Issue 78


Old School:

Recapping the HH Scott 357

By Erik Owen


A Mini Miracle From Totem Audio

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile:

Wharfedale Diamond 250  Loudspeakers

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Quad PA-One Headphone Amplifier and Audioengine HD6 Speakers

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Anker SoundCore Bluetooth Speaker

Bald Eagle Skull Shaver

Eunique Jean’ster and Ride’ster Jeans

DJ Pillows

Hot Wheels Yellow Submarine

Muss Cobblestone

StarTrek Communicator Net Phone


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

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

Gear Previews

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


Audio Classics 9b Amplifier
By Richard H. Mak

System Audio Pandion 30 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad Johnson CA 150SE
By Jeff Zaret

Torus AVR 15 Plus Isolation Transformer
By Rob Johnson

Pass Labs XA30.8 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium CD Player

Whenever I’m asked to suggest a CD player that’s warm, romantic, and “anti-digital,” I always recommend a player with a vacuum-tube output stage. I nominate the same player TONEAudio contributors Bob Gendron and Jerold O’Brien use—the PrimaLuna ProLogue 8, now labeled the Classic. It takes the harsh, digital sting out of CDs. Sure, some digital players are more accurate and refined. But if you are a hardcore analog nut, many end up sounding thin in comparison. PrimaLuna recently took its vacuum-tube digital disc player a step further with the improved Premium.

For those not familiar with the name, PrimaLuna has been in business for more than a decade and boasts a fantastic reputation for sonics, build quality, and wonderful fusion of old-school and modern aesthetics. Available with satin black or silver faceplates, the new player’s chassis is covered in a deep metallic-blue finish that’s hand-polished to display a mirror finish—a PrimaLuna hallmark.

My only complaint with the Classic? It lacks a digital input. But PrimaLuna addresses this and more with the Premium. To its credit, the company has not simply tacked a vacuum-tube buffer onto the end of a traditional CD player to soften things up. All the gain stages utilize vacuum tubes, and the Premium is the only player we’ve seen that uses a tube for the clock circuit, as well.

Arguments about system synergy and tonal coloration aside, the approach works well, and in much the same way an analog enthusiast would choose a Grado Statement or Koetsu Urushi phono cartridge over a Lyra Titan i or Ortofon Winfield. It’s not better or worse, but it’s a specific flavor, and if it’s the one you crave, nothing else will do.

Beginning listening sessions with discs on the harsh side of the spectrum, it takes only a few minutes to see the brilliance of this approach. No, the Premium still can’t make the brightest CD ever made, Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle, sound like an LP, but everything else on my toxic list becomes considerably more palatable. Tinkly percussion bits in “Thunder,” from Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls, float around the soundstage as they should, with the electronic drums now slightly subdued, and making all the difference in the world.

While I won’t define what this instrument produces as a tone control, it is a different set of tonal values, and even on the best CDs, an enjoyable presentation. For those new to TONEAudio, my listening bias favors an overall tonal balance just a touch on the warm side of neutral. So if you possess canine hearing and want a system than can remove wallpaper from the walls, you know where I stand.

New Versus Old

Costing $1,000 more than the Classic, the Premium adds a larger, dual mono power supply, upgraded active and passive parts, and a different analog stage featuring four 12AU7 tubes (the original uses a pair of 12AX7s and a pair of 12AU7s). The dual 5AR4 rectifiers are retained to excellent effect. One of the biggest improvements arrives via the incorporation of a second Super Tube Clock, further reducing jitter and increasing low-level resolution.

Borrowing O’Brien’s Classic for a side-by-side comparison proves illuminating. Where the original player sounds more like a Dynaco Stereo 70, i.e. “classic tube sound,” the Premium sounds more like a more modern tube amplifier; think BAT or ARC. It still possesses a wonderful and tubey midrange, but also more extension at the top and bottom end of the frequency range, and more inner detail and punchier dynamics.

Brian Eno’s latest work, Lux, illustrates the aforementioned characteristics.  Another of his ambient works, reminiscent of Tuesday Afternoon, the composition rolls along gently with bell-like keyboard sounds that ease in and out of consciousness. Where the Classic cuts the decay short, the music lingers longer and fades further out before going to black via the Premium. A similar experience manifests on the title track of Jack White’s current Blunderbuss, with the newer player doing a better job at keeping sorted individual elements in a mix. Every disc I play with a relatively dense mix yields the same scintillating results.

Long-Term Pleasure

The Premium never gets on your nerves and proves great for extended listening. The vacuum tubes also make it easy to tune the sound. Stock PrimaLuna tubes will be fine for most, but with a plethora of vintage 12AU7s on the market (and at significantly less cost than 12AX7s), one can tube-roll to infinity. Scour the Internet, or brainstorm with Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio, PrimaLuna’s importer, to enjoy different perspectives on the player when the mood strikes.

Full-day listening sessions are free of fatigue and, on more than one occasion, I’m lulled into thinking that I’m not listening to digital. Comparing the Premium to my Linn LP-12 turntable, I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Switching back and forth between CD and vinyl versions of the Tubes’ What Do You Want From Live? surprises me, with critical cues like audience claps and hall ambience nearly identical in texture and rendition.

A wide range of source material reveals no obvious shortcomings, although the slight warmth added by the all-tube design lends something special to rock and solo vocals. The grungy guitars of Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter on the classic “All the Young Dudes” overflows with texture and overtone, sounding like a pair of Marshall stacks right here in the listening room, with their Celestion drivers flapping at maximum excursion. Cat Power’s “Manhattan” is equally enthralling, her wispy vocals hovering just above the main mix—another example of a modern disc sounding better than it ought to.

One Input Makes All the Difference

When PrimaLuna introduced its first CD player about three years ago, computers were not the ubiquitous music sources they are today, and the company’s players had a closed architecture. The Premium’s USB input allows for a computer to be directly plugged in and utilizes an M2Tech HiFace USB/SPDIF converter internally, a touch that tremendously increases the player’s value.

Feeding high-resolution files into the Premium’s USB reveals the DAC’s merits.  The bass riffs in Charlie Haden’s The Private Collection instantly disclose the advantage of extra resolution from the HD download versus the excellently recorded CD. Texture abounds, and the player sounds more neutral when playing high-resolution files, with the slight bit of upper-bass warmth fading further into the background.

Comparison listening puts music played from the tray on equal footing with the same 16/44.1 files played via USB input. Still, high-res files via the server gain the edge in clarity and dynamics. All digital files are upsampled via a Burr Brown SRC4192 24bit/192kHz upsampling circuit and converted to analog via Burr Brown PCM1792 DACs. While some audiophiles condemn upsampling, it works splendidly here.

Ticking the remaining boxes

Since it’s a tube player, the Premium takes about an hour to stabilize. It sounds a bit slow with some upper bass bloat for the first 15 minutes, but within an hour, the issue completely dissipates. The Premium comes triple-boxed and includes a tube cage and pair of white gloves to keep the player’s smooth finish free of fingerprints—or provide amusement when you play Thriller. The posh aluminum remote also controls any PrimaLuna preamplifier or integrated amplifier, keeping room clutter to a minimum. But don’t lose it. You can’t access the USB input or change phase without it.

I appreciate that the Premium only has a 2-volt output from its RCA jacks (instead of the more common 4-volt output), allowing the average linestage to stay in the sweet spot of its operating range and offer a wider range of volume adjustment.

No, PrimaLuna’s strategy isn’t for everyone. Detail fanatics demanding razor-sharp leading edges on transients might be better served by a solid-state player. But if digital still leaves you cold after all these years, and you’re wondering why you still aren’t enjoying your CD collection (or digital files) as much as you should, give the ProLogue Premium CD player a spin.

PrimaLuna Premium CD Player

MSRP: $3,999


Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Power Amplifier Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks
Additional Digital Source Mac Book Pro/Pure Music
Speakers Sonus Faber Aida
Cable Cardas Clear

AVID Acutus Reference SP – UPDATE

I’ve been using the AVID Acutus Reference SP for about four years now and that’s a mighty long time in the world of hifi reviewing, where things can be a revolving door. Yet with all of the interesting turntables I’ve had the pleasure of using, the Acutus Reference SP remains my personal favorite.

It’s easy to exhaust one’s adjective gland, getting all excited about this shiny thing or that, in the course of a short review. But when you live with a turntable for a number of years and are still raving, that’s a big deal. When you spend enough money on a turntable to buy a nice used Porsche, said turntable should be just like that Porsche: something you look forward to using every day. The Acutus certainly passes this test with ease.

The performance is world class, and much like the Porsche 911, you can buy fancier models from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin (with MUCH higher price tags) but at the end of the day, none of them will really get around the race track any faster than a 911, and the 911 will reward you further by not being the least bit fussy doing it. This is a big part of the magic that the Acutus, and all AVID turntables offer.

Like the 911 or Knoll’s Barcelona chair, the Acutus also strikes a perfect balance of being well appointed and finished without being blingy or trendy. Personally, I enjoy the look of the table as much as I did the day I took it out of the box and never get tired of it. It is a classic bit of mechanical engineering that would be equally at home in the Louvre as it is on my equipment rack.

I must also confess that as much as I love analog, I hate fiddling with turntables. I am only an average setup guy on my best day and lean heavily on a few of my expert friends in the industry to double check my work, optimizing my setups when I am doing a critical product review. The Acutus is easy to set up and stays set up. This is as much a blessing to a reviewer that needs a consistent reference as it is to the consumer that wants to listen to music, not be a setup guru. However, if that kind of thing floats your boat, I do have a couple of LP-12s sitting around collecting dust I might interest you in…

All of this would be pointless if the sound wasn’t so damn good. Back when I wrote the original Acutus review, I was using a Koetsu Urushi Blue as my main cartridge. Since then, the Lyra Atlas, the Clearaudio Goldfinger and now the Koetsu Onyx Platinum all have graced the Acutus, and all have excelled there. This table is up to whatever cartridge and phono stage you can pair it with. Again, in the Acutus’ tenure, it has been paired with a number of lofty phono stages, costing nearly three times as much as the table. The price has gone up a bit in four years from $20k to $26k these days, but compared to a lot of tables costing a lot more, I still feel the Acutus is a steal for the price asked.

Everyone has a personal preference when it comes to sound, so it’s tough to call something “the best.” However if you want a table that has a big, weighty, dynamic, yet open sound, the AVID Acutus Reference SP might be the best turntable to suit your needs. It remains mine. I highly suggest you audition one at your earliest convenience.

AudioQuest SLiP 14/2 Speaker Cable

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

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

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

Pass XsPre – A Solid State Marvel

When Pass labs introduced the dual chassis Xs monoblocks a couple of years ago, they raised the bar for other components, and in the process even raised the bar for their own, already excellent XP30. We could end the review here by saying that on one level the difference between the XP30 and the XsPre is very much like the difference between the XA.8 series power amplifiers and the Xs monoblocks; everything is bigger, bolder, cleaner and quieter than what has come before.

Taking the financial aspect out of the equation, with the XsPre tipping the scale at $38,000 and the XP30 less than half of that at $16,500, the XsPre offers a lot more, if you have the room, system and software able to resolve the difference. For those that are familiar, think of the XP30 as a standard Porsche 911 and the XsPre as a fully geeked out GT3. You don’t need it to get the job done, but if it won’t affect your meal plan to acquire, you won’t be disappointed.

LONG TERM: The Robert Koda K-10 Preamplifier

Living with a hifi component for a long period of time is either a wonderful or dreadful thing. Features that seemed annoying at first can really be problematic after a time and magic that wasn’t always apparent at first really shines after about a thousand albums.

When you truly commit to a component, it’s almost like a long term relationship with a person; you either grow together or you grow apart. You need look no further than the recent court docket of divorce decrees or Audiogon to see who’s become tired of their spouse or their preamplifier.

Happily, after three years of using Robert Koda’s K-10 preamplifier, I still feel as if I’m on a honeymoon. After listening day in and day out, sometimes from sunrise to sunset and beyond, it remains one of, if not the finest preamplifiers I’ve had the privilege to own for a number of reasons.

The gold faceplate is reminiscent of Conrad-Johnson gear, but the one affixed to the K-10 is finished to a much higher standard. The only other gear I’ve seen with this level of quality in the machine work is Burmester. This extends to the control feel as well, there is a vault like solidity and security to using the K-10, and because it lacks a remote control, you will be using these fine controls regularly.

The understated aesthetics and lack of remote control may not be to the liking of those preferring more bling, but it will thrill the purist. Aesthetics aside, the sonic purist will be instantly transported as so many of my friends and acquaintences have been when listening to the K-10. This preamplifer does an incredible job of getting out of the way to just let you enjoy music. It doesn’t sound like a solid state or a tube preamplifier. It has no sound at all, and music merely unfolds, with an effortlessness that few components at any price can deliver in this manner. Acoustic instruments retain tone and timbre in a way that the right recordings will convince you that you are seated in front of the real thing and not a stereo system – if this is your idea of the absolute sound, look no further.


In my initial review of the K-10 (above), I said there was no limit as to how far you could peek into a recording with this preamplifier, and this has only gotten better with time. Now that I have listened to thousands of tracks through it, I continue to be amazed at the resolution, effortlessness and complete lack of sonic signature that it provides. Music simply unfolds from the K-10, and now that Mr. Koda has built a K-15 model, I can’t even imagine at how he could have improved upon this design. Maybe one will make it our way for a comparison someday? Every time I swap a different preamplifier in the place of the K-10, I find myself missing it, and that is the highest compliment I can pay any component.

As one who loves the physical look and feel of the K-10 as much as its sonic attributes, I put this preamplifier in the same league of classic creations like the Eames Lounge chair or a Porsche 911 – it is beautiful to listen to and beautiful to behold. Its subtle, understated elegance is something I never tire of and contributes a sense of peacefulness to my listening sessions.

However, the K-10 does have a few minor idiocyncracies that a potential owner does need to be aware of. The K-10s 6db of gain may not be enough for a few system configurations utilizing  low output moving coil phono cartridges or a modest gain phonostage,. With the high output of most DAC’s, (usually 4V) gain should never be a problem in an all digital system. When pushing the limits, I still would like a bit finer range of adjustment at the higher end of the volume scale, but again never enough to be annoyed.

For some, the lack of a remote will be an issue. Honestly, I thought it would drive me crazy, but forgoing the remote brings me back full circle to the beginning of my high end audio experience, when they did not exist! Let’s face it, most of us can use the exercise to get up and adjust the volume anyway! But most of all, the lack of a motorized or digital volume control makes for a quieter, more pure signal, I feel it forces you to focus more intently on the loudness level of the listening session instead of fidgeting with the volume control. Set it, relax and get into the music I say!

Three years later, the Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier still gets my vote for one of the world’s finest audio creations. I’m guessing three years from now I’ll still feel the same way. This one is a bit off the beaten path, but if you are looking for the ultimate audio Zen experience, in a preamplifier that makes a major statement by not making a statement, this is your final destination. Unless of course, you pony up for a K-15!

Decware Zen Mystery Amp

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

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

Arf, Arf

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

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

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

Details, Details

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

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

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

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

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

Setup and Further Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decware Zen Mystery Amp

MSRP: $5,695


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

iFi Retro 50

Knowing that a quartet of EL-84 tubes lurk under the hood of the iFi Retro 50, I knew it was time to break out the JBLs – and it was good. Just as with the Dynaco SQA-35 and even the Manley Stingrays, there’s just nothing like the sound of a pair of JBL L-100s driven by an EL-84 amplifier. Those little tubes have a soft-spoken magic about them that can’t be duplicated by the EL-34 or even an SET amplifier. And the slightly soft character of this output tube goes miles towards taming the upper register of the L-100s.

Listening to the bongos bounce around the listening room during the opening of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” is delightful, and when his voice folds into the mix, it comes across much larger than life. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the Retro 50 was something that has been in a box for 50 years, the dust just shaken off. It really does groove, with an abundance of musical detail as well – it doesn’t just round all the transient attack off to sound groovy. The sound is just more saturated throughout.

Regular readers of TONEAudio know that we’ve given iFi’s compact DAC and phonostage rave reviews. They pack major performance in a small form factor and keep the price down as well. So far, we’ve seen no downside to any of their products that we’ve sampled. The Retro 50 has both of these and a great headphone amplifier – all on this compact chassis, encased in a bamboo enclosure. Now that’s something you never saw on a vintage receiver from the ’70s!

The Retro 50 comes packaged with a pair of iFi’s Retro 3.5 speakers for $1,995. Unfortunately at this time, you must buy the combo; the Retro 50 is not available by itself.

Investigating those little speakers

iFi calls the speakers accompanying the Retro 50 “Retro 3.5” in homage to the legendary LS3/5A BBC monitors. The similarity to the LS3/5A ends with the form factor. They don’t really suck, but they don’t really rock either. Judicious use of the tone controls and signal processing at your disposal on the front panel of the Retro 50 mitigates this, but they perform much better in a desktop system than out in the listening room. Sold alone, they carry a retail price of $795 – forget about them at this price, but as part of the Retro 50 system, not bad.

Fortunately, the Retro 50 is so undervalued, even if you throw the speakers out, it is still more than worth the $1,995 that’s asked. $1,500 for the Retro 50 alone would be the audio bargain of the 21st century, maybe forever!

Even after a lot of break-in time, the Retro 3.5 speakers still sound small. Discerning use of the tone controls and the 3D sound processor help tremendously, yet using them in a room much larger than 11 x 14 feet for anything more than background fill is not suggested. Nearfield in my small second listening room is pleasurable, but the speakers still sound overly polite, without having the body that a real pair of LS3/5As possesses.

The best place for the Retro 3.5s proves to be on the desktop, flanking a 27-inch computer monitor, with a slight tip-up. A bit of toe-in goes a long way, looking for a balance between soundstage width and bass reinforcement. iFi makes it painless for the audio enthusiast to get down to business with audio, USB and speaker cables included in the box. Obsessed audiophiles will want to upgrade these later, and the Retro 50 responds well to a premium wire upgrade.

No matter how you enjoy music, you’re covered

Whether digital, analog or wireless, the Retro 50 can handle your source components. In addition to a cracking MM/MC phonostage and DAC, there is an antenna to stream digital files via your smart device, too. For the foreseeable future, the Retro 50 is “obsolete-proof.”

The Retro 50 is capable of decoding both DSD and DXD files, and this was the only part of the Retro 50 that I did not explore. With all the rage surrounding this, I just can’t get conned into buying my favorite music again. But for those of you who are new to the game and investing in these files, you are good to go. If the 24/192 performance of the Retro 50 is any indication, you will not be disappointed with DSD reproduction.

The coaxial and optical digital inputs accommodate files up to 24/192, while the USB input goes all the way up to DSD 512. With 24/192 files, it is virtually a dead heat between the inputs in terms of sound quality, so whatever strikes your fancy will work well. The gadget geeks in the audience will appreciate the digital input logo changing color with file resolution, just like AudioQuest’s Dragonfly. iFi’s choice of the aptX codec is a great move, so those using other than Apple iDevices will be very happy. Streaming from a Galaxy phone over Bluetooth is stunningly good with Tidal, and for this writer, all I’d ever need on a desert island are the Retro 50, a pair of JBL L-100s and a Galaxy phone with a Tidal subscription (along with good reception, of course!).

Inputting via analog sources works equally well for those feeling more traditional. The phono section of the Retro 50 is identical to that of the iPhono that Richard Mak reviewed here. It’s worth noting that separate MM and MC inputs with 50 and 62 dB of gain are offered, proving perfect for the AVID Ingenium turntable with two tonearms – one utilizing an Ortofon SPU cartridge and the other a vintage Ortofon VMS20 Mk.II. As Mak found in his review of the iPhono, this phonostage is quiet, dynamic and tonally correct. I also had excellent luck with the Denon 103r, Ortofon 2M Black and Grado Statement cartridges. Unfortunately, the Retro 50’s phonostage does not offer the gain and loading adjustments of the iPhono, but only so much can fit on this small chassis. Regardless, it provides an excellent avenue for your vinyl journey.

Further listening

The Retro 50, regardless of input, is dead quiet. Even with ears placed right against the tweeters, there is no noise or tube rush coming from the speakers. Though the Retro 50 claims 25 watts per channel, considering that most other amplifiers designed around a pair of EL84 tubes produce about 15–17 watts per channel, I’m guessing the numbers here are slightly optimistic.

What is important is the quality of the sound that the Retro 50 does produce. Regardless of speakers used from the $88,000/pair Dynaudio Evidence Platinums all the way down to my JBL L-100s, the extended high end and LF control is surprisingly good. By contrast, a vintage Dynaco SCA-35 (also using a pair of EL84s per channel) sounds extremely soft and much noisier. Because the iFi uses a more modern implementation of the circuit and a beefier power supply than my SCA-35, it sounds louder, even though both hit the same sound pressure level. Remember, volume is the difference between loud and quiet, so while the Retro 50 may not actually produce 25 watts per channel, because it is incredibly quiet, it sure sounds like it puts out that kind of power.

This amplifier is all about quality and delicacy. Regardless of the speakers you choose, the Retro 50 conjures up a soundfield that is both wide and deep. Tracking through Neu! is an amazing exercise in trippiness, with cool sound effects all over the room as if you were nestled in between a six-foot-tall pair of headphones.

The Retro 50 doesn’t so much color the lush midrange as maximize texture and tonal saturation. This amplifier is perfect for listening at low to moderate levels.

Acoustic guitars have an extra dash of ambience and thickness about them. Listening to the snap of the acoustic guitar on the title track of Michael Hedges’s Aerial Boundaries is simply breathtaking. And, of course, solo female vocals are incredibly sexy as well.

Perfect for personal fidelity

Auditioning a small cache of headphones also proves the Retro 50 fabulous. Thanks to its 3D holographic image processor (with three settings) and XBass processor, you can fine tune your headphone experience. The Audeze and OPPO phones sounded the most natural with no processing applied, but with some lower end Grados and a few in-ear phones, the option for extra bass really came in handy. The 3D processor was fun, but it felt more like a slight sampling of an illegal substance rather than realistic. And for some that will be a good thing – sample to taste. Fortunately the Retro 50 gives you plenty of options, along with a very useful bass and treble control.

Whether you find joy in this ability to alter your system’s playback with loudspeakers is up to you, but it is wonderful that iFi has included them, especially at this price. The only thing lacking a bit is the aesthetics. The bamboo casework is a home run, but the front panel, printing and control knobs are slightly cheesy, reminiscent of early Chinese hifi – and not a reflection of the sound quality inside the box. I’d happily pay an extra 100 bucks for an upgraded front panel, but that’s my inner interior designer screaming for order.

Like every other iFi product we’ve used or reviewed, the Retro 50 screams high performance and high value – more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015. Whether you use the speakers or give them to a friend, the Retro 50 is one of the greatest combinations in the audiophile world today. I can’t think of a better place to start your high end audio journey.

iFi Retro 50

MSRP:  $1,995 (with Retro 3.5 speakers)


Analog source AVID Ingenium turntable w/SME 3009 and 309 tonearms    Denon 103   Ortofon SPU     VMS Mk. II cartridges
Digital source OPPO 105 (as transport) MacBook Pro
Speaker JBL-L100    Dali Rubicon 2    Dali Epicon 8    GamuT RS5
Cable Cardas Clear Light

Naim Mu-so – PREVIEW

While Naim’s Mu-so might fool the unfamiliar that it’s a sound bar, it’s anything but. Other than kind of looking like a sound bar, albeit a very cool one with a gigantic volume control and moody underlighting, the rectangular shape is where all comparison ends – this is a full blown, mega, desktop audio system.

With 6 bespoke speakers and 450 watts of power on tap, the Mu-so builds on what Naim learned when developing the audio system for the Bentley, in terms of complexity and creating high performance digital audio in a compact space.

Working wired or wirelessly, there is nothing you can’t connect to the Mu-so. And while you can control it all via your phone and the Naim app, you really want to walk up and interact with the Mu-so in person. It’s main control is the best in the industry. Check out Rob Johnson’s full review in Issue #72! – Jeff Dorgay

Naim Mu-so


Dali’s Flagship – The Epicon 8 Speakers

If you happen to peruse any number of reviews concerning speakers in the twenty to thirty thousand dollar price range, which is still a massive amount of money for most people, the review conclusion (some of my own reviews included) goes something like this: “The only thing speaker X gives up to the mega speakers is that last bit of extension, dynamics and low frequency extension.”

Not any more. Judging from external appearance, the Dali Epicon 8s are finished as exquisitely as anything you’ll find in the market with another zero on the price tag. The Danes are famous for beautiful cabinetry and the Epicon 8s do not disappoint, the hand rubbed Ruby Magassar high gloss lacquer finish is simply stunning. Every one of my audiophile buddies that weren’t familiar with these speakers thought they were considerably more expensive, shocked to see this level of fit and finish on a 20 thousand dollar pair of speakers. But there are plenty of gorgeous speakers that you wouldn’t pay this kind of money for. Regardless of finish you choose, the slim, 14-inch wide front baffle of the Epicon 8 should blend into any décor.

If you’ve heard any of Dali’s smaller loudspeakers, you know that this Danish manufacturer packs major performance into a compact package, and always at a much lower price than you might expect. And for good reason – they have a 250,000 square foot facility where they design and build everything from cabinet to crossover and drivers. This large scale of manufacturing and engineering prowess is what enables Dali to make a more engaging speaker than most at a specific price point.

After just reviewing the Rubicon 2, ( and a recent visit to the Dali factory, it’s easy to see why we are so smitten with their speakers. Offering excellent value, excellent sound and understated elegance that the Danes are famous for, the 20 thousand dollar question is what can they accomplish at that price? When you’ve got 20 big ones to spend, the competition gets serious, but after spending a few months with the Epicon 8, I put them at the top of the heap and serious competition for speakers costing $40k – $50k; they’re that good. This is what economies of scale deliver.

Beauty that’s more than skin deep

The Epicon 8s do it all. They disappear in the room just as easily as the Epicon 2s we recently reviewed, yet move a lot of air when big dynamic swings demand it. Starting with Alex DeGrassi’s Southern Exposure on early Windham Hill vinyl, every bit of harmonic structure comes through effortlessly as he picks, with not only the texture of his guitar sounding true to form, but the speakers actually recreating the size of the instrument in the space between the speakers – a tough act to pull off.

If you’ve ever heard your favorite acoustic guitarist play through a pair of Magnepans or MartinLogan speakers, they sometimes can recreate a larger than life presentation. While this is always fun and exciting, (and I write this as a panel lover) those listening to a lot of acoustic faire will be upset by all instruments sounding overblown with their favorite panel speaker. Yet the Epicon 8s allow a guitar to sound like a guitar, a violin like a violin and an oboe like an oboe from not only a tonal perspective, but a spatial one as well.  If you crave realism, the Epicon 8 is for you.

With the power output meters on the Audio Research GS 150 power amplifier buried into the red zone, Focus’ legendary prog track, “Hocus Pocus” never sounded bigger and better. When called upon to really rock, the Epicon 8s do not disappoint and the dual 8” woofers that transition to a 6 1/2’” midrange in a three and a half way configuration. It takes a lot to flatten out the power delivery of the GS150, yet I was able to clip the amplifier before the speakers gave up. They had to be moved to the Pass Labs Xs300 monos to be driven to their limit. At this point, rather than clip harshly, all of the front to back depth flattens out, gently to where rotating the volume control any further clockwise has no further effect. Keep in mind that this occurs at an incredibly high volume level – our SPL meter confirmed 114 db peaks, exceeding the 112db on the Dali spec sheet.

The other area the Epicon 8s exceed their specs is in low frequency extension. While not overly scientific, they are claimed 3db down at 35hz, yet even 25hz test tones are barely diminished in comparison to the 30 and 40hz tones, at least in my test room. Playing music in the real world proves equally compelling; whether you prefer Infected Mushroom or Genesis, the Epicon 8s go deep.

Final Setup Tweeks

In fact, they had a bit too much LF energy to work in reviewer Rob Johnson’s room, so placement is somewhat critical to get the right bass character. Tipping the scales at slightly more than 100 pounds each (48kg) get a friend to help you place the Epicon 8s. Impeccable time domain performance (a major design priority at Dali) and wide dispersion means all you need to do is lock in the bottom end and your rolling; the supplied spikes prove essential to achieving the best room interface.

Replacing the flat metal jumpers with some custom jumpers from the Chord Company takes the Epicon 8s to 11. Because the midrange to extreme high frequency range is so clean, you don’t notice it until you remove them and swap the Chord jumpers in place – you’ll instantly notice the additional smoothness they now offer. Of course, if your speaker cables happen to be terminated for bi-wired operation, just as well.

A Super Pair of Tweeters

Dali makes amazing soft dome tweeters that achieve a magic balance of resolution and natural tonal balance and their implementation of the ribbon tweeter in the Epicon 8 is a perfect example of the Danes doing things a bit differently. Worre again comments, “We use the ribbon as a supertweeter, crossing over at about 15khz, so that it just adds extra ambience to the presentation. Using it this way also avoids any diaphragm breakup from crossing it over at a lower frequency.”

Truer words were never spoken. Much like the depth a system picks up when able to utilize a subwoofer going down below 20hz, the supertweeter adds an ambience that is easily experienced by covering it up. Even a few friends that I know have limited HF hearing could easily perceive the difference between supertweeter engaged and not in a darkened room, and they all described the added depth and sparkle the same way. Cymbals have more shimmer and immediacy and even audience participation has more depth, more palpability, and more realism. The character of the room in Jeff Beck’s classic live album from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in the UK is unmistakable. All I need do is close my eyes and I’m back there. Incredible. It’s like the two tweeters blend effortlessly to become one super duper tweeter – no matter what I played; I could not determine a crossover between them.

Resolution without edge

The better the source material and associated components, the better the Epicon 8s perform. Lowering the stylus on the MoFi pressing of Joe Jackson’s Night And Day instantly reveals the delicacy portrayed by the Epicon 8s. Even starting with my PrimaLuna ProLogue integrated amplifier, producing 35 watts per channel of tube power, these speakers sound incredible.

Thanks to a sophisticated crossover network that doesn’t sap power, as some multi-way, multi-driver speakers do, the Epicon 8s offer up an 89db sensitivity rating. Even 35 or 40 watts per channel will allow them to play fairly loud. We were even able to achieve great results with a 12 watt per channel Pass Labs First Watt amplifier, so whether you are buying the Epicon 8s as an anchor to a system that will be upgraded in the future, or as a final speaker purchase after a line of component upgrades, the Epicon 8s will satisfy.

Steadily going up the ladder, swapping DACs from the excellent, sub-$1,000 Rega DAC all the way to the $100,000 plus dCS Vivaldi, the Dali speakers easily reveal the nuances each DAC brings to the mix. Analog experiences prove equally vivid, moving from my favorite budget cartridge, the Denon DL-103r to the $15,000 Clearaudio Goldfinger. These speakers are a joy to use for any level of involvement and can easily be used as a reviewers tool to judge other components, thanks to their natural tonal balance, lack of distortion and coherence.

As much as there is to like about the Dali Epicon 8 speakers, their balance of all speaker parameters, combined with a high level of resolution that never becomes harsh is their greatest strength. The Dali engineers have not compromised any single aspect of musical reproduction at the expense of overall balance, and that’s what makes these speakers so amazing. Days of long listening sessions deliver zero fatigue, no matter what the listening level, and whether blasting Thriller, or playing Frank Sinatra at conversation level, I am always fully engaged by these speakers, hearing nuances that I thought I needed a $100,000 pair of speakers to realize.

So, DO you need a $100,000 pair of speakers?

Only if you have the money to throw around and need the bragging rights, or you love to play pipe organ music at concert hall levels. For the rest of you, the Dali Epicon 8 can easily be your final loudspeaker purchase. They serve the music faithfully.

While it is often a nebulous yardstick, these speakers really groove, allowing you to enjoy whatever music you happen to love. Those having widely eclectic tastes will never be limited by what their speakers can do tonally or dynamically.

The Dali Epicon 8 Loudspeakers

$19,995/pair (factory) (US Distributor)


Analog Source            AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Clearaudio Goldfinger Ref.

Digital Source                        dCS Vivaldi, Gryphon Kalliope

Phonostage                Simaudio MOON LP810

Preamplifier              ARC GSPre, Robert Koda K-10, Pass Labs Xs Pre

Power Amplifier        ARC GS150, Pass XA160.8, Pass Xs Monos

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Power                         IsoTek Super Titan

Balanced Audio Technology VK-655SE

The only promise that BAT’s VK-655SE does not fulfill is the company’s claim that it has enough energy storage to “to lift most speakers over one meter off the ground.” Even at earsplitting levels, neither the 610-pound GamuT S9 nor the 253-pound Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers move ever so slightly off the ground.

What the VK-655SE does deliver is musical accuracy, exquisite tonality and bass control. With 1,800 joules of power available, the $16,500 VK-655SE controls the lower half of the frequency spectrum in a way that precious few amplifiers can muster at any price. For the non-electrical engineers in the audience, a heart defibrillator uses between 200 and 400 joules at its maximum setting, so while the VK-655SE won’t lift your speakers off the ground, if you connect your speaker cables to your chest and crank it up, it will probably lift you a meter off the ground. Maybe that’s what they meant.

Speaking of weight, the VK-655SE weighs 120 pounds, so make sure your back and whatever stand you plan to place it on can withstand that much heft. Popping the lid reveals a pair of monstrous heat sinks, power transformers and capacitor banks. The VK-655 is available in all black (as shown here) or with a black-and-silver aluminum faceplate. In the future, BAT will also offer all silver, so if that is the aesthetic you desire, its on the way. Fully intended for use in an all-BAT system, the VK-655SE offers only balanced XLR inputs—though we found that the VK-655SE works equally well with Pass, ARC, Nagra, Simaudio and Robert Koda preamplifiers; all were used in a fully balanced configuration.

Let’s Roll

The VK-655SE is special straight out of the packing carton. Taking the hot-rodders credo, “If you want it to run hard, you have to break it in hard,” I immediately reach for Metallica’s album Kill ’Em All and play “No Remorse” at near-Armageddon levels. Even during a brief stint of driving the Dynaudios to almost 120 dB peaks, the BAT doesn’t strain whatsoever, with the raw power of Metallica thoroughly communicated. While I can’t imagine needing more power, you can turn the VK-655SE into a monoblock amplifier and get a bit more, going from 600 watts per channel into a 4-ohm load to 700 watts per channel. (The VK-655SE produces 300 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load as a stereo amp, and 400 watts as a monoblock.)

For those scoffing at the idea of paying twice as much for only 100 more watts per channel should remember that higher fidelity means gaining control, not just getting louder. This is because doing so doubles the current output, giving the monoblocks the ability to control difficult loads more effortlessly. Having twice as much power on tap will make those monos run even more effortlessly than running them in a stereo configuration, translating into greater dynamic range and an even quieter background – 6db according to BAT. I notice a similar effect going from a single Burmester 911 MK3 power amplifier to a pair of 911 monos. It is not subtle. I’ll stick my neck out and suggest a pair of mono VK-655SEs will achieve the same results.

Experience with BAT’s past products featuring the Super Pak upgrade (the company’s own variety of oil-filled capacitors to help facilitate all this power storage) showed that these components take a while to sound their absolute best—anywhere from two to 500 hours. The higher current flow of large power amplifiers makes the process a somewhat speedier one; the preamplifiers seem to take longer.

Slightly edgy at initial turn-on, the VK-655SE sounds more open, natural and relaxed in the upper register after about 48 hours of constant play, with a subtle smoothing as the hours rack up, but not as dramatic as the change during the first couple days. For the crabby audiophiles in the crowd who do not believe in component break-in, I highly suggest borrowing a pair of identical amplifiers, running one for a few hundred hours while you leave one in the box for that period of time and then compare the two. There is an unmistakable difference between the amplifier with hours on the clock and the one left in the box.

BAT’s Geoff Poore makes it a point to stress that they strive for “dynamic linearity” in their designs. A big part of this comes from their eliminating negative feedback in combination with an unlimited, unregulated power supply – adding to the jump factor that BAT amplifiers are famous for. It’s also one of the main reasons this huge amplifier exhibits the dexterity of a much smaller amplifier. Poore reminds me that “using only two gain stages in the VK-655SE eliminates coupling effects between multiple gain stages, further reducing the amount of image smear and degradation that comes with a more complex design.”

Where some power amplifier manufacturers claim a dual-mono design, BAT takes it to the extreme. In addition to separate power transformers and power supplies for each channel, the VK-655SE even uses separate power cords and receptacles for each channel! Should you have access to dedicated power lines, I suggest trying separate power lines on separate circuits for each channel. My curiosity with the VK-655SE is satisfied plugging each channel into separate 20-amp circuits. Of course, you don’t need two power lines for the VK-655SE, but with two separate mains fueling the fire at ear-splitting levels, the amp exhibits even more ease. About 95% of the time, you’ll never notice it, but if you really like it loud, go for separate AC circuits to power each half of your VK-655SE.

A Quick Comparison

If you believe all amplifiers have the same sound, stop reading now. Though the world’s top solid-state amplifiers are starting to sound more similar than disparate, differences in sonic character still exist. Side-by-side comparisons to a few of our regular amps reveal the BAT to excel in speed, dynamics and bass weight. The Burmester and Pass amplifiers in our stable are slightly warmer tonally, while the big Simaudio MOON 880M monos sound as natural as the BAT, but more bottomless in power capability—albeit at a higher price than a pair of VK-655SEs. It’s almost like comparing an Audi to a BMW or a Mercedes; all are excellent, though they go about delivering the goods in a slightly different way.

None of the speakers we have on hand present a challenging load to the mighty BAT. The current-hungry Magnepans and even our vintage Acoustat 2+2s, which have only an 82 dB sensitivity rating and are not much more than giant capacitors placed across the speaker terminals, do not diminish the amp’s performance in the least. Where some amplifiers can be speaker-dependent and struggle at times, the VK-655SE effortlessly powers every speaker we have on hand with ease.

Part of the neutral sound quality of the VK-655SE can be attributed to its use of all N-channel MOSFET output transistors. The N-channel MOSFET has a higher electron mobility, which makes amplifiers with them appear to have more transient speed than amps with mixed devices. Cursory research on the N-channel MOSFET implies that the N-channel device also has a wider range of operation where it acts like a triode tube—another great thing to have in a power amplifier. Techie bits aside, this amp succeeds brilliantly, especially for $16,500.

Bigger Is, Well, Bigger!

Some arguments in audiophile circles—about the quality of the first watt and that, because of their inherent complexity, higher-powered amplifiers are not as pure as low-power amplifiers in design and thus sound—don’t always hold true. Those arguments certainly don’t hold true in the case of this amplifier. While I’ve heard excellent examples of both low- and high-powered amps, I still tend to prefer the effortlessness of a high-powered one, even at low volumes. The VK-655SE takes a novel approach, featuring no negative feedback and only two gain stages in the entire circuit. In the same way that some large speakers manage to disappear in your listening room like a mini monitor, the VK-655SE has the sheer might of a large amplifier and the nuance of a small power amplifier.

Listening to acoustic instruments highlights the character of the VK-655SE. Its enormous power reserves might not be noticed with less-demanding fare, but the instant a drumstick hits a cymbal or the string of a standup bass is plucked with force, the boundless reserves of this amplifier deliver the dynamic swing required to convince your auditory system that perhaps you’re not listening to recorded music at all.

This is equally true when reproducing a vocalist with a wide range. Whether it’s your favorite opera or Prince, the VK-655SE’s instant delivery comes through free from the stress associated with lesser amplifiers unable to keep up—and this ability is too often overlooked when jumping on the low-power bandwagon. Simple as it might seem, a big, well-executed amplifier just sounds bigger and has a lack of restraint that further contributes to its overall neutral character.

There was nothing that the VK-655SE couldn’t handle effortlessly during this review. In the realm of the reference speakers at my disposal—all with sensitivity ratings of 87 to 90 dB—I can’t imagine ever needing more power than this amplifier delivers. BAT gear is known for its fantastic build quality and excellent secondary-market value, so for an amp at this size and price, I also can’t imagine ever needing another one once you’ve stepped up to the VK-655SE. Unless of course you need a second one.

BAT VK-655SE power amplifier

MSRP: $16,500


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Preamplifiers Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF5 SE    Pass Labs Xs
Digital Source dCS Pagaini Stack    Simaudio MOON 650D
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

EgglestonWorks Emma Loudspeakers

Great things come from Memphis. It’s the BBQ capitol of the world. Elvis is from Memphis. My wife is from Memphis. And the Eggleston Emmas are from Memphis. Though the price of gasoline and big screen TVs keeps going down, speakers seem to be getting more expensive all the time, so it’s refreshing to hear a pair of speakers that cover all the bases for $3,995.

Of course, my priorities are warped, and I’m sure we’ll get plenty of sniping about “considering a $4,000 pair of speakers affordable,” but I do. In a world of six-figure speakers, four grand for a pair that accomplish this much is a major bargain. Infected Mushroom’s latest release, Friends on Mushrooms, proves that these little southern belles can rock the house, even with a modest amplifier—in this case, a 35-watt-per-channel PrimaLuna ProLogue Four sporting a set of EL34 output tubes. Wow, wow, wow! Wu-Tang’s “Ruckus in B Minor” has plenty of boom (the record, not the speaker) and though the mix is somewhat compressed and harsh, the Emmas can cope, even at high volume, keeping the mix intact; it never sounds pushed or polite, with the speakers reproducing only what’s on the recording.

Slowing it down a bit with She & Him’s “This Girl’s in Love with You” reveals the delicate side of the Emmas, which do a smashing job of exposing inner detail and female vocal texture. Even a really shitty-sounding record like the Aquadolls’ Stoked on You proves palatable with the Emmas as a conduit; they wring every bit of information out of this playful yet dreadfully compressed exercise in slightly surf punk.

If the Shoes Fit, Find a Dress to Match

As I’ve said time and again, all you need to enjoy music is a Tidal subscription, your smartphone and a pair of earbuds. Sure, a few hundred well-spent bucks will get you an old receiver and a great pair of vintage speakers—but if you really want to unravel what’s lurking deep in your recordings (and get a glimpse at what the folks with mega systems are hearing), you’re going to have to shell out some money.

I won’t call $10K a point of diminishing returns; it’s more like the point where the excitement begins in earnest. Yes, that is serious money, but it’s no more than what a six-year-old Harley Davidson or a 10-year-old Miata would set you back. And unless you live in a really sunny area, you’ll probably spend a lot more time listening to your audio system than you’ll spend riding a Harley or driving a Miata with the top down.

Though I feel every part of a system is equally important, I’ve always been a firm believer in making the speakers the first major component purchase, because they interact with your environment more than anything else. There’s no point in blowing a fortune on source components and amplification if you can’t buy speakers that keep up with the rest of the system. In a perfect world, I’d suggest finding the speakers you love first, spending as much as you can, and then building the rest of the system around them.

Also in a perfect world, a manufacturer’s time and money spent on researching ultra-high-performance machines trickle down to the hardware the rest of us can afford. EgglestonWorks builds some major speakers—like its Andra IIIs, which are used in recording and mastering studios around the world and as reference speakers at hi-fi shows.

Having heard the Andras numerous times (and being a big fan), I was shocked when I heard the Emmas last summer at the Newport Beach hi-fi show. When EgglestonWorks’ principle Jim Thompson demoed the speakers, I was expecting a $10K-to-$12k price tag and couldn’t believe that they were only $3,995. I don’t usually get fooled to this extent, but the more time I spend listening to the Emmas, the more I’m convinced that they are one of those rare components that perform well beyond what is normally offered at a given price.

Simple Setup

With a footprint of only 7.5 by 14 inches—less than the majority of stand-mounted monitors—the Emmas occupy little floor space, and at about 3.4 feet tall, they place the tweeter at ear height for most listeners when seated. Thanks to a 4-ohm nominal impedance and 91-dB sensitivity, the Emmas don’t require much power to sing. The 20 wpc from either my Nagra 300B push-pull amplifier or 845 SET does the job nicely. EgglestonWorks does not provide a “maximum power” spec for these speakers, which are able to play incredibly loud without distortion—a hallmark of the company’s monitor speakers. I can’t imagine needing more than 100 wpc of clean power to achieve high sound-pressure levels with these speakers.

Thanks to considerable vertical and horizontal dispersion, the Emmas are not terribly room dependent, nor are they tough to get sounding good quickly, even if you have an environment that doesn’t allow optimum placement. I’m able to achieve excellent results in both my small (11-by-14-foot) and large (16-by-24-foot) rooms, though for obvious reasons it’s a little bit trickier to achieve a balance of bass extension and imaging in the small room. That being said, I would still not shy away from using the Emmas in a small room, and with their efficiency, you certainly won’t need much amplifier power.

As with every speaker we audition, achieving bass balance in the room is paramount, with everything else usually falling into place once the speaker is locked in. In the large room, the Emmas end up about 8 feet apart and slightly toed-in, while in the small room, they are only about 6 feet apart with no toe-in and GIK 242 panels at the first reflection points. After about an hour of jiggling the speakers back and forth, I install the machined spikes for the final bit of room synergy.

The speakers’ two 6-inch woofers move a lot of air, with a lot of speed. Thomas Dolby’s “My Brain Is Like a Sieve” proves instrumental in finding the perfect sweet spot of maximum bass output without sacrificing soundstage width and depth. Once optimized, the Emmas disappear into the room as easily as our little KEF LS50s, but with a lot more full-range heft.

The current Aphex Twin album, Syro, doesn’t have a single sound that could be considered accurate, but its electronic wonder (if you’re an Aphex Twin fan, that is) is a massive ball of electronic effects, showing off the spatial abilities of the Emmas to full effect. Yes, violins sound great played through the Emmas too, but they also can create a huge musical landscape—especially in a moderate-sized room, again fooling you into thinking that these are much more expensive speakers.

The Emmas’ fit and finish is at the top of the class. While these don’t have the Aston Martin–like finish of a pair of Wilson speakers, they still have a smoother paint job than my neighbors new C-Class Mercedes. The Emmas we have in for review come in a gorgeous olive-brown color that has everyone arguing whether it is actually green or brown. Of course, white, black and silver are also available.

Relax and Enjoy

To recap, with the Emmas for four grand, you won’t get the same performance as with EgglestonWorks’ flasghip Audra IIIs, which offer a level of resolution that you’ll have to spend the big bucks to get; there’s no free lunch in the world of high-end audio. However, what they have done at EgglestonWorks with the Emmas is make some very intelligent choices. If you don’t need the massive dynamic swing that the Emmas’ larger siblings provide, and can live with a bit less bass extension and high-frequency dreaminess, you’ll be amazed at how close the Emmas come in a modest-sized room at moderate to less than ear-splitting levels.

The Emmas are so easy to set up, drive and pair with ancillary components that they will be the last part of your system you’ll ever feel the need to upgrade. And if you never feel the need to spend $50K on a hi-fi system, they could easily be the last pair of speakers you’ll ever need.

I’m keeping the review pair for my home system, and I believe that’s the highest compliment I can pay them. And we are awarding the Emmas one of our first Exceptional Value Awards for the year, too. These are great speakers.

EgglestonWorks Emma Loudspeakers

$3,995 per pair

Dali Epicon 8 Speakers – Preview

A recent visit to the Dali factory in Denmark revealed a nearly 250,000 square foot facility full of highly skilled workers dedicated to every aspect of loudspeaker design and construction.  The stylish cabinets and sophisticated drive units are all built and tested in house.  And the result in their flagship speaker is stunning.  These speakers sound as wonderful as they look, perhaps better. Dali calls the Epicon 8 a “3 + half-way” system, utilizing a ribbon supertweeter for the uppermost segment of the frequency spectrum.

Unlike most other speaker manufacturers, who usually cross the ribbon tweeter over at a much lower level (usually in the 4,000 – 5,000hz range) Dali crosses their supertweeter over at a nearly inaudible 15,000 hz level, eliminating the LF breakup and brittleness often associated with ribbon tweeter based design.  The result is brilliant, with a smoothness we’ve never heard from a speaker of this nature.  Our review will be live shortly, along with a chronicle of our factory visit. – Jeff Dorgay

Dali Epicon 8 Speakers


MartinLogan Motion 35XT Speakers

MartinLogan continues to expand their phenomenal Motion series of loudspeakers to the new 35XTs you see here, featuring a 6.5” woofer and their incredible folded motion (ribbon) tweeter, all in a solid wood cabinet, available in a variety of colors, including high gloss black.

As with every MartinLogan speaker, these are painstakingly crafted and reveal a level of music that is above and beyond their modest price. Voiced to match the floor standing speakers in the Motion line, these can either function as a high performance/minimal form factor pair of rear surround speakers in an all Motion system (though they do mate very well with MartinLogan electrostatic speakers as well) or a great pair of stand mounted speakers in a dedicated two channel system.

MartinLogan Motion 35XT Speakers


Alta Audio FRM-2 Speakers

The arrival of the Alta Audio FRM-2 loudspeakers exposed a certain prejudice or bias of mine against ribbon tweeters. But it’s a valid one, as I’d never heard a ribbon tweeter that was properly integrated with the rest of the drivers in the system, nor had I ever experienced a ribbon tweeter with a natural high end.  My audio pals with a penchant for razor-sharp transients swear by them, but I’d always come away from them fatigued.  So I must admit that when I was unpacking these scrumptious speakers, my heart sank just a little bit.

And speaking of scrumptious, to someone who spent his formative years in an auto-body shop, and later as a photographer around some of the world’s finest automobiles, the finish of the FRM-2s almost defies definition.  The finish on the review samples exceeds that of anything I’ve seen on a Bentley or Aston Martin, and the new Mercedes S-Class sitting in the driveway looks pathetic in comparison.  The same goes for the audio world: let’s just say the FRM-2s have the finest finish I’ve seen applied to a set of loudspeakers.  And I know that takes a lot of hand work to get right.

While our test samples arrived in a Spinal Tap-like “how much more black can these be?” finish, Alta’s head designer Michael Levy has told us nearly any automotive color can be accommodated.

However, a pretty box is meaningless without sound to match, and I’d buy a pair of FRM-2s if they looked like Bluemenstein Thrashers.  Fortunately for $13,000 a pair you get great looks and great sound.  These little speakers have destroyed all of my preconceived notions as to what a modest sized speaker is capable of.

Keith Jarrett’s At the Blue Note has a wonderful sense of ambiance, with just enough of the audience mixed in to feel dimensional, and is accompanied by a cast of phenomenal musicians.  I’m instantly struck at how completely natural his piano sounds, as well as the cymbals – they just float in the air perfectly, without the slightest hint of sibilance or being goosed for effect.  As wonderful as the instruments come through, the telltale sign is Jarrett’s trademark groaning.  As much as I love Jarrett’s work, this is always aggravating, yet through the FRM-2s, it creeps in gently and then is quickly gone, almost like a whisper.  I’ve never experienced this effect in any speaker before.

Charlie Haden’s double bass work on the Jarrett album sends me in the opposite direction, digging out Shellac’s At Action Park to sample the machine-gun bass line in “Crow.”  Again, the speed of the FRM-2s six-inch bass driver, utilizing Alta’s XTL bass tuning system along with a highly inert cabinet offers up serious bass grunt and definition.  As the rest of the staff trickled in to audition these speakers, they all offered up the same descriptions without being prodded by yours truly.  Four staff members all remarked, “these sound like great electrostats, but with bass!”  And I would add great dynamics, too.

Plumbing the depths of these speakers’ LF capabilities lead me to the last Simian Mobile Disco album, Unpatterns. Cranking up the Devialet 120 used for most of the review had me looking around for the subwoofer and the supermodels. I felt like I was at Fashion Week with the powerful, grinding bass coming out of these relatively small speakers, REL subwoofer (review next issue) unplugged from the AC mains.  The FRM-2s move major air.

More than just bass

Another fun test track here at TONEAudio is Dead Can Dance’s “Yulunga (Spirit Dance)” from the recently remastered SACDs. The opening is ominous and creepy, with an incredibly wide soundfield.  This track features a great balance of real and electronic sounds that don’t necessarily reveal everything about tone and timbre, but a great pair of speakers will disappear completely, rendering a wealth of spatial cues.  Check and double check.

Devo’s debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! produced by Brian Eno, does the same thing, yet in a wackier way.  Mark Mothersbaugh’s trippy vocals float all over the room, with ethereal synth effects and overprocessed guitar everywhere.  Not a single natural sound here, yet the speed of the FRM-2s presents this classic in a truly psychedelic way.  Big, big, fun on tap.  Go straight to “Shrivel Up.”

Much like one of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia albums, the Little Village album reveals  highly layered vocals with three guys that sound very similar.  John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder all have a very similar phrasing and tone that can blend together on a speaker lacking in resolution, yet through the FRM-2s, these three voices all have a distinct sound.

No matter what the program material, the FRM-2s never cross that line that every other ribbon driver based system I’ve experienced crosses.  These speakers have an intoxicating ability to render inner detail, with plenty of transient attack, yet have a relaxed quality like a pair of soft dome tweeters.  It’s very close to magic.  This is one of those rare speakers that has me agonizing between exploring new music and wanting to revisit so many favorites, just to see what treasure would be revealed through this new lens.

Easily integrated

With a rated sensitivity of 87.5 dB @ 2.83 volts @ one meter, you’d think the Altas need a ton of power to work their magic, but again, the preconceived notion is wrong.  Even the 35 watt per channel Van Alstine Ultravalve amplifier provides highly pleasing results in a smaller room, and while bone crushing volume isn’t achievable, they play loud enough on all but really heavy rock records to be engaging.

The first half of this review was conducted in my new home listening room that only measures 11 x 14 feet, with modest GIK room treatments.  Bass traps in the corner, a few diffusor panels behind the listening chair and one 242 panel at each first reflection point.  The FRM-2s proved easy to set up, and even with the speakers placed somewhat randomly in the room, threw an excellent three dimensional image.  Utilizing the supplied stands (an extra $5,000 expense) put the tweeters right at ear level, and even with a slight toe-in, proved excellent in this small room.  Because these speakers are capable of such solid low frequency response, they can be placed a bit farther out in a small room than one might do with something like a KEF LS-50.

Again, the benefit is getting the punctilious imaging of a small monitor with the bass response of a full-range speaker.  An even bigger surprise was how well this performance translated into a large room.  For those just tuning in to TONE, my main listening room is 16 x 25 feet, with a pitched roof and a nice blend of absorption and diffusion, removing the slap echo without being dead and overdamped.

Powering the FRM-2s with the prodigious Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks was an eye opener.  Much like putting the pedal down in a base model Porsche Boxster and then climbing into a 911 Carrera S, there’s just more oomph there.  The speakers still had great LF traction, and upon spinning the Stereophile test disc, there was indeed solid output at 30hz, though it did drop off sharply after that.  No shame at all for a speaker like this.

Should you have more clean power at your disposal, these mighty little speakers will not disappoint you.  Running through some heavier rock records, I was constantly surprised at how far I could push them without breakup or collapse.  AC/DC, Van Halen and the White Stripes were all highly satisfying.

The FRM-2 is the perfect speaker for someone wanting state-of-the-art performance without having to deal with a pair of massive, floor-standing loudspeakers.  Even in the context of a six-figure system, the Alta Audio speakers are never the weak link in the chain.  It is as easy to hear the subtle differences between ARC, Burmester and Robert Koda preamplifiers as it is between phono cartridges and cables.  These speakers could be an incredible reviewing tool.  Hint, hint to Santa Claus:  I’d love a pair of these under the Christmas tree.

In a word, awesome

The Alta Audio FRM-2s shatter every preconceived notion I’ve ever had about ribbon tweeters and associated issues.  Having had the pleasure of listening to some fantastic speakers from Dynaudio, Focal and Sonus Faber – all in the $12,000 to $20,000 price range – the FRM-2 is easily at the head of the class.  And one of the most musically engaging speakers I’ve heard at any price.

Considering the performance that these speakers have turned in, I can’t even imagine what Alta Audio designer Michael Levy has in store for us with his new flagship speaker.  I can’t wait to find out.

Alta Audio FRM-2 Speakers

$13,000/pair,  Low Profile stands, $2,000/pair, $5,000/pair optional Onyx Black stands


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/Tri Planar/Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack
Amplification Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks and Xs Preamplifier    Devialet 120
Cable Cardas Clear

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Preamplifier

PrimaLuna and I go way back; back before TONEAudio was even a twinkle in my eye back.  The first audio review I wrote for The Absolute Sound happened to be the original EL-34 based ProLogue 1, and was way more exciting than the boring NAD integrated amplifier that Robert Harley was going to have me cover for my first assignment.  I bought that review sample not only because it sounded great, but it was so much fun; reminding me of all the great EL-34 amps I’d owned over the years.  11 years later it’s still in my family, going strong, with merely one set of replacement tubes – a testament to PrimaLuna quality.

It’s been fun watching TONE and PrimaLuna grow over the years, diversifying our products, but keeping the same ethos of offering high performance at a reasonable price, never giving quality a back seat.  PrimaLuna now has a range of four vacuum tube preamplifiers; with the DiaLogue being the top of the range at $3,199.

Where a number of past PrimaLuna preamplifiers relied on the 12AX7 tube, the DiaLogue Premium takes advantage of the 12AU7, six of them – and this has two big benefits.  For those not familiar with the brand, PrimaLuna gear has always been super easy on tubes, so investing in a good set of premium NOS (New Old Stock) tubes has always been solid thinking.  Fortunately, where the best 12AX7s are now pushing $200 – $350 each, equally good 12AU7s will only set you back about $75 each.  And PrimaLuna’s US importer Kevin Deal can hook you up.

You don’t need to invest in NOS tubes if you don’t feel inclined.  The DiaLogue Premium sounds great out of the box.  Tube rolling is only for those who are part curious, part OCD, and can yield different results for those wanting to chase the rabbit.  Most of you will just unbox your DiaLogue Premium and enjoy.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

The biggest advantage of the 12AU7 though, is it’s lower gain.  With so many of todays sources having a four volt output, the 22 -28db of gain that most contemporary line stages provide is just not needed.  You end up with the volume control always being used in the 7:00 to 9:00 position and not only having precious little range of control, but noise can be an issue because the preamp is not running in it’s sweet (and lowest noise) spot.

Less gain, less pain

The DiaLogue Premium, having 10db of gain, gives you plenty of volume control range and is dead quiet throughout.  Using it with my Zu speakers (101db sensitivity) and a pair of 845 SET amplifiers, I had the silky smooth silent treatment, even with my ear right up against the ribbon tweeter.  When substituting the DiaLogue Premium, for the Nagra Jazz preamplifier in an all Nagra system, thanks to the low gain, the PrimaLuna was quieter than the mighty Nagra, costing three times more.

A dual mono design with five inputs and two variable outputs, the DiaLogue Premium should be able to handle anything you can throw at it, except balanced sources. (You can use an adapter if need be)  As a tape enthusiast, I really appreciated the additional, fixed level, buffered tape output to make mix tapes on my trusty Revox.  A home theater pass through is also incorporated, for those needing to make the DiaLogue part of a home theater system.

Running the DiaLogue Premium in our main reference system, displacing the $13,000 ARC REF 5SE preamplifier and the $32,000 Robert Koda K-10 was highly insightful.  While the big bucks preamplifiers revealed more music and more dynamic slam at the extremes, the mighty PrimaLuna was never embarrassed.  Kind of like comparing a Porsche Cayman S to a GT3.

Trying the DiaLogue Premium with about ten different power amplifiers from Simaudio to Burmester again underscored it’s versatility.  Only the Burmester 911 Mk. 3 really needed the volume control cranked all the way to get full output.  (no doubt because we were using balanced adaptors here, all of the other balanced power amplifiers tried had separate, single ended RCA inputs. That lower gain was a real blessing when using vintage power amplifiers like the Conrad Johnson MV-50, which only need about .6 volts to be driven to full output.  FYI, combining this preamplifier with my MV-50 that has had all of the caps upgraded to CJD Teflon was absolutely heavenly, mated with my Quad 57s.

I’ve always found PrimaLuna gear to be a wonderful combination of old and new school design and sonics, yet as you go up the line, the top components in the PrimaLuna line sound more like current vacuum tube electronics, i.e. more linear and neutral, where the entry level pieces sound slightly more vintage.  Much of this is due to the beefy power transformers used, combined with premium Takman resistors, SCR foil capacitors and Swiss sourced, silver plated oxygen free copper wiring throughout.

It’s also worth mentioning that the DiaLogue Premium has no problem driving long runs of interconnect cables.  Comparing the sound between a 20 foot run of AudioQuest (find cable here) and a one meter pair revealed no difference, and no rolling off of the high frequencies, so those that like having their power amplifier down on the floor close to the speakers, with the rest of their components further away on a rack will be pleased.  I had similar luck with cable from Cardas and ALO Audio.

Love that tube

Personally, there is always something special to me about the sound of a preamplifier built around the 12AX7 or 12AU7 tube, they just always seem to paint the sonic picture with a little bit more air and gradation than the 6DJ8/6922 designs do, and feature more sonic gradation between heavy and soft tones than a preamplifier utilitizing the 6H30 tube.  Neither is better or worse, just different.  A Lotus Elise gets around the curves with a little less effort than a Corvette or a Viper.

I noticed this the most when listening to acoustic music of any kind.  Spinning the XRCD of Lee Morgan’s Tom Cat, it was easy to discern the differences in rendition between my vintage ARC SP-11 (6922 design), current REF 5SE (6H30 design) and the Koda K-10. (best solid state I’ve ever encountered)  Morgan’s trumpet has more “blat” and slightly more contrast with the REF 5SE, but the cymbals are dreamier, more palpable, and smoother through the DiaLogue Premium.

Going back to some of George Winston’s solo piano records on the Windham Hill label, the pianos decay is equally enticing through the DiaLogue Premium.  This is a totally musical preamplifier, always getting out of the way of the presentation, so that you don’t focus on the gear.  Not all preamplifiers can do this regardless of price, so this is a home run for the PrimaLuna – and amazing for $3,199.

Each preamplifier brought its own palette to the reproduction, yet the DiaLogue offers an excellent balance, and cohesion to the musical presentation, almost like listening to a full range ESL, rather than a speaker made of woofer, tweeter and midrange.  The DiaLogue provides fatigue free listening at its finest, and made for many 12-hour listening sessions without wanting to ever turn the music down.

While the DiaLogue Premium turns in good performance at the frequency extremes, offering solid, defined and tuneful bass response, combined with extended highs that are never screechy, it’s this coherence and ability to nail instrumental tone and texture that makes it so compelling.

The DiaLogue Premium does what tubes do best, providing a dreamy, three dimensional sense of ambiance, giving the listener a healthy dose of “you are there” realism. Eschewing female vocals, I spent a lot of time listening to Johnny Cash, Elvis and Tom Waits through the DiaLogue Premium and I always came back impressed.  The soundstage painted is huge, in all three dimensions, making my Dynaudio Eminence Platinum speakers disappear in the room, no small feat.

Rounding the bases

The DiaLogue Premium preamplifier offers incredible sound and value for $3,199. If I were building a system in the $20 – $50k range, I can’t imagine needing to spend more than this for a linestage, provided you didn’t absolutely have to have balanced outputs.  The ability to tube roll with ease and modest cost is another big bonus with this preamplifier, allowing the ability to either fine tune the sound, or just play with a different feel.

Best of all in over a decade now, PrimaLuna has not compromised a molecule on build quality.  They are still making gear that feels bank vault solid, encased in a dark blue, high gloss metallic finish that would do an Aston Martin proud. (and a set of cotton gloves to keep fingerprints off of said finish)  Even the shipping cartons are the best in the business, with three layers of heavy cardboard to make sure your purchase arrives without blemish.

Combining all of these small touches and world class sonics, makes for gear that owners don’t want to part with.  Perusing Audiogon or EBay rarely reveals used PrimaLuna gear, and when it does go for sale, it fetches top dollar.  Another home run from PrimaLuna!

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Preamplifier

MSRP:  $3,199


Digital Source dCS Vivaldi Stack
Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/TriPlanar/Lyra Atlas
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Power Amplifiers PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifiers    Burmester 911 mk. 3   Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    Nagra 300B    Pass Xs300    Pass Aleph 5
Cable Cardas Clear
Speakers Dynaudio Eminence Platinum,    Acoustat 2+2, KEF Blade

Devialet 120

Everything we loved about the Devialet 110 is here in spades with the new 120, but the addition of a crucial feature makes the 120 more than a simple upgrade.  Devialet’s new SAM (Speaker Active Matching) technology, in a nutshell, provides a more synergistic coupling between amplifier and loudspeaker, thanks to their engineers harnessing more power of the on board DSPs.  Visually, the 120 looks identical to the 110, with the same compliment of inputs and outputs.

SAM is an optimized program for your individual speaker (Devialet is constantly adding new SAM profiles to their website) that claims full phase alignment over the entire frequency spectrum and extended low frequency response down to 25Hz.  While we have no way of measuring this, the results with the Penaudio Cenya speakers, the KEF LS-50s and the KEF Blades was nothing short of stunning.  We are currently working on a full review of the Devialet Ensemble system, utilizing a pair of Devialet designed Ahtom GT1 speakers.

This is not a subtle upgrade.  While the KEF Blades are no slouch in the bass department, it was easy to hear more extreme bass extension on bass heavy tracks from Pink Floyd and Daft Punk.  Not only was there more detail in the low bass as you would get with a top notch subwoofer, there was more punch, more weight.  The heartbeat in the classic Floyd track “Speak to Me: Breathe” now feels heavier, more ominous than without SAM.  For the Thomas’s doubting SAM, the Devialet remote allows you to dial up how much SAM processing you’d like in the system, making it easier to see the results first hand.

In my smaller listening room, this proved very useful with the LS-50 and the Cenyas, as there was just a bit too much bass with SAM set at 100.  Both work best with SAM set in the 60-70 range.  With SAM engaged I was able to shut the subwoofer off with both of these speakers, it was no longer needed.

The new functionality that SAM brings to the picture, along with the additional 10 watts per channel that the 120 offers is only a firmware upgrade away for existing Devialet 110 owners. Fantastic sound and drop dead gorgeous casework aside, this is the best thing about owning a Devialet product is that they are future proof.  It was awesome to view the 120 at the Munich hifi show and be told, “You only need to download the new firmware and you have a 120.”  That’s music to my ears.

Devialet 120


Penaudio Cenya Monitors

Cranking Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” to a level way beyond what I’d ever expect from a small pair of monitors causes me to redefine my mental short list for a final hi-fi system. While I routinely audition six-figure speakers (and enjoy every minute of it), the Cenya and its slightly more expensive sibling, the Cenya Signature, deliver so much music that I would happily retire with these Finnish beauties as destination speakers.

The Cenyas do everything but deliver the last octave of deep bass, and at $4,000 a pair, they leave you enough scratch to add your favorite subwoofer, should you require it. But in a small- to medium-sized room, you may not need the extra bass. These speakers are positively heavenly in my new small listening room (10 by 13 feet) powered by the Devialet 120. Penaudio speakers have always needed a little bit of juice to give their all, and the 120 watts per channel provided by the Devialet gets the job done, no matter what the musical faire. The opening bass drum beats from Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” are delivered solidly, without overhang. As the cymbals linger in the air and fade off into black, the sparkle remains potent, which leads me to believe that these little speakers move some serious air.

It’s worth noting that Devialet owners that are running the current firmware can now take advantage of their new S.A.M. (Speaker Active Matching) system, which offers phase alignment for a list of speakers, like the Cenya, custom tailored to the individual speaker.  S.A.M. also offers bass equalization/compensation in the DSP domain that extends the frequency response cleanly down to 25hz. This had just become available at the end of this review, so watch for a follow up when we’ve spent more seat time with it. The short story is that it works incredibly well. You’ll swear there is a subwoofer in the room!

My history with Penaudio goes way back to the Serenades that we reviewed in issue 4 and that ended up as my reference speakers for a couple years. I’ve always appreciated Penaudio founder Sami Pentilla’s ability to build speakers that combine understated good looks and natural tonality in a compact form. The tiny Cenya is no exception. It looks like a slice of the Serenade, with a 6-inch woofer and a 1.25-inch soft dome tweeter, and it is available in a wide variety of finishes.

This particular pair comes in the high-gloss white that was the rage at this year’s Munich High End show. Considering psychoacoustics, this may be the best color for these mini monitors, as it lets them disappear even further into my listening environment, which is painted Ralph Lauren Studio White. A knuckle rap demonstrates cabinet rigidity, which contributes to the speakers’ stellar bass response and freedom from cabinet-induced vibration.

Super Simple Setup

As with any high-quality pair of mini monitors, the Cenyas benefit from doing two things: placing them on massive stands and providing a solid coupling between the speaker and stand. Though not as attractive as the Cenyas deserve, a pair of 24-inch sand-filled Sound Anchor stands works perfectly, with a set of small Isonode feet ($19.95 for a set of 4; available from Bright Star Audio) providing an ideal mechanical interface.

The Cardas Clear Light speaker cables also work well with these speakers, but for those requiring a bit more zip and high-frequency extension, the Graditech speaker cables provide it. They prove a perfect match for the Conrad Johnson LP125sa power amplifier, while the Clear Light cables are a more balanced solution (for these ears, anyway) with the Devialet.

Final speaker placement takes about 15 minutes, with a bit of fine-tuning after the Cenyas have about two weeks of major break-in. Like all of the other Penaudio speakers we’ve auditioned, a good week’s worth of listening to dynamic music at moderate to high volume does the trick—though they do sound fabulous right out of the box.

Jah Wobble’s Japanese Dub leads the way into a long session of bass-heavy tracks that help define the low-frequency response of the Cenya2. The official specification is +/–3 dB from 45 to 28,000 Hz in an anechoic chamber, and thanks to a little bit of room gain, the Cenya 2s reproduce the 40 Hz test tone on my Stereophile Test CD with ease, though bass response falls off rapidly after this. For most musical material, this will rarely be an issue, considering the quality of the bass that the speakers produce. Again, this was all done without S.A.M. engaged on the Devialet.

A Nimble Performer

In a modest-sized room with first-class amplification, the Cenyas will spoil you. Thanks to their small front surface and high-quality SEAS tweeter, they throw an expansive soundstage that not only extends beyond the speaker boundaries but also past the wall boundaries.

When I revisit Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, it’s a pleasure to hear the nuance in his young voice and, even though the recording is only mediocre, the coherence provided by this high-quality two-way speaker makes it come to life. As with the previous Cenya iteration, the new Cenya exhibits a transparency much like an ESL. The Hammond organ at the beginning of “Kitty’s Back” remains in the air, slightly above the speakers, lingering in the room as though through my Quad 57s, but with more punch and dynamics.

The Cenyas excel at keeping the musical pace intact. The rapid-fire drum beats in Blamstrain’s “Dog Song” stay solidly anchored in the middle of some dreamy synth riffs, while the deep bass line fills the listening room without blurring the spacey presentation, until the volume is turned up well beyond a reasonable level. This is the only limitation of these petite Finns: They can only move so much air, and when pushed past their limit, they compress rapidly. However, I think anyone demoing a pair of Cenyas for the first time will be surprised at just how loud this level is.

Of course, the vocal performance of these speakers is beyond reproach. Those preferring more audiophile faire will be highly satisfied at the deftness with which the Cenyas project both male and female vocals. Whether you love Tom Waits or Shelby Lynne, the speakers deliver the goods.


With a sensitivity rating of 86 dB, the Cenyas work better with more power, though in my small room, even the 25-watt-per-channel 845 SET amplifiers at my disposal prove adequate, albeit not able to push the speakers as far as the 120-wpc Devialet can.

Regardless, the Cenyas are very tube friendly in a way that my Serenedes never were. The McIntosh MC275, PrimaLuna DiaLogue Monoblocks and the new C-J LP120sa vacuum-tube amplifiers all work well with the Cenyas, delivering great dynamics, extended HF response and good damping of the woofer cones without issue.

The Cenyas are equally versatile with solid-state amplification, from about 35 wpc on up, proving a good match with the 35-wpc Naim Qute2, the 50-wpc Rega Brio-R and the 60-wpc Pass Aleph 5—all reasonably priced yet high-performance small solid-state amplifiers.

Surprisingly, the Cenyas are transported into another world with the 300-wpc Burmester 911 MK3 and the similarly powered Pass Xs 300 monoblocks, though it is hardly likely that someone would spend $30,000 to $80,000 on amplification for a $4,000 pair of speakers—though, if you do, these little beauties are up to the task.

The $4,000 Question

If you are looking for maximum performance with minimum footprint, look no further than the Penaudio Cenyas. They will do justice to whatever ancillary components you have at your disposal and they produce way more music than you would expect from a speaker this diminutive in size. Highly recommended.

Penaudio Cenya monitors

MSRP: $4,000 per pair


Digital Source Devialet 120    Meridian Control 15    MacBook Pro
Analog Source Thorens TD-124    SME 3009 tonearm    Ortofon 2M Black cartridge
Amplification Devialet 120
Cable Cardas Clear

Burmester B10 Speakers

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to audition Burmester loudspeakers, you know they mate perfectly with the company’s electronics and that, together, they put forward a very dynamic, powerful presentation. And, as founder Dieter Burmester is a bass player in his spare time, his speakers are never lacking in low-frequency authority.

In a fairly good-sized room, pairing the hefty Burmester 911 amplifier (or the larger 909) with Burmester speakers makes for highly engaging listening. But for those of us wanting the Burmester experience in a smaller room, the B10s—which are only about 15 inches tall, 9 inches wide, and 11 inches deep—deliver just that. They fit on a pair of stands; I use sand-filled Sound Anchors in my modest 11-by-13-foot listening room.

This understated-looking pair of two-way speakers is something of a happy accident. Originally designed as personal reference monitors for Dieter’s studio, they became part of the product lineup and they make for an excellent match with Burmester’s smaller 101 integrated amplifier and 102 CD player, which we review here. With an 87-dB sensitivity and 4-ohm nominal sensitivity, the B10s are obviously geared towards Burmester amplification, but they work great in the context of any system, whether tube or solid state.

For initial break-in, I run the B10s for a few days with the Devialet 110 (now upgraded to 120 status) in my second listening room, merely swapping out the Stirling Broadcast 88-B8 speakers (also 87 dB) that have been in for review for some time. This could not have been a more night-and-day difference; it was like going from a mid-1980s Mercedes 300 turbo diesel (the Sterlings) to a current AMG C63 (the Burmesters). There’s more resolution and extension everywhere, and even though these are fairly small speakers, the signature Burmester low-end performance is there in spades.

The Burmester B10s have an MSRP of $9,000, without stands.

Initial Listening

Once settled in, my Devialet/Meridian combination goes out and in comes the Burmester 101/102 combination, which proves very interesting, as this amplifier is Burmester’s foray into class-D design—no doubt as a result of the company’s work on high-end automotive audio systems. For those already familiar with the Burmester house sound, (read: slightly warm for solid state), the 101 does not disappoint; it lacks the slight haziness and harshness normally associated with these designs.

Listening to Thomas Dolby’s “I Scare Myself,” I find that the B10s exhibit excellent pace, keeping the deep bass line firmly anchored in place, as the synthesizers float about the soundstage with plenty of width and depth. Interestingly, the B10s use a dome tweeter where the rest of the Burmester line uses a ribbon/AMT driver. Ribbons in general tend to elicit a polarized response from most music lovers, and reviewer bias admitted, it is not my favorite driver, so I find myself very drawn to the overall sound of the B10s, especially since I have a soft spot for well-designed two-way loudspeakers.

Setup is simple and straightforward. As with any compact high-performance monitor, a pair of rigid stands is a must in order to extract the best possible performance. Burmester does make its own stands, which are more attractive than my Sound Anchors, but the Sound Anchors are very dense stands and so they are a great match for the B10s. Putting the speakers on less-massive stands does, in fact, compromise bass extension and focus, so regardless of which way you go, don’t set these speakers on weak stands or you will be disappointed.

Seat Time

The more time spent with the B10s, the more comfortable I become. Expanding the musical palette reveals no shortcomings, with the only thing missing being the extremely low frequencies of large floorstanding speakers. Yet, taking advantage of the room gain in a small room, the B10s do not disappoint, even when playing tracks from Deadmau5, Pink Floyd and Mickey Hart. Though it might seem counterintuitive with a $9,000 pair of speakers, the B10s deliver more low-end heft with a larger amplifier—in this case, my reference Burmester 911 MK3, which has been in service for some time now.

Listening to the new Black Keys album Turn Blue is much freakier with the added power of the 911 driving the B10s. The fuzzy guitars come alive with more weight, bite and roundness, while the vocals seem more real and full of life. A similar experience is had with Pink Floyd’s classic album Wish You Were Here. The title track comes in with barely a whisper as the acoustic guitar spikes up, standing out clearly in its own acoustic space. The smaller 101 amplifier, though similar tonally to the 911, flattens the leading in and trailing off of sound ever so slightly, though it is still involving and something you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t happen to have a 911 hanging around.

As hinted at earlier, the B10s will work fine with vacuum-tube amplification, suggesting that they have a well-designed crossover network, though you can expect that a slightly softer sound will reflect what comes out. The 35-watt-per-channel Van Alstine Ultravalve renders a very mellow performance, per its character, while the 125-wpc Conrad Johnson LP120SA+ is much more authoritative and incredibly deep. While these comparisons offer different flavors than the Burmester amplification, the experiment is a ton of fun, turning my listening room into a fishbowl full of music—not necessarily real, but highly engaging.

Keeping It Real

The B10s rock with authority and image like crazy, but they do not present an overblown sense of perspective, preserving tone and timbre with acoustic instruments. The Jung Trio’s Dvorak Trio in F Minor Op. 65 quickly demonstrates how well these small monitors keep violin and piano sorted, especially the violin. This masterfully recorded piece is so clean that any hint of harshness in a system will be revealed instantly. The B10s pass this tough test with ease.

The subtle brushwork at the beginning of Thad Jones’ “April in Paris” is equally impressive. As Jones’ smooth horn gently glides into the mix, it’s easy to hear him move ever so slightly across the soundstage, and the B10s nail the subtle phrasing of this jazz master, delivering a very emotional experience.

Chrissie Hynde’s highly processed vibrato in the Pretenders’ self-titled debut is perfectly rendered through the B10s. Each of her breaths on the track “Private Life” comes through the mix with an exciting sense of immediacy. Shelby Lynne’s not bad either, so the audiophile whose taste leans more towards female vocalists will not be disappointed with these speakers.

Going through record after record, I find that the design and meticulous build quality that goes into the B10s (like that of every single Burmester product) is evident. These speakers may look understated and simple, but the musical result is fantastic. A perfect match for an all-Burmester system, the B10s will also mate fantastically well with a non-Burmester system. They may even pull you further into the world of Burmester.

Burmester B10 speakers

MSRP: $9,000 per pair (North American importer)


Digital sources Meridian Control 15    Burmester 102 CD Player
Amplification Devialet 120    Burmester 101    Burmester 011/911
Cable Cardas Clear

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers

As the sound-level meter bounces above 105 dB during playback of the title track from Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast (and I see nods of approval from the non-audiophile buddies present to take this all in), I’m reminded that you need big speakers that can move a substantial amount of air to really enjoy this kind of music. The same can be said for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 or Deadmau5, if Maiden is not your favorite faire. Dynamic swing and contrast is a big part of recreating the illusion of live music in your listening space, and a large pair of speakers with the appropriate amount of power gets the job done.

In the day where $200,000 speakers are becoming more and more common, Dynaudio’s top speaker tips the scale at only $85,000 per pair. Yes, yes, the word only is going to offend a lot of people, but if you happen to be in the market for a six-figure pair of speakers, this level of greatness for $85K is a bargain—it’s all relative. After living with the Evidence Platinums for some time now, I see no need to drop $200K on a pair of Wilson XLFs. And that’s enough money left over to put a new Porsche GT3 in your garage. I know what I’d rather buy.

A number of things make the Evidence Platinum speakers unique. Though they are over 6 feet tall, they carve a very small footprint in your listening room, and thanks to a wide range of wood finishes, along with piano black, they should blend in with any décor. While minimalist yet tasteful grilles are included, the precision craftsmanship of the front sculpted baffles beg them to be left uncovered. Those without large pets or small children will have an easier time leaving the grilles off.

No Limitations

Much like a high-performance supercar, the Evidence Platinums have few limitations. And just as an Aston Martin feels different from a Porsche or a Ferrari, all three cars still provide stellar performance way beyond that of normal transportation. Sticking with the automotive metaphor, the Evidence Platinums remind me of the Audi R8: a new concept that offers similar if not better performance than its contemporaries—and with a bit more style. The Dynaudios are definitely one of the most svelte large speakers around.

Having lived with Dynaudio’s much smaller Confidence C1 Signatures for a few years, I notice a striking parallel between the two speakers. The comparatively diminutive C1s, with their highly optimized front baffle, present a musical picture almost like a point source, while the massive Evidence Platinums simply disappear. In a small room at low volume, with equally high-quality electronics driving the speakers, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, other than on the deepest low-frequency excursions.

However, in a larger room, when the sound level comes up and dynamic expectation increases exponentially, the Evidence Platinums justify their price tag. Queuing up the Stereophile test CD reveals solid bass performance at 25 Hz, which is lower than what you’ll need for most program material. Playing Mickey Hart’s “The Eliminators” at high volume confirms the measurement; these speakers can punch you in the chest—hard. The four 7-inch woofers move more air than a single 12-inch unit; yet, because of their small size, they are faster, providing mega bass with maximum tone and definition.

The Evidence Platinums make it a breeze to discern between bass players and their respective styles: The difference between a Hartke bass-guitar amp with aluminum cone drivers and a vintage Ampeg amp with paper cones is now easily apparent. This is what adds so much to the musical experience, making your music so much more immersive. And that’s what you should get when you write the big check.

Top-of-the-Line Technology

Dynaudio has left no stone unturned with the Evidence Platinums, taking advantage of the company’s top technological advancements. Relying on silk dome tweeters since the beginning, Dynaudio’s design requires a very labor-intensive process that involves shaping the fine-fabric dome and treating it with a specially formulated coating. The “Precision Coating” used throughout the Platinum range is Dynaudio’s latest refinement to that process. The higher uniformity of the dome’s shape results in a smoother high-frequency response and even more dispersion of mid and high frequencies.

This is clearly evident when comparing female vocals through the Confidence C1s and the Evidence Platinums. A quick spin of Ella and Louis Again uncloaks the difference in the timbre of Ella’s voice, which is already silky smooth and convincing when played through the C1s. By comparison, the Evidence Platinums dematerialize completely, even though they are so much bigger physically. This is truly the magic of these speakers: They vanish like a mini monitor and are transparent like an ESL, yet they have the drive of an enormous cone speaker.

The Evidence Platinums throw a soundstage that is staggeringly wide and deep, but they also get the height aspect right—probably due in part to their physical height. While playing the MoFi copy of Frank Sinatra’s Nice And Easy, I feel as if Sinatra is standing right in front of the speakers, with his voice coming from where his mouth would be.

Custom drivers, check. Precision optimized crossover network, check. Premium electrical and mechanical parts throughout, check. The combination of all these technologies is certainly present in most flagship loudspeakers, but Dynaudio’s DDC (Dynaudio Directivity Control) system is the heart of what makes these speakers perform the way they do.

The combination of the finely shaped front baffle, driver placement and matching the phase response of the individual drivers makes for a more focused dispersion pattern that does not require nearly as much room treatment to sound their best as do many large speaker systems. This is all trickle-down technology from Dynaudio’s professional division, taking advantage of what the company has learned building studio monitors.

Another benefit of this optimization is the ease of setting up the Evidence Platinums. We’ve spent hours (sometimes a day or more) to get reference-caliber speakers to sound their best. The Evidence Platinums sound great right out of their crates before much attention is paid to positioning. About an hour’s worth of fine-tuning brings the speakers to the point where, when Dynaudio USA’s Michael Manousselis stops by to check my work, he merely makes a few fine adjustments and then I’m on my way. These are not finicky speakers by any stretch of the imagination. Even the machined plinth offers a choice of footers for hard and soft surfaces. Once unpackaged, the Evidence Platinums only take a few days of 24/7 play at modest volume to open up and sound their best.

Still Solid, Months Later

After listening to these speakers day in and day out for months, I am still amazed and impressed. It’s easy to get carried away with premium speakers after first listen, especially after running through a number of well-recorded audiophile classics.

This is not the case with the Evidence Platinums. I go out of my way to dredge up even the worst-sounding selections in my music collection, and these speakers do a fantastic job with any program material. There is nothing I can throw at them that trips them up. Regardless of the program material and volume level, we simply cannot drive the Evidence Platinums hard enough to invoke listener fatigue.

With a sensitivity rating of 89 dB and a crossover network of 6 dB per octave, the Evidence Platinums are very easy to drive with either tube or solid-state amplification. Even in my 16-by-25-foot listening room, more than adequate volume levels are achieved with the 20-watt-per-channel Nagra 300i integrated amplifier. I would suggest about 100 watts per channel or more for best results, especially if you like to hear your favorite music reproduced loudly.

While these speakers can reproduce some great dynamic swings, they are highly linear, with their massive stereo image still intact, even at very soft volume levels—again, not unlike a great mini monitor. Chrissie Hynde’s signature vibrato comes through clearly on the original Pretenders album. The delicacy present in “Private Life” puts Hynde in the room, right near the center of the listening position.

Coupled to the amazing Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks, with nearly boundless power on tap, the Dynaudios really come to life. As I blast Lou Reed’s The Creation of the Universe, there isn’t a point at which the wide, vivid stereo image ever collapses—no matter how high the volume. Much like the Focal Maestro Utopia speakers that we just got done auditioning, the Evidence Platinums excel at reproducing large-scale music, especially drums and percussion—and they do so without fatigue.

You Need a Pair

If you are looking for a statement loudspeaker, look no further than the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum. After six months of constant listening (and punishing) on an incredibly wide range of musical program material, I can tell you that there is nothing that the Evidence Platinums can’t handle, if you have enough amplifier power on tap.

Along with their musical performance, the Evidence Platinums offer a level of fit and finish that is in keeping with a speaker of this level. They exude luxury and will be an excellent fit for the world’s finest listening rooms, a fact that can’t be overlooked when spending this kind of money. Lastly, Dynaudio is a major player in the speaker industry, so this is a purchase that can be made with confidence, knowing the company will be around to support these speakers.

With so much capability, the Dynaudio Evidence Platinums should be your last speaker purchase.

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers

MSRP: $85,000 per pair

Dali Fazon Mikro 2 Speakers and Sub 1 Subwoofer

As the starship Enterprise explodes while I’m watching Star Trek: Inception, it’s clear that these miniscule satellite speakers from Dali deliver big sound. Working in concert with the tiny Fazon Sub 1, which utilizes a 6.5-inch long-throw driver, the speakers provide an equally solid bass response, as illustrated by the cannon shots in AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).”

Finding a balance between performance and aesthetics when integrating great sound into your living room is always a challenge. Danish manufacturer Dali does a better job than most at combining a modern, understated look with exceptional performance. In the case of the Mikro 2s, the company manages to deliver such performance in a small package that easily fits anywhere.

With an enclosure built of machined aluminum—like the Fazon F5 speaker we reviewed in issue 43—the Mikro 2s feature a slightly curved shape that looks equally at home on a stand mount, on your desktop, or mounted directly to the wall. I use them in a 5.1-channel system powered by the Anthem MRX 510 multichannel receiver that has become my reference workhorse, with 125 watts per channel. Dali also makes the Fazon Mikro Vokal, which is identical to the Mikro 2 but oriented for horizontal use as a center-channel speaker. The Mikro 2s have an MSRP of $650 per pair; the Vokal is $325; and the Sub 1 is $595—which makes for a very reasonably priced multichannel setup. All the units are available in gloss white (as pictured) or gloss black.

Easily Mounted

Thanks to the integral bracket and supplied wall mount, TONE staffer Rob Johnson and I were able to mount the five Mikros in my living room with ease. To angle the rear speakers, we improvised by making wall mounts from a 4-inch long piece of PVC that we painted white, cut in half, and glued to the wall with Liquid Nails. The end result is a very subtle install.

Those wanting stands for the Mikros can purchase accessory stands from Dali, which may better suit your needs if you don’t have speaker cables running through your walls. The stands ($199 per pair) are also available in black or white.

Should you be in tighter quarters, the Mikros can also serve as a kick-ass desktop 2.1 or 5.1 system, enveloping you in sound in a way that headphones cannot. In my small (7-by-10-foot) home office, a pair of the Mikros and the sub underneath my desk delivers prodigious sound surrounding my 30-inch Apple Cinema Display.

Bottom line: These exquisitely crafted speakers work well anywhere, especially if you’re limited on space but want big sound.

Natural Sound

Dali speakers all share a natural voice, and the Mikros continue this tradition. A two-way design with a 4-inch wood-pulp woofer and 1-inch soft dome tweeter, the Mikro 2s have a somewhat low sensitivity of 84 dB, but this does not prove problematic in any situation I am able to create. The 125 watts per channel of the MRX 510 is easily able to drive these speakers to their maximum output of 104 dB, which is louder than I need in all but extreme conditions.

While Dali states that the speakers’ low-frequency response is 90 Hz, placing the Mikro 2s on the wall and fairly close to the room corners takes advantage of room gain, giving the impression of much more powerful bass response than the specs indicate. Using the same strategy with the Sub 1 and setting the crossover at about 80 Hz turns out to be perfect in my listening room. Those craving more LF output might want to consider adding a second Sub 1 in an adjacent corner, though I would resist the urge to get a lone larger subwoofer, as it may not integrate as seamlessly as the Sub 1 does.

Setting the Sub 1 up by ear takes very little time and even a rank beginner should be able to achieve excellent sub/sat integration. The ARC 1M room correction of the MRX 510 takes this to another level, and really helps the Dali speakers disappear completely in the room, both visually and sonically. The speakers are so unobtrusive that almost none of my recent guests even notice them—a major triumph in aesthetics.

Dynamic Range

Because of this natural voicing, the Mikro 2s are a perfect choice for anyone needing their home theater system to pull double duty as a family music system. Operating the receiver in simulated surround-sound mode and cranking the volume makes Cheap Trick’s version of “Day Tripper” (from Found All the Parts) sound convincingly live, with the applause folded into the mix adding to the presentation’s illusion of spaciousness.

Staying in a Beatles groove, tracking through the new copies of the Beatles’ U.S. albums, recently remastered by Greg Calbi, proves equally compelling. The Mikro 2s’ ability to disappear only heightens the ping-pong, ultra-stereo quality of these recordings.

Through these little speakers, Elvis Costello’s vocals in “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” (from the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack) is positively dreamy, capturing the mid-1960s Burt Bacharach feel perfectly, with Costello’s unique vocal styling fully intact. Tegan and Sara’s “I Know, I Know, I Know” is equally enjoyable, with both vocalists able to happily coexist in the soundstage yet with each of their voices being easily discernable.

I run the gamut of rock and jazz favorites, and nothing throws the diminutive Danes a curve they can’t navigate. The only place these speakers come up a bit short is when the program material switches to heavy electronica. You won’t be able to play your favorite Skrillex or Chemical Brothers tracks at full throttle—one can only expect a 6.5-inch woofer (from any manufacturer) to go so far. But everywhere else, when keeping sound levels prudent, the Fazon Mikro 2s always satisfy.

The available bass from the Sub 1 goes down solidly to about 35 Hz and, while this is not the ultimate in extension, it is well defined. Personally, I’d rather have detail in a small subwoofer than just boom, and this is another area where Dali excels. It’s easy to follow the bass groove in Thomas Dolby’s “Hot Sauce,” which exhibits plenty of weight. The acoustic bass line in Stanley Clarke’s In the Jazz Garden is full of overtones, perfectly capturing the speed at which this legendary player moves up and down the neck of his acoustic instrument.

Beauty, Value and Performance

The Dali Mikro 2 system offers all three of these virtues in equal measure. There will always be the audiophile who wants a traditional floorstanding or stand-mounted speaker, but for those wanting their music system to less obtrusively integrate into their surroundings, I suggest the Dali Mikro 2 system. This small system’s service to musical truth makes for a convincing home-theater experience. You will not be disappointed.

Fazon Mikro 2 speakers

$650 per pair

Fazon Mikro Vokal center-channel speaker


Fazon Sub 1 subwoofer





Wireworld Mini Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables

One sure way to start a war is to mention cable on any audiophile discussion forum.  Yes, there are many who are convinced that cables are all crapola, conjured by sorcerers who want to separate you from your hard-earned money, offering nothing in return.  At the same time, others live and die by their cable, often plugging in wire products costing multiple times their components’ due in search of a certain sound.

However, like most things, a little moderation goes a long way, and a perfect example is the Mini Eclipse 7 speaker cables from Wireworld to do just that.  At $500 a pair, they will not break the bank, and to let the cat out of the bag, they will allow more music to pass on even a modest system.

Reviewer bias revealed, I’ve always had a fondness for Wireworld products and even back when I was working for The Absolute Sound, I had great results with their speaker cables.  Owner David Salz doesn’t wear a fez or a gold lamé jacket; he’s an engineer with a methodical approach to everything he does, and his goal has always been to produce cable “that doesn’t damage the sound.” The new Mini Eclipse 7 not only succeeds brilliantly, it does so at a reasonable cost.

The Minis come nicely packaged in a black textured case and are available in standard lengths, either terminated with banana plugs or silver-plated spades, in the case of our review sample.  These cables are extremely easy to use, nowhere near as stiff as my old Equinox IIIs, and not as monstrous in diameter as many of today’s premium cables, so those not wanting garden hoses on the floor should be able to work with them.

Blinding me with science

The Minis use a series of flat 14-gauge OCC copper strands in a quad conductor DNA Helix design to minimize the electromagnetic loss present in a signal cable.  Combined with Wireworld’s Composilex dielectric material is indeed a very high-performance speaker cable.  Like a number of other manufacturers, Wireworld pays close attention to the grain structure and signal directionality in their bare cable, orienting it for the best sound.

Non-believers in the crowd, take note: I have heard this effect demonstrated successfully more than once, and when at another cable manufacturer’s facility, was able to identify the difference correctly 10 out of 10 times, so this is real.  It’s not major, but it is there, and paying attention to the fine details is what makes your system sound its best.

Just to be sure, the Minis were given 100 hours of break in time, via our vintage system consisting of a Sansui 771 receiver and a pair of JBL L26 speakers.  Even at this level, fresh out of the box, the Minis were a major improvement over the standard Radio Shack wire that was in place in this very inexpensive system. Instantly, the bass response tightened up, especially in the upper mid-bass region, and the overall graininess of this old gear was substantially diminished.

Systems large and small

After logging a few hours on the Minis, they spent a fair amount of time in a modest system consisting of a Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier and a pair of Vandersteen model 1Ci speakers (reviewed last issue) with digital music streamed from a Meridian MS200.  This particular system happens to use Home Depot 12-gauge extension cords as speaker cables, to good effect for a budget system.

Again, the sonic signature – or in this case, lack of one – is immediately apparent.  The violins at the beginning of Anja Garbarek’s “Her Room” from the Smiling and Waving album have a natural tone, and the soundstage, filled with natural and artificial sound effects, is definitely more open.  Regardless of recording, the overall soundstage presented by this system is bigger, allowing the speakers to easily give the illusion of disappearing.

I moved the cable into my house system, where they work in concert with the Devialet 110 and a pair of MartinLogan Aerius i speakers, music again supplied by a Meridian Control 15.  Components with more resolution make it even easier to discern the difference the cables make.  The driving, funky bass line in Betty Davis’s “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” now has more punch than before, and the Minis replace a set of more expensive speaker cables. I notice the same thing with Glenn Hughes’s rapid-fire bass playing on the self-titled Black Country Communion album.  Some cable, especially at this price point, tends to slow down the sound and introduce pace and timing issues – this is never the case with the Wireworld cable.

The vintage MartinLogan speakers are still very transparent (thanks to new panels from ML a few years ago) and easily reveal grain, yet the Minis help the system to reveal only the music, neither adding nor subtracting from the presentation.  Going back to an old audiophile classic, Michael Hedges’s Aerial Boundaries is chock full of plucky, acoustic guitar playing that can be easily muddled, yet never is through the Minis.  I notice the difference these cables make even more when I switch back to what I was using before.

Convinces the cable skeptic

These days $500 for a pair of premium speaker cables is a reasonable, but not major, investment; however the Wireworld Mini Eclipse 7 speaker cables proved a valid upgrade, even in a system only worth about $1,000.

As with any system, to reap the maximum benefit from any cable, make sure to optimize speaker placement and component setup before investing in anyone’s wire, so that you can more easily hear the difference.  And no, a $500 pair of speaker cables won’t make your $600 integrated amp sound like a pair of Pass Labs Class A monoblocks – that’s not being fair.

However, if you would like to take your current system to the next level, I highly suggest auditioning a pair of these at your local Wireworld dealer.   You’ll be impressed.  I’m impressed enough to buy the review pair for my Devialet system and to give these one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.

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

dCS Vivaldi Digital Playback System

Spending four days with the Aston Martin DBS a few years ago was an enthralling experience to say the least—and beyond definition to say the most—but a brief time in the company of something outside of your means can often skew your perspective. When I return the silver beauty, a good friend who actually owns an Aston told me, “Yeah, she’s a beauty, but wait until the first oil change: $800. And let’s not even talk about the first major service…” Two years later, said friend ended up buying the Boxster S that I told him to buy in the first place—but that’s another story for another day.

Just like an Aston, Bentley or Ferrari, most mega-bucks hi-fi products have a way of seducing you that standard-issue gear does not. Unfortunately, the review process does not always make it feasible for a manufacturer to leave a six-figure component in someone’s hands for longer than a reasonable honeymoon, and this is why at times these reviews seem overly enthusiastic: The reviewer never gets a chance to move past the honeymoon phase.

So let’s talk about a $110,000 digital player—that’s not a typo. I thought I had lost my mind when I purchased the dCS Paganini four-box system a few years ago (and I felt equally crazy when buying the Naim CD555 a few years before that); yet, after even a few months it was very obvious that the Paganini performed well beyond anything I’d ever experienced. And it just got better the longer I listened to it with an even wider range of music. So how much better could a player costing almost twice as much as the Paganini be? As it turns out, quite a bit better.

A Brief Tech Brief

In the past year, much has been written about the Vivaldi’s technical prowess via Stereophile, The Absolute Sound and others, so if you’re looking for a more geeky perspective (and even if you aren’t), I suggest reading Michael Fremer’s and Robert Harley’s takes on this player. Should you be investing at this level, read everything you can and do some serious listening—one doesn’t want buyer’s remorse on a purchase like this.

Instead of focusing on the technical aspects, we’re going to concentrate more on the Vivaldi experience. What’s it like to truly live with a player like this for a whole year? Is it still exciting? Is it a fling or a long-term love affair?

To make an incredibly long story shorter for those not familiar with dCS, the British manufacturer takes a modular four-box approach to its top digital players, (separating the most critical parts of the playback chain as they see it: a CD/SACD Transport, DAC, system Master Clock, and what they see as the system hub, the Upsampler) with separate sections for the transport (which plays CDs and SACDs), DAC, master clock, and upsampler. This allows the user the ability to build a dCS stack one box at a time, starting with the DAC alone if you so desire, or to eliminate the transport entirely for those not using discs.

Where so many DACs rely on off-the-shelf hardware, the Vivaldi, like all other dCS products, utilize the company’s own “Ring DAC” technology, which is based around field-programmable gate array chips and the proprietary, discrete digital-to-analog converter circuit that runs dCS decoding software and gives the DAC its name. What does that really mean? On one level, it means that when dCS learns something new in the lab, your player can be reprogrammed with the latest software with ease, like having the software in your car’s ECU upgraded for more horsepower. Having gone through a couple of software upgrades with the Paganini, I can tell you that it is an exciting process. Each time, I felt as if I had purchased an entirely new component, with the updates providing a significant performance upgrade at no additional cost. I merely had to insert a disc, upload the data, and voila, I received a much better player than I had before.

Not only does the Vivaldi offer this same functionality, but because the gate array on the new digital main board only uses about 30 percent of its total processing power, there is plenty of room for whatever future upgrades the brainiacs at dCS come up with in the years to come. This future-proof approach goes a long way in terms of consumer confidence when writing a six-figure check.

The Vivaldi is capable of playing all file formats from 16 bit/44 kHz to full DSD, with the option of playing all files natively or upsampling to any higher data rate, as well as upsampling to DSD or DXD. Check the dCS website for all the fine details. Suffice it to say that the Vivaldi will play virtually any music format you throw at it with no issue, and as new formats become commercially relevant, upgrades are a snap.

Inputs, Outputs and Cables

As a four-(unit/box) system, the Vivaldi plays everything but Blu-ray Discs and DVD-A (however my MSB transport connected to the stack allows playback of these formats, giving me a fully functioning digital Death Star). The Vivaldi does play every known digital audio format, including DSD.  John Quick, of dCS North America, brought me a hard drive loaded with DSD files; however, comparing these files to the SACDs in the Vivaldi transport, the optical disc always comes out on top in terms of clarity and a natural presentation. For this reviewer, DSD files continues to be a major non-issue, but the Vivaldi is fully equipped to handle the format.

With a full bevy of every input you can think of, the Vivaldi accepts digital signals from every source imaginable, including iPods, iPhones, and iPads (because the Vivaldi is Apple approved). Even the 320-kbps feed from Spotify sounds amazing—never better, in fact—when played through the dCS stack, especially when upsampled to DSD.

The key to maximum performance is proper setup and connection, and making sure that all three boxes (transport, upsampler and DAC) are all properly set to talk to the master clock. If this is done incorrectly, the clock does not lock all four pieces of the stack together and playback suffers dramatically. On the subject of upsampling, many will argue that imaging and timbre suffer from this approach, but I will tell you that the dCS nails this without any sign of artifacts.

A total of 13 cables are required to connect the Vivaldi stack together, not counting four AC power cables. Like changing the spark-plug wires on a 12-cylinder car, do it one at a time, should you decide to upgrade the complete set of included stock cables (see sidebar). Better yet, have your dCS dealer, who will probably sell you the cables anyway, make a house call.

Are You Experienced?

The Vivaldi is not a plug-and-play device. After getting through the somewhat daunting process of connecting all the boxes together, and getting them all synchronized with the master clock, there are still choices. As all filtering is done via software, you have about six different digital filters to choose from. Like the Paganini, after months of driving myself crazy, I settled on the default settings. Those with ADD/OCD issues will go slightly mad here, because there are so many possible combinations—which leads us to the question of upsampling.

While I rarely hear much difference when upsampling high-resolution files to DSD, 16/44 files (especially MP3 files) benefit tremendously from upsampling, having more air and life overall. There are no instances where I prefer going straight 16/44 all the way through to output.

Should you be using a source like a Meridian digital-music server, which does not offer a word clock input, the proper adjustments will have to be made on the Vivaldi so that the system is not running unlocked, causing effects similar to tape dropout. When using my Meridian server, I go into its menu and disable internal upsampling (which normally yields a 24/88 output) and force it to output CDs at native resolution and let the Vivaldi do the rest.

Serving It Up

Instead of using an external server for delivering digital files, the way to really roll with the Vivaldi is using a NAS drive and the dCS application. You can also access files directly via an external USB drive (or thumb drive) plugged directly into the Vivaldi’s USB port. This provides the clearest, cleanest signal path and a major step up in reproduction quality over any of the servers I have on hand, which makes perfect sense. For my initial review of the Vivaldi, dCS had not fully sorted out the app, but now it is working rather nicely, and in addition to cataloging your music collection, it works as a giant remote control for the DAC and Upsampler, with the ability to control the entire stack in the works in an upcoming software upgrade.

As a music server, the dCS app gets a 7 for convenience (sorry, there still isn’t a server out there that can beat the Meridian for ease of use and speed), but an 11 for sound quality, so take your pick. Personally, I like the simplicity of having it all on one remote, but it is nice to know that if you purchase a Vivaldi, you won’t have to buy or configure an additional streamer—just plug an Ethernet cable into the Upsampler, find your NAS with the App, and roll.

All Digital? Forget the Preamp

While dCS’s digital volume control is excellent in the Paganini, it still sounded more lifelike going from the line-level outputs, with volume control set to its maximum level, to a great linestage. The Vivaldi closes this gap such that, if you are an all-digital music listener, you really don’t need a separate linestage, thanks to the increased low-level linearity of its volume control and the transparency of its output stage.

We put the Vivaldi through its paces with a wide variety of power amplifiers, from the $2,000 VanAlstine Ultravalve all the way up to the $88,000-per-pair Pass Xs 300 monoblocks, which are my current reference. Comparing playback with and without a linestage—including the ARC REF 5SE, Burmester 011 and Robert Koda K-10—we found that, while the Vivaldi doesn’t reveal more music without a linestage in the path, using one does not diminish the presentation either. So if you’re taking the “less-is-more” approach, I’d forget the linestage if you are going all digital. The Vivaldi can be set via its menu to deliver 2-volt or 6-volt output through balanced XLRs or standard RCAs and it will easily drive two systems.

In a Word: Natural

Granted, the price of digital perfection is not cheap, but the dCS Vivaldi achieves it. The Paganini was fantastic, but switching to analog playback via the AVID Acutus Reference SP (with either the Clearaudio Goldfinger or Lyra Atlas cartridges) still stole the day. This always left me thinking, “That’s damn good for digital,” but the Vivaldi offers playback on a completely different level. I don’t love analog any less than I used to, but 12 hour days listening to the Vivaldi instead of a turntable is never a problem. And after myriad comparisons of analog to digital files with various resolutions, not only can I easily live with the Vivaldi, half of the time the Vivaldi reveals more music than analog does in my system.

Listening to some high-resolution files of Neil Young’s Harvest, supplied by Quick, illustrates this succinctly, when compared to the recent Chris Bellman remaster (which is excellent). Young’s acoustic guitar intro is bigger and bolder and has more tonal richness. As the drums and piano enter the track, they have a more distinct space via high-resolution digital, and the sparse bass line and banjo are locked down into their own separate spaces in a way the LP just can’t match. Yet, on Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” via digital and the 45-rpm Classic Records box set, the vinyl takes the lead for all the same reasons, though the full digital recording is still quieter.

Time after time, it’s easy to fool analog-loyal friends by spinning the LP and playing the Vivaldi at the same time, claiming to be playing vinyl. They would all chime in proclaiming analog’s superiority. But when the truth was revealed, they were shocked that they were in fact listening to digital—oh, the horror.

For those with world-class analog front-ends, the digital part of your music collection no longer has to take a back seat to your analog collection. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay the Vivaldi. If you don’t have analog, you don’t need it with this player. I am keeping it as my new reference digital component—and now that I’m 55 years old, it may be my last.

Minor Nits

After a full year, the only complaint I have with the Vivaldi (and the Paganini suffered the same problem) is its human interface. While the new display screens on the Vivaldi are much easier to read, the writing above all of the buttons on the silver-faced units like mine are nearly impossible to read by anyone over 30. If I had to do this again, I would opt for the black version with the white type, only to be able to read the buttons better.

Fortunately, once you get used to the Vivaldi and get it configured the way you want it, you shouldn’t be doing much more in terms of fiddling. And controlling the stack via an iPad and the app does make it much easier.

Line in the Sand

Bottom line: If the office ever burns down, I’ll buy another Vivaldi and forget about rebuilding my record collection. It’s that good. After an entire year of 12- to 16-hour listening sessions daily, I’m still pinching myself over the level of performance this player achieves—and now even more so with the built-in app and server capability.

The dCS Vivaldi becomes more engaging the longer you listen to it and the more of your music collection you can experience with it. It is one of the precious few systems at any price that completely disappears and lets you fully enjoy the music.

Much like an Aston Martin DBS or Ferrari 458, the dCS Vivaldi delivers a level of elegance and performance that is unmatched by lesser players. But unlike with the four-wheeled toys, you can build a Vivaldi system one box at a time. And should you not require a disc spinner, the $68K price of a three-box Vivaldi is almost a steal for the performance it delivers, especially if you are an all-digital listener and can ditch your $10K-to-$40K linestage as part of the upgrade.

If you can afford a dCS Vivaldi, take it for a test drive; you won’t regret it. The most exciting part of adding this player to my reference system is that it remains enthralling after a year of intense listening and it definitely reveals substantially more music than the excellent dCS Paganini that it replaced. This is definitely a long-term love affair, not a fling.

The Vivaldi digital playback system


Transport: $39,999

Upsampler: $19,999

Master Clock: $13,499

DAC: $34,999


Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Cable Nordost Frey 2
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Vandersteen 1Ci Loudspeakers

Listening to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” I’m thinking that you also need a great hi-fi system. (And a cool car, but I digress.) Fortunately, a pair of Vandersteen 1Ci speakers and some decent electronics can be had for a reasonable cost, putting a great system in reach of just about anyone: $1,149 for a pair of full-range floorstanding speakers is a steal in today’s hi-fi world, where you could pay 10 times that for a pair of interconnects.

Vandersteen’s higher-priced Model 2 speaker is quite possibly high-end audio’s all-time most popular speaker, with almost 100,000 pairs sold. That’s a major achievement in the context of some of today’s speaker manufacturers, many of which haven’t even sold 1,000 pairs. And if the Model 2 isn’t the most popular, it certainly has the most longevity, having been produced since the late 1970s – now at 2CE Signature II status.

While the 2 has gotten much of the spotlight, I submit that the Model 1—now the 1Ci—is the way to roll for so many reasons, the main one being its 90-dB sensitivity. Sure, the 2’s three-way design delivers deeper bass, but the simplicity of a two-way speaker has always been highly appealing to me. And that extra 3 dB of efficiency makes a much wider range of amplification choices possible. Unlike another great American speaker, the Magnepan, the Vandersteen 1Ci comes alive with 25 to 35 watts of clean power, making it the perfect choice for the music lover on a modest budget.

What the 1Ci offers perhaps better than any other speaker at its price point is balance. Everyone at TONEAudio is convinced of the brilliance of the KEF LS50, and while that speaker delivers more holographic imaging and ultimately more resolution than the 1Ci can muster, it lacks on the bottom-end, and requires a fairly powerful amplifier to deliver its best performance. For someone listening in a smaller room, or a closer field situation, the diminutive Brit speaker is still the one to beat on a tight budget, but if you have a larger room or prefer a fuller-spectrum frequency response, the 1Ci is the ticket.

Best of all, the 1Ci is resolving enough to make it easy to discern amplifier differences, so if you fall in love with a pair early in your system’s history, they will probably be the last component you upgrade. I know more than one audiophile who has progressed from the Model 1 all the way up to Model 5, as well as a few using 1C’s with some fairly expensive electronics.

Cliché but True

If there was ever a speaker that fit the definition of “greater than the sum of its parts,” the Vandersteen 1Ci is it. Richard Vandersteen has always believed in putting the money into high-quality drivers and crossover components rather than the cabinetry. Back in the late ’70s when Vandersteen hit the scene, his approach was revolutionary. Where so many of the major manufacturers were putting so much money into speaker cabinets, Vandersteen took a performance-first approach with the Model 1 and 2, concentrating on the internals, with a first-order crossover, minimum front baffle, and time-aligned design.

The results are stunning, and while other speakers have come in and out of fashion, Vandersteen audio keeps making solid, musically accurate speakers that don’t break the bank. The 1Ci features improvements to the dome tweeter and crossover network, along with eliminating the banana jacks on the rear panel, now using the same screw terminals as those featured on the Model 2. Interestingly, these terminals connect directly to the crossover network, eliminating the need to use premium wire—again, simplicity rules the day. While a tweeter contour (level) control is provided, the speakers perform best in the middle position in all three of my listening rooms. Should you need to slightly modify the tweeter output level, the control offers a 2-dB boost or cut, which is highly effective.

The Rake is the Key

To the company’s credit, Vandersteen provides one of the best instruction manuals in the industry. It takes even a complete novice through the finer points of speaker setup. Starting with the “thirds” method that has always served me well with Vandersteens over the years, I have the 1Ci speakers singing in my 11-by-13-foot room in no time at all, with just a few fine adjustments.

Vandersteen speakers have occasionally received a bad rap on various Internet forums for being “slow and dark” sounding. If this has been your experience with any Vandersteen speakers, it’s because they were improperly set up. Because of the speakers’ time alignment, getting the proper rake angle is critical. Every pair of MartinLogan speakers I’ve owned requires the same care. Get it right, and the speakers disappear in the room. Get it wrong and everything sounds a bit muffled—much like when you finally nail proper VTA with your phono cartridge.

Again, the manual gives you the perfect method to optimize this, and Vandersteen has done the work for you. Follow the guidelines in the manual, starting with its suggestions, and then alter the rake ever so slightly to fine tune. (and I’m talking less than an inch here) Having a friend help you will make the process go much quicker, and it is critical that you match the angle as closely as you can on each speaker. Five extra minutes spent here will reward you with a larger stereo image and an airier, more extended treble.

Richard Vandersteen is quick to point out that with some other speakers, adjusting the rake angle will tame a hot tweeter, but it is critical with his speakers to follow the setup parameters as the listening height and distance from speaker to listener coalesce for flat frequency response, at the specified point.

How Do You Want to Play?

These speakers totally rock, providing a high level of musical involvement. Regardless of the amplifier you choose, the 1Ci speakers throw a big and well-defined soundstage into the listening room. Thanks to the speakers’ natural character, your choice of amplification will let you easily tailor the sound to your liking.

I use four different amplification setups during of this review: A new old-stock Sansui 771 vintage solid-state receiver ($299); the Rega Brio-R solid-state integrated amplifier ($995, our 2010 Product of the Year); a factory-refurbished Conrad-Johnson MV50 vacuum tube power amplifier and matching PV-12 vacuum tube preamplifer (about $2,500 the pair); and the Devialet 110 DAC/streamer/integrated ($6,400).

The 1Ci speakers not only work flawlessly with each combination, they also easily resolve the nuances between each amplification type. If you prefer things more on the warm and romantic side, the easy load that these speakers present is a perfect match for your favorite tube amplifier. Even my 25-watt 845 SET monoblocks drive the Vandersteens with ease, offering an enveloping sound that, while the least accurate of anything else in my arsenal, proves highly seductive.

Spinning some vintage and remastered Blue Note selections is pure heaven. Drums explode from the 1Ci speakers, with a soundstage that not only feels beyond the speaker boundaries, but also beyond the boundaries of my modest listening room. Listening to acoustic instruments and, of course, solo vocals through vacuum-tube electronics and the 1Ci speakers easily convinces non-audiophile and audiophile alike that these speakers are indeed something special.

With 110 watts per channel of hybrid power, the Devialet 110 offers presentation that is 180-degrees different from those of the SET monoblocks. While the Devialet renders a more accurate presentation, the sheer grip of its Class-A/Class-D hybrid design provides a major low-frequency extension and control that the vacuum tubes cannot. Mickey Hart’s “The Eliminators” is full and deep, with forceful bass notes that punch you in the stomach—and the 1Ci speakers capture this wonderfully with the Devialet. Kraftwerk’s classic “Autobahn” also brings a big thumbs up from an informal listening panel, who are all amazed what could be accomplished with such a modestly priced yet well-executed speaker system.

No Wrong Moves

Stereophile once said about the Model 2 that “the only sins this speaker commits are ones of omission,” and 20-plus years later, the same description applies to the 1Ci. It offers a highly neutral tonal balance, wide dynamic range and a full frequency response—for $1,200 a pair! They nail the musical fundamentals better than some speakers I’ve heard that cost 20 times as much.

After living with the 1Ci speakers for a couple of months, I’m buying them—they are a fantastic reference for what can be accomplished on a tight budget. And they’re great speakers to use as a building block when auditioning ancillary components in the $1,000-to-$3,000 range.

We are very pleased to award the Vandersteen 1Ci one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014. These speakers are so enjoyable that, if your high-end journey stopped right here, you’d be a pretty happy human being. Even if you are a highly experienced audiophile and you haven’t heard these, you owe it to yourself to check them out. I guarantee you’ll be very surprised for the better. They redefine what is possible for a modest price.

The Vandersteen 1Ci speaker



Digital source Meridian MS200    AURALiC Vega DAC
Analog source AVID Ingenium TT    SME 309 arm    Lyra Delos cartridge
Phono stage ARC PH8
Cable Cardas Clear

Blumenstein Audio Orcas and Dungeness

I’ve got a soft spot for single driver speakers.  While they don’t do everything right, the level of coherence and midrange purity exhibited by a great single driver speaker system is intoxicating.  The Orcas from Blumenstein Audio, combined with their Dungeness subwoofer are even more so, because now this setup has some serious bass, so I guess it’s not really a single driver system.

No, they still don’t play AC/DC like my Focal Maestro Utopias, but the Orcas/Dungeness combo will only set you back about $900, and that’s pretty cool.  Again, everything has its strengths and weaknesses.  The $1,500/pair KEF LS-50s are imaging masters, the $1,149/pair Vandersteen 1Cs (reviewed this issue) are incredibly musical all-rounders, and the Orcas are masters of tone – and isn’t that just fitting?

As with any great single driver speaker, the Orcas have an extremely wide dispersion characteristic, so they are not as position critical, from either speaker or listening chair placement, to get a full-bodied sound with a big soundstage.  And thanks to the combination of a wooden port and strategically braced cabinet with no sound deadening material, the Orcas don’t waste mechanical energy converting the signal to music.

Though a fairly young guy, designer Clark Blumenstein brings serious chops to the table. Formerly working with Cain and Cain loudspeakers, he has also spent time in Japan, apprenticing with Hal Teramoto, master driver maker at Feastrex in the summer of 2008.  One listen to the Orcas and you know he’s absorbed a lot from this experience.

Not just for the desktop

While these speakers are absolutely sublime as the anchors to a spellbinding desktop system, they can fill a decently sized room with sound, as Clark and Molly Blumenstein found out when they delivered the Orcas right after the Consumer Electronics Show early this January.

As they have an 89dB sensitivity rating, and possessing no crossover, you might be thinking “perfect candidates for a great SET amplifier.”  And you might be right.  We’ve had great results with our 845 monoblocks, and even though they are not SET, the 20wpc push-pull 300B amplifier from Nagra.

No one was more surprised than yours truly, when we heard a major difference going from the 20 watt tube amplifiers to the enormous Pass Xs300 monoblocks.  Yes, we were crazy, hooking up an $84,000 pair of solid state monoblocks to the diminutive Orcas, barely bigger than the power meters on the Xs300s, yet it worked.  Not only did the soundstage explode in all three directions, these little speakers distinctively revealed the differences in amplification handily.  Pretty damn impressive for a $500 pair of speakers.

Yet as cool as the Orcas are, they still sound a little, well, small without the matching subwoofer.  And for the extra $400, it is a must-purchase, taking these speakers from intriguing to serious.  Its six-inch driver in a small ported cabinet is small but very mighty, reminiscent of the powered woofer that Spica used to make.  Featuring adjustments for crossover frequency and output level, the Dungeness can be connected via line level outputs or directly to the speaker outputs, in a similar manner to REL subwoofers.  We used speaker level for two reasons – it was easy and with many people using these speakers in a modest system, and possibly not having access to an extra pair of variable outputs, this will most likely be the more common way these speakers will be used.  Five minutes’ worth of tweaking and the sub/sat balance was set perfectly.  Bottom line – these are incredibly easy speakers to set up, another bonus.

In the main listening room, alongside the mighty Focals, these little wonders proved intriguing, filling the room with aplomb. Recordings more towards the sparse side really make these speakers come alive.  Paul Weller’s self-titled album proved particularly groovy. With no crossover to introduce distortion or time/phase errors, the vocal purity is tough to beat.  And while these small speakers can only move so much air, at modest volumes they are eerily realistic.

Moving the Orcas out of my 16 x 25 foot main listening room into the 10 x 13 foot room in my house is much better.  Putting the sub close to the corner of the room for maximum bass reinforcement and bringing the speakers about four feet out in the room (much like I would with a pair of Rogers LS3/5As)  provides as nearly an immersive experience as listening on the desktop.  These speakers are absolutely wonderful in a small room.

However, the desktop is pretty cool

With the Orcas on the desktop between a computer monitor and the Dungeness tucked well under the desk, out of sight, it’s easy to forget that there is even a sub in the system, it integrates so well.  Listening to these little speakers extremely near field, the soundstage is encapsulating – sorry, headphones just don’t do this.

Playing to their strengths, I run through a medley of vocal-heavy tracks.  CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping” is magnificent, with all three vocalists clearly delineated, floating in front of my head – totally trippy.  Crowded House’s “Whispers and Moans” is equally lush, with the speakers disappearing in a three-dimensional presentation that is totally stealthy.

Though large scale rock is not the Orcas’ true strength, they handle AC/DC well at modest volume, close up.  “For Those About to Rock” comes through loud and clear, with good distinction between Angus Young on lead guitar and brother Malcolm on rhythm guitar, providing the necessary bite and texture. Lee Ving’s “Wife Is Calling” has the necessary grit, but pushing this too far reveals the limitations of these diminutive speakers – the point is reached where the soundstage just collapses and becomes one-dimensional.  Back off just a tad from this point and it’s all good.

A great combination

While there are a number of choices in this price range, this combination from Blumenstein Audio is fantastic, doing so many things incredibly well.  If you’re looking for a small speaker system that not only plays way bigger than its size suggests, but one that truly captures the tonal richness locked away in your favorite recordings, you need to give these a listen.  And if you’re a tube/SET listener, all the better.

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifier

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

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

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

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

The Magic of the EL34

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

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

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

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

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

Changes Under the Hood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab a Pair

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

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

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

DiaLogue Premium amplifier

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


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

Focal Maestro Utopia Loudspeakers

The second I queue up the Afghan Whigs’ album Gentlemen, I know these speakers are special. The reproduced soundstage on this record is massive, with the wind in the background of the opening track, “If I Were Going,” sounding much more expansive than I’ve ever heard it, save perhaps what I experienced at the Boulder factory last year via the Grande Utopia EM speakers and the prodigious Boulder 3050 monoblocks—the most compelling audio system I’ve yet experienced.

Yet slumming it back at my place, with the Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks and the Maestro Utopias, a bargain at $60,000 per pair, I’m getting in the ballpark. As soon as the drumbeats hit hard on the title track, we are indeed getting serious slam. These speakers move major air without fatigue, distortion or coloration. They are marvelous. Sure, the Grandes are even more amazing, but you need the room to let them breathe and the rest of the system has to be equally astounding to really allow the speakers to reach their full potential.

I won’t apologize for telling you to get a pair of $60k speakers, and I don’t want to hear all the tired arguments about how you can build a pair of these yourself for a lot less money. You can’t. Sure you could buy a nicely appointed 5-series BMW for the price of the Maestro Utopias, but the hi-fi system inside is rubbish. The arguments about diminishing returns are also moot—you won’t get this level of musical involvement for $10k, $20k or even $30k. You’ll have to pay if you want to play, but the good news is that the Maestros will reward you in a way that few speakers can.

What makes the Maestros so compelling is that you can build an amazing system around them for little more than the cost of a pair of Grande Utopias. And while a $150k-to-$250k stereo system is somewhat obsessive, the $500k-plus that it’s going to take to make the Grande’s sing is a completely different realm, hence these speakers will appeal to a completely different buyer. So, if you’ve drooled over the sound of the Focal Grande Utopias, and either don’t quite have the budget or the room to take advantage of them (or maybe you’re just a bit more frugal), the Maestros do not disappoint.

Spinning AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” I’m again reminded of how well the Maestros can create the sheer sound pressure of a live rock concert without compression or fatigue. Even at brain-damage levels, the meters on the Xs 300s are barely moving from the center position, indicating that they are working in full class-A mode throughout my listening session.

And installing the Maestros is a breeze. Though just more than 250 pounds each, the Maestros are easy to remove from their shipping cartons. Thanks to the wheels on the cartons, you can move them to your listening area by yourself, though you will probably need a friend to help you to remove the speakers, which also have wheels, and get them into a rough position.

Focal’s manual is thorough in describing setup and, depending on your room, you should be able to get the Maestros fairly close to fine-tuned while still on their wheels. Once satisfied that you’ve optimized the bass response for smoothness and weight, remove the wheels and experiment with the spikes to adjust the speaker rake angle to perfection.

The jumpers at the speaker’s base provide ultra-fine-tuning, allowing a modest adjustment of bass, midrange and treble energy. Fortunately in my listening room, I do not have to deviate from the factory settings, and trying them does show their effectiveness. The additional bass boost works well with the Pass First Watt amplifier and an 845-based SET amplifier, both of which are a little shy in the low-frequency department.

Sensitivity Makes All the Difference

Thanks to a 93-dB sensitivity rating, the Maestros work well with a 60-watt-per-channel tube amplifier, and we achieve amazing synergy with the 60-watt PrimaLuna DiaLogue monoblocks in for review (you can read the review here), but this gives the Maestros a different character. They lack some of the pulverizing dynamics that they do with a big solid-state amplifier, yet even hardcore hip-hop tracks, like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Your Neck,” still hit with plenty of clarity at all but club levels.

The Maestros, like the Stella and Diablo Utopias that we’ve spent plenty of time with, are equally tube friendly, so don’t shy away from these speakers if you’re a tube user. The Audio Research REF 250 monoblocks, Octave’s Jubilee monoblocks and even the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium monoblocks all work brilliantly with these speakers, thanks to their exceedingly tube-friendly crossover network.

As phenomenal as the Maestros are with big solid-state amps, I must confess my own personal bias and admit how smitten I am with these speakers when pairing them with vacuum-tube amplification. For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I prefer my personal system to be a few molecules on the warm, romantic side of neutral, yet not lacking in cloudiness, detail or resolution—a tall order indeed.

Tubey Goodness

Yet this is exactly what the Maestros provide when paired with a great tube amplifier. The beryllium tweeter is as fast and transparent as any electrostatic speaker I’ve owned (and I’ve owned almost all of ’em), and a little bit of tube warmth makes them feel like a pair of giant Sound Labs ESLs but with major dynamics and punch. Put a fork in me, I’m done!

Sonny Rollins’ classic album Tenor Madness just leaps out of the speakers, with the Maestros painting a vivid picture of this quartet in my listening room. Bass is solidly anchored, with everything lovers of pace and timing will ever need to be ecstatic. No matter how complicated the program material, the Maestros never fail to keep up with the music, regardless of listening level.

The piano is reproduced with all the necessary timbre and attack to sound great, but what pushes it over the top is the scale. In a good-sized room with plenty of amplifier power (solid state or tubes), the Maestros reproduce scale in a way few other speakers can. This is what separates great speakers from truly exceptional ones for this reviewer, and you can put the Maestros solidly in that rare latter category.

These speakers have an uncanny ability to expand and contract with the music, no matter what the material. Where the large Magnepans reproduce everything with an expansive sound field, which is somewhat unnatural but pleasing nonetheless, a solitary guitarist playing in a church is rendered thusly through the Maestros. A group of jazz musicians playing acoustic instruments in close quarters feels as if they are right in my listening room. And Nine Inch Nails sounds like a giant wall of sound slapping me down with maximum force, as it should, but it does so without fatigue—another highly important aspect of mega-loudspeaker design.

Should you have major amplification, you will need to be watchful with the Maestros, as they can achieve such high sound-pressure levels without distortion that you could easily exceed safe levels. They pressurize the room so well and play without a hint of fatigue, that it’s always tempting to turn them up beyond a level that is prudent. Honestly, this is a ton of fun, especially with my favorite rock recordings.

Playing in the Sand

Going through the gamut of high-powered solid-state amplifiers is equally rewarding and revealing. Switching back to solid state provides a fascinating but different experience. The Maestros are such efficient conduits of relaying music, never sounding harsh, forward or over detailed. All of the amplifiers in my collection turn in stunning performances with the Maestros. The speakers’ high degree of resolution easily identifies the differences in tonal qualities between my references, the Burmester 911 MK3 and the Pass Xs 300s, when compared to the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier and the Simaudio Moon 880Ms, which have recently passed through for review.

However, one of the more interesting performances turned in by the Maestros is not with a high-powered amplifier, but with the 10-watt-per-channel First Watt SIT-2 amplifier—a single-ended, class-A design featuring a single gain stage. This amplifier has always combined the virtues of a great 300B SET vacuum-tube amplifier with the low noise and control of the best solid-state amplifiers. But it still only produces 10 watts per channel. Lacking a bit of the ultimate bass slam that the big amplifiers possess, this amp lays bare the inner detail from only a single transistor in the gain path, which proves to be a revelation at modest volume levels.

Special Indeed

The guitar and banjo work on Neil Young’s Harvest demonstrates the potency of these speakers. The sheer speed of the Maestros expresses acoustic instruments in a very lifelike manner, without coloration. At the same time, the decay present in a great analog recording seems to carry on forever, with a fine gradation that doesn’t exist with a lesser speaker.

After countless hours with the Maestros, swapping amplifiers and other speakers for comparison, we come back to the initial question: $60k for a pair of speakers? And the answer is still a resplendent yes, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the level of music that the Maestros reveal is considerably beyond that of the lesser speakers we’ve reviewed.

In terms of construction, Focal put innumerable hours of research, design, testing and prototyping into the Maestros, which goes hand in hand with the bespoke nature of all the company’s speakers. This level of passion is comparable to what goes into a Formula 1 car—every aspect, regardless of how minute, is scrutinized mercilessly by the Focal team. There is truly an integration of art and science taking place here. This is not another audio company installing drivers in a box. Nothing in the Focal Maestro is off the shelf, and none of the drivers, except the beryllium tweeter, is shared with the rest of the range.

The 3.5-way system uses two 11-inch woofers, one as a woofer and one as a subwoofer. The lower woofer vents through a downward-firing laminar port that eliminates any port noise or dynamic compression effects, and features a 2-inch voice coil, where the upper woofer has a 1.5-inch coil. The 6-inch midrange driver, though looking similar to the other 6-inch drivers in the rest of the Utopia lineup, is designed and optimized specifically for the Maestro. Both the midrange and woofers utilize the third-generation of Focal’s “W” composite-sandwich-cone technology, providing exceptional strength while minimizing weight. It’s safe to say that this is a major factor in achieving the low coloration that the Utopia range exhibits.

Lastly, the fit and finish: The mechanical construction of these speakers is sheer perfection. The gently curved cabinets have a timeless design aesthetic, and while available in a number of standard colors (black, white and red), custom colors can be ordered at a slightly additional cost. The finish applied is on the same level as the world’s finest luxury cars, and the enclosures are flawless. While these are speakers worthy of the price asked based on performance, they also exude build quality that will satisfy the most sophisticated owner, and will meld into any environment with ease.

And this is what you write the big check for—which is precisely why the Focal Maestro Utopia is our choice for Product of the Year in the speaker category.

Maestro Utopia

MSRP: $60,000 per pair (factory) (North American distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus SP Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital source dCS Vivaldi stack     Aurender S10 server    Meridian C15
Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks
Cables Nordost Norse 2

Nagra 300p Amplifier

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

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

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

Surprise Indeed

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

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

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

Beyond Bass

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

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

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

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

Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality First

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

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

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

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

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

Nagra 300p amplifier

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


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

KEF Blade Loudspeakers

Time flies when you’re having fun. And the fun hasn’t stopped since the bright orange KEF Blades arrived in our studio almost a year ago. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? For those of you who skip straight to the conclusion anyway, we’ll save you the bother. We’re giving the KEF Blades one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013, and they are one of our most enthusiastic choices.

Giving a $30,000 pair of speakers an award for exceptional value? You heard right. Often, newcomers to the scene can build a “giant killer” product because, during the infancy of such products, manufacturers can cut corners on things like casework, support, inventory, etc., and actually build a $5,000 box for $2,000. Everyone freaks out, thinking they are getting something for nothing, but should said company make it past the first round, the price goes up, often dramatically.

Has the luster fallen from this product? Hardly. But business is business and parts are parts. There really is no way to cheat death, taxes or cost accounting. However, there is another way to build exceptional value into a product, and that requires a company with depth. This is precisely the approach taken at KEF with the Blades.

Having been in the speaker business since dinosaurs roamed the streets of London, KEF is a real speaker company with decades of engineering and manufacturing expertise. (For a complete history, I highly suggest TONE contributor Ken Kessler’s excellent book, KEF – 50 Years of Innovation in Sound.) KEF also produces speakers in large enough quantities to enjoy an economy of scale that smaller manufacturers cannot. If the company produced 10 pairs a year and asked $100k for them, I’m positive they would sell. However, being able to amortize the raw research and development of the Uni-Q driver across a wide range of models makes the $30k price of the Blades feasible.

Granted, 30 grand is still a lot of money for a pair of speakers. (Those thinking this is sheer insanity are also free to tune out now.) But if you’re the kind of audiophile and music lover who would enjoy six-figure speaker performance for 30 grand, I enthusiastically submit the Blades. If you’ve had the chance to experience the small but amazing KEF LS-50 speakers, you know KEF can work miracles for $1,500. And I’ve listened to my share of six-figure speakers over the years, so I’ll stand by this decision.

Major Drive

The meter needles bounce fervently on the Pass Xs 300 power amplifiers as I crank Steel Panthers’ “Death to All But Metal,” and my listening room is all smiles—the Blades can move serious air when asked. Having the opportunity to use the Blades with about 30 different power amplifiers, ranging from low-powered SET’s to massive monoblocks, I have found that the key to successfully interfacing with the Blades is twofold: first is current drive; and second, yet equally important, is amplifier quality. The Uni-Q driver is not ruthless, but it is highly revealing of the signal path, so a substandard amplifier or source component will be revealed. This accounts for some of the comments I’ve heard on the Blades (e.g. “they don’t have enough bass” or “they sound kind of bright”), yet I submit that this is the character of the electronics connected to them.

The deep notes on the album 11i, from the Supreme Beings Of Leisure, confirms what the Stereophile Test Disc reveals: With a bit of room gain on my side, I’m getting solid low-frequency response all the way down to 25 Hz. Again, some kudos go to the Pass Xs 300s, which have been bass monsters with every speaker I’ve mated them to, so it’s like stacking the deck. However, even with the 20-watt-per-channel Nagra 300p, the Blades produce prodigious bass, though they can’t play as loud as they do with 300 plus watts per channel at their disposal.

Tracking through White Zombie’s Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds leaves no doubt that the Blades move major air, and do so in a chest-pounding kind of way. KEF marketing director Johan Coorg and I are convinced that we need two more speakers for a quad setup—and I’ve got the quad open-reel deck at the ready.

In a Word, Coherent

For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I’ll reiterate that my personal bias has always been towards electrostatic speakers, full-range ESLs in particular. I’ve always been able to forgo that last bit of extension at both ends of the frequency range to get that luscious, reach-out-and-touch-it midrange, which a great ESL does more convincingly than anything.

Compared to my Quad ESL 57s, the Blades give up precious little in terms of overall coherence, bass response and their ability to play loud, damn loud. At a point where the 57s would liquefy and my Acoustat 2+2’s would lose any sense of soundstage depth, the Blades are solidly hitting their stride. Even at incredibly high volume, these speakers hold their poise like few others I’ve experienced.

This gives the bright orange Blades you see in the photos the ability to disappear in the room in a way few speakers at any price can. Too many large, multi-driver speakers I’ve experienced sound exactly that way—sitting in the listening chair, it’s as if you can distinctly hear the woofer, midrange and tweeter.

Just as you might with an ESL, you’ll fall in love with the Blades after listening to your favorite vocalist. Listen carefully to David Lee Roth’s closely miked vocal in the classic Van Halen tune, “Ice Cream Man.” His voice is rich with echo and larger than life, going way beyond the speaker boundaries, while Eddie Van Halen gently strums along on acoustic guitar off to the left of center, perfectly capturing the intimacy of this performance.

In addition to the high coherence that these speakers provide, they also have a very low level of distortion and thus fatigue. This is a speaker that reveals the finest nuance, allowing me to evaluate different components with ease, yet is also a speaker with which I love to just sit and listen to music for pleasure, even after a 12-hour day of component reviews. This is the highest compliment I can pay the Blades—they have promoted many late-night listening sessions after the work at TONE was done.

Setup and Placement

Auditioning long- and short-wall placement with the Blades in my 15-foot-by-25-foot listening room reveals the long-wall placement to be the winner, offering up the biggest, widest soundstage—highly reminiscent of the MartinLogan CLX speakers that I enjoyed as a reference for many years.

It didn’t take much time to figure out that placing the speakers roughly 10 feet apart (from center to center of each Uni-Q driver) and about 4 feet from the wall was the optimum spot; the Blades are incredibly easy to set up. Thanks to the extra-wide dispersion, something you don’t get with an ESL, the Blades offer a fantastic presentation on and off of the listening-room couch. Even sitting down on the floor, well off center, you can still enjoy the music.

The short wall proved trickier to optimize in my room, requiring the Blades to be further out into the room to avoid bass bumps. Following Coorg’s suggestion, I didn’t toe-in the speakers when they were on the short wall and that worked well. Long-wall placement worked best with a few degrees of toe-in and delivered a wider, deeper soundstage than short wall placement in my listening space. As with any speaker, I suggest optimizing for low-frequency coupling first and letting the stereo image fall where it will.

Lurking Behind Those Orange Cabinets

Though the Blades curvy shape is purpose built to minimize resonances, it has probably been the biggest hit with my non-audiophile friends. The speakers are almost unanimously appealing to both men and women, with most women gravitating to the orange and other brighter colors and most men preferring white or black. But hey, if you’re going to get funky speakers, I say paint them a funky color.

More technologically speaking, the Blades four 9-inch woofers are symmetrically placed in the vertical and horizontal planes so that the center of their output radiates from the center of the Uni-Q driver, further reinforcing the “point source” concept. The crossovers feature mild order slopes and, from our hands-on experience, we can confirm that they are indeed incredibly easy to drive with nearly any amplifier producing about 15 watts per channel or more. Those wanting further, more in-detail commentary can click here. There is more tech talk and a few video clips of Blade designer Jack Oclee-Brown outlining the bass cabinets and the KEF concept of “single apparent source,” which is the underlining principle of the speaker system.

A welcome favorite feature of the Blades is their lack of jumpers between the Uni-Q and the woofers. It always seems shortsighted to build a $30k pair of speakers with cheesy jumper wires or strips that you have to replace later anyway. All that is required with the Blades is merely tightening two jumpers on the rear face of the speakers and getting on with the show. Bravo, KEF; no jumpers to lose or upgrade later.

A Great Long-Term Choice

Winding up this review with Wang Chung’s To Live and Die in L.A. soundtrack, I realize that these speakers work well with everything in my music collection, no matter how inspiring or cheesy. The KEF Blades are not fussy audiophile speakers that are limited to a short list of audiophile favorites in order for them to give their all.

Having the privilege of listening to them for the better part of the year worked well on many levels: Not only have I purchased the Blades to be my new reference speakers, but having them on hand also gives me the opportunity to put them through their paces with so many different combinations of amplification, making it that much easier to get a solid handle on their performance.

The Blades are easy to set up and work incredibly well with almost all amplifiers, making them a great choice for a system anchor from which you can build and improve as your time and budget allow. After a year of living with these speakers, I just don’t see the need to spend more money on a speaker—ever. And, to us at TONE, that level of value deserves an award.

KEF Blade loudspeakers

MSRP: $30,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge via Indigo Qualia phonostage
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos C15    Aurender S10     Light Harmonic DaVinci
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300s    Burmester 911    Nagra 300p    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear     Nordost Frey
Power Running Springs Dmitri    IsoTek Super Titan
Accessories Furutech DeMag,    GIK acoustic treatments     Audio Desk Systeme RCM

Devialet 110 Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spinning LPs

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

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

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

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

Controlling Tone

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

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

Master of the Digital Domain

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

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

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

Ample Amplification

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

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

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

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

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

A Brilliant Success

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

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

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

Devialet 110 Amplifier

MSRP: $6,500

D’Agostino Momentum Stereo Amplifier

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

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

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

He’s Done It Again

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

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

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

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

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

A Sight to Behold

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

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

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

Highly Sophisticated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geeky Bits

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

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

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

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

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

Momentum stereo amplifier

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


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

Plinius SA-Reference Power Amplifier

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

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

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

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

Major Microdynamics

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

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

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

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

Plenty of Punch

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

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

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

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

The Art of Relaxation

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

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

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

A Little Comparison Shopping

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

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

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

In the End…

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

SA-Reference Power Amplifier

MSRP: $20,900


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

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

Audio Research REF Phono 2

In the past two years since the Sooloos music server has entered my life, I must admit that the music-lover side of my personality has been dominating my audiophile side.  I’ve always loved vinyl, but having 7000 CD’s that you can mix and match to your hearts content has gotten, well, addictive.  Add two world-class digital front ends to the mix (the Naim CD555 and now the dCS Paganini) and it gets tougher to stay on the analog bus every day.  Who really wants to screw around with VTA anyhow?  Let’s play some more Slayer.

Analysis paralysis is equally virulent to the avid audiophile as well as the reviewer; it’s easy to sample too many wares and get lost somewhere along the journey.  And this has happened to me more than once.  A number of combinations have brought me close to analog bliss, which I thought would last forever. But in the end, the convenience of the Sooloos/dCS had me saying, “I’ll clean that pile of records tomorrow…”  Then another change, and that fleeting happiness was lost again.

I was lost but now I’m found

Joe Harley from Music Matters was the man that saved me.  At last year’s CES, he and his partner Ron Rambach said, almost in unison, “Get the new ARC REF and stop screwing around.”  Shortly thereafter, I had a chance to hear the REF in Harley’s system and I was pretty overwhelmed (in a great way) while listening to quite a few of his test pressings from the current Blue Note catalog as well as some of his past efforts on AudioQuest records.  This was truly the analog magic I’d been seeking.

Everything I heard that evening left me feeling like I was listening to a great surround-sound mix, except it was coming from two speakers, not six or eight.  Best of all, the second I closed my eyes, those speakers were gone and I was swimming in a gigantic fish bowl of sound.

About two years ago when we reviewed the PH7 phono preamplifier, I asked ARC’s Dave Gordon if they would ever produce another REF phono stage. “Not at present,” he replied, “but we haven’t ruled out the idea of another REF if there is enough demand.” And here we are, two years later with the REF 2.  I must extent my heartfelt thanks to all of you who kept the pressure on ARC to produce the REF 2.

Past vs. Present

The original REF Phono had a massive compliment of tubes, using 11 6922’s in various locations, a 5AR4 rectifier tube and a 6550 along with another 6922 to perform voltage-regulator duties, as they have done in some of their other designs.   The new REF Phono 2 utilizes four 6H30 tubes along with a FET input stage, as they have in the PH5, 6 and 7.  Gordon said, “Using tubes at the input is just too noisy; the input FET’s are the only way to get that low-level signal to emerge from a black background.”  The REF 2 Phono also uses solid-state rectifiers but retains the 6550 as a voltage regulator, this time in conjunction with another 6H30 tube.

The original REF Phono had a pricetag of $6,995 and the current REF Phono 2 costs $11,995. This is a substantial increase in price, but the new version offers quite a bit more under the hood as well as on the front panel, which is available in silver or black finish.

ARC has made an interesting style change with the REF Phono 2, the top panel is now a grey smoked acrylic, allowing full view of the tube complement.  Those wanting the traditional metal top panel can order their preamp this way at no additional charge.

While the original REF Phono for all practical purposes had one input, you could switch between a low-gain and a high-gain input via a rear panel switch, so using two turntables was not terribly convenient.  The new version has been designed from the ground up to be a two-input phono preamplifier, using microprocessor controls to switch between inputs.  ARC has incorporated the large vacuum-fluorescent display from their other components to excellent use here.  You can view input, gain, loading and equalization at a glance from across the room.  The remote control will also allow you to see how many hours have elapsed on the tubes, and those who are driven crazy by lights in their “deep listening” sessions can dim or completely darken the display.

Another big change in circuitry is the REF Phono 2’s fully balanced design.  Though its two phono inputs are single-ended, the preamplifier is balanced throughout and offers single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs.  For those doing any recording of their vinyl via tape or digital means, it’s worth noting that I was able to drive a recorder from the single-ended outputs and send the balanced outputs to my Burmester preamplifier with no degradation in performance.  The resulting captured files were fantastic, being fed straight from the REF into my Nagra LB digital recorder or Technics RS-1500 open reel deck.

Interestingly, even though the REF Phono 2 only draws a maximum of 140 watts from the AC line, it has a square 20A IEC power socket.  I’m assuming that this helps to make a more solid connection to the power cord, also showing that no detail was left unexamined in the creation of ARC’s flagship phono stage.

Needs a little time to cook

Like every other component I’ve auditioned with a large compliment of Teflon capacitors, the REF is going to take 500 hours to sound its best, and ARC even suggests 600 hours in the owner’s manual.  For the naysayers in the audience who feel break-in is pure poppycock, I had a unique situation with the REF that verifies this concept beyond doubt.  My initial review sample had made a few stops before it got here, so I was able to sidestep the break-in process and begin evaluating it immediately. The REF sounds OK  directly out of the box but there is substantial improvement after 100-200 hours.  It really comes out of the fog right around 350 hours, getting even better until the 500-hour mark.  Fortunately, ARC includes a timer linked to the display on the front panel to help you keep track.  It’s critical to note that you have to pass a signal through the unit during these hours; just keeping the unit on is not enough.

As the REF I was using was the one from ARC’s demo room, when I decided to purchase the review sample, Gordon insisted that they send me a brand new unit from production and that I return the review sample. This, of course, caused some anxiety as I did not want to go through the break-in process with a component that I use daily.  Fortunately, I was able to keep the review unit for a couple of weeks while my new REF racked up hours.  It did provide a unique opportunity to compare a fresh unit to one with almost 1,000 hours on the clock, and the difference was staggering.  The fresh, out-of-the-carton sample sounded flat and lifeless when compared with the fully broken-in unit, with everything else being the same.

If you aren’t enthused about running up 500 hours on your exotic (and expensive) phono cartridge just for break in purposes, I suggest the Hagerman IRIAA.  Unlike so-called “cookers,” this is a passive device that attenuates the signal from a high-level input and applies an inverse-RIAA curve so that your CD player now presents a signal that mimics what comes from your phono cartridge.  Unless you are completely OC, I’d suggest getting one of these handy little devices and let the REF rack up at least a couple hundred hours before listening, if you can bear it. You can buy one as a kit for $29 or a fully assembled one for $49 here: I can’t suggest this device highly enough.  Remember: 300 hours equals about 450 albums.  Do you have that kind of patience to hear what your REF is really capable of?  I know I don’t.

Adjustable and compatible

While I’ve heard many great phono preamplifiers over the years, ease of adjustability makes or breaks the sale for me because I’m always auditioning phono cartridges. If you are a set it and forget it person, this may not be as big of a deal.  I’m guessing that most analog devotees willing to spend a dozen big ones on a phono stage have more than one turntable and a few different cartridges around to listen to mono recordings, perhaps some 78’s, early Deccas, or they would just like to have an a cartridge with a completely different tonality at their disposal.   With two inputs, each can be configured as high (68db) or low (54db, check both of these) gain, adjustable loading (50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 47k and custom) and switchable EQ (RIAA, Columbia and Decca) all from the remote. That’s as good as it gets.  If you have a plethora of cartridges in your collection, the REF Phono 2 is a dream come true. Now you can geek out with ease.

All this talk of multiple turntables brings me to my two minor complaints about the REF Phono 2: the single ground post is a pain and I wish it had three inputs.  Honestly, I wish it had four inputs, but I don’t expect anyone else to share my madness.  Every cartridge I used with the REF sounded so good that I just didn’t want to go back to any of the other phono preamps on my rack.  Even my modest Rega P25 with Shelter 501 II revealed so much more music through the REF than it ever had before, I just didn’t want to take a step backward.

Dynamics, Tone, Texture

The debate on live versus real sound seems to be a hot topic these days, with one faction claiming their HiFi system is more real than real, while the others shake their heads in denial saying that any attempt at reproducing sound in inherently flawed.  I submit that with the right music (especially music that is more sparse than complex) and the right system, it can get scarily close to sounding like the real thing.

Dynamics are a big part of the equation. You need a system that can go from 0-200 in a heartbeat without distortion or overhang.  Those who feel that you have an inadequate “audio vocabulary” need not worry; when it’s wrong you know it.  When a system or component lacks the necessary horsepower to deliver full-spectrum dynamic contrast, your ears and brain object instantly.  The REF passes this test with ease, offering up a large dose of weight and grip that is apparent the minute you play your favorite record.  I went through some of my favorite classic rock warhorses (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Genesis, etc.) and was instantly taken aback by how much more raw power these discs now possessed.

Classical-music lovers will also appreciate the combination of dynamics and low-end grunt, coming a step or two closer to convincing you that you are there after all…  Regardless of what might be on your top 10 list, the REF Phono 2’s ability to completely get out of the way of the music and present acoustic instruments in such an incredibly accurate way will astonish you record after record.

In comparing a few other top phono stages from Aesthetix, Boulder and Burmester, they all offer up their own take on musical reproduction, from warm and romantic to analytical.  The perfect one for you will be that which bests suits your musical taste and achieves the best synergy with your system.  I must say the REF Phono 2 was a perfect match for my reference system, offering up just that drop of tube warmth that I really enjoy without sacrificing any resolution that a few of the other contenders also possess.  If you want a phono stage more on the warm, gooey and romantic side of the tonal scale, consider the IO or the Zanden.  Conversely, if you’d like a somewhat more analytical presentation, the two solid-state options from Boulder might be your cup of tea.  Having listened to them all extensively in the past year, the REF 2 Phono was the one that gave me the biggest dose of everything. And it has a relatively small tube complement that is easy to source.  As the 6H30 really doesn’t offer a lot of options for tube rolling, I suggest just calling ARC when you are ready for new tubes, which they claim last about  5,000 hours.

Much like a power amplifier with a massive power supply, the REF Phono 2 has an uncanny ability to keep low-level details intact.  I’m sure this was due in part to its incredibly silent background as well as its hybrid design.  This is where the all-tube phono stages really fall down; they just can’t achieve this kind of silence.  Again, classical- and acoustic-music lovers will pick up on this instantly.  If your source material is of high enough quality, it adds to the sense of realism, with instruments coming right out at you in space as they would in real life.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the REF 2 Phono, though, is its uncanny ability to delineate texture, again giving the nod to acoustic-music lovers.  Granted, it’s always nice to hear more electric-guitar growl on your favorite rock record, but the REF 2 Phono always allowed me to hear further into my favorite recordings, electric or acoustic.

Finally, that gigantic soundstage I heard at Joe Harley’s house was always present in my system as well.  When playing Cream’s live recordings from their 2005 Royal Albert Hall performances, my speakers disappeared completely. and thanks to the additional dynamic range of adding a second Burmester 911 mk. 3 power amplifier to my system, I felt that this was as close as I would ever get to having Eric Clapton in my listening room.  A good friend who has a multichannel version of this recording said that he doesn’t get this much depth on his 5.1 setup!  I rest my case.

I’m back and I’m diggin it

The ARC REF Phono 2 has renewed my love for analog, plain and simple.  It has all of the qualities that I value in a phono preamp: a stunningly low noise floor, massive dynamics and tonal realism in spades.  And it is extremely easy to change gain and loading, making it an excellent tool for evaluating cartridges, as well as being a complete blast to listen to.  A great side benefit of having the REF in my system is that the 24/192 digital captures I’ve been producing have been better than ever, so this phono preamplifier has had a positive impact on the digital side of my system as well.

If you are shopping for a statement phono preamplifier, I can’t think of a better choice than the ARC REF Phono. Considering some of the other choices in the $15,000 – $25,00 range, it’s actually quite a value, which is why we’ve given it our Product of the Year award in the analog category.  I’m truly happy to be this excited about analog again.  -Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research REF Phono 2 Phono preamplifier

MSRP:  $11,995  (available in silver or black)


Turntables Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar VII    Rega P9     TW Acustic Raven Two w/SME 309
Phono Cartridges Lyra Skala    Clearaudio DaVinci    Grado Statement 1    Dynavector XV-1s     Shelter Harmony and 501II
Preamplifier Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Power Amplifiers Burmester 911 mk. 3    McIntosh MC1.2kw’s
Speakers GamuT S-9    YG Acoustics Anat II Studio    MartinLogan CLX w/Gotham subwoofer
Cable Shunyata Aurora Interconnects    Shunyata Stratos SP Speaker Cable    Cardas Clear Interconnects and Speaker Cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners      Running Springs Mongoose and Shunyata Python CX power cords
Accessories Shunyata Dark Field Cable Elevators    Furutech DeMag    Loricraft PRC-3 record cleaning machine    MoFi Record Cleaning Products

Rega DAC

Analog audio is similar to analog photography in the sense that there haven’t been many game-changing technological advances in the past 20 years.  Most of the improvements have been the result of refining existing technology, upgrading materials and paying careful attention to the smallest details in assembly. The big, high-dollar turntables still spin a platter with a motor (often with a belt between the two) and that’s about it.  Granted, the world’s best turntable manufacturers are masters at refining this process, and even in the year 2010, continue to produce better turntables. But in order to get $20,000 turntable performance, you still have to spend $20,000.

Digital audio is a completely different ballgame.  Just like your favorite personal computer, much of processing a digital signal is about computing horsepower and is directly related to the chipset under the hood. There are a few manufacturers such as Wadia and dCS that take care of decoding and filtration in software, but for the most part, it’s the DAC chips and whatever tweaks in the analog circuitry combined with the power supply that determine the sound.

As with high-dollar turntables, the world’s best digital sound is still expensive because of the amount of parts and labor required.  However, the $1,000 DAC category is improving by leaps and bounds – Rega’s $995 DAC is a perfect example of this.

A quick overview

Like every other Rega product, the Rega DAC is simple, functional and offers high performance in its price category.  Rega principal Roy Gandy is not a man to jump on the latest trend.  True to his engineering background, he studies a product and builds it the way he thinks it should be done.  Rega’s website proudly mentions that they are “the last hifi manufacturer to produce a CD player,” and they could very well be the last high-end company to produce a DAC as well.  But it is a damn good one.

Rega uses a straightforward approach with no upsampling. Terry Bateman, Rega’s digital designer, said, “I wanted to keep the signal path to a minimum.  We didn’t use upsampling with the Saturn or the ISIS, and I wanted to follow the same spirit of these units.  Those users with a high-quality sound card can upsample there if they prefer.  The Wolfson WM8805 and WM8742 chips running at the incoming sample rates do a great job on their own, along with a nice drop of  “old school audio mojo.” The Rega DAC also shares its buffer circuitry with the Rega CD players, which has been one of the aspects of their design that has been overbuilt from the beginning. Rega’s CD players have a much larger buffering capacity than most, adding to the natural sound.

Around back, there is just a simple three-prong IEC socket due to a lack of space for a standard IEC.  There is a high-quality power cord supplied, but an audiophile who wants  an upgraded power cord can purchase an adaptor from Music Direct.

This will allow you to use the aftermarket cord of your choice, and should you desire keeping your DAC all Rega, the power cord that is standard issue on their flagship Isis CD player is available from Rega dealers for an additional $175.

Following the trend of a few other manufacturers, Rega has chosen to ignore a high-resolution USB input, sticking with 16/48 as the maximum data rate their DAC will process. Bateman mentions that when they first started development on the DAC about two years ago, their vision for it was as more of an audiophile component, and they felt that the computer user was looking more for convenience. With computer audio gaining a lot of ground recently, this may be a deal breaker for some. But before you freak out, how many high-res files do you have on your computer?

Another unique feature of the Rega DAC is the choice between five filter characteristics for each of the sample frequencies.  Bateman mentioned that he considers the “standard” settings to be position No.1 for 32/44.1/48k sample rates and position No. 3 for the higher sample rates.  For those wanting a highly in-depth explanation of the filter characteristics,  the Wolfson site offers a downloadable PDF.

Spectacular sound

At turn on, the Rega DAC sounded a bit grainy and somewhat thin in the lower register, but after being powered for 48 hours, this deficit was gone.  None of the Rega components I’ve used over the past 10 years have ever required an extended break-in time, and though this unit arrived with some hours on the clock, I don’t suspect the DAC is any different than any of Rega’s other hardware.  After it’s been on for two days, the Rega DAC really grabs you – in a good way.

I tried the Rega DAC with a number of digital sources.  First, for the customer with an older CD player just looking for a better DAC, I took advantage of my stock Denon 3910.  A Mac Mini running iTunes was thrown into the mix for the average computer listener’s perspective, and on the high end, I ran a digital cable from the SPDIF output of the dCS Paganini PTT transport.  A fair amount of music was played through the SPDIF output of the Sooloos Control 10 as well.

The Rega DAC really excels at tone and timbre.  Acoustic instruments sound natural and quite honestly, way better than even a digital snob such as myself ever expected a $1,000 DAC to sound.  The recent HD Tracks 24/96 download of Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert, revealed a healthy dose of texture and hall ambience, with plenty of Mr. Jarrett’s signature groaning in the background.  One of my favorite 24/96 warhorses is that ’70s classic from Chicago, Chicago V. The cymbals at the beginning of “Hit by Varese” had a healthy decay. When switching back and forth between the 24/96 file ripped from DVD-a and the standard 16/44 file, it was instantly apparent that the high-res file had considerably more air between the notes.

Most of the 24/192 files on the Naim HDX music server have been digitized from LPs in my collection and a handful originated on the Rega P9/Shelter 501II combination through the Audio Research REF Phono 2. So it was interesting to compare playback at the DAC’s highest resolution.   Again, I was amazed at how much of the essence of what was essentially a $20k analog front end could be reproduced without serious compromise.  The Rega DAC is an excellent choice for anyone thinking about archiving vinyl, provided you have an excellent-quality analog setup with which to capture it.

Playing high-resolution files is not limited to the RCA inputs, but according to Bateman, “24/192 is pushing the limit of the Toslink interface.  A high-quality cable will be required.”  That in mind, I had no problem playing 24/96 files from my Power Book Pro, with a four-meter Monster optical cable. (About $50 at Radio Shack)

Though the Rega DAC did an excellent job with high-resolution files and provides a compelling reason for downloading them, I still couldn’t help thinking that this DAC was   something special with standard 16/44 files, whether played from USB or SPDIF.  If you are an audiophile who has merely ripped your CD’s to a computer and doesn’t see high-res files in your immediate future, the USB performance is very good at 16/44.

A few comparisons

With the internet boards abuzz about whether the Rega DAC “sounds better or worse” than the bloggers’ existing CD players, I don’t think it is really a fair comparison because the DAC offers the ability to play high-resolution files. I suspect that the CD player will appeal to one type of customer and the DAC will appeal more to the computer/music server audiophile. So comparing the two directly is a moot point.

On many levels, I found the sound of the Rega DAC more akin to that of their flagship turntable, the P9 (which has been a long-term component in my reference system).  It shares the P9’s quick and open presentation with a healthy dose of pace and timing.  If this is the kind of sound that appeals to you, I think you will enjoy auditioning this DAC.

My theory on the rapid advancement of digital technology was confirmed when I compared the sound of the Rega DAC to my original Meridian 808, purchased about four years ago.  When using the 808’s digital SPDIF input, the difference between what was a $15,000 player four years ago was minimal.  Of course, Meridian is up to the 808.3 now, but it is amazing to see this ramp up in performance for the dollar.  I guarantee that there are no $1,000 turntables today that sound like a $15,000 turntable from four years ago.

Forget about the “bits is bits” theory; there are still plenty of ways to handle filtering, digital processing, power supply design and the output stage. DAC’s are just like phono cartridges: each has its own unique sound.  Where the Benchmark and Ayre DAC’s tend to be slightly on the analytical side of neutral and the Neko Audio DAC ($1,195, and no USB input) is slightly on the romantic side of neutral, the Rega is very close to dead center.  Interestingly enough, the Rega is one of my favorite budget DAC’s, much like the Simaudio DAC300 that also forgoes a high-resolution USB port to maximize the audio performance on the SPDIF side.

In the end, digital can drive you just as crazy as analog if you let it.  However, the Rega DAC’s strengths far outweigh the lack of a high-res USB input for most users.

Musical to the core

While there are definitely some other DAC’s at this price point that offer more functionality, the Rega’s strength is offering truly great sound from its SPDIF input, regardless of resolution.  Personally, I’d still rather have outstanding 16/44 through the SPDIF input than multiple input options with mediocre performance.  If this is your philosophy as well, I think the Rega DAC would find a very good home on your equipment rack.

And digital audio is much like the weather here in the Pacific Northwest; if you don’t like it, it will change shortly.  Though the digital game is one that is constantly improving, the Rega DAC is certainly a great place to hang your hat for now and just enjoy your music collection.

The Rega DAC

MSRP:  $995 (US)


Digital Sources Denon 3910    Mac Mini    Naim HDX    Sooloos Control 10    dCS Paganini PTT
Preamplifier McIntosh C500
Power Amplifier McIntosh MC1.2KW’s
Speakers B&W 805D with JL Audio Gotham
Cable AudioQuest Wild Blue Yonder interconnects and speaker cables
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim    RSA Mongoose and Shunyata Python CX power cords

All that Jazz

Nagra tends to make revisions to their product mix slowly, yet when they do it’s usually pretty major.  Their new Jazz preamplifier is the perfect example.

Chord QBD76 DAC

The Chord company has always been well-known for highly advanced aesthetic design in addition to advanced circuitry, and their QBD76 is no different.  A small but densely packed box with a unique shape, one of the QBD76’s claims to fame is the myriad of inputs it puts at your disposal.  While it features a pair of coax SPDIF inputs and a pair of Toslink optical inputs, there is also a USB input and a pair of balanced AES inputs (so that you can use the QBD76 in Dual Data mode).  But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the QBD76 is its Bluetooth input – that antenna you see is not for a wifi connection.  It allows your smart phone to transmit its digital music stream straight to your system.

This diminutive DAC feels even heavier than its 15.5 pound (7kg) weight spec would suggest.  Made from a solid billet of aluminum, the QBD76 has the same high level of quality that all Chord products share.  It is available in a standard polished silver finish, black anodized and a “brilliant” finish as an extra-cost option.  Described on the Chord website as “Audiophile jewelry for the home,” this finish looks as if the DAC has been chrome plated.  Very attractive, if that’s your thing, but also very susceptible to fingerprints.  MSRP on a standard finish QBD76 is $6,295.

Chord, of course, claims that this is “the World’s most technically advanced DAC,”  pointing to their use of field-programmable gate arrays (as does dCS) to perform the digital processing via software and much higher processing power than a standard, off-the-shelf DAC chipset would provide. This is a great approach because as digital technology upgrades, the processor will only need a software upgrade, making it ultimately less prone to becoming outdated.  They also claim that this is the only DAC to offer eighth-order noise shaping, resulting in better dynamics and 2,608 times oversampling and digital filtering.


On a few levels, this piece of gear is almost too Zen for its own good, and as is typical with way too much expensive HiFi gear these days, the instruction manual is equally cryptic. I thought my dCS stack was a bit tough to get around with the small type on the front panel, but at least it has a large LCD panel on each of its four boxes.  This is not a piece of gear that you will be able to operate right out of the box without first reading the the manual.

Looking directly overhead at the top panel, there is a large, round window that lets you peer inside the QBD76, which has a very cool, blue glow.  There is another, smaller round window that lets you see the various functions as you choose them with the unmarked buttons.  Should you be the type of user who plugs in a source or two and forgets about it, you will get over these minor quirks easily.

The sheer number of digital inputs is a nice touch because as more audiophiles gravitate towards computer playback of some kind, the DAC is rapidly becoming the central hub of their system, much as the preamplifier used to be.  Also impressive is the QBD76’s ability to drive two systems, one through the XLR outputs and one through the RCA’s, so  you could use it as a source for two systems without issue.

All of the inputs automatically sense the bit depth and sample rate of the incoming signal and adjust accordingly.  There is no option to bypass the oversamping and just play the digital signal in its native form, so this may be somewhat off putting to some digital purists.

I made it a point to run the QBD76 through its paces with everything from my dCS Paganini transport all the way down to my iPhone and aging Denon 3910 universal player to get a feel for its performance with a wide range of digital sources.  At least half of my listening was done with the Sooloos and Naim music servers, with a variety of files from 16/44 all the way up to 24/196.  While on loan from dCS, I also made it a point to play some 24/192 files with the dual-channel configuration.  As with my reference Paganini, this provided the most lifelike digital reproduction.

Though I am not usually prone to much tweaky system tuning with cables, etc., the QBD responded more to this treatment than any other piece of digital hardware I’ve used in recent memory.  This one definitely responded to power conditioning and a good power cord, so consider at least upgrading the stock cord on this unit and you will be rewarded. Though I used Shunyata’s Python CX power cord for most of my listening, even upgrading the stock power cord to their $125 Venom 3 made a very worthwhile improvement in HF smoothness and timing.

A highly resolving component

Massive processing horsepower under the hood certainly made for an impressive amount of data retrieval.  Having quite a wide range of digital hardware at my disposal, I was instantly impressed at this aspect of the Chord’s performance.  If I were going to make an initial comparison to the analog world, the Naim CD 555 is more like a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, the dCS Paganini like a Dynavector XV-1s and the Chord like a Clearaudio DaVinci.

Especially when listening to high-resolution source files, I was intrigued with the tiny nuances available from the Chord, and I would highly suggest investigating the buffer options; I felt the maximum buffer made for the smoothest sound, but your mileage may vary.  “Still…You Turn Me On” from Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery had a degree of texture in the low bass that I’ve never heard in my system to this extent.   I noticed that extra bit of bass texture in a few of my favorite Naim 24/96 downloads and the Mickey Hart Planet Drum and At The Edge CDs.  Again, making a quick comparison with the analog world, the Chord DAC’s bass characteristic reminded me of the Continuum Criterion we reviewed in 2008; there was a level of texture in the bass response that was simply stunning.

In terms of comparing the Chord to a few of the world’s top digital players (all costing considerably more than the QBD76, but if you are going to claim you make the best box, it’s fair game to compare with the big boys), it still falls short in terms of the ultimate weight possessed by the top players from Naim, Wadia and dCS that I had on hand.  Think of the QBD76 as a hyper performance 600cc sport bike, not a 1-liter bike.  An experienced rider can get it around the track almost as fast as the big bikes, but you’re working the bike 100 percent all the time.  Listening to full-scale orchestral pieces from Mahler and Shostakovich, I was able to hear well into the hall and get a great read on its acoustics, but the big crescendos left me wanting a little more. But again to quantify more accurately, my GamuT S9’s are solid down to 17 hz.

In all fairness to the Chord, if I were merely comparing the WBD76 with other examples I’ve heard in the equivalent price range, it would be tops in class. But when compared with the five-figure players, I knew there was more “oomph” to be had.

The double edged sword of high resolution

The other aspect of the Chord’s performance that will either be a perfect fit or the straw that breaks the camel’s back is its ultimate tonality combined with all that resolution. I’ve been accused of liking a tonal balance that’s slightly on the warm side of neutral, so any potential buyer should take this into consideration when reading my evaluations.  Even in my second system, which currently consists of a vacuum-tube version of the McIntosh MC500 preamplifier and the MC1.2k power amplifiers, I still always felt like I was listening to a digital source.

Though I found the Chord visceral and exciting with excellent pace, in my reference system, I could never relax and forget that I was listening to digital, as I have been able to with a few other top players.  I didn’t really see this as a negative for the QBD76, as I’ve never experienced this level of playback in any digital player below the $12k range, so it was not a disappointment.

Where I did find the Chord to be a perfect match was when I swapped the solid-state MC1.2kw’s for the vacuum-tube MC275 power amplifier in my third system, which consists of all vintage CJ gear, and it definitely voiced on the warm side of the fence and actually somewhat romantic and lush, if  you will.  Where a lot of other digital players sounded veiled and grainy, the Chord was a nice match, with the extra helping of resolution a solid plus.  Two of my other staff reviewers who are predisposed to liking a bit more detail in their presentation were absolutely smitten by the QBD76.  One of them regularly referred to my Naim CD555 as “dark,” so the beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Other features

I must admit that being able to mate my iPhone to my HiFi system without any wires and let my friends do the same is very cool, so the Bluetooth access of the QBD76 was very useful.  This feature is by far the perfect ice breaker at a party because friends always want to hear their own music when they drop by.  I would love to see this functionality in everyone’s HiFi system.

As I mentioned earlier, the multiple inputs on this DAC make it extremely easy to use the QBD76 as a digital hub and for comparing multiple sources.  Near the end of the review, I had one computer connected via USB, one via Toslink and two transports connected to the SPDIF inputs.  Those who have a modestly priced CD player will be instantly impressed at how much more performance they can get from their system should they not want to abandon physical media right away.  I was having a ton of fun using a Rega Planet CD player and a Mac Mini running Amarra through the QBD76.


As with any component at this price point, I would suggest a demo in your system to make sure the tonality is synergistic with your system.  Warm and romantic it isn’t, but it isn’t harsh or grainy either.  The Chord QBD76 will not embellish the more raggedy-sounding discs in your collection, but it will reveal some pleasant surprises in your best recordings.  Highly recommended.

The Chord QBD76 DAC

MSRP:  $6,295


North American Distributor:


Preamplifiers Burmester 011    McIntosh C500    Conrad Johnson ET3SE
Power Amplifiers Burmester 911 mk. 3    McIntosh MC275    McIntosh MC1.2kw Monoblocks   Conrad Johnson MV50-C1    Octave ME130 monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    MartinLogan CLX    Estelon EX    Harbeth Monitor 40.1    B&W 805D (w/Gotham Subwoofer)
Cable Shunyata Aurora I/C    Shunyata Stratos SP speaker cable    Cardas Clear I/C and speaker cable    Audioquest Wild Blue Yonder I/C and speaker cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim PLC’s    RSA and Shunyata power cords

REL Gibraltar G-2 Sub-Bass System

A recurring theme in country music and, perhaps, in life is that you never realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.  Truer words were never spoken in the world of audiophilia when it comes to reproducing bass.  However, a subwoofer can drive you to madness, much like a high-maintenance romantic interest.  When it’s right, you’re giddy with delight and things couldn’t be better, but when it’s wrong, all you do is focus on said partner’s shortcomings—and, eventually, you both go your separate ways.

Having spent the last 20 years on and off the bus with a wide variety of subwoofers, I can highly recommend the REL G-2 for any number of reasons.  Perhaps this subwoofer’s greatest selling point, however, is that it comes with a remote.  My enthusiasm regarding this feature doesn’t (necessarily) speak to my inability to escape my listening chair’s gravitational pull; it is more to comment that having this wireless device in my hand satiates the nagging voice at the back of my mind that is always just slightly dissatisfied with the subwoofer settings.  The REL G-2 eliminates that stress completely by providing just the right amount of low-frequency (or LF) reinforcement right at your fingertips.

The G-2 is also easy to set up—that is, it’s as easy to set up as a 90-pound anything can be.  Thus, I suggest that even our more-muscular readers enlist help when moving the G-2, because it’s just big and awkwardly shaped enough to be a little tough for one person to lift.  Many users may even decide that incorporating a few of these subs into their system is necessary.  In this case, you should enlist the aid of an installer or, at the very least, a handful of burly buddies.

Sumiko Audio, the importer of REF subwoofers in Berkeley, CA, has a sizeable showcase of three G-1s flanking either side of Sonus faber’s celebrated flagship loudspeakers (dubbed simply “The Sonus faber”).  The audio experience this system provides is understandably impressive.  The LF performance is effortless, all encompassing and seamlessly integrated with the main speakers.  The bass swells up from the performance with an ease that suggests a major paradigm shift in how the lowest musical notes should be handled.

Priced at $3,495, the G-2 is slightly smaller in stature and reach than the larger G-1, priced at $4,495.  The G-2 uses a long-throw 10-inch woofer with a carbon-fiber cone and a 450-watt onboard amplifier, whereas the G-1 uses a 600-watt amplifier to drive its 12-inch woofer.  Down only 6 dB at 18 Hz, the G-2 should provide enough bass grunt for most users, either by itself or as a pair, but it can also be stacked and used as part of an array.

Major Differences

REL manages the lower frequencies differently than other manufacturers—and does so with excellent result.  While the company offers line-level RCA inputs, these should be used only as a last resort.  The supplied Neutrik speakON connector utilizes a high-level connection that goes directly to your power amplifier’s speaker outputs.  The sub’s high impedance does not affect loading of the main speakers, thus allowing the character of your amplifier’s sound to carry forward into the subwoofer.  Consulting the instruction manual and using my preamplifier’s outputs to drive the G-2 still results in decent sound.  When switching power amplifiers, from the Audio Research REF 150 to the Burmester 911 to the Pass Labs Aleph 3, a slight disconnect between main speakers and subwoofer exists.  However, during all of this, the bass reproduction does not change in character, even with these three very different amplifiers via the RCAs.  Moving to the provided speakON input reveals the variations between amplifiers more easily, with a more seamless blend between the main speakers.

Those wanting to use the G-2, or multiple G-2s, in a multichannel system will be happy to find that the sub can accommodate the .1/LFE signal from your processor of choice.  It also has a unique grounding circuit to work with class-D amplifiers or monoblock power amps.  All of this is clearly outlined in the well-written manual.

Though it adds cost and complexity, the G-1 and G-2 both use MOSFET class-AB amplifiers with massive power supplies instead of the class-D amplifiers found in many other subwoofers.  REL claims that its subs to have the fastest crossover filter networks, with a rise time of only 4 milliseconds.  I’m firmly convinced that these features, along with an additional filter with a gentle slope that removes content above 250 Hz, contribute to the level of fine detail that the G-2 offers.

REL prefers corner loading for the G-2, and that’s where I’ve had the best luck with the company’s subs in the past—so why mess with good results?  And this is where that nifty little remote control comes in handy.  As I said, fine-tuning a subwoofer, no matter what brand and by what method you choose, can make your hair fall out.  Like me, I’m sure you have your favorite tracks with deep-bass information that you use to audition any speaker, regardless of whether it has a subwoofer or not.

Now, as much as I dislike Jennifer Warnes’ “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” I’ve always seen various Sumiko employees use this track to optimize speakers to great success, so when in Rome… While this track certainly impressed, even Romans like to party, so I moved on to something with a little more oomph for my review of the G-2.  With the best balance of weight and speed achieved, “Kill Everybody” from electronica master Skrillex blew me out of my listening chair—just like the guy in the Maxell ad from the 1980s.  The G-2 gives new meaning to the term “room lock.” Should Jennifer Warnes or a real-time analyzer not be your cup of tea, a series of test tones (like those from the early Stereophile test discs) simplify the process.  As you go down the frequency range, the transition from main speakers should appear at the same level.  It should also be difficult, if not impossible, to discern the location of the subwoofer when using just your ears.

Controlling this from your listening position dramatically reduces setup time, allowing you to remain planted in the same spot while making quick, small changes without having to psyche yourself out with aural memory tricks.  But best of all, the remote allows you to fine-tune on the fly.  No matter how great the G-2 sounds with your favorite bass track, it needs to be bumped up a touch up for Skynryd’s album Nuthin’ Fancy, and then way back down for the latest Cat Power release, Sun.  The LED indicator at the bottom of the G-2 lets you know the sub’s level, frequency and phase (0 or 180 degrees).  This makes up for the tiny though stylish type on the remote.  If you have kids or inquisitive friends, be sure to use the settings lock feature.

Fortunately, you’re usually never more than a click or two away on the level control and, depending on your main speakers, the crossover frequency can even benefit from a nudge now and then.  This takes the G-2 from merely great to awesome, and the more time you spend with the G-2, you’ll notice a more immersive experience at all listening levels.

Carry That Weight

The G-2 performs well with a wide range of speaker systems; but, in keeping with the REL philosophy of a sub-bass system with the sub augmenting the deepest frequencies, it is not intended to be part of a sub/sat system.  However, it still performs incredibly well throwing said suggestion to the wind, dialing the crossover frequency up to the 50-to-60-Hz range and using it with stand-mount monitors, or even ESLs.

Crossed over at 30 Hz or below, it’s virtually impossible to place the location of G-2 in the room, but it does start to lose a bit of its stealthiness when crossed over at a significantly higher point.  I suggest a pair of G-2’s if you need to operate your system this way for best results.  Fortunately, the G-2 has more than enough speed to keep up with any speaker you pair it with.

As good as the G-2 works with small speakers or panels, a full-range speaker system allows the G-2 to reach its full potential.  Crossover frequency now lowered to 27 Hz (adjustable in 1-Hz increments) the $3,495 G-2 brings the $22,900 Elipsa SE speakers eerily close in sound to that of the $45,000 Sonus faber Stradivaris.  Even my reference GamuT S9s, which are only down 3 dB at 18 Hz, open up with the G-2—and I now find myself dreaming of six of these!

Midrange Augmentation

Properly installed, the G-2 feels practically invisible, as it should, adding low-frequency reinforcement to the main speakers.  And there remains an equal benefit through the mid-band, which REL likes to refer to as “The REL effect.”  You’ll know you have the G-2 set just right when turning it on makes the side walls in your listening room disappear and when even musical selections with minimal low-bass content spread out across the soundstage with a bigger and broader effect than before.

Using the sub in this mode, only bringing up the deepest frequencies, helps convey spatial cues present in the recording space.  Even string quartets or acoustic music with no apparent major LF content open up and breathe, with my listening room feeling much bigger than it is.  I think the fourth dimension is deep bass, and the REL G-2 does it right.

Sampling familiar tunes, the wood block in Tom Petty’s “A Face in the Crowd” is now four feet in front of my face, where it was back in line with the speakers when the G-2 level is set back to zero.  Annie Lennox’s background vocals in “No More I Love You’s” appear way off center and down almost at floor level.  One-note bass is a thing of the past with the G-2.  Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass line in Joni Mitchell’s “Jericho,” from her album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, comes through with the healthy dose of speed and overtones that made him famous.  Regardless of musical program, having the G-2 in the system is always a benefit.

Don’t Abuse the Power

The REL G-2 works equally well in both of my listening rooms—my main room is 16 feet by 25 feet; my second room is 13 feet by 16 feet—but, like any addictive substance, one has to resist the urge to overindulge.  For the first few days, it was fun to play a lot of Deadmau5, Skrillex and, of course, the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg (who now calls himself Snoop Lion).  Finding new weak spots in my walls, I got used to the G-2 and prudence became more the rule than the exception.

Having auditioned many subwoofers over the years, the REL G-2 is now at the top of my overachievers list and is featured as a TOP TONE component in issue 48.  If you’d like to unlock your system’s full potential, you should audition one—or maybe six!

The REL G-2 Sub-Bass System

MSRP:  $3,495 (Factory) (US importer)


Analog source AMG V-12 turntable    Lyra Kleos cartridge
Digital source dCS Paganini system    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk.II
Phonostage Zesto Andros
Speakers Acoustat 1+1    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable AudioQuest Sky IC   AudioQuest
Power Audience aR6-Tss
Accessories GIK room treatments    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    Furutech DeMag and DeStat

Vienna Acoustics Mozart SE

Vienna Acoustics takes pride in doing things somewhat differently than the rest of the pack.  Most manufacturers refer to their SE models as “special editions,” yet the new Mozart is a “Symphony Edition.”  A nice touch.  Also, whereas many speakers utilize a ring radiator or metallic dome of some sort, Vienna chooses a 1.1-inch silk dome tweeter, produced to the company’s specs in the Scan-Speak factory.

“We kept the front faceplate from a standard Scan-Speak tweeter to keep cost down,” says Kevin Wolff, Vienna Acoustics’ International Sales Director.  “But inside, it’s all different.  We pushed for a handful of design changes to make this tweeter really special.”  And special it is.  The tweeter is the same one used in the $6,500-per-pair Beethoven Concert Grand speakers and, like those pricier models, the $3,500 Mozart SEs redefine “sweet spot.”

A visit from Wolff underlines just how good these speakers are and how critical it is to fine-tune speaker placement.  The Mozarts sound great right out of the box, but 20 minutes of careful fine-tuning takes them from great to sublime.  Think, for a minute, how your car’s ride is affected with one tire underinflated.  The crisp steering response you’re used to is diminished, but a quick trip to the air pump makes a substantial difference, making things right again.  It’s the same with speaker placement.  Once the Mozart’s are right, they disappear in the room like a great pair of mini monitors, but with a much more robust LF response.

Satisfied that things are performing properly, we audition a number of different tracks.  At the end of our listening session, the MoFi LP of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On makes its way to the turntable and Wolff smiles.  The Mozarts definitely have the juju, revealing the magic of the Lyra Atlas cartridge—quite impressive for any speaker, but even more so considering their reasonable price.

Comfortable Playing Everything

The ultra-wide stereo effect of Lou Donaldson’s LD+3 immediately captivates, accentuating the improved sound of the Audio Wave remaster, as well as the timbral accuracy that the Mozart SEs bring to the presentation.  While we can blather on about crossover slopes and the like, suffice it to say that everything works together brilliantly—in seconds you forget such tedious technical details and concentrate on the music.  Gene Harris’ piano sounds wonderful and Donaldson’s sax commands the soundstage.  The Mozart’s simply let the music shine through, leaving you to just enjoy rather than analyze.

Students of PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) will be instantly smitten with the Mozart SEs.  Changing the pace from classic Blue Note jazz to the title track of Frank Zappa’s Jazz From Hell is equally fascinating.  The Mozart SEs do not miss a lick of Zappa’s rapid time changes and dissonant textures.  Donald Fagen’s new release, Sunken Condos, provides a calm middle ground.  The highly textured and stylized studio recording illustrates how well the Mozart SEs effortlessly keep everything sorted.

Don Henley’s “Not Enough Love in the World,” from his album Building the Perfect Beast, is similarly rendered.  This slightly compressed, over-processed and totally ’80s classic divulges new treasures.  Henley’s voice has major depth, combined with layer upon layer of synthesizers—you can almost feel someone bending the pitch wheel on that Yamaha DX7.  Leaving this ’80s genre for some heavier tunes proves an important point about the Mozarts:  They give a riveting performance of less-than-primo recordings, an important consideration for those of us living in the real world.

U2’s Rattle and Hum has to be one of the most poorly recorded live albums in history.  But, when cranking up “All Along the Watchtower” to what has to be the Mozarts’ breaking point (the meters on the ARC REF 250’s pushing close to the “caution” zone), the speakers handle it effortlessly, proving that these are not speakers limited to only a handful of audiophile-approved pressings.  In the midst of this gigantic ball of midrange, you can distinctly pick out the Edge’s backup vocals over the distorted guitars and throttling bass line.  The Mozarts are clearly just as comfortable playing it casual or formal.

The review wouldn’t be complete without playing a bit of the music for which these speakers are named—and Kathleen Battle performing “Motet; Exsultate, Jubilate, K.165” (from Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart) adequately fits the bill.  Battle’s pure soprano gently fills the soundstage, going rapidly up and down the scale.  Here, speakers lacking the Mozarts’ transient speed would blur horribly.  Again, the Mozarts maintain the pace perfectly with complex fare, even at low volumes.  The speakers realistically reproduce the violins while still giving more than enough weight to the orchestra.

Moving into a heavier and more-modern realm of musical selections, I was impressed with the level of bass output of the two 6.5-inch drivers.  A long playlist of electronica and hip-hop tracks proves that these speakers are only limited by the accompanying amplifiers’ power reserve.  Deadmau5’ “Right This Second” from the 4×4=12 album goes down very deep, forcing the Mozart SEs to move a serious amount of air, which they handle impeccably.  Before bouncing back to Daft Punk, a quick interlude of Pink Floyd, Genesis and Mickey Hart confirms the speakers’ major bass output.

Labeled a 2.5-way system, the speakers are equipped with two woofers, which handle the deepest bass tones and combine the speed of smaller drivers but have the output of a single larger one.  The lower driver gently rolls off as frequencies rise, offering the pinpoint imaging and low upper-bass coloration of a mini monitor.

Beautiful Inside and Out

Relying on gentle crossover slopes and wideband drivers, the Mozart SEs achieve a 90-dB sensitivity rating and are tremendously easy to drive.  Crossover capacitors are matched to 1% tolerance and the inductors to .7%.  You’d expect this kind of fanaticism in a $20,000 pair of speakers, but it’s unheard of in a $3,500 pair.  “We only know how to build a speaker one way,” Wolff says with a smile, as way of explanation.

The cabinets of these beauties are equally sumptuous yet understated.  The radius on the front baffle is hand-finished—the piano-black finish puts the paint job of an S-Class Mercedes to shame.  The binding posts are unique to Vienna Acoustics, and they’re not those dreadful plastic-coated binding items that so many manufacturers have adopted.  Even the front grille takes a different approach:  The crease down the middle helps to channel tweeter energy, in “all but the most critical listening situations,” according to the company.

The drivers are VA’s own design, assembled at the Scan-Speak factory, and it’s worth noting that the woofers show an equal level of obsession on behalf of the manufacturer.  The company utilizes its own X3P composite, which can vary in consistency to the intended application, so these are far from being off-the-shelf polypropylene cones.  The transparent cone used for the Mozarts has become a VA design cue, blending visually into the design of the black speakers.

This extreme attention to detail reminds me of when Porsche introduced the first water-cooled 911.  Comedian and freelance Porsche spokesperson Jerry Seinfeld commented on the “density of thought” that goes into the manufacturing of Porsche automobiles. Similarly, in sea of mass-produced speaker systems, the Mozart SEs exude quality, regardless of how far you dissect them.

Sure, the bigger VA speakers play louder and go deeper, but the sonic quality of these speakers is tremendous for $3,500.  The Mozarts prove a phenomenal match for the new Primare I22 integrated DAC/amplifier that Wolff happens to have on hand.  (A full review of that piece of gear is in the works.)  At $2,499, the Primare is an awesome match to the Mozarts, as are the various other reasonably priced amplifiers we have at our disposal.  Yet, when connected to a full complement of ARC reference components, the speakers deliver even greater performance, well beyond what you’d expect for $3,500 a pair.

Pick Your Finish

You can get your own pair of Mozart SEs in Rosewood, Maple, Cherry or the Piano Black that our review sample arrived in.  For an additional charge, a stunning Piano White is also available.  The beautiful finishes of these speakers serve to remind that, in a world where a $20,000 price tag is more common than not, it’s refreshing to find a pair of $3,500 speakers that are built with the same level of care and attention to detail as those with a five-figure price tag.

The Vienna Acoustics Mozart SEs combine musical accuracy with dynamic ability in a compact and stylish package.  They are not only worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012, they are one of the best speaker values this writer has encountered in a long time.

Vienna Acoustics Mozart SE loudspeakers

MSRP:  $3,500/pair (cherry and piano black)  $3,850 (rosewood and piano white)


Analog Source VPI Classic 1    Lyra Kleos
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Phonostage  ARC REF Phono 2SE
Power Amplifier ARC REF 250 monoblocks    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks  Pass Aleph 3    Prima Luna Dialogue 6 monoblocks    Carver VTM20, Primare I22 (integrated)
Digital Source  dCS Paganini    Wadia 121    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10   Wadia 171 w/iPod Touch
Cable Cardas Clear

Quadraspire Q4 EVO Equipment Rack

For many audiophiles, the equipment rack is the last thing in the chain to address for any number of reasons.  Many of us are too busy acquiring the next cool piece of hardware, while others just refuse to spend money on something that doesn’t necessarily contribute to the overall sound of the system.

But a good rack will offer a better overall presentation, and it always adds to the visual presentation.  Once you get use to the tidiness that a rack (or multiple racks) provides, it’s tough to do without.  The four-shelf Quadraspire EVO rack is reasonably priced at $700, available in black as well as a number of attractive wood finishes.  Additional shelves are $175 each and can be easily attached.  The Q4 EVO rack has a 19¼-inch opening for components, and it’s 15½ inches deep. Those with massive components can order the Sunoko Vent rack, which is an additional three inches deep.  This is Quadraspire’s top product and has a cost of $395 per shelf.

Built with care in the lovely town of Bath

The racks are meticulously made in the town of Bath in the UK. Quadraspire has a state-of-the-art facility, with the latest in CNC machining for the raw shelf components and an automotive spray facility to apply all of their finishes.  Everything is done in house at their shop. I was impressed with the level of care put into all of their racks when I visited the factory last summer.  You can get a mini tour from the Quadraspire website here:

To help in the development of their products, Quadraspire maintains a good demo room  so that they can compare products in various stages.  They had some top-line Naim gear with some floor-standing Tannoys that had a highly musical sound.  Owner Eddie Spruit showed us the difference between their past products and the new EVO shelves, which have some precise grooves cut in the bottom face to reduce resonance.

The difference was instantly apparent, with the EVO shelved gear taking on a more open and focused presentation.  It was enough of an obvious difference that can be easily heard even with a modestly priced system.  While my current use for the Q4 EVO is a $60,000  dCS Paganini stack, I noticed a substantial jump in image focus with my Naim Uniti and Rega P3-24 turntable on the EVO rack, compared to one of my DIY racks that pays no attention to vibration control.

The Q4 EVO arrives well-packed, with high-density foam bumpers to protect all of the edges, and it can be assembled in about 15 minutes.  It is worth noting that the enclosed instructions are excellent.  I found that a fairly large pliers used with a thick piece of rubber (to protect the hardware from damage) was the best way to tighten the rack enough so it was not wobbly.  The caps that attach to the top of the rack have holes that can be adjusted with the supplied tool.  I did notice that after a few weeks, the rack required additional tightening, but it remained stable after that.

While some equipment-rack manufacturers take the high-mass approach to eliminating vibration, Quadraspire goes the exact opposite, going in a low-mass direction.

An excellent addition to your system

Only so much can be said about an equipment rack, but the Quadraspire is at the top of my list for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, it makes an audible difference in the system.  Second, it is tastefully designed and should fit well into any decor scheme. Finally, it is well-built by skilled craftsmen, which assures that it will last for a long time.

If you are in need of a new rack for your HiFi system, I can’t recommend the Q4 EVO highly enough.

Quadraspire Q4 EVO

MSRP: Starting at $700

Audio Research REF 250 Monoblocks

Power output meters are just cool. Back in the late 80s when the legendary Audio Research D-79 amplifier stood as my system’s cornerstone, watching the meters bounce into the red “caution” area—as the SPL got somewhat out of hand—made me feel like a mad scientist in a Mothra movie, waiting for sparks to fly. Fortunately, they never did, and my D-79 never missed a beat.

Today, my hair is as gray as the front panel on my ARC REF 150 power amplifier, which has served me equally well. But with a pair of speakers possessing an 88dB sensitivity rating, there are times when I find myself itching for a bit more power. And as awesome as a pair of REF 750s sound, the idea of replacing 36 KT120 power tubes on a semi-regular basis scares me. Perhaps if I could buy them by the palette at Costco…

For every one that’s lusted after a Ferrari and bought a Porsche 911 because it just made more sense on a daily basis, I submit the ARC REF 250 monoblocks. At $26,500 per pair, they are not an impulse purchase. Yet for those with an ARC amplifier (or amplifiers) already in their system, trading up isn’t a stretch. ARC’s Dave Gordon likes to say that the company’s best entry-level product “is a good, clean piece of used ARC gear.” Sounds like it’s time to pass that pair of REF 110s or VT100 on to another happy owner, and roll up to the bar for a pair of REF 250s. Then again, I can justify anything related to audio.

Quite the Trip

I have one main requirement for five-figure hi-fi: It has to take you on a trip, giving you an immersive experience that allows you to forget about the system and groove on the music. Forget about specs, measurements, tube, or transistor. Once the REF 250s have about 45 minutes on the clock, they take you there.

What better place to start than with the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour in stereo? Argue mono versus stereo all day long, but the latter version is extremely trippy, and as wide as a stretch of US 40, driving through Kansas on a clear, sunny day. Lennon is all the way out in Missouri, McCartney is over in Colorado, Ringo drums g somewhere in Nebraska, and George Harrison sits in the seat right next to you. Who needs drugs when music sounds this good? The mix tightens up on Revolver, with more dynamics. Harrison’s guitar blazes out in front of the speakers, buzzing in my head during the chorus on “Taxman.”

Next up, AC/DC. Taking advantage of an all-ARC amplification chain, this time using the REF Phono 2, AVID Acutus Reference SP, and Lyra Atlas cartridge (mounted on the TriPlanar arm), the 45RPM single of “Let’s Get it Up” (from For Those About to Rock) sends the power meters dancing at the edge of the caution zone. It’s like old times, but better. Much, much, better. Move over Rover, the new REF series is where it’s at. Not stopping there, I dial up the 24/96 release of Kiss’ Destroyer from HD Tracks. Aural madness ensues.

The sheer dynamic punch the REF 250s possess is simply unbelievable—the soundstage never collapses, even at near concert-hall levels. I haven’t listened to music this loud in my listening room in a long time. Yet the REF 250s handle it so effortlessly, it’s easy to keep goosing the volume control further and further, waiting for a hint of compression or distortion. It never arrives. With all due respect to the ARC dealer network, unless a bunch of listeners have fearfully inefficient loudspeakers, I don’t know why they’d need the REF 750s.

Moving the cables back to the REF 150, the amplifiers sound relatively similar, especially at modest levels. Still, the full mono chassis and bigger power supplies make for a wider, deeper soundstage and more solid foundation to the bass lines, no matter what kind of music pours out of the speakers. Yes, the REF 250s are double the cost, but offer a commensurate increase in performance.

Catch the Buzz

A quick beverage break reveals I’m listening way too loud. My ears now have a slight tingle, so the volume comes down from 81 on the REF 5SE to a more prudent 30. Coasting through Aimee Mann’s new Charmer album provides an audio sorbet that calms and cleanses the palette before I peruse recent Music Matters Blue Note reissues. The REF 250s’ extra power and separate power supplies expand Blue Note’s super stereo feel beyond the norm, excelling in texture retrieval.

Forget The Sheffield Drum Record. Art Blakey’s Free For All is an amazing example of the maximum amount of drum sound a vinyl groove can hold. The REF 250s take the music beyond conceivable limits. I continue to push the volume, but my system never runs out of juice. This is the closest I’ve come to actually hearing a real drum kit in my room. Cymbal tone and texture are spot on, but Blakey’s explosive drumming doesn’t flatten out for lack of amplifier reserve.

Even with a fairly compressed track like U2s “Beautiful Day,” soundstage depth impresses. The Edge’s backing vocals, often lost in the mix, occupy their own private space, well off to the left speaker boundary, yet unmistakable nonetheless. Given how well they reproduce average recordings, the REF 250s seem borderline miraculous.

Slowing the groove for Mickey Hart’s audiophile classic Dafos makes for a welcome reunion. The delicate percussion in “The Subterranean Caves of Kronos” gets rendered with sublime smoothness, putting me at rest for almost three minutes until the monstrous drums of “The Gates of Dafos” sledgehammer my body into the listening chair and place me in the middle of a tribal mating ritual. Once again, the REF 250s strike an ideal balance between control, finesse, and impact. Herein lies the magic: massive power, yet the REF gear starts and stops on a dime, allowing for an incredibly fatigue-free experience.

Easy Implementation

The REF 250s prove at ease with every speaker we have at our disposal: GamuT S9, Sonus Faber Ellipsa SE, B&W 802D (notoriously difficult to drive), and even the Magnepan 1.7.  Thanks to multiple taps at 16, 8, and 4 ohms, you should be able to find the winning combination for your speakers.

Setup is also a snap, and at 73 pounds each, the REF 250s are not too dificult to move. As with any tube amplifier, they require adequate ventilation. The REF 250s are fan-cooled and extremely silent in operation. They use the same 20-amp IEC connector as other ARC gear, so keep this in mind if you are thinking of upgrading power cords. ARC claims power usage as 700 watts at 250-watt output, and 1000 watts “maximum.”  While you can use both on a 15-amp circuit, listeners pumping up the volume at high levels will benefit from a 20-amp dedicated circuit for the amplifiers.


Along with doubling the power supply from the REF 210 it replaces, the REF 250 utilizes a design very similar to the REF 150, with eight KT120 power tubes per channel (instead of four) being driven by another pair of KT120s and the 6H30 that seems to be universal in current ARC amplifiers. A 6550C is employed as a voltage regulator. In a nod to past ARC designs, a traditional analog meter replaces the fluorescent display.

The KT120 tube proves excellent across the range. In addition to the increased power dissipation (which translates into increased power output), the KT120-based ARC amplifiers have more aural ease than earlier amplifiers using the 6550. Depth and air are more abundant, with speakers disappearing in the room more convincingly. And nobody’s going to complain about that.

Audio Research REF 250 Monoblocks

MSRP: $26,500/pair


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP    TriPlanar    Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Speakers GamuT S9    Magico S5    Sonus faber Ellipsa SE    B&W 802D
Power RSA Maxim and Dmitri
Cable Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk System RCM    GIK acoustic panels and Tri Traps

Furutech f-TP615 AC Power Filter/Distributor and Alpha PS-950 Power Cords

Clean power is always at a premium in a hi-fi system, and Furutech is one of the leaders in the field. Its f-TP615 works overtime in my system, where I never seem to have enough outlets. Performing in concert with Furutech’s top PowerFlux power cords, the f-TP615 provides an excellent way to keep gear supplied with the high-quality power it requires to be its best.

If you are a student of the “last wire” school of thought, and claim that the journey of power from the generating station to your system travels through junk wire—and that adding five feet of premium wire and connectors won’t change things—I won’t try to convert you. However, if you believe, like me, that AC power in the wall is more like a gigantic well, full of murky water into which one taps to power a system, read on. Remember, your hi-fi system essentially modulates the AC power coming into the box with audio signals that go to your speakers. The cleaner the source, the cleaner the result.

While I have tried the f-TP615 in several different systems, all yielding excellent results, it best proves its mettle supplying power to my digital front end, the four-box dCS Paganini stack.

Digital Enhancement

Swapping all four stock power cords with PowerFlux and f-TP615 instantly improves the dCS’ performance in two areas: Lowering the noise floor and removing hash/grain from the presentation.  All too often, we mistake the harshness of digital playback for grunge in the AC line.

Spinning David Byrne’s live performance with Caetano Veloso at Carnegie Hall illustrates the aforementioned effects. The sparse yet dynamic recording, featuring the two artists playing acoustic guitar, sounds fine when utilizing stock cords. But a quick switch to the Furutech components reveals more air around the guitar strings, a richer tone, and more body to the audience’s applause. It doesn’t hurt to have the Sonus Faber Aida speakers helping convey the very nuances the Furutech products bring to the dance.

Extended listening makes it easy to get used to the newfound liquidity, and it only takes a quick exchange back to the original setup to hear the soundstage collapse on itself. Everything sounds smaller, less focused, and as if I’ve moved my system to a smaller room.

Next Step, Analog

Anxious from noticing the improvements to the digital side of my system, I was curious to see how my analog front end would fare. Combining the distributor and cords with the ARC REF Phono 2SE, Simaudio 810LP, and Pass Labs XP-25 phonostages that supply my four turntables with amplification, I witness the same effect.

Interestingly, the Furutech components net a more pronounced impact on vacuum-tube gear, wiping away more “veil” than with the digital components at my disposal. Considering the miniscule signal voltages at work, this really is money well spent. Auditioning the latest release from Music Matters, Joe Henderson’s In and Out, cymbals spring to life with more vigor than before. There’s also a definite increase in bass texture.

Such improvements in analog resolution also mean that it’s easier to hear the positives of the Furutech DeMag/DeStat combination—two essential accessories in my analog tool kit.

In the Box

The f-TP615 is built to Formula One car standards. All parts and conductors are treated with Furutech’s Alpha cryogenic and demagnetizing process.  The outlets and receptacles are industrial works of art, which is why many other manufacturers turn to Furutech for plugs and receptacles. Twelve-gauge Alpha -22 wire is used throughout, and the aluminum chassis is covered in a proprietary coating, then combined with ceramic and nano-carbon damping spikes. Each detail ensures the power flowing to your components is as pure as possible. And it all works brilliantly.

While these Furutech designs qualify as premium power products, they will not turn a $500 CD player into a dCS stack. Exhaustive listening comparisons reveal a combination of the f-TP615s and PowerFlux power cords offers the greatest gains in the lowest level of a system’s resolution. Used in concert with top-shelf electronics, they allow components to attain maximum performance. In this context, I enthusiastically recommend the Furutech f-TP615 and array of PowerFlux power cords.

Furutech f-TP615 Power Distributor

MSRP:  $1,650

Alpha PS-950-18 Power Cords

MSRP:  $1,800 ea. (1.8m length)

Dynaudio Confidence C1 II

Blasting Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” (the 12-inch version), I once again forget that the Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers are small in stature, because these stand-mount speakers move serious air.  With a claimed LF spec of 45 Hz, they practically defy physics for a speaker this size.  The Burmester 911 mk. 3 amplifier in room two produces 350 watts per channel into four ohms and proves a perfect match for the C1s, which have a sensitivity of 85 dB/1 watt.  Powered thusly, the speakers never run out of headroom, making for an enormous soundstage in my second sound room (13 by 16 feet).

I keep the volume level high as Bowie’s “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” tests the speakers’ ability to deliver a coherent rendition of this dense mix, which combines a deep, driving synth-bass line with dissonant keyboard lines and layer upon layer of sound, while Bowie’s lead vocals remain anchored well out in front of a gigantic ball of sound.  This track is tough for $50,000 floorstanding speakers to handle at this volume, but the C1s ace yet another torture test.  Now it’s time for some Iggy Pop.

While the woofer and tweeter of the C1 look identical to the components used in the floorstanding C4, Michael Manousselis at Dynaudio makes it clear that “the Confidence models all feature the Esotar2 driver platform, but each model has its own unique drivers with optimized parameters.  While very similar overall, each speaker is indeed different.”  The C1 is the perfect speaker for the audiophile wanting extremely high performance in a compact space, but it also carries itself well in a big room:  A visit to Simaudio in Montreal earlier this year reveals the C1s playing in Sim’s main sound room (almost 22 by 30 feet) and filling it nicely, with LF output that had me looking for a subwoofer.

A True Destination Speaker

The C1s are easier to drive than their 85-dB sensitivity spec suggests.  Even the 10-watt per-channel First Watt SIT-2 power amp drives them without trouble.  This is also great news for vacuum-tube lovers.  The C1s are tube friendly, and I must admit to being in sonic heaven when coupling the C1s to the KR Audio Kronzilla dual monoblock tube amplifier.  This 50-watt SET amplifier has incredible bass heft with the delicacy of a 300B amplifier, but that extra 40 watts per channel makes for spectacular dynamic swings impossible to accomplish with a low-power SET.

This is an excellent long-term speaker to build a system around, and it only gets better as you upgrade the rest of your source components.  The C1s deliver good sound with modest amplification and cost-is-no-object components, or anything in between.  Their level of resolution makes it easy to distinguish nuances between five-figure amplifiers, but they still sound fine connected to a vintage Harman/Kardon Citation amplifier.

See-Through Sound

The top hallmarks of a two-way speaker and its associated simplicity are transparency and freedom from driver interaction.  Taking advantage of a gentle, 6dB/octave crossover slope, the C1 achieves a level of coherence reminding me of the Quad 57s sitting here for comparison.

The C1s disappear instantly, painting an enormous wall of sound that belies their size.  Cueing up Patti Smith’s “Space Monkey,” the Farfisa organ pulses in and out of the track, almost breathing in the room as if you can hear the speaker cabinet rocking back and forth about to tip over on stage.  A similar rendition of depth is achieved at the beginning of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song.”  The harmonica at the beginning of the tune sounds miles in the distance, with Lynott’s voice staying anchored as the lead vocals take center stage and the rest of the song builds.

Putting the pedal down with Genghis Tron’s album Board Up The House proves these speakers can play loud, provided you have enough clean power behind them.  Romping through a playlist heavily populated by Slayer, Mastodon and Van Halen underscores the ability of the C1 to play heavy tracks without overhang or fatigue.  This is a speaker that can keep up with whatever you throw at it.  But the low-level resolution is what makes the C1 so special—this speaker is dynamic in a way that no panel ever could be.  During the first guitar break in Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” you can hear the slight hum of Jimmy Page’s amplifier stack right before he goes back to maximum volume.  Twenty minutes rocking out with these and you’ll drop your Magnepans off at the nearest Goodwill on your lunch hour.

The crossover point between woofer and tweeter is 1,800 Hz, but the drivers are so well integrated that there are no anomalies in the critical vocal range.  Male and female vocals are both reproduced with ease.  Johnny Cash’s voice has the right amount of weight and grit to sound convincing, and the C1s equally represent the subtle nuances of the female voice.  Listening to the eponymous album from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway via 24-bit/192-kHz download is an exquisite experience—the C1s keep both vocalists properly sorted.  And Ella is just heavenly.

Multiple Personalities

While the C1s will perform admirably with small amplifiers, prepare for a completely different experience if you have a large, high-current power amplifier at your disposal.  The character of these speakers changes, now having more reach and control in the last octave.  Concentrating on music with a lot of LF output, I never really felt like these speakers needed augmentation at the low end of the frequency spectrum.  The famous heartbeat that opens Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon rumbles the room with authority.

Even when delivering large-scale orchestral music, the small Dynaudios thoroughly convince, especially with the Simaudio 880M monoblocks that just arrived for review. Again, power goes a long way with these speakers.

Behind (and Beneath) the Grille

The C1s have an interesting shape.  The main enclosure—a slim design only 6 inches wide, 14 inches deep and 15 inches high—is bonded to a front panel extending beyond the enclosure boundaries.  Removing the grille reveals the 6.6-inch woofer mounted just over the 1.1-inch Esotar2 soft-dome tweeter.  Using the speakers sans grill also reveals optimum performance.  The grille does not hamper things much, but the nuanced imaging suffers slightly with the grilles on.  Besides, these speakers look much more like sculpture with the grilles removed, so why leave them on?

My review pair came with the $450-per-pair Stand4 stands, which simply bolt into the bottom of the speaker cabinets.  This removes all the guesswork that can surround selecting the appropriate stand—the provided ones minimize stand interference and provide ideal playback height.  Stylish and massive, the stands work well, though I am informed that Dynaudio will soon replace them with the new Stand6 models, which come with a slight price increase to $500 per pair.  Because of the slim form factor of the speakers, I suggest using the Dynaudio stands and leaving it at that.  They are elegant, they complement the speakers perfectly and they have sufficient mass to do their job properly.

In terms of the speakers’ aesthetic, the standard maple finish just seems more Danish to me (and suits my personal preferences), but standard finishes also includes rosewood, cherry wood and black ash.  Black or white gloss and clear gloss lacquer are also available for an additional $800 per pair.

The Signature version of these speakers, at $8,500 per pair, is slightly more expensive than the standard edition.  With the Signature speakers, upgraded finishes come standard and include two extra choices that are exclusive to the Signature model:  Bird’s-eye maple, stained in either a dark-brown Mocca or dark-red Bordeaux finish with clear-gloss lacquer.  An additional bonus to the Signature model is a 10-year warranty, where the standard version has a 5-year warranty.

The Standard and Signature models share exactly the same drivers and crossover components, so they do sound the same.

I’m Keeping ’Em!

The official listening sessions end as they began, playing heavy music louder than I should.  (i.e. Grinderman’s “Evil” at equally wicked volumes.)  The combination of the C1s and the Burmester 911 is too much fun to keep the volume or choice of music at civil levels.  As I repeatedly push these compact speakers to the edge of their performance envelope, they continue to take everything I can throw at them with ease—so I happily wrote Dynaudio a check for the Confidence C1 IIs, which will be the reference speaker in room two going forward.  Their combination of wide-frequency response, natural tonality and high resolution makes them a perfect fit for a top-quality audio system.

The Dynaudio Confidence C1 II

MSRP:  $7,700 – $8,500 (stands additional)


Analog Source AMG V-12 turntable    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk. 3
Phonostage Simaudio Moon 810LP
Cable Audioquest Sky
Power Audience AR6Tss
Accessories Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    GIK room treatments

Symbol Audio Modern Record Console

What happens when a group of music-loving, fine-furniture designers put their heads together?  They create the Modern Record Console.  With the Console, Symbol Audio pays homage to the classic designs of Herman Miller and Knoll from the ’50s and ’60s.  A true masterpiece, the Console combines a tube amplifier, built-in subwoofer and a turntable.

This isn’t your dad’s Magnavox, folks.  And for the hardcore audiophiles in the crowd who are ready to send us nastygrams explaining that they can buy a better rack full of separate components for half this price, this is not for you either.

Harkening back to the day of all-in-one consoles, Symbol’s version is a prize for the music lover living in a design-conscious environment who does not want a rack full of gear and is willing to pay for bespoke quality.  We visited the Symbol factory, and must admit that this thing sounds pretty damn good.  And while we were there, fashion icon and music aficionado John Varvatos was in the Symbol studio giving the Console the thumbs up.

With EL84 tubes, big transformers and Omega single-driver speakers, the Console has some serious audiophile cred under the hood, which, as you can see from the photo, can be neatly tucked away.  Sales of the Console have been brisk so far, so if this tickles your fancy, you might want to pick one up sooner rather than later.

The Modern Record Console


Robert Koda Takumi K-10 Preamplifier

My favorite way to initially experience any audio component is to listen to a record I’ve heard hundreds of times, regardless of fidelity. A recording you intimately know serves you well when trying to get a read on the sound of something new.

Until the K-10 arrived, my system hadn’t undergone any changes for nearly a year. When my chosen LP, an early mono copy of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, hit the turntable, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of sensory input delivered to the auditory part of my brain. It’s similar to going from excellent digital to the most sublime analog experience. Or perhaps, moving from a standard violin to a Stradivarius.

In Japanese, the word “takumi” has a few translations. The one corresponding to the Kanji character imprinted on the preamp’s front panel means “artisan.” I can’t think of a component I’ve reviewed more worthy of the title. More than just richness, or an increase in tonal saturation, the K-10 provides an almost infinite upsurge in resolution. Think of it as such: When increasing the magnification of a photographic image on your computer screen, a point is reached wherein everything is reduced to pixels and falls apart because of the maximum capacity of the screen’s resolution. However, with the K-10, even after months of critical listening, there seems to be no limit as to how far you can peek into a recording.

Similar effects occur with a Japanese pressing of Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, & The E-Street Shuffle. The horns and vocals breathe with life, with new surprises everywhere on a record to which I’ve been listening for nearly 40 years. Much like the Sonus faber Aidas reviewed this issue, the K-10 takes you somewhere you’ve never been—and that’s exciting.

Simple, Yet Simply Amazing

The cost of this experience? $31,000. Plus the price of a remote. The K-10 does not include one. A purist design, this solid-state preamplifier achieves greatness via extreme refinement, not so-called proprietary this or that. No part of the K-10 receives less than punctilious attention to detail. And although it’s solid-state, nearly everything is wired point to point, with only two tiny internal PCBs. Koda says the latter feature gold placed over thick copper tracks, and one enjoys point-to-point silver wiring.

The audio circuit and power supply are not only separated from each other, they are each built into their own sub-enclosures inside the chassis. The choke power supply is encased in a magnetic vault comprised of 2mm-thick soft iron; the preamplifier circuit is inside a mu-metal case, within a copper compartment and again the whole preamplifier is again encased in a copper chassis. To minimize switching noise, the model only uses two diodes and a zero-feedback discreet voltage regulator.

The attenuator uses exotic, precision carbon composition resistors specifically designed for audio use (Koda stresses that these parts are only used in audio applications). An L-Pad design means there are never more than two resistors in the circuit at any given time. This, compared to that of a ladder design with multiple resistors and solder joints.

Interestingly, the K-10 doesn’t respond to additional tweaks or attempts to further control vibration. It is built like a bank vault. Its robust power supply makes it one of the only components we’ve reviewed that does not really react to upgrades in the power path. (The other is the Naim CD-555.) Swapping power cords proves fruitless, and the K-10 doesn’t sound much different when plugged directly into the wall or a variety of expensive power line conditioners.

Such perfection is not easy to achieve. Every aspect of the K-10 is hand-assembled. Each unit takes about a week to assemble. At almost 60 pounds, it weighs as much as many of the power amplifiers we’ve reviewed. My ARC REF 5SE and Burmester 011 feel lightweight in comparison!

Relax and Listen

Going without a remote control forces you to sit and listen, and realize the benefits of your favorite music. The K-10’s Zen-like tranquility sneaks up slowly, and after becoming fully acclimated to its presentation, I find myself programming sessions by album sides and whole albums—how I used to listen before becoming spoiled with remotes. I love it.

Initial listening—described at the beginning of this review—was conducted via my Linn LP-12 and a Shure V15vmxr. Yeah, the experience was that compelling. I wasn’t ready for how much more information the AVID Acutus Reference/Lyra Atlas/Indigo Qualia brought to the system. It’s like driving a high-powered 12-cylinder car for the first time. The staggering resolution is initially intoxicating and over-stimulating. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo put it best in the inner sleeve of Duty Now For The Future: “Add a third dimension to your 2D world.”

Yet it’s even more.  Everything played through the K-10 possesses extra dimension and resolution; it’s as if music now possesses a fourth dimension. Much as I love great digital reproduction, the K-10 reproduces things in a continuous tone manner, like rotogravure printing or high-speed open-reel tape. The flow of musical notes and space between them bring you even closer to the illusion of feeling you’ve brought performers into your listening room.

Aimee Mann’s voice gently floats between my speakers when listening to “Invisible Ink.” Major space between her vocal pauses and guitar accompany bass that rises up from the floor, folding into the mix. Miniscule environmental sounds on the title track to Lost In Space float like fireflies, buzzing past your head.

If You Need to Rock

Make no mistake, the K-10 has a rock-solid foundation and plays highly dynamic selections with equal ease. Jimi Hendrix’s classic Are You Experienced? comes through in a thunderous manner, his groundbreaking distortion effects more exciting because of the additional resolution. And Van Halen II never sounded better. Yes, distorted rock recordings can even achieve exalted status on a high-performance system.

The ultra-low noise floor always feels like it plays a few db louder, another bonus when playing acoustic music. Guitars, drums, and percussion explode in a way that hasn’t happened before in my system, regardless of amplifier model or type employed. Leading and trailing transients occur with immediacy, possessing no overhang on either end, and abolishing listener fatigue in the process. Music lovers that appreciate string quartets and small-ensemble music will be shocked by the realism.

Really? No Tubes?

Out of respect to Mr. Koda, I did not pop the inner covers to photograph the K-10’s insides. While a few audio buddies insist it’s a vacuum tube preamplifier, this component is in a category by itself. The combination of the K-10 and Burmester 911 mk. 3 or Pass XA200.5 monoblocks is eerily quiet. With the volume control up to the fullest degree, nothing emanates from the speakers, even with my ear solidly against the tweeter.

All this translates into an anchor that extracts the maximum amount of music from your sources and does so inclusively. The K-10 underscores the ideal that a truly fantastic music system sounds wonderful, regardless of the music in your collection. Granted, the most pristine pressings have offer more, but even the most mediocre records on my shelves sound enticing played through a system based around the K-10. There is so much information to discover, you will want to listen to all of your music again.

I have one complaint: a wish for finer gradation in the steps of the attenuator. Every amplifier I tried had a point at the upper range of the control that always felt as if it could use an intermediate step between settings. However, as I adjusted to not having a remote control, I quickly adopted to any gradation shortcomings, which were much easier to deal with on the digital side since the dCS Paganini allowed fine-tuning via its excellent digital volume control.

Ins and Outs

Thanks to more than 10v of maximum output and an extremely low output impedance, (75 ohm balanced, 37 ohm x 2 single-ended RCA), the K-10 works well with every power amplifier at my disposal and has no trouble driving 20-foot interconnects via single-ended or balanced outputs.

Three RCA inputs, and one XLR input are neatly arranged on the rear panel. Two sets of RCA and a true balanced XLR output is also available. I noticed no difference in sound quality between inputs or outputs. Mr. Koda notes that in order for the XLR output to be a true balanced output, this option must be selected with the rear panel switch.

A circuit breaker-protected power switch also resides on the back, and is not lit, again emphasizing the design’s utter simplicity. The owner’s manual suggests the preamplifier not be powered on for extended periods of time. Unlike many other solid-state preamplifiers I have used, it stabilizes from being cold in virtually no time.

What an Experience

The individual parts, the resistors, capacitors, and switches comprising an amplifier, preamplifier, or other component all affect the final sound. And often, active components—primarily solid-state or vacuum tubes—feature a characteristic sound. Reviewers and consumers usually refer to transistors as having a more analytical sound, while tubes are generally characterized as having a warmer, more organic sound.

Rare, however, are components that have so little coloration and lack of a “sound.”  The Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier is the finest example of this trait I’ve experienced. If you can’t bear to live without a remote control, the K-10 is not the best choice for you. If you are prepared to let go of convention and immerse yourself in pure sound, I suspect you will love the K-10 as much as I do.

To be sure I’m not dreaming, Mr. Koda has agreed to grant me a long-term loan on the K-10. I will produce a follow-up review at end of 2013, after the preamp has been used as a reference component with a wider variety of power amplifier and source combinations.

Robert Koda Takumi K-10

MSRP: $31,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP    TriPlanar arm    Lyra Atlas Cartridge   AMG V12    AMG arm    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Aurender S10 music server
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE    Pass XP-25    Indigo Qualia
Power Amplifier Burmester 911mk.3    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    Sonus faber Aida

McIntosh McAire

As I unbox the new McAire wireless music system, from that other apple of my eye—the one in Binghamton, N.Y.—the similarities between it and something from the Apple of Cupertino, Calif., are uncanny.  Mixing old styles with new styles, the McAire’s outer packaging and quick-start guide look suspiciously West Coast, but I’ve opened enough McIntosh hi-fi gear to recognize the owner’s manual instantly—and this one is pure McIntosh Labs.

A few years ago, with its F80, British manufacturer Meridian broke the price barrier for a high-performance compact audio system.  Now a serious American brand offers an alternative to the Bose Wave radio, and the McAire is equally as intriguing as the F80, both in terms of performance and aesthetics.

McIntosh’s Ron Cornelius says, “It’s expensive for a dock, but it’s a really affordable McIntosh system. The McAire retails for $3,000

It’s Heavy and It Rocks

While the McAire is an amazing wireless player for your iPhone, iPod or iPad, it’s so much more than that.  This 31-pound one-piece system features the same titanium tweeters and inverted-dome midrange drivers with NRT magnet structures found in the brand’s flagship XRT speakers.  In the McAire, McIntosh couples these to a pair of 5-inch slot-loaded woofers that produce formidable bass.  The system features Class-D amplification, but McIntosh doesn’t list a specification for power output.  Suffice it to say the McAire really rocks.

I begin the audition with “Who,” the lead track from the new David Byrne & St. Vincent album Love This Giant, which instantly establishes the bass response of the McAire.  The tabletop quakes, as the big, blue McIntosh meters swing merrily to the beat.  This thing fills the room with sound!

Next up: “Hail Bop,” from the self-titled Django Django album.  With so much spacey, synthesizer sounds, twangy guitars and ethereal harmonies, this track shows the McAire’s ability to set a gigantic soundfield—doing so on our art director’s desktop.  The sound is so big that she takes control of the remote to slow the pace down a bit, switching to some classic Michael Hedges.  The McAire proves equally adept with acoustic guitar, before we take a walk on the wild side with Marc Ribot’s Silent Movies, a record full of empty space, feedback and distortion.  I end the first of many listening duals with AC/DC’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation,” leaving everyone in the office impressed with the McAire.

Well Connected

The McAire is Apple-certified, so you can connect any iDevice via USB cable or wirelessly via AirPlay.  The initial setup is straightforward, requiring just your device and the small supplied remote.  The Ikea-like quick-start guide walks you through the process in a few minutes.  Those not wanting to have their device floating around on the tabletop, or in their pocket, can take advantage of the McIntosh ST-1 stand (sold separately; $50), which fits any of Apple’s portable devices.

You can stream music to the McAire using your home’s Wi-Fi network and iTunes on your Mac or PC—but why bother when you can utilize the McIntosh app for your iPhone or iPad?  Using the app gives you similar functionality to iTunes, but turns the screen of your device into yet another McIntosh blue meter!  What could be cooler than that?

An auxiliary audio input on the back panel lets you get really wacky if you want, by connecting a turntable or other source unit to your McAire system.  We didn’t take things that far, but we did plug in a vintage McIntosh MR-71 FM tuner.  This requires a bit more shelf space, but the tube tuner is a nice addition to the system, if you’re listening to FM radio.

For seasoned McIntosh aficionados, or those discovering the brand for the first time, the McAire compact system is an excellent idea for adding high-performance audio to any room in the house.

McIntosh McAire


Sonus faber Aida Loudspeaker

How many times have you heard a fellow audiophile or music lover say, “For that kind of money, those speakers should wash your car” or, “They should be better than sex”—or something to that effect? A pair of Sonus faber Aida loudspeakers cost $120,000 and are better than sex. Spend a few minutes immersed in a serious listening session, and you won’t care if your luxury car is dirty. Play a few more tunes, and you might not even notice your significant other beckoning you to the bedroom for some intimate time. They are that good. Indeed, the Aida is as close to perfection as I’ve experienced, and I’ve spent a lot of time listening to the world’s finest speakers. These, however, do nothing wrong.

Steve Martin once said, “First, get a million dollars.” Perfection doesn’t come cheap, and that’s the only bad news concerning the Aida. This speaker caters to an exclusive club, yet sales are steady, especially now that the $200,000 “Sonus faber” is no longer on the market. And while these gems flawlessly perform no matter what they’re connected to, the better your source components, the better the end result.

Listening to an old favorite, 10cc’s Bloody Tourists, the heavens align, as they do every time I listen to the Aidas (pronounced Eye –ee-dah). Regardless of the recording material or recording quality, I’m hearing more music than I’ve ever experienced on familiar recordings—and my reference GamuT S9 speakers aren’t exactly slouches. Passages decay more than they did before. There’s an extra guitar overdub here I hadn’t noticed, and an extra layer of vocals. If you audition the Aida, prepare to invest in coffee. You’ll be shutting off the lights at 2 a.m. just because you have to hear just one more record.

These rewarding experiences, my friends, are what the pinnacle of high-end audio is about. Sound so good, so real, you can just reach out and touch it. If you like smooth vocalists like Diana Krall, the Aidas offer you the opportunity to have a sonic lap dance. If you want to rock, and have enough amplifier power, the Aidas put Slash and a wall of Marshall cabinets in your room. And if you like electronica, the Aidas deliver Deadmau5 to your door, mouse mask and all. Acoustic music lovers are in for the biggest treat. The Aidas present a tonal accuracy and contrast that, by far, are the most natural and convincing I’ve ever witnessed.

When covering a Deadmau5 show with Music Editor Bob Gendron last year, he remarked, “Your system can’t do that…” Yet, on a recent visit to the TONE studio, he had recalibrated his perspective. Playing “Raise Your Weapon” from 4×4=12, and twisting the level control on the ARC REF5SE up to 80, a monstrous grin came over his face.  Switching the program to the Slayer Vinyl Conflict box set, he admitted, “These speakers play at concert-hall levels with none of the distortion and fatigue you get at a live performance. I’ve never heard a stereo system sound like this.” Another convert.

Posh Treatment

Every pair of Aidas comes with a visit from Sonus faber to make sure the speakers are optimized for maximum performance. If you live in North America, chances are high that Sumiko’s Bill Peugh will make the journey. Having heard Peugh work his magic at countless dealers and audio shows, it was a pleasure to have him take the time to set up the Aidas here.

For a speaker that weighs 365 pounds each, the Aida is a svelte tango partner. Thanks to the enclosed collapsible trolley, they are easily moved about. And the job can be done with one person, making it easy to place the speakers in a listening room. Another example of how no stone has been left unturned by Sonus faber.

After a brief listen to a single speaker in the room so we could get a handle on bass response, we introduced the second speaker into the system and found the pair beginning to optimize. The Aida uses a rear-firing midrange and tweeter, each having their own controls on the rear panel. The “Sonus faber” introduced this concept, and it’s used to great success here. For now, the Aida is the only other speaker in the Sonus faber range with this function.

Having set up the speakers for the best combination of imaging, frequency smoothness, and bass response, we turned to fine-tuning the rear firing drivers. It’s an illuminating process: The level coming from the drivers isn’t terribly high, yet when adjusted, it causes a profound difference to the overall sound. Setting the level too high destroys the Aidas’ precise imaging performance by way of brightness. Not enough, and the speakers lose some airiness and coherence. Much like fine-tuning VTA, the speakers disappear when a perfect balance is obtained. No small feat for six-foot-tall models.

How quickly the Aidas settle into a groove. We are listening in earnest by the end of the first afternoon. My review models boast very few hours of prior listening time, so they are—for all practical purposes—a fresh pair. Like those on any speaker, the drivers require a certain amount of physical break-in to open up and achieve full body. The Aida is no different, although in retrospect, it merely sounds smaller and less extended after the initial uncrating. Bass is not completely fleshed out, and coherence between drivers is not as good as it is with a couple hundred hours on the clock. By the next day, after 24 hours of continuous play, they begin to relax.

Sumiko’s John Paul Lizars assures me the speakers change character during the break-in period, but it must have happened while I was sleeping. To be clear, I left them playing 24 hours a day during the review period; they had to be back in time for the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.

As tests evolved, all I noticed was a slight fog, which progressively dissipated.  Leaving the Pass XA200.5s Class-A monoblocks powered-up for nearly a month had consequences on my electric bill; I used three times more electricity as the average house in my neighborhood. Yikes. I’ve had a few paranoid delusions of the DEA showing up at my house with a SWAT team wanting to know where I’m growing the marijuana crop, only to give them a tour of my studio. “Sorry officers, no drugs in here, just these big amplifiers.” If I’m not at CES in January, you’ll know why.

I spent the bulk of my listening time utilizing the Pass monoblocks and Octave Jubilee monoblocks, which offer 250 watts per channel of vacuum tube power.

Under Pressure

The Aidas are polite company at low to modest listening levels. But as the volume goes up, they do an even better job at disappearing in the room. Sumiko representatives often discuss the concept of “pressurizing the room,” and I’ve never heard it better illustrated than with these speakers. Interestingly, I found myself (and guests) listening to the Aidas at higher levels than normal. Once the volume hits a certain point, the aforementioned effect becomes hypnotic, drawing you further into the presentation than you might have thought possible.

Fatigue that accompanies twisting the volume control to the upper regions? It’s just not there with the Aidas. Instead, it feels as if you can just keep turning up the volume forever, or at least until your amplifiers run out of power.

Tied to a chair and given truth serum, I’ll confess my love of the sound of a great electrostatic speaker like the Quad 57 or the MartinLogan CLX. Coherency is my hot button. It’s not so much midrange magic, but midrange correctly rendered. With no crossover in the path, the associated distortions, by design, do not exist. And distortions are a big part of what convinces your brain that you’re listening to a stereo system instead of the real thing.

Again, the Aidas do the seemingly impossible, providing a seamless soundstage that never sounds like a woofer, tweeter, and midrange in a cabinet (even though their complement of drivers has crossover points at 55, 180, 250, and 3,000Hz). There’s so much new technology incorporated in this speaker, it would take a whole book to cover depth. And that’s precisely what’s included with the Aida— a 200-page tome, illustrating every facet of the speaker’s philosophy, design, and construction. Not to mention a massive collection of great photos, beautifully printed.

The Aida’s downward-firing 13-inch woofer produces bass with incredible texture and grip. I also suspect it heavily plays into its ease. The bass isn’t as aggressive, gut-punching, or pants-flapping as that of a few favorite audiophile darlings, but it possesses a presence that provides a true musical foundation, as it should. Just like when you listen to a musician playing a stand-up bass in a club.

Vide, the acoustic bass line in Stanley Clarke’s In the Jazz Garden is rich with decay, texture, and pace. Clarke’s instrument does more than maintain a separate space from piano and drums; it projects a three-dimensional effect that bass rarely manages in a recording. When changing the program to Dan Deacon’s America, the growling synth bass line shakes my room. These speakers move serious air when required.

The high-frequency spectrum is equally well represented. Older Sonus faber speakers, while providing highly pleasing sound, are often criticized for a midrange glow that borders on coloration. The Aida retains a high degree of utter tonality and soul, and provides a high degree of resolution and the ability to render musical detail without harshness, distortion, or fatigue. It yields a greater degree of loud-to-soft gradation than anything I’ve heard shy of the world’s finest horn systems.

Moving away from the ring radiator design of the former flagship, the Stradivari, a new, 29mm “arrow point” tweeter gets incorporated in the Aida. The intriguing albeit delicate bar is a very specific wave guide. Nothing in the Aida is without function. Peugh states the soft dome allows for a more natural response as well as more even and natural room dispersion. Experiencing the Aida is remarkably similar no matter where you sit in the listening environment, contributing to the notion of musicians playing in another room when listening from afar.

While the Aidas have a sensitivity spec of 92db with one watt, they give more with tons of clean power on tap. A sampling of lower-powered amplifiers in the 25- to 50-watt-per-channel range proves acceptable. Still, small amplifiers run out of juice when called upon to really rock. And I can’t imagine an Aida owner not wanting to take advantage of as wide a range of music as possible.

Ooh, the Cabinet

Much of the Aida’s sound can be traced to the cabinet and Sonus faber’s approach. A visual tour de force, these speakers arouse and impress, coated with layer upon layer of hand-applied and hand-polished lacquer. The metal bits receive the same amount of attention to fine detail, right down to the exact formulation of the bath used to apply the anodized coatings. Words and photos do not do justice to these audible works of art.  The booklet states the processes used in the speakers’ construction is “like that in an Italian supercar,” and it isn’t kidding.

Many current speaker manufacturers live and die by the sword of completely eliminating any resonance from the enclosure. However, Sonus faber looks at speaker design like an instrument manufacturer would, working with resonances and fine-tuning to achieve a more musical result. If you like the Wilson/Magico/YG Acoustics approach, I doubt you will love the Aida—just as I wouldn’t expect an automobile enthusiast that loves the Aston Martin DBS to be equally excited about the Porsche 911 GT3. High performance, different approach.

As for the emotional connection the Aidas engender? A non-audiophile friend, who is a cabinet maker by trade, was in awe of the enclosures that take nearly three weeks to complete. Before I put Mobile Fidelity’s recent 45RM remaster of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on the turntable, he was explaining “no one listens to vinyl anymore.” Then, when the needle dropped, he teared up. “I used to go to the Village and see Dylan all the time. This puts him right in the room.” We switched back to the same album on CD, even played through the fantastic dCS Paganini, and the magic diminished. How can you ask for a better, more emotionally engaging experience?

Listen to Get the Rest of the Story

If you were hoping for a treatise on specs, measurements, and speaker configuration, that’s not what matters here. And none of it will matter to you after you’ve spent 60 seconds listening to one of your favorite pieces of music through the Aidas. I can’t think of a more sublime example of high technology serving fine art.

Should a $120k pair of speakers not be on your short list, try and experience the Aida anyway. And have your Sonus faber dealer demonstrate the new $2,498 Venere 2.5 speakers. A staggering amount of technology trickled down to the company’s entry-level speakers, and is only be made possible by an enterprise that has the resources to build an Aida.

Just as Verdi’s Aida took his art to its highest level, Sonus faber’s Aida takes the aesthetic and acoustic art of speaker-building to an equally lofty level. While it can be tough to justify the value with products so expensive, having spent plenty of time with most of the top models in the six-figure bracket and a considerable number of great speakers in the $20k- $50k range, I can say with absolute certainty that Aidas offer sound and build quality commensurate with price. They have provided one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my career.

Sonus faber Aida

MSRP:  $120,000/pair (Manufacturer)


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge   AMG V-12 turntable    AMG arm    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital source dCS Paganini stack    Aurender S10 music server
Preamplifier ARC REF5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Burmester 911 mk.3    Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear
Power cords Furutech PowerFlux
Power conditioning  Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim
Accessories GIK room treatments    Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme record cleaner    SRA Scuttle rack

Simaudio MOON 880M Monoblocks

Revisiting Dave Grusin’s classic audiophile album, Discovered Again!, brings back frustrating memories of how amplifiers in the early ’80s didn’t have enough horsepower to do justice to a record with wide dynamic swings.  The same dilemma exists when playing many of today’s carefully remastered records with ultra-wide dynamic ranges:  Even though there is no obvious distortion, something is still missing.  And you don’t know it until you hear what a mega power amplifier can achieve.

Forget “simpler is better,” “lower power is better” or whatever other mantra you’ve let yourself be convinced by to avoid making the step up to a high-quality, high-power amplifier.  You’re in for a shock the first time you plug the MOON 880Ms into your system.  It’s a “space, the final frontier” kind of thing, with the 880Ms opening up a parallel universe where the Enterprise now goes to warp 13, instead of only warp 9.7.

At $42,000 per pair, these amplifiers are not for the faint of wallet—but the only other amplifiers I’ve heard with this kind of jump factor are the $205k-per-pair Boulder 3050s.  Instead of spending that kind of cash, you could go with a pair of the 880Ms, Simaudio’s $28,000 MOON 850P preamplifier, your favorite $25k digital front end, a similarly priced analog front end, and maybe $40k for a great pair of speakers. You’ll still have enough cash left over for European delivery of a new Porsche Cayman S and a trip to the Montreux Jazz Festival for a week to take in some great live music.  To the right buyer, the MOON 880Ms are a major bargain—it’s all relative.

The Un-Compressor

Thom Yorke’s The Eraser is a fairly compressed recording, as is Supreme Beings of Leisure’s album 11i. The recently remastered Deluxe Version of Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak feels tighter still. The MOON 880Ms bring these dense albums to life in a way the other amplifiers at my disposal simply cannot do.  It’s like driving a high-revving, high-horsepower V-12 supercar that produces its power without the help of a turbo or supercharger—there’s an immediacy to the throttle response that a boosted car never has, even though it may have more torque.

When it comes to amplification, reserve power is essential if you love metal or large-scale orchestral music.  Distortion is the enemy of tweeters, and playing metal at high volumes will easily liquefy your speakers if your amplifier can’t deliver massive amounts of ultra-clean power.  I don’t think I’ve ever played System of a Down’s single “B.Y.O.B.” as loud as I did with the MOON 880Ms, and it never became painful.  These amplifiers are without practical limit, even with my 89-dB speakers.  If you have a more sensitive speaker up in the range of 93 to 95 dB @1 watt, like the Focal Grande Utopia EMs, Wilson XLFs or Verity Lohengrins, I’d highly suggest a good calibrated level meter to protect your ears from damage.  The extra dynamic range of the MOON 880Ms produces a listening experience so free of artifacts that you’ll likely catch yourself playing music a lot louder than you normally do.  And dammit, that’s really cool.

Even at modest levels, the MOON 880Ms sound clearer and more spacious.  On Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra, 1-6, from the recent Mercury CD set, the initial attack on the string bass at the beginning of the first piece, combined with the glorious hall ambience, only begins to prepare you for the excitement in store as the full orchestra kicks in about three minutes later.  And the tone?  Fantastic.  Oboes and violins just float silky and softly through the listening space, and are never the least bit grainy.  These amplifiers simply do not impose a sonic signature on the music, and they always get out of the way of the presentation.  The MOON 880M does run in Class-A mode for the first 10 watts, and the transition to Class-AB at higher levels and power peaks is achieved seamlessly.

The Amplifier or the Egg?

Visiting the Simaudio factory last summer, I had the privilege of listening to the MOON 880Ms for the first time, driving a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers in Simaudio’s listening room, which is about 20 feet by 30 feet and expertly tuned to take the room out of the equation.  Upon returning home, my own pair of C1s was somewhat disappointing in comparison.  As one who loves a good rationalization, I chalked it up to the better room tuning and went about my business.

After properly treating my listening room, that experience was still missing by a substantial margin.  The MOON 880Ms in my room convince me that it’s the amplification making the big difference.  Though it may come across as controversial to some, especially those who think that speakers are nearly everything, I propose that the amplifier affects the system’s overall sound just as much as the speakers do, if not more.  Pairing the MOON 880Ms with some excellent but modestly priced speakers (like the splendid KEF LS50s or the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s) makes for a bigger, more spacious and detailed sound than connecting a $50k pair of speakers to the best $1,000 integrated amplifier you can find.

Playing Thievery Corporation’s The Richest Man in Babylon is a revelation through these amplifiers, even though I’m sure you’ll be buying a better pair of speakers for the 880Ms in your house.  Yet, these great compact speakers, which sound spectacular paired with a Rega Brio-R or a PrimaLuna ProLogue integrated, offer a breathtaking experience with the MOON 880Ms.  They now have real bass weight where there was barely any before.  Like any of the large floorstanding speakers used for this review, these amplifiers’ enormous power reserves redefine control.  This kind of current is not swayed by the reverse EMF generated by the loudspeakers to anywhere near the extent that it is with a small amplifier.

Moving back to my reference GamuT S9s, tracking through DJ Cheb i Sabbah’s La Ghriba: La Kahena Remixed is a religious experience for those worshipping at the temple of mega bass.  The throbbing, tribal beats in this record compress my spinal column as the volume approaches club level without a trace of strain, and as the final notes fade to extreme black, it’s tough to find where my room boundaries lie, even with my eyes open.  You don’t need to dim the lights to get into a deep, deep, listening experience with these amplifiers.

Of course, the better recordings at your disposal will benefit even further.  Aphex Twin’s 26 Mixes for Cash features a broad sonic landscape in all directions, deriving much of it from all the low-frequency bass texture—an area that the MOON 880Ms enhance considerably.  Tracking through a large stack of audiophile workhorses, the gestalt of the MOON 880Ms is crystal clear:  These amplifiers provide incredible resolution; yet, even after 12-hour listening sessions, they are never fatiguing.

Right Brain, Left Brain

The MOON 880Ms feature top-quality casework, with aluminum enclosures produced in Simaudio’s Montreal facility on its own five-axis CNC mill and anodized to last a lifetime, perhaps longer.  (Those wanting a more in-depth view of the company’s operation can click here for our recent visit: <<<INSERT LINK>>>.)  Simaudio’s engineers feel that the effort spent on solid casework not only eliminates vibration from the electronic environment, but also makes for stunning aesthetics—again an emphasis on quality and value.

As an added bonus, all this power comes in a relatively compact package.  These monoblocks will fit on any rack capable of supporting about 100 pounds each.  Simaudio’s high-biased, Class-AB design runs barely warm to the touch, even at high volume levels, and the company uses standard 15-amp IEC sockets.  As with the other giant monoblocks reviewed in this issue, the 880Ms will work on a single 15-amp circuit, but will perform even better with a dedicated 20-amp circuit, preferably a pair of dedicated 20-amp circuits.

Lifting the cover reveals a fully balanced design that also has an RCA input for those not having a fully balanced preamplifier.  Each amplifier utilizes 32 matched Motorola output devices, along with a pair of 1.3-kV power transformers and 240,000 uF of power-supply capacitance—all contributing to the complete lack of noise in the 800M’s presentation.  This is an amplifier that music lovers and technology geeks can both cuddle up to; all the right boxes are ticked.  Those wanting a further technological analysis, click HERE.

Call Me Crazy

But don’t call me Shirley.  Though a pair of the Simaudio MOON 880M amplifiers costs as much as a 3-series BMW, consider this:  These amplifiers will easily last 20 to 30 years without any attention.  If you leased a new 3 series every three years for the next 20 years, you’d have spent just over $100,000 and still not have a fixed asset at the end of the term.  Considering that over 90 percent of all the Simaudio components ever made are still playing music without effort (and have a 10-year warranty), that pair of 880Ms you buy today will probably still be worth $5,000 to $10,000.

Jay Leno once said that car enthusiasts are either check writers or wrench turners, which also applies to many audiophiles.  Taking it a step further, one faction of audiophile is on a quest to swap gear nearly constantly in search of an elusive grail, while another diligently assembles an excellent system and pursues music exploration with fervor.  While we won’t pass judgment on either camp here, if you fall into the latter, a pair of MOON 880Ms can be your final destination—even if you swap speakers a few times on your journey, there’s nothing they will not drive.

Factoring that into the equation, the Simaudio MOON 880Ms represent an exceptional value, and are highly deserving of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  They provide a sonic experience that few amplifiers can match, at any price, and they are built to the highest levels of quality.

Simaudio MOON 880M Mono Reference Power Amplifiers

MSRP: $42,000 per pair


Analog Source VID Acutus Reference SP turntable     TriPlanar arm    Lyra Atlas cartridge    AMG V-12 turntable    AMG arm    Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge
Phonostage Simaudio MOON 810LP    Indigo Qualia
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos C-15    Aurender S10   Simaudio MinD
Preamplifier Simaudio MOON 850P    Audio Research REF 5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Speakers Dynaudio Confidence C1 II    Sonus faber Aida    GamuT S9
Cable Cardas Clear

Pass Labs XA200.5 Monoblocks

All things must eventually come to an end, but this time the breakup is not sweet sorrow.  Living with the Pass Labs XA160.5 Class-A monoblocks has been a wonderful experience, and the heat that these massive monoblocks let off is a small drawback compared to the glorious sound they produce.  In a year and a half of flawless performance, driving every kind of loudspeaker imaginable, I didn’t jot down a single complaint in my mental logbook.  The XA160.5s even proved more engaging than a number of vacuum-tube power amplifiers parked here for various reviews and personal auditions, supporting Nelson Pass’ claim that listening to his amplifiers are like “listening to tubes, but without the hassle.”

But then the XA200.5 monoblocks arrived.  “More devices and more power equals more control,” says Pass Labs’ Desmond Harrington when asked about the difference between the XA160.5, the XA200.5 and the soon-to-arrive XS amplifiers.  If there was ever a case of specs not telling the whole story, this is it.  You might think there would be barely any difference between these two amplifiers—one delivering 160 watts per channel and the other delivering 200 per channel—but fire up the drum solo in Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” and the XA200.5 paints an entirely different picture.  “Stairway” is pretty damn good, too.

Hey, Ho, Let’s Go

Tony Levin’s bass playing on the Black Light Syndrome album, from Levin, Steve Stevens and Terry Bozzio, illustrates this perfectly.  This album offers some of the heaviest prog rock available; a dense, driving orchestral soup in which these three virtuosos repeatedly lay down notes like they’re firing automatic weapons.  Levin is solidly anchored, while his bandmates careen off to the far edges of the soundstage from start to finish.  Keeping all three musicians straight without blur is a tough task, but the XA200.5s handle it effortlessly, even at high levels.

The low, grumbling undercurrent of Burial’s “In McDonalds” takes on a more visceral feel through these amps, helping the listener truly feel the track’s deep bass and low-level texture in a way few amplifiers can muster.  The overblown bass in Cash Money and Marvelous’ “Ugly People Be Quiet” loses none of its rawness and boom, while rumbling the woofers in the GamuT S9 speakers as if a subwoofer has been added to the system.  Many audiophile amplifiers suffer from too much control and damping in such instances, taking the soul of the music with it, but the XA200.5s are true to the music, no matter what the genre.  Even a lousy-sounding record like Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque is better sorted through these amps—this thick, compressed recording actually gives up some dynamics, with a little help from the dCS Vivaldi source.

With two pairs of world-class reference speakers at my disposal (the GamuT S9 and the Sonus faber Aida), these amplifiers play to a painfully loud level without distortion.  Whether using the S9 (89 dB sensitivity) or the Aida (92 dB), the XA160.5s can be driven to a point of compression; the XA200.5s have no limit in my system.  But man cannot live by bass alone—transient prowess is another area at which the XA200.5s excel.  Romping through the title track from Carsten Dahl’s Bebopish Rubbish Rabbit, these amplifiers provide not only control, but also acceleration.  They equally render drum transients and brushwork with the proper scale and finesse.

On one level, a component can really only be evaluated in the context of a system, and it’s tough to attach a sound to said component without seeing how it reacts to the known performance of a number of other preamplifiers and speakers.  Having lived with a variety of Pass amplifiers for a few years now, I would characterize their overall sound as ever so slightly on the warm and harmonically rich side of the scale.

The XA200.5, like all of the other XA-series amplifiers I’ve auditioned, paints a big, spacious, three-dimensional soundstage—again, much like your favorite tube amplifiers do, but with considerably more dynamics, grip and control.  On the title track from Leni Stern’s album Smoke, No Fire, the XA200.5s capture her delicate guitar playing with every bit of the gradation she presents in a live show, while layer upon layer of overdubbed vocals hang in mid air, meticulously spaced between each other.  Too often, mediocre solid-state amplifiers fail musically when presented with these kinds of recordings, because their inability to resolve spatial information results in an overly flat and sterile picture.  Modestly powered tube amplifiers excel at this kind of thing, but are unable to produce the giant dynamic swings required to capture a large orchestra or driving rock band.  The XA200.5s excel here, providing the best of both worlds.  Thanks to their massive power supplies and big banks of output transistors, these amplifiers retain inner detail while simultaneously carrying a heavy bass line or the roll of a kettledrum.

A is A

The Pass Labs website simply states in the FAQ section that the reason the company produces Class-A amplifiers is “because they sound better.”  I love this firmness of conviction.  I must also admit to a bias towards high-powered Class-A solid-state power amplifiers in the same way someone might prefer tubes, SET amplifiers or a pair of Quad 57s.  At the end of the day, we all have a preference, and I won’t apologize for this one.  Pass’ large Class-AB amplifiers, as well as a few other massive AB amplifiers I’ve experienced (like the Simaudio 880Ms also reviewed in this issue), still have slightly faster acceleration and ultimate dynamic swing, but this always comes at the expense of that last bit of inner sweetness.  That being said, one person will always prefer the slightly softer ride of a standard Mercedes to the AMG version with sport suspension.

Pass Labs’ relatively recent .5 series of Class-A amplifiers come as close to offering it all as anything I’ve experienced.  While I still treasure my Pass Labs Aleph 3 (from the ’90s) and Threshold 400A (one of Nelson Pass’ first Class-A designs from the late ’70s—also a big favorite), comparing them to the XA200.5s clearly illustrates where Mr. Pass has built on his initial strengths, constantly refining the sonic delivery of today’s models.

Romping through a plethora of recorded male and female vocalists underscores these amplifiers’ combination of power, delicacy and tonal accuracy.  Anne Bisson’s gentle vocal stylings on the title track of her recent Blue Mind album are reproduced perfectly though the XA200.5s, as are the piano and soft drum work that accompany her.  If not for the enormous heat sinks on the side of each amplifier, you’d swear that the grain-free tonal texture that the XA200.5s provide is due to some vacuum tubes inside the box.  And that’s the entertaining paradox:  These amplifiers have too much sheer grunt to be tubed.  Like Nelson Pass said…

Setup and Synergy

During our time with these amps, we had the opportunity to power about 30 different sets of speakers, from a pair of freshly refurbished MartinLogan Aerius i speakers to Sonus faber’s flagship Aidas.  Nothing poses a challenge to these amplifiers or affects their performance.

The amp’s balanced XLR and single-ended inputs have an impedance of 30k ohms, which makes them easily mated to the preamplifiers at our disposal from Audio Research, Burmester, Conrad-Johnson, Robert Koda and Simaudio.  Cardas Clear cabling was used for the bulk of our listening tests, yet both speaker cables and power cords affect the XA200.5 less than many other high-powered amplifiers in recent memory.

One thing the XA200.5s benefit from, if you have the luxury, is dedicated power.  Drawing 700 watts each all the time, they will work connected to a standard 15-amp circuit, but will work better with a 20-amp line and better still with a pair of dedicated 20-amp circuits—one for each amplifier, if you really like to twist the volume control.  I’d suggest having your electrician install a pair of 20-amp outlets for your XA200.5s before you drop a few thousand dollars on exotic power cords.

Fortunately, these 159-pound monsters have conveniently placed handles on the rear panel, though (unless you’re incredibly buff) you will still need a friend to help you unpack these amplifiers.  Once you’ve installed the amps, be sure they have plenty of ventilation, because they do get warm.

The Big, Big Money

This extra power and control doesn’t exactly come cheap.  The XA200.5s have an MSRP of $34,100 per pair, compared to $24,000 per pair for the XA160.5s.  It’s always easy for me to spend your money, but if you can find a way to come up with the extra $10,000, you will not be disappointed—this is truly a case where absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The XA160.5s are no slouch by any means, and tonally identical to the XA200.5; yet, even at modest volume levels, the effortlessness provided by the bigger, beefier output stage and larger power supply is instantly evident.

If you are looking for a pair of monstrous Class-A amplifiers that take no prisoners, consider the Pass XA200.5 monoblocks, or stick around for a few more issues—the XS two-box monoblocks have just arrived for review!

Pass Labs XA200.5 Monoblocks

MSRP: $34,100 per pair


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge    AMG V12 turntable    AMG tonearm    Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge
Digital source dCS Vivaldi    Meridian Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Phonostage ARC Reference Phono 2 SE    Indigo Qualia
Speakers GamuT S9    Sonus faber Aida    Sonus faber Elipsa SE
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek
Accessories Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    GIK room treatments