Simaudio MOON Nēo 260D CD Transport/DAC

With more and more audiophiles getting into digital music these days, it is no wonder that many manufacturers are releasing CD players that are also high-quality DACs. Canada’s MOON by Simaudio has joined the crowd with three models, the Evolution 650D (currently a reference component in our publisher’s system) and, for this review, the more-affordable Nēo 260D.

The unit is available as simply a CD transport ($1,999) or with a 32-bit DAC able to play files with resolutions as large as 24 bits/192 kHz ($2,999). Like the pricier Evolution series 650D, the Nēo 260D is a full-function CD player with four digital inputs: S/PDIF, RCA, TOSLINK and USB. In typical MOON fashion, technical and design elements of the Evolution line make their way down to the Nēo line—specifically, in this case, the four-point gel-based mounting system. Paired with power-supply and circuitry improvements and their rigid casework (all done in-house), this adds up to a digital player that all but eliminates mechanical and electrical noise.

Fit and finish are exceptional—no sharp edges, and screws are recessed to avoid catching—though, for some of the casework, the aluminum of the Evolution line is replaced by plastic in the Nēo line to save cost. But, most importantly, the company does not scrimp on the connections, which are level and tight.

The ergonomics of the Nēo 260D are first-rate, with all system and playback controls flanking the LED display, which has two brightness levels, and the lettering and symbols large but not distracting. Included is a plastic remote with well-defined controls, though I wish the color contrast were greater.

The transport spins and pulls up the track information very quickly. Even when spinning a badly scratched disc that no other CD player in my home can even read, the Nēo 260D pulls up the information and manages to play every track with only one skip.

What’s the Difference?

The one word that describes the sonic signature of all MOON products is natural. They offer a ton of resolution but don’t embellish. The Nēo 260D renders Jethro Tull’s classic track “Mother Goose with a richness in the upper-mids and treble that my less-expensive MOON series 300D DAC does not—and that’s the difference between an average transport and a really good one: how much it improves a poor-sounding disc and how much information it can extract from a phenomenal one.

Billy Joel’s album 52nd Street is my torture-test favorite. While the vinyl copy produces a three-dimensional soundstage, the original CD is flat and lifeless. While the Nēo 260D’s rendering of this disc doesn’t fool me into thinking it’s vinyl, it does manage to expand the soundstage enough that Joel’s voice during the fast-tempo ballad “Stiletto” offers up an improved sense of drama. The xylophone in the opening of “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” which normally sticks right at the grille of the speaker, is now a foot or so deeper into the soundstage, bringing some life to a previously sterile disc.

Recreating the recording environment is always a plus—and a more difficult task when the listener knows the venue. A live acoustic version of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “All I Want,” recorded at a local radio station’s annual compilation, benefits greatly from the Nēo 260D’s ability to recreate the small concert room, with vocals demonstrating the natural reflections of the intimate setting. From the same CD, Blitzen Trapper’s “Thirsty Man” provides plenty of air and space for the lead guitar. Again, the Nēo 260D creates greater separation than my current reference, drawing me further into this amateur but engaging recording. Simaudio’s Lionel Goodfield confirms that the Nēo 260D’s DNA comes from the top-of-the-line Evolution series 650D and 750D rather than the MOON 300D.

Going Deeper

The Bill Evans Trio’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay” exhibits tremendous clarity with an equal balance of musicality—particularly the resolution of the drum kit, the definition of the acoustic bass, and the richness of the rich piano. Even on recordings where the piano leans toward edgy, the MOON does an excellent job navigating through difficult sonic zones without losing musicality. The somewhat forward-tilted Alison Krauss album Forget About It further illustrates the Nēo 260D’s ability to retrieve maximum detail without sonic sacrifice.

But tremendous recordings illuminate the full beauty of the Nēo 260D, making it easy to forget you are listening to digital at all. Hans Zimmer’s melodic soundtrack to the film The Holiday is a real treat, with the MOON keeping traditional acoustic and electronic instruments defined during the pleasant overarching melody in the main theme, “Maestro.” The Nēo 260D’s natural sound stays true to the relaxed playing of each artist.

Not Just a CD Player

With four digital inputs on the optional DAC, the Nēo 260D can be the digital hub of any home system. During my review, I used a JVC SACD player, Wadia iTransport with iPod, Apple TV, and MacBook connected simultaneously. Counting the CD transport, I have five sources to choose from—a true digital dream. (With the MacBook, I find equal satisfaction running iTunes with Amarra and Pure Music.)

Playing digital files through the Nēo 260D is a treat, especially with high-resolution files. A 24/44.1 version of Barb Jungr’s raw track “Many Rivers To Cross” oozes with emotion, the Nēo 260D digging out the harmonies in the chorus and granting each voice a distinct place. Switching to a 24/192 file is a cinch, thanks to an easy-to-read display. Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia,” with its simple acoustic guitar and strings, floats through the room, capturing the air, delicacy and pace of the tune, with MacLean’s gentle guitar and voice expanding and contracting effortlessly.

Final Score

The Nēo 260D once again reaffirms why MOON gear is so popular among the TONEAudio staff. Most audio companies do one type of equipment well—not so with Simaudio; each of its products is first-rate for its price point.

The Nēo 260D delivers tremendous resolution, an incredibly low noise floor and top-notch parts and construction, but most importantly, it offers a natural musical presentation. I thought my days of using a CD player were over—but the Nēo 260D CD Transport/DAC has me seriously rethinking my digital-equipment strategy.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having used their flagship Evolution series 750D extensively and now using the Evolution series 650D as my reference digital player, I can easily see the lineage. Their engineering continues to refine the company’s products, giving the consumer a healthy dollop of cost-no-object products at workingman’s prices.

No, the Nēo 260D does not give you 88 percent of the Evolution series 650D for a third of the price, but it probably does give you 50 percent—or maybe even a bit more. And realistically, the Nēo 260D makes a ton of sense in a sub-$20,000 system, whereas the 650D, especially with the outboard Evolution series 820S power supply, will be right at home in even a stratospheric system.

You always get a bit more than you pay for with MOON by Simaudio products, and if you like the way the company does things, each product reveals more musical impact and nuance as you go up the product line. Much like with Porsche or BMW, you just get more of the brand’s essence as you spend more money.

As Simaudio’s Lionel Goodfield is quick to point out, the Nēo 260D “is first and foremost a transport; the drive mechanism and suspension are virtually identical to those in the 650D and 750D.” Like its more expensive stable mates, the Nēo 260D is built in-house and not supplied by an external manufacturer. And while I enjoy the DAC part of the equation, I concentrate during my review on using it solely as a transport, pairing it with a wide range of DACs—from the inexpensive Meridian Explorer all the way up to the $109,000 dCS Vivaldi stack.

If you need a great DAC and want the ability to play an actual disc now and then, the extra $1,000 for the Nēo 260D with onboard DAC is well worth the added cost. Those with a great DAC already installed in their system and wanting to either replace an aging (or dead) transport will be amazed by the Nēo 260D’s sound quality. Fifteen years ago a transport this good would have a $10,000 price tag attached; This MOON does it for just $3,000. Now that’s progress.

Simaudio MOON Nēo 260D CD Transport/DAC

MSRP: $1,999 ($2,999 with DAC)


Integrated Amps MOON Evolution series i-7    Vista Audio i34 Tube
Sources MacBook iTunes w/ Amarra or PureMusic    JVC SACD player    Wadia 170i Transport w/ iPod Classic    Apple TV
Speakers Harbeth Compact 7es3    Magnepan 1.6 w/Skiing Ninja x-overs    Penaudio Cenya

Peachtree nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

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

A Lot to Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Tally

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

nova220SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,999


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

Blumenstein Audio Thrashers Speakers

One of the signs of a mature audiophile is whether they have a true garage system—not the wife’s old Lloyd’s faux-wood tuner/record player/cassette, but an actual receiver, disc player and speakers. Chances are the electronics are at least 20 years old, but the true pride is often in the speakers. Placement usually either involves a couple of L-brackets or, for the more adventurous, eyehooks and some length of chain. It can be problematic when the speakers are needed for an outdoor event away from the garage/workspace. I would not recommend taking your home speakers to the park gazebo.

Out of this madness comes Blumenstein Audio with what may be the most useful, multi-purpose and durable solution, the aptly named Thrashers. Blumenstein generously calls the finished look “industrial design.” In truth, the speakers look like something straight out of a Jeff Foxworthy special.

The review pair comes with an oriented-strandboard (aka chipboard) cabinet. Two cabinet upgrades are available: a fir plywood front or a complete fir plywood cabinet. Each cabinet measures 17 by 13 by 12 inches. The port and speaker jacks are mounted in the front panel below the 1-inch super tweeter, which is crossed over at about 10 kHz; an 8-inch Pioneer Bofu driver is also mounted in the front panel. With everything on just one side, there is less to worry about when inebriated friends decide to help move them about.

To make the review as real world as possible, I power the Thrashers with my 1980 Harman/Kardon 680i receiver, Magnavox DVD/CD player and 16-gauge speaker wire. I place the speakers on a shelf in my garage 6 feet apart and 5 feet off the floor. Much of the listening time transpires while I work on a home project, with plenty of contemplation and hopped adult beverages, and with the TV on mute during the World Cup. With their 92 dB rating, the Thrashers take precious little effort to play loud and clear, and they are designed to be manhandled, both physically and sonically.

The Thrashers sound like a quality budget set of nearly full-size speakers. Vocalists, whether Tom Petty, Melissa Etheridge, Roger Daltrey, or Rihanna, sound far more lifelike than if they were reproduced by the well-cared-for rack systems of yore. The crunchiness of vocals comes from the limitations of the recordings, not the Thrashers. Robert Plant’s eviscerating vocals during “Stairway to Heaven” are scary realistic. The front port helps deliver ample bass down to 45 Hz, even when placed against a wall.

One afternoon out of boredom, the teen neighbors bring over a mixed disc of hip-hop, rap and popular music. They listen to the first song and turn up the volume a couple of times. During the second track, they begin texting. Next thing I know, a car pulls up with three of their friends. The girls begin dancing to Rihanna, while the boys punch one another and act like bloodhounds. The spontaneous listening ends only when the neighbors are called to go to a ball game. The Thrashers are like the ultra nerds in high school who everybody ignores until test time and then everyone needs to sit near them in order to pass the class.

Upping the game with a Vista Audio i34 integrated tube amplifier makes the overall sound more sultry and sweet, and an SET amplifier would probably take it further, but why bother? Whatever the combination of factors, the Thrashers sound better than any $229 dollar speakers have a right to, hands down. For those few rare audio souls who have come across and rescued a tube amp awaiting the garbage truck, the Thrashers are the mates.

As luck would have it toward the end of the review period, I’m invited to a large picnic at a nearby park. Seizing the opportunity, I toss (well, not quite) the Thrashers and receiver in the back of my pickup and head for the park. Discovering the area doesn’t have any electrical outlets, I plug the Thrashers into my pickup with the speakers sitting on the tailgate, and soon the park is filled with music. Cranking up Frampton Comes Alive! brings out the air-guitar enthusiasts, and several people compliment me on the great sound system.

Sure, you could go to Goodwill and maybe find a pair of speakers that don’t suck for $50—but the odds of that happening are somewhat slim. Or you could get out the power tools, make a few trips to Home Depot and build your own pair. Hats off to you if you’ve got the fortitude for that exercise. I say send the folks at Blumenstein Audio a couple hundred bucks and break out the beer. Carry the Thrashers, slide them, dent them—it’s all about the sound and carefree portability, which these speakers offer in spades. Just a hint: Keep a pair of work gloves handy, as the Thrashers do shed splinters on occasion.

Publisher’s note: After auditioning the Thrashers with everything from an $88,000 pair of Pass Xs300s to my Sansui 771, I decided that I need them. Per Mr. Marcantonio’s suggestion, they are my new garage speakers. Rock on. —Jeff Dorgay

GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven Speakers

The shock of thunderous bass waves is what the GoldenEar Triton Seven speakers greet me with to start a surprising review experience. Put away your preconceived notions of what slim, budget mini-towers should sound like—these are the first such speakers that don’t prompt me to add a subwoofer, even just to see if any bass response is missing. Unless you’re trying to out-thump the teenage neighbor with the 15-inch woofers in the back of his hatchback, the Sevens provide as much bass as you could ever want from a $1,400 pair of speakers.

Thanks to their dual passive radiators, the Sevens go down to 29 Hz, which is plenty of low-frequency extension for most listeners. From the instrumental thunderclap in James Taylor’s “Gaia” and the cannons in Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” to Dire Straits’ “The Man’s Too Strong” and non-ear-bleeding hip-hop or techno dance music, these speakers easily provide the necessary weight to get the job done.

If imaging floats your boat, the Sevens flood the room with that characteristic—so much so that my small man cave (about 9 by 12 feet) isn’t quite large enough to let them breathe. In my 14-by-18-foot living room, the speakers thrive, with instrument placement that reminds me of much more expensive speakers. The individual percussion whacks of the Indigo Girls’ “Three Hits” rotate around the outside of each speaker, with the individual voices placed far left and right, and the magical harmony point placed well in front of the mini-towers.

Aerosmith’s classic “Dream On” is a stress-test song. Steven Tyler’s vocals can push many tweeters in the sub-$1,500 range into screechy crunchiness. Triton’s High-Velocity Folded-Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter keeps the high frequencies clear and dynamics strong. A testament to their driver design, the Sevens manage to keep even dense recordings well sorted.

Tech and Setup

Optimizing the Sevens takes very little effort. In my room, I achieve the best results using an equal triangular measurement, with the speakers toed-in directly to the listening position and placed four feet out from the wall. If you place the speakers too far apart, male vocals will hollow out and the center image will collapse. During setup, I suggest moving them apart a few inches at a time until you’ve gone too far, and then move them a touch closer.

With an 89 dB sensitivity rating at 8 ohms, the Sevens get jumping pretty easily. Though they thrive with the 150 watts per channel of my reference Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated, the 35-wpc Vista Audio i35 tube integrated still delivers plenty of punch though with a slightly softer presentation than the Sim. These speakers are truly amplifier-friendly, as they work equally well with class-D amps.

Standing just under 40 inches tall, 7.25 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep, the Triton Sevens appear quite ordinary from a distance. Step up close and the first difference becomes apparent: A black grill sock topped with a shiny black plastic cap covers each speaker—no veneer or vinyl anywhere. Why the grill sock? It provides a sleek and uniform look and covers the dual passive 8-inch radiator bass drivers located near the base on either side panel. This old-school usage of the passive radiators comes from Golden Ear president Sandy Gross’s experience as cofounder of Polk Audio. The result is an impressively detailed bass response down to 29 Hz.

The two midrange drivers and the Heil-inspired HVFR tweeter are mounted in a D’Appolito mid-tweeter-mid array. Incorporating the passive radiators requires only a single third-order crossover set at 3 kHz. Other speakers I’ve reviewed with a Heil-type tweeter have a much lower crossover point, but 3 kHz works just fine in the Sevens. The speakers come with a simple but sturdy plastic base, and four spiked or rubber-tipped feet are provided, for those desiring such floor coupling.

Further Listening

Never one to shy away from testing a speaker’s limits, I play a multitude of symphonic recordings and discover that the Sevens will expose poorly recorded performances. Two versions of Gustav Holst’s The Planets aptly demonstrate this characteristic: One recording gives a muddy, undefined soundstage during the thunderous “Jupiter” movement, while the other recording is open and enveloping.

Through the Sevens, powerful vocals appear dead center and about a foot out in front of the speakers. Adele’s “Daydreamer” shows off her conversational singing style between the powerful moments, with the Sevens picking up her soft accent. On “Best for Last,” the second track of her debut album 19, there is a background chorus humming that I’ve never heard from similarly priced speakers—and the Sevens present it with ample clarity. When Adele lets loose with full-thrust vocals, these speakers don’t shrink; they stay faithful to the performance.

Getting timbre right in the listening sweet spot is one step, but getting it right off center is another level altogether. Even with the toe-in, I find reasonable timbrel accuracy in off-angle listening spots. Achieving faithful tonal character of unique vocalists is something I always look for, especially when it comes to James Taylor. Many speakers in the sub-$2,000 range either embellish his nasal sweetness or thin out his voice. The Sevens lay off the sugar just a bit, thus keeping his vocal character intact.

The Seven’s most stunning musical performance during my review comes from live small jazz ensembles. On Bill Frisell’s East/West [Live], all the characteristics mentioned above come together. The soundstage presented is a three-dimensional revelation—an audiophile nirvana experience, where the listener gets totally lost in the music. Every instrument has a place but at the same time comes from everywhere; it’s stereo reproduction at its best. For a $1,400 pair of speakers to so strongly recreate a live performance is a remarkable auditory feat.

Solo piano recordings are notorious for showing speaker flaws. The Sevens perform admirably here, producing a very natural-sounding piano. George Winston’s “Ike La Ladana” does show a bit of midrange congestion, but not as much as a pair of Totem Rainmakers, another pair of speakers in this price category with fine imaging. Other George Winston albums and songs don’t show the same level of congestion, though on a couple of occasions a slight hint can be detected.

For head bangers on a budget or limited in real estate, the Sevens will make you toss your hair with abandon. My ears fly the white flag of surrender numerous times at the 103 dB mark, while the speakers continue to provide a solid soundstage. The instrumental layering on “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t muddy up the overall sound that the speakers present. Instead, the 5.25-inch midrange drivers create ample acoustical space without limiting the multiple instruments. Good speakers recreate the strength of individual instruments, and that is what the Sevens do consistently.

During my last weekend with the speakers, I hook them up to my 2.0 home theater setup and am not disappointed. Dialogue is clear, sound effects during car chase are well placed, and gunshots make me feel like I’m in the middle of the violence. Most importantly, I never need to reach for the remote to turn the volume up or down, as I neither strain nor feel sonically overwhelmed.

Final Tally

For speakers that do so many things well for just $1,400 a pair, one might ask what was sacrificed? The Triton Sevens don’t have the level of resolution of my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES3 speakers, but the extra 15 Hz on the bottom end earns some serious points, especially when the speakers are used in a home theater setup. The Sevens do the basics well and add in the treats of outstanding imaging and real, prodigious bass.

These are speakers that a family with myriad musical tastes can enjoy. Watch out competition: Sandy Gross has a winner in his lineup.

GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven Speakers

MSRP: $1,400 per pair

SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

Is it a futuristic beer keg?  A spare droid from Star Wars?  A water conditioner?  While it does look futuristic, this curious device is available today from your local SoundCast dealer—and it’s one of the most interesting portable music systems we’ve seen.

The OutCast is a single 26-inch tall cylinder with a slight taper in the midsection.  The control panel is located on the top of the device.  It lets users operate an iPod or iPhone, as well as iTunes, Pandora, and Rhapsody.  The easy-grip handle, also on the top, has plenty of room for those with large hands, while the sealed function buttons should be impervious to prying hands and intoxicated neighbors.

Within the casing are four sections.  The uppermost section holds the receiver unit and a 100-watt Class-D amplifier.  The middle section contains four 3-inch drivers aligned in a right-left-right-left pattern that creates a 360-degree stereo output.  The bottom section features a sealed chamber holding the 8-inch IMPP woofer, which, with its down-firing placement, allows for even bass dispersion.  The bottom section has ports for the woofer and ambient blue lights, and also serves as a sturdy base.  The OutCast’s heavy-duty design and external material limits exposure to the elements, while still letting the music be heard.

Setting up the OutCast and installing its rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery takes about five minutes, if you take the 90 seconds required to read the manual.  Both the audio-input jack for non-iPod MP3 players and the power-cord socket are covered by a flexible but tight-sealing rubber gasket.  The OutCast offers three 2.4-gHz channels, which are manually switchable, to prevent interference with other wireless devices.

A Perfect Partner

Placement of the OutCast is key to its performance.  Getting the unit away from anything within at least five or six feet is critical for stereo performance.  Then, once you’ve charged it overnight, you’re ready to rock.

Combining the iCast dock/transmitter (a $100 option) with an iPod Classic, the Outcast fills most backyards with quality-sounding music.  Sell that boom box at your next yard sale, because the Outcast has serious low-end grunt.  Its midrange punchiness combined with omnidirectional ambience redefines outdoor hi-fi.  Blasting Adele’s 21, the OutCast easily carries her vocals to the end of my backyard, yet it wasn’t so loud as to send the neighbors into fits of rage.

The conveniently placed handle makes light work of carrying the 25-pound OutCast around the yard or to a neighbor’s house.  And it’s equally at home indoors as it is outdoors.

Better than a Rock

Unlike those outdoor speakers that look like rocks (but do not rock when called upon), both the OutCast and smaller OutCast Jr. (which starts at $600) deliver the goods, no matter what the volume.  This is an all-purpose portable player with serious capability.  Whether I was playing John Mellencamp or AC/DC, the sound was full and clear.  At a recent outing, a few guests complimented the sound quality and wondered where the wires were—one of the OutCast’s most-noticeable perks.

The device claims a 300-foot range between it and the iCast wireless dock.  It was still playing solidly at the edge of my 200-foot yard, but does drop off somewhat around corners.  For best results, you’ll want to keep it within line of sight.  Like a tuner car from The Fast and the Furious, the OutCast features blue mood lighting to increase its sci-fi feel.

Don’t be surprised if taking the OutCast or Outcast Jr. to your next party makes you the hit of the neighborhood.

SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

MSRP: Starting at $900

Audioengine D2 Premium 24-bit Wireless DAC

Audioengine’s new D2 Wireless DAC provides an elegant solution for those wanting a higher-quality streaming solution than just a wireless transmitter, which the Hong Kong–based manufacturer offers with its highly successful W1 and W2 wireless analog transmitters.  The new W2 digital transmitter, priced at $599 for the set, is integrated with a two-piece DAC system that comprises separate sender and receiver units.  The system is capable of processing 24-bit/192-kHz music files, with the ability to stream 24-bit/96-kHz files.

The sender unit is connected (and powered, if desired) via USB connection, with an optical input also available.  The sender then transmits the digital signal to the receiver via a walled wireless 802.11g network.  The system removes output-level distortion from the equation with a separate signal.  The D2 system can work with up to three receiver units in different listening systems.

Highly versatile, the D2 DAC can be used as more than a standard computer-based wireless DAC:  It is equally at home acting as a PCM-to-home-stereo link and as a wireless USB-to-S/PDIF convertor.  The latter proves handy with my reference SimAudio 300D DAC, which features a USB limited input for 16-bit/44.1-kHz files.

Nuts and Bolts

The D2 DAC presents a clean and compact design aesthetic consisting of dark-grey brushed aluminum casework with thick plastic end caps.  The sender and receiver units each measure 4.75 inches wide, 5.5 inches deep, and 1 inch high—each unit is barely larger than three CD cases stacked on top of each other.

The faceplate of each unit has two grayish LED buttons—one for power and one for pair-sync status.  The sender has a silver output volume control knob, optical and USB inputs and a jack for the wall-wart power supply. The receiver has RCA output jacks occupying the same space as the knob and USB port on the sender.  An optical output and power jack receptacle finish off the receiver’s front.  The back panels of both units hold only the dual antennas.  A few may grumble about front-facing jacks, but small-stature equipment does require compromise on occasion.

Up and Running

Setting up both the D2 units to pair with either an Apple MacBook or Windows Vista desktop and main audio system took less time than unpacking and reading the brief but informative manual.  For Macintosh owners, simply open up the sound control in your computer’s system preferences and select “Audioengine D2”.  Windows users verify connection in the sound application of your control panel menu.  In either case, make sure to start with the sender unit’s output turned all the way up.  Typical of all Audioengine products, the D2 system comes with a full assortment of cables, so running to RadioShack won’t be necessary.

For owners of larger homes or those broadcasting to or from a studio or garage, the D2 transmission range easily exceeds 100 feet, according to Audioengine, and will transmit through one exterior and one interior wall without signal degradation.  I tested the transmission through an exterior wall and five interior walls at a distance of some 70 feet and the D2 yielded equally good results.

At just $599 with full wireless functionality, one might bet that the D2’s DAC section would be the weak link.  Here, the PCM1792A chip serves the DAC well.  Consistency across the spectrum with all components is a big thing with us here at TONEAudio, and the D2 DAC performed above expectations across the board.

Peak Performer

Listening to the D2 DAC, the one word that keeps coming to mind is “smooth.”  The D2 is a budget DAC that successfully avoids the dreaded listener fatigue.  When using the D2, bass guitar definition has a solid punch in The Burned’s toe-tapping “Hard Lesson,” along with a pleasant richness and depth.  On the top end of the frequency spectrum, the D2 delivers Kathleen Edwards’ clear vocals in “Change the Sheets” without the grain or irritation that plague most DACs at this price point.  The soul of music lives in the midrange and the xylophone in Steely Dan’s classic “Aja,” which comes across with the sweet warmth that many budget DACs miss.

The Audioengine D2 DAC offers convenience and high performance in a compact package that is reasonably priced.  Computer audiophiles take note.

Audioengine D2 Premium 24-bit Wireless DAC

MSRP: $599

Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf Speakers

Aperion Audio in Portland has a well-deserved reputation selling speakers directly to the end user through its website, offering speakers with solid designs and fine cabinetry.  The quality of its products paired with terrific customer service has earned the company a loyal following.

Its latest Verus Grand series speaker (priced at $598 per pair) is the bookshelf version of the company’s Verus Grand Tower speaker.  The compact speaker features a fresh design, beginning with a tapered cabinet and full-face front flange.  Its all-new ASR soft dome tweeter looks a bit funky, with its vertical bar, but it is a smooth performer.  Aperion pairs the tweeter with a 5.25-inch woven-Kevlar driver.  The braced fiberboard cabinet, available in cherry or gloss piano black veneers, is 13 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide and 9 inches deep, and has a port at the rear.  The front grilles are held in place by magnets, making for a clean front face that looks just as good with the grilles removed.

Setup is quick and easy:  Simply place the speakers 6 feet apart, 2 feet from the back wall and about 9 feet from the listening chair.  They are slightly stiff out of the box, but after a few days of nonstop play at modest level, the speakers reveal their true sound.  Eschewing toe-in placement, the Verus Grands work perfectly well positioned straight on.

Smooth Operators

Exploring Rita Wilson’s (yes, Tom Hanks’ wife) cover of  “Wichita Lineman,” the Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers represent the piano with a slightly mellow tone that exhibits a hint of sparkle.  The speakers convincingly reproduced the decay of each note during the last 30 seconds of the traffic, with Wilson’s voice never becoming shrill—high performance indeed for speakers at this price point.

These small speakers easily create a large soundstage, placing the keyboard in the opening track of Bonnie Raitt’s latest album, Slipstream, outside the left speaker, while Raitt’s lead guitar stays anchored low and inside the right speaker.  Tonal balance is the key, with Raitt’s sultry vocals never being overshadowed by the solid bass response these speakers provide, exceeding what you might expect of a LF spec of 59 Hz.  The hint of breathiness shown on “Take My Love With You,” a highly pleasing and an unexpected treat, reveals more resolution than the norm for a $600 pair of speakers.

An Easy Test-Drive

The Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers work well with tube, solid state or Class-D amplification; however, combining them with an EL34-based tube amplifier adds a bit of extra jump when listening to tracks like Brian Setzer’s “Dirty Boogie.”  His big-band orchestra fills the listening room with plenty of front-to-back depth.

Bill Frisell’s classic album Good Dog, Happy Man shows off the ability of these speakers to reproduce midrange and upper bass texture, with the various cello arrangements readily present here.  On the other hand, the signature baritone vocals of Crash Test Dummies’ front man Brad Roberts fall a bit short on “Superman” and “Mmmmm.”  But to Aperion’s credit, the company makes quality the priority with these speakers, rather than inducing a mid-bass hump to give the false impression of bass.  As a result, the critical mid-band is much clearer.

For those also using these speakers in a home theater setup, Aperion includes mounting brackets, which get the speakers up and out of the way.  Watching the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the dialogue and city noise stay separated from the music in the sound track, with the music clear and enveloping.  It’s easy to take an Aperion system from a two-channel setup up to a full 5.1-channel system—simply add another pair of Verus Grands for surrounds, a Verus Forte center-channel speaker ($350 each) and one of Aperion’s Bravus powered subwoofers (priced from $349 to $899 apiece).

Aperion backs all of its speakers with a 10-year warranty, 30-day trial, and free shipping both ways, making the Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers an easy choice for an in-home audition.

Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf Speakers

MSRP: $598 per pair

Blue Aura v30 Blackline Integrated Tube-Amplifier System

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

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

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

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

Dishing It Out

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

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

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

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

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

Just For Fun

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

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

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

AVA Media Maestro-50 Digital Amplifier

The Maestro-50 digital amplifier from AVA Media is about the size of a hefty paperback novel and is aimed at the computer- and desktop-audio worlds.  This diminutive amplifier takes the approach of keeping the audio signal in the digital domain until the last possible step before it crosses over into analog.

The simple configuration of the $359 Maestro-50 begs the user to power it up first and examine it later.  I begin by connecting the amp to my MacBook using the TOSLINK cable, with a Shunyata Venom 3 power cord delivering the juice and Cardas speaker cables connecting it to a pair of Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s.  The solo piano of a live version of Jamie Cullum’s “Wheels” pops forth with all the quickness one would expect from ICE-powered amplification.  Having listened to live music in the lounge where this recording was made, I’m impressed by how the Maestro-50 gets the basics of the room’s tonal quality correct right out of the box.

Revisiting this track after a week of burn-in reveals less edginess and a more open high end.  The rolling keystrokes accompanying this catchy tune rapidly move from calm to intense, with Cullum’s slightly hoarse vocals now more clearly dominating the track—a definite improvement.

Simple, but Not Too Simple

The Maestro-50 is a basic-looking but handsome piece of equipment, with an enclosure sculpted from aluminum and anodized in a brushed black finish.  The CNC millwork is hand-finished with rounded edges.  The box measures 7 inches wide, 4.6 inches deep and 1.75 inches tall, with the front panel showing only an off-white LED and a small push-button volume knob—the ultimate in simplicity.  The back panel is just the opposite.  AVA was able to maximize this tiny bit of real estate to include a horizontal power-toggle switch, three-prong power-cord receptacle, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, subwoofer RCA out inputs and left and right female banana connections for the speaker outputs.  A USB-to-S/PDIF convertor can be ordered for an additional $62.

The Maestro-50 produces 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, doubling into 4 ohms, which is plenty of juice to give impressions via the relatively inefficient Harbeths.  I incorporate a pair of ACI Emerald XL speakers (86 dB/watt) for the remaining listening sessions via my desktop system, also with excellent results.

The Maestro-50 is designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom by AVA, which is careful to point out that there is no built-in DAC in the amp’s conversion process.  The company use a process similar to that used by Steinway Lyngdorf, NAD and a few others, demodulating the signal right before it goes to the speaker outputs.  A full technical explanation is available at the website of Pure Audio Stream, a division of AVA Media that provides direct supply of AVA Media’s digital amps:

The Maestro-50 is all about conveniently accessing music in a manner consistent with 21st-century convenience.  Users with an Apple AirPort Express can merely set up the Maestro-50 as a zone to be accessed with his or her iDevice, or even a Windows machine.  As with all digital amplifiers, electricity usage is minimal, so leaving it powered 24/7 will barely impact your electricity bill.

Further Listening

Sampling some Blue Note favorites, I find John Coltrane’s epic album Blue Train highly satisfying.  Coltrane’s signature sax sound is open, albeit slightly dry, but not enough to be a deal-breaker.  The Maestro-50’s quick transient response allows me to appreciate

Coltrane’s masterful finger work in the title track.  Lee Morgan’s trumpet is deliciously clear, making for foot-tapping fun.

The vocal harmonies of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey” come through smooth and clear, with plenty of country twang.  The only place the Maestro falls short is with rich, resonant and more robust male vocalists like Johnny Cash.  The test speakers at my disposal all had a somewhat thin presentation here.

The amp’s lower bass output is respectable, with some punch, but those desiring a more robust bass response would do well to take advantage of the subwoofer output, adding the powered sub of their choice to the mix.  Our publisher reveals that the Maestro-50 does perform well with a more sensitive pair of speakers, like those from Zu Audio or Klipsch, so consider that as another option, should you really like to rock.

Final Score

The Maestro-50’s fresh design makes it an intriguing amplifier for the desktop and convenience-driven crowds.  By staying in the digital domain for inputs, it targets users who crave computer-based audio, and its sound quality makes for enjoyable all-day listening.

AVA Media Maestro-50 Digital Amplifier

MSRP: $359

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

What’s in a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Digital

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

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

Just Add Analog

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

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

The Final Score

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

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

Peachtree Audio nova125 Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,499

Totem Acoustic Forest Loudspeakers

One of the most exciting aspects of high-end audio is finding an unassuming product that delivers big results. Totem Acoustics has a well-deserved reputation for producing small speakers with a big sound. If you’ve experienced a Totem demo at a hi-fi shows, you know the company demonstrates a habit of playing its entry-level speakers more often than the flagship models, as if to reinforce this message.

My personal fun with the Totem Forest speakers began with the first track I played, Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” The review pair arrived courtesy of an East Coast Totem dealer rather than directly from the Montreal factory, so some of the break in was already complete. A solid week spent listening to classic rock, served up via the McIntosh MS750 music server, handily finished the break-in period.

Not that I minded looking at the speakers in the meantime. My Forests were finished in Ice, a high-gloss finish that has the slightest tinge of gray, and part of the family of four “design” high-gloss paint finishes that include Dusk, Sky, and Fire. (Black, Blue and Red). They are also available in white satin and three wood finishes: black ash, mahogany and cherry. Finish quality on the review pair was as smooth as anything coming from the Wilson factory, a highly impressive feat for a $3,500 pair of speakers.

Unique Approaches

Totem’s preference to call its speakers “columns” underlines the distinctive aspects that make up the Forest. The color gives the Forests the appearance of being larger than the 7.7 x 34.3 x 10.6″ (195 x 870 x 270 mm) measurements suggest. The rounded front edges are different than many of Totem’s other models. And instead of utilizing conventional spikes to mechanically couple the speakers to the floor, designer Vince Bruzzese took a novel approach. A trio of aluminum “Claws,” with balls arrayed in a triangle pattern, comprises a very solid base. Functionally, the balls act like spikes and decouple the speaker from the floor.

The Forest is a two-way design, featuring a 6.5-inch (165mm) woofer and a 1-inch (25mm) chambered aluminum dome tweeter, with a second-order crossover at 2.5 kHz. Drivers are neatly flush mounted, and according to the well-written manual, should be listened to without grilles. Totem is firm in its belief that grilles are optional. Unless you have small children or shed-prone pets, they will probably be unnecessary.

Peeking inside the cabinet reveals the same level of attention to the finer details. The interior is sprayed with borosilicate damping material instead of stuffing foam. Similarly, the crossover network is also robustly built with top-quality components and heavy wiring.

Straight-Ahead Setup

The Forests spent the most time in my 13 x 19 foot family room, which has an 8-foot ceiling. During the initial weeklong break-in period, the speakers were randomly placed but still threw a very convincing three-dimensional soundfield. These are not finicky speakers.

Listeners that spend a few hours on placement will reap tremendous rewards, as careful setup techniques yielded even better sound. In my room, the Forests ended up three feet from the rear and side walls, with my listening position about 8 feet back. Wide dispersion is a Totem hallmark, and the Forests were one of the few speakers I’ve experienced that did not require toe-in alignment. (Not that they sounded overly harsh with the toe-in array.) The wide dispersion also helps when listening casually from another room. Guests were always impressed at how good the Forests sounded, even when used as background entertainment.

Important note: The Forests’ imaging performance suffers if you have to place them too close to the rear or side walls. If possible, give the speakers at least 18–24 inches from any wall. Their rated power handling is 50–200 watts, with a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, making the Forests easy to drive with solid-state or vacuum tube electronics. I got great results with the AudioEngine N22 amplifier and vintage Marantz 2230B (22–30 watts per channel), so if you currently don’t have the budget for speakers and speakers, the Forests provide a great foundation on which you can build.

Taking Care of Business

Thanks to the surfeit of power supplied by the i-7 amplifier, it was easy to put the Forests to task. In most instances, your ears will give out before the speakers do. When listening to the Pixies’ “Allison” from Mobile Fidelity’s remaster of Bossanova at high volumes, the Forests still maintained the placement of the individual guitar tracks without experiencing any soundstage collapse.

If required, the Forests produce serious bass, but you will need to spend time fine-tuning them to your liking. A mass-loading compartment is located in the bottom of each speaker, and I found the perfect balance by placing about eight pounds of sand in each one. The upshot of utilizing the loading option instantly materialized on the music sources. Don Williams’ deep, gravely voice became tighter and better defined with the sand in place. And the thunderclaps in “Gaia,” from James Taylor’s Hourglass, carried a lot more weight than expected.

Instrumental pieces posed few challenges. John Berry’s sweeping, percussion- and horn-driven soundtrack to Dances With Wolves requires speakers with a wide soundstage in order to pull off the connection to the wide-open Dakota prairie. The French horns in “Journey to Fort Sedgewick” arrived with sublime tonality. And while the Forests admirably handled the percussion and detailed bass line in “Pawnee Attack,” the track illustrated the speakers’ understandable limitations. A small speaker can only move so much air, and the cut forced me to scale back the volume.

Dialing down the volume and switching the program material to Wilco’s 2009 self-titled album, I found the harmonies on “You and I” taking on a magical character. Whether you prefer Johnny or Rosanne Cash, listeners that favor male or female vocalists will enjoy the midrange body the Forests offer.

While the Forests proved an excellent match with vacuum-tube electronics, just like the Mites and Rainmakers that I have used extensively, they were a much better match with my modded PS Audio Trio C100 integrated amplifier than the aforementioned two examples proved to be. Your amplification choice shouldn’t be a limiting factor.

Final Call

Equally pleasant at low and high volume levels, Totem Acoustic Forests offer a highly musical experience for a modest price. They play well with the three major amplification types: solid-state, vacuum tubes, and Class D.  Factor in the ease of setup and a gorgeous pair of cabinets that come in a wide range of finishes, and you end up with a perfect recipe for a fatigue-free speaker that’s enjoyable to look at as it is to hear.

Additional Listening:

With so much attention placed on the stratosphere of hi-fi components, it’s always thrilling to hear something as engaging as the Forests at a price that most audiophiles can afford. Per Totem’s instruction, I used no toe-in on the speakers and put them about six feet apart (tweeter center to tweeter center) in my main listening room, which measures 24 feet wide and 16 feet deep. Placing them about four feet from the rear walls minimized sidewall interference. The Forests had a perfect balance of midrange clarity and sacrificed nothing in the bass department.

Even though these speakers are slightly on the lower side of the sensitivity scale, at 87db, the 45-watt-per-channel Conrad Johnson MV-50 C1 and 25-watt-per-channel Pass Labs M2 had a much easier time driving the Forests than they did my Magnepan 1.6 or Vandersteen 2CE speakers, which have similar sensitivity specifications. Since 25-40 watts will only get you so far, a quick swap for the new Simaudio Moon i700, with 175 watts per channel, offered me the ability to play my favorite metal and large-scale classical tracks without strain—at least until things got very loud.

The key term with these speakers? Balance. The Forests’ top-to-bottom coherence caught me off guard in the initial listening sessions. I wasn’t missing my panels, yet the Forests moved a serious amount of air when I wanted to get wacky with the volume control. By comparison, the Magnepans can be very beguiling when listening to solo vocals, but don’t rock with authority. The Forests ably captured vocal nuances and spatial cues, but also had the speed and weight necessary to thoroughly enjoy records like Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone.

Indeed, the Forests’ strong suit relates to how they offer a healthy dose of resolution without crossing over to the dark side of harshness. However, the speakers will reveal shortcomings in your gear if it is not up to par. Connect the Forests to a budget solid-state integrated and you will probably be disappointed. But don’t point your finger at the Forests. Spend a few extra bucks on some worthy components (I suggest a nice tube amp), some decent cable, and I suspect you will share my amazement in hearing that $3,500 speakers can sound this good. TONE is proud to award Totem one of our first Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Totem Forest

$3,495 per pair


Analog Source Rega RP1 w/Ortofon Super OM40    Simaudio 5.3
Digital Source McIntosh MS300 Music Server    Simaudio D300 DAC
Amplifiers Simaudio Moon i7    Vista Audio i34
Misc Shuynyata Venom 3 power cords

Vista Audio i34 Integrated Amplifier

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

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

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

Sleek and simple

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

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

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

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

The Sound

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

The Vista Audio i34 amplifier

MSRP: $980

Manufacturers Information

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