GamuT M250i Mono Power Amplifiers

It’s my turn to get in on all the GamuT fun. Our publisher has been using GamuT speakers for years now and managing editor Rob Johnson is smitten with the D3i preamplifier.

Of the few manufacturers that build a full complement of electronics and speakers, they voice things differently. Burmester, for example, produces speakers that are somewhat forward, punchy and a little tipped up on the bottom and the top, yet the electronics are very warm sounding, almost tube-like, though fully solid-state.

GamuT however, is somewhat different. The speakers have an incredibly natural voice, and the electronics even more so. Even though their electronics and speakers produce perfect synergy, as you might expect because their components are much more neutral, tonally speaking, you do not have to have an all-GamuT system to achieve great results. Though you just might want to for simplicity’s sake.

Like the average Dane, the M250i is slim. 84 pounds (38kg) is substantial, but not what you’d expect a 250-watt per channel (into an 8 ohm load) that doubles into 4 ohms and still produces 900 watts into 2 ohms. Lifting the cover with the GamuT logo, it’s easy to see why; the power supply is huge! Unlike some solid-state amplifiers that require a huge bank of output devices to produce high power, GamuT uses two really big MOSFET transistors per channel, capable of passing 400 peak amperes of current each. Naim also takes this approach with their 500 series amplifier and the result is very special. Two transistors means no device matching is necessary, with none of the associated problems. Less is more.

While on that subject, the M250i has an interesting bit of simplicity or complexity, depending on how you look at it. On the rear panel, there are two sets of speaker outputs that you might mistake to use to bi-wire a pair of speakers. Don’t do it. One has a traditional resistor and coil output filter, as many solid state amplifiers do, more suited to ESL speakers and those with more difficult impedance loads, while the other outputs (the ones closer to the heatsinks) are direct coupled outputs. GamuT claims that either way, you can’t hurt these amplifiers, but I did follow their lead when using my pair of Quad 63s.

Inputs are via RCA or balanced XLR, and this is a fully balanced amplifier, so that mode will provide the best results. It’s worth mentioning that it is tough to tell the difference in sound using the ARC REF5 preamplifier, which sounds equally good through it’s balanced, and RCA outputs––and I have equally impressive results with my CJ Act Two preamplifier, which is RCA only.

Danes are usually somewhat reserved, but the GamuT manual is not only well written but also pretty amusing to read. They make great points about setup, cables and gain, mentioning that “at 4 ohms, full output power is more than 151,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than the input noise power.” A cursory listen confirms that these monoblocks are indeed quiet.

Not only does this provide a fatigue-free sound, but I’m sure this simple design contributes to another wonderful aspect of the M250i: it sounds incredible at low volume. Amplifier genius and mad scientist Nelson Pass likes to say that if the first watt isn’t great, the rest don’t matter. The M250i exemplifies this philosophy. Make no mistake, when you want to crank AC/DC or Skrillex, the M250i is fully capable. The cannon shots at the end of “For Those About to Rock” are awesome and have the necessary “crack” upon ignition without blur.

Mated to my Vandersteen 5A speakers, which are just slightly warm tonally, the M250i proves a perfect match for the rest of my system, utilizing an Audio Research REF 5 preamplifier. For decades I’ve been a fan of a great tube preamplifier mated to a powerful solid-state power amplifier to reap the rewards of both. The M250i does not disappoint in any way.

Never edgy or strident, the M250i’s feel a little foggy when powered up from ice cold. They only draw 50 watts in standby mode, so unless your energy habits have you immersed in guilt, I say leave them plugged in all the time. Otherwise, expect about 30 minutes before they reach full capability.

Unless you have the world’s most inefficient speakers, your ears will run out of headroom before the M250is will. Even listening at brain damage levels, these amplifiers do not run overly hot, so you will not be able to heat your listening room with them. Even after exhausting my record collection, I find it impossible to overdrive or overheat the GamuT amplifiers. I am most impressed at how they fail to draw any attention to themselves – they merely let the music flow.

What I do notice is the way these amplifiers render the finest of detail without ever sounding harsh, strident, or particularly solid-state in character. Well-worn recordings feel brand new again. A TONE favorite, the Crash Test Dummies’ Give Yourself a Hand, is full of sonic surprises. With extra overdubs and little vocal anomalies floating all around my listening area, it is almost like consuming something illegal. The only thing I didn’t really get to explore was the depth of the M250i’s bass response, as my Vandersteens only need the main power amplifier to go down to 80hz. But our publisher put them to the full test.

Spending way too much time with the entire Neu! catalog offers up the same results with jangly guitars and driving rythym in full force. Not happy to stop there, a couple of evening’s worth of Eno’s Ambient series, finishing up with the classic Ambient 1: Music For Airports is marvelous. Eno’s gentle touch on the keyboard is even more delicate than I remember, with decay that seems to go on forever. Even this vacuum tube lover finds plenty to love here, and it really has me considering a pair for myself, especially in light of just having bought 16 KT120 tubes!

The GamuT amplifiers are a statement product, and for all but the most insane audiophile, should easily be the last power amplifiers you’ll need to buy. They offer musical delight with no negatives whatsoever. Enthusiastically recommended.

Additional listening – Going all GamuT

After discussing the performance of the GamuT M250i amplifiers with Rob and Jerold, we all agree that they stand on their own as world-class power amplifiers. In the context of tube and solid-state systems, they integrate easily into whatever components you happen to be using. Thanks to their high current capability, they drive any speaker with ease. Though class AB in design, their lack of grain reminds me of a class-A amplifier, or the Burmester 911.

The M250is join a very elite group of solid-state amplifiers that just reveal music, not really sounding like transistor amplifiers or vacuum tubes. As one of the few manufacturers that can successfully build electronics and speakers with equal prowess, a complete GamuT system is wonderful. And for someone wanting an incredibly high performance audio system without the anxiety of trying to choose the right amp, preamp, speakers and digital player, I suggest an all-GamuT system. Complete the system with a set of their power cords, interconnects and speaker cables – one stop shopping!

Mated with their preamplifier and the recently reviewed RS5 speakers provides a highly compelling and dynamic system that can play anything you can throw at it with ease. Mixing it up with different amplification proves more different than better or worse. The Audio Research GSPre and GS150 offer up a bit more holographic, three dimensional presentation, while the mighty Pass Xs Pre and Xs300 monoblocks present a slightly warmer tonal balance and a little more slam. Keep in mind that these are hairsplitting differences; you won’t go wrong either way.

Of course the M250is sound lovely with my reference GamuT RS5 and S9 speakers. I’ve heard the M250is at a number of trade shows, and the match with GamuT speakers is as close to perfection as it gets. Just as these monoblocks work well in tandem with other preamplifiers and source components, they should be able to drive anything. Torturing them with Quad, MartinLogan and Acoustat ESLs is a breeze, and they work equally well with the Epicon 8s from Dali we recently had in for review as well as the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers. I even lugged them to a friend’s house with a pair of old Apogee Divas! Nothing presents a problem to these high current powerhouses.

Because Mr. O’Brien’s Vandersteen 5A’s are passively crossed over at 80Hz, I spent quite a bit of time examining the bass character of the M250is. Whether I was enjoying “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Bitch Better Have My Money,” these amplifiers provide weight, control and fine detail. A perfect balance is struck in texture, never under nor overdamped, something that is easy to notice with speakers like the GamuTs, which reproduce ultra low bass with ease, and often a hallmark of massive solid-state amplifiers.

Great as the M250is are with GamuT speakers, they are particularly good with the current Quad 2815s too. These speakers are mercilessly revealing and finicky to get good sound from, yet the GamuT amplifiers deliver a presentation that is smooth and dynamic, along with being controlled and forceful in the lower register––something not easy to achieve with the Quads. The thundering bass line in Bowie’s classic “Fashion” was wonderful to experience, yet in the middle of the dissonant piano solo in “Aladdin Sane,” the bass line is well articulated, holding its own space brilliantly between the keyboard and Bowie’s vocal. These are indeed special amplifiers, no matter what speakers you own and whatever your musical choices might be.

-Jeff Dorgay

The GamuT M250i Monoblock Amplifiers



Analog Source             SME20 turntable/SMEV Tonearm, Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge

Digital Source Simaudio MOON 750D

Phonostage                  Audio Research REF Phono 2

Preamplifier                Audio Research REF 5

Cable                           Nordost Frey

Speakers                      Vandersteen 5A

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

Power Squid

While not necessarily an audiophile product, we’ve had great luck with wire products from Home Depot in the past. The Power Squid is another product worth considering for the audiophile on a budget. With plenty of copper in its tentacles, it’s a great way to get power to multiple sources, whether in the listening room, computer room or garage.

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifier

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

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

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

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

The Magic of the EL34

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

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

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

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

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

Changes Under the Hood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab a Pair

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

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

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

DiaLogue Premium amplifier

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


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

Plinius SA-Reference Power Amplifier

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

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

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

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

Major Microdynamics

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

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

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

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

Plenty of Punch

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

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

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

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

The Art of Relaxation

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

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

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

A Little Comparison Shopping

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

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

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

In the End…

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

SA-Reference Power Amplifier

MSRP: $20,900


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

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

The First Watt J2 is an absolute honey of an amp. Hooked up to my Zu Essence speakers, the sound isn’t merely spectacular; it regularly keeps me up long after I should have gone to bed. The J2 is sublime, but I don’t think this point can be made often enough: when a reviewer says an amp is “great,” what he’s really saying is that it’s great with the speaker (or speakers) he’s auditioned it with. The same logic could be applied to speaker reviews because you can’t listen to speakers without listening through an amp. So it’s really the combination of the two – speaker and amp – that we hear. Sure, the rest of the system, namely the preamp, sources and cables, all play their parts. But the interactions between amp and speakers can make or break the sound – and with the high efficiency Zu’s it’s a winner.

The First Watt J2 and Zu Essence are both made in the United States. Zu is a new wave, youthful audiophile company. First Watt is a Nelson Pass enterprise, and he’s the founder and CEO of Pass Laboratories. In the 1970s, his first venture, Threshold, broke new ground in solid-state designs, and he’s still advancing the state-of-the-art. First Watt exists because Pass wants to explore a variety of amplifier-design strategies in what he thinks of as “neglected areas:” amplifiers that might not fit into the mainstream and are probably not appropriate for Pass Labs.

The J2 is a stereo power amplifier rated at 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and 13 watts into 4 ohms. The clean, compact design measures 17 by 5.5 by 16 inches, and it weighs about 25 pounds. It has a two-stage circuit and operates in pure single-ended Class A mode, with signal JFET devices forming the input stage and power JFET devices for the output stage. What’s that, a JFET output stage? That’s special. Every solid-state amp you or I have ever heard used bipolar or MOSFET transistors in the output stage. The J2 sports JFETs, and that’s way cool.

Yes, I recall that Sony and Yamaha made JFET amps ages ago, but then power JFETs were MIA. Now they’re back. Pass heard that SemiSouth Corporation of Missouri had started making new power JFET transistors with high voltage, current and power capabilities – as high as 1,200 volts, 30 amps, and 273 watts. These new JFETs were designed for very fast switching in solar-power and electric-car applications. Pass bought a few of these JFETs and found they had a very low distortion characteristic. Compared with MOSFET-type power transistors, JFETs can achieve 10 to 20 dB improvements in distortion performance. So a JFET doesn’t need as much feedback to keep distortion low. It’s low from the get go.

Pass aims to design what he calls “simple circuits” because, as he once so eloquently put it, “Complexity tends to be the nemesis of musicality…” As he refines a design, he listens to how individual parts – capacitors, resistors, semiconductors, etc – change not only what he can measure but how they put their “signatures” on the sound.

Low-power, singled-ended tube amps have been popular with some audiophiles, especially those with highly efficient speakers, so you might assume Pass was trying to build a solid-state amp that would appeal to that crowd. But that’s not the J2’s mission. It doesn’t sound like tubes; it’s not warm, mellow, romantic or lush.

The J2 is all about purity and exceptional transparency. It’s a colorless device. Low-level resolution of recording-room sound or added reverberation are reproduced with startling fidelity. If you want romance, look elsewhere. Play a nasty-sounding recording, such as  Arcade Fire’s recent The Suburbs CD, and it will sound hard, grainy  and ferociously compressed. Gorgeous recordings, such as Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass’ Sophisticated Lady CD, will be a feast for the ears. Ella’s voice, from a whisper to a full-on wail, takes center stage, and Pass’ fleet-fingered fretwork is not too shabby! The feel of the sound is tangibly live, and the anything-can-happen excitement of the 1983 Tokyo concert was perfectly resurrected by the amp and speaker. Sophisticated is my favorite Fitzgerald album, precisely because it gets me closer to the live event than anything else.

The J2/Essence combination is dynamically consistent from bass to treble, so the sound feels right. There is a definite tunefullness, a toe-tapping, engaging quality that brings music to life. Bass is quick and nimble, but it won’t bowl you over with room-shaking, pants-flapping low-end. If you want that, get a subwoofer.

After an hour or so, the J2’s heat sinks and the entire chassis get pretty warm, so you wouldn’t want to rest your hand on it for more than a few seconds. The power switch is on the amp’s rear panel, which might be a tad inconvenient if you want to put the J2 in a rack or cabinet. Then again, considering how much heat this amp generates, proper ventilation is a must. I put the J2 out on the floor between the Essences, so it was easy to reach around to the power switch. The warranty runs three years, but Pass claims that in more than eleven years, he’s never had a single First Watt product returned for a warranty claim.

Comparing the J2 with my Pass Labs XA100.5 100-watt monoblocks was a study in contrast. The big amps’ power advantage was obvious, and that manifested itself in sheer gravitas and a richer, fleshier tonal balance. The XA100.5 soundstage was deeper and broader, but the J2 was just as transparent. Low-level resolution and transient speed were on par the XA100.5. And the big amp is four times as expensive as the J2.

The little amp’s 25 watts uncorked the full measure of Booker T & the MGs prodigious funk. Healthy doses of the band’s Time Is Tight three-box CD set proved the amp has what it takes. Duck Dunn’s supple bass lines made all the right moves, and Steve Cropper’s tasty guitar tricks were finger-lickin’ good. Then again, Booker T’s Hammond-organ grooves are the music’s bedrock, and he was always adding just the right flavor to the mix.

The live tracks from Cream’s Goodbye LP may not have had the same sort of unstoppable mojo as the Booker T sides, but played at a satisfyingly loud level, Jack Bruce’s fat bass riffing off Eric Clapton’s stinging guitar leads were beautifully rendered. Ginger Baker’s heavyweight drumming had tremendous impact, so any concern that the little amp’s 25 watts per would inhibit my style were soon forgotten.

The Cream record isn’t by any stretch an audiophile recording, but I loved the way the J2 decoded the texture of Bruce’s bass and Baker’s drum kit. They were more dimensionally present than I ever recall hearing from the Mobile Fidelity Goodbye gold CD. Same could be said about Still Life, a live Rolling Stones LP from their 1981 tour. I’ve never really liked this LP, but it clicked over the J2, and it made me think about how much better the Stones were when bassist Bill Wyman was still in the band. “Start Me Up” was a highlight; the band still had a bit of their youthful power, but that was almost 30 years ago!

I also put the J2 through its paces with Anthony Gallo Acoustics’ new and improved Reference 3.5 speakers. It’s not a super-efficient design (only a moderate 88 dB/1 watt), but the impedance stays around 8 ohms before it drops like a stone around 20 kHz. I really love this new Gallo for its remarkably open quality and its transient speed. Soundstage depth and low-level resolution are superb, and the J2 handily exploited all of those strengths. But power was an issue, so if you like to listen loud, the J2/Reference 3.5 combo won’t float your boat.

The Hifiman HE-6 planar-magnetic headphones (similar operating principal as Magnepan speakers) can be hooked directly to any power amp, so I couldn’t help but try the headphones with the J2. Wow, the sound was oh-so transparent, definitely on par with Stax electrostatic headphones. But the J2/HE-6 combination was vastly more dynamic and the bass kicked harder than any ‘stat phones I’ve ever tried. The HE-6 is one of the most open-sounding headphones around, and the J2 only seemed to enhance that quality. Soundstage width and depth on Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea CD were truly expansive. My only reservation was the bass. Other amps generated gutsier drive and more low-end oomph than the J2 did with the HE-6.

The J2 doesn’t sound like a tube amp, but its musicality with my Essence speakers was spectacular. So if you have a Zu, horn or any high-efficiency speaker, the J2 could do the same for you.

Additional Listening:

More Power!

By Jeff Dorgay

Should the J2 not be quite enough juice for your speakers, consider the First Watt M2.  Rated at an equivalent 25 watts per channel, the

M2 is a push-pull design whereas the J2 is single-ended Class A. The M2 produces 40 watts per channel into a 4 ohm load, where the J2 produces only 13 watts per channel.

Bottom line, the M2 amplifier should be able to drive most speakers to adequate sound-pressure levels.  I’ve been a fan of Nelson’s Class A designs all the way back to the Threshold 4000A, but everything that Steve has described in the J2 is available with slightly more power in the M2 model. The M2 is slightly less expensive, at $3,600.

Removing the $60,000 pair of Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks in my reference system, the M2 held its own, with even slightly more inner detail than the German monster amps.  This amplifier was able to take hold of the GamuT S9’s with enough control that a few casual visitors didn’t even know the Burmester amplifiers were no longer in the system!

Watch for a full review shortly when I have time to peel the smile off of my face.  Nelson Pass has done it again.

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

MSRP: $4,000


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition Blu-ray player
Electronics Parasound JC 1 preamp    JC 2 power amp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp   First Watt J2 power amp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp
Speakers Zu Essence    Zu Soul Superfly    Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan MG 3.6/R
Headphones Hifiman HE-6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    Audioquest Sky interconnect    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    XLO Signature-3 power cords

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

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

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

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

Digital Enhancement

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

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

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

Next Step, Analog

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

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

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

In the Box

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

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

Furutech f-TP615 Power Distributor

MSRP:  $1,650

Alpha PS-950-18 Power Cords

MSRP:  $1,800 ea. (1.8m length)

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Stereo Power Amplifier

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

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

Hassle-Free Tube Power

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

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

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

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

Love at First Listen

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

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

And Secondly

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

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

I’m a Fan!

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

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

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium Stereo Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $2,299


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

Burmester 909 MK5 power amplifier

Just as mega sports cars all offer different approaches to performance, giving the Aston Martin driver a completely different experience than the Ferrari, Porsche or Corvette driver, so do mega power amplifiers.  I’ve spent a lot of time these last few months with some of the world’s top amplifiers and it’s amazing how different from one another they sound.  But each amp, in its own way, defines state-of-the-art audio performance.

Burmester’s smaller 911 MK3 has been a reference amplifier here for almost four years.  Surviving a fall from the FedEx truck in the middle of a busy intersection, the 911 has played nonstop for the duration, rarely being powered down, always providing fantastic performance.

But even considering the 911’s prowess as an amplifier, more power changes the game.  Beyond the obvious ability of bigger amplifiers to achieve higher sound-pressure levels, they also offer more control at all power levels.  Most, if not all, speakers present a treacherous load to an amplifier’s output terminals, changing impedance with frequency and generating back EMF—some speakers are even highly capacitive to boot.  The dynamic load a speaker presents does not adversely affect a massive amplifier like the 909 MK5, with substantial power reserves and a high-damping factor, in the same way it does a small amplifier.  The end result?  A spacious sound, free of fatigue.

Big Power, Big Price Tag

Merely swapping out the 911 for the 909 provides an immediately noticeable and revelatory improvement—which it should for $73,495.  The German Physiks speakers I’ve been auditioning for the last month appear to grow in stature, feeling like someone snuck in overnight and moved them about 4 feet farther apart; the effect is not at all subtle.  And that’s starting with the amazing Burmester 911 as a baseline!  The instant Alex Van Halen’s drum stick hits the opening cymbal in “You’re No Good,” there’s more decay, more weight and more meat on the bone.  Right from the first power cord, the guitar has a much fatter sound, feeling more like a wall of amplifiers at a live performance, with a feeling of unlimited power.

The bass line underneath Radiohead’s “In Limbo” not only has more texture, but there’s also more space between everything—said bass line, the ethereal guitars, keyboards and dreamy, over-processed vocals.  This tune can sound compressed, as if the musicians are too close together and crowded, but the 909 opens it right up, giving the music room to breathe and keeping the pace of the rhythm section solidly anchored while everything else floats around the room.

Burmester’s 911 MK3 produces 350 watts per channel into 4 ohms; the 909 MK5 pumps out 600 watts per channel.  With 20 precision-matched outputs per channel and an enormous 3.5-kV power transformer, the 909 doesn’t have much empty space inside its mammoth enclosure, which measures 19 by 19 by 20 inches and weighs in at 170 pounds.  Fortunately, it comes in a padded road case with wheels—another sign of the care that goes into its production.  It’s worth noting that all Burmester power amplifiers are burned in at full power for seven days continuously before they are released to customers.  Though Burmester suggests that the 909 sounds its best after 200 hours, it’s damn good straight out of the (aluminum) box.  Those with tough to drive speakers take note: the 909 mk.5 will produce 1250 watts per channel into a 1 ohm load – indefinitely.  I needed one of these back when I had Apogee Scintillas!

The Loud and Quiet of it All

Playing Rachel Macfarlane’s Hayley Sings through the 909 MK5 provides a perfect example of the silky smoothness that the amp presents.  It’s not all about brute force.  Backed by a Sinatra-esque big band, her lead vocals deliver a strong timbre that the 909 effortlessly renders.  As her voice goes quickly from loud to soft, it never gets lost in the blaze of horns accompanying her.  Equally delicate is the opening bass line in Rage Against the Machine’s “Calm Like a Bomb.”  The 909 captures every bit of texture, until the song goes full tilt, with distorted guitars bombarding the listener from every angle. Again, this monster amplifier handles it all in perfect stride.

Switching speakers to the GamuT S9s and giving the volume control a twist towards the maximum, on Fear’s “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones,” sheds new light on this classic punk cut.  The 909 provides an otherworldly, out-of-body experience, transporting me right back to when I followed the band in 1981.  It’s as if the 909 reproduces the sound and the sweat.  There’s an extra dimension at work here.

With the volume up to brain-damage levels, it just wouldn’t be a proper Burmester review without a few Scorpions tracks, so out comes the 45-rpm maxi singles.  Tracking through “Rock You Like a Hurricane” has those present for the audition reaching for lighters and brings the police to our front door—the ultimate testament to the 909’s brute force.

Those of you in the audience who are more proper audiophiles will be pleased to know that the 909 MK5 does a smashing job on your favorite acoustic tracks, female vocal pieces and, of course, large-scale orchestral recordings.  The cannon shots at the end of 1812 Overture really come to life with this much power on tap, and if that’s not enough, you can bridge the 909 to produce a monoblock capable of 1,930 watts per channel.  You’ll probably need an electrical-supply upgrade to a pair of 20-amp dedicated lines; Burmester makes note that your power must be up to the task in order to achieve this high output.  Bridging can be done via external adaptors, as with the 911, or your 909s can be ordered directly from the factory this way.


While it’s just so much fun to explore an amplifier that has no real dynamic limits (at least in the context of my room and system), the true magic of Burmester’s power amplifier is twofold:  It has an almost silky sonic texture that is unique, nestled right between the “just-the-facts” sonic signature of the Boulder 3050 or the Simaudio MOON 880M, as well as the slightly warm and inviting, almost tube-like sound of the Pass XA200.5.  Heavily biased, but not fully Class A, the 909 generates precious little heat, even after a long listening session.

Anyone attending Burmester’s after-hours party at last year’s New York Hi-Fi Show witnessed a pair of these mighty amplifiers playing to a crowded room that was easily the size of a small club with a 30-foot ceiling.  By the end of the night, the 909s remained barely warm to the touch, and were not damaged by the DJ plugging and unplugging things with the volume turned up, making a hateful sound through the enormous Burmester speakers in the process.

Exquisite Build

This brute force is packaged in a stunning box.  From the extrusions on its heat sinks, to its subtle bits of chrome plating, to the Burmester logo machined in script on its top cover, the 909 goes to show that no one produces better casework than Burmester.  I spend a lot of time removing the last few dust specs in post-production and can’t help but be blown away with the quality work of Burmester’s machine shop.  Even with the images blown up 1000 percent on screen, there are no machining, engraving or plating flaws to be seen anywhere.

This is truly a luxury product that delivers the goods sonically and is also a joy to look at, even when turned off.  The 909 MK5 is built to a standard that should allow you to leave it for the next generation—a true value in a society where so many products are easily discarded.

The back panel has two large carrying handles, and the speaker binding posts have large winged knobs, making it easy to attach any type of speaker cable you might be considering.  Even though there are banana plugs in these gigantic twist terminals, Dieter Burmester himself suggests spade-lug termination on your speaker cables for the best connection and transference of such high power.

The only problem with the Burmester 909 MK5 is that once you have the experience, it’s tough to go back.  As we spend more time with this remarkable amplifier, we will do a proper head-to-head comparison between it and the 911 MK3 with a wide range of program material, and will report back in the Comparo section of our website, so please check back shortly.

For now, suffice it to say the Burmester 909 MK5 will handle any challenge.

The Burmester 909 MK5 power amplifier

MSRP:  $73,495 (factory) (North American Distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP Turntable    TriPlanar arm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital Source Light Harmonic DAC    Meridian Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF 5 SE
Speakers GamuT S9    German Physiks Unlimited MK II
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek

Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

As I tear through some of my favorite reference tracks, I’m not only taken by the Viola Bravo stereo power amplifier, which I’ve heard sound fantastic at a number of recent hi-fi shows, but I’m also amazed at how much it shares with the best solid-state amplifiers I’ve heard, particularly the big Boulders.  We have here a new contender for the top of the mountain, complete with glowing green power indicators.

Rather than opt for a monoblock design, Viola takes a different tack by going with a dual-chassis configuration.  One of the boxes holds the majority of the power supply, including a 2-kV power transformer, and the other contains the amplification circuitry, with strategically placed 80,000-uF capacitors located near the output-stage nodes to keep power close at hand.  This setup works brilliantly; the Bravo produces a fast, clean sound, without sounding harsh or grainy.

This approach also makes for a sound not unlike that provided by a pair of monoblocks: a huge soundstage combined with amazing stereo imaging and precise placement.  As Prince walks between the channels on “Shy,” the speakers momentarily melt as the volume of the guitars gently increases and the other instruments join in.  This is a special amplifier indeed.

Viola Labs’ principals Paul Jayson and Tom Colangelo spent part of their early careers at Levinson, and the Bravo definitely has the trademark solid bass response of the best Levinson designs of yore, but with a much more palpable midrange and even more natural highs.  The bass line in the title track of George Michael’s Older goes straight to the gut, controlling my KEF Blades as few amplifiers in recent memory have.  Only the massive Pass monos have more grip in my system, but it’s really a close call.  Viola claims that the Bravo needs a 25-amp line to deliver the absolute maximum power, but we only have dedicated 20-amp circuits here, so we’ll take them on faith.  It is worth noting that the Bravo never feels strained in the least, even on a dedicated 20-amp line.

Put On Your Kidney Belt

With the power supply weighing in at about 125 pounds and the amplifier weighing about 90 pounds, you’ll need a friend to help you unpack and place these fairly large enclosures (17 inches wide by 9.6 inched high by 26 inches deep).  The duo also tips the price scale at $58,000, so if you are paying in small coins, you’ll need strong biceps there, as well.

These tidy enclosures eschew exposed heat sinks in favor of fan-cooled operation, with a massive umbilical cord joining the two boxes.  These two elements are the only shortcomings of the design.  The umbilical cord, which is connected via spade links on each box, can present a problem, especially if you’re among the 8 percent of people with some form of color blindness.  Either way, attach the umbilical carefully, one wire at a time, to avoid a loud (and costly) boom at turn on.  As far as the fan goes, it’s not completely silent.  Those living on a steady diet of rock, jazz and hip-hop (like yours truly) will never notice it, but if your taste turns more towards string quartets at low volume, the fan will be invasive.  The Bravo’s fan is not as quiet as the one in my ARC REF 150, so I’d say it could use some improvement.

The Bravo delivers 350 watts per channel into 8 ohms.  If that’s not enough juice for you, the power easily doubles as the load is halved, thanks to the Bravo’s true-voltage-source design.  Taking things a step further, the amp’s fully balanced design allows it to be configured in bridged or parallel mode for higher power.  The bridged mode is better for situations requiring higher voltage output (i.e. higher impedance speakers), while the parallel mode is better for speakers with higher current demands.  You can even link four pairs of amplifiers together to get 3,600 watts per channel into one ohm!  Viola certainly gets big points for being infinitely flexible with this amp’s configuration options.

Because it is a fully balanced amplifier, the Bravo offers only XLR inputs, which do not present a problem for the reference preamplifiers at my disposal from Simaudio, Nagra, Burmester, Robert Koda and Audio Research.  Whether running through a short length of Cardas Clear cables or a 20-foot pair, the Bravo works flawlessly.

The manual could use some photos to better describe the differences in operation, but it is well written.  One would think that paying almost 60 large for the amp would warrant a little more thought in this area (à la Sonus faber), but Viola is no more guilty on this front than most.  However, a well-written and well-illustrated manual is an essential part of the ownership experience at this level.

Nits Aside

You’ll forget about these minor points the minute you begin listening.  And while you’ll forget about the 40 matched output devices, you won’t be able to lose track of the control this amplifier brings to bear on your favorite music.  From the first track, you can tell this one is very special.  Where my Pass Xs amplifiers take on an almost tubey sound, the Bravo is extremely neutral, with no detectable sonic signature.  It is part of a miniscule subset of solid-state power amplifiers having no character, no grain and no coloration whatsoever.

All of the large speakers at my disposal (GamuT S9, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, KEF Blade, and Sonus faber Aida) are phenomenal matches for the Bravo, and thanks to its highly resolving nature, it easily showcases the differences in character between said speakers—making it a true reference-quality component.  The S9s and the Aidas in particular both have potent low-frequency reach and they both play to the Bravo’s strong points of extension and control.

A quick trip down memory lane to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here proves highly illuminating.  The heartbeat at the beginning of DSOM bores into my soul at high volume; the elevator at the beginning of “Wish You Were Here” is equally overwhelming as it blasts across the soundstage, reminding me just how great these recordings still sound, even after all these years.  I had an equally fun experience listening to the Bravo in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, when Genesis speaker designer Gary Koh was playing Infected Mushroom at discotheque levels.  Awesome!

We can go on and on about the complete lack of background noise present with the Bravo, but that’s selling it short.  What you really notice instantly is the tremendous dynamic swing that it is capable of producing.  Several major Music Matters Blue Note listening sessions keep me coming back for more.  The explosive nature of these records, not held back in the least by the Bravo, makes drums, percussion and horn blasts all the more exciting and all the more real.  I’ll even go as far as to say that it sounds better than when I was listening to a few of these albums via the master tape at Kevin Gray’s studio.

This astonishing level of dynamic clarity is even more persuasive with music that is limited in this area.  Records that you thought were somewhat limited (like the recent Slayer box set) still are, but with this much range at your disposal, they do come more alive than ever before.  And thanks to the Bravo’s effortless delivery of high power, you can really blast these tracks without fatigue.

Of course, lovers of big orchestral music will be in heaven playing their favorite large-scale masterpieces through the Bravo.  Make sure your speakers are capable, though!  While it is not an audiophile classic by any means, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition on DG is still a fun test track, with the end of the first movement coming to a major crescendo that almost always has the extreme dynamic peaks compromised.  Here, the Bravo sails through effortlessly.

All About Power

Again, thanks to the amp’s complete lack of grain, the level of timbral accuracy that the Bravo provides is incredible; yet, its ability to resolve the minutest details gives the last bit of realism to recorded music, doing so in a way that few amplifiers can match.  I firmly believe that this is what allows your brain to stop thinking about the gear, the system and the presentation, and just get further into the music and the performance.

Whether listening to Van Halen or Vivaldi through the Bravo, I never find myself entering the analytical reviewer mode.  This is something only the world’s finest components can do, and it is a rare treat.

Having spent a lot of time with great amplifiers large and small, I still prefer large—just as I’d rather drive a car with massive horsepower than one without.  Big power done right tends to eliminate many of the shortcomings of various speakers, because of the control it provides.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bravo is one of very few amplifiers we’ve tested that does not respond to any kind of power-line conditioning whatsoever.  Its massive choke-based supply has a power-factor correction of .96 (very close to the ideal PF of 1), providing plenty of current on musical peaks.  Connecting the amp to a dedicated 20-amp line is more than sufficient, and adding the Running Springs Maxim line conditioner or IsoTek Super Titan offers no improvement—a major testament to the Bravo’s power-supply design.

Top of the Heap

The Viola Labs Bravo power amplifier is, in every way, one of the finest we’ve had the opportunity to audition; it is definitely a destination product.  If your mindset is in sync with the Viola design ethos of the amplification being dead neutral, neither adding nor subtracting anything, this is a droid you should audition.  Build quality is equally superb and the amp carries a prestigious design pedigree, brought to life by two of high-end audios most respected men.  Just get a good workout in before you unbox it!

Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $58,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable     TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phono Preamplifier Indigo Qualia
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifiers Audio Research REF 5SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10    Nagra Jazz    Simaudio 850P
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum    GamuT S9    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Aida

Simaudio MOON 310LP Phono Preamplifier and 320S Power Supply

Since even the very best hi-fi systems rarely sound like real live music, the first question one might ask about the sound of any component immediately becomes: What does it add and what does it take away from the music?

Creating the perfect recreation of live music in the home may have yet to happen, but it’s not totally the fault of the hi-fi. Few recordings are made with the intention of capturing reality; artists, producers, and engineers are usually searching for the sound they think best suits the music. And since music is recorded in an endless variety of venues and recording chains, it’s no wonder that recordings all sound very different from each other.

That said, my favorite systems are those that reveal such differences between recordings every time you change a disc. The less a system adds or subtracts from the sound, the easier it is to really hear what’s going on in the recording. By this standard, Simaudio’s MOON 310LP phono preamp is a winner.

Surprises on the Inside

The MOON 310LP replaces Simaudio’s MOON LP5.3 phono preamp. The new model isn’t a radical rethink of the previous design, but it combines superior parts and a refined circuit to achieve better performance. And for those that invest for the long haul,the MOON 310LP comes with a 10-year warranty.

Taking off the easily removable case cover reveals the MM and MC settings. MC gain has three options: 54, 60,and 66db through RCA outputs, with an additional 6db available through XLR outputs.  Five impedance settings (10, 100, 470, 1K, and 47kΩ) are available for both MM and MC, meaning those with a Grado or SoundSmith moving-iron cartridge can take advantage of the higher-gain settings. Capacitive loading can be set at 0, 100, and 470pf—a bonus for MM users, as it offers more flexibility. The 310LP even offers a jumper setting for RIAA or IEC equalization. While not terribly convenient to access, such functionality isn’t often seen at this price point.

The unit’s rear panel hosts single-ended RCA inputs and outputs, plus balanced XLR outputs. The 310LP is nice and compact, just 7.5″ x 3.2″ x 11.2″ and weighing it at 7 pounds.

Redefines Quiet

Usually, on most phonostages, associated noise occurs when lifting the stylus from the groove at a high volume level. I can often hear such noise from my listening position, which is about ten feet from my Magnepan 3.7 speakers. However, with the 310LP, I only detected the faintest of noise, and only when my ears were pressed right against the speakers—a good sign. Even more importantly, the 310LP sounds cleaner when the music is cranked up, meaning that the contrast between quiet and loud instruments is more apparent than what I’ve experienced from other phonostages in this range.

Richard Barone’s Cool Blue Halo was recorded live at the Bottom Line on May 31, 1987. I was at the show, so listening to the LP is like traveling back through time. I loved that club, and saw hundreds of shows there. Plus, the Bottom Line always had an above-average sound system. However, Barone’s live sound that late spring night wasn’t very good, and it comes through on the LP. Just like the actual concert, there’s too much reverb. But Barone’s vocals sound great, and the Bottom Line’s vibe is there. The 310LP brings it all back to life just as I remembered.

Emotional Rescue, one of the Rolling Stones’ last all-analog efforts, also lit up my speakers. On the title track, drummer Charlie Watts, bassist Bill Wyman, and singer Mick Jagger dominate the mix. Via the 310LP, their pounding groove instantly grabs my attention and connects me to the music. Similarly, “She’s So Cold” transfixes, as I love the way Keith Richards’ rhythm-guitar licks punctuate the beat. I’ve never enjoyed this record more than I do with the 310LP. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut possesses even more analog richness than Emotional Rescue. Again, the 310LP helps portray the big soundstage present on this record with ease.

In the female vocal field, Linda Rondstadt’s Don’t Cry Now sounds tighter and more produced—like a recording where every musician is recorded in total isolation from one other. Her take on Neil Young’s “I Believe In You” is simply gorgeous on the 310LP. The latter is undoubtedly a high-resolution design, but one that doesn’t throw detail at you in a way that becomes fatiguing.

On the LP310, some of the better 1950s-era jazz recordings sound more natural to me, perhaps because they have little equalization or studio processing. Clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s LPs are so present and tonally accurate that the instruments seemingly appear in the room with me. I didn’t even notice at first that they’re mono recordings!

Back to Basics

Initially, I used the 310LP with the optional 320S power supply, which looks nearly identical to the 310LP. A dedicated and optimized design that only works with the 310LP, it features four stages of DC voltage regulation in a dual-action configuration and a special “pi-type” filter in conjunction with a dual-voltage regulation system to further reduce the 310LP’s already low-noise level.

Fully acclimated to the sound of the 310LP/320S combo, I unhitched the power supply, a change that involves moving a couple of internal jumpers. Listening to the 310LP a la carte, the sound becomes a tad softer. And, in comparison to hearing them via the Simaudio duo, dynamics are blunted, with low-level resolution and air also somewhat diminished.

Those with fairly resolving systems will have a tough time living without the 320S. The device is well worth the money, yet it’s also nice that Simaudio gives you the option to buy into its phonostage one step at a time.

Turn Me On

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing the Red Wine Audio Ginevra LFP-V Edition phono preamp. It’s a battery-powered, hybrid tube/solid-state design. Yet, it’s very tubey in the sense that the sound is rich and velvety smooth, albeit never lacking in detail. It proved a great experience, but the 310LP turns me on in a very different way. The Ginevra’s beguiling sweetness softens the top- and bottom-end response, whereas in these areas, the 310LP is more neutral.

Dr John’s In the Right Place, arranged and produced by the great Allen Toussaint in 1979, yields pure thrills through the 310LP. The Doctor’s mojo fires on all cylinders, and the Sim unit simply lets be the yummy, bold, 3D, and oh-so funky sound. Sure, some of the better and vastly more expensive phono preamps can get you even closer to the music embedded in the grooves, but in its price class, the 310LP is as colorless a device as you’re going to find.

The TONEAudio staff agrees, and hails the 310LP/320S as a recipient of one of the magazine’s 2011 Exceptional Value Awards.

Simaudio MOON 310LP and MOON 320S

MSRP: $1,800/$1,400


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave Transpost and DAC     MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV     Oppo BDP-95 Special Edition
Electronics Pass XP-20 preamp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp   First Watt J2 power amp
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    Audioquest Sky interconnects

Audio Research REF 150 Power Amplifier

Audiophiles have a habit of prematurely discarding things. In the 70s, a proliferation of low-efficiency box speakers and transistors convinced many enthusiasts to abandon vacuum tubes for high-powered solid-state amplifiers. Listeners were on a quest for “perfect measurements,” only to wonder if they’d made the wrong choice after the fact.

History repeated itself again in the 80s with the compact disc, as many of the same devotees ditched vinyl in favor of “perfect sound forever” and the digital medium’s superior measurements. Fortunately, technology always seems to come full circle and often reaches its development pinnacle years after introduction. The ARC REF 150 power amplifier exemplifies this trend.


The $12,995 REF 150 builds on the success of the previous $10,995 REF 110, the consummate one-box solution for audiophiles that don’t require the power of the larger REF 250 and 750 monoblocks. ARC executive Dave Gordon notes: “The REF 110 is a great amplifier. Yet the extra output of the REF 150 is perfect for our customers wanting the REF sound, but don’t want to commit to the space a pair of monoblocks required.” One chassis also has an advantage in that the REF 150 only requires replacing eight power tubes (approximately every 5000 hours) and, subsequently, produces less heat. Tubes are cooled by a pair of back-panel fans that only make themselves faintly known when the music is off. And even then, one must listen intently to hear them.

Looking virtually identical to its predecessor, the REF 150 sports major internal changes. There’s a much bigger power supply, with double the storage capacity of the REF 110, and redesigned output transformers to maximize the capacity of the KT120 output tubes. Past ARC power amplifiers use the 6550. However, the increased dissipation of the new KT120 tube allows for a substantial power increase. Proprietary capacitor technology utilized in the 40th Anniversary Reference Preamplifier significantly contributes to the new amplifier’s improved transparency. Currently, there’s no upgrade option for REF 110 owners. Still, Gordon mentions that the KT120 tube can be a drop-in replacement for the 6550 in the REF 110 and “provides a bump in power output, close to 20 watts per channel.” Not a bad upgrade for about $600.

Having owned numerous ARC power amplifiers during the past 30 years, I love that the company prefers a path of measured evolution rather than ricochet from one design to the next. This approach keeps high both demand and resale value for vintage ARC gear. Some older models are now worth more used than they were when new. The current hybrid design, featuring low noise JFETs in the first input stage, began back in the late 80s with the Classic 120 and Classic 150 monoblocks. The latter models ran eight 6550 tubes in each channel in triode mode. By comparison, the REF150 utilizes ARC’s patented “cross cathode coupled” output stage, delivering more power from half as many tubes—and providing better overall sound.

Listeners that find the last generation REF 110 amplifier slightly forward in tonal balance and requiring more juice to push will likely feel that the improvements made to the REF 150 a welcome change. ARC diehards, take note: The change in overall sound is almost identical to the improvement between the REF 3 preamplifier and REF 5.  Audio Research achieves a delicate balance of delivering extra, almost-indefinable tonal tube richness while avoiding the common trap of masking resolution with warmth—or speed with an overblown soundstage. In other words, the REF 110 goes to 9.3 and the REF 150 goes to 11.


The REF 150 features a single pair of balanced XLR connections for the input and three output taps (4, 8, and 16 ohm) for speaker outputs. Thankfully, ARC employs quality copper binding posts instead of the awful, plastic-coated connectors used on too many of today’s power amplifiers. Solid connections are important, and these do the job. A 20-amp IEC socket is used for power transfer, as is a heavy-duty power cord.

Integrating the REF 150 into both of my reference systems—one featuring ARC’s REF Phono 2 phonostage and REF 5 preamplifier,  the other comprised of the Burmester 011 preamplifier and Vitus Audio MP-P201 phonostage—proves seamless. Note: the design of the REF series power amplifiers is such that they will not work with single ended (RCA outputs only) preamplifiers.  A balanced preamplifier must be used, or distortion will rise dramatically, accompanied by a substantial decrease in power.  This is due to the omission of the phase inverter stage – a small price to pay for signal purity.  Excellent synergy is also achieved running it direct from the dCS Paganini stack, in effect making the ARC an all-digital control center. No matter your front end, the REF 150 will deliver.

The REF 150 is equally versatile with a wide range of loudspeakers. While it can’t push my power-hungry Magnepan 1.7s to ear-busting levels, it plays them at coherent levels with all but heavy-rock tracks—a major feat for most amplifiers, and an incredible achievement for a tube amplifier. The new MartinLogan Montis speakers make for a fabulous combination with the REF 150, a match previously problematic due to the speakers’ low impedance (.56 ohms at 20kHz), The Montis’ slightly higher impedance combines with the REF 150’s superior drive to play extreme music at any level desired, with no loss of high-frequency information. It all reminds me of the synergy achieved years ago with ARC’s legendary D-79 power amplifier and MartinLogan’s CLS speakers.

Outstanding Impressions

I’m instantly struck by two characteristics: The REF 150 sounds more lifelike right out of the box than recent ARC components, and it possesses colossal bass grip. Those of the opinion that vacuum tube amplifiers can’t produce prodigious amounts of bass weight or control are in for a major paradigm shift. In these respects, the REF 150 amazes.

The Chemical Brothers “Galvanize,” from Push The Button, reveals wet and loose beats that challenge amplifiers to capture their gravitas. The REF 150 aces the test. Sampling everything from Pink Floyd to Stanley Clark shows the amplifier claims immense power and control over lower registers. Regardless of the speakers, the REF 150 goes deep, and yet, stops on a dime with bass transients. No, I don’t believe “tube watts” sound more powerful than “transistor watts.” But there’s no substitute for a well-designed power supply with ample reserve capacity. The REF 150 sounds much bigger and more dynamic than its power rating suggests.

Texture is treated in equal measure, leading me to an old audiophile favorite, The Three, a JVC direct-to-disc LP featuring Shelly Manne on drums, Joe Sample on piano, and Ray Brown on bass. Listening to Brown’s playing on “Satin Doll” is sublime, with every up-and-down movement of his fingers smartly distinguishable.

But man cannot live by bass alone, and the REF 150 excels with practically every other aspect of music reproduction. The amplifier’s ability to hold its poise when pushed very, very hard leaves me stunned. Warner Bros.’ analog remaster of Van Halen’s Van Halen II is no audiophile masterpiece, and the third track, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” often collapses into a one-dimensional experience. Yet, even at close-to-concert decibel levels, Eddie Van Halen and Michael Anthony’s background vocals retain distinct separation rather than just sounding like a single vocal.

Imagined or not, electric guitars reproduced through tube amplification represent the proverbial equivalent of an extra push over the cliff. The REF 150’s resolution is particularly tasty when listening to bands featuring multiple lead guitar players; think Judas Priest, Slayer, or Metallica. The title cut to Judas Priest’s Ram it Down personifies the increased power such tracks exert when you can easily discern multiple guitarists in the mix.

For those preferring to twirl rather than bang their head, look no further than Mobile Fidelity’s recent remaster of the Grateful Dead’s Live Dead. Filled with layer upon layer of guitar and keyboard tracks, the LP takes on new life via the ARC, revealing previously obscured tidbits. Consider: Jerry Garcia’s guitar begins as a whisper on “Saint Stephen,” yet when he ramps up the volume, the organ way off in the background doesn’t lose its integrity.

Power and Delicacy

The REF 150 never stumbles, handling the power of a guitar solo or delicacy of a flute passage with ease. Without question, this amplifier roars when required. But thanks to its wide dynamic range and bandwidth, it retains a full-bodied sound at low playback levels. Those subscribing to the “first watt” theory (i.e., if the first watt isn’t great, the rest won’t be either) can rest assured the REF 150 is up to the task.

Rounding out my evaluation with wide range of vocal standards confirms initial impressions. The REF 150 is a very natural-sounding amplifier—never forward, bright, or harsh. Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volume 8 comes off with the depth of a stereo record.

At first listen with any component, dynamics usually woo you into further listening sessions. However, tonal accuracy and overall natural sound are the sonic sauces that keep you on the couch for hours, seeking out “just one more record.” Sure, many Internet pundits complain that recorded music sounds nothing like the real thing. Pish. If your speakers and source components are up to task, the REF 150 will produce such sensations with the best recordings—and amply seduce you the rest of the time. Cream’s “Sleepy Time, Time” from its 1995 performance at Royal Albert Hall splendidly reproduces the venue’s ambience. I feel as if I’m sitting in the center of the 15th row in this famous concert hall—no surround speakers needed!

If you’re seeking classic tube-amplifier sound that is larger than life and full of romance, the REF 150 isn’t your bag. However, if you desire a modern amplifier possessing musical integrity, timbral accuracy, and wideband frequency response—yet still boasting the three-dimensionality, air, and tonal saturation hallmarks of mighty vacuum tubes—the REF 150 offers emotional engagement few amplifiers at any price can match.

Audio Research REF 150 Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $12,995


Preamplifier ARC REF 5     Burmester 011
Phono Preampflifier ARC REF Phono 2    Vitus Audio MP-P201
Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Sumiko Palo Santos
Digital Source dCS Paganini    Sooloos Control 15
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri    Maxim power conditioners
Accessorie Furutech DeMag, Loricraft PRC-4    SRA Scuttle Rack

Naim DAC and PS555 Power Supply

With the race on to build bigger, better, more powerful gear, Naim has entered the field with its first standalone DAC. In the past, the company took a closed-architecture approach to digital, with its players claiming neither a digital input nor output. One uses them the way they come from the factory; the only available upgrade is a larger power supply.

If you aren’t familiar with Naim, it certainly follows a different approach than other manufacturers. In the case of its $3,695 world-class DAC, performance upgrades come in the form of more robust, external power supplies. This strategy (also used with its SuperLine phonostage) works well in the sense that you buy the DAC once, getting digital decoding ability along with a top-range product’s input and output flexibility—and the same tonality—for a reasonable price.

When more performance is needed, an external power supply is easily added. Enter the $5,595 XPS and $9,345 555PS. While the uninitiated might pause at the concept of an external power supply costing more than an actual component, we’ve been to this dance with Naim before, and the proof is in the listening.

The Naim DAC provides a great digital experience in standard form, but if you can make the jump, opt for the PS555. Like every other Naim component into which we’ve plugged a massive power supply, it makes for a stunning experience. Once you hear it, you will never go back. For those that keep gear for long periods of time, it’s reassuring to buy the DAC and know the job is done. When you get the itch to upgrade, adding a power supply is a simple task.

Regardless of output or file resolution, the Naim DAC plays flawlessly with every digital source we throw at it. No matter your digital arsenal, the user-friendly nit will improve its sound While Naim would, of course, like to see you purchase one of its music servers, if you have someone else’s server in your system, integrating the Naim DAC with a current setup shouldn’t be an issue. In addition to the Naim HDX, we used the QSonix, Meridian Sooloos, Aurender, and Squeezebox servers with all file resolutions without a glitch.

The DAC proves equally compatible with a wide range of transports. The MSB universal transport works particularly well with the Naim DAC, allowing audiophiles invested in physical media of all types—SACD, DVD-Audio, or even Blu-ray—to play their files from one source.

Different Approach, Similar Sound

Even though the Naim DAC takes an alternative modus operandi to the digital decoding process, the company’s CD555 uses old-school, 16 bit/44.1k architecture. The Naim DAC upsamples incoming data to 768khz, using a SHARC 40-bit floating point processor, which also handles the digital filtering.  Audio data is then dumped into a RAM buffer before going to the actual DAC chips for D/A conversion. For a more in-depth overview of this process, download the Naim white paper here:

Such methodology is not necessary with the CD555 because it only plays 16 bit/44.1khz files from CD; remember, however, the Naim DAC is compatible with all high-resolution digital formats. Credit Naim’s engineering staff for making the DAC/PS555 combination sound nearly identical to the CD555. Under the hood, the models couldn’t be more different.

The Naim DAC employs a plethora of inputs: a pair of RCA SPDIF, a pair of 75-ohm BNC inputs, and four toslink inputs. A USB port rests on the back and front panels; however, these inputs are not intended for direct connection to a computer. And forget about balanced XLR/EBU or FireWire inputs. Naim believes that a computer via USB doesn’t constitute an optimal way to transfer data to its DAC, so the USB input is for an external drive or memory stick. We found this handy when a friend brought over a few albums for a listening session.

Since the DAC is Apple compliant, you can use an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to stream music (up to 48kHz sampling rate) without the need for an external high-performance dock. Merely connect your iPod via the standard USB cord that goes to your charger, and experience the upgraded sound the iPod possesses when you bypass the onboard DAC. Listeners with multiple iPods will find this method goes a long way towards enticing the rest of their family to share in the hi-fi system fun.

Standard and Super-Size

Listening sessions began with the Naim DAC by itself, and without the external power supply. The former exhibits the same character, or “house sound,” that we’ve experienced with the other Naim players. We experimented with an iPod Touch, vintage Denon 3910, MSB universal transport, Naim HDX, and Sooloos music server, as well as a dCS Paganini transport.

By itself, the DAC proves highly competent and exhibits a very natural tonality. Naim gear always excels in the areas of musical pace and timing. However, that PS555 is like connecting an afterburner to the DAC. While tonality remains the same, dynamics take a major jump with the extra power. The rim shots in Lee Morgan’s Riggarmortesfrom the Tom Cat XRCD are breathtaking. And when Morgan’s trumpet enters, it punches through the mix with authority and more texture, the tune now sounding like a high-resolution file.

Bass weight and control also soar with the PS555. Listening to the classic electronica album, Kruder and Dorfmeister, The K&D Sessions, confirms these findings. “Bomb the Bass—Bug Powder Dust” features a deep, loose bass track that can easily get away from a modest system and overwhelm the diaphanous mix. The Naim combination paints a massive sonic landscape, simultaneously offering potent bass that shakes the listening room but never loses control.

More Power

Aside from reproducing music in a natural way—acoustic instruments played back through the Naim DAC/PS555 possess the right amount of texture and decay to convince you you’re hearing the real thing—the PS555 produces a much larger soundstage. Cue up Frank Zappa’s “Penguin in Bondage” from the live Roxy & Elsewhere album. Listening to only the DAC, Ruth Underwood’s percussion effects are buried in the mix, and the CD feels somewhat compressed. Once the PS555 is engaged, room boundaries expand in all three dimensions, allowing Zappa and his cronies to reveal themselves in greater detail.

The additional dynamics that the PS555 brings to listening sessions are invaluable. As nicely as the Naim DAC/PS555 combination renders top-notch recordings, the additional detail and overall listenability it brings to average-sounding records separates the pairing from lesser DACs. Music lovers whose interests venture beyond the same old audiophile standards will be delighted.

Indeed, after swapping the power supply in and out only a few times, I became convinced the NAIM DAC makes such a quantum leap with the PS555. It’s not to be missed. Sure, there are a few excellent DACs in the $4,000 range, and while the Naim unit is highly capable on its own, the PS555 turns it into something special.

You Might Forget About Your Turntable

If we were comparing the two DACs to phono cartridges, the Naim boasts a sound similar to that of a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum: robust bass response, great stereo image, and a dash of warmth thrown in for good measure—a characteristic that never hurts digital media. In direct comparison to the similarly priced dCS Debussy, the dCS sounds more like a Lyra Titan i, with a shade more resolution and slightly more forward presentation.

For music lovers that want a digital source that is musical in the manner of an analog source, the Naim DAC/PS555 is the way to roll. Also, if you are a CD555 owner that’s a bit late coming to music servers, this DAC and power supply will provide a seamless experience. For these reasons, the Naim DAC/PS555 combination receives our most enthusiastic recommendation.

The Naim DAC/PS555 Power Supply

MSRP:  Naim DAC, $3,695

PS555 Power supply, $9,345    (factory)    (US Importer)


Preamplifiers Conrad Johnson Act 2/Series 2     ARC REF 5SE    Burmester 011
Power Amplifiers McCormack DNA 750 monoblocks     Octave Jubilee Monoblocks    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks     ARC REF 150     Burmester 911 mk.3
Digital Sources Naim HDX-SSD     Sooloos Control 15    MSB Universal Transport    dCS Paganini Transport
Speakers Magnepan 20.1     GamuT S9    B&W 802D     Sonus Faber Ellipsa SE
Cable Cardas Clear    Furutech Reference

Exposure 3010S2 Mono Power Amplifier

No pair of speakers, no matter how good, can perform up to its level without an equal level of amplification. Exposure has been designing and building amplifiers in the UK for nearly 40 years, drawing from its in-studio experience with Pink Floyd and David Bowie to help voice its products. A pair of the 3010S2 mono power amplifiers puts 100 watts per channel into any system for just $2,895.

A standard class AB design, these 30-pound (12kg) monoblocks won’t break your back or bank account. Designed and built in the UK with all-discrete components and robust power transformers, the 3010S2s run cool to the touch under most conditions. A full-power, hour-long heavy metal test will warm them up, but even maximum punishment does not cause a thermal shutdown, indicating solid power-supply design.

Outfitted with black front panels holding just a power button and single red LED indicator, these Exposure models are the essence of simplicity. An unbalanced RCA is the only available input, but the outputs include the less-common BFA jacks with the ability to bi-wire. Bananas, spades, and bare wire need not apply here, so make sure to have speaker wire with BFA adaptors or acquire adapters for your existing cables.

Out of The Box, Running

Listening tests began with my reference Marantz AV7005 preamplifier and Oppo BDP-83SE disc player to get a feel for the amplifiers. While the latter don’t require a ton of break-in, they do need to be left powered on for about 48 hours before they come out of the solid-state fog—just like most any other solid-state amplifier.

Starting with Mobile Fidelity’s CD of Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, Merchant’s voice comes across strong and solidly anchored in the center of the room. Just as importantly, it’s free from shrillness and harshness when Merchant reaches to hit a deep note. The vocal top-end is slightly pulled back, just as you might find with a tube amplifier.

A quick swap from the Marantz to the matching Exposure 3012S2 preamp reveals the advantages of an all-Exposure system. Akin to other famous British brands like Naim, Rega, and Linn, Exposure amplifiers deliver the best experience when used along with namesake preamps.

With a full complement of Exposure electronics, the 3010S2s springs to life with tighter, deeper bass and a much more balanced soundstage. Exposure’s touted tube quality manifests itself on female vocals, and lower-octave guitars retain their steely tone.

Revisiting the same tracks I played on the Marantz signifies a complete change of character between the systems. On the CD layer of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks SACD, music bursts from the speakers rather than settling down behind them. Whereas “Tangled Up In Blue” has too relaxed of a pace and flow via the Marantz, there’s now a raw energy, and the song pulls me in instead of keeping me at a distance.

Sigur Ros’ Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust further shows the system’s synergy. Pounding rhythms during “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” explode from the speakers. Before, they didn’t have the right preamp to flesh out their character.  Overlapping vocals and instruments bear distinct character and separation, and the soundstage moves from a small recessed area to the whole front of my room.

On Mobile Fidelity CD version of Beck’s Sea Change, the guitars’ metallic sound translates with verve. The soundstage on “Lost Cause” extends to my room’s walls, with Beck and his band locked into place. Bass is strong and tight, with guitar notes feeling full and solid, and yet, never obscuring the sound of Beck’s hand moving over the strings during chord changes. Pace and timing at their finest.

REM’s Automatic for the People shifts effortlessly between arena-filling rock and more peaceful orchestral tracks, which allow one the opportunity to crank up the volume on larger-scale fare.  On “Find the River” and “Nightswimming,” orchestral strings are clear and detailed, and notes linger in the air. “Drive” mixes formal elements with guitars, and the 3010S2s places the strings in the rear while the guitars push forward, confirming its ability to keep the aural elements properly sorted in a complex recording.

The Amplifier Does Make a Difference

Additional listening at the TONEAudio studio via Conrad Johnson, McIntosh, and Simaudio preamplifiers validates the Exposure’s merit. There’s no compromise in tonality or dynamics. Should you not choose the all-Exposure path, try and audition several possibilities in your system—another reason to work with a good dealer.

Playing mix and match with speakers, the 3010S2s’ 100 watts per channel throw enough power to drive everything on-hand save the power-hungry Magnepan 1.7s. All else is fair game. Even the somewhat inefficient Dynaudio Confidence C1 (85db/1 watt) and Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 (86db/1watt) pose no difficulty, and possess plenty of dynamic oomph and control.

Switching to my $399 Epos ELS-3 bookshelf speakers confirms how much more they deliver when powered by high-quality amplification. With the Exposure gear, they throw a much larger soundstage then I’ve ever experienced in my budget system.

The Full Monty

The Exposure 3010S2 mono power amplifiers offer a warm albeit detailed top end and tight, controlled bass, along with an expansive soundstage. One caveat: If improperly mated with other gear, they lack bite and spaciousness. Make sure to evaluate them with your existing preamp to find out how they interact with your system. Once that hurdle is cleared, break out the plastic and get ready to rock.

Exposure 3010S2 Monoblock Power Amplifiers

MSRP:  $2,895  (factory)  (North American Distributor)

Wadia Intuition Power DAC

Thankfully, using the words “lifestyle” and “high fidelity” in the same sentence no longer makes you want to run for cover or the shower.

Great gear has been slowly getting more stylish: in part to attract the luxury goods consumer, and perhaps just because it’s cool.  Historically, big, clunky boxes have been banished from the main living space in all but the most tolerant of homes, so it’s wonderful to see manufacturers making products that are as enticing visually as they are sonically.

While Danish manufacturer Bang & Olufsen is certainly the pioneer of making audio products with a visual flair, it hasn’t been until just recently, when Devialet hit the scene with their D-Premier, that cutting edge audio performance is combined with sleek packaging.  It makes perfect sense that this fusion of style and performance would come from Europe, where living space tends to be at more of a premium.  Not as many of our European neighbors have the luxury of dedicated man caves.

Now Wadia, part of the Fine Sounds group, joins the party with the Intuition, and it’s a brilliant first effort.  A truly global product, the Intuition is designed and built in Italy.  Where the Devialet is square in form, the Intuition is softer in shape, looking much like an Apple MacBook Pro: inflated slightly, melted, and bent over a curved form.  Available in matte silver and black it was by far the most exciting product at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.  And the matte silver version, reviewed here, looks particularly Mac-like.

Power to spare

With 350 watts per channel at your fingertips (into 4 ohms, 190 WPC into 8) the Intuition can effortlessly drive anything.  It’s amazing how far switching amplification has come in the last few years, but the current design in the Wadia is fantastic, they refer to it as “Class D-Plus.”  Gone is the tinge of harshness and flat soundstage that used to plague these designs.

Because the current requirements from this type of design are very low, it’s easy to leave the Intuition on 24/7.  After a few days of continuous play, the Intuition opens up tremendously.  Interestingly, the Intuition is nowhere near as sensitive to speaker loads as the Class D amplifiers we’ve sampled.  Switching between Magnepans, electrostatic speakers and a plethora of cone speakers proves effortless.

Following Wadia’s John Schaffer’s suggestion, attention to power line conditioning and an upgraded power cord takes the Intuition to another level of performance entirely.  In this case, the Intuition is much like equipment with tubes under the hood, and once I install the Running Springs Dmitri and a Mongoose power cord, I’m rewarded with a dramatic increase in soundstage width, and a smoother high end as well.

Putting the pedal to the floor with a 45 r.p.m. single of AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” with the Intuition replaces about $200,000 worth of gear in my main system, driving the GamuT S9s.  The S9s go down to 18 Hz and reproduce the cannon shots at the end of the track with tons of weight and punch.  The Intuition proves equally adept with the cannon shots at the end of the Telarc 1812 Overture LP.  Having exhausted my repertoire of cannon shots, it’s time to venture into a wider range of music.

Great everywhere

Jumping in the wayback machine for a cursory listen of Neu!’s Neu!2 is fantastic; this ethereal electronic piece is properly rendered larger than life, with analog synthesizer bits, random drumming and tape-looped moans orbiting around my KEF Blades.  Granted, this won’t tell you anything about timbre, or tonal accuracy – this piece needs to sound grandiose in execution, and the Intuition nails it.

Ditto on the subtle reproduction of acoustic instruments.  The atonal piano riffs in David Bowie’s classic “Aladdin Sane” explode from between the speakers, with killer attack and expansive delay, fading into nothing ever so gently as the driving bass line stays perfectly intact.

The “Shelly Manne” track from The Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project further reveals the lightning speed the Intuition possesses.  Both of these master drummers interacting over a major bass line is phenomenal and reproduced with ease.  Anyone judging a system on PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) will be in heaven.  More traditional, yet equally intriguing, is Kenny Burrell’s Soulero. The Intuition’s ability to keep all four musicians distinctly placed in the listening space is fantastic.

Nuance is the key with the Intuition.  Forget what you think you know about switching amplification – this baby is smooth and grain free.  After moving the Intuition out of the studio and into my new listening room in the house with a pair of KEF LS-50s, I am amazed at how easy it is to lapse into a groove with this combination, at times fooled into thinking perhaps I’m listening to the big system after all.  The overall musicality of the Intuition is impossible to ignore and tough to beat.

A magic DAC indeed

The Intuition has seven digital inputs, so it can become the center of your musical universe with ease.  Two line-level analog inputs are available as well, so those wanting to add a turntable, or other source with RCA outputs can do so, but be aware that the Intuition does convert the analog sources to high-resolution digital information and then processes everything in the digital domain.

Utilizing an SME 10 turntable and Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, via the Audio Research REF Phono 2 phonostage, provides an excellent addition to the system, with barely any loss of spatial qualities and nuance, robbing analog of its charm.  Hard core analog purists may not want to roll this way, but considering the Intuition’s design ethos, this may be not the droid for you, should you want a pure analog experience anyway.  All but the most maniacal vinyl lovers will appreciate the analog inputs and the ability to enjoy this part of their music selection with the Intuition, should they so desire.

Schaffer also makes it a point to mention that the Intuition on many levels is “the latest generation DAC from Wadia,” incorporating everything they’ve done, up to and including their prestigious 9 series.  After having used both the 581 and 781 as reference players for years, we notice the resemblance instantly.  Bass is solid, tuneful and well controlled, with dynamics to match – amazing actually, in such a compact package.

Part of this continued innovation is the use of Wadia’s patented Digimaster algorithm, controlling level in the digital domain, and the Intuition features the latiest iteration.  Coax and AES inputs accommodate 24 bit/192 khz signals, with the USB input having 32bit/384khz and native DSD capability.  Wadia chose to forgo galvanic isolation with the Intuition, claiming better analog signal integrity, and the results certainly speak for themselves – this is one of the most natural sounding DACs we’ve encountered.

All of the sources at our disposal perform flawlessly, and the optical input’s performance is incredibly good, interfacing with the Meridian MS200 better than any other DAC at our disposal, including the dCS Vivaldi.  Impressive indeed.  We have not had the chance to fully exploit the 32/384 or DSD capabilities at this early date, but expect a follow-up on the TONEAudio website in the next 60 days.  As more mainstream material becomes available in the DSD world, we’ll be listening further.

Could be more intuitive

I love the sound and functionality of the Intuition, though it does take a little bit of getting used to.  Kudos to Wadia’s design team for making the display large enough to be easily seen from across the room; however the super stylish remote is another story.  Shaped exactly like the Intuition but bite sized, it features five buttons, with a larger button in the middle, sporting an engraved speaker symbol, which mutes the Intuition.  The top and bottom buttons select inputs, while the left and right buttons control volume, as they do on Wadia digital players.  You can determine top from bottom on this symmetrical remote by searching for the IR transmitter – that’s the top.

Legacy Wadia owners should feel right at home, but for the rest of us, this is highly cryptic.  Certainly not an epic fail, but something that should be considered for future versions of the Intuition, and perhaps other devices in the Intuition family that are no doubt on the horizon.  Schaffer maintains a poker face when I ask him about a matching Wadia transport to accompany the Intuition, but the pair of WadiaLink I2S inputs on the rear panel suggests something is indeed in the works.

Easily integrated

Very minor nits aside, the rest of the Intuition is as user friendly as an iPod, and this device is clearly what the world needs more of.  Steve Jobs once said at the Macworld Expo that “technology has to be as easy to use as putting a bagel in a toaster,” and I believe that extends to high-end audio.  Geeking out is fun for some of us but off-putting to most – and why miss out on enjoying great music in your home because you don’t want a rack full of square boxes connected by various lengths of garden hose?

After living with the Intuition for a while and sharing it with a few friends in their homes, it’s clear that Wadia has hit a home run, creating a product that should fly off the dealers’ shelves at an MSRP of $7,500.

The Intuition plays music at such a high degree of realism, it is the perfect building block for a system of any stature.  Whether you choose to pair it up with speakers costing $1,500 or $100,000 (and of course, anywhere in between), you will be amazed at the resulting sound quality.

Thanks to the small 15 x 15 inch footprint, and its ability to run cool, the Intuition will be comfortable anywhere in your home, but I suggest putting its sexy shape in a prominent place where it can become a conversation piece.  And a subtle nudge to the rest of the hifi industry: can we have more of this?  It’s definitely where we need to be headed.  Job well done, Wadia.

The Wadia Intuition

MSRP:  $7,500


Analog Source SME 10 Turntable w/Sumiko Palo Santos Cartridge
Digital Source Meridian Control 15, and MS200, Aurender S10
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE
Speakers Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution,GamuT S9, KEF Blade, KEF LS-50
Cables Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri PLC, Mongoose Power Cord
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

Merrill Audio Veritas Power Amp Mono Blocks

Based in Bernardsville, NJ, Merrill Audio was formed in 2010 by Merrill Wettasinghe, a lifelong audiophile and former HP executive with a background in R&D.

The current product line consists of the Veritas line of amplifiers and the Lucia preamplifiers.  Merrill Audio has a clear vision for the products they offer, which are designed and built with an attention to detail rarely encountered. In for review are the Veritas Power Amp Mono Blocks, priced at $12,000 a pair.

The Veritas monoblock amplifier is a Class D design that uses the Hypex Ncore NC1200 power modules.  Each  chassis is machined from a solid block of aluminum with one-inch thick outer walls.  The internal electronic components are laid out in various chambers to maximize isolation.  Further examination leads one to conclude that very few, if any, compromises are apparent in the construction and layout.

According to Merrill, wiring is point to point, and Cardas ultra pure copper litz wire is used throughout the amps. Around back are Cardas speaker binding posts that utilize solid copper  and a rhodium plate; however, they will only accept spade terminated speaker cable.  The inputs are fully balanced and feature only top-shelf Cardas XLR connectors, so balanced cables are mandatory.  For an interesting touch, the units are supplied with power cords that Merrill has had custom-designed for them by Triode Wire Labs.  The IEC inlet is gold-plated Furutech. The monoblocks also ship stock with either synergistic or Stillpoints support feet.

The Veritas are not for those with weak backs, as they weigh in at 33 pounds each. According to Merrill Audio, their build process is as follows: “Start with a 66-pound solid aluminum block.  Delicately machine the chassis from this solid block with isolation chambers and frames to limit any sonic interference and minimize vibrations. Keep the walls one-inch thick, to limit and absorb vibration. The signal paths are designed to be the shortest possible, giving you the cleanest audio signal possible. Longer cables typically use shielding. Excessive shielding introduces capacitances that slow the dynamics of the system, especially power amps, bloating the bass and reducing the high frequencies. Keeping wires short removes the requirement for shielding…”

Setup is straightforward: a MyTek Stereo 192 DAC, Musical Fidelity M1 CDT transport, Bogdan Audio Creations Art Deco and Thiel CS2.4 loudspeakers, Audience power conditioning, along with Kimber cabling make up the review system. One interesting note is there is no power switch – the amps are turned on or off by detaching the Triode Wire Labs power cords, which results in a faint, harmless pop through the speakers. The Veritas monos also run warm to the touch, and have been left on continuously for optimum performance.


The Veritas are given a few days of casual use to allow them to settle in, and then a steady diet of reference tracks for serious listening.  It is apparent from the very first listening session that the Veritas are very serious contenders for one of the biggest sounding amps to enter the listening room.  All the engineering, careful selection of parts, and attention to detail pay off.  The listener is rewarded with an enormous soundstage; feel-it-in-the-gut, super-controlled bass; and a wonderfully transparent midrange.

The topology of this amplifier never enters the mind during extended, fatigue-free, and highly engaging listening sessions. It is clear that many audiophiles have preconceived notions about certain amplifier types and, unfortunately, prejudge certain technologies without actually listening.  But with the Veritas, listening is believing.

The Veritas are nimble performers – aside from the excellent bass performance, the high frequencies are supple and delicate. Complex musical passages are rendered with a sense of effortless ease.  Listening with anything but full attention proves a difficult task.  All musical genres are rewarded equally with sublime transparency and appropriate scale.

The new album from Tom Jones, Spirit In The Room, is an amazing mélange of classic folk, blues, and rock. Jones and producer Ethan Johns call upon material from Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, and more. It is well recorded, and through the Veritas monos, the gravitas of Jones’s voice is remarkable.  Jones’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” comes through with the necessary emotional impact.

Switching gears, the remastered  Collectors’ Edition of Joy Division’s seminal 1980 release Closer simply dazzles rhythmically and texturally. The Veritas shines a glorious light on the recording, which laid a foundation for the alternative movement of the 1980s, with stripped-down arrangements, melodic bass lines, and minimalist production.

The Veritas is also spot-on with acoustic music, especially classic jazz. Listening to various high resolution downloads of historic Blue Note recordings from John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter,  Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard is a gas. Drums, horns, piano, and bass all sound natural in timbre and free from grain. Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil is a particular favorite with the drive and soul that the Veritas provided this classic recording.

The Veritas are so resolving, it is easy to hear the changes in upstream components, cables, and tweaks. The amps are remarkable in this regard, making it easy to detect something as simple as switching a power cord or two in the system. As revealing as the Veritas are, they never seem analytical or soulless. Quite the opposite, actually. They paint a holographic picture of the performers when the recording allows, without being the least bit mechanical.

On an ergonomic note, the Veritas runs slightly warm to the touch and responds positively to quality amplifier bases and speaker cables. It is utterly noiseless and offers some of the quietest operation experienced in this reviewer’s system. This manifests itself in a pristine soundstage and the ability of the listener to distinguish even the most subtle aspects of a recording.


At $12,000 per pair, the Merrill Audio Veritas Mono Block amps are certainly not entry level components; they provide a sonic picture virtually without flaw across the musical spectrum. Mind you, the Veritas for this review are installed in a system normally built around tube amplification.  The fact that tubes have not been missed in the least during the review period speaks volumes about the vision of Merrill Audio.

The Merrill Audio Veritas Mono Block amplifiers may very well be a breakthrough in Class D amplifier design.  The fact that the amplifiers are equipped with such performance enhancers such as high-end vibration control, top-shelf wiring, and connectors that many far more expensive amps cannot claim is impressive and makes these amps plug ‘n’ play.  The build quality of the Veritas is beyond reproach, and the footprint of each amp is relatively small, which means easy installation.

The time spent with the Merrill Audio Veritas Power Amp Mono Blocks was nothing less than enjoyable with long, satisfying listening sessions. They have the ability to drive virtually any pair of speakers without a hint of strain, and with a clarity and precision most often seen at the very upper echelon – highly recommended for those seeking a transparent amplifier with power to spare.

The Merrill Audio Veritas Mono Blocks

MSRP:  $12,000/pair


Associated Equipment:

Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT, Squeezebox Touch w/CIA power supply

DAC: MyTek Stereo 192 DSD DAC

Speakers: Bogdan Audio Creations Art Deco, Thiel CS2.4

Cables: Kimber, Stager, DH Labs, Transparent

Accessories: Audience aDeptResponse

Croft Micro 25 Preamplifier and Model 7 Power Amplifier

For those of you that have been waiting for the next series of Croft amplification products, they are back with their Micro 25 preamplifier and Series 7 power amplifier. In case you aren’t familiar, don’t feel out of touch, Croft has always been one of the smallest of British hifi manufacturers, but worth seeking out if you are interested in high performance at a very reasonable price. The two components you see here are only $1,395 each.

When you pick them up, you might be surprised at the relatively light weight; there are no massive power transformers or CNC machined chassis here, but that’s not the Croft design ethos. There are seven components in the Croft lineup; three preamplifiers, three power amplifiers and a phono stage. They all share the same enclosure to save cost. The two top line products fill the enclosure and the two lower models have progressively less under the hood, ultimately keeping the cost down on all models.

Value inside

Where past Croft owners might smirk ever so slightly upon reading this, as they know what lurks inside, the more traditional audiophile might be somewhat tense, worried that they aren’t receiving enough for their money. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you look more closely, you will notice that there are no printed circuit boards inside either of these two components. They are completely wired point to point, with a density and precision that would make a watchmaker proud.

Croft has always been about simplicity, and these two components are the essence of minimalism. The Micro 25 preamplifier is a full tube design and uses three 12AX7 (ECC 83) tubes, one for the linestage and two for the phono stage. The series 7 power amplifier is a hybrid design, again using the 12AX7 for the input stage with a Mosfet output stage, producing 45 watts per channel.

In the 60’s Dynaco was the benchmark for great sound at a very reasonable price, and in the 80’s the early Hafler gear offered more of the same, with their DH-101 preamplifier and DH-200 power amplifier. Though a bit more expensive (it is 2011 after all), these two pieces from Croft offer a level of musicality that are truly unmatched at this price level, at least in my experience – though you need to define your priorities.

Like the Dynaco and Hafler products before, the Micro 25 preamplifier is a no frills design. There are two high level inputs and the phono input. No remote is offered and there isn’t even a balance control. All the effort has been put into sound quality and that’s great news for audiophiles on a budget. The Series 7 amplifier has a pair of RCA input jacks, a simple pair of output binding posts and a power switch. Nothing more.

Instantly impressive

These two pieces of gear will surprise you as soon as you power them up. As I was just completing the review of the $45,000 pair of Estelon speakers for the December issue, I started here to see just what the Croft combination was capable of. Running a pair of RCA cables from the dCS Paganini to one of the line level inputs, I was amazed at just how musical these two were right off the bat. At moderate levels, it was very easy to get fooled into thinking this amplifier and preamplifier were worth at least double their asking price when judged on sound quality alone. The pace was excellent and the Series 7 amplifier did a great job of controlling the Estelons and my reference GamuT S9’s as well. I started with one of my favorite totally 80’s test tracks, Thomas Dolby’s “Hot Sauce,” that features a killer opening bass riff. The Series 7 had no problem controlling the might Estelons, and that hooked me instantly on the sound. Next up, Dave Stewart’s “Kinky Sweetheart” from his Greetings From the Gutter CD. This track is very ethereal, with a lot of electronic and synth effects that float around the soundstage and will fall flat with a lesser preamp. The Croft combo through a soundstage that was impressively wide and deep. Going back to something I’ve heard a million times for an acoustic reference, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus was the next choice and again I came away astonished at how natural instruments felt, with just the right of space and decay.

Of course this is playing way out of the league of these two components, but the point is that they still turned in an outstanding performance, even with state of the art speakers and digital source. Moving on to a more “budget appropriate” system, I used a few more reasonably priced speakers with the Croft combination and still came with a big smile on my face. The Series 7 amplifier even passed the torture test of driving my Magnepan 1.6 speakers at a modest level, something most budget amplifiers (even those with higher power ratings) can’t do. The rest of my listening was done with my freshly restored JBL L-100’s, the new Blackstone speakers from Polk Audio and the B&W 805D’s.

Great phono

As the Micro 25 only possesses a MM phono stage, the freshly restored Dual 1219/Grado Black and Rega RP1/Ortofon OM40 tables were used to spin records, making for a very nice system. Both tables turned in excellent performance, but the synergy between the Dual/Grado was unbelievably good, offering a very rich tonal quality to whatever I played. If you are an analog lover that is on a tight budget or just doesn’t want to spend the time (and money) to seek out mega pressings, The Micro 25 could be your little slice of heaven. Some of my 70’s classic rock favorites sounded way better than they had a right to.

I love to compare audio components to automobiles and while this may annoy some of you that are less automotively inclined, the Micro 25 and Series 7 remind me of one of my favorite cars of all time, the Series one VW GTI. While the current GTI is an excellent car in its own right and offers a healthy does of Audi – level luxury, they now retail for about $30k and are out of the range many of the enthusiasts the car was originally aimed at.

But that original GTI was only $7,000 dollars and between 25 and 90 mph, provided a level of driver involvement that few cars at any price could match. This is exactly what the Croft pair offers up. They do such a great job at what they do well; you won’t notice their limitations. Even when used with a pair of $40k speakers, they sound so inviting connected to your favorite pair of $500-$1,500 speakers, you’ll be blown away with how much you can enjoy your music collection, analog or digital.

Only complaint is that the phono stage could be a little bit quieter. There is a bit of tube rush at modest levels when getting relatively close to the speakers, though you won’t hear it from your listening position. It does make a fairly harsh click when shutting off the preamplifier, so be sure to turn the amplifier off first.

Croft all the way, or…

These two Croft components have an obvious, one-manufacturer synergy when using them separately with other components but the preamplifier is the over achiever of the two. You’ll be hard pressed to find a vacuum tube based phono preamplifier this good for $1,395, much less one that includes a great linestage. Going a bit further upscale and plugging the Micro 25 into my recently rebuilt Conrad Johnson MV-50 power amplifier, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much more music was lurking inside this little preamplifier.

Where the Model 7 really shines is the amount of inner detail and musicality that it reveals. This is a quality vs. quantity piece all the way. You can buy other amplifiers for about $1,500 that have more power, but I defy you to find one this musically satisfying. Just like the preamplifier, mate the Model 7 with the right pair of speakers, preferably ones with a sensitivity of about 90db, and you may never go any further down the audio path. The other preamplifier I found great synergy with was my vintage Naim NAC 52, so anyone thinking of using one a Micro 25 with a vintage Naim preamplifier (also well known for an excellent on board phono stage) will not be disappointed, though you will need the appropriate interconnects.

Regardless of where you are on the audiophile path, if you are building a high performance, yet reasonably priced system I can’t suggest the Croft Micro 25 preamplifier and Model 7 power amplifier highly enough, especially if you can live without a remote control.

Both of these pieces perform far enough out of their respective price point that even if the audio bug bites you hard, you should be able to go through a few rounds of source and speaker upgrades before you tire of the Croft pieces. Even if you do decide to move further up the ladder, I’d suggest keeping these two forever – they are destined to become classics. I bought the review pair and plan to do just that. We are proud to award the pair one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.

The Croft Micro 25 Preamplifier and Model 7 power amplifier

MSRP: $1,395 each

Manufacturers Information: (factory) (North American distributor)

Red Wine Audio Black Lightning DC Power Supply

Black LIghtning-2By Jeff Dorgay

If you’ve been reading TONEAudio for the last couple of years, you know I’m a big fan of the battery-powered gear from Red Wine Audio, built by Vinnie Rossi and his team. I’ve used their Signature 30.2 power amplifiers and their Isabella tube preamplifier with excellent results. The key to a large part of these components success is the fact that they are powered “off-the-grid” from high-current, sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries, and Red Wine Audio has made the them effortless to use thanks to their SMART charging system.

The great thing about SLA batteries is that they have very low impedance (very high output current capability) and relatively flat discharge characteristics. The benefit to you is that the sound does not change as the batteries begin to discharge, and dynamics are maximized. I’ve used a number of battery-powered components, and the ones that rely on normal alkaline batteries (the Sutherland PH3D and Chord preamps come to mind) change their sound dramatically over the charge period and don’t have the low output impedance. The result is a sound you can’t really get used to.

SLA batteries are much better in this application, but they do require a certain amount of care to keep them performing at their peak, but who’s got time for that? What Red Wine Audio has done with their new SMART (SLA battery Monitoring and Auto Recharge circuit) board is to make the battery process a “no fuss, no muss” affair. Everything works in the background, so you only need to concentrate on the music. When the battery voltage discharges down to a set level (which is continuously monitored via the SMART board), the SMART circuit automatically turns OFF the unit and begins the recharge process for you. In addition to being very convenient, it maximizes battery life by avoiding accidentally deep-discharging the SLA batteries.

There are three other very important features worth mentioning about the Black Lightning: First, when you are using battery operation, the charging circuit is completely disengaged from the batteries, so there is no chance of noise leaking into the power supply. The battery charger itself is a separate unit that plugs into the Black Lighting for total isolation.

Second, the Black Lightning has 0.5 second in-rush current limiting avoid the high current in-rush that you don’t typically see with conventional AC power adapters because they cannot supply nearly the same level of output current. According to Vinnie, it’s actually better to leave your component switched on all the time and use the power switch on the Black Lightning as your power switch, thus always allowing “soft starts” of your audio component – which prolongs the life of their internal components.

Third, and possibly most important, I have to believe that while a good portion of the Black Lightning’s improvement comes from removing your audio component from the grid, it also eliminates one or more switching power supplies from proximity to your system. Anything in your HiFi system that uses a “wall wart” power supply is a noise bandit, dumping a healthy amount of RFI back into your power line and associated components. Even with world-class power line conditioning, I noticed a slight decrease in background noise with my other components, having eliminated the two switching power supplies from my system.

Red Wine brings this technology to the rest of us

As cool as the idea of getting off the grid is, for most power amplifiers, it’s not practical because of the high voltage requirements. But for preamplifiers, phonostages, dacs, and other low-level components that accept DC input voltages from AC wall adapters, Black Lightning will elevate the performance of your components to a whole new level. The minute you leave the grid, you’re leaving any AC-related noise and distortion components behind completely.

Earlier this summer, Vinnie and I were discussing exactly this and I asked him if he could build an upgraded 12Vdc power supply for my Nagra VPS phono preamplifier. I’d like to think I had a small hand in the process and in November, the Black Lightning was born. There are two models to choose from, the Series 10 and the Series 12. The main differences between them are the available output voltages and their current capacity (measured in Amp-Hours), which translates into the ability to power a component that draws more current for a longer period of time.

You can read the full list of configurable options here:

The Series 10 starts at $625 and the Series 12 starts at $825. When you think about it, that’s just about what a good power cord would set you back. Hmmm. My review centers around three components that I felt would respond very well to being removed from the grid and that accepted a 12Vdc input (which I had Red Wine Audio configure a Series 10 unit for me); the Nagra VPS phono stage, the Nagra LB portable digital recorder and the Wadia 170i iPod dock.

Across the board gains

The $9,000 Nagra VPS/VFS phono stage has been my reference for over a year now and is a hybrid tube/solid state design. I’ve been very satisfied with the VPS/VFS, but it’s always had the slightest bit of background noise and hum that I’ve just chalked up to life with tubes.

Immediately after plugging the Black Lightning in, all of the noise was gone, even when sticking my ear right up to the tweeter. The Black Lightning redefines the term “inky black background.” The big surprise was when I set the stylus down on the first record, Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall. (200g. Classic Records version) We gave this record one of our product of the year awards in the audiophile recordings category. If you have this record, you know how big the soundstage is, but adding the Black Lightning just blew the boundaries out of my room. The Nagra’s already excellent dynamics went up a few solid notches. It just wasn’t the same preamplifier anymore. Everything I loved remained, but now it was super sized!

Black LIghtning-3I am a big believer in clean power, and the validity of good power cords, but I’ve never had this much improvement from any power cord or line conditioner. I currently use the Running Springs Dmitri line conditioner on the front end of my system (and a Running Springs Maxim on a separate 20 amp line for my power amplifier) and I feel this product is the top of the mountain in power line conditioning products. I would compare the difference plugging the Nagra into the Black Lightning to be an equivalent jump in performance I experienced when I plugged the rest of my system into the Dmitri from the wall. Background noise decreased dramatically, dynamics increased substantially and the upper registers got smoother, yet more defined.

The more records I played with the new “upgraded” Nagra, the more impressed I was with the contribution of the Black Lightning supply. The effect was all positive and not the least bit negative. The bass drive had increased substantially, as if I had added a subwoofer to the system!

As much fun as the additional bass grunt was, this already detailed phono preamplifier was considerably better with microdynamics than before. No matter what kind of music I was listening to, I was always able to hear further into the recordings than I could before, thanks to the lower noise floor. This also gave my system the added benefit of sounding “louder” even at low volumes because the effective dynamic range was increased.

I’d also like to mention that when Vinnie and I were discussing playback times as he was developing the Black Lightning, I was expecting about 4 hours worth of playback time with the Nagra VPS (based on its power consumption rating) and I’m getting about 8 hours consistently. Very impressive!

Benefits with other devices as well

I had similar results with the Wadia iTransport dock, and this was very easy to discern using the Wadia 781i as my DAC. Everything was decidedly “less digital” sounding and the gap between .wav files on my iPod and the CD played on the Wadia closed further.

When using the Black Lightning with my Nagra LB digital recorder that is already battery powered by AA batteries, the main difference when using the Black Lightning SLA battery supply was slightly increased dynamics, better resolution during lower level passages and much longer record time. The LB will eat up eight AA cells in pretty short order, and with the Black Lightning I was able to record all day long without stopping to recharge. Again, the added benefit here with a Black Lightning is that you aren’t tossing a pile of Duracell’s (that contain mercury) in to the wastebasket on a regular basis. Better sound and better for the environment.

A product that truly exceeds expectations

In the world of high-end audio, there are a lot of snake oil vendors and precious little science and engineering, with every new widget promising nirvana where none previously existed. Red Wine Audio’s Black Lightning power supply is well-built, with solid engineering behind it and does a fantastic job at its designated task. You can’t ask any more from a component!

If you have something in your system that uses a switched mode/wall wart power supply and feeds a DC output voltage to your component, the sonic benefits you will receive from the Black Lightning will be instantly apparent. It has certainly made a welcome addition to my reference system. Give Vinnie a call to see if he has one that will suit your needs.

The Red Wine Audio Black Lightning, $650 – (approx.) $1,000 depending on size and configuration.

Running Springs Maxim Power Line Conditioner

RSA MaximAs a long time owner of Running Springs power conditioning products, I was very anxious to hear the effect of their newest power conditioner, the Maxim on my system. Unlike a number of other power product manufacturers at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest that made outrageous claims for their power products (two of which have already been returned to their companies already), RSA designer Dan Babineau simply told me, “If you like your Dmitri, the Maxim uses the advancements I made going from the Haley/Jaco/Danielle series of our products to the Dmitri, but with additional filtering. It’s been optimized for high power/high current amplifiers.”

The new Maxim has an MSRP of $4,500 and the optional HZ power cord is another $1,495. The standard Mongoose power cord is $695.

In six years the RSA line conditioners have been the only ones I’ve been able to use in my system, that I could plug a power amplifier into without negative results; mainly the squashing of dynamics at modest to high volume. Every other power conditioner I’ve tried has fallen down when I’ve plugged my CJ Premier 350 or Burmester 911 mk.3 amplifier in. I’ve heard a couple do a respectable job at cleaning up the power (however, not as good as the RSA), but the minute you plug a big amplifier, the magic is gone.

In my reference system, most of my line level components (preamplifier, phono preamplifier, turntables and DAC) are plugged into the Dmitri on its own dedicated 20-amp circuit. My Naim CD555 has it’s own dedicated 20 amp line with a Running Springs Haley and the power amplifier on another 20 amp line with a Jaco.

How much further can it go?

I was particularly interested in torture testing the Maxim because I was working on a few high power amplifier reviews for our December issue. We’ve got the SimAudio Moon W-7 monoblocks at 500 watts per channel, the Burmester 911 mk. 3 at 350 per channel and the McIntosh MC1.2kw monoblocks at a staggering 1200 watts per channel as part of the lineup. And there’s a JL Audio Gotham hanging around with the ability to put out about 4000 watts in short bursts, so I couldn’t think of a better trial for the Maxim.

The Maxim took me by surprise because I was already content with the Jaco in my system, paired with the HZ power cord. Though I approached this with some skepticism, the result of swapping the Jaco for the Maxim was not subtle.

Immediately, I noticed a lower noise floor overall. This is instantly perceived as an increase in volume, because what your ear interprets as an increase in volume is actually the difference between loud and quiet. So if you want your system to sound louder, you can get more juice by making it quieter. Everything appears louder for the same given SPL.

Even more exiting was the increase in soundstage width and depth. With the Jaco in place, it seemed like the soundstage went about a foot beyond the speaker boundaries of the Gamut S-7’s that I used as the benchmark for all of my amplifier tests, but with the Maxim in place on the same music, the soundstage went about four feet beyond the speaker boundaries.
RSA Maxim_rear

Keep in mind, with both power conditioners, the tonality of acoustic instruments stayed consistent and I could still wind out a big power amplifier without the leading or trailing transients getting shaved off, but in every case, the sound was bigger and slightly louder with the Maxim in the system. This effect also remained consistent, whether I was using the big Macs or my CJ LP70S, which is only 70 watts per channel.

The serious torture test was playing music at moderate to high levels with the big power amplifiers I had at my disposal. When those big blue meters on the MC1.2kw’s start swinging up past 600 watts per channel, you need current and that’s what the Maxim delivers. If you take a glance on just about any HiFi forum, you’ll see any number of posts where people throw their arms up and mention that their system always sounds more dynamic and lifelike when they just plug back in the wall. With the Maxim it’s just the opposite. Whether you are blasting Shostakovich or Snow Patrol, your system will exhibit a level of dynamics you didn’t think possible.

RSA Maxim_cord

Is it real or is it Memorex?

Of course the human ear is fairly adaptive and it’s very easy to get used to the sound of one component over another after a while. After about a month of continuous listening with the Maxim, I plugged my Jaco back in the system to see if I really “needed” a Maxim. Everything shrunk down by a substantial amount and the system got slightly quieter, even at low volumes.

Keep in mind a power conditioner should not affect the tonality of your system at all. You shouldn’t get deeper bass or a more extended high end. Properly implemented, a good power line conditioner and associated power cords should merely deliver 100% of what your components are capable of delivering. No matter where you live, your power is moderately lousy to really lousy, because there are a lot of distortion components present in the line when power is generated. In short, things should get quieter and bigger. That is precisely what the Maxim does.

So, do I need one? You bet I do! If you have a modest system, it doesn’t make sense to buy a $6,000 power conditioner and power cord. Grab a Haley and enjoy the benefits. But if you’ve got a state of the art system and you’re already at 11, thinking there’s no where else to go, rest assured; there’s one more click on the dial with a Maxim.

The Running Springs Maxim Power Conditioner

MSRP: $4,500 (alone) HZ power cord, $1,495, Standard Mongoose power cord, $695


Analog Source
Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar arm and Lyra Skala cartridge

Digital Source
Naim CD555

Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2, Burmester 011

Power Amplifier
Burmester 911 mk.3, CJ Premier 350, CJ LP70S, McIntosh MC1.2KW monoblocks, SimAudio Moon W-7 monoblocks

Speakers YG Acoustics Anat II Studio, Verity Audio Sarastro II, GamuT S-7

Shunyata Aurora

Speaker Cables Shunyata Stratos SP

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Haley, RSA Mongoose power cords, Shunyata Python CX power cords