Bryston Mini T Loudspeaker

Bryston, the long-standing Canadian audio manufacturer, is highly respected on a number of fronts. Their gear is superbly built, rugged, and reliable. They also offer virtually unmatched support with multi-year warranties on most components. Their amplification is used worldwide in both professional and domestic audio environments. Their digital source components have been well received by the world press and remain in residence in my current reference system.

As comprehensive as Bryston’s product line is, with power amps, preamps, integrated amplifiers, digital file players, and power products, there was until recently one omission: loudspeakers. This gap in their product line has been filled with an extensive lineup of speakers ranging from the Mini A “bookshelf” model all the way up to big and bold room-filling floorstanders.

Why speakers?

The impetus behind Bryston’s drive to produce loudspeakers in an already crowded and competitive area is their VP of Product Marketing, James Tanner. Tanner, in his quest for a speaker that would satisfy him personally, came up short in his search, and thus decided to pursue an original design that would achieve certain goals. His efforts translated into results that were satisfying enough that Bryston decided to distribute these designs commercially.

Bryston put a lot of resources into R&D, doing extensive testing, listening, and measuring with the help of fellow Canadian manufacturer Axiom, whose facilities are state of the art.  The speaker lines are all manufactured in Canada – no outsourcing here – and there is an accompanying unheard of twenty-year warranty.

The Mini T monitor loudspeaker in this review sells for $3,200. The Mini T is flanked by the Mini A, its smaller brother, and at the top of the line, the mighty Model T Signature flagship multi-way tower. There is nothing actually “mini” about the Mini T, as it stands 22.5“ high and weighs in at 42 lbs. The speaker is a three-way, with a 1” dome tweeter, a 5.25“ midrange driver, and an 8“ woofer.  The frequency response is stated as 33Hz to 20kHz, impressive at this price point.  Efficiency is average, at 86 dB, 4 ohms, nominal.

The Mini T is available in Black Ash, Boston Cherry, Natural Cherry, and in custom veneers at an additional charge. There are custom stands available to which the Mini T can be bolted. Out of the box, the Mini T exudes quality. The finish, construction, and binding posts are first class – what many have come to expect from Bryston.

The Mini T takes residence in good company. The speakers are driven by an Audio Research VS55 tube amp, the Simaudio 760A solid-state powerhouse and a Coffman Labs G1-A tube preamp. Sources are Simaudio’s NEO 380D DAC, Bryston’s own BDA-1 DAC, and a Revox A77 tape deck. Cabling is Stager, Transparent, and DH Labs with the Mini Ts sitting comfortably on custom Sound Anchor stands.

Getting down to business

After a relatively short 25-hour break-in period, the listener is treated to a wonderfully coherent, integrated, and live sound. The Mini Ts are not slow, midrange heavy classic British style monitors of yesteryear. They are very much a modern product, with amazingly low distortion levels, deep, very satisfying bass, and an open, transparent midrange.

Listening reveals the Mini Ts’ opposing strengths. They are incredibly nimble and quick, yet buttery smooth and relaxed at the same time, projecting an unusually deep soundstage to boot. The reverb feels wetter, note decays are longer, and timing is better than any other speaker at this price point that I’ve experienced.

The Cars studio albums, remastered at 24/192, sound fresh, vibrant, and not the least bit dated via the Mini T. It is a real treat to hear such classics as “Good Times Roll,” “Got a Lot on My Head,” “Candy O,” and others with crunchy guitars, articulated bass lines, and the classic vocals of Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr floating holographically in the center of the mix.

The latest album from immensely gifted jazz singer Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit, 96 kHz download, plays to many of the Mini T’s strengths: accurate tonality, correct instrumental timbres, and musical pacing. Porter sings like a human cello, with a bit of the finesse of Nina Simone, and the conversational style of Bill Withers, and the Brystons render his voice in a most astonishingly present way.

The Mini Ts do the versatility thing without breaking a sweat. Orchestral pieces, classic Blue Note jazz ensemble recordings, and classic rock are just different channels on the dial for the Bryston. No matter the source – analog or digital – the Mini Ts easily draw you in. Listening to Steppenwolf’s Gold: Their Greatest Hits on reel-to-reel is one of the highlights of the review period. The fuzzed-out guitars, psychedelic arrangements, and the ominous vocals of John Kay have the house rocking.

The Pentangle’s sublime Basket of Light, on SHM-CD, a longtime reference for evaluating speakers, is presented in a way suggesting electrostatic-like transparency and dynamics, especially on the track “The Cuckoo,” with the late, great, John Renbourn and Bert Jancsh’s acoustic guitars, the wonder that is Jacqui McShee’s voice, and Danny Thompson’s otherworldly acoustic bass. I’ve had very few true jaw-dropping moments in hifi, but this was one of them. The Mini Ts could have passed for floorstanders, given the earthy, deep-rooted foundation of the music.

The Mini Ts are also a breeze to set up. They are not super fussy about room placement, but of course a bit of experimentation is advised. Being relatively close to boundaries does not cramp their style, like so many high end speakers.  This is due to the controlled way the Mini Ts’ drivers disperse energy into the room. Despite the cabinet not being designed to to “tame” resonances into oblivion, which can cause other problems, there is no apparent transient smearing or non-mechanical distortion present.

A solid performer indeed

Bryston, with the Mini T stand-mounted monitors, eschews the “flavor of the month” design and concentrates on maximizing the potential of a three-way dynamic loudspeaker. The results are a smashing success. The Mini Ts will remain in my system as a reference in this price point. My only complaint is the stamped metal jumpers, but that is a small problem easily solved.

It must be noted the Bryston Mini T will rise to occasion with high-quality partnered equipment. Great cables, amplification, and sources will pay huge dividends due to the speaker’s low distortion. Focusing on amplifier quality rather than overall power rating will pay dividends, and the Bryston dedicated stands are definitely worth a look. The Bryston Mini T monitors are among the best deals going. An audition is highly recommended. Bring your favorite recordings and prepare to be impressed.

Additional Listening

I’ve heard the Bryston speakers a few times at various shows and have always come away impressed, but it’s always nice to set them up in a familiar environment and make a few brief comparisons. On the heels of the impressive $4,000 Eggleston Emmas that are my budget reference, the Bryston Mini T delivers excellent performance.

The size is a bit odd, as they are not really big enough to be floorstanders, but hardly small enough to be considered small monitors. For most this should not be an issue, but small kids and tail-happy dogs might be problematic.

I agree with Andre: the Mini Ts are incredibly easy to set up and get great sound with minimal fuss. After the photographs were taken, I took the liberty of trying them in three separate rooms: a small but modestly treated room (10 x 13 feet), my large listening room (16 x 25 feet) and the living room in my house, which has to be the worst sounding room I’ve ever heard, yet it makes for a great “real world” listening environment. The Mini Ts shined in all three.

Having heard Bryston amplification in a number of the world’s finest recording studios, matched with PMC loudspeakers, I’d make this comparison. The Mini T is very linear, with wide dispersion and sounds great whether you are sitting on the couch or hanging out, listening on the floor in the corner of the room – a plus for a speaker that you want to share with friends. It should come as no surprise that the Mini Ts sound fantastic with Bryston amplification, but their chameleon-like character makes them a good match for anything else on the shelf, from a vintage Marantz receiver to the Boulder 2160 I have here for review. But beware that these speakers reveal what they are fed, so if you aren’t happy with the end result, it’s probably due to something not quite right in your system. As I tend to prefer sound tipped a bit more to the warm romantic side, I preferred the Mini Ts with tube gear, to inject a little extra midrange magic into the presentation, and again, because these speakers are so natural, you can easily fine tune them to your taste.

Lastly, don’t let the 86db sensitivity rating fool you. The Mini-Ts are incredibly easy to drive and will provide more than satisfying sound pressure levels in a modest room with 20 watts of tube power. I found the Retro i-50 integrated we reviewed last issue to be more than enough in my 10 x 13 foot room. Of course, more power will provide more dynamics, especially in a larger room and on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Mini-Ts delivered an equally impressive performance in y large room with the Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks. These are definitely speakers you can grow with!

For just over three grand, this company, well known for their electronics, has produced a winning loudspeaker. We are very happy to give them one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015. If you’re speaker shopping, stop by your nearest Bryston dealer with a few of your favorite tracks. –Jeff Dorgay

The Bryston Mini T Loudspeaker

MSRP:  $3,200


Amplifier Simaudio 760A    Audio Research VS55
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Simaudio Neo 380D    Bryston BDA-1
Server Simaudio MiND    SOtM sMS-100
Tape Deck Revox A77
Cables Transparent Audio    DH Labs    Stager    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Symposium    Audience    Sound Anchor

Roksan Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

The Basics

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

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

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

Down to Business

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score

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

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

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

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

Further Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

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


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

Digital Amplifier Company Cherry Maraschino Monoblocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cherry Maraschino Monoblocks

MSRP: $4,000 per pair

Digital Amplifier Company


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

Plinius Tiki Network Audio Player

New Zealand firm Plinius has a long history of producing excellent sounding components that also please the eye. Founded in the mid-1980s, it has a legacy of cutting edge products with exotic names. The brand is now distributed in 35 countries, and it continues to bring new products to market. In every previous encounter with Plinius electronics, these ears have come away no less than highly impressed.  The brand today enjoys dedicated North American support and a solid dealer network.

With digital audio moving away from optical disc playback, nearly every company in the high end is scrambling to offer up solutions of every flavor. Those solutions range from USB DACs, music servers with onboard storage, network media players, and file players, as well as hybrids of all these approaches.   The task of standing out is a difficult one for digital source component designers due to the lack of any consensus as to the best approach, the myriad of variables, and the constantly changing landscape.

Enter the Tiki:

Plinius has entered the fray with its own spin on things.  It has introduced the Tiki network player, priced at $4775, in a purist approach.  It has decided to eliminate all unnecessary parts and so-called features that have the potential to harm sonics. This means there is no WiFi and no display. This is commonly known as a “headless” approach, with control exclusively via smart device.

On the back panel there is an Ethernet jack, a pair of RCA and XLR outputs, an IEC inlet, and a ground switch. That is it. No digital inputs or outputs. One could call this a “closed” approach. Admittedly, one can also be forgiven for being a bit skeptical at this design, but as you will see, based on performance of the Tiki, Plinius clearly is on to something.

The Tiki handles PCM up to 192 Khz, 24 bits and is compatible with FLAC, AIFF, WAV, and MP3. The unit is DLNA compliant and can be used with a variety of server software.  One can use a number of free and paid controller apps for Android, iPad, or iPhone. Plinius offers its own unique app called Arataki, which is available for sale at the iTunes store. More on that later.

The Tiki is ruggedly built, with clean lines and a beautiful half-inch thick curved front and side panel. The top panel is ventilated, so the unit still runs cool if left on 24/7. The Plinius logo is engraved on the front, and there is a single blue LED power indicator.  The Tiki is available in black or silver. The review sample was finished in a chic matte black.

Plug ’n’…Play:

The Tiki takes all of five minutes to install. It is truly plug-and-play. Attach an Ethernet cable, analog interconnects, power up, and one is ready to stream music. I  have terabytes of music in FLAC format on drives attached to a 2011 Mac Mini. With MiniMServer and Twonky software installed, the well-organized library is accessible within seconds. A variety of apps is used with the Tiki for the review, including mConnect, Kinksy, and Plinius’s own Arataki. Tap the artist folder you desire, then the album, and the file plays. The Tiki works with a NAS attached anywhere on your network running DLNA software as well.

To get right to the big question, the Tiki offers superb sound and may be one of the best digital source components auditioned in the reference system. It offers truly remarkable transparency and unveils new layers even on very familiar recordings. It is astonishing to hear more depth and recorded detail on classic Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span albums, all well recorded.  Jacqui McShee’s voice on Pentangle’s classic Soloman’s Seal was silken, and and Bert Janch’s acoustic guitar was all wood and steel.

The Tiki provides wonderful soundstage width and depth, with a tonal balance that is as natural as we have experienced from even more expensive digital players. The Sun Dogs, the debut album by progressive revivalists Rose Windows on the Sub Pop label sounded epic. Their stunning blend of acoustic instruments, electric guitar, and orchestral sweep was well served by the Tiki. Bass was deep and taut, and dynamics were standard setting.

The Tiki shows its true potential with high resolution material. The 192 Khz, 24 bit files of various classic Blue Note jazz titles proved a revelation. Beautifully recorded and well-mastered albums from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Lee Morgan are a joy to experience via the Tiki, and the natural timbres of the horns, piano, drums, and acoustic bass were stunning. The Tiki managed to stay out of the way, and just let the natural flow and rhythm of the music take center stage.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 192 Khz studio discography of Texas blues rock legends ZZ Top positively explodes out of the speakers. The fuzzed out guitars, sleazy grooves, and funky bass lines are rendered with aplomb and show the Tiki is no one-trick pony. If the ultimate purpose of a source component is to connect the listener to the music, the Tiki hit the mark without a doubt.

Using the Arataki app to control the Tiki is snap. It is one of the more elegant control apps I have used, and the graphical interface is attractive. However, it is a work in progress.  With engineers still trying to keep with iOS updates and market demands, it is difficult to keep up. The Arataki will prove frustrating for those with large libraries as currently the only way to select music is by tapping an album cover. Other apps offer a folder structure which allows for quick, pinpoint access to particular albums or songs. As noted the Tiki can be controlled by a number of other apps.

The dead quiet backgrounds, flawless operation, quick file access, and headache-free set up make enjoying music priority one. The Tiki is firmware upgradeable, and that provides peace of mind to the purchaser in a changing digital landscape. The Tiki may just be an anti-tweaker’s paradise.


Plinius is banking on potential customers who are sophisticated enough to set up a home network, but who also have little patience for computer audio and its endless variables. Simply plugging in an Ethernet cable gets you halfway there. Of course, there will be audiophiles confused by the lack physical interface with the Tiki, but this is its strength. With no display, and no noise-generating WiFi and digital inputs to spoil things, the sonics shine brilliantly.

Plinius thinks the network approach is best since there is total isolation between the computer or NAS and the DAC, and it provides for multi-room capabilities with one library. No need to have a bank of hard drives and a laptop in your HiFi rack. The Tiki works exactly as advertised and sounds superb. If a “set it and forget it” digital source component floats your boat, your ship has has come in.

Plinius Tiki

MSRP: $4775


Speakers Thiel CS2.4    Genesis G7c
Amplifier Audio Research VS 55    Rogue ST 100    Hans Audio 300B SE
Preamplifier Channel Islands Audio PLC-1  Mk ii
DAC Bryston BDA-1   Simaudio Neo 380D
SACD Player Marantz SA-14S1
Cables Kimber    Transparent    DH Labs    KingRex    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Audience adeptResponse    Shakti Stone    Symposium

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.

Rogue Audio Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

Nuts & Bolts

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,295


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

New From Channel Islands…

Channels Islands Audio, headed by industry veteran Dusty Vawter, has been making cutting edge products since 1997.

The company is known to many as early purveyors of Class D amplifiers, upgradeable DACs, headphone amps, add on outboard power supplies, and passive linestages. The CIAudio VDA-2 DAC is a staff favorite. CIAudio provides quality products at sane prices, and they are built in the U.S.A. to boot.  The company sells direct and through hand chosen catalogers and retailers.

In for review is one of CIAudio’s newest products, the $699 Transient MkII USB to S/PDIF converter and DAC. Essentially it takes the USB audio from your Mac or Windows PC, and converts it to 75 Ohm BNC (supplied with an RCA adaptor), S/PDIF for use with legacy DACs without a suitable USB input. But that is not the end of the story. The Transient MkII is an interesting take on USB to S/PDIF interfaces. It also features two I2S outputs for connection to compatible gear, like those made by Wyred4Sound and PS Audio. A pair of RCA analog outputs completes the picture  so it can be used as a stand alone USB DAC with no conversion.  Topping that off is a built in volume control, with volume level attenuated via arrow shaped buttons on the front panel.

The Transient MkII uses an XMOS based USB solution, high precision clocks, and a Wolfson chip. Channel Islands says highest quality parts are used throughout: Nichicon Muse & 2% tolerance polypropylene power supply capacitors, Takman resistors and WIMA polypropylene capacitors for signal circuits, and Canare BNC connector. The shielded anti-resonant chassis is 1/8 thick T6061 aluminum with 3/16” thick front panel, and all hardware is non-magnetic stainless steel.”

The appearance and build quality of the Transient MkII is first rate. When examined closely it inspires confidence. Installation is a snap. Source components in the review system are connected via a DH Labs USB cable to a Windows 7 laptop running Jriver Media Center 19, and a Logitech Squeezebox with the Enhanced Digital Output applet installed. The DAC is hub powered, via the host device.

All that is required for use with a Windows computer is to download and install the driver from the  By the way, Vawter suggests selecting the“CIAudio ASIO” output in the Jriver options menu. MAC users, it must be noted, require no drivers.  Also of note is that Dusty Vawter mentioned that no up-sampling is performed by the Transient MkII, so one can experiment with doing so in the software domain.

The Transient MkII immediately shows itself  to be a superb USB to S/PDIF converter into a Bryston BDA-1 DAC, via a DH Labs BNC cable.  The BDA-1 does not have a high fidelity, “asynchronous” USB input, so the Transient MkII is a shoe in solution when using a computer. Compared to other converters used in house, the Transient MkII is as neutral, engaging, and transparent as we have heard.

The 2011 debut album from U.K. singer songwriter Ben Howard, Every Kingdom, is wonderfully recorded and is filled with great folky tunes. The Transient Mkii as a converter is impressively dimensional and dynamic on this record. An even handed tonality rules the day. Howard’s voice and guitar playing are rendered with great focus and clarity. Especially notable is the deep soundstage.

Using the Transient MKII as a stand alone DAC, via it’s analog outputs is equally rewarding, and maybe even more so.  Compared to the Bryston BDA-1, the Transient MkII offers up a view one or two rows back, yet just as resolving.  The CIAudio draws you into the music, in the best possible way, in the similar manner that really good analog does.  Perhaps the best way to describe the Transient MKII’s sonic personality is that is in no rush, and lets the music flow gracefully.

During the evaluation as a stand alone DAC, a wide variety of music is streamed, across  many genres. The Transient MKII never trips up, or seems to favor one type of recording over another. From classic 60’s rock like Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks right on up to brand new high resolution jazz recordings from Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano, and Joshua Redman, the Transient MkII is never stumbles.  There is excellent grip on the bass, and nicely fleshed out midrange.

Using the Transient MkII with the Squeezebox Touch via USB brought the diminutive streamer to a new level of performance in my experience. This may be because it allows one to by pass the S/PDIF outputs completely, with the clocking being handled by the DAC. Calling up the Eagles studio discography in 192 Khz reveals new layers of transparency and precision.  Bernie Grundman’s mastering is first rate, and classic tracks like “Take It Easy” and “Desperado” take on new life.

The Transient MKII’s built in volume control proves to be well engineered. Using it directly connected to a  power amp yields very good results.  Connected to the Audio Research VS55 or or Burson Timekeeper, a preamp is not missed. The only caveat here is there is no volume level indicator, so careful attention to level is recommended.  When using with a preamp or integrated amp, line level is set at max. The Transient MkII successfully locks onto every sample rate from 44.1 to 192 Khz. The sample rate indicator lights on the front are most welcomed by those with digital music collections in various resolutions, and it is a feature rarely seen at this price point.


Time spent with the Channel Islands Audio Transient MKII USB converter and DAC is time spent enjoying music. As a converter, it is beyond reproach. As a stand alone DAC, it easily dazzles and defies expectations, and especially so considering its affordability. The fact that is is made in California is a nice bonus, and it is compatible with virtually any platform.

The Transient MkII also has a secret weapon up its sleeve. It is upgradeable with the CIAudio’s own $329 VDC-5 MKII High Current Power Supply, as it enhances its performance by taking it off hub power. Prior experiences with C.I.A’s power supplies in our system with various components like the Squeezebox Touch are very positive. To be clear, during the review period, hub power was used exclusively.

As a nice bonus, the Transient MKII is a risk free purchase, with Channel Islands Audio offering generous in home trials. Dusty Vawter welcomes customer inquiries, and is great about providing advice based on your system’s parameters.  The Transient MKII, and the other Channel Islands Audio products we have spent time with have proved themselves to be exceptionally high value, and sonically first rate.  Good engineering, solid build, and great prices rule the day. The Transient MKII is highly recommended for those with legacy DACs, or for those looking to jump into computer audio with a stand alone DAC.

The CI Audio Transient MK II

MSRP:  $699


Sources: HP Windows 7 laptop w/ Jriver 19, Squeezebox Touch

Amplifiers: Audio Research VS55, Burson Timekeeper, McIntosh MA6600

DAC: Bryston BDA-1

Speakers: Thiel CS2.4, Harbeth Compact 7ES3

Cables: Transparent, DH Labs, Kimber, Furutech:

Peachtree Audio novaPre and Peachtree220

Peachtree Audio burst on the scene in 2007 with its Decco integrated amplifier with built-in DAC and onboard USB input, which was somewhat of a novelty at the time but has since become ubiquitous.  It also has another fun feature: a vacuum tube in the preamplifier section that is visible through a glass window on the front panel, which breaks up an otherwise plain-looking case and combines design elements from audio’s past and present.  The success of the reasonably priced Decco—Peachtree sells refurbished versions of the original Decco for $499—led to a broader product line and contributed highly to the viability of a new renaissance of integrated amplifiers with built-in DACs.  Here, Peachtree was clearly a trendsetter.

Peachtree’s products combine stateside engineering and design talent with overseas manufacturing efficiencies.  It has grown its initial dealer-direct model to include an extensive dealer network to help support the company’s expanding product line.  Two of the newest additions to the lineup are the $999 novaPre and the $1,399 Peachtree220 power amplifier reviewed here.  The company has also moved further upmarket with its Grand series, which thus far comprises an integrated amplifier and a preamplifier.  We’ll explore these at a future date.

A Quick Tour

The novaPre features four digital inputs and an analog input, so those wishing to incorporate an analog source are not left out in the cold.  There are two single-ended RCA outputs, both with variable peak levels so that a powered subwoofer can be used, which is particularly useful for those employing a sat/sub system.  The Peachtree220 is a powerful Class-D amplifier, with 220 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load that almost doubles to 400 watts per channel when going into a 4-ohm load.  The review samples arrived with a beautiful rosewood finish.  (They are also available in high-gloss-black and cherry-wood finishes. Cherry is standard, rosewood and black a $100 upcharge.)

Fit and finish is impressive and build quality is at the top of the chart, with perhaps the only inconvenience being that the RCA jacks are a bit close together, which limits your choice of interconnect cables to ones with svelte connectors.  My reference cables from Kimber and Transparent just made it, but some others with large plugs may not.  Setting up the Peachtree combo has a low degree of difficulty.  Eschewing the stock power cords for a pair of Shunyata Venom cords adds a cost-effective bump in sound quality.

The novaPre’s digital inputs feed an ESS Sabre DAC capable of handling 24-bit/192-kHz data.  One of the digital inputs is the ubiquitous asynchronous USB, along with S/PDIF coaxial and TosLink inputs.  The novaPre’s optical input is limited to 24-bit/96-kHz data, while those from most others handle 24-bit/192-kHz data.  In addition to the variable line-level outputs, there is a headphone jack on the front panel.  The tube in the window remains, but now a 6N1P replaces the 6922 of the original Nova, and can be included in or out of the circuit with the flip of a switch.  In this case, it acts as a buffer stage—handy when a bit of tube warmth is really needed.  The 6N1P is a very reliable tube, but does not encourage tube rolling, as there are few variations on this one.  Oddly, the novaPre only features single-ended RCA outputs, while the companion power amplifier has a pair of balanced XLR inputs.

Good First Impressions

The Peachtree gear breathes life into familiar reference tracks as well as new favorites.  Marc Johnson’s latest ECM collaborative album with pianist Elaine Elias, called Swept Away, is a perfect example.  The natural elegance of the arrangements is reminiscent of Bill Evans—full of tonal color and richness.  Piano and acoustic bass are always tough to reproduce convincingly, especially on an amp and preamp with a lower MSRP than a pair of premium interconnects.  Particularly impressive was the Peachtree combo’s ability to control the lower frequencies, rendering the full-bodied, woody texture of Johnson’s bass lines, with no overhang into the midrange.  This only improves as the gear racks up listening hours.

Staying in the ECM groove, next up is Anouar Brahem, the Tunisian master of the oud, which is a Middle-Eastern variation on the lute.  Brahem’s recordings vary in texture, with accompaniment including saxophone, accordion and flute.  The Peachtree pair exhibited an overall smoothness and pace in capturing these exotic melodies and rhythms, which became simply hypnotic the longer I listened.  When mixed in with the other exotic instruments, the oud provides a true test of resolution that the Peachtree gear easily passed.

While I was drawn to recorded acoustic music, I also wanted to give the Peachtree gear a chance to rock out.  Texas singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham just released his fourth album, Tomorrowland, which is a more straight-ahead rock effort.  His previous outings were laced with Southwestern flavors, country and blues.  Bingham lets loose on this new self-produced and self-released recording.  He is pissed off and he wants you to know it.  The politically charged lyrics are perfectly underscored by the Stones-esque hard-charging backing.  The Peachtree duo did not falter in any way, providing plenty of the necessary drive and energy.

I Believe by the great ’90s band Spain was the last disc that crystallized what the Peachtree combo is all about: nuance.  The band’s music is filled with deep emotional content, played at downbeat tempos, and finely textured.  The Peachtree gear allowed all the emotion in these beautifully layered compositions to shine through brilliantly, especially on tracks like “She Haunts My Dreams” and “Born To Love Her.”

Moving on, now using the novaPre as straight preamplifier, with a Marantz CD player connected to the Peachtree’s analog inputs, I heard much of what I heard with sources connected to the digital inputs.  I found the novaPre to be rather straight up, with bad recordings not at all flattered.  Mumford & Sons new album Babel is somewhat brittle sounding, which is exactly what comes through the novaPre.  On the other hand, U2’s classic track “Please,” from the band’s Pop album, is big and bold, with plenty of drama and a warmer overall sound that the novePre rendered with equal fairness.  Regardless of musical choice, the novaPre neither embellished nor detracted from familiar music.

This writer preferred keeping the tube in the signal path, so I kept it engaged most of the time. The difference is subtle but obvious.  Engaging the tube adds an organic ease and additional harmonic complexity to the presentation.  Of course, your preferences will vary depending on your taste and the rest of the system, but it’s nice to have the option.

Born for Each Other

Both units worked flawlessly in my system during the review period.  My only complaint is a minor one:  I wish the volume steps at the lower settings were more nuanced via the remote control.  One tap brought it from conversation level to total silence.  It would have been nice to have a wider gradation, as with the volume control on the front panel.

The integrated amplifier with onboard DAC is a category that continues to become more popular as more music lovers turn to their computer as a source component—and the novaPre is a prime example.  Mating it to the companion Peachtree220 power amp makes for easy one-stop shopping.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

With an admitted bias against Class-D amplifiers, I was smitten with the Peachtree220 when I first heard it early this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, where the Peachtree folks were using a pair of Aerial 7T speakers to showcase their latest products.  For those unfamiliar with the Montis, this is not a particularly easy speaker to drive, as it presents relatively low impedance at high frequencies, which more often than not throws both tube and Class-D amplifiers a curve.

The Peachtree combo proved a formidable partner for the Montis, and I would have easily believed Peacthree front man David Solomon if he had he told me that these two boxes cost twice as much.  They gripped the Logans with aplomb, casting a huge soundstage combined with a smooth high end—impressive.

Before sending these two pieces to Andre for review, I made it a point to try both the 220 amp and novaPRE here with the variety of different speakers that I have at my disposal—and they passed all tests with flying colors.  Even a couple of the more difficult speakers in my arsenal (the B&W 802D and the Magnepan 1.7) were no problem, so whatever you might be using, rest assured, the Peachtree220 will be up to task.

The novaPre proved equally flexible, whether using the Sooloos music server, Mac mini or an old Denon CD player as a digital source, with everything from MP3s to the latest offerings from HDtracks.

Two words sum up this combination: value and refinement.  In a world full of five- and even six-figure components, these separates from Peachtree offer mega performance at a modest price, allowing the creation of great music system on a tight budget.  I am happy to award them both one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.

Peachtree novaPre and Peachtree220 power amplifier

MSRP:  $999 (novaPRE); $1,399 (Peachtree220)


Streamer Squeezebox Touch
DAC Musical Fidelity V-DAC II
CD Player Marantz CD5003
Speakers Boston Acoustics M25
Integrated Amplifier McIntosh MA6600
Cables Transparent MM2 Plus    Kimber Hero Ag    QED Genesis Silver Spiral   Shunyata Venom

Electrocompaniet ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electrocompaniet ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $3,400

Bob Carver Black Magic 20 Stereo Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Carver Black Magic 20 (VTA20S) stereo amplifier

MSRP: $2,100


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

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

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

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

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

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


Polk Audio LSiM703 Speakers

Polk Audio has been making high-quality products since 1972.  Over the last few years, the company has been stepping up its game at the high end of its product line, beginning with the LSiM707 floorstanding speakers, which we reviewed back in issue 42.  The $1,500-per-pair LSiM703 bookshelf speakers reviewed here capitalize on the same technology and driver advances as the larger 707s, but do so in a smaller package.  And like the $4,000-per-pair 707s, the 703s perform well beyond what their modest price tag suggests.

The three-way LSiM703 employs a rear port and Polk’s Dynamic Sonic Engine design, which places the 3.25-inch midrange driver and 1-inch ring radiator tweeter in separate chambers within the speaker enclosure, further isolating the driver units from the acoustic vibrations produced by the woofer.  The midrange and woofer cones are constructed of polypropylene, which is injected with air to form a honeycomb structure that combines the benefit of low mass, stiffness and high damping.  The crossovers include both Mylar and polypropylene capacitors, as well as non-magnetic air-core inductors, which are less prone to electrical-signal disturbance and thus deliver improved transparency.  This construction provides a good balance between sensitivity and smooth frequency response, and is indicative of the speaker’s build quality in general—from the flush grilles, right down to the high-quality jumpers between the binding posts, which can be bi-wired.

Our review samples are finished in an attractive cherrywood veneer.  (Ebony is also an option.)  The speaker’s MDF-based enclosure is exceptionally inert, which a classic knuckle-rap test confirms.  I leave the grilles off for all listening sessions, though they will come in handy wherever prying fingers or noses lurk.  I find that the LSiM703’s bass response and imaging focus benefit from inert stands, and my 26-inch-tall Sound Anchors prove a perfect fit.

Engineering Excellence

The detail paid to the time alignment, transparency and coherency comes through the LSiM703s immediately, allowing the heart and soul of the music to shine, regardless of musical genre.  Malian vocal legend Salif Keita’s album Papa, with its modal melodies and deep grooves, is a magical experience through the compact Polks, which require proper toe-in to create a convincingly holographic presentation.  I suggest the classic equilateral triangle configuration for optimal results.

The Stranglers’ classic track “Golden Brown” is a great reference, combining a dry but well-recorded lead vocal and great melody with intricate interplay between bass and drums.  Lesser speakers homogenize these elements, but the Polks shine, keeping the pace and keeping the individual elements separate from one another.  I put this tune on repeat for more than a few plays.  On the title track of Lisa Hannigan’s Passenger album you can hear every breath and lip purse on her closely miked vocals—a tough accomplishment for a speaker in this price category.

While the LSiM703s are not an overly analytical or strident speaker, they are precise in the way that their realistic presentation draws you into the music, and then holds you there.  Music lovers will have a difficult time using them strictly for background music.  They start and stop transient musical events on a dime, with no overhang, confusion or timing issues.  The Polks sometimes even seem to have the authority and realistic weight in the bass region of floorstanders, with the bass guitar and bass drum having real impact and definition.  The only trade offs that become apparent after extended listening are the sudden falloff of the deepest bass notes and the last bit of midrange refinement that far costlier speakers offer.

To their credit, the LSiM703s always stay out of the way of the music, allowing the distinctions between different masterings of classic albums to come through with ease.  The speakers also spotlight newer recordings that fall victim to the “loudness wars,” and give recordings with excellent dynamic range plenty of breathing room.  In this regard, they remind me of my Thiel CS2.4 floorstanders; that’s pretty good company, considering that the Thiel’s cost four times what the Polks do.

The LSiM703s work equally well with solid-state or tube amplification, making them an easy fit for whatever you have on hand.  I fall smitten when pairing them with the Carver Black Magic 20 stereo tube amplifier I just finished reviewing; combining EL84 tubes and the smoothness of the Polks makes for a seductive, user-friendly system.

A Superb Value

The overall feel of the Polk LSiM703s is one of a more relaxed ease, mixed with high-quality construction; nothing screams budget in their sound or appearance.  That’s the advantage of going with speakers from a company with 40 years of engineering and manufacturing expertise.  Polk has hit the bull’s-eye with the LSiM703, proving that a big company can easily compete with (and even excel beyond) what a smaller artisan company can accomplish, and do so at a moderate price.  These speakers are on my suggestion list for friends on a reasonable budget in the market for quality bookshelf speakers.  We are happy to award the LSiM703s one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

Additional Thoughts

By Jeff Dorgay

Visiting the Polk factory in 2010 and seeing a full complement of ARC REF components in the demo room, I knew the company was serious about “getting back into the audiophile market.”  Touring the factory and getting a chance to talk to the engineering staff, it’s clear that Polk really wants to make a mark with the LSiM series, which the company has done with great success.  On many levels, I’d even compare Polk to Hyundai in the sense that it is making a reasonably priced product that scores as high or higher than Lexus on the J.D. Power surveys.  Another great parallel is the KEF LS50 mini-monitor.  It’s amazing what big speaker companies can accomplish when they apply their design and manufacturing expertise to a real-world pricing structure.

Before shipping the LSiM703s off to Andre, I was anxious to see just how much of the 707 floorstanders sound was available here.  Because the 707, 705 and 703 all share the same components in their Dynamic Sound Engine driver design, you really only give up low-frequency weight and dynamics as u come down the range, so those listening in a smaller room aren’t really sacrificing much.  In my smaller (13-foot-by-16-foot) room, these speakers really rock the place, and a little bit of room gain goes a long way.

While these speakers can illustrate the differences between amplifiers incredibly well, I share Andre’s excitement for using them with tube amplifiers.  I have excellent results with the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated, as well as with my vintage Conrad Johnson MV50.  Combining the speakers with the Rega Brio-R integrated amp, a Rega DAC and a Mac mini makes for a smoking system for about $3,500—which is a perfect place to start your audiophile journey, or just stay there happily ever after.  There’s never been a better time to be a music lover and an audio enthusiast.

Polk Audio LSiM703 Speakers

MSRP: $1,500 per pair


Amplifier McIntosh MA6600 integrated amplifier
Digital Only C700R CD Player    Logitech Squeezebox Touch with Keces XPS   Rein Audio X3-DAC
Cables Transparent MusicWave MM2 speaker cable   Darwins Cables Silver interconnects    Kimber Kable Opt-1 TosLink

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

The market for sub-$1,000 speakers continues to get hotter.  Combining modern design tools and talented engineers with manufacturing in Asia allows more great-sounding loudspeakers to occupy this price range.  Products from Definitive Technology always come up at the top of friends’ and reviewers’ lists.  The SM 65 speakers reviewed here retail for just $900 a pair.

The SM 65 stands 20 inches tall and measures 18 inches from front baffle to back panel.  Weighing in at 22 pounds apiece, this is no “mini monitor.”  The speaker’s gloss-black front baffle is attractive and features a D’Appolito array, with Def Tech’s proprietary 5.25-inch midrange driver above and below a specially treated aluminum dome tweeter.  Interestingly, the speaker combines a top-firing passive radiator with a phase-coherent crossover network and heavy internal bracing on the cabinet—this is top-quality stuff for a speaker at this price.

Simple Setup

The SM 65s are finished in black, and each speaker comes equipped with two sets of high-quality binding posts to allow for bi-wiring.  I single-wire the speakers with a pair of Transparent MusicWave cables.  Def Tech supplies a set of attractive grilles with the speakers, but all of my listening was done without them.  The speakers benefit from high-quality stands; I use stands from Sound Anchors for my review.

Toeing-in the SM 65s at about 20 degrees works perfectly in my room, and because of the speakers’ small size, they are easily adjusted to achieve the ideal balance for your room and taste.  The review pair arrives with a few hours on the clock, so it only takes an hour or so for the speakers to settle into a groove that keeps me in the listening chair for hours.

The SM 65s’ 92-dB sensitivity makes them incredibly easy to drive; they require very little power to rock the house, which makes them a good fit for low-power tube amplification.  They are an excellent match for the 20-watt-per-channel Bob Carver Black Magic 20 stereo amplifier I reviewed last issue.  Our publisher even mentions that he has excellent results pairing the SM 65s with his 25-watt-per-channel 845 SET amplifiers and the EL-34-powered Ultravalve amp from AVA.

Getting Down to Business

After just a brief listen, I quickly discover the areas in which SM 65s are superb.  First and foremost, they excel at presenting soundstage depth, providing the best I have experienced from a sub-$1,000 speaker, with the recording space extending well behind the speakers.  The soundstage width these speakers provide is equally enticing, as they spread the performers across my listening room.  Even more exciting is the tonal purity through the midrange that the SM 65s deliver; vocals are beguiling, as are acoustic instruments.  Piano, strings and acoustic guitar are well represented, which is a tough mark to hit at this price.

Thoroughly satisfied with speaker position, I turn first to the sublime new release from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away, which I have been listening to a lot recently.  This is one of the most melodic and focused recordings of Cave’s amazing career.  Midway through this dramatic song cycle, it becomes clear to me that I’m experiencing a performance, rather than merely listening to a home playback system, which is a rather rare occurrence for a speaker of this size.  Through the SM 65s, Cave’s voice is as present and dimensional as one could hope for, especially within the context of the sparer arrangements—a definite goose-bump moment.

The excellent 2002 remaster of Lou Reed’s classic album, Transformer, is a blast through these speakers, with all the elements of the mix coming together as a coherent whole.  Key tracks like “Satellite Of Love” and “Walk On The Wild Side” sound fresh and lively.  It’s easy to hear why this album was so hugely influential.

Marvin Gaye’s overlooked masterpiece, In Our Lifetime, is equally revelatory.  The genius of Gaye’s catchy melodies, funked-up rhythms, dense arrangements and famous vocals (which are clearly at their peak at this point in his career) all feel as if they are framed in a halo, while the speakers easily keep pace with the snappy bass lines and syncopated beats—pure magic.

Staying on the Marvin Gaye kick, I turn next to his sprawling masterwork from 1978, Here, My Dear.  This R&B/funk classic sounds otherworldly through the SM 65s, which never single out any obscure detail at the expense of overall musical flow; it feels like I am sitting at a mixing console in a smaller room.  The StudioMonitor lives up to its title.

By Comparison

Though my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s are considerably more expensive than the SM 65s, both pairs share aspects that I enjoy—primarily seamless driver integration and tonal purity.  Even after a short time, it’s obvious that the SM 65s make great music.  They are highly balanced speakers that make extended listening sessions a breeze, while eschewing fireworks for timbral clarity.

The $900 SM 65s use the same mid-woofer and tweeter as the $400 SM 45s, which TONEAudio recently reviewed, as well as an identical cabinet design.  The simple enclosure is perfectly acceptable at $400, but as we approach the $1,000 mark, there are a handful of competitors providing better aesthetics.  I’d happily pay another $100 to see the SM 65s in a cabinet more worthy of their sonic performance.  (Perhaps a Signature series is in order?)  The same goes for the binding posts and jumpers, which seem to be plaguing a number of other speakers these days.  The SM 65s’ binding posts are difficult with beefier speaker cables.

However, these are minor points.  In the end, the sound quality of Def Tech’s SM 65s proves paramount.  These are a great pair of speakers around which to build a high-performance yet reasonably priced system.

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

Music First Audio, based in Hastings, East Sussex, in the U.K., has been making passive “preamplifiers” for a number of years.  Technically, it may be a stretch to call these products preamps, since they are 100 percent passive in nature, providing no active gain.  (Referring to Music First Audio products as passive linestages may be more technically correct.)  It is worth noting for those needing more than unity gain that there is a +6-dB switch on the rear panel of the Classic v2.

The transformers have dual primaries, allowing them to be connected in series as a step-up device offering the +6-dB option, or parallel as a 1:1 transformer.  Bear in mind that selecting the +6-dB option does cut the range of attenuation by an equivalent amount, but it also allows pairing with older components with lower outputs. It can still drive your power amplifier to full output, and sound quality is not compromised in the least by selecting this option.

Before getting to the heart of the product under review here, the Classic “Preamplifier” v2, it is appropriate to discuss the product category of passive linestages in general.  A preamplifier in the classic sense provides input switching among sources, a signal boost to drive a power amplifier and, of course, volume attenuation.  An active preamp also gets involved in impedance matching, which can be critical.  Purists, however, claim that the extra gain stage is unnecessary in most cases, since most modern sources can drive a power amplifier directly.  The issue then becomes volume control, so you don’t blow up your amp and speakers.

There a several ways volume control can be engineered into a passive linestage.  The most common is a resistor-based attenuator.  This approach, while valid, does have some possible disadvantages, like frequency-response aberrations and issues with interconnect length.  A far more technically advantageous approach is the transformer solution, sometimes referred to as a TVC-based design (for Transformer Volume Control).  This allows for a total decoupling of your sources from the power amp, avoids impedance mismatching (which can lead to a loss of HF information and/or dynamics) and maximizes transparency.  The Classic v2 uses two transformers, one per channel.  However, this approach is more costly and complex.  The unit is priced at roughly $4,000 (or £2,200).

Direct to the Source

Music First Audio’s parent company, Stevens & Billington Limited, has been around since 1963.  The company’s transformers are highly regarded for quality and tight tolerances in both the high-end-audio and broadcast industries.  In describing the differences between the Classic and the company’s higher-end Baby Reference, company owner Harry O’Sulivan said, “The Classic features our original transformer design, honed over the years and first finalized in late 2002.  In the years that followed, we realized that an even better transformer offering the pinnacle of performance would take time, and proved to be an even costlier process—resulting in the transformers used in the Reference and Baby Reference models.”

This new transformer features a core that is 25 percent larger, and delivers improved low-frequency response and high-level power handling.  The transformer in the Classic v2 also uses a 25-percent-larger core but retains the winding structure of the original—a clear trickle-down effect.

The Classic v2 drives both Audio Research VS55 and Bob Carver Black Magic power amps, using Darwin Ascension Silver interconnects, for the duration of this review, in place of my Audio Research SP16L active tube preamp.  The connected source is a Bryston BDA-1 DAC.  A quick comparison instantly reveals that the Classic v2 removes subtle layers of thickness and grunge, and the most transparent to-source sound I’ve ever experienced with these amplifiers.

With the Classic v2, music emerges from noticeably quieter backgrounds than my tube linestage can deliver.  While I have used some excellent active linestages over the years, the Classic v2 offers more resolution everywhere, with more distinct details, where in the past many of these details were more homogenous.  This effect feels much like the difference between master tape and a second-generation copy.

Further Listening

The DVD-A of Seal’s Best 1991–2004 sounds huge via the Classic v2, offering up bass performance on this disc that sets new standards for control and articulation in my reference system.  Yet at the same time, the subtle, exotic textures that are a hallmark of this performer are now much easier to distinguish.  While “Killer” and “Kiss from a Rose” have been my reference tracks for years, the Classic v2 offers a fresh perspective—which is always an exciting experience with a new component.

A new reference recording, Steve Earle’s recently released The Low Highway, clearly illustrates Earle’s inspired playing.  Textural cues—like the wood and steel of Earle’s acoustic guitar, the snap of the snare drum, and the creative accompaniment of fiddle, piano, banjo and mandolin—are a cinch to identify in the mix, convincingly showcasing the muscular backing band of this troubadour.

The incredibly low noise floor of the Classic v2 serves quieter, more intimate music well, perhaps best of all, again allowing more of the lowest-level details to come through.  The spacious, minimal arrangements of Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem stretch out and breath at a much lower listening level, freed from the electronic noise of an active linestage.  The Classic v2 brings these performances closer to life, with an enormous sound stage projecting the instruments in the stereo image well beyond my speakers’ boundaries.  This masterful imaging performance and the low noise floor are the Classic v2’s greatest strengths.

The Fine Points

Four RCA inputs and two balanced XLR inputs should suffice for most users.  The standard Classic only offers a single pair of (switchable) RCA or XLR outputs, but for those requiring a second set of outputs to drive a powered subwoofer or additional amplifier, this can be added to your unit at modest cost, as can other customizations.  Keeping with the purist approach, Music First ships the Classic v2 without a remote, but one is offered for an additional $1,000.  The fairly elaborate remote includes a rear-mounted stepper motor, so there is no interaction with the signal path.

So the major question is, “Do you want just the facts or a preamplifier that can perhaps embellish somewhat?”  As we well know, some preamplifiers can do just that, adding some dynamic weight and even a sweetness of tone, which can be a good thing in many cases.  The Classic v2 allows the music to come through with an addicting sense of purity.  Most modern sources have enough output to drive power amps and all but the most insensitive speakers to satisfaction.  So the need for an active preamp can be a preference more than a necessity in many cases.

The other question to be raised is whether to take advantage of Music First’s silver or copper transformer wiring.  The company admits on its website that it does not consider the silver a premium sound option, though the silver wire is more costly and tougher to work with.

If transparency, a virtually non-existent noise floor and quick transient response are priorities, the Classic v2 should be high on your short list for linestage auditions.  A nice bonus is that it feels like a luxury component, and is made with precision and an attention to detail that can only be accomplished with low-volume, bespoke components.

The Classic v2 is a revelation, providing performance that will only be limited by the source components driving it.  How much better is the company’s Baby Reference, with the full-blown transformer design?  Stay tuned, as I’ll be reviewing one shortly!  If you’re tired of exotic power cords and tube rolling, this is the linestage for you—enthusiastically recommended.

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

MSRP: Approx. $4,000 (£2,200)


Speakers Thiel CS2.4
Preamplifier Audio Research SP16L
Power Amplifiers Audio Research VS55    Bob Carver Black Magic
DAC Bryston BDA-1
Transport Musical Fidelity M1 CDT"
Server Mac mini/Squeezebox Touch
Cables Transparent    Audience    Darwin    Element    DH Labs
Accessories Audience aDept Response aR6 power conditioner    Symposium Rollerblock Jr. ball-bearing isolation    Shakti Stone electromagnetic stabilizer

Merrill Audio Veritas Power Amp Mono Blocks

Based in Bernardsville, NJ, Merrill Audio was formed in 2010 by Merrill Wettasinghe, a lifelong audiophile and former HP executive with a background in R&D.

The current product line consists of the Veritas line of amplifiers and the Lucia preamplifiers.  Merrill Audio has a clear vision for the products they offer, which are designed and built with an attention to detail rarely encountered. In for review are the Veritas Power Amp Mono Blocks, priced at $12,000 a pair.

The Veritas monoblock amplifier is a Class D design that uses the Hypex Ncore NC1200 power modules.  Each  chassis is machined from a solid block of aluminum with one-inch thick outer walls.  The internal electronic components are laid out in various chambers to maximize isolation.  Further examination leads one to conclude that very few, if any, compromises are apparent in the construction and layout.

According to Merrill, wiring is point to point, and Cardas ultra pure copper litz wire is used throughout the amps. Around back are Cardas speaker binding posts that utilize solid copper  and a rhodium plate; however, they will only accept spade terminated speaker cable.  The inputs are fully balanced and feature only top-shelf Cardas XLR connectors, so balanced cables are mandatory.  For an interesting touch, the units are supplied with power cords that Merrill has had custom-designed for them by Triode Wire Labs.  The IEC inlet is gold-plated Furutech. The monoblocks also ship stock with either synergistic or Stillpoints support feet.

The Veritas are not for those with weak backs, as they weigh in at 33 pounds each. According to Merrill Audio, their build process is as follows: “Start with a 66-pound solid aluminum block.  Delicately machine the chassis from this solid block with isolation chambers and frames to limit any sonic interference and minimize vibrations. Keep the walls one-inch thick, to limit and absorb vibration. The signal paths are designed to be the shortest possible, giving you the cleanest audio signal possible. Longer cables typically use shielding. Excessive shielding introduces capacitances that slow the dynamics of the system, especially power amps, bloating the bass and reducing the high frequencies. Keeping wires short removes the requirement for shielding…”

Setup is straightforward: a MyTek Stereo 192 DAC, Musical Fidelity M1 CDT transport, Bogdan Audio Creations Art Deco and Thiel CS2.4 loudspeakers, Audience power conditioning, along with Kimber cabling make up the review system. One interesting note is there is no power switch – the amps are turned on or off by detaching the Triode Wire Labs power cords, which results in a faint, harmless pop through the speakers. The Veritas monos also run warm to the touch, and have been left on continuously for optimum performance.


The Veritas are given a few days of casual use to allow them to settle in, and then a steady diet of reference tracks for serious listening.  It is apparent from the very first listening session that the Veritas are very serious contenders for one of the biggest sounding amps to enter the listening room.  All the engineering, careful selection of parts, and attention to detail pay off.  The listener is rewarded with an enormous soundstage; feel-it-in-the-gut, super-controlled bass; and a wonderfully transparent midrange.

The topology of this amplifier never enters the mind during extended, fatigue-free, and highly engaging listening sessions. It is clear that many audiophiles have preconceived notions about certain amplifier types and, unfortunately, prejudge certain technologies without actually listening.  But with the Veritas, listening is believing.

The Veritas are nimble performers – aside from the excellent bass performance, the high frequencies are supple and delicate. Complex musical passages are rendered with a sense of effortless ease.  Listening with anything but full attention proves a difficult task.  All musical genres are rewarded equally with sublime transparency and appropriate scale.

The new album from Tom Jones, Spirit In The Room, is an amazing mélange of classic folk, blues, and rock. Jones and producer Ethan Johns call upon material from Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, and more. It is well recorded, and through the Veritas monos, the gravitas of Jones’s voice is remarkable.  Jones’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” comes through with the necessary emotional impact.

Switching gears, the remastered  Collectors’ Edition of Joy Division’s seminal 1980 release Closer simply dazzles rhythmically and texturally. The Veritas shines a glorious light on the recording, which laid a foundation for the alternative movement of the 1980s, with stripped-down arrangements, melodic bass lines, and minimalist production.

The Veritas is also spot-on with acoustic music, especially classic jazz. Listening to various high resolution downloads of historic Blue Note recordings from John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter,  Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard is a gas. Drums, horns, piano, and bass all sound natural in timbre and free from grain. Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil is a particular favorite with the drive and soul that the Veritas provided this classic recording.

The Veritas are so resolving, it is easy to hear the changes in upstream components, cables, and tweaks. The amps are remarkable in this regard, making it easy to detect something as simple as switching a power cord or two in the system. As revealing as the Veritas are, they never seem analytical or soulless. Quite the opposite, actually. They paint a holographic picture of the performers when the recording allows, without being the least bit mechanical.

On an ergonomic note, the Veritas runs slightly warm to the touch and responds positively to quality amplifier bases and speaker cables. It is utterly noiseless and offers some of the quietest operation experienced in this reviewer’s system. This manifests itself in a pristine soundstage and the ability of the listener to distinguish even the most subtle aspects of a recording.


At $12,000 per pair, the Merrill Audio Veritas Mono Block amps are certainly not entry level components; they provide a sonic picture virtually without flaw across the musical spectrum. Mind you, the Veritas for this review are installed in a system normally built around tube amplification.  The fact that tubes have not been missed in the least during the review period speaks volumes about the vision of Merrill Audio.

The Merrill Audio Veritas Mono Block amplifiers may very well be a breakthrough in Class D amplifier design.  The fact that the amplifiers are equipped with such performance enhancers such as high-end vibration control, top-shelf wiring, and connectors that many far more expensive amps cannot claim is impressive and makes these amps plug ‘n’ play.  The build quality of the Veritas is beyond reproach, and the footprint of each amp is relatively small, which means easy installation.

The time spent with the Merrill Audio Veritas Power Amp Mono Blocks was nothing less than enjoyable with long, satisfying listening sessions. They have the ability to drive virtually any pair of speakers without a hint of strain, and with a clarity and precision most often seen at the very upper echelon – highly recommended for those seeking a transparent amplifier with power to spare.

The Merrill Audio Veritas Mono Blocks

MSRP:  $12,000/pair


Associated Equipment:

Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT, Squeezebox Touch w/CIA power supply

DAC: MyTek Stereo 192 DSD DAC

Speakers: Bogdan Audio Creations Art Deco, Thiel CS2.4

Cables: Kimber, Stager, DH Labs, Transparent

Accessories: Audience aDeptResponse

Wyred4Sound mINT

Central California’s Wyred4Sound has taken the high end by storm with their extensive line of Class D based amplifiers, DAC’s, and music servers.

The Wyred4Sound mINT, short for Mini Integrated Amplifier ($1,499), is indeed a half sized component that interestingly, looks at once both retro and modern. The mINT boasts 100 wpc, and is a custom Class D design based on the ICE power modules. Wyred4Sound goes out of their way to stress the refinements found in the mINT that are usually regulated to much more expensive components. One aspect of the design they are especially proud of is the volume control. According to W4S, it is “a true-resistive ladder which results in linear control, excellent channel matching, and impressive sonic quality.”

But wait, there is more. A lot more.  Along with two analog inputs, the mINT is also a three input DAC, with TosLink and Coaxial inputs that handle 24 bit, 192 Khz data. There is also an asynchronous USB input that handles up to 96 Khz. Rounding off the list of features is a fixed output for a recording device, a variable output, an HT bypass, and a very nice, full function attractive remote control. And, the mINT is fully designed and built in California.

Down to business

The mINT was paired with Harbeth Compact 7 ES3 and the Opera Mezza speakers, proving a wonderful match for both, with more than enough power to drive both speakers to their limits. To put it another way, my listening rooms suffered from overload well before the mINT could even break a sweat.

The mINT is equally capable when fed analog sources, like a CD player or a file streamer, offering a spacious, precise, and untarnished presentation that I find wonderfully balanced. If anything, the tonal presentation of this amplifier is slightly tilted to the warm side, unlike the Class D amplifiers of a few years ago, that offered great bass performance at the expense of a smooth top end.  That bleached feeling is no longer a line item with Class D, and certainly not the mINT.  It proves very nimble on top, balancing dynamic contrast with brass instruments, staying delicate and finessed on strings and vocals.

The three digital inputs work equally well, and performance is on par with many outboard DAC’s that are similarly priced.  Eliminating some of the extra buffers and gain stages required with separate components pays big dividends here, giving the mINT high performance at a very reasonable cost.  You could easily spend $1,499 on power cords and interconnects between a separate power amplifier, preamplifier and DAC, making this little marvel a major bargain. In addition, the mINT offers a headphone jack on the front panel, upping the fun and the value factor even further.

The relaxed tonality the mINT provides, makes it highly enjoyable across a wide range of musical genres.  The opening track of Imelda May’s Love Tattoo album, “Johnny Got a Boom Boom,” combines a fast, dynamic slap bass line, snare drum and cymbal crashes, combined with May’s sultry, often screaming vocals.  Legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe’s La Vos provides more of the same.  Percolating with layers of bass, percussion, brass and heavily syncopated rhythms, the mINT never loses its cool, throwing a large soundstage.  The mINT does an excellent job keeping these densely packed, explosive recordings well sorted and three dimensional – a perfect torture test for any amplifier.

Digital functionality

Windows users will need to install the proper USB drivers form the Wyred4Sound Website, and Mac users can just plug and play, selecting the the mINT in their sound control panel. All in all, an easy task, no matter what platform you choose.

The internal DAC proves equally balanced and on par with the amplifier section of the mINT.  Tunes from my Windows 7 laptop using Jriver’s Media Center 18 and FLAC files were spacious and engaging. Emmylou Harris’ Hard Bargain for a wide range of bluesy folk tunes and instrumental dexterity again reveals the mINTs ability to unravel delicate tracks without getting overly grainy or “digital” sounding.

The only area that left me wanting was the USB input being limited to 24/96.  The S/PDIF and optical inputs claim full 24/192 resolution, so those purchasing tracks in this format will have to search for a good USB converter to take full advantage of the mINTs digital performance.

However, this type of digital input flexibility offers a world of convenience to those who have ripped their CD collections to a hard drive or purchase high resolution downloads.

The mINT is a clever package, and if this is an indication of the rest of their line, I look forward to hearing more from this company.  It offers enough resolution to show what a higher quality power cord can do as well as better interconnect and speaker cables – a great sign.  But more refinement will cost quite a bit more money, perhaps twice as much, making the mINT an excellent bargain.
Additional listening

The Wyred4Sound mINT is the perfect solution for music lovers wanting great sound that have a reasonable budget and want to maximize space, i.e. not have a giant rack full of audio gear. Its ability to work with analog and digital sources means you can keep your turntable in the mix, or add one if you’re curious.  Thanks to its tiny form factor, the mINT, a turntable and a compact phonostage can fit on a shelf or tabletop nicely. The Rega RP3, Exact cartridge and Naim StageLine phonostage make a perfect match for the mINT, combining to make a system any analog lover will enjoy.

Its 100-watt per channel power rating opens the door to a much wider range of speaker choices that many of the small, desktop integrateds from Naim, Rega and others don’t drive as easily with 25-50 watts per channel.  The mINT was even able to drive the Magnepan MMG to adequate volume, and thanks to the variable output can take advantage of a small powered subwoofer – again increasing versatility.

Having tried it with a number of great speakers at my disposal, my favorite, hands down was the pairing with the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers reviewed in issue #54 of TONEAudio.  Their 90db sensitivity makes for house party volume when you need it and great dynamics the rest of the time.

Equally intriguing is the built in headphone amplifier.  Starting with the ultimate torture test, the HiFi Man HE-6, the mINT falls down a bit, but to its credit, so does just about everything else, no black marks here.  Moving to a suite of much easier phones to drive (Grado, Sennheiser and Denon) proves enlightening.  Decent control and tonal balance overall makes the mINT a great way to get into the headphone game. Rocking some headphone favorites, it throws a wide and deep soundstage with Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and Low’s The Invisible Way.

The Wyred4Sound mINT is easier to set up and listen to than it is to spell correctly.  For many, this will be a destination product, offering flexibility and performance unheard of five years ago.  We are happy to give the mINT one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  – Jeff Dorgay

The Wyred 4Sound mINT amplifier

MSRP: $1,495

Associated Equipment:

Opera Mezza Loudspeakers

Harbeth Compact 7 ES3

Musical Fidelity CDT transport

Marantz NA7004 streamer/DAC

Darwin Cables silver interconnects

QED Genesis Silver Spiral speaker cables

QED digital cables

Micromega AS-400:

Micromega of France, enjoys a very respectable presence here in the US, and has been introducing new products with a vengeance recently.

The company currently designs and builds a full line of electronics from sources to amplification.  In the last few years they have taken a distinct interest in wireless technology and it’s incorporation into high-end audio playback in the home without compromise.  Enter a very unique product, the AS-400 Integrated amplifier, priced at $4,595.  The AS-400, which shares it’s name with a famous IBM midrange computer, is much more than a standard integrated amp.  It produces 200 wpc, (400 wpc into 4 Ohms) of Class D solid-state power, and is available without the Airstream functionality for $3,595.

The rear panel has three line inputs, a preamp output, and you can drive the power amp section with an outside preamplifier. There is also an analog iPod input, and a headphone jack, but the most surprising on such a 21st century device is the MM phono input!  The unit weighs a whopping 33 lbs., and is built to an extremely high standard. With seamless casework and a volume control that is smooth as butter to turn, something often overlooked on digital devices these days.

Still more lurks under the hood. The AS-400 is equipped with AirStream, a proprietary wireless network protocol, based on Apple’s iTunes software and AirPlay feature, allowing for untethered streaming of your iTunes library. Further inspection reveals the Cirrus Logic CS 4351 24-bit/192kHz DAC chips, a custom precision low jitter clock, and an Ethernet jack. Oddly, there are no digital inputs or outputs of any kind.

Easy use and setup

Not a member of the Apple ecosystem, I found the AS-400 easier to set up than I anticipated. I don’t use iTunes, and I don’t own any iDevices, but I do catch myself pondering the new iPhone 5, so it could happen sooner than later. My computer audio setup is based on a Logitech Squeezebox Touch, an Ethernet network, and a Bryston BDA-1 DAC in one room, and a Musical Fidelity V-DAC II in another.  A Mac Mini acts as a server, with all files saved in FLAC format.

For the purposes of this review, I converted about a dozen albums from FLAC to AIFF, and imported them into iTunes. A quick download of the iTunes Remote app for my Android tablet had me rocking in no time.  Pairing the AS-400 with the Opera Seconda speakers (reviewed in Issue #49 of TONEAudio) via Transparent’s MM2 Super speaker cables and their PowerLink power cord made for a sweet system that was as easy on the eyes as the ears.  The next step after powering up the AS-400 is to select “Which speakers to use” from the iTunes menu.  Simple!

Trust that first impression

I instantly noticed an authority and a dimensionality to the sound, making clear that Micromega’s wireless implementation is a huge success. The first track streamed, John Legend’s “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)” was rendered with a huge, forceful bass line, great palpability on the vocals, with highly convincing tonality on the piano.  This track is a very familiar reference and the AS-400 nails it.

Running through multiple listening sessions, concentrating on familiar albums, like Norah Jones’s Little Broken Hearts, I remain excited with the AS-400. Grizzly Bear’s terrific new album, Shields, is densely layered art pop and through the AS-400, it sounded coherent, with all the layers easy to decipher, with soaring melodies and jagged guitar parts in evidence, never getting lost in a digital fog.

The AS-400 is amazingly quiet when connected via Airtunes/AirStream, with the quietest passages of music unadulterated. The WiFi signal of the privately created network between the AS-400 and my Mac Mini was never interrupted, flawless in operation for the duration of the review period.  Those using Apple devices can stream via AirPlay. Input switching remains muted and is as smooth in operation as the volume control mentioned at the beginning of the review.  I was surprised, however, that the AS-400 does run somewhat warm to the touch, despite its Class-D design.

Standard duties

Using the AS-400 as a traditional integrated amplifier, connecting a transport and and DAC to it’s analog inputs proves that this is a serious, stand alone amp. Delivering tons of clean power to the Opera speakers, with excellent bass control, the finer points of transparency and resolution are well on par with other integrateds I’ve sampled in the AS-400s price range – and they don’t have an on board streamer.

A side by side comparison of tracks streamed wirelessly over AirStream to ones played back via my Musical Fidelity M1CDT transport and Bryston BDA-1 DAC gives the nod to the MF/Bryston combination, but this is probably more of a shortcoming to using iTunes.

The Ethernet jack allows for streaming of files with other premium playback software brands. Additional software for your computer would be required as well. However, I don’t think many will opt for this option. The elegance of the iTunes/AirStream interface is tough to beat. Plus, there are much cheaper solutions for wired playback like the Squeezebox Touch.

An excellent combination

Back in full force in North America after a few years of minimal activity, Micromega proves they have a full product line that is both cutting edge in regard to technology and visually attractive.

The AS-400 is a full function integrated amplifier, iTunes streamer, and wireless DAC making for a very impressive one box solution that does not compromise performance for convenience. The hassle free setup and operation clearly makes this the perfect component for those who want to set it, forget it, and just enjoy their music collection.

The AS-400 is not perfect, but its shortcomings are minor.  The major limitation is Apple’s AirPlay, which limits resolution to 44.1 khz, 16 bit files. So no higher resolution downloads can be heard in their native sampling rate and bit depth, as they will be down sampled. While three analog inputs might not be enough for a few users, but considering the convenience orientation, it should not be an issue.  The remote is well laid out, but feels a bit lightweight for a $5,000 component.  In a primarily streaming environment, an iDevice app or Android app will probably be used by most, if not all owners. But the true beauty of the AS-400 is that setting and using it requires virtually zero expertise in networking or computers.

The AS-400 has multiple strengths: It’s clean, authoritative, and dynamic sound will easily drive most speakers and its bass articulation is a particular strength, which is typical of Class D designs.  The build quality is impressive, and the pride of ownership factor very high. If you are an audiophile seeking to simplify your setup, yet still have analog sources and use iTunes to catalog your digital music files, the AS-400 demands a close look.

Additional Listening

As Andre is a “digital only” guy, (And after chasing the analog rabbit for some time I can’t say I blame him.) I ran the AS-400 through its paces with a Rega RP6 turntable with Rega’s Exact MM cartridge mounted.  Keeping in step with what one might spend on a turntable for a device like this, the RP6/Exact combination comes in just under $2,000.  And it works brilliantly with the AS-400, with a low noise floor and full-bodied sound.  The on board MM phonostage is easily the equal of the external models we’ve auditioned in the $300 – $500 range.

A number of other cool features make the AS-400 an even more versatile component.  Separate preamp and subwoofer outputs allow system expansion along with an RS-232 port.  Incorporating the AS-400 into a system with both the Dynaudio Confidence C1 speakers and a pair of Magnepan 1.7s, proved that it’s robust amplifier drives both of these relatively inefficient speakers with ease.  And thanks to that subwoofer output, a number of powered subwoofers on hand from MartinLogan and JL Audio were easily incorporated into the system.

Headphone maniacs will still opt for a higher performance headphone amplifier solution, but occasional headphone listeners will enjoy the convenience offered here – combining streaming and controlling things via your wireless device of choice and lounging in your favorite comfy chair. Both my modded Grado SR-60i phones and the latest offering from Focal made an excellent match with the AS-400.  Even my notoriously tough to drive AKG 701 phones worked well, having sufficient dynamics.

This is the component I will be suggesting to my non – hifi friends when they invariably say, “I just want great sound, I don’t want to futz with an elaborate system like yours.  What should I buy?”  Considering how much is under the hood, and the fact that you won’t have to buy a gaggle of cables and power cords, I’m happy to give the Micromega AS-400 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Micromega AS-400

MSRP: $4,595, without Airstream as the AI-400: $3,595

Manufacturer contact:    (Manufacturer site)  (North American distribution)

Associated Equipment:

Loudspeaker: Opera Seconda

Cables: Transparent MM2 Super, Stager Silver Solids, Transparent PowerLink

DAC: Bryston BDA-1

Streamer: Logitech Squeezebox Touch

Transport: Musical Fidelity M1-CDT

Computer: Mac Mini running Snow Leopard & iTunes 10