Issue 82


Old School:

Conrad-Johnson MV 60SE Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay


Gold Note’s Vasari Gold Phono Cartridge
By Jeff Dorgay

Journeyman Audiophile:

G-Lab Block Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

TONE Style

WINO: Malbec

Panono 360 degree camera

Epson Home Projector

ChargeTech Classic Laptop Charger

Dyson V6 Vacuum

Art Of Jay Ward

Anker Lighting Cable

New Wave Ornaments

John Varvatos Morrison Sharpe Boots


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

Jazz & Blues: John Abercrombie, Tania Chen and More!
By Kevin Whitehead and Jim Macnie

Audiophile Pressings: Kruder & Dorfmeister, Run DMC and more!

Gear Previews

Sonus faber Venere S Speakers

Esoteric F-07 Integrated Amplifier

Conrad – Johnson TEA1S2 Phonostage


Viola Labs Sonata Preamp
By Greg Petan

Focal Sopra no.3 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

McIntosh MB50 Streamer
By Greg Petan

Technics SL-1200G Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Audio Physic Tempo plus Speakers
By Rob Johnson

MartinLogan Expression ESL13A Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Affordable, High Performance Power Conditioning!

A lot of power products have come through the door here over the years, and most of them have been escorted right out the door quickly. Way too many power conditioners shave transient edges off with the noise, unable to differentiate, or they get wacky with the tonal balance, or both.

Most of the few truly exceptional power conditioners I’ve had the pleasure of using are damn expensive and really heavy. As was my experience with the Running Springs and IsoTek products that I love and used for a number of years (and still do) the real benefit of their technology didn’t happen until you purchased their biggest, and baddest model with major current capacity. This is all awesome if you are plugging in a pair of big power amplifiers or a major system, but what if you have a small system, or just want to clean up a solitary component?

With more turntables and phono preamplifiers arriving for review, the need for more outlets constantly arises. Call me wacky, suspicious, or old fashioned, (just don’t call me Shirley) but I like to keep low level analog components and digital components on separate AC power circuits, so I run my linestage, and DAC on one circuit, and the two phonostages, along with all the turntables on separate 15 amp circuits. I don’t know, I sleep better at night. However, with analog, you can always do better, get more resolution, and drop the noise floor further, so the quest for better power conditioning continues.

The Equi-Core 300, from Core Power Technologies was put to an immediate trial by fire, with new phonostages from Audio Research, McIntosh and Conrad-Johnson at the ready. The 300 in the name represents the maximum number of watts that said conditioner can handle, so this means preamp, DAC or maybe a low powered SET. CPT takes an interesting approach, hardwiring their own power cords into each end of the Equi=Core 300. So much for the power cord argument, you take what they give you; fortunately, it works fantastic. $799 buys you 2.5 feet, $849 gets you 5.5 feet, and the $899 model arrives with 8.5 feet of power cord. The review sample was a 5.5 foot model, and the nly complaint is that the longer model would have provided more flexibility. Unless your component is directly in front of an outlet, consider the 8.5 foot model. For a $100 increase over the best model, the extra length will probably serve you better in the long run.

Minutiae aside, this $849 power conditioner is outstanding. It does its job perfectly and quietly, without fuss. Many internet pundits like to wax poetic about how the heavens part with so and so’s power products. Good for them. The Equi=Core 300 is like a great physician – it does no harm. This is a deceptively simple task, so don’t take it lightly.

Paragraphs could be written describing various musical passages that chances are you either haven’t heard, or don’t want to hear again, so I’ll cut to the chase. Plugging the Equi=Core 300 the  Audio Research REF 3 Phono, Conrad-Johnson TEA1 s2 and McIntosh MP1100 phonostages delivered the same result. The noise floor dropped significantly, and these are all very quiet phonostages to begin with, causing an increase in dynamics. Everything sounds much more lively with the Equi=Core 300 in place. Nothing was changed tonally, and that’s a great thing for this reviewer. Everything just got quieter and cleaner sounding. Removing the unit after a  few hours of concentrated listening made me clamor to reinstall it.

Similar results were achieved with the other preamplifiers on hand for evaluation, and if you know your combined output is pretty close to 300 watts, I’d suggest a high quality power strip from Naim, Wireworld or IsoTek to make for a multiple outlet power distribution system. WireWorld and IsoTek provide excellent, reasonably priced products for this task, and total cost for conditioner and power strip still comes in way below what you’d expect to spend on a premium power cord. Another fantastic transformation was the already fantastic Nagra 300p tube amplifier. While Nagra does not list a spec for power consumed, it only produces 20 watts per channel, so it was worth investigating.

Again, the Equi=Core 300 comes through brilliantly, so digging out an old pair of lovely sounding but notoriously noisy Bottlehead 2A3 SET’s make for an incredible experience via this little power conditioner. I would suggest the Equi=Core 300 to anyone with an SET amplifier. Get two if you need one for each channel. You won’t be sorry. The beguiling nature of the SET really comes through with a dropped noise floor and the Bottleheads sound more like Wavac amps with the addition of the Equi=Core 300.

The Equi=Core 300 does an equally good job with solid-state gear, provided you stay within the load requirements. Though it probably defeats the compact purpose, our Naim MuSo QB and B&W Zeppelin responded incredibly well to some line conditioning and their class D amplifiers sounded way less grainy, treated to clean power. A few pieces of vintage gear as well as a couple of DACs on hand also proved highly compatible with the Equi=Core 300 too. Oddly enough, and we’ve had the same results with every great line conditioner we’ve used, the effect of clean power always seems to be slightly more apparent with tube gear than solid state.

The Equi=Core 300 power conditioner is one of the most unobtrusive power conditioners I’ve had the pleasure to use – at any price. I bought the review sample, and will probably buy another. It’s that good. We have a review in the works of one of their larger models, so we’ll keep you posted. For inquiring minds that need to know, these are designed and hand built in CPT’s Colorado factory and the pride of assembly shows. The Equi=Core 300 is equally well executed visually as it is electronically.

It would be a crime not to give this little box one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017. You need to hear (or perhaps more precisely, not hear) what it can do for your hifi system. In an age where power cords cost more than used BMW’s, this is a refreshing approach indeed.

The Equi=Core 300 Power Conditioner

$799-$899 (depending on length of power cord)

Pass HPA-1 Headphone Amplifier

Listening to Thomas Dolby’s “Ability to Swing,” the Acoustats in my living room have dramatically increased their ability to swing in every way: these vintage ESLs known for their somewhat loose and flabby bass now stand up and deliver Dolby’s snappy synth bass lines with authority.

The low level resolution that this preamplifier brings forth unearths minute details normally only heard on the TONEAudio reference system costing almost a hundred times more; all three dimensions of the sound field painted now expanded to the point of being psychedelic. In 35 years of listening to the Acoustats, they’ve never sounded this exciting. The slow sax fade in on Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” becomes conscious so deliciously, so delicately, as the accompanying instruments fold into the mix, it’s creepy the way these vintage ESLs wrap you up in sound.

But this isn’t Pass’ $38,000 Xs preamplifier; it’s their new HPA-1 headphone amplifier. This thing sounds so damn good twenty minutes out of the box, the thought of plugging a pair of headphones in is frightening, fearing my head will either melt or serious flashbacks will be triggered. So for the next few days, it merely does duty as the anchor of a modest 2-channel system, logging some hours on the listening clock. Before you start griping about the unobtainable price, the HPA-1 retails for $3,500 – hardly unobtainable at all.

Sheer genius

Wile E. Coyote lists himself as “super genius” on his business card, but I can’t think of guys more deserving of this title than Nelson Pass and his crew at Pass Labs. I’ve been buying his designs since his days at Threshold circa 1980, and I’ve never heard one I didn’t love. Not like. Love. Personal bias, maybe, but I keep trying everything else, finding plenty of lovely things, but when I come back to a Pass product, it just feels––or should I say sounds––perfect. So in case you haven’t been reading my reviews for years now, I confess my personal bias here, openly.

The HPA-1 is the brainstorm of the newest addition to the Pass team, Jam Somasundram. Speaking with him on the phone is highly enjoyable and he makes it a point to tell me that he “designed the HPA-1 as a linestage first,” giving it the necessary oomph to drive a power amplifier, so that driving headphones would be no problem. A man of major understatement, this thing is fantastic.

Even if you aren’t a headphone enthusiast, but have been shopping for a linestage in the $15,000 range, consider the HPA-1. (Remember, it’s only $3,500…) If you have a minimalist, yet high performance system and can live with two single-ended inputs and a lone single-ended output to your power amplifier, get your hands on an HPA-1 and spend the rest of the money on your system.

Pairing the HPA-1 with everything in the studio and at home from bare-bones vintage amplifiers up to the Pass Xs300 monoblocks used as the anchor to our main system is a treat. Comparing it to a number of other preamplifiers in the $5,000–$10,000 range, the Pass holds its own or outperforms them in terms of quietness, dynamic range and tonality. Once powered up for a few days, and played for about 100 hours, it opens up further, exhibiting a level of refinement you would expect from a $10k preamplifier. Remember, only two inputs, no remote and one set of outputs. But purely from a sonic standpoint, it is stellar.

From a visual standpoint, it looks like an Xs Pre put in a shrink machine. Its diminutive size is less than half of a standard component, making it great for a compact, yet high performance system, or the perfect desktop headphone amplifier.

Oh yeah, it’s a great headphone amplifier

Pass keeps the minimalist thing going here too. With only a single ¼-inch jack on the front panel, they haven’t addressed the balanced thing, or multiple outputs, merely concentrating on the one way of connecting that most headphones offer. Forget about that; this thing sounds awesome.

The Pass press release mentions that it will easily drive planar phones, and this is instantly confirmed with a quick test drive of HiFiMan, Audeze, and Oppo phones. Even the notoriously tough-to-drive AKG phones pose no threat to the HPA-1.

For those who haven’t had the Pass experience, Nelson Pass has said on more than one occasion, he “likes the sound of tubes, without the hassle,” that is, replacing tubes and the occasional catastrophic failure that can accompany high voltage and high heat. The HPA-1 sounds just like the current crop of Xs gear: refined, dynamic and quiet, with a tonal balance a few molecules to the warm side of neutral. Never a bad thing with today’s current crop of headphones, especially the top of the line Sennheiser phones.

After running through a wide gamut of phones to confirm no rocks in the road, most serious listening was done with the Audeze LCD-2s (current version) and the OPPO PM-1s. While this is a very well-balanced amplifier, its strongest suit is the sheer dynamic range it offers. Much like the Xs300 monoblocks we use daily, this extra dynamic range and grip helps whatever headphones you might have, fully controlling their diaphragm, resulting in quite possibly the most wonderful experience you will have with your current phones. Even my late ’70s vintage Koss Pro4aa’s took on new life with the HPA-1 driving them.

If you’ve ever been in a hifi show room, or trade show where the speaker manufacturer uses a massive power amplifier to drive a small pair of speakers with great result, you know what I’m talking about. It also gives whatever phones you are listening to extra oomph in the bass department. Favorite EDM tracks now really feel weighty, especially with the Audeze phones.

As you might expect, the stereo image produced by this amplifier on a premium pair of headphones is big, bold and exciting. A couple of times I caught myself getting up out of the chair, ready to walk away, thinking that I didn’t even have headphones on.

A $3,500 headphone amp with free preamp or vice versa?

Rather than bore you with audiophile cliché after cliché, let’s break it down. The Pass HPA-1 is on the top tier of the world’s finest headphone amplifiers, regardless of cost, end of story. If you can live with the single-ended functionality and a single output, you’ll have a tough time getting better sound anywhere. It is an expensive headphone amplifier, but delivers the goods. If you are only looking for a headphone amplifier, this is the top of the heap.

As the control center of a minimalist hifi system, it offers performance far beyond what you’d expect to get from a $3,500 linestage, and it has a world-class headphone amplifier thrown in for free. Again, if the topology fits your needs, even the most crazed audiophile could live the rest of their days with the HPA-1. It’s that good. Even if you never plug a pair of phones into the front panel and merely use it as a preamplifier, this is one of the best values in high-end audio today. And swing it does.

The Pass HPA-1


Issue 78


Old School:

Recapping the HH Scott 357

By Erik Owen


A Mini Miracle From Totem Audio

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile:

Wharfedale Diamond 250  Loudspeakers

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Quad PA-One Headphone Amplifier and Audioengine HD6 Speakers

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Anker SoundCore Bluetooth Speaker

Bald Eagle Skull Shaver

Eunique Jean’ster and Ride’ster Jeans

DJ Pillows

Hot Wheels Yellow Submarine

Muss Cobblestone

StarTrek Communicator Net Phone


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

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

Gear Previews

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


Audio Classics 9b Amplifier
By Richard H. Mak

System Audio Pandion 30 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad Johnson CA 150SE
By Jeff Zaret

Torus AVR 15 Plus Isolation Transformer
By Rob Johnson

Pass Labs XA30.8 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

AudioQuest SLiP 14/2 Speaker Cable

There are precious few more inflammatory subjects in the world of audio than cables. Reviewing the expensive stuff is the quickest way to a fiery death, at least figuratively and the biggest dilemma is that some of the premium cable is brilliant, while some of it is truly snake oil. Even the best cable won’t transform a component into something it’s not, but it will let more of what it’s capable through. What’s an audiophile to do?

However, the handful of real cable manufacturers make great stuff at all price points and AudioQuest is a perfect example of applying what they know at a price everyone can afford. AudioQuest’s Stephen Mejias tells us that their SLiP 14/2 cable uses their Semi-Solid Concentric Packed long grain copper conductors in PVC jackets, and while AQ is known for their solid conductor cable, this provides a high performance, cost effective and flexible alternative to typical stranded cable.

Bottom line, it’s a great speaker cable for those new to the audiophile world, or anyone wanting to wring a little more performance out of that vintage amplifier without breaking the bank.

Coffman Labs G1-A Preamplifier

With the renaissance that vacuum tubes have been undergoing for the last decade or so, it’s more challenging than ever to create a tube preamp that stands out from the pack.

So when engineer, musician, physicist and Portland local Damon Coffman told me he designed a new preamp that’s “amazing,” I was a bit skeptical.  But when I saw Coffman’s creation, the G-1A, upon a recent trip to local gear shop Echo Audio, it was like catnip.  The unique casework caught my eye instantly, where fledgling manufacturers usually fall short—think steampunk meets art deco, fused with some mid-century modern.  The shop’s wry owner, Kurt Doslu, who is usually the one curbing my enthusiasm, showed me the nifty little preamp.

“Kurt, what’s this?” I asked. “Oh, it’s this new preamp that we’re going to be distributing,” he replied. “It’s pretty good, want to take it home and give it a listen?”  And so the adventure began.

The G-1A has an MSRP of $5,495 and, at present, is only available through Echo Audio in Portland.  There will be a total production run of just 500 units and the first 25 have already been pre-sold—impressive for a new product.

A two-box design, with an outboard, tube-rectified power supply, the G-1A is a full-function preamplifier.  It has a phonostage, with moving-coil (via step up transformer) and moving-magnet inputs and a headphone amplifier built in, which is a lot of capability for that price point.  The G-1A features a single-ended design throughout, with premium RCA connectors for the four high-level inputs and two phono inputs, along with two fixed high-level outputs and a tape out, which makes life easier for this tape enthusiast.

Circuit Basics

The G-1A uses six vacuum tubes in the main circuit: two 12AX7s, two 12AU7s and two 5687s, with a 5AR4 in the rectifier position.  The preamp  ships with standard-issue, current-day production tubes, leaving things wide open for tube rolling—but the G-1A was so enjoyable as delivered, I’ll leave tube rolling for a future blog post.

Coffman says that much of the impetus for the design of the G-1A came from revisiting classic tube designs from the 1920s, when “the original concepts in tube audio” were born.  As a result, his preamplifier is a masterpiece of simplicity, even down to the number of screws holding its case together.  Inside, we see a mix of new and classic parts.  Coffman sourced a number of oil and paper capacitors (“NOS KGB items”) and an input selector switch from the aerospace industry.  He also went so far as to hand-select and measure every single component for sound quality and durability.  Yet, even with this bespoke approach, Coffman’s training in the medical-instrumentation field drove him to streamline the manufacturing approach to assure consistency from unit to unit.

A concert violinist with a master’s degree in physics, Coffman made his mark in the medical electronics industry by producing digital stethoscopes.  A hi-fi guy since his early teens, he admits that building this preamplifier was, in many ways, even tougher than building his stethoscopes.  And most importantly, Coffman is a music guy through and through; his wife, daughter and parents are also musicians. So he is constantly asking himself if the sound is natural.  With the G-1A, a result of two years and countless prototypes, Coffman has finally answered that burning question in the affirmative.

Stunning Musicality

Wanda Jackson’s 2011 release The Party Ain’t Over is a dense recording and, as the first album on my long listening list, established that the G-1A has a timbral clarity that is unmistakable.  The upright bass at the beginning of “Rum and Coca Cola” has a loose, resonant, almost unturned quality such that you can actually hear the bass rattle—and the G-1A brings all this detail front and center, capturing every bit of texture available.

Zooming through some audiophile standards proves equally rewarding.  Listening to the Doors and the Grateful Dead in 24/96 was a spectacular experience with this preamp.  The soundstage that the G-1A presents is enveloping, dishing up the magic you usually have to spend five figures to achieve.  This preamplifier produces a stereo image that extends well beyond speaker boundaries on all axis—of course, the better the source material, the better the result.

The true triumph of the G-1A is its effortless reproduction of acoustic instruments.  Acoustic playback is a must considering Coffman’s background.  The tonal accuracy of piano, violin and drums must be experienced to be believed.   The gentle tap of Phil Collins’ drumstick on the snare frame in the title track of Brand X’s album Unorthodox Behaviour was scarily real. That extra dollop of texture the G-1A provides seems to come from nowhere and yet still makes itself known.

The sparse drumming and percussion in this record, with its almost Zappa-like triangle taps and bells at the far corners of the soundstage, show off the immediacy that the G-1A delivers.  No matter how complex the musical passage, there’s always enough headroom to accommodate another instrument in the mix.  This level of dynamic competence at both ends of the scale is rarely found without spending a lot more money.

Not Terribly Tubey

While you won’t mistake the G-1A for a solid-state preamplifier, much like my Audio Research REF5 SE, the Coffman preamp is highly accurate, with that extra bit of airiness suggesting vacuum tubes under the hood (or, in this case, poking out of the top of the hood)—and nothing more.  Where a few of my favorite tube preamplifiers of old injected their share of warmth and often coloration, the G-1A plays it clean all the way.  It is worth noting, however, that this one really needs a good hour to warm up.  At initial power-up, it does sound a bit thinner than some of the other tube preamplifiers we’ve experienced.  But to complement the highly resolving nature of the G-1A, it is equally well represented in the lowest octave.

Because the G-1A offers such a great balance, I did not spend any time tolling tubes in search of a different “tuning.”  I’m sure it would be fun to swap the phonostage tubes, because the 12AX7 allows so many different variations on the theme, but we’ll leave that for another day.  Plus, the tall, spun-aluminum towers that ensconce each of the tubes do not make for easy tube swaps, and perhaps it’s for the best.

At this point, we could call the G-1A a “best buy” without the phonostage and headphone amplifier.  As both of these segments practically warrant full reviews on their own, I will go into greater depth on our Analogaholic and Macro sites.

Full Function Phono and Phones

The G-1A includes inputs for MM and MC cartridges.  While everything in the preamp is so carefully thought out, this vinyl junkie would love to see that as a function addressable from the front panel.  Coffman does thoughtfully include a loading switch for the MM input, giving 47K, 70K and 90K ohms, allowing most of my favorite cartridges to shine.  The Shure and some of the Ortofon MM range have a much more open sound when loaded to 70k than at 47k, so this is a nice touch.

The phonostage is excellent, easily on par with anything I’ve heard in the $2,500 range, including the outstanding Manley Chinook, and the G-1A is head and shoulders above the EAR 834P, which is fairly colored in comparison.  Most impressive is the sheer dynamic drive that the G-1A provides, with the same tonality as the linestage.

Soundstage width and depth are enormous, making the freshly rebuilt Quad 57s in my second listening sound like a pair of stacked Quads.  Spinning the recent MoFi remaster of Dead Can Dance’s Into The Labyrinth, the level of detail revealed was no less than stunning.  With a diverse combination of acoustic and electronic elements, featuring male and female vocals, this record gives a quick and accurate read on a component’s spatial abilities.

Sampling a wide range of cartridges, including the Denon DL-103R (and the Zu Audio variation), Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Ortofon SPU and Clearaudio da Vinci all proved excellent matches with the G-1A.  Unfortunately, the Lyra family of cartridges was not as exciting.  The Atlas, Titan i and Kleos all offered the same result: slightly slow and rolled off, which is likely the result of an obvious impedance mismatch.  There are still a few more on the audition list, so stay tuned for a follow-up on the Analogaholic site.

As this was the first sample from the production line, the headphone stage was not complete at this time, so for now we are concentrating on linestage and phono performance.  A full review of the G-1A’s headphone stage will occur on our website very soon as a follow-up review.

The lack of a remote control proved not to be an issue, especially when moving the G-1A into room two, where the listening chair is directly in front of the main rack, so volume adjustment is easily handled.  Coffman assured me that the output stage of this preamplifier would drive “anything” and, after mixing it up with about eight different power amplifiers and driving 20-foot interconnects, I concur.  Driving a few of my test power amplifiers with one-meter and seven-meter lengths of ALO Audio’s newest premium interconnects reveals no change in sound quality or high-frequency rolloff.

So What Makes This Thing Awesome?

The Coffman G-1A has a unique and striking look and it’s built by a man with a plan.  Some might be surprised by the $5,495 price, but consider this: In the best old-school tradition, the G-1A includes an onboard phonostage (MM and MC) and an onboard headphone amplifier—remember when you could buy a full-function preamplifier with all of this under the hood?

With vinyl still growing in popularity and headphones a full-fledged sub-genre of audio, a preamplifier incorporating these two elements is exciting.  Considering that you won’t have to purchase an outboard phonostage, headphone amplifier or a pair of power cords, the G-1A is fantastic if you value sound quality above everything else. The design is so pure it even lacks a remote control.

Judged strictly as a linestage for $5,495, the Coffman G-1A is at the top of its class.  The fact that it includes an excellent phonostage and headphone amplifier makes it the bargain of the year.  All of the tubes are easily found and those predisposed to tube rolling can tune and tweak until Election Day.   Coffman has plans to expand the lineup, possibly making the phonostage and linestage separate boxes. When I asked him if there might be a companion power amplifier in the works, he smiled that evasive smile that usually means “yes, but I don’t want to talk about it now.”

So with that in mind, we award the Coffman Labs G-1A one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012 and look forward to the company’s future offerings.  Coffman is certainly off to a brilliant start.  I have purchased the review sample, so that it can become an anchor component in room two, and so that we can do a long-term report when a year has passed.

The Coffman Labs G-1A Preamplifier

MSRP: $5,495


Analog Source               AVID Volvere SP turntable/SME V, various cartridges

Digital Source                dCS Paganini stack, Sooloos Control 15, Aurender C10

Power Amplifier             Conrad Johnson MV-50C1

Speakers                       Quad 57

Cable                            ALO Audio, Cardas

Power                           Audience AR-6TS

The Latest Flagship Components From Cambridge Audio

No matter what you own, it’s usually unnerving when a “new model” hits the market.

Especially so with hifi gear. And certainly if you just bought the previous model just before the newest, latest, greatest arrives. I feel your pain.

The most agonizing questions are “Should I trade up?” “Immediately?” “Is what I own now rubbish?” “Is the new thing really better?” Maybe, not necessarily, definitely not, and yes.  As a current Cambridge owner, I’m always impressed with the effortless way their products work.  They are logically designed from an electrical and ergonomic standpoint; while the manuals are well written, you can turn these components on and start listening without reading them.  Best of all, both components share the same remote, allowing those of us a bit more on the OCD side the opportunity to keep one tucked away, looking pristine.

I’m a sucker for understatement, and Cambridge’s US importer, Daniel Jacques is a smart guy.  When discussing the review of the new CD player and integrated, as he was telling me about the new features, decided it would be an excellent idea to send me the past models so I could directly compare them.  “You’ll see for yourself the progress we’ve made on the new units, even though they look almost the same.” He said with a smile. Other than a few more buttons on the CD player, you’d never know the difference.  Not that I condone this kind of behavior, but these are stealthy enough to sneak right in without anyone knowing the wiser. If you get caught, this review will self-destruct.

An audio omen

During the photo shoot, it appears our Canadian friends have given us a gift. Mickey Hart’s At The Edge is in the CD tray of the 851C. Very familiar with this disc, why not start the comparison right here?  Both pairs of Cambridge components were plugged in and powered up for 24 hours before serious listening began.  The third track, “Slow Sailing,” features a thunderous bass line that begins a bit loose, so amplifiers with no grip go to pieces here.  The new amplifier jumped right out in front in a major way, driving the German Physiks Unlimited mk.II speakers (also in for review), with more weight, more grip and more speed in the bass region than the 840A.  This is a gun demo disc to play really loud if you have the juice, because it sounds so tribal, with the drums having a big, bold sound.  Veteran drummer Hart blends in a myriad of exotic percussion instruments, filling the soundstage in all three directions.

The German Physiks speakers are a great place to start, because the proprietary DDD driver is fast, clean and accurate, much like an ESL.  The bottom line is garbage in/garbage out, and most modestly priced amplifiers can’t cut the mustard with these speakers.  With the $30k Burmester 911 and $65k Octave Jubilee monoblocks now taking a back seat, my informal listening associates were all duly impressed with the amount of finesse the 851A brings to the table.  Even more impressive for the MSRP of $1,849, up from the $1,495 commanded by the 840A it replaces)

Power to drive

Almost all listening was done with the German Physiks Unlimited IIs, a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 IIs, the new KEF LS50s and my recently restored Acoustat 1+1s – notoriously tough to drive.  Even with the Acoustats, the 851A breezes through.  It’s no surprise that the two most demanding speakers in the group (the 1+1s and the Unlimiteds) reveal the upgrades to Cambridge’s XD amplifier circuit and increased power supply capacity to the fullest.

Don’t be confused by the moniker:  XD does not denote a class D amplifier under the hood of the 851A. XD refers to “Crossover Displacement,” the way that Cambridge has finely tuned the crossover point of their amplifiers transitioning from Class A at low power to AB at higher power.  The 851A also takes advantage of a massive toroidal power transformer – you’ll notice the weight as you unpack it.

The 840A and 851A both claim a power output of 120 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load and 200 watts per channel into a 4-ohm load – enough for all but the most inefficient speakers.  Either will drive a pair of Magnepan 1.7s to modest level with decent grip, but the newer amplifier does a better job, where the 840A seems to struggle a bit.

This amplifier is well composed at all volumes, yet at modest volumes, where it stays more in Class-A bias, it’s easy to think you are listening to a much more expensive amplifier indeed.

The ins and outs

One of the 851As best features is its plethora of inputs and outputs.  There are five strictly RCA inputs, with input 1 and 2 having the option of balanced XLR or standard RCA inputs. And, for the true analogaholic, a tape monitor loop.  Those using a powered sub woofer or wishing to bi amp are also rewarded with a variable output. (RCA)  Cambridge has also thoughtfully supplied a standard RS-232 port, an extension for the IR remote and their own control bus, so that you can link an all-Cambridge system together.  Two sets of speaker outputs, switchable from the front panel make it easy to increase the flexibility of a system based on the 851A and those with stacked Advents.

Cambridge’s newest version of their “silicon gate” volume control tracks true and features precise volume control in small increments.  They also claim extremely accurate channel balance with this volume control.  Best of all, the front panel includes a bass and treble control.  Purists will freak, but music lovers will love them.  Just like the ones on my Cambridge 740A, they can be switched out when not in use, but work very well, providing only modest adjustment at the extreme ends of the audio spectrum.  These are especially good if you decide to use your 851A to anchor a high quality two-channel system for video playback as I do.

Headphone listeners will be pleased with the onboard headphone amp.  With a wide range of phones from the Grado 60i, all the way up to the LCD-2 (a range of about $100 – $1,000), the internal amp is on par with anything you’ll find externally for a couple hundred bucks.  Not a bad thing to include on the chassis. Those who haven’t partaken the pleasures of the head-fi world will find the 851A a great place to start your journey.

The front panel is well laid out and much like the Porsche 911; the control layout is similar from one generation to the next.  Those encountering the Cambridge marque for the first time will find the 851A and 851C well thought out, and not requiring the remote for most functions.  The large alpha numeric display is easy to read, and you can tailor the display to your inputs, so instead of reading “input 1” and “input 5,” they read “CD player,” “DAC,” or whatever you’d like to label them.

CD Player surprises

While the 840A and 851A have virtually identical specs, their companion disc players are more dramatically different.  They each upsample digital data from the digital inputs and CD drive to 24bit/382khz, the 851C goes further, with its new, ATP2 upsampling, which is said to further reduce jitter over the previous Q5 upsampling system implemented in the 840C.  In addition to a refinement of the prior system, ATP2 offers three distinct digital filter choices:  A Steep roll-off filter, A Linear Phase filter and a Minimum Phase filter, to optimize digital playback better towards your personal taste and software. The 851C has the same price jump ($1,499 to $1,849) I suggest experimenting with the different filter options, but be warned, it can make you a bit mad, trying to figure out which one is the best choice.

Much like the amplifier, the newer 851C offers more refinement, however here we found the major gains more in HF smoothness and low-level detail.  Reproducing acoustic instruments is a strong suit of the 840C, yet the 851C improves this aspect of digital reproduction significantly.  The opening drum rolls on the Pretenders “Private Life,” from their self-titled album have more attack and more immediacy, while the bells in the background linger and decay more delicately.  The oboe is also reproduced with more texture via the newer player, tracking through the Netherland Wind Ensemble’s Greatest Hits.

While quick A/B comparisons reveal the improvement in the new player quickly, perhaps the most dramatic difference happens after listening to one player for about an hour, then making a quick switch to the other.  The soundstage shrinks noticeably going from 851C to the 840C, and when going in the other direction, things definitely have more vitality and immediacy.

As both players can be used as a DAC, high-resolution files again shine brighter on the new model.  A sequence of female vocal tracks in 24/96 and 24/192 formats from Dusty Springfield, Carole King and Bjork all illuminate more resolution on tap.  Interestingly enough, the 851Cs ability to navigate Janis Joplin’s voice on Pearl is the most telling of the new players capability.  Much like a violin being butchered on a budget player, Joplin’s raspy voice translates with more body and ease on the 851C. Both players do a commendable job illustrating the difference between high res files and standard 16bit/44.1khz files, but the 851C makes it clearer.

Whether you consider it the most interesting change or the most useful, the 851C now offers a precise digital volume control and variable outputs.  Three sets of digital inputs, offering a choice of balanced AES/EBU, S/PDIF co-axial and Toslink optical as well as a separate USB input (with a switchable ground lift) makes the 851C the perfect hub for the music lover that has no interest in analog sources, this makes the 851C a killer value. Connect your favorite power amplifier and roll.  Its single ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs make it compatible with any amplifier.

We had excellent luck with tube and solid-state examples. The combination of the 851C and the new Prima Luna ProLogue Premium power amplifier with 40 watts per channel of tube power along with the KEF LS50s proves beguiling in a small room, albeit not as powerful as the companion 851A.  Either way, it’s nice to have the option.

For those not wanting a rack full of gear, the 851C had no problem driving a 6 meter length of XLR or RCA cables to a handful of power amplifiers we had on hand.  There were no issues with HF rolloff or output drive.  A simple menu click enables the variable output. And like the 851A, the inputs can be labeled via the remote.

Refinement is the word

If you currently own an 840A and 840C, you still possess some great gear, and depending on the speakers you’ve paired with this combo, you may not feel the urge to make the move to the next models.  However, those taking the plunge will not be disappointed, there is enough of a delta to rediscover your current music collection without guilt.  This is a great pair, offering high performance and enough power to drive almost any speaker with headroom to spare.

For those starting from scratch, the Cambridge Audio 851A and 851C deliver high performance, excellent functionality and understated good looks.  We call that an “exceptional value” and I am happy to award these two components our first Exceptional Value Awards of 2013.

The Cambridge Audio 851A integrated amplifier and 851C Disc Player/DAC/Digital Preamplifier

$1,849 ea. (mfr) (US importer) (Canadian importer)

SL-1200 Upgrades: Sound HiFi

Though I am not a huge fan of modded gear, I’ve always appreciated the ingenuity exhibited by the DIY side of the audio world.

Just like my other favorite hobby (automobiles), there is always plenty of room for the wrench turners to coexist with the check writers, and while they always like to banter about whose approach is more pure, the decision to mod is up to you.

If you are new to the modding game, keep in mind that a modded piece rarely has great resale value, because once you start tinkering with anything, there are only so many people who will want to purchase your version of nirvana.  So keep that in mind before you get out the Sawzall. In this case, if you perform the Sound HiFi mods with care, you could reverse the process and go back to a stock SL-1200, should you decide to sell it.

From the beginning

My journey in HiFi started with a Technics SL1200 about 35 years ago, yet I quickly got caught up in being a proper audiophile trading that table in for a belt-drive Rega Planar 3.  To be fair to the Rega, I still prefer the sound of a P3 to the sound of a stock Technics SL-1200, which I find rather dark and cloudy sounding overall.  Careful attention to detail when setting up an SL-1200 will wring every bit of resolution for which it is capable, but this is still not a ton.

The good news is that Technics has been building the SL-1200 for a long time and the core turntable mechanism (motor, base and platter) is robustly built.  The direct-drive mechanism has a lot of torque and the table has a very weighty presentation with a fair amount of bass detail despite its other shortcomings.  While a basic “audiophile approved” turntable can easily run a couple thousand dollars without a tonearm, you can still find a like – new SL-1200 on the secondary market for $400 -$500 (in the U.S. anyway), so this is an excellent platform for modification.  Think of the SL-1200 as the Volkswagen GTI of the turntable world.

I’ve investigated the KAB series of modifications for the SL-1200, and they have ultimately left me cold because I still feel that the stock SL-1200 arm is the weak link in the equation.  The full suite of KAB mods certainly improve the SL-1200, the minute I drop a record on a Rega P5, or a nice used Linn LP-12, I’m still not that interested in the Technics.

However, the rabid enthusiasm for the 1200 out in the world of internet forums has kept my interest piqued.  The Sound HiFi mods described here were brought to my attention by a good friend on the MartinLogan forum (an SME owner) who had just heard the modded table at a friend’s house with an SME 309 arm fitted.  “You need to get this mod in for review.  You won’t believe how great the SL-1200 sounds with this arm and a good cartridge.”

Dave Cawley of Sound HiFi ( has been running a HiFi shop with on-site repair facilities for a long time and is a true analog enthusiast.  During our phone conversation, he said, “Look, I sell AVID, SME and Clearaudio.  I’m not going to tell you my mod will turn an SL-1200 into an SME 20, but I do think you will find it very interesting.”  Should you live anywhere near Sound HiFi in the U.K., they can modify your 1200 for you if you are not so inclined.  Sound HiFi also still services and refurbishes the legendary Technics SP-10 broadcast turntable, which is enjoying a tremendous resurgence in the audiophile world.

Choices, choices

There are a few different options to this series of modifications.  The external power supply is about $450 at current exchange rates (£299), the arm board for an SME arm is £89.95 and they also offer a great mat for £89.95.  A series of upgraded feet and a clamp can also be purchased to take the SL-1200 to the limit of its performance envelope.

Our European readers may have an easier time of this, as the SME arms are not as expensive there as they are here.  However, there always seems to be a great deal on a used 309 that someone is trading to move up the ladder.  A 309 in excellent shape can usually be had for about $900, and I’ve seen them as low as $700.  The M2-09 is a less expensive arm, but in much shorter supply and I’ve actually seen them selling for more than a 309.

I prefer the mechanical robustness of the 309, and the stock SME tonearm cable isn’t bad either, though once you get done with all of this, you now will be able to easily hear the difference an upgraded tonearm cable will make.  Should you decide to take this even further, I highly suggest the Furutech AG-12 tonearm cable. It offers world-class performance, and I use it on my other two SME tonearms.

Some assembly required

The Sound HiFi kit is relatively easy to install, but it will require good basic soldering and mechanical skills.  If you have never done anything like this, I would not make this your first electronic project without the help of a friend possessing some skills.  The instructions that come with the Sound HiFi kit have a few holes in them, so we will be posting some additional tips and photos on our website to guide you a little better.

Granted, I’ve seen far worse, but being a visual person, I wouldn’t mind just a few more pictures to ease the process.

As with all electrical and mechanical projects, the key is to budget an hour or so of quiet time and give yourself room to spread out everything.  As you remove the bottom cover of the SL-1200, there are quite a few screws to keep track of.

All the parts required were included and the organization of the kit was very tidy.  I was taking my time and taking pictures along the way. Two hours later, I had a very nice looking SL-1200 with an SME 309 ready for setup and adjustment that looked as if it came that way from the factory.  This speaks volumes about the quality of the Sound HiFi modifications.

The Sumiko Blackbird that I had been using on the SME 309 fitted to my Raven Two is now only a headshell swap and quick readjust away.  Now you have the versatility of setup that the SME arm offers while retaining the removable headshells that made the stock SL-1200 desirable.

The sound – glorious!

Yes, you heard right; I’m gloating about the sound of an SL-1200.  I performed the modifications in two steps –  first the power supply and then the tonearm – so that I could evaluate each step’s improvement to the overall sound.  Thanks to removing that big transformer from under the platter and adding the more robust external power supply, the SL-1200 sounds more open and focused, even with the stock arm.  But when the SME arm was added, the table goes from capable to outstanding.

The more practical readers in the audience will note  that adding the external power supply, arm board and a decent used SME 309 to the mix, I’ve quadrupled the original price of the SL1200; wouldn’t I be better off just spending $2,000 on a proper turntable, in a box with a manufacturer’s warranty?

Well, yes, if you worry about that sort of thing. But no, if you want to push the boundaries of what you can achieve for an investment of $2,000 in a turntable.  I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a lot of turntables in the $2,000 – $3,000 range from Rega, VPI, Pro-Ject, Music Hall, etc., and for my money, this one is the one to beat.

Would I give up my Rega P9/RB 1000 or Raven TWO with SME 309 for this table?  No, it’s not that good, but it’s so damn good for $2,000, paired up with your favorite $900 cartridge, that you may not ever need to spend more money on a turntable unless you have a mega system.  This truly is a magic combination, being much more than the sum of its parts. Some find joy in customization, while others find joy in turnkey solutions.

The big-bucks tables still offer more resolution at the frequency extremes, with more fine detail throughout, and that’s what you pay the money for.  But balance is the key to a great HiFi system, and for the Journeyman Audiophile, a five-figure analog setup is a waste of money.

I noticed immediately that the wonderful bass presentation of the stock SL-1200 is still there and, if anything, improved.  The table now had plenty of weight and  a high degree of bass definition.  When listening to Charlie Haden’s Private Collection on Naim records, I could really enjoy all of the texture present in his acoustic-bass playing. The one-note bass feel of the stock table now gone.   My favorite early Genesis records now sound  more like what I’m used to on my reference tables, and even LL Cool J sounded a lot better, with more bass slam and control.

I was not ready for the amount of delicacy and resolution through the midrange and high frequencies offered by the modded SL-1200.  The stock table is a clunker with acoustic music or densely recorded rock records; things become two dimensional lacking any kind of proper depth.  Honestly, I’d prefer a decent CD player to a stock SL-1200 any day.

With the Sound HiFi mods in place combined with the SME arm, serious analog magic is going on.  This is an analog setup you can be proud to own.  My usual group of audiophile buddies teased me to no end when they saw a Technics table sitting on the rack next to my Raven TWO and Spiral Groove SG-2, but the minute I put a record on, everybody shut up.

Listening to the first track on Lindsey Buckingham’s current release, Gift of Screws, the acoustic guitar barely makes it to the outer edges of the speakers with the stock table.  The Sound HiFi version extends the soundstage about three feet past the speaker boundaries, with a healthy measure of height thrown in.  Everything has a lot more body and my LP’s sound great again, not flat and lifeless as they did on the stock SL-1200.

Vocals take on a realistic character, now clearly hearing the subtle details that make good analog such a treat, with a very expansive soundstage no matter what I was listening to.  Combined with my ARC PH3SE phono stage, the SL-1200 and Sumiko Blackbird make an excellent showing. Stepping up to the Nagra VPS/VFS, even more detail is present.

Sure, pairing this table up with a $4,000 cartridge and an $8,000 phono preamp is a bit overkill, but the Sound HiFi SL-1200 makes a good showing.  Playing more in its league, with the Shelter 501, Sumiko Blackbird, Lyra Dorian, etc., and  a Lehman Black Cube SE, Dynavector P-75 mk.2 or the like, I dare you to find more pleasing analog playback for this kind of money.

Get out your credit card and call Dave

Again, if the idea of a project like this is not for you, the cost of shipping an SL-1200 to the U.K. and paying to have these bits installed may outweigh the cost of the end result.  Those of you who are handy and up to the challenge of creating something wonderful for a reasonable expenditure should look no further.  I can’t think of a more musically revealing turntable for this kind of money and I’ve heard most of them.

When assembling a system in the $10k range, every place you can save $500 is a big plus and money that can be invested in more performance elsewhere or perhaps for some room treatments or even more music!  The Sound HiFi modded Technics SL-1200 gets my highest recommendation, and you can plan on seeing it around here for a long time as my reference table at this price point.

NOTE:  This article was originally published in issue 22 of TONEAudio.  Dave Cawley has some even newer SL-1200 bits that we will be investigating soon.  This story is far from complete!


Preamplifier                Burmester 011

Phono Preamplifiers   Nagra VPS/VFS, Nagra BPS, ARC PH3SE

Power Amplifier         Burmester 911 mk.3

Speakers                      MartinLogan CLX w/JL Fathom F110 subwoofers (2)

Interconnects              Shunyata Aurora

Speaker Cables            Shunata Orion

REVIEW: The Clearaudio DaVinci MC Cartridge

Forget what you know about Clearaudio cartridges of old.

Since they brought out the new generation Goldfinger, Clearaudio has been going towards a more-balanced sound.   These days, their newfound expertise has trickled down to the $7,500 Titanium and the $5,500 DaVinci.  And like their top two cartridges, the DaVinci also has coils wound from 24kt. gold wire.

After living with the Advance for a few months, I purchased the review sample to round out my own arsenal of cartridges, which includes the Lyra Scale and Dynavector XV-1s. The DaVinci is a special cartridge, offering a high level of detail retrieval without crossing the line and sounding harsh, always a tough proposition.

This review started along with the Clearaudio Innovation turntable, mated with Clearaudio’s TT-2 linear track tone arm.  If you haven’t yet made a turntable choice, I’d highly suggest the whole system; the synergy is fantastic.  The DaVinci worked well on my Raga, SME and Triplanar arms, too, but it was tough to beat the all-Clearaudio system.

The DaVinci is part of Clearaudio’s new V2 series of MC cartridges, with improved magnet and generator assemblies as well as a new stylus profile that Clearaudio claims has one-fifth less mass than their previous design.  In the real world, the DaVinci is an excellent tracker.  One particular torture track that comes to mind is Joni Mitchell’s “Jericho” on the album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.  The last track on the side, we’re already headed for trouble; about half of the cartridges I’ve reviewed won’t get through Joni’s voice without distortion.  But the DaVinci handled it perfectly.

The price of admission

Let’s face it, there are a fair amount of people in the audience who haven’t spent $5,500 bucks on their whole system, so a cartridge at this price level is built for an exclusive clientele.  My main requirement for a cartridge in the $5,000 – $10,000 range is that it has to not only have a unique personality, but it needs to take you somewhere you can’t go with the lesser-priced cartridges.  For five BIG ones, you shouldn’t have to make any excuses, and the DaVinci doesn’t ask you to.

If you have an equally high-achieving turntable and phono stage, you will be rewarded with some of the most exciting analog playback money can buy.  When Musical Surroundings’ Garth Leerer dropped the TT-2 Clearaudio tonearm down on that first record, I was very impressed.  About a hundred hours later after some serious break in, I was blown away.

Opposing views on setup

When used on Clearaudios’ TT-2 linear track arm, you only need to dial in VTA and tracking force beacuse there are no other adjustments. With a linear track arm, there is NO tracking error, so you don’t need to argue with your buddies on the Internet about which set of  null points to use.  Set it and forget it.  As my review of the Innovation said, “The sound is super smooth, like analog tape.”

I also had excellent luck on my other table/tonearm combinations, with the virtues of the DaVinci always coming through.  At 2.8 grams, the DaVinci tracks a bit heavier than you may be accustomed to on some other cartridges.  Using Clearaudios own digital stylus force gauge, I ended up right at 2.8 grams for the best overall balance.
I also made it a point to try the DaVinci with a number of excellent phono preamplifiers,  all with great results.  The Naim Superline/Supercap was on hand, as well as the $20k Montana phono stage, the Manley Steelhead RC and my reference, the Nagra VPS with VFS base.  Final loading ended up between 400 and 500 ohms with all phono stages, and the DaVinci was so revealing, it made it easy to hear the differences between each of the four phono preamplifiers.

Personally, I liked the two tube phono stages the best, as the high resolution of the DaVinci mixed with a touch of tube warmth was a match made in heaven for my system.  While I was never put off by matching the DaVinci with the solid-state phono preamplifiers, there were times where there was so much resolution it was tough to process, but a few of my audiophile buddies were addicted to the extra resolution on tap.

In all but the most forward sounding systems, the DaVinci should be a winner.

Spacious and resolute

Clearaudio claims that their V2 cartridges have a 100db dynamic range that is “better than CD.”  While I don’t have any LP’s with a 100db range with which to verify this, I was immediately attracted to the punchy, fast presentation.  If pace and timing push your hot button, you will be amazed by the speed of the DaVinci. Unlike some so-called “audiophile” products that only shine with your best records, the DaVinci extracts every bit of information from the grooves on whatever records you are playing.  Of course, the flawless first-stamper pressings are going to wow you more, but you will be pleasantly surprised at how much more music you hear on some of your old favorites that you might have thought unworthy of a mega analog setup.  This alone makes the DaVinci worth its price tag.

The only drawback to having extra resolution on tap is that it will reveal the records in your collection that have not been thoroughly cleaned, but the benefit of good vinyl hygiene when using the DaVinci will be an analog presentation that is CD quiet.  It takes a little while to get used to that kind of silence, but once you do, it’s very exciting.  And it’s always fun to listen to your anti-vinyl friends claim “that can’t be a record!”  If you don’t have a good record-cleaning machine, I highly suggest one of the Clearaudio Matrix models that clean in both directions.  Combining clean surfaces with the incredible detail retrieval capabilities of the DaVinci, it just feels like you can hear into the record forever.  Listening to “Between My Head and the Sky” on Yoko Ono’s new Plastic Ono Band album, the cymbals hung in the air, while guitars popped in from all over the mix, with Yoko’s signature trippy, squeaky vocals front and center, and the overdubs of her voice way beyond my speaker boundaries.  When I switched to a few budget cartridges, everything lined up on the same plane.

The DaVinci really excels at front-to-back separation; it always has you wondering if you really do have a secret pair of surround speakers in your listening room.  This record led me to some of my wacky favorites from Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre and Mickey Hart, just to bask in the giant fishbowl of sound I was experiencing.

I always felt like I was watching a Hitchcock movie while listening with the DaVinci.  Hitchcock was a master of having quite a few layers of interest in his shots, with the main action center frame, but equally important things going on way off in the distance or in the lower corners of the frame.  This is the perspective my system takes on with this cartridge; there is something going on all over the soundfield.  It is very engaging  indeed.

Switching back to some straightforward rock, MoFi’s Santana was another incredible experience.  I’ve been listening to this record for about 35 years and it’s never sounded better. On the last track, “Soul Sacrifice,” when the bongos fade up over the drums, they sound somewhat blurry. But now they had their own distinct soundstage in the mix.  I didn’t even hear that while I listened to the master tap at the MoFi studio last year!

Perhaps a bit larger than life

Because the Clearaudio DaVinci reveals so much information, some may perceive it as having a “slightly larger than life” kind of sound, but I found it to be very exciting and I haven’t tired of it in the least.  If you’ve been craving the perfect fusion of dynamics and fine detail, the Clearaudio DaVinci is the cartridge for you.  Just be sure to get those records spotless if you want everything it can deliver.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Clearaudio DaVinci

MSRP:  $5,499



Turntables Clearaudio Innovation w/TT2 arm, Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar arm, TW Acustic Raven Two w/SME iV.Vi arm, Rega P9 w/RB1000 arm

Phono Preamplifiers Montana Olympia PX, Manley Steelhead RC, Naim Superline/Supercap, Nagra VPS/VFS

Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier Burmester 911mk. 3, McIntosh MC1.2KW, Moscode 402Au

Speakers Martin Logan CLX w/JL Audio F110 subs, Gamut S-7

Cable Shunyata Aurora Interconnects and Stratos SP Speaker cables

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Jaco power conditioners

Issue 50


995: Sounds that Won’t Break the Bank
Aperion Audio Veras Grand speakers
AudioEngine D2 Wireless DAC

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile

An Onkyo Trifecta
By Andre Marc

Old School:  The Quad ESL’s
By Ken Kessler

Macro: Sound for Small Spaces
Audio Electronics Nighthawk
By Michael Liang

Tone Style

SoundCast Outcast Portable Speaker System
By Ben Fong-Torres

The iPad Mini: Oh Baby!

The Shredder Cheese Grater

A Charlie Brown Christmas – In Green…

In The Groove

Sushi Staplers

Iggy Pop Bobblehead


Live Music: Giant Giant Sand In Portland
By John Darko

Current Releases:

Fresh Releases in the Pop/Rock World
By the TONE Staff

Audiophile Pressings

Miles Davis, Aerosmith and The Beatles


KEF R-300 Speakers

Magico S5 Speakers

Sonus faber Aida Speakers

From The Web:

Cambridge Audio Azur 851C CD Player

Decware ZP3 Phonostage

German Physiks Unlimited Mk. II Speakers

dCS Vivaldi Digital Playback System


PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium CD Player
By Jeff Dorgay

Furutech f-TP615 AC Power Filter/Distributor
and PowerFlux Power Cords
By Jeff Dorgay

Peachtree Audio novaPre and Peachtree 220
By Andre Marc

Exposure 3010S2 Monoblocks
By Jerold O’Brien

Dynaudio Confidence C1 II Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research REF 250 Power Amplifiers
By Jeff Dorgay


Red Wine Audio’s Ginevra LFP-V

When “Perfect Sound Forever” debuted in 1983 in the form of the CD, I doubt that anyone seriously imagined the LP would still be with us in 2011.

The compact disc immediately ignited an analog/digital debate among hardcore audiophiles, and while true believers on each side are still holding tight, it’s the CD, not the LP, whose future remains uncertain. No wonder many analog loving audiophiles continue to upgrade their turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and phono preamplifiers.

If you happen to be in that group, Red Wine Audio’s luscious new Ginevra LFP-V Edition Phono Preamplifier should be on your short list. It’s a fully discrete Class-A FET gain stage/buffered tube output, passive RIAA equalization network, and battery-powered design. And that makes the Ginevra the first tube design I’ve seen that doesn’t work off AC power. That said, it’s not all that tubey, and there’s no overt electronic signature. Indeed, the Ginevra’s sound is totally organic. It has substance and weight, so it sounds like live music.

Intriguing Design and Construction

Red Wine founder Vinnie Rossi favors the 6922 (E88CC) dual-triode vacuum tube, and uses it in most of his designs. If you like to experiment with “tube rolling,” feel free to try some 6DJ8/ECC88, 7308/E188CC, 7DJ8/PCC88, 6N23, 6H23, 6N11 or 6GM8 tubes. Since the Ginevra uses just one tube, it won’t break the bank to keep a few tubes on hand, allowing you to change the sonic flavor when the mood strikes.

Moving-magnet cartridge gain is spec’d at 40dB and loaded with 47k ohms. Moving coil gain, at 60dB, is moderate, so owners of really low-output coils may not have enough juice; Rossi recommends using a step-up transformer if you need more gain. Moving-coil loading options are 75, 82, 90, 100, 350, 500, 1k, and 10k ohms, settable via internal DIP switches, and load sockets for individual resistors are provided for owners that prefer custom loads. While separate connectors for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges are provided, the owner’s manual cautions against connecting both types of cartridges at the same time.

It should be noted that Red Wine doesn’t just pack the Ginevra with a bunch of “D” cells and call it a day. No, the preamp boasts state-of-the-art 25.6-volt “Lithium Iron Phosphate” (LFP) battery technology. These low-impedance battery packs are exclusively manufactured for Red Wine Audio and designed for long life. The battery pack includes a built-in, custom-designed cell management board that balances individual battery cells, both optimizing reliability and battery pack performance. The pack is also user-replaceable, and doesn’t require any soldering to install.

Best of all, the Ginevra completely operates “off-the-grid,” meaning the preamp is electrically decoupled when it runs off the battery supply. A full charge lasts approximately eight hours, but for all-night parties or background music, you can run the Ginevra off the AC power supply. The battery charges whenever you play the preamp with AC power and when you switch off the Ginevra.

The Ginevra’s nicely machined, anodized black front panel is the preamp’s most interesting design feature—it’s a very plain-looking black box. The unit measures a scant 12″ wide, 9″ deep, and 3.5″ high. Sans the separate battery charger, it weighs 8 pounds. Giving a determined nudge to the power button triggers an internal relay that disconnects the charger’s negative and positive AC feeds to the preamp. And the “piezo” switch, with a rated cycle life in the millions, is made in Israel with aircraft-grade aluminum.

Let the Listening Commence

I listened to the Ginevra with a few tubes: the standard JJ Electronic Russian 6922, which possess a sweet demeanor; a similar-sounding Holland-made Amperex 6DJ8; and a significantly more aggressive Sovtek 6922. A $225 EAT ECC88 tube that comes with an attached red anodized heat sink upped the resolution a notch or two over the others, but Rossi’s stock tube is very listenable.

With my VPI Classic turntable and van den Hul Frog low-output moving-coil cartridge at the ready, the Ginevra’s gain definitely proved lower than that of my Whest TWO phono preamp. Still, I never felt like I needed more gain. The Whest is no slouch, but it’s distinctly cooler-sounding and leaves a lot of music on the floor. The Ginevra is grainless, sweet, and beguiling—this preamp is not the sort that dazzles with displays of audiophile “speed,” “detail,” or “resolution.” It’s much more musically honest. Treble is purer, better, and more natural than I’ve heard from most SACD and DVD-A discs. Moreover, the Ginevra is very quiet in battery mode; switching over to AC raises the noise level. Hence, I ran with battery juice most of the time.

The importance of power supply design in phono preamps also can’t be overstated. Rossi’s battery pack delivers pure DC current just perfectly, which is crucially important when amplifying miniscule voltages generated by phono cartridges. Since the preamp automatically decouples from the AC line when operating on battery power, Ginevra owners will never be tempted to buy pricey power cables or power-line conditioners.

With the Ginevra, record surface noise, clicks, and pops are not necessarily lower in level, but they recede into the background more than they did with my Whest. And the Ginevra’s deft portrayals of the quieter parts in music are remarkable in their own right; dynamic shadings and expressive nuance really shine through. In short, music sounds more natural and less like hi-fi. Always a good thing.

I also love the way the Ginevra allowed the sound of Egberto Gismonti’s guitar on his Duas Vozes to radiate in three dimensions. Each pluck and every strum fill the studio space to holographic effect. In addition, Nana Vasconcelos’ evocative vocalizations and palpable percussion accents populated a broad and deep soundstage.

In listening to the Persuasions’ We Came to Play, the Ginevra absolutely nailed the ensemble’s a capella sound. I hung around these guys at a few Chesky recording sessions, so I have a good fix on their individual voices and group vibe. I closed my eyes and the Persuasions simply appeared—voices, foot shuffles, thigh slaps, finger snaps, the entire package. This session record led me to The Intimate Ellington, which starts off with Duke talk/singing “Moon Maiden” and gently playing a celeste keyboard. I’ve spun this LP countless times, and this much I know for sure: Hi-fis rarely get this close to sounding so expressive and downright human.

Making a Tangible Musical Connection

Moving on to more contemporary recordings, like Tom Jones’ all-analog, live-in-the-studio Praise & Blame, put a big smile on my face. Jones is no youngster, but his pipes are in great shape, the bluesy, gospel-infused record is loaded with great tunes. By comparison, the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Revisited sounded cooler, brighter and, well, more modern. Its more upfront nature, sparkly treble, and tighter, more direct-sounding bass stood in sharp contrast to the older, all-analog LPs in my collection. Don’t get me wrong. The Junkies’ record is nice, but the Ginevra’s sweet temperament didn’t smooth over the differences.

Paul Simon’s brand-new So Beautiful or So What is likely a digital recording (the LP comes with a free 96/24 download), but it’s a delight nonetheless. The material is wonderful, and the sound clear and clean, with the musical connection on LP is a wee bit stronger than what I gleaned from the high-resolution file. The Ginevra also lit up the English Beat’s stellar I Just Can’t Stop It LP. The ska revivalists’ beats are as nimble as they come, and the band’s tunes are tops. Bass definition was excellent, tuneful, and rich.

I couldn’t stop putting LPs on the platter. Giorgio Moroder’s dense synthesizer tapestries drifting through the Cat People soundtrack kept me up late at night. The record’s high-frequency shrieks and sputtery flourishes floated high above the rest of the soundstage, and I couldn’t get enough of the throbbing beats and eerie whooshes. All so 1982! Those were the days, before the CD came onto the scene.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

If you’re in the market for a phono preamp that’ll get you closer to the by-the-number sound of the better solid-state alternatives, the Ginevra probably ain’t it. But if you’re like me, you might be in love at first listen. And while the LFP-V is sold factory-direct with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, I can’t imagine many customers ever sending their units back.  -Steve Guttenberg

Red Wine Audio Ginevra LFP-V Edition Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $3,000


Analog Source: VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge

Digital Sources: PS Audio PerfectWave DAC & Transport, MSB Technology Platinum DAC & Data CD Transport, Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition

Electronics: Parasound JC 2 and Pass Labs XP-20 preamps, Whest TWO phono preamp; Pass Labs XA100.5 and First Watt J2 power amps

Speakers: Dynaudio C-1, Mangepan 3.6, Mangepan 3.7

Cable: XLO Signature 3 interconnects and speaker wire; Zu Mission interconnects, speaker cable; Audioquest Sky interconnects

Naim SuperLine

(Ed. note:  This review originally ran in issue #21 of TONEAudio. While some of my reference components have changed since this review, the SuperLine/SuperCap combination is still part of our reference fleet. Our enthusiasm for this phonostage is as high as it was almost three years ago.)

I agree with Naim that a hefty power supply goes a long way to achieve big, natural dynamic sound.

My other reference phono preamplifier, the Aesthetix IO,  also has two external power supplies, and in my book, is the pinnacle of analog reproduction, but it’s full of tubes.

These days, I just can’t get behind 32 vacuum tubes to play a record. The 12AX7’s of only moderate quality can fetch $50 each and the exceptional ones can cost three times that.  As SpongeBob likes to say, “That’s crazy talk.”  Enter the Superline solid-state phono preamplifier:  all of the analog goodness, none of the tube hassle.

Don’t put me in the valve-hater category. I still enjoy them in small doses, but I spend a lot of time with my system fired up, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting a tube preamplifier sorted to perfection only to lose the magic when it’s time to retube.  This happened to me recently, so I am on a quest to eliminate, or at least minimize, the glowing bottles in my system.

When asking Naim why they  produce a premier phonostage when they don’t even make a turntable, the answer was simple.  As a company that goes way back with analog, they still wanted to produce what they feel is the best phonostage they are capable of making. It’s their way of giving something back to the analog community.

Like a Butterfinger, the surprise is inside

In understated British fashion, the Superline looks like a little black box, slightly narrower than a standard Naim component and lacking even a power switch on the front panel, just a backlit green Naim logo.  When you pick it up and realize it weighs more than a Nait 5i integrated amplifier, it sinks in that this is a serious phono stage.

The circuit board is suspended, floating inside the case, much like Naim’s approach to the CD555 CD player.  The actual preamplifier is a single-ended, Class-A design, with no op amps in sight.  The wiring is executed with surgical precision and features 25 internal regulators while borrowing thermal isolation concepts from Naim’s flagship NAP power amplifier.

Powerful Options

Some criticize Naim for taking the separate-power-supply approach, but I applaud it.  I hate getting rid of gear to which I get attached, so I prefer components with an upgrade path.  The Superline itself retails for $2,950 without a power supply, but it offers a number of power options.  This allows you to purchase a top-shelf phono stage that you can upgrade as your system improves by merely changing the power supply.

If you own one of the SuperNait integrated amplifiers, or a Naim preamplifier, you can power the Superline with that.  I started my journey plugging the Superline into the SuperNait and was quite impressed.  If you will use the Superline in a non-Naim system (or just want more power) you can mate it with their entry-level FlatCap 2x ($1,100), a HiCap 2 ($1,900) or the SuperCap2. ($5,950)  If you are on a tight budget, you can usually find an original FlatCap used for about $500 from a Naim owner moving along the upgrade path.  Still with me?

You also have the option of purchasing the Superline in a standard (58db) or high-gain (64db) model.  I had the high-gain version here, which worked fine with my Dynavector 17D3 with its .23mv output and it had no problem handling the 2.5mv output of the Sumiko Blackbird without overload. So it should work well with whatever cartridge you have.  Keep in mind, though, that this phono preamplifier is not intended for MM cartridges.

Lightning fast setup

When first setting up, be sure to remove the two transit screws that keep the floating circuit board secure (the manual warns you not to use the Superline with the screws still in place) and I suggest putting them in a Ziploc bag and taping them to the inside of the shipping carton, just in case you ever need them.  Keep the Superline level and over a table while you are removing the screws and then carry it gently to where it will be used, as it is now floating free.

Once the Superline is connected to your power supply, the next step is to set loading and input capacitance.  Naim supplies four resistive plugs and three capacitive ones, giving you loading options of 100 ohms, 500 ohms, 1,000 ohms and 10,000 ohms.  Chris Koster from Naim USA suggests a 440-ohm plug with the Lyra Olympos cartridge, and he sent along a custom loading plug.  Should you have a cartridge that requires different loading, your Naim dealer can have custom sets made for you at $60 each.  The plugs are tightly matched for value and channel balance, so I’d advise against doing this yourself.  I used the minimal capacitance loading with all of the cartridges tested.

I still had my ASR Basis Exclusive when the Superline first arrived, and the first thing that struck me about the Naim was that it is every bit as quiet as the battery-powered phono stage that was off the grid entirely!  So chalk up an immediate victory for the engineers at Naim.  The ASR depends on very high-quality op amps, however, and is not nearly as grain-free as the Superline, even while plugged into the SuperNait.

Four cartridges were used for the primary evaluation of the Naim combo – the Dynavector XV-1s, the Lyra Skala, the MoFi 3.5C and the Lyra Olympos.  Thanks to the ease of changing the loading on this preamplifier, it was easy to optimize for each cartridge.  Koster was kind enough to send an extra 470-ohm loading plug, which he felt would be optimum for the Olympos.  The Skala found happiness at 220 ohms while the other two preferred 100 ohms.

Snaic or Burndy?

I did not get a chance to audition the Superline with the FlatCap power supply; the rest of the review period was spent with the HiCap2 and the Supercap.  If you are not a current Naim user, you will need to familiarize yourself with their various cable and connection options.

Plugging into a SuperNait, requires a Snaic, as does the FlatCap or HighCap2.  This is a five-pin cable that brings current to the Superline and high level audio output back to the power supply.  You plug your tonearm cable right into the Superline and you take another cable (Din if you have an all Naim system or a Din-to-RCA cable in a non-Naim system) out to your linestage; this works the same with all three power supplies.  The SuperCap2 will require the higher-capacity Burndy cable, which goes where that big plug is on the back of the Superline.

Analog bliss, a stage at a time

Those who have heard the Superline with one of the smaller supplies may wonder what all the fuss is about.  As an addition to your Naim preamplifier or SuperNait, the Superline makes a good showing and is well worth the asking price.  When the HighCap2 is added to the equation, you start thinking something pretty special is lurking inside that little black box.  And by adding the SuperCap2, you are taken somewhere very special indeed.

It is always a challenge to describe a component this good because all the great audiophile clichés have already been taken.  Cutting to the chase, I’ve never heard a phono preamplifier reveal more information from the black grooves than the Superline/SuperCap2. What puts the Superline/SuperCap2 solidly on the top of the mountain is the presentation; those seeking tonal neutrality and boundless dynamic range will be in heaven.  This combination knocks down the walls of your listening room, expanding the presentation in all three dimensions.

I like that big, big sound, and the Superline/SuperCap2 gets it right.  It doesn’t make everything sound big, but it has a very precise ability to capture dynamic contrasts and spatial cues, doing a good job at convincing your brain that what you are hearing is happening right in front of you.

The Superline had plenty of hours on its clock from using it for the SuperNait review, and I thought I was very familiar with the sound.  But after the addition of the SuperCap2, I was on another planet.  I haven’t been this impressed with a phono preamplifier since the famous Vendetta Research of the ’80’s, which was the last time I had a major paradigm shift in analog listening. In my system, the Superline/SuperCap2 opened the window to the music wider than it has ever been.

The Superline/SuperCap 2 hits you first with its weight and power, but it keeps you riveted to your chair with subtlety and nuance.  Naim enthusiasts always like to talk about the immediacy of their gear, and the Superline/SuperCap 2 has that quality in spades.  Everything else I’ve heard in comparison sounds moderately hazy.  As expected, the perfect tonality of this preamplifier is intact, even with the basic configuration, but as you increase the power supply you get more dynamics, less noise and a more-sorted view of the music.

The Naim Superline with SuperCap2 power supply is the closest I’ve heard to analog perfection.  It neither adds nor subtracts from what’s in the groove and faithfully offers what I’m looking for in any component.  It offers a staggering level of resolution without being harsh or forward. while offering tremendous musicality without being overly romantic or rounding off the edges of musical transients in an effort to sound polite.

Not an audiophile component

Phenomenal recordings will send you into bliss, yet even average recordings will yield sonic rewards that with surprise you.  While the Superline/SuperCap2 does not romanticize, should you want that sound, you can always mate it with a romantic-sounding cartridge.  I could have easily lived with either the lush presentation of the Lyra Olympos or the slightly more neutral, yet dynamic, presentation of the Dynavector XV-1s.  Every one of the cartridges in my stable sounded fantastic!

One of the biggest complaints I hear from people with mega systems is that they only sound good while playing a handful of “audiophile-approved” records.  This couldn’t be further from the truth with the Superline/SuperCap2 combination.  Sure, the best pressings gave their all, but I have a substantial collection of just-average records.  So I went on a power pop binge and listened to a lot of my favorite but fairly lousy-sounding  records one night, and I was astonished at how much was actually lurking in those grooves.

On Cheap Trick’s self titled album, when Tom Petersson’s bass line kicks in on “Mandocello,” I felt like that Maxell guy in my chair.  Substituting a popular $1,000 phono preamplifier and playing that cut again (with the $10,000 Lyra Olympos), it became flat and uninvolving, completely lacking any depth.  I moved on to a few of my favorite Elvis Costello records, Squeeze, XTC and The Sinceros before calling it a night with “Christmas with the Chipmunks.”  Damn, even that sounded good.

Should you install a Superline/SuperCap2 into your system, I guarantee the phono stage will no longer be the weak link in your system. It will not bring back the parts of your marginal recordings that suffer from compression, but it will extract every bit of music your turntable, tonearm and cartridge are capable of delivering.

With the average records sounding fantastic, the fantastic records sound dreamy.  When listening to Ella Fitzgerald on the “Ella Sings the Cole Porter Catalog” box set, she was in the room, six feet in front of my listening chair. In a completely different vein, the LP version of The Beastie Boys’ The Mix Up was a true psychedelic event.  Though a little crunchy on the extreme high end, this record is a giant, surreal soundscape, with bongos, synthesizers and crunchy guitars floating all over the place, with big, thumping bass lines running in and out of the music.  Again, on a lesser analog setup, it just sounded flat and CD-like, but through the Superline/SuperCap2, I was amazed at how much information lurked on this disc.

Super squared

I’ve owned a Naim CD555 for nearly two years with no diminishment in enjoyment whatsoever.  It’s looking as if another pair of Naim boxes are in my immediate future, and I’m anticipating the same result with the Superline and SuperCap2.

My biggest expectation for a five-figure component is that it should take me somewhere that I’ve never been.  The world of the Superline/SuperCap2 is one of those places, and I always have a hard time leaving it and coming back to reality.  When I was proofing this article, Microsoft Word wanted to keep changing Superline to Superfine.  Maybe the ghost in the machine had a point.


Turntables                   Continuum Criterion w/Copperhead Tonearm, TK Acustic Raven Two w/SME 309 and SME iV.Vi tonearms, Spiral Groove SG-2 w/TriPlanar vii

Cartridges                    Dynavector 17D3 and XV-1s, Lyra Skala and Olympos, MoFi 3.5C, Sumiko Blackbird

Tonearm Cables          Furutech

Preamplifiers               Conrad-Johnson ACT2/series 2, Nagra PL-L, BAT VK-32SE

Power Amplifiers       BAT VK-55SE, Conrad-Johnson Premier 350, Nagra PSA, Naim SuperNait (integrated)

Speakers                      Harbeth Monitor 40.1, MartinLogan CLX w/Descent i subwoofers, Verity Audio Sarastro II

Power                          Running Springs Dmitri and Jaco Power Line Conditioners, RSA Mongoose Power cords, Shunyata Anaconda Vx power cords

Interconnects              Shunyata Antares, Cardas Golden Reference

Speaker Cables            Shunyata Orion

Accessories                 Furutech DeMag, Shunyata Dark Field Elevators

Pass Labs XP-25

The secret, in other words, is out. Vinyl ain’t going nowhere. It’s here to stay. As a result, not just LP manufacturers, but audio companies are going into overdrive to produce goods to satisfy a small albeit growing market. One such company is Pass Labs.

Its eponymous name derives from fabled designer Nelson Pass, and it’s now producing a phonostage called the XP-25. Does the latter sound good? No. It sounds stellar. For $10,000, it should sound excellent. But the XP-25 represents a sonic breakthrough at that price level. Its combination of refinement and vanishingly low noise floor make it a winner.

When International Record Store Day came and went in April, it attracted a good deal of attention in the mainstream media. 

The New York Times, for example, devoted a piece to the resurgence of turntables. It was even written in a respectful fashion rather than suggesting a bunch of weirdoes is clinging to an obsolete contraption from the past (though, even if people were, it wouldn’t necessarily be cause for shame).

Massive Dynamic

To test the XP-25, I ran it extensively with my Continuum Caliburn turntable, which I’ve owned for almost five years, and my new reference cartridge, the Lyra Atlas, which claims an amazing ability to separate instrumental lines and possesses superb dynamics. It served as a great platform to assess the XP-25’s performance. Pass has recently issued a number of new products, including a megawatt $85,000 amplifier called Xs-300 that looks as though it has arc-welding capabilities. The XP-25, by contrast, is not in that price category. Nor does it appear particularly prepossessing. It comes in two fairly utilitarian-looking boxes. The first houses a sophisticated power supply; the second, the phonostage itself. The units are connected via a single computer cable, thin and extremely flexible.

The XP-25 is a fully balanced design with both balanced and unbalanced outputs. If you own two turntables, then you’re all set with the XP-25, which boasts two single-ended inputs. The XP-25 features three levels of gain: 53, 66, and 76dB. I opted for 66, which should prove more than ample for most systems, unless you’re trying to blow your preamplifier to kingdom come. It also has a mute switch, a rumble filter, and separate knobs adjustments for capacitive loading of cartridges. All in all, a no-nonsense unit with just enough functionality to please most audiophiles.

If silence is golden, the XP-25 has definite bullion-like qualities. For one thing, it doesn’t produce hiss or buzz. The black backgrounds are sensational. The lack of grit or noise allows the ear to relax on what amounts to a sonic pillow. There’s no hunching of the shoulders waiting for an aggressive treble transient to hit here, the kind that makes you wonder whether if it wouldn’t be saner just to listen to the car radio rather than trying to dial in a high-end system.

Indeed, the XP-25 creates a blissful experience. Yup, it has plenty of pop and slam. But that’s not really what the unit is about. Rather, it’s about tranquility and nuance. Instruments just seem more present, to pop out in space more vividly when the backdrop is jet-black, as it is with the XP-25. The Pass is clearly a champion in the no-noise department. Via a Persuasions LP, I am particularly struck by the sense of space between the singers—it’s possible to hear feet shuffling and other tiny auditory cues that enhance the sense of sonic realism.

Sure, it’s a little hi-fi when you play gospel records in such a manner, but it sure can impress the heck out of your friends and neighbors, and it’s good to have some fun with the system. This hobby is most emphatically not supposed to be about a bunch of audiophiles pretending to be white-coated lab technicians sitting in front of their stereos. Let it be, as the Beatles said.

Strength in Details

Does the lack of noise also add a degree of finesse? To an extent. I listened very closely at a fairly low-volume setting to an Arkiv LP of Vivaldi’s Lute Concertos and Trios. The XP-25’s silence allows a particularly fine rendering in the slow movements, and where the tinkling of the harpsichord behind the lute and violin is barely audible, each note is clearly and finely rendered. So the Pass is very good at low-level detail retrieval.

Does the lack of tubes mean that its sound, as audiophiles are wont to say, is too “solid-state”? No. Intriguingly, the XP-25 sounds more tubey than some tubed units. Consider the recent remaster of Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’. On the cut “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” her voice is smoother and more seductive than through some tubed units I have heard. How Pass pulls off this feat is an interesting question. Capacitors or wire or circuit design? I presume Pass would answer “all of the above.” Whatever the technical response, the XP-25 definitely does not fall into the lean or astringent camp. Quite the contrary.

The smoothness of the XP-25 comes across most clearly on a wonderful remastering of trumpet great Lee Morgan’s The Procrastinator [Music Matters]. On “Rio,” which has a bossa-nova feel, I’m simply bowled over by the degree of finesse, filigree of detail, sheen of the cymbals. It made me realize once more what a terrible loss Morgan’s early death, at the hands of his aggrieved common law wife, who shot him in February 1972 at the East Village nightclub Slugs, remains.

Top of the Heap
Despite its prowess, the XP-25 faces stiff competition. No, not at $10k. At that price level, it becomes a matter of taste and preference. As stated above, I’m hard-pressed to think of a phonostage that will surpass the XP-25’s performance in its price region. Sure, move up into nosebleed territory and you can get more. For more money. My own Ypsilon phonostage takes up the performance one more notch in terms of dimensionality and sinuous musical lines. But it also costs more than twice as much. For anyone owning a megabuck phonostage, the XP-25 is likely to give pause. Is it really necessary to spend more? Will there be a quantum leap in performance above the Pass? Nope.

Given the state of the hobby, the XP-25 represents a good value. It comes near the bleeding edge in performance, but its price—expensive by any reasonable measure—is not stratospheric, at least by current standards. Another plus is that, unlike some more exotic equipment, the Pass exudes reliability. Its build quality seems rock-solid. It’s difficult to imagine anything going wrong with it. The model exudes the appearance of a piece of equipment that does nothing but sit there and play and play.

Anyone in the market for a high-end phonostage should consider auditioning the XP-25. You may find yourself most impressed by what it does not do. I am.

-Jacob Heilbrunn

Additional Comments

Pass is certainly popular here at TONEAudio. Contributor Lawrence Devoe also uses the XP-25 in his reference system, and I will be keeping the XP-25 after it returns from Mr. Heilbrunn. I concur with Heilbrunn that there are still a few more molecules of analog performance to be mined, but nothing else wraps ease of use, versatility, and overall high performance into one package like the XP-25.

While the XP-25’s performance is commensurate with the sticker price, analog enthusiasts that own turntables with multiple tonearms and/or removable headshells, and who are often prone to switching cartridges, will be in heaven. All the adjustments are right upfront and easy to read, making fine-tuning a snap.

Auditioning the XP-25 with about a dozen different cartridges from the meager Shure M97 all the way up to the Lyra Atlas is a treat. Nothing threw this phonostage a curveball it couldn’t hit. Turn it on and forget about it. It reaches full bloom after about three days of being continuously powered up. Those worried about their carbon footprint, rest assured: At .15/kwh, the XP-25 costs about $2.50 per month to leave on. In these days of $100 monthly cable bills, it’s a small price to pay for sonic bliss.

– Jeff Dorgay

The Pass Labs XP-25 Phonostage

MSRP: $10,600


Now that it costs about $75 to gas up your car, a $199 phono preamplifier is a real bargain, especially one that digitizes your vinyl collection via the onboard USB connection..

If that isn’t enough, the NAD PP 3i even has a line input so that you can digitize your cassette collection (and 8-tracks). The PP 3i comes with Mac/PC compatible AlpineSoft’s VinylStudio Lite software or it can be downloaded with a quick visit to the NAD website , allowing you to save WAV files of your favorite albums; that’s another review for another day.

The PP 3i is powered by an included 24-volt wall wart and is always on. It only draws a couple of watts from the power line, so those worried about being green can sleep easily, knowing that leaving the PP 3i on 24/7 won’t cause glacial meltdown. Setup is straightforward, with no switches or added ephemera. You just power it up, plug in your turntable, and roll.

Begin Your Vinyl Journey

If you are just dipping your toe into the waters of analog, the PP 3i is a great place to begin building your budget analog front end. The PP 3i has inputs for MM and MC cartridges, surprising given this price. While there are only a handful of budget MC cartridges on the market, the NAD’s match with Denon’s DL-110 ($139) proved amazingly good.

Three budget turntable/cartridge combinations put the PP 3i through its paces: The AudioTechnica AT-LP120 (now discontinued for a new model with a phono preamp/USB link built-in) with Denon DL-110 MC cartridge; the new Rega RP1 turntable with stock Ortofon OM5e MM cartridge; and a freshly refurbished Dual 1219 from Fix My Dual, fitted with a brand-new Grado Red cartridge. A pair of Audio Art IC-3 interconnects ($110) transferred the signal to the Croft pre and power amplifier combination, both played through the latest Klipsch Heresy III loudspeakers.

What Does $199 Get You?

Amazingly, a lot more than I expected.  While we won’t be having a detailed discussion about finesse, air and extension, this little box did a very respectable job at getting the analog essence to the speakers. The onboard phonostage in the Croft preamp was still miles better than the little NAD, so I did what any self-respecting slacker would, and lowered my standards.

Swapping the Croft amp and preamp for a few vintage 70s receivers revealed that the NAD outperformed a couple (the Pioneer SX -424 and 535), was on par with another (Harmon Kardon 330), and fell a bit short of what was on board with the Marantz 2230. Honestly, in the day where four- and even five-figure cartridges are more commonplace than one might think, just the fact that this thing even plays music for $199 is pretty impressive.

Excels With Digital Transfers

While you might get a little bit more soundstage depth with something like the Bellari VP130, it costs more, is a lot noisier, and it won’t digitize your vinyl. Even if you don’t use the PP 3i to play music in the context of a budget hi-fi system, which it does well, its real strength is its ability to capture some of your favorite LPs for enjoyment in your car or on your iPod. So shell out another 30 bucks (or half a tank of gas) for the full version of VinylStudio and get to work.

And this is the real strength of the PP 3i, folks. If you are a true vinyl enthusiast, you will obviously end up going for much more, but ripping a stack of your favorite LPs to your iTunes library couldn’t be easier. VinylStudio makes it painless to chop your tracks up into album format and add metadata. Surprisingly, less-than-audiophile-quality records transferred to iTunes in the Apple Lossless format sounded as good if not a little better than ripping their CD counterparts, at least on a budget system.

The fun didn’t stop there. Digitizing some of my favorite hip-hop treasures from cassette yielded results that were as equally as good as the vinyl rips. Not only is Cash Money’s Where’s the Party At? now available in my iTunes library, I’m revisiting K-Tel’s Super Hits of 75 from my 8-track collection, too. Plug your 8-track deck into the high-level input and connect the PP 3i to your laptop via USB, and you are in business.

You Need It

No matter the degree of your vinyl obsession, I suggest buying the NAD PP 3i. It’s a perfect entry-level phonostage with benefits for the neophyte, and it works well to digitize some of your analog rarities. Plus, it comes in handy should your megabucks phonostage have to make a return to the factory for repairs. Some music is always better than none.

-Jeff Dorgay

Shelter 9000

Shelter is no stranger to the audiophile world, with their 501 and 90x cartridges winning their fair share of awards along the way.

Having owned both, the 501 is always a top choice for those wanting a big taste of analog magic, with a healthy dose of tonal warmth thrown into the presentation – it’s a cartridge that makes even average records sound better than they should at times.  The 901 was always a red headed stepchild, having more detail albeit at the cost of that wonderful midrange magic that the 501 has.  For those with a larger budget, the 90x was an excellent fusion of both cartridges, offering wonderful tonal contrast with extension.

We were all very curious to sample the 7000 and 9000 to see what the next generation would provide.  If you were a fan of the 90x, chances are good you will enjoy the 9000 even more. At $4,195, the price of the Shelter 9000 has gone up substantially since its introduction at an even $3,000, with the 90x tipping the scale at about $2,800.


Though the 9000 spent a little bit of time on the Rega P3-24 to get some hours on the clock, it was definitely overkill for this table.  It is an excellent match with the Continuum, the TW Acustic Raven Two, and finally landing on the Oracle Delphi V with Rega RB1000 tonearm.

The 9000 weighs about 11 grams, so it will work well with most counterweights, though some arms may require a heavier weight.  The RB1000 was at the limit of its adjustment range with the stock weight, upgrading to the heavier tungsten weight proved better. With a suggested loading of 100 ohms, the 9000 works well with both active and transformer based phonostages.  The .6mv output should work well even with MC phonostages of modest gain and still provide maximum dynamic range.  Suggested tracking force is a range of 1.4 – 2.0 grams and 1.9 proved optimum in the RB1000 arm.

A Lively Dance Partner

The 9000 turns in an excellent performance with the SME 309 arm as well, proving livelier through the midband, with more air in the upper registers when paired with the Rega arm – both on the Raven and also on the Rega P9 (a 2mm spacer is required here).  However, the best balance from top to bottom was with the RB1000 arm mounted to the Oracle Delphi V, the inherent speed of the Oracle a perfect match for this cartridge.

Slightly grainier and smaller in scale than my reference Dynavector XV-1s, the 9000 is an excellent performer for about $1,500 less – so that’s a call only you can make.  The 9000 also renders an extremely quiet background, minimizing surface noise, much the way the Koetsu cartridges do.

The Shelter 9000 offers more resolution than previous models, yet gives up none of the tonal richness in the process – an across the board improvement.  It’s even finished in a cooler color, a nice shade of platinum silver versus the stark black that used to grace Shelter bodies.

A side by side comparison using identical SME 309 arms on the Raven reveals the 9000 to be the champion in high end extension – but a cleaner, faster midbass response as well.  The opening bass riff on “Woman in Chains” from Tears for Fears Sowing the Seeds of Love, has more attack and much less bloat when the 9000 is engaged.  Switching back to the 90x, sounds slow in comparison with the triangle playing in the background is lacking in sparkle and presence.  Throughout the album, the layered backing vocals also take on more of a distinct space, adding to the three dimensional illusion.

Much as I love the 90x, it still has some of the upper bass bloat that makes the 501 so romantic and on many levels, enjoyable – especially with less than outstanding recordings.  Should you enjoy that bump and perhaps mistake it for actual bass response, a quick romp through a few bass heavy tracks will reveal not only more extension but again more texture.  Jaco Pastorius’ “Ocus Pocus,” from his self titled album works well here – trying to follow his lightning fast fretwork on the bass is a torture test for any cartridge and again the 9000 is the clear winner.

The analog front end is a system and while the SME/Raven combination was very good, the RB1000/Oracle proved a bit more lively and to my liking. The former combination is weightier, while the latter somewhat more nimble – favoring highly dense recordings, with only slightly less bass “oomph.”

Tonal balance is excellent and the overall presentation of the Shelter 9000 still more forward than my Koetsu RSP or Dynavector XV-1s.  Of course some of this can be tempered by your overall system balance and choice of phonostage.

A worthy successor

The Shelter 9000 passes muster quite well indeed.  Tonally, it is very neutral, offering a big helping of what the cost no object phono cartridges offer for a more reasonable price – though many might think $4,195 is still crazy money for a phono cartridge.

If you’ve been a Shelter fan for years and ready to trade up, the 9000 will make you feel right at home in a way that trading up to a slightly newer model of Porsche or BMW would.  Everything is similar to the old model, but the refinements make themselves obvious after the first few miles.

For those new to Shelter, I would highly suggest this cartridge to anyone with an overall system balance from laid back to neutral, perhaps even slightly forward, but should your system already be somewhat forward, the 9000 may be too revealing.

Ultimately, this cartridge is an excellent performer and is certainly on par with the level of music it reveals in comparison to comparably priced offerings from other manufacturers.

This review was originally featured in TONEAudio #16.

The Shelter 9000 Phono Cartridge
MSRP:  $4,195

Manufacturers Info


Preamplifier                            Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2

Phono Preamplifiers               Nagra VPS, Audio Research PH7

Turntables                               TK Acustic Raven Two w/SME IV.Vi arm and Rega

RB1000 arm, Rega P9 w/RB1000 arm, Oracle Delphi V w/RB1000 arm, Continuum Criterion w/Copperhead arm

Power Amplifier                     Conrad Johnson Premier 350

Speakers                                  MartinLogan Summit with Descent i subwoofer

Interconnects                          Cardas Golden Reference, AudioQuest Sub 3

Speaker Cables                        Shunyata Orion

Power Conditioning                Running Springs Dimitri and Jaco

Issue 44

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Journeyman Audiophile: The Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amp
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