Vinyl is better, well…kinda

With all the horror surrounding last months article in The Wall Street Journal, on “the vinyl boom being over,” it appears that records are still being made and records are still being sold.

Certainly, tons of turntables, cartridges and phono preamplifiers are being produced as well. So is the sky falling or is it not?

But what a lot of enthusiasts, hipsters, and industry pundits (especially the ones that are old enough to have been around for the first go of the vinyl trip) seem to always forget is that just because something is imprinted on a slab of vinyl doesn’t mean it’s automatically awesome, it’s automatically better than a digital recording and that “digital sucks,” because it doesn’t.

This isn’t the start of a digital vs. analog debate. That’s a tired conversation as far as I’m concerned. VERY tired. But back in the 60s and 70s, until vinyl’s near demise in the mid 80s, a lot of what gets pressed sucks, sonically. As inconvenient as records and tapes were, the CD was really produced as a stopgap to all the piracy that was going on.  With digital recording and data storage such new mediums, I’m going to guess that the suits in charge probably never foresaw the 52x CD writers and 100 pc cake pans of blank CDs at Costco in the mid 90s. Oops.

After a major resurgence, vinyl is probably going to wind down a bit. It’s a matter of logistics, spare parts, and availability of raw materials. Most of all, it’s got a lot to do with what’s being pressed. While most of the audiophile remasters are still being done with great care, a lot of what the remaining major labels are kicking out is definitely sub par. And even the reissues are less than adventuresome in the choices being made. If not for Mobile Fidelity going off the beaten path now and then with a little Judas Priest here and a little KC & The Sunshine Band there, the reissue market would be incredibly boring.

It doesn’t help that used prices keep going up, up, up, either. The good news is now you can find whatever obscure record you couldn’t find in your local used vinyl shop. The bad news is that you are going to pay dearly for it. All of this supply and demand stuff is what it is. I love music and will always listen to it, no matter what the medium and I’ll probably always have at least a few turntables and some records. Will vinyl keep rolling merrily along? I hope so, but I hope that we can see a little bit more attention paid to quality, instead of just banging it out. This isn’t what killed vinyl the first time, it’s what killed the music industry.

Here’s to hoping for the future…


Today’s iPhones offer so much technology and functionality packed into a tiny space, it’s getting harder to imagine how the built-in capability can wow us further. Yet British hifi manufacturer Arcam has developed the MusicBOOST; it’s the ultimate accessory to take your iPhone 6 to the next level.

The ‘BOOST offers three benefits; first, it’s a protective case. The stiff plastic shell designed to surround the phone pairs with a rubber-like, grippy material on the case back. The soft surface makes the phone less likely to slip from one’s hand, but the plastic is there to absorb impacts in the event the phone is dropped.

Secondly, Arcam has a battery built-in which trickle-charges its host phone on the fly. Arcam’s specs indicate the battery pack roughly doubles the iPhone 6’s internal battery charge.

Third, and most importantly, Arcam squeezes in a DAC and headphone amp maximizing the prowess of an excellent Burr-Brown chip. Yes, the Arcam can drive larger, efficient headphones when they are connected into the MusicBOOST with an 1/8” adapter. However, it’s not an ideal match for less efficient over the head models, like the infamously tough to drive HiFIMan Phones. The MusicBOOST’s internals are a much better partner for efficient IEMs.

How Arcam squeezes all that capability into a case that adds only ¾” to the length of the phone, ¼” to the thickness, and virtually no width change, is a much appreciated engineering mystery making the MusicBOOST a marvelous, and minimally obtrusive accessory weighing in at only 100 grams. And just like their home hifi and home theater components, they do it at a very reasonable price, $189 in this case.


The iPhone 6 slides into the MusicBOOST from the top, nesting into a lightning plug at the bottom. Once the phone resides within the case though, external lightning cables can no longer be used. The supplied cord featuring a micro USB connector to charge the phone/case combo takes its place.

The case has only two tiny control buttons. One activates the ‘BOOST’s charger for the phone. The second button gives the user insight into the amount of charge remaining in the Arcam. Depending on the button pressed, four tiny LEDs on the case indicate current status. The rest is plug and play, you can start listening to better sound immediately.


The iPhone 6’s DAC is not bad, however the Arcam offers an upgrade over the sound quality of the iPhone’s native internals. While Apple Lossless encoding of music stored on the phone offers better resolution than the compressed 256 kb/sec option, both formats benefit from sonic improvement with the Arcam in place. Streaming Tidal’s CD-quality music proves even more revelatory; exposing a bigger gap between the iPhone and the MusicBOOST, now offering a relaxed smoothness that the naked iPhone can’t. The Arcam’s lushness isn’t overly romantic, but it does take music to the warmer end of the spectrum. As a result, vocals and instruments render with detail, but without sharp digital artifacts that detract from the overall musical experience.

Bass also receives a substantial improvement over that produced by the stock iPhone. The combination of an excellent DAC chip for decoding, and the extra oomph from the amplifier, gives low notes a more substantial and weighty presence. There’s simply more low-end information to enjoy. Those enjoying more bass heavy music will dig the MusicBOOST.

Higher piano notes, and the complex frequency combinations ushered forth from a cymbal crash, are portrayed with ample strike and decay. While not rolled-off, the warmer characteristic of the DAC does render higher frequencies with politeness over stridency –  a welcome combination for long listening sessions.

Soundstaging improves through the MusicBOOST too. While the left-to-right soundstage width does not seem to exceed that of the naked iPhone, music enhanced by the Arcam does have a more beguiling overall quality thanks to an increased sense of depth and ambience, giving the illusion of a larger sonic space from around your head.

Is it right for you?

Quibbles with the Arcam are minor. First, the lack of wrap-around phone protection at the top of the case leaves me a bit worried. The back of the case does extend slightly beyond the top of an iPhone 6 offering a good level of drop protection, but there are some areas exposed that would leave an iPhone 6 vulnerable to impact at certain angles. I’ve depended on a Spigen case to defend my iPhone from inadvertent drops, and that solution has saved my bacon many times over. It’s a small leap of faith to count on the Arcam as a primary defense measure for the phone, but the incredible functionality makes it worth the risk.

The second caveat with the Arcam is more a matter of personal preference over practicality. Those who crave the revelation of every tiny, bright nuance in a recording might be disappointed. The MusicBOOST’s warmer sound defers to the bigger-picture forest, and not as much to the individual tree branches. On the other hand, if you prefer a slightly more lush musical portrayal than what your stock iPhone delivers, the MusicBOOST will be just the ticket. Again, a lot of this will be determined by your choice of phones.

At about $200, the Arcam is a small investment, and the functionality packed into it provides lot of value. If one attempted to purchase a high quality case, battery boost, DAC and headphone amp separately as iPhone add-ons, all those individual elements would certainly exceed the Arcam’s price. Plus of course, all the individual components could never match the simple and small form factor the Arcam provides in a single package. After my experience testing the Arcam MusicBOOST, it appears my iPhone 6 has found its new long-term travel partner, and I don’t even have to wrestle our publisher for this one, because he has the larger, 6+.

Publisher’s note: Before handing the MusicBOOST of to Rob, I did put it through its paces with my wife’s iPhone 6S and concur with his assessment. With so many external iPhone amps and DACs now available, I really appreciate the form factor and the convenience of the extra charge capacity; anyone running out of juice near the end of the day on a regular basis will really appreciate another full charge stored in the MusicBOOST.

You wouldn’t think the fraction of a millimeter in thickness between the older iPhone 6 and the newer 6S would mean anything, but it does make the difference between snug and tight. Should you have a newer 6S, plan on making your MusicBOOST a permanent fixture as it is a bit tougher to dock and un-dock. The sound quality is a major step up, especially considering the cost factor, enough so that we happily award the Arcam MusicBOOST an Exceptional Value Award for 2016.

For those just beginning their personal audio journey, this will be a fantastic addition to on the go listening. Even with stock iBuds, the “boost” is very worthwhile. Now if they only made one for the 6S+, I could have one! Come on, come on!

Arcam MusicBOOST

MSRP: $189 (Manufacturer) (US Distributor)


In-ear monitors: JH Audio JH16, Ultimate Ears UE18, Cardas A8, Sennheiser MM 30i

Headphones: Audeze LCD-X, Sennhesier HD650, Sony MDR-7506

Aurender W20 Server – PREVIEW

We’ve been living with an Aurender S10 for over a year now and it has been fantastic. With world-class sound and build quality, the S10 doesn’t give you much (if anything) to complain about. You can control Aurender servers with your iPad and the interface is similar to those of a lot of other products on the market, with your music easily arranged by artist, genre or album.

A big part of the Aurender’s magic is its solid-state drive buffering the music stored on its internal hard drive, minimizing jitter and other timing errors. The new W20 builds on this success with either a 6- or 12-terabyte onboard hard drive available to store all but the most massive music collections. W20 owners requiring more space need only have NAS available; the W20 enables you to view your entire NAS music collection seamlessly on your iPad.

With the W20, Aurender has taken the world’s best sounding music server a step further, by adding the ability to access an external word clock. This is not a subtle upgrade and those with mega systems will likely welcome it, especially considering that there are only a few other digital players with an extra word clock output available, so integrating the W20 with your system means you only need one additional cable.

Watch for our very enthusiastic review of the W20 coming soon.

Aurender W20 Server

Approx. $17,000

Naim Mu-so – PREVIEW

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

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

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

Naim Mu-so


Dali’s Flagship – The Epicon 8 Speakers

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

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

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

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

Beauty that’s more than skin deep

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

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

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

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

Final Setup Tweeks

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

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

A Super Pair of Tweeters

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

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

Resolution without edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dali Epicon 8 Loudspeakers

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


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

Digital Source                        dCS Vivaldi, Gryphon Kalliope

Phonostage                Simaudio MOON LP810

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

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

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Power                         IsoTek Super Titan

DALI Rubicon 2 Speakers

Toward the end of “Master Song,” the second track on Leonard Cohen’s breakout 1967 album, Cohen’s pursing lips sound eerily present through the 1.1-inch soft dome tweeter of DALI’s two-way Rubicon 2 speakers. This remarkable tweeter reveals all the imperfections and detailed character of this vinyl pressing. Similarly, on “The Stranger Song,” the speakers’ 6.5-inch drivers pick up several mic pops—as Cohen hits phrases like “plays for shelter” and “holy game of poker”—doing so with jarring airiness, a result of the DALI speakers portraying this rough but rich recording with loads of nuance and clarity.

It’s details like these that help immediately illustrate speaker quality. And DALI—an acronym for Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries—has gained a reputation for producing high-quality, high-fidelity speakers at relatively reasonable (even mid-fi) prices. Of course, at $2,995 per pair, the Rubicon 2s are far from budget speakers, but they do display characteristics you’d sooner expect from much larger and costlier models. For their size and price, the level of fidelity these speakers deliver is astounding.

Setup and Specs

Measuring about 14 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide, and 13 inches deep, the Rubicon 2s are appropriate for placement on a shelf or bookshelf, tabletop/desktop or on stands. For this review, I try placing the speakers at the forward corners of my 21-inch-tall Salamander Synergy hi-fi rack and on my 35-inch-tall speaker stands. I find that the stand placement gives the speakers the necessary height to cast a deep enough soundstage to reach the listening position about 9 feet from the speakers (though stands 28 to 30 inches tall would have placed the tweeters right at ear level, so I raise my listening seat to help make up the difference). The speakers are ported out the back, so they should be placed at least a foot or so from the back wall. Placing the speakers about 2 feet from the wall and about 6.5 feet apart (with only very slight toe-in) presents the most satisfying soundstage for this reviewer.

Beyond the time required to find the optimum placement, setting up the speakers is an absolute breeze. The gold-plated, plastic-encased terminals are big and sturdy and make it abundantly easy to connect the speaker wire. Bi-amping is not an option, but DALI says that amps with an output of as little as 40 watts will do the job. The Simaudio Moon 600i integrated amp I’m currently using as a reference really makes these speakers sing, but it is pumping 250 watts into the speakers’ 4-ohm impedance load. DALI’s specs say the speakers deliver a frequency range from 50 Hz to 26 kHz, with a sensitivity of 87 dB and the crossover set at 3,100 Hz.

The cabinet of the Rubicon 2s is MDF and available in one of four finishes: black or white in high-gloss lacquer, or veneers of rosso or walnut (walnut shown). At about 18 pounds each, the speakers are pretty hefty for stand/shelf models, which contributes to the sense that these are high-quality speakers with refined fit and finish.

Back to the Music

London Calling is one of my favorite all-time albums and is way more nuanced and better produced than most people realize (especially since it’s largely considered a punk album—but it’s so much more than that). As a result, it’s a great test record for speakers, many of which struggle to deliver the 180-gram vinyl version’s full depth and richness. During the title track, Topper Headon’s hi-hat hits are crisp and bright through the Rubicon 2s, which highlight Headon’s complex rhythms and fast stick work. In general, these speakers lean toward the bright side of the spectrum, though they are not lacking in warmth. Through lesser speakers with less-capable tweeters, the electric guitar on this track can sound gritty, even muddy, but the Rubicon 2s parse through the grit, revealing an almost jazzy tone to this punk riff.

The Rubison 2s deliver “Sacrafice,” the fourth track on the Roots’ 2002 album Phrenology, with more low-end bump than I’d expect from speakers this size. When the kick drum and bass guitar hit, I’m surprised to feel my chest rumble, which leads me to believe that the speakers’ 50 Hz low-end spec is not an exaggeration. It doesn’t rattle the walls of my apartment or anything, but it’s plenty of bass response and quite the feat for 6.5-inch driver cones.

Further illustrating the low-frequency capabilities of these speakers, the opening track of Wilco’s Whole Love on vinyl is an almost techno-sounding amalgamation of a strong beat with orchestral strings, electric guitar, amplified piano, and all sorts of trippy effects and tiny electronica noises bouncing around the soundstage. The little DALI speakers capture this big and complex recording with laudable deftness, casting a broad soundstage that extends well into the listening area and is ripe with detail and a well-sorted-out multitude of instruments. The snare hits as the song crescendos toward the end of the track are fast and realistic (coming from someone who is a drummer and has seen Wilco live), and as the bass builds, the drivers deliver a really solid LF response—there’s a lot of air coming from these speakers.

Acoustically Speaking

I like using John Gorka’s Gypsy Life on Blu-ray as a reference, because it lets you see the physical location of the musicians and gives you the option to listen to the 24-bit/96-kHz stereo mix. Delivering this audio-video experience is my extremely capable Oppo BDP-105 universal disc player. During the title track (my favorite on the disc), the DALI drivers convey Gorka’s baritone vocals with loads of depth and clarity. The speakers give a notably accurate portrayal of the soundstage, with the fretless electric bass, mandolin, Gorka’s vocals and acoustic guitar, and female backup vocals placed from left to right, just as they are in the recording studio. The bassist uses an EBow (a little battery-powered device that mimics a bowed instrument), which gives the bass a really cool ambient vibe that the Rubicon 2s portray with plenty of air and vibrato; the mandolin is delicate but still abundantly present; and the female vocals are wonderfully subdued as they complement Gorka’s deeper voice. The DALIs perfectly place all these elements in the mix, giving the track an extremely lifelike feel.

I will say that these speakers don’t quite push the mix as far out as I’m used to with the larger Stirling SB-88s and the floorstanding ELAC FS249s that I’ve been using as reference speakers. By comparison, the Rubicon 2s lack the more substantial physical depth and three-dimensionality of the larger speakers. But compared to the other shelf/stand speakers and monitors I’ve demoed, the DALIs do present considerable spatial presence.

A CD of a live recording of Shostakovich’s String Quarter in C minor (with Leonard Bernstein at the helm of the New York Philharmonic) sounds quite engaging through the Rubicon 2s. The frantic violin pulls dominate the left side of the soundstage, with the cello and contrabass responding at the right. The simultaneous melodies are captivating and displayed well out in front of the speakers, though perhaps not pushed all the way out to the listener or as far beyond the peripheral boundaries as larger speakers might. That being said, the Rubicon 2s do deliver extraordinary accuracy, depth, and richness for speakers of this size.

A Worthy Contender

There are plenty of options for high-quality stand/shelf speakers or monitors in the $3,000 range—from Bower Wilkins, Sonus faber, Harbeth, and numerous others—and the $2,995 DALI Rubicon 2s certainly hold their own. Their most praise-worthy characteristics are their accuracy, clarity, and broad frequency response, with an especially notable bass response for their size.

The tone of the Rubicon 2s tends to be a little bright with higher frequencies, though the mid and bass regions do come through with a subtle amount of warmth that lends the speakers really nice balance. Placed in a moderately sized room and paired with the right stands and a decent amount of power, these speakers can really sing and fill a reasonable amount of space with extremely satisfying music.

DALI Rubicon 2 Speakers

$2,995 (manufacturer) (U.S. distributor)

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

EgglestonWorks Emma Loudspeakers

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

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

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

If the Shoes Fit, Find a Dress to Match

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

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

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

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

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

Simple Setup

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relax and Enjoy

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

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

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

EgglestonWorks Emma Loudspeakers

$3,995 per pair

Dali Epicon 8 Speakers – Preview

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

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

Dali Epicon 8 Speakers


Blumenstein Audio 2.2-Channel Speaker Package

The modest-looking speakers from Blumenstein Audio belie the capabilities contained therein.

We’ve reviewed the Seattle company’s Thrashers, speakers light on looks but heavy on ready-to-rock, garage-grade power. The somewhat more refined single-driver Orca Classic monitors, paired with one of Blumenstein’s Dungeness Classic subwoofers, impressed our staff.

Combining the new Orca Mini monitors with two of Blumenstein’s new powered Dungeness Max subwoofers takes the system to the next level. Having two subs in the 2.2-channel system—which starts at $1,800—augments the Orcas with greatly improved low frequencies. Though matching Orca stands are available, each subwoofer begs you to set an Orca on top of it (placing vibration-dampening material between the units, of course). And with separate enclosures, the subwoofers and monitors can be independently toed-in, and there’s plenty of room atop each subwoofer cabinet to slide the monitors forward or backward.

Hull and Rigging

Blumenstein offers its cabinets—made from nothing but wood, glue and finish—in either birch wood or bamboo. The latter option is available with natural, caramelized, or two-tone finishes. Blumenstein uses non-toxic linseed oil instead of varnish to give the wood a delicate sheen.

The front-ported Dungeness Max has a rectangular footprint of 7.75 by 11.25 inches, which makes it easy to slide in between furniture, and with a height of 22.5 inches, it can fit easily under a desk or table. The Max features a 25-watt built-in amplifier and Blumenstein says it will reproduce frequencies as low as 27 Hz.

The Orcas sport a single pair of binding posts on the back for banana plugs, spades or bare speaker wire. As a powered subwoofer, the Dungeness Max has a knob on the back that controls power and volume. A second knob below that adjusts the crossover point from 60 to 180 Hz. Then comes the wiring…

Blumenstein offers a few ways to connect the subs into an audio system; the easiest requires simply running parallel split sets of speaker wires from a single amp terminal directly to the Dungeness and the Orca;my biggest complaint is that the subwoofer binding posts are tiny, spring-loaded connectors, like those on my old NAD 3020 integrated amp. While easy to use, they’re so small that they limit the gauge of wire you can use.

If you have a preamp with line-outs and a standalone power amp, the amp will drive the Orcas directly, while you connect the Dungeness to the preamp using RCA cables. When using two subs, the left one connects to the left preamp line-out and the right one connects to the right line-out.

Diving In

With two standalone Orcas used as desktop monitors placed about two feet away, the sound is mighty impressive. The lone driver does a very good job with imaging, projecting convincing audio into the soundstage. During the Zero7 song “Destiny,” the Orcas present Sia Furler’s voice fatigue-free and with nuances that reflect the emotion of her performance. Other instruments panned far right and left float into the periphery, beyond the plane of the speakers.

Of course, a speaker this size does have bass limitations. With the subwoofer pair connected, low notes join the acoustic presentation. The ability to adjust the toe-in of the subs independently and the crossover point allows you to tailor bass response to your preference without affecting the Orcas.

With an Orca atop each Dungeness Max and the resulting columns about 10 feet from my listening seat, the Orcas deliver a convincing sonic image, with vocals remaining slightly warm yet highly believable. Compared to near-field listening, the experience is akin to moving back several rows in an auditorium. There’s a bigger overall picture, but with broader dispersion, the density and tangibility of the musical elements decreases. The Dungeness Max subs create solid and tuneful bass, but larger listening rooms—like mine, at 17 by 20 feet—might be a bit too much for them to tackle. In a bedroom, den or smaller-sized living room, they offer very satisfying bass, room-filling sound and a highly enjoyable overall musical presentation.

With a wide-dispersion driver, the Orcas are not too fussy with placement, and because they’re small, the speakers are easy to adjust. For the subs, you can employ simple tweaks of placement and volume to generate just the right amount of low-end augmentation for your needs. The combined system proves incredibly versatile and fulfilling. With hours of listening, I need to keep reminding myself that the Orcas start at just $500 per pair.

Yes, there are better and more resolving speakers out there. However, the efficient Blumensteins offer a very high performance-to-price ratio. By selling unnecessary components like speaker grilles and stands as optional accessories, Blumenstein is able to offer the Orca speakers at a very reasonable cost, allowing those on a tight budget to start with a stereo pair and then add subwoofers later.

For those with $1,800 on hand, the discounted 2.2-channel package is an especially good choice. While this system doesn’t offer the refined look some buyers may be after, the simple beauty of the wood finish will appeal to many, and the sound quality you’re getting for the price makes the entire system a major consideration.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

As an advocate of single-driver speakers—longtime TONE readers might remember that I started out with a pair of Lowthers as my reference speakers—I find something totally beguiling about them, though they are often misunderstood, perhaps because of their deceptive simplicity.

You might think that the appeal of single-driver speakers is a complete no brainer, because they don’t have crossovers for the audio signal to contend with, but in my experience with single-driver speakers, the power you feed them is everything. Because these speakers have such a delicacy about them—and the Orcas are no different—picking the wrong amplifier will give you dreadful results. Much like with OTL amplifiers, the result is usually either magical or somewhat flat. And if you’ve had the latter experience, you didn’t do it right.

Interestingly, both sets of Blumenstein speakers I’ve heard here at the TONE studio have sounded incredibly good with the $90,000-per-pair Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks I use as my main reference. They also sound spectacular with a vintage Harman Kardon A-500 integrated tube amplifier. Oddly, the 300B-based push-pull amplifier from Nagra does not produce magic with the Orcas, though the 845 SET monoblocks I have on hand do. And so it goes, my personal favorite amplifier for driving these exquisite little speakers is the SIT-2 First Watt amplifier (also by Pass Labs), which produces 10 watts per channel from a single gain device. (Look out for our upcoming long-term review for more details.)

When you get it right and you don’t tax the Orcas with Audioslave at maximum volume, you will be shocked at just how deep into the music these little speakers let you hear. If you aren’t going desktop/near field, I suggest a room about 11 by 14 feet or thereabouts.  Music that is more vocally focused, without massive dynamic swings, proves enveloping. The first Crosby, Stills and Nash album is absolutely dreamy, as is Yim Yames’ Tribute To. For that matter, anything mostly acoustic or with sparse vocals will truly blow you away through this system, which reveals just how much music is lurking in your favorite recordings.

Just as you wouldn’t drag race a 400-cc sport bike against a liter bike, don’t expect the Orcas—even with the subwoofers—to blast AC/DC at concert-hall levels. But with the right recording, these speakers will not only shine but also make you appreciate the journey more than you ever thought possible, especially for the price. If you’ve never had the single-driver experience, I can think of no better place to begin your journey than with the Blumenstein Orcas. You may never want to leave.

Blumenstein Audio 2.2-Channel Speaker Package

Starting at $1,800

Dynaudio XEO 4 speakers

Dynaudio made a big splash with their wireless XEO speakers two years ago, but their engineering staff has not been sitting on their laurels.  The new second generation speakers feature more wireless bandwidth, better drivers and more extensive tuning.  Our recent visit to the Dynaudio factory in Denmark found their engineers intensely involved in wireless development, so you know this is a solid path for Dynaudio’s future.

The new XEO range, introduced at this year’s Munich High End show builds on Dynaudios initial success, making wireless audio a much higher performance option than ever before.  Watch for a full review soon.

Dynaudio XEO 4 speakers


MartinLogan Motion 35XT Bookshelf Speakers

Many people know MartinLogan for its svelte, even avant-garde-looking electrostatic floorstanding speakers, which have earned the company a large and dedicated fan base. But, like a good scientist at work, MartinLogan does not rest on their laurels, continuing to experiment with new designs, like the Motion 35XT, that give potential customers great sound for the dollar. These speakers are designed to sound great as a stereo pair or with other speakers in the Motion line as part of a home-theater setup.

Under the Microscope

These mini Martins combine the brand’s Folded Motion Transducer tweeter with a more conventional-looking 6.5-inch woofer sporting an aluminum cone and ported out the back. The 35XT specifications state that the frequency response ranges from 50 Hz all the way up to 25 kHz. Into a 4-ohm load, they can handle amplifiers delivering 20 to 250 watts. Each speaker measures 13.5 inches tall, 7.6 inches wide and 11.8 inches deep, including the length of the binding posts. With solid construction and a substantial magnet for drivers, each weighs in at 18.5 lbs, which is relatively hefty for speakers this size.

Appearance-wise, the speakers don’t command the sculpture-like attention that their big electrostatic brothers do; the XT form factor is nondescript by comparison. ML finishes the cabinets in piano black or black cherrywood gloss. The last visual element to consider is the metal perforated grilles, which lend the speakers a look similar to ML’s electrostats, though they are magnetically attached and can be easily removed if desired. (Sonically, I found little difference with the grilles on or off.) But if you have small children who enjoy pushing elevator buttons and doorbells, the exposed center of a woofer cone can look mighty tempting.


As with ML’s ESL speakers, the XT’s manual offers concise setup instructions. Each speaker comes with four adhesive pads for easy grip on a shelf or a speaker stand. Once the general location is determined, ML suggests toeing in the speakers directly at the listener, which works splendidly in my listening room with the tweeters at ear level. The size of your room will determine how close you place the speakers to the side walls to maximize imaging and bass performance.

The speakers are easily connected to an amp, with ML’s oval-shaped five-way binding posts making light work of torquing down the speaker cables without damaging the cable or binding post. Two sets of binding posts allowing for bi-wiring or bi-amplification, should the listener prefer that configuration. The binding posts are offset on the speaker body, which makes this task even easier, whether you choose bi-wire or single-wire operation.

Testing in Vivo

The MLs immediately impress with their ability to disappear into the soundstage and music drifting in all directions around the speakers. The resulting sound portrayal enables a wide left-to-right stereo image complemented by an equally compelling sense of depth. Depending on the recording, there are some instances where musical elements project well in front of the speakers.

The 35XTs uncover a lot of fine detail and nuance in recordings, which contributes to the sense of ambient sound around them. At the same time, they do not lean toward ear-singing fatigue, a testament to ML’s years of ESL design and voicing. In the context of gear at my disposal, female vocals retain a natural, non-exaggerated musical presence, as demonstrated through Pink Martini’s album Hang On Little Tomato. Cymbal shimmer, horns blasts, harp plucks and piano notes showcase the speakers’ high- and mid-frequency extension.

As with most small-box designs, bass has its limits, so those craving deep and powerful bass might consider alternate or supplemental speaker options. Below 50 Hz, bass loses its growl through the 35XTs and a subwoofer like those offered by ML will pick up the slack. But what bass the 35XTs do reproduce comes in tight and tuneful. Like a seat further back in an auditorium, drum impacts sound quite real, but they lack an up-close level of punch and slam. Electronica tracks from Deadmau5 and Armin Van Buuren offer plenty of snap and excitement.

The balance of all these elements proves delightful during long listening sessions. These speakers do offer some surprises, as guitar strums and background vocals spring forth from the blackness and into the periphery.

Perpetual Motion

Though ML is known better for its more expensive ESL speakers, it’s marvelous to see the company price a set of speakers under $1,200, putting them into the reach of many audio enthusiasts seeking high-quality monitors. The gloss-finished wooden cabinets and metal speaker grilles alone give the outward impression of a more expensive design. And of course, fantastic sonics for their price point reinforce that assessment.

Used as a stereo pair, the ML 35XT speakers offer a lot of sound for the dollar. Other than limits to bass frequencies, the rest of the audio spectrum proves very enjoyable. The speakers may even beguile a listener toward couch-lock, repeating the phrase, “Okay, I’ll play just one more song.”

For those who want a stereo pair of speakers now, but are considering a home-theater setup in the future, it’s also great to know you are preserving your speaker investment. If budget allows later for the floorstanding version of the XTs, the smaller speakers can always be utilized as surrounds. In that scenario, a user can also rest assured knowing that the common drivers used in the Motion XT series speakers will offer a perfectly synergistic match. Our publisher has also mentioned that the XTs work very well as rear speakers in a multichannel system with MartinLogan ESLs as the front channels.

By simply filling out the warranty card and sending it to ML within 30 days of purchase, an owner receives a five-year insurance policy against problems with the speaker, which underlines the company’s commitment to its customers’ long-term satisfaction—whether an owner chooses the high-end or entry-level models. With that level of confidence behind the speaker, and the marvelous sound they produce, these ML speakers are a great option to consider.

Martin Logan Motion 35XT bookshelf speakers

MSRP: $1,200 per pair


Digital sources Mac Mini    dCS Debussy    JRiver Media Center 20    Tidal music service
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm and Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Amplifiers Burmester 911 MK3    Benchmark AHB2
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley     RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

Benchmark AHB2 Power Amplifier

The first thing you notice about the new Benchmark AHB2 is its diminutive size. Even with feet and binding posts, it’s only about 11 inches wide, 4 inches tall and 9 inches deep. And the heat-sink fins account for about a third of that width, making it even more incredible that Benchmark was able to jam so much oomph into such a small body. Regularly lifting amps that leave my back barking for Tylenol, I chuckle with relief when carrying the 12.5-pound AHB2 to my audio rack.

At about $3,000, the Benchmark AHB2 is a substantial investment, and it certainly demonstrates many musical characteristics one would expect at this price point. But the amp’s size makes it appealing when shelf space is limited or when you simply want to minimize your gear real estate. If more power is desired, you can buy a second AHB2 and configure them as monoblocks.

Benchmark offers the unit with a black or silver anodized faceplate and black heat-sink fins. A studio version is also available, with a wider front plate to fit equipment racks. Other than its tiny power button, the front of the amp has no other controls, just a few LEDs to indicate aspects of operation. Each channel has three LEDs to indicate clip, temperature and mute. In the event of an amp overload (which happened once during my testing), the amp shuts itself down and the LEDs indicate the nature of the problem. Powering the unit off, waiting a few seconds and pressing the power button puts the amp back into operational mode.

Setting the Benchmark

As Benchmark products are used regularly in recording studios, all of the AHB2’s connections are balanced. A couple audio designers have explained to me that balanced XLR connections usually prove superior to single-ended RCAs, since XLRs offer inherent noise canceling and they won’t come loose once clicked into place. If the rest of you’re system doesn’t offer XLR connections, Benchmark also makes cables and adapters.

Setup is fairly straightforward: Connect a preamp and speakers, ensure the stereo/mono toggle is set to the desired position, and then set the three-position sensitivity switch to match the signal levels from your preamplifier; the sensitivity switch also optimizes the amplifier’s gain for controlling volume from your preamplifier. Because of the amp’s size, its back panel can get crowed, making connections a little tricky—especially with my speaker cables, which have soldered spade connections that don’t bend. As such, I have to place the amp at the back edge of my audio shelf so the cables can hang below the amp (though I’ve had this same problem with other amps I’ve tested).
The AHB2 also offers twist-lock NL4 ports for speaker connection. Benchmark says NL4s provide lower resistance and higher current handling than connection via binding posts, as well as a more secure connection. As most speakers don’t have an NL4 connection option, Benchmark makes speaker cables with NL4 connectors for the amp side and standard connections for the speaker side.

Once everything is connected, simply push the power button on the front panel to activate the start-up sequence. When configured as a stereo amp, the AHB2 pushes out 100 watts into 8 ohms and double that into 4 ohms. For those wanting a 12-volt trigger for remote power-up, the AHB2 has you covered.

The AHB2 features a Class-AB/Class-H design (hence its name), which facilitates bridging a pair of the amps to use as monoblocks, pushing 380 watts into 8 ohms. This scenario is very useful if your speakers need some extra juice and you want to provide a dedicated amp for each, or if you want to drive a center-channel speaker in a home-theater setup. When using this setup method, consult the manual to ensure the proper connections and settings.

Meeting the Benchmark

Among Benchmark’s design goals for the amp were extremely low distortion and quiet operation. From the get-go, the amp lives up to its design specs by providing a very clean presentation. The Benchmark does a good job of layering vocals and instruments in all dimensions, with each element supported by a solid and convincing image. The amp’s designer, John Siau, is quick to mention that the third goal was to achieve a ruler-flat high-frequency response—and the AHB2 is completely flat all the way up to 200 kHz. Siau says these qualities are vitally important in delivering high-resolution performance.

As desired in a studio setting, the sonics from the AHB2 are neutral, and in my home setup, there is no observable emphasis in any particular frequency range. I would not characterize the AHB2 sound as warm or romantic, though it’s not stark or emotionless either. Between these two ends of the spectrum, the amp leans toward the latter but with a sweeter top end. Those seeking an amp that emphasizes fullness and richness that will augment slightly thin sound from your preamp or source might consider other amp options. But if accurate portrayal is a listener’s goal, this Benchmark does the trick.

When reproducing poor-quality recordings, the AHB2 does a nice job of limiting digital glare. Lucinda Williams’s album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road demonstrates the AHB2’s ability to offer edge-free portrayal of vocals with a very fluid midrange. Her voice resides upfront in the soundstage and it is well separated from the instruments accompanying her.

Regardless of music type, bass through the Benchmark offers a taught presentation with the snap and punch one expects from percussion. Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” is engaging through the AHB2, with all the subtle synthesized sounds popping into position in the soundstage. This makes me curious about running a pair of the amps as monoblocks—which still wouldn’t take up the rack space of a single traditional amplifier.

The Benchmark brings to life the voice of the Martin Logan Motion XT35 bookshelf speakers. Considering its recording-studio applications, it makes a lot of sense that this amp pairs well with smaller stereo monitors. Combined with the speakers I have on hand for testing, the AHB2’s sound flavor profile remains consistent.

In the case of the AHB2, system synergy is an important factor to consider, since no amp is universally perfect for all speakers. For large and demanding speakers, a prospective AHB2 owner may need more power. In the case of the AHB2, you can add another unit and configure the two amps as monoblocks.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I was curious to hear how Benchmark’s design ethos of compact products would translate into designing a power amp. A couple years ago, the Devialet shattered my bias that amplifiers had to be massive to sound good, and so today I find myself much more open-minded to smaller amps like the Benchmark.

My initial exposure to the AHB2 was at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where Benchmark was playing the amp in an all-Benchmark system that included its new mini-monitor speakers. Back in my own listening rooms, the AHB2 did a fantastic job driving the KEF Blades, Dynaudio Evidence Platinums and even my Acoustat 2+2s, which are notoriously tough to drive, though a pair of AHB2s would have been even better for the 2+2s.

As both my reference systems are balanced, I actually prefer the XLR connections of the AHB2. If you’re working with single-ended RCAs connections, the Cardas adaptors are my favorite. I agree with Rob’s conclusions on tonality, etc., and will add that the AHB2 definitely has the bass drive necessary to achieve convincing full-range performance, even from big speakers.

In the end, the Benchmark AHB2 can become a great anchor to your system, offering high performance in a compact box. With an extremely neutral tonal balance, you can use it straight, or warm it up with a tube preamplifier, should that be your preference. Either way, the AHB2 is a stellar performer from a company known for excellence.

Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


Digital Sources Mac mini, dCS Debussy DAC    JRiver Media Center 20    Tidal music service
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm and Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Amplifier Burmester 911 MK3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III, Martin Logan Motion XT35
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley power conditioner    RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

MartinLogan Motion 35XT Speakers

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

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

MartinLogan Motion 35XT Speakers


Alta Audio FRM-2 Speakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than just bass

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

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

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

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

Easily integrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word, awesome

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

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

Alta Audio FRM-2 Speakers

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


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

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudioAt TONEAudio, we’ve had the pleasure of testing Sonus faber’s flagship Aida speaker ($150,000), the Guinari Evolution ($22,900), and one of their more entry-level offerings, the Venere 3.0 ($3,500). In each of these cases, the sound and build quality represents a high bar for their respective price tags.

Not wanting to neglect a middle child in the Sonus faber family, we put the new $13,500 Olympica III floorstanders to the test. The Olympica line of products makes available three models. The Olympica I is a stand-mounted, two-way design. Olympica II is a three-way floorstander with a single bass driver. The Olympica III is the biggest of the bunch with two 7-inch (180mm) bass drivers supplementing the 1.14-inch (29 mm) tweeter and a 5.9-inch (150mm) mid. A center-channel speaker rounds out the lineup should a prospective buyer seek a home theater option.

While there are several great companies producing speaker drivers, and many other speaker manufacturers build cabinets around them, Sonus faber takes a different approach. All their drivers are designed in-house, and each is mated with a cabinet shape which gets the most from it. As a holistic package the Olympica is designed from the ground up with system synergy the priority.

Grace of a figure skater

Made entirely in Italy like Sonus faber’s flagship series, the Olympicas receive the same attention to detail at each level of the build process. Cabinet woodworking is gorgeous, and the resulting products have the appearance of fine furniture. Our sample pair sport the walnut finish. Panels of grain-matched wood curve delicately from the front to the back of the cabinet. Eleven pinstripe-thin maple joints separate the 12 walnut sections on each side of the cabinet, providing an elegant and subtle contrast. For those who prefer a darker colored cabinet, Olympicas are also available with a graphite finish. Even with the greyish-black stain, the wood grain remains beautiful and clearly visible. Regardless of color, several layers of clear lacquer provide a protective and attractive semi-gloss coat.

A top-down view of the leather-topped and backed speaker cabinet reveals a uniquely engineered shape to minimize cabinet reflections. For lack of a better descriptor, it’s an angled teardrop shape with the rounder edge toward the front and the point out the back. The rear portion is asymmetrical with a bit more swoop to one side. This configuration facilitates the addition of Sonus faber’s unique perforated port design on one rear edge. Unlike most small and round bass ports, the Olympica sports a two-inch wide metal-grated port that extends the full length of the speaker. Gracing the cabinet base, a metal four-point outrigger configuration creates additional stability for the narrow towers. Tightening and loosening the spike height facilitates leveling so the speakers keep all four tiny feet firmly anchored to the floor.

Even the metal speaker cable binding posts offer a unique design. With a teardrop profile that mirrors the speaker shape, it’s easy to get a good grip on the posts and tighten them firmly by hand. Dual posts allow for bi-wiring or bi-amplification, and an included, stamped-metal jumper connects the two. The sum of all these parts assigns the Olympica III dimensions of 43.8 inches (1114 cm) in height, 10.25 inches (260mm) across the widest part of the cabinet, and a 16.25-inch (406mm) depth.

Warming up

Speakers are always a tricky piece of equipment to review because each speaker interacts a little differently with a listening space. After a few hours of scooting them around the room in small increments left, right, backward, forward and with varying degrees of toe-in, they finally landed in a location I marked immediately with painter’s tape. To facilitate the process, the Olympica manual suggests some sample speaker and listening seat placement suggestions. These ideas do offer a good starting point for your quest. While the placement process remains a little tedious, these speakers will reward you for the effort.

The aforementioned speaker port can aim to the outsides or insides of the speaker pair since there’s no specific left and right speaker configuration. Trying the ports to the outside first, then swapping the speakers to aim the ports toward the space between speakers, I find the latter configuration offers best sound in my room. Owners should try both and decide for themselves what sounds best to them. Once in place, the Olympicas reveal all they are capable of.  And they have a lot of capability.

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudio

The Decathalon

Decathletes are like the Swiss Army knives of the sporting world. They must do very well at ten different events in order to win. Of course, each individual will have his or her own weaknesses and strengths to bring to the table. Like these athletes, the Sonus faber Olympicas perform very well regardless of the musical genre or source material. In some cases, they truly excel as a reference.

For instance, once the speakers are placed optimally, the sound-staging ability defies expectations. First, the speakers draw no particular attention to their physical location. Sound floats around them without bunching up around the speakers or at the midpoint between them.  Second, musical elements of my favorite songs, panned to the extreme left and right, wrap far into the room and sometimes even startle me with their reach toward the rear of the room. Hooverphonic’s “One Way Ride” offers the illusion of movement as some synthesized tones ping-pong back and forth. With the Sonus fabers, sound transits far beyond the speakers themselves as if it somehow broke free of any barriers and traveled at will. My Piega P-10 reference speakers are no slouch in this characteristic, but the Olympicas exceed them by a significant margin.

Sonus faber’s specifications for these speakers indicate a frequency response of 20kHz down to 35Hz – not quite full range, but close to it. When listening, I long occasionally for the feeling of extremely low and heavy bass on tracks like “Substitute for Love” from Madonna’s Ray of Light album. But honestly, I have little non-electronic music in my collection that delves that deep. For most of the music I enjoy, the subterranean bass extension is not missed. The rest of the Olympica bass spectrum proves excellent. There’s no shortage of rumble in the sofa and floor, and the level of tight, tuneful tangibility projected from the Olympicas is marvelous. On the opposite end of the audio spectrum, highs, too are very well extended but not hot in the mix. Bell strikes, like those on Ben Harper’s “Alone,” have a tuneful decay that reverberates so long that – like fossil dating – a listener almost needs to define it by a half-life.

Vocals and instruments with frequencies residing in the middle of the spectrum are never neglected in favor of the extremes. Unlike my reference speakers with a ribbon tweeter and midrange, the traditional cone shape of the Olympicas offers a slightly more tangible presence.  As with the ribbons, sound remains natural, but Sonus faber drivers add a degree of palpability and up-close sense of the musical performance. The album Perennial Favorites from the Squirrel Nut Zippers represents an interesting challenge for speakers. With multiple vocals, percussion, strings, piano, harp, a horn section, and many other instruments spread across the stage and layered on top of one another, there’s potential for a sonically muddled mess. The Olympicas manage to sort out all that information, across a wide dynamic range, to present each individual element with a convincing illusion of a live performance.

Final score

There’s no such thing as a best speaker. Upstream component synergy, interaction with the room, music genre, and a listener’s personal sonic preferences all weigh into the equation. In my case, I knew a day would come when a set of visiting speakers would unseat my current reference at a price point I can manage. Apparently, that day has come.

Through the Olympicas, there’s only one real downside for me: I’m truncating the lowest bass frequencies. However, other positive characteristics outweigh my quibbles. Soundstaging prowess, palpability, and pure musical enjoyment in my listening space remain top-notch though the Olympicas. There are certainly speakers out there – including Sonus faber’s own flagship designs – which can reproduce full frequency response, a bit more close-to-the-action musical detail, and perhaps more overall sonic heft. However, they will likely cost significantly more.

The Sonus faber Olympica IIIs are marvelous speakers. At $13,500 per pair, they should be. However, there’s a lot to consider as part of that price tag. First, the build quality and finish are stellar – more like a piece of carefully rendered artwork than a speaker. Secondly, a lot of research and development went into their design, including the creation of in-house drivers. Finally, this package’s performance in my listening room exceeds that of some more expensive speakers which have visited. For those like me who value their stereo more than their car, the Olympica III speakers are worth saving for.

If you are investing in speakers to live with for a long time, and this price range is within your reach, be sure to audition the Olympica III. Perhaps like me, you’ll find they are speakers to long for. I’m purchasing the demo pair.

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudio

Additional Listening

by Jeff Dorgay

Sonus faber’s $120,000-a-pair Aida is one of the most breathtaking speakers I’ve had the pleasure to spend time with, but like my GamuT S9s or the equally enticing Focal Grande Utopia EM, all of these speakers are out of reach for most audiophiles.  Yet after listening to the Olympica IIIs for a month before handing them off to Rob Johnson, it’s very exciting to see just how much of the Aida special sauce is present in these speakers at a much more affordable price.  Yes, yes, I know we’ll get all kinds of flak for saying “affordable” and “$13.5k a pair” in the same sentence, but it’s all relative. I know plenty of people that have spent way more than this on a motorcycle, jet ski, wristwatch or a Leica M and a couple of lenses.  If you love music, these speakers aren’t out of reach for a decent number of people and the pleasure they bring is well worth the asking price.

Best of all, these speakers perform well with a wide range of amplification, so if you have a modest system and are looking at these as your ultimate speaker that you will buy now and upgrade electronics around as you go, consider this – they sound awesome with a 35 watt per channel PrimaLuna integrated or a Rega Brio-R.  Their 90dB/1 watt sensitivity allows even modest amplifiers enough headroom to fill a room with sound.

If you were listening to something like Crosby, Stills and Nash, or your favorite solo female vocalist, you might even be challenged to hear the difference between the $120k/pair Aida and the Olympica.  All the major attributes of the flagship speaker are here in spades.

For this price, you should expect great sonics, and the Olympicas deliver.  Yet they also manage to be perfect examples of industrial art as well, with no part of their design or construction less than exquisite, and that’s what makes the Olympica shine above every other speaker I’ve spent time with at this price, save Focal’s Diablo Utopia.  This is a product you’ll love to look at and have as part of your life, even when not playing music!

I am thrilled to grant the Sonus faber Olympica III speakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.  They are certainly a personal favorite.

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

MSRP: $13,500


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Burmester 911 Mk3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog SME 10    Dynavector 17D3
Digital Light Harmonic DaVinci   Mac Mini    JRiver Media Center 19
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    Cardas/RSA Mongoose Power Cords

Peachtree Audio deepblue Bluetooth Music System

Some audio fans crave a stereo experience courtesy of multiple components. Of course, more equipment means more money. Plus, each component needs its own power cord, interconnects and shelf space. For those who seek a smaller, more portable home-audio experience—or for those who simply want a more manageable music system outside of their primary listening room—a single-box wireless audio product, like the Peachtree deepblue, is a great solution.

The elliptical cabinet of the deepblue measures 8 inches tall, 6 inches deep, and 16 inches long, and it is slightly flared at the bottom. The unit weighs a substantial 16 pounds. This form factor makes this Peachtree portable and it can bring a lot of sound to any size room.

The deepblue’s facade comprises a black plastic case with a metallic grille, which extends the full width and height of the unit. The result is slightly cheap looking, but those who believe sound is more important than appearance will easily forget the unit’s aesthetic. The grille protects the forward-facing drivers neatly packed behind it. On each side of the unit resides a small tweeter placed above a midrange driver. These four drivers flank a centered 6.5-inch woofer. Thanks to the deepblue’s onboard amplifier, the package can put forth a hefty 200 watts.

Peachtree’s design for button controls on the deepblue is a model of simplicity. There’s a power button nestled between a volume up and a volume down button. That’s it. And that’s all you really need. The deepblue’s remote control enables a few additional and helpful adjustments. In addition to selecting standby power and volume from the remote, the user can adjust the unit’s bass output for various types of music or preference. It’s also nice to have the ability to adjust bass to compensate for placement near a wall or inside an enclosure, which sometimes result in bass “loading,” or boominess.

Connecting the Equipment

The only wires a user needs to contend with for the deepblue are the power cord and the mini-jack auxiliary stereo connector. This 3.5-mm input allows users to connect an external source manually. But for those who want to scale down to just the power cord, deepblue also accommodates Bluetooth pairing with devices like an iPad, iPhone, or a computer, as long as those devices support A2DP Bluetooth audio. The remote also enables source switching so that the listener can choose between the connected auxiliary source and the Bluetooth source from the comfort of a listening chair.

Bluetooth setup is very simple: activate Bluetooth on an external music source; press and hold the deepblue’s power button for five seconds (or just press the remote control’s “Pairing” button for two seconds); and then the unit’s light flashes slowly and initiates the coupling process. Peachtree notes that the deepblue has a maximum Bluetooth range of around 30 feet, although obstructions and walls can reduce that distance.

Those who opt for Bluetooth and commit their phone as the music source need not worry about missing a call while enveloped in the listening experience. The deepblue recognizes the call and will fade and stop the music, alerting the listener. Once the call is complete and disconnected, the unit resumes playing music. It’s a marvelous capability and it works flawlessly.

Testing Bluetooth functionality on an iPhone 4 with iOS7, I find that the process is just as easy and seamless as advertised. After holding down the “pairing” button on the remote at 15 feet away, the deepblue flashes its blue LED and “Peachtree BT” appears among the connection options on my phone. After I touch that source listing on the phone and after a brief pause, the phone connects. Selecting some music on the phone produces immediate and good quality sound from the Peachtree.

With a Bluetooth source, the paired communication enables the remote to advance or pause the song playing. So, when listening to the Police’s album Synchronicity, it’s easy to skip the song “Mother” before it has a chance to claw its way out of the speakers. When I test this functionality, the remote has some trouble interfacing with my iPhone 4’s controls, but I’m sure newer mobile devices will have less of a problem.

Diving In

Being accustomed to a large stereo reference system, I reset my expectations for the single-box deepblue. After much listening, I’m mighty impressed with what’s achievable for the $399 cost of the unit. Even in my large listening space—17 feet deep by 20 feet wide by 10.5 feet high—the deepblue puts out plenty of sound to fill the room without any perceivable strain. Whether the source is a Bluetooth-paired phone with songs ripped at 128 kbps, an iPod with lossless files or a CD player connected to the auxiliary port, the sound remains very good. The better the source material the more the Peachtree rewards the listener.

Given the deepblue’s design as a compact, single-box unit, a listener can expect inherent limits in stereo imaging and soundstage. All musical elements sound compressed together; however, considering that limitation, the deepblue offers a reasonable soundstage.

The deepblue’s portrayal of music remains generally relaxed, but it is not without punch. Throughout hours of listening to many types of music, stridency is limited. High frequencies, in some cases, sound a bit rolled off, but there’s still plenty of treble to satisfy most listeners. Vocals are nicely rendered and very present in the mix, but some vocal test tracks expose a bit of sibilance. Regardless of music type—be it classical, jazz, electronica or rock—the balance of instruments remains very well portrayed.

Even through a Bluetooth connection, the cymbals on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” offer a surprising amount of sparkle and decay, which appropriately jump out from the overall mix. Playing Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s debut album tests the Peachtree’s ability to handle a multitude of simultaneous instruments and vocals—and it does not disappoint. It’s still easy to pick out each instrument sonically, despite the limited soundstage separation.

Exploring the Depths

As mentioned earlier, the bass adjustment is a lot of fun to experiment with. While a small physical box has some limitations in the lowest frequencies, the Peachtree is definitely no slouch. Jean Michel Jarre’s album “Rendez-Vous” leads in with a hefty, synthesized bass roar. With the deepblue’s bass turned up, even at 15 feet away, the sound causes the sofa to vibrate slightly and unexpectedly.

On some tracks, I enjoy listening with the bass accentuated a bit, though some boominess and muddiness is occasionally the result. The overall sonic presentation is tighter with a solid, stable surface beneath the unit. For testing, I place the deepblue on a 26-inch-tall spiked speaker stand, allowing the tweeters to hover near ear-level. For home listeners, some placement experimentation is worth the time to find the balance that best serves a user’s needs and preferences.

Hidden Treasure?

The Peachtree deepblue is not a system intended for audiophiles seeking the greatest level of stereo reproduction, imaging and nuance. It is designed to be a simple, plug-and-play solution to fill any room with music. It meets its intended goals very well, and then some.

At $399, the deepblue offers very good sound for its price point. Notable benefits are authoritative bass, enough horsepower to play at substantial volumes and solid rendering of all music types. This Peachtree does all of this with great user-friendliness. Plus, a listener can place it anywhere an electrical outlet is near. For those seeking a flexible, unobtrusive and turnkey audio solution, do yourself a favor and check out the Peachtree deepblue. You might find it to be a perfect fit.

deepblue Bluetooth Music System

MSRP: $399


Digital Sources HP Desktop Computer with JRiver Media Center 19     iPod Gen 7    iPhone4 with iOS7,    Audio Research CD3 MKII    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

Music First Audio, based in Hastings, East Sussex, in the U.K., has been making passive “preamplifiers” for a number of years.  Technically, it may be a stretch to call these products preamps, since they are 100 percent passive in nature, providing no active gain.  (Referring to Music First Audio products as passive linestages may be more technically correct.)  It is worth noting for those needing more than unity gain that there is a +6-dB switch on the rear panel of the Classic v2.

The transformers have dual primaries, allowing them to be connected in series as a step-up device offering the +6-dB option, or parallel as a 1:1 transformer.  Bear in mind that selecting the +6-dB option does cut the range of attenuation by an equivalent amount, but it also allows pairing with older components with lower outputs. It can still drive your power amplifier to full output, and sound quality is not compromised in the least by selecting this option.

Before getting to the heart of the product under review here, the Classic “Preamplifier” v2, it is appropriate to discuss the product category of passive linestages in general.  A preamplifier in the classic sense provides input switching among sources, a signal boost to drive a power amplifier and, of course, volume attenuation.  An active preamp also gets involved in impedance matching, which can be critical.  Purists, however, claim that the extra gain stage is unnecessary in most cases, since most modern sources can drive a power amplifier directly.  The issue then becomes volume control, so you don’t blow up your amp and speakers.

There a several ways volume control can be engineered into a passive linestage.  The most common is a resistor-based attenuator.  This approach, while valid, does have some possible disadvantages, like frequency-response aberrations and issues with interconnect length.  A far more technically advantageous approach is the transformer solution, sometimes referred to as a TVC-based design (for Transformer Volume Control).  This allows for a total decoupling of your sources from the power amp, avoids impedance mismatching (which can lead to a loss of HF information and/or dynamics) and maximizes transparency.  The Classic v2 uses two transformers, one per channel.  However, this approach is more costly and complex.  The unit is priced at roughly $4,000 (or £2,200).

Direct to the Source

Music First Audio’s parent company, Stevens & Billington Limited, has been around since 1963.  The company’s transformers are highly regarded for quality and tight tolerances in both the high-end-audio and broadcast industries.  In describing the differences between the Classic and the company’s higher-end Baby Reference, company owner Harry O’Sulivan said, “The Classic features our original transformer design, honed over the years and first finalized in late 2002.  In the years that followed, we realized that an even better transformer offering the pinnacle of performance would take time, and proved to be an even costlier process—resulting in the transformers used in the Reference and Baby Reference models.”

This new transformer features a core that is 25 percent larger, and delivers improved low-frequency response and high-level power handling.  The transformer in the Classic v2 also uses a 25-percent-larger core but retains the winding structure of the original—a clear trickle-down effect.

The Classic v2 drives both Audio Research VS55 and Bob Carver Black Magic power amps, using Darwin Ascension Silver interconnects, for the duration of this review, in place of my Audio Research SP16L active tube preamp.  The connected source is a Bryston BDA-1 DAC.  A quick comparison instantly reveals that the Classic v2 removes subtle layers of thickness and grunge, and the most transparent to-source sound I’ve ever experienced with these amplifiers.

With the Classic v2, music emerges from noticeably quieter backgrounds than my tube linestage can deliver.  While I have used some excellent active linestages over the years, the Classic v2 offers more resolution everywhere, with more distinct details, where in the past many of these details were more homogenous.  This effect feels much like the difference between master tape and a second-generation copy.

Further Listening

The DVD-A of Seal’s Best 1991–2004 sounds huge via the Classic v2, offering up bass performance on this disc that sets new standards for control and articulation in my reference system.  Yet at the same time, the subtle, exotic textures that are a hallmark of this performer are now much easier to distinguish.  While “Killer” and “Kiss from a Rose” have been my reference tracks for years, the Classic v2 offers a fresh perspective—which is always an exciting experience with a new component.

A new reference recording, Steve Earle’s recently released The Low Highway, clearly illustrates Earle’s inspired playing.  Textural cues—like the wood and steel of Earle’s acoustic guitar, the snap of the snare drum, and the creative accompaniment of fiddle, piano, banjo and mandolin—are a cinch to identify in the mix, convincingly showcasing the muscular backing band of this troubadour.

The incredibly low noise floor of the Classic v2 serves quieter, more intimate music well, perhaps best of all, again allowing more of the lowest-level details to come through.  The spacious, minimal arrangements of Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem stretch out and breath at a much lower listening level, freed from the electronic noise of an active linestage.  The Classic v2 brings these performances closer to life, with an enormous sound stage projecting the instruments in the stereo image well beyond my speakers’ boundaries.  This masterful imaging performance and the low noise floor are the Classic v2’s greatest strengths.

The Fine Points

Four RCA inputs and two balanced XLR inputs should suffice for most users.  The standard Classic only offers a single pair of (switchable) RCA or XLR outputs, but for those requiring a second set of outputs to drive a powered subwoofer or additional amplifier, this can be added to your unit at modest cost, as can other customizations.  Keeping with the purist approach, Music First ships the Classic v2 without a remote, but one is offered for an additional $1,000.  The fairly elaborate remote includes a rear-mounted stepper motor, so there is no interaction with the signal path.

So the major question is, “Do you want just the facts or a preamplifier that can perhaps embellish somewhat?”  As we well know, some preamplifiers can do just that, adding some dynamic weight and even a sweetness of tone, which can be a good thing in many cases.  The Classic v2 allows the music to come through with an addicting sense of purity.  Most modern sources have enough output to drive power amps and all but the most insensitive speakers to satisfaction.  So the need for an active preamp can be a preference more than a necessity in many cases.

The other question to be raised is whether to take advantage of Music First’s silver or copper transformer wiring.  The company admits on its website that it does not consider the silver a premium sound option, though the silver wire is more costly and tougher to work with.

If transparency, a virtually non-existent noise floor and quick transient response are priorities, the Classic v2 should be high on your short list for linestage auditions.  A nice bonus is that it feels like a luxury component, and is made with precision and an attention to detail that can only be accomplished with low-volume, bespoke components.

The Classic v2 is a revelation, providing performance that will only be limited by the source components driving it.  How much better is the company’s Baby Reference, with the full-blown transformer design?  Stay tuned, as I’ll be reviewing one shortly!  If you’re tired of exotic power cords and tube rolling, this is the linestage for you—enthusiastically recommended.

Music First Audio Classic v2 Preamplifier

MSRP: Approx. $4,000 (£2,200)


Speakers Thiel CS2.4
Preamplifier Audio Research SP16L
Power Amplifiers Audio Research VS55    Bob Carver Black Magic
DAC Bryston BDA-1
Transport Musical Fidelity M1 CDT"
Server Mac mini/Squeezebox Touch
Cables Transparent    Audience    Darwin    Element    DH Labs
Accessories Audience aDept Response aR6 power conditioner    Symposium Rollerblock Jr. ball-bearing isolation    Shakti Stone electromagnetic stabilizer

Carole King – Music

Mobile Fidelity did a great job last year resurrecting Carole King’s Live At Carnegie Hall double album. The reissue label backs it up with Music, mining major treasure from the early 70s master tape. While King’s third album failed to match the 11-times platinum success of Tapestry, Music achieved gold status soon after its release. It also contains a handful of hits that were more successful for artists that later covered them than they were for King.

Using an early Ode copy for comparison reveals the original pressing possessing more sparkle on the top end, but more surface noise, too. Thanks to the MoFi edition’s extra resolution, it’s much easier to hear the expressiveness of King’s voice and keyboard overdubs. Listeners with cartridges featuring a more romantic tonal balance might be a bit disappointed. My Koetsu Urushi Blue is too polite for this record, yet the more resolving Rega Apheta is suited to extracting every bit of detail. Both the original and remaster suffer from modest distortion lurking in the loudest passages. However, said offense is nowhere as egregious as that plaguing Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark.

Mobile Fidelity 180g LP

World’s First Review!

Imagine controlling ten our even twenty thousand full-resolution albums from your iPad while basking in the comfort of a cozy couch or listening chair. Meridian’s new Media Core App for the renowned Sooloos music server makes it possible. If you’ve played with a Sooloos at a hi-fi show or a local dealer, you know the effortlessness with which a Sooloos presents a large music collection. And if you are a current Sooloos owner, you’ve been dreaming about this marriage since the minute you unpacked your iPad.

Sooloos’ strengths are its speed and ease by which its touchscreen allows users to jump from album to album, and across genres and artists. It simultaneously loads up the music you want to hear at that exact moment, accessing music collections via album covers and you can discover the other albums in a set and by the artist in your collection.  It’s better than flipping through musty record bins.

The cost of a complete system will be a barrier to entry for some, as the Control 15 core (which is essentially a complete Windows PC with an integral touch screen and Smartlink output and has 500 gb of internal storage that still requires external backup) has an MSRP of $8,500.  Those with larger music collections need only add the Media Drive 600, which can be configured to contain about 7500 albums with backup.

Still not a budget music server, the iPad/Media Core 200 dramatically lowers the cost of a Sooloos system and can easily grow with your budget and music collection. Along with more storage, sound quality can also be improved with the addition of an MS 600, 818, or 808.3 digital front end.  MSRP on the Media Core 200 is $4,000.

According to Peter Welikoff, Meridian’s US Director, the average Sooloos user has just under 3000 CDs—meaning that a single Media Drive 600 should satisfy all but those listeners with giant libraries. For the latter, Sooloos is infinitely scalable. Enno Vandermeer, the man behind Sooloos’ architecture, says he’s aware of users with 25,000-disc collections reporting their Sooloos’ perform flawlessly and without loss of speed.

Mind-bending as the system is, holding everything on the iPad screen is almost otherworldly. In addition to providing album-art navigation, clicking on an album image immediately reveals cover art, track listing, and credits. It also allows you to tag music by mood and genre. A music lover’s dream, the app lets you mix your collection at will, and affords instant additions or subtractions should your desires change.  And, you are only one click away from having reviews of these albums, courtesy of All Music Guide, at your disposal.  A welcome feature on the Control 15, but infinitely more enjoyable when perusing from listening position. Any time during your listening session, merely tapping the Meridian logo will display the current track playing, a nice touch.

Other favorite Sooloos features are there as well, focus and swim functions also allow you to concentrate on a particular artist, mood, or genre, taking random play to another level completely.  Want to just listen to 60’s blues, old school rap or string quartets?  Piece of cake, and no other music software allows this amount of control.

Setup is as easy as installing Angry Birds on an iPad. Upon launch, the app seeks the system core and takes about 30 seconds to load the album covers. (While the Sooloos system still claims optimum performance when hardwired to an Ethernet network, the Media Core App works wirelessly with the iPad, so you will need wireless capability on your home network as well.) Once installed and running, current users will marvel at the integration. Provided you have a strong Wi-Fi signal, the iPad controls the Sooloos system as quickly as the Control 15. However, if you do not have maximum signal, you’ll notice a slight lag in page-loading and track selection. This is like going from a manual transmission to an automatic—not objectionable, but not as snappy. Note: Should you be starting from scratch and using a pair of Meridian’s excellent powered loudspeakers, you only need the Media Core 200 and the speakers to make a complete system that can all be directly controlled from the iPad.

To faithful owners, the app is overdue. But the Meridian/Sooloos team wanted to be sure it was fully sorted upon release, and it performs without a hitch. When viewing final beta versions at CES this past January, you could still occasionally crash the iPad. I was unable to trip-up this final version.

As a veteran Sooloos owner, I couldn’t be more excited about this addition to the system. Sure, you can assemble computer-based music server together for much less than the price of a Sooloos. Yet Sooloos remains without peer when it comes to true plug-and-play solutions that seamlessly take care of backup files. Not to mention that it possesses the industry’s most intuitive interface. Bob Stuart makes it clear that the design goal with the iPad was to offer the same level of features and performance as the Control 15 on a portable platform, and it only takes a moment using the app to see that they have indeed.

Bringing this level of functionality to the iPad is beyond brilliant – it sets the gold standard for music servers even higher.  Legacy Sooloos owners take note, the Sooloos moniker will be fading away and new music server products will rolled out under the Meridian nameplate – everything under the hood and on the pad will remain the same.

The app is free now at the Apple App Store, but you will need a Meridian Music Server to take advantage of it.

Click here to go directly to the App Store.

TJ Music Full Music Vacuum Tubes


If you love tubes as much as I do, you know the lure of finding great NOS tubes.  There aren’t that many lurking in garage sales anymore, so the chance of finding a cache of Mullards or Telefunkens for five bucks is slim to non-existent.  Even the old ham radio operators know about eBay now and price their booty accordingly.

The designer and end user face the same dilemma; where to get the good tubes without breaking the bank.  Many love the sound of the old Telefunkens, Mullards and Phillips 12AX7s, but the best examples can fetch 200 – 300 dollars on the right day.  Just like buying parts to restore a vintage Porsche 356, there are only so many NOS parts to go around and those remaining get more expensive by the day.  Fortunately all but the very best 12AU7’s are still below 100 dollars each, but again as supply goes down and demand goes up, the end result is inevitable.

New New Stock

Having had excellent luck in the past with the TJ Music 300B’s, I was anxious to try their small signal tubes and was pleased with the results.   The folks at Grant Fidelity are now the North American importers for these tubes and you can see their full selection at  These are brand new tubes, manufactured in Tianjin City, China.

Both the 12AX7 and 12AU7’s are 55 dollars each and for an extra 10 dollars per tube you can get the standard 30-day warranty extended to 12 months.  If you listen to your system fairly frequently, I suggest spending the extra 10 dollars, as tubes will usually fail around 1000 hours if they do not exhibit immediate defects.

First test: Phono

The low noise requirements of a moving coil phono preamplifier seemed like the best place to start with the TJ’s, if they could pass this test, I figured they would probably ace serving as driver tubes.  Unfortunately, my Nagra VPS phono stage uses a 12AX7 and a 12AT7, so I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that TJ comes out with a 12AT7 (and a 6922) soon.

The Nagra VPS is a rare component that does not respond well to tube rolling.  I’ve yet to use a vintage NOS tube that has done a better job than the standard, handpicked EH tubes that Nagra chose for duty in this preamplifier.  Swapping the EH 12AX7 for a very expensive Telefunken just muddied up the midrange and switching to a Mullard slowed down the presentation and increased background noise.

The TJ was a much different story, this tube showed an improvement across the board.  Dynamics were increased, with extension at both ends of the frequency scale, without any harshness.  I dragged out a few favorite warhorses that I’ve heard quite a few times to make the judgment as easy as possible. Right from the first record, Dire Straits Communique, I was impressed.  My copy of this is just an average pressing that you can purchase in any used record store for about $5 and is somewhat compressed.  Just swapping in the TJ 12AX7 gave this record much more impact and I was hearing some low level detail throughout the record that I had to strain to hear before.  Moving on to the second Chicago album (the current Rhino remaster) had the same result.  When using the stock 12AX7, the horns in “25 or 6 to 4” seemed to be on the same plane as my MartinLogan CLX’s, but with the TJ 12AX7, the horns jumped out of the speaker plane and were right in front of me, with the image having much more front to back dimensionality.

tj_2Second test:  Driver

The next step was to pop a pair of TJ 12AX7’s and 12AU7’s in one of my Prima Luna Dialogue 7 monoblocks while leaving the other one as it came from the factory.  This time switching to the Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s, I played a handful of Classic Records recent mono jazz releases and switched back and forth between the left and right channels, both receiving the same mono signal, leaving no doubt to the change.

In case you are not familiar with the Prima Luna amplifiers, they are somewhat on the warm, lush side of the tonality scale, which is more often than not a good thing.  You can get a slightly more modern tube amplifier sound by swapping the KT88’s for some NOS Tung Sol’s or similar, but those tubes are fetching upwards of 250 dollars each these days.  That shakes out to almost half the original purchase price!

Fortunately, you can get very close to the same effect with the TJ’s.  If you like the more vintage sound of the Prima Lunas, stick with the stock tubes, but if you would like more punch, this is a great investment that won’t break the bank.

TJ’s for me!

The only thing that can’t be verified at this time is how long these tubes will last.  My experience with current stock Russian and Chinese tubes has shown a lifespan of about 3000-4000 hours with a failure rate of about 25%, so this will remain a question mark for now.  I’ve been running the 12AX7 in my Nagra VPS, which sees about 12 hours a day duty and my trusty Radio Shack stop watch is up to about 1400 hours with no problems so far.  I’ll be sure to report back in about a year, when I’ve run the clock beyond the 5000-hour range.

For now, the TJ’s are highly recommended if the tonal changes I’ve mentioned sound like a plus to you.  I’ve always had great luck with the folks at Grant Fidelity, so you can shop with confidence.