Totem Acoustic Mani-2 Signature Speakers

If you believe that it’s possible for good things to come in small packages, then mini-monitors are right up your alley.  These little fellas warm the hearts and ears of space-constrained audiophiles everywhere.  Besides having room-friendly sizes, mini-monitors simply disappear once you toss in decent amplifiers, cables and stands.  Montreal’s Totem Acoustics has been building great compact loudspeakers for two decades.  CEO Vince Bruzzese seems to have applied Native American spirits, or some such supernatural force, to his speakers, which should not come as a surprise to the Totem true believers who have always known that Bruzzese and company were on to something.  I bought my first-edition Mani-2s in 1996 and they have graced my smaller listening room ever since.  More than a decade later, Totem has completely rethought this speaker, with the new Signature version.

House Spirits

The exteriors of the Sigs resemble those of their predecessors, but these speakers are all new on the inside, from internal bracing to crossovers and drivers.  There are two new distinctive aesthetic features: a little blue dot above the tweeter and a plaque on the rear.  Similar to the original Mani-2s, these are 4-ohm speakers that measure 16.4 inches tall, 8.5 inches wide and 12 inches deep, and they weigh 23 pounds apiece.

Each speaker features a 1-inch aluminum tweeter and two 6.5-inch woofers in an Isobarik formation—meaning that one driver faces into the cabinet and the other faces the outside world.  Each rear panel is ported and has two sets of terminals for bi-wiring.  Totem offers an optional grille, but the company openly prefers that you listen to the Sigs in their birthday suits.

After easing the Blu Tack off of my Mani-2 originals, I place the new speakers on the same lead-filled Target stands.  My room dimensions being on the small side (15 by 10 by 8 feet), I locate the speakers 3 feet from the short wall and 2 feet from the sidewalls, with 5 feet of space between each speaker.  My listening distance was 8 feet.  As the sensitivity of the Sigs is relatively low (85 dB), Totem recommends amplifiers for them that can crank out at least 40 watts per channel.  Advice notwithstanding, I have zero trouble driving them to satisfactorily clean listening levels with two different integrated amps, rated at 30 and 35 watts.

Man, Oh Mani-2

Totem suggests a minimum 200-hour break-in period and I willingly comply.  Two relatively low-powered integrated amplifiers, the PrimaLuna Premium Prologue (35 wpc) and the Pass Labs INT-30A (30 wpc) provide the juice.  A PS Audio PerfectWave Transport with MKII DAC and a Logitech Squeezebox Touch, armed with a USB drive, serve up the music.  Since extended low bass was an original Mani-2 “calling card,” I go straight to Patricia Barber’s “Constantinople” from Modern Cool (Premonition Records).  Midway through this jam session, Michael Arnopol cuts loose on his acoustic bass in jazzy yet articulate fashion.  The Sigs give a true-to-form account of this solo, right down to the resonances of the bass’s soundboard.  Continuing the low-frequency session, I go to the Pipes Rhode Island CD (Riago) for Stephen Martorella’s masterful handling of the Widor Adagio.  The low pedals on this piece prove little problem for the Sigs, whose little woofers move considerable air in my listening room.

From my perspective, voice reproduction separates loudspeaker contenders from pretenders, so I toss the Sigs Tony Bennett, in an XRCD2 remastering of The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album (JVC).  Bennett’s slightly raspy voice has a remarkable way of drawing you into each song.  One listen to “Some Other Time” reassures me that the Sigs can really do vocals.  To add more fuel to this fire, I play Isaac Freeman and the Blueblood’s “Beautiful Stars” (Lost Highway Records).  Freeman’s deep-bass vocals resonate like the voice of God, a quality captured by the Sigs, minus the mid-range coloration often found from small speakers.

Ultimately, speakers get their cardio workouts from large-scale orchestral works.  I administer this last treadmill test with a 24-bit/96-kHz download of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite turned in by Japanese conductor Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra (Reference Recordings).  This piece’s no-holds-barred finale has all the forces wailing away at fortissimo levels.  The next best thing to the players actually leading a frontal assault into my room is having the Sigs give me a good wallop, and they do so without a hint of strain.

The Ancestral Voices Have Spoken

In the past decade and a half following the arrival of my original pair of Mani-2s, there have been three Washington administrations, two foreign wars, and, in case you missed it, a massive market tanking.  Surprisingly, the high-end audio industry has managed to rock on.  Some companies, like Totem Acoustic, have actually flourished and expanded their loudspeaker lines.  Each generation of Totem speakers has drawn from the wisdom of its ancestors.  This makes the company’s decision to issue a second Mani-2 generation an interesting one, since many of the newer Totem speakers have been larger floorstanders.

Comparing the Sigs to their forebears shows how much the Totem design team has invested in product reinvention.  The sonic strengths of the originals, such as good imaging and bass extension, have been further improved.  The soundstage is noticeably broader, deeper and taller.  The bass is better articulated, while highs sound more natural, courtesy of the new tweeter.  Most importantly, midrange clarity, not a strength of the original Mani-2s, is dramatically better.

Midway through my review, I noted that Totem offers an accessory that, for obvious visual reasons, is called the “Beak.”  This is a custom-milled 2-inch-high aluminum cone with “micro-ribs.”  According to the product literature, Beaks are meant to “control parasitic vibrations that occur on top of a speaker cabinet.”  Totem further suggests that Beaks help produce better imaging and high-frequency performance.  They can be placed atop each enclosure, either singly or in pairs.

While I am not a big-time tweaker, I did experiment with these curious devices.  Having the Beaks on and diagonally aligned from front to back produced smoother highs and a more coherent soundstage—maybe not to a shattering degree, since the Sigs are already so good, but the result was certainly noticeable and could be reproduced on repeated listenings.

Conclusions: Is the Mani-2 for you?

So what does $5,295 (plus an additional $300 to $400 for high-quality speaker stands) get you?  It won’t get you the huge soundstage of large panels or the subterranean bass of a separate subwoofer.  It will get you compact speakers that fit easily into most listening rooms.  It will get you intensely musical sound from all the sources at your disposal.  As a bonus, you will not need monster amps to drive these guys.  In a modest-sized listening room with two integrated amps, each rated at less than 40 watts per side, I got great sound aplenty from the Sigs, although their bass response seemed slightly plumper with the Pass than the PrimaLuna.

The jungle of $5,000-plus speakers is the natural habitat for many species of widely differing designs.  Most speakers in this price range will provide pleasurable listening if mated with proper electronics, cables and, most critically, a room with the appropriate dimensions.  When it comes to getting the most sound in a modest-sized room, the Mani-2 Sigs will give you just about as much as you can hope for in terms of imaging, smooth highs, clear mids and extended bass that has to be heard to be believed.  If this is not enough to sell you, you should note that my 15-year-old Mani-2s, while clearly bettered by the Sigs, still sound pretty darn good (i.e. I’m not throwing them away), which is a testimony to the build quality of Totem speakers.

Totem Acoustic Mani-2 Signature Speaker

MSRP: $5,295 (USD)


Digital Source Logitech Squeezebox Touch    PS Audio PerfectWave Transport and DAC MKII
Integrated Amplifier Pass Labs INT-30A    PrimaLuna Prologue Premium
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Elgar\
Cables Nordost Valhalla and Frey
Power Cords Nordost Valhalla, Brahma and Vishnu

Silverline Audio Minuet Supreme Speakers

Mini-monitor speakers have long been audio’s little darlins—easy to place, reasonably prices, aesthetically pleasing. As evidenced by an unofficial website (,  the Rogers LS3/5a BBC monitors still inspire cult reverence. Not that longstanding judgments against small speakers have gone away. Critics maintain that they get lost in larger listening rooms, suffer from limited bass extension, and don’t generate enough air or image. Alan Yun apparently remains oblivious to such noise.  His company, Silverline Audio, a breeder of high-performance speakers, has given birth to the “runt” of the litter, the Minuet Supreme.

The Minuets Move In

Given the hernia-inducing weight of some high-end equipment, it was a welcome relief to receive a 15-pound carton that a mere mortal can easily hoist. While unpacking these little beauties, I was impressed with the handsome rosewood vinyl veneer, high-quality speaker terminals, and compact size (9″ x 5.5″ x 7.25″). On the surface, nothing seems unusual about the Minuets’ design. These are 2-way rear-ported bass reflex transducers with nominal 8-ohm impedance and claimed frequency response of 60–28,000 Hz. A 1″ silk dome tweeter and 3.25″ paper-pulp cone mid/woofer, protected by a removable black grille, cross over at 3500 Hz. The cabinets seem well braced, and yield a dull “donk” when rapped.

Setting up the Minuets was a piece of cake. They settled solidly, aided by Blu-Tack on my spiked 28″ Target speaker stands, loaded with 60 pounds of lead shot. The Minuets can be bi-wired, which is how I  hooked them  up for this review. After a few days of serious break-in, the Minuets wound up 5 feet from the front wall, 6 feet from each side wall, and 10 feet from the comfy couch in my 15’ x 21’ x 8’ listening room.  They were placed 8 feet apart, and angled about 30 degrees toward the listening position.  I did most of my listening with the grilles removed.  However, if you have curious children or pets, leave the grilles on; the small sonic differences are not worth risking any damage to the drivers. And sure, my front end electronics—Pass XP-20 preamp and XA-100.5 monoblocks—and associated interconnects, power cords, and speaker cables (Nordost Odin) were overkill. But I had to hear what the Minuets would do with my best stuff.

Minuets Sing and Dance

When first hearing a speaker, I want know how it reproduces small ensembles and solo instruments. Since small groups and soloists can actually fit into many listening rooms, playing such music remains my favorite assessment of the speaker’s ability to recreate “reality.” In handling Duke’s “In a Sentimental Mood” from Mark Levinson’s Live Recordings at Red Rose Music, the Minuets had Chico Freeman’s sax and George Cables’ piano sounding just as I imagined they would in an intimate lounge. Another test came courtesy of James Boyk playing Prokofiev’s challenging Sixth Piano Sonata off 20th Century Masters, a track that boasts great dynamic range and percussive effects. No sweat for the Minuets; the piano was life-sized and appropriately brilliant.

Good recordings of vocal groups help evaluate a speaker’s capacity to pick out individual players. I cranked up Ann Savoy and Her Sleepness Knights belting out “If Dreams Come True,” where Savoy sings upfront and is backed by violin, guitar, piano and upright bass. The Minuets had no trouble keeping tabs on each instrument, particularly the dancing bass. I continued with a big-band Latin number, the self-titled cut from Pacquito d’Rivera’s Tropicana Nights on Chesky Records, a 96kHz/24-bit download brimming with in-your-face dynamics and pace. The Minuets did the tricky salsa footwork without missing a step.

If I get lucky, a new component always leads to at least one magic moment. Aptly, the Minuets came through during the holiday season, when conveying the spaciousness of John Rutter’s “Nativity Carol” as performed by the San Francisco Choral Artists on Star of Wonder. The song features the natural warmth of a mixed chorus pitted against a hearty pipe organ in a large hall; Silverline Audio’s itsy-bitsy speakers never got lost reproducing the fantastic details.

Similarly demanding, Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” opens with a sustained subterranean organ pedal and low strings. Despite its age, Georg Solti’s 1958 Decca recording remains unsurpassed in its evocation of the primordial orchestral chords. I played the cut several times just to be sure that I wasn’t becoming delusional about the extended clean bass that the mighty mites emitted. Nope: A personal reference for 30 years, Sheila Jordan’s Sheila LP sounded as fresh and lifelike as ever, with Jordan’s voice and the accompanying upright bass right there in my room.

Maybe Size Doesn’t Matter

Totem Acoustic’s original Model 1s were the last mini-monitors to hold sway in my system. That was about 20 years ago. While I’ve always had a soft spot for the 1s, they never got me all the way up the stairway to audio heaven. The Totems handle upper and midrange quite well, but shortchange the bass extension and image size.

After living with the Minuets, I have good reason to rethink my opinion on mini-monitors. These little guys sound much larger than they have a right to sound. Voice reproduction, an important personal criterion for assessing a speaker, was warm and natural. High frequencies were extended in a good way, and not edgy or analytic, a compliment to Silverline Audio’s choice of tweeter and crossover implementation. The Minuets’ ample bass and astonishing height and depth of image came as huge surprises.

Of course, there are a few practical considerations that should be taken under advisement. The speakers can produce pretty big sound, but their sensitivity (88db) is lower than that of many larger speakers. Silverline recommends amplifiers ranging in power from 10–300 watts RMS. During the review, I substituted Pass amps with outputs of 30 to 150 watts per channel. Pushed to near- realistic levels, the Minuets sang best for their supper when fed by amps capable of at least 100 watts per side. Before purchase, try auditioning the speakers with your own amplifier to be sure it is juicy enough to properly drive them. And since the Minuets are light in weight, they require solid stands to provide critical isolation and stability.

The Minuets are not labeled “Supreme” for nothing. These proverbial little Davids weren’t embarrassed by anything I threw at them. No, you won’t get the huge soundstage made possible by big panels. But you will get fabulous sound in the critical octaves and a satisfying sense of space. For those interested in home theater applications, Silverline Audio makes a compatible center channel. Just add another pair of Minuets, season with a compact subwoofer, and sit back and enjoy. What a bargain.

Bel Canto e.One FM1 Tuner

We live in an era of audio contrasts. Digital disc players and music servers coexist with vinyl playback systems like lions and lambs. Reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks appear headed for white elephant status. FM radio, the only other major analog holdout, remains under siege from satellite and Internet broadcasting. So why bother with a new analog FM tuner?

I posed the question to John Stronczer, CEO of Bel Canto Design. A self-confessed FM fancier, he sees the creation of the FM1 as a “challenge,” a device that applies his company’s advances in digital-signal processing to taming the occasionally wild analog FM signal. Stronczer wisely resisted the temptation to “throw in” HD Radio because of its inferior compressed sound.  He’s convinced that there are enough audiophiles who will appreciate the fruits of Bel Canto’s labor and prefer the superiority of honest analog FM sound. The performance of the FM1 should prove him correct.

The Wonderful World of FM Radio

My long love affair with FM radio started with a Dynaco tuner in the 1960s and was fueled by stations like Chicago’s WFMT. Leaving the city’s bitter cold for Augusta, Georgia’s humid heat, I found that my FM options had also gone south. To fulfill the need for high quality cultural programming, I turned to two local public radio stations.  Unfortunately, they reside in the low rent district of the FM band. Their weaker signals led to the acquisition of quieter, more sensitive FM tuners—including those from Magnum Labs, Fanfare, Day Sequerra—and supporting them with excellent antennas.

Of course, listening habits change over time. After discovering digital music servers, I started spending more time with Internet radio and less with my beloved analog FM tuner. The good news about digital music servers is that they access thousands of radio stations that cover all genres. The bad news: highly compressed signals (usually 128 kbps or lower) that reduce frequency response and channel separation. While I didn’t miss analog FM’s snap, crackle, and pop, I missed its air and dynamics. Enter the FM1, Bel Canto’s first serious foray into the world of analog FM tuners.

FM1 Crosses My Threshold: The Magic Box

Aesthetically, the FM1 shares the compact, understated façade of its e.One stable mates.  A multifunction knob selects broadcast mode, station frequency (call letters and program data when available), and signal strength. The supplied remote can store 10 preset channels and controls other compatible Bel Canto equipment. Pushing the “tuner” button enables forward and reverse channel selection, operation display, and forced mono for noisy stations.

On the back, the rear panel is cleanly laid out. From left to right, there is a power switch; an input for the basic outboard power supply or optional VBS1 (virtual battery) and LNS1 (line power supply); XLR or RCA analog ouputs; an antenna input; an RS-232 control port; and bank of digital outputs (SPDIF/BNC, Toslink, and AES/EBU). The “magic” in this little box comes from its sophisticated digital signal processor (DSP) that massages the raw FM signal. After digital processing, the signal can be routed to analog or digital outputs (as a 96kHz/24-bit data stream). This onboard technology is an offshoot of Bel Canto’s extensive DSP research. I listened through both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs feeding my Pass preamp, and through the digital coaxial outputs into a PerfectWave DAC.

The most critical and time-consuming part of setting up the FM1 is described in the concise user’s guide under the heading “Choosing Your Antenna.” The supplied wire antenna is intended to ensure proper functioning of the FM1, but not for critical listening.  As my housing subdivision falls between rural and urban in terms of broadcast signal strength, I followed the company’s recommendations to the letter. I also placed a Magnum Labs Signal Sleuth between the antenna lead-in and the FM1. The Sleuth greatly aids the cause of public radio stations found at the far left of the FM band.

The Listening Sessions: The Sounds of Silence

It took nearly two hours to set up my two antennas. A Fanfare FM-2G antenna took turns with a Winegard multi-element Yagi, the latter as ideal for single-family homes as the former component is for apartment dwellers. The FM1 is more sensitive to antenna selection, orientation, and placement than just about any tuner I’ve used. I regretted not being able to use an oscilloscope to assist in the tedious but essential process of antenna adjustment. Fortunately, the FM1’s signal strength display readout on the front panel offers considerable help with antenna orientation.

Greater Augusta sports 18 analog FM stations that have Internet counterparts, enabling a direct comparison of both broadcast methods. The Fanfare whip antenna retrieved 12 stations suitable for listening; the Yagi got all 18 and was used for most of the critical sessions. While the FM1’s signal strength indicator ranges from 0 to 100, a reading of at least 40 is needed to prevent the tuner defaulting to Blend (reduced channel separation) mode. With either antenna, only 8 stations hit the necessary target: My two public radio favorites and six popular music stations.

FM noise, the Achilles heel of analog stereo broadcasts, was minimal for the strongest stations. Bel Canto’s latest design is the quietest tuner I’ve ever heard. Public radio stations sounded better than their pop counterparts that typically EQ their signal for “boom and sizzle” aimed at car and portable radios. The FM1 mercilessly exposed such differences in broadcast techniques, just as a good tuner should.

My “aha” moment came when comparing Internet broadcasts from a Logitech Squeezebox Touch connected to a PerfectWave DAC. The analog broadcasts had a slight hiss, but their air, imaging, and warmth easily bested that of the highest-quality digital stations. Voices sounded more natural on the FM1 and lacked the pervasive tubiness of many Internet sources.  After many A/B comparisons, I was hard pressed to detect a consistent difference between the FM1’s digital and analog outputs—both sounded excellent. Best overall sound came from balanced operation.

To further experiment, I retrieved my old Fanfare FM-1A from storage. After hooking it up to the same antennas and playing it through balanced outputs, the tuner picked up all of the stations that the Bel Canto unit captured. The Fanfare did a creditable job with dynamics and imaging, yet its noise level, even on the best stations, registered noticeably higher than that of the Bel Canto and intruded on my enjoyment of the music.

Signing Off

Like a first date, many of us fondly remember FM radio as a gateway to new life experiences. The top FM stations had the best sound and programming capacity that went far beyond that of our home music libraries. These stations also served up rare recordings and live concert broadcasts.

So, before you conclude that $1500 is too steep an admission price, consider that it’s a one-time cash outlay compared to the ongoing and rising expense of annual digital subscriptions with high-speed Internet portals. And, in the end, remember, you’re footing the bill for lower fidelity.

Bel Canto’s FM1 is evolutionary in its handling of FM noise. It breathes new life into your stereo system, regardless of its vintage or price point. Analog FM remains a viable audio option, and will be around for the foreseeable future. If you live in a metro area blessed with strong, clear FM stations and highly varied programming, the FM1 presents one of the best modern arguments in support of the radio medium that I’ve ever heard.

Bel Canto e.One  FM1  FM Tuner

MSRP: $1,495


Digital Sources Esoteric P-03    D-03    G-Orb    UX-Pi    Logitech Squeezebox Touch     Meridian Sooloos   PS Audio PerfectWave
Analog Sources VPI HRX w/12.7 arm, Rim Drive    VPI Aries w/10.5i arm, flywheel, SDS Controllers
Phono Cartridges Clearaudio Goldfinger v.2    Clearaudio Stradivari
Phono Preamplifiers Pass XP-25, XP-15
Preamplifiers Pass XP-20    Lexicon 12HD-B
Power Amplifiers Pass XA-100.5    Pass X-3
Speakers Martin Logan CLX, Stage, Script-I, Descent-I (2), Descent (2)
Interconnects Nordost Odin and Valhalla
Speaker Cable Nordost Odin
Power Cords/Conditioning Nordost Odin and Valhalla    Running Springs Audio Dmitri and Maxim
Vibration Control Black Diamond Racing
Room Treatment Echo Buster, Corner Busters, Bass Busters, Double Busters

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Integrated Amplifier

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

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

Prima la Luna, Poi la Musica

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

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

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

Low-Frequency Slam, Dynamics, and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it Moon Glow or Memorex?

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

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

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

Additional Comments

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

PrimaLuna Prologue Premium Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2299 (USD)

PrimaLuna USA


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

Manley Labs Chinook Phono Preamplifier

Around 2005, studio-tube-gear expert Manley Laboratories created an integrated tube amp with an iPod dock for the consumer market that had a triangular shape, and subsequently called it the Stingray iTube, keeping in line with naming the majority of its hi-fi consumer components after sea creatures.

“No one’s ever done fish before,” said EveAnna Manley (an avid scuba diver who is often referred to as the “Manley Tube Queen”) in a 2003 interview with Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, regarding the curious decision to name the company’s products after marine life.  “Let’s have some fun.”

And Manley keeps the fun going today—in terms of both its product nomenclature and the quality of audio that those products reproduce.  Earlier this year, the company launched its “bargain” phonostage, the Chinook, which goes for about a quarter of the cost of its pond mate, an $8,000 statement tube phono preamp called the Steelhead, which wowed vinyl junkies when it hit the market about 10 years ago.  As one of TONEAudio’s diehard analog guys, I get my share of vinyl-related products—cartridges, record cleaners, phono preamplifiers and the like—and, while phono fiends like myself still consider the Steelhead to be one of the industry’s best tube phonostages in its price range, the Chinook isn’t a bad catch.

Testing the Water

As I have gotten older, I have grown less tolerant of components that are tricky to install or exhibit quirky operation.  Thankfully, the Chinook phono preamp lacks these shortcomings.  Its default gain is set at 45 dB, a standard output for moving-magnet (MM) cartridges.  If you are a moving-coil (MC) freak like me, you can easily set the gain to 60 dB by removing the perforated cover (affixed with eight screws), flipping a pair of DIP switches for each channel, and replacing the cover.  Except for a blue on/standby button under the Manley Chinook logo (which illuminates with start-up), all of the action is on the rear panel, where you will find a ground post, a pair of unbalanced stereo inputs and outputs and dual banks of DIP switches for adjusting capacitance and resistance.

The Chinook offers a staggering 32 loading possibilities all the way up to 47,000 ohms, as well as 24 settings, which yield resistance values below 100 ohms—a setting that’s probably not the best option for most MC-cartridge users.  The preamp gives MM-cartridge users seven options for capacitance adjustments, ranging from 50 pF to 350 pF.  Manley supplied two pairs of 6922 dual triodes with the review sample, one pair for the gain stage and one for the output stage.  Tube rollers can also experiment with pairs of 7308s, 6DJ8s and ECC88s.

Given the Chinook’s $2,250 price tag, I matched it with the most appropriately priced gear available, namely my old standby table: a modified VPI Aries with outboard flywheel and a JMW 10.5i tonearm.  For my test cartridges, I used a stereo Clearaudio Stradivari and a mono Benz Micro Ruby 3.  Prior to serious listening, I broke in the Chinook a bit by leaving it powered on for 24 hours. (It has a light-bulb-sized appetite of just 42 watts.)  Manley recommends placing the Chinook in an area with adequate ventilation, although I noticed that it is only slightly warm during operation.  As a side note, this preamp safeguards its tube innards with a gentle 45-second power-up cycle, which helps provide some peace of mind, because there’s nothing more aggravating than blowing tubes at power-up.

Swimming Upstream with Ease

The ear party kicked off with Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius Records), a live recording from 1976 that features a bunch of plaid-clad Swedes hammering away at American standards.  I was immediately struck by the Chinook’s near-holographic soundstage.  I then moved on to Chamber Music Society (Heads Up) from bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, on which she plays a snappy duet, “ Inútil Paisagem,” with jazz vocalist Gretchen Parlato.  This cut really tests a phonostage’s ability to distinguish between two female voices that continuously alternate parts; meanwhile a discrete acoustic bass provides the backbeat.  The Chinook kept perfect pace with the exchange between the vocals and Spalding’s infectious bass line.

Next, I wanted to see how the Chinook handled a recorded pipe organ, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it does offer an objective lesson in deep bass and, because most are built into large churches, big acoustic spaces.  In the 1970s, speaker maker Dave Wilson recorded a series of recitals with organ virtuoso James B. Welch, playing some of the finest pipe organs in the country.  One such LP from 1977, simply titled Concert (Wilson Audio), treated me to some of the best renditions of bass and space that I have been privileged to hear, courtesy of the Chinook.

To test it further, I had to see how the Chinook handled mono, because some of the best phonostages can bring life and breath to mono LPs, astonishing those who faintly remember such records playing on their parents’ old phonographs.  If you scratch the surface of serious vinyl lovers’ collections, you are likely to uncover these relics, and reissue companies have recently begun releasing some classic LPs from the glory days of yesteryear.  One such example is from Julie London, a sexy siren who made it big in the 1950s.  She heated up my listening room (in more ways than one) with “Cry Me a River,” from a 45-rpm reissue of Julie is Her Name (Boxstar Records). I then spun the tracks of the iconic bop-era recording, Birth of the Cool (Classic Records), which were laid down between 1949 and 1950 and feature trumpet idol Miles Davis, his big-band arranger Gil Evans and a legendary supporting cast.  The Chinook made sure that you heard everyone in the studio with amazing recovery of detail, including some off-mic chatter, which adds a level of authenticity and nostalgia to the listening session

Many, many, many LPs later, the ear party ended with MoFi’s reissue of Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus, arguably one of the greatest live rock albums of all time.  On this record, the late Lowell George and his super-boogie band present dueling synthesizers, guitars, percussion, keyboards and brass, a combination that makes for some hefty tunes.  Listening to the opening cut, “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” through the Chinook was a refreshing auditory slap in the face, just like having a primo standing-room-only place right near the stage.

Hooked on the Chinook

Vinyl records can quickly become an addiction that, fortunately, won’t shorten your natural life or get you busted for possession.  How you support this habit depends on source selection and, most critically, playback equipment.  Choice of turntable, tonearm and cartridge obviously matter, but the delicate signal still has to navigate the rest of the sound chain, where the phonostage acts as the gatekeeper of the grooves.  On this front, the Chinook excels, offering a substantial taste of the audio high life without maxing out your credit card.  It’s also a versatile component that will appeal to a variety of listeners.

Tube-phobes can relax, as this baby is dead quiet, even when cranked to the max; so can audio newbies, because setting up the Chinook is a cinch.  But before rushing out to plunk down more than two large ones, note that maximum gain for MC cartridges is 60 dB, which proved more than enough gain for the cartridges used in this review.  Some top-flight cartridges, however, put out less than 0.30 mV, which may not be the best match for this phonostage in a system based around a low gain preamplifier and/or low sensitivity speakers.

In summation, the Chinook provides spot-on imaging and recreation of the original recorded space, along with killer dynamics and a broad frequency spectrum—all at a reasonable price.

Gone Fishin’ (additional listnening)

Before sending the Chinook to Lawrence for this review, I had the pleasure of putting some initial hours on the clock and running it with a few of my own turntables.  I auditioned it with everything from the meager Shure M97 to the mighty Lyra Atlas, with excellent result.  Nothing in my stable of cartridges has less than 0.4 mV of output, so 60db of gain was more than sufficient.

Having spent a year with one of Manley’s Steelheads, that phono preamp has always been one of my favorites, it has a ton of personality—you’ll never mistake the Steelhead for anything less than a fish of the tubus maxiumus family.

Now compared to the big fish in my current analog pond (the Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE, the Vitus MPP-201 and the Pass XP-25), the Chinook has a, shall we say, friendlier, more laid-back presentation.  But remember, my big-fish phonostages break the bank, with prices ranging from $11,000 to $60,000.  Everything else in the Chinook’s price is just StarKist tuna.

Mating the Chinook with the awesome and price-appropriate VPI Classic 1 turntable and the Lyra Kleos cartridge produced a relatively affordable analog front end of about $8,000, which won’t force you to take out a second mortgage.  That’s hardly Filet-O-Fish pocket change, but if you can find a heftier helping at this price, please, let us know about it.

The Manley Chinook gets down to the bare essentials, offering high performance in a basic box with no frills—everything you need and nothing you don’t.  We are happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.   —Jeff Dorgay

Chinook Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $2,250

Manufacturer: Manley Laboratories,


Preamplifier “Pass Labs X-30”
Amplifier “Pass Labs XA-100”.5”
Speakers “Martin Logan CLX”
Power Conditioner “Running Springs Audio Dmitri and Maxim”
Cables and power cords “Nordost Valhalla and Odin”

Clearaudio’s Goldfinger v.2


The recently updated version of Clearaudio’s Goldfinger cartridge weighs in at 18 grams; a heavyweight by any measure and in part due to the body being made from 16 grams of pure gold.  The coils making up the generator are also wound from 24 karat wire.  This cartridge will require a heavier than standard counterweight, so even if your wallet is up to the task,  be sure your tonearm will be also be up to it.  The big question is what does the GF2 bring to the dance and do you want it as a partner?

If one accepts the principles of audio Darwinism, then Clearaudio cartridges have survived because they have continued to adapt to the higher resolution playback systems that can brutally expose the flaws of moving coils, cantilevers and stylus tips.   In the 1990’s, the Clearaudio Insider Wood changed how I listened to vinyl.  It extracted information from the well-traveled grooves of my lps that had been kept waiting in the wings for the proper cues.

When the original Goldfinger was released in 2006,  I took the Clearaudio plunge again with some trepidation. The Goldfinger was heavy and I was always nervous about its vulnerable, exposed canteliver; not to mention the high sticker price (about $8,500 back then).  I lived with the Goldfinger for 3 years.  It rejuvenated my record collection, particularly discs that I have had since the 1950’s and 1960’s.  When the GF2 was announced, my curiosity was piqued and I was anxious to see how much higher Clearaudio had raised the bar.


I followed Clearaudio’s suggestion and let the GF2 play for about 100 hours with a load of 47k ohms before switching to 200 ohms and eventually settling on 100 ohms. VTA was set to be level, with the body of the cartridge perfectly parallel to the platter.  The cartridge was mounted on a VPI HRX with the 12.7 arm, rim drive, and the SDS speed controller.  Nordost Valhalla interconnects went between my Pass X-ONO phono stage and Pass XP-3 linestage.

From the beginning,  I could hear something special with the cartridge and it improved considerably over time.  After some experimentation, I settled on the factory tracking force setting of 2.8 grams.  The GF2 has an output of .9mv, so it should be very easy to mate with most MC phono preamplifiers.

A definite improvement

Though I could not compare the cartridges side by side, as I had to remove the original Goldfinger and remount the GF2, less than 24 hours had elapsed between auditions.  I felt that after three years of listening to the original on a daily, its sonic signature was well burned into my memory.  What the original did best was bring out the subtle details in my favorite recordings without being harsh and etched; it still had that lovely analog warmth.

The GF2 takes all of these characteristics to the next level with no downside.  Groove noise is lower with the detail and warmth of the original still in place.  However the GF2 peels one more big layer away from the presentation, offering a more holographic soundstage with the images and placement of acoustic instruments having a better and more realistic size relationship than before.

Voice reproduction is the standard that I use for auditioning any component that I am seriously considering.  The GF2 does the best job in exploiting the human quality of vocal recordings that I have ever heard in my system.  On the opening cut of the Tony Bennett and Bill Evans Album (Analogue Productions Original)  “Young and Foolish” has a touch of Tony’s vocal rasp that is perfectly reproduced by this cartridge.  The unique qualities of Sheila Jordan’s voice (Sheila, Steeplechase Records) are characterized by her wavering around the notes which she eventually hits; another bulls-eye for GF2.

Sonny Boy Williamson’s Keep it to Ourselves (Analogue Productions Original) was recorded in a hotel room in Copenhagen. It has an immediacy that few studio recordings can match, including the sound of spittle on the harmonica and the accompanying tap of leather-soled shoes on a wooden floor. The GF2 does an amazing job at retrieving these details as well as the extraneous room noises present.

The GF2 was equally at home with big orchestral recordings.  The opening of the legendary Solti/VPO recording of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Decca) exposes an unearthly progression of low string chords that gradually build to a crescendo before the first Rhinemaiden’s voice is heard. This effect is nearly inaudible with lesser cartridges but is rendered beautifully by the GF2.  The original 3-microphone Mercury recordings are another great way to road test the GF2; it and the original model were the first to tame the aggressive Dorati recording of Aaron Coplands’s Rodeo on Mercury.

For those of you that delight in microdyamics, Mamba Percussions (Pierre Verany) is one of my touchstone albums for many years. It features unusual South American instruments and a big soundspace.  The GF2 brings these sounds at you with an immediacy that is rhythmically engaging and an in-your-room image that is the essence of “being there.”

If you can’t find this album (no surprise, it never jumped off the shelves in its hey-day), there’s still the old reliable Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius). I rarely make it past the first track, just because the performance and musical values of this venerated 1970’s set are a cut below.   However, there is something to be said for listening to something repeatedly on many different analog setups that makes it easy to judge a new component.  Putting that aside, you will hear standing bass articulation which was mercifully overpowered by the upfront reed and percussion players when heard through lesser phono transducers.

How does it sound with the new WB pressing of the first Van Halen album?  For that, you will have to wait until our publisher gets his hands on a Goldfinger, as that is not my cup of tea.

Excellence with a few caveats

Even if this cartridge is well within your budget, there are still a few items to consider before you call your favorite analog dealer and order the GF2.  Tonearm matching is critical; not all arms can handle such a heavy cartridge.  The fragile, exposed cantilever demands great care in mounting and stylus cleaning.  Finally, your phono stage must be fairly flexible in loading to acommodate the break in procedure and ultimate loading.  What worked best in my system may need some fine tuning in yours to achieve perfect tonality.

For those of you that find the GF2 intriguing but are not quite ready to spend $10k on a phono cartridge, the Clearaudio Stradivari offers a decent helping of the GF2 sound for $3,500.  I use one with excellent results on my second table. (a VPI Aries with flywheel, HRX Acrylic Platter/Stabilizing Ring, and running into a second Pass X-ONO). For those who have already invested in a Clearaudio cartridge, many retailers offer an upgrade path that makes moving to either of these cartridges that much easier.

In summary, many would not consider a $10k cartridge a “best buy.” However, if you audition this cartridge in a properly set up playback system,  be prepared to redefine your priorities.  I suspect you will immediately begin working on a strategy to amass the requisite capital for its purchase.

The Clearaudio Goldfinger v.2
MSRP: $10,000

Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609


Turntables         VPI HRX w/12.7 Arm/Rim Drive, VPI Aries w/10.5i Arm w/Flywheel, SDS Controllers
Phono Cartridges           Clearaudio Goldfinger v.1, Clearaudio Stradivari
Phono Preamplifiers       Pass X-ONO (2)
Preamplifier         Pass XP-20/Lexicon 12HD-B
Power Amplifier     Pass X-350.5/Pass X-3
Speakers        Martin Logan Summit/Stage/Script-i/Descent-I (2)/Descent (2)
Interconnects         Nordost Odin/Valhalla
Speaker Cable     Nordost Odin
Power Cords/Conditioning Nordost Thor/Nordost Odin/Valhalla
Vibration Control     Black Diamond Racing
Room Treatment    Echo Buster/ Corner busters/Bass Busters/Double Busters