AMG V12 Turntable

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

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

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

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

Sharpen Your Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recalibrate Your Senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Flies

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

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

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

Diva Approved

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

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

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

Let’s Review

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

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

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

The AMG V12 Turntable

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

Please click here for the AMG Factory site

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


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

The LSA T-3 Turntable

Those of you that know Underwood Wally of Underwood HiFi, know he’s the king of spotting great value and performance. You might have seen this interesting table at the last Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

Now shipping, this table was originally going to retail for $3,795, bundled with a great suite of accessories: coolio (and massive) record clamp, high quality set of interconnects, along with a well thought out ground wire, dust cover, and cork mat. They’ve even included a digital scale and protractor. Such a great way to roll – you can pull it out of the box, set it up and start spinning records, now.

But, as they say in the movies, “wait, there’s more.” In this case much more. For a limited time, Underwood HiFi is selling this table for $3,499, bundled with a SoundSmith Aida 2 cartridge installed by Peter Madnick to perfection. A quick check with our Analog Magik suite revealed it’s set up well right from the factory. The cart alone is two grand! And this table is drop dead gorgeous too. The curved plinth is said to help control resonance, and it is a major design statement as well.

This has to be one of the biggest analog deals going. Initial listening proves it to be more than good enough, we can enthusiastically recommend this one! But to be fair, we need to give you a more detailed analysis, and go over the fine points.

Whether this is your first table (if so, bravo for making this kind of commitment on your first go) or you’re a vinyl lover with a $500-$1500 table that is really getting into it and wants to make a big move forward, this combination is rocking.

Here’s the site, if you’d like to get out the Visa card!

Parsound’s JC3 Jr. Phono Preamplifier

With 30 minutes on the power up clock, unable to resist the temptation any further, a new copy of Crowded House’s Together Alone is dropped on the current Technics SL-1200G with Hana SL cartridge, and magic begins pouring through the latest offering from Parasound.

If you’re new to the analog game, the JC3 Jr.s designer, John Curl is a legend, having a hand in some of the world’s finest preamplifiers and phono preamplifiers. We reviewed their $2,400 JC3 about five years ago, finding it an incredible performer and an incredible bargain. Since then, Parasound has gone on to build an improved JC3+ (at $2,995) and the Jr. you see here for $1,495.

Not a complete dual mono, dual shielded chassis design like the more expensive 3+, Jr. still gets the job done. It’s quiet, quiet, quiet; paints a big soundstage and is incredibly dynamic. Like the more expensive models, you have balanced and single ended output options and the choice of a fixed 47k loading or a variable 50-500 ohm MC setting, with three gain settings; 40, 50, and 60db. (6 db more if you use the balanced outputs).

Got your interest piqued? Watch for Eric Neff’s full report. I’m off to FedEx to blast it his way. Oh yeah, it comes in black too…

The AVID Volvere SP Turntable

In this fickle world of hifi, from the consumer and the reviewer perspective, who keeps a component for TEN YEARS?

Long term readers of TONE know I’ve always had an affectation for AVID turntables, produced by Conrad Mas and company. Mr. Mas has been slowly, carefully refining his tables for over two decades now and they have earned unanimous praise from owners and critics.

My AVID journey began with the original Volvere, purchased after our review in Issue 7. That’s a long time ago. (Fall of 2007, to be exact) A few years later, I upgraded to a Volvere SP and this table has been a reference staple ever since. These days, my Volvere SP sports a Rega RB-2000 tonearm, but it’s hosted many different arms from SME, Rega, Clearaudio, Jelco and Tri-Planar; all with excellent results.

While it’s always fashionable to get a new toy, I appreciate the green approach that AVID takes, offering motor and power supply upgrades, so you don’t have to take as much of a hit when you’d like a bit more performance.

Ten years later, this is still one of the best values in turntables I’ve ever experienced. It still competes handily with tables costing twice as much and is as much of a breeze to set up as it is to use. Highly recommended.

The AVID Volvere SP

Approximately $6,500 (without arm, pre drilled for SME arms)

Bummer mix…

The only thing I love more than cassettes is schmaltzy sci-fi movies, and I think most of you would admit that Guardians of the Galaxy, parts one and two are pretty silly. They had me with the Carfox as badass thing. But this is not a movie review.

TONE contributor Paul DeMara (also a mega cassette enthusiast) and I seemed to have the same epiphany to get our hands on the movie soundtracks practically the same day. When I saw that an actual cassette of the “Awesome Mix vol.1” and “Awesome Mix vol.2” along with a special “Cosmix Mix” was available at Amazon and I could have all three the next day for $5 (thank you Amazon Prime!!!) there was no stopping me. My better half just rolled her eyes, but hey, it’s not like I spend money on golf.

Packaged to look like a mega mix tape you might have made for a friend in the late 70s, albeit with handwriting that’s a little too neat, (though they do give the label a mock soiled appearance, insinuating that it’s been in the main character’s pocket for years) the music contained is pretty darn good. Certainly reflective of what might have been on one of my mix tapes back in the day.

But that’s where the fun ends. The sound quality sucks on the cassette version. Considering how much trouble it was to get rights released on something like this, why not go the extra mile and make it sound good? Bernie Grundman is credited with the mastering job, so maybe the LP version sounds good. Hmmm.

Well, I’ll fix them. Breaking out the Nakamichi 600II right now and a pile of vinyl. I’ll just substitute my own.

The Pass XS Phono

Of the thousands of tracks auditioned during the Pass XS Preamplifier’s stay here, Lou Reed’s “Vanishing Act” sums it up perfectly. As he sings/speaks, “It must be nice to disappear…” the words to describe the XS Pre appear. It just disappears, calling no attention to itself, perhaps the toughest thing for an audio component to do.

Just like buying a car, test driving a premium audio component is usually a shorter first date than you’d like. In the end, it requires a certain leap of faith, and if you blow it, it’s going to cost you dearly. Much as I love Pass products, if you decide that the $38,000 XS Pre isn’t for you, there will be a stiff penalty, should you turn it over for something else. Like any other five figure hi-fi component, putting this two-chassis beauty back on the secondary market after a few months of use will be an expensive proposition unless you have an incredibly forgiving dealer, used to you doing this kind of thing on a regular.

The good news is that the above mentioned scenario probably won’t happen. I’d even go out on a limb to bet about 100 to 1 odds that it won’t. I’ve been using the XS Pre for over a year now, and I’ll do my best at describing it so that you won’t make a misstep.

First, and most importantly, where the Pass XS and XA series amplifiers have an ever so slight tip towards the warm side (which I happen to prefer) of what I’d call neutral tonality, the XS Pre is as close to having a straight up, 12 o’clock, right in the center neutral tonal rendition as I’ve ever experienced. The only other preamplifier I’d put in this category is the Boulder 3010, and to a slightly lesser extent my other reference, the Robert Koda K-10. Either of these preamplifiers cost as much as a gently owned BMW M3, and each is phenomenal performers.

Special and then some

Today there are a lot of incredibly competent preamplifiers, many costing less than the XS Pre and a few costing even more. Now and again, a component is so overwhelmingly good, that it’s an express elevator ride to audio heaven. My Conrad Johnson GAT2 is one of those preamplifiers too, but it’s got vacuum tubes, and only sports single ended RCA inputs and outputs so that it won’t be everyone’s idea of heaven.

The world’s finest preamplifiers that I enjoy impart little to no signature of their own to the music, yet they offer a bigger, broader, weightier presentation than a system is capable of without a preamplifier involved. This is a unique bit of magic that don’t completely understand because, in a perfect world, you would think that just going straight from your DAC or phonostage (provided it had a level control) would bring you closer to the music than running everything through another box and set of cables.

Good as the dCS Rossini DAC and Clock combination is on its own, running a pair of Cardas Clear interconnects directly from the dCS pair to the XS300 amplifiers sounds smaller, less focused and pale in comparison to putting the XS Pre in my reference system. How can this be? Especially considering Mr. Pass (the creator of the First Watt amplifiers – champions of the “less is more” approach to circuit design. Inserting the XS Pre in the signal path is not subtle. Again, this preamplifier does not change the tonal character or balance a molecule, yet everything enlarges. Dynamic range increases to the point where transients explode from the speakers where they merely had punch before, and the soundfield created by the system becomes much larger in all three dimensions. The sonic presentation goes from big and satisfying without the XS Pre to being engulfed in a tornado of sound. This effect was observed with every power amplifier connected, from a modest Conrad Johnson MV60SE up to the mighty XS300 monoblocks, so this can’t be a mere “impedance matching” kind of thing.

We’ve had the opportunity to use the XS Preamplifier together with the matching XS300 monoblock amplifiers to excellent result, paired with the XS Phono, making for an unbeatable combination of dynamics, tonality, and ease of use. There truly is nothing I can find fault with this trio. Ok, it’s all pretty heavy. That’s it. Fortunately, the XS Pre only weighs 80 pounds, and it is distributed between two chassis, the power supply, and the actual preamplifier circuitry. The two are connected by the same massive umbilical cords used in the XS Phono and the XS 150/300 power amplifiers. Terminated with Neutrik connectors, these are beefy cables indeed. 100,000µƒ of power supply capacitance per channel only hints at the power reserves available.

Nelson Pass and his crew have repeatedly said that they build components that they like, above all else. While many know the man with the name that adorns the faceplates as “the man” at Pass Labs, he is the power amp man. Wayne Colburn has designed all the Pass Labs preamplifiers and was given a clean slate (and pretty much a blank check) to design a companion preamplifier for the XS monoblock amplifiers. Rather than bore you with a long list of common audiophile clichés, he has succeeded on every level.

Incredibly versatile

Lovely as the XS Pre is with a full compliment of Pass components, it is equally engaging with every other power amplifier we’ve had here at TONE in the last year or so – single ended or balanced. The XS Pre circuitry is fully balanced, but it features balanced XLR and single ended RCA inputs and outputs.

As a review tool, the XS Pre is without peer. It is effortless in its delivery and consistent in sound quality, providing a similar sonic picture with balanced or single ended connections. Even if you don’t review hifi gear, this kind of flexibility offers a much wider range of options as your system and tastes change. With the XS Pre offering such a neutral rendition, it is a perfect system anchor, letting you mix, match and experiment elsewhere.

Because the XS Pre doesn’t manipulate or alter the tonal character of the music it delivers, the usual list of tracks to describe bass, treble, and imaging are almost irrelevant. Laurie Anderson once said, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much, much better.” That’s the XS Pre. It’s much, much better. Add the concept of never having to retube, along with the headache that a new set of tubes can cause, makes it a component you can just leave powered up and forget about it. Matter of fact, there is no power switch.

Setup is straightforward, provided you have two extra rack spaces and can separate the two boxes a bit, to keep every possible bit of noise at bay. Once powered up, the XS Pre took about four days to come all the way out of the fog from being fresh out of the box. As with any component, there is a slight bit of stiffness at initial turn on, but it dissipates quickly.

The front panel has a large volume control and a display friendly to read from across the room. Pass provides a simple, efficient aluminum remote that matches the casework of their other products, and this too is easy to use. The volume control has a wide range of operation, so even the most sensitive power amplifiers will have ample volume control range.

A keeper

Ultra high performance has a price, and there are a lot of great preamplifiers in the $10,000 – $20,000 range; even Pass makes one. (The XP-30) After living with a number of them, the XS Pre delivers an experience that you can’t get for $20k. That’s its justification. If you are looking for the last step up and a final justification, it’s worth every penny asked. This may be tough to swallow for some of you in the audience, but you can’t have a Ferrari 458 for $50k either. Like the Ferrari, the XS Pre will take your breath away if you have the room, system, and software to support it. And I’m guessing if you have 38 large, you do.

The Pass XS Pre does its job so effortlessly and so well if it doesn’t hit you on the head with the first track you play, just take it out of your system for about 90 sec. It’s like someone put the valet key in your Dodge Challenger Hellcat and the horsepower is gone. This is one of the purest hifi experiences I’ve had in over 15 years of reviewing components. Long term, I have even more enthusiasm for the XS Pre – every day it convinces me how special it is.

The Pass XS Pre Preamplifier
For more sexy photos, click here….



Analog Source            AVID Acutus Ref SP/SME V/Lyra Atlas, Grand Prix Audio Monaco 2.0/Tri-planar/Lyra Etna, Brinkmann Bardo/10.1arm/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Digital Source             dCS Rossini DAC and Clock, Gryphon Kalliope

Phonostage                  Pass XS Phono

Power Amplifier         Pass XS 300 monos, Pass XA200.8

Speakers                      GamuT RS5i, Focal Sopra no.3 w/2-REL 212, MartinLogan Neolith

Cable                           Tellurium Q Silver Diamond, Cardas Clear

Origin Live Calypso Turntable and Encounter Tonearm

There seems to be a lot of options at the cheap and cheerful as well as the crazy money ends of the analog spectrum.

However, the analog lover that wants to make a solid step up from their budget deck often has to search a bit harder to find a solid performer without mortgaging their future too substantially. The Origin Live Calypso at $2,400, along with their Encounter Tonearm for $1,500 is one we can highly recommend. We are almost finished with a full review that will be in issue 85.

You can read a bit more about it here.

Those of you in the United States can purchase one from Audio Revelation. Please click here to contact them.

We Begin the Technics Project!

Yes, I know I’m a hifi reviewer and I’m supposed to have expensive and mighty turntables or I’m not an audiophile…

Ok, I may not have any six-figure turntables like some of the grand pubahs, but nonetheless, I think I’ve put together a nice set of disc spinners from AVID, Brinkmann, Soulines, VPI and now Grand Prix Audio, with a stable of cartridges and phono stages to match. They sound great and help me do my job at TONEAudio, evaluating pressings and components.

Much as I love these turntables, I started my analog journey with the Technics SL-1200. Bought a new one from Pacific Stereo on 27th street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a Stanton 681EEE cartridge. Worked all summer for that puppy. The first record I bought was Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out at Night – and I still have it!

But then I became an audiophile and the 1200 wasn’t good enough to pass muster with my like minded buddies, and it was kind of unthinkable then to have more than one turntable. I’m not sure why, but the 1200 moved on to a good friend and a Rega Planar 3 took it’s place, soon to be replaced by an Oracle Delphi mk. II.

Though the 1200 has tremendous respect in the DJ community for its rock solid speed accuracy and ease by which you can vary the speed and scratch to your hearts content, it’s been heavily dissed by the audiophile community until recently, where a number of enthusiasts have upgraded every aspect of the table. Tonearms, external power supplies, you name it.

Having revisited the 1200 myself about five years ago, I did find it a little dark, but there were still things I loved, like the speed accuracy and the solid bass foundation it lays down. A quick swap for an SME 309 tonearm and a TimeStep power supply proves that this is a worth audiophile table indeed.

Needless to say I was more than a little bit excited when the new SL-1200G hit the market last year. And because Technics was so reluctant to hand review samples out, I jumped off the cliff and just bought one from my good friend Antonio Long at AVSF. I have not been disappointed in the least.

Combining this with my modded 1200 mk.2 and a much older SL-1100 (thanks to Erik at Gig Harbor Audio) and the new McIntosh MP-1100 phono stage, I can mix and match cables, cartridges and tonearms to my heart’s content. And I plan to do so as time goes on. But more importantly, I will be playing a lot of records in room two at TONEAudio, because the SL-1200 is so much fun.

I guess I’m not an audiophile anymore. I don’t think I ever was.

Stay tuned, and show us your 1200s (and your story) out on the Analogaholic section of our Facebook page. I look forward to talking to you! – Jeff Dorgay

The Audolici AVP-01

Vinyl enthusiasts embracing analog well beyond the entry level is becoming more and more common, with many of our readers possessing or contemplating multiple turntables, or at least a turntable with two (or more) tonearms. The more diverse your record collection and shopping habits, the more having more than one cartridge at the ready makes perfect sense.

The further you go down the rabbit hole, the tougher it is to find one cartridge, no matter how expensive, to do justice to a diverse record collection. Often, having a pair of moderately priced, but different sounding cartridges will serve a broad record collection better than a single, mega cartridge. As you add mono records, vintage records and especially the more time you spend in the budget bins, a second cartridge is handy. Enter the AVP-01 from Audolici, handcrafted in Portugal.  Priced at only $4,930, it combines an excellent line level preamplifier and two separate phono inputs – one MM and one MC. The MC has adjustable loading, with settings at 100, 200, 470 and 1000 ohms, which should be enough for nearly everyone.

On the other end of the spectrum, with DAC’s becoming increasingly broad in their functionality, in many cases they have become the digital hub of a system, only requiring the linestage to have one more analog input to accommodate it. For this user, the AVP-01 is perfect. Its single (RCA) analog, line level input allows you to connect your favorite DAC along with two turntables. There’s even a headphone jack on the back panel, bonus!

At the heart of the AVP-01 is a handpicked, Russian military 6H2P tube. US importer Harold Cooper of Sound Consultant Ltd. tells me this tube is equal to a 6SL7, but suggests sticking with the stock Russian tubes supplied as “this is what they voice the preamplifier for.” There are two line-level outputs on the rear panel, one marked “high” and the other “low, referring to the output impedance, (not output level) with high offering 47k and low only 2,000 ohms, bypassing the output buffer.

The AVP-01 takes a novel approach to utilizing the tube inside. Where many hybrid designs put the tube squarely in the gain or buffer stage, Audolici uses the 6H2P as part of the MM gain section, with MC relying on a single, low noise transistor. The output buffer stage is solid state as well, so your high level source will have a slightly different sonic character than the turntable of your choice.

In concert with the Nagra 300p power amplifier, the reference in my office system only about two feet away, via a short Cardas Iridium interconnect, the low impedance output offers more transparency and immediacy, so experiment with your amplifier and setup. If the high frequencies appear rolled off, you’ve got it wrong.

An engaging phonostage

Unable to resist temptation, the tube was installed and I went straight to vinyl. The AVP-01, like any tube component takes about 30-40 minutes to fully warm up and give its best performance. Where some preamplifiers take hundreds of hours to fully burn in, the AVP-01 sounds great out of the box and only improved slightly after a few hundred hours, so this is one you’ll love right away. The new Technics SL-1200G, with removable headshells made it extremely easy to switch between the Gold Note Vasari MM ($385) reviewed in issue 82, an Ortofon 2M Black ($900), Ortofon Cadenza Bronze ($2,700) and the Transfiguration Proteus ($6,000) cartridges with ease.

Taking advantage of both inputs called for the AVID Ingenium turntable with a pair of SME 3009 tonearms. Moving between different cartridge combinations proved oodles of nerdy analog fun. Settling on a Denon DL-103r and the Ortofon 2M Black made for exciting comparisons, with the Denon slightly on the warm side (and requiring the 100 ohm loading) where the Ortofon is more natural, with no embellishment, yet offering more extension.

This pair of cartridges on the Ingenium made for a great analog setup that didn’t cost a fortune and made for a lot of enjoyment, especially tracking through current as well as vintage LPs. Neither the 70s nor todays vinyl has cornered the market on sonic consistency; once you get used to having a pair (or more) of cartridges at your disposal, I suspect you won’t go back. The AVP-01 makes the process effortless.

Dropping the stylus on a 45 r.p.m maxi single of Prince’s “I Hate U,” reveals a delicacy that is definitely not present on the CD. Gone is the typical harshness surrounding Prince digital recordings, with the highs silky smooth, and a soundstage opening up well beyond the speaker boundaries in my nearfield system.

An overall sonic treat

Comparing the AVP-01 to a few other things on hand, from vintage to contemporary, leaves the impression that it’s overall tonal balance is just so slightly tipped towards the warmer, more saturated side of the spectrum, and you’ll never get an argument from this reviewer over that. But choose your sonic preferences accordingly and remember you can always alter the overall balance by the cartridge(s) you choose.

You won’t mistake the AVP-01 for an all solid-state preamplifier, but it doesn’t sound like a vintage tube preamplifier from the 70s either. Transients are quick and zippy, the bass has weight without sounding slow, sloppy, or one-note and of course, the midrange is lush and full of body. Considering what a separate two input phono stage along with a linestage would set you back (and an additional power cord, pair of interconnects, etc. etc.) the AVP-01 is a pretty incredible value.

Running the AVP-01 through a gamut of power amplifiers after initial listening with the Nagra also proved easy. It had no problem driving anything from our vintage Conrad – Johnson MV60SE, SAE 2200 or the Nakamichi 610. Modern day amplifiers proved equally fruitful, with the new VT80 from Audio Research being particularly lovely.

While I suspect you will probably invest in the AVP-01 for its analog capability, it’s worth mentioning that it is no slouch as a straight-ahead linestage either. Bringing the dCS Rossini DAC/Clock combination into play made for equally pleasing digital listening sessions.

The AVP-01’s output buffer must be labeled a success because it did not seem terribly cable dependent. Some tube preamplifiers can be fussy when choosing output cable, but the AVP-01 sailed through. The same can be said for power cords; a bit of improvement was there to be had with a Cardas Clear power cord, but the AVP-01 isn’t lacking plugging it into the wall with the stock item.

Private sessions

Headphone listeners should be excited by the AVP-01’s headphone amplifier, and considering the ease by which it drove the Sennheiser, AKG, Audeze and Oppo phones in my collection, I doubt that you would want to invest in an additional outboard headphone amplifier. It had no trouble driving any of my phones and the sound was indeed robust.

Even the AKG-701s, which are usually tougher to drive, exhibited great bass control and a big, broad soundstage. The planar phones also did very well, and all could be driven well beyond reasonable volume, so watch yourself there!

The perfect solution

If you have two turntables at your disposal, the Audolici AVP-01 preamplifier is going to provide you with ease and enjoyment. If you don’t have a second record player, I suspect you will before you know it. In addition to excellent sonic performance, the understated elegance and modest profile of the AVP-01 will fit into any situation with ease. Our review sample arrived in the silver you see here, but it is also available in black or red. Tempting.

Bottom line, I’ve purchased the review sample to use as a reference component in my office system. The two analog inputs are just what the doctor ordered for evaluating cartridges while editing copy. The performance and flexibility offered for the price asked is way above what you’d expect. So, we are awarding it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017. And, you can expect a long term follow up in about a year. We’ll let you know how the AVP-01 stands up to 12 hour a day duty. Highly recommended.

The Audolici AVP-01 Preamplifier

MSRP:  $4,930 (US Distributor) (Factory)


Turntables                 AVID Ingenium w/SME 3009 tonearms   Rega Planar 3, AVID Volvere SP, Soulines Kubrick

Cartridges                  Ortofon 2M Black, Ortofon Cadenza Black, Denon 103r, Sumiko Blackbird, Gold Note Donatello

Power Amplifiers      Nagra 300p, Conrad Johnson MV-60SE, Audio Research VT80

Speakers                    Graham Chartwell LS3/5, Focal Sopra no.3

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Channel Islands PEQ•1 Mk II

Years ago we reviewed Channel Islands original phono stage and it was a killer value at $295. Today, CI founder and designer Dusty Vawter has a new box up his sleeve, the PEQ•1 Mk II for $995, and he’s done it again.

The small box arrived on Wednesday, and after an incredibly enthusiastic call with Mr. Vawter, we fast tracked the photos and unboxing. For those of you that have never met him, Dusty is a pretty quiet understated guy, who goes about his business making great gear and not tooting his horn that much.

Sporting full dual-mono construction and spiffier casework, the PEQ•1 Mk II raises the bar for what you can expect from a $995. Initial listening is highly impressive, so watch for our review sooner rather than later!  These should be shipping now, for those of you that are wanting one immediately.

The PEQ•1 Mk II offers 40db and 60db gain settings, (with custom options offered) and loading options of 100, 1000, 10k, and 47k ohms with variable capacitance on the MM side.

As this product is NOT on the Channel Islands website yet, please call them at 805.984.8282 or email at [email protected] to get the ball rolling.

The Audio Research PH9

Audio Research always has something new under the hood of any new release, but their new Foundation series is a major step up aesthetically as well.

We’ve just received the entire series in for full review, but we’ve started with the PH9 phono stage. At $7,500 it will be an interesting comparison to the REF PHONO 3, also in for review (and destined to stay here after as a reference component) to see what the extra $5,500 buys you beyond a second input and balanced outputs.

Stay tuned!

The Shinola Runwell Turntable

I can’t tell you how many times friends and readers have asked me the same question, “I just want a nice turntable. I’ve been getting back into vinyl a bit, and I’d like something better than an entry level deck.”

The minute I point them in the direction of one of my favorite $1,200 turntables, start discussing cartridge choices and a decent phono preamplifier, the next comment is “I don’t want to get carried away with it, I’m only going to buy a couple of hundred albums.” If this sounds like you, the Shinola Runwell might just be the answer to your needs.

Opening the Shinola Runwell turntable reminds me of the first time I unpacked my Shinola watch. Well done, with high attention to detail, and confidence inspiring execution. I’ll be the first to admit; I don’t know a thing about watches. If you’re a watch aficionado, you can stick your nose in the air at my lowly Shinola watch all day long, and you won’t offend me. I love it.

The next thing I noticed was an Andrew Bird album (excellent choice) with a note saying “Thank you from Shinola.” When was the last time anyone thanked you for buying something? When was the last time a hi-fi store salesperson was even kind to you, period?

Steve Jobs once said, “If we don’t make technology as easy to use as putting a bagel in a toaster, no one will use it.” Laurie Anderson once quipped that she had “A drawer full of techy items she couldn’t figure out.” Shinola gets a 10 out of 10 for including a large, well-written, easy to read, quick start guide. I wish every other turntable company on Earth would follow this example. (To be fair, Rega comes pretty close, but that’s it.) If you can’t set it up, you’re not going to play any records, right? This stuff should not be daunting and exclusionary.

It’s an all-inclusive analog vacation

A good friend of mine that is a high-level IT professional said to me once, “we don’t realize just how immersed in all this stuff we are until we talk to someone that isn’t.”

Most of the people that go to Club Med, or any of the other all inclusive vacation spots do so because it’s a no brainer. They want to go on vacation, after all. That doesn’t mean those of you that want to sniff out more exotic locations or cuisine are bad Smurfs. But I can tell you this; the main thing that keeps the average music lover away from vinyl is the perceived hassle of setting up a turntable.

I’ve never had an easier time getting from box to spinning records than I have with Shinola’s Runwell. I’d give them an award for that alone. My nagging audiophile sensibilities got the best of me, and I just had to check the stylus force. Spot on at 1.85g. Attach the belt, plug it in and roll – there’s a power cord and a pair of interconnects in the box, so everything you need to roll is there. Or spin, should we say.

It’s probably taken you a lot longer to read this far than it will to set up a Shinola Runwell turntable. And that’s a good thing. Once spinning, the Runwell turns in an honest performance. The Ortofon 2M Blue works well with the internal MM phonostage. Mated with the exciting Atoll amplifier and preamplifier that we just reviewed last issue and the Focal Sopra no.1 speakers, this all makes for an incredibly pleasant analog experience. The Runwell is so easy to use, playing record after record is a breeze.

But is it an “audiophile” turntable?

Yes and no. From a sonic standpoint of comparably priced turntable/tonearm/cartridge/phonostage combinations – definitely. From an infinitely adjustable/tweakable analog deck, no. The only unfortunate part of the Runwell is that you can’t bypass the onboard phono preamplifier without getting your soldering iron out, but you can adjust VTA, etc., so you can swap MM cartridges if you like. But then that defeats the purpose of this turntable. Considering the modular nature of this table and the fact that this is Shinolas first table, I wouldn’t be surprised that future models may have more versatility.

For those of you that just have to tweak something, consider upgrading the Ortofon 2M Blue to a 2M Bronze or 2M Black. With a 2M Black on hand (it is the same form factor and weight as the 2M Blue) it only takes five minutes to make the swap and you won’t have to bother with VTA. The Runwell is capable of enough resolution to allow you to hear the difference, upping the price of the whole deck from the original MSRP of $2,500 to about $3,200. And if you just can’t leave well enough alone, swapping the supplied RCA cable for something else will reveal more music too. I’d suggest the Wireworld Equinoxe 7. At $200 a pair, this will also bring more musical enjoyment to your Runwell. While not infinitely geekable, you can still upgrade enough stuff on the Runwell that it’s not a dead end product, in audiophile terms. Hint to the Shinola team if you haven’t already thought of it, consider offering this table with a 2M Black for another $500.

However, even if all you do is take the Runwell out of the box, set it up and listen to records, never even thinking about changing anything, it succeeds on every level. The musical experience delivered is more than commensurate with the price asked.

Running through a set of favorite test discs, the massive platter has great speed stability, offering a weighty sound, not unlike what my VPI Classic One delivers.

For those of you that haven’t been following the Shinola story, Mat Weisfeld, and his father Harry, the guys behind VPI have been very involved with the Shinola table, and this turntable shares a lot of visual as well as sonic DNA. Yet, this isn’t just a Camaro rebadged as a Firebird. On one level, the visual styling of the Runwell is a step above the basic VPI tables, with an overall look that is more reserved, yet more sophisticated than the VPI Classic Line. (And I say this as a happy owner of a Classic One and Two.) The Runwell is also more compact than the VPI tables, and even though these tables are brothers from the same father, they each have unique identities.

The machined top plate of the turntable plinth reminds me of a vintage Thorens TD-124, both in color and feel. A massive aluminum platter, tonearm and light wood base (it’s also available in black) rounds out the package, complimented by the medium toned leather mat on top of the platter. I’ve seen plenty of ten thousand dollar turntables lacking this level of fit and finish.

Pure analog ease

Spinning record after record, this is a turntable that even a seasoned audio reviewer could easily live with. No $2,500 record player gives you everything – that costs a lot more money. But judged within its context, the Shinola Runwell is a lovely turntable. Playing more than a handful of very familiar LP’s, the analog magic is here in spades.  Sonics are superb, the soundstage presented is wide open, with more info in the left to right, and while there is some front to back information, not as much as might be expected from higher end decks – and much of this is the limitation of the 2M Blue. When upgraded to the 2M Black, more front to back information is available.

I was consistently impressed by the overall smoothness of the onboard MM phono section. Tonality is excellent, along with snappy transient response, and this baby is quiet! Perhaps the only nit to pick is a slight softening/rolling off of the extreme high end. Again, swapping to a 2M Black takes care of this for the most discerning ears.

Not a poseur

Shinola Audio has come out of the box with an impressive product in the Runwell Turntable. Build quality is exceptional, packaging equally intriguing, but best of all the sound quality is more than what you’d expect for the price. When you head down to a Shinola store and touch one, you’ll see what I mean. The staff at Shinola has built a product that they should be very proud of.

Some will bellyache over the somewhat closed loop system, but most of those types bellyache no matter what. If you want a record player that is a few steps up from entry level stuff, works perfectly and looks magnificent, I can’t recommend the Shinola Runwell highly enough.

For now, the Shinola Runwell is only available through Shinola stores and select Neiman Marcus stores. All the more reason to stop by and see the other cool stuff they have. You might just need a backpack or a watch!

The Shinola Runwell Turntable

MSRP:  $2,500


Preamplifier              Atoll HA120

Power Amplifier        Atoll HD100

Speaker Cable           Cardas Iridium

Speakers                    Focal Sopra no.1

The Merrill Christine Pre and Jens Phono

The good news is that both the Merrill Audio Christine linestage and the Jens phonostage are two world class components, revealing a tremendous amount of music, while leaving no sonic signature of their own. No small feat for any linestage or preamplifier at any price. Considering that the Christine tips the scale at $13,000 and the Jens at $15,500, you might even consider them a bargain. That will depend on your meal plan.

Listening begins with the Christine Reference linestage to get familiar with the Merrill Audio “sound,” or in this case a complete lack thereof. The Christine Reference Preamplifier belongs on the ledger with the $40,000 Robert Koda K-10 for delivering a neutral presentation in every way. It sounds like neither tubes nor solid state, it is merely a conduit for music. Talking to Merrill Wettasinghe, the designer, he stresses the wide bandwidth of this preamplifier as part of it’s neutrality and it only takes a cursory listen to realize he’s on to something.

Get ready for major goosebumps

Queuing up Mickey Hart’s Drumming at the Edge, a real audible stunner, both for micro dynamics and dramatic bass drive instantly hammers home the capabilities of this preamplifier. The instantaneous nature of Hart’s big bass drums is engulfing, giving the Quads a level of sock that doesn’t happen easily, yet when fast forwarding a few tracks to “Lonesome Hero,” you can hear the beads flowing back and forth in their stick, and you’re waiting for Hart to hand it to you from inside one of the speakers like the ghost in Poltergeist about to pop out of the television set.

Moving on to “Mali Men” from Afel Bocoum and Alkibar, with it’s dueling acoustic guitars, the lightning speed of this preamp takes charge, revealing every nuance of the fretboard action, to the point where through the Quad 2812s, it’s as if you are sitting right in front of these guys feeling their fingers zoom up and down the fretboard. Saying that the Christine conveys the emotion of the performance doesn’t do this box justice.

Much fun as this preamplifier is with the Quads, (and they’ve turned in a breathtaking musical performance with the Christine) moving to the GamuT RS5i’s and the Focal Sopra no.3’s, both of which have some serious bass output, further illustrates the speed, precision and articulation of this incredible linestage. If you want bass grip, you’ve got it.

The deep, slippery bass groove in Thomas Dolby’s “Pulp Culture” hits hard through the Focals, and these speakers which share the Grande Utopia’s ability to nail percussion transients do an incredible job at painting a distinctly multilayered portrait of this and many other highly familiar recordings.

Even relatively blasé recordings like the Monkees self titled album reveal hidden treasure. Granted, the Christine shows off the somewhat low fi recording, it still digs up a plethora of detail, not only showcasing the delicate harmonies in the arrangements, but keeping the bass line intact and powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “Last Train to Clarksville” sound more engaging.

Vocal and acoustic instrument aficionados will not be disappointed either. However, extended listening sessions reveal that while this linestage is tonally neutral and incredibly true to the music, it does not embellish in the least. Fortunately, it is not forward, etched or strident in any way, yet it will not make magic out of lousy recordings. So the final choice will be up to whether you want to play it as straight as it gets, or do you want special sauce?

Ins and outs

Magical presentation aside, this is probably one of the more difficult preamplifiers I’ve used. Nothing about the Christine is intuitive and while the manual is nearly 50 pages, you don’t even get to how to turn the damn thing on until page 24. Once you’ve paired the supplied Apple Remote and waded through a few menu layers, you will be rewarded with incredible sonics. Christine should be better accessorized for 13 grand. However, Mr. Wettasinghe has spent the money where it counts, on top of the line Cardas XLR connectors throughout. This is a fully balanced preamplifier, though it is supplied with two pairs (one for output, one for input) of Cardas premium XLR adaptors too. Always the mark of an excellent design, the Christine performs equally well mated to balanced or single ended components, so don’t shy away from it if the rest of your gear is adorned in RCA jacks.

Aesthetically, the shiny gold plated front panel will appeal to you or it won’t. Should you purchase the matching Jens phonostage, you will at least have two components that visually complement each other. The alphanumeric display screams Apollo 13, however it is easily read from across the room. Whether this will cloud your judgement and subsequent purchase decision is up to you.

We have no idea what’s inside the case of these solid-state miracles, as Wettasinghe does not talk about it or publish pictures. This preamplifier is a two-box design, with a smaller, external power supply attached via a supplied umbilical cord, which is also of very high quality. Should you buy one and open it up to peek for yourself, the warranty is void. As Tom Waits would say, “What’s he building in there?” Proprietary anything makes me suspicious and crabby at the same time, but the damn thing delivers. My K-10 is the same way. Shrouded in secrecy. We’ll never know.

Analog, eh?

The $15,500 Jens Reference phonostage is equally compelling. Sharing a similar lack on sonic signature with the Christine Reference linestage, the two together are a powerful combination. Fast, full range, and audibly engulfing. Oddly, for as much as Mr. Wettasinghe carries on about the benefits of a fully balanced topology, the Jens is single ended, with a single input and single output.

No matter, the delicacy of Eric Bibb’s guitar comes through strongly, striking a great balance of brushwork on the drums with Bibb’s plucky guitar style. His recent release from Pure Pleasure Analog is absolutely sublime. Partnered with the Koetsu Onyx Platinum, the Jens reveals a lot of music, taking you to a place I’ll stick my neck out and guess you haven’t been.

Gain is fixed at 70db, which works well with every cartridge in my collection, especially with said Koetsu, having only .3mv of output. Loading is widely variable from 5 ohms to 5,000 ohms, which should accommodate a wide range of cartridges, especially with the range between 25 and 500 offering the bulk of the settings.

Where the loading functionality of the Jens Reference Phono stage is incredibly well thought out, implementation is not terribly user friendly. That big lighted panel on the front face merely has three sets of LEDs indicating the Jens’ power up status. Adjusting gain requires going back behind the preamplifier, and rotating a pair of black knobs, hoping you’ve set the same number of clicks on each channel. If you are an analog lover that changes cartridges often, this will become tiresome in a hurry.

In all fairness, we didn’t knock the $60,000 Indigo Qualia for having one input and a single gain/loading setting, so we won’t knock the Jens for the same failing. Simaudio’s MOON LP810 also only sports a single input and is similarly priced to the Merrill Audio. So consider this a high performance phonostage for the music lover with a single turntable that doesn’t swap cartridges often. If you like to diddle with multiple table/arm/cart combinations, you might be best served elsewhere.

Again, like the Christine, the Jens is sealed, with an equal penalty (i.e. no warranty) so there is no way to see just what lurks underneath the cover and how the build quality of this preamplifier stacks up to its competitors.  It uses the same two box design, utilizing the same power supply as the Christine Reference Pre, so if you decide to go all Merrill Audio, the line and phono stages will require three shelves to accommodate all of the boxes.

Combining the Jens with the Christine makes for a dynamic combination. Both share the same ultra wide bandwidth design ethos and provide a very fast, clear and immediate presentation. Even the notoriously forward Rega Apheta 2, thanks to a 25 ohm loading setting is easily tamed, providing linear response. While there is no listed specification for signal to noise ratio, the Jens has a complete absence of background noise; it’s high res digital quiet, making for an incredibly dynamic analog presentation. All the audiophile cliché’s about “inky black backgrounds,” and “sound just creeping up out of the background,” etc., etc., apply here. Most phonostages have at least a tiny bit of noise, but not this one. Even with the volume control of the Christine cranked fully clockwise, there’s a total absence of sound. Impressive.

Total honesty

The Jens’ lack of sonic signature doesn’t really make for exciting audio journalism. Extended listening with a wide range of highly familiar pressings proves highly engaging. A perfect tonal balance, wide dynamic range and weighty presentation gradually increases the gravitational pull of your listening area. A few hours on the couch with the Jens makes it tough to escape your hifi system’s orbit. As more hours racked up, the same thought occurs when listening to the Jens, it epitomizes the analog feel, giving recordings this homogenous flow resembling a master tape that helps fool your brain into thinking you are listening to the real thing.

And the more you listen, the more you’ll be pulled in. Everything feels a little bigger, a little deeper than what you’re probably used to. The only phonostages that have exceeded this have been the $60k Qualia and the $65k Pass Xs Phono. I’ve yet to experience a phonostage that reveals this much music at this price, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay the Jens. A few other phonostages do things differently, a few are more user friendly and a couple of great tube phonostages offer their own sonic signature that one listener may prefer over another. But if you want analog honesty and you don’t mind the quirky nature of the Jens, I can think of no better phonostage unless you’ve got $60-65k to spend.

The Merrill Audio Jens Phonostage and Christine Linestage
MSRP:  $13,000 and $15,500 respectively


Turntables                   AVID Acutus REF SP/SME V/Lyra Atlas, Brinkmann Bardo/Koetsu Onyx Platinum

Preamplifier                Merrill Audio Christine, Pass Xs Pre

Amplifiers                   Pass Xs 300 Monoblocks

Speakers                      Quad 2812, GamuT RS5is, Focal Sopra no.2, Sonus faber Il Cremonese, MartinLogan Neolith

Cable                           Tellurium Q Silver Diamond interconnects and speaker cable

Issue 78


Old School:

Recapping the HH Scott 357

By Erik Owen


A Mini Miracle From Totem Audio

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile:

Wharfedale Diamond 250  Loudspeakers

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Quad PA-One Headphone Amplifier and Audioengine HD6 Speakers

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Anker SoundCore Bluetooth Speaker

Bald Eagle Skull Shaver

Eunique Jean’ster and Ride’ster Jeans

DJ Pillows

Hot Wheels Yellow Submarine

Muss Cobblestone

StarTrek Communicator Net Phone


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, Chrissie Dickinson, Andrea Domanick and Aaron Cohen

Jazz & Blues: Florian Weber Trio, Julian Lage, Avishal Cohen and More!
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

Gear Previews

Audio Research PH-9 Phono, DAC 9 and LS 28


Audio Classics 9b Amplifier
By Richard H. Mak

System Audio Pandion 30 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad Johnson CA 150SE
By Jeff Zaret

Torus AVR 15 Plus Isolation Transformer
By Rob Johnson

Pass Labs XA30.8 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

The Newest Rega!

The Sound Organisation is excited to announce the new Rega Planar 3 turntable and RB330 tonearm.

Arriving at the TSO headquarters by the end of May, the Planar 3 has improved sonic performance, aesthetics and usability. The new ‘Planar 3’ is completely redesigned for 2016, carrying over just two components from the previous model.

The UK based Rega team of designers, directed by Rega founder Roy Gandy, devoted two years of intensive development to perfect the Planar 3, and is the most intensive redesign of the iconic ‘three’ model ever. Complimenting the Planar 3 is the new RB330 tone arm. Engineered alongside the Planar 3, the RB330 is the culmination of 35 years of tonearm design experience.

Building on the success of the RP3, the new Planar 3 uses a lightweight acrylic laminated plinth utilizing an improved double brace system mounted specifically where the increased rigidity is required (between the tonearm mounting and the main hub bearing) forming a structurally sound “stressed beam” assembly. Rega’s low mass, high strength design directly addresses the issue of energy absorption and energy transmission, reducing unnatural distortions to the music.

Every aspect of the previous model was examined, exploring all options to extract more performance from this iconic turntable. As a result, the new Planar 3 shares almost no parts with the RP3 it replaces, all the way down to the clips at the end of the tonearm leads!

The Rega Planar 3 turntable is available June 2016, at all authorized Rega retailers.

$1,145.00 with pre-fitted Elys 2 MM cartridge; $945.00 without cartridge

RB330 will be available separately in a retail package for $595.00.

Watch for a full review at TONEAudio soon, as well as some sexy photos on our new site, The Analogaholic as well.

Issue 75


Old School:

Nakamichi 620 Power Amplifier

By Gerold O’Brien

The Audiophile Apartment:

Vandersteen’s VLR Wood Speakers

By Rob Johnson

Journeyman Audiophile:

Conrad Johnson’s MF-2275SE Power Amplifier

By Rob Johnson


On the go with music and celebrity photographer, Karl Larsen

By Jeff Dorgay

995: Sounds That Won’t Break The Bank

The Lounge Audio LCR mk.III phono stage and Copla step up device

By Jerold O’Brien

TONE Style

Silverware – A new way to rent autos!

The Record Tote

Quadraspire SVT Rack

The GamuT Lobster Chair

REL’s Longbow

Adult Underoos


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, Chrissie Dickinson, Andrea Domanick and Aaron Cohen

Jazz & Blues: Food, Cecile,Erik Friedlander and More!
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

Live Music: Lucinda Williams at the City Winery in Chicago.
by Bob Gendron

Gear Previews

dCS Rossini DAC

Graham Audio LS5/9  Speakers

Marantz HD-DAC1


AIWON Phono cartridge
By Richard H. Mak

Witch Ruby STD Linestage
By Rob Johnson

Koetsu Onyx Platinum Phono Cartridge
By Jeff Dorgay

Reimyo 999EX DAC and CDT 777 Transport
By Jeff Dorgay

Charisma Audio Reference One and Two Phono Cartridges
By Richard H. Mak

VPI Classic Two Turntable

Back in Issue 46, I was enamored enough with VPI’s Classic One turntable to give it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.  Even more, I purchased the review sample to make it a permanent reference, and after two years, the Classic One is my go to table, when I just want to hang out and listen to records without fuss. I enjoy it so much; it’s the only table in my home system.

Due to increases in raw materials cost, VPI has had to raise the price of the Classic One from $2,695 to $2,995, yet it remains a stunning value – offering build quality and sheer musicality that has few, if any peers at it’s price.  After two years of daily listening, the Classic One, and now the Classic Two feel more like a “greatest hits of analog” product, combining the virtues of a couple of my favorite turntables into one easy to use and easy to set up package. The sheer weight of its presentation reminds me of an idler wheel Garrard or a Thorens TD-124, without the rumble and noise issues. The Classic 2s overall warmth is highly reminiscent of a mid 80s LP-12, without a heavy dose of OCD to keep it running.

The Classic Two’s overall aesthetic is no nonsense. With a simple, basic black plinth surrounded by either a black oak or walnut frame, and perched upon miniature versions of their HRX turntable’s feet, it is devoid of accouterments. The Classic Two eliminates all pretense and gets down to business playing records, with every penny invested in design and build quality. This is a table you will be able to leave your kids without worry.

Inside the box is everything you need to get your Classic Two up and playing records right now. A classic Shure balance beam tracking force gauge and cartridge alignment protractor saves time and money, not to mention gets you about 95% of the way to perfect performance. For most, the enclosed tools will make you more than happy. Maniacal audiophiles willing to invest in a more precise tracking force scale and alignment protractor will be able to take the Classic Two to an even higher level of analog clarity.

An adjustable VTA collar on the tonearm is what makes the Classic Two a Two. The Classic One has a fixed adjustment for setting VTA, while the Two lets you adjust VTA on the fly, like the rest of the tables higher up the VPI range. Though some swear by this, I’m still not one to set VTA on the fly. But what is exceptionally handy is the ability to use the fine vernier adjustment to not only set, but also easily re-set VTA adjustments. Those with multiple tonearm wands can now switch between cartridges with total ease and consistency. That’s the magic of the Classic Two and the reason you want to pony up the extra thousand dollars.

I suggest music lovers that stick with one cartridge until it is spent and don’t fiddle with their turntables settings will be just as well served by the Classic One, and maybe spending that extra on a better cartridge, VPI’s SDS motor controller, or one of their outstanding record cleaning machines, if you don’t already have one. While some claim the Classic One sounds better because of its fixed VTA adjustment (possibly a touch more rigidity in the tonearm tower/bearing assembly) a side-by-side comparison of a Classic One and Classic Two with identical cartridges did not reveal an audible difference.

For a full description of the Classic One’s sound, click here. But to summarize, both the Classic One and Two produce a big, weighty, full-bodied sound. Utilizing VPIs JMW-10.5i tonearm wand with copper internal wiring. Those seeking even more performance should ask their VPI dealer about upgrading the table to the 10.5i armwand with Nordost Valhalla internal wiring.

Small details aside, the VPI Classic Two is one of the finest turntables available for $3,995. As with the Classic One, we are proud to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015.

– Jeff Dorgay

Grateful Dead – American Beauty

Because the Grateful Dead was always a band that paid close attention to the sound quality of its live performances and recordings, even a random copy of any Dead album usually sounds pretty good—provided it hasn’t been played to extinction.  Mobile Fidelity did a stellar job on the original single-album reissue of American Beauty in the 80s, but they are rare, with sealed versions fetching about $150 and opened albeit gently played copies ranging from $45-$75. By comparison, original, opened, green-label WB versions in excellent condition can usually be found for about $30-$40.

With many records, choosing between versions can often be a dilemma. But most Dead fans usually want everything, so consider this more a pairing than a choice. The early Mobile Fidelity version presents a wider soundstage than the new 45RPM reissue, with all vocals more out in front of the speakers. The current release lines everything up on nearly the same plane.

Tonally, the early Mobile Fidelity is slightly crisper, and more etched on the very top end.  Your personal taste and overall system tonal balance will determine what you prefer.  On our reference system, the Lyra Atlas cartridge tends to favor the new version, while the Clearaudio Goldfinger delivers a more homogenous playback with the older disc. The green label is smack dab in the middle of the two.

While all three versions sound close tonally and spatially, the current 45RPM edition is the champ in terms of noise floor. It’s an amazing testament to the staying power of analog in that a high-quality tape, when well-preserved and expertly handled, can deliver such a quiet background.

Keep in mind the difference between these three pressings is decidedly small, and all three are excellent.  Mobile Fidelity has done a phenomenal job.

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP set

Mastodon – Blood Mountain

Released nearly a decade ago, Mastodon’s landmark concept album about scaling a bewildering peak—and encountering bloodthirsty wolves, unified tree-people colonies, and ice gods—has been recently reissued and remastered on colored vinyl befitting the record’s chromatic characteristics. While the Tolkien-esque premise would flounder in the hands of a lesser band, the Atlanta metal quartet responds to the thematic and musical challenges with aplomb.

Weaving together a web of thrash, prog, psychedelic, and blues disciplines, Mastodon approaches pace, contrast, and angularity with idiosyncratic discipline. Brann Dailor’s ultra-dynamic drumming and jazzy faculty for off-kilter spacing and color functions as the anchor. Manhandling complex rhythms, his arm-twisting rolls launch soirees and double-bass thunder ignites percussive landslides. Dailor’s mates are equally proficient, their instruments doubling as lances that carve fills that, akin to the songs’ breadth, stem from a classical school of thought.

Blood Mountain remains as fresh today as it originally sounded in 2006. Shredding passages mutate into a shoots-and-ladders series of harmonized solos on “Crystal Skull.” Acoustic passages and fluid notes lighten the load of the alternately crushing, alternately consoling “Sleeping Giant.” Bench-pressing riffs and vocoder effects recreate the alien life forms of “Circle of the Cysquatch.” On “Siberian Divide,” grinding turns respond to tales of hypothermia and cannibalism. Mastodon embraces a cosmic sensibility throughout, turning to Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme to supply hallucinatory background vocals for “The Colony of the Birchmen” and delving into fractal folk on the reverb-misted “Pendulous Skin.”

Producer Matt Bayles preserves Mastodon’s thickness while allowing songs to breathe. Dailor’s floor-shaking beats and firm drive illuminate the spacious midrange, and the background vocals fight for transparency, it doesn’t subtract from the forceful footprint and solid tonal balance that account for the involving reproduction of the arrangements’ seemingly indefatigable structures.

Reprise’s new $20 pressing is relatively quiet and, with custom-swirled yellow and green wax,  affirmatively psychedelic. It marks the first time Blood Mountain has been available on LP since a 2010 black-vinyl version, and there’s a reason why the band’s studio catalog keeps going out of print. Namely, Mastodon sounds aptly muscular and burly on vinyl. While this edition doesn’t register the dynamic impact and three-dimensional forcefulness of 2010’s collectable Record Store Day 180g 45RPM pressing—limited to 2500 copies and now fetching upwards of $150—it’s well worth the time of any analog lover that values elite musicianship and hair-raising intensity. Bob Gendron

Purchase this on vinyl from Music Direct HERE

And stream it from our friends at TIDAL HERE

Waxahatchee – Ivy Trip

Katie Crutchfield, who performs under the guise of Waxahatchee, is what it might sound like if a bundle of nerves could talk.

On her group’s third and most structured album, Ivy Tripp, the Alabama native takes stock of circumstances, possibilities, and worries from close-up perspectives informed by first-hand experience and imagined scenarios. Dealing with relationships and expectations, Crutchfield addresses themes to which most 20- and 30-somethings can easily relate in a clever fashion largely free of irony yet loaded with sharp-tongued directness. She navigates the balance between keeping her distance and getting intimate, and when accusations fly, doesn’t spare herself from blame.

While Crutchfield observes love from a cautionary stance, she refrains from viewing it with a jaundiced eye. Since the band’s 2013 breakout and largely solo-based Cerulean Salt, she’s also gained more confidence, which is on display throughout the more put-together record. Waxahatchee’s lo-fi roots remain visible, yet many songs call for a full band, and some even rock out with the four-on-the-floor beats and dynamic thrusts. Each claims ownership of a subtle hook or wordless melody. Crutchfield’s modest country-tinged voice emerges as a fuller instrument, too, with her phrasing weaving between dips and divots created by spare bass lines, humming organs, and stair-climbing percussion.

Against raw and exposed arrangements, the vocalist often seems as if she’s singing thoughts to a best friend or delivering a break-up notice to an ex amidst the commotion at a bar. And where Crutchfield could appear overly fragile and insecure on past efforts, the 26-year-old comes across with deeper maturity and self-assuredness here. She’s still confessional, openly vulnerable, and occasionally sad, yet she also expresses unmistakable determination and punk-derived toughness.

“You’re less than me/I am nothing,” she repeats on the fuzz-coated scrawl of “<,” demonstrating both the will to knock herself down a notch and float above the ruinous fray of a wrecked romance. On the chiming bash-and-pop of “Under a Rock,” Crutchfield confronts insatiability and expendability as she evaluates her role and future. Similarly unflinching, the beautifully minimalist piano ballad “Half Moon” reflects the vocalist’s penchant to evaluate states of affairs with painful honesty. “Our love tastes like sugar/But it pours all the life out of me,” she sighs in a tattered tone, resigned to accepting loss and moving on.

Indeed, Ivy Tripp might be pockmarked with moments of despondency and uncertainty, yet the record never wallows in despair. Crutchfield often gives reason for optimism in spite of outlying challenges. She takes space to locate her bearings on the rubbery “Poison,” admits a need for companionship the deceivingly innocent “La Loose,” and relishes peacefulness on the acoustic “Summer of Love,” a devotional tune accented with the natural sounds of the outdoors and a barking dog.

“I’m not trying to have it all,” Crutchfield sing-states with authoritativeness on the back-and-forth emotional teeter-totter that is “Breathless,” before closing the serious dirge with a frolicking la-la-la coda that could’ve been pulled straight out of the hills scene in The Sound of Music. It’s the mounting echo of an intelligent artist that may not know exactly what she wants, but who realizes sorting through anxieties ultimately lead to finding one’s identity. —Bob Gendron

Purchase this on vinyl from Music Direct HERE…

And STREAM it from our friends at TIDAL HERE…

Lightning Bolt

For more than two decades, Lightning Bolt has embraced barely controlled chaos as a secret ingredient and ear-shredding volume as an invisible third member of the band.

Legendary in noise-rock circles, the Rhode Island duo made its name by embracing underground principles and pushing them to extremes on both album and, particularly, in performance. Drummer Brian Chippendale and vocalist/bassist Brian Gibson frequently eschew stages in favor of setting up in the midst of the crowd on venues’ floor. They’ve also played kitchens and sidewalks, donned crazy wrestling and serial-killer masks during shows, and generally avoided anything related to convention.

While the group’s non-traditional thinking serves it well during anything-goes concerts—in which the element of surprise, frenetic tempos, and blaring decibels are the only givens—it obscures the band’s talents on album. Ever since its self-titled 1999 debut, Lightning Bolt has refused to record in a studio with proper high-fidelity gear, instead releasing lo-fi material that sounds as if it was captured in a cardboard box. Avant-garde aesthetics aside, the approach seemed to resemble unnecessary self-sabotage.

Peeling back the curtain on the collective’s tumultuous assault and manic array of fuzzed-out distortion, rampaging grooves, and free-jazz-inspired percussion, Fantasy Empire functions as a long-needed lightbulb moment. Recorded at Machines With Magnets studio, Lightning Bolt’s sixth proper album doubles as a deserved breakthrough for two musicians whose terrifying precision, intensity, and rumble can finally be heard full bore. Music that previously came across as a jet-speed muddle of thwacks, thuds, and turbulence now possesses honest-to-goodness detail and dynamics.

Volatile tunes such as the wood-mulching masher “Over the River and Through the Woods” and yowling stomper “King of My World” retain all the madness of previous work, yet also emerge as genuine songs with identifiable structures and (gasp!) textures—not simply abstract excursions into fury and pandemonium. Whether on the electric-can-opener riff that underlines the onslaught dubbed “The Metal East” or the berserk rhythms getting sawed off in all directions during the epic “Snow White & 7 Dwarves Fans,” Chippendale and Gibson maintain a focus and discipline that set them apart.

They’re also wise enough to realize the importance of breathing room, and balance the attack with decelerated intervals. Subtle additions, like loops and reverb, further contribute to the sense that Lightning Bolt has officially transcended art-project status and elevated itself to a band that’s now as good on record as it is on the stage—whatever the latter might represent on any given night. —Bob Gendron

Lightning Bolt
Fantasy Empire
Thrill Jockey, 2LP or CD

Order the Vinyl From Music Direct here:

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett makes it virtually impossible to listen to her outstanding full-length debut while doing something else.

Forget about experiencing it as background noise, or even texting as it plays. You could call it one musician’s foolproof way to defeat attention-deficit disorder and today’s easily distracted, multi-tasking audiences. Yet Barnett isn’t out to change the way people listen by pulling a stunt. Instead, the magnetic pull of her Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit owes to a savvy combination of witty songwriting, evocative melodies, concise arrangements, and sly deliveries that comes around too infrequently in an ego-centric age absent creative gatekeepers.

Akin to the most memorable “Seinfeld” episodes, the Australian native showcases a knack for transforming common occurrences and everyday thoughts into meaningful observations and deep think pieces. She conveys insightful outlooks and brainy details in rambling albeit simple, conversational turns of phrases that wouldn’t be out of place at an unassuming neighborhood pub. Free of excessive jargon and forced irony, Barnett refreshingly avoids satirical postmodernism. She’s also not solely preoccupied by love or 21st century dating—or, at least, not yet so permanently scarred that she fully gives into the topics—expanding her outlook toward larger issues encompassing human interaction, integrity, responsibility, and self-worth.

Via rhymed couplets and snappy descriptors, Barnett possesses the relatable consciousness of a smart novelist. And through her tangle of stripped-back pop hooks, deadpan singing, and bounding garage-rock grooves, she exhibits the gruff appeal and winking humor of a rough-around-the-edges bartender—a profession she knows well, having worked full-time in a Melbourne tavern until February 2014. In her off hours, the art-school dropout utilized honed her artistry, headed an indie record label, and cobbled together enough songs for a succession of self-released EPs reissued last year as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Critically acclaimed appearances at major music festivals followed. Yet none compare to her achievements on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

Placing a fresh spin on the adage “leave them wanting more,” Barnett reshapes the apparently ordinary into incidents infused with aha moments, unexpected revelations, and candid admissions. Seemingly plain on the surface, her vignettes skirt obvious conclusions. She challenges anyone within earshot for their undivided attention on the album-opening “Elevator Operator,” which skips along to a contagious beat and Barnett’s matter-of-fact sing-speak vocals that begin the second the song starts. In less than three-and-a-half minutes, she sketches vivid profiles of two characters to the extent their habits, moods, and identities are fully formed. An aptly surprising ending clinches the tale, which ostensibly involves routine and shallowness but goes further to address expectation, awareness, and perspective—themes that course throughout the record.

In Barnett’s universe, features often seen as trivial signify larger concepts. Cracks in the wall and patterns on the ceiling beget revelations about a relationship in “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York).” Communicated with equal parts spunk and bite, Barnett’s backing band curls snake-like rhythms around her half-lazy, half-droopy singing. On the country-folk strummer “Deprestron,” she both flips the script on the charms traditionally associated with suburbia and confronts swept-under-the-rug circumstances connected to property sales. In the process, Barnett assails not only real-estate customs that encourage buyers to bury history, but myriad practices and procedures that cause people to lose sight of feelings and responsibility.

Indeed, the singer employs understatement and nuance to imply there are serious costs and consequences connected to habits that remain out of sight and behaviors taken for granted. “Dead Fox” grapples with environmentalism, waste, and consumption as Barnett contemplates fruit sold in the market, trucks that pass by her, and animals slaughtered for her food. “Kim’s Caravan” is similarly subversive, its slowed pace and echoing distortion indicative of the song’s weighty meditations on culpability and exploitation. As she does many times on the album, the 26-year-old utilizes simple notions—and identifiable situations—to express broader points in astute manners.

Barnett also understands how to have fun. She takes shots at indecisiveness and facades on the catchy “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” ringed with driving guitar riffs, nasal accents, and spunky vibes. During the spring-loaded “Aqua Profunda!,” the singer dizzily recounts an encounter with an attractive stranger at a swimming pool and wraps anxiety, desire, embarrassment, and disappointment up into one hilariously sincere two-minute story. And on the tongue-in-cheek “Pedestrian at Best,” Barnett lashes out at pretense, sanctimonious, and presumption with savage impact.

At its core, the stomping song recalls the rawness, insistence, and volume of mid-period Nirvana, the group whose chords Barnett learned when she first picked up a guitar. If Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is any indication of the Australian singer’s trajectory, countless young upstart musicians will be sitting at home and using Barnett’s work in the same way during the years to come. -Bob Gendron

You can purchase this here from Music Direct:

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Another Day Another Time

Initially trumpeted by critics as an Oscar contender and a thematic relative of the Oscar-winning directors/screenwriters’ smash O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis failed to win over public interest.

The soundtrack, designed to channel the vibe of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and anchored by contemporaries such as the Punch Brothers and Justin Timberlake (who starred in the movie), disappeared nearly as quickly from view.

It seemed, however, the project’s overseers knew such an undertaking would remain under the radar. Having admitted as much, and to create additional buzz, the Coen brothers and producer T Bone Burnett staged a benefit concert at New York’s Town Hall in September 2013. The affair featured actors and musicians from the film as well as a cadre of artists that trade in the sort of roots fare—old and new, traditional and original—connected to or informed by the scene that attracted Bob Dylan to the East Coast and, ultimately, changed the course of culture.

While such one-time events often poorly translate to records and video, Another Day Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis” retains a curious allure thanks to the consistency of style and performances. A host of marquee names—ranging from Joan Baez and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy to Elvis Costello and Jack White—supply star power and bow with expectedly solid turns. Highlights include Baez delivering a stark “House of the Rising Sun” and White, refreshingly free of shtick, transforming his own charmingly innocent “We’re Going to Be Friends.”

Yet this acoustic-based set succeeds most between the lines, via several up-and-comers that take full advantage of the platform. Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens transcends what she’s shown thus far with her main group on the antebellum-informed “Waterboy” and Celtic standard “S’iomadh rud tha dhith orm/Ciamar a ni mi ‘n dannsa direach.” The arresting readings reveal a voice pregnant with gospel, texture, grace, and power. Similarly, the manners in which the Secret Sisters dial up tender harmonies on the mournful “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder” and Lake Street Drive skit through “You Go Down Smooth” give more reason to be optimistic about the health of traditional-minded folk in the 21st century.

And while he’s already familiar to Americana aficionados Punch Brothers member Chris Thile again proves he’s ready for an even bigger stage throughout. Along with Gillian Welch, who is superb both in small (“The Way It Goes”) and ensemble pairings (“Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”), Thile functions as the evening’s jack-of-all-trades. He grooves with his main group on “Rye Whiskey” and shines in a variety of settings in which he carries the instrumental weight.

At more than two hours, the 34-track collection occasionally suffers from momentum losses. The Avett Brothers stick out as revivalist pretenders and actors Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan add little to the proceedings. Still, the spirit of the past, promise of the present, and hope of the future in the form of Welch, Thile, Giddens, and Co. make it easy to overlook such temporary flaws.  —Bob Gendron

Various Artists

Another Day Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Nonesuch, 3LP or 2CD

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Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night

Bob Dylan’s 2009 album of holiday standards could be seen as an example of the Bard having a little fun with the public, but make no mistake: Shadows In the Night, the 73-year-old’s stripped-down set of songs largely popularized by Frank Sinatra, is no laughing matter.

Nobody is going to argue that Dylan’s weather-beaten, gravel-textured voice belongs on the same level as Ol’ Blue Eyes’ baritone, Tony Bennett’s crooning, or even many of the contemporaries that tackled Sinatra projects. Yet the Minnesota native’s measured, cautious pace—and equally importantly, elastic phrasing, gentle timbre, and seeming self-awareness of his own abilities as a balladeer—begets an emotional honesty lacking on many of the forgettable Great American Songbook efforts released during the past several decades. Via restrained arrangements and resigned moods, the music often falls in line with several of Dylan’s better late-career records—including parts of Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft.

Focusing on Sinatra’s alone-at-the-bar saloon fare and wisely steering away from upbeat swing, Dylan succeeds in peeling away the big-band layers to leave minimalist arrangements that frame his vulnerability, regret, and loneliness. He expresses the latter feelings by taking his time with the lyrics, be it stretching syllables like taffy or drawing out spaces between words.

Having eliminated the traditional string elements—and save for three tunes, the horns—Dylan needn’t compete with a band. Rather, one complements him, with his longtime touring mates supplying discreet backgrounds salted with country and blues flavors. Donny Herron’s aching, gliding pedal-steel guitar lines mirror the singer’s loneliness on material such as “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and “What I’ll Do.” Dylan even manages to bring fresh perspective to “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” investing each standard with a sense of tragic certainty Shakespeare—surely, a peer in spirit—would’ve appreciated.

Captured at Capitol’s Studio B, a location Sinatra frequented, Shadows In the Night claims no overdubs or separate tracking. Dylan and Co. recorded live, with no headphones or vocal booths. What’s in the grooves is basically what went down, and most songs were completed in one or two takes. The resulting intimacy and spontaneity lend further credibility to an album that, by looking to the past, speaks volumes about the need for more musical truthfulness in the present. —Bob Gendron

You can purchase the vinyl HERE at Music Direct…

And, you can stream it on TIDAL Here…

Justin Townes Earle

Loneliness—and the fears that accompany the threadbare emotion—has long served as the inspiration for innumerable pop songs. The subject also provided the jumping-off point for many classics in the traditional country canon, with singers such as Hank Williams, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings making careers out of the sound of being despondent and continuing their erring ways en route to less-than-ideal circumstances.

Yet as many artists discover the hard way, it’s one thing to sing about forsakenness and another to truly understand what it means to be on a first-name basis with the feeling. The profound sadness tied to solitary existence and lingering heartsickness cannot easily be faked. The late contemporary singer-songwriter Jason Molina, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 39 from alcohol-induced organ failure, knew such deep-seated ache, sorrow, and isolation all too well. You can hear it on many of the remarkable records he made under the banners of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. Molina’s is a haunting beauty, a torment that reaches deep into listeners’ souls and doesn’t let go.

Justin Townes Earle can relate to such sentiments. Abandoned by his musician/actor father, Steve, when he was just two, he became addicted to hard drugs at a time when most of his peers were still busy worrying about their Little League stats. Multiple rehabilitation stints, at least one high-publicity arrest, and several near-death experiences later, the 33-year-old appears to finally be finding inner peace, having kicked chemical substances and gotten married within the past 18 months.

The release of Absent Fathers—the bookend to the equally strong Single Mothers, issued in October—goes further to suggest the foggy gloom long surrounding the younger Earle’s world is lifting. Spare, relaxed, and moody, the ten-track set primarily clings to downbeat hues and understated rhythms. Songs such as the crawling, stare-at-the-clock lament “When the One You Love Loses Faith” and stripped-to-the-bones “Day and Night” rightly focus on Earle’s low-key voice, a pliable instrument teeming with weariness and anguish yet too stubborn and invested to give up.

Rather than wallow in the melancholy of troubled thoughts, busted relationships, and abused freedoms, Earle’s weary deliveries convey a relatable compassion and unmistakable authenticity made even clearer by unfussy production. On the strolling “Least I Got the Blues” and languid “Slow Monday”—where the sluggish passing of time only serves to cause Earle to damn himself for acting a fool—country-laced pedal-steel guitar lines stretch across big-sky horizons and accentuate the singer’s unsettled state of mind. Picking up the pace on “Someone Will Pay” and R&B-etched “Call Ya Momma,” he ditches whiskey-nursing deliberation in favor of something approximating moving on.

“Why do you always think the worst of me, babe?” Earle asks during “Why” as a full band supplies a steady beat and honky-tonk accents. Like most of the record, the concise tune finds Earle mired in despair of one sort or another. But it also witnesses the singer considering other perspectives and contemplating better possibilities, the heartache a necessary stopover on the way to the hopeful catharsis intimated throughout the outlines of the subtly powerful Absent Fathers. —Bob Gendron

To purchase this album on vinyl from music direct, click here

If you’d like to stream it on Tidal first, click here

Rega RP10 Turntable

Our publisher has been a Rega fan since the fateful day in the mid-’80s when we happened by our local dealer (Audio Emporium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) to find them opening a shipment of Planar 3 turntables.  As they lifted a bright, fluorescent green table out, the sales guy quipped, “What idiot would buy a turntable in this color?”  Little did he know that’s been publisher Dorgay’s favorite color since age 6.  He solemnly replied, “I’m that idiot!” and we took that little British table back to his listening room and were subsequently blown away, being Technics SL-1200 guys at that moment in time, thinking there couldn’t possibly be anything better than direct drive.

Words like pace and timing weren’t even part of our vocabulary back then, but there was a ton of inner detail coming through those Magnepan MGII speakers that wasn’t there the day before, and to this day, both of us have always owned at least one Rega turntable.  For the record, my current reference is a P9 with Apheta cartridge, and it has served me well for some time now.

Evolution no. 10

Someone once said that an elephant is only a mouse built to military specifications, and on one level the same could be said for the P9 – you could think of it as a fully geeked-out P3.  The platter, drive mechanism, tonearm and power supply are all highly evolved versions of the basic Rega turntable.  For those of you that aren’t familiar, the tonearm on the earlier P3 and P9 shared the same basic casting, and now the new RP10 uses a highly refined version of the new casting for the RP3 (and is secured with the same red tape Rega has used for decades), yet the new RB2000 is completely handmade and finished to the highest of tolerances, as was the RB1000.

According to Rega, the RB2000 arm “is designed to have a minimum of mechanical joints while using the stiffest materials possible in all areas.”  Like its predecessor, the bearings are hand fitted and of highest quality, all handpicked for tolerance before insertion into the arm.

A new twist on the Rega platform, beginning with the RP3, is the mechanical brace: magnesium in the RP10, going between the tonearm mount and the turntable bearing, assuring maximum rigidity between these critical areas, while taking advantage of the new, skeletal plinth (further refined from the RP8 design) having seven times less mass than the original Planar 3.

An ex-automotive engineer, Rega principal Roy Gandy has always taken the advantage that less mass means more energy transferred from the record groove to the stylus tip, an opposite philosophy of the “more mass is better” approach embraced by some other manufacturers.  Gandy’s approach has always worked well, but in the past, the P3 and variations have always been accused of being somewhat lightweight in the lower register.  The former flagship P9 has always featured the liveliness that their tables have always been known for, with additional heft in the low frequencies.  Combined with a set-and-forget ethos, there’s no wonder the P9 has won the hearts (and ears) of so many music lovers that just want a fabulous turntable without the setup anxiety.

The race is on

So as much as we wanted this to be a standalone review, the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue – and on our Facebook inbox – has been, “How does the RP10 stack up to the P9?”  As the title of this review suggests, it is an evolutionary move.  Listening to the P9 and RP10 side by side easily shows the additional resolution present in the new table.

A speed check was the first test on our list, and utilizing the Feickert iPad app showed the RP10 to be dead-on for both 33 and 45 rpm speeds.  It’s still somewhat of an urban legend that Rega tables run “a bit fast” to provide a zippier sound.  In our experience, this just hasn’t been the case in the last 15 years or so, and the RP10 keeps them batting a thousand.  So, if you’ve had any internet-related anxiety about the speed of the RP10, forget about it.

Ease as always

Should you opt for the Apheta MC cartridge, which comes pre-installed (at least for US customers), it’s a winner on two counts.  The Sound Organisation, Rega’s US importer, sells the two as a package for $6,495, saving you almost a thousand bucks in the process – and they install the cartridge for you.  Even though this is super easy, because the Apheta features Rega’s three-bolt fastening, and as all Rega tables come from the factory optimized for correct VTA, the RP10 is possibly the only no-fuss, no-muss premium turntable.  All you need to do is set the tracking force to 1.75 grams and fiddle a little bit with the anti-skate if you feel so inclined.  If it takes you more than five minutes to play records on an RP10, you are overthinking it.

If the Apheta is not your bag, rest assured that there are a number of other great cartridges available that will provide excellent synergy with this table.  Here at TONE, we’ve used everything from the ZU Denon 103 cartridge all the way up to the $10,000 Lyra Atlas cartridge on both the P9 and RP10 with fantastic results.  You can read the Apheta review here[1] to get more of a feel for this cartridge, but for those not wanting to dig back, here’s a short synopsis:  The Apheta is a very fast, neutral cartridge with a lot of HF energy.  If you don’t have an MC phonostage capable of going down to somewhere between 25 and 50 ohms, the Apheta will make a poor showing and sound somewhat shrill.  Load it correctly and you will be rewarded with clean, detailed sound.

The P9 and the new RP10 are awesome for music lovers who want great sound without a fuss.  While I’ve listened to a lot of megabuck tables at the TONE studio, $5,000 is my sweet spot – and let’s be clear: I do not consider this the point of analog diminishing returns; however it is all the more I’m comfortable spending on a turntable.  So for me, personally, the RP10 gives me enough of a glimpse into the price-no-object tables for comfort.  Considering Rega has only raised the price $500 over the cost of the P9 speaks volumes for their manufacturing efficiencies.

More listening

As hinted at the beginning of this review, the RP10 does reveal more music throughout the range.  Transients are cleaner, the bass carries a bit more weight, and the high end is even crisper than before.  Regardless of program material chosen, the improvements made feel like going from ISO 200 to ISO 100 on your favorite digital camera (or film for those of you still embracing the medium).

Should you trade up from your trusty P9?  That’s a question only you can answer, and it will probably depend on what your dealer will give you for a trade-in and how wacky you’re feeling with the checkbook.  -Jerold O’Brien

Additional Listening

I’m probably more anxious than most people to finally get my hands on the RP10, as I saw the prototype of this turntable at Roy Gandy’s home about six years ago and it was fantastic back then.  You’ll either love or hate the skeletal design; I love it because it looks so un-Rega, but those of you wanting a more traditional-looking turntable can leave it in its full base.  Me, I’d rather see it in its naked glory and cast a few spotlights on it, letting the shadows fall where they may.

As Mr. O’Brien mentioned, this table, though more radical in design, is definitely evolutionary.  You won’t mistake the sound of the RP10 for an SME or Clearaudio table and that’s a good thing.  Most of the improvements to the tonearm and power supply are not easily seen from the outside, as is the second generation ceramic platter, but Rega tables are always more than the sum of their parts.

In my reference system through the Audio Research REF Phono 2SE, I noticed the same sonic improvements in the RP10/P9 comparison, but what I did notice on a more resolving reference system than Mr. O’Brien’s was that the RP10’s new arm and table design will accommodate an even better cartridge than the P9 could.  Where the Lyra Kleos was about the limit of what I’d mate with the P9, the RP10 could handle the Atlas.  I’m sure most RP10 customers aren’t going to drop $10k on a phono cartridge, but you could, and it can resolve more music than a Kleos will let through.  And that’s part of the magic with the RP10.  It’s a sleeper.

I’ve always enjoyed the Apheta with the P9 and now the RP10, but I found absolute bliss with my Dynavector XV-1s cartridge, offering a slightly warmer overall presentation than the Apheta.  Again, this will be decided by your ultimate sonic preferences and the RP10/Apheta combination is really tough to beat for the money.  Rega has hit a pretty interesting run with the RP10, as there are a lot of great turntables in the $10k–$15k range, as well as in the $2k–$3k range, but this price point is pretty wide open.

We could talk tech for hours, but do we want to?  Put a record on and relax.  Much like my P9, the RP10 has that extra amount of LF weight and drive (torque maybe?) that really makes this table a blast to listen to rock records with.  Going back to Deep Purple’s classic “Smoke on the Water” from their Made in Japan album was incredibly convincing when those famous chords were played.

Extended listening with a wide range of program material reveals a table that gets it right on so many levels.  Mounted on an SRA rack, there were no feedback issues, no matter how loud I played music, so the table’s design is working as it should.

Reflecting on my time with the RP10, I just wonder when Mr. Gandy and his crew will run out of ideas?  They remain fresh as ever, and I can’t believe that after more than 30 years, I’m just as smitten with Rega as I was the day I brought my first one home from the hifi store.  Now, can they just make it in lime green?  I’m happy to give the Rega RP10 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.  -Jeff Dorgay

Rega RP10

MSRP:  $5,495 (without cartridge)  $6,495 with Apheta pre-installed (US Only) (US distributor) (factory)


Phonostage Simaudio MOON 610LP
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G-1A
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson Premier 350
Speakers Vandersteen 5A
Cable Cardas Clear Light

Primary Control Tonearm

If you are lucky enough to have tried bespoke tailoring in Savile Row, you will know that nothing off the rack really comes close to it. The term “bespoke” originates in Savile Row, a street in Mayfair, Central London, famous for prestigious tailoring for the individual customer.  It is understood to mean that a suit is custom measured, cut and made by hand to provide a perfect fit where it literally hugs one’s body. In the world of high-end analog audio, if there is such a thing as a “bespoke tonearm,” the Primary Control tonearm from the Netherlands fits this description.

Primary Control is an Amsterdam-based company that specializes in exquisite custom-made tonearms.  Its owner, Bernd Hemmen, is an electrical engineer whose lifetime passions are music and audio. His fascination with the mechanics of turntable and tonearm design led him to create a tonearm that gives users precise management of every conceivable setup parameter, or, as he calls it, “Primary Control” over adjustability in order to allow a cartridge to retrieve signals accurately. After eight years of research and development, the Primary Control tonearm is born.

The ”bespoke” process begins with a consultation with the designer (or the dealer) about your specific turntable needs, as there really isn’t a standard model of the tonearm.  The options are plentiful:  9”, 10.5” or 12” lengths; the metal parts come in matte, shiny, or black; and the armwand in carbon graphite or an exotic wood of your choice. My first review sample took a little over four months to arrive, a 12” model with a Macassar ebony armwand. A few months later, a second 10.5” model made of carbon graphite and titanium followed. The armwand is made of a titanium tube and a carbon graphite outer layer, separated by carefully inserted damping material to optimize resonant characteristics. These two arms are the first to land on North American soil.

Immediately Engaging

The Primary Control’s exquisite elegance can be felt right away as you unwrap the shipping box. Unlike most tonearms packed in molded Styrofoam boxes, the Primary Control is housed in a wooden box with precut foam inlays. It looks and feels expensive, reminding me of the now discontinued DaVinci Grandezza. From afar, the arm itself looks almost like a Schröder Reference tonearm with a nicer finish. The head shell mounting plate and the armwand look remarkably similar, and are both situated to the left of the mounting column.

The Primary Control employs a unique proprietary two-point pivot, similar to Basis Audio’s Vector arm of the ’90s. The entire bearing structure is hidden within a round housing made of Delrin, making the bearing mechanism invisible to the naked eye. It wasn’t until I disassembled the entire bearing housing (a task not recommended by the manufacturer) that I began to understand the working mechanisms of the arm. The arm has a bearing cup mounted on the underside of armwand, which sits on a vertical sapphire bearing that points upward, based on the concept of most unipivot tonearms on which the entire armwand is balanced on a single point of contact.

Distinctly Different, Yet

Proponents of unipivot tonearms often argue that these tonearms provide a better top-end extension and a more vibrant presentation. But the free multi-directional movement of a unipivot arm is as much a nuisance as it is an advantage. Without horizontal stabilization (as in the case of the Moerch UP-4), the armwand wobbles from side to side during play resulting in measurable distortions and increased crosstalk between channels; therefore, the newer unipivot designs will have some sort of horizontal stabilization mechanism to remedy the problem. The Graham Phantom and the Durand Talea use magnetic force to stabilize the arm, whereas the Reed 3P adds on additional side bearings to restrict horizontal movements. The Primary Control incorporates a lower horizontal ball bearing into the pivot housing which makes the armwand “lean” continuously onto a right pivot, virtually eliminating side-to-side wobbling. The horizontal bearing also creates a center of gravity offset from the main pivot, which will improve stability and balance. By turning the counterweight assembly, you can adjust the “leaning force” which essentially changes the horizontal damping of the tonearm. Too much damping causes the sound to become muddy and lifeless, while too little makes the sound thin and nervous.

The instruction manual is short, concise, and filled with detailed diagrams. If one follows the 16-page manual closely to perform cartridge alignment, VTA, Azimuth, VTF, anti-skating and horizontal damping, even a novice will achieve a relatively good setup. Fortunately, some parts of the manual will tell you what sonic changes to expect with certain adjustments –– something very few owner’s manuals will do.

There are two important points which should be mentioned with regard to the mounting position of the armpost and the relative idle position of the armwand to the platter. The Primary Control is designed with the armwand situated to the left of the main column, meaning the mounting position of the main column has to be further away than normal. Both my JC Verdier La Platine and TW Raven tables require an 8” armboard to be made long rather than the normal 6” to 7”; otherwise the optimal position prescribed by the mounting template cannot be achieved on the 12” arm.   The anti-skating mechanism has been carefully designed to incorporate the use of several opposing magnets to provide for a non-linear force across the record surface. If the idle position of the arm deviates too far from the template’s optional  position, the antiskating force may be applied too early or too late, depending on whether the head shell position is too close or too far out relative to the platter. This is why the tonearm is “bespoke tailored” specifically for your specific turntable.

The Proof Is in the Listening

How does the arm sound? To put it simply, the ebony version is musical, elegant and soothing, whereas the graphite/titanium version is accurate, straightforward and lively.

Unlike other reviews I have written in the past in which a general sonic description can be pinned down, in this case it would be unfair to assign a blanket sonic description because every bespoke Primary Control tonearm will have sonic variations. Both arms display exceptional finesse, detail, and frequency extension which tonearms with less adjustability can only aspire to achieve. Depending on the type of music I’m playing, the seductiveness of one may draw me away from the other.

The ever-so-romantic display of poignant emotions was gracefully displayed with the 12” Macassar ebony Primary Control when the violin in the Andante in Act 3 of Delibes’s Sylvia was played (Decca SXL 6635/6, Bonynge – New Philharmonic Orchestra). Paired with the Dynavector XV-1T bamboo body cartridge, the ebony version gives a vivid display of organic qualities which are distinctively more prominent than with the graphite armwand. Though the sonic image appears more smudged and with less clearly defined edges, it makes up for the deficiency by presenting a picture which offers more human-like qualities, drawing you closer to the music.

Yet, when the grand finale in Act 3 of the same ballet is played, the graphite arm is decidedly more neutral, accurate and dynamic, but not so much as to veer towards the direction where it becomes analytical and hard sounding. It delivers a soundstage which is more upfront, yet extends further into the room. The sonic image has more three dimensional qualities. The bass goes deeper and carries more definition, texture and less boominess to the sound.

With vocal-dominant recordings ranging from 1950s Victoria de los Ángeles recordings to 2011 Adele albums, I find myself caught in the same dilemma. The ebony arm exceeds the graphite version on organic qualities, but loses out on dynamism and speediness of response. The same can be said with Fleet Foxes’ White River Hymnal, with which the graphite version offers a more upfront presentation than does the ebony version, which puts you in a few rows back. Halfway through the review, I like the arm so much I will add one of these to my reference system, but I am having difficulty in deciding which one.

The More Care, the More Sound

If there is ever a time in which the veteran can excel over the layman, the Primary Control would be the apt instrument for such a demonstration. With the meticulous attention to details and clarity in setup instructions, the layman can certainly achieve a pretty high level of sonic achievements by following setup procedures. But the Primary Control is also a tonearm which will allow a person with a bit more experience to take the sonic performance to a much higher level. Given the numerous bespoke customizable configurations available, combined with the precise adjustability of the Primary Control, it is a tonearm which offers limitless potential –– and you can be sure it will never be the bottleneck of any analog setup.

There is always a downside to anything elegant and exclusive. Just like the bespoke suits of Savile Row, the Primary Control comes with an elegant price tag. The price ranges from around $5,500 to approximately $8,000, depending on the configuration. Ten years ago, if I were to mention an $8,000 tonearm, it would likely have raised some eyebrows. But in 2014, where a slurry of new tonearm models have gone past the $10,000 mark, such as the Graham Elite, Triplanar Mk VII, or the Vertere Reference –– just to name a few –– they do make this bespoke work of art appear less exorbitant.    -Richard. H. Mak

Primary Control Tonearm

MSRP: Starting at $5,500

VPI Classic Two Turntable

VPI’s Classic One set the standard for analog performance at its price a few years ago when introduced and one is still in service at TONEAudio as a reference component, recently revised by Harry Weisfeld to accommodate an Eminent Technologies tonearm.

The Classic Two builds on the success of the Classic One, with the primary difference being the ability to adjust the VTA on the fly while the record is playing, giving the analog enthusiast more control and adjustability than the One does.  Sound quality is very similar, so if you are a more monogamous audiophile who tends to stick with a single setup, the One may be all you need.  But, if you love to change and tweak your system on a constant basis, the Classic Two is the way to spin.  It will make your adjustments much easier to execute.  -Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Two Turntable


Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier

Though famous for his tube designs, Frank Van Alstine is no slouch with solid state either.  With passive EQ and no coupling capacitors, this American made phonostage offers no frills high performance.  And MC owners take note, AVA can customize the Vision to the loading requirements for your cartridge.  We are currently using this with the legendary Denon 103 and it offers mega performance.

-Jeff Dorgay

Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier


Simaudio MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage

Bouncing between St. Vincent’s current and last album, I can’t help but be in awe of the staying power of the vinyl record.  Thanks to the many manufacturers, like Simaudio, who have not only kept the faith, but continue to innovate and refine their designs, spinning records is better than ever in the year 2014 than it ever was.  Who knew?  Even better much of the technology in flagship designs is making its way down the food chain to more affordable designs like the MOON 610LP here.

We’ve been using the Simaudio MOON 810LP phonostage as a reference component for some time now, but at $13,000 is out of reach for a certain group of analog enthusiasts.  The $7,500 MOON 610LP, though not inexpensive, opens another door.   Comparing the 810LP and 610LP side by side reveals subtle yet profound differences and while the 810LP ultimately reveals more music than the 610LP; some may actually prefer the presentation of the 610LP.

A unified voice

First and foremost the 610LP has a similar, yet slightly softer voicing than the 810LP.   The more expensive MOON offers up more resolution on leading and trailing transients in a take no prisoners system, but some of your preference may come down to overall system tuning and associated components.  Going back and forth with the Lyra Titan i, I actually preferred the 610LP in my reference system, which is a few clicks to the warm side of neutral.  Those wanting every last molecule of resolution will prefer the 810LP, but the 610LP is no slouch.  Dare I say it, but the 610LP almost sounds a touch more “tube-like” in the same vein of my favorite solid-state preamps from Pass, Burmester, Robert Koda and Luxman.  Never slow or veiled, just a bit lusher than the 810LP, which struck us as one of the most neutral phonstages we’ve had the pleasure to audition.

Tracking through the recent Blue Note remasters and the recent Miles Davis discs from Mobile Fidelity are a perfect example of the 610LP at its finest. This phonostage creates a soundfield that is both extremely deep and wide, going well beyond the boundaries of my Dynaudio Eminence Platinum speakers, but the magic doesn’t stop here.  Where the 610LP mirrors the performance of it’s more expensive sibling is in it’s ability to render acoustic instruments naturally.

Switching from the Titan i to the more tonally neutral Atlas, it’s tough to tell these two phonostages apart through the critical midrange, especially with modest dynamic swings.  The cymbals at the beginning of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Blue Collar” float in the air in front of my listening chair, feeling right spatially as well as feeling as if the drum kit is of a realistic size.  The 610LP does not exaggerate perspective, which can be fun for a short period of time wears on you after long listening sessions.

Quiet, quiet, quiet

Though the 610LP has a claimed signal to noise ratio of 93db, while the spec on the 810LP  is 95db, you’d be tough to tell them apart.  This phonostage is dead quiet.  Even the most delicate pieces of classical music, the noise floor is always in the recording, with tape hiss from the master coming through, not the electronics.  Personally, this is one of the true benefits of a great solid-state phonostage – the absence of noise.  While a number of tubed units can add a touch of palpability (wanted or unwanted) that the solid state units can’t match, they always seem to impart a bit of sporadic tube noise.

Depending on your system, this can go from barely audible to somewhat annoying.  Even more annoying is trying to rustle up a matching set of tubes for your phonostage that you love, only to find the tonality changed when it’s time to re-tube.  Another awesome reason to go solid-state; turn the 610LP on, leave it on and forget about it forever, unless you change cartridges and need to adjust gain and loading.  Personally, as much fun as tube rolling is, I enjoy the consistency of transistors – your mileage may vary.

If you haven’t sampled a top solid-state amplification component in a while, you will be surprised at how lifelike and natural the 610LP renders music without needing vacuum tubes.  The gap has been closing for years and Simaudio is one of the rare few that produces solid-state electronics that have no “sound” of their own.  If you desire the tonal flavor that comes with a vintage vacuum tube sound, that’s another story.

Mega adjustable

With 64 steps for resistive loading from 12.1 ohms to 47k, 16 steps for capacitive loading from 0pf to 470pf and 16 steps of gain adjustment from 40db to 70db, I can’t imagine a cartridge that the 610LP can’t handle.  I certainly had no issues with the cartridges at my disposal and appreciated the wide range of adjustability down at the lower end of the scale – critical with some of the Koetsus and especially the Rega Apheta, which mates incredibly well with the 610LP.  Ultra OCD analog lovers will appreciate the fine adjustments available, and again, the more resolving your system, the easier it will be to hear those fine adjustments.

As with the 810LP, all of the adjustments are via DIP switches on the underside of the unit, so this is not a phonostage for casual adjustment.  After living with both of these units for some time, I suggest putting your 610LP on a shelf with plenty of height, so you can prop it up and not have to disconnect it or remove it from the rack when making loading settings.

It’s worth mentioning that the 610LP makes an incredible moving magnet phonostage.  Though I’m guessing that most analog enthusiasts at this level will have probably graduated beyond the top MM carts (all in the $800 – $1,200 range), if you start your assault on top notch analog, you can start with the 610LP as an anchor and go up the scale on cartridges as your budget allows.  The 47k setting is a wonderful match for the Grado moving iron cartridges, which have a low output of .6mv, yet still require 47k loading.   For those in the audience with the Grado Statement and Statement 1, the 610LP is a perfect match for these cartridges.

The 610LP also offers balanced inputs as well as outputs. If you have a balanced tonearm cable for your turntable, take advantage of the fully balanced, differential circuit design of the 610LP.  Using identical Cardas clear tonearm cables, my impromptu listening panel always picked the balanced option as more open and dynamic.  We’re not talking a major delta here, but noticeable enough that even untrained listeners could pick it out, and again, the more resolving your system, the bigger difference it will make, especially if you have a fully balanced system.

Rounding out the package

For those not familiar with Simaudio, all engineering, design and assembly is done at their factory in Montreal, and like Boulder, they do all their chassis metalwork in house as well. The MOON 610LP is a member of their Evolution series, robustly built-both mechanically and electronically, as you would expect from a flagship component.

Lifting the lid reveals a massive power supply that Simaudio claims has more reserve power, is faster and quieter than an equivalent battery supply.  Going topless also reveals first-rate components throughout, and having been to the Sim factory (see issue 32) the care taken in machining chassis parts and physical assembly is some of the best our industry has to offer.  This is why Simaudio offers a ten year warranty on their products – very few of them ever go back home to the mother ship.

More power

You’ll notice a socket on the rear panel of the 610LP marked “power supply,” allowing you the option to take advantage of Simaudio’s 820S external power supply.  We have a review of the 820S in the works and while this massive power supply does extend the range of the 610LP in a mega system, most of you either don’t need it or would be better off stepping up to the 810.

However, because the ($8,000) 820S has outputs marked “analog power” and “digital power,” Those having either the 740P preamplifier, the 650D or 750D DAC/Transport would be well served to split the duty of the 820S between phonostage and one of these other components.

Simaudio’s MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage is a fantastic addition to an analog system, offering an incredibly high price to performance ratio for the analog enthusiast that wants a cost no object phonostage in a single turntable system without refinancing their home.

For all but the most obsessed, this will be the last phonostage you need to buy.  Very enthusiastically recommended.  -Jeff Dorgay

Simaudio MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage

MSRP: $7,500


Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF5SE    Burmester 011
Turntable AVID Acutus Reference SP/Tri-Planar/Lyra Atlas    Rega RP10/Apheta
Cartridges Lyra Titan i    Lyra Kleos    Ortofon Cadenza Bronze    Ortofon SPU    Ortofon 2M Black    Grado Statement 1    Dynavector XV-1S
Power Amplifier Pass Xs300 monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Ortofon’s 2M Black

I’m sorry to say we are late to the party on this one…  Ortofon’s 2M Black has received numerous accolades from nearly every hifi magazine on the planet and with good reason – it’s a fantastic sounding cartridge.

Trying to break the price/performance barrier, there are a couple of great moving coil cartridges that immediately come to mind, and Ortofon’s own SPU at $999 is at the top of my list, but all of these cartridges need a step up device of some kind, which adds to the bottom line.  Much as I’d rather have 16/44.1 digital well implemented than budget high res, I feel the same way about cartridges.  I’d much rather listen to a great MM with a well designed phono stage, than a budget MC cartridge with a less than stellar phono stage.

Enter the 2M Black.  Reasonably priced at about $700, depending on where you purchase one, this cartridge features a shibata stylus and is very easy to set up.  With an output of 5mv and a recommended tracking force of 1.5 grams, it works equally well with your favorite vintage receiver to a modern MM phono stage.  Mounted in my Thorens TD-124/SME 3009 combination, equally good results were achieved with both a vintage Sansui 771 receiver and the Decware MM phono stage in my reference system.

Previously accustomed to the current OM40 and the vintage VMS20 cartridges, there is a definite family resemblance, yet the 2M Black displays more refinement throughout the range.  Almost exactly like the Cadenza Bronze cartridge I use in my Avid Volvere SP turntable, the 2M Black features an incredibly clean midband.  This cartridge does not enhance, embellish or color the midrange in a way some other designs can.  It proves an incredibly good mate for the Decware phonostage, which is a few drops on the warm side of neutral, making up for the slight bit of soul that the 2M Black does not posess.  Again, you might view that “soul” as coloration, so if that is your preference, ignore my choice in phono stage here.

Ortofon 6NX-TSW1010 Tonearm Cable

Many associate the Ortofon name with its legacy of phono cartridges, but the company’s product line includes a multiple of analog accessories, including headshells, tonearms, and high-end cables. The 6NX-TSW1010 tonearm cable, like Ortofon’s cartridges, is extremely well built.

The cable’s transparent blue casing showcases the shielding beneath, which surrounds seven conductor cores made of very pure copper. The main cable body is 5/8 inches thick and it is surprisingly flexible; the segments leading to RCA plugs are about 1/4 inch thick, and the grounding wire is much thinner. The whole cable is 1.2 meters long.

I’m surprised to see the forked grounding termination simply crimped onto its wire, given the rest of the cable’s build quality, but the connection is solid. Also, despite the gold-plated RCA covers, the plugs connecting to phonostage binding posts are not gold plated. Regardless, these design choices result in a nice-sounding cable.

While I listen to several albums on vinyl—with an SME 10 turntable and Dynavector 17D3 cartridge—a few consistent characteristics emerge. This cable offers a big sound, meaning that it supports a huge soundstage, with both width and height. Vocals sound very upfront, both as part of the perceived stage and in terms of their relation to the drivers.

Bass is deep but a touch reticent in the mix. This cable delivers a lot of detail without the sound becoming strident or sibilant. It brings the listener to the front of the auditorium. Those desiring a more laid-back and organic presentation might find this cable a bit much, but for those seeking a more upfront sonic delivery, the Ortofon could be just the ticket.  – Rob Johnson

Ortofon 6NX-TSW1010 Tonearm Cable

MSRP: €235 (about $325)

Leonard Cohen – The Future

Leonard Cohen’s The Future first hit my audio radar as a result of the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. “Waiting for the Miracle” first captured my attention, but it didn’t take long for the rest of the songs to develop a tight grip on my senses. Cohen’s deep and commanding vocals, accentuating his contemplative and sometimes haunting lyrics, draw forth an unexpected range of emotion.

Previously, my sole exposure to this album came via 16-bit /44.1k CD-quality sound. Stumbling across Music On Vinyl’s analog reissue was a happy accident. The LP meets my high expectations in two important ways. It has more presence, and sounds as if I stepped a few rows forward in the auditorium. The second notable improvement pertains to the vocals. The digital glare on the CD pleasantly disappears. The range and texture of Cohen’s voice is beautifully rendered, and front and center in the mix. It’s also appropriately “sized” in the stereo image.

Disappointments exist, however. Like those on the CD, instruments still can sound repressed. While drums, piano, and guitar offer a reasonable level of realism on “Always,” the same instruments lack detail and presence on other fare. On the title track, for instance, cymbal strikes offer little impact, ring, and decay. The tambourine’s sparkle outshines them. Strings are also hit-and-miss. On the instrumental “Tacoma Trailer,” both piano and strings illustrate a step-up in sonics when compared the CD. However, it’s still not transparent enough to be mistaken for live sound.

Perhaps the source material has inherent limitations, and there’s little else to dig out of it. Or perhaps vocal quality remained the absolute top priority for the reissue, even if it meant some tradeoffs were necessary. Truth be told, the captivating vocals initially sold me on the album, so the latter scenario is an acceptable compromise. While the overall experience leaves me wanting more, having The Future available on a good vinyl pressing makes up for the deficiencies. –Rob Johnson

Columbia/Music On Vinyl, 180g LP

Kiss – Alive!

One of the things I’ve always admired about Gene Simmons is that he’s straightforward about being in the game for the money. Our pal Chad Kassem at Quality Record Pressings/Acoustic Sounds isn’t always quite so forthright, and I’ll cut him some slack because he wouldn’t know a great rock record if it bit him in the ass. But this is pure blasphemy. Sorry folks, I’ve been there from the beginning, and I have every pressing of Alive! around, and this one is a turd.  A $50 turd. no less, pressed at Kassem’s QRP plant.

Granted, Alive! has never been a sonic masterpiece, but the Japanese CD collection from a few years back does this classic major justice, revealing what little dynamics do exist. There’s also some halfway decent separation between lead guitarist Ace Frehley and rhythm guitar Paul Stanley’s playing, with a bit of soundstaging, to boot.

Pulling out the original Casablanca pressing to do a direct comparison, even the original, which you can usually find (albeit often well-worn) for a few bucks at used record stores, blows this remaster away in every sense of the word.

So to the very small subset of audiophiles that happen to love Kiss: If you want the best, you won’t get it here.  –Jeff Dorgay

Universal, 180g 2LP

Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain

Among guilty pleasure albums from the 1980s, Aztec Camera’s debut High Land, Hard Rain maintains a surprisingly regular appearance on my turntable. Over the years, my copy of the 1983 LP from Sire Records sustained a fair amount of needle time and admittedly, isn’t the pristine pressing it used to be. When listening, I took the lyrical advice of Aztec Camera’s song “We Could Send Letters” by closing my eyes and waiting until things got better. Finally, patience persevered! Domino Recordings obtained the original analog masters to create a 30th anniversary reissue on 180-gram vinyl.

Compared with the original LP, the album art appears identical, except for the not-so-surprising omission of the tagline “also available on cassette.” The new pressing replicates the track listing of the original LP. For those seeking bonus songs, be sure to check out the digital download enabled via the vinyl purchase or pick up the CD.

Most importantly, the sonics get a significant upgrade. Domino made a concerted effort to give the album the respect and long-overdue update it deserves. Roddy Frame’s vocals boast inherent passion, and the reverb is more apparent. The perceived room around the vocalist also seems larger. Acoustic guitars, the driving force of the album, retain their energetic and upfront placement, and are flanked by deep, tight, and supportive bass. No, cymbals and tambourines don’t have all the subtle ring and decay I hoped to hear, but are on par with earlier releases. Perhaps the original recordings didn’t allow much more detail to be retrieved without the introduction of unwanted artifacts.

For High Land, Hard Rain fans, this reissue is a must. If you are not yet a fan of Aztec Camera, the pressing provides a great opportunity to start.   –Rob Johnson

Domino, 180g LP

Hall and Oates – Voices

Hall and Oates’ ninth album is brought to life like never before on this Mobile Fidelity pressing.  The group’s first self-produced work, Voices presents the duo embracing a more commercial sound defined by the addition of slightly more pop and funk interacting with the harmonies that made the pair famous.

Moving straight to side two and cueing up “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” reveals how desolate the original RCA pressing sounds. Bereft of dynamics, the old LP sounds like an mp3 file.  This new version is awash with depth and nuance, and the comparison makes it easy to hear the truly great musicianship Hall and Oates brought to the songs.

The piano on “Kiss On My List,” nearly gone on the original, now occupies plenty of space just to the left of center, right behind Hall’s lead vocal. Throughout, you can noticeably hear the vocal banter between Hall and Oates, with the latter having more presence than before.  Here’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane, especially with the sonics returned to what they should have been all along.  — Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g LP

Carole King – Tapestry

Here’s an interesting pressing of a major classic.  Of course, books have been written about Carole King, her genius, why this record is a landmark, so there’s no need to blather on about those topics here.

Bottom line: Mobile Fidelity hits upon an excellent compromise with this version by putting it all on one slab of vinyl. Remarkable dynamics remain, even though they aren’t quite as abundant as on the out-of-print Classic Records reissue.  However: This LP provides an open, natural top end that no other Tapestry offers to such an extent, save the recent ORG pressing, which was limited to 2000 copies and is getting tougher to find.  All the other copies of this record I’ve heard possess a slightly to moderately rolled-off treble.  For this reviewer, bringing this quality back makes the album, and makes this Mobile Fidelity reissue the version to own if you don’t want to go the 45 route.  — Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g LP

Billy Joel – The Stranger

I’d give Mobile Fidelity a swab of my DNA if the label would work its magic on Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenade, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. So we’ll need to settle for the Grammy-winning The Stranger. Part of the imprint’s ongoing Joel reissue campaign, this 45RPM edition of The Stranger sounds incredible.  If this record—ranked by Rolling Stone among the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time—is your jam, call Music Direct right now.  Dragging out the Columbia original from my archives instantly reminds me how dreadful the original sounds: two-dimensional, lifeless,  flat.

A two record set, this version of Joel’s biggest-selling record (it was available on 8-track, back in 1977!) lords over the original. The 45RPM platters really make transients jump.  Where the original is congested, Mobile Fidelity’s edition does justice to Joel’s piano playing by giving it more of its own space and texture. In addition, his band is much better represented. Now, it’s easier to give Joel and producer Phil Ramone credit for the arrangements.

By record’s end, it becomes clear MoFi ticked all the boxes. Big, big sound. Super-quiet surfaces. Excellent artwork.  Another boomer favorite reborn.  –– Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones

Three times a charm for Rickie Lee Jones. Back in the 1980s, Mobile Fidelity released the eponymous album as one of its earliest productions. While the original Warner Bros. pressing is pretty damn good, the reissue quickly became the record that many audiophiles dragged into their favorite high-end audio shop. Between radio stations playing the hell out of “Chuck E’s In Love” and customers at the local hi-fi store that signed my paycheck, I came to dread anyone I saw walking in the door with the record under their arm.

But like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, time heals all wounds.  A 25-year hiatus has made this debut record listenable for me again, and last year, Mobile Fidelity produced a single-LP remaster.  Remarkably similar to the original Mobile Fidelity version, albeit slightly noisier, the recent LP offers a bit more dynamic range. However, because the grooves now go almost all the way to the label, increased inner-groove distortion arises on the last track of each side.

This new 45RPM version takes care of the problem and boasts a more solid foundation, with a solid bass groove that doesn’t exist on the other MoFi pressings or WB original.  No substitute for sheer groove volume, this copy really swings, with significantly more drive and a more expansive soundstage, to boot.

While a tad noisier than the original, the delicacy by which the acoustic bass gets reproduced on “Easy Money” should surprise those who have heard this record countless times. The percussion floats in with a gentleness that comes damn close to the experience provided by tape.  All the acoustic instruments tout more space and shape. Yes, this is analog done to perfection.

For those wondering, “Chuck E’s In Love” still gives me an anxiety attack, but it sounds better than ever.  If you love this record, you will not be disappointed.  – Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP box set

Simaudio Neo 380D DAC

Simaudio is one of the elite companies in the high end audio industry today with over three decades of history. The Canadian company’s MOON brand products are among those that continually impress Tone reviewing staff. Simaudio’s MOON gear is hand-crafted in Quebec, Canada, and a recent factory tour by Tone made obvious the company’s obsessive attention to detail and the pride they take in every product that gets shipped. A ten year warranty on MOON components shows a level of confidence in their design and execution.

MOON is known for it’s powerhouse amplifiers, transparent preamplifiers, and their unique and rather stunning industrial design. They recently have been getting accolades for their cutting edge digital products, including disc players with digital inputs, DAC’s, and network streamers. In for review is the MOON Neo 380D Digital to Analog Convertor. The 380D is a unique product with a dizzying array of features and enough technology to make your head spin.

It would be impossible to cover all the techie notes about the Neo 380D, but we will try to summarize. First, the unit uses the ESS Technology SABRE32 Ultra DAC / Digital Filter (ES9016) “working in 32-bit Hyperstream™”.  Simaudio goes out of their way to stress their efforts to reduce jitter with what they call their “Dual Jitter Control System” that they say is responsible for producing a “virtually jitter-free digital signal below 1 picosecond for ultra-low distortion, and ensuring compatibility with virtually any connected digital device.”

There is an array of eight digital inputs including AES/EBU, USB, Coaxial, and TosLink.  The Neo 380D handles PCM signals up to 192 Khz. Interestingly there is also digital output and a digital monitor loop. There are separate digital and analog power supplies,  The design is fully balanced, and there is a pair of XLR and RCA outputs.  Care is taken in regards to chassis resonance. The Neo 380D is available in silver, black, and two tone, by the way.  A remote control is supplied to control virtually every function.  The front panel display is large and easy to read from the listening position, displaying input selection and sampling rate.

The review sample is supplied in black, which makes for a beautiful contrast with the silver function buttons and red LED readout on the front panel.  There is much more. The Neo 380D came equipped “fully loaded” with the optional volume control, and the MIND (MOON Intelligent Network Device) module which allows for network streaming. The volume control is the same circuit found in the reference level Evolution Series, knowns as M-eVOL.  The basic Neo 380D retails for $4400, with volume control costing $600, and the streaming module adding $1200.  The total cost of the review unit is $6200. The MIND module is also available as a stand alone purchase in it is own chassis.  It should be noted the 380D is firmware upgradeable via the network. A firmware upgrade did take place during the review period, and it was seamless.

The Neo 380D is tested in my system first with fixed outputs into a passive controller, then for the majority of the review period, driving a power amplifier directly using the variable outputs.  To get things started  Simaudio’s MiND iPad app is installed, with MiniMServer and Twonky server software running on my Mac Mini, where attached drives house the music library. Plugging in an Ethernet cable into unit and selecting the Network input gets you streamed music from a remote networked computer or NAS in seconds. There is also WiFi capability as well, however the unit defaults to Ethernet on startup if a network cable is attached.

From the first few albums streamed over the network, it is obvious the Neo 380D is an exceptional  digital source component.  Recordings are rendered with an ultra natural presentation with body and a sense of natural flow. The 380D seems to extract the maximum from great recordings but does not flatter less than stellar sounding albums. The 96 Khz, 24 bit remaster of the Velvet Underground’s seminal White Light/White Heat is raw, rough, and primitive in the best possible way. The 380D lets you hear how well mastering engineer Kevin Reaves preserved what was on the original master tapes. You can practically see the tape spinning.

Another catalog getting proper remastering is the Black Sabbath 1970’s output. The Neo 380D  unleashed the mayhem found on such classic albums as Paranoid, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Vol. 4.  The 96 Khz digital transfers are superb, and again the SIM creates more texture and immediacy than one would have thought possible on these thirty five year old recordings.

On more nuanced material, such as CD remaster of Miles Davis’ Seven Steps To Heaven, the 380D shines bright, presenting Davis’s horn, and the superb accompaniment from Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and others in a glorious light. The piano, bass, and drums fill the room with life like dimensionality one experiences rarely in a home system.

On large scale orchestral pieces, like the amazing Telarc CD of Stravinksy’s Rite Of Spring, the 380D creates an enormous soundstage and plumbs the depths. For fetishists who enjoy hearing the “recording space”, it was there is spades, with Telarc’s minimalist, natural recording technique paying dividends.

As a stand alone with other digital sources, the Neo 380D is beyond reproach.  Connecting my Squeezebox Touch optically yields excellent results.  The 380D also worked with the Squeezebox via USB (with Triode Applet installed).  A Jriver 19 loaded laptop also connected via USB sounds superb as well. To cover all bases,  I connected several disc transports via AES/EBU and coax and the 380D shows that all of it’s digital inputs are of a very high standard.

The Neo 380’s volume control proves to be the ace in the hole. It is utterly transparent to these ears with an excellent usable volume range and fine gradations in 1 dB steps.  This option is highly recommended if the 380D will be the only digital source in the system and you connect directly to a power amp, as is the case with our reference system.  The optional MIND module and SIM app were flawless, never failing to connect to the network. Browsing the library is a pleasure, especially one with properly tagged and with an organized folder structure.

Perhaps the only place to nit pick is the smallish, cluttered layout on the supplied remote control unit. It would be nice to have the volume control buttons somewhat enlarged. Aside from this minor complaint the Neo 380D integrated into the system without flaw, and provided endless hours of hassle free operation.

Simaudio has a real winner with the Neo 380D, especially in the “fully loaded” edition, with streamer and volume control on board. As a stand alone DAC it easily attains reference status. The 380D will remain a Tone staff reference for some time to come, and sets a benchmark at this price point. Highly, highly recommended.

Additional Listening

With so much excitement in the stratosphere of digital design, it’s easy to lose track of some of the more real world products that have benefited highly from recent technological advances.  Some might squeal that $4,400 is still a ton of money for a DAC, but in the realm of my $110,000 dCS Vivaldi, it is not.

Yes, there are a lot of great DACs in the $1,000 – $1,500 range, and they are getting better all the time, but there still is nothing we’ve heard for a grand that makes us want to forget about spinning records.  Simaudios Neo 380D, when placed in the context of a nice $20,000 system is so well implemented that all but the most hard core analog enthusiast just might want to think twice about all the vinyl bother.  If nothing else, when listening to well mastered files, you won’t be facing quiet desperation when you switch from analog to digital.  This one, like the AURALiC Vega that we’ve recently reviewed, raise the bar for musical reproduction at this price.  And they raise the bar pretty damn high.

Though I didn’t concentrate a ton on the MiND setup, I did stream a lot of files from my Sooloos Control 15 and Aurender S10 servers, with fantastic results.  While so much emphasis is put on the reproduction of high-resolution files (with good reason), what impressed me the most about the 380D is the stunning job it does with well recorded 16/44.1 files.  Let’s face it, if you have a massive music collection, I’m guessing that the majority of it is ripped at CD resolution.  And while tip-top high res performance is important, 16/44.1 performance is paramount, and this Simaudio DAC does not disappoint.  As a matter of fact, it delights.

One of the worst CDs I own has to be The Monkee’s Here and Now, The Best of the Monkees. Yet, through the Neo 380D, “Daydream Believer” makes a believer out of me.  Moving along to KISS Alive!, the same thing happens, I’m drawn into the music and my Japanese pressing of this rock classic sounds pretty damn good.  While the worst files in my collection sound great, the great ones sound sublime, and that’s what really turns my crank about the Simaudio Neo 380D.  Adding the MiND on board, just makes it so much easier to integrate your digital files into the mix, not having to add a digital cable, power cord, or take up more valuable shelf space.

This mix of sound, function and style, backed by a manufacturer known for high build quality means exceptional value, and we have awarded Sim thusly, with one of our 2014 Exceptional Value Awards.  -Jeff Dorgay

Simaudio Neo 380D

MSRP: $4400,  $6200 as tested.


Amplifier Audio Research VS55
Preamplifier Audio Research SP16L    CIAudio PLC-1 MkII
DAC/Streamer Marantz NA-11S1    Squeezebox Touch
Speakers Thiel CS2.4    KEF R700
Cables Stager Silver Solids    Darwin    Transparent    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Audience aDeptResponse ar6    Shakti Stone    Symposium Acoustics   Rollerblock Jr.

Rogers PA-1A Phono Preamplifier

Last year, we had a ton of fun listening to the Rogers EHF-200 MK2 integrated amplifier, which combines high-tech design, tubey goodness, and old-school American build quality. And it comes at a price commensurate with its components and performance.

Roger Gibboni’s newest creation is a phonostage that takes his design ethos a step further. While it’s no small feat to produce a great amplifier, the minute signal that a phonostage has to work with is a challenge for any designer. And the Rogers PA-1A exceeds all of my expectations in terms of sound quality and the absence of noise.

Immediately Great

The PA-1A has me pinned to the listening chair from the first track of MoFi’s recent remaster of Los Lobos’ Kiko. Insert your favorite adjective here, and maybe add very in front of it. In short, if you don’t need more than one MC phono input, your search ends here. It’s that good—and it’s only $7,400.

Having lived with the $65,000 Indigo Qualia and the $55,000 Vitus phonostages, I admit that you don’t need to spend anywhere near that much money to achieve analog nirvana.  We’ve been through a pile of excellent phonostages from Audio Research, Pass, Simaudio, Naim and Burmester, to name a few. As great as these all have been (and the Burmester, Pass and ARC all offer two inputs, a definite advantage for those with multiple tables or tonearms), the Rogers raises the game for what is possible without taking a second mortgage on your house.

To look at it another way, for the $60K that one of those top-of-the-mountain phonostages will set you back, you can pick your favorite $30K turntable/tonearm combination, a great $10K cartridge and the Rogers for $7,400.  That still leaves a lot of cash left over to add some great records to your collection.

Of course, $7,400 is not pocket change, but for someone taking a run at a state-of-the-art analog front end, this is incredibly reasonable. It’s like getting a tricked-out Porsche GT3 for the price of a Boxster. I knew I was in for something good when discussing the Rogers with Harry Weisfeld of VPI; we share a similar aural aesthetic and Harry knows great analog when he hears it. Plus, we both have a similar amount of respect for the Lyra Atlas cartridge, which we both use as a reference transducer. Bottom line, when Harry is excited about something, my ears perk up.

I was not disappointed in the least when firing up the PA-1A for the first time. The review sample had been burned in for a while at the factory, so I did not notice much of a change in its sonic character during the review period.

Wow, Wow and More Wow

What puts the PA-1A in the world-class neighborhood is the ease with which it paints the sonic landscape. Spinning the new MoFi 45 RPM two-record set of the self-titled Rickie Lee Jones album is spectacular. While a certain amount of kudos go to MoFi for producing the quintessential copy of this classic, playback comes alive through the Rogers and in the space between the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers—themselves masters of pinpoint-imaging performance. This is the quality I noticed most with the Vitus and Qualia stages: the way they allow the music to swell and diminish with such seamless tonal gradation, and the Rogers does the same. It’s analog at its finest.

Moving up tempo to Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, I find the level of micro detail revealed to be amazing. The little percussion and synthesizer bits that are slightly obscured via my Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE now float around the speakers, whereas they all lined up on one flat plane before. Anderson’s voice has more body and her quirky vocal inflections are now more pronounced than before, while at the same time the main synthesizer line is firmly locked in place. Fans of pace, rhythm and timing will freak out at the massive picture painted.

Again, the word ease just keeps popping into my consciousness. If you’ve ever had the chance to drive the Z06 and standard versions of Chevrolet’s Corvette, you know what I’m talking about. Both cars effortlessly cruise along at 100 mph and lunge with nearly equal enthusiasm when you put the pedal down, but that extra horsepower offered by the Z06 makes the experience of speed surreal, where the standard car is still working a bit to go from 100 to 150 mph.

No matter how much great tribute bands try to cover Led Zeppelin, they just can’t recreate the nuance, sonic complexity, or the sheer texture with which Jimmy Page plays, even though the correct notes are often hit. This is the final piece of the analog puzzle that the Rogers unequivocally nails. The reverse tracks on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour are sublime, almost dilating in the way they separate from the rest of the mix. The bell in “Penny Lane” is not only correct in terms of timbre, but the width and height information is so stunningly reproduced that it feels like there’s an actual fire truck in the room ringing its bell.

Three Flavors

The PA-A1 uses three tubes per channel, a 6GH8, a 12AX7 and the final gain stage uses either a 12AX7 or 12AU7. Rogers supplies both so you can adjust the gain to your taste. With the 12AU7, the PA-A1 has 58 dB of gain, which will be more than enough for MC cartridges having an output of around 0.5 mV. The 12AX7 provides about 10 dB more gain, but it’s slightly noisier, so it is a tradeoff.

Don’t hang too much on the ultimate gain figures, though; take total system gain into consideration before dismissing 58 dB as “not enough gain.” When using the Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier and the ARC REF 5 SE—which both feature 6 dB gain via the single-ended inputs (the PA-1A is a single-ended design)—I find myself cranking the volume a bit higher than I would normally with the ARC REF Phono 2 SE, but both of these linestages have a very low noise floor. The Burmester and CJ linestages at my disposal have 18 and 21 dB of gain, respectively, so the PA-1A’s 58 dB is enough even with low-output MC cartridges.

However, there is a Goldilocks solution. That second tube can be substituted for the NOS 12AV7, which offers a bit more gain than the 12AU7 and a lower noise floor. “The 12AV7 is a great tube,” says Gibboni, “but I didn’t want to build a product around tubes that are not readily available. I can sell you a pair of 12AV7s for about $90 while my supply lasts.”

All three variations sound good, so those leaning more towards the OCD side of the fence will probably be driven to madness trying to decide on the ultimate choice for that third tube. The 12AU7 proves excellent as a daily driver, and the 12AV7 is very intriguing in my system, offering a touch more top-end extension. The Clearaudio Goldfinger is a perfect partner for the 12AV7, while I prefer the stock 12AU7 with the Lyra Atlas. The slightly forward Lyra Titan i pairs well with the 12AX7’s warmer sound, especially when swapped for a pair of NOS Telefunkens. Crazy good fun I say, but it is nice that analog aficionados can really fine-tune the sound exactly to their liking. Gibboni says you can probably expect that the tubes will last 5,000 to 10,000 hours with this phonostage, so try and settle on something you like, and buy a second set!

Good with MM too

While the PA-1A technically has one input, if you were using a second table with a moving-magnet cartridge, you could plug two tables into the PA-1A—which is exactly what I do. Going vintage with the Thorens TD-124 turntable, SME 3009 tonearm and Ortofon 2M Black provides an excellent alternative to my reference table.

Thanks to front-panel loading and capacitance adjustments, it’s a snap to dial your favorite MM cartridge to your liking. The heavier presentation of the vintage Thorens is a natural for the tubey goodness of the PA-1A. Tracking through a number of the current Blue Note remasters from Music Matters Jazz is wonderful.

Though the Atlas provides a clearer picture, the Thorens/Ortofon combination is warmer, with perhaps even a bit more jump on these jazz classics. Horns have a little more attack and cymbals linger a bit more and have more smokiness—not necessarily correct, but a ton of fun. It’s a great option to have, whether you decide to use that second table as a tone control, or just an option to save wear and tear on your megabucks cartridge.

Very Enthusiastically Suggested

We’re keeping the PA-1A here as a permanent reference component to run through its paces even further. We’ll report back in a year, with a long-term follow-up once we’ve had time to do a little more tube rolling and try some additional cartridges. It should be a great journey.

As high-end audio continues to get higher priced, it is refreshing to find a company that is offering world-class sonics and state-of-the-art build quality at a reasonable price. Every Rogers component is built by hand, lovingly packaged, and even includes a nice card from the person who built it. The Rogers PA-1A is a great reminder that quality manufacturing is not dead in America.  –Jeff Dorgay

Rogers PA-1A Phonostage

MSRP: $7,400


Turntables AVID Acutus REF SP    TriPlanar arm    Thorens TD-124    SME 3009 arm   SME 10   SME V arm
Cartridges Clearaudio Goldfinger    Lyra Atlas    Lyra Titan i    Lyra Kleos    Ortofon SPU   Ortofon 2M Black    Dynavector 17D3    Grado Statement 1
Preamplifiers Burmester 011    ARC REF 5 SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze

Spinning Anya Garbarek’s Smiling and Waving on staffer Earle Blanton’s system, I’m blown away by how neutral, clean and airy Garbarek’s voice flows through his towering Magnepan 20.1s.  Why a remote review, you ask?   After purchasing[1] the cartridge for reference duty at TONE, Blanton took a real liking to the cart, and it never returned to the mothership.   But it’s a system I’m well familiar with:  Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2, McCormack DNA-750s, an AVID Volvere SP and the luscious Mangnepans, beefed up on the bottom end with a pair of JL Audio 112 subwoofers.  It’s a killer system in a big room, making for a soundstage that’s slightly exaggerated, but oh so inviting.

Overall tonal balance on the system is smooth, fast and extended, so the Bronze is a perfect fit, mirroring the same characteristics.  The electronic effects on the Garbarek record float distinctly a few feet in front of the speakers, feeling much like something from a David Lynch movie, almost eerie in their effect, with Garbarek gently cooing in the background.

Next up, the MoFi copy of Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space. Again, this favorite puts Mann slightly left of center, but much larger than life, the massive 20.1s disappearing completely, and again, the fun ethereal background sounds now zooming past my head, feeling like I’m listening to a surround mix – but I’m not.  The distorted guitar at the beginning of “Guys Like Me” has just the right amount of texture and bite as multiple layers of Mann’s voice enter the mix.

The Cadenza Bronze excels at throwing a very deep, three-dimensional soundstage, with a generous helping of decay to further create the illusion that Ms. Mann is right here in the room with us.  Female vocals, check.

Moving on to some classic rock, the self-titled Santana gives the Cadenza Bronze a bit more of an obstacle course, mixing in Santana’s complex guitar work with a wide range of acoustic instruments and percussion.  Thanks to the extreme speed of this cartridge and its ability to start and stop cleanly and precisely, bongos sound like bongos, and the drums are locked solidly down.   As the drums pan back and forth during the intro to “Evil Ways,” all of the overdubbed vocals are easy to pick out of the mix, while the Hammond organ is well out on the periphery.  Often a great track to play while listening to headphones (especially if one is slightly herbally challenged) a similar, spacey, otherworldly experience is within your grasp with the Cadenza Bronze.

However, the parlor tricks are meaningless without accurate rendering of tone and timbre – another area in which the Cadenza Bronze excels.  The cymbals in the same Santana recording come across as neutral and correct, yet fade into nothing with an extremely fine tonal gradation.  This is the analog magic at its best, my friends.  This recording also demonstrates the Cadenza Bronze’s ability to unravel a dense studio recording, revealing all of the buried treasure within, something that does not come easy to all MC cartridges.  The Cadenza Bronze can deliver the goods on heavy rock recordings.  A similar experience is achieved with this cartridge mounted on the SME 10/SME V tonearm combination; the Bronze is able to extract minute details at both loud and soft levels without the soundstage collapsing.  Impressive.

While many rely on female vocals to judge a component’s mettle, I submit that the male voice is often tougher to reproduce accurately because of the additional weight and increased range at times.  Sinatra’s reissues on MoFi provide an excellent obstacle course here, especially apparent when one observes the difference in recording quality between the title track on his Nice and Easy album and the second track, “That Old Feeling” – with the second track having more depth and body, Sinatra’s voice smoother than ever.

The piano and strings on this album are reproduced exquisitely. Swapping through a range of phonostages from the Monk Audio, all the way up to the $65k Qualia Indigo, (which the Ortofon mates with quite spectacularly, though perhaps a bit overkill) the sonic signature of the Cadenza Bronze remains constant.

Perhaps the only aspect of this cartridge that may be off-putting to some audiophiles is its lack of embellishment, one direction or the other.  It does not offer a lush midrange like the Grado Statement 1 (or Ortofon’s own SPU cartridge), nor does it render an overly detailed presentation like my Lyra Titan i.  The Cadenza Bronze is really a “just the facts, ma’am” transducer.  It neither romanticizes the presentation nor adds an artificially goosed high end, suggesting a false sense of resolution.  As one who sees the cartridge in an analog system as the ultimate tone control, the Cadenza Bronze will probably be more at home in a system somewhere between a neutral tonal balance and one that leans slightly to the warm, romantic side.

With a .4mv output, the Cadenza Bronze works well with any phonostage you might have on hand with about 60 – 65db of gain.  Of course it is a perfect match with my ARC REF Phono 2SE and the Simaudio MOON 810LP, yet we achieve equally good results with the Monk phonostage and even the Lehmann Black Cube currently under review.

The range of tracking force is 2.2 – 2.7 grams, with Ortofon suggesting 2.5 as optimal.  This proves perfect in the SME tonearms at my disposal, however 2.6 gram is the ticket in the Rega RP8.  As always, we suggest making small adjustments up and down from 2.5 grams to achieve the best balance of high frequency response and trackability.

Which leads to the final aspect of the Cadenza Bronze: in the true tradition of Ortofon MM cartridges, the MC Cadenza Bronze is a fantastic tracker, showing no signs of inner groove distortion, or an inability to handle highly complex musical passages.  This should be a delight to classical and heavy rock music users alike.

For $2,199, the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze is tough to beat.  Most other cartridges offering this level of performance, revealing this much music in such an unobtrusive way, tend to cost at least a thousand dollars more – hence our willingness to bestow one of our Exceptional Value Awards.   While not offering as much resolution as a few of our favorite cartridges with a five-figure price tag, the Cadenza Bronze gives you more than a peek into what the mega cartridges offer without an insane price tag.  I suggest an audition.  –-Jeff Dorgay

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze


Yes, the Meatmen!

“We’re the fucking men of meat!” proclaims the opening chorus during the leadoff track on the new album from Detroit’s offensive punk icons, the Meatmen.

Frontman Tesco Vee, who came back into the fold in 2008, has never sounded better. His primeval snarl utters “I’m gonna fuck you uuuuuuuuuup” on the same track.  Perusing the record’s track list reveals Vee hasn’t lost his nerve or politically incorrect sense of humor, with selections including such jewels as “Pissed Hot For Weed,” “Rock and Roll Enema,” and “The Ballad of Stinky Penis.” Think “I Sin for a Living” revisited and you’re halfway there.

The tunes remain short, sweet, and to the point, punctuated by buzzing guitars and thunderous drums arriving at a blinding pace. Age has not calmed this band one bit. However, the addition of guitarist Hindu Kush (Kevin Roberts) replaces the Ramones-like thrash of earlier Meatmen albums with a more straightforward metal approach that expands the musicality. Talk about a righteous upgrade.

While available on vinyl, in typical Meatmen fashion, Savage Sagas… still sounds like ass, so don’t expect higher fidelity in analog. But hey, it is the Meatmen.  Selfishly, I wish they would have released this one on cassette, so I could put it right next to my cassette of We’re the Meatmen…and You Suck. That would be oh, so much more punk.

Rega Aria Phonostage

Literally translated, the word aria means air in Italian, but it is often referenced as a lyrical, playful section of music as well.  All of these terms apply rather nicely to Regas latest phono stage of the same name.

$1,495 is a tough price point; there’s not only a fair amount of competition, but we’re well beyond “budget analog.”  Spending this kind of money means you’re indeed getting serious about how your record collection sounds.

Jean-Michel Jarre’s mid-80s techno classic Zoolook begins the first serious listening session, with the second track, “Diva” and I’m immediately drawn in to the analog magic going on here, with water droplets sounding as if they are running down the back of the listening room wall, while Laurie Anderson’s trippy, back tracked vocals, bounce between the speakers with a sinister breathing layered over some equally dark synthesizer riffs.

The first couple thousand dollars spent in each aspect of the analog reproduction change (cartridge, turntable and phonostage) occupies the straight up portion of the performance curve, with every few hundred additional dollars budgeted bringing major increases in musical revelation.

Like all Rega electronics, the Aria does not need extended break in.  It sounds great right out of the box, and stabilizes fully after a few days of constant play.  Being that it uses precious little power, leaving it powered up 24/7 allows it to fully stabilize electrically and thermally, offering the best sound.

The Rega way

Building on the past success of Rega’s IOS phonostage, (reviewed in issue 36) the Aria uses a discrete, FET design – no op amps here.  There’s a definite clarity that this phono stage brings that is immediately noticeable, and I must admit user bias; there are precious few op amp based phonostages that don’t have a fair amount of glare and haze in the presentation.  Fortunately, the Aria sidesteps this problem with its discrete design.

As with so many other Rega products, the Aria takes a unique approach, offering completely separate moving magnet and moving coil sections, rather than relying on adding a transformer or additional gain stage to the MM stage for MC duty.  This adds some flexibility to its use, allowing it to be used with two turntables, a wonderful option for the serious analog enthusiast.  While much of my listening was done with the Rega RP6 and RP8 turntables, featuring Rega Exact and Apheta cartridges, the AVID Ingenium, with two tonearms was called into play to explore a number of additional cartridge options, thanks in part to the easily swappable headshells on the Ortofon TA-110 tonearm.  However if you were going for an all Rega system, An RP8/Apheta and an RP3/Exact would be a great pair of tables to match up with the Aria.

The compact physical size of the Aria is unobtrusive, keeping the same form factor as Rega’s current Brio-R integrated amplifier, Apollo-R CD Player and DAC.  The rear panel has two pairs of RCA input jacks, one for MM and one for MC phono, with a pair of RCA output jacks to connect to the rest of your system.

A great all rounder

After trying almost a dozen different phono cartridges, from the $295 Rega Elys 2, all the way up to the $15,000 Clearaudio Goldfinger Statment, the only cartridge in my collection that was not an excellent match was the Grado Signature 1.  This is a moving iron cartridge, requiring a 47k load impedance, but only having an output of .5mv, needed more gain to really rock the house.  At $3,000, this cartridge will probably not be the first choice for an Aria user, but there are a wide range of lower priced Grados with .5mv output.  And should you possess one of these, the Aria will not be a stellar performer.  Anything else with a .3 – .6mv output, requiring loading of 70 -400 ohms should work just fine.

The 70 ohm setting is perfect for use with Regas top of the line ($1,795) Apheta, which in our experience has always offered the best balance of high frequency extension without sounding strident at a lower impedance loading.  The Aria reveals enough music to be a great place to begin your journey with the Apheta (especially considering that Rega’s US distributor, the Sound Organisation makes a very sweet deal when combining the Apheta with their upper end tables, the RP8 and RP10).

Highly musical combinations were also found with the Denon 103, Lyra Delos, and Ortofon 2M Black cartridges, providing high performance without emptying your wallet, and I would consider one of these or Rega’s Exact 2 ($595) to be the sweet spot for this phonostage.  Gain, loading and MC capacitance can be easily set via multiple DIP switches on the back panel, so you can change cartridge setup easily.

Quiet and dynamic

Just like the IOS, the Aria is incredibly quiet, a boon of all solid-state designs.  Listening to “Solea” from Miles Davis Sketches of Spain, on the recent MoFi remaster is a joy.  Davis’ horn begins the track slowly, and languishes throughout, with gentle drumming and cymbal work that floats throughout the soundstage.  All of the budget phono stages we’ve auditioned (except for the Lounge LCR) seems to flatten this piece into a two dimensional soundstage with precious little depth, yet the Aria brings life to the mix.  The Aria also excels in terms of dynamics – Davis’ explosive playing always a great trial for any analog components ability to follow musical transients quickly and cleanly.

An equally pleasant effect is produced with Jim James banjo playing at the beginning of “Love You To,” from his Tribute To EP. This somewhat processed recording has a ton of echo and space that really opens up and breathes via the Aria.  Extended listening with a variety of cartridges further underlines the resolution available, and the Aria’s ability to discern the difference between the warmth of the Denon cartridge, versus the more tonally neutral Ortofon cartridges.

Yet when asked to rock, the Aria delivers.  Keith Richards Talk is Cheap album is not a terribly well recorded rock record, coming across as somewhat flat and compressed, yet the Aria renders good separation between Richards grungy guitar and gravely voice, giving each plenty of space for the listener to enjoy.

The rumbling bass line in Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” has the necessary weight to carry the track. Alternatively, the synth bass in RUN DMC’s “It’s Not Funny” manages substantial growl, while the opening bass riff in Rickie Lee Jones’ “Easy Money” (from the new MoFi 45 rpm remaster) proves that the Aria captures weight and finesse in the lower register.

Many will argue the case for a vacuum tube phono stage, because of their more organic presentation, but precious few at this price are well designed enough to offer quiet and control, offering warmth as an alternative.  The Aria will never be mistaken for a tubed phono pre, but it always tonally neutral without sounding clinical, and for my money, I’d rather add a touch of warmth in the phono cartridge and retain the level of resolution and quiet that this phonostage offers.

In the end…

As the performance curve continues straight up to the 10k range, comparing the Aria to phonostages costing twice as much is a pointless comparison, but compared to the others we’ve heard in the $1,200 – $1,500 range, it is solidly at the top of the heap, offering a stunningly quiet and highly musical presentation, without any fuss or muss.  Plug it in, turn it on and play records.  It’s that easy.  And the fact that you can plug a second table in is a big bonus.  Highly recommended.

The Rega Aria Phonostage

$1,495 (factory) (US Importer)


Amplification             Devialet 110

Turntables                 Rega RP3, RP6 and RP8, Avid Ingenium, Thorens TD-124

Cartridges                  Rega Exact, Rega Apheta, Ortofon 2M Black, Ortofon SPU, Lyra Delos

Speakers                    Stirling Broadcast SB-88

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Elvis Costello – King of America

Mobile Fidelity continues their excellent job of remastering the Elvis Costello catalog with his tenth album.  Never charting higher than #39 in the US, this record received more than its share of critical acclaim. Though it was not terribly successful for EC in terms of sales, it joined a string of quirky releases going forward, with only the 1989 Spike showing much chart activity (Spike would be Costello’s last gold record of his career).This record is also pivotal in the sense that it features a bit more of a country groove, something else that he would dabble in going forward, including an interesting and somewhat eclectic rendition of the classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

MoFi is to be commended for taking this imprint much further than my original 1B Columbia pressing.  It features more air and a wider soundstage throughout, with the mix more opened up, though it is still somewhat lacking in front-to-back depth.  The only complaint with this one, especially in light of the fact that it is an “Original Master Recording,” (which means MoFi used the original master tape in its production) is this: while dynamics are improved over the original, as well as overall tonality – especially the acoustic guitars – is that they didn’t split this up into two slabs of vinyl as they did on Get Happy.  – Jeff Dorgay

MoFi, 180g. LP

Neil Young – Live at the Cellar Door

Recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington DC over a three-day period from November 30 to December 2, 1970, the latest in Neil Young’s “archives” series hits the record store shelves in vinyl format, lagging the CD by a few weeks. If you were patient enough to wait, you will be highly rewarded.

Music editor Bob Gendron gave the digital version of this performance a highly insightful review in Issue 59, but we did not have a vinyl copy at that time to comment on. I concur 100% with Gendron’s assessment of the performance, and the sound quality of this vinyl version is outstanding.  Mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman’s studio, it is easily the equal in fidelity of the Live at Massey Hall and Live at The Fillmore albums.

The epitome of sparse production, the tracks all feature Young on guitar or piano, and while a hint of tape hiss creeps in from time to time, his voice is vibrant, dripping with decay and overtones, in the way that only a magnificent analog recording can – warts and all.  Fortunately, the warts are very few, and on one level, kudos to Young for leaving them in.  If this were a Katy Perry album, it would all be pristinely pitch corrected.

Here’s to a great glimpse into the past of such a great artist, and here’s to hoping Mr. Young will pull a few more recent performances out of his vaults in the months to come.  – Jeff Dorgay

Warner Bros, 180g LP

VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

In audio, like in so many other things, the seed of a great idea often sprouts before the technology of the time is able to fully express the concept. The direct-drive turntable is a perfect example. Many know of the legendary Technics SP-10 broadcast turntable, though few have heard one. Those who have will remember the remarkable pitch stability and the rock-solid bass. Today, they are coveted and being rebuilt around modern tonearms and cartridges possessing much more resolution than what was available back in the 1970s and ’80s, and to good result. However, the cost is high and there are a finite number of spare parts—not to mention precious little support. Great as the SP-10 is, owning one today is much like owning a vintage sports car: It’s a ton of fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but God forbid you need it repaired in a hurry.

Enter Harry Weisfeld

A visit to the VPI factory in New Jersey with company founder Harry Weisfeld reveals a massive collection of turntables. Weisfeld is particularly well versed in direct-drive models, especially the classics. His collection includes, among others, the Denon DP-80 and JVC TT-101, as well as other Technics tables. “I believe direct drive is the way to go when it’s done correctly,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the concept, but you can’t get a belt or a pulley perfect, no matter how hard you try. A belt-drive turntable consists of multiple mistakes and you’re always dealing with multiple tolerance errors. Direct drive eliminates these issues.”

Discussing the cost of the new Classic Direct, which is priced at $30,000, Weisfeld reflects on the SP-10. Because of the manufacturing complexity required to produce the SP-10, he says that, if new examples were being built today, they would be fairly comparable in price, even from a company like Technics.

Weisfeld says that the Kenwood L-O7D and Micro Seiki DDX-1000 were the impetuses for making his own direct-drive table, a process that began in earnest in early 2011. One of the engineers at a firm that produces finely machined parts for VPI, as well as military hardware, and who is a known audiophile, started a major discussion with Weisfeld about the “toughest part of a turntable to manufacture.”

The engineer quickly responded that the motor was the toughest challenge, which led to another series of discussions resulting in the design we see here in the Classic Direct, where the platter is actually the main component in the motor. In this case, the motor in the Classic Direct is an AC motor, which Weisfeld prefers over DC motors. He smiles and says, “An AC motor knows where it is, and a DC motor only knows where it was.”

The secret here is that a three-phase motor is used, eliminating the cogging effect that always plagues direct-drive designs. This uneven power delivery results in a slight unsteadiness to the music at worst and a shrinking soundstage at best. These issues are a thing of the past with the Classic Direct, as my listening quickly reveals.

Fortunately for Weisfeld, building the first Classic Direct was a labor of love for the engineers involved—it was strictly a fun project. Reflecting on the nature of the company building the motor, Weisfeld laughs and says, “The reason I won’t tell you who makes the motor for us is not a security reason; they just don’t want to become a supplier for other manufacturers.” He then proceeds to show me all of the measurement data that went into the design, from prototype to final product. “These guys measure everything, and they are thorough.” Case in point: Noise level on the Classic Direct is lower than minus 100 dB—impressive.

Blacker than Black

Initial playback of the Classic Direct at the New York Audio Show this past May was exciting, but the prototype, made using a Classic 3 chassis, didn’t really work aesthetically with the 12-inch tonearm, which Weisfeld felt was essential to the ultimate sound of the table. “So we had to do one more round of plinth design,” he says. “But the drive system was final at this time.”

The proof is in the listening. Forget all the audiophile clichés about inky-black backgrounds. The Classic Direct has a complete absence of background; it’s eerily quiet, like listening to a high-resolution digital file with the life of analog. We start our listening sessions with some vintage classical test pressings from the Classic label, and I’m immediately transfixed. There’s something dramatically different here.

Music simply emerges from the dimly lit room through Weisfeld’s reference speakers, the JBL DD6600 Everests. With dynamic range like few others, the Everests highlight the Classic Direct’s ability to remove itself from the equation and pass the music from the record groove through the speakers without interruption. The Everests sound surprisingly coherent, more like a pair of electrostatic speakers (of which Weisfeld and I are both big fans). I am spellbound by how natural pianos and violins sound in this system.

I’m so taken aback by the cleanliness of the tone that I don’t notice the cartridge mounted to the 12-inch 3D-printed tonearm, which is standard issue with the Classic Direct. It’s a Shure M97, the same one you can buy from Music Direct for $100. Weisfeld smiles again. “It’s my daily driver,” he says. “When I mounted a JICO stylus on the M97, it changed the sound completely, and it tracks like crazy. It saves wear and tear on my Lyra Atlas.”

Fortunately, the unipivot design of the VPI tonearms, with removable arm wands, makes it easy to swap cartridges—for vinyl aficionados with multiple cartridges in their collection. An additional 12-inch 3D-arm wand can be purchased for $3,000, while a standard one machined from aluminum is only $1,500—a perfect match for cartridges on the less-spendy side of the equation.

Getting in the Driver’s Seat

Once I’m acquainted with the Classic Direct, Weisfeld swaps the Shure for his favorite (and mine), the Lyra Atlas. But first we listen to Dave Brubeck’s classic track “Take Five” on tape. Quickly switching back to the Analogue Productions 45-rpm version reveals precious little loss, only in the ultimate dynamics of the vinyl not being able to stretch on the quickest transients as fast as the tape, but the soul of the music on the Classic Direct is incredibly well represented. Timbre and tonality are perfectly captured, along with the airiness of the cymbals and the rock-solid character of the piano. Weisfeld has clearly met his design goals in this respect.

Then, once we move back to the beginning of the journey with the M97, the core values of the music are still intact. Timbre and drive are especially compelling, but now after hearing the tape and the Atlas, there is cloudiness to the overall presentation. Regardless, the Shure sounds far more exciting than I’ve ever heard it before and light years beyond what it sounds like on my Technics SL-1200.

Auditioning a string of familiar rock recordings reveals the same things: a larger soundstage, wider dynamic range and a new sense of being able to peer deeply into the music—all of which are now available with the Classic Direct. The triangle in Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You” not only has an incredibly well defined space, but the decay is breathtaking, and it just seems to hang in the air forever. The rest of Court and Spark, though I’ve heard it countless times, infatuates me as if hearing it for the first time again. That’s what makes a high-dollar component special—and the Classic Direct delivers the goods in every aspect.

Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” blazes through loud and clear. While the Classic Direct’s speed stability doesn’t reveal itself as much when rendering Jimmy Page’s guitars, it speaks volumes with the sheer attack of John Bonham’s drums. They goes from fantastic to truly explosive, and the rest of this recording goes well beyond speaker boundaries, forming a coherent and convincing musical image.

A quick spin of a 45-rpm maxi single of Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” reveals the inner detail in this multitracked tune, which I’ve never heard as clearly. And while the Classic Direct’s major strength is tonal purity, its incredibly low noise floor uncloaks treasure in even the most highly processed records. In this case, backing vocals, synthesizer and percussion tracks are all more evident, with their own distinct placement in the soundstage, where they have always seemed somewhat vague. You don’t have to limit your musical taste to acoustic music to really hear what the Classic Direct can bring to your system.

Two Years in the Making

After a year and a half, the design of the Classic Direct was final and all that remained was sorting out the ultimate form factor. While so many of today’s mega tables feature an excess of bling, the Classic Direct keeps it simple and straightforward. Much like the aesthetic of the Eames Lounge Chair, this table is a classic in the ultimate sense of the word, rendered in a form factor you will not tire of.

The platter of the Classic Direct is the rotor, eliminating any errors resulting from motor-shaft coupling and taking advantage of VPI’s inverted bearing as the common support for the rotor and platter. Simplicity combined with 21st-century technology wins the day—and the tolerance between the platter and the rest of the motor is only .001 inches.

This assembly is a sealed unit that weighs approximately 40 pounds and is in separate packaging from the base, requiring that the user merely connect power and gently slide it in with the supplied handle. As the saying goes, there are no user-serviceable parts inside. Weisfeld tells me that this motor is built to outlast the owner, because “we don’t want to have to fix them.” (The motor, that is.)

Historians of the direct-drive system may be quick to comment that this approach has been tried unsuccessfully before, but this time it succeeds brilliantly, hence the engineering time and resulting cost of this table. VPI’s proprietary coil technology forgoes the standard wire-wound stator found in most motors, using slotted copper laminations instead. This allows for higher coil density, in turn giving the Classic Direct tremendous torque, even for a direct-drive design. Yet, it was designed to start rotating very slowly, another aspect of successful motor control.

VPI’s familiar outer-ring clamp is the final piece to the puzzle, and if you think you can get by without it, guess again. The clamp firmly anchors the outer edge of the record to the supplied mat, making sure it contacts the platter fully, eliminating the need for one of those fancy record flatteners. It also minimizes vertical stylus excursion, thus maximizing the soundstage. The rest of the table is straightforward, with 33- and 45-rpm speeds controlled by blue illuminated buttons on the left side of the plinth.

Worthy of the Name and the Price Tag

Record after record reveals the same thing: The VPI Classic Direct is one of the world’s finest turntables. If there is a flaw in its presentation, I am not able to expose it, no matter what kind of music is played.

Crazy as it might sound to the uninitiated, $20,000 to $30,000 is really the sweet spot for what I consider a “destination turntable.” I’ve spent more than my fair share of time with six-figure tables, and much like a Ferrari, they offer a level of performance unattainable by any other means, but they are just so far out of reach to all but the most affluent audio enthusiasts that it’s not even a consideration. The ratio of $150k turntable owners to $150k system owners is tipped well in favor of the latter, so for a certain breed of audiophile, a $30k table is not out of the question, especially if you are trading up from something else.

And I must confess that my experience with this range is healthy, having lived with tables from AVID, Clearaudio, Kronos, SME and VPI, just to name a few. As much fun as it always is to proclaim something a game-changer, running down the path of adjective excess, I’ll keep my description of the VPI Classic Direct, well, direct.

It’s solid and quiet in a way I’ve never experienced, even compared to the mighty Continuum, the silly Onedof and the massive Clearaudio. If pitch stability is something you crave, there’s just something about a direct-drive turntable, even a Technics SL-1200, that grabs you instantly. The Classic Direct just has much more of it, and it’s mated to a world-class tonearm to complete the package.

The presentation of the Classic Direct is remarkably close to that of a master tape on a great open-reel deck, which Weisfeld just happens to have next to his equipment rack for his own comparisons. He smiles. “This truly was my inspiration for the Classic Direct,” he says. “Now a piano sounds like a piano.”

I have purchased products from all over the world—and have been doing so for most my life—but I have to confess some American pride here. We in the United States now have a manufacturer building a turntable that not only competes with the best tables that the world has to offer but that also excels beyond many of them.

This is why we bestow our overall Product of the Year award to the VPI Classic Direct turntable.

– Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

Tosca – j.a.c.

Richard Dorfmeister of Kruder & Dorfmeister is half of Tosca, and his influence on this record is clearly obvious, given its ethereal rhythms, heavy yet lazy bass lines, and a soundstage full of ambient effects that stretch way beyond speaker boundaries.

j.a.c. was mastered at Caylx Studios in Berlin. Combining ultra-quiet surfaces and spreading the tracks out over three slabs of vinyl, this album breathes in a way the CD does not, and gives the music a much more open, organic feel. There is much dynamic range here; it begs to be played at club levels. The original CD is even slightly quieter, but feels more compressed through the midband and high frequencies, sounding crunchier and more digital on top.

Vide, “Zuri,” with its opening percussion and cymbal play. Where the CD sounds lifeless and flat, the LP possesses a much more realistic timbre. When the acoustic guitar eases into the mix, it has a very distinct space on the LP. On the CD, it is decidedly vague, sounding almost out of phase.  This is typical of the entire album, going back and forth between LP and CD, with the analog always getting the nod for palpability.

If you’re a fan of The K&D Sessions, you’ll want to add j.a.c. to your vinyl collection. -Jeff Dorgay

K7, 3LP

Snoop Lion – Reincarcerated

You can take the boy out of hip-hop, but you can’t take the hip-hop out of the boy.  Snoop’s current record has more of a reggae flavor, but there are plenty of hard-hitting grooves here to keep loyal fans satiated. If anything, this album sounds like it was influenced more by Katy Perry than Bob Marley.

And much like his legendary Doggystyle (perhaps the most well-recorded hip-hop record in history), Reincarcerated is brilliantly recorded, and mastered by Sterling Sound.  Some care is put into this one.

Combining very quiet surfaces with an extremely solid bottom end, the LP outperforms the CD across the spectrum, with that same expansive soundstage that Snoop has always provided.  You may not dig Snoop Lion’s current direction; if you don’t, you probably don’t care about what formats are available. However, if you find Reincarcerated to be your cup of tea, the LP is clearly superior to the CD.  -Jeff Dorgay


NWA – Straight Outta Compton, 20th Anniversary Edition

Ground zero for gangster rap, Straight Outta Compton set the tone and style for everything else that followed, with explosive dynamics and lyrics that stand the test of time 20 years later.

The original LP is one of the better early hip-hop records in terms of production, showcasing Dr. Dre’s skills even then.  Those wanting more high-frequency extension and a bigger soundstage will enjoy the original LP. By contrast, the CD is the only choice if you crave the maximum, hardest-driving beats; it has crushing LF energy.

The current remaster squashes most of the dynamic swing out of the record, and while the high frequencies aren’t terribly rolled off and the surfaces quiet, there is no punch, ultimately robbing the album of the energy it requires to get the messages across. The only saving grace is the fourth side, with bonus tracks from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Snoop Dogg, as well as a live version of “Compton’s in the House.” But you can get these tracks on the remastered CD, too.  -Jeff Dorgay

Profile, 2LP