Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Setup? What Setup?

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

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

Sonic Notes

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

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

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

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

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

A Lot to Love

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

Plinius Inspire 980 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $4,450


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

Balanced Audio Technology VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Clean Design

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

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

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

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

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

Up and Running

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score

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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

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

Balanced Audio Technology


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

Peachtree nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

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

A Lot to Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Tally

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

nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,999


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

Roksan Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

The Basics

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

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

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

Down to Business

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score

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

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

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

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

Further Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

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


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

Clones Audio 25i Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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


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

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

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

Loudspeaker Matches

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

Boulder’s 865 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Boulder

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

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

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

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

Top notch throughout

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

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

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

In the end, fantastic

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

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

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

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

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


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

Phonostage                ARC REF 5SE

Digital Source                        dCS Vivaldi Stack

Speakers                    KEF Blade, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, GamuT S9

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Rogue Audio Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

Nuts & Bolts

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,295


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

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

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

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

Under the big top?

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

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

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

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

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

Three rings? No, just one!

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

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

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

Taming those lions

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

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

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

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

The flying trapeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spinning plates

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

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

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

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

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


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

Gato Audio DIA-250 Integrated Amp/DAC

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

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

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

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

Setup, Sources, Speakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Better All the Time

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

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

Spinning the Volume Control

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

DIA-250 Integrated Amp/DAC

MSRP:  $4,500 (factory) (US Importer)


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

Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Power and Connectivity

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Playing Nice

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

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

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

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

Musical Fidelity M6 500i Integrated Amplifier

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


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

Blue Aura v30 Blackline Integrated Tube-Amplifier System

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

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

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

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

Dishing It Out

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

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

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

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

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

Just For Fun

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

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

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

Electrocompaniet ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electrocompaniet ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $3,400

Rogers EHF-200 MK2 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

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

Spacey Indeed

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

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

Major Style Points

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

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

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

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

Major Performance, Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tube Choices

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

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

An Elegant Solution

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

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

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

Rogers EHF-200 MK2 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $14,000


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

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

What’s in a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Digital

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

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

Just Add Analog

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

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

The Final Score

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

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

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,499

Luxman SQ-38u Integrated Amplifier

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

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

You Can Look—And Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving and Grooving

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimme Some Truth

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

Additional Listening:

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

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

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

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

Manufacturer Information

Luxman SQ-38u

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


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

Rega Brio-R Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Small Yet Strong

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

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

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

Setup and Controls

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

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

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

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

Sounds Like Separates

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

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

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

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

Vinyl Adventure

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

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

Good Things Do Come in Small Packages

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

The Rega Brio-R

MSRP:  $895 (US) (UK)


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

Bel Canto C5i Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

A Plethora of Inputs

Along with losing the stack of gear and pile of cables required by a more traditional setup, you need just one interconnect pair to operate a system based on the C5i—another plus. With the C5i, your computer or laptop is only a USB cable away from becoming a first-class digital front end. In addition to the USB port, the unit boasts a pair of RCA SPDIF inputs as well as a pair of TOSLINK optical inputs. You can connect a cable TV box, game console, or whatever other digital device suits your fancy, turning the C5i into a media hub. The USB port offers digital playback up to 24/96, while the SPDIF and Toslink ports take full advantage of the DAC’s 24/192 capabilities.

In addition to the MM phono input with standard 47k ohm loading, a high-level analog input is available should you add another phonostage or perhaps, a tuner – like Bel Canto’s FM1. Using the phonostage with a handful of MM cartridges delivered excellent results. The Shure V15mvxr, Rega Exact, and Clearaudio Maestro Wood all worked well with the on-board phono, and I was also happy with the sound of my recent LP-12/V15 combo. Quiet, dynamic and musical, the on-board phonostage is equal to if not better than any of the sub-$300 external phonostages I’ve experienced.

The Rega RP1/Ortofon OM5e also effortlessly pairs with the C5i. Listening to a handful of budget 70s rock records revealed enough midrange warmth and depth to feel the analog love. Bottom line: If you don’t already have a turntable, the C5i makes adding analog to your system a painless process. True analog fanatics will want more performance, but they aren’t the model’s target audience.

Love digital? So does the C5i. High-resolution and 16/44.1 files via a Mac Mini, Sooloos Control 15, and MSB Universal Transport transmitted without a hiccup. When you push play and the music begins, the sampling rate blinks on the C5i’s main display.  Since most of my high-res collection is at 24/96 I didn’t audition any 24/192 material.

The C5i’s DAC performance also impressed by holding its own with a number of competitors in the $500-$1,000 category. Listening to my fair share of the BBC’s Bax: The Symphonies box set, I couldn’t help but notice the DAC’s level of tonal purity and separation, even on 16/44.1 recordings. Should these options seem like too much work, the C5i works great with an iPod. Plugging in a little 4GB iPod Nano yields fab results, especially with Apple lossless files.

Serious Authority

A prominent sonic wallop is likely the first thing you’ll notice when firing up the C5i. Bass is particularly well controlled, as is transient attack. The California Guitar Trio’s “Led Foot” demonstrates the C5i’s ability to maintain pace while simultaneously keeping separate and clean the three distinct guitar voices. California Guitar Trio records contain a wealth of musical information in a small space, an acoustic that most moderately priced integrated models fail at recreating.

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks lies at the opposite end of the sound spectrum. A skilled drummer that never hesitates to maximize his kit, Bruford provides a great torture test. The C5i has no problem keeping the cymbals in their own distinct space as the percussionist takes flight on several rapidly paced solos.

Comparing the C5i to the much larger REF500M monoblocks reveals a close resemblance at less-than-earthquake levels, and for good reason: The C5i uses the same power modules, albeit in stereo rather than in a bridged mono configuration. Again, Bel Canto doesn’t sacrifice sound quality at a lower power level, making the C5i an even more attractive proposition regardless of where you sit in the audiophile pecking order. And diversity abounds.

The high-level outputs give it even more versatility for listeners that desire a satellite/subwoofer system. Users that either don’t want or can’t get speakers right now should think of the C5i as a wonderful headphone amp that happens to have a great DAC and phonostage. It adequately drove the new Grado PS500, Audeze LCD2, AKG 701, and Sennheiser 650 headphones. Yes, you can drop another $500-$1,000 on an outboard headphone amp, but this one works well and is miles beyond any pod or tablet.

New Balance

As much fun as it is to listen to the C5i, its seamless integration into any environment means there’s no reason not to have a great hi-fi in your house. You don’t need a pile of gear, massive loom of cables, or gaggle of remote controls. If you’d like to build a system a few marks above the budget level, the C5i awaits your discovery. It combines both functionality and performance in a compact package, underscoring the fact that you don’t need to spend a small fortune to get good sound. More, please.

NAD C316 BEE Integrated Amplifier

The NAD 3020 integrated amplifier was a marvel in its day. While rated at only 20 watts per channel, it boasted a beefy power supply and fair amount of headroom, giving it the ability to drive a wide range of speakers. It also included a bevy of features, not the least of which was a high-quality MM phono preamplifier and “soft clipping” circuit that prevented more than a few tweeters from ruin. All this audio goodness came wrapped in a stark, olive green-tinted black case for just $219.

The C316 BEE power is rated at twice that of the 3020 and claims NAD’s latest PowerDrive circuitry from the company’s flagship amplifiers. Tone controls now offer the option to be entirely switched out of the circuit, and an 1/8” jack on the front panel accommodates the high-level output of a portable music player.

As one of many audiophiles with fond memories of the NAD 3020 (an original, not the later A or B version), I had tons of fun bringing one back into the studio for a serious listening session. Mark Stone and the folks at NAD North America gave the 3020 seen in this issue’s Old School section a complete checkup, verifying that it still more than meets its original design specs. Our test sample exceeded the stated 20wpc at 8 ohms rating by a healthy margin, producing 29 wpc at rated distortion. (Steve Guttenberg lends further insights on page 19.)

Still, while the 3020 is a stout amplifier on the bench and in the listening room, time has come to move on to the entry-level NAD integrated. The new model’s form factor remains similar, albeit slightly slimmer. The LEDs follow modern fashion and are blue instead of the red popular in the late 70s. A remote is included in the box. And, adjusted for inflation, the $329 C316 BEE makes for an even monetary better value than the 3020 in the early 80s.

Better Than I Remember

It’s always easy to wax poetic about the past, deluding oneself into thinking that things were better back in the old days. While the 3020’s power meter was constantly pegged driving my Acoustat 2+2’s during the early 80s, it barely broke a sweat powering my current Verity Audio Rienzes, which present a much more benign load. At modest listening levels, neither amplifier caved, but the difference in sound between the two units proved dramatic—and in favor of the old.

Teamed with the Rienze floorstanding speakers and a dCS Paganini stack, and cabled with a full complement of Cardas Clear, the demonstration epitomized what I’ll call audio-foolery. Who in their right mind would mate a couple of $300 integrated amplifiers with $100k worth of ancillaries? Guilty as charged, but the results were telling.

Differences between old and new models are unmistakable. The current amplifier possesses more extension at the upper end of the spectrum, but the vintage unit wins in every other category. The 3020 enjoys a more vivid, almost tube-like midrange, and takes control of the Rienze’s woofers with more authority.

While the C316 BEE is a great little amplifier, the 3020 is a serious piece of audiophile kit.  When listening to Thomas Dolby’s “My Brain is Like a Sieve” from Aliens Ate My Buick, the electronic effects have an almost buoyant feel, wafting back and forth across the soundstage. Yet they stay in a single plain when experienced via the C316 BEE. The wet and expansive echo in Tim Curry’s voice on the title track of Simplicity has depth on the 3020, but none on the new amplifier. The most explicit revelation occurred during the intro of Keith Emerson’s “Ignition” from his recent Keith Emerson Band. Where the 3020 reproduces the low organ notes, all is silence when played through the C316 BEE.

A similar verdict is reached listening to Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina.” The C316 BEE just doesn’t have the grunt. The final nail in the coffin came courtesy of the acoustic guitar intro to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” A tonal richness exists with the 3020 that fools you into thinking a much more expensive amplifier is behind the scenes. No wonder the audiophile press labeled this amplifier a “giant killer.” At modest volume, it more than held its own with the industry’s best when introduced in the early 80s.

When swapping my aforementioned setup for an iPad, Aperion Intimus 5 bookshelf speakers ($599/pair), and Radio Shack capable, the differences between the two amps practically disappeared. But that’s what makes the 3020 so cool: You can hook it up to a pair of $11,000 speakers and be impressed. While the C316 BEE may not ultimately appeal to audiophile sensibilities (and let’s face it, what $329 integrated amplifier does today?), it makes for a great graduation present for a music-loving teenager about to head off to college.

Progress Worth the Price

Don’t get me wrong: The NAD C316 BEE represents very good value and performance for the price. Like its predecessor, it serves as a great cornerstone for a budget hi-fi system. If mated with a decent pair of $250-$600 speakers, it’s sure to impress the uninitiated. And if you’ve never experienced a 3020 in great shape, you’ll probably be bowled over by the C316 BEE.

The idea of a brand-spanking new amplifier with no scratches or fingerprints, as well as a warranty, will likely appeal to 99.9% of listeners that would rather not take the chance of getting an abused relic. 3020s usually got passed on from friend to friend, creating a lot of audiophile goodwill. But more often than not, they gathered numerous abrasions in the process. However, if you do happen to stumble across a mint 3020, buy it.

Removing the cover of the C316 BEE reveals a tidy layout that’s a model of simplicity, with a large toroidal transformer and beefy heat sink for the power amplifier’s output stage. By comparison, the 3020 looks like someone emptied a colander of pasta on the circuit board. And the C316 BEE does have a remote, so progress isn’t all bad.

Besides, the NAD C316 BEE offers everything you need around which to build a great budget hi-fi system. It sounds good, fits nearly anywhere, and offers much better sound than what local big-box bandits sell for the same amount of money. Will it shift millions of units like its predecessor, and end up in dorm rooms everywhere? We can only hope.

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Integrated Amplifier

Space-conscious listeners love integrated amplifiers because they can route and amplify sound signals from a single box. And while audio purists often devoutly believe that separate preamps and power amps constitute the one true path to great sound, the distance between separates and integrateds has audibly narrowed.

Founded by Herman van den Dungen, a CEO with an extensive audio pedigree, PrimaLuna (“First Moon” for non-Italian speakers) entered the tube-gear scene in 2003. It currently merges sophisticated Netherlands design with cost-conscious Chinese production. Now, before you “Chinese audio products suck,” know that van den Dungen and company marketing executive Dominique Chenet demand quality.

Prima la Luna, Poi la Musica

The $2,299 ProLogue Premium integrated amplifier falls between ProLogue and  Dialogue integrateds. The “heft means quality” principle is operative, as witnessed by the 45-pound snatch-and-grab needed to lift the unit out of the triple box carton. Fit and finish are superb. From the silver facade (black is also available) to the attractive cage keeping the hot tubes safely away from curious fingers to the automotive-grade paint job on the transformer covers, this baby exudes class.

The front panel sports a volume control, source selector, and operation lights. A power switch resides on the left-side panel. On the right sits a tube selector switch for EL-34s, allowing 35 watts per channel (per the review sample) or 40 watts per channel with KT-88 tubes. The rear panel hosts speaker terminals for 4- or 8-ohm operation, four line inputs, one home-theater pass-thru, and a power receptacle/fuse holder. A slender but solid remote handles volume, source selection, muting, and playback for a PrimaLuna CD player.

Considerable coolness resides beneath the warm tube sockets housing four EL-34s and four 12AU7s. The Adaptive AutoBias, or AAB, circuit keeps tubes from misbehaving and protects the output stages. Additionally, there’s the BTI, or “bad tube indicator,” that detects tube malfunction, flags the offender, and powers the unit down until said tube gets replaced. A PTP, or “power transformer protection,” stops the party if the output power transformer overheats. This device is coupled with an OTP, an output transformer protection circuit. Given the wing-and-a-prayer security offered by some audiophile equipment, the ProLogue Premium is a component you could surely take into a hurt locker. Plus, for vinyl heads, PL offers an optional easy-to-install moving-magnet phonostage for $199.

Low-Frequency Slam, Dynamics, and More

Plug-and-play equipment is great in concept. Unfortunately, many such high-end adventures resemble trips down the Amazon after the local guide falls overboard and drowns. In this regard, the ProLogue Premium marks a refreshing return to civilization.

After removing the foam surrounds from the tubes, I hooked up my peripherals and speakers, and plugged everything in. Wait. Is that the sound of silence? Not to worry. PrimaLuna subscribes to an aptly named SoftStart feature that powers everything up very safely, but very slowly. Red panel lights give way to green panel lights and, in less than two minutes, it’s ready to go.

For the purposes of this review, the ProLogue Premium drove Totem Mani-2 Signatures, fortified with Nordost Frey bi-wire speaker cable. Sound sources included a PS Audio PerfectWave Transport and Mk II DAC, a Logitech Squeezebox Touch with USB drive, and an Oppo BDP-95 universal player. In my 15’ x 10’ x 8’ room, I settled back in an easy chair about eight feet away from the Totems, which rested on lead-filled Target stands.

After a week of break-in, I popped Mark Levinson’s demo Live Recording from Red Rose SACD into the Oppo. Enter “In a Sentimental Mood” flowing from Chico Freeman’s mellow sax and George Cable’s funky piano. Having sat in the same Red Rose show room where these performances were recorded, I assure you that the ProLogue Premium faithfully renders the music’s immediacy, right down to the reed movement on Freeman’s mouthpiece.

A high-res 96 kHz/24-bit download of Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman places the visceral guitar from “Wild World” right in my face and exposes the slightly veiled character of Stevens’ distinctive voice. Speaking of vocals, Diana Krall’s well-recorded Live in Paris contains a very, very good rendition of “A Case of You.” Krall’s sensual huskiness comes across convincingly, thanks again to the ProLogue Premium.

Larger-scale music arrived courtesy of a 176.4k/24-bit Reference Recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, performed by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra. The ProLogue Premium conveys the first movement’s low-frequency slam without running out of gas. Moreover, Bach’s Gigue Fugue, from the ultra-demanding Pipes Rhode Island, more than amply fills my modest-sized room with the dynamic sounds of the English Renaissance organ in St. Paul’s Church in Wickford, RI.

Is it Moon Glow or Memorex?

When comparing the ProLogue Premium with my reference unit, the Class A Pass INT-30A, the worlds of tubes and transistors seemingly converge. The Pass sounds non-solid-state and the Prologue Premium non-tube-like. The evaluation also shows how power ratings can be misleading, especially given the nominal five-watt output difference between the two amps. In recordings with heavier bass passages, like the Rachmaninoff disc, the Pass brings out more low-end oomph and overall space. In voice reproduction, a critical issue for testing audio gear, the ProLogue Premium behaves well, yielding little, if any, ground in warmth to the Pass.

The ProLogue Premium performs well beyond its real-word price tag. A hale and hearty pentode pumper, it’s well up to the task of keeping content my Mani-2 Signature speakers. Of course, before opting for such an amplifier rated on the lower side of the power curve, careful consideration must be given to room size, speaker sensitivity, and listening habits. Remember, 35 watts per channel can’t do everything.

Still, compared with other similarly priced products, the ProLogue Premium is considerably overbuilt. The onboard protection circuitry gives considerable ease to my concerns about tube equipment. Better yet, none of the proprietary protection circuits entered the picture during my evaluation, which should reassure any prospective owner that the integrated claims the reliability of most solid-state gear. Further reassurance against field failures comes via PrimaLuna’s tube selection. On average, the company rejects 40% of manufactured tubes—not due to defects but because they don’t meet the company’s high standards. The ProLogue Premium definitely meets mine.

Additional Comments

By Jeff Dorgay

Attention vacuum-tube amplification newbies and all other concerned parties: My first PrimaLuna Product, the ProLogue One integrated amplifier, is still going strong after almost nine years of constant play. It’s had an interesting trip, going from TONEAudio’s headquarters to our first music editor’s office (where it was rarely turned off) to my niece’s living room, where it still plays eight-to-ten hours a day. Other than a new set of EL-34 output tubes installed in 2010, it has run faithfully without as much as a hiccup.

Where the original ProLogue has a warmer overall sound overall, the Premium features more extension at both ends of the frequency range and more immediacy—thanks to the updated circuit and larger transformers. Having exchanged the EL-34s for KT88s and 6L6s, I prefer the tonality of the EL-34. In a modest-sized room with a great pair of mini monitors (I used the outstanding Penaudio Cenyas for my listening), this amp is all you need to rock the house.  Should your tastes veer more towards Van Halen than Vivaldi, the ProLogue Premium will please you.

Based on my 2004 review for the magazine, the original ProLogue received a Product of the Year Award from The Absolute Sound. The new Premium version costs more, but still offers an audio experience unmatched for the price. I’m happy to grant this integrated an Exceptional Value Award for 2012. Like the legendary tube amplifiers from McIntosh and Marantz, it’s an amplifier you can hand down to your family members through the years.

PrimaLuna Prologue Premium Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2299 (USD)

PrimaLuna USA


Digital Source Logitech Squeezebox Touch    PS Audio PerfectWave Transport/DAC (Mk  II)   Oppo BDP-95
Speakers Totem Mani-2 Signature     Silverline Audio Minuet Supreme
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Elgar
Cables Nordost Valhalla    Nordost Frey
Power Cords Nordost Valhalla    Nordost Brahma    Nordost Vishnu

Primare I22 Integrated

Incorporating a DAC inside an integrated amplifier has been going on for some time now, with mixed results, and the Primare I22 is a product arguably aimed more at the music lover who likes to keep things simple.

The I22 pictured here includes the $799 DAC board (with 24/96 USB and 24/192 Toslink and SPDIF inputs) for $2,498.  Those of you already in possession of a good DAC can order your I22 without DAC for $1,799 and those on the fence can add the board later for $799, without a huge financial penalty.

While aimed at a consumer who will probably spend $1,000 – $4,000 on a pair of speakers to round out a system, the I22 is well at home driving the $35,000 KEF Blades.  Its 80 watts per channel prove more than adequate to really rock the orange KEF flagship speakers.

Taking advantage of Primare’s UFPD (Ultra Fast Power Device) technology, which combines the Class D amplification stage and output filters into a single device, the claimed sonic improvements are readily apparent:  This is a thoroughly modern Class D design, which suffers from none of the sonic artifacts that characterize (and often plague) this configuration.

Listening to the multi-layered vocals of 10cc’s “Marriage Bureau” is a treat – all of the late ’70s multitrack wizardry is in full effect, including the great Moog synthesizer tracks, with everything well sorted and keeping its own distinct sonic space.

The ins and outs

The front panel is the essence of understatement, with a single volume control, flanked by a pale white LED indicator panel, displaying the input in use along with the volume level.  Just to the right is a pair of small, machined buttons to select input, and one more to switch between standby and power-on mode.  Incidentally, this might be counterintuitive to some, as the LED glows when the I22 is in standby mode, extinguishing when the amplifier is on.

Inputs 1-5 are standard line level inputs with RCA jacks and inputs 6–8 are digital inputs (if you’ve had the DAC board installed), with a Toslink, USB and SPDIF.  For the duration of the review, we used the Meridian Control 15 server via SPDIF and the Aurender A10 server via USB.  The majority of the files used were 16 bit/44.1, with a bit of dallying into the world of high res.  Hardcore audiophiles might squeal about the lack of 24/192 USB capability (or DSD for that matter, but I’m not the least bit concerned); however, for those streaming files from a laptop or other digital source, primarily of CD and MP3 quality, the I22 will be just fine as it is.  Should the highest resolution digital files be your priority, order the I22 without the DAC board, or just use an SPDIF converter with your laptop.  Pairing a Mac Book Pro with the M-Tech USB converter recently reviewed worked perfectly, requiring only a minimal investment of $179.

Setup takes but a second to unbox; connect speakers and source and you’re rocking – it couldn’t be easier.  Though it might not be important to some, the I22 is lusciously understated and feels considerably more expensive than its modest price tag might suggest.

Like every other Class D amplifier we’ve tested, the I22 does respond incredibly well to an upgraded power cord and line conditioning.  Adding a power cord and the EVO 3 line conditioner from ISO TEK removes a layer of glare and cloudiness that you might mistake for the sonic signature of the amplifier, giving the I22 an even smoother, more natural sound.

Resolution without regret

Both Carole King’s Tapestry and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, downloaded via HD Tracks easily illustrate the onboard DACs ability to resolve the difference between standard and high-resolution files.  An even better demo was evident with Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s self-titled album, also in 24/192.  Both vocalists occupied their own space, delicately layered upon each other, with a delightful smoothness – again offering higher than expected for the price asked.

The deep low-frequency content in the Daft Punk album focuses on a primary strength of Class D amplifiers – bass response, providing equally solid heft and control.  This is very impressive with the KEF Blades, but even more so with the $1,499/pair LS-50s which really come alive via the I22, exhibiting tremendous LF response.

Equally compelling is the rendition of analog tracks, captured to 24/96, via my Nagra LB studio recorder, using the AVID Acutus Reference SP/Lyra Atlas/Indigo Qualia analog front end.  Again, resolution takes a big jump for the better, i.e. more natural, underscoring the overall sonic performance of the onboard DAC.  Sifting through a series of recent digital captures from the Music Matters Jazz Blue Note catalog makes it even easier to listen to the amount of texture the I22 is capable of rendering when the source material is up to the task.

Finally, combining a Rega RP6 turntable and Exact cartridge via the latest tube phonostage from Monk Audio (12AX7 powered, $1,195 MSRP) rounds the system out nicely for those wanting to make the foray into analog without breaking the bank.  Spinning Daniel Lanois’s Black Dub album, chock full of acoustic and electronic texture, proves how smooth this amplifier is capable of sounding.  While you wouldn’t mistake it for a valve amplifier, it is in no way harsh; in fact, a number of audiophile buddies didn’t know it was a Class D design until it was revealed.

The second track on the Lanois album, “I Believe In You,” features some great drum sounds, that are all captured with excellent depth, texture, speed and delicacy – especially with the brush work via drummer Brian Blades.  Many Class D designs have a tendency to sound somewhat thin in the sense of a two dimensional soundstage, yet here the Primare does very well.  Lead vocalist Trixie Whitley has always stood out in front of the soundstage, as she does on my reference system.  Comparing this to a somewhat similarly priced PrimaLuna tubed integrated, the tubes definitely throw a more three dimensional soundfield, but in comparison to similarly priced solid state kit, the I22 more than holds its own.  And you don’t have to screw around with vacuum tubes, either.

Simple, stylish, sonic excellence

Those wanting bells and whistles should look elsewhere.  However, if you want great sound wrapped in an understated enclosure that will not call much attention to itself, I can’t think of a better choice than the Primare I22.  Now, the only thing you need decide is if you want it in silver or black, and whether you’d like the DAC board or simply use the matching (and equally enticing) C22 CD player.   We are very happy to award this amplifier one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013 – even more so, with the DAC installed.

The Primare I22 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,799

$2,498 (with DAC) (factory) (US Distributor)


Digital Sources               Meridian Control 15, Aurender S10, MacBook Pro

Analog Source                Rega RP6/Exact Cartridge, Monk Audio Phonostage

Speakers                       KEF LS50, KEF Blade, Harbeth Compact 7

Cable                            Cardas Clear Light

Accessories                   IsoTek Evo 3 power conditioner, power cord.

Plinius Hautonga

In case Plinius is a company that has slipped under your radar, they hail from New Zealand, and have been making incredible products for years now.

However, those that do know about the brand are doggedly loyal.  It’s a brand that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone slag out on the various internet forums, so they are doing something right.

Something indeed.  Having built their reputation on big, class-A power amplifiers, the Hautonga you see here is an integrated amplifier (with phono stage, no less) that features a 200-watt per channel class AB power amplifier.  Yet, much like the Burmester 911 mk. 3 and the new D’Agostino Momentum, the Plinius comes up with a remarkably grain free sound, that just might fool you that this understated beauty has a class-A amplifier under it’s cover.  Yet the MSRP is only $5,750.

It’s a very understated box, with gently rounded corners and an asymmetrical top plate, yet the rear panel is bright blue, similar to the French racing blue you’ve seen on factory Renault race cars.  It makes for a nice accent stripe where the top panel meets the casework.  The Hautonga is beautifully machined and is available in black or silver.  The control layout is the ultimate of simplicity; a large volume control and gently rounded push buttons to control the inputs.  Oddly, a balance control is absent – no big whoop for digital music enthusiasts, but this might be somewhat inconvenient for analog lovers.  Even if it were implemented from the remote – and the Hautonga has a sleek, stylish, yet commanding remote.

A complete integrated

In the tradition of the best integrateds, the Hautonga features an on board phono stage – handy for those wanting to keep rack clutter to a minimum. It does feature adjustable gain with two settings via on board jumpers, however loading is fixed at 47k ohms.  Though I’m not a fan of running most MC cartridges at this setting, there are still some great alternatives.

The cartridges in my arsenal that mate particularly well with the 47k/high gain combination are the Sumiko Blackbird, a moderately high output (2.5mv) that works fine with 47k loading, and the Grado Statement 1 moving iron cartridge.  With a .5mv output and 47k loading, this is a perfect, if slightly overpriced match (the Statement 1 is $3,500) for the Hautonga.  Keep in mind that Grado does make a series of wood bodied moving iron cartridges, all having a .5mv output, from $500 on up.  I’m guessing one of these on your favorite table will prove equally enticing.

Tracking through a handful of recent favorites from MoFi and Music Matters Jazz, I submit that the onboard phono is probably equivalent to something you might purchase as an outboard phonostage in the $750 – $1,000 range.  Not bad, considering the Hautonga is an awesome deal without the phono stage.  Highs are smooth and well sorted, the overall tonal balance neutral and background noise very low.  And then there’s the necessity for another set of interconnects and power cord; another reason a built in phono is such an awesome idea.

Entry level and Journeyman vinyl enthusiasts will probably never need more analog capability than the Hautonga’s on board stage provides.

Maybe on the next version of the Hautonga, they will open this up to adjustment, or offer a $5,000 version with no phono stage.  Bypassing the onboard stage, utilizing the Aesthetix Rhea phonostage, paired with the SME 10 turntable and Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, (an analog front end worth about $20k) the Hautonga easily resolves the difference in analog front ends – again showing off what a great amplifier this is.

Further listening

After a few days of being powered up, the Hautonga opens up to a full-bodied sound.  Ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, the more you listen to this amplifier, you’ll psyche yourself out thinking that it is class-A after all.  It’s also on the warm side when in operation as well, suggesting relatively high bias current.  The Hautonga actually sounds more like my Burmester 011/911 combination than the Simaudio 850P/880M electronics.

Whether paired with their own Tiki streaming audio player (review in process) or any of the digital players at my disposal, the Hautonga is a pleasure to listen to, regardless of source.  While lacking the last bit of resolution available with cost no object gear, dynamics and tonality have not taken a back seat in the design process.  Listening to the title track from Gary Numan’s latest album, Dead Sun Rising, the Hautonga powers the Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution speakers in room two with conviction. This record is full of deep, deep, synth bass lines and the Hautonga sails through effortlessly, even at high volume.

These are speakers that require a lot of current and control to deliver maximum performance and this proves to be a great combination.  Going for the ultimate torture test, swapping in a pair of Acoustat 1+1 speakers, which are usually tough to drive because of their wacky impedance curve and the highly capacitive load they present, was another easy task for the Hautonga.

Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth proves spacious, controlled and full of punch.  The rapid-fire bass riffs on the opening track, “Dissidents,” is tough to nail on a pair of Acoustats if the amplifier lacks current drive.  Yet cranking this up, the Hautonga handles it in stride, which leads to some more bass laden tracks from Peter Gabriel and Genesis. Again, this amplifier’s ability to provide controlled bass, full of texture on a set of speakers known for “”one note bass” is highly impressive.

Moving the amplifier out to room one and the KEF Blades is a ton of fun – and again reveals this amplifiers ability to provide a high quality musical experience with ancillaries much more expensive than you might pair it up with.  The Blades 90db sensitivity proves an easy load for this amplifier to drive allowing for plenty of dynamic range and showing off the bass control and drive. While fairly efficient, the Blades also need a fair amount of current to reproduce bass well.  This prompted a long playlist of Deadmau5, Skrillex, Daft Punk and Infected Mushroom, pushing the amplifier to its limits.  Even after hours of this treatment, the Hautonga stayed slightly warm to the touch but no more.

Subtlety beyond its pricetag

While the Hautonga can really rock out when required, what makes it a top performer is the level of resolution and inner detail it provides.  Tracking through the MoFi gold CD of Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, a number of small details come up in the mix that normally require more expensive electronics to extract – again convincing this writer that the integrated is one of the best ways to achieve high performance without breaking the bank.   With so many choices to damage the synergy between amplifier and preamplifier, having it all on one chassis saves the day for all but the most geeky – and patient end user.  An integrated is the fast track to great sound.

Vocals and solo acoustic instruments feel right played through the Hautonga.  Revisiting some early Windham Hill recordings from Alex DeGrassi and Liz Story illustrate subtlety, tonal nuance and a wonderful sense of decay.  The old audiophile classic, Solid Colors paints a great picture of Ms. Story and her Steinway, awash in detail rendered perfectly by the Hautonga/Blade combination.

The Jung Trio’s rendition of Dvorak’s Piano Trio in F Minor, Op.65, is another treat showcasing the fantastic tonal contrast and neutrality that the Hautonga has to offer.  Perhaps two of the toughest instruments to reproduce cleanly, the amplifier sails through, with the interplay between the sisters well intact.

Rounding out the picture

The Hautonga also features the other common niceties to round out the package, with four additional RCA line inputs in addition to the Phono and CD player inputs, along with a single XLR input.  A ground lift switch is also provided, which came in handy using a vintage tape deck that had a bit of a hum problem.

Preamplifier in and outputs, 12v trigger, and a HT Bypass assure that you can integrate the Hautonga into any possible system configuration.  They even provide a pair of speaker outputs for those wishing a fully biwired speaker connection.  So no stone really goes unturned.

Nits to pick:  very few, and well under what we’d expect at this price point.  All staff members that used the Hautonga, young and old complained about two things – while very stylish, the remote was fairly hard to read in black and when using the volume control button, it has too much torque, making fine volume adjustments via remote nearly impossible at worst and frustrating at best.  And last, the phono stage loading.  It’s a shame that a phono stage that sounds this good is limited to a handful of cartridges.

Neither of these are a deal breaker, and the Plinius Hautonga is such a stellar performer in so many ways, we are all in agreement that it is highly deserving of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Plinius Hautonga Integrated Amplifier

MSRP:  $5,750

And you can peruse their Facebook page here:


Analog Source                        Rega RP8/Sumiko Blackbird,  SME 10/Sumiko Palo Santos

Digital Source                                    Plinius Tiki, dCS Vivaldi, OPPO BDP-105

Speakers                                Dynaudio Confidence C1 II, Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution, KEF Blade, KEF LS-50

Cable                                      Cardas Clear

Wyred4Sound mINT

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

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

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

Down to business

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

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

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

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

Digital functionality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wyred 4Sound mINT amplifier

MSRP: $1,495

Associated Equipment:

Opera Mezza Loudspeakers

Harbeth Compact 7 ES3

Musical Fidelity CDT transport

Marantz NA7004 streamer/DAC

Darwin Cables silver interconnects

QED Genesis Silver Spiral speaker cables

QED digital cables

Rega Elicit – A top shelf integrated

Elicit openingEd. Note: This review was published in late 2008, but we somehow failed to upload it this spring when the site was overhauled. Our apologies!

Rega has had a string of great products lately, including the improved P3-24 turntable and the stellar Ios phono preamplifier. While I might be accused of being biased toward Roy Gandy and company, it’s pretty hard not to like them when everything they’ve sent our way has been such a home run. Actually, I’m getting more and more biased towards having a great integrated amplifier in your system.

Integrated amplifiers in general have been making a comeback for a while and we’ve had quite a few of them in our paws this year that have been spectacular. The Sim Audio Moon i-7 at $7,000 is one of my favorites and features a beefy 150-watt per channel power amplifier section. The Naim SuperNait at $5,000 is less powerful but has a versatile DAC built in along with a fantastic headphone amplifier stage.

Perhaps you don’t require a built in DAC or a headphone amplifier and you would like to spin some LP’s without having to purchase an outboard phono stage? Enter the Rega Elicit. For $3,000 without a phono stage or $3,200 with your choice of MM or MC card installed, the Elicit could be the amplifier for you. My review sample came with an MM board, as Rega did not yet have the MC boards in stock, so we will do a follow up on the MC board as soon as we receive one.

The Elicit has more than enough inputs to be the center of your HiFi system. If you order yours with the phono board installed, there are five more high level inputs; four on the input selector as well as a tape monitor input. There are three outputs as well; a variable level output marked “preamp output” that you can use with a powered subwoofer or perhaps an additional power amplifier in a biamped setup, a fixed level output marked “record output” for a tape recorder, CD recorder, etc., and an additional fixed output marked “record output link” which is functionally equivalent to the record output. Rega says that the phono preamp is a plug in card and mentions “future options.”

Elicit Rear

The Elicit is rated at 82 watts per channel and while we don’t measure our amplifiers output on a bench, I can say that it played just as loud with the same speakers as the Naim SuperNait (rated at 80 watts per channel), so as long as your speakers have a sensitivity of at least 86db the Elicit will have enough power for your application. I do find the subwoofer output critical for an amplifier at this level, I’ve auditioned too many pricey integrateds that ignore this feature.

This amplifier is continuing in the path that Rega has started down with the Ios phono stage as part of their premium line of components. “This is the best integrated we are capable of making” Roy Gandy told me in a recent phone conversation. “The circuit has actually been around for a while and we’ve been refining it.” If you aren’t familiar with Rega as a company, they do not rush to market with anything, always waiting until a product is built exactly the way they want it. Their website says at the bottom of the page “they are the last major HiFi manufacturer to produce a CD player.”

Peeking inside the Elicit shows the attention to detail, with premium parts everywhere and I’d like to emphasize that there are no Class-D modules or op amps anywhere; the Elicit’s circuitry is all discrete.

Music in five minutes

Even with a turntable, CD player and subwoofer, I was rocking out in no time with the Elicit. The instruction manual is straightforward, as is the remote. As you are lifting the Elicit out of the box, you will notice how beefy it is – there’s a major power supply lurking under the casework. With a similar form factor to the rest of the Rega components, the Elicit will look right at home with a P9 and PSU power supply, an Ios phono stage, or a Rega CD player. The big difference is the openings cut in the left and right sides, revealing some massive heat sinks for the output stages.

The volume control is somewhat recessed in the front panel and is microprocessor controlled, changing volume in +/- 1db steps. Rega claims better than .2db channel balance, which I had no reason to doubt. I liked the row of LED’s that light up around the volume control as you increase the level, as an alternative to a large LED panel with numbers. And yes, those of you that get grumpy about glowing LED’s can dim them from the remote.

Top quality sound

You’ll forget all the specs the minute you fire up the Elicit; this is something special indeed. While I liked what I heard immediately, after a couple of days of continuous play the Elicit opened up even further.

Because I see the Elicit as the core of a very high performance system, I made it a point to use it with quite a few different speakers, including the MartinLogan Spires in for review as well as the 53 thousand dollar Loiminchay Chagalls. Even with the mega Loiminchay’s, which are known for their exceptional resolution of fine detail, the Elicit held it’s own.

The good news is that the Elicit has enough current drive to power the Logans just fine and every other speaker I was able to throw at it. So unless you need concert hall levels or just have tremendously inefficient speakers, the Elicit should be able to drive most speakers with ease. I ended up settling in on the system mentioned in the sidebar, with a pair of Harbeth Compact 7ES-3’s, a Rega Saturn CD player and a Rega P3 turntable with Clearaudio cartridge.

I’m fortunate enough to have a very high performance system to listen to every day and while this system I’ve assembled does not eclipse my six figure reference setup, it does nail the fundamentals so well, that it’s easy to forget that you aren’t listening to a much more expensive system. Listening to music that isn’t terribly demanding on the frequency extremes, like the new James Taylor album, Covers, or perhaps some chamber music will easily fool you into thinking you are listening to something a lot more expensive.

Elicit Detail 1

What fools you into thinking that you are listening to much more expensive gear is the tonality that this amplifier provides. While you won’t confuse the Elicit for a tube amplifier, it does have a drop of warmth to the presentation, sounding closer to the Luxman 590 (All class-A) than say the Moon i-7 or the SuperNait. Listening to my favorite classical discs was very pleasant indeed, with the Elicit having an unmistakable ”rightness” about it.

I briefly added the Luxman D-7 combination player that we have in for review, so that I could listen to the new Analogue Productions SACD release of Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus and it was awesome, showing off the dynamic capabilities of this amplifier. When Sonny blasts away, the Elicit did a fantastic job at capturing the transient attack. I had equally good luck with some of my favorite Mahler and Shostakovich discs. At moderate to loud levels, I always felt like there was enough headroom to enjoy the music without strain.

The Elicit’s performance under torture is also worth mentioning. I spent a few hours working outside the studio and had a good playlist full of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Snow Patrol playing, running the Elicit at full volume for about four hours straight. The heatsinks got a little warm, but not hot to the touch, indicating robust build quality.

At the risk of sounding vague, the Elicit is very musical. While some solid-state amplification, especially at this price point can sound somewhat harsh and fatiguing, this was never the case with the Rega. Towards the end of the review period, I moved it to my desktop system with a pair of Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a’s and MartinLogan Grotto i subwoofer. This system has incredible midrange detail and a very smooth high end along with an uncanny amount of resolution listening nearfield. Anything that is the least bit fatiguing will become torture during 10-hour Photoshop editing sessions.

Having spent the last two weeks of producing the August issue, listening to this combination nonstop, it was always enjoyable, even after 12-hour shifts, playing a very wide variety of music. I’m sure the parts quality and all discrete circuitry had a lot to do with this.

The hidden jewel

I was not prepared for the surprise that I had when I plugged my P3-24 into the Elicit. I have reviewed a number of integrated amplifiers and preamplifiers that charge $500-700 dollars for a plug in phono board that aren’t nearly as well executed as this one is. While I used Rega’s P3-24 with the Clearaudio Maestro Wood at first, I was so impressed with what I heard, I even upped the game, going to my P9 and Grado Statement combination. While this was pushing things beyond the resolution of the onboard phono stage, it still sounded great.
Elicit phono
The internal phono board more than held it’s own when comparing it to a few of the $700 external phono stages I’ve had the opportunity to sample, so for many vinyl lovers, this will be a great place to start. Being solid state, it is extremely quiet with good dynamics and an amazingly open top end for an under $200 upgrade.

Granted the internal phono stage will pale in comparison to Regas Ios (which costs as much as the Elicit), but it’s a great place to start. That being said, using the P9 with the Ios and the Rega Apheta MC cartridge was very impressive indeed. Not a bad way to go for a compact, all analog system!

A great alternative to separates

With integrateds gaining momentum all the time, if you haven’t investigated them in a few years, you will be taken back by just how much performance is now available. The Elicit is the perfect amplifier for someone who wants a high performance music system, regardless of configuration. The fact that you need fewer cords and cables is a big bonus.

Remember, what you get for $3,200 is a preamplifier, a darn good phono preamplifier and a power amplifier all on one chassis. Even buying modest interconnects in an all separates system would be another few hundred dollars and you would require a lot more rack space to get the job done.

It’s also very important to point out that while some of you in the audience might not quite grasp the significance of this $3000 British integrated, Rega has never made an integrated at this price point. They’ve built an amazing reputation on their Brio at $695 and the Mira at $1195, so this is big bucks for Rega. The Elicit offers so much at this price point because Rega builds their products in quantity and everything shares similar casework and packing materials. Unlike some boutique products that penalize the owner for building in small numbers, Rega reaps the rewards for running a tight ship and passes those savings on to their customers.

I defy anyone to put together more performance with a separate power amplifier, preamplifier and phono preamplifier at this price point. I’m happy to say that we are purchasing the review sample to become part of the permanent collection here at TONEAudio.

Elicit Front_silver

The Rega Elicit
MSRP: $2,995


Analog sources Rega P3-24, Rega P9, Rega IOS phono stage

Digital sources Rega Saturn, Luxman D-7i
Speakers Harbeth Compact 7ES -3, MartinLogan Spire, Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a

Cable Furutech Reference III (speaker and interconnect)

Accessories Running Springs Haley with Mongoose power cords, Finite Elemente Pagode Signature Rack

Vista Audio i34 Integrated Amplifier

In the world of audio, simplicity not only exists, but also is ravenously celebrated. Both Conrad-Johnson and McIntosh have produced anniversary editions of a few of their most beloved equipment. The single driver speaker community is alive and well. Most importantly, the days of mass buttons and switches have gone the way of the dinosaur, sans home theater receivers. Vacuum tube equipment thankfully has always followed a more simplified life. Though the process of developing a fine piece of glowing glass is a long and laborious process, the finished product is quite simple, and usually elegant.

Vista-Audio first caught my eye a few years back when I got to spend a few weeks with their i84 integrated tube amplifier. It was a very musical amplifier, that had a tonal purity and did an excellent job with fairly inefficient speakers, so I was anxious to sample their latest creation, the i34, which uses a pair of EL34 tubes per channel to produce 35 watts per channel. This definitely opened up the possibilities to mate the Vista sound with a wider range of speakers.

The i34 is designed and built in Serbia and is very reasonably priced at $980. It uses a pair of ECC832’s, which designer Boris Sasic feels offers the best qualities of the 12AX7 and 12AU7 in one tube. The latest version of JJ’s EL34 the EL34L’s are used for the output tubes and are supplied in a matched quad for this view

Sleek and simple

The i34 features a basic layout, reminiscent of the Dynaco Stereo 70 or early McIntosh power amplifiers with an open steel chassis, exposing the tubes and transformers. Definitely an old school approach. The transformers are sourced directly from Traformatic, who’s factory is nearby. Sasic says that this helps to keep the build cost more reasonable, because the majority of the amplifiers bulk doesn’t have to be shipped very far. The i34 weighs 24 pounds, but feels heavier than it is, definitely having a short and stout footprint.

The front panel has a simple volume control and input selector. Around back ar three sets of high level inputs marked CD, TUNER and AUX. There is also a ground for Vistas’ new phono preamplifier that I am in the process of reviewing. There are taps for 4 and 8 ohm speakers, rounded off with a standard IEC receptacle for power and the power switch, which keeps the front panel clean.
Setup and burn in

Thanks to the matched quad of tubes, the i34 leaves the factory with it’s bias already set. Sasic claims that the tubes do not need to be rebiased until a new set is fitted. Per Sasic’s direction, I gave the i34 a full week of burn in before settling down to serious listening.

Not wanting to get too much of a tubey good thing, I kept my modified Jolida CD player with a tube output stage on the sideline and used the SimAudio i.5 and the Rotel RCD-1520 CD players as sources for the bulk of the review. My usual reference speakers, the Eficion F200 speakers were used, sans MartinLogan subwoofer, as the i34 does not have a variable output to use with a sub.

The Sound

The i34 had a very open tonal quality and did not bloat breathy female vocals as some tube amplifiers can do. When listening to Nora Jones, Come Away With Me, the airy sultriness that attracts most listeners to her voice wasn’t overdone in the least. This was very similar to my memory of the i84; midrange magic, but not too much.

Thanks to the more delicate nature of the EL 34 tube, this amplifier is probably more suited to acoustic and vocal music. Unless you have incredibly efficient speakers, you won’t be able to enjoy Megadeth or Audioslave at the proper levels, though I was intrigued with the Who’s Quadrophenia when listening to Keith Moon’s drumming. While this amplifier does not hit you on the head with thunderous bass performance, the quality of the bass is excellent and the amplifier has great pace overall.

Comparing the i34 to my other tube amplifier, the Onix SP3, the Onix amplifier had more overall slam, but the i34 had more detail and delicacy. The i34 is a very resolving amplifier for its price point indeed.

Trying a few different speakers, I had excellent luck with the Swan 2.1SE monitors, which have a slight bass bump, making for an excellent match with the bass performance of the i34. The Era Design 5’s are less efficient and were not terribly enticing overall. The i34 is no different than any other 35 watt tube amplifier in this respect; careful speaker matching is necessary to get the most out of the power on tap.rear view

Final thoughts

There’s a solid selection of tube integrated amplifiers around the $1000 price range. At $980 the Vista Audio i34 holds it’s own very well. The fit and finish is excellent, with an understated vintage aesthetic. The overall presentation is excellent, with this amplifier providing a more refined sound than you would expect at this price point.

The Vista Audio i34 amplifier

MSRP: $980

Manufacturers Information

ENG Vista, Inc.
77-21 86th St
Ridgewood, NY 11385

Rita-340 Integrated Amplifier

web RITA FrontIf you like tube amplifiers that hanker back to the glory days of audio with a big, beefy chassis and huge output transformers, the Grant Fidelity Rita-340 is for you. It’s so robustly built that even the careless handling of the UPS guys couldn’t stop it! The substantial crate arrived, looking like it had been dropped off the top of my garage roof, but after I dusted off the Rita and fired it up it worked perfectly and it has worked flawlessly for the past six months. I think this should settle any build questions you might have about this amplifier; anything that can survive that kind of abuse should be fine in everyday use.

The Rita-340 has a substantial footprint, reminding me a lot of the Audio Research D-79 and D-150 that I used to own in the 80s, so make sure you have enough shelf space. It measures 15.5” wide, 10” tall and is 19” deep, weighing about 115 pounds. Perhaps the bottom shelf on your rack may be the best.

The silver faceplate is massive and it features control buttons on the front with a pair of transparent power meters that feature deep blue lights that let you see the tubes glowing inside. The Rita 340 is also available in all black if you prefer that look. If you subscribe to the “deep listening” crowd that needs all the lights out to get in your audio trance, you can switch the lighting off on the back panel. I loved the contrast of the blue panel and the rich warm glow of the tubes. However, I did find the power meters relatively useless. With no markings to show what they really are indicating, and the small, thin florescent orange pointers, they are virtually impossible to read from more than a few feet away. If I made the style decisions, I’d just leave the see through front panel without the meters.


Keep in mind that this is an integrated amplifier, so the size isn’t so imposing when you realize it’s taking up two spaces. There are four high level RCA inputs and one XLR input, should you have a component with balanced outputs to integrate with your system. I took advantage of this to use my Luxman D7 combination player, which features balanced outputs.

The test system consisted of the Luxman player, my Sound HiFi modded Technics SL-1200 with SME 309 arm, Sumiko Blackbird cartridge and Audio Research PH3SE phono stage. All cabling was the latest Furutech Ref III (speaker and interconnects), with Shunyata Python CX power cords and a Shunyata V-Ray power conditioner.

While most of my listening was done with my Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s, I did try quite a few different speakers during the listening period. The Rita wouldn’t really push my MartinLogan CLX’s or Magnepan 1.6’s (nor did I expect it to…), but it did a great job with all the more traditional dynamic speakers I used it with. Excellent results were achieved with the Zu Essence, Verity Audio Sarastro II’s and the Gamut S-7, as well as a number of mini monitors that have passed through for review.

web RITA RearThere are two sets of speaker outputs on the rear panel, and while the amplifier is rated to drive speakers from 4-8 ohms, with a tap for 4 and 8 ohms and a common ground. The speakers I tried had varying impedance and I did not notice any issues driving anything.

Overall the Rita-340 is very easy to use, the only quirky thing I found during the review period was the relatively slow ramp up of the volume control, but I’d rather have it go too slow than too fast, which has been the case on a few preamplifiers I’ve used lately. Fortunately, the stylish remote does have a mute button, so it’s all good.

The basics

The good news is that none of this affects the amplifiers performance, which is excellent. After a brief burn in period of about 50 hours, Rita was in full song. Featuring a pair of EL34’s driven by a 6SN7 and 6SL7 in each channel, tube rollers will be in heaven. I was very pleased with the stock tubes, but swapping the 6SN7’s for a pair of Sylvanias’ I had on hand relaxed the overall presentation, but if you are a tube roller, I’m sure you have your own secret combination. For those wanting to take the amplifiers’ performance a bit further without a lot of experimentation, you can purchase Shuguang Treasure “Black Bottle” 6SN7’s for about $300 a pair and their EL34 tubes for about the same price. Click here to see their variations on the theme:

If you purchase a set from Grant Fidelity at the same time you pick up your amplifier, they will give you 25% off. And thanks to Grant Fidelity’s excellent customer service, if you aren’t quite ready to swap tubes, as a Rita owner, they will still extend the discount later, when you are ready to make the change. Very cool.

If you are new to tube rolling, I’d highly suggest just trying the 6SN7’s. NOS variations of these tubes are indestructible and you can actually change the tonality of the amplifier quite a bit, allowing you to fine tune the sound to your room, taste and speakers. NOS EL34’s may prove too spendy, reaching as much as $300 or more each.

While still on the subject of tubes, the Rita-340 features fixed bias on the output tubes, so you will not have to monitor or adjust bias. This will require purchasing a matched quad of output tubes when retubing, which usually adds 10-20% more to the cost, but because the Rita is run so conservatively, I anticipate tube life to be very long, much like my McIntosh MC275.

If this all sounds like too much work, just fire up the Rita and dig the glorious sound.

Big amplifier, big sound

The Rita is an excellent blend between current and old school design. It has the midrange delicacy that drives most people to a tube amplifier in the first place, yet has the extension at both ends of the frequency scale to sound modern. But being an EL34 design, it does possess more warmth than a KT88 design. If you prefer a punchier version, try their Rita-880, which uses KT88 tubes and is only slightly more expensive at $4,200. The 340 was a perfect fit for me, as the EL34 is one of my favorite tubes, and I’ve used quite a few variations on the theme over the years.

I was most impressed with the quality of the bass and control that the Rita possessed. When used with the $42,000 Verity Sarastro II’s that go solidly down to 25hz, it was no problem getting some serious bass grunt with some resolution. Playing my favorite Pink Floyd and Genesis tracks revealed that the Rita could shake the walls quite nicely, but switching to some acoustic bass showed off the more articulate side of the amplifier.

Listening to “Her Room” on Anja Garbarek’s Smiling and Waving allowed me to cross the acoustic bass and female vocal requirements off the list handily. This record is a great demo, because it starts with some great plucky bass lines and weaves a great sonic texture of trippy environmental effects with Ms. Garbarek’s ethereal voice.

As I mentioned earlier, this amplifier does an excellent job of adding a touch of tubiness without becoming slow and syrupy, but make no mistake; this is a tube amplifier that adds a slight bit of body to the sound. But isn’t that why you buy a tube amplifier in the first place? Listening to some of Henry Rollins’ spoken word discs was outright scary! It sounded like Henry was right in the room screaming at me through the Harbeths. Johnny Cash’s “Delia” from American Recordings and various tracks from Tom Waits Mule Variation were equally haunting.

The presentation never got cloudy, when listening to relatively complex music either. Orchestral music had a very nice sense of spaciousness and placement. The Rita threw a very big and wide soundstage, with a lot of front to back depth as well. While 35 watts can only go so far, the Rita gave its all, even on less efficient speakers and to its credit, clips very softly. 86 db speakers should be no problem if you don’t need to achieve concert hall levels and anything above 90 db sensitivity will let you rock the house.

But there’s just something special about listening to 60’s and 70’s rock on a great tube amplifier like the Rita. That extra body just makes those Marshall amplifiers come alive in your living room. Thanks to the airy presentation, I also enjoyed my favorite grunge records from the 80’s and early 90’s too. Sonic Youth’s “My Friend Goo”, from Goo is a relatively flat recording, but the Rita did an excellent job of unraveling the texture within. Soundgarden was just as much fun to blast as Led Zeppelin and I was always surprised at just how dynamic the Rita made good live recordings sound.

This sense of dynamics really came in handy when listening to some of Naim Records’ latest 24/96 recordings. “Dolphyus Morphyus”, the sixth track on Empirical’s Out and In, has some great sax solos that will push an amplifier to its limits to keep up. The Rita-340 did a great job and never felt strained in the least, so if you are adding high res files to your music collection, you will have no problems here.


Regardless of your musical taste, the Rita is an excellent amplifier that was always involving and most of all, a lot of fun to listen to. As an integrated, you save on rack space and the fact that you will only have to upgrade one power cord (if you are so inclined) and will not need to agonize over interconnects between amplifier and preamplifier. Not to mention the resulting synergy that comes from having it all in one box.

If you have wanted to get back into tubes or are thinking about trying it for the first time, the Rita-340 should provide years of musical enjoyment thanks to its robust construction and gentle use of its power tubes. The folks at Grant Fidelity have an excellent reputation for customer service, so they can help you with tube rolling and other system questions. We are very happy to give the Rita 340 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2009.

Manufacturers Information

The Grant Fidelity Rita – 340 Reference Integrated Tube Amplifier

MSRP: $3,500


Analog Source: Sound HiFi Modded SL-1200 with Sumiko Blackbird and Audio Research PH3SE

Digital Sources: Luxman Du-7 Combination player, Sooloos Music Server with Neko Audio D-100 DAC

Speakers: GamuT S-7, Harbeth Monitor 40.1, Verity Audio Sarastro II, ZU Essence

Cable: Shunyata Aurora interconnects, Shunyata Orion speaker cable, Shunyata Python CX power cords

Accessories: Shunyata V-Ray power conditioner, Shunyata Dark Field Cable Elevators, GIK sound panels, Furutech DeMag