used to describe gear as being more suited to rock or classical, etc., etc.  But the PrimaLuna electronics are a little bit of magic:  They play everything well, yet they inject just enough of that tubey warmth to make the bulk of your music collection sound much better than you’d expect it to.  This is a godsend for those having a mostly digital music collection, MP3s or CDs.

For this amp, I took the time to swap output tubes.  A set of super high zoot NOS 6550s or a new set of EAT KT88s, both of which will set you back about $1,500, but fear not, there are tons of great new EL-34 tubes in the $25-$50 range that sound fantastic. The extra midrange warmth and liquidity they provide will have you wondering if you ever need another amp.  And should a tube fail at an inopportune moment, the Adaptive AutoBias will even keep the amp purring along with a mixed set of output tubes. You’d be surprised at how many hardcore audiophiles have gone full circle back to the simplicity of an EL-34 amplifier paired with moderately efficient speakers.  This is an amplifier you can either start your tube journey with, or live with happily ever after.

With vintage Luxman, Marantz and McIntosh tube amplifiers fetching crazy money on the used market these days (not to mention their questionable reliability), make your life easy:  Put a PrimaLuna Prologue Premium between your speakers and just dig it.  You’ll be glad you did.

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Stereo Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $2,299


Digital Source PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium CD Player    dCS Debussy
Analog Source Rega RP6w/Exact    Monk Audio Phono Pre
Preamplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    VTL TL-5.5Mk. II
Speakers Lawrence Audio Violin    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cables AudioQuest King Cobra    Furutech LineFlux and SpeakerFlux

Electrocompaniet ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier

Norwegian manufacturer Electrocompaniet has produced highly regarded electronics going on four decades now.  My first vivid audio memory from childhood is of my father reading a glowing review of an Electrocompaniet amplifier in the The Audio Critic.  As I recall, he mentioned that the reviewer loved the way the amplifier sounded with the Rogers LS3/5A, which he also owned.  Why my father was telling me this I don’t quite know, but I’ve always maintained a curiosity about this seemingly exotic Nordic brand.  The company currently offers a full line of products, including speakers, amplifiers and cutting-edge digital sources, like wireless and USB DACs.

The 70-watt-per-channel ECI 3 integrated amplifier, priced at $3,400, is the entry-level integrated amp in Electrocompaniet’s Classic line.  And it’s a stunner, with copper-tinged buttons adorning a heavy-duty acrylic faceplate against black casing—the signature look for the entire line—plus ice-blue LED lights, which lend the amp a futuristic feel when the lights in the listening are dimmed.  Its connector and speaker terminals are high quality, and its 26.5-pound weight inspires confidence in its build quality.

The ECI 3 is fully balanced, with six inputs, and it offers two tape outputs.  There is also a balanced output, an Electrocompaniet trademark, for driving an external balanced amp.  Electrocompaniet touts its motorized volume control as being virtually transparent.  The company also claims that its proprietary Floating Transformer Technology is unique, allowing greater current reserve than other conventional power supplies, and that the amp can drive virtually any loudspeaker.

All of its functions are accessible via the supplied remote, which has the ability to control multiple Electrocompaniet components.  Setup is simple and straightforward, which makes it easy for me to use the ECI 3 in two separate systems with three different pairs of loudspeakers, including the MartinLogan Ethos, the Thiel CS2.4, and the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3.  My sources include various CD transports, as well as Logitech’s Squeezebox Touch decoded by Bryston and PS Audio DAC units.

The ECI 3 is an excellent match with the MartinLogan and Harbeth speakers, but not so much with the Thiels, which just sound too dry and lifeless when paired with this amp.  As superb as the Logans sound with this amplifier, the Harbeths prove to be the proverbial match made in heaven, with an incredibly wide soundstage and a tonal beauty that makes walking away from listening sessions difficult.  This combination displays an almost tube-like quality in terms of harmonic richness.  But don’t get me wrong:  This is not a soft-sounding amplifier obscuring musical detail in a haze of warmth.  There is plenty of energy and presence, which the amp delivers in the most musical way.

Specifically, I truly enjoy the superb delicacy in the treble and the wonderfully clean and smooth midrange, with plenty of bass weight and articulation.  These qualities are found across the board, regardless of musical genre.  I call up a slew of Ben Harper albums, which are always a great test for gear, since he bounces between earnest acoustic stuff and blazing Zeppelin-influenced rock, as well as soul, punk and alternative.  His sublime Diamonds On the Inside, from 2003, even throws in some hardcore ’70s-style Bob Marley jams and ballads.  I am very impressed with the ECI 3’s ability to navigate these winding musical waters with absolutely no effort, and its ability to render the music with zero mechanical artifacts.  This is not a mechanical sounding solid-state amplifier by any means.

Digging deeper into my music collection leads me to Gábor Szabó, the hugely influential Hungarian jazz guitarist.  His ’60s and ’70s albums are littered with pop tunes of the day and standards in mind-bending psychedelic arrangements.  His album 1969 sounds exactly as the title suggests, with quaint embellishments in the fashion of the time, like sitars, tablas and Eastern modalities.  The ECI 3 keeps Szabó’s tone creamy and fluid, yet it maintains a high level of resolution all the while.

I decide to pull a joker from the deck, cueing up Shine a Light, the soundtrack to the 2008 documentary on the Rolling Stones.  Mick and the gang are unusually energetic in this show, but the CD mix tends to come off as a bit messy.  This is not the case when listening to it through the ECI 3.  I hear Bob Clearmountain’s mix in a whole new light, so to speak:  The guitars bite, the drums crack with authority and there is plenty of bottom end.  Jagger’s vocals are dead center in the mix, with the horns and backup singers positioned well across the soundstage.  The ECI 3 rocks out, and does so with class.

Operationally, the ECI 3 is plug-and-play all the way and a pleasure to use.  Careful listening reveals the balanced input has a slight edge on the single-ended inputs in terms of clarity, but this of course will depend on the source component. As the PS Audio NuWave DAC is truly balanced, it showcases the ECI 3’s balanced design.  Furthermore, the ECI renders amazingly quiet backgrounds and excellent dynamics—it easily handles the most dynamic of orchestral crescendos, which supports Electrocompaniet’s claim that the company uses top-quality parts and execution for this piece of gear.

As a self-admitted remote-control junkie, my only complaint is the plastic remote, but this is a minor issue.  I’m sure most users would prefer that Electrocompaniet instead allocate its resources to the parts affecting sound quality.

With a crowded field of integrated amplifiers in the $3,500 range, it is difficult to stand out.  The example does stand out, combining elegant sound and aesthetics, with the support of Electrocompaniet’s long and respected pedigree.  We are so highly impressed with ECI 3 that it will be an in-house reference component for the TONEAudio reviewing team going forward, because it offers such high value and flexibility.  With plenty of power on tap, more than enough inputs to satisfy, a fully balanced design, superb build quality and cool Scandinavian aesthetics, the Electrocompaniet ECI 3 is a product that we highly recommend.

Electrocompaniet ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $3,400

Bob Carver Black Magic 20 Stereo Amplifier

To say Bob Carver is a legendary amplifier designer would be a major understatement.  Without going into historical detail, suffice it to say he has produced a few gems in his day.  And now it’s back to the future, with Carver again producing amps under his own name.  The Cherry 180 (reviewed HERE) and the Black Beauty 305 monoblock amplifiers have both received universal praise from reviewers and happy customers alike, for their build-quality, stylish good looks and plenty of power on tap.  But with the $2,100 Black Magic, Carver takes a different direction.

This small amplifier, model designation VTA20S, is finished in black with a “silver-fleck” chassis and brushed-silver trim.  It is outfitted with 12AX7B tubes for the input stage, and a quartet of EL84Ms for the output stage.  According to Carver, the “M” variant of the EL84 was selected because it has a higher plate-voltage rating, allowing for maximum power output within safe operating conditions.

Setting up the Black Magic is amazingly simple.  There is no need to bias the tubes, which is done automatically with one set of speaker binding posts, optimized for a 4-ohm load.  There is, quite interestingly, a volume pot at the top-front area of the chassis.  (More on that a bit later.)  I drive the Black Magic with a Rogue Ninety-Nine preamplifier for the bulk of my listening sessions, and in turn drive my Thiel CS2.4 speakers.

After giving the Black Magic ample warm-up time, I’m rewarded with startling clarity, a liquid-smooth midrange and, most impressively, floor-shaking bass.  Carver says that the amp is “conservatively” rated at 20 watts per channel—it definitely sounds more powerful than its published rating suggests.  For my review, I go directly from my Audio Research VS55 amplifier (rated at 50 watts per channel) to the Carver with no immediately discernible decline in dynamic performance, power output or bass quality.

The Black Magic’s imaging specificity is impressive, with little of the “tube haze” surrounding the vintage sound of the EL84 tubes.  The Black Magic easily handles music of any scale, including orchestral crescendos.  The Direct-Stream Digital SACD of Semyon Bychkov conducting Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is simply ravishing in the tone colors of the strings and woodwinds, and the full impact of the orchestra’s power is there in all its glory.  I am continually stunned at just how much of a wide dynamic swing this little amplifier can muster.

The sublime SACD pressing of the Moody Blues classic album, In Search of the Lost Chord, plays to all the strengths of the Black Magic.  The melancholy melodies and vintage arrangements on such tracks as “The Actor,” “Visions Of Paradise” and the album’s centerpiece, “Legend Of A Mind,” are breathtaking in their majesty.  Lead vocalist Justin Hayward’s voice is a holographic presence in my listening room, and the amp delivers more than enough resolution to hear long-buried recorded details—just the thing you call on a tube amplifier to perform.

Staying with the vintage vibe, the Carver brings sparkle and life to the iconic ’60s recordings by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, from the well-mastered compilation, The Definitive Collection.  The Black Magic commands attention on such classic tracks as “Going To A Go-Go,” “The Tears Of A Clown” and “Mickey’s Monkey.”  The rhythmic incisiveness is top notch, with a keen ability to get a track moving.  This inner detail and delicacy is always a key factor with an amplifier based on the EL84 tubes, and the Carver has the best balance of new- and old- school sound that I’ve experienced in this genre.

Moving on to modern times, U2’s “Electrical Storm,” from The Best of 1980–2000 collection, simply rocks when playing through the Carver, which highlights the shimmering acoustic guitars, jagged electric lead lines, throbbing bass line and, of course, Bono’s passionate lead vocals.  On this track, all of the separate elements of the recording are made into an organic whole, providing some rare goose-bump moments.  The remix of “Gone,” from U2’s Pop album, is another standout track providing such moments.

An now, more about the amp’s volume pot I mentioned earlier:  Connecting the Marantz SA-11S3 SACD player/DAC directly to the Black Magic and adjusting the volume level directly from the amp provides additional transparency to the source and bass articulation.  The volume control has an excellent range of attenuation, never going past the 12 o’clock position.  Most modern line sources, like a CD player or DAC, output 2 volts, which is more than enough to power an amplifier with sufficient gain.  For those only utilizing a DAC and multiple digital sources, I suggest eliminating the linestage altogether—the Carver is that good.  However, for those using a linestage/preamplifier, I would leave the volume control at full, effectively taking it out of the circuit.

With the Black Magic, Bob Carver has done it again.  In addition to all of its positive sonic attributes, the Black Magic ships with a seven-year warranty on parts and labor, along with a generous one-year warranty on the tubes.  (Most manufacturers only offer 90 days.)  It is made entirely with point-to-point wiring in Carver’s Kentucky facility.  You can read more about Carver’s manufacturing process HERE.

While 20 watts per channel isn’t the solution for every system, a modestly sized room matched with sensitive speakers will deliver a rocking performance using this modern EL84 marvel.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Blowing the dust off of my Dynaco SCA-35 integrated amp reveals just how far Bob Carver’s classic design has come.  The vintage Dynaco is a pleasant listen, but switching to the Black Magic, even with vintage speakers like the JBL L26s, is a revelation.  Where the vintage amplifier has loose, flappable bass, the Carver is taut.  An equal paradigm shift is experienced in the upper registers—the HF roll-off that I’ve almost come to expect with this tube doesn’t happen, which is a testament to the quality Carver’s circuit and transformer design.

The only speakers in my arsenal that prove a challenge for this amp with heavier music are the Dynaudios, which have a somewhat low 84-dB sensitivity rating.  Thanks to a single-order 6-dB/octave crossover network, the speakers work well with the Black Magic, as long as not asked to play extremely loud—you can always pick up a second one, if need be.

Much like when listening to a top-notch mini-monitor, the Carver Black Magic excels at throwing a three-dimensional sound space that feels almost like wearing a gigantic pair of headphones.  It also delivers a tonal balance, falling more on the romantic side of the scale.  The Carver is certainly not vintage, but it does embellish slightly—for those using primarily digital source material, this should be a very good thing.

Lastly, to probe the absolute limit of the Black Magic, I insert it in my main reference system while finishing the review of the $120,000 Sonus faber Aida speakers (92-dB sensitivity).  This makes for a great showing, as the little amp is able to control these gigantic speakers incredibly well.

Andre and I agree:  If you’ve been wanting to try tubes, this is the perfect place to start your journey!

Bob Carver Black Magic 20 (VTA20S) stereo amplifier

MSRP: $2,100


Analog source,”Rega RP6 turntable    Exact cartridge    Lehmannaudio Black Cube phonostage”

Preamplifiers,”Rogue Audio Ninety-Nine    Conrad-Johnson PV-12″

Digital sources,” Marantz SA-11S3 SACD player/DAC    Logitech Squeezebox Touch    Meridian Sooloos Media Core 200/Rega DAC”

Speakers,”Thiel CS2.4    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II     Definitive Technology SM65    JBL L26    Sonus faber Aida”

Cables,”Darwin Cables Silver interconnects    Transparent Audio Super MM2 interconnects    Transparent Audio Plus MM2 speaker cable”

Power cords/conditioners,”Acoustic Zen Tsunami II power cables    Audience Adept Response power conditioner    Running Springs Audio Haley”


AVA Media Maestro-50 Digital Amplifier

The Maestro-50 digital amplifier from AVA Media is about the size of a hefty paperback novel and is aimed at the computer- and desktop-audio worlds.  This diminutive amplifier takes the approach of keeping the audio signal in the digital domain until the last possible step before it crosses over into analog.

The simple configuration of the $359 Maestro-50 begs the user to power it up first and examine it later.  I begin by connecting the amp to my MacBook using the TOSLINK cable, with a Shunyata Venom 3 power cord delivering the juice and Cardas speaker cables connecting it to a pair of Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s.  The solo piano of a live version of Jamie Cullum’s “Wheels” pops forth with all the quickness one would expect from ICE-powered amplification.  Having listened to live music in the lounge where this recording was made, I’m impressed by how the Maestro-50 gets the basics of the room’s tonal quality correct right out of the box.

Revisiting this track after a week of burn-in reveals less edginess and a more open high end.  The rolling keystrokes accompanying this catchy tune rapidly move from calm to intense, with Cullum’s slightly hoarse vocals now more clearly dominating the track—a definite improvement.

Simple, but Not Too Simple

The Maestro-50 is a basic-looking but handsome piece of equipment, with an enclosure sculpted from aluminum and anodized in a brushed black finish.  The CNC millwork is hand-finished with rounded edges.  The box measures 7 inches wide, 4.6 inches deep and 1.75 inches tall, with the front panel showing only an off-white LED and a small push-button volume knob—the ultimate in simplicity.  The back panel is just the opposite.  AVA was able to maximize this tiny bit of real estate to include a horizontal power-toggle switch, three-prong power-cord receptacle, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, subwoofer RCA out inputs and left and right female banana connections for the speaker outputs.  A USB-to-S/PDIF convertor can be ordered for an additional $62.

The Maestro-50 produces 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, doubling into 4 ohms, which is plenty of juice to give impressions via the relatively inefficient Harbeths.  I incorporate a pair of ACI Emerald XL speakers (86 dB/watt) for the remaining listening sessions via my desktop system, also with excellent results.

The Maestro-50 is designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom by AVA, which is careful to point out that there is no built-in DAC in the amp’s conversion process.  The company use a process similar to that used by Steinway Lyngdorf, NAD and a few others, demodulating the signal right before it goes to the speaker outputs.  A full technical explanation is available at the website of Pure Audio Stream, a division of AVA Media that provides direct supply of AVA Media’s digital amps:

The Maestro-50 is all about conveniently accessing music in a manner consistent with 21st-century convenience.  Users with an Apple AirPort Express can merely set up the Maestro-50 as a zone to be accessed with his or her iDevice, or even a Windows machine.  As with all digital amplifiers, electricity usage is minimal, so leaving it powered 24/7 will barely impact your electricity bill.

Further Listening

Sampling some Blue Note favorites, I find John Coltrane’s epic album Blue Train highly satisfying.  Coltrane’s signature sax sound is open, albeit slightly dry, but not enough to be a deal-breaker.  The Maestro-50’s quick transient response allows me to appreciate

Coltrane’s masterful finger work in the title track.  Lee Morgan’s trumpet is deliciously clear, making for foot-tapping fun.

The vocal harmonies of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey” come through smooth and clear, with plenty of country twang.  The only place the Maestro falls short is with rich, resonant and more robust male vocalists like Johnny Cash.  The test speakers at my disposal all had a somewhat thin presentation here.

The amp’s lower bass output is respectable, with some punch, but those desiring a more robust bass response would do well to take advantage of the subwoofer output, adding the powered sub of their choice to the mix.  Our publisher reveals that the Maestro-50 does perform well with a more sensitive pair of speakers, like those from Zu Audio or Klipsch, so consider that as another option, should you really like to rock.

Final Score

The Maestro-50’s fresh design makes it an intriguing amplifier for the desktop and convenience-driven crowds.  By staying in the digital domain for inputs, it targets users who crave computer-based audio, and its sound quality makes for enjoyable all-day listening.

AVA Media Maestro-50 Digital Amplifier

MSRP: $359

Burmester 909 MK5 power amplifier

Just as mega sports cars all offer different approaches to performance, giving the Aston Martin driver a completely different experience than the Ferrari, Porsche or Corvette driver, so do mega power amplifiers.  I’ve spent a lot of time these last few months with some of the world’s top amplifiers and it’s amazing how different from one another they sound.  But each amp, in its own way, defines state-of-the-art audio performance.

Burmester’s smaller 911 MK3 has been a reference amplifier here for almost four years.  Surviving a fall from the FedEx truck in the middle of a busy intersection, the 911 has played nonstop for the duration, rarely being powered down, always providing fantastic performance.

But even considering the 911’s prowess as an amplifier, more power changes the game.  Beyond the obvious ability of bigger amplifiers to achieve higher sound-pressure levels, they also offer more control at all power levels.  Most, if not all, speakers present a treacherous load to an amplifier’s output terminals, changing impedance with frequency and generating back EMF—some speakers are even highly capacitive to boot.  The dynamic load a speaker presents does not adversely affect a massive amplifier like the 909 MK5, with substantial power reserves and a high-damping factor, in the same way it does a small amplifier.  The end result?  A spacious sound, free of fatigue.

Big Power, Big Price Tag

Merely swapping out the 911 for the 909 provides an immediately noticeable and revelatory improvement—which it should for $73,495.  The German Physiks speakers I’ve been auditioning for the last month appear to grow in stature, feeling like someone snuck in overnight and moved them about 4 feet farther apart; the effect is not at all subtle.  And that’s starting with the amazing Burmester 911 as a baseline!  The instant Alex Van Halen’s drum stick hits the opening cymbal in “You’re No Good,” there’s more decay, more weight and more meat on the bone.  Right from the first power cord, the guitar has a much fatter sound, feeling more like a wall of amplifiers at a live performance, with a feeling of unlimited power.

The bass line underneath Radiohead’s “In Limbo” not only has more texture, but there’s also more space between everything—said bass line, the ethereal guitars, keyboards and dreamy, over-processed vocals.  This tune can sound compressed, as if the musicians are too close together and crowded, but the 909 opens it right up, giving the music room to breathe and keeping the pace of the rhythm section solidly anchored while everything else floats around the room.

Burmester’s 911 MK3 produces 350 watts per channel into 4 ohms; the 909 MK5 pumps out 600 watts per channel.  With 20 precision-matched outputs per channel and an enormous 3.5-kV power transformer, the 909 doesn’t have much empty space inside its mammoth enclosure, which measures 19 by 19 by 20 inches and weighs in at 170 pounds.  Fortunately, it comes in a padded road case with wheels—another sign of the care that goes into its production.  It’s worth noting that all Burmester power amplifiers are burned in at full power for seven days continuously before they are released to customers.  Though Burmester suggests that the 909 sounds its best after 200 hours, it’s damn good straight out of the (aluminum) box.  Those with tough to drive speakers take note: the 909 mk.5 will produce 1250 watts per channel into a 1 ohm load – indefinitely.  I needed one of these back when I had Apogee Scintillas!

The Loud and Quiet of it All

Playing Rachel Macfarlane’s Hayley Sings through the 909 MK5 provides a perfect example of the silky smoothness that the amp presents.  It’s not all about brute force.  Backed by a Sinatra-esque big band, her lead vocals deliver a strong timbre that the 909 effortlessly renders.  As her voice goes quickly from loud to soft, it never gets lost in the blaze of horns accompanying her.  Equally delicate is the opening bass line in Rage Against the Machine’s “Calm Like a Bomb.”  The 909 captures every bit of texture, until the song goes full tilt, with distorted guitars bombarding the listener from every angle. Again, this monster amplifier handles it all in perfect stride.

Switching speakers to the GamuT S9s and giving the volume control a twist towards the maximum, on Fear’s “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones,” sheds new light on this classic punk cut.  The 909 provides an otherworldly, out-of-body experience, transporting me right back to when I followed the band in 1981.  It’s as if the 909 reproduces the sound and the sweat.  There’s an extra dimension at work here.

With the volume up to brain-damage levels, it just wouldn’t be a proper Burmester review without a few Scorpions tracks, so out comes the 45-rpm maxi singles.  Tracking through “Rock You Like a Hurricane” has those present for the audition reaching for lighters and brings the police to our front door—the ultimate testament to the 909’s brute force.

Those of you in the audience who are more proper audiophiles will be pleased to know that the 909 MK5 does a smashing job on your favorite acoustic tracks, female vocal pieces and, of course, large-scale orchestral recordings.  The cannon shots at the end of 1812 Overture really come to life with this much power on tap, and if that’s not enough, you can bridge the 909 to produce a monoblock capable of 1,930 watts per channel.  You’ll probably need an electrical-supply upgrade to a pair of 20-amp dedicated lines; Burmester makes note that your power must be up to the task in order to achieve this high output.  Bridging can be done via external adaptors, as with the 911, or your 909s can be ordered directly from the factory this way.


While it’s just so much fun to explore an amplifier that has no real dynamic limits (at least in the context of my room and system), the true magic of Burmester’s power amplifier is twofold:  It has an almost silky sonic texture that is unique, nestled right between the “just-the-facts” sonic signature of the Boulder 3050 or the Simaudio MOON 880M, as well as the slightly warm and inviting, almost tube-like sound of the Pass XA200.5.  Heavily biased, but not fully Class A, the 909 generates precious little heat, even after a long listening session.

Anyone attending Burmester’s after-hours party at last year’s New York Hi-Fi Show witnessed a pair of these mighty amplifiers playing to a crowded room that was easily the size of a small club with a 30-foot ceiling.  By the end of the night, the 909s remained barely warm to the touch, and were not damaged by the DJ plugging and unplugging things with the volume turned up, making a hateful sound through the enormous Burmester speakers in the process.

Exquisite Build

This brute force is packaged in a stunning box.  From the extrusions on its heat sinks, to its subtle bits of chrome plating, to the Burmester logo machined in script on its top cover, the 909 goes to show that no one produces better casework than Burmester.  I spend a lot of time removing the last few dust specs in post-production and can’t help but be blown away with the quality work of Burmester’s machine shop.  Even with the images blown up 1000 percent on screen, there are no machining, engraving or plating flaws to be seen anywhere.

This is truly a luxury product that delivers the goods sonically and is also a joy to look at, even when turned off.  The 909 MK5 is built to a standard that should allow you to leave it for the next generation—a true value in a society where so many products are easily discarded.

The back panel has two large carrying handles, and the speaker binding posts have large winged knobs, making it easy to attach any type of speaker cable you might be considering.  Even though there are banana plugs in these gigantic twist terminals, Dieter Burmester himself suggests spade-lug termination on your speaker cables for the best connection and transference of such high power.

The only problem with the Burmester 909 MK5 is that once you have the experience, it’s tough to go back.  As we spend more time with this remarkable amplifier, we will do a proper head-to-head comparison between it and the 911 MK3 with a wide range of program material, and will report back in the Comparo section of our website, so please check back shortly.

For now, suffice it to say the Burmester 909 MK5 will handle any challenge.

The Burmester 909 MK5 power amplifier

MSRP:  $73,495 (factory) (North American Distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP Turntable    TriPlanar arm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital Source Light Harmonic DAC    Meridian Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF 5 SE
Speakers GamuT S9    German Physiks Unlimited MK II
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek

Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

As I tear through some of my favorite reference tracks, I’m not only taken by the Viola Bravo stereo power amplifier, which I’ve heard sound fantastic at a number of recent hi-fi shows, but I’m also amazed at how much it shares with the best solid-state amplifiers I’ve heard, particularly the big Boulders.  We have here a new contender for the top of the mountain, complete with glowing green power indicators.

Rather than opt for a monoblock design, Viola takes a different tack by going with a dual-chassis configuration.  One of the boxes holds the majority of the power supply, including a 2-kV power transformer, and the other contains the amplification circuitry, with strategically placed 80,000-uF capacitors located near the output-stage nodes to keep power close at hand.  This setup works brilliantly; the Bravo produces a fast, clean sound, without sounding harsh or grainy.

This approach also makes for a sound not unlike that provided by a pair of monoblocks: a huge soundstage combined with amazing stereo imaging and precise placement.  As Prince walks between the channels on “Shy,” the speakers momentarily melt as the volume of the guitars gently increases and the other instruments join in.  This is a special amplifier indeed.

Viola Labs’ principals Paul Jayson and Tom Colangelo spent part of their early careers at Levinson, and the Bravo definitely has the trademark solid bass response of the best Levinson designs of yore, but with a much more palpable midrange and even more natural highs.  The bass line in the title track of George Michael’s Older goes straight to the gut, controlling my KEF Blades as few amplifiers in recent memory have.  Only the massive Pass monos have more grip in my system, but it’s really a close call.  Viola claims that the Bravo needs a 25-amp line to deliver the absolute maximum power, but we only have dedicated 20-amp circuits here, so we’ll take them on faith.  It is worth noting that the Bravo never feels strained in the least, even on a dedicated 20-amp line.

Put On Your Kidney Belt

With the power supply weighing in at about 125 pounds and the amplifier weighing about 90 pounds, you’ll need a friend to help you unpack and place these fairly large enclosures (17 inches wide by 9.6 inched high by 26 inches deep).  The duo also tips the price scale at $58,000, so if you are paying in small coins, you’ll need strong biceps there, as well.

These tidy enclosures eschew exposed heat sinks in favor of fan-cooled operation, with a massive umbilical cord joining the two boxes.  These two elements are the only shortcomings of the design.  The umbilical cord, which is connected via spade links on each box, can present a problem, especially if you’re among the 8 percent of people with some form of color blindness.  Either way, attach the umbilical carefully, one wire at a time, to avoid a loud (and costly) boom at turn on.  As far as the fan goes, it’s not completely silent.  Those living on a steady diet of rock, jazz and hip-hop (like yours truly) will never notice it, but if your taste turns more towards string quartets at low volume, the fan will be invasive.  The Bravo’s fan is not as quiet as the one in my ARC REF 150, so I’d say it could use some improvement.

The Bravo delivers 350 watts per channel into 8 ohms.  If that’s not enough juice for you, the power easily doubles as the load is halved, thanks to the Bravo’s true-voltage-source design.  Taking things a step further, the amp’s fully balanced design allows it to be configured in bridged or parallel mode for higher power.  The bridged mode is better for situations requiring higher voltage output (i.e. higher impedance speakers), while the parallel mode is better for speakers with higher current demands.  You can even link four pairs of amplifiers together to get 3,600 watts per channel into one ohm!  Viola certainly gets big points for being infinitely flexible with this amp’s configuration options.

Because it is a fully balanced amplifier, the Bravo offers only XLR inputs, which do not present a problem for the reference preamplifiers at my disposal from Simaudio, Nagra, Burmester, Robert Koda and Audio Research.  Whether running through a short length of Cardas Clear cables or a 20-foot pair, the Bravo works flawlessly.

The manual could use some photos to better describe the differences in operation, but it is well written.  One would think that paying almost 60 large for the amp would warrant a little more thought in this area (à la Sonus faber), but Viola is no more guilty on this front than most.  However, a well-written and well-illustrated manual is an essential part of the ownership experience at this level.

Nits Aside

You’ll forget about these minor points the minute you begin listening.  And while you’ll forget about the 40 matched output devices, you won’t be able to lose track of the control this amplifier brings to bear on your favorite music.  From the first track, you can tell this one is very special.  Where my Pass Xs amplifiers take on an almost tubey sound, the Bravo is extremely neutral, with no detectable sonic signature.  It is part of a miniscule subset of solid-state power amplifiers having no character, no grain and no coloration whatsoever.

All of the large speakers at my disposal (GamuT S9, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, KEF Blade, and Sonus faber Aida) are phenomenal matches for the Bravo, and thanks to its highly resolving nature, it easily showcases the differences in character between said speakers—making it a true reference-quality component.  The S9s and the Aidas in particular both have potent low-frequency reach and they both play to the Bravo’s strong points of extension and control.

A quick trip down memory lane to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here proves highly illuminating.  The heartbeat at the beginning of DSOM bores into my soul at high volume; the elevator at the beginning of “Wish You Were Here” is equally overwhelming as it blasts across the soundstage, reminding me just how great these recordings still sound, even after all these years.  I had an equally fun experience listening to the Bravo in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, when Genesis speaker designer Gary Koh was playing Infected Mushroom at discotheque levels.  Awesome!

We can go on and on about the complete lack of background noise present with the Bravo, but that’s selling it short.  What you really notice instantly is the tremendous dynamic swing that it is capable of producing.  Several major Music Matters Blue Note listening sessions keep me coming back for more.  The explosive nature of these records, not held back in the least by the Bravo, makes drums, percussion and horn blasts all the more exciting and all the more real.  I’ll even go as far as to say that it sounds better than when I was listening to a few of these albums via the master tape at Kevin Gray’s studio.

This astonishing level of dynamic clarity is even more persuasive with music that is limited in this area.  Records that you thought were somewhat limited (like the recent Slayer box set) still are, but with this much range at your disposal, they do come more alive than ever before.  And thanks to the Bravo’s effortless delivery of high power, you can really blast these tracks without fatigue.

Of course, lovers of big orchestral music will be in heaven playing their favorite large-scale masterpieces through the Bravo.  Make sure your speakers are capable, though!  While it is not an audiophile classic by any means, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition on DG is still a fun test track, with the end of the first movement coming to a major crescendo that almost always has the extreme dynamic peaks compromised.  Here, the Bravo sails through effortlessly.

All About Power

Again, thanks to the amp’s complete lack of grain, the level of timbral accuracy that the Bravo provides is incredible; yet, its ability to resolve the minutest details gives the last bit of realism to recorded music, doing so in a way that few amplifiers can match.  I firmly believe that this is what allows your brain to stop thinking about the gear, the system and the presentation, and just get further into the music and the performance.

Whether listening to Van Halen or Vivaldi through the Bravo, I never find myself entering the analytical reviewer mode.  This is something only the world’s finest components can do, and it is a rare treat.

Having spent a lot of time with great amplifiers large and small, I still prefer large—just as I’d rather drive a car with massive horsepower than one without.  Big power done right tends to eliminate many of the shortcomings of various speakers, because of the control it provides.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bravo is one of very few amplifiers we’ve tested that does not respond to any kind of power-line conditioning whatsoever.  Its massive choke-based supply has a power-factor correction of .96 (very close to the ideal PF of 1), providing plenty of current on musical peaks.  Connecting the amp to a dedicated 20-amp line is more than sufficient, and adding the Running Springs Maxim line conditioner or IsoTek Super Titan offers no improvement—a major testament to the Bravo’s power-supply design.

Top of the Heap

The Viola Labs Bravo power amplifier is, in every way, one of the finest we’ve had the opportunity to audition; it is definitely a destination product.  If your mindset is in sync with the Viola design ethos of the amplification being dead neutral, neither adding nor subtracting anything, this is a droid you should audition.  Build quality is equally superb and the amp carries a prestigious design pedigree, brought to life by two of high-end audios most respected men.  Just get a good workout in before you unbox it!

Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $58,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable     TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phono Preamplifier Indigo Qualia
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifiers Audio Research REF 5SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10    Nagra Jazz    Simaudio 850P
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum    GamuT S9    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Aida

Rogers EHF-200 MK2 Integrated Amplifier

It’s easy to build a tube amplifier, relatively speaking.  I did it in high school electronics class.  It played music and buzzed like hell, but it sounded fairly good compared to the JVC receiver my parents owned.  There was just something unmistakably yummy about the way acoustic instruments and vocals sounded through my old-school AR speakers that hooked me on tubes forever.

It’s not so easy to build a great tube amplifier, though.  I’ve got no skills in that arena.  Many of today’s tube-amplifier manufacturers follow one of two paths: rebuild a classic from the vintage era (1940s and 1950s) with good success, or embrace more modern technology and tubes to produce an amplifier with the best characteristics of legacy and current thinking.  Put the EHF-200 MK2 from Rogers High Fidelity squarely in the latter camp.

This amplifier takes full advantage of company principle Roger Gibboni’s years of engineering expertise in the world of communications and radar technologies.  The amp combines solid circuit design and meticulous point-to-point wiring with high-quality current parts, like a massive 1100VA toroidal power transformer and beefy output transformers, to create an instant classic.  Gibboni says on the Rogers website that one of the company’s goals was “to create an amplifier that your kids will fight over when you’re gone.”  And with a lifetime warranty, the EHF 200 MK2 should outlive you.

He has succeeded brilliantly, and if the beautiful casework doesn’t convince you, then remove the bottom cover and gaze at the workmanship.  It’s instantly obvious that this amplifier is built with a lot of TLC—and built to last more than one lifetime.  Only the highest-quality, tightest-tolerance parts lurk under the hood.  MSRP for the MK2 model, which includes preamplifier inputs and a variable-level output, is $14,000 even.  (The standard EHF-200 model does not have this flexibility and so it is priced slightly less at $11,500.)  The MK2 features three single-ended RCA inputs on the rear panel, along with another set on the front panel.

Spacey Indeed

The Radiohead classic “High and Dry” instantly reveals the spatial abilities of this amplifier.  Lead singer Thom Yorke is firmly anchored in the mix, with some strong guitar bits and a few layers of synthesizers perforating the mix in a highly obtuse but effective and three-dimensional way.

Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” comes through my vintage Acoustat 2+2s with a fervor that I’ve never experienced since having the speakers expertly rebuilt.  There’s an unmistakable magic that has always existed between tubes and electrostatic panels that always seems to make the world stop for a while as you drink it in.  Thanks to the drive this amplifier possesses, triode mode rules the day, and so young Springsteen’s voice is buoyant between the 8-foot-tall panels.  And thanks to the subwoofer outputs, driving a pair of powered subs is a cakewalk—a valuable feature often overlooked on many integrated amps.

Major Style Points

The EHF-200 oozes style, from the deep red color of the chassis to the cool blue power meter on the front panel.  And, of course, glowing vacuum tubes are always a hit with music lovers and audiophiles alike.  The amp comes with a billet remote that is a piece of sculpture, and Rogers also includes a microfiber towel with the company on it logo to keep your amplifier free of fingerprints and scratches.

From the amp’s carbon fiber and rhodium speaker binding posts to the finely machined controls, it’s clear that the amount of thought that went into this product is indeed high.  Its built-in headphone amplifier works symbiotically with the usual suspects in my headphone arsenal, which includes Grado, Sennheiser and Audeze phones.  Each Rogers amplifier even comes with a handwritten note from the person who assembled it, telling you to enjoy your purchase—a nice personal touch.

It’s worth noting that there is a pair of RCA input jacks on the front panel, a reviewer’s dream if there ever was one!  No more fishing behind the equipment rack to find the remaining input.  Active audio hobbyists who switch and compare gear on a regular basis will really appreciate this feature.

Every aspect of the EHF-200 operates with extreme silence, from the subtle clicking of the volume attenuator to the switching back and forth between triode and ultralinear modes.  Some amplifiers we’ve auditioned clunk fairly dramatically when changing modes, requiring the amplifier to be turned off every time, but the EHF has no such problem.  You will immediately notice more gain in ultralinear mode, but this reviewer finds the extra sweetness of triode operation to be worth the small increase in gain required for full output.  My reference dCS Vivaldi has 6 volts of output, so this was no problem at all.

Major Performance, Too

Style without substance is meaningless—and when the pedal goes down, the EHF-200 MK2 fires up.  With a quartet of KT120 tubes, (two per channel), the EHF produces 117 watts per channel into 4 ohms in ultralinear mode and 80 per channel in triode mode; just flip a switch on the top panel to change modes.  The power tubes are all biased automatically, so there is no need to worry about adjustments or scouring the earth for matched quartets.  This should make the EHF as trouble free as a tube amplifier can get.

The applause in Cheap Trick’s “Day Tripper” hints at the EHF’s ability to reproduce a large soundstage.  This amplifier paints a musically accurate picture that still renders a hint of tubeyness.  The EHF’s overall tonality reminds me of the much more expensive Octave Jubilee monoblocks that we recently reviewed.  The EHF is not as warm as a Conrad-Johnson amplifier, but it’s not quite as reserved as my Audio Research REF 150.  And though the REF 150 has a bit more power (150 wpc versus 117 wpc), the EHF is a thousand bucks less for a full integrated.

Though the Acoustats have a sensitivity rating of only 82 dB per watt, the EHF has no trouble driving them to more than adequate levels, even in triode mode, which again is absolutely dreamy.  The rest of the speakers at my disposal are all considerably more efficient, so the EHF never runs out of steam, unless I play music so much louder than is reasonable and prudent.  And even then, it clips so gently that there is only a slight compression of the soundstage to warn you that you’ve gone too far—that is, if you aren’t paying attention to the little blue meter on the front panel.

Wendy Lewis’ lead vocal on the Bad Plus’ For All I Care is positively goose-bump inducing, especially her detached rendition of the Bee Gees classic “How Deep is Your Love.”  The EHF is a tonemeister, always straddling the line of perfection, never embellishing too much, yet it is always musical and engaging.  The subtle harmonics on both ends of the frequency spectrum from Charlie Hunter’s eight-string guitar on his Bing, Bing, Bing! album bounce around the room in a spectacular manner, with decay that seems to go on forever—another hallmark of a great tube amplifier.

I move the EHF to room one and pair it with the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blades, and it continues to dazzle with it’s ability to generate serious low-end grunt.  Cranking the latest effort from Kanye West illustrates how well this amplifier not only generates serious LF information, but how much control it also exhibits.  Keeping the party rolling with Genghis Tron’s Board Up the House disc adds layer after layer of highly distorted guitars to the driving beats, neither of which cause any difficulty for the EHF.

Tonality is beyond reproach, as hours of listening to audiophile classics will verify.  Those living on a steady diet of female vocalists and plucky acoustic guitar records will surely wet themselves over the EHF’s presentation.  And those who like to rock (I salute you) will dig the dynamics that the EHF brings to the table.  Its robust power supply allows it to play louder than its size and specs would suggest.  Cranking up the live version of the Tubes’ “I Was a Punk Before You” is exhilarating, as is Jeff Beck’s album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s.  There’s just something about tube amplification that lends itself to raucous rock—and the EHF delivers in spades.

Tube Choices

Some will argue about the sonics of the KT120; yet, after living with this tube in a number of other amplifiers, I am in the love it camp.  The EHF works well with the KT120, offering more than enough delicacy to make the most devout tubeophile happy.  It offers better dynamic contrast and impact than the KT88/6550 is able to muster.  And we’re only talking four power tubes here, so when it is time to re-tube, it won’t cost a fortune.

With the 12AX7 in good supply, the sky is the limit for those feeling the need to tube roll.  The EF86 tube is NOS with no major substitutions, so if your taste doesn’t go to the exotic, re-tubing the EHF will be painless.  After trying a handful of different 12AX7s at my disposal, sticking with the stock JJs proved a great place to hang my hat.  Stick with the stock tubes and enjoy, I say.  And stick with the packaged Quiet Cable power cord too – this would easily set you back a thousand bucks, for something equivalent from one of the majors.  I tried my favorites from Shunyata, Cardas and Audience with no improvement whatsoever, so use the one in the box with confidence.

An Elegant Solution

With so many people trying to simplify their lives, the Rogers EHF-200 MK2 is a refreshing solution.  Of course, $14K isn’t exactly play money, but the sound quality delivered by this amp easily equals or betters most amp/preamp combinations that are similarly priced.  And remember, going with a combo solution will require at least one premium interconnect and a pair of power cords, so if you’re playing at this level, plan on dropping at least a few extra thousand on wire just to be on par.

With the EHF-200 MK2, Rogers offers a world-class solution in one box.  Add your favorite digital and analog sources (should you be so inclined) and you’ve got a super system that fits on a single rack.

This is an amplifier we thoroughly enjoy.  If you’ve been looking for something a bit out of the ordinary and a bit more bespoke that offers the full-on tube experience, look no further.   The EHF-200 MK2 is fantastic.

Rogers EHF-200 MK2 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $14,000


Analog Source SME 10 turntable    Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge    Aesthetix Rhea phonostage
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos Control 15
Speakers Acoustat 2+2    KEF Blades    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable Cardas Clear Light
Power Running Springs Dmitri

AVA Ultravalve Vacuum Tube Amplifier

The finger snaps on Thomas Dolby’s “The Ability to Swing” hang in midair between the speakers, as Dolby’s highly processed yet ethereal vocal enters the mix.  “It isn’t worth a bean, if you haven’t got the ability to swing,” he declares.

Indeed, the six-figure system assembled in room two is in full swing right now, but the amplifier powering the Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution speakers is the humble AVA Ultravalve, not the $65,000 Octave Jubilee monoblocks I’ve been using for some time.  This is truly an amazing amplifier.  If I powder-coated the chassis a certain shade of blue-green, slapped an Air Tight badge on the front panel and told you I paid five figures for this little jewel, you’d believe me—it’s that good.

With so much excitement about the vinyl resurgence of the last few years, some of you have forgotten how popular vacuum tubes have also become lately.  Yet, in the midst of these newer products sprouting up, it’s easy to forget some of the players that have been around for quite a while.  Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) is that “other” amplifier company in Minnesota—Audio Research is located nearby—and it is a perfect example of a manufacturer that has quietly gone about its business making great products without a ton of fanfare.  And you rarely see products from AVA for sale on the secondary market.  The company obviously has a legion of loyal customers,

No matter how much time I spend with mega-dollar power amplifiers, I always love a variation on the Dynaco Stereo 70 theme.  While I’ve never heard one that I didn’t like, there are big differences between them.  Some have a softer, warmer presentation and definitely embellish more than others; the original ST 70 is the prime example of that voicing.  With these types of amps, your best recordings don’t sound much better than your worst, but everything sounds somewhat liquid and dreamy—not a bad place to hang your hat if you have a modest system, or a lot of MP3s.

Tube Through and Through

Frank Van Alstine has been at this game for a long time.  He started out modding and repairing Dynaco electronics 30-plus years ago, and revamped the ST 70 circuit so much over the years that it is now truly his own design now.  The Ultravalve is still based on a pair of 6CA7 output tubes (EL34 or KT77 tubes can be used as well), but it does not have a switch for triode mode, fancy power output meters or anything that distracts from the amplifier’s performance.  And its price is right: $1,999 puts one in your hot little hands.

Like the original ST 70, the Ultravalve uses a 5AR4 rectifier tube and a pair of more readily available 6GH8A small-signal tubes in place of the now long-obsolete 7199 tubes in the ST 70, which is fetching premium prices online.  The Ultravalve is one of the first power amplifiers I’ve listened to with which I just don’t feel the need to roll tubes.  It sounds just fine as is, and a little bit of research shows that there aren’t a lot of variations on the 6GH8A tube anyway.  Perusing Mr. Van Alstine’s board on the AudioCircle forum shows him to be a practical man, so I just enjoyed the amp’s stock tubes.

I do upgrade the power cord to a Cardas Clear cord for my review, only because that’s what I use with everything else and we value consistency here.  The Ultravalve does benefit slightly from the upgraded power cord and from being plugged into a Running Springs Dmitri power conditioner.  But keep in mind that none of this is necessary to enjoy the Ultravalve.

Removing the bottom panel of the highly polished stainless steel chassis reveals tidy workmanship throughout, again showing that AVA sticks to the basic layout of a ST 70: driver circuitry on a well-thought-out PC board and the rest of the amplifier wired point to point.  There is a switch on the rear panel to float the ground, as well as three binding posts for 4-, 8- and 16-ohm speakers; this is my only gripe with the Ultravalve.  It really could use some beefier binding posts for those of us with bigger speaker cables.  My solution is just to re-terminate with bananas plugs.

Ace of Bass and Dynamics

Bass control is a big part of the equation here.  The original ST 70 has a puny power supply and it shows up in the playback, with the bass response lacking dynamics and sounding wild and wooly.  An original Conrad-Johnson MV50 isn’t much better.  An original Marantz 8B has a more liquid midrange but still falls short down under.

As brilliant as the Sonus faber Guareri Evolution speakers are, like any high-performance Italian product, they are a bit picky about what you feed them.  Just like my Fiat Abarth getting grumpy when filled with anything less than premium gas, the Evos need current and control to give a stellar performance and sound as big as they should.

And when delivering Nine Inch Nails’ “Help Me I Am in Hell,” the Ultravalve sounds big. I move the amp out into room one, with the KEF Blades (with their 90-dB-per-watt sensitivity), and it sounds damn big, with guitars floating around the soundstage and the heartbeat at the end of the track filling the listening room.  Upping the game with a much more densely recorded track, “Mr. Self Destruct” from NIN’s album The Downward Spiral, I find that the Ultravalve not only keeps the groove of the driving synth bass well intact, but it also does not lose the focus.  The amp starts and stops on a dime as Trent Reznor brings the music to barely a whisper, only to audibly assault us again and again with a huge ball of sound and dynamics.

It’s still hard to believe I’m listening to a $2,000 amplifier.  For those of you in the audience thinking that it’s sheer insanity to put an amplifier like this in a system like this, I submit that it’s the only way to see what its performance envelope truly is.  Daft Punk’s Homework lights up the Blades and I can turn the volume up to the point where I feel like I’m back in New York at Fashion Week.  All that’s missing is the catwalk.

The Ultravalve carefully follows Stanley Clarke as he rips up the fretboard on “Bass Folk Song No. 7,” clearly demonstrating its ability to keep the Blade’s 9-inch woofers in control.  The amp reveals Clarke’s delicate touch on the fretless bass, and it never gets sloppy, slow or wooly.

It’s also Got Top

The Ultravalve is ultra quick, even when playing a less-than-superb recording, like The Stooges self-titled album, on which the amp keeps its composure, provided you don’t turn the volume past the point of soft clipping.  Rather than getting harsh, like many other low-powered tube amplifiers we’ve auditioned, the Ultravalve begins to suffer from a collapsed soundstage.  This degradation is slow at first, but the amp then quickly slides into the same flat, brick-walled sound that plagues many of today’s digital recordings.  But if you keep the Ultravalve within its comfort zone, you’ll be handsomely rewarded.

Miles Davis’ “Diane,” from Steamin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet, proves open and spacious, with Philly Joe Jones’ brushwork on the drums exquisitely rendered, as Davis floats through the soundstage.  This amplifier becomes more convincing the longer you listen; about an hour is required for it to open up completely, but it is still damn good two minutes after initial turn on.

Perhaps the only stretch for the Ultravalve while paired with less than highly efficient speakers comes when asking it to reproduce large-scale orchestral pieces or electronica at club levels.  Prokofiev’s suite from The Love for Three Oranges taxes the Ultravalve as the large kettle drums reach full throttle, requiring listening at less than what might be considered a live level—but how often do you do that?

Back to Earth

Using the Ultravalve with similarly priced components is highly rewarding.  It is fully capable of anchoring a modestly priced but high-performance system.  Mating the amp to a Conrad-Johnson PV-12 preamplifier (with CJ’s recent capacitor updates), an Oppo BDP-105 universal player and the Rega RP6 turntable, with a pair of KEF LS50 speakers, proves breathtaking—especially for a relatively inexpensive system like this one.  But you’ll be surprised just how damn good the Ultravavle sounds as part of a no-holds-barred system.

While the 35 watts per channel of the Ultravalve may not be enough juice for everyone, if that much wattage will work for you, I cannot recommend this amp highly enough.  The level of resolution, tonality and bass control this amplifier offers for $1,999 is unmatched by anything I’ve ever experienced at this price point.  I am very proud to award the Ultravalve one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  I’m keeping this one!

AVA Ultravalve Vacuum Tube Amplifier

MSRP: $1,999

Audio by Van Alstine (AVA)


Analog Source SME 10 turntable    Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge    Aesthetix Rhea phonostage
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Oppo BDP-105
Preamplifier Conrad-Johnson PV-12c1    Nagra Jazz    Robert Koda K-10
Speakers Dynaudio Confidence C1    KEF LS50    KEF Blade    GamuT S9    Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Cable Cardas Clear

Burmester 911mk.3

I’ve probably listened to a thousand amplifiers in the past 25 years and have easily owned at least 75-100 in search for the perfect balance of tonality, dynamics and reliability.  Proponents of every different amplifier topology have their reasons why their pet choice is “the best,” forsaking all others in the process. But the main argument usually comes down to the tube camp vs.  the solid-state camp.

While I’ve always loved vacuum tubes, I have different requirements than the average listener who may only turn on his or her system for a few hours a week.  With a reference system that is usually playing at least 12 hours a day, the tube game can get tiring in a hurry, especially when you’ve chased down some unobtanium tubes for your pride and joy.

If you’ve fallen under the spell of a great vacuum-tube power amplifier, it’s hard to wipe the experience out of your memory bank; that tonal delicacy and three-dimensional, airy presentation is indeed seductive.  It’s the same for the best examples of the solid-state camp with bottomless dynamics, weight and bass grip that you can’t get on the other side of the fence.

I’m happy to report that you can have it all in one box: the Burmester 911 mk.3.  It’s not inexpensive.  Current MSRP on a 911 mk.3 is $29,995.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve already thrown half of that price tag away over the past 10 years, swapping amplifiers in and out of your system.  A couple of thousand here, another thousand there, and pretty soon you’ve flushed a year’s worth of your kids’ college tuition down the drain. And you’re still not quite happy.  I know that feeling all too well, and I’m right there with you.

Sixty seconds to music

The 911 mk.3 couldn’t be easier to set up.  This 90-pound amplifier is covered with heatsinks on all four sides, so don’t play catch with it.  The powder-coated silver aluminum case has a pair of handles on the rear panel that makes it easy to move into place on your rack of choice.

There is a pair of balanced XLR inputs, a 15-amp IEC socket for the power cord of your choice and binding posts with gigantic plastic wing nuts that make it a snap to attach the beefiest speaker cables you can imagine.  A pair of 12-volt trigger outlets is provided to allow the 911 mk.3 to be turned on from your preamp, if it is so equipped.  I’ve never shut off the 911 mk.3 since it’s been here, so while handy, it’s not been necessary.  The front panel has a single power switch with power-on and standby LED’s.  Plug it in, turn it on and enjoy.

Built to take it

Much like the black Porsche 911 turbo in Bad Boys, the Burmester 911 mk. 3 crashed into my life.  While awaiting the delivery of the 911 and the companion Burmester 011 preamplifier, I received a phone call.  “Is this TONEAudio Magazine?”  “Yes…” “Great, I have a damaged palette that I found in the middle of the street with your companies’ name on what’s left of the label.  Give me your address and I’ll be right over.”

At this moment I was horrified that the 911mk.3 and the 011 were destroyed and my relationship with Burmester was not getting off to a great start.  Twenty minutes later, a very nice man from Northwest Gas arrived with a palette in the back of his pickup truck that looked as if it had been dropped out of an airplane.

Upon inspection, the 011 was without a scratch and the 911 mk.3 only had a slight dent in the left corner of the top faceplate.  Nothing sounded loose internally, and upon plugging them both in, they worked perfectly!  When I told Burmester’s Robb Neiman about my experience, he said “Oh yeah, we had a pair of our speakers get dropped out of the cargo plane at CEDIA this year.  They fell 30 feet and only had a tiny scratch.  They played fine.”  If this doesn’t speak volumes about the rock-solid build quality of Burmester, take a peek inside the chassis where everything is massively built and tidily tucked in place.

The essence of musicality

During the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to use the 911 mk.3 with about 20 different pairs of speakers, all with excellent results. But the bulk of the review listening was done with the Verity Audio Sarastro II, the MartinLogan CLX, the GamuT S-7 and recently the YG Acoustics Anat II Studio.  All world-class speakers in their own right and all of them have given their best performance with the 911 mk.3.

I’ve also had about 20 amplifiers come through my listening room, either for review by me or on their way to someone else on the TONEAudio staff.  All great amplifiers to be sure, but every time I put the 911 mk.3 back in the system, I always felt like I was back home.

The best way to describe the 911 mk.3 (and for that matter all the Burmester electronics I’ve heard) is complete neutrality and complete lack of grain.  As I’ve mentioned in the 082 integrated review, everyone who has heard the 911 mk.3 always makes the comment that it does not sound like solid-state amplification, nor does it sound like tubes.  I’ve never heard an amplifier that does a better job of getting out of the way of the music than the 911 mk.3.

The bass is powerful and articulate, the mids seamless and smooth, and the highs are extended, not harsh, grainy nor forced in any way.  When working on a review of the vintage Mark Levinson no.23, it reminded me of how that amplifier had a midrange that was pushed slightly forward.  A few other solid-state amplifiers exhibited an artificial quality to the midrange or high frequencies that always left me thinking “pretty good for solid-state.”  This thought never went through my head while listening to the Burmester amplifier.

Three of my favorite large solid-state power amplifiers – the CJ Premier 350 (my previous reference for almost five years), the McIntosh MC1.2KW monoblocks and the SimAudio Moon W-7 monoblocks – each have more power than the 911 mk.3. But at the end of the day, none had the complete neutrality, lack of grain and smoothness that the Burmester has.

When playing my MartinLogan CLX’s at insane levels, I found my self wishing for a touch more power, but that was really pushing it.  Should you find yourself at that point, you can use the 911mk.3 as a mono amplifier and just add a second one.  I experienced a very similar CLX-based system that used a pair of 911’s, and that was the ticket for those who need the ultimate push over the cliff. Or perhaps the top-of-the-line 909 power amplifier …

Richly detailed

Dynamics are big fun, and so is bass grip and slam; that’s what large solid-state power amplifiers are famous for.  What continues to hold my interest so strongly after six months with the 911 mk.3 is the way this amplifier continues to unravel records I’ve been listening to my whole life on a countless variety of systems.

Even with records that aren’t known for killer sonics.  One day while stuck in an early 70’s groove, I was listening to Three Dog Night’s Seven Separate Fools CD and noticed a few layers of violins and mellotron that I’ve never heard on “Pieces of April.”  Sure, that’s a crazy music choice, but the point is that while the 911 mk.3 is an extremely high-resolution component, it is not one that sacrifices musicality for ultra detail, it blends both.  My favorite aspect of the Burmester gear is that it does not transform your system into something that you can only listen to a limited number of “audiophile approved” pressings. It brings more enjoyment to your entire music collection.

Same thing with DEVO’s Q: Are We Not Men?, A: We Are DEVO? While evaluating the original to the current remaster, this record took on a whole new dimension, with the soundstage expanding in all three dimensions.  Fast forward to current releases, “Adrien” on Peter Kruder’s (of Kruder and Dorfmeister fame) new disc, Private Collection, starts with chimes that just float slightly to the left of the soundstage, but the echoes travel all the way right and sound as if they trail off behind the listening chair.  Indeed, very trippy.

Another favorite disc that features very densely packed music is The Word is Out, by Jaco Pastorius and his Big Band.  This is a killer fusion album that has a great mix of acoustic and electronic instruments with a lot going on simultaneously.  Even at high volume, Pastorius maintains his space just slightly left of center without his bass line becoming flabby, with the drums miked somewhat behind the plane of the speakers, while the horns float in front of the mix, going all the way from left to right.

While at times almost impossible to describe, the 911 mk.3 is very linear in its performance, regardless of where you have the volume control set, until you push it so far that the soundstage flattens out, ever so slightly.  Even at this point, I wasn’t hearing any harshness or clipping.  Though the 911 mk. 3 is claimed to be heavily biased into class-A operation, it didn’t get overly warm during normal listening, and no matter how hard I pushed it, would not shut down.

I continue to draw the same conclusion with the 911 mk. 3. It has a huge, three-dimensional soundstage that I would normally associate with tubes, with the pace and drive I would normally associate with solid state, yet the weaknesses of neither.

As good as it gets

After six months of listening day in and day out, I can find no fault with the Burmester 911 mk.3 and am happy to say that this will become my new reference amplifier.  It was dropped off of a truck on its way to me and I’ve often played it continuously for 24 hours day after day when breaking in new speakers, and it’s never let me down in any way.

The 911 mk. 3 offers perfect balance in my book; it is highly detailed and articulate, yet not harsh, and it is tremendously musical without being dark or rolled off in any way.  This is truly the best power amplifier I have ever experienced.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Burmester 911 mk. 3 Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $29,995


Analog source Spiral Groove SG-2 turntable w/Triplanar arm and Lyra Skala cartridge
Digital source Naim CD555/PS555    Wadia 781I   SimAudio 750
Phono preamplifier Nagra VPS w/VFS isolation base and Red Wine Audio Black Lightening power supply
Preamplifier Burmester 011    Conrad Johnson ACT 2/series two    Nagra PL-L
Speakers Gamut S-7    Harbeth Monitor 40.1    Martin Logan CLX    Verity Audio Sarastro II YG Acoustics Anat II studio

Nagra PSA amplifier

Just in case you are wondering, PSA stands for Pyramid Stereo Amplifier.  If you were like me and were drooling over those cool pyramid-shaped monoblocks from Nagra a couple of years ago, this is the next step in their product line.  The PSA delivers 100 watts per channel, as opposed to the 200 watt per channel PMA monoblock amplifiers and is priced at $6595.

If you want an amplifier that not only sounds great but is a show stopper, along the lines of a Ferrari Enzo, the PSA is the ticket.  I guarantee anyone that sees this in your home and has even a passing interest in aesthetics will be intrigued by this amplifier that can easily pose as a piece of modern artwork.  Everyone that saw it in my studio was fascinated by its stunning good looks.

I first saw the PSA at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October, where the head of U.S. Sales for Nagra, John Quick was showing it off with Nagra’s new CD player and a new pair of Verity Audio (another favorite of mine) Rienzi speakers in a huge room.  The PSA had no problem driving these speakers as loud as I needed to hear them.  I made it a point to drag each one of the TONE staffers in attendance down to the Nagra/Verity room to hear this system!

As someone who grew up with giant amplifiers from ARC, Krell and a few others, I definitely went through massive amplifier phase of my audiophile life.  Granted, I worship great sound above all else, but when I can get great sound in a beautiful package it’s a huge bonus.


The PSA is not a terribly large pyramid, with a base of 15” x 15” and about 10” high.  It weighs 35 pounds, so you can actually think of it as your personal pyramid.  All kidding aside, this is a serious amplifier and though it possesses a switching power supply, it is a traditional audio amplifier, not Class D.

It will run comfortably on a 15 amp circuit, as it only draws 500 watts at full output. It features a pair of WBT binding posts on the rear panel along with a pair of XLR input connectors.  Nagra is kind enough to supply a pair of RCA adaptors, so if your system does not have a balanced input you are covered.  Please note, in the interest of keeping a compact rear panel, there is only the single pair of balanced inputs.

As our vintage columnist Kurt Doslu likes to say, “Don’t play catch with this one!”  However, I liked the shape so much; I actually put the PSA up on a pedestal.  I had an old concrete pedestal that looked like a column from the porch of one of the houses in Gone With the Wind, but this was not the optimum setup for the ultimate sound quality.

I had great luck using the PSA on a large Symposium Ultra platform that I often use as an amplifier stand.  Once connected to my Aesthetix Callisto Signature, we were ready to begin listening. My test unit had already had some hours put on it at the RMAF, so I can not accurately tell you how long one takes to break in; this one sounded great after two days of continuous play.  The rest of my system was rounded out with the Penaudio Serenades, Wadia 581 and the AVID Volvere turntable with a Sumiko Celebration cartridge installed.  I used a pair of Cardas Golden Reference interconnects with XLR termination and left the PSA balanced from the Callisto with excellent results for the majority of the review period.  I tried it both ways, but with the Callisto, could not hear a difference between the two.

Due to the close proximity of the speaker binding posts, I would suggest having the ends that go to your amplifier terminate with banana plugs.  I did manage to get some spade lugs in the terminals, but if you are looking for the most aesthetically pleasing setup, go for the bananas, it looks much tidier.

Lurking underneath the cool pyramid top panel is a set of jumpers to adjust the input sensitivity for the PSA.  You have a choice of 1V or 2V sensitivity.  My Callisto has a lot of gain, so I chose the 2V setting and that was perfect, keeping maximum volume right around the 12:00 position on the volume controls, just how I like it.

Does the sound live up to the fashion forward design?

Definitely.  I was very impressed with what I had heard at the RMAF, so I figured if they could get sound that good at a show, it would be considerably better in my more reasonably sized room and I have not been disappointed.  If I were to sum up the PSA in only one word, I would call it precise.  Ah, but it comes from Switzerland, so why would you expect anything else but precision from the Swiss?

To expand this definition a bit more closely, what I noticed immediately about the PSA is that it has a very dynamic sound, but never out of control.  The highs are extended without being exaggerated or grainy.  The bass has weight and texture, but you will never mistake this one for a Krell amplifier, either.  It’s just right.

If you are an audiophile that wants an amplifier that is very tonally accurate and has the punch of a solid state amplifier over tubes, this is one to put on your short list. (especially if you are a person that is design conscious)

Some people will make fun of this amplifier for having a tiny blue LED for power output and a tiny red LED to indicate clipping in the lower right corner of the front panel.  I say it’s a lot of fun and a very useful device.  But fear not, there is a switch beneath the amplifier under a small cap to turn the blue level LED off of you prefer. If you had to judge clipping by ear, you would be melting tweeters by the bucketload, because on the rare occasion that I did see that red LED light up, I was listening to music WAY TOO LOUD and it sure didn’t sound like the amp was going into clipping at all.  I also found the gently pulsing blue light coming from the base of the pyramid to be very soothing.

As I was in the middle of the Charlie Hunter interview while working on this review, I listened to the PSA with a lot of jazz in addition to the whole Charlie Hunter catalog. The PSA always did a fantastic job with revealing the most minute details and the trailing edges of percussion instruments.  Cymbals had great air as well as attack on Charlie’s first album Bing, Bing, Bing!  Not to worry though, when things got a little bit beefier on his current release, Copperopolis (especially the first cut) this amplifier did not flatten out.  Taking this groove to its ultimate conclusion, I went for broke, put Joe Satriani’s The Extremist (back in the day, Charlie used to take guitar lessons from Joe…) in the player and really cranked it up.

Even with very dense rock guitar music, the PSA held its poise and did an outstanding job of preserving that precious space between the notes.  Exceptional quality from a solid state amplifier indeed.  Then I sharpened all my razor blades.  Just kidding.

Very neutral…  just like Switzerland

The really handy thing about a power amplifier that has this neutral of a sound is that you can do your system tuning elsewhere.  Because my Callisto is a bit on the slightly warm and slightly wet side of the presentation, for me it was the perfect match to the PSA.  I did try it with a number of different preamplifiers, but I kept coming back to the Callisto with this one.  I haven’t had a chance to sample the excellent Nagra PL-L or PL-P linestages yet (which are both tube units), but again I really enjoyed what I heard at the RMAF, so watch for a future review.

Some of you may have the burning question as to whether 100 watts per channel is enough.  Always a tough call, but I think that in most cases it should be more than adequate. It depends on the side of the room and what speakers you are pairing it with.  The 87db Rienzi speakers were playing in a room that was 22’ x 26’ (with an 11’ drop ceiling) and the sound was very big and involving, so I would think in a moderate sized room with speakers in the 87-90db range, you should have more than enough power to spare.

My main listening room is 16’ x 24’ and I never ran out of power with the PSA with my 87db Penaudio Serenades, or the 84 db ACI Sapphire XL’s.  The only speakers that did give it some grief were my Apogees, but they give almost every amplifier grief due to their 82db sensitivity and 3 ohm load.

A very interesting alternative to the box

In my book, the Nagra PSA’s performance justifies its price.  Add their legendary build quality and outstanding mechanical aesthetics and you have a pretty interesting little amplifier.  If your listening requirements demand good sound, high quality and intriguing looks, this is the amplifier for you!

Nagra PSA amplifier

MSRP: $6595


Preamplifiers Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2    Aesthetix Callisto Signature
Speakers Tetra 506 Custom    Penaudio Serenade    DeVore Gibbon Super 8
Analog Sounce Avid Volvere w/SME V arm and Sumiko Celebration cartridge    BAT VK-P10SE phono stage
Digital Source Wadia 581
Interconnects Cardas Neutral Reference
Speaker Cable Cardas Neutral Reference
Power Cords Running Springs Mongoose
Power Conditioning Running Springs Jaco
Vibration control Finite Elemente Pagode Signature Rack with Cerepucs and Cereballs   Symposium Ultra Platform and Rollerblock Jr.s

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

In the world of hi-fi audio, some equipment just begs to be stared at, like gear with the big blue McIntosh power meters, or a brightly glowing 845 output tube.  Others, like classic 1970s Pioneer receivers, welcome being pushed, touched and turned.  In the case of Peachtree Audio’s nova125, this little integrated amplifier inspires anyone within arm’s reach to caress its real-wood casing.  The appeal is instantaneous.

Classic curves aside, the nova125 is a 21st-century integrated amplifier designed for the digital-audio enthusiast.  With USB, Toslink, and two coaxial inputs, the nova125 has one’s preference for music-server output covered.  Just a single analog input joins the digital quartet, leaving room for those needing a vinyl fix, with the help of an external phono preamp.  A set of RCA preamp output jacks are included if you desire to move up to separates, or want to add a powered subwoofer (or two) to your system.

My nova125 review unit arrives with a dark rosewood veneer case—cherry wood and high-gloss black are also options.  The amp measures 14.8 inches wide, 11.5 inches deep and 4.4 inches tall.  It weighs in at just under 15 pounds.  While diminutive compared to my reference Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated, the nova125 is solid in stature.  Its elegant yet understated front face, with rounded buttons outlined in blue light when engaged, accentuates its curvy look.  Even the tube window has rounded edges.  The smooth, damped action of the volume control, should you choose not to use the remote, has the feel of an amp twice the price of the nova125, which has an MSRP of $1,499.

What’s in a Name?

True to its model designate, the nova125 delivers 125 watts per channel into 8 ohms (or 220 watts into 4 ohms).  This integrated begs to be pushed to the limit, easily pressurizing my 13-foot-by-18-foot listening space through my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 speakers.

The thundering bass lines on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” pulsate through the room, with the nova125 keeping the woofers well controlled—the Harbeths are speakers that need major current drive to sound their best, and the nova125 delivers.  Keeping in the Zep groove, I turn to “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the bluesy fourth track on Led Zeppelin III.  The nova125 reproduces John Bonham’s legendary drumming with incredible finesse at the beginning of the track, while Jimmy Page’s guitar eases in slowly and later screams with authority.  The Hammond B3 shines through very convincingly and with plenty of weight.

I then challenge this little amp with a pair of Magnepan 1.6s, which are notorious for easily absorbing the output of most amplifiers, driving them into fits of clipping.  The nova125 is up to the challenge, and proves its mettle.

Next up are various orchestral works, which the nova125 reproduces honorably.  Filling the room with “Jupiter,” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, which I play at high volume, the nova125 stays with the musical score, and the soundstage never collapses—my ears give up first.  Surviving this torture test proves that the amp has a robust power supply and the ability to drive a wide range of speakers, something that, until recently, was a problem for many Class-D amplifiers.

ICE amplifiers are known for their solid bass response and drive, and the Nova 125 does not disappoint.  The deep, sinister bass beats on Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor,” from his recently released Yeezus, rattle everything in my listening room that isn’t nailed down.  A few classic tracks from Pink Floyd prove equally compelling.  The quality of the bass response that the nova125 delivers is as impressive as the quantity, with more texture than I would normally expect from an integrated amp at this price.

The 6N1P vacuum tube that lurks behind the nova125’s front panel can be used as a buffer stage, and it can be easily switched in or out of the circuit via the supplied remote.  Offering a bit more smoothness, the tube really adds some warmth to MP3-based selections, and it is also nice to have on hand for a bit of system tuning.  This isn’t necessary with the already forgiving Harbeths (though still enjoyable for this listener), but it makes a huge difference taming the edges on budget speakers.

The critical midrange region is perhaps the only area where the nova125 can’t really escape its price point and topology; though, to be fair, this is the downfall of all ICE designs.  Mumford & Sons’ “Hopeless Wanderer,” for example, is full of powerful acoustic guitar work, and it feels a little congested coming through the nova125 in comparison to my reference Simaudio i-7 (which, to again be fair, is priced new at $6,000, making it four times the cost of the nova125).  Luckily, the Peachtree amp’s tube buffer goes a long way to mitigate this.

I borrow one of Peachtree’s original Decco integrated amps from a friend for comparison, which reveals the tremendous progress that the company has made in a just few years.  The design of the nova125 is miles ahead in every respect.

Doing Digital

Connecting an Apple MacBook via the amp’s USB input allows me to compare how the nova125’s built-in ESS Sabre 9023 DAC chip handles 16-bit/44-kHz files versus 24-bit/192-kHz files.  S/PDIF and Toslink inputs are also available, so the nova125 should accommodate whatever source you have at your disposal.  Using iTunes with the Amarra upgrade works perfectly, and you can save $100 on a copy of Amarra when you register your nova125.

Dialing back from the hard rock of Led Zeppelin, I go with the Indigo Girls, whose stunning harmonies reveal that the nova125 is a cut above other ICE amplifiers.  The buttery smooth vocals on “Watershed” illustrate the openness and lack of glare that the nova125 provides when powering the Magnepans.  It’s a perfect example of clarity without the edge.  This amplifier is a non-fatiguing delight.

Just Add Analog

A well-rounded integrated amp, the nova125 offers a single analog input, making it easy to add a turntable.  Pairing the amp with the $200 Lounge Audio phonostage we reviewed in issue 55 and the $400 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable (with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge) makes for a synergistic low-cost, high-performance system.  For those craving a richer analog experience, the nova125 is not out of its league paired with the Rega RP6 turntable with Exact cartridge (though this duo has a higher price tag than the nova125), easily illustrating the increased resolution that the Rega combination has to offer.  As great as the nova125’s DAC is, the recent Mobile Fidelity 45-rpm remaster of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan underscores the palpability that this amp is capable of, capturing a lot of the space and decay in Dylan’s voice, along with the texture of his harp.

For the headphone crowd, the nova125 comes with 1/4-inch jack on the front panel.  The amp’s headphone section is far from an afterthought, delivering a sonic signature through a pair of Sennheiser HD800s that stays true to that of the speaker output.  The sharp percussion hits on R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” stay quite even, with no edgy boost to break the smoothness.  Vocals lack the last bit of resonance that a dedicated headphone amplifier provides, but as a part of a multipurpose unit, the nova125’s headphone offers worthwhile private listening when speakers aren’t a viable option.

The Final Score

Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” a phrase that suits the Peachtree nova125 perfectly.  Great sound, contemporary industrial design and incredible flexibility make this amp a tough one to beat.  We are pleased to award the Peachtree nova125 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

And it really appeals to this Portlandia resident that Peachtree has taken a major green initiative with its products.  The California Air Resources Board has certified the MDF used for Peachtree cabinets, its packing materials are recycled and the company’s veneers are sourced from Forest Stewardship Council–approved suppliers.  Well done, Peachtree!

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,499

Devialet D-Premier

As you look at the gorgeous French polished aluminum box that isn’t much larger in size than a medium Dominos pizza container (and probably not much heavier if you order your pizza with extra meat and cheese), forget everything you know about high-end audio. The Devialet D-Premier is anything but cheesy. It belongs in the Louvre—with a great pair of speakers connected, of course. But it will look equally stylish in your listening room. While it appears to be a square box at first glance, when you place it on a countertop or other flat surface, you detect the slight curve of the casework, which adds to the visual complexity.

Much more often than not, associating the word “lifestyle” with an audio component is the kiss of death, as the term usually means “mediocre performance wrapped in a shiny box.” What makes the D-Premier so exciting is that it offers world-class performance in an elegant, compact enclosure. If you happen to be someone who has always loved music, but avoided a high-end system because you didn’t want all the boxes and cables overwhelming your living space, the D-Premier is the perfect solution.

Peruse the company’s website (, and you might be under the impression that the D-Premier is merely an integrated amplifier. Yet it’s quite a bit more. This compact sculpture houses a complete audio system: There’s a 240-watt-per-channel power amplifier, full-function preamplifier, 24 bit/192khz DAC, phono preamplifier, and a wireless bridge all tidily packed inside. As of this review, the wireless function and HDMI input were not yet enabled, but when they are ready in the fall, it will only take a quick firmware update via an SD card slot located on the rear panel to gain the additional functionality. You’ll be able to painlessly download the software via the Devialet website and make the upgrade just as you would on a camera or laptop, insert the card, reboot, and voila, a new component.

One of my biggest challenges in writing this review was figuring out exactly what to call the D-Premier. With such a wide range of capabilities, for now, let’s think of it as an integrated amplifier with benefits. The D-Premier features an analog input that can be configured for MM or MC phono use, and an additional line-level analog input, both via RCA jacks. In addition, four RCA S/PDIF inputs, a pair of TOSLINK optical digital inputs, an XLR AES/EBU digital input, and an HDMI 1.3 input are onboard, so you can connect anything but a balanced line-level source via XLR connectors. One set of speaker outputs is provided, as is a line level RCA output for a subwoofer. Bass level can also be controlled via the remote.

Far Beyond Class D

Devialet takes a different approach to amplifier design with its patented ADH (Analog/Digital Hybrid) technology, which utilizes a pure Class A driver directly connected to the speaker outputs, with the Class D output section doing all the “heavy lifting” as a current provider connected in parallel. More technical information is available on the Devialet website, but to simplify, the Class A section sets the distortion-free sonic signature of the amplifier and the Class D provides high-power output with low heat, allowing for the compact form factor.

The D-Premier utilizes a pair of Class D output modules, yet it is driven by a pair of Class A amplifiers in a unique hybrid module configuration that provides the advantages of both designs and the limitation of neither. First and foremost, the D-Premier does not sound like any Class D amplifier I’ve ever heard. I admit a slight personal bias against Class D amplifiers even though I keep auditioning every one I can get my hands on. But shortcomings remain. They typically offer a degree of sterility in their presentation, and in my experience, have been highly speaker-dependent, much like an SET or OTL amplifier. Hence, an optimum match yields decent sound, but a less than optimum one makes for a mediocre musical performance. Even the best examples have sounded somewhat flat. That said, it is clear that Devialet’s technology represents a quantum leap forward in tonal purity.

Pairing the D-Premier with a wide range of speakers (GamuT S9, B&W 805D, Magnepan 1.6) along with several models I had in-house for review and photography (Zu Soul Superfly, Martin Logan Aerius i, PMC DB2i, Totem Forest) all provided synergistic combinations and a consistency I’ve never experienced with traditional Class D amplifiers.

While Class D amplifiers often exhibit an impedance mismatch with some speaker/speaker cable combinations, resulting in a sound that is brittle and lifeless at best or seriously rolled off at the HF portion of the frequency spectrum, the Premier-D did not change its character. But remember, it is not a pure Class D amplifier. I did all of my testing with the factory standard settings, yet the amplifier characteristics can be optimized to your speakers to allow for the most advantageous combination. Again, custom tuning is as easy as upgrading the firmware, and makes the D-Premier obsolete-proof.

The most interesting result of my speaker swapping related to how well the D-Premier performed when driving the Magnepan 1.6s, which are notoriously power-hungry. 240 watts-per-channel is usually the place that gets the party started with these speakers, yet the D-Premier not only effortlessly drove them to realistic sound levels, the sound quality was fantastic, offering a three-dimensional soundstage with excellent bass extension and texture. The Magnepan 1.6 speakers remain in my arsenal if for no other reason to torture amplifiers. There are precious few under-400 watts-per-channel amplifiers that I’ve heard that can really grab hold of the Magnepans and offer the control and sheer current delivery that the speakers really need.

Should the need for even more power arise, the D-Premier can be configured to be part of a multiple amplifier system. So, you could easily multi-amp your Magnepans or any other speaker in such a manner. Multiple D-Premier units can be configured for bi-ampflication or as bridged mono amplifiers. The amplifier section is stable into 2-ohm loads and is rated at 240 watts per channel into a 2-6 ohm load and 190 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load.  Devialet allows two adjustable parameters for the power amplifier section: maximum power and the impedance of the speaker used. According to Devialet’s Mathias Moronvalle, “When tuning the amplifier to anticipate high current for a given voltage due to low speaker impedance, the amplifier can deliver more peak current and thus, operate more linearly.”

My GamuT S9 speakers, while highly resolving, are ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, so the D-Premier turned in a brilliant performance here. It’s also worth noting that this amplifier was not terribly affected by differences in cable. Switching between Cardas Clear, AudioQuest SKY, and Shunyata’s Aurora showed a difference between the three, but not as much as it did with my reference Burmester gear.

A Balance of Resolution and Musicality

The measured specifications of the D-Premier indicate an amplifier that seems to be completely free of any distortions with a noise floor of over -130db. Even with the volume control at maximum, not a hint of background noise emanates from the speakers.  If I had to describe the D-Premier’s presentation in one word, it would indeed be “clean.”

D-Premier is one of a small group of components that is highly resolving without being harsh. It will, however, reveal every bit of nuances in the connected source hardware as well as your software, so if your source material is not up to snuff, prepare to be outed. If you want forgiving sound, buy a vintage vacuum tube amplifier with EL-34 tubes.

The depth of the soundstage that the D-Premier presented continually impressed. Devialet’s unique method of blending Class A into the mix gives this amplifier its magic. No matter what music I listened to, I experienced a tremendous amount of image depth that resulted in a highly realistic musical experience. On the intro track from the Beatles’ LOVE, that mosquito felt as it was buzzing directly in front of my nose.  I had a similar experience with “Equinoxe 1-4” from Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe; I found myself surrounded in synthesizer sounds seemingly coming from all around the room. Zoolook was equally enchanting.

Bass was tight and well controlled, and the highs were extended albeit smooth.  The D-Premier diverged from its standard solid-state and vacuum-tube competitors at the very end of frequency extremes. When I listened to one of my favorite acoustic bass recordings, Charlie Haden’s The Private Collection, every bit of Haden’s playing came through with the required amount of texture, conveying convincing realism, especially on the 24/96 version. And when I mixed it up with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” the electric bass line had plenty of speed and snap. My reference Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks had a richer presentation, but these amplifiers (and the accompanying preamplifier) have a price tag that’s about six times that of the D-Premier. Hence, the performance is way beyond what you would expect at this level.

The D-Premier has an upper register that has to be heard to be believed; it is devoid of a signature sound. I listened to quite a few acoustic recordings to try and define one, but it had none. At least in terms of sound quality, Ginger Baker’s drumming on Cream at Royal Albert Hall is sublime, especially when he hits his favorite ride cymbals with the small bolts affixed to them. Once again, no signature was added or subtracted.

It’s important to keep in mind that, for $15,999, you are getting essentially four components and really, five if you take into account the music streaming capabilities. Break down the price, and it’s impossible to find an amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, and phonostage of this caliber for $16k, not to mention the requisite three additional sets of interconnects, three power cords, and additional rack space needed to accommodate all the gear. If you are going to use all of these features, the D-Premier is an incredible bargain. But even if you just use it as an amplifier, preamplifier, and DAC, it’s nearly unthinkable to get such high performance for this price. I certainly haven’t heard anything that compares.

Too Cool

For those who love to argue about the validity of Apple’s hardware versus everyone else’s hardware, a simple swipe of the mouse will tell you the difference. The action of Apple’s mouse eclipses anything in PC world; you both notice and appreciate it, or the care spent on the mousing algorithm has gone to waste.

By comparison, the D-Premier’s volume control is not only visually compelling but possesses the best control action I’ve ever felt. In the day of stepped attenuators via remote, the D-Premier’s square control module’s action is silky smooth. It feels like the throttle in a Bentley Continental R; the sound builds gently and evenly, just like the thrust of the Bentley’s V12. Once you experience it, you will be spoiled for anything else. And unlike most components that use an IR sensor—limiting the remote control to a line of sight ranging from about 10 to 15 feet—the D-Premier remote is controlled via RF, so you should be able to control the volume from anywhere in the house.

Another huge plus? The ability to hang the D-Premier on the wall and completely bypass the equipment rack—whether in a design-conscious environment, one where space is at a premium, or both. Thanks to a removable panel that hides the cables and the highly polished surface, the D-Premier all but disappears into the room. A pale blue light that indicates the volume level and input source is the only way you’d ever suspect it’s an electronic component. Everything is controlled from the remote. Just like Apple, the packaging is as artfully done and the instruction manual easy to understand—no detail is ignored.

Oh, the smooth, exquisite, polished finish of the D-Premier begs to be caressed. But resist the urge, because you’ll mar its perfection with your fingertips. However, if you and your friends can’t resist, a microfiber cloth and a gentle cleaner will keep it in top shape. (Use the same cleaner that you use to keep a flat-panel display screen clean. Do not use Windex, 409, or any heavy duty cleaner as it will probably stain and streak the polished aluminum casework.)


The DAC section has 24/192 capabilities through the S/PDIF and Optical inputs, but there is no USB input. I used the dCS Paganini transport via S/PDIF and balanced connections, and concur with Devialet that even better performance was achieved with the balanced connection. The low noise floor again made such a conclusion apparent, especially when listening to classical recordings recorded digitally. The silence with this combination proved to be uncanny.

When comparing the D-Premier’s DAC to a number of standalone DACs in the $2,500 to $5,500 range, the Devialet was the clear champion in terms of dynamics and tonality. Some of this must be attributed to the simple signal path that’s involved. Again, much like the phonostage, this DAC should be more than capable for 95% of the most demanding audiophiles. Those wanting more performance will have to spend five figures on a DAC alone, which means more boxes, cables, etc., defeating the purpose of this savvy component.

The D-Premier upsamples everything to 192khz/24-bit resolution from a fixed-frequency, low-phase noise clock source. Devialet feels that this architecture provides extremely low jitter and contributes greatly to the DAC’s highly transparent sound. After extended listening to digital files, one walks away from the D-Premier is unfatigued, especially when listening to acoustic instruments. It’s one of the rare DACs that I’ve heard at any price that makes you forget you are listening to digital and allows you to just concentrate on the program material.

A Fresh Phonostage

Like most other phonostages, impedance and capacitance loading is controlled in the analog domain, with a network of resistors and capacitors switched in and out (but controlled again, by the SD card configuration). That’s where any similarity to standard phonostages ends. The default setting of the D-Premier’s phonostage is a standard moving magnet arrangement with 47k loading. I began listening with the Grado Statement 1 mounted on the Spiral Groove SG-2/Triplanar combination. While the aforementioned cartridge is a moving iron design, it uses a standard 47k loading and is fairly impervious to capacitance loading. Thanks to the D-Premier’s high gain and ultra low noise floor, its lower output of .5mv was no problem. This proved an excellent match for the rest of my system, offering up an eerily silent background.

I’ve never heard a phono preamp with a -130 db noise specification, which alone makes this configuration interesting on a number of levels. I spent a fair amount of time searching my record collection to find the quietest pressings. After listening to the last year’s worth of Music Matters Blue Note releases, I moved on to Speakers Corner’s pressing of Santana’s Caravanserai. The mellowest Santana album, it features involved percussion that punctuates Santana’s guitar tracks. The intro to “Song of the Wind” is particularly quiet. With the D-Premier’s ultra-low noise, the track seems to build out of nowhere. The component blends the silence of a digital recording with the warmth of analog: A perfect combination.

How does it happen? The phono signal is sent through a set of Burr Brown analog-to-digital converters (again at 24/192 resolution), and the RIAA equalization is applied in the digital domain. Again, Devialet feels that this approach offers greater linearity and more accurate translation of the RIAA curve than performing the task in the analog domain.  While analog purists may wretch at the idea of taking their beloved analog signal, digitizing it, and processing it digitally, the D-Premier flawlessly functions. Devialet provided a custom profile for the Shelter 501II MC cartridge; it worked perfectly when I made the change. In the future, Devialet will supply “cartridge profiles” for most of the major cartridges in use, and again, it will only require rebooting the D-Premier and uploading the settings.

Again and again, the D-Premier defies comparison. Because the phonostage is so quiet, it offers a different perspective with its low-level detail retrieval. However, when moving to my reference Audio Research REF 2 Phono, the latter still had a more inviting analog presentation. Such a last bit of analog magic comes with a pricetag that’s almost twice that of the D-Premier. Those with perfectly clean records, and especially classical music lovers, will really appreciate this phonostage. At the risk of repeating myself, but remaining entirely honest, the onboard phonostage easily meets or exceeds most of the phonostages I’ve experienced in the $5,000 range. With performance at this level, 99% of D-Premier users will probably be thrilled. It’s certainly much better than any other onboard stage I’ve heard in an integrated, save the one in the darTZeel CTH-8550, another very, very expensive amplifier.

More on the Horizon

As they say on late-night television infomercials, “Wait, there’s more.” In the future, the D-Premier will have a functioning HDMI 1.3 input, so you will be able to use the amplifier along with your video system or as a high-quality DAC for playing back Blu-ray music discs. There will also be a wireless adaptor, which means you will be able to stream from your favorite computer source, just like you would with a Squeezebox.  Only an extension board needs to be installed at your dealer, the antenna is already in place. (When these additional features become available, the D-Premier will return to TONE this summer for a follow-up review when these additional features are available.)

In the interim, there’s no reason not to make the D-Premier the hub of your audio system. The only thing missing is a USB port for the DAC. But considering the number of high-quality USB>S/PDIF converters on the market, I wouldn’t consider its absence a deal-breaker. There isn’t a wasted square millimeter of space inside the enclosure, so I don’t know how Devialet engineers could have squeezed another board under the hood!


The Devialet D-Premier is a top-shelf audio component in every way; it’s even better when considered as a complete audio system in one box. Revolutionary engineering combined with short signal paths and minimal need for external cables all adds up to incredible sound that will have very broad appeal. Clichés aside, the D-Premier is more than the sum of its parts, in concept, performance, and value. If you take advantage of all the functions it offers, I don’t know how you could possibly acquire an amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, phono preamplifier, and music streamer for the cost of the D-Premier. Of all the components to which we have awarded our Exceptional Value Award, I can’t think of one more deserving than the D-Premier.

If all that weren’t enough, the component’s elegant design makes it blend into any decor with ease, forever banishing the idea of not having a high-performance audio system only because of the ensuing clutter that comes along with a rack and cables.

Whether you are downsizing from a rack full of gear or starting fresh, the Devialet D-Premier offers world-class sound, meticulous attention to detail in both style and construction, and a virtually unlimited upgrade path. What’s not to love?

The Devialet D-Premier

MSRP:  $15,999

(North America)


Digital Source Sooloos Control 10    dCS Paganini transport
Analog Source Spiral Groove SG-2/Triplanar w/Grado Statement 1    Rega P9/RB1000 w/Shelter 501 II    Audio Research REF 2 Phono
Speakers GamuT S9    B&W 805D    Magnepan 1.6    MartinLogan Aerius
Cable Cardas Clear interconnects and speaker cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri    Running Springs Mongoose power cords

Nagra MSA Amplifier

Swiss hi-fi manufacturer Nagra built its reputation on the ability to produce high-quality audio components in very compact casework. The company has continually honed its engineering and design skills, making every speck of space in pro audio gear count. Such expertise has resulted in consumer gear that looks very similar to pro gear.  Indeed, when I visited Nagra’s factory last summer, the MSA amplifier was in its final design stage. Prototypes sat on the table, along with another new amplifier that uses 300B vacuum tubes.

Unfortunately, with its “bigger is better” philosophy, the U.S. market has been a bit reluctant to embrace Nagra. Nothing could be more shortsighted: Nagra gear often outperforms the stuff in the large boxes. We’ve used quite a bit of its gear as reference components over the years, and the sound quality has always been first rate. The MSA power amplifier is yet another example of the firm’s engineering prowess.

The current MSA amplifier utilizes a single pair of power MOSFET output transistors and is completely symmetrical from input to output, featuring only a pair of XLR input connectors. Should you need single-ended RCA inputs to accommodate your preamplifier, Nagra supplies a pair of Neutrik adaptors in the boxs. The amplifier also has a pair of switches that adjust input sensitivity to 1V or 2V for maximum output. It’s a handy feature, especially if you have an older preamplifier that doesn’t have a lot of gain, or if you’d just like to optimize the volume control range of your preamplifier. The MSA is also designed to be used as a bridged monoblock, so listeners requiring more power can easily add a second amplifier and double the power output.

Requiring the same amount of rack space as the Nagra PL-L preamplifier (11 x 9 x 4.6 inches), VPS phonostage, or CDP CD player, the $11,750 MSA takes advantage of Nagra’s VFS Vibration Free Support platform to further improve sonics. Unlike the pyramid-shaped PSA amplifier, rated at 100 watts per channel and outfitted with an LED display to indicate power and clipping, the MSA adds the familiar Nagra modulometer power indicator along with a red LED to indicate clipping. These touches prove very useful, especially when playing heavier music, as the MSA does not sound harsh when driven to modest levels of clipping.  An optional cover is available to hide the heat sinks, but they are such a functional piece of modern art, it’s a mystery as to why anyone would want to cover them up. A familiar rotary switch used for on, off, mute, and “auto” functions rounds out the styling cues.

Initial Impressions

At just 21 pounds, the MSA is easy to unpack and set up. Thanks to the gigantic heat sink located on top of the amplifier, it runs cucumber cool. Even when pushed hard with heavy metal favorites, it barely got warm to the touch. The MSA does not require much space to keep it within operating limits.

My review sample already had some hours on the clock, but my experience with past Nagra gear has been that it only requires 50-100 hours of break-in time. Much like any solid-state amplifier, the MSA opens up and sounds its best after being powered up for a few hours, and can be left in the “on” mode all the time, or the “auto” mode where it will slip into standby mode after a few hours. In the interest of being green, the MSA draws only one watt of power in standby mode.

Top, Bottom, and In Between

Having lived with the Nagra PSA power amplifier for a few years, it’s fair to describe its “sound” as extremely neutral. The PSA adds or subtracts little, if anything, from the presentation. This characteristic may be good for some. But for anyone looking for a bit of tonal embellishment, it may not serve as a proper fit. I’ve always preferred the sound of the PSA with the PL-L tube preamplifier, as the latter claims an ever so slight warmth to its presentation, making the two a highly enjoyable and musical combination.

While the MSA stays true to the Nagra philosophy of signal purity, there is an additional dose of signal purity and delicacy to the presentation. It might be due to the single pair of output transistors. Currently under review, the First Watt M2 also uses a single pair of MOSFET output transistors and has a sonic signature that’s not unlike the best vacuum tube SET amplifiers I’ve experienced. The difference with the MSA? It possesses the low-level detail of the world’s finest SETs, yet also maintains the grip and control associated with a great solid-state amplifier. An outstanding combination, it underscores my philosophy that, with solid state, you can have it all.

Granted, some users will need the extra bit of power that the PSA brings to the table. My reference GamuT S9 speakers have an 89db sensitivity rating, and unless I played fairly compressed rock music (for example, Def Leppard’s Pyromania) I rarely pushed the MSA to its limits. Even when cranking the band’s “Rock, Rock (Till You Drop),” I remained impressed at the ease the MSA exhibited, even with its little red LED almost solid in appearance. The Nagra owner’s manual does not list the latter as a “clipping indicator,” per se, but as a warning that the output stage is passing more than 9 amps of current. I can push the PSA harder, but it was not as composed at the limit as the MSA. For those with more refined musical taste, the MSA should provide more than enough juice.

Balanced in all aspects of performance, the MSA excelled with pace and reproduction of inner detail. When listening to DEVO’s “Blockhead” from Duty Now For the Future, the underlying synth riff never got buried in the mix, as it’s wont to do with lesser amplifiers—especially during the chorus, when the band members yell “Blockhead!” Should classic DEVO not be your liking, Keith Jarrett basically achieves the same effect as he sings along in a trademark disjointed manner while playing piano.  During one of his improvisational bursts in “No Moon At All” from the 2010 duo album Jasmine, Jarrett’s voice floats right above the keys as it does when you hear him live. Since he uses a standard Steinway on the performance, it was easy to compare the tonality between the recorded instrument and my Steinway. The MSA displayed perfect tonal realism with acoustic instruments.

Furthermore, Charlie Haden plays bass on Jasmine, underscoring the MSA’s quick transient attack and delicacy. You can hear every move of Haden’s fingers sliding up and down the neck of the bass. And while the MSA was long on texture, it did not run out of steam when asked to produce prodigious bass, either. Playing deejay and spinning club-music favorites from Kruder and Dorfmeister, as well as the recent Hotel Costes 14, featuring some great tracks by Tosca, I was stunned at how well the diminutive amplifier controlled the woofers on my reference speakers.

But what takes the MSA into another realm is its ability to resolve subtle spatial cues. No matter what my choice of program material, I always managed to hear those little sonic treats that only come to life on the world’s finest amplifiers. An extra layer of guitar here, one more overdub there: These are the things you either forget about when using a lesser amplifier or, your brain attempts to fill in the gap. But when you hear them through your speakers, you know you are indeed listening to something special.

As it did with the other Nagra components with which I’ve paired it, the VFS platform ($1,925) added more clarity to the MSA’s overall presentation, most notably on low-level acoustic passages. Admittedly, the VFS did not make as dramatic of a difference with the MSA as it did with my VPS phono preamplifier, no doubt due to the vacuum tubes in the VPS being more sensitive to outside vibration. I highly recommend first getting intimately familiar with the MSA and auditioning the VFS at a later date.

Style and Performance

If you are looking for a high-performance music system that needs to fit in a compact space, I can’t suggest the MSA highly enough. This one is a precious jewel, offering a level of refinement only heard from some of the world’s best (and most expensive) solid-state power amplifiers. Adding the PL-L preamplifier makes for a genuinely formidable combination. And while 60 watts per channel isn’t everything to every audiophile, if you have a pair of speakers with the efficiency to optimally operate with this level of power, you will likely find the MSA an enchanting wonder.

Nagra MSA Power Amplifier

MSRP: $11,750  (VFS Platform, $1,925)


Analog Source Rega P9/Shelter 501II    Audio Research REF 2 Phono
Digital Source dCS Paganini Stack    Sooloos Music Server
Preamplifier Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Speakers GamuT S9    B&W 805D
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri

Luxman SQ-38u Integrated Amplifier

Sometimes, there’s no substitute for tradition or heritage. Consider: The original Luxman SQ-38 integrated amplifier debuted in 1963 and followed by the SQ-38D in 1965. The SQ-38u is, in fact, the eleventh incarnation of the design, and the new model looks every bit like vintage hi-fi even as its insides reflect modern thinking.

History aside, I was relieved to hear that the SQ-38u sounds like what it is: A vacuum tube integrated amplifier. A lot of contemporary tube gear sounds more or less like solid-state. Not the SQ-38u. And while it’s certainly not the least bit dated or slow sounding, you’d never mistake it for a transistor amp. It’s too holographic, tonally sweet, and pure. But if solid-state sound is what you’re looking for, Luxman offers a tasty selection of SS integrated models from which to choose. The company also offers a matching PD-171 turntable ($6,000) and D-38u CD player ($4,000) for buyers interested in maintaining the retro look.

You Can Look—And Touch

Of course, the appeal of the SQ-38u’s machined front panel—and its cluster of metal knobs and switches—is more than skin deep. Just like the good old days, the controls have a perfect feel. There are eight knobs in all: An A/B speaker selector; Separates On/Off (controls the rear panel preamp output jacks); Input Selector; and a silky-smooth Volume Control; Bass and Treble; Phono Cartridge Gain; and left/right Balance. Three switches—Low Cut (rumble filter), Mono/Stereo, Tape Monitor—are flanked by a headphone jack and mute button. The metal chassis is sheathed in a handsome wood case, and the little remote control simply handles volume and mute.

Connectivity isn’t generous but it’s certainly adequate, and the connectors are comprised of high-quality materials. You get five pairs of RCA inputs: Rec Out/Monitor; Pre-Out/Main-In jacks; and two sets (A & B) of speaker binding posts. The tube complement runs to four EL 34 power tubes, four 12AX7s, and three 12AU7s planted within the 15.7″ wide by 7.7″ high by 12.2″ deep chassis. The SQ-38u weighs a very solid 44 pounds. It’s built!

The all-tube phono section handles moving magnet as well as low- and high-output moving coil cartridges, the latter two options via step-up transformers. Built-in phono preamps are rare on today’s integrated amps, especially tube models, so I was eager to test out the SQ-38u’s vinyl playback abilities. The sound was yummy, and brought out the best on Blondie’s debut LP. I forgot how perfect a fit singer Debbie Harry was in the band, and the record contains the sort of music that’s best enjoyed turned up loud. Everything I love about analog sound was just that much more delicious with the SQ-38u in the system. Tube noise? Commendably low.

Unlike those on most integrated amps, the headphone amp isn’t based on a little op amp. Rather, this bad boy uses the tube output stage that drives your speakers, albeit padded down with just one resistor to play headphones! That’s right: You get the same sound from your headphones as the speakers. Extremely dynamic and very transparent, the SQ-38u’s headphone sound is far and away the best I’ve heard from an integrated amp. The Luxman had no trouble driving difficult models like the Hifiman HE-6 planar magnetic headphones. Suffice it to say that the SQ-38u is completely on par with my $1,050 Woo Audio WA-6SE tube headphone amp.

Tone controls? Wow, it’s been a long time since I last used a high-end product with bass and treble controls, and those on the SQ038u are the same as those on the original 1963 design. Subtle gradations of bass and treble shifts can make less-than-stellar-sounding recordings, like Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town CD, more listenable. I dipped the treble down to eleven o’clock, and the bass up to 1:30. Much better. Once I really got into the music, I realized what I’ve missed from the Boss’ more recent albums: The band doesn’t sound like a band anymore. On Darkness, Springsteen is playing with a band of brothers. The SQ-38u brought out the best of them without highlighting the recording’s harshness.

Better still, when I played an audiophile recording with real spatial depth—as opposed to digital reverberation—the SQ-38u unleashed a fully three-dimensional soundstage. Puente Celeste’s Nama, a CD from MA Recordings, is recorded “live” with no overdubs and on a pair of custom microphones; the sound was palpably alive. The disc ideally captures the sound of musicians playing in real time, listening, and reacting to each other. A pure thrill, as the sound went beyond mere hi-fi.

Moving and Grooving

I initially listened to the SQ-38u with a pair of Zu Soul Superfly speakers (reviewed in Issue 35), which proved a match made in heaven, but later used my Zu Essence speakers. Duke Ellington’s Blues In Orbit SACD bounded out of the Essence models with rare gusto. The music may have been recorded a half century ago, but it was alive and kicking as if made yesterday.

Inspired, I dug out Rhino Records’ Beg Scream & Shout box set: Six CDs loaded with the very best Motown, Stax, and indie soul, from gems like Jackie Wilson’s “Baby Work Out” to one of my all-time favorite party tunes of the 1960s, the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger.” This music is all about energy and drive. Could the SQ-38u deliver? In a word, abso-funk-en-lutely! I couldn’t stop jumping around, just like I did when I was a teenager hearing these tunes for the first time. Never once did I think about transparency or palpable imaging.

For the last great live Stones album, 1995’s Stripped, I switched over to Dynaudio’s C1, a more precise-sounding speaker than the Essence. Soundstage focus is also superior, and the SQ-38u surprised me with its weight and gravitas. Quieter, acoustic-based tunes like “Wild Horses,” “Angie,” and “Love in Vain” were reach-out-and-touch vivid, and claimed to-die-for intimacy. Harder-rocking tunes such as “Street Fighting Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” felt, to a certain degree, reigned-in. Power wasn’t the issue. The SQ-38u played loud enough, but dynamics were perceptively scaled down and blunted the Stones’ full-frontal assault.

Shifting gears, on Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land, ever-shifting soundscapes and churning atmospheres glide over squeaking, fluttery accents. There’s a lot going on, and the depth of the stage mesmerizes. Solid-state amps produce the textures but suppress the space. The Luxman made the album come alive, offering up an immersive experience, which is how this recording should be experienced.

From tubes, I want romance, and the SQ-38u delivers. I’m not a fan of tube amps that try to go toe-to-toe with solid-state amps in regards of control and razor-flat response. Hence, when I compared the SQ-38u with my Parasound JC-2 preamp and First Watt J-2 (25 watt x 2) amp while listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook’s Night Song, the solid-state versus tube sound contest didn’t produce a clear winner.

The JC-2/J2 unfurled a more precisely focused soundstage, with more taut bass, but the SQ-38u gave me more of Ali Khan’s 300-pound heft. Pardon the cliché, but the tube sound possessed more palpable body and roundness. To be sure, the CD sounded great with both components. It’s just that the SQ-38u shaved off a tiny bit of the CD’s edge. The Luxman sounds less like a hi-fi component, and more like live music; the JC-2/J2 is more tuneful and rhythmically agile.

Gimme Some Truth

Some otherwise fine amps can’t supply the essence of music. They may be transparent, image well, and uncork many a recordings’ full dynamic range, but the sound still misses the mark. Musical truth separates this Luxman from the pack. The SQ-38u zeroes in on the music and satisfies the soul.

Additional Listening:

Regardless of whether you choose its solid-state or vacuum tube models, Luxman seems to have captured the market in terms of providing a warm, somewhat romantic sound. Akin to the company’s L-590A II integrated (reviewed in Issue 13), the SQ-38u is a modern classic, with vintage styling cues and tone controls. There’s even a cool, tiny yellow LED in the volume control that blinks while the amplifier warms up.

While I also had a pleasant experience with the Zu speakers, my little slice of heaven came courtesy of B&W’s 805D speakers. Their highly resolving nature, smoothed ever so slightly by those EL-34 output tubes, made for a delicious presentation. My recently restored JBL-L100s also made for an intriguing albeit more vintage-sounding system.

Caveat: If you are looking for the last word in vacuum tube resolution, look elsewhere. But if you’d like to stop stressing out over what vinyl pressing you need to locate, the SQ-38u is what you want. Its phono stage is killer. All three positions (MM, MC-low, MC-high) work equally well, but the combination of a Rega P9 with Shelter 501 proved irresistible. The Denon 103 comes in a close second.

Granted, a 30-watt-per-channel tube amplifier can’t be everything to everyone; it won’t play heavy rock or major orchestral works at anywhere near realistic volume levels with most speakers. But if you’d like to get off the audiophile roller coaster and just enjoy the majority of your music collection without hassle, I can’t think of a better choice than the SQ-38u. It’s a magic amplifier that offers the perfect blend of tube romance without the layer of murkiness that plagues vintage tube designs. I can see why it has been such a popular model for so many years. Highly recommended.  –Jeff Dorgay

Manufacturer Information

Luxman SQ-38u

MSRP: $6,000 (U.S. importer)


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Preamplifiers Parasound JC 1 preamp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp
Amplifiers Parasound JC     Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects

Rega Brio-R Integrated Amplifier

Too bad the folks at Rega aren’t in charge of balancing the trade deficit. While a substantial amount of modestly priced hi-fi is now produced in China, Rega continues to make solid designs built by hand by skilled craftspeople in its UK factory. That the company produces a 50wpc integrated amplifier with an excellent phonostage is quite admirable; that the firm does it at this level without going to the Far East is nothing less than incredible. Rega’s main man, Roy Gandy, is fond of saying that Rega likes to build products that offer top performance in their respective class. But this time, Rega hit the ball way out of the park.

Longtime Rega enthusiasts might be surprised that the price of the Brio-R is $300 more than that of the previous model, which has been around for about 12 years. However, the new version offers substantial gains even as it occupies a much smaller footprint. Think of the $895 Rega Brio-R as the Lotus Elise of integrated amplifiers; it’s not quite what you’d expect until you get behind the wheel. And yes, the “R stands for remote.

Make sure to use both hands when unpacking the Brio-R. The compact box is fairly heavy, weighing in at about 20 pounds. Peaking inside shows that Rega didn’t allow a square millimeter of space to go to waste. The Brio-R features the same enclosure as the Rega DAC we reviewed earlier this year, the shared approach keeping costs low and quality high. No detail is left to chance; the remote-control circuitry is even given its own separate power supply to ensure signal purity. Poking around inside reveals one pair of output transistors per channel, high-quality film caps, and a very short signal path.

Small Yet Strong

Despite its smaller box, the new Brio packs a bigger wallop than its predecessor. And there’s never been a more perfect example of specs not telling the whole story. While the previous Brio 3 is rated at 49 watts per channel and the new model at only 50 watts per channel (73 watts per channel into 4 ohms), Rega claims the new output stage can reasonably drive outputs “as low as 1.7 ohms.”

Indeed, while the last Brio struggled with low-impedance speakers, the Brio-R effortlessly sailed through. Driving a pair of Magnepans usually translates into the kiss of death for most small integrated amplifiers (and a few larger ones, as well), but the Brio-R did a very respectable job of powering the notoriously power-hungry MMGs reviewed in this issue. It’s also worth noting that my Cambridge Audio 740C (rated at 100 watts per channel) was not up to this task. Moreover, the Rega had no problems driving my vintage MartinLogan Aerius. A reasonably priced integrated that can tackle Magnepans and MartinLogans without problem? High marks are in order.

Like the prior Brio, the Brio-R features an onboard MM phonostage, also improved in sound quality and sensitivity. In the past, users that didn’t utilize a Rega phono cartridge complained about a lack of gain in the phonostage, an issue that required serious twisting the volume control to achieve reasonable listening levels. With a sensitivity of 2.1mv, the Brio-R had no troubles reaching full volume at the 12:00 level when outfitted with a Sumiko Blackbird cartridge, which boasts an output of 2.5mv. Thanks to its quietness, I was even able to use a Grado Master1, which has an output of only .5mv (47k loading). Doing so necessitated setting the volume at almost 2:00 for the maximum level, but the Brio-R remained up to the task.

Setup and Controls

The Brio-R will have you listening to music in a jiff. The spartan front panel shares the same design brief as the Rega DAC, with a power button on the left, volume control on the right, and a button that requires a touch to toggle between inputs. The mute control is only accessed via the remote, which also allows for volume level and input switching.  And the Brio-R can only be turned on and off from the front panel.

Around back, five inputs and a fixed level output made for an excellent match with my recently restored Nakamichi 550 cassette deck, which incidentally is almost the same size as the Brio-R. For the tapeheads, the output has a level of 210mv.

The only caveat? Input one is the phono input and not marked as such. Plugging in a line-level source here will cause a hateful noise at best and blown tweeter at worst, so proceed with caution. If you’re not a vinyl enthusiast, get a pair of Cardas RCA caps, if for no other reason than to prevent a mishap. Rega turntables do not have ground wires. But if you’re using a ‘table that has one, the ground screw is underneath the amplifier’s rear face.

The Brio-R uses a standard IEC AC socket, so those that enjoy swapping power cords can geek out all they want. However, the RCA jacks and speaker binding posts are so close together that some cables will not be compatible. And while the average consumer that purchases a Brio-R may not step too far into the world of premium cables, the amplifier is good enough to warrant doing so. Given the restricted space, speaker cables with spades are almost out of the question; grab bananas or banana adaptors.

Sounds Like Separates

Resolution often sets separate components apart from integrated amplifiers. The Brio-R has an overall clarity that I have never experienced at this price—and I’ve heard my share of much more expensive pieces that struggle to sound this good. After all, only a handful of sub-$3k amplifiers provide true high-end sound; the Brio-R belongs at the top of that short list. It truly sounds like separate components.

At the beginning of John Mellencamp’s “Sweet Evening Breeze” from Human Wheels, a Hammond organ faintly enters from the far back of the soundstage, barely registering a whisper. Other inexpensive integrateds I’ve sampled (except for the PrimaLuna ProLogue1) don’t resolve this. Or, what does come through is flat and on the same plane as the rest of the music—a blurry rendition. Oingo Boingo’s “Nothing Bad Ever Happens” from Good For Your Soul has similar textures, with multiple layers of guitars and keyboards that, via substandard gear, blend together and smear. By yielding genuine dimensionality, the Brio-R is a budget component that you can listen to for hours on end, fully engaged in the presentation.

The amp claims a fair share of headroom as well. Whether listening to KISS, with or without a symphony orchestra, the Rega didn’t run out of steam until played at very high volumes. Switching to the 99db sensitivity Klipsch Heresy IIIs (also reviewed this issue) resulted in a completely different situation. This combination achieved near rave-level SPLs with Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. The opening drumbeats to “Big Man With a Gun” were big and powerful, yet the little Rega didn’t seem to break a sweat.

Your favorite speaker with a sensitivity rating of between 87–91db should prove a more than acceptable match for the Brio-R’s power amplifier section.

Vinyl Adventure

The phonostage in the Brio-R should prove a perfect match for anything in the $100-$600 range and when used with the Rega RP1 and its Performance Pack, an upgrade that includes the Bias 2 MM cartridge. The latter features a tonal balance slightly tipped toward the warm side of neutral, helping less-than-stellar LP pressings sound their best.

For example, a friend that brought over budget treasures purchased for fewer than $3/each couldn’t believe the performance wrought by the RP1/Brio-R combination. Again, the Brio-R’s phonostage offers excellent resolution and a very smooth upper register. And while the RP1/Bias combination turned in a great show, switching to the P3-24 and Blackbird offered a substantial helping of “what the analog fuss is all about.”

Good Things Do Come in Small Packages

The Rega Brio-R sets the benchmark for an $1000 integrated amplifier and then some.  While it’s easy for those that regularly hear the world’s best (and often most expensive) gear to get excited about great sound, it’s truly thrilling to hear this level of sound quality from an amplifier with an $895 price tag. Music lovers on a budget no longer have to sacrifice quality. This one could make a crazed audiophile out of you where you least expect it.

The Rega Brio-R

MSRP:  $895 (US) (UK)


Digital source Simaudio 750D    Cambridge 650BD
Analog source Rega RP1 w/Bias 2    Rega P3-24 w/Sumiko Blackbird
Speakers Magnepan MMG    Klipsch Heresy III    Vienna Acoustics Hayden Grand     Spica TC 50
Cable Audioquest  Columbia
Power IsoTek EVO3 Sirius

Pass XA160.5 Monoblock Amplifiers

No matter your drug of choice—chemical, horsepower, audio—with prolonged use, you always reach a plateau at which you believe you just can’t get any higher. But sooner or later, something else enters your reality that restarts the cycle, and you’re off and running again. Such is my experience with the Pass Labs XA160.5 monoblocks.

If you are new to the world of high-end audio, you can get the condensed history of Pass Labs here: The shorter version is simple: Nelson Pass is a genius. He’s probably got more patents for amplifier design than almost everyone else combined. And he’s got a great sense of humor, too. The owner’s manual describes the new amplifier as “tending to run heavy and hot, but elicit high performance and reliability from simple circuits.”

Weighing in at about 130 pounds each and $24,000 per pair, the XA160.5s are not for the light of wallet—or bicep. Or, for that matter, air-conditioning capacity. The power draw isn’t huge, but each unit sucks 600 watts from the power line, whether idling or at full power. Because they only produce 160 watts per channel into 8 ohms, doubling into a 4-ohm load, they get very warm to the touch. Yes, this behavior is normal for a class A design. The extra heat was welcome in March when the amplifiers arrived, as it kept our studio toasty. Yet, as days got longer, the amps forced us to run the A/C well before we normally would.

Super Yet Simple

Pass has always advocated keeping things as simple as possible. While squarely looking at the enormous monoblocks might cause you to question whether he still believes in this basics-minded philosophy, thanks to Pass’ patented SuperSymmetry design, the amplifier has only two gain stages. At the risk of oversimplifying, the SuperSymmetry approach achieves low distortion (and tonal purity) by making each half of the balanced amplifier as close to identical as possible so that the resulting distortion from each half of the amplifier circuit cancels out in balanced mode.

To achieve maximum performance, the amplifier must be run in balanced operation. Fortunately, the ARC REF 5 offers balanced and single-ended outputs, which makes comparisons a snap. And Pass is right again: Utilizing the XA160.5 in single-ended mode proved very good, but it featured a layer of grain not present in balanced mode. Whether you use a Pass Labs preamplifier or a model from another manufacturer, make sure to take the balanced route.

Coming Full Circle

My first experience with Pass’ class A amplifiers came in 1979. I combined a Threshold 400A with a Conrad Johnson PV-2 preamplifier driving a pair of Acoustats, making both an incredibly natural combination and excellent case for pairing a solid-state power amplifier with a tube preamplifier. While many combinations have since passed through my room, the tube pre/solid-state power amplifier is always the one to which I’m drawn, especially when it involves a class A amplifier.

The XA160.5s symbiotically works with all of the preamplifiers at my disposal, but the match with the Audio Research REF 5 linestage and REF Phono 2 preamplifier is heaven-sent. Pass Labs president Desmond Harrington tells me that many customers use the company’s amplifiers with tube preamplifiers. “It’s a popular combination, but when it comes to power, we like to see our amplifiers offering the tube sound without the tears.” Truer words haven’t been spoken.

As someone who’s purchased more than a fair share of power tubes, I am relieved to know that the sound of the XA160.5’s will never change. And, you won’t have to buy new power tubes every year. Continuous operation cuts down on tube life. If only Costco sold tubes by the palette.

Like Luke, I Ignored Yoda Just Once

Pass’ instruction manual cautions against using the XA160.5s with a power conditioner. Nonetheless, I plugged them directly into the wall and then into my Running Springs Maxim power conditioner, with the latter providing an even cleaner presentation. The soundstage opened up significantly, and I didn’t experience any loss of dynamics. Yes, the stock power cords that come with the XA160.5s are very good, but aftermarket power cords (Shunyata and Running Springs models yielded excellent results) offered up a slightly clearer window to the music.

In all fairness, think of superior power cords as being able to take an amplifier that goes to 11 up to 11.2. Besides, you wouldn’t put regular gas in your Porsche, would you?

Super and Scrumptious

Unlike a non-class A solid-state amplifier, the XA160.5s shouldn’t be powered on for 24 hours a day. They generate too much heat. Still, just like a tube amplifier, the XA160.5s need an hour to warm up and stabilize. At first turn on, they still sound great, but once you get used to them, you’ll notice a slight haziness that softly dissipates as the clock ticks. Coincidentally, the ARC REF 5 and REF Phono 2 need an hour to sound their best, too, so if you are using a tube front end, everything will warm up at the same pace.

I initially listened to familiar digital tracks from the Sooloos music server/dCS Paganini combination. I was immediately taken aback by the additional weight and depth, even more so with high-resolution digital files. All of the class A amplifiers with which I’ve lived share a tonal richness that other solid-state amplifiers do not possess. Some might refer to this quality as warmth, but I prefer to call it tonal richness. I associate warmth with slowness, lack of pace, and rounded-off treble; the XA160.5s exhibited none of these characteristics. The Pass monoblocks sport the equivalent of a great guitar’s ability to sustain a note. On a choice Gibson Les Paul, for example, music just seems to hang in the air a little longer.

Switching back and forth between amplifiers at my disposal revealed that the XA160.5s are indeed very special. It was as if the particular characteristics from my favorite amplifiers have somehow taken up residency in one model. Thanks to their monoblock design and huge power supplies (the 160.5 is claimed to have a significantly larger power supply than the 160 it replaces), these amplifiers throw a soundstage that is prodigious in all three dimensions. Image width really stands out.

I noticed such traits on all program material, but they became more obvious when listening to classical. Conveying the size of a symphony orchestra—much wider than most listening rooms—is one of the toughest feats to ask a system to accomplish. When listening to Sir Arnold Bax’s sixth symphony, it felt as if the sidewalls in my listening room had been each moved out about six feet. Not realistic, of course, but much more convincing than without the XA160.5s.

Recorded live and flush with ambience, Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela (The Coal Train)” from Analogue Productions’ 45RPM 2LP version of Hope provides an excellent test. Having just heard Masekela perform the song at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in June, the recorded version via the Pass amps colored me impressed. While the live version claimed a slightly different arrangement, the XA160.5s pushed my GamuT S9s to a realistic sound level and conveyed such nuance and tonal contrast, I felt like I was back in Montreal’s Club Soda venue. Even at the high volume level, the front panel’s deep-blue backlit oval meter barely flinched from its center position, indicating that the amplifier never left class A mode.

Of course, man cannot live on jazz alone. At prime operating temperature, the XA160.5s did not miss a beat on a Japanese vinyl pressing of Michael Schenker’s Built to Destroy. No matter how hard I pushed, I could not destroy the amps or my speakers. And yes, that’s a very good thing. Staying in Japanese LP mode, Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle proved tough to resist, as did David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. These old favorites never sounded better, and when I quickly switched back to the gear I’ve lived with for some time, across-the-range performance boosts became manifest.

Staggering Pace and Tonality

While classical music plays to one group of the XA160.5s strengths, revisiting the recently remastered Beatles catalog plays to another: These amplifiers offer rock-solid pace. Violins in the mono version of “Eleanor Rigby” (from Revolver) were strongly anchored, and Lennon and McCartney’s voices unwavering. There was so much depth, it almost sounded like a stereo recording! Speaking of the latter, the stereo version of “Penny Lane” from Magical Mystery Tour turned out to be just as exciting. Ringo Starr’s drumming and McCartney’s bass held true throughout the psychedelic soundscape.

I am easily swayed by the big sound of these amplifiers, yet that characteristic only scratches the surface of their capabilities. Concerning tonal accuracy and texture? Spot on. Acoustic instruments sound correct, whether listening to wind, string, or percussion instruments. Dynamic contrasts equate to the best I’ve experienced. A few TONE writers whose tastes skew towards classical remain astonished at the lifelike piano reproduction.

Music fans that crave vocal performances will benefit from the XA160.5’s picture-perfect tonality and resolution. Again, the extra tonal body almost feels as if one is listening to an SET—albeit an SET with nearly unlimited power that you can use with real-world speakers. The extra low-level resolution goes a long way, especially when spinning marginal discs. An ideal example comes courtesy of Keith Richards’ Talk is Cheap. Richards is not known for possessing a terribly strong lead vocal. Yet, when put through the XA160.5s, it actually has some depth. Such is the XA160.5s’ allure. They hover at the optimum point of boasting maximum resolution without being harsh, sounding full bodied and musically natural without introducing tonal distortion— a difficult balancing act.

Bass response keeps in line with the exceptional performance found elsewhere in the frequency range. While the XA160.5s have more than ample weight and slam, the bass reveals a level of texture and detail that I’ve only experienced with a small handful of amplifiers. Remember: It’s easy to confuse “audiophile bass” (usually over-damped and distinguishable from the real thing that has life, texture, and resonance); the XA160.5’s are the genuine article. A cursory listen to your favorite acoustic bassist reveals the way these amplifiers allow the instrument to breath, and brings you that much closer to the actual performance.

Top Contenders

Two years ago, I proclaimed the Burmester 911 Mk.3’s the best amplifiers I’ve heard. And over the course of hundreds of product reviews, I’ve used that dreaded “B” word just once in the absolute sense. After conveying my enthusiasm for these amplifiers to Harrington, he responded, “The 160’s are amazing, but you need to hear the 200s.” So just when I thought I couldn’t get any higher, the quest begins again.

It’s always tough to make comparisons, yet the XA160.5 combines the virtues of my three favorite amplifiers into one (actually two) boxes:  the delicacy of the Wavac EC300B, the texture and dimensionality of the ARC REF 150, and the power, control, and composure of the Burmester 911s.

Independent of the “B” word, the Pass Labs XA160.5 monoblocks orbit the top stratosphere of amplifier design at any price. If you would like that je ne sais quoi that you thought required a vacuum-tube amplifier, these are a consummate alternative. There is nothing that the XA160.5s do not do.

The Pass Labs XA160.5 monoblocks

MSRP:  $24,000/pr.


Analog Source Audio Research REF Phono 2     AVID Acutus Reference SP w/SME V tonearm and Koetsu Urushi Blue cartridge    AVID Volvere SP w/SME 309 tonearm and Grado Statement1 cartridge
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier Burmester 011    Burmester 088    ARC REF 5    McIntosh C500   Conrad Johnson ET5
Speakers GamuT S9
Power Running Springs Dmitri    Running Springs Maxim
Accessories Furutech DeMag    Loricraft RCM

Bel Canto C5i Integrated Amplifier

Many of my non-audiophile friends would love to have a great music system, but often ask the same question: “Do I really need that rack full of components?” With the Bel Canto C5i DAC Integrated Amplifier  you don’t. For those who want a serious hi-fi system with a diminutive footprint, the C5i is the perfect place to begin. Add speakers, a source, and you are ready to rock.

At $1,895 the C5i includes a 60-watt-per-channel class-D power amplifier, 24/192 DAC, MM phonostage, and a respectable headphone amplifier.  Bel Canto skips the preamplifier stage, driving the amp directly from  the DAC section, utilizing their 24-bit digital level control.  Designer John Stronczer likes to point out that their approach leaves “no stinky pots to wear out.”  The MM and line level inputs go through a 24/192 ADC into the DAC section, eliminating the traditional line level preamplifier function entirely. And it’s all neatly tucked into a box the size of a Stephen King novel. Thanks to the class -D amplifier, the C5i only draws about 13 watts from the outlet, so your carbon footprint won’t be taxed.

Fortunately 60wpc is also enough juice to entertain a wide range of speaker possibilities  Most of my listening sessions took place with the new Dali F5 speakers with 88db sensitivity. Yet the C5i had no trouble when mated with the 83db Harbeth P3ESRs – perhaps due to the fact that it doubles its rated power into 4 ohms and can deliver up to 30 amps of peak current.

A Plethora of Inputs

Along with losing the stack of gear and pile of cables required by a more traditional setup, you need just one interconnect pair to operate a system based on the C5i—another plus. With the C5i, your computer or laptop is only a USB cable away from becoming a first-class digital front end. In addition to the USB port, the unit boasts a pair of RCA SPDIF inputs as well as a pair of TOSLINK optical inputs. You can connect a cable TV box, game console, or whatever other digital device suits your fancy, turning the C5i into a media hub. The USB port offers digital playback up to 24/96, while the SPDIF and Toslink ports take full advantage of the DAC’s 24/192 capabilities.

In addition to the MM phono input with standard 47k ohm loading, a high-level analog input is available should you add another phonostage or perhaps, a tuner – like Bel Canto’s FM1. Using the phonostage with a handful of MM cartridges delivered excellent results. The Shure V15mvxr, Rega Exact, and Clearaudio Maestro Wood all worked well with the on-board phono, and I was also happy with the sound of my recent LP-12/V15 combo. Quiet, dynamic and musical, the on-board phonostage is equal to if not better than any of the sub-$300 external phonostages I’ve experienced.

The Rega RP1/Ortofon OM5e also effortlessly pairs with the C5i. Listening to a handful of budget 70s rock records revealed enough midrange warmth and depth to feel the analog love. Bottom line: If you don’t already have a turntable, the C5i makes adding analog to your system a painless process. True analog fanatics will want more performance, but they aren’t the model’s target audience.

Love digital? So does the C5i. High-resolution and 16/44.1 files via a Mac Mini, Sooloos Control 15, and MSB Universal Transport transmitted without a hiccup. When you push play and the music begins, the sampling rate blinks on the C5i’s main display.  Since most of my high-res collection is at 24/96 I didn’t audition any 24/192 material.

The C5i’s DAC performance also impressed by holding its own with a number of competitors in the $500-$1,000 category. Listening to my fair share of the BBC’s Bax: The Symphonies box set, I couldn’t help but notice the DAC’s level of tonal purity and separation, even on 16/44.1 recordings. Should these options seem like too much work, the C5i works great with an iPod. Plugging in a little 4GB iPod Nano yields fab results, especially with Apple lossless files.

Serious Authority

A prominent sonic wallop is likely the first thing you’ll notice when firing up the C5i. Bass is particularly well controlled, as is transient attack. The California Guitar Trio’s “Led Foot” demonstrates the C5i’s ability to maintain pace while simultaneously keeping separate and clean the three distinct guitar voices. California Guitar Trio records contain a wealth of musical information in a small space, an acoustic that most moderately priced integrated models fail at recreating.

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks lies at the opposite end of the sound spectrum. A skilled drummer that never hesitates to maximize his kit, Bruford provides a great torture test. The C5i has no problem keeping the cymbals in their own distinct space as the percussionist takes flight on several rapidly paced solos.

Comparing the C5i to the much larger REF500M monoblocks reveals a close resemblance at less-than-earthquake levels, and for good reason: The C5i uses the same power modules, albeit in stereo rather than in a bridged mono configuration. Again, Bel Canto doesn’t sacrifice sound quality at a lower power level, making the C5i an even more attractive proposition regardless of where you sit in the audiophile pecking order. And diversity abounds.

The high-level outputs give it even more versatility for listeners that desire a satellite/subwoofer system. Users that either don’t want or can’t get speakers right now should think of the C5i as a wonderful headphone amp that happens to have a great DAC and phonostage. It adequately drove the new Grado PS500, Audeze LCD2, AKG 701, and Sennheiser 650 headphones. Yes, you can drop another $500-$1,000 on an outboard headphone amp, but this one works well and is miles beyond any pod or tablet.

New Balance

As much fun as it is to listen to the C5i, its seamless integration into any environment means there’s no reason not to have a great hi-fi in your house. You don’t need a pile of gear, massive loom of cables, or gaggle of remote controls. If you’d like to build a system a few marks above the budget level, the C5i awaits your discovery. It combines both functionality and performance in a compact package, underscoring the fact that you don’t need to spend a small fortune to get good sound. More, please.

NAD C316 BEE Integrated Amplifier

The NAD 3020 integrated amplifier was a marvel in its day. While rated at only 20 watts per channel, it boasted a beefy power supply and fair amount of headroom, giving it the ability to drive a wide range of speakers. It also included a bevy of features, not the least of which was a high-quality MM phono preamplifier and “soft clipping” circuit that prevented more than a few tweeters from ruin. All this audio goodness came wrapped in a stark, olive green-tinted black case for just $219.

The C316 BEE power is rated at twice that of the 3020 and claims NAD’s latest PowerDrive circuitry from the company’s flagship amplifiers. Tone controls now offer the option to be entirely switched out of the circuit, and an 1/8” jack on the front panel accommodates the high-level output of a portable music player.

As one of many audiophiles with fond memories of the NAD 3020 (an original, not the later A or B version), I had tons of fun bringing one back into the studio for a serious listening session. Mark Stone and the folks at NAD North America gave the 3020 seen in this issue’s Old School section a complete checkup, verifying that it still more than meets its original design specs. Our test sample exceeded the stated 20wpc at 8 ohms rating by a healthy margin, producing 29 wpc at rated distortion. (Steve Guttenberg lends further insights on page 19.)

Still, while the 3020 is a stout amplifier on the bench and in the listening room, time has come to move on to the entry-level NAD integrated. The new model’s form factor remains similar, albeit slightly slimmer. The LEDs follow modern fashion and are blue instead of the red popular in the late 70s. A remote is included in the box. And, adjusted for inflation, the $329 C316 BEE makes for an even monetary better value than the 3020 in the early 80s.

Better Than I Remember

It’s always easy to wax poetic about the past, deluding oneself into thinking that things were better back in the old days. While the 3020’s power meter was constantly pegged driving my Acoustat 2+2’s during the early 80s, it barely broke a sweat powering my current Verity Audio Rienzes, which present a much more benign load. At modest listening levels, neither amplifier caved, but the difference in sound between the two units proved dramatic—and in favor of the old.

Teamed with the Rienze floorstanding speakers and a dCS Paganini stack, and cabled with a full complement of Cardas Clear, the demonstration epitomized what I’ll call audio-foolery. Who in their right mind would mate a couple of $300 integrated amplifiers with $100k worth of ancillaries? Guilty as charged, but the results were telling.

Differences between old and new models are unmistakable. The current amplifier possesses more extension at the upper end of the spectrum, but the vintage unit wins in every other category. The 3020 enjoys a more vivid, almost tube-like midrange, and takes control of the Rienze’s woofers with more authority.

While the C316 BEE is a great little amplifier, the 3020 is a serious piece of audiophile kit.  When listening to Thomas Dolby’s “My Brain is Like a Sieve” from Aliens Ate My Buick, the electronic effects have an almost buoyant feel, wafting back and forth across the soundstage. Yet they stay in a single plain when experienced via the C316 BEE. The wet and expansive echo in Tim Curry’s voice on the title track of Simplicity has depth on the 3020, but none on the new amplifier. The most explicit revelation occurred during the intro of Keith Emerson’s “Ignition” from his recent Keith Emerson Band. Where the 3020 reproduces the low organ notes, all is silence when played through the C316 BEE.

A similar verdict is reached listening to Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina.” The C316 BEE just doesn’t have the grunt. The final nail in the coffin came courtesy of the acoustic guitar intro to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” A tonal richness exists with the 3020 that fools you into thinking a much more expensive amplifier is behind the scenes. No wonder the audiophile press labeled this amplifier a “giant killer.” At modest volume, it more than held its own with the industry’s best when introduced in the early 80s.

When swapping my aforementioned setup for an iPad, Aperion Intimus 5 bookshelf speakers ($599/pair), and Radio Shack capable, the differences between the two amps practically disappeared. But that’s what makes the 3020 so cool: You can hook it up to a pair of $11,000 speakers and be impressed. While the C316 BEE may not ultimately appeal to audiophile sensibilities (and let’s face it, what $329 integrated amplifier does today?), it makes for a great graduation present for a music-loving teenager about to head off to college.

Progress Worth the Price

Don’t get me wrong: The NAD C316 BEE represents very good value and performance for the price. Like its predecessor, it serves as a great cornerstone for a budget hi-fi system. If mated with a decent pair of $250-$600 speakers, it’s sure to impress the uninitiated. And if you’ve never experienced a 3020 in great shape, you’ll probably be bowled over by the C316 BEE.

The idea of a brand-spanking new amplifier with no scratches or fingerprints, as well as a warranty, will likely appeal to 99.9% of listeners that would rather not take the chance of getting an abused relic. 3020s usually got passed on from friend to friend, creating a lot of audiophile goodwill. But more often than not, they gathered numerous abrasions in the process. However, if you do happen to stumble across a mint 3020, buy it.

Removing the cover of the C316 BEE reveals a tidy layout that’s a model of simplicity, with a large toroidal transformer and beefy heat sink for the power amplifier’s output stage. By comparison, the 3020 looks like someone emptied a colander of pasta on the circuit board. And the C316 BEE does have a remote, so progress isn’t all bad.

Besides, the NAD C316 BEE offers everything you need around which to build a great budget hi-fi system. It sounds good, fits nearly anywhere, and offers much better sound than what local big-box bandits sell for the same amount of money. Will it shift millions of units like its predecessor, and end up in dorm rooms everywhere? We can only hope.

Decware Zen Torii Mk.3 Amplifier

Hyundai covers its engines for 100,000 miles. Bryston guarantees its amplifiers for 30 years. Decware guarantees its amplifiers for life. Any way you look at it, offering long warranties takes guts. It also means you better make a damn good product, or you’re going to go broke servicing warranty repairs.

The Decware Zen Torii Mk.3 is a damn good amplifier.

While I hate to use the “b” word (best), the Torii is my favorite power amplifier based on the EL-34 tube, and that’s saying a lot. I’ve always had a major affection for such amplifiers, which possess many characteristics of great single-ended triode amplifiers and yet, have more power and control than an SET can muster.

Think of the Torii as an SET with benefits—namely, increased bass control and dynamics. Unless you have extraordinarily efficient speakers, a few watts per channel just won’t rock your world. But 25 watts per channel dramatically changes the game, and is more than enough to power the Verity Audio Amadis speakers (93db/1-watt sensitivity) to a sufficiently high level on music of any kind. The Mk.2 does a fine job with the Verity Rienzis (87db/1 watt) and B&W 802 Diamonds (90db/1 watt). Still, the Amadis’ added sensitivity is just what’s needed to push the envelope.

Decware owner and chief engineer Steve Deckert claims his amplifier is “the last one you’ll ever want” and should only be used with a preamplifier if you happen to have a world-class unit at your disposal. Fortunately, I have two: An ARC REF 5 (vacuum tubes) and Burmester 011 (solid-state), each reference components, and both excellent matches for the Torii. At the end of the day, with the Verity speakers, I was willing to relinquish the last bit of the ARC preamp’s front-to-back-image depth for the additional bass grip and slam the Burmester provides. With the GamuT S9s, the ARC has the edge.

An optional $150 stepped attenuator on the Torii makes it easy to keep the preamplifiers used within their respective sweet spot, balancing dynamics and the lowest noise floor in the presentation.  While the sound remains excellent when using the dCS Paganini straight into the Torii, via the Paganini’s digital volume control, I feel that a killer linestage brings maximum dynamics to the table.

Deckert warned me that the Torii would require a long break-in period. Yet it sounded good right out of its supplied Pelican Case—another nice option, and one that certainly beats a cheesy cardboard box. Moreover, it keeps improving over time and, if I had to guess even after 700 hours of listening time, still sounds as if it is advancing. Where many amplifiers sound grainy and two-dimensional after only a few hours on the clock, the Torii’s tonal character just keeps ameliorating as the hours rack up.

My review sample has the optional V-Cap upgrade, which adds $500 to the window sticker. It’s well worth the price. A custom wood base is also available, meaning that a completely tweaked-out version fetches about $3,600. Each Torii is hand-built by one person and given plenty of attention from start to finish, not unlike a master engine constructed at Ferrari or Aston Martin. Such care becomes obvious the minute you take your Torii out of the carton; it’s truly a product to cherish. (Decware products are all built to order and only available factory-direct.)

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

The only aspect that might drive you nuts with the Torii? The amount of customization you can bring to its sound by swapping various tubes. This amplifier is what a tennis ball is to a Jack Russell terrier; you can chase it forever and you’ll collapse in exhaustion by the time you’re done. If that’s your idea of fun, you’ll never get bored with the Torii. While every tube makes a difference, the output tubes seemingly make the least amount of difference. I tried several combinations, but the input tubes and voltage regulators provide more sonic variance than swapping output tubes.

Deckert attributes this characteristic to his “Hazen grid modification” that involves substituting a non-polarized film capacitor for the piece of wire that normally connects between the suppressor grid and cathode in the output stage. Deckert also touts another benefit of his modification: The basic push-pull output stage makes it less sensitive to tube type. I must concur. This is great news—especially considering that the price of vintage NOS EL-34 tubes can soar as high as $300 each.

The Torii comes with the most informative owners manual I’ve ever seen. Rather than bore you with paragraphs of tube rolling escapades, click here for the manual:

And the adjustments don’t stop with the tubes. You can choose one of two bias settings, and there is a bass and treble control. Not traditional tone controls, mind you, but two more ways to optimize the speaker/amplifier interface. The treble control rolls off the high-frequency response of the amplifier, but simply shunts to ground so it is not in the signal path. Deckert says the “bass control” actually impacts how the amplifier interacts with the speakers, and that there is no fixed “flat” position for these controls. Hence, they must be adjusted with each speaker. Finally, a 4/8-ohm impedance switch is present and, as with any tube amplifier with multiple output taps, should also be sampled, as often times the best match is not what you might think.

Those who stay focused and have the Zen-like patience to settle on a combination (or two) will be rewarded with a presentation that transports them to a special place. Even if you stick with the supplied tubes, the bass, treble, bias, and impedance controls are worth five minutes of your time. Consider: the Torii might actually save you money if you’ve got a pair of speakers that are too forward or a touch boomy. There’s a good chance that making small adjustments will dial in a speaker you may have considered selling. More money for concert tickets never came easier.

Unlike Any Other EL-34 Amplifier

Whereas a Shindo or vintage Marantz amplifier embellishes the sound in a way in which the music tends to sound warm, romantic, and even a bit slow regarding pace and timing (not that this is always a bad thing for many digital and other less-than-stellar recordings), ultimately laying resolution on a sacrificial altar, the Torii strikes a perfect balance of rendering additional tonal richness without altering the music’s fundamental character.

Via the Torii, Moraine’s “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” from Metamorphic Rock is an absolute prog freak-out, with layer upon layer of maniacal synthesizers and overdubbed guitars all kept in order with larger-than-life drums. Whatever your taste in complex tunes—be it prog, metal, or full-scale orchestral music—you will find intoxicating the Torii’s ability to maintain musical pace.

Without fail, the Torii consistently digs deep into recordings, uncovering morsels of information you may have never heard before. Montrose’s “Rock Candy” is a classic example of a slightly flat recording that comes alive with this amplifier. Usually devoid of any soundstage depth, drums and guitar became invigorated, assuming their own space while lead singer Sam Hagar’s voice remains front and center. And a phenomenal recording like The Band’s Music From Big Pink takes on a life of its own, feeling as if it’s mixed in surround.

The trick the Torii plays better than most vacuum-tube amplifiers stems from its ability to achieve an astonishing balance between tonal richness and tonal purity. And it does so without sliding down the slippery slope of coloration and euphonic distortion. Acoustic instruments retain correct timbre, complete with a fine-grained decay that seems to fade out forever.

Moreover, while most pure tube amplifiers exhibit tube rush when no signal is present, the Torii has none. Chalk it up to the unique utilization of the voltage regulator tubes. The Torii uses them in series, working as active filters rather than in parallel to regulate voltage. This approach also puts almost no stress on the tubes. Unsurprisingly, Deckert claims the latter should practically last the life of the amplifier. While I still notice modest improvements when plugging in to my Running Springs Maxim power line conditioner, the Torii exhibits less improvement than any other vacuum-tube amplifier I’ve plugged into the Maxim. It’s another test that further confirms Deckert’s claims.

Sure. Watts are watts. But thanks to its robust power supply and proprietary output transformers, the Torii has an abundance of headroom and very gently extends past its peak power output, with barely a hint of clipping. Even when playing the heaviest metal, the amplifier always feels bigger than its modest power rating suggests.

All of this adds up to sound reproduction that is rare with most amplifiers, no matter the price, and a practical miracle at $3,600. Granted, 25 watts per channel won’t be optimum for every speaker and room combination. But within this realm, I can’t think of a more enjoyable amplifier than the Decware Zen Torii Mk.2. I bought the review sample and plan on keeping it long enough to see if it will ever break.

One last word to the wise: Those wanting to put a Torii under a Christmas tree should get on the phone now. Orders are currently subject to a 10 week wait. Deckert told me that they have a backlog of 90 to build right now, and hopefully by spring they will be back to the standard 4-6 week wait.

Decware Zen Torii Mk. 3

MSRP: $2,945-$3,700 (depending on options)


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Koetsu Urushi Blue
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack     Wadia 581i     Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifiers ARC REF 5    Burmester 011
Speakers B&W 802 Diamonds    Verity Rienzi    Verity Amadis    GamuT S9   MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Maxim PLC    Running Springs Mongoose cords

Audio Research REF 150 Power Amplifier

Audiophiles have a habit of prematurely discarding things. In the 70s, a proliferation of low-efficiency box speakers and transistors convinced many enthusiasts to abandon vacuum tubes for high-powered solid-state amplifiers. Listeners were on a quest for “perfect measurements,” only to wonder if they’d made the wrong choice after the fact.

History repeated itself again in the 80s with the compact disc, as many of the same devotees ditched vinyl in favor of “perfect sound forever” and the digital medium’s superior measurements. Fortunately, technology always seems to come full circle and often reaches its development pinnacle years after introduction. The ARC REF 150 power amplifier exemplifies this trend.


The $12,995 REF 150 builds on the success of the previous $10,995 REF 110, the consummate one-box solution for audiophiles that don’t require the power of the larger REF 250 and 750 monoblocks. ARC executive Dave Gordon notes: “The REF 110 is a great amplifier. Yet the extra output of the REF 150 is perfect for our customers wanting the REF sound, but don’t want to commit to the space a pair of monoblocks required.” One chassis also has an advantage in that the REF 150 only requires replacing eight power tubes (approximately every 5000 hours) and, subsequently, produces less heat. Tubes are cooled by a pair of back-panel fans that only make themselves faintly known when the music is off. And even then, one must listen intently to hear them.

Looking virtually identical to its predecessor, the REF 150 sports major internal changes. There’s a much bigger power supply, with double the storage capacity of the REF 110, and redesigned output transformers to maximize the capacity of the KT120 output tubes. Past ARC power amplifiers use the 6550. However, the increased dissipation of the new KT120 tube allows for a substantial power increase. Proprietary capacitor technology utilized in the 40th Anniversary Reference Preamplifier significantly contributes to the new amplifier’s improved transparency. Currently, there’s no upgrade option for REF 110 owners. Still, Gordon mentions that the KT120 tube can be a drop-in replacement for the 6550 in the REF 110 and “provides a bump in power output, close to 20 watts per channel.” Not a bad upgrade for about $600.

Having owned numerous ARC power amplifiers during the past 30 years, I love that the company prefers a path of measured evolution rather than ricochet from one design to the next. This approach keeps high both demand and resale value for vintage ARC gear. Some older models are now worth more used than they were when new. The current hybrid design, featuring low noise JFETs in the first input stage, began back in the late 80s with the Classic 120 and Classic 150 monoblocks. The latter models ran eight 6550 tubes in each channel in triode mode. By comparison, the REF150 utilizes ARC’s patented “cross cathode coupled” output stage, delivering more power from half as many tubes—and providing better overall sound.

Listeners that find the last generation REF 110 amplifier slightly forward in tonal balance and requiring more juice to push will likely feel that the improvements made to the REF 150 a welcome change. ARC diehards, take note: The change in overall sound is almost identical to the improvement between the REF 3 preamplifier and REF 5.  Audio Research achieves a delicate balance of delivering extra, almost-indefinable tonal tube richness while avoiding the common trap of masking resolution with warmth—or speed with an overblown soundstage. In other words, the REF 110 goes to 9.3 and the REF 150 goes to 11.


The REF 150 features a single pair of balanced XLR connections for the input and three output taps (4, 8, and 16 ohm) for speaker outputs. Thankfully, ARC employs quality copper binding posts instead of the awful, plastic-coated connectors used on too many of today’s power amplifiers. Solid connections are important, and these do the job. A 20-amp IEC socket is used for power transfer, as is a heavy-duty power cord.

Integrating the REF 150 into both of my reference systems—one featuring ARC’s REF Phono 2 phonostage and REF 5 preamplifier,  the other comprised of the Burmester 011 preamplifier and Vitus Audio MP-P201 phonostage—proves seamless. Note: the design of the REF series power amplifiers is such that they will not work with single ended (RCA outputs only) preamplifiers.  A balanced preamplifier must be used, or distortion will rise dramatically, accompanied by a substantial decrease in power.  This is due to the omission of the phase inverter stage – a small price to pay for signal purity.  Excellent synergy is also achieved running it direct from the dCS Paganini stack, in effect making the ARC an all-digital control center. No matter your front end, the REF 150 will deliver.

The REF 150 is equally versatile with a wide range of loudspeakers. While it can’t push my power-hungry Magnepan 1.7s to ear-busting levels, it plays them at coherent levels with all but heavy-rock tracks—a major feat for most amplifiers, and an incredible achievement for a tube amplifier. The new MartinLogan Montis speakers make for a fabulous combination with the REF 150, a match previously problematic due to the speakers’ low impedance (.56 ohms at 20kHz), The Montis’ slightly higher impedance combines with the REF 150’s superior drive to play extreme music at any level desired, with no loss of high-frequency information. It all reminds me of the synergy achieved years ago with ARC’s legendary D-79 power amplifier and MartinLogan’s CLS speakers.

Outstanding Impressions

I’m instantly struck by two characteristics: The REF 150 sounds more lifelike right out of the box than recent ARC components, and it possesses colossal bass grip. Those of the opinion that vacuum tube amplifiers can’t produce prodigious amounts of bass weight or control are in for a major paradigm shift. In these respects, the REF 150 amazes.

The Chemical Brothers “Galvanize,” from Push The Button, reveals wet and loose beats that challenge amplifiers to capture their gravitas. The REF 150 aces the test. Sampling everything from Pink Floyd to Stanley Clark shows the amplifier claims immense power and control over lower registers. Regardless of the speakers, the REF 150 goes deep, and yet, stops on a dime with bass transients. No, I don’t believe “tube watts” sound more powerful than “transistor watts.” But there’s no substitute for a well-designed power supply with ample reserve capacity. The REF 150 sounds much bigger and more dynamic than its power rating suggests.

Texture is treated in equal measure, leading me to an old audiophile favorite, The Three, a JVC direct-to-disc LP featuring Shelly Manne on drums, Joe Sample on piano, and Ray Brown on bass. Listening to Brown’s playing on “Satin Doll” is sublime, with every up-and-down movement of his fingers smartly distinguishable.

But man cannot live by bass alone, and the REF 150 excels with practically every other aspect of music reproduction. The amplifier’s ability to hold its poise when pushed very, very hard leaves me stunned. Warner Bros.’ analog remaster of Van Halen’s Van Halen II is no audiophile masterpiece, and the third track, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” often collapses into a one-dimensional experience. Yet, even at close-to-concert decibel levels, Eddie Van Halen and Michael Anthony’s background vocals retain distinct separation rather than just sounding like a single vocal.

Imagined or not, electric guitars reproduced through tube amplification represent the proverbial equivalent of an extra push over the cliff. The REF 150’s resolution is particularly tasty when listening to bands featuring multiple lead guitar players; think Judas Priest, Slayer, or Metallica. The title cut to Judas Priest’s Ram it Down personifies the increased power such tracks exert when you can easily discern multiple guitarists in the mix.

For those preferring to twirl rather than bang their head, look no further than Mobile Fidelity’s recent remaster of the Grateful Dead’s Live Dead. Filled with layer upon layer of guitar and keyboard tracks, the LP takes on new life via the ARC, revealing previously obscured tidbits. Consider: Jerry Garcia’s guitar begins as a whisper on “Saint Stephen,” yet when he ramps up the volume, the organ way off in the background doesn’t lose its integrity.

Power and Delicacy

The REF 150 never stumbles, handling the power of a guitar solo or delicacy of a flute passage with ease. Without question, this amplifier roars when required. But thanks to its wide dynamic range and bandwidth, it retains a full-bodied sound at low playback levels. Those subscribing to the “first watt” theory (i.e., if the first watt isn’t great, the rest won’t be either) can rest assured the REF 150 is up to the task.

Rounding out my evaluation with wide range of vocal standards confirms initial impressions. The REF 150 is a very natural-sounding amplifier—never forward, bright, or harsh. Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volume 8 comes off with the depth of a stereo record.

At first listen with any component, dynamics usually woo you into further listening sessions. However, tonal accuracy and overall natural sound are the sonic sauces that keep you on the couch for hours, seeking out “just one more record.” Sure, many Internet pundits complain that recorded music sounds nothing like the real thing. Pish. If your speakers and source components are up to task, the REF 150 will produce such sensations with the best recordings—and amply seduce you the rest of the time. Cream’s “Sleepy Time, Time” from its 1995 performance at Royal Albert Hall splendidly reproduces the venue’s ambience. I feel as if I’m sitting in the center of the 15th row in this famous concert hall—no surround speakers needed!

If you’re seeking classic tube-amplifier sound that is larger than life and full of romance, the REF 150 isn’t your bag. However, if you desire a modern amplifier possessing musical integrity, timbral accuracy, and wideband frequency response—yet still boasting the three-dimensionality, air, and tonal saturation hallmarks of mighty vacuum tubes—the REF 150 offers emotional engagement few amplifiers at any price can match.

Audio Research REF 150 Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $12,995


Preamplifier ARC REF 5     Burmester 011
Phono Preampflifier ARC REF Phono 2    Vitus Audio MP-P201
Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Sumiko Palo Santos
Digital Source dCS Paganini    Sooloos Control 15
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri    Maxim power conditioners
Accessorie Furutech DeMag, Loricraft PRC-4    SRA Scuttle Rack

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Integrated Amplifier

Space-conscious listeners love integrated amplifiers because they can route and amplify sound signals from a single box. And while audio purists often devoutly believe that separate preamps and power amps constitute the one true path to great sound, the distance between separates and integrateds has audibly narrowed.

Founded by Herman van den Dungen, a CEO with an extensive audio pedigree, PrimaLuna (“First Moon” for non-Italian speakers) entered the tube-gear scene in 2003. It currently merges sophisticated Netherlands design with cost-conscious Chinese production. Now, before you “Chinese audio products suck,” know that van den Dungen and company marketing executive Dominique Chenet demand quality.

Prima la Luna, Poi la Musica

The $2,299 ProLogue Premium integrated amplifier falls between ProLogue and  Dialogue integrateds. The “heft means quality” principle is operative, as witnessed by the 45-pound snatch-and-grab needed to lift the unit out of the triple box carton. Fit and finish are superb. From the silver facade (black is also available) to the attractive cage keeping the hot tubes safely away from curious fingers to the automotive-grade paint job on the transformer covers, this baby exudes class.

The front panel sports a volume control, source selector, and operation lights. A power switch resides on the left-side panel. On the right sits a tube selector switch for EL-34s, allowing 35 watts per channel (per the review sample) or 40 watts per channel with KT-88 tubes. The rear panel hosts speaker terminals for 4- or 8-ohm operation, four line inputs, one home-theater pass-thru, and a power receptacle/fuse holder. A slender but solid remote handles volume, source selection, muting, and playback for a PrimaLuna CD player.

Considerable coolness resides beneath the warm tube sockets housing four EL-34s and four 12AU7s. The Adaptive AutoBias, or AAB, circuit keeps tubes from misbehaving and protects the output stages. Additionally, there’s the BTI, or “bad tube indicator,” that detects tube malfunction, flags the offender, and powers the unit down until said tube gets replaced. A PTP, or “power transformer protection,” stops the party if the output power transformer overheats. This device is coupled with an OTP, an output transformer protection circuit. Given the wing-and-a-prayer security offered by some audiophile equipment, the ProLogue Premium is a component you could surely take into a hurt locker. Plus, for vinyl heads, PL offers an optional easy-to-install moving-magnet phonostage for $199.

Low-Frequency Slam, Dynamics, and More

Plug-and-play equipment is great in concept. Unfortunately, many such high-end adventures resemble trips down the Amazon after the local guide falls overboard and drowns. In this regard, the ProLogue Premium marks a refreshing return to civilization.

After removing the foam surrounds from the tubes, I hooked up my peripherals and speakers, and plugged everything in. Wait. Is that the sound of silence? Not to worry. PrimaLuna subscribes to an aptly named SoftStart feature that powers everything up very safely, but very slowly. Red panel lights give way to green panel lights and, in less than two minutes, it’s ready to go.

For the purposes of this review, the ProLogue Premium drove Totem Mani-2 Signatures, fortified with Nordost Frey bi-wire speaker cable. Sound sources included a PS Audio PerfectWave Transport and Mk II DAC, a Logitech Squeezebox Touch with USB drive, and an Oppo BDP-95 universal player. In my 15’ x 10’ x 8’ room, I settled back in an easy chair about eight feet away from the Totems, which rested on lead-filled Target stands.

After a week of break-in, I popped Mark Levinson’s demo Live Recording from Red Rose SACD into the Oppo. Enter “In a Sentimental Mood” flowing from Chico Freeman’s mellow sax and George Cable’s funky piano. Having sat in the same Red Rose show room where these performances were recorded, I assure you that the ProLogue Premium faithfully renders the music’s immediacy, right down to the reed movement on Freeman’s mouthpiece.

A high-res 96 kHz/24-bit download of Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman places the visceral guitar from “Wild World” right in my face and exposes the slightly veiled character of Stevens’ distinctive voice. Speaking of vocals, Diana Krall’s well-recorded Live in Paris contains a very, very good rendition of “A Case of You.” Krall’s sensual huskiness comes across convincingly, thanks again to the ProLogue Premium.

Larger-scale music arrived courtesy of a 176.4k/24-bit Reference Recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, performed by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra. The ProLogue Premium conveys the first movement’s low-frequency slam without running out of gas. Moreover, Bach’s Gigue Fugue, from the ultra-demanding Pipes Rhode Island, more than amply fills my modest-sized room with the dynamic sounds of the English Renaissance organ in St. Paul’s Church in Wickford, RI.

Is it Moon Glow or Memorex?

When comparing the ProLogue Premium with my reference unit, the Class A Pass INT-30A, the worlds of tubes and transistors seemingly converge. The Pass sounds non-solid-state and the Prologue Premium non-tube-like. The evaluation also shows how power ratings can be misleading, especially given the nominal five-watt output difference between the two amps. In recordings with heavier bass passages, like the Rachmaninoff disc, the Pass brings out more low-end oomph and overall space. In voice reproduction, a critical issue for testing audio gear, the ProLogue Premium behaves well, yielding little, if any, ground in warmth to the Pass.

The ProLogue Premium performs well beyond its real-word price tag. A hale and hearty pentode pumper, it’s well up to the task of keeping content my Mani-2 Signature speakers. Of course, before opting for such an amplifier rated on the lower side of the power curve, careful consideration must be given to room size, speaker sensitivity, and listening habits. Remember, 35 watts per channel can’t do everything.

Still, compared with other similarly priced products, the ProLogue Premium is considerably overbuilt. The onboard protection circuitry gives considerable ease to my concerns about tube equipment. Better yet, none of the proprietary protection circuits entered the picture during my evaluation, which should reassure any prospective owner that the integrated claims the reliability of most solid-state gear. Further reassurance against field failures comes via PrimaLuna’s tube selection. On average, the company rejects 40% of manufactured tubes—not due to defects but because they don’t meet the company’s high standards. The ProLogue Premium definitely meets mine.

Additional Comments

By Jeff Dorgay

Attention vacuum-tube amplification newbies and all other concerned parties: My first PrimaLuna Product, the ProLogue One integrated amplifier, is still going strong after almost nine years of constant play. It’s had an interesting trip, going from TONEAudio’s headquarters to our first music editor’s office (where it was rarely turned off) to my niece’s living room, where it still plays eight-to-ten hours a day. Other than a new set of EL-34 output tubes installed in 2010, it has run faithfully without as much as a hiccup.

Where the original ProLogue has a warmer overall sound overall, the Premium features more extension at both ends of the frequency range and more immediacy—thanks to the updated circuit and larger transformers. Having exchanged the EL-34s for KT88s and 6L6s, I prefer the tonality of the EL-34. In a modest-sized room with a great pair of mini monitors (I used the outstanding Penaudio Cenyas for my listening), this amp is all you need to rock the house.  Should your tastes veer more towards Van Halen than Vivaldi, the ProLogue Premium will please you.

Based on my 2004 review for the magazine, the original ProLogue received a Product of the Year Award from The Absolute Sound. The new Premium version costs more, but still offers an audio experience unmatched for the price. I’m happy to grant this integrated an Exceptional Value Award for 2012. Like the legendary tube amplifiers from McIntosh and Marantz, it’s an amplifier you can hand down to your family members through the years.

PrimaLuna Prologue Premium Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2299 (USD)

PrimaLuna USA


Digital Source Logitech Squeezebox Touch    PS Audio PerfectWave Transport/DAC (Mk  II)   Oppo BDP-95
Speakers Totem Mani-2 Signature     Silverline Audio Minuet Supreme
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Elgar
Cables Nordost Valhalla    Nordost Frey
Power Cords Nordost Valhalla    Nordost Brahma    Nordost Vishnu

Exposure 3010S2 Mono Power Amplifier

No pair of speakers, no matter how good, can perform up to its level without an equal level of amplification. Exposure has been designing and building amplifiers in the UK for nearly 40 years, drawing from its in-studio experience with Pink Floyd and David Bowie to help voice its products. A pair of the 3010S2 mono power amplifiers puts 100 watts per channel into any system for just $2,895.

A standard class AB design, these 30-pound (12kg) monoblocks won’t break your back or bank account. Designed and built in the UK with all-discrete components and robust power transformers, the 3010S2s run cool to the touch under most conditions. A full-power, hour-long heavy metal test will warm them up, but even maximum punishment does not cause a thermal shutdown, indicating solid power-supply design.

Outfitted with black front panels holding just a power button and single red LED indicator, these Exposure models are the essence of simplicity. An unbalanced RCA is the only available input, but the outputs include the less-common BFA jacks with the ability to bi-wire. Bananas, spades, and bare wire need not apply here, so make sure to have speaker wire with BFA adaptors or acquire adapters for your existing cables.

Out of The Box, Running

Listening tests began with my reference Marantz AV7005 preamplifier and Oppo BDP-83SE disc player to get a feel for the amplifiers. While the latter don’t require a ton of break-in, they do need to be left powered on for about 48 hours before they come out of the solid-state fog—just like most any other solid-state amplifier.

Starting with Mobile Fidelity’s CD of Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, Merchant’s voice comes across strong and solidly anchored in the center of the room. Just as importantly, it’s free from shrillness and harshness when Merchant reaches to hit a deep note. The vocal top-end is slightly pulled back, just as you might find with a tube amplifier.

A quick swap from the Marantz to the matching Exposure 3012S2 preamp reveals the advantages of an all-Exposure system. Akin to other famous British brands like Naim, Rega, and Linn, Exposure amplifiers deliver the best experience when used along with namesake preamps.

With a full complement of Exposure electronics, the 3010S2s springs to life with tighter, deeper bass and a much more balanced soundstage. Exposure’s touted tube quality manifests itself on female vocals, and lower-octave guitars retain their steely tone.

Revisiting the same tracks I played on the Marantz signifies a complete change of character between the systems. On the CD layer of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks SACD, music bursts from the speakers rather than settling down behind them. Whereas “Tangled Up In Blue” has too relaxed of a pace and flow via the Marantz, there’s now a raw energy, and the song pulls me in instead of keeping me at a distance.

Sigur Ros’ Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust further shows the system’s synergy. Pounding rhythms during “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” explode from the speakers. Before, they didn’t have the right preamp to flesh out their character.  Overlapping vocals and instruments bear distinct character and separation, and the soundstage moves from a small recessed area to the whole front of my room.

On Mobile Fidelity CD version of Beck’s Sea Change, the guitars’ metallic sound translates with verve. The soundstage on “Lost Cause” extends to my room’s walls, with Beck and his band locked into place. Bass is strong and tight, with guitar notes feeling full and solid, and yet, never obscuring the sound of Beck’s hand moving over the strings during chord changes. Pace and timing at their finest.

REM’s Automatic for the People shifts effortlessly between arena-filling rock and more peaceful orchestral tracks, which allow one the opportunity to crank up the volume on larger-scale fare.  On “Find the River” and “Nightswimming,” orchestral strings are clear and detailed, and notes linger in the air. “Drive” mixes formal elements with guitars, and the 3010S2s places the strings in the rear while the guitars push forward, confirming its ability to keep the aural elements properly sorted in a complex recording.

The Amplifier Does Make a Difference

Additional listening at the TONEAudio studio via Conrad Johnson, McIntosh, and Simaudio preamplifiers validates the Exposure’s merit. There’s no compromise in tonality or dynamics. Should you not choose the all-Exposure path, try and audition several possibilities in your system—another reason to work with a good dealer.

Playing mix and match with speakers, the 3010S2s’ 100 watts per channel throw enough power to drive everything on-hand save the power-hungry Magnepan 1.7s. All else is fair game. Even the somewhat inefficient Dynaudio Confidence C1 (85db/1 watt) and Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 (86db/1watt) pose no difficulty, and possess plenty of dynamic oomph and control.

Switching to my $399 Epos ELS-3 bookshelf speakers confirms how much more they deliver when powered by high-quality amplification. With the Exposure gear, they throw a much larger soundstage then I’ve ever experienced in my budget system.

The Full Monty

The Exposure 3010S2 mono power amplifiers offer a warm albeit detailed top end and tight, controlled bass, along with an expansive soundstage. One caveat: If improperly mated with other gear, they lack bite and spaciousness. Make sure to evaluate them with your existing preamp to find out how they interact with your system. Once that hurdle is cleared, break out the plastic and get ready to rock.

Exposure 3010S2 Monoblock Power Amplifiers

MSRP:  $2,895  (factory)  (North American Distributor)

Primare I22 Integrated

Incorporating a DAC inside an integrated amplifier has been going on for some time now, with mixed results, and the Primare I22 is a product arguably aimed more at the music lover who likes to keep things simple.

The I22 pictured here includes the $799 DAC board (with 24/96 USB and 24/192 Toslink and SPDIF inputs) for $2,498.  Those of you already in possession of a good DAC can order your I22 without DAC for $1,799 and those on the fence can add the board later for $799, without a huge financial penalty.

While aimed at a consumer who will probably spend $1,000 – $4,000 on a pair of speakers to round out a system, the I22 is well at home driving the $35,000 KEF Blades.  Its 80 watts per channel prove more than adequate to really rock the orange KEF flagship speakers.

Taking advantage of Primare’s UFPD (Ultra Fast Power Device) technology, which combines the Class D amplification stage and output filters into a single device, the claimed sonic improvements are readily apparent:  This is a thoroughly modern Class D design, which suffers from none of the sonic artifacts that characterize (and often plague) this configuration.

Listening to the multi-layered vocals of 10cc’s “Marriage Bureau” is a treat – all of the late ’70s multitrack wizardry is in full effect, including the great Moog synthesizer tracks, with everything well sorted and keeping its own distinct sonic space.

The ins and outs

The front panel is the essence of understatement, with a single volume control, flanked by a pale white LED indicator panel, displaying the input in use along with the volume level.  Just to the right is a pair of small, machined buttons to select input, and one more to switch between standby and power-on mode.  Incidentally, this might be counterintuitive to some, as the LED glows when the I22 is in standby mode, extinguishing when the amplifier is on.

Inputs 1-5 are standard line level inputs with RCA jacks and inputs 6–8 are digital inputs (if you’ve had the DAC board installed), with a Toslink, USB and SPDIF.  For the duration of the review, we used the Meridian Control 15 server via SPDIF and the Aurender A10 server via USB.  The majority of the files used were 16 bit/44.1, with a bit of dallying into the world of high res.  Hardcore audiophiles might squeal about the lack of 24/192 USB capability (or DSD for that matter, but I’m not the least bit concerned); however, for those streaming files from a laptop or other digital source, primarily of CD and MP3 quality, the I22 will be just fine as it is.  Should the highest resolution digital files be your priority, order the I22 without the DAC board, or just use an SPDIF converter with your laptop.  Pairing a Mac Book Pro with the M-Tech USB converter recently reviewed worked perfectly, requiring only a minimal investment of $179.

Setup takes but a second to unbox; connect speakers and source and you’re rocking – it couldn’t be easier.  Though it might not be important to some, the I22 is lusciously understated and feels considerably more expensive than its modest price tag might suggest.

Like every other Class D amplifier we’ve tested, the I22 does respond incredibly well to an upgraded power cord and line conditioning.  Adding a power cord and the EVO 3 line conditioner from ISO TEK removes a layer of glare and cloudiness that you might mistake for the sonic signature of the amplifier, giving the I22 an even smoother, more natural sound.

Resolution without regret

Both Carole King’s Tapestry and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, downloaded via HD Tracks easily illustrate the onboard DACs ability to resolve the difference between standard and high-resolution files.  An even better demo was evident with Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s self-titled album, also in 24/192.  Both vocalists occupied their own space, delicately layered upon each other, with a delightful smoothness – again offering higher than expected for the price asked.

The deep low-frequency content in the Daft Punk album focuses on a primary strength of Class D amplifiers – bass response, providing equally solid heft and control.  This is very impressive with the KEF Blades, but even more so with the $1,499/pair LS-50s which really come alive via the I22, exhibiting tremendous LF response.

Equally compelling is the rendition of analog tracks, captured to 24/96, via my Nagra LB studio recorder, using the AVID Acutus Reference SP/Lyra Atlas/Indigo Qualia analog front end.  Again, resolution takes a big jump for the better, i.e. more natural, underscoring the overall sonic performance of the onboard DAC.  Sifting through a series of recent digital captures from the Music Matters Jazz Blue Note catalog makes it even easier to listen to the amount of texture the I22 is capable of rendering when the source material is up to the task.

Finally, combining a Rega RP6 turntable and Exact cartridge via the latest tube phonostage from Monk Audio (12AX7 powered, $1,195 MSRP) rounds the system out nicely for those wanting to make the foray into analog without breaking the bank.  Spinning Daniel Lanois’s Black Dub album, chock full of acoustic and electronic texture, proves how smooth this amplifier is capable of sounding.  While you wouldn’t mistake it for a valve amplifier, it is in no way harsh; in fact, a number of audiophile buddies didn’t know it was a Class D design until it was revealed.

The second track on the Lanois album, “I Believe In You,” features some great drum sounds, that are all captured with excellent depth, texture, speed and delicacy – especially with the brush work via drummer Brian Blades.  Many Class D designs have a tendency to sound somewhat thin in the sense of a two dimensional soundstage, yet here the Primare does very well.  Lead vocalist Trixie Whitley has always stood out in front of the soundstage, as she does on my reference system.  Comparing this to a somewhat similarly priced PrimaLuna tubed integrated, the tubes definitely throw a more three dimensional soundfield, but in comparison to similarly priced solid state kit, the I22 more than holds its own.  And you don’t have to screw around with vacuum tubes, either.

Simple, stylish, sonic excellence

Those wanting bells and whistles should look elsewhere.  However, if you want great sound wrapped in an understated enclosure that will not call much attention to itself, I can’t think of a better choice than the Primare I22.  Now, the only thing you need decide is if you want it in silver or black, and whether you’d like the DAC board or simply use the matching (and equally enticing) C22 CD player.   We are very happy to award this amplifier one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013 – even more so, with the DAC installed.

The Primare I22 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,799

$2,498 (with DAC) (factory) (US Distributor)


Digital Sources               Meridian Control 15, Aurender S10, MacBook Pro

Analog Source                Rega RP6/Exact Cartridge, Monk Audio Phonostage

Speakers                       KEF LS50, KEF Blade, Harbeth Compact 7

Cable                            Cardas Clear Light

Accessories                   IsoTek Evo 3 power conditioner, power cord.

Plinius Hautonga

In case Plinius is a company that has slipped under your radar, they hail from New Zealand, and have been making incredible products for years now.

However, those that do know about the brand are doggedly loyal.  It’s a brand that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone slag out on the various internet forums, so they are doing something right.

Something indeed.  Having built their reputation on big, class-A power amplifiers, the Hautonga you see here is an integrated amplifier (with phono stage, no less) that features a 200-watt per channel class AB power amplifier.  Yet, much like the Burmester 911 mk. 3 and the new D’Agostino Momentum, the Plinius comes up with a remarkably grain free sound, that just might fool you that this understated beauty has a class-A amplifier under it’s cover.  Yet the MSRP is only $5,750.

It’s a very understated box, with gently rounded corners and an asymmetrical top plate, yet the rear panel is bright blue, similar to the French racing blue you’ve seen on factory Renault race cars.  It makes for a nice accent stripe where the top panel meets the casework.  The Hautonga is beautifully machined and is available in black or silver.  The control layout is the ultimate of simplicity; a large volume control and gently rounded push buttons to control the inputs.  Oddly, a balance control is absent – no big whoop for digital music enthusiasts, but this might be somewhat inconvenient for analog lovers.  Even if it were implemented from the remote – and the Hautonga has a sleek, stylish, yet commanding remote.

A complete integrated

In the tradition of the best integrateds, the Hautonga features an on board phono stage – handy for those wanting to keep rack clutter to a minimum. It does feature adjustable gain with two settings via on board jumpers, however loading is fixed at 47k ohms.  Though I’m not a fan of running most MC cartridges at this setting, there are still some great alternatives.

The cartridges in my arsenal that mate particularly well with the 47k/high gain combination are the Sumiko Blackbird, a moderately high output (2.5mv) that works fine with 47k loading, and the Grado Statement 1 moving iron cartridge.  With a .5mv output and 47k loading, this is a perfect, if slightly overpriced match (the Statement 1 is $3,500) for the Hautonga.  Keep in mind that Grado does make a series of wood bodied moving iron cartridges, all having a .5mv output, from $500 on up.  I’m guessing one of these on your favorite table will prove equally enticing.

Tracking through a handful of recent favorites from MoFi and Music Matters Jazz, I submit that the onboard phono is probably equivalent to something you might purchase as an outboard phonostage in the $750 – $1,000 range.  Not bad, considering the Hautonga is an awesome deal without the phono stage.  Highs are smooth and well sorted, the overall tonal balance neutral and background noise very low.  And then there’s the necessity for another set of interconnects and power cord; another reason a built in phono is such an awesome idea.

Entry level and Journeyman vinyl enthusiasts will probably never need more analog capability than the Hautonga’s on board stage provides.

Maybe on the next version of the Hautonga, they will open this up to adjustment, or offer a $5,000 version with no phono stage.  Bypassing the onboard stage, utilizing the Aesthetix Rhea phonostage, paired with the SME 10 turntable and Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, (an analog front end worth about $20k) the Hautonga easily resolves the difference in analog front ends – again showing off what a great amplifier this is.

Further listening

After a few days of being powered up, the Hautonga opens up to a full-bodied sound.  Ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, the more you listen to this amplifier, you’ll psyche yourself out thinking that it is class-A after all.  It’s also on the warm side when in operation as well, suggesting relatively high bias current.  The Hautonga actually sounds more like my Burmester 011/911 combination than the Simaudio 850P/880M electronics.

Whether paired with their own Tiki streaming audio player (review in process) or any of the digital players at my disposal, the Hautonga is a pleasure to listen to, regardless of source.  While lacking the last bit of resolution available with cost no object gear, dynamics and tonality have not taken a back seat in the design process.  Listening to the title track from Gary Numan’s latest album, Dead Sun Rising, the Hautonga powers the Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution speakers in room two with conviction. This record is full of deep, deep, synth bass lines and the Hautonga sails through effortlessly, even at high volume.

These are speakers that require a lot of current and control to deliver maximum performance and this proves to be a great combination.  Going for the ultimate torture test, swapping in a pair of Acoustat 1+1 speakers, which are usually tough to drive because of their wacky impedance curve and the highly capacitive load they present, was another easy task for the Hautonga.

Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth proves spacious, controlled and full of punch.  The rapid-fire bass riffs on the opening track, “Dissidents,” is tough to nail on a pair of Acoustats if the amplifier lacks current drive.  Yet cranking this up, the Hautonga handles it in stride, which leads to some more bass laden tracks from Peter Gabriel and Genesis. Again, this amplifier’s ability to provide controlled bass, full of texture on a set of speakers known for “”one note bass” is highly impressive.

Moving the amplifier out to room one and the KEF Blades is a ton of fun – and again reveals this amplifiers ability to provide a high quality musical experience with ancillaries much more expensive than you might pair it up with.  The Blades 90db sensitivity proves an easy load for this amplifier to drive allowing for plenty of dynamic range and showing off the bass control and drive. While fairly efficient, the Blades also need a fair amount of current to reproduce bass well.  This prompted a long playlist of Deadmau5, Skrillex, Daft Punk and Infected Mushroom, pushing the amplifier to its limits.  Even after hours of this treatment, the Hautonga stayed slightly warm to the touch but no more.

Subtlety beyond its pricetag

While the Hautonga can really rock out when required, what makes it a top performer is the level of resolution and inner detail it provides.  Tracking through the MoFi gold CD of Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, a number of small details come up in the mix that normally require more expensive electronics to extract – again convincing this writer that the integrated is one of the best ways to achieve high performance without breaking the bank.   With so many choices to damage the synergy between amplifier and preamplifier, having it all on one chassis saves the day for all but the most geeky – and patient end user.  An integrated is the fast track to great sound.

Vocals and solo acoustic instruments feel right played through the Hautonga.  Revisiting some early Windham Hill recordings from Alex DeGrassi and Liz Story illustrate subtlety, tonal nuance and a wonderful sense of decay.  The old audiophile classic, Solid Colors paints a great picture of Ms. Story and her Steinway, awash in detail rendered perfectly by the Hautonga/Blade combination.

The Jung Trio’s rendition of Dvorak’s Piano Trio in F Minor, Op.65, is another treat showcasing the fantastic tonal contrast and neutrality that the Hautonga has to offer.  Perhaps two of the toughest instruments to reproduce cleanly, the amplifier sails through, with the interplay between the sisters well intact.

Rounding out the picture

The Hautonga also features the other common niceties to round out the package, with four additional RCA line inputs in addition to the Phono and CD player inputs, along with a single XLR input.  A ground lift switch is also provided, which came in handy using a vintage tape deck that had a bit of a hum problem.

Preamplifier in and outputs, 12v trigger, and a HT Bypass assure that you can integrate the Hautonga into any possible system configuration.  They even provide a pair of speaker outputs for those wishing a fully biwired speaker connection.  So no stone really goes unturned.

Nits to pick:  very few, and well under what we’d expect at this price point.  All staff members that used the Hautonga, young and old complained about two things – while very stylish, the remote was fairly hard to read in black and when using the volume control button, it has too much torque, making fine volume adjustments via remote nearly impossible at worst and frustrating at best.  And last, the phono stage loading.  It’s a shame that a phono stage that sounds this good is limited to a handful of cartridges.

Neither of these are a deal breaker, and the Plinius Hautonga is such a stellar performer in so many ways, we are all in agreement that it is highly deserving of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Plinius Hautonga Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $5,750

And you can peruse their Facebook page here:


Analog Source                        Rega RP8/Sumiko Blackbird,  SME 10/Sumiko Palo Santos

Digital Source                                    Plinius Tiki, dCS Vivaldi, OPPO BDP-105

Speakers                                Dynaudio Confidence C1 II, Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution, KEF Blade, KEF LS-50

Cable                                      Cardas Clear

Wyred4Sound mINT

Central California’s Wyred4Sound has taken the high end by storm with their extensive line of Class D based amplifiers, DAC’s, and music servers.

The Wyred4Sound mINT, short for Mini Integrated Amplifier ($1,499), is indeed a half sized component that interestingly, looks at once both retro and modern. The mINT boasts 100 wpc, and is a custom Class D design based on the ICE power modules. Wyred4Sound goes out of their way to stress the refinements found in the mINT that are usually regulated to much more expensive components. One aspect of the design they are especially proud of is the volume control. According to W4S, it is “a true-resistive ladder which results in linear control, excellent channel matching, and impressive sonic quality.”

But wait, there is more. A lot more.  Along with two analog inputs, the mINT is also a three input DAC, with TosLink and Coaxial inputs that handle 24 bit, 192 Khz data. There is also an asynchronous USB input that handles up to 96 Khz. Rounding off the list of features is a fixed output for a recording device, a variable output, an HT bypass, and a very nice, full function attractive remote control. And, the mINT is fully designed and built in California.

Down to business

The mINT was paired with Harbeth Compact 7 ES3 and the Opera Mezza speakers, proving a wonderful match for both, with more than enough power to drive both speakers to their limits. To put it another way, my listening rooms suffered from overload well before the mINT could even break a sweat.

The mINT is equally capable when fed analog sources, like a CD player or a file streamer, offering a spacious, precise, and untarnished presentation that I find wonderfully balanced. If anything, the tonal presentation of this amplifier is slightly tilted to the warm side, unlike the Class D amplifiers of a few years ago, that offered great bass performance at the expense of a smooth top end.  That bleached feeling is no longer a line item with Class D, and certainly not the mINT.  It proves very nimble on top, balancing dynamic contrast with brass instruments, staying delicate and finessed on strings and vocals.

The three digital inputs work equally well, and performance is on par with many outboard DAC’s that are similarly priced.  Eliminating some of the extra buffers and gain stages required with separate components pays big dividends here, giving the mINT high performance at a very reasonable cost.  You could easily spend $1,499 on power cords and interconnects between a separate power amplifier, preamplifier and DAC, making this little marvel a major bargain. In addition, the mINT offers a headphone jack on the front panel, upping the fun and the value factor even further.

The relaxed tonality the mINT provides, makes it highly enjoyable across a wide range of musical genres.  The opening track of Imelda May’s Love Tattoo album, “Johnny Got a Boom Boom,” combines a fast, dynamic slap bass line, snare drum and cymbal crashes, combined with May’s sultry, often screaming vocals.  Legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe’s La Vos provides more of the same.  Percolating with layers of bass, percussion, brass and heavily syncopated rhythms, the mINT never loses its cool, throwing a large soundstage.  The mINT does an excellent job keeping these densely packed, explosive recordings well sorted and three dimensional – a perfect torture test for any amplifier.

Digital functionality

Windows users will need to install the proper USB drivers form the Wyred4Sound Website, and Mac users can just plug and play, selecting the the mINT in their sound control panel. All in all, an easy task, no matter what platform you choose.

The internal DAC proves equally balanced and on par with the amplifier section of the mINT.  Tunes from my Windows 7 laptop using Jriver’s Media Center 18 and FLAC files were spacious and engaging. Emmylou Harris’ Hard Bargain for a wide range of bluesy folk tunes and instrumental dexterity again reveals the mINTs ability to unravel delicate tracks without getting overly grainy or “digital” sounding.

The only area that left me wanting was the USB input being limited to 24/96.  The S/PDIF and optical inputs claim full 24/192 resolution, so those purchasing tracks in this format will have to search for a good USB converter to take full advantage of the mINTs digital performance.

However, this type of digital input flexibility offers a world of convenience to those who have ripped their CD collections to a hard drive or purchase high resolution downloads.

The mINT is a clever package, and if this is an indication of the rest of their line, I look forward to hearing more from this company.  It offers enough resolution to show what a higher quality power cord can do as well as better interconnect and speaker cables – a great sign.  But more refinement will cost quite a bit more money, perhaps twice as much, making the mINT an excellent bargain.
Additional listening

The Wyred4Sound mINT is the perfect solution for music lovers wanting great sound that have a reasonable budget and want to maximize space, i.e. not have a giant rack full of audio gear. Its ability to work with analog and digital sources means you can keep your turntable in the mix, or add one if you’re curious.  Thanks to its tiny form factor, the mINT, a turntable and a compact phonostage can fit on a shelf or tabletop nicely. The Rega RP3, Exact cartridge and Naim StageLine phonostage make a perfect match for the mINT, combining to make a system any analog lover will enjoy.

Its 100-watt per channel power rating opens the door to a much wider range of speaker choices that many of the small, desktop integrateds from Naim, Rega and others don’t drive as easily with 25-50 watts per channel.  The mINT was even able to drive the Magnepan MMG to adequate volume, and thanks to the variable output can take advantage of a small powered subwoofer – again increasing versatility.

Having tried it with a number of great speakers at my disposal, my favorite, hands down was the pairing with the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers reviewed in issue #54 of TONEAudio.  Their 90db sensitivity makes for house party volume when you need it and great dynamics the rest of the time.

Equally intriguing is the built in headphone amplifier.  Starting with the ultimate torture test, the HiFi Man HE-6, the mINT falls down a bit, but to its credit, so does just about everything else, no black marks here.  Moving to a suite of much easier phones to drive (Grado, Sennheiser and Denon) proves enlightening.  Decent control and tonal balance overall makes the mINT a great way to get into the headphone game. Rocking some headphone favorites, it throws a wide and deep soundstage with Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and Low’s The Invisible Way.

The Wyred4Sound mINT is easier to set up and listen to than it is to spell correctly.  For many, this will be a destination product, offering flexibility and performance unheard of five years ago.  We are happy to give the mINT one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  – Jeff Dorgay

The Wyred 4Sound mINT amplifier

MSRP: $1,495

Associated Equipment:

Opera Mezza Loudspeakers

Harbeth Compact 7 ES3

Musical Fidelity CDT transport

Marantz NA7004 streamer/DAC

Darwin Cables silver interconnects

QED Genesis Silver Spiral speaker cables

QED digital cables