Pass Labs XA160.8 Monoblocks

It’s no secret our publisher is incredibly enthusiastic about Pass amplifiers.  While the company’s flagship Xs300 monoblocks have been serving dual duty as his reference amplifiers and the furnace for the TONEAudio studio for some time now, his relationship with Nelson Pass is more than a mere bromance. It goes all the way back to the early 1980s, when we lived on Milwaukee’s East Side and he talked me into helping him carry his new Threshold 4000A power amplifier up a few flights of stairs.

I’m a tube guy; I’ve always been a tube guy – the tubey-er, the better. Back in 1980-something, that Threshold was a mind-bender because this massive solid-state amplifier made the room warmer than any tube amplifier I had ever experienced, sounded as musical as anything with glowing bottles, yet had killer bass output and control. It even sported an awesome set of red LED power output meters! The 4000A stayed in my system for a long time after our publisher’s terrier-like nose for all things audiophile led him sniffing down other paths and, as with one of my prized BMW 2002s, I still regret selling it.

It’s all about control

Don’t let Nelson Pass’s easy demeanor fool you; he wants control. At least control of your speakers’ cones. The major benefit to the massive power supplies and output stages in the two-chassis Xs amplifiers is the amount of control they enforce on your loudspeakers. Not letting the drivers act in a willy-nilly manner keeps distortion and non-linearity at bay, resulting in a cleaner, clearer, less fatiguing sound. Pass is fond of saying that he likes the sound of tubes without the hassle, and the Xs300s deliver this in abundance. But at almost $90K per pair they are not within the reach of every audio enthusiast.

Enter the XA160.8 monoblocks at $29,000/pair. Building on the success of the .5 series (you can read our review of the XA160.5 monoblocks here[1] and the XA200.5 monoblocks here[2] ) the .8 series of Pass amplifiers takes these designs a major step further. Larger power supplies and a more refined circuit allow these new amplifiers to be biased further into class-A territory. The changes draw more power from your wall, and generate more heat – something we put to good use here in the Pacific Northwest. The results put the 160.8 closer in sound to the massive, two-chassis Xs amplifiers than before. The price tag is still not pocket change, but a far cry from what the four-chassis, big boys will set you back.

Pass makes it a point to let you know that these are not cookie-cutter amplifiers, with each version sharing an input stage followed by progressively larger output stages. Every model in the .8 series is individually designed from the ground up with all nine amplifiers in the range using different input and driver circuitry optimized for progressively larger output stages. A peek inside the case reveals a prodigious bank of power supply capacitors flanked by equally huge heat sinks, each with “more output transistors than necessary.”

With balanced XLR inputs (the XA160.8 is a fully balanced design) and RCA inputs, this amplifier works well with any preamplifier. My ARC REF 5 proves a perfect match for the XA160.8, but after spending a bit of time with the top-of-the-line Xs Pre, I’m guessing it’s upgrade time again.  Even my standby CJ PV-12 turns in an amazing performance with these amplifiers and reminds me of when I used the Threshold 4000A with a CJ PV-2a preamplifier. Time does fly when you’re having fun. Watch for our review of that piece very soon. Suffice it to say that the XA160.8 will never be the weak link in your hifi system!

Taking care of business

Vicariously sampling the last four or five Pass amplifiers that have been in for review, it’s time to put the latest models front and center in my reference system and flog them. Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” does the trick, as the intro kick drum beats and bass riffs occupy separate spots in the soundstage, neither losing their focus as I turn the volume up, up, up – pushing my head back against the couch. Yet near the end of the track as the pace settles to light cymbal work, the delicacy and texture rendered stops me dead. It’s so quiet and precise, everything appears to settle into nothing.

Sporting the big, blue circular meters that adorn the face of all the Pass power amplifiers, the 125 pound (each) XA160.8s are a breeze to move after the Xs300s. However, they’re probably a stretch for one person lifting, so you should consider getting some help to keep your back in order. For those not familiar with Pass amplifiers, the meter needle stays centered, indicating that the amplifier is operating fully in class-A mode, which for the 160.8, is 328 peak watts. So when that needle starts to bounce, these amplifiers are indeed producing major power.

Driving my Vandersteen 5As with the XA160.8s is absolutely peachy and the synergy with the Audio Research REF5SE is near perfection as well. I have spent some time with the Pass Xs Pre that is here for review, and that’s even more revealing. It goes without saying that you won’t go wrong with an all-Pass system, and as Mr. Pass says, you’ll never have to look for tubes again.

Break-in has been the same experience we’ve had with all other Pass amplifiers; they sound great straight out of the box and improve linearly over about 300 hours, with a minimal increase in clarity after that. Though solid state, they take as long as, if not longer than, a vacuum tube amplifier to fully “warm up.” Due to the power draw (550 watts per monoblock) and heat generated, most owners will not want to leave them on all the time. The XA160.8s take about 90 minutes to come out of the gentle mist exhibited at initial power up that dissipates after they reach full operating temperature. You’ll notice it in the smoothness of the upper register and the depth of the soundfield portrayed – getting deeper and deeper, drawing you further in to the presentation as they stabilize.

The 160.8s are consistent at low, medium and high volume. They never run out of steam when cranking AC/DC to near-concert levels, yet when listening to solo vocals or piano at levels barely above a whisper, maintain depth and a tonal richness that you’d expect from a flea watt SET amplifier. To say these amplifiers are incredibly linear and dynamic is an understatement.

In the end

We’re all worm food. But for now, if you find yourself asking the venerable question, “tubes or transistors,” this tube guy says buy the XA160.8 from Pass Labs. Unless you can afford the Xs monos, then of course you know what you must do.

Additional Listening: Jeff Dorgay

Selfishly, it’s always wonderful when someone else shares my enthusiasm for a piece of audio gear, and in this case, it’s been an ongoing argument between myself and Mr. O’Brien for a couple of decades now. While I agree with his analysis, because of the nature of the Vandersteen 5As only needing to be powered from about 80hz up, (because of their internally powered woofers) these speakers don’t give the full scale of the XA160.8s’ performance. And, of course, we like to perform amplifier reviews with as wide of a range of speaker systems as possible to see if there are any rocks in the road. I assure you there are none.

As with all the other Pass amplifiers we’ve auditioned, the XA160.8 continues the tradition of being able to drive any load effortlessly. I began my listening with the toughest speakers in my collection, the Magnepan 1.7s and the Acoustat 2+2s. Both passed with flying colors, and it was an interesting comparison to play the 2+2s with both the XA160.8s and a recently restored Threshold 400A that I used to use with my 2+2s in the ’80s. The more powerful, heavier, 4000A only stayed in my system briefly, but the 400A stayed for quite some time and was always a favorite.

Thanks to so much current on tap, the 2+2s now sound like there is a subwoofer in the room, but more importantly, these speakers, known for their somewhat loose and flabby lower registers are exhibiting taut, tuneful bass in a way they never have. Thomas Dolby’s “Pulp Culture” shakes the listening room with authority. An even tougher test is acoustic bass, and again the vintage ESL’s dance through all of my favorite Stanley Clarke tunes.

Moving through the gaggle of great speakers we currently have here from Dali, Dynaudio, GamuT, Eggleston and a few others, the XA160.8s have no limitations. To get them to (softly) clip requires ear shattering volume, or perhaps a pair of horribly inefficient speakers. In that case, there are always the XA200.8s and the Xs amplifiers.

No matter what music is served, the XA160.8s perform effortlessly and get out of the way for your enjoyment of it. The biggest delight, aside from knowing you’ll never have to hunt down matched quartets of power tubes again, is just how much of the flagship Xs300s capability is locked up inside these two boxes at one third of the price. Mind you in a “cost no object” system, the difference between the XS160.8 and the Xs300 will still be easily apparent, but it’s like the difference between an $85,000 Carrera and a $175,000 GT3RS – it’s easy to see, feel and hear the lineage,  and for those who don’t want to go all the way, will still find the lower-priced sibling still highly enjoyable.

I’ve hinted that the Pass XA160.8s have the slightest bit of warmth in their overall character, which they do. However, this additional richness and palpability is not at the expense of softness, or compromise in transient attack. If you want a strictly “nothing but the facts” the Pass sound may not be for you, but if you’ve always loved a touch of the glow that the world’s best vacuum tube amplifiers possess without having to chase the glass bottles, you must audition the XA160.8 I guarantee you will be highly impressed.

The Pass XA160.8



Analog Source SME 20/SME V arm     Koetsu Urushi Blue
Digital Source Simaudio MOON 650D    MacBook Pro
Amplification ARC REF 5     Pass Xs Pre
Speakers Vandersteen 5A
Cable Cardas Clear

Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

The Coffman Labs G1-A preamplifier is among the most unique-looking pieces of audio equipment we’ve reviewed. It includes custom-made feet that Damon Coffman designed to reduce that unwanted vibrations that reach internal components and vacuum tubes. As a nice piece of trickle-down technology, Coffman found a way to adapt the feet for use under virtually any audio component.

Each type of material employed in the footers has vibration-dampening characteristics. Combining several layers of different materials makes it very difficult for vibrations to travel upward through the footer. Coffman’s design uses four different materials and when all the components are put together, the footer looks a bit like a thick Oreo cookie.

Custom-milled aluminum discs serve as the outer layer; between them—after experimenting with many materials like cork, rubber, carbon fiber, and other metals—Coffman concluded that felt served best sonically as the interior layer.

For the third material, a recessed circle is milled into one flat surface of each aluminum disc, with a dense, rubber-like ring pressed into it. This grippy material contacts the bottom of the component and the shelf it’s resting on, which helps reduce risk of scratches and also keeps the component from sliding, as it sometimes the case with other footers.

The final element holding the entire footer together is a threaded post. Coffman chose a synthetic post instead of a metal one, because it offered a more natural sound in his testing. Also, the post can flex a bit to ensure the footer rests squarely against contact surfaces.

While functional, the O-ring, post and felt don’t do much for aesthetics, but the specially made matte-finish aluminum discs make up for it. They are the bulk of the footer structure and the parts most visible from a distance.

Tightened down, each footer can support 20 pounds maximum. A set of three feet placed in a triangle formation supports a 60-pound component nicely. Coffman Labs suggests a weight limit, because too much weight could bend or strip the nylon post. For speakers or heavier pieces of equipment, additional feet can be purchased to handle the extra weight.

An assembled footer measures 1.5 inches in diameter and about 1.5 inches tall. Each footer can be tightened or loosened slightly by twisting it, changing its height by about 1/8 inch, if you want to make a CD player or a turntable shelf perfectly level, for instance.

Coffman suggests that, when placed under equipment, the footers contribute a slightly smoother, warmer sound while maintaining clarity and solid bass. We concur. A set of three footers costs $115. In the often-expensive world of hi-fi, that’s a very reasonably price to pay for a highly beneficial audio tweak.

Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

$115 per set of three

Audio by Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

While Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) may be a new name for many, there’s a good chance you are at least peripherally familiar with Frank Van Alstine’s work. Out of his shop in Minnesota, he spent years developing modifications and upgrades for Dynaco and Hafler equipment—and those kits are still available. For customers wishing to get hands-on with their stereo, the upgrade kits are rumored to take an already-great piece of classic equipment to an entirely new level. For those with the skills and time, these kits can provide their owners some fantastic sound at very reasonable price points.

For the fine-motor-skill-challenged folks like myself, a hot soldering iron and a lot of tiny and delicate electrical parts presents a potentially disastrous combination, and so I prefer to purchase my stereo components from the hands of the true experts. Fortunately for me, Mr. Van Alstine recognizes the many audio fans in my circumstance who are seeking great-sounding equipment without requiring a second mortgage to finance it. Building on the knowledge and insight accumulated over the years, AVA came to life, bringing with it amps, preamps and DACs.

AVA offers both solid-state and tube designs. The company’s website has a chart describing the differences between its preamp designs and the sonic signature of each. With four preamps in the current AVA lineup, I welcomed the opportunity to test its flagship, the Fet Valve CF hybrid preamplifier. Each circuit of our test unit features two 12AT7 tubes supplementing the gain stages and two 12AU7 tubes acting as cathode followers—from which this preamp gets its CF designate. According to AVA, this design represents “the very best we can currently do,” and so it is with high expectations that we at TONE anticipate hearing its sonic virtues.


AVA sells directly from its website and builds each product at the time of order. The company offers several options for the Fet Valve CF preamp, depending on the user’s needs and preferences. The entry point is the black faceplate model for $1,899. The same preamp with a silver faceplate starts at $2,099. From there, the owner has several upgrades to choose from. For those planning integration into a home theater setup, a bypass switch for the preamp is available for $50, allowing a surround-sound processor’s volume knob to act as master volume for the system. Vinyl fans will appreciate optional RIAA phono circuits, priced at $249. Inverter/bridge circuits and buffered tape output circuits are available for $199 each. And finally, a high-quality remote control with a mute button adds $299. With all the add-ons, a fully loaded Fet Valve CF runs in the neighborhood of $3,000.

Straightforward Setup

From a usage scenario, the Fet Valve CF could not be simpler. The back panel of our test unit offers a phono input, five line inputs, a tape input and output, plus two sets of main outputs. All connections are single-ended RCA.

On the front panel, from left to right, thee rotary knobs control source selection, volume and balance. Above the source knob, which selects from the six line inputs, are two toggle buttons. One offers a choice of stereo or mono playback; the other allows tape monitoring. Above the volume knob, two additional buttons control filter and low gain. According to AVA, these special settings offer the user more control over aggressive speakers and source material. As icing on the cake, the Fet Valve CF includes a 1/4-inch headphone output.


After several days of burn-in, the Fet Valve CF finally has its chance to sing. Sitting in the listening chair, I reset my mental sonic expectation to where my past experience with $2k preamps has placed it. There’s very good gear in this price range, but much of it requires some sonic tradeoff. The play button starts the music as expected, and surprisingly, it also activates my “mouth ajar” setting. The Fet Valve CF certainly offers a great first impression.

I use the term hybrid for this amp, which refers to both its sonics and its design. While the marvelous, fluid tube midrange is there, some of the downsides associated with older tube designs, like limited bass punch and definition, do not follow suit. In fact, the Fet Valve CF creates bass that’s quite deep and noticeable right out the gate.

While instruments and vocals retain a high degree of realism, there’s also a forgiving nature to the preamp’s sonic signature. Rendered digitally, some female vocal recordings, like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, retain a bit of grain and edge. Through this preamp’s lens, the excitement of the performance remains, while reducing these unwanted artifacts and retaining the underlying emotion of the original recording.

Saxophones and trumpets have an inherent potential for sonic sharpness. Recorded well, the sound captured from these instruments is one of incredible, live detail, but with some lesser-quality jazz recordings, a transparent window to untamed digital harshness can impart the listening experience with some unpleasantness. Striking an interesting balance, the Fet Valve CF places strident instruments in a slightly warmer light—which is not to say that the preamp creates an artificially sugary sound; to my ears, the sound remains generally neutral. Rather, it makes the best of what it’s given. Using the pass and filter toggles described earlier, the listener retains greater sonic control than most hi-fi preamps allow.

Music portrayed through the Fet Valve CF may not have the lush and nuanced refinement I’ve heard with more expensive gear, but this preamp certainly has a way of making lemonade from lemons. In addition to accurately conveying the woodiness of string instruments, the Fet Valve CF also offers a compelling representation of percussive instruments. Cymbals have the expected shimmer after a strike; snares retain the requisite rattle; triangles and tambourines have the ring they should. In general, this preamp retains symphonic music’s high degree of naturalness.

Compared with much more expensive reference gear, the Fet Valve CF creates a leanness to the sound. While it does a very good job reproducing both frequency extremes, it does have a somewhat reduced degree of richness and fullness by comparison. In orchestral pieces, the ambience of the performance hall is diminished. I also find that the width and depth of the stereo image through the Fet Valve CF is truncated. The music does not extend much beyond the left and right speaker limits. This preamp also struggles to project sound into the perceived space behind the speakers, although I will say that vocals never get recessed into the mix.

Despite these limitations, the sonic elements that reveal themselves between the speakers remain well separated and quite convincing. If forced to make a tradeoff, I’d prefer the Fet Valve CF’s large and realistically rendered sonic image—one that’s akin to stepping back several rows in a live performance—to having an artificially bloated image increasing the apparent size of vocalists or instruments. After getting used to the Fet Valve CF’s portrayal, I decide that it doesn’t reduce the enjoyment of the performance; it just puts a different lens on it.

Like the rest of the Fet Valve CF, the phonostage offers a fantastic price-to-performance ratio. While the sonic attributes described earlier remain generally consistent regardless of source, vinyl albums do take on a more relaxed musical presence though this preamp than their digital counterparts do. Considering the phono section is a mere $250 upgrade option, it’s an absolute steal. Even if you don’t have a turntable now, you might later!


Reviewing equipment involves critiquing the nuances of the musical presentation to determine strengths and weaknesses. But when that analysis is complete, it’s equally important to take a step back and listen to the music, not just the equipment. Does that piece of gear allow the listener to get pulled into the sound and forget the hi-fi behind it? With the Fet Valve CF, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

This preamp is one of those pieces of budget gear that excels on many, many levels. While much more expensive preamps residing in my test system may exceed the Fet Valve CF’s capability in various ways, this preamp never fails to provide musical fulfillment that exceeds expectations for its price point. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not saddled with any major compromises.

For those looking to build a home hi-fi system in the $8,000-to-$10,000 range, the AVA Fet Valve CF preamp can serve very well as an anchor component. Depending on the options chosen, $2,000 to 3,000 delivers great sound, leaving the rest of the budget for speakers, amp and sources that complement it. Do yourself a favor and keep this preamp in mind—it might just be the solution you are looking for.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Not quite old enough to have purchased tubed Dynaco gear new, I did spend a fair amount of time growing up with it—and I remember when Van Alstine came on the scene, offering updates that took this modest gear to killer levels. Frank has definitely taken everything further over the years, and he’s done so while keeping the costs in line.

If I had to describe Van Alstine gear in one word, it would be honest. This is well-made gear that delivers honest performance without frills. When I mate the Fet Valve CF to the Van Alstine Ultravalve vacuum tube amplifier, the synergy is fantastic, as you might expect. Using the two together with a handful of speakers, I don’t find the smallish soundstage that Jerold experienced to be an issue; it may have been system synergy. With the Fet Valve CF, everything from AVA’s own amplifier to a few examples from Pass Labs, Simaudio, Octave, and Audio Research all reveal the same big soundstage.

Van Alstine offers a 30-day trial on all of its gear, so you’ve got nothing to lose. I suspect precious few of these get sent back. This preamplifier is a proud addition to my list of Publisher’s Choice Awards for 2013.

Audio by Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

MSRP: Starting at $1,899

Naim UnitiQute 2 All-in-One Player

When Naim introduced its all-in-one UnitiQute player a couple years ago, everyone here went bonkers over the damn thing, drawing the obvious references to the legendary Naim Nait. The original Nait, with only 15 watts per channel, came packaged in a similarly sized (i.e. small) chassis and had the ability to drive a pair of moderately sensitive speakers to musical heights not experienced for that price tag. Back in the mid 1970s, a Naim Nait fetched about $699 at your favorite hi-fi dealer, but it was worth every penny to those who owned it. Today, a spotless example still commands nearly the same price and loyalty. That’s product longevity.

The original Qute substituted a high-quality DAC for the phonostage and allowed streaming, in addition to providing an FM tuner and a sweet sounding 30-watt-per-channel power amplifier. Adjusted for inflation, this is still a bargain at $1,995—especially if one takes into consideration all those power cords and interconnects that you won’t have to buy. You can read our review of the original UnitiQute here.

The Qute 2 nudges the sticker price up slightly, to $2,195, with a substantial increase in power. It’s more robust 50-watt-per-channel amplifier gives this mighty product even more system flexibility in terms of the speakers it can power.

The Qute 2 is a perfect solution for anyone wanting a compact yet high-performance component, essentially a receiver, that can power your favorite pair of speakers and call it a day. It is tastefully styled, well built and highly functional. And best of all, it’s easily expandable, should you desire to build a more elaborate system at some point—a hallmark of Naim products. Those living in a small space will appreciate the subwoofer output, making it easy to add a sat/sub speaker system with a powered subwoofer. This is almost always ignored on even more expensive all-inclusive components.

A Little System Matching

As part of a compact high-performance system, with the KEF LS-50 speakers, the Qute 2 proves impressive, however, it does require a few days of constant play to sound its best. Right out of the box, the sound is slightly constrictive, but it opens up quickly. I push the Qute 2 even harder by replacing the LS-50s with a pair of 3-ohm MartinLogan Aerius i speakers, which are notoriously tough to drive, and the Qute 2 doesn’t miss a beat.

Listening to Graham Parker’s 2001 release Deepcut to Nowhere quickly reveals the Qute 2’s ability to create a believable three-dimensional soundstage and maintain rock-solid pace, which are Naim hallmarks. A similar effect is realized when listening to the last set of remastered Beatles CDs. At the beginning of “All You Need is Love,” the violins, horns and chorus all have a distinct placement between the speakers, while John Lennon’s vocals stay anchored slightly stage left and McCartney’s signature bass brings up the foundation of the track.

It should be noted that, for the Qute 2, you will need a pair of speaker cables with banana plugs on at least one end, as the Qute 2 is pressed for real estate on the rear panel. Like the Wadia Intuition we recently reviewed, the Qute 2 only has space for a pair of banana plugs. On one level, this pays homage to Naim’s past and keeps the setup tidy. There wouldn’t be any room for massive audiophile plugs behind this petite amplifier even if the clever Naim engineers could squeeze a pair of binding posts back there. We ran the same pair of AudioQuest Meteor cables that were used on the original Qute review with excellent results. Long gone are the days that you have to use Naim’s own speaker cables to properly interface with your speakers.

When keeping things at a reasonable pace and volume level, there is nothing in the TONEAudio arsenal (or my own collection of speakers) that the Qute 2 can’t push effectively. Bringing back a friend’s Qute reveals that the original still possesses a bit more midrange sweetness (which can easily be taken for coloration, depending on what side of the fence you’re on), but the extra power far outweighs a smidge of midrange magic for this reviewer, who really does like to rock.

Broadening the perspective and taking advantage of the Qute 2’s analog input, I add a Naim StageLine phonostage and a Rega RP6 turntable with Exact cartridge to the system, nearly doubling the cost of the Qute 2/LS-50 combination—which will also double the pleasure for the analog lover. Spinning the recent MoFi remaster of the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach is a ton of fun, and the Qute 2 delivers more than enough resolution to provide a great analog experience.

It certainly resolves enough musical detail to easily discern the difference between the $2,000 Rega table and the $500 Pro-Ject I also have on hand. With the Rega in the mix, the soundstage is more expansive in all three dimensions, with a more airy, fleshed out and better-defined upper register. Don’t let this compact package fool you; the Qute 2 has far more substance than its small size suggests. It’s a full-bodied Naim component in every sense.

The Qute 2 is Apple friendly, so it will snag the digital bitstream from you iPod or iPhone, making it easy to take advantage of your music collection. MP3s with 320 kbps play back with startlingly good clarity. Upping the game to CD-quality files demonstrates just how good the iPod can be in an audiophile environment when loaded with better software.

Taking advantage of the Qute 2’s high-resolution DAC makes listening to high-res audio files via the Astell&Kern AK100 and AK120 portable players a real treat, and this arrangement is in keeping with the compact ethos of this component. Listening to the slinky vocals on the recent HDtracks download of Joni Mitchell’s Hissing of Summer Lawns reveals layer upon layer of detail when compared to the original CD rip.

A Joy to Use

Even though the Qute 2 features a wide range of functions, it is surprisingly easy to use. While it is critical that you don’t lose the remote, as none of the functions can be accessed from the front panel, the app that is available for iPhone users is far more handy and convenient to use, giving a graphic display of the Qute 2’s functions. When synced with your home network, the Qute 2 app allows you to control inputs and volume anywhere within range. This comes in handy when the phone rings, and it also means you can have one less remote control lying around.

Once the Qute 2 is powered up, a quick run through the front panel allows you to optimize its settings. You can select relevant sources and choose big or small speakers; the bass rolls off a tad for small speakers, giving you some extra headroom in the process. Should you be leaving the Qute 2 unattended, I suggest taking full advantage of the maximum volume setting, which will save you from blowing a tweeter or upsetting the neighbors.

If seven digital inputs and an analog input aren’t enough, you can also use the USB socket on the front panel to play music from a USB flash drive. You can also summon files from an UPnP music server via a hardwired connection or via the built-in Wi-Fi. Naim suggests a hardwired connection for best digital performance and we concur, especially if your music collection consists of CD-quality and HD-quality digital music files. Those with large collections of low-res MP3s will not suffer terribly from the wireless connection, should a wired connection not be convenient. Those not streaming digital files, or if you’re just listening to music via a CD player (like Naim’s excellent CD5si, which we currently have in for review), can still use the Wi-Fi antenna to connect your iPhone to the Qute 2 for full remote functionality.

Running the Qute 2 through a gaggle of different headphones reveals that the on-board headphone amp is up to snuff and that it will drive all but the most difficult headphones with ease. The only ones we really had trouble with are the HiFiMan HE-6 headphones, which are notoriously tough to drive with even some of the world’s best dedicated headphone amplifiers, so no fault there. Those of you with Sennheiser, Grado, Audeze and Beats phones will thoroughly enjoy the headphone performance of the Qute 2.

Last but not least, the built in FM tuner (DAB for our European friends) does a spectacular job foraging for signals, providing high-quality sound in the process. Those having decent FM stations nearby will be pleasantly surprised at just how good the Qute 2 sounds in this mode—far better than satellite radio any day. Adding a modestly priced Terk antenna to the Qute 2 further improves performance.

Little It Can’t Do

After living with Naim’s UnitiQute 2 for a couple of months, I have found that its luster remains. The quality of sound provided is utterly fantastic and the range of functionality is tough to beat.

Though not packaged in as sexy of a shape as the Wadia Intuition, or the Devialet 110 also featured in this issue, the Qute 2 is mega-affordable and keeps with the easy-to-use yet high-performance ethos that we think the high-end audio industry desperately needs. For less than a top of the line Bose system, you can pair the Naim UnitiQute 2 with a great set of speakers and have a serious hi-fi setup. And for all the same reasons we found the original UnitiQute worthy of merit, we award the Qute 2 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

Naim UnitiQute 2

MSRP: $2,195 (company website) (U.S. Importer)


Digital Sources Meridian Media Source 200    Astell&Kern AK120 portable player    Naim CD5si
Analog Source Rega RP6 turntable    Exact cartridge    Naim StageLine phonostage
Speakers KEF Blades    KEF LS-50    Harbeth Compact 7    MartinLogan Aerius i
Cables AudioQuest Colorado interconnects and Meteor speaker cables

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

For those of you unfamiliar with Opera Loudspeakers, let us enlighten you.  Opera is the “other guy” making high-quality speakers in Italy.  The Seconda is the middle model in the company’s Classica line of reasonably priced speakers.  Compared to $4,995 for Opera’s Callas speakers and $9,995 for its Grand Callas—and considering the quality of the Seconda speakers—$3,995 is indeed a reasonable price to pay for this level of quality.

The Classica line features a leatherette covering rather than the real thing to help shave a few bucks off the price point.  Opera, like a number of luxury carmakers, is able to pull this off so tastefully that the fit and finish will fool all but the fussiest connoisseur.  Our review pair of Secondas arrived finished in a striking high-gloss white lacquer, which is becoming increasingly popular in Europe and making a comeback here in the U.S. The sides are made from real wood, with the front and rear baffles, MDF.

These speakers are no lightweights:  They tip the scales at an even 100 pounds apiece.  They offer nicely finished binding posts that allow for easy bi-wiring, and the company provides spikes for the bottom front of the speaker, as well as a spiked outrigger arrangement at the bottom rear to add stability and make it easier to set the rake angle.

An Unconventional Approach

Two 7-inch aluminum cone woofers and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter sourced from Scan-Speak lurk behind the black grilles, which are easily removed.  If you have no prying paws around, I suggest enjoying the beauty of the Secondas sans grille.  While most competing products opt for a ported design, the Seconda has a sealed enclosure, which makes for a gentler impedance curve—a definite plus when used in conjunction with a tube amplifier.  (Opera’s sister company, Unison Research, just so happens to excel at producing tube amplifiers.)

The crossover point of the Seconda is a commendably low 2,200 Hz, with a second-order slope.  It also maintains good off-axis performance and high overall levels of coherence.  Eschewing the ubiquitous curved side panel for a baffle that is curved and angled, the Seconda minimizes unwanted cabinet reflections, which helps lessen interference with the front baffle.

Wait For It

Slightly tight and bright out of the box, the Seconda reveals its charms after about 200 hours—and the effort is well worth the wait.  I would suggest letting them play every day when you go to work and, after a week, you will be rewarded with a pleasant surprise.  Once broken in, the Seconda exhibits a clear, open and lively character in the midrange, with a high-frequency range that is extended and smooth at the same time.  Those familiar with traditional Italian speakers might expect a kind of laid-back and mellow presentation, but this is not the case with the Seconda.

The sealed-box design yields a very even, gradual and protracted bass response, free from the usual impedance hiccup that can plague the tuning frequency of a standard vented enclosure.  This proves to be a wonderful counterbalance to the high-frequency extension of the tweeter.  The dual aluminum midrange drivers offer quick responses, which helps eliminate any inclination of a slow or bloated low end.

Everything about this speaker’s design bodes well for the music lover.  It possesses a sensitivity of 89 dB and a 4-ohm nominal impedance, which means you only really need 35 to 50 watts of juice to adequately drive each channel.  Pairing the Secondas with the Unison Research S6 integrated amp borrowed from our publisher for this review made for an excellent combination that was the definition of musicality.  I equally enjoyed the speakers when driving them with 100 watts per channel of solid-state power from my Class A Coda amplifier.

At Ease with Any Material

Dynamic classic-rock titles like Led Zeppelin II, Taste’s recently remastered On the Boards and Jefferson Airplane’s Bless Its Pointed Little Head all favored the big solid-state sound, especially at high volumes.  The speaker’s sealed cabinets yield a visceral presentation:  Drums come alive and the electric bass has a convincing wallop, with no loss of texture.

But the Seconda isn’t only about getting down with classic rock.  Teeing up some great CD recordings from the recent past tells a lot about this speaker’s ability to accurately portray large classical ensembles and intimate jazz groups in realistic scale.

During a listening session of drummer Peter Erskine’s jazz trio on Live At Rocco, the Seconda captures the wide-open ambiance of the venue.  You can easily discern all of the audience noises, such as clinking glasses and soft whispers.  Soft brush strokes on cymbals have the appropriate shimmer and decay, while the upright bass’s sinewy plucked strings resonate with strength.  Another great live recording, Tonic from Medeski, Martin & Wood, treats the listener to that same wide-open room sound.  On the track “Buster Rides Again” Billy Martin hammers away vigorously with his funky timekeeping, which the Secondas put right in the middle of the soundstage.

As for the bass prowess of these speakers, Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack to the film Todo Sobre Mi Madre—a beautiful score, full of deep-bass lines—accentuates the Secondas’ ability to handle the lowest notes with ease.  The score’s short track “Le Faltaba la Mitad,” a mix of massed strings and haunting bass, feels as if it migrated from a Dead Can Dance album.  Here, the Secondas easily keep the pace solid, even at high levels, without distortion or soundtrack collapse.  At the same time, the sparse percussion gently dances throughout the soundfield unaffected—a very impressive feat for speakers at this price point.

Reference Recordings’ Mephisto & Co. showcases the Minnesota Orchestra in full song.  On this recording, the classic Mussorgsky piece “Night on Bald Mountain” perfectly illustrates the ability of these speakers to go instantly from loud to soft.  Playing perhaps louder than is prudent, with my Coda amp delivering the goods, the piece builds to crescendo, all the while maintaining the orchestra’s three-dimensional space.  The Seconda portrays the big stuff faithfully and then backs off beautifully to capture the softer passages featuring flute and piccolo.  Reference Recordings’ Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninoff reveals the speaker’s ability to render size and scale, at the same time casting a spotlight on how well the dual 7-inch woofers are able to start and stop without any overhang or fatigue.

Just as I was ready to wind up the review and begin packing the Secondas to send to their next appointment, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits from Audio Fidelity arrived.  Again, I was reminded of the wonderful midrange that these speakers offer.  Dylan’s voice is eerily realistic and squarely in the room on “Blowin’ in The Wind,” on which I found the decay of both his voice and harp utterly captivating.  The speakers also handle male and female vocals with equal ease, so those partaking more of the latter will be equally smitten.  A quick spin of Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’ (courtesy of the Acoustic Sounds’ remaster) is incredibly vibrant and realistic.

I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with the Opera Secondas.  While these may not be the first name on the tip of your tongue when searching for your next pair of speakers, they are worth seeking out and even more worthy of an extended audition.  They bring a number of design elements together: a large sealed enclosure, quality drivers, elegant cosmetics and outstanding in-room performance.  And, at a relatively affordable $3,995 a pair, they offer incredible value, ranking highly on the wife-acceptance factor and also delivering great performance for the price.  If you’re looking for something other than the usual fare, and in the mood for something different, these Italian wonders are certainly worth a listen.

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

MSRP: $3,995

Available in the U.S. through Colleen Cardas Imports:

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Stereo Power Amplifier

So what exactly makes this a premium PrimaLuna product?  Like all products from the Dutch brand, the ProLogue Premium Premium Stereo Power Amplifier has a certain aesthetic appeal: a gunmetal-colored finish, which wouldn’t be out of place on an AMG Mercedes, set off by an anodized-aluminum faceplate (available in silver or black).  Also like the rest of the company’s lineup, the ProLogue Premium stereo amp offers serious levels of performance—this is where the amp’s premium designate becomes apparent.

Popping off the bottom cover reveals ceramic tube sockets and Nichicon and Solen capacitors flanked by premium resistors, along with newly designed output and power transformers.  Wiring is all point-to point and meticulously done by hand, which is one of the reasons PrimaLuna amps have earned such a high reputation for their reliability.  All this precision comes wrapped in a somewhat compact package that weighs nearly 50 pounds, and has an MSRP of $2,299.

Hassle-Free Tube Power

PrimaLuna amplifiers have long been known for their Adaptive AutoBias circuitry, a PrimaLuna trademark that makes traditional tube biasing a thing of the past.  This design allows a wide range of tubes to be used in the output sockets:  KT88 or EL34 tubes work equally well—every ProLogue Premium Series amplifier comes with either set of tubes installed.  (The KT88s produce 36 watts per channel; the EL34s produce 35 watts per channel.)  The new premium version of the amp adds a switch on the side of the chassis, allowing you to optimize the amplifier to your choice of tubes, in order to achieve the lowest possible levels of noise and distortion.

I’m immediately struck by the lively sonic response that the ProLogue provides, with a quick, organic and natural sound that spans all frequency ranges.  This amplifier always feels ready and able to take on whatever you can throw at it—which is exactly what I did.  The ProLogue Premium eliminates the hassle of owning a vacuum-tube-powered amplifier.  It even has a PTP circuit (for Power Transformer Protection) that will protect the amp’s output transformers, should you have an accidental, catastrophic tube failure, which can happen with today’s tubes.

PrimaLuna has updated the front-end circuitry for this amp, which now uses 12AU7 tubes instead of the 12AX7s in the company’s earlier amplifiers.  The inveterate tweak-geek in me could not resist fooling with those 12AU7s, even though the amp sounds great with stock tubes.  New old stock GE tubes render a smoother top-end response, but offer a different listening perspective, as if I had moved back about five rows in the orchestra.  Next, a set of RCA clear tops (with side getters, for the tubeophiles in the audience) provides a big jump in frequency extension, as well as more transparency and a more palpable midrange.  Best of all, Kevin Deal, the owner of Upscale Audio (and the PrimaLuna importer) has a massive cache of these tubes in stock, so you can experiment at will; the 12AU7s aren’t nearly the cost of the 12AX7s. When asked, Deal said that he has “over 10,000 rare and NOS 12AU7s.”

Be aware, I achieved these results with my system; so don’t take them as an absolute, as results will vary on other systems.  But that’s the fun of an amplifier like this:  You can experiment as much or as little as you want—and we haven’t even talked about swapping output tubes.  Don’t forget to save those stock tubes just in case you find yourself lost in the vacuum-tube jungle.

Love at First Listen

Brian Bromberg’s closely miked contrabass in “The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers,” from his Wood album, instantly confirms the level of full-bodied bass definition the ProLogue Premium provides.  In addition to the solid low-end response, you can clearly hear the creaking and groaning of the instrument, as well as the strings being plucked and slapped on the fretboard.  I’ve never heard this kind of resolution from a vintage Dynaco Stereo 70 (or modded variation on the theme).

Muddy Waters’ album Folk Singer proves a perfect midrange showcase for this amp, which places Waters’ voice firmly at center stage, while simultaneously revealing the ambience in the recording studio present on this intimate performance.  Perhaps the best showcase of any tube amplifier is its ability to convey the sultriness of the female voice, which is another test that the ProLogue Premium passes handily.  I listen to the entire disc of Renée Fleming’s Haunted Heart without pause.  The track “When Did You Leave Heaven?” gives Fleming and the accompanying guitar, courtesy of Bill Frisell, plenty of space without missing a lick of subtlety.

And Secondly

It’s usually a given that vacuum-tube amplifiers excel at revealing low-level detail and vocal tonality, but the ProLogue Premium performs equally well with larger-scale music.  Nelson Riddle’s Nice ‘n’ Easy: The Music of Nelson Riddle is a classic big-band record full of massed horns, which the ProLogue Premium sails through, keeping the horns sorted without becoming harsh or buried in the mix—impressive.

The acid test comes via the Minutemen’s “One Reporter’s Opinion,” from the Double Nickels on the Dime disc.  D. Boon’s AK-47-style guitar playing is present in all its force, Mike Watt’s fluid bass is easy to follow and drummer George Hurley’s seems to punch a hole in my forehead—the PrimaLuna delivers all of this while giving the track the precision and grit on the scale it deserves.  No matter how complex the musical selections, this amplifier does an excellent job keeping pace.

I’m a Fan!

I’m taken with this little but heavy amplifier, and can see why our publisher has been an advocate of PrimaLuna since day one.  This amp takes everything I throw at it in stride—always musical, always eager and always evenly balanced in overall presentation.  As with the other PrimaLuna products, the Premium stereo amp represents good value.  This is the perfect power amp for a music lover wanting to assemble a high performance system on a tight budget.  The ProLogue Premium is worth every penny.

I will say that one must be realistic when pairing the Premium with his or her speakers and listening environment.  Although the volume levels I’m able to achieve with this amp in my largish room are quite satisfying, 35 watts only go so far—even great watts such as these.  The amp does clip slightly when I get lead-footed with the volume.  To its credit, when the amp does clip, it does so with gentle compression instead of just falling apart.  To this point, speakers that are in the 90-plus-dB category will make for optimum system synergy in most rooms.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

As Jerold mentioned, I’ve been listening to PrimaLuna amplifiers since the company introduced the original ProLogue One almost 10 years ago.  It’s almost like TONEAudio and PrimaLuna have grown up together.  That original amplifier is still in my family and, with a replacement set of power tubes, it keeps playing music on a daily basis without bother.

It’s been fun watching the PrimaLuna products evolve over the years into a more fleshed out line, with each model revealing more music than the one before.  Putting the ProLogue Premium stereo power amp through its paces is a joy, with the matching preamplifier and a few other examples I have on hand.  If you don’t need a built-in phonostage (and like your garanimals to match), the $2,199 ProLogue Premium Preamplifier makes for killer a setup with the Premium power amp.  The preamp is perfectly matched to the power amp electrically and stylistically, and pairing the two together will easily fool you and your friends into thinking you spent a lot more scratch on your system.  Many of my old-school buddies were having visions of vintage McIntosh in their heads, when I had this PrimaLuna combo connected to a mint pair of JBL L100 speakers.

Cranking up Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance (on the matching PrimaLuna CD player we reviewed a few months ago) is a little slice of heavy-metal heaven—for a minute I was worried I might just blow up those JBLs, like I did back in the day.  The smooth sound of this PrimaLuna front-end package does not disappoint.
Another, more modern speaker that is a spectacular match with 35 watts per channel of tube power is Vienna Acoustics’ Mozart Grand.  The speakers have a 90-dB-sensitivity rating and a very gentle first-order crossover, but the ProLogue never runs out of gas when powering them.  And at about $3,500 a pair, the Mozart speakers won’t put you in the poorhouse.  Those on a tighter budget, consider a pair of Vandersteen 1Cs, which have the same high sensitivity, but are only $1,200 a pair.

Back when Kevin Deal and I sold mid-fi gear in stereo shops reminiscent of the one in the movie Ruthless People (1986), we used to describe gear as being more suited to rock or classical, etc., etc.  But the PrimaLuna electronics are a little bit of magic:  They play everything well, yet they inject just enough of that tubey warmth to make the bulk of your music collection sound much better than you’d expect it to.  This is a godsend for those having a mostly digital music collection, MP3s or CDs.

For this amp, I took the time to swap output tubes.  A set of super high zoot NOS 6550s or a new set of EAT KT88s, both of which will set you back about $1,500, but fear not, there are tons of great new EL-34 tubes in the $25-$50 range that sound fantastic. The extra midrange warmth and liquidity they provide will have you wondering if you ever need another amp.  And should a tube fail at an inopportune moment, the Adaptive AutoBias will even keep the amp purring along with a mixed set of output tubes. You’d be surprised at how many hardcore audiophiles have gone full circle back to the simplicity of an EL-34 amplifier paired with moderately efficient speakers.  This is an amplifier you can either start your tube journey with, or live with happily ever after.

With vintage Luxman, Marantz and McIntosh tube amplifiers fetching crazy money on the used market these days (not to mention their questionable reliability), make your life easy:  Put a PrimaLuna Prologue Premium between your speakers and just dig it.  You’ll be glad you did.

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Stereo Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $2,299


Digital Source PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium CD Player    dCS Debussy
Analog Source Rega RP6w/Exact    Monk Audio Phono Pre
Preamplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    VTL TL-5.5Mk. II
Speakers Lawrence Audio Violin    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cables AudioQuest King Cobra    Furutech LineFlux and SpeakerFlux

KEF R300 Bookshelf Speakers

Full-line speaker manufacturers, like Focal, B&W and the brand featured in this review, often deliver the most bang for the buck in the middle of their product ranges.  These products may not have the ultimate performance of the flagship, but they don’t cut corners either, as can often be the case with entry-level models.  And while KEF has been garnering a lot of justified praise on its specialty speaker models, like the Blade and the LS50, the potential buyer looking for a relative audio bargain would do well to investigate the KEF R Series.  There’s some fine stuff happening in this range, folks.

The R300 is the larger of the two bookshelf models in the R Series.  And unlike its smaller sibling, the two-way R100, the R300 is a three-way bookshelf, which is not the most common of layouts for a stand-mounted speaker.  It is interesting to note that the smallest speaker in KEF’s Reference Series, the 201/2, is also a three-way stand-mounted model.  I’ve heard the Reference 201/2 on a number of occasions and have always been really impressed with its honest presentation of music.  I’m here to tell you that the R300 gets within a stone’s throw of the 201/2, doing so at a much more reasonable price; the R300s cost $1,800 per pair, compared to $6,000 for the 201/2s.

Technology and Performance

Unlike KEF’s former middle range, the XQ Series, which were great sounding and gorgeous to boot, these R Series products won’t win any beauty contests.  They are simple-looking boxes, albeit ones that are superbly finished and constructed.  The review pair of R300s arrives in a nice black-gloss finish.  (Rosewood and walnut veneers are also available.)  The beauty of this range is in the technology and performance.  Some nice touches with this line include the magnetically attached grilles and the strapless bi-wire capability, which makes for easy bi-wiring and lets you forget about losing the gold-plated brass strap usually supplied with speakers in this price category.

The R300 features yet another generation of KEF’s Uni-Q driver, which is central to most KEF products, giving them their signature coherent sound.  For those unfamiliar with the Uni-Q, it is KEF’s way of making the midrange and treble drivers into a point-source radiator—the often sought-after but rarely attained ideal for a lot of speaker manufacturers.  This generation Uni-Q benefits from the same technology in KEF’s flagship Blade speakers.  The midrange cone is made from an aluminum-magnesium composite, which makes for much-desired lightness and stiffness.  Ribs across the surface of the driver cone minimize resonance, while the surrounding material provides further dampening.  The tweeter, which is made from the same material, is rear vented to reduce backward pressure, minimize distortion and increase power handling.  KEF’s tangerine wave guide fits over the tweeter diaphragm to further control the already wide dispersion characteristics, particularly those at the highest frequencies.

The 6-inch bass driver is also a stiff and strong aluminum affair, anodized with a satin-like material, with a large aluminum voice coil and a vented magnet assembly behind it.  One quickly realizes that this rather conventional-looking box is anything but—there is a lot of technical sophistication packed into this small cabinet.

Initial Assessment

I play music through the R300s for 80 hours before optimizing them up for serious listening, with perfect placement via a pair of 26-inch Sound Anchor stands to put the Uni-Q driver at ear level relative to the sitting position from my couch.  With this placement, the front plane of the speakers is 3 feet from the back wall, with each unit 3.5 feet from the sidewalls.  A slight 5-degree toe-in puts the optimum listening point with the most-stable imaging just over 9 feet from the speakers.

Serious listening begins with some small-ensemble jazz selections.  First up, the self-titled Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Paul Motian Trio, from three musicians needing no more introduction.  On the album’s Miles Davis/Ron Carter bluesy composition “Eighty One,” the R300 captures the interplay of these musicians in a seemingly large acoustic space.  The speakers reproduce Carter’s muscular acoustic bass without bloating, but with a tightness, depth and scale that is surprising given the small stature of the speaker.  Drums appear dramatic, with a snapping snare that shows off the quick acceleration of the Uni-Q driver.  Cymbals sound physically higher in the mix and have a textured shimmer with plenty of decay—this tweeter is indeed a honey.  In the midst of all this, Frisell’s quirky guitar stays locked front and center, as occasional biting chords punctuate the mix.  The R300 paints an engaging and natural portrait of this trio playing at the top of their game.

Next up, the Tord Gustavsen Quartet’s newest CD, The Well, on ECM; the soulful R&B composition “Circling” proves highly satisfying.  The R300 puts Gustavsen’s piano squarely between the speakers in a very deep space, keeping the recording well organized amongst the rest of the players.  The brushwork on drums emphasizes the low distortion of the Uni-Q driver—there is some real magic going on in this small cabinet.

The Best for Last

I turn to vinyl for some female vocals, starting with Ella Fitzgerald’s “Black Coffee,” from the soundtrack to the 1960 film Let No Man Write My Epitaph.  This sparse ballad is no more than Paul Smith on piano accompanying Fitzgerald, and brings to the forefront the precise imaging capabilities of the Uni-Q.  Fitzgerald’s lead vocals are focused dead center, yet you can hear her moving around the mic during the tune, with soft piano dancing in the background all the while.  This level of realism keeps me riveted to the chair for the entire album.

Patti Smith’s voice is a tough one to capture without it sounding overly harsh or shrill, and can go awry with speakers based on metal drivers, degenerating her vocals into a ball of harshness.  The ease with which the R300s handle this intricate voice instantly reveals just how effectively KEF has tamed stray resonances.  Howard Tate singing his 1960s hit, “Get it While You Can,” illustrates the integration of these drivers, with the rise and swell of his raspy, wide-ranging voice revealing no anomalies.  Rocking out with Television’s album Marquee Moon is just good fun, yet playing this rock classic louder than is prudent demonstrates how much punishment these speakers can handle—they are much like the Blades in this respect.  And it does get the juices flowing!

As with all small speakers, the R300s do a fantastic job spatially with large-scale orchestral music.  They excel at delivering the timbre and tonal richness of The Reiner Sound via Classic Records’ 200-gram reissue of this Living Stereo classic.  And while the fundamentals of the plucked double bass remain true to sound and texture through the R300s, there is definitely a limited reach to their low-frequency abilities.  Should your musical taste require more extension, consider KEF’s R400b powered subwoofer, a perfect companion to these stand speakers.  But that’s another review…

With so much attention focused on KEF’s amazing LS50, the R300 holds its own surprisingly well.  It shares the LS50’s Uni-Q driver technology and to some extent its voicing, but it is a different animal indeed.  The LS50 offers a slightly wider frequency response, with a smidge less midrange purity.  However, it does appear to play slightly louder, so each will appeal to a different user.  Think of the LS50 as a European version of the Lotus Esprit, and the R300 as its slightly heavier yet slightly more-comfortable U.S. sibling.

It should be noted that the R300’s reasonable 88-dB sensitivity means anything over about 25 watts per channel is a go—depending on your room size, of course.  Tubes or solid-state power amplifiers work equally well, and the R300 is more than resolving enough to illustrate the differences.  In the end, the R300 is proof positive of an exciting product from a legacy company that understands vertical integration.

KEF R300 Bookshelf Speakers

MSRP:  $1,800 per pair


Analog Source VPI Classic 1/Sumiko Blackbird
Digital Source  Simaudio MiND streamer    Rega DAC
Preamplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    Klyne SK5-A
Power Amplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    Krell KSA-50

Gemme Audio Tonic G5 Loudspeaker

The name of Gemme Audio’s Tonic G5 loudspeaker is perfect. In jazz, the phrase “minor tonic” refers to the home chord containing a minor third along with a major sixth and seventh for compositions in a minor key. And seeing that the model is more modest than the Canadian company’s Katana and TantoKarbon offerings—yet shares the same high-gloss black finish and cabinet construction—the compact speaker riffs on the musical concept of making the most out of minor scales.

Sharing technology from Gemme’s highly successful Vflex line, the $699 G5 sports a smaller 5.5-inch doped paper woofer crossed over to a 1-inch soft dome tweeter at about 3.2khz, all via a single-order network. While it claims a somewhat low sensitivity of 86db, the G5 is easy to drive with relatively low output. Gemme states the in-room LF response goes down to 45hz, a mark that I had no trouble verifying when playing test tones. It’s yields impressive performance for such a diminutive box, helped in part by Gemme’s “Pressure Reflex” design, which restricts the airflow in the port and creates a venturi effect. Designer Robert Gaboury mentions that doing so “makes for a nice, fast bass boost.”

Painless Break-In and Setup

The G5s proved extremely room friendly. After running them for 50 hours and experimenting with positioning in my 15×20-foot room, I placed them three feet from the sidewalls and about 2.5 feet from the back walls, each 7 feet apart from one another. A matching black plinth on the bottom of the speaker makes it easy to use the supplied black chrome spikes. I achieved optimum imaging balance between both axis with the speakers toed in at about 5 degrees. This isn’t a tough speaker to setup and, much like my Vandersteen 1Cs (also a 2-way, single-order speaker), provided engaging sound when not aligned just so.

I experienced no problems with a variety of amplifiers—tube and solid-state, large and small—but the G5s really grooved with the PrimaLuna DiaLogue 7 monoblocks, especially in triode mode. While the latter generates less power than pentode mode (40 watts per channel vs. 70), it played to the G5s’ strength and added to their large presentation, especially when they were moved to a smaller room, where the extra 30 watts weren’t a big deal.


I couldn’t resist starting my serious listening with Medeski, Martin & Wood’s Tonic. The primarily acoustic live album challenges most speakers in terms of resolving a sense of the live space. Thanks to their excellent soundstaging abilities, the G5s were up to the task, especially on “Buster Rides Again.” On the song, Medeski’s piano is front and center, Wood’s acoustic bass is off to the left, and Martin’s drums figure prominently to the right of center stage. At least, that’s how everything should be.

Moreover, this recording sounds artificially big; many comparably priced small speakers lose the recording’s spaciousness, making the trio sound like they are in a closet. Not so the G5s. Their speed and dynamics captured the occasional rap of the drum sticks against the drum kit, nailed the cowbell, and offered a lifelike reproduction of audience participation, adding to the illusion of reality.

To determine whether the G5 could deliver with rock, I cued up Porcupine Tree’s “The Start Of Something Beautiful” from DeadWing, listening for bass compression at high level. Again, I came away impressed with how much air the little woofers could move before breaking up. A similar effect happened when playing “Immune” from Godsmack’s self-titled album; I just ran these little speakers out of gas. Turning the volume down slightly on the disc’s “Voodoo” yielded better results, as vocalist Sully Erna was placed dead center in a haunting manner that suited the album’s mood. Less bone crushing than a large pair of floorstanders, these speakers possessed quite a bit more punch than the Magnepan MMGs reviewed in this issue.

The G5s won’t win any awards when it comes to reproducing a full classical orchestra, but what small speaker does? However, on small-scale recordings like Telemann’s “Sonata #2” from Jerry McCoy’s Dialogues With Double Bass, the musicians were spread across the soundstage in proper scale with generous room ambiance. Kudos to the Gemme’s superb tweeter; the higher-register string sounds came across naturally, with no indication of breakup or edginess. Such smoothness was evident regardless of music type and represented one of the speakers’ greatest strengths. Whether it was the bite of slide guitar or the crash of a cymbal, the G5’s tweeter always stayed on the path of musical accuracy rather than veering off and artificially ringing.

A Gem

The G5’s compact stature may require an adjustment to your listening position, as the tweeter is only about 30 inches off the floor. The sweet spot in a first-order system is usually more critical than those in speakers that use more traditional crossovers. It’s easy to get too much HF bleed through in the woofer, which leaves the speaker sounding muddy and muffled. So choose your listening chair accordingly. I ended up liking the sound presented when sitting on my floor.

A compact floorstander always presents challenges to speaker designers, and at $699, there are always tradeoffs to be made. In the case of the G5, all of the important boxes on the build list were confidently checked. These speakers offer a top-notch finish and faithful musical qualities as well as a beautifully rendered midband with a smooth upper treble and sense of space—and enough bass extension for most small-to mid-sized rooms. Combine such positives with above-average dynamics and a speaker that works well with modest-power solid-state or tube amplification, and you can see why Gemme Audio’s latest creation should be on your short list – this is a lot of speaker for $699.

Gemme Audio Tonic G5 Loudspeaker

MSRP: $699


Analog Source Rega P5 with Sumko Blackbird
Digital Source Mac Mini with Rega DAC
Preamplifier Audio Research LS3
Power Amplifier PrimaLuna DiaLogue 7 monoblocks
Cable Audience Au24 (speaker and IC)
Power Conditioning Running Springs Elgar

CEntrance DACmini CX

Vinyl’s resurgence notwithstanding, none of my twentysomething friends own a turntable. Yet they’ve all got a Mac Mini. And just as my friends like to argue about what turntable/cartridge combo reigns supreme, I’ve overheard younger music lovers debate what music player makes for a superior experience on the Mac Mini—as well as what hard drive sounds best and what memory configuration proves superior.

All of which might explain why these Gen Y listeners were excited to see the CEntrance DACmini CX. Built to the same dimensions as a Mac Mini, this silver box makes a ton of sense for anyone craving high performance in a compact cabinet. If you’d like even fewer boxes cluttering up your living space, CEntrance makes an alternate version that incorporates a Class-D power amplifier. That’s another review for another day.

Versatile Midget

Akin to prior Mac Minis, the DACmini CX is fed via a wall wart. Should you lose the latter, anything will do as long as long as it yields 9-19 VDC (the included supply produces 19VDC). Nice touch. The unit gets up and rolling in 30 seconds, offering USB, Coax, and Toslink digital inputs along with a single analog input—the key to the device’s viability. The RCA/SPDIF digital input accommodates sources up to 24bit/192khz while the USB is, for the moment, limited to 24/96. A headphone jack helps make the box a highly versatile option in a main or second system.

For the main digital source, I used a MacBook Air via an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable and rustled up an old reliable CD player, the Pioneer 563 via SPDIF, to keep within the product’s budget-minded parameters. A pair of Vandersteen 1C speakers and a vintage Adcom 535 comprised the rest of the system; Audeze LCD-2 headphones were employed for headphone listening.

Bad is Good

I waited a full 24 hours to begin serious listening sessions. An old-school audiophile, I remain amazed at what great sound comes from this tiny box. Take the title track from Bad Boy’s Private Party. I’m impressed at the amount of separation that shines through between the multiple lead guitars, particularly given that the record is a marginal remaster. Audio Fidelity’s reissue of Bad Company’s debut presents an even bigger surprise. The opening cymbals on “Ready for Love” fade out with a delicacy that I expect from a fancier digital front-end.

Sticking with the bad bad bad theme, Badfinger’s Straight Up admirably conveys the disc’s analog mastering, showing off harmonies and maintaining spaciousness that otherwise sounds cloudy via budget DACs. Or marvel at the textures in guest singer Wendy Lewis’ vocals on the Bad Plus’ For All I Care. Whether it’s Wendy Lewis or Wendy O Williams, the DACmini CX possesses a realism and tonal richness that always suggests performance in line with that of more expensive hardware. Not that the box can work wonders. Paul Simon’s So Beautiful, So What sucks no matter the conduit. It’s no fault of the DACmini CX; it’s just an awful album.

Jazz standards also signal significant acoustic texture and body, along with smart sense placement within the soundstage. Miles Davis’ Live in Europe 1967? Absolutely riveting. Davis’ signature horn stays way out in front of the speakers, with the rest of the band spread out behind him. This record stands as an excellent test of pace, the rapid-fire drum rolls never getting lost in the mix as Davis hypnotizes. And the bass groove remains thoroughly locked in place.

Hi-Res Reveals More

High-resolution tracks cast the DACmini CX in an even better light. Taking advantage of albums downloaded from HD Tracks and 24/96 files captured from LPs—the latter converted at TONEAudio with the Nagra LB Pro 2 track machine—music came even more alive. HDT’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours simply rocks. Sure, we’ve all heard “The Chain” too many times, but the song epitomizes bass dynamics, and the DACmini CX offers more than enough resolution to easily discern the differences between standard and high-res versions.

Headphone listening is equally enjoyable. The LCD-2s are my go to ‘phones, and there’s more than enough power on tap to drive them to damaging levels. The Grado PS 500s also result in a great match, with smooth tonal balance and plenty of bass grip.  Even the notoriously tough-to-drive AKG 701s do not pose a problem for the headphone section. If you don’t control your whole system with the DACmini CX, it makes for a killer bedroom system, with minimal footprint, regardless of digital source.

As much fun as my new, younger friends had putting this DAC through its paces with myriad headphone and music player combinations, using it as a full-function preamp is where it’s at—along with two turntables and a microphone, of course. It drove every power amplifier with which it was paired.

Go to 11

A tweakophile, I couldn’t resist the urge to connect the DACmini CX to a Red Wine Audio Black Lightning battery power supply. Here’s some advice: For those wanting to take the DACmini CX further, toss the wall wart. It’s always a great idea to keep such little switching power supplies away from your audio gear, and adding the clean power supplied by the Black Lightning enhances the listening experiences. Backgrounds grow even quieter, with more low-level detail—especially on high-res files of acoustic music, giving the overall presentation a more natural, organic feel. Lovely.

Additional Listening:  Jeff Dorgay

Since everyone and their brother seems to make a cheeseball DAC in $500 range, it’s nice to see a company with major engineering talent bring a product like the DACmini CX to market. A digital brainiac, CEntrance principal Michael Goodman has done work for Mackie, Alesis, Harman Pro, and Benchmark, to name a few. He’s quoted in ProSound News Europe as “the one they call in when someone can’t crack a tough problem.”

Popping the top of this unit reveals attention to detail you might expect from a manufacturer such as dCS, or Vitus. The layout is impeccable. I’d love to see better rubber feet on the bottom, similar to those on the Wadia 1, but that’s about it.

I have zero complaints with the sound, and applaud the decision to include an analog input, which elevates the device from merely great to outstanding. Should the urge arise, you can add a phonostage and turntable, which is what I did for half of my listening. Plugging in the Rega RP3/Exact via an EAR 834P functions as a can’t-miss combination through the Conrad Johnson MV-50C1 and Polk Audio LSiM707 speakers. Indicative of its robust output stage, the DACmini CX suffers no fatigue driving a 15-foot pair of cables to the power amp.

The unit’s overall sound is very neutral. And the match with the CJ amp is scintillating—but remember, I prefer things ever so slightly on the warm side. For $795, a budding music lover/audiophile can fit one of these in the budget without going broke. I am proud to award the CEntrance DACmini CX a Publisher’s Choice Award for 2011.  Is there a better building block with which to start a system?